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Kenya: Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Situated in the foothills of snow-capped Mount Kenya in central Kenya’s Laikipia County, Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a trailblazer in conservation, most famous for protecting the world’s last two northern white rhinos.

Ol Pejeta, is a private conservancy that lies in the shadow of Mount Kenya, the second-highest mountain in Kenya (and considerably trickier to climb), and also sits on the equator. It is also a great place to see both black and white rhinos. Ol Pejeta has the last two remaining Northern white rhinos anywhere in the world. They are two females. There was a male, but sadly he died. Another issue is that the two females, one being the mother of the other are not able to carry offspring. A big problem. The Conservancy has a plan though. They have frozen fertilized eggs from the females and plan to inseminate these into a Southern white rhino female.

We had an afternoon game drive planned and set out around 3 pm. It was not long before we came across a white female rhino with her calf, it was very sweet to see them grazing on the savannah, with the calf occasionally suckling on its mother. The next place we visited was not quite so cheery, it was a cemetery for rhino, which was located on an open plain with a single tree at its centre. Around the cemetery were many headstones with names of rhinos who had been killed by poachers. It was very sad to read how each of them had died.

White rhino with her calf at the OL Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya
White rhino with her calf at the OL Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya
The rhino graveyard at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
The Rhino Graveyard
Commemorating two Northern White rhinos who passed away at Ol Pejeta Conservancy - Kenya
Commemorating two Northern White rhinos who passed away at Ol Pejeta Conservancy
A black rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya
A black rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy
An elephant browsing the bushes at Ol Pejeta Conservancy
An elephant browsing the bushes at Ol Pejeta
A cape buffalo at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
A cape buffalo
A plover at Ol Pejeta guarding her chick - Kenya
A plover at Ol Pejeta guarding her chick

The end of the day was fast approaching so we headed out to see what else we could find. We rounded a corner and came across and eland, the largest antelope in Africa and one of the shyest. It hung around just long enough for us to get a photo. A little further on we came across a hartebeest, the first we’d seen during our time in Kenya (or Uganda). One thing we wanted to do was visit the sanctuary areas where the rhino programme is run from. As we approached there were two white rhinos drinking from a watering station – a bonus.

A white rhino at the watering station - Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Ol Pejeta has built a huge enclosure which is home to the two remaining female northern white rhinos – it is so large that seeing them is a challenge. Instead, we went off to see a black rhino called Baraka, who had been blinded in one eye and could not survive on his own in Ol Pejeta, so the rescued him and keep him safe in his own enclosure and use him as part of their education programme. Black rhinos in general are shy and mean, but Baraka has become used to people, so when the rangers call his name, he comes right over to the fence of his enclosure. We were encouraged to feed him some grass, and he was so gentle as he took it from his hand. His skin is very tough, but we were able to touch him behind the ears – which was incredibly soft. We said our goodbyes to Baraka and set-off for Sweetwaters

We had agreed to take an early morning, pre-breakfast game drive. The night had not been as cold as we feared, and our tent was cosy. A comfortable bed and the hot water bottle meant we had a good night’s sleep. Still, it was tough to drag ourselves up. So, we presented like 2 zombies in safari gear as we clambered into the land cruiser for our pre-dawn game drive.

It didn’t take too long for us to get into the swing of things. As we discussed the day before, the plan was for some dawn photos at the equator monument on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, hopefully with Mount Kenya as the backdrop. The weather was not playing ball, as the top of the mountain was shrouded in cloud. Still, we managed to take some fun photos for the album.

Dawn at Ol Pejeta, Kenya
Dawn at Ol Pejeta
The equator market at Ol Pejeta Conservancy

From the equator monument we headed out on the game drive. We passed by the dried-up waterhole where we’d seen the lioness and her two cubs the night before. They were still there. The two cubs entertained us with their antics for some time while they mother dispassionately looked on. Eventually, the little family moved on, and so did we. Raphe drove us around, and we got to see Pejeta coming to life. We stopped when we came across elephants and giraffes and watched them for a bit.

A lioness with her cubs at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
A lioness with her cubs
Lion cubs by the water hole in Ol Pejeta, Kenya
Lion cubs by the water hole
A lion cub on the road at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
A lion cub on the road in Ol Pajeta
A lion cub on the road at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya

The plan had been to visit the chimpanzee sanctuary just before breakfast. We bowled up at 8 am to find out they didn’t open until 8:30 am. So, off we went for a short game drive. We tried the chimp sanctuary again at 8:30 and there were already a couple of vehicles lined up at the gates. A little later than the published time we were in.
We were introduced to a very nice man called David who was to be our guide. Before heading to see the chimps, we were shown around a small display to explain the purpose of the chimp sanctuary. This was one of several sanctuaries set up by the celebrated researcher and conservation, Jane Goodall. The chimpanzees in these sanctuaries have been rescued from places all around Africa where they have been kept as pets, often in dire conditions. In the exhibition there was a tiny cage in which a chimpanzee was cruelly held for 8 years. It was so small the only way for the chimp to get relief was to stand on two legs, which is unnatural for chimpanzees. Karen climbed inside to prove how small it was, and she really had to squeeze to get in.

David took us outside to the enclosures where the chimps live. There are two enclosures, both of which are many acres in size. The population of chimpanzees is split between the two enclosures; one houses the early arrivals, the second newer arrivals. There over 30 chimpanzees here in total. Originally the chimps were left to their own devices, and consequently some were born at the sanctuary. They realized that this was not a good idea, as these chimps never return to the wild, the population would soon outgrow the space. Today, some of the chimps are sterilized … others are given birth control in case they change their policy.

When we arrived, there were no chimps to be seen. There is a lot of space for them to hide in! After David did some calling, several turned up. They used to feed the chimps to attract them, which they no longer do, but they still associate human calls with food. Since Covid you cannot get too close to the fence – you used to be able to get up right next to it – but several of the chimps don’t like humans (don’t know why?) and would throw things at you – including poop.

We moved around to another side of the enclosure with an American family. The chimps followed us and were joined by a youngster who was an ‘accident’. The young chimp was having fun teasing his elders, belting along and going into forward rolls. It was almost if he was doing it to entertain us. Oddly enough the children of the American group were paying no attention as they had found a colony of ants that had caught their interest. I think if I were their parents and just spent thousands of dollars I would have been pissed.

Any way it was time to say cheerio to the chimps and return to Sweetwater. We just about caught breakfast and then collected our things from our room before heading out to our next stop at Lake Naivasha.

Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary at Ol Pejeta Conservancy
A chimpanzee at Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya

In summary …

When you visit Ol Pejeta Conservancy you have the opportunity to see members of the Big 5 – lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and both the endangered black and white rhino, as well as the threatened jackson’s hartebeests and grevy’s zebras. The conservancy is home to the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, and you can also observe both the northern and southern endangered white rhinos.

About Ol Pejeta Conservancy

From a working cattle ranch in colonial Kenya to a trailblazer of conservation innovation – the story of Ol Pejeta is as enchanting as it is inspirational.

Today, Ol Pejeta is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, and home to two of the world’s last remaining northern white rhinos. It is the only place in Kenya to see chimpanzees, in a sanctuary established to rehabilitate animals rescued from the black market. It has some of the highest predator densities in Kenya, and still manages a very successful livestock programme. Ol Pejeta also seeks to support the people living around its borders, to ensure wildlife conservation translates to better education, healthcare and infrastructure for the next generation of wildlife guardians.

In 2004, the ranch was purchased by the U.K.-based conservation organisation, Fauna &Flora International (FFI), with the financial backing of the Arcus Foundation, a private international philanthropic organisation founded by Jon Stryker. The land purchase was wholly funded by a $15 million donation from the Arcus Foundation, which worked in tandem with FFI and the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to secure the 90,000 acres of open Savannah grassland and convert it to a national land trust.

Planning your visit to Ol Pejeta Conservancy

By Road:

If you are coming from Nairobi, the drive will take you about 3-4 hours. The road from Nairobi to Nanyuki is tarmacked although there are parts under construction with the new dual carriage set to reduce the drive to less than 3 hours in the future. Keep in mind that the last 13 kilometers to Ol Pejeta is a well-maintained all-weather road.

From Nakuru/ Naivasha, use the Nyahururu and Nyeri route to enter Ol Pejeta through Nanyuki. About 6.5km after the Nanyuki airstrip, there is a sign to Ol Pejeta on the left, and it is labeled all the way to Rongai Gate. 4×4 vehicles are essential in the rainy season. Note that the road around the west and north of the Conservancy is only practicable with a large 4WD in wet conditions.

The main gate into Ol Pejeta for visitors is the Rongai gate to the east of the Conservancy, which lies at the end of the road from Nanyuki town. Visitors can also enter via Serat Gate on Rumuruti Road..

By Air:

There are daily scheduled flights from Nairobi Wilson Airport to Nanyuki airstrip, which is a 45 minute drive from Ol Pejeta. Air Kenya and Safarilink both offer services to Nanyuki from Nairobi. All accommodation providers on Ol Pejeta can arrange a transfer to and from the airstrip. It is also possible to charter a flight from any other wildlife conservancy or airstrip, into Ol Pejeta’s airstrip (currently only open to charter flights).

Best time to visit Ol Pejeta

There is no simple answer to this question, as every season has its highlights.

Typically, Kenya’s long rains occur in April, May and early June. This is followed by a cooler dry season between July and October. The short rains fall for a few weeks in November, and the hotter dry season is December to March.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy has excellent game all year round. For self drive visitors, a 4×4 is essential in the rainy season.

Sweetwaters Serena Camp

As per normal we arrived at Sweetwaters Serena Camp in Ol Pejeta at lunchtime – just about. So, we went straight into the restaurant. The food was amazing, and as we ate buffalo, and a giraffe came to use the waterhole next to the Lodge. Sweetwaters is luxurious – to call it a ‘camp’ is a bit of a misnomer. We were indeed staying under canvas but that was about a far as it went for this to be a camping experience – even calling this glamping was an understatement.

A giraffe at the waterhole of Sweetwaters Serena Camp - Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
A giraffe at the waterhole of Sweetwaters Serena Camp
The 'tented' accommodation at Sweetwaters Serena Camp - Ol Pejeta Conservancy
The 'tented' accommodation at Sweetwaters Serena Camp
Inside our tent at Sweetwaters Serena Camp at Ol Pejeta Conservancy
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