A Summer Escape on the Fringe of the Capital

Above: Side stripped jackal with impala new-born in Maanzoni conservancy. Courtesy Jan van Duinen

Published: The East African Magazine Nation media 24 – 30 October 2020

In Maanzoni at Starling Bird

We’re feeling foot-loose and fancy-free driving without a care in the world to a weekend out of town, having being cooped up at home in the city for months all because of COVID-19. This was ‘me-time’ minus the husband (NOT mine), the kids (NOT mine), the cooking and the cleaning – no offence meant to the family.

So we looked around for somewhere safe and peaceful and zeroed in on a perfect spot on the map, a quiet little resort on the plains of Maanzoni conservancy called Starling Bird named for the colourful and common bird found almost everywhere in Kenya.

60 minutes from the CBD, we pulled up at the resort open to the plains and wide skies, in time for a cuppa tea followed by a red-hot sunset – in a word magnificent – and so quiet because people still haven’t taken to travelling. Still no problem because quiet time’s good for the soul plus as the sky darkened, the planets popped out – Jupiter, Saturn and Mars – followed by a full moon with a three course gourmet dinner that had us feeling like queens for the weekend.

Maanzoni Conservancy

Maanzoni Conservancy is special, where the home-owners on the conservancy bought into a dream, a dream to share the land with nature and wildlife. One of them is Jan van Duinen who pops in the following morning to take us out for a day on the plains.

Maasai Giraffes at Maanzoni. Copyright Rupi Mangat

In the early 1900s when the Lunatic Line had just started chugging its way across the savannah, the plains were littered with black rhinos and full-manned lions plus a wildebeest migration to rival that of the Mara. Roosevelt and Churchill are known to have hung around here for a spot of hunting for the Big 5.

Today, the 4,000-acre-land is recognized as an ecologically valuable ecosystem with KWS regularly patrolling it. In the recent World Bank funded zoning for the Greater Nairobi Metropolitan, Maanzoni has been proposed as a ‘conservation area’ that will be an extension of the two new conservancies, Swara and ILRI measuring 15000 and 32000 acres respectively. It will be an ideal migration route for the wildlife.

For now, the wildebeest no longer migrate because of the roads. The 450 comical-looking antelopes have taken up permanent residence at Maanzoni like the Maasai giraffes that are now listed ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List. Jan van Duinen, a retired vet has taken to studying the giraffes of Maanzoni in the four years he’s been living there and knows many by sight and their habits. He invites us for a drive around. Of the 300 giraffes on the Athi-Kapiti plains, about 45 are resident at Maanzoni.

Resident population of wildebeest on Maanzoni . Until the 1980s this area that includes Athi Kapiti plains hosted the second largest migration of wildebeest. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Side stripped squirrel at Maanzoni. Copyright Rupi Mangat

He’s excited because one of his ‘girl friends’ called Wilma has suddenly returned after two years. She’s busy browsing on the balanites while her foal, William, stays close to her. He still has his umbilical cord hanging. Wilma is a dark beauty and she is at the crèche where the Maanzoni females have their babies. “It’s a really safe place for the females,” tells Jan, which makes Maanzoni even more important for the survival of this once common animal of the African plains. 80 per cent of the females give birth on Maanzoni. The males however are on the other end which is more wooded with trees that are rarely seen outside protected areas nowadays like the Acacia seyal and the Erythrina.

The 360-degree view of the world has Lukenya Hill, Ol Donyo Sabuk, Machakos hills, the Mombasa super-highway with fast traffic and Swara conservancy across the road. It’s where the male giraffes go to, crossing the highway at night because there’s less traffic.

In the absence of lions and rhinos, we’re still gripped with excitement when three Silver-backed Jackals make a kill and unbelievably it’s an impala foal. One has the head of the new-born in his mouth, the others large chunks of the red-flesh of the antelope. It’s a rare sight.

The day passes leisurely with a picnic lunch watching the Side-stripped squirrel for company and a lone gnu (wildebeest) that at first looks exactly like a buffalo which had Jan gripping his long-lens camera to shoot because this would be the first record of a buffalo – until the zoom proves it’s a lonely wildebeest. It’s a good laugh.

Back at Starling, the swimming pool sparkles but the wind is cold. Seated for dinner, the chef has a special – chicken roulade on a platter.

It’s the icing on the cake.

Stay at Starling

It’s a small retreat with 20 rooms. One block of rooms face the main lounge while the other open plains. If you like space, ask for this block.

It’s multi-use with space for camping.

It’s ideal for family with children.

There is no bar but you are welcome to bring your own wines or spirits – it prides itself as a healthy living place.

Besides swimming and a dart board, it’s safe to go for long strolls, birding with 203 species recorded, cycling and game drives. It is very hot during the day so walks are best in the morning or late afternoon.

Rates range between Ksh 6,000 for single bed and breakfast to Ksh 14,000 full board in a double.

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