By Santiago Legarre

In the middle of the partial Covid-19 lockdown, I was lucky enough to spend a few days at Ol Pejeta, 12 kilometres off Nanyuki town in the northern Kenyan region of Laikipia dominated by the view of Mount Kenya. At The Stables (a convenient budget accommodation offered to tourists and researchers alike) I met Dalibor, an engineer from Slovakia and a repeat visitor to the conservancy. Dalibor is an avid photographer and when I saw him on top of his vehicle taking a picture of a stork that stood elegantly by one of the Ol Pejeta’s dams, I thought: “This guy is into birds and that’s it.” But when we shared breakfast at The Stables the following morning he told me this surprising story.

“Yesterday I was about to take a picture of a stork”, said Dalibor. (“That I know,” I thought with the mild derision of the lover of felines). “All of a sudden”, he proceeded, “I looked to my right and ‘voila’ out of nowhere there was a lioness sitting still on the near bank of the dam. She was staring at a lone buffalo, grazing at the farther bank of the same dam. In an instant the lioness vanished into the bush, apparently in order to stalk the buffalo. My driver turned on the engine and we followed the road that circles around the dam. When we got to the place where the buffalo was before, nothing whatsoever was to be seen. Had the cat brought down the buffalo? Not at all. All of a sudden the lioness made a run out of nowhere but… for a male impala who had been grazing where the buffalo had been. How the story ended — whether this was a successful hunt — we will never know as its conclusion must have happened in the impenetrable bush…”

The moral of the story, for me, the cat lover, was, “never underestimate one who seems to be just a bird photographer.”

This story couples with many first person lion stories I experienced during my sojourn at Ol Pejeta, some of them resulting from lion tracking through GPS and VHF radio — gadgets originally intended for lion research that now also offer the anxious and impatient tourist an almost certain chance of meeting simba in the wild. There are seven lion prides at Ol Pejeta and I got to see two of them, courtesy of these devices.

Other interesting cats linger in this remarkable Laikipia escape. One afternoon, I was accompanying Jimmy Mbue on a so-called ‘sofa safari’ — a smart creation of Ol Pejeta’s to cater for dismal wildlife adventurers who experience safari withdrawal symptoms resulting from the coronavirus lockdown. As I write this in late September, things are going back to normal and one can see many vehicles surfing the plains of the conservancy. But from March to August ‘sofa safaris’ were an amazing antidote (a placebo of sorts), allowing locked-at-home tourists to follow a game drive from their couches. When “normalcy” (God, how I hate that word) returned, Ol Pejeta decided to continue with their ‘sofa safaris’ and that is how I found myself on one of them on a warm afternoon.

As soon as Jimmy gave the word “go” for our game drive I saw something my eyes could hardly believe: a sub-adult cheetah suddenly stood up out of the tall, yellow grass, not more than 50 metres from the road. Jimmy, who had originally planned a game drive in a different direction in order to try to spot herbivores, immediately changed the plan and we went off track towards the cheetah. We spent about 40 minutes by its side with Jimmy answering the many questions of the roughly four hundred people who were following our ‘sofa safari’ live through Ol Pejeta’s vlog. That same night, 600 more people watched it through the conservancy’s Facebook page. It was one of their most successful sofa safaris ever! I was proud to have been a ghost witness and an instrumental cause too.

Are there leopards in Ol Pejeta? Yes, there are. At Morani (a restaurant that serves excellent Borana cattle steaks) you will see a poster stating there are 30 specimens of that most beautiful cat in the conservancy, according to the lastes census. I don’t care much for censuses in general, neither do I like them. But in any event, I talked to four different people who told me of their close encounters with chui (leopard) in Ol Pejeta, most of them in the evening and one of them during a night safari (another Laikipia classic). I wasn’t as lucky this time round. But then… meeting chui in the future will be one great reason to escape again…