Founded by David and Delia Craig subsequent to the request of conservationist Anna Merz in the 1980s, the origina purpose of the Lewa Conservancy was to become a refuge for the endangered black rhinos. At that point in time, Kenya’s black rhino population had decreased from 20,000 to just a few hundred due to poaching for their high market value horns.
The Craig family devoted their entire 40,000-acre ranch to the Conservancy which now covers 65,000 acres. Today, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy is an extension of the Mt. Kenya UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Lewa’s mission is to act as a catalyst and model for conservation, protection of wildlife, community development, and sustainable tourism.
Lewa is a special place that attracts tourists as well as celebrities, conservationists, and photographers. In fact, in October 2010, Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton while on holiday in Kenya at Lewa Safari Camp. That’s how special it is! You’ll want to add Lewa to your Kenya safari itinerary!
Lewa Safari Camp
Often referred to as a “tented” there is no roughing it at Lewa Safari Camp. Accommodations would be more suitably classified as luxury glamping. Part of the Elewana Collection of luxury boutique safari camps, the oversized tents are fitted out with comfortable beds and tastefully rustic décor. Rooms open onto a veranda with expansive views of the gorgeous Laikipia plains. Each tent has an adjoining bathroom with a large walk-in open-air shower, double vanities, and separate toilet area which make the “tent” as comfortable and convenient as one could want. Tents have thatched roofs and each one has its own solar-powered source for hot water.
Each tent comes equipped with a personal butler, walkie-talkies, and solar-powered flashlights. It is imperative that guests do not wander around the camp after dark – they are escorted by a ranger for their own safety.
For the last six years, Lewa has been managed by Sacha and Tamlyn Toronyi. Before the economic trouble in Zimbabwe, Sasha was a professional guide prior to coming to Lewa and Tamlyn was in management. After their first child came along, they looked for a place where they could work in management coupled with family and the opportunity to give their children an upbringing surrounded by nature, yet still close to schools and clinics.
“You know, she’s getting exactly the kind of awesome upbringing that we want for her, “said Sacha. “Lewa checks all our boxes, including it’s a non-malaria area. Unlike the coast or other parts of Africa, we don’t take malaria medication.
So as a family we felt that this was great. She could have this upbringing and understand nature. And you know, she’s just six years old and she already knows all of the animal droppings and all the animal footprints. Her favorite animal is the cheetah.”
Since arriving at Lewa, the Toronyi’s have added one-year-old twins into their family.
One of my favorite times at the Lewa camp was early morning – an unexpected surprise since I’m usually not a morning person. We’d get a wake-up “call” just before sunrise, which was actually our butler right outside our tent saying “good morning!” with a tray containing a pot of rich, hot Kenyan coffee and some cookies. We’d sit on the veranda and sip the delicious steaming brew and watch the sun come up over the plains. What a great way to start the day!
There’s a nice pool just outside the dining area of the main lodge with a lovely natural backdrop. During October, it was a little too chilly for swimming for me, though.
Speaking of chilly, I was a little surprised at how cold it got at night in Lewa, compared to Elsa’s Kopje safari camp in Meru National Park, where we’d just come from.
“Is there heat in the tents,” I asked Sacha. “I get and stay cold very easily.”
“No. But don’t worry, you will not be cold.”
I was troubled at what appeared to be his nonchalant reply. But when we arrived back at our tent after a late dinner in the common dining room, we found hot water bottles had been placed under the thick blankets on our beds. I was skeptical at this old-school remedy, but I’ll tell you the truth, the hot water bottle was fabulous! I sleep on my side so I curled my legs around it and slept like a baby without waking up once. I was toasty and cozy – in fact, it was the best night sleep I had during my entire 10-day safari in Kenya.
Guests of the Lewa safari camp can take a short hike on the property to get to “the Hide” – a small hut that overlooks the open savanna complete with a watering hole. As is always the case with nature, wildlife sightings are unpredictable, but when we were there, we had the good fortune to see giraffes, zebras, and elephants, all content to share the space with each other.
One of the more interesting – if not ghastly – sights at Lewa is just outside the office – a collection of large animal skulls that they found on the property.
Conservancies are tracts of land that are owned by indigenous communities but rented by eco-tourism companies and operated as private game reserves. Lewa works hand-in-hand with the local community to provide economic stability, conservation of wildlife, and an education program to help develop schools.
Anna Mertz (aka “the Rhino Angel”), the driving force behind the conservancy, was asked by many people why she was so passionate about the desperate plight of the rhinos.
“The answer is simple,” she said. “The rhinos are in Kenya and I was in Kenya, and the rhinos were in terrible trouble.” Mertz supported and co-founded the conversion of the Craig ranch into the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary.
According to Geoffrey Chege, Lewa’s Head of Conservation and Wildlife, the rhino population has grown from 15 in 1984 to 100 black and 94 white rhinos today. In all of Kenya, there are now just over 760 black rhinos and 620 southern white rhinos.
Lewa also strives to teach local children about the negative impact of poaching. At their Education Center, they have the skeleton of the last rhino poached in the conservancy, in 2013. The rhino had been famous because she had a really large horn. The exhibit is like what you’d see for a dinosaur – they pieced together all the bones and the kids can actually see the height of a rhino.
From the original mission of protecting rhinos, Lewa’s work has extended to the conservation of other species. Lewa is home to the largest concentration of Grevy’s zebra in the world.
Named after Jules Grévy, the Grévy’s zebra, also known as the imperial zebra, is the largest living wild equid and most threatened of the three species of zebra. While they used to be found throughout much of Africa, due to rapid declines in their population, they are now confined to primarily southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Grévy’s zebra is distinguished by its unique stripes and white belly. There was a population reduction of 54 percent from an estimate of 5,800 in the 1980s to about 2,800 today. Poaching of zebras for their skins (or any other reason) is now illegal in Kenya.
Sometimes overshadowed by the work they do for the rhinos and zebras, elephants are still an important part of Lewa. Sacha told us a lot about elephants.
“They’re very intelligent animals. They have a lot of human emotions, for example, sorrow. When we have someone that dies, we mourn; elephants mourn their dead, too. My wife has seen that when an elephant has passed on, the whole herd came and they tried to pick up the elephant. They touched the elephant with their trunk because the trunk is very sensitive. And then watching that carcass decompose over time and seeing that hurt the same for them as humans, the family herd comes back and picks up the bones, scattered them from where it was. It’s incredible.
Humans don’t do much discipline these days. We have the naughty chair and all of that, but with the elephants, they use their trunk whack on the little baby’s bottom and the baby screams, but it basically learns not to do that again. If it’s a bit bigger, older elephant, they use their tusk to give a little jab and the young elephant stops being naughty.
They have playtime, just like us when we all go to a swimming pool. When we have a multigenerational family at the seaside it’s noisy, it’s chaos. And when you see a herd of elephants at a swimming or mud hole, it’s absolute noise. You’ll see the very prim and proper mum who’s always in control of the herd. It’s amazing to see that matriarch all of a sudden let her hair down. She goes running in and she’s splashing and having a grand time. It’s fascinating to watch elephants!”
The Elephant Corridor
I’m thankful to Sacha for all the interesting data he relayed to me! In addition to the information about elephant behavior, I was really intrigued about the elephant corridor, which I’d never heard of.
The elephant corridors run from Mount Kenya, a national park. Those animals were stuck up there for approximately 50 years; they couldn’t move through farmland because of all the development that had happened. Likewise, the elephants in Samburu couldn’t migrate into these areas because again, they would have had to pass through communities that offered them no safety. So in 2010, the government, in collaboration with other organizations, established an elephant corridor to link Mount Kenya with the Ngare Ndare forest, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and beyond to Samburu National Reserve.
As the rains progress, the elephants move further north where it’s greener; they then progress through to Samburu when it gets dry. The elephants that had previously been stuck in Samburu now can move through Lewa and up into Mount Kenya into those habitats. The corridor is releasing a lot of pressure from the environment. In terms of conservation, a huge step forward was to actually put elephant droppings on the trail to lead elephants onto the trail.
According to Sasha, Lewa discovered that there are a couple of bull elephants (the males are the explorers), nicknamed guardian angels. There’s a certain part of the corridor that rhinos and lions can move through but elephants cannot pass through easily. Elephants are very intelligent animals that communicate over vast distances. All of a sudden, a big bull, one of the guardian angels comes up, settles the herd, shows them the route, and leads them through to the pass.
The corridor facilitates elephant migration and it is thought that approximately 2,000 elephants now have safe passage.
Lewa uses tracker dogs to protect the conservancy from poachers. The original dogs were trained by the British military, each bloodhound costing from $15-$17K to go through the stringent training process.
But currently, their two tracker dogs come from South Africa. The climate was too hot for the thoroughbred bloodhounds. They also ceased to use male dogs, who were too easily distracted. The crossbreed females are more focused and stick to the trail.
Tribal Woman Empowerment
“What’s really nice about Lewa’s interaction with the local community are the woman micro-funded projects, which are empowering women to do bead crafts, to do beekeeping, produce honey, and other income-producing projects,” said Sasha.
“Now women have their own personal income, not just relying on the men who go to market to sell cows every now and then. The women still have a tough time in the communities where it’s still very cultural. They have to walk huge distances for water, huge distances for firewood, that kind of stuff.
In the Ngare Forest, there is a community project. They’re trying to educate the people up there about very eco-friendly stoves where you can use cow dung. You dry the cow dung and you can use it to generate enough heat to cook a family meal. You don’t have to go into the forest to chop trees down. They’re trying to educate people that the Ngare Forest is an indigenous forest and we don’t want to let it disappear. Let’s have it for our children and our children’s children; let’s use these eco stoves made out of mud that are very easy to make. You don’t have to have a big open fire where a lot of the heat source is lost, so you need to use more and more wood and it becomes a losing battle.
And the women won’t have to go every single day to look for firewood if they have these little eco stoves. So things are progressing along nicely through the education programs and the woman empowerment micro funded projects.”
Lewa offers its guests two game drives per day – one in the morning just after sunrise, and the other in the afternoon around 3:00 pm until after sunset. There is a six-hour break in between where guests can enjoy a group buffet lunch, relax, explore the camp, or go on an excursion.
You just never know what you’ll see on a game drive! During our late afternoon drive, our guide spied a pride of about six lions walking towards a ravine. “They’re stalking prey,” our guide said. He slowly took our jeep off-road and followed them. They eventually spread out at the top of the ravine, all looking towards the other side.
I looked at the hill beyond the ravine and saw a giraffe slowly moving up the incline. “Oh no!” I cried. “I hope they are not stalking that giraffe!” I love giraffes and if they took it down, I’d probably be reduced to tears.
Suddenly the dominant female sprinted across the ravine. But instead of moving toward the giraffe, she leaped into a closer tree and yanked down the fresh carcass of an antelope that was hanging in an acacia tree (could only see this with binoculars). At the top of the tree sat two leopards, who could basically do nothing to save their kill – lions are king of the jungle after all. If they’d tried to stop it, they’d have been killed. But because they’re a lot lighter than lions, they moved to the top of the tree where the lion could not follow because it’s too heavy.
Relieved that my beloved giraffe was no longer in danger, I watched at the lion ate her fill of the meat, then the other lions came down the ravine to get their share.
We were so fortunate to experience such an unplanned killing! You can’t plan it – it’s a random matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Note: the scene was too far away to get good photographs, but I was content to live in the moment, catching it with binoculars.
We also got really close to a rhino. Take note, you should never chase after an animal in your drive vehicle. On this occasion, we noticed the white rhino up on a hill so our guide stopped so we could watch. The rhino started down the hill, grazing all the way. As she got closer, she raised her head to look at us, decided we weren’t a threat and continued grazing right up to the jeep.
Click here to read our complete guide to animals to see on safari in Kenya. The photos will blow you away!
One of the most attractive things about Lewa is that they offer so many other things to do besides jeep game drives. We chose to take advantage of doing a safari by riding camels across the savanna in what was once part of the original Craig homestead.
I was apprehensive about getting up on the camel – or rather, I should say, the camel getting up from his position resting on the ground with me seated on its back. I’d undertaken the feat in Egypt and it scared me to death. It’s a shaky experience and it feels like you are going to fly off the back of the camel while hanging on for dear life with every ounce of upper body strength. The same for getting down, except in reverse – it feels like you are going to be propelled over the front of the camel.
Such was not the case here. These camels were slower and gentler, the seating easier to balance, and the crossbars were easier to hang and stabilize myself than just a horn sticking out from the rudimentary saddle in Cairo.
What great fun striding across the plains! It was such a unique perspective to see the flora and fauna as if you’re part of it, led by our friendly young guides from the local village.
The biggest thrill was when we came upon a giraffe eating from a nearby tree. I could not believe how close we got! Check it out in the 30-second video clip above!
Bushwalks are not strenuous hikes, they are casual strolls in the savanna or bush, which can be undertaken as an afternoon event or during a game drive. It’s a chance to see Kenya from a different perspective than seated in the jeep as well as an opportunity to commune with nature.
You needn’t feel like you’re in danger; even though your senses will inevitably be on high alert, the guides will take you to places where you won’t get hurt and keep you away from aggressive animals. Rather, you’ll have the opportunity to gain a better insight and appreciation for the diversity of the flora, learn the medicinal value of plants, inspect animal dung, or try to determine animal tracks.
Our guide, George, took us to a remarkable spot on our bushwalk – a now protected archeological site where ancient hand axes were discovered. Similar to the ones found approximately 200 miles (as the bird flies) north at Lake Turkana in the 1990s (less than 10 kilometers from where archaeologists found the earliest complete skeleton of Homo erectus in 1984!), hand axes appear to have been made approximately 1.75 million years ago, 300,000 years earlier than originally thought.
The Lewa site, located on what used to be the shore of a large lake, contains hundreds of the stone axes. While some have been donated to museums, the remain axes, surprisingly, were left undisturbed on the ground and are not stolen.
One of my favorite times out on the savanna was the “sundowner,” the Kenyan happy hour where we would toast the sun slipping over the horizon with a cocktail in hand.
This peaceful and reflective safari tradition dates back to colonial times where the heat of the day turned into the chilly night. It was the perfect time to enjoy our threesome camaraderie and reminisce about all the fantastic things we took in over the span of the day.
After a couple of hours of the late afternoon game drive, George would pull off-road at the perfect spot to watch the sunset over the plains. George transformed himself from our guide to our bartender, handing us a drink and offering snacks.
My Keto diet is restrictive as to what I can drink. But George was one step ahead of me and had stocked everything I needed for my favorite cocktail! Can we all just agree that a guide doesn’t get any better than that!
Patti’s African Sundowner (aka as a “Skinny Bitch”)
- 1 shot (1.5 oz.) vodka
- 8 oz. seltzer or sparkling water
- ½ lime, cut into quarters, squeezed, and added to the liquid
- 1 packet of Splenda (or another non-sugar sweetener)
A sundowner is a perfect way to end your game drive!
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of the Elewana Collection during her stay in Kenya, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick and Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.