Chyulu Hills, Kenya
“There is nothing like dining in the bush—the birdcalls, the breezes, the wildlife, the grass moving in the wind, the infinite colors of the sky at sunset and the primordial sense of living as our ancestors have for millennia,” says Luca Belpietro, owner of the safari lodge Campi ya Kanzi in Kenya.
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Luca recalls the first time he brought his wife Antonella to Africa. They mounted a fly camp on a Maasai reservation, where he proposed marriage and life in the bush. At the time, Antonella worked as a lawyer at her family’s vineyard, Bonomi Tenuta Castellino in Franciacorta, an hour outside of Milan. “The thought of staying here was both attractive and terrifying to her,” Luca remembers. “It’s one thing to come for a holiday; it’s another to leave your life for a place where there is no electricity or running water.”
Twelve years later, in the very same spot, guests at Campi ya Kanzi have the sense of being in a grand Italian villa. They are greeted by Antonella, Luca, and their three gorgeous children—Lucrezia, 9; Jacopo, 3; and Lorenzo 1. In the main building, Tembo House, furniture, books, and objects that once belonged to Antonella’s grandmother mingle with furniture and objects found in Africa. Tented suites have porcelain sinks and gold fixtures. Upon arrival, Maasai in traditional dress offer flutes of sparkling wine. Antonella wears chic designer clothes. Luca sometimes sports an ascot. The kitchen cooks from time-honored recipes taught to the staff by Luca’s and Antonella’s mothers—I still dream of the fennel gratin and spaghetti carbonara they serve. Beneath the luxurious trimmings, Campi ya Kanzi is a model of sustainable living. The grand structures are made of thatched grass and local lava stones. Water is naturally filtered through lava stone and solar-heated. Vegetables are grown on the property.
Outside the lodge, the unspoiled African wilderness creates a breathtaking panorama. To the south, Kilimanjaro’s two peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi, straddle the border between Kenya and Tanzania. To the east, the cloud forests of the Chyulu Hills are living proof of the volcanic eruption that created the range two centuries earlier. Giraffes, elephants, wildebeests, and zebras populate the plains between the mountains. It is the terrain mythologized by Hemingway in The Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. But it is not a game reserve or a national park. It is the private property of your true hosts, the 7,000 Maasai who own the Kuku Group Ranch.
The partnership between the Belpietros of Lombardi and the Maasai of the Kuku Group Ranch is nothing short of remarkable. Luca spent his childhood visiting Africa with his father, one of the last of the “Great White Hunters.” He inherited his father’s passion for wilderness and wild game, but with a modern twist. Luca is an ardent conservationist.
While writing his graduate thesis positing wildlife in Kenya as a vital natural resource, Luca came across three disquieting yet linked statistics, which are updated here to reflect current conditions: 90 percent of the game in Amboseli National Park spends part of the year on the Maasai reserve; in the last 30 years, Kenya’s lion population dropped from 200,000 to 18,000; during the same period, its human population more than tripled. Through these figures, he understood that the practice of drawing boundaries around protected spaces had failed to preserve the country’s wildlife. The only hope for a sustainable future laid in local communities seeing wildlife and wilderness as vital to their long-term well being.
“Conservation in the 21st century has to do with people. If people don’t recognize the importance of preserving wilderness and wildlife, no approach is sustainable,” he says. “The Maasai need a lot of land for their nomadic pastoral existence. Their way of living demands a balanced coexistence with the wilderness. If you protect the land, you protect the wildlife and the culture of the land.”
Luca forged a joint venture with the Kuku Group Ranch, giving him the exclusive right to own and operate a safari lodge on the property as long as the lodge worked for the benefit of the community. The entire Campi ya Kanzi staff comes from the group ranch. Samson, the head guide, is the son of the local Maasai chief. Lodge fees include a stipend for a trust, which funds 15 primary schools and 44 teachers, along with a private school and secondary-school scholarships for outstanding pupils. Instructors come from within the community; children are never forced to choose between their heritage and a modern education. The trust also supports a pharmacy, quarters for doctors, and a hygienic facility for childbirth. Beyond that, it protects the lion population by compensating ranchers and nomadic herders who have lost livestock to wildlife, as long as they promise not to hunt the guilty party.
For guests at Campi ya Kanzi—including Ed Norton, John Grisham, and Isabel Allende—the partnership offers exposure to authentic Maasai culture and the most coveted of luxuries: open space and privacy. At Campi ya Kanzi, 16 guests inhabit 400 square miles of wilderness. They never see a van or a minibus. To put this in context, in the nearby Maasai Mara, 5,000 guests share 600 square miles for game drives and tourism. And because Campi ya Kanzi is private property, guests are free of the restrictive rules of the national parks system. They can walk the land with a guide and a tracker, be it for viewing wildlife or hiking to a scenic spot for a “sundowner,” or dinner in the bush.
Campi ya Kanzi means “Camp of the Hidden Treasure” in Swahili. It is an apt moniker, as the land between the Chyulu Hills and Mount Kilimanjaro reveals itself season after season. Maasai elders recently pointed Antonella and Luca to a lava cave in which they once hid cattle raided from the Wakamba, a neighboring tribe. The cave has now become a favorite destination for summer dinners. Guests walk down lava steps lit with torches to a vast underground space. The moon and stars shine through a natural skylight above. Birds fly in and out. Guests sit around a fire. The Maasai sing songs of victory after battle. Samson describes how his ancestors used the cave decades earlier. Luca and Antonella join their guests at the table. Antonella announces the menu. Dinner is served with a seemingly endless supply of wines from Franciacorta.
“When you come to Campi ya Kanzi, you are truly Antonella’s and Luca’s guests. It is our home in the bush. It is where we are raising our children,” says Luca.
In addition to the classic safari experience of staying in tented suites, for those who want to bring young children to Africa or prefer more of a resort experience, Luca and Antonella have built Kanzi House, a private residence for up to 10 guests with a swimming pool filled with water collected from the rains. Like all the luxurious amenities at Campi ya Kanzi, the pool with a view of Kilimanjaro serves a dual purpose, it is also the water kept on hand in case a fire breaks out.
“When you come to Campi ya Kanzi, you are truly Antonella’s and Luca’s guests. It is our home in the bush. It is where we are raising our children,” Luca says. In the same breath he marvels at how natural it is for his children to be truly at home in the wilderness. “It wasn’t until the birth of Lorenzo, our third child, that Antonella said ‘Now I am really African.’”
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Fresh eggs and high-quality Parmesan lend this classic pasta a creamy yet remarkably light consistency.
8 oz. bacon or pancetta, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 lb. spaghetti
4 egg yolks
1 tsp Salt
1/2 tsp ground Pepper
1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1/2 cup cooking liquid from the pasta
Cut the bacon into small rectangles. Heat a sauté pan over medium heat and brown the bacon, stirring occasionally, until it is crisp-tender and most of the fat has been rendered, about 8-10 minutes. Set the entire pan aside.
Meanwhile, bring 2 quarts of salted water to a rolling boil. Add the spaghetti and cook for eight minutes, testing it regularly toward the end to ensure it remains al dente. As the spaghetti cooks, whisk the egg yolks, salt and pepper in a large glass bowl.
Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid before draining the spaghetti in a colander. Add the warm spaghetti to the eggs, then add the bacon, grated Parmesan and reserved cooking liquid. Mix thoroughly and serve immediately in warm bowls topped with grated Parmesan cheese.
Fennel au Gratin
This dish highlights the natural sweetness of fennel, which pairs so beautifully with the earthy undertones of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
8 fennel bulbs, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup plive oil
1 cup milk
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Remove the outer layer from the fennel bulbs and cut the fennel into paper-thin slices, avoiding the tough core. Place a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil. When it begins to glisten, add the onion and sauté until it is soft and slightly golden, about five minutes. Add the sliced fennel and let it cook for 10-12 minutes over a low flame, until it is tender. The amount of time the fennel needs to cook will depend upon its thickness and the heat of your range. After the fennel is tender, add the milk and continue to cook for another two minutes.
Lightly coat a 9” x13” gratin dish with olive oil. Artfully arrange the fennel slices in the dish. Dust the surface of the fennel with the salt and pepper, then evenly distribute the grated Parmesan over the gratin.
Place the gratin in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Finish it under the broiler for 30 to 60 seconds to ensure that the cheese melts and the top is slightly golden.
Sophie Helene Menin writes about food and wine, sense of place and the pleasures of the table. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Departures and Saveur, among other publications. She lives in New York City.