Watching rare cheetahs under the moon’s glow

Lewa Conservancy, also known as Lewa Downs, is about  four hours drive from Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY
Lewa Conservancy, also known as Lewa Downs, is about four hours drive from Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTESY 

Monkeys cheekily playing about the front lawn, elephants cooling off in a swamp in the scorching afternoon heat looked every bit like a mirage.

We spent three wonderful days at Ngiri House with a circular outdoor swimming pool overlooking the vast plains. Even if I accidentally stepped on buffalo dung out in the parking lot, I was excited.

It is not everyday that one steps in buffalo dung! I may have been standing where Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge stood in 2010 when they came at the luxurious Lewa Safari Camp whose 12 tents resemble luxe bungalows with front porches overlooking the vast plains.

Getting There

Located in Isiolo in the striking Laikipia plateau and set against the breathtaking backdrop of Mt. Kenya, Lewa Conservancy, also known as Lewa Downs, is about a four-hour drive from Nairobi.

But if you decide to make numerous stops to capture some of the most stunning landscape that Kenya has to offer, you will take five hours.

Lewa’s conservation model has been so successful that they have been approached to manage surrounding conservancies and community land.

With their resources stretched, another entity was formed, NRT (Northern Rangelands Trust), which now manages conservancies all over Northern Kenya.

Game Drive

With 62,000 acres of unspoilt sheer natural beauty begging to be explored, we set off across the savannah’s gentle rolling hills for an evening game drive.

First up was a herd of sitatunga antelopes who gazed at us curiously for all of two seconds before getting back to whatever it is antelopes discuss in the plains. Probably, like us, wondering if it would rain later that night.

We then encountered a herd of Grevy’s Zebra, the largest and most threatened of the three zebra species.

Did you know that much like the human fingerprint, the stripe of every zebra is unique? These stripes also serve to confuse predators via two visual illusions: the wagon wheel effect (where the perceived motion is inverted) and the barber pole illusion (where the perceived motion is in a wrong direction).
Such fascinating creatures. One in particular stood out at the conservancy, turning its head to one side as if trying to find its light like a seasoned supermodel as we clicked away. Talk about being in the running for Lewa Wildlife’s Next Top Model!

Off road driving is allowed and the driver got us so close to this rhino and her baby that I felt as though if I leaned out of the truck far enough I might be able to touch its rough mud-swathed skin which, caught in the orange embers of a fading sunset, was bathed in the most attractive shade of gold. So near, yet so far.

Wanjiku Kinuthia, a communications officer at Lewa, said the conservancy which was initially a cattle ranch started off as a sanctuary to protect the last of Kenya’s black rhinos in 1983 and has since evolved into an impressive catalyst and model for conservation.

As we continued driving up towards our designated spot for sundowners, the perfect vantage spot from which to take in the beauty of Lewa, the driver came to a stop.

There, camouflaged in the tall grass, were two cheetahs, brothers Wallace and Gromit, named after a certain British animated comedy series.

Compared to others in the big cat kingdom, cheetahs have poor night vision and therefore typically hunt at sunrise and sunset when there is low light.

Witnessing their sharp focus and alertness first-hand was impressive— the brothers kept stalking the prey they had seemingly spotted miles away, despite the dead giveaway of our headlights which signalled the presence of intruders.

Cheetahs may be the fastest land animals but they are not capable of prolonged chases and so we drove off to give them a better chance of getting as close as possible to their dinner that night under the glow of the full moon.