Under African skies

    21 September 2013

    Straight off the night flight to Nairobi, red-eyed, your clothes like a second skin, you are greeted in the clammy arrivals hall by a beaming long-lashed giraffe. ‘Smile, you’re in Kenya!’ says the poster. For this traveller, it was at first smiling through gritted teeth — after a small plane and Nanuki airstrip, the final part of my journey was to be by helicopter. I’m a bit scared of -helicopters.

    We were heading north to Segera, in the heart of Laikipia, a wildlife migration corridor consisting of 50,000 acres of protected land. Nothing prepares you for floating a few hundred feet over the plains. There are heart-stoppingly beautiful groups of giraffes (a ‘tower’ when they are still, a ‘journey’ when they are on the move) and skittering zebras with flirty striped bottoms. Karen Blixen described the sensation in Out of Africa: you feel towards the animals ‘as God did when he had just created them, and before he commissioned Adam to give them names’.

    One minute I was a committed helicopter-phobic, moments later I couldn’t get enough of being Icarus. Later in the week I was even tempted to take up my host Jochen Zeitz’s offer of a spin in his tiny plane to take another look.

    Nipping up into the stratosphere is the kind of thing Zeitz does in his spare time. For 18 years until 2010, he was the CEO of Puma. There he developed the world’s first biodegradable trainer and did the first deal in which an international sports brand sponsored an African footballer, the -striker Samuel Eto’o. He also co-founded the B Team, a group of investors who want to demonstrate that profits and -ethics don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

    His latest project is Segera, an old ranch that over eight years has been coaxed into new life as an eco-resort. Given how remote it is, that seems almost a miracle. From the air the handful of guest cottages and the colours of the garden look as though someone has spilled a paintbox.

    Eco-entrepreneurs are a breed I’m inclined to meet with scepticism. But with his business credentials, German pragmatism and a far-from-humourless twinkle in his eye, Zeitz is something out of the ordinary. He and his partner, film producer Andrea Barron, are not primarily interested in tourism: Segera is a way to get a message across. ‘I think a place like this is a great starting point to get people excited about sustainability,’ he says.

    It’s hard to imagine a more appealing place for a spot of gentle brainwashing. My cottage, which ran on solar power and rainwater, had an outdoor bath in which I could lie listening to the birds, looking out for monkeys. If you struggle to get out of a hot bath in a hurry, try doing so as the stars come out over the acacia trees.

    There is, of course, something profoundly romantic — even Romantic — about all of this. But Zeitz rejects the idea that he’s under some kind of dreamy spell. ‘When you read Out of Africa,’ he says, ‘there is a pretty sad story underlying it. It’s a tough, tough life and lots of challenges around the corner, around every bush.’

    From the moment you go onto Segera’s website, you’re reading about what Zeitz and his foundation call the four Cs: conservation, community, culture and commerce. They want guests to experience these in practical ways, whether by looking at Zeitz’s collection of contemporary African art or visiting the local school they’ve built. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to struggle to know what to say when the children ask if you are going to visit again tomorrow.

    Before we headed out on game drives, breakfast came out of a WonderBag, a low-energy cooking gadget patented in South Africa that Zeitz’s foundation is beginning to make and sell locally. You just bring food to the boil and then put it in the insulated bag, where it carries on cooking for hours. It sounds simple, but in a place where many girls are kept home from school to cook, ‘wonder’ may not be too strong a word.

    Eating my oats as the sun came up over Mount Kenya, or watching ostriches like gangly ballerinas wearing tutus rollerskating through the mist, are completely intoxicating experiences.

    If there’s a worry, it’s that Segera is perhaps too perfect. I dread the day some Russian turns his nose up at their vast collection of African wine and demands to know why they don’t stock Pétrus.

    For the sake of the bigger picture, it’s a risk that Zeitz is willing to take. He’s looking forward to Segera welcoming ‘people that get it… and get inspired. I’m sure there will be some there that don’t care, but that’s fine too.’

    Vivienne Westwood stayed recently and has funded the building of a library space at the school. Now all they need is the books. Guests who want to visit the school have to bring something to help. You can guess where this literary journalist’s overspill of books will be heading…

    Back home, I wear my beautiful bracelets made by Satubo Women’s Beading Project with pride. If I look like an overgrown gap year tragedy, so be it. It’s never too late for a reality check.

    Africa Travel (, 020 7843 3500) arranges tailor-made holidays. A short break to Kenya, staying for four nights on safari at Wilderness Collection’s Segera Retreat costs from £3,875 per person,all-inclusive.