Before even arriving in Kenya, I knew exactly what I was looking forward to seeing: hotels integrated with the wild, animal encounters, beautiful landscapes and conservation programs. Ol Pejeta Conservancy gave me all of that.
One of the biggest mistakes one can make before booking a safari trip to Kenya (don´t feel bad, I´m guilty of it too…) is thinking that you will see “free” animals everywhere, just running their errands and minding their own business. Well, that´s pretty true for conservation areas like Ol Pejeta, or Olari Motorogi Conservation inside Masai Mara National Park. These conservation areas normally have stricter rules, therefore guides are not allowed to go off-road to pursue or disturb animals.
The thing is that conservations like Ol Pejeta, which are privately owned and, besides charging a higher entrance tourist fee, they also receive large international donations, end up having more money to invest in the well-being of the animals that live there. I definitely do not object to paying a higher amount when I know where the money is going to. And I bet many tourists that go to Kenya to cherish the amazing country´s wildlife, do not either.
For these reasons, I really enjoyed being in Ol Pejeta after feeling that, though Samburu was beautiful, some animals there were definitely put at risk by the guides themselves – which was something pretty shocking to witness. In this case, we felt that the concept of the animals being “free” was definitely up for debate. I will definitely do a post about this at the end of the Kenya series of articles. After all, we do not want to travel somewhere and have a negative impact on the environment , right?
One of the highlights of Ol Pejeta Conservancy is definitely the Sweetwaters´ Chimpanzee Sanctuary, founded by one of the most extraordinary humans beings to ever walk this planet – Jane Goodall. If you don´t know who she is, please, do yourself a favor and go check her institution page here (beware, you might have a serious urge to leave everything behind and go do something good for this world after reading about her work!). If you know anything about chimpanzees, you know they are not native of Kenya. So how the heck did all of these chimpanzees end up in a sanctuary inside Ol Pejeta?!
Well, this sanctuary was built to give chimps that are victims of the still existing black market in West and Central Africa a chance of a free life in East Africa. Therefore, the Sanctuary organizes rescue missions in order to bring them to a safe home in Ol Pejeta and works on making them healthy again – physically and mentally. These chimpanzees have been bought illegally and have been abused for years before they finally got rescued, therefore reintegrating them back to a habitat and introducing them to other chimps is no joke. This process can take years and years. Our guide at the Chimpanzee sanctuary even told us that after such traumatic experiences, nobody is allowed to get close to them, not even the chimp queen herself, Jane Goodall. Like elephants, they do not forget what they have been put through by the hands of humans. And the stories are just horrific.
But it´s not all sadness and tears. Quite the opposite. Though it´s part of the guides´ work to share the heart-breaking stories which lead to the need of establishing such a refuge, the emphasis is definitely on how these chimps get a second chance at life through the work of those who dedicate their own life to them. Nowadays there are 37 chimpanzees living in the sanctuary, distributed in two groups, each with a leader. The groups live separately by a river, since chimpanzees cannot swim. This also gives you the opportunity to see the animals with only a natural barrier between you.
If you watch the video below, you could be second-guessing this information, considering you see that there´s a man-made fence separating us from the chimpanzees. Yes, the whole area where they stay has to be fenced, because the idea here is not to introduce a species, which is non native of Kenya, in the wild. These animals have to be monitored and therefore they are not allowed to leave the sanctuary area. Still, the habitat is natural, huge, and you can still see one of the groups with no fence once you cross inside the sanctuary´s limits.
We absolutely loved the visit to the chimp sanctuary. We learned so much! The guide´s English was great, and he got excited to be asked so many questions about his work there and about the animals. You could see the passion in what he does – I mean, these people are not the best paid, so there´s gotta be passion involved in their daily work routine.
Another highlight of Ol Pejeta is the Rhino Sanctuary. This is the blessed place where you will be able to see the only two (!!) northern white rhinos left in the E-N-T-I-R-E world. Standing there at sunset light looking at these two incredible remaining creatures awoke so many feelings in me. It´s so mentally conflicting to realize how huge and, at the same time, how vulnerable, they are.
The dramatic decline of the northern white rhino population was due to poaching and civil war. Due to the rarity of these animals, they are monitored 24/7 and have armed security around the clock. So, consider yourself lucky to be able to see such a marvelous animal in your lifetime, cause the next generations might not be able to. The sole hope to save the species now is in vitro fertilisation, since the last white male rhino died in 2018 of natural causes, and put to rest in the rhino cemetery in Ol Pejeta.
Another amazing opportunity that the rhino sanctuary gives you is to have a close encounter with a black rhino, Baraka. He lost one of his eye sights due to a fight with another rhino while defending his territory, and unfortunately he ended up losing his other eye sight to cataract (he was operated on, but the vets weren´t successful). Being fully blind, Baraka wouldn´t be able to survive in the wild. Thus, he was moved to the sanctuary in order to be given a chance to live a happy life without any danger surrounding him.
Baraka adjusted to his new life quite easily and it´s amazing to think that a wild rhino would become so friendly towards humans. He not only got used to his caretakers, but he´s also quite peaceful with visitors to the point that it was totally ok for me to pet him and feed him. Never in my life I thought I would be standing this close to a full grown rhino, let alone pet one! Holy Moly. The surprises Kenya brings on to you…
Outside the Sanctuaries, but still inside Ol Pejeta Conservancy, you can spot many other animals like zebras, antelopes, elephants, buffalos, lions, giraffes, cheetahs, jackals, hyenas, warthogs, hippos, wildebeest, leopards and, of course, black and southern white rhinos. Though these rhinos are living outside the sanctuaries in order to live a normal life in the wild with other animals, they are all highly monitored by the sanctuary and the conservancy staff, since they are, after all, endangered species. Thankfully, the breeding program here has been successful so far, and we were able to see two calves with their mothers! Nowadays there are more than 130 black rhinos living there, making Ol Pejeta the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa.
During our stay at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, we slept at the Sweetwaters Serena Hotel. The main house of the hotel, containing the dining room and the bar, is gorgeous. It was built in colonial style, and it offers guests a very pleasant place to sit at night by the fireplace and chat about the highlights of the day. We also found the tented accommodation very comfortable, though we had a problem with the bed cover being stained. But the best this hotel offers is definitely the waterhole where animals come for a drink during the day and night. It is only separated from the guests by a natural low trench.
We lived many adventures and special moments during this trip. Still, some of the most cherished memories were definitely in front of that waterhole. One of them was hearing noises outside our tent, to find many elephants almost within touch-distance when we went out to check it out. It was amazing to watch such a large group of wild elephants under the hotel´s yellowish beam lights. They would sometimes get closer and closer to us out of curiosity. It was a beautiful moment of two different species staring at each other, probably wondering what the other would do if only one of us crossed that trench…
Another memory that I will be forever thankful for happened after dinner, when we were lucky enough to see a black rhino sipping on water, and then elegantly walking towards the darkness of the wild….eventually fading into the unknown. What a magical metaphorical moment for such a sumptuous resilient endangered species.
If you want to read my honest review of the Sweetwaters Serena Hotel on Trip Advisor, click here.
To put color in everything you just read here, click on the video below and come take a tour around Ol Pejeta with us!