OL DONYO LODGE, Chyulu Hills, Amboseli, Kenya
What do you imagine when you think of Africa? Teeming wildlife? Endless savannah plains? Magnificent snow-capped mountains? Proud warriors draped with beads? Then look no further. Sitting next to arguably the best-known national park in Africa – Kenya's Amboseli – Ol Donyu Lodge is perched on the lava slopes of the Chyulu Hills, with magnificent views to the tallest mountain on the continent, Mount Kilimanjaro, just over the border in Tanzania. It's home to five-star Relais & Chateaux luxury for its human guests, a staff recruited mostly from the local Maasai and some of the biggest large-tusked bull elephants in the world, along with lion, leopard, cheetah, buffalo and rhino.
Built over 30 years ago as a ranch, it's now been given over entirely to wildlife with the partly open-air lodge extensively redesigned and rebuilt in 2008. It's high on the hillside overlooking the plains and waterhole below, and is now exceptionally elegant with squashy white sofas, stunning black-and-white prints of animals adorning the stone walls and a decidedly mod-colonial air. There are dining rooms both al fresco and indoors, while many of the meals are taken around the pool area. A short walk down the hill is the hide, or blind, behind twisted acacia branches, where you can sit happily for hours timing the different shifts of wildlife at the waterhole.
There are only 10 cottages and all the lounges open to massive verandas with cane armchairs perfectly placed for watching sunrises or sunsets, the clouds lifting off Kilimanjaro in the distance, and the animals. Mine also had a private pool with sun loungers and the same stunning views, as well as both indoor and outdoor showers, a deep bath and his and hers sinks. Up a stone staircase to the roof there are alternative "star" beds made up every night, draped with romantic (and functional) mosquito nets, for sleeping to the sounds, and sights, of the dramatic night skies.
Your wake-up call comes with a fresh pot of coffee and biscuits delivered to the room, and then breakfast is in the lodge, with a selection of fresh fruit (the mango is out of this world), cereals, home-made yoghurt and a full cooked menu. Morning tea is another excuse for biscuits and cake, and lunch is lighter, accompanied by a variety of salads and fresh vegetables. Afternoon tea is another huge safari tradition, with more cake and biscuits, while the three-course dinner was beetroot and feta bruschetta, a choice of three mains, including salmon roulade, roast duck and vegetarian pasta, with roast veg, spinach and red cabbage, with a heavenly chocolate mousse to finish.
It's been described as a paradise, and it's hard to argue. Beyond the lodge is 1100 square kilometres of private wilderness, with clusters of both the Big Five … and everything else. The lodge also lends guests top-class cameras (they set mine to auto, which was helpful) and gives you the photos on a thumb-drive to take away. You can go on game drives, game walks with your guide and an armed guard – just in case an aggressive animal comes too close – and game horse rides. You can also visit the Maasai and conservation projects.
This has become one of my favourite places in Africa, with an understated luxury and friendliness (and lots of wildlife, of course) that's hard to beat. It's not cheap, but how often will you visit Africa? I think it's certainly worth the splurge.
OL DONYO LODGE, Chyulu Hills, Kenya. Rates from $US750 per person per night. Book through The Classic Safari Company Phone (02) 9327 0666 classicsafaricompany.com.au
Sinking into a hot sudsy bath, with the doors all opened up to the outside, watching the summit of Kilimanjaro loom up out of the cloud, as a herd of bull elephants gathered around the waterhole. One stared straight back.
In the room, despite the overall fabulousness of everything – an old leather suitcase turned into the tea-coffee-biscuits-sherry cabinet, crisp white bed linen and snowy diaphanous mosquito net curtains around the huge bed – there just aren't enough surfaces to put things on.
Sue Williams travelled courtesy of The Classic Safari Company and South African Airways