Kenya is a magnificent country with countless beautiful places to visit. The purity of the environment, the spectacular wildlife, the vastness, the endless panoramas… Some landscapes have literally moved me to tears. Tears of happy disbelief for so much beauty.
To become one with nature the prime option is to camp. Years ago my husband (then brand new boyfriend) introduced me to the bush life and made me sleep in a tent on the roof of our rented safari jeep in Botswana overlooking the Chobe river with nothing surrounding us but nature. Very romantic… Lions so close to us that their roaring made my stomach tremble, the sound of hippos grazing just underneath us, a storm so heavy with insane lightning as if we were in a silent nightclub with mad strobe lights, elephants marching past our car, a baboon stealing our breakfast… I have some great, funny and at times terrifying stories.
With two kids under two I really don’t see the fun of camping. And let’s be honest here: I love a nice lodge. Also, I am a bit of a chicken – I once heard a story of a man who passed out in his tent after a boozy barbecue and when he woke up a hyena ate half of his face (supposedly attracted by the smell of the meat still stuck between his teeth)… So whenever I am in the bush, I make sure I don’t pass out and I brush my teeth extra carefully.
The more a lodge can be in harmony with nature, the better. This doesn’t have to mean that the interior has to be all beige and khaki… Let me tell you about my favourite place in Kenya, the place where we celebrated last Christmas, a place so special it has conquered my heart: Olerai.
Most of our family members did not make it to Kenya for the holidays. Luckily my mom and mother-in-law did so the kids could bound with their grannies. We were thrilled to spend a week together near the astonishing lake Naivasha, a freshwater lake between the volcanoes of the Great Rift Valley. It is home to hundreds of bird species and many hippo, zebra, buffalo, impala, giraffe, monkey and leopard. The area is famous for flower farming. The most beautiful roses are grown here and exported to all corners of the world.
On the northern shores of Lake Naivasha you can find Olerai wildlife sanctuary, a 300 acre garden of Eden. The setting is just out of this world. From the outside it looks like an unreal cartoon: the rooms are colorful cute houses where giraffe eat from the green leafy roofs. Zebra strut around cosy sun beds that overlook a green field where warthogs nervously walk in line and velvet monkeys cross to reach the next gigantic fig tree to play in. The open greenery is bordered by golden acacia trees, thick bush and a huge swamp that announces the mystical lake.
Every room in Olerai is a piece of art. Full of color, the rooms are arranged with a unique sense of style. You just feel the personal effort that went into each corner. The living room is a comfy flower power explosion. Massive bouquets of roses in all possible colors blend in with the decor. You feel welcome in a heartbeat. The whole place is furnished with love, a love for creativity, a love for life.
Rodin and Babar
Oria Douglas-Hamilton is the lady of the house/sanctuary. With a name like that, you already know this is not your average place. Her life story reads like a novel. She was born in Kenya to a French mother, a sculptress trained by Rodin (!) and an Italian father who was a (war) pilot. The cousin of her mother invented the children’s book Babar the elephant (one of my all time favourites when I was a kid).
Her husband is a living legend: Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a British zoologist who did groundbreaking studies on elephants and helped bring the world ivory trade ban. They spent a lot of time in Tanzania, living amongst elephants. They risked their lives to save them. Through scientific research and monitoring their foundation “Save the elephants” based in Samburu plays a huge role in the battle against poaching.
Oria is an artist, an environmentalist, a writer, a (grand)mother, a cook, a designer, a farmer, above all she is a warm hearted larger than life woman.
I was super excited that they invited us on Christmas day to their family home on the estate, the home Oria grew up in herself many years ago. I visited the majestic villa -Sirocco House- before and I was so happy that my Mom would see it now as well. In fact it’s more like a homey museum filled with sculptures, art and pictures from an impressive family chronicle. An immense mirror is one of the central pieces in the living room. About a hundred years ago it was brought there by oxcart from Europe. To the middle of nowhere. Just imagine how mad that is. An exceptional union between passion for art and the love for nature was born in this house.
On Christmas afternoon their place was filled with friends and family and lots of children playing around. I was proud to show our two grown babies. In addition to all of their qualities I could not help but notice how good looking everyone was. From the youngest to the oldest: very attractive elegant people. The fact that they were so friendly made them even more beautiful. Genuinely friendly, not the posh polite English “how do you do”-facade where you never know what’s really behind it. There was delicious food (Italian/French roots remember) and to my delight we moved rather quickly from tea to Prosecco. We had such a wonderful time, a Christmas day to remember.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever (J. Keats)
On boxing day we visited Oria’s little shop in the middle of the bush. A charming shed with one mirror and one rack of really special clothes designed by her.
Oria, the grannies, my daughter, me, 4 generations gathered around her clothes, talking about fabrics, cuts and styles as if we were in a boutique in Rome or Paris.
She handed me an Indian silk long dress to try on. I liked it but I was convinced that the silk would accentuate the extra meat that was still on my bones after bringing our prince William into this world. I also thought the bright colors would never flather my ghosty skintone.
But when I stepped out of the fitting room, the look on the women in front of me told me wrong. Nelly even started cheering. I looked into the mirror and for the first time in a very long time I felt pretty. I felt like I was on a red carpet in Cannes. I loved the dress and I bought myself une pièce unique by Oria DH. When we walked back a Maasai had to guide us because the buffalo had come too close…
Hollywood in the bush
“Plane plane plane!” my girl started shouting one morning. I took her on my arm and we ran to the hangar in the middle of the bush airstrip. When the “Save the Elephants” airplane landed in front of us Nelly almost collapsed from excitement. Out of this beautiful tiny airplane came the pilot. Now I almost fainted. A young Harrison Ford lookalike jumped out and waived at us, sunglasses on, with a proper Hollywood smile . Well hello there Indiana Jones! I realized that I was wearing my most worn out pyjama pants, I had baby puke from William on my jumper and hair that hadn’t seen a brush in a while. Nelly was asking me if she could sit in the plane but then luckily she got distracted by a family of “Pumba’s” so I could waive the pilot goodbye from a safe distance. Back at the breakfast table -surrounded by zebra- I told the grannies about the landing and the handsome pilot. Nelly of course remembered that she still wanted to go in the plane. We promised her next time. Two days later I heard the sound of an approaching airplane. The grannies came out of their rooms (were they wearing lipstick?). They couldn’t pick Nelly up any faster to head to the runway.
Too good to be true?
The cynical Belgian inside of me wondered for a brief second if all of this was too good to be true. Like what’s up with these people? How can they be so many things at once? Family orientated good looking creators, conservationists, innovators, scientists, artists,… yet so real and human. Like W.O.W. They are just next level people focusing on what matters I guess. Too good to be true? Maybe I am over romanticizing everything. I can only imagine the clashes between Italian-French-British genes in the middle of nowhere or the pressure to fill such big shoes. But this place, this garden of Eden, looks like it’s too good to be true and yet it exists. I believe the same can go for its people. Anyway, I look up to them and their work and I am grateful for so much inspiration.
Oria and Iain are not getting any younger. I wish they could come back for another hundred lifetimes. The world needs people like them. Luckily the circle of life turns: they have two amazing daughters and six beautiful grandchildren.
It’s a problem free philosophy
After Olerai, my Mom, Nelly and I went to the Masai Mara for some safari quality time. Driving those seemingly endless plains it’s hard not to get philosophical. We asked ourselves what animal we would like to be if we had a choice in the wild. My first thought was an elephant. They are the biggest, the wisest and they have an amazing family spirit. But when I learned that an elephant pregnancy lasts 22 months I quickly changed my mind. Maybe a cheetah for its speed and fur? Or a lion because he is king? The leopard, since he is the prettiest of all? Then again I am not really a cat person. So maybe a wild dog, they are the best hunters. Or to keep it more peaceful, why not a vegetarian giraffe with its great legs, stunning eyelashes and best view? Most certainly we can forget about the impala, wildebeest, warthog or zebra, that’s way too stressful. They’re the Big Macs of the savannah. Vultures, crocodiles and hyenas have such bad reputations. Rhino and buffalo are too medieval and a hippo too chubby. What about the smaller ones? The honeybadger is the most fearless, the coolest for sure. Or a jackal, an aardvark, a bush baby, a mongoose? The most precious is without a doubt the pangolin. In the end it’s hard to choose. It’s a tough question.
Suddenly my mom pointed at a beautiful little bird sitting in the neck of a giraffe. There was our answer. The bird can be friends with all the big ones, he can fly everywhere, can see everything and return to his nest when needed. He can be part of any scene or fly away from it. He has his liberty and space. Definitely, the bird was the winner.
Til we find our place on the path unwinding
Being in the bush is enriching in a cleansing way. You focus on things so different from your daily life that you really get out of your own world and into a world where nature still sets the rules, where you are just a very lucky spectator.
"There's far too much to take in here More to find than can ever be found But the sun rolling high Through the sapphire sky Keeps great and small on the endless round”*
It’s inspiring to see how, from an ant to an elephant, everyone plays his part. Consciously or subconsciously you learn from nature. I find it calming how roles are clearly defined between predators and prey. For all sides, every action is essential to survive. Saving energy is key in order to hunt or to protect. Death is a natural part of life in the wild. Live and let die.
I find it interesting and a bit unfair for us -the human kind- how baby animals are independent rather soon. Even a clumsy long skinny legged baby giraffe can walk 30 minutes after it is born. It reminds me of the annoying frase I’ve been hearing so many times since I became a mom “enjoy every second, they grow up so fast”.
It’s fascinating how so many extremely diverse creatures can all coexist. They have such different ways of living. We saw a tower of giraffe with only one female for nine males (poor thing must be pregnant all the time). At the other hand elephants prefer to keep it a girls only party while jackals form a pair for life. Live and let live.
As much as I appreciate silence in the bush, I like to learn. The more trivial facts, the better. A rhino can pee backwards, spraying to mark his territory. The ears of an elephant are in the shape of the map of Africa. The poop of a hyena is white because of ingested bones. A zebra is black with white stripes and not the other way around. The dramatic black lines on a cheetah’s face are natural sunglasses. Some plants only grow after the seeds went through an elephant. Talking about starting shit…
I just love to know information that you don’t really need to know to survive as a human. I call it soft info.
Soft info Fill my head with softs How a lion walks What a giraffe sees Why a zebra nods The eagle spreads his feathers A warthog eats on his knees For Where impala gather It’s safe from heavy thoughts Fill my spirit with air Let it float Let it fly Tell me about leafs and flowers About birds in the sky The rest Can rest The rest can wait What matters is today Thank you nature For You are never too late Julie
*Lyrics from "The Circle of Life"