The Mokogodo Escarpment is not a good place for poorly vegetarians. "This species of sanseviera is used to treat STDs," explained Simon LeNantiri, fingering a broad-leafed plant sprouting alongside the track. "Chop the roots finely, slaughter a plump sheep and boil the slices in the fat. Cool and sieve, then drink the soup."
Of course, it could be gorier. Get just a blob of euphorbia sap in your eyes (you'd be collecting some to make cough medicine, naturally) and you'll need to douse your peepers with goat's blood. It would seem that, in these parts, traditional medicine isn't so healthy for the local livestock.
But if my vegetarian stance was under threat, my curiosity about the local people and their unique culture was being fed tasty morsels. This pre-breakfast stroll in the hills behind Tassia Lodge, a community-owned venture north of Mount Kenya, was billed as a botanical walk, though a glance at our gun-toting scout and the leopard pug marks across the path reminded me that it could quickly become a more animal-oriented encounter. In the meantime, Simon was opening a window onto an extraordinary social metamorphosis: the tribe that reinvented itself.
Some 80 years ago a hunter-gatherer group called the Yaaku decided, quite abruptly, that actually they'd much rather be cow-herding Masai, thanks very much. In effect, they changed their ethnicity almost overnight. Leaving their cave dwellings, they shed eating habits, language and almost all aspects of their culture; within a few years these people, who had till then lived by spearing hyrax and harvesting honey, began speaking Maa, built manyattas (hedged compounds) and even changed their name. The Yaaku, previously labelled by their Masai neighbours as il-torrobo – a derogatory appellation scorning their lack of livestock – renamed themselves Mokogodo. And that was that.
Well, almost. Scrambling up a forked branch, which acted as a makeshift ladder, Simon – a Mokogodo Masai himself – pointed out remnants of his ancestors' existence in a cave finally abandoned as recently as a decade ago. A slender pole served as a larder for hanging meat alongside a simple fireplace; at the rear, foliage provided bedding, and sticks leaning in a niche showed where hunting gear was stored. With fine views over a tempting-looking pool to the game-rich plain, the contrast between this fashionably open-plan living space and the dark, smoky huts I'd previously visited in the Nyongoni Manyatta was stark. So, why the change?
"The Yaaku were bottom of the ladder," explained Simon. "They were often raided, and without livestock the young men found it hard to get wives." Looking at Simon – and my girlfriend was doing just that in an alarmingly admiring fashion – it was hard to believe his fellow moran (young warriors) would have problems attracting female company. Tall, charismatic and eyecatching with his red robe and spear, he is typical of the men we met at Tassia. And like the other Mokogodo, he has a justifiable pride in his people.
"Although our lifestyles have changed, we really took the best from both cultures," Simon mused on our stroll back to breakfast, pointing out a barrel-shaped cylinder hanging from a nearby tree. "This beehive is one of scores we maintain – a Yaaku tradition. And, unlike many other Masai, we have never practised female mutilation; some elements we chose not to assimilate."
Engineered tribal encounters can seem uncomfortably choreographed or voyeuristic; in contrast, a stay at Tassia affords the chance to get to know these unique people in an unforced setting and on their own terms, not exhibited in a showcase village. Owned by the Mokogodo community, Tassia was relaunched two years ago by Martin Wheeler and Antonia Hall as a high-end safari lodge. Martin, who grew up on the flagship wildlife conservancy of Lewa, just to the south, is a font of birding and animal lore, while Antonia bestows culinary flair and attention to detail – Yemeni lanterns light the bar, home-cooked falafel, cheese puffs and pesto balls accompany sundowners (no need for trepidation here, veggies).
Although the lodge is their business, for both Martin and Antonia the focus is on ensuring that Tassia delivers what's promised to the Mokogodo community, not just an ecotourism checkbox to be ticked. Bed-night fees fund school bursaries, healthcare improvements and conservation initiatives; in addition, the lodge and the conservation team employs more than 30 staff from the area's villages.
The lodge itself sits pretty astride its own escarpment, the final wrinkle in the Laikipia Plateau's skin before it drops off onto a vast plain stretching off to the ridges of the Matthews Range, hazy on the horizon to the north. And I mean pretty: the six open-sided bandas, constructed in a beautified approximation of Masai style using thatch, mud and fallen cedar logs – no trees were felled to build the lodge – are as spectacular as the vista. The 10-pace lope from our four-poster to the en-suite – lit by solar power, with hot water from a fuel-efficient wood-burning stove – invariably took no less than five minutes, slowed by stops to admire small lizards, woodpeckers and the stone partridges that trilled our pre-dawn wake-up call at the start of the indolent daily routine.
Breakfast was a languid affair, seasoned with honey from those hanging beehives. The sun-baked hours that followed were spent lolling, binoculars in hand, in the enormous hammocks swinging in the tower atop our banda and watching the wildlife. As a cooling breeze whispered through the thatch, I tried to think of a negative aspect to leaven all the idealism. It isn't perfect here. Baboons stole the fruit-scented soap from my bathroom, for one thing, but as I awoke to watch sunrise pinken the eastern sky on my final morning, the quibbles just evaporated.
Tassia excels because the joy of the experience far exceeds the worthiness of the intentions – here, backing conservation and learning about Kenya's tribal peoples means being pampered. Just don't get sick, vegans.
A stay at Tassia (www.tassiasafaris.com) costs from £193 per person, plus £15 conservation fee. This rate includes all meals, game drives and botanical walks, and spear-throwing and archery competitions with the Masai. A visit to the nearby Nyongoni Manyatta costs from $20 (£11.50) per person. SafariLink (00254 20 600777, www.safarilink-kenya.com) scheduled flights from Nairobi serve Lewa Downs airstrip daily from $246 (£140) return plus taxes; the return two-hour transfer to Tassia – really a superb game drive – costs $200 (£115) per vehicle.
People of Kenya
Kenya is the Clapham Junction of Africa; its population is dazzlingly diverse – recognised tribes number from 42 to over 70, depending on how you define them, and that's before considering sizable tranches with Asian, Arab and European ancestry. In the past tribes were identified with lifestyles – Kikuyu farmed, El-Molo fished, Masai herded – but today distinctions are less clear.
Kenya's tribes divide into three linguistic groups: Nilotes, hailing from Sudan and further north; Cushites, including Somalis, from the north-east; and Bantu, the largest group, who arrived from West Africa a couple of thousand years ago.
Where? Mostly the west and south
Distinguishing features: Masai wear red "shukas" (blankets); broad bead necklaces; leaping dance of the "moran" (young warriors)
Where? Arid north-west
Distinguishing features: Hair caked with blue-painted mud (men); wooden plug in lower lip; tattoos
Where? Hills and plains north of Mount Kenya
Distinguishing features: Warriors use caked mud in hair fringe and dreadlocks to create a sun visor
Where: West side of Rift Valley towards Uganda
Distinguishing features: Metal nose ornaments and painted clay headdresses (men); brass bracelets, lip plugs (women)