LOISABA CONSERVANCY, Kenya - In the stillness just before dawn, the dazzling stars of Orion illuminate the African sky. In the Hunter's company are neighboring constellations: Taurus, Monoceros, Lepus, Gemini, and Eridanus, and what surely must be a trillion stars. The heavens are ablaze with natural brilliance, as nary a single man-made light interferes with the night sky.
The air is cold when the first rays of sun brighten the horizon. From afar, a mighty roar cuts the silence of the early morning. A lion is on the prowl, and I shiver as I listen to him, spellbound by the sheer power of his voice. Soon after the sounds of the lion fade away, I am fully awakened by the first chirps of the dawn chorus, a melodious hallelujah choir of go-away birds, doves, hornbills, weavers, rollers, and sunbirds.
This is the song of Africa, and I hear it all from the safety of a handcrafted four-poster "star" bed perched high on a platform at the Loisaba Conservancy wilderness in Kenya's Laikipia County. Just imagine lying on a big, comfortable bed in the open with nothing but diaphanous mosquito netting between you and nature. On any given night, practically within arm's length, the growling lions are joined by screaming hyenas, grunting hippos, and rumbling elephants.
I had traveled to Loisaba with friends, fellow nature geeks, not only to see the wildlife and immerse ourselves in Kenyan culture, but also to observe how community conservation works.
During our stay at Loisaba, we meet Charles Oluchina, director of Africa field programs for the Nature Conservancy. "Loisaba is a magical place," he tells us, "with steep valleys, open plains, and river systems."
The word Loisaba, which in Swahili translates to "seven stars," honors the Pleiades, the cluster of ice-blue stars also known as the Seven Sisters in Greek mythology.
"You can see the Seven Sisters beautifully from here," says Tom Silvester, Loisaba's manager. "Think of it as sleeping in the biggest bedroom in the world."
The 56,000-acre Loisaba, just north of the equator and close to Mount Kenya, is unlike the tourist-infused Maasai Mara in the lower reaches of Kenya, or the equally popular Serengeti in Tanzania. There are no great herds of tourists here, so you truly feel you're in a world of your own. You have those 56,000 acres pretty much to yourself - plus a few other guests and the wild creatures and hundreds of bird species of the Kenyan plains. The unfenced Loisaba is remote, and because it's on the fringes of the true Kenyan wilderness, there are no great herds of animals, either, as you would see stampeding the Mara or the Serengeti.
Don't misinterpret that to mean the animals aren't there, because they most certainly are, and it's a special thrill to find them. On game drives, we see Grevy's zebras, graceful giraffes, greater kudus, wild dogs, hartebeests, and Cape buffalo, their horns curling like an out-of-control mustache. Big cats and little cats live on Loisaba, including leopards, cheetahs, servals, and caracals, and the lion population is one of the most stable in Kenya.
Loisaba also carves out a portion of the historic elephant migratory corridor of Kenya's wilderness and supports the country's second-largest elephant population after Tsavo's. On one game drive, our ladies-only group rounded a curve on a dirt road and came upon a parade of tuskers so close we could almost touch them.
This closeness with nature is why the sanctuarylike Loisaba is so special. And like most of the conservancies and lodges in Kenya, there is always a backstory, this one dating only to the 20th century, but on ancient lands that are much the same as they were 100 or 1,000 or even 10,000 years ago.
Today's Loisaba was originally owned by Carletto Ancilotto, an Italian count who first visited Kenya in the 1960s. Kuki Gallman, his neighbor and friend, who wrote the best-selling I Dreamed of Africa, says Ancilotto was passionate about hunting, fishing, and shooting. He came to adore the land and its dramatic landscape of high plateaus with views to forever, acacia woodlands, and volcanic rocks blasted from Mount Kenya in its last eruption more than two million years ago. He built a cattle ranch at Loisaba, with the bovines sharing the vast wilderness with the local wildlife.
Age caught up with the count, and in the late 1990s, his daughter Luisa, rather than selling Loisaba to developers, negotiated to transfer the property to the Loisaba Community Trust with the help of the U.S. Nature Conservancy and the Kenyan Space for Giants, an elephant-conservation group. The name of the ranch was changed to Loisaba, and thus began the building of the model for sustainable community development, and the conservation of wildlife habitat.
The star beds are a critical part of Loisaba's tourism program, which helps make the preserve self-sustaining. Silvester explained that, though plenty of lodges in Kenya and even across Africa now have their own versions of star beds, the idea originated at Loisaba and provided jobs for Maasai and Samburu tribesmen, who built the beds.
In addition to more than 200 jobs created within the local community since Loisaba began in 1998, the conservancy has been instrumental in building schools and health-care clinics and providing managed grazing access for neighboring communities of Samburu and Maasai farmers.
All of that is possible with the support from the Nature Conservancy and Space for Giants, plus that of the Loisaba Community Conservation Foundation, tourism operator Elewana, and the Northern Rangelands Trust, which develops community conservancies in northern Kenya.
"Our hope is to also create additional community conservancies in the area surrounding Loisaba," says Silvester, "as a means to secure grazing lands for local people and provide improved governance and grassroots decision-making."
Loisaba isn't just another African safari. Every dollar goes toward the greater good of the entire Loisaba community. "Even if you come here and have a beer," says Silvester, "the money goes back into conservation."
There's more for tourists to do at Loisaba than drink beer and sleep in star beds. They can visit nearby villages for glimpses of traditional African life, ride camels or horses, and fish or raft on the Ewaso N'giro or Ng'are Narok Rivers. But it is the game drives with which I'm truly enamored.
The typical day begins in the very early morning, just before sunrise. The game drives sometimes last hours, depending on the wildlife patterns. By day, the animals slumber under shade trees to escape the hot sun. In the evening, they wake, and along with the creatures of the night, become more active and join together across the plains and at watering holes in a naturally orchestrated ballet in the bush.
Then, as the day wanes, the driver finds the perfect spot for sundowners, the safari version of happy hour, complete with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres served in the vibrant light of sunset.
Information on Loisaba Conservancy: www.loisaba.com or