Ranch life in Africa: Where you can have that real dude ranch experience

The cattle kick up clouds of dust as they're herded into their bomas by three tall African Samburu warriors. A small calf breaks free and the men call to me to stop it. I wave my arms feebly and it darts straight past towards the sun-bleached open plains.

They grin and one warrior, bare-chested, a scarlet checked cloth tied around his waist and with a fine adornment of beads criss-crossing his body, lopes off after it, catching it easily by the hind legs, and gently steering it back to the rest of the herd. 

He then moves on towards the camels, calling to them to join the cattle behind the fence as another herdsman, this time in a green cloth and with a spear and similar display of fine beadwork, ushers sheep and goats into the enclosure next door.

This is ranching Kenyan-style and for a dude ranch experience, it's hard to beat. Here, it's not only about looking after the cattle and protecting them from rustlers, but also from a variety of even more colourful carnivores – lion, leopard and hyena.  

And there's plenty else to do too. Here, you can canter at full tilt on muscular bush ponies across wide rocky plains, up the escarpment, down hills and over the river; less experienced riders can meander. Then there are camels to ride, to look over the herds – and the wildlife – from up on high.

"So many people come to Africa to look at the wildlife, but here we thought we'd offer a great ranching experience too," says Colin Francombe, who bought the 120 square kilometres Ol Malo ranch in Laikipia in northern Kenya 25 years ago, with his wife Rocky. "I've been ranching since 1963 and it's a wonderful way of life for people to see, and try."

It's an outback kind of world that offers enormous variety. An hour later, I'm among the dairy cows watching a local pastoralist, with expert precision, shooting milk into a metal bucket. He invites me to try my hand. 

In 10 minutes, I manage to increase his yield by about half a centimetre and, as I give him back his place at the cow, he says, with a big smile, that I did well. I smile back. We both know it's not true.

I don't even offer to attempt to milk the camels, but I do drink a mug of creamy camel milk still warm from the animal. It's delicious. I don't go near the bees, either, in their hives high up in some of the acacia trees to protect them from being torn down by destructive elephants – who knew elephants aren't scared of mice, but are terrified of bees? But I do eat the home-harvested honey, too.

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And there's another big advantage of holidaying on such a ranch – home-grown good organic beef, butchered locally.

The joy of Ol Malo – Samburu for "place of the Great Kudu" – with its spectacular lodge sited high on the top of an escarpment, with stunning views over the valley below, is also in its wildlife. As well as the large herds of elephant and buffalo, it's home to some of the largest populations of a number of endangered mammals, including Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe and the African wild dog.

Game drives, walks and wildlife-watching from a helicopter are all must-dos, as is a flight over the remote Lake Turkana in the far north with its glittering white salt pans and stunning jade waters.

Then there's the local Samburu people, cousins of the better-known Maasai, whose traditional culture has remained incredibly intact. Ol Malo offers visits to a beading session by the mamas and to a local village, where you can go inside their tiny, smoke-filled mud huts and wonder at how they can possibly live so happily on so little. 

You're also free to watch the warriors perform their nightly dances, part of their ritual of wooing the unmarried women of the village. It's an astonishing sight as both sides dress in all their traditional finery and perform age-old moves you feel incredibly privileged to witness.

So as well as being a ranching holiday and a wildlife trip in one, it's also a cultural journey through the ages, with the Samburu and their ancient traditions, and the Francombes, now into their fifth generation of white Kenyans. 

"We like to show the ranching flag as well as providing so much else for our guests to do," says Colin Francombe. "We find people love the variety."

TRIP NOTES

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Traveller.com.au/africa

FLY

South African Airways flies to Nairobi via Perth and Johannesburg (flysaa.com), and Safarilink (www.flysafarilink.com) flies direct from Nairobi to Ol Malo.  

STAY

Ol Malo has a number of huge suites for couples, singles and families, as well as a whole house, hewn from local stone and timber, set in succulent gardens, with regular visits from baboons, rock hyrax and a vast variety of birds (see olmalo.com); for bookings, tel (02) 9327 0666, see www.classicsafaricompany.com.au

Sue Williams travelled courtesy of The Classic Safari Company and South African Airways. 

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