Shompole remains a benchmark for barefoot luxury, while bringing a lion population back from the brink, writes Brian Jackman.
WHAT an extraordinary lodge Shompole is. As you fly in by bush plane from Nairobi the first thing you notice are its rooftops, bewigged with thatch, like an African ark that has come to rest halfway up the Nguruman escarpment. From here, it presides over a vast private wildlife fiefdom on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, with superb views deep into neighbouring Tanzania.
Shompole was Kenya's first designer lodge. Created 10 years ago by Anthony Russell, the maverick son of a white Kenyan hunter, this stunning masterpiece is still setting the benchmark for barefoot-chic luxury.
Artist, designer and rock musician, Russell is an engaging and multifaceted character, a conservationist whose passion for lions and Maasai culture has been overshadowed by his success in building exotic safari lodges.
Straight lines and right angles are anathema to him. At Shompole, you live among curving, icing-sugar walls that reflect the rolling Rift Valley contours; in palatial rooms without doors or windows, each with its own plunge pool and water flowing along shallow runnels, as in the Gardens of the Alhambra, creating the perfect counterpoint to the blinding heat of the Rift.
The pillars supporting the high-peaked roofs are simply the bleached and polished trunks of dead sycamore figs and the bare decks are fashioned from the same pale timber. Decoration comes in the form of riverbed pebbles, arranged here and there with Zen-like simplicity, and in the centre of each room stands a king-size bed which, draped at night in a mosquito net, becomes a bug-free zone within a house always open to the wind.
I stayed at Shompole 360, so-called because of the spectacular all-round views from its hilltop position, and spent three idyllic days there, waking each morning to the echo of wood doves and looking into the deep valley below in the hope of seeing a leopard slipping through the euphorbias. All day long the doves called, giving the heat a voice in harmony with Shompole's mood of seductive indolence. In the evenings, the breeze induced a feeling akin to standing in the bows of an old-time clipper ship, as if we were about to sail out into the dark void of the Rift.
The lodge is named after Shompole Mountain - the Mountain of Red Ochre - that rises from the floor of the Rift Valley like a gateway between Kenya and Tanzania. Beyond it lie the soda flats of Lake Natron, home to candyfloss clouds of lesser flamingos, and the smoking cone of Ol Donyo Lengai, the holy mountain of the Maasai.
The Maasai are very much in evidence at Shompole, whose 16,000-hectare concession is part of a ranch owned by the local community that provides them with a handsome income while allowing their pastoral way of life to continue. At the same time, it has encouraged the Maasai to preserve wildlife rather than seeing it as a threat to be disposed of by fair means or foul.
When Russell first came here in 1999 there were only five lions left. "Today there are 68, along with at least eight leopards and a dozen cheetahs," he says. "So we must be doing something right."
He was eager to show me the Shompole prides' hunting grounds. It was the beginning of the kiangazi (dry season) and as we bumped down the steep track to the Rift Valley floor we disturbed thousands of doves that had flown in to feed on the ripening grass seeds.
Coveys of quail shot away from beneath our wheels and the sky was alive with bee-eaters.
By midmorning the Rift would become a furnace but now the air was cool and crisp as we scanned the plains for cats. Their prey was everywhere: zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, impala. Between the swamps and the gallery forests of flat-topped acacias we crossed open ground littered with horns and bones - a charnel house of old lion and cheetah kills.
Our guide was Ngatia Sempeta, a Loita Maasai dressed in a brightly coloured shuka and fancy earrings. Russell said Ngatia was a classic case of poacher turned gamekeeper. Before he saw the light he had speared 13 lions and nine rhinos.
As we drove along they talked with the easy banter of lifelong chums. "If you don't find us a lion," Russell said, "I may have to cut off your left testicle." Ngatia chuckled and 10 minutes later his manhood was reprieved when he spotted two male lions with tobacco-brown manes resting in the shade. "Beautiful, aren't they?" Russell said admiringly. "These guys are brothers. Four years old and just coming into their prime."
Later, heading towards the acacia woodlands where the zebras had gone to seek the shade, we stopped again as a cheetah strode across the plain, its electric presence dominating the landscape.
In the afternoon, by way of a change from game driving, Russell drove me down to meet the Maasai. By the simple expedient of buying a goat for a meat-feast, he had persuaded the local warriors and their girlfriends to put on a dance. So there we sat, in canvas-backed chairs on the banks of a sand river, as the young men and women emerged from the forest in two swaying lines, chanting and stamping as they approached.
This was Strictly Come Dancing Shompole-style. While the girls bobbed in time to the rhythm, making their bead necklaces bounce up and down, the warriors in their ostrich plumes and lion- mane headdresses took it in turns to advance with hands held stiffly by their sides as they competed to see who could leap the highest.
Tourist sideshow? Maybe. But it was as authentic as anything I have ever seen and as much a part of Africa as the big cats we had found.
Moreover, it seemed to demonstrate the underlying reason for Shompole's success, which is dependent not only on the survival of its lions but also on the Maasai and their new understanding of the need for conservation.
Qantas partners with South African Airways flying from Sydney to Nairobi via Johannesburg, South Africa, priced from $2449. 13 13 13, qantas.com.au.
Stays at Shompole Lodge are priced from $US900 ($887) a night, depending on the season. + 254 20 88 4135, wilderness-ventures.com; + 254 20 2437871, africanspicesafaris.com.
A 12-day tour from Nairobi, including three nights at Shompole Lodge and three at Shompole Mara Camp, with game drives, meals, walks and cultural visits, is priced from $11,334 a person, twin share. (03) 9750 0112, adventuretravel.com.au.