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Shompole trip report & photos

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Shompole is in the Rift Valley, south of Nairobi and about 15-20 miles from Lake Natron and the Tanzanian border. The camp is literally built into a hillside, with all of the “rooms” having a fine view of the valley. The main camp has 6 rooms with a 7th currently under construction; there is also a Little Shompole camp with a smaller number of rooms.

The rooms are actually tree houses for adults. There are no exterior walls, and little to distinguish the space that belongs to you from the space that belongs to the birds. The thatch roof is cleverly designed to have several openings that let in light without letting in rain – this also provides a convenient thoroughfare for birds. Floors, partitions, and the walls (against the hillside) are made of a stucco painted in browns and whites.

Photos of the tree house, the lodge, and the setting of the camp in the hillside are at www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=aephx4n.8cp4hkaf&x=0&y=9vyzh

The living space is enormous. There’s a large bedroom with adjacent space for clothes, a separate area with a day bed, a ‘wash-up’ area with double-sinks and fantastic shower, and another area with a flush toilet that, unfortunately, has the design of an outhouse. There’s a private plunge pool, plus another pool that is there just for the calming effect of its water. The tree houses blend perfectly into the hillside, and each one of the areas has a clear view of the valley below.

The effect is absolutely stunning. It’s very reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, where the topography of the building is adapted to the topography of the hillside into which it is built, and where the theme of water was seemingly found everywhere. (Four Seasons Sayan, in Bali, gave me very much the same feeling.)

The main lodge was in the same style as the individual tree houses: open to the outside, thatch roof with openings for light, built into the hillside with great views of the valley, and painted stucco floors and partitions.

However, as breathtaking as the architecture is, form at times trumped function, maybe as an homage to Wright. First off, I did not find a single comfortable chair in either my tree house or the lodge – just like your typical Wright home. Day beds were plentiful and great for naps or for lying around like a Roman emperor eating grapes, and straight-back wooden chairs at the dining tables were fine at meal times, but not a comfy chair could be found for reading a good book or just enjoying the scenery. The painted stucco floors that follow the topography of the hillside are gorgeous, but they become treacherous when they get wet. Be really careful when you step off the treads after taking a shower. And the location of the toilet is particularly inconvenient for a middle-of-the-night pee: it requires negotiating 5 irregular steps down and 6 more going up, then returning.

Shompole is decidedly not for those with mobility issues. There are lots of steps up and down, both in the tree houses themselves and between the tree houses and the main lodge. I was in Tree House #3, one of the closest to the lodge, and it was a decent hike up. It looked to me that the climb between the lodge and the furthest tree house would leave all but the very fittest huffing and puffing.

The food at Shompole was some of the best I’ve had in Africa. Lunch was a buffet, with fantastic salads and a pasta. Dinner was served course by course, and the food was amazingly well prepared. Shompole grows and raises much its own food organically, and the care they take in preparation and presentation is impressive.

If the staff at Shompole might be a bit less polished than at some other camps, it is not because they are any less eager to make your stay comfortable. The manager, Graham, took great care to help each of the guests have a wonderful stay. The staff at the lodge couldn’t do enough at meal times.

One does not go to Shompole for its game viewing. There is some game in the valley – I saw non-migrating zebra and wildebeest, as well as gazelles, giraffe, ostrich, and a small pride of lions. A short trip to Lake Natron was rewarded with the sight of flamingoes, though I was a bit late to see the biggest of the flocks. The vehicles for game drives are not great. Most drives were in a 4x4 with removable canvas roof, but the roof structure blocked out a great deal, even with the top open. An especially horrible vehicle was the Toyota 4x4, where the rear seat is slightly raised and the roof structure is exactly at eye level.

Overall, Shompole is a place that I’m happy to have experienced. The concept is exceptional, though the execution has some rough edges. Shompole is not for everyone, but it is worth a visit for those looking to relax and enjoy imaginative architecture.

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