El Karama is a beautiful, rustic safari lodge in the heart of Laikipia.
El Karama Eco-Lodge: Our full report
With a name meaning ‘treasured possession’ or ‘answer to prayer’ in Arabic, El Karama, as it’s usually known, is a working cattle ranch and wildlife sanctuary on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River in the Laikipia region north of Mount Kenya. It was named for purely sentimental reasons by its owners, the Grant family, who still run the ranch and manage the lodge: a small, rustic retreat and the only lodge on the ranch.
Once at the lodge there's a light electric barrier to deter elephants. You pass the new gallery where Lavinia Grant's paintings are displayed, before parking just above the river, where last night's hippo footprints may well be visible in the sand.
As soon as you enter El Karama Eco-Lodge, you're aware of being in big-game country as giraffe amble through the bush, impala leap across the road and the unmistakable shapes of elephants are clustered on the horizon.
Most of El Karama Eco-Lodge's buildings and structures use reclaimed dead wood (often knocked over by elephants) from around the ranch, with attractive, steeply pitched thatched roofs. There's a big dining area and lounge, with a lawn leading down to the river. This is a fine spot to sit and watch animals on the hillside on the opposite bank of the river.
El Karama built a swimming pool in 2014 which we’re told is the first ‘eco-smart’ pool in East Africa. No chlorine or salt is used to clean the water, instead a de-ionizing unit kills bacteria and prevents algae growing. This means that the water is completely fresh, so birds and tortoises often use it as a watering hole. El Karama isn't a fancy place, however, and doesn't set out to be: you need to be prepared to acquaint yourself with the odd bug, bits of loose thatch and muddy paths if it rains.
The guest accommodation at El Karama consists of four bandas downstream from the central areas and two cottages upstream. There's also a camping area which is popular during holiday periods with people up from Nairobi.
- Of the cottages, one is called Upstream and the other, (a basic unit which is not en-suite), Rondavel. We stayed in Upstream Cottage, and found it comfortably quirky: kids will love the round windows and slightly Hobbit-like deadwood architecture, incorporating twisting logs and branches into staircases and bannisters. The cottage consists of an open-plan double, with a twin off to one-side and the bathroom off to the other. Staircases on either side lead up to lofts/first-floor bunkrooms with extra beds.
- The four bandas at El Karama are part-solid walled, part-canvas, part-mosquito screen and part-thatch, with zip-up canvas flaps at the front, and set on solid plinths. The beds, which are adequate but not particularly large or comfortable, have mosquito nets hanging on lines. There are directors' chairs and wicker armchairs with cushions. With polished concrete and stone floors, partly covered with rush matting and rugs, solid tree-trunk support posts for the thatched roofs and good-sized verandas, the bandas are attractive, substantial structures, though not especially large.
- The half-solid-walled bathrooms (thatched walls and flap-covered mosquito screen makes up the rest of the bathroom walls) are accessed through a screened doorway (no door). They have flush loos, plumbed-in hot and cold water and rustic stone shower-bathtub combos. The showers have a good flow, but you sometimes need to be patient for the hot water to reach you. Kuni (wood-fired) boosters heat the water in cloudy weather, when solar power is insufficient.
- El Karama harvests rainwater and provides filtered drinking water in attractive, beaded bottles rather than in plastic bottles. Water for the bathrooms comes from the river with a solar-powered pump, and is fed to settling tanks to clarify it.
El Karama can be bursting with wildlife, and the main activities at the lodge are game drives, day and night (one open game vehicle is available), and game walks. When we stayed in 2013 we had some incredible game sightings. A leopard had walked through camp three nights before we were there, and we saw an aardvark on our first evening, while getting a phone signal, just yards from the lodge barrier. The next morning, within minutes of setting off to drive to the starting point for our game walk with Joseph Kalau, the gun-toting head guide, (he carries a .458 rifle) we were watching a pair of lions, then a large herd of elephants. The highlight of the walk was a gradual approach to a large herd of reticulated giraffe, framed by Mount Kenya. However, when we returned in 2016 we were not as lucky and we saw very little, but we did enjoy the fact that we did not see another vehicle during our stay.
In late 2013 a pack of wild dogs began to put in a regular appearance at El Karama - wonderful news for the ranch and for this critically rare predator, but possibly less so for the ranch's other endangered wildlife - including the large and handsome Grevy's zebra and a threatened subspecies of the kongoni or hartebeest, the large reddish-brown coloured Jackson's hartebeest, which can often be seen on drives or walks around the ranch.
The main lodge vehicle is a restored vintage land cruiser that has been converted to be an open game-drive vehicle. It runs on petrol, making it quieter than modern diesel vehicles. It has a metal roll cage, canvas top and sides in case of rain, and a windscreen that can be collapsed for photography. There are seats for guests and the guide at the front in the open cab and two bench seats for three passengers each.
It's also possible to do guided drives and walks around the farm facilities and to learn about dairy herding on a Kenyan ranch. The Grants herd exclusively Sahiwal dairy cattle from Pakistan – the only herd of this breed in Kenya. Farm tours look at the farm and its activities, which vary through the day and through the week. The dairy is on view, as are the nighttime stockades (bomas) They aim to offer a model for sustainable management of agricultural activities alongside wildlife, demonstrating how holistic management and attention to grazing techniques can enable livestock and humans to live alongside wildlife with minimal conflict.
Back at the lodge, yoga sessions are available with local teachers, and – with advance notice – massages can be organised. Both options are at a modest extra cost.
Our viewOur stay at El Karama was a revelation: we've known about this ranch-stay for years but never been there before. The welcome was one of the warmest we've experienced in Kenya; the food was good; and the wildlife can be outstanding. We loved the genuine, low-key hosting, the flexible approach to guests' requirements and the warm and friendly staff.
Ideal length of stay: 3–4 days
Directions: The transfer from Nanyuki airport takes about an hour, two-thirds of it on earth roads and the last 20 minutes on the El Karama access road. Air transfers from Nanyuki to El Karama airstrip (charter only), take around 10 minutes.
Accessible by: Fly-and-Transfer
Staff: Managers: Sophie & Murray Grant
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: The theme at El Karama is ‘hearty rustic’ meals: homemade, organic and delicious. They are very proud of the kitchen that was built in 2016 and guests are always welcome to join the chef.
Generally guests go out for an early game drive or game walk, coming back for breakfast around 9.30am. Lunch is usually around 1.00pm and dinner about 8.00pm.
We had a late lunch of burgers, stuffed peppers, cholla-style bread, green salad with a very good dressing and passion-fruit fool for dessert.
For dinner, we were served a delicious, creamy soup of butternut squash, followed by chicken breasts stuffed with spinach, tomato, garlic and onion, accompanied by cashew rice, green beans and spinach, and finished off with honey and banana pancakes.
Coffee, tea and herbal and fruit infusions are available in the dining area throughout the day.
Dining style: Individual Tables
Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining
Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included
Drinks included: Juices and homemade cordials and infusions are included as are all local alcoholic drinks, sodas and house wines. Premium spirits and wines would be extra and only available by advance request.
Further dining info: On request – no extra charge
Family holidays: Managed by parents with a young family, El Karama in Laikipia has a relaxed, informal atmosphere, ideal for Kenya family safari holidays with children of all ages. They can run around to let off steam on the lawns or enjoy the swimming pool.See more ideas for Family holidays in Kenya
Walking safaris: Joseph Kalau is the armed head guide who leads the walking safaris from El Karama. There is enough big game around camp to always have the possibility of an exciting on-foot experience!See more ideas for Walking safaris in Kenya
Walking: Joseph, who has 19 years of experience, and carries a .458 rifle, leads the game walks at El Kamara ranch. Walks are usually after dawn, or late afternoon, with a vehicle to get to your starting point.See more ideas for Walking in Kenya
Attitude towards children: Children are very welcome, and the owner/managers have young children.
Property’s age restrictions: None
Special activities & services: Aside from the pool, El Karama is a good place for kids them to let off steam and generally be themselves, though toddlers will need supervision at all times. There are a number of activities offered too including sculpting, tracking, moulding, drawing and seeing pictures from the night camera trap. One ayah (nanny) is available and a member of staff is can be organised for baby listening, but there are no professionally qualified childcare staff.
Equipment: One cot, one highchair
Generally recommended for children: We think El Karama is great for children; the Kenyan managers are very inclusive and informal and have their own young family. But we do recognise that their familiarity with the bush will not extend to most guests, and animals – some potentially dangerous – do enter camp from time to time, so parental supervision and awareness will be required at all times.
Notes: El Karama always briefs parents about supervision.
Power supply: Solar Power
Power supply notes: There is 24 hour power throught the lodge and guests can charge electronic products in the rooms.
Communications: There’s no cellphone signal in the camp itself, but there is a signal on Amina ridge (500m from camp, beyond the fence). El Karama has free WiFi in the Art Gallery next to the office.
TV & radio: No
Water supply: Other
Water supply notes: Rain water is collected, boiled and filtered and then used for showers. Clean drinking water is also supplied.
Health & safety
Malarial protection recommended: Yes
Medical care: There’s a first-aid kit in the kitchen, and all staff usually have annual first-aid training. The nearest hospital is Nanyuki cottage hospital. The Flying Doctors service could reach El Karama airstrip in 10 minutes.
Dangerous animals: High Risk
Security measures: The lodge itself has a night watch and the ranch has a 12-strong wildlife protection unit who have had paramilitary and security training.
Fire safety: There are fire buckets at the bandas. No staff have received fire training.
Disabled access: On Request
Laundry facilities: Full Laundry Service - Extra Charge
Money: There’s a safe in the owner-managers’ house.
Accepted payment on location: Cash payments are preferred in Kenyan shillings, but any major currency is accepted, including US dollars, euros, and pounds sterling. Credit cards aren't accepted.