Il Ngwesi features rustic, open fronted cottages set on the hillside facing the Mukogodo escarpment.
Il Ngwesi Eco-Lodge: Our full report
Il Ngwesi Eco-Lodge is a rustic, six-room lodge crowning a bush-covered hill on the Il Ngwesi Group Ranch, a community conservation and livestock region in northern Laikipia, north of the Lewa Conservancy. Built in 1996, the lodge is owned, managed and staffed entirely by members of the Il Ngwesi Maasai community. A stay here combines cultural immersion with wildlife-viewing by vehicle and on foot and an opportunity for some very relaxing down time.
On arrival at the lodge car park, you’ll be met by a welcoming committee of staff dressed in brilliant red traditional robes. They’ll escort you up a narrow, winding footpath through the bush to the main dining terrace , which also acts as the lodge bar and reception. Here you’ll be briefed on where you are, what to expect and in a gentle way on how to behave. Il Ngwesi is a remote lodge in a wild location where elephants and other wildlife command respect, and although dangerous game never comes into the lodge itself, it is not fenced, and you will be reminded that you should only walk out of its immediate confines when accompanied by an escort.
You will quickly get to know Il Ngwesi’s central areas, which include the bar and dining terrace, which is partly shaded, and a picturesque wooden deck extending out among the trees. Here, you get excellent views across the bush on the eastern side of the lodge. A minute’s walk away along the main footpath, and further up the ridge, you come to the small, free-form infinity pool and partly shaded pool terrace, backed by comfortable seating. This is where lunch is usually taken, and you can order drinks and while away a hot afternoon gazing out across the valley towards the steep wall of the Mukogodo Escarpment on the lodge’s western side. The pool terrace and the main dining terrace at reception are connected by two paths through the bush, one of which gives access to the back-of-house areas, the kitchen, and the small crafts and curios shop, where you can buy locally made beadwork, basketry, clothing and gifts.
The ridge-like hill on which Il Ngwesi sits runs north to south in the shape of a split almond. Linked from the main path running along its spine, other footpaths run down the western slope of the hill through the bush to the lodge’s six open-sided rooms or cottages. These were highly innovative creations when the lodge was first built in 1996, and their basic style has been widely copied across Kenya.
It’s perhaps easiest to appreciate the lodge’s guest accommodation by looking at our photos: each large room stands on wooden piles on the hillside, on top of which a broad wooden floor is mounted, through which various living tree trunks and branches protrude. The rear wall is built up from a framework of large branches of dead wood and chicken wire, thickly plastered with adobe-coloured cement, and the whole building is protected by a steeply pitched, thatched roof drooping low over the completely open front side, where a deck extends out above the hillside. The overall effect is slightly cave-like, giving a sense that the lodge hasn’t so much been built as excavated out of the living environment.
The rooms are all numbered from north to south and named: #1 is Emuny (“Rhino" – the so-called “Prince William room" where the royal couple stayed and which is usually considered a honeymoon suite as it has the most private location, on the northwest edge of the hill, closest to the waterhole); #2 Oltome (“Elephant"); #3 Orgatuny (“Lion"); #4 Osiruwa (“Eland"); #5 Olarro (“Buffalo"); and #6 Emára (“Giraffe"). Rooms #2 and #3 are usually used for families as they are closely connected by a little wooden bridge and have walls along their deck sides.
Two of the rooms, #5 and #1 have extra-large decks, with only a low barrier of branches at the edge. Instead of ordinary double beds, these rooms are furnished with “star beds" – double beds on wheels that can be pulled out onto the deck for a night under the stars.
At one end of each cottage, a wash basin, washstand and toilet are slightly separated for visual privacy from the main lounge and living area. In most rooms, the “loo with a view" offers a very unobstructed panorama over the bush. Down a flight of steps there’s a separate outdoor, walled shower, completely open to the sky, supplied with Kenyan natural Cinnabar Green toiletries.
Just being at Il Ngwesi and walking along its network of sandy footpaths is rewarding. As you make your way from your room to the pool or dining terrace, you’re almost enveloped in greenery at certain times of year, and you may spot dik-diks and other smaller wildlife foraging in the undergrowth. The birdlife is wonderful, and Von der Decken’s hornbills are particularly common and tame. Birders can happily expect to sit for hours on their decks with binoculars in hand and from December to March there are always Palearctic migrants in the area. At the height of the long dry season – roughly from and from July to October – Il Ngwesi’s waterhole attracts game from a wide radius, including large herds of elephants that file along the valley. If you want to get closer to the waterhole you can be accompanied down the hillside to a bench and lookout point that serves as an informal hide.
More strenuous activities for the next day are discussed with the manager every evening. Exploring the area on foot, always with at least one Maasai guide and an armed ranger, is a popular option, and many visitors decide to have a go at climbing the Mukogodo Escarpment facing the lodge. It’s a fantastic hike, if at times quite steep, and offers superb views across northern Kenya. There are several points where you can stop and call it a day – climbing right to the top and back takes around five to six hours. You’ll need to make an early start to get as much as possible of the climbing done before the heat really kicks in.
Less energetically, you can do shorter nature walks along the sandy valley floor, or walk north for an hour or two for breakfast by the usually dry river bed. If you set out early enough, or in late afternoon, the river walk can become a productive game walk, and its fun to see how close you creep up on the local warthogs, waterbuck, gerenuk, lesser kudu, giraffe and other grazers and browsers before they sense you and melt into the bush. If you set off in the lodge vehicle, on the other hand, you can do a conventional game drives and often approach the wildlife quite closely. The lodge has two open Land Cruisers (room for up to six in the back and one in the front) and one covered Land Cruiser that is used for transfers. In the November/December short rainy season, elephants can be very abundant, but you’re likely to spot them at most times of the year and you won’t be allowed to approach them when on foot. Don’t expect to see many predators, if any. The big cats – particularly leopards – are about, but they rarely show themselves. A night game drive may be your best chance of spotting a lion, as we did.
Il Ngwesi Group Ranch has had a long-time relationship with Lewa’s rhino conservation programme, and currently maintains two white rhinos in a 300 hectare (740 acre) special sanctuary which you can also visit.
Other activities include a late afternoon village visit and goat roast (at extra cost) which is usually most successful in a larger group, when the visitor-Maasai interaction can become a bit more like a party and a bit less like outside observers visiting subjects, albeit welcoming ones.
Our viewTen of us visited Il Ngwesi several years ago for a two-family stay and really enjoyed it. On a return visit in December 2013, we were delighted to find that staying at the pioneering eco-lodge has changed little. We love Il Ngwesi’s commitment to the local community and the richness and wildness of the surrounding bush. The quirky rooms have fabulous views, and the “star beds" in two of the rooms are a special treat for those booking early. Friendly local guides – with armed escorts for walks – and the overall character and charm of Il Ngwesi, easily compensate for minor quibbles about the plain and simple meals, and drinks that aren’t always as cold as you might wish for.
Ideal length of stay: 3 nights-plus
Directions: 2 hours drive from Lewa Downs airstrip, or by charter flight to Tassia airstrip (45mins-1hr). Il Ngwesi's own airstrip is currently not serviceable.
Owner: The Il Ngwesi community
Staff: James Ole Kinyaga is senior tour guide and lodge manager. Fred Karamushu is head waiter.
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: Il Ngwesi's food isn't the highlight of a stay here, but it's always reasonably good and plentiful. There are no particular meal times. Breakfast and dinner are served on the main dining terrace at the front of the lodge and lunch on the pool terrace.
Breakfast includes fruit, cereals and a cooked breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage and beans to order.
Three course lunches are served at the poolside where there are good-sized tables. The offerings usually include a pasta dish, salad and cold roast chicken, homemade bread or rolls. The dessert – often passion or mango mousse – was very good.
When we last stayed, dinner started with an excellent butternut squash soup, which was followed by beef casserole with chapattis and a sponge cake dessert.
Dining style: Individual Tables
Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining
Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included
Drinks included: Soft drinks, beer and house wines – Chillean Gato Negro Cabernet Sauvignon and South African Culemborg – are included. All spirits are extra, but reasonably priced. Any fine wine, Champagne or premium spirit requirements either need to be brought with you or requested well in advance.
Attitude towards children: Children are welcome but need supervision.
Property’s age restrictions: None
Special activities & services: Babysitting can be organised from housekeeping.
Equipment: No cots or high chairs are available.
Generally recommended for children: Il Ngwesi is a great venue for adventurous kids. The swimming pool with views of passing elephants is always a hit, as are the bush walks for older children. Connected rooms 2 and 3 would be best for families, using one room for the parents and infants and the other for older children.
Communications: There is no Wi-fi or internet connection. There is a cellphone "spot", near the car park which gets Safarilink reception and where staff can usually be found using their mobiles. There is a short wave radio in the office for communication with head office in Nanyuki.
TV & radio: There is no TV
Water supply: Other
Water supply notes: Drinking water is supplied as bottled water. Washing water comes from the river and their local spring.
Health & safety
Malarial protection recommended: Yes
Medical care: All staff have had some first-aid training. Local community dispensaries have limited supplies. There is a helicopter landing area in case of emergencies.
Dangerous animals: High Risk
Security measures: The armed escorts who accompany you on walks out of the lodge are KWS-trained. They carry M3 rifles and are based in the local community. The lodge also has Kenya police reserve officers on hand. Askaris from the same pool of community rangers deployed on the group ranch, patrol the lodge area at night.
Fire safety: There is a fire extinguisher in every room and staff are trained in their use.
Disabled access: On Request
Laundry facilities: Laundry (hand-washed and line-dried) is included in the rate, but no underwear is taken.
Money: There's a safe in the office if you have any valuables.
Accepted payment on location: Only cash can be accepted for payment of extras at the lodge (Kenya shilllings, US dollars, pounds sterling or Euros). Credit cards are only accepted at Il Ngwesi's office in Nanyuki.