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The Beautiful South

Perched on the edge of the Nguruman Escarpment, overlooking the volcanic hills and breathtaking plains of the Great Rift Valley, Shompole is an enchanting, innovatively designed, eco-friendly designer lodge built on a cliff in one of the haziest, hottest parts of Kenya. It's one place where you're sure to find escape from Kenya's mass-market parks and reserves.

Based on a 14,140-hectare (34,926-acre) conservancy with a further 56,560 hectares (139,703 acres) to explore, Shompole is in the southernmost part of Kenya's Rift system, not far from the Tanzanian border, and near two of the Rift's flamingo-rich soda lakes, Magadi (in Kenya) and Natron (in Tanzania). Called the Lake of Fire by the Maasai, Lake Natron is especially breathtaking because it shimmers a deep crimson color, thanks to the special salt-loving algae that grows in the hyper-saline water, and attracts around 2 1/2 million lesser flamingoes, which feed on the red pigmented algae blooms. The caustic waters also keep predators away, which reduces the threat posed to flamingo chicks, making Natron an important breeding ground for the birds.

As beautiful as the lake is -- especially when seen from above -- its muddied waters can reach ammonia-level alkalinity with temperatures, thanks to underground heating, of up to 50°C (122°F). One of the other highlights in this part of the Rift Valley (for archaeology buffs, at least) is the Olorgesailie Prehistoric Site, situated 60km (37 miles) south of Nairobi. Marked by two extinct volcanoes set amid the Rift's arid expanse, it's where excavations have turned up one of the best collections of prehistoric hand axes in Africa, most of them fashioned by humans living between 500,000 and 1 million years ago. Regularly referred to as the Cradle of Mankind, researchers link Olorgesailie to the theory that it was here -- in the Rift Valley -- that humankind first walked on two legs and also where we first became intelligent tool users.

Shompole's six beautiful tents -- raised on stilts beneath high, undulating thatch roofs -- curve around the contours of the escarpment. Each has a lounge, bathroom (shower only), and sleeping area. Simply, elegantly configured, with lots of white, the part-canvas, part-stone rooms are open to the elements with water flowing through them and into the plunge pool on the private verandas. Each minimalist space is bright, light, breezy, and beautiful, a theme that continues into the main lounge beneath a thatch canopy that architecturally mimics the shape of Mount Shompole, onto which it faces.

A plethora of activities are available here -- day and night game drives, guided bush walks, fly-camping, mountain biking, gentle canoeing down the Ewaso Nyiro River, and excursions to see the flamingoes on the lakes. The local landowners -- members of the Maasai tribe more specifically known as the Loodokiloni -- are traditional pastoralists and (unlike the majority of Maasai in the Mara) still practice seasonal nomadism, regularly relocating their livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) to new grazing pastures and water. You'll meet and be guided by these tough people as you explore the harsh environment in which they survive; the head gamekeeper here is a former poacher, so he really knows his game. And when guests finish their adventures, there are pools to laze by and massages on offer in the small spa, too. A full gamut of inspiring views is complemented by quality food and service, and the fact that the lodge has been recognized for being environmentally sound. If you're feeling particularly decadent, you can up the level of privacy at Little Shompole (added in mid-2008), a two-bedroom unit that's rented -- with all the bells and whistles and a private staff -- on an exclusive basis.

Shompole is a 30-minute hop from Nairobi (or the Mara or Amboseli) by charter plane (a shared charter is sometimes available, bringing costs down). The drive from Nairobi is 3 1/2 hours, although it's unlikely that anybody would be tempted to go by land. To reserve your stay, contact The Art of Ventures (P.O. Box 10665, Nairobi; tel./fax 20/884-135 or 20/48-610; www.shompole.com); a night's stay runs $990 to $1,110 double and includes all game-viewing activities, meals, and drinks. Little Shompole costs $1,330 to $1,650 double. There's an additional $45 conservation fee per person, per night. Shompole is closed in May.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.