To stay at Loldia House is to stay in a story. Story upon story.
There is the story of the main house, a stocky brick and stone single-storey home of drawing rooms and dining rooms and verandahs and quads in the heart of the Great Rift Valley, built by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s who had been captured in Abyssinia.
There is the story of the family who owned it, and still do; of how, in 1945, the first owner sent his wife to the family home in Norfolk to go and retrieve furniture – on a steamer from Mombasa, the long way via the Cape – and when she came back, since there was no railway station here, the man simply stood on the rails to make the train stop, greeted his wife and helped her unload her possessions, including a Steinway baby grand piano which resides, still tuned, in the living room to this day.
But if Loldia House is a throwback to a colonial age, with its immaculate green lawns and its policy of all guests dining together beneath portraits of long-dead founders, then it is also a modern-day story of living on land. An electric fence keeps out hippos that wander up from Lake Naivasha. And for anyone considering walking between the main accommodation and a separate grand three-room cottage up the hill, there is a tragic tale to stop you doing so: one of the owning family was killed by a buffalo doing exactly that fewer than 10 years ago.
It's also the story of local agriculture, anything they can get to take to the local soil, which in practice is broccoli, cabbages, maybe some maize – and, nearby, flowers in abundance, roses that will be on European street markets within a day of being cut.
The set-up here is well-staffed. Up in our cottage we are attended to by a butler-cum-security man, Peter, who brings tea, cakes and safety. We have our own driver, Sammy, to take us to local attractions.
We try three: first, Lake Olodien, a bouncy 40 minute drive from our lake to a place where one rents a boat for $50 and spends a few hours drifting among hippos and pelicans, fish eagles and the occasional plug-ugly maribou stork. Hippos are quite a thing: anyone will tell you they kill more people than any other animal in Africa but they seem so docile, tubby and grunting, submerged bar snout and waggly pink ears. It’s troubling, though, when they vanish beneath the surface a few feet from your boat.
That night we try a game drive and see what’s going on out there when we’re sleeping. Plenty: on the earth airstrip there are warthogs and zebras, buffalo and hippos, picked out in Sammy’s lamp.
And we take a long full-day trip to Lake Nakuru further to the north. The journey there, through weighstations filtering trucks that will go from here to Tanzania, Uganda and the Congo, through road-side towns of vegetable stalls and unpromising bars and endless churches telling the poor to repent, is a large part of the trip. Gilgil is one: it is a Kenya quite different from the game reserves and the colonial settler homes, a Kenya of diesel and corrugated iron and timber yards, windowless pubs called Venus Club, and handpainted signs that seem to hail from 1950s England: “Now that new paint smell is a nice paint smell!”
Then the reserve itself is fruitful, particularly with two things we won’t see elsewhere: rhinos (both black and white are here, though we only see white) and flamingoes that gather in clusters on the lake shore and then take flight hundreds at a time in a great pink swarm. We see young lions too, two cubs sitting in a tree, impalas looking nervous and fidgety nearby. We are out of season but none the worse for that: no Great Migration, sure, but plenty to see and few other land cruisers trying to picnic in the same spot.
In free moments we sit in our cottage looking down to the lake from an escarpment, high enough for us to see fish eagles soaring beneath us. At night, at 4.30am, unaccountable African music drifts up from somewhere. There is an untuned piano with a honkey tonk feel upon which I teach my daughter Passenger by Iggy Pop. There are old magazines on wildlife and scenery and African life.
My single favourite thing about the place? A tree by the main homestead in front of the lake. It is a vast and sprawling fig tree the like of which kids dream about: a dense tumble of overlapping boughs heading out horizontally as much as vertically, so that it’s almost within touching height far from the trunk. Monkeys jog along its branches while travelers eat a fine colonial breakfast in its shade. It was here well before Loldia House itself and it brings history and permanence and beauty to the whole place. It is a lion among trees.
Standing in as host for a month is Rachael, Kenya born and bred, who these days freelances as a stand-in governess between various glorious Kenyan and Tanzanian camps. She is full of knowledge and stories both warm and alarming, from the trials of getting the road out here built to the history of the Uganda Railway, where more than a hundred construction workers were picked off by two lions building the bridge over the Tsavo river a century ago. She fits with the log fire and the pictures on the wall and the furnishings and that flat-as-a-cricket-pitch lawn in front of the teeming lake.
Practicalities: Loldia House is leased from the owners by the Governor’s Camp group, who run it, often combining a trip with one of the other camps in Masai Mara. It is about two hours from Nairobi and can be reached from the international airport without having to go through the middle of the city. You can also fly in to a dirt airstrip here; if you are going on to Masai Mara you will almost certainly depart from this strip. Other side trips beyond those mentioned above include climbing Lake Longonot on the other side of Lake Naivasha.