A weekend visit to the Mpala Research Centre and Wildlife Foundation turned out be an educative holiday experience.
The 49,000-acre estate is located in the Ol Jogi Widlife Conservancy northwest of Mt Kenya, in Laikipia County. An internationally renowned research facility, Mpala also focuses on conservation and promoting human-wildlife co-existence.
The drive from Nairobi to Mpala took about five hours with a stop at Nanyuki town, after about three hours, for a coffee break. We arrived at Mpala in time for lunch, served at an outdoor dining area under roof shading.
Mpala ranch was purchased by British settler Sam Small in the 1950s. He later bequeathed it to his brother George, who then dedicated the estate to wildlife conservation and research.
After lunch our host took us on a tour of the centre, the library and greenhouses. In the computer room we watched a live video feed from cameras at different spots within the conservancy. The cameras capture scenes such as hippos wallowing in the river and animals browsing in the grassland.
The cottages and bandas are spread out around the grounds of the centre. I stayed in one of the thatched-roof stone bandas, a comfortable room with two beds and ensuite bathroom.
A few metres away is the Mpala Ranch House, an old colonial-style home overlooking the river. Rates start at $80 per day, with daily housekeeping and laundry service.
A self-catering campsite about 2km from the main research centre is ideal for campers. Located on the riverbank, the campsite has canvas tents with beds, a tented mess area with furniture, and an ablution block.
The meals at Mpala are simple and tasty, such as lentil stew, pasta with Bolognese sauce, curries and garden salads. Breakfast was eggs, sausage, cereals, toast and sliced fruit. The banana bread served with mid-morning tea each day was fluffy and delicious. You can bring your own soft drinks, wine or beer to have with your meals as the beverage options are limited.
There is a corner bookshelf in the lounge and some evenings they show films. Our group preferred to sit outdoors and chat after meals.
Early mornings are a good time for bird-watching on the grounds of the centre. After breakfast we went on a game drive. Mpala also doubles as a livestock ranch and we passed herds of cattle as we traversed the conservancy.
The landscape is a mixture of thorn-tree bushland, dry savannah and rocky plains. Along the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, the riverine habitat is lush with doum palms and sandy beaches.
On the game drive we saw elephants, antelopes, hippos, dik diks and the endangered Grevy's zebras. A hyena ran across the road in front of our vehicle.
Occasionally wild dogs are spotted at the ranch. A highlight was a small herd of greater kudu, the male carrying an impressive set of curved horns.
We stopped by the hippo pools and also visited a historic cave site in a valley. The cave was used as a ceremonial site by local communities and as a hideout by Mau Mau freedom fighters in the 1950s. On the walls of the cave are white rock paintings dating back several hundred years.
Mpala is visited by university students, scientists and international researchers who use the conservancy as a "living laboratory" to conduct field experiments. A graduate botany student showed us a greenhouse where she is researching African queen butterflies. A Kenyan zoologist explained his studies on resident and migrant elephant herds in the conservancy.
Grevy's zebras and cheetahs are some of the other ongoing research programmes.
Prominent visitors over the years have included Kenyan palaeontologists Richard and Meave Leakey, and the world-famous primatologist Jane Goodall.