At 6,500-feet above sea level and nestled into a rocky stone hillside within the Lewa Borana Conservancy in the game-rich Kenyan Highlands, the ultra-luxurious hideaway Arijiju (whose name comes from the Masai word for the hill on which it sits) proposes to guests the chance to get away from it all. Set in one of Kenya’s most breathtaking natural landscapes, it is a captivating and discreet private house available for exclusive hire by groups of up to 10 persons – either one or two families or up to five couples. Offering numerous outdoor adventure activities with the opportunity to spot the best of Africa’s wildlife, it also takes a unique approach to animal conservation. Rather than your usual safari lodge, it is a family holiday home – credited as the most beautiful bush residence in Africa – run like a five-star hotel by Karina Jessop and a team of 14 resident staff members, which is all about understated luxury, peace, monastic serenity, privacy and returning to nature.
Arijiju was created by a family (who prefers to remain anonymous) raised in West Africa and Norway with a passion for conservation and wilderness experiences, who camped on this hillside to discover where the equatorial sun hit and cast shadows, the breezes that cooled the trees, the smells that floated in the air and how the shape of mythical Mount Kenya grounded the view. The idea was to create a home that worked hand in hand with nature – reminding the half-Nigerian, half-English owner of his childhood spent in central Nigeria, where all he ever wanted to be growing up was a game ranger – while helping to protect the African bush. He had already been visiting the Lewa Borana Conservancy for a dozen years when the opportunity to construct his own house came up. He felt the time was ripe to familiarize his London-based children to Africa, where they could experience the same freedom he had felt as a youngster and, of course, finally do what he had always wanted to do.
Ten years in the making, Arijiju was built by architects Alex Michaelis of London-based Michaelis Boyd and Nick Plewman of Johannesburg-based Plewman Architects, who were inspired by the area’s natural surroundings. Lying on the eastern side of Laikipia County, the house is encircled by mountain views of the Aberdare Range, forested valleys, riverine tracts and open grassy savannas in the distance. A considerable amount of time was spent on finding just the right location (with the owner taking three years to seek out the perfect spot), and Arijiju’s position was selected primarily based on the region’s three most impressive views, or what Michaelis calls “the holy trinity”: sunrise, sunset and Mount Kenya. A fourth reason was the acoustics of the valley, specifically chosen to benefit from the music of the dawn chorus of singing birds. “Working in a landscape such as this was both awe inspiring and humbling,” says Michaelis. “It’s only right that we created something that bowed to the staggering greatness that surrounds.” Local contractor Ben Jackson was tasked with supervising 400 workers over 21 months.
Influenced by the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia and the massive, austere 12th-century Cistercian Le Thoronet Abbey in southeastern France, Arijiju features walls of stone built on stone. Almost fortress-like, it’s an edifice that feels contemporary and ancient at the same time, as though it has been there for centuries. Its vaulted archways, stone passageways and central cloistered courtyard bear no resemblance to other buildings in the surrounding area. The architecture borrows the Kenyan tradition of grouped rooms that can accommodate multiple generations and the romance of the Swahili vernacular. Blending into and even becoming a part of the environment so that it may barely be noticed by outsiders and to demonstrate respect for what was already there – in contrast to an imposing, dominating presence on top of a hill – the house with its flat roofs planted with natural grasses, quarried Meru stone hand-chiseled by local masons, local timber and huge wooden Lamu-style doors seems to disappear into the wild landscape, being so well camouflaged like the animals moving amidst the golden plains, whose very survival depends on their ability to vanish into the background. To enter, guests walk down a rocky, meandering path designed by British landscape architect Jinny Blom and through studded, triple-height wooden doors into a long, tunnel-like corridor, which leads to uninterrupted, striking views. Everywhere they turn, there are scenes of unexpected beauty, as wild beasts roam the untamed nature of Laikipia, with Mount Kenya in the distance.
Conceived by Johannesburg-based designer Maira Koutsoudakis – responsible for North Island beach resort in the Seychelles and Segera Retreat in Laikipia created by German entrepreneur, conservationist and art collector Jochen Zeitz – who mixed European classicism with an African esthetic to give the home a sense of place, the interiors showcase a rustic chic ambiance, an earthy, muted color palette and locally-sourced materials to form spaces that improve with age. The five generous suites, cinema, games room, library, kitchen, bar, and elongated, double-volume living area and dining room combine bespoke furniture handcrafted by local artisans with reclaimed antiques sourced from around the globe. Matching simplicity with extravagance and textures with smoothness, there are heavy Moroccan doors, hand-built, leather-covered Indian wardrobes, weathered Chinese tables, French-style mirrors, large crystal chandeliers, bronze tables and touches of copper. There’s truly a feeling that everything belongs. Outside, a Bisazza-tiled, 25-meter-long infinity lap pool features views of the waterhole favored by elephants and giraffes and an external pool bar; wild herbs, lavender and wild roses grow in a Provençal-style courtyard garden; and a rooftop terrace where barbecues are often held is decorated with hanging chairs and Lamu daybeds. Home to the most sophisticated wellness facilities of any private home in Africa, there is a spa, gym, yoga deck and squash and tennis courts.
The vast Batian master suite named after the summit of the once volcanic, 3,000,000-year-old Mount Kenya is flooded with light coming from terraces on two sides through floor-to-ceiling arabesque-shaped windows, while rumpled Belgian linen, feather pillows, soft throws, a fireplace, open-air shower and bed facing the valley create a homely feel. The Ngare Ndare and Mukogodo cottage suites a short walk from the main house, partly carved into the hill overflowing with wild grasses and flowers, showcase elegant stone fireplaces, four-poster beds, lounge areas, spacious bathrooms, framed forested views and chairs sculpted out of tree trunks on the east-facing terraces. All suites are adorned with king-size beds, gorgeous leather desks, deep standalone copper bathtubs, crystal wall lights and sandalwood candles. For daring types wishing to sleep under the stars on an outdoor bed, there’s even a sixth confidential, one-of-a-kind Constellation suite available for one night only.
“It was crucial to create a new singular voice for Arijiju which championed its uniqueness, whilst sharing an ethos of conservation and respect for this land,” notes Koutsoudakis. “Wherever possible, we worked to incorporate nature into the design.” Every element has been well thought through, such as positioning a tree so that it serves as shade for pool loungers, orienting interiors to have a view of elephants at a watering hole or using natural light to shape guests’ experience of space. Listening to the lessons taught by nature, a group of chameleons under an old olive tree, protected from the prevailing wind and warmed by the afternoon sun, helped to decide on the position of one of the verandas.
Demonstrating its commitment to conservation and sustainability, Arijiju supports the 90,000-acre Lewa Borana Conservancy, known for its successful preservation of the black rhino and its pioneering approach embracing collaboration between local communities and ranches that allows animals access to more wilderness spaces and incorporates free-range cattle ranching. Open fences and corridors facilitate safe passages for animals to travel according to their instinctive migrations, while radio collars on elephant matriarchs and lions help to stave off wildlife-human conflict. The reserve also leads anti-poaching initiatives such as educational outreach programs in the neighboring village and the integration of expertly-trained anti-poaching rangers. The figures speak for themselves. This has resulted in Laikipia becoming the only region in Kenya where wildlife numbers have risen over the past two decades. Over 300 elephant, 334 bird species, thriving lion prides, cheetahs, leopards, giraffes, buffaloes and many endangered animals now migrate through or live in this reserve.
To build Arijiju, the land had been leased to the owners by Michael Dyer, a third-generation Kenyan, on the condition that the profits made from paying guests would be reinjected into the expensive business of protecting wildlife, used for security to defend rhinos under threat by armed poachers and other conservation initiatives on the land. Guests at Arijiju personally help to maintain the Conservancy’s elephant migration corridors, lion research projects and preservation of rhinos, as a conservation fee is charged nightly that helps to support local education, community and wildlife conservation projects. In terms of sustainability, the house is fully powered by solar energy, recycles all gray water and has banned plastic water bottles thanks to a local borehole that provides all drinking water.
Boasting a remote location in one of Kenya’s most effective conservation reserves and with the closest neighbor more than six kilometers away, Arijiju is well placed for guests to embark on distinctly African adventures, serving as a base for exploration. Snow-capped mountains, luxuriant forests and extensive deserts sit to the north and east, while Mount Kenya rises to the south. There is no schedule, so guests can decide if they wish to walk, run, ride, drive or fly for a high-octane adrenaline rush, or reconnect with nature and restore their spirit by being out in the wild. On the 4×4 game drives, guests can go on their own private safari guided by highly-skilled, experienced rangers who will acquaint them with the bush and help them spot lions, buffaloes, elephants, cheetahs, zebras and giraffes, teach them about the environment and the unique ecosystem and bring them on anti-poaching excursions. Through immersive bush walks to see, smell and feel just like an animal does, guests can explore the Lewa Borana Conservancy by foot with a ranger, watch elephant grazing from a safe distance, crush wild rosemary between their fingers and shadow the trails and tracks left by antelope on their daily migrations.
At the end of a long day of high-energy expeditions, guests will rest safe in the knowledge that they can make their way back to Arijiju to discover their suites waiting for them with wooden logs blazing in the fireplace, candles lit in the alcoves, hot water bottles tucked into their beds, sundowners ready to be enjoyed at the bar cooled by a row of traditional punkah ceiling fans and a wonderful dinner served in the garden, in the outdoor dining area or up on the roof terrace beneath a giant African sky, culminating in a stargazing session with a local astronomer to catch sight of shooting stars, clusters and nebulae. It just goes to show that whenever you’re at Arijiju, you know you’re home.
Prices start from $9,000 per night on an exclusive basis for up to six guests, with additional guests charged at $800 per adult per night. This includes all meals and beverages, Borana or Lewa airstrip transfers, babysitting and laundry facilities, game drives, wilderness walks, mountain biking and bush running with experienced guides, use of tennis and squash courts, gym, yoga deck, hammam and spa, five hours per day of spa treatments and all local taxes. There’s an additional $150 per adult per night conservation fee that helps the Borana Reserve carry out its activities.