Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya: A lesser-known and less crowded wildlife safari park

"These two lions ... they are honeymooning," our driver James whispers, sounding like a parent spelling out "s-e-x" in the presence of young children as the two lions wander near to our vehicle. Within moments, the big cats' copulating roars and mews are fracturing the silence of the dawn.

"It's been many, many years since I saw two lions honeymooning."

Around us,  the view is certainly worthy of a honeymoon destination. Mt Kenya sits sharp and clear atop the clouds. The dawn sun sets the grasslands ablaze with colour, and the heads of giraffes move across the top of nearby scrub like hand puppets.

It's a safari moment that would stir a popular destination such as Kruger National Park into a frenzy of vehicles and cameras, but here in central Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy there are just two other vehicles parked behind us. Decorum has been almost preserved.

There are days on safari in Africa that you could be excused for wondering if you're killing the very thing that you're here to love. Kruger alone admits about 1.7 million visitors a year, while Ngorogoro Conservation Area sees in excess of 600,000. In parks across the continent, animal sightings draw car-rally-like responses from safari vehicles, turning visitors into the hunting pack.

 It doesn't have to be this way. Sprinkled among the big-name, big-ticket parks are less-famous but still accessible and affordable wildlife treasures such as Ol Pejeta and nearby Solio Conservancy.

Straddling the equator, Ol Pejeta is a special wildlife reserve. Home to more than 100 of Africa's remaining 5000 black rhinos, it's also the last frontier for the northern white rhino. Only three of these animals remain in the world, and all three are in Ol Pejeta, where they roam with armed guards 24 hours a day.

There's an undeniable sense of something exceptional here, even though visitors don't get to see the northern white rhinos. In 2017, Ol Pejeta won the global Community Award at the World Travel and Tourism Council's Tourism for Tomorrow awards, recognising the benefits the conservancy brings to surrounding communities.

Inside the reserve, a stylish tented camp abuts a wildlife-rich waterhole, while safari drives are like an African field guide sprung to life, always rich with the possibility of the unknown.

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This morning there's far more here than a pair of love-locked lions. Though much of Ol Pejeta's area is covered in low, thick bush, making wildlife spotting complicated at times, it regularly bursts into wide grassy clearings. For a time before we encounter the lions, little has stirred beyond the usual swarms of impalas and waterbucks. Then, suddenly, two rhinos step from the bush, crossing the road centimetres from the front of our vehicle. 

Thomson's gazelles graze like lawn mowers, a Grant's gazelle takes a solitary stroll, and herds of zebras pass like barcodes being scanned. The necks of four reticulated giraffes continue to peep above the canopy. And never are there more than half a dozen vehicles among this concentrated and close-up display of African wildlife.

At the end of each drive in Ol Pejeta, vehicles return to the Sweetwaters Serena Camp where 50 stylish en-suite tents, covered with thatched roofs, are strung along the edge of a waterhole, looking out to Mt Kenya. Guests are separated from the wildlife by only an electrified ditch. Elephants have been known to hang out for weeks at a time by the waterhole.

Like most visitors here, I'm drawn to the waterhole's edge each time I step from my tent. I walk to meals past a giraffe slurping at the waterhole, and I come to know a seemingly resident marabou stork as well as my own neighbours at home. 

In the dawn, impalas lock horns and tussle in clouds of dust, while a natural alarm of bickering baboons sounds through the camp from nearby trees.

Mornings here begin with a safari drive to observe the animals before they hide from the heat of the day. After breakfast in Sweetwaters' dining room, which overlooks the waterhole (as does the adjoining bar), there's the chance to slumber through the African heat or hang out by the camp's pool - a waterhole for people in sight of a waterhole for animals.

In the late afternoon, as the wildlife stirs again, there's a second safari drive, with elephants, lions, rhinos, zebras and giraffes wandering the savannah catwalk, followed by dinner and the inevitable exchange of stories about that day's wildlife encounters - tales about tails.

Another option during the day is a visit to Ol Pejeta's chimpanzee sanctuary. Kenya has no native chimps, but this heavily fenced 100-hectare sanctuary-within-a-sanctuary was created 25 years ago with the help of the Jane Goodall Institute. It originally housed three chimpanzees from Goodall's Halfway House in Burundi, following the outbreak of civil war in that country.

Today there are 36 chimpanzees here, most rescued from black-market trade and so traumatised they will never be able to be released into the wild. 

A guide walks visitors through the sanctuary. This day, Julius leads us along trails beside a river that divides the sanctuary in two, before he stops and calls into the seemingly empty bush. Foliage suddenly stirs and four chimpanzees step into a clearing, where Julius tosses them food from his pocket.

When the chimpanzees want more food, they become remarkably human and demonstrative. One slaps the ground and beckons for morsels with her outstretched fingers. As the food runs out, an old chimpanzee stands with his arms spread wide in a gesture like a sports fan disgruntled with a refereeing decision.

"They're so intelligent," Julius says. "Sometimes they get branches and you'll see them testing the depth of the river with them. Once we had five escape - they pushed a fallen log up against one of the fences and climbed over it."

Little more than an hour's drive from Ol Pejeta is another reserve that's light on visitors but heavy on wildlife credentials. Drive past Solio Conservancy, 30 kilometres north of the town of Nyeri, and all you see is a tiny sign on the road, but this farm-turned-reserve is regarded as Kenya's premier rhinoceros sanctuary.

Rhinos were introduced to the property in 1970, with five animals moved here to protect them from the increasing problem of poaching, creating the country's first rhino sanctuary.

Over the next decade, Kenya's rhino population was decimated, with the number of black rhinos falling from around 20,000 to just 1500. At the same time, Solio's rhino population rose to 27.

There are now hundreds of rhinos at the conservancy, representing a large percentage of Kenya's total population. In addition to being a sanctuary, Solio remains a working farm, and we drive out into the reserve past flocks of sheep, goats and cattle, with a herd of zebras grazing among them.

A ranger's vehicle drives ahead of us, guiding us towards the area where rhino sightings are most likely. The dirt road curls through stands of yellow-barked acacia as beautiful as any of the wildlife. Impalas kick and dance, and waterbucks chase each other through the bush, scattering warthogs as they go.

Standing resolute among it all are a white rhino and her calf. Later we pass a lone hulking male rhino, looking as solid as a wrestler, and finally enter a large clearing where more than a dozen rhinos, including a tiny calf, graze among flocks of guinea fowls. It's safari perfection, and we have it almost entirely to ourselves, with just one other vehicle inside Solio this afternoon. 

As evening nears, the setting sun hovers like a balloon above Solio, looking as large and red as any preconceived image of the African sun. It's another scene worthy of a honeymoon, but as James brings the vehicle to a stop, there are just the piercing eyes of a lone male lion staring back at us through the grass. The honeymoon is over.

FIVE OTHER LITTLE-KNOWN SAFARI RESERVES

MT ELGON NATIONAL PARK, KENYA

Abutting the Ugandan border, this park is home to elephants that enter caves to lick salt from the rocks.

SELOUS GAME RESERVE, TANZANIA

An enormous reserve - almost the size of Croatia - that offers walking safaris among the wildlife.

TARANGARE NATIONAL PARK, TANZANIA

Overshadowed by nearby Ngorogoro, but almost as good for dry-season wildlife viewing.

ADDO ELEPHANT NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA

As the name on the tin promises, home to about 600 elephants, plus a rare place to find the Big Seven - the Big Five African land mammals plus great white sharks and southern right whales.

LOWER ZAMBEZI NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA

Canoe past hordes of crocodiles, hippos, elephants and buffalos.

TRIP NOTES

Andrew Bain travelled as a guest of World Expeditions.

MORE

traveller.com.au/kenya

magicalkenya.com

olpejetaconservancy.org

FLY

Qatar Airways flies daily to Nairobi from Sydney and Melbourne via Doha. See qatarairways.com

TOUR

World Expeditions runs a three-day Kenya Rhino & Chimp Sanctuary trip that starts and finishes in Nairobi and visits the Ol Pejeta and Solio conservancies, staying at Sweetwaters Serena Camp. Trips start from $1750. See worldexpeditions.com

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