I have been floating on clouds. Literally as it turns out, because I managed to do the impossible, I managed to hitch a lift on a helicopter. And I have been floating on clouds ever since – metaphorically this time, marvelling at the wonder of it.
It is not often you happen to meet a helicopter pilot over breakfast, who happens to be going where you need to go and happens to have space in his chopper. That is more than coincidence, more than serendipity even; that is a cosmic calling.
So to put this divine intervention into context, I was on my way up to Tassia Lodge in Laikipia. I try to go there whenever I can because my great friends Antonia Hall and Martin Wheeler run it, and because quite frankly it is one of the most special places on earth. The lodge is built into the Mokogodo escarpment, and overlooks majestic scenery like the Isiolo Hills, and places with tremendous sounding names like ‘Blood Mountain’. If that is not romantic enough, the lodge is run in partnership with the Mokogodo Maasai community and so your hosts are not just the glamorous young couple Mart and Tones, but are also shuka clad warriors like Simon Kilipan. It is everything you could possibly want. It is an adventure waiting to happen.
However, in planning my adventure, as ever with the best-laid plans of mice and men, things fell apart. I missed my flight from the coast after it decided to leave half an hour early (when does that ever happen?) and then as my brother rushed me to the next airport two hours away, I received word that my lift from Nairobi had fallen through. And so the dilemma of what to do… I was not even half way there and faced the enormous possibility that I might not even reach the desired destination. What can one do except throw caution to the wind and hope that things will work out?
Magic evidently surrounds Tassia because things did work out more beautifully than I could have hoped for. I arrived, dishevelled, stressed and out of pocket in Nairobi only to find that my friend’s housemate was leaving for Nanyuki the next morning. After a 5am start and a surreal and beautiful drive out of Nairobi on half built tarmac that looks like the road to hell, followed by the misty and lush valleys of Nyeri and Naromoro, we arrived at Nanyuki airstrip in time for breakfast at Barney’s, a wooden cabin that serves as an airport lounge and also as the social hub of the area. Mid-way through pancakes, my ears prick up as Jay who had driven me thus far asked his friend Ben what he was up to. Ben responded,
“Just got to go to the office and then have to fly to Borana to drop some stuff”
Borana! My foggy mind leapt into action. Borana conservancy is Tassia’s neighbour (in this part of the world ‘neighbour’ means a one and a half hour drive but nevertheless, Tones could pick me up from there!) I knew it was now or never. With a face full of pancake, I had to charm this pilot.
“Can I come?” I spat at him.
“Sure, don’t see why not”.
Excellent work, I thought to myself.
Then before I knew it, I was hovering along in my own personal bumblebee, with Mount Kenya shimmering away on my right. Ben kept being polite and asking me questions but I was too busy grinning like an idiot and found it hard to answer with anything but monosyllables. Soon we were at Borana and floating above the house of my friend Jack Dyer. We landed in his garden and I mentally prepared some jokes about ‘dropping in’. He didn’t seem that surprised and I coolly realised that people in Laikipia are used to this. We spent the next few hours catching up, looking at his incredible paintings and generally enjoying Borana. This is another ridiculously beautiful location. Disney thought so too and the famous ‘Pride Rock’ from ‘The Lion King’ is actually in Borana conservancy.
Then the wonderful Antonia arrived. We jumped in the Land Cruiser and headed for Tassia as she explained everything that had been going on. When you catch up on Tassia gossip it is no run-of-the-mill chat. Martin rehabilitates birds of prey and he is also a paraglider. You either see him building innovative anti-leopard devices to protect their garden of eden – a jungle of fruits, vegetables, quails, chickens and anything else to help the lodge be as sustainable as possible, or you see him flying over the dramatic landscape attached to a giant fan and a parachute. Antonia is a Leith’s trained chef who has a cookery book, ‘Tastes of Tassia’ soon coming out. She also runs ‘Waste Not Want Not’ a community project with Maasai women, which takes their beading skills to new levels, using their traditions with modern twists. They make new and unique jewellery out of discarded donated pieces as well as beautiful decorative, functional pieces such as candleholders, place mats and coat hangers. How they have time to look after and entertain guests to the level that they do is beyond me.
So I spent a glorious week amongst the birds and the beads. My father was visiting from London and I was thrilled to spend time with him, showing him the unique wonders of this part of the world. I introduced him to Diabalo, Mart’s Crowned Eagle, who is the size of a small child. He is a glorious creature with a punk hairdo and talons that could challenge Edward Scissor Hands. It was also a delight to meet the diverse and fascinating people who pass through the lodge, and the dinner conversation was consistently engaging. We visited the local Maasai village where barefooted children held our hands and mzees (elders) explained traditional customs. We swam in the pool overlooking the watering hole and watched the community of elephants trumpet and spar. We breathed it all in and revelled in the magic of Tassia.