In my last blog post I told you about my trip to Kenya and conservancies of the Northern Rangelands Trust. While I was there in May, I visited another NRT project – the award winning Il Ngwesi Conservancy Lodge, owned and run by the Maasai community.
Il Ngwesi was the first community upmarket eco lodge to be set up in 1996. Home to the Il Lakipiak Maasai – ‘people of wildlife’ – it covers about 16,500 hectares. Combining eco-tourism with sustainable environmental management and community development is a significant achievement. Since its launch over twenty years ago, wildlife numbers around Il Ngwesi Conservancy have increased tenfold! Tourism accounts for around 80% of revenue and I was lucky enough to stay there for three nights.
James, one of the Il Ngwesi guides, and Kawai, an NRT trained security ranger, looked after me. They both knew the place like the back of their hands and took me on early morning bush walks to see the wildlife. I felt completely safe with them – quite an important consideration when out walking in the Big Five territory! They were great companions, knowledgeable and resourceful, and very passionate about the conservation work they are doing.
The bush walks were just incredible. Travelling on foot instead of by vehicle was a much more immersive experience. It meant one could fully absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the bush. The changing light revealed the mountains of the Matthews Range almost 140 miles away! I heard crickets, frogs, doves, weaver birds, slate coloured boubous, rose breasted cockatoos and zebra in the distance. In addition, I came to recognise the scent of wild lavender, fresh elephant dung, and morning rain on green vegetation. We got to within 40 yards of an elephant bull too!
I enjoyed the peace, being away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, engines and machinery. The tranquility stayed with me for such a long time. It is really good for us humans to wake up our senses every now and then. And the meals at Il Ngwesi were fantastic! There is nothing quite like starting the day with a hearty breakfast looking out over the bush.
The Maasai and the rangers read fresh animal tracks like the morning papers, getting a picture of which animals had passed by in the night. I set my Bushnell trail cameras up on the first day, hoping to capture dik dik which I am sculpting. Returning the the next morning, both the cameras were in pieces as a result of being chewed by hyena!
As an artist, seeing ancient Rock Art on my bush walks was absolutely fascinating. Kenya is often called the ‘cradle of mankind’, with much reason it seems. Examining these millennia-old paintings and engravings on rocky outcrops, made by our first ancestors, was extraordinary.
Finally, the highlight of my visit was an invitation to a Maasai ceremony. It was an event that only happens every fifteen years when the older warriors become elders of the community. Meanwhile the young men step up to become warriors. It was a really colourful occasion and I loved all the intricate beadwork on show.
A Maasai elder called Diwani hosted the event and introduced me to the assembled company. There was a lot of singing and jumping and a great feast of goat. And to wash it down, plenty of muratina, an alcoholic drink made from honey and the fruit of the Kigelia tree. I met a camel herder there, who kept his muratina in an old worm drench container!
Finally, I will never forget my time at Il Ngwesi Conservancy and the warm welcome I got from the Maasai. It is a truly special place and most of all, a remarkable success story for wildlife conservation.