Date with the mountain bongo

A male mountain bongo stands tall and proud in the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy in Nanyuki. [Photos: Wilberforce Okwiri/ Standard]

A fortnight ago, I had fared 190 kilometres north of Nairobi to Nanyuki, the capital of Laikipia, on a little recce of the district where the historic inaugural Giants Club Summit discussing the conservation of elephants would take place. The exact site of the summit was at Mount Kenya Game Ranch. It was the obvious choice of accommodation for its proximity and luxury. It is touted as one of the region’s finest, and is what country-club set simply refer to as the ‘The Club’.

My centre was, however, preoccupied by the plight of an equally important giant who has also faced the wrath of man to an almost extinction. I am talking of the Tragelaphus eurycerus, known to us laymen as bongo. Together with the wild dog and aardvark, the bongo makes it to my personal list of animals that I hope to chance upon in the wild.

It turns out that past the club’s manicured croquet golf lawn is an orphanage with a thriving population of bongo. Of the two sub-species recorded (western or lowland bongo and eastern or mountain bongo), Kenya hosts the remaining wild members of the latter thought not to exceed 200 spread across Mount Kenya, Eburru and Mau forests. Mount Kenya, especially, was home to numerous herds of Mountain Bongo years ago but population pressure and pursuant poaching in the National Park, brought under control only recently nearly wiped off the species. Now that the mountain bongo is critically endangered—with more specimens in captivity than in the wild—the odds of bumping into the shy, mostly nocturnal, antelope in the wild is almost naught. Settling for one in a menagerie, therefore, would have to do for the moment.

I am not a gourmand, but as my mates can attest it takes a lot to make me skip lunch. Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy that runs the conservation efforts of the ranch, rather effortlessly, managed to make break my clockwork routine.

About 15 acres of land, with plans for expansion, hosts a rescue centre where orphaned, injured, neglected, abused or frightened wild animals are nurtured and rehabilitated with the end game being a free future in the wild. I was privileged to have an intimate interaction, including hand-feeding, the biggest mountain antelope with its arresting reddish-brown coat, black and white markings, white-yellow stripes, and long slightly spiralled horns that has eluded my generation. Just so you know, the bongo is the only species where both females and males sport horns.

I thought that my marvel of the bongo could not be matched but I was in for a whirlwind as species after species that I had bet an eternity to see were satisfyingly revealed. I was like a tot seeing the llama for the first time. The feeling carried on to the long tufted eared caracal and on to the pygmy hippopotamus native to West Africa. I did not know that monkeys could animate me that much but rare species like the lesser spot-nosed guenon with their distinct cute white spotted noses and the ground-dwelling patas monkey with its wise-man demeanour were rather overwhelming. Out on the larger conservancy more species roamed. The most arresting was a flourishing breeding herd of very rare white zebra, offspring of the last of their kind in Africa, rescued from extinction many years ago in the arid northern Kenya range. I could list all the inimitable animals at the conservancy but choose not to be a wet blanket for when you visit.

Safe gene pools

Sitting with Donald Bunge, the conservancy’s Wildlife Manager, I learnt about the strides this noble dream has made through the years. The Mount Kenya Game Ranch was founded in the sixties by the late film actor William (Bill) Holden and TV personality Don Hunt who had been charmed into staying by Kenya’s magnificence.

They were joined by Julian McKeand, former professional hunter turned game warden, and Iris, a German-born art and Africa enthusiast who would later become Don’s wife. Their ideal location for the preservation of endangered wildlife and its regeneration, where indicated, through selective breeding programmes, was 1,216 acres of rough marginal rangeland surrounding the world-famous Mount Kenya Safari Club sold to them by aging wheat farmers Jim and Betty-Ann Nicholsen. At the time of inception, this was the only privately run facility in East Africa built with the sole purpose of conserving rare and endangered species in order to establish safe gene pools.

Assisting them was a dedicated team led by foreman Pharis Kimani Rimui who was the ranch’s first employee. The recently retired Kimani now has a camp site named ‘Kimani’s Boma’ in his honour. It was Iris’s pet project of taking care of wild animals, which she did in what had been Betty-Ann’s old chicken coops that morphed into what is now a superlative animal orphanage. Impressively, at least ten thousand Kenyan pupils and students have visited and taken part in the ranch’s conservation programmes each year—all free of charge. After William Holden’s death, Don and Iris Hunt purchased his shares and funded the Ranch in its conservation work until January 2004 when the Mt Kenya Wildlife Conservancy took over.

I was so entranced by the conservancy that an extra night was a must. I pleasantly learnt that accommodation is possible within the conservancy for those like me keen on heightened privacy and a closer feel of nature.

That came in the form of the self-catering chalet christened Eagles Nest. With a capacity to accommodate five guests, Eagle Nest’s African fusion setting offers choice for the adventurous, exclusive, quiet and romantic vacation targets.

It features a master bedroom with a king-sized bed, a closet and an en suite bathroom, a second bedroom on the direct opposite with two twin beds, a closet and an en suite bathroom, a fully equipped kitchen with a kitchen bar, a dining area, a living room with a wood fire place, a verandah where you can sit and enjoy the abundance of nature and an outside staircase that leads to the spacious terrace on the roof top where you can grill a meal, set a candlelit dinner beneath the stars, or simply relax with a drink overlooking Nanyuki river.

Just like I prefer it, there is no set pattern to days at Eagles Nest. You can do as much or as little as you wish. For a little extra fee and prior arrangement, you can do game drives within the ranch, go on guided nature walks along Nanyuki River, guided biking or horse riding, visit to the animal orphanage or picnic at Kimani’s boma.

As I watched the keepers go about their duties, my faith in humanity was restored. All in all, if I could give Bunge and his staff a hundred stars, I would. I was genuinely sad to leave after the few magical nights.