When it comes to holiday homes, most people would probably explore destinations in the region that are closer to home like Indonesia or Malaysia. But not Singaporean Laura Yung and her husband Andre Cohen, who went against the grain of conventional wisdom by acquiring a luxury safari lodge in far-flung northern Kenya last year.
That said, their connection to Africa goes a long way back. In 2014, the couple and their sons, then aged 11 and 13, took a year-long sabbatical to travel through the back roads of Africa to immerse themselves in the unique cultures of the continent. Following this once-in-a-lifetime experience, they returned to their corporate jobs and regular life but continued maintaining close ties with friends and contacts they had met along the way, often returning for shorter stays.
Fast-forward to 2022, when they found out that the owners of Ol Lentille – a safari lodge they had stayed at previously – were planning to retire, the couple decided to seize the day and acquire the property.
“It was one of those life changing Covid-19 decisions where we were reassessing what we could do that would be more meaningful. What attracted us to this project is that the lodge is first and foremost a conservation project,” says Cohen, of the lodge, that sits amidst 40,000 acres of conservation land.
Located on the northern escarpment of the Laikipia Plateau, Ol Lentille is situated on the ancestral lands of four Maasai and Samburu communities who benefit directly from the conservation fees paid by guests.
Hence, the local communities actively work in partnership with the lodge to protect and preserve the natural environment. Over the years, this land which was once overgrazed, has been rewilded and is now home to iconic safari animals including the elephant, leopard, hyena, greater kudu and the endangered African wild dog.
Unlike many other reserves in Kenya which have closed-off boundaries, Cohen added, the Ol Lentille conservancy functions as an open wildlife corridor to allow animals to come and go freely according to their migration patterns instead of restricting them to a specific geographical location.
“If we can keep the conservancy open and free from overgrazing so that wildlife can traverse the land freely, then we are proving the model of conservation in partnership with communities instead of against them, while keeping a vital animal corridor open,” says Cohen, a long-term Singapore resident.
If this works, this model of conservation that is funded by a successful tourism business can also be a template to be replicated elsewhere.
Since they began running the lodge in early 2022, the couple have been taking turns to travel to Kenya from Singapore so that there would be one parent in Singapore with their younger son.
Yung took charge of overseeing the property’s renovations to “lighten and modernise” the interior decor of the four villas, which come in a range of one-to-three-bedroom configurations.
She also drew on her Asian heritage to introduce elements of homeliness to the space, often packing small decorative items such as enamel tiffin carriers in her luggage whenever she travels there. She adds with a laugh, “I also wanted to have some dishes that I enjoy eating at the lodge, so I introduced Thai basil chicken to the chef. I also brought sourdough starter all the way from Singapore to the lodge.”
Their elder son Conrad, who is currently at university in the United States, also got involved in upgrading the lodge. For instance, during a trip to Kenya, he took the initiative to set up a Wi-Fi network throughout the property and continues to help troubleshoot connectivity issues even though he is in school.
And when he noticed that there was a family from Hong Kong staying at the lodge at the end of an extended trip, he took it upon himself to find a way to ease their homesickness. Yung recalls, “Conrad went to the kitchen at 530am in the morning to show the chef how to make chicken congee and serve it to the Hong Kong family. They were flabbergasted. Since then, we have introduced the dish to the menu.”
Above and beyond providing luxurious dwellings from which to savour the beauty of the African landscape and wildlife, it is their hope that being at the lodge will encourage guests to immerse themselves in the culture and practices of the local communities.
One of its most unique aspects is that guests have the opportunity to get to know their local hosts – Ol Lentille employs over 50 people from the Maasai and Samburu communities.
Often, there are spontaneous invitations to join meals hosted by community elders or to participate in events like weddings, graduations or even a game of football at a local school. The tribes also have a calendar of rituals and ceremonies that guests may be able to attend should they visit at the right time of the year.
“There is a ceremony called ‘singing wells’ which is unique to this part of Kenya where during a drought, they dig a few metres into the ground to get water. The warriors collect buckets of water and send them up to the surface to fill a trough. Then each warrior sings a personal song to call his cow to the water and pacify her. It is magical,” says Cohen.
There are also activities at the lodge, such as beading sessions in the afternoon as well as excursions to local markets, which Yung likens to “going to Starbucks on Orchard Road”. She recalls how one particular guest was so excited to visit the market, he asked his guide to help him pick the best goat at the market for dinner.
“Our chef marinated and roasted the goat and invited everybody including the warriors. I think they would have adopted our guest that night if they could,” recalls Yung. “They were dancing together and it was amazing. That night, Andre and I felt that we did the right thing to buy the lodge when we saw how the guests connected with the community.”
This article was originally published in The Peak.