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Tafaria Castle and Country Lodge, a new hospitality jewel in Kenya (VIDEO)

Dream castle that George Waititu built

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The Tafaria Castle and Country Lodge stands on expansive land in the middle of nowhere. At night, the lights shine brightly from a distance showing that there’s indeed life around the Deighton’s Downs ranch.

The elegant architecture seems to be the only sign of civilisation in the otherwise remote area. Before the castle — built in medieval era style — was completed this year, the ranch was bare land with no trees around save for a few scattered shrubs. No one better explains the harsh reality of this area that once had no water or roads and was prone to incidents of cattle rustling better than George Waititu, who grew up there.

“Several times, we failed to show up in school because of the wild animals that roamed this place,” he recalls.

The Deighton’s Downs ranch at the tip of Nyandarua County is the place George has called home for years. Lying between the Laikipia plains and the Aberdares Ranges, part of the land was later subdivided and given to surrounding communities. His mother was one of the beneficiaries.

Two dams left behind at Tafaria Castle have been turned into fish ponds.

This has added to both the fun of fishing for hotel residents and the variety of food on the menu at the lodge. The small pond — known as Kamau’s Place — is a domestic pond where the head chef gets his fresh fish which weigh anywhere between 500 to 700 grammes.

The bigger pond is set aside for sport fishing. But  if the catch is too small,  you have to take it back to the water. If it is plate size, then it is grilled for your meal in the dining area which is known as the Lords Meal Area; an elegant room which can seat 25.

Everything at Tafaria Castle and Country Lodge is built around Victoria-style architecture. The story of this castle is as interesting as the experience of a stay there.

Anyone who has watched movies about vikings will know the ancient tale and dream that George set out to recreate by building this medieval-looking castle.

The story, which George tells so vividly using structures at  Tafaria, centres around the lives of the lords who lived in the castles and the fights that often went on around the castles between the vikings — young males who came to steal the lords’ maidens – or damsels as they were also called.

However, their efforts were often frustrated by the knights – junior guards – who protected the beautiful ladies. The Knights at Tafaria Castle are placed between the Vikings and the Damsels.  Then there are the Lost Knights who secured the castle. Like the medieval times, there are also horses roaming the grounds.

Amphitheatre

But do not be fooled into thinking there are young men and women lurking around the castle  and being watched over by guards of any sort. As interesting as the story may be, it is just a tale.

The Vikings, Lost knights, Damsels and the Knights at Tafaria Castle and Country Lodge are names for the different types of rooms.

The amphitheatre, large enough to sit 800 people, the Moat and Dungeon have all been given  a new lease of life.

The dungeon is no longer a torture chamber, but a conference hall with a 3D movie viewing area. The Moat serves as a pub and the Bailey as a dinner restaurant.

The Amphitheatre is one of the first buildings to be set up after the old house where George lived before moving into the castle.

This former house, which will soon be converted into a family room for guests,  is the structure that partly led to the castle dream. After unsuccessfully trying out a number of activities aimed at helping the local community access information, George and his wife, Eunice, had to go back to the drawing board and think of a sustainable project that would see them realise their dream of uplifting the living standards of  the community around their home.

Unexploited

According to George, the rural areas have remained largely unexploited because of the rural-urban migration which leaves the place hungry for talent. To reverse the trend and get rural people to look at themselves with pride and esteem, the couple thought of opening up the remote area to the world.

And that is how the idea of a castle was born – a structure that would attract people, and also stand out as a sign of  conquest and change.
“The Castle was not a last minute dream.  I had always wanted to bring change in my village and show people that there is a lot to be exploited in the rural areas; that people don’t need to flock the towns in order to get a livelihood,” said George.

For seven years, the couple put in all their sweat to get the project going. “I had a demanding job as head of Steadman Research company that saw me travel a lot expanding the company,” says the former market research executive.

“But any free time I got,  I would drive down to Deighton’s Downs with tree seedlings in my trunk.” This was his secret to establishing the costly “Kingdom.”

George says he does not believe  in saving money in a bank. The true meaning of money for him is what one spends it on. This principle saw him put a large portion of his salary on the castle every month.

First it was establishing the 10,200 trees that surround the Castle, then working on the grass and the landscaping.

However, he admits that the salary alone was not enough and this is where some of the shares he held at Steadman and borrowing from the bank, held the dream together.

Worrying about never realising the dream in time, George finally gave up his career to focus on the castle.

For over a year, he locked himself up at the Deighton’s Downs – keep away from the media and even friends. “I am glad I took time to interact with my dream, because this way, things moved faster.

This, however, doesn’t mean I could not have achieved it if I had structured my corporate life differently,” he says.

Fully booked

The Tafaria Castle and Country Lodge marks the first month since it opened this week. Already, some of the rooms in the 25-room lodge are booked upto January. The Vikings – a tented room (on one side) with a chariot for a bed seem to be the favourite.

The room depicts the nomadic nature of the Vikings, who often fled when they encountered the knights or after stealing the maidens.

The rooms overlook both the Aberdares Ranges, Laikipia plains and the snowcapped Mt Kenya (Tafaria is at the tip of the three locations and stands in two counties, Nyandarua and Laikipia) – depending on the direction one stands.  There is also a sizeable balcony for relaxation.

Early risers can also enjoy the sunrise from this vantage point.

But as much as staying at the lodge does not come cheap at Sh17,000 a night and Sh40,000 for the Lords’ room situated in the castle, George insists it is not about making money but for the community dream he is yet to realise.

“Of course the place is not cheap because there must be return on investment. It is an elegant set up whose standards must be maintained,” he says.

He is in the final stages of setting up the Tafaria Foundation, where he hopes to spend most of his time.

His desire is to unlock the potential in his village through arts, career talks and a library.

The lodge fits in perfectly because it will provide the funds needed to keep the project going.

It took more than 400 people to build the castle – some of whom dropped out halfway. The design was George’s creation with the help of  Chris Mutie a young architect who helped him get the right measurements and make a few adjustments.

“I liked Chris because he was flexible. The rest were local masons.”

Before Chris came into the picture, they had tried to do it on their own and the trials and error cost them heavily, since they had to pull down some structures and build others.

He plans to engrave the names of those who worked to make his dream a reality by immortalising their names on a plinth he has already set up in front of the castle.

The once bare land with no roads and running water is now teeming with life. As he fulfils his dream, George’s hope is that more people will invest in rural areas and not just spend their lives in Nairobi or other big cities.

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