Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Ultimate Luxury Safari

Wow. Just wow. We joined friends for a safari weekend at Ol Donyo Lodge in Chyulu Hills, nestled between Amboseli and Tsavo West national parks in Kenya. National Geographic named it one of their top unique lodges of the world, and it's considered part of Relais & Châteaux, an association of top-notch hotels and restaurants we hadn't even heard of before this trip. We drove there from Nairobi in less than four hours, because M is a speed demon and passed everyone.

We didn't know we were in for such an intensely luxurious experience until we saw our rooms. "Luxury" doesn't even do it justice. Our rooms had open air views of the plains (pictured above was the view from our bed), tea and cookie service, two showers and a bathtub, a private pool, and a rooftop outdoor starbed. The lodge also had a larger pool, free WiFi, and an open bar. Our stay was all-inclusive of accommodation, food and drink, game drives, and other activities.

We started our too-short weekend with a delicious lunch, from which we enjoyed a view of elephants at a watering hole. After lunch, we took this beautiful path down to the lodge's "blind", a covered space from which we could surreptitiously view the animals at the watering hold up close.

We watched as one poor elephant tried to join the rest of the group at the watering hole, only to be left waiting from a distance, unwelcome.

After that, we drove out for our first game drive of the weekend, learning why NatGeo claims the landscapes compete with the wildlife for visitors' attention. Rainy season has just ended, so the grass was very tall. We saw many beautiful rainbows and a breathtaking sunset between the El Mau (meaning "twins") hills. (We also learned "Ol Donyo" also means "hill" in the Maasai language.)

We then feasted on a divine dinner and a night game drive - which we had never done before. The guide used a filtered spotlight to avoid confusing and distressing the animals. We saw a few things we'd never seen in the wild before, including huge black-and-white African porcupines and spring hares (think adorable miniature crosses between rabbits and kangaroos that we didn't even know existed).

The next day, we woke up bright and early for a bush walk with a guide and an armed guard... just in case. The view of the lodge from the trail in the early morning light was so lovely.

Our guide took the opportunity to teach us about the flora and fauna of the area. I was particularly fascinated by this plant, the whistling thorn acacia. Ants live inside the fruit pods and come out to help defend the tree if threatened (though I found the thorns plenty formidable enough on their own).

We then hopped back in a safari van to follow up on a lion sighting. Sure enough, we saw three big male lions relaxing under some foliage. M has some serious skills taking photos with my phone through a binocular lens, doesn't he?

Then, we feasted on a luxurious breakfast right out in the plains (the first photo of this post). Every aspect of the experience had that special touch of extra classiness none of us expected. For example, we anticipated some snacks wrapped in foil for breakfast - not multiple courses at a dining table with chefs nearby freshly preparing the food. Another example of their exquisite attention to detail was the signature paw print in each butter dish we used this weekend.

After a quick break back to the lodge and a very tasty lunch, we headed out to the plains for mountain biking. My only complaint was that none of the bikes would go low enough for my short legs, so I struggled a bit. I actually didn't think we had a photo of this part, but thankfully the much more balanced and skillful cyclist M snapped a few. We later learned there was a lioness spotted in the area where we were biking, but very thankfully we did not cross paths.

We then spotted what must have been the darkest giraffe I've ever seen. Its spots, which I'm used to seeing as brown, were almost jet black.

Mount Kilimanjaro also peaked out above the clouds for the first time all weekend on our last game drive. It was just as awesome as we remembered the last time we saw it, in Amboseli.

Before heading back to the lodge, we swung back around to the grove where the three lions had reclined earlier the same day. They were still there, and they looked hungry! We were fortunate enough to see them get up to head off into the plains... perhaps for their next hunt? On our way back after sunset, we even saw two cheetahs - the one big cat we haven't seen on safari! It was literally our last chance on this trip to see them, so we felt very lucky.

Our last dinner at Ol Donyo was yet another demonstration of the magic of the place. We ate outside under the stars surrounding by trees with hanging lanterns. The quality of service was unlike anything we'd ever experienced; every need and desire seemed to be accommodated with ease. I should mention that I was horribly sick with who-knows-what most of the weekend, but thanks to the lodge staff's endless supply of tissues, lozenges, and ginger tea I made it through without completely missing out on the vacation. Ol Donyo is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most (with a price tag to match), but it's unlike anything we've ever done and worth it for those seeking the ultimate luxury safari!

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