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Chef and author, Claire Thomson, takes a trip back to her African roots with her daughters, in search of wildlife, barefoot cooking and her own childhood memories.
I was born in Zimbabwe and lived in Botswana as child. At the age of eight I left the continent – very much home for me and my family – with my parents to live a very different life in London. Over many generations my family has had a deep connection with Africa, from east to west and down to the south. Photographs, many now tattered and fading, show African landscapes, the sunsets, the wildlife, the dust, spanning years, decades, and more.
I have cousins who still live in Harare, Zimbabwe, my godfather flies small aircraft in Zambia, and my father, unable, after all, to live the life intended in London, returned to Africa – Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya – to work in logistics and freight until his retirement a decade ago. My brother, Simon, and I regularly reference our glorious, barefoot childhood; tales of teething on biltong (air-dried beef ), we often tease our mother about the day she left Simon in a lion enclosure aged four, and also of the day, sat in the garden aged 18 months, a baboon grabbed a banana right out of my hands (so terrified, I didn’t cry, I’m told, my face white with shock). Africa is part of who I am; it’s in my makeup. So why hadn’t I been back?
The usual answers – work, motherhood, mortgages and more. And so it was with great excitement when I heard from Sophie Grant, of El Karama Lodge in Kenya, with an invitation to visit her and her family out in Kenya. I’m a chef and food writer and Sophie wanted to tap into my professional knowledge of family food and recipes to use as stimulus in her thriving eco business, the focus of which is very much parents travelling with young families. Passports in date, I didn’t need much convincing.
We arrived in Nairobi, I’m not embarrassed to say, a little on the bedraggled side. An overnight flight with three children under 11-years-old is no mean feat. From there we drove to the Laikipia region, a county in central Kenya roughly the size of Wales, stopping as we crossed the equator to take the obligatory photo. We arrived at El Karama in the late afternoon, by which time elephants, zebras, giraffes, the odd buffalo and a baboon had all been spotted. And that was just from the car, not even on an actual game drive, when you actively go looking for wildlife in a car that looks like something Indiana Jones, or Mad Max would drive. I could sense the children’s excitement. It was tangible, it filled the air in animated giggles, great whoops of laughter and irrepressible cartwheels from Ivy, my nine-year-old who spends so much of her life like so, upside down. I felt emotional, as I knew I would be.
It was made clear from day one that children are a primary focus at the lodge – especially harnessing what they would want to take from the adventure – with dedicated staff for this role. I’m not one for offloading my children when on holiday – if I’m on holiday with my family, it’s because I want to spend time with them.
At El Karama, Sophie, Lovi Maritim and the entire team ingeniously enable a space in which the kids are occupied and the parents also get to relax. This haven is called Bush School, and my children loved it. Up early every morning, off they scuttled to the main building where a chalkboard with the day’s activities was hanging. Bread baking, fishing, clay sculpting, painting, even poo identification tracking (can you imagine the six-year old’s delight?) were detailed.
With two brunette children who never seem to burn, just turn nut brown, I was gobsmacked with the attention given to my youngest, Dorothy, who with just a suggestion of sunlight, will turn pink as a raspberry. Sun cream applied, hats adjusted or simply popped in the shade if it all got too much, bush school had my kids down pat, nothing was too much trouble.
And what did I do with all this eerie child-free – children blissfully happy – time? I cooked a bit in the kitchen, apron on, barefoot, of course. Chefs Issac, Jane and Wanjala couldn’t have been more inviting (I’ve worked in plenty of professional kitchens where this hasn’t been the case). Most days we jumped in the jeep and headed up to the nearby kitchen garden to pick from a gorgeous medley of produce that we could use that day in the kitchen.
The synergy between the working farm, the wild environs and the lodge itself mean that this is a holiday with something for everyone, with each facet as significant as the other. If cheetah spotting, rummaging for organic mangoes and swimming in a perfectly natural swimming pool sounds like it would appeal to all your family, then El Karama Lodge is right for you.
I helped in the kitchen because – unsurprisingly – it is a space I always gravitate to, holiday or not. And this in a nutshell sums up why my family had such a tremendous time away on holiday; at El Karama, I felt that anything is possible.
Five days isn’t terribly long to leave a blueprint in a kitchen, but I like to think my time spent helping in the kitchen with Sophie and her team has left just the right sort of dent in what was pretty much a halcyon set-up for a holiday. Staying at El Karama Lodge with Sophie and her welcoming team has forged a sense of adventure in my girls and for both me and my husband Matt, sparked an appetite for more dynamic travel as a family.
I honestly think we’re now ready to take on the world.
Claire Thomson travelled as a guest of El Karama Lodge and Steppes Travel. El Karama Lodge, Laikipia is an award-winning safari destination with a reputation for ‘re-wilding families’ on a private working ranch in Kenya’s most diverse wildlife region.
Claire and family also visited Daraja Academy which provides secondary education to girls who have no other means of continuing school.
Steppes Travel offers an eight-day family safari from £3,995 per person, based on a family of four with two children under 12. Includes international flights, internal flights, five nights at El Karama, transfers, activities, meals and house drinks