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The African Love Story

ipping an espresso in the elegant surrounds of the Radisson Hotel in Stillorgan, her long blonde hair around her shoulders, Siobhán Byrne Learat is telling me about her luxury travel company – arranging travel for celebrities and super-rich clients, organising helicopters, private villas and castles – and how she met her Kenyan warrior husband.

We’ve been talking about her experiences of booking private breakfasts in Windsor Castle and masterminding accommodation for Michael Jackson when the late pop legend and his young family decamped to Ireland in 2006. But it’s when we turn to the subject of Kenya as a holiday destination rich in culture and atmosphere that Siobhán’s face lights up.

Siobhán went to Kenya in 2007 to inspect a number of holiday properties and it was during this trip that she fell for Kasao Learat, a handsome ranger turned safari guide, and – it seems clear – fell in love with Kenya itself. ‘Ireland and Kenya have similar effects on the soul, they have a hook that reels you in,’ explains Siobhán when you ask her about life in Africa. ‘Both have similar histories: land is so important to the national psyche, and a sense of humour is vital for daily life.’ Blonde and glamorous with considerable reserves of urban savvy, it isn’t easy to imagine this mother of four tending house in the African bush. But the Dublin woman has made unconventional career choices a way of life.

Siobhán, 46, grew up in Mount Merrion in south Co. Dublin. When she left school she started her working life in the Irish Continental Lines ferry company. When her son Jonathan was born she decided to study Spanish and Arabic in University College Dublin, where she was awarded a first class honours degree. In the years that followed, she had three more sons, Adam, now 21, Sam, 17, and Richard, 16 – and earned her spurs in the tourism industry, working in the Killiney Court Hotel for 11 years, attaining an MBA and building a network of contacts. In time, those contacts led her to her next business venture: Adams & Butler, which was established in 2003 with John Colclough, himself well acquainted with the bespoke, high-end travel market thanks to the firm he founded, Hidden Ireland.

For the past nine years, Adams & Butler has become well-known among a certain travelling elite, people who seek unique once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as a Joyce-themed dinner in a candlelit Georgian house (that is, a meal based on dishes that appear in the writings of James Joyce), a portrait session with a well-known Irish artist, a druidic ceremony in a stone circle and even – as requested by a young Arab couple on honeymoon here – a romantic dinner for two, served in a sheltered cave, all set to the strains of a harp played by a beautiful young musician. It’s no wonder then that John and Siobhán are the go-to guys if you happen to be a high-profile star visiting these shores and hoping to soak up a little low-key Irish charm, as Hollywood actor Will Smith, country singer Taylor Swift and 300 star Gerard Butler will testify. The soul of discretion, Siobhán doesn’t discuss the antics of her celebrity clients but can’t resist recalling the reaction of one young man, the cossetted son of a wealthy American industrialist who, thanks to Siobhán, had traced his ancestors to a down-at-heel cottage in the Scottish Highlands. ‘If great-grandfather hadn’t emigrated we’d be living here!’ declared the heir in evident shock at the gloomy house. ‘We wouldn’t even have PlayStation!’ ‘What we do is a bit different,’ says Siobhán. ‘We would be more intimately acquainted with our customers than most, so we find what they’re really interested in and make sure that it is included in the trip. We want them to go back home and feel they’ve had their own unique experience, so we go for the real cultural experience but unique to them.’

By 2007, Adams & Butler was fielding inquiries from clients about luxury travel in Kenya. Siobhán decided to visit some of the properties herself in March of that year, and was on a site inspection with four other agents in the Maasai Mara game reserve when she met Kasao, ‘brimful of energy and smiles’, she recalls, as he bounded up to the 4x4 vehicle that would bring the travel agents to Richard’s Camp, an exclusive tented hotel where hippos graze on the lawn at night. With Kasao on driving duty, and the four other travel reps choosing to bask in the sun in the back of the truck, Siobhán found herself sitting beside Kasao for the journey. She learned that this ‘young driver’ was in fact the assistant manager of Richard’s Camp; he was also one of Kenya’s highest-ranking guides (trained in South Africa, Kasao had headed up Kenya’s anti-poaching unit and was awarded lifetime wardenship of the Wildlife Service) and, at 36, was not as young as he looked. As the group travelled together for the next two days, she also discovered that there was an unmistakable mutual attraction. ‘There was instant chemistry between us,’ she says. ‘Every few moments our eyes would catch, and I realised that he was spending more and more time talking with me than with the group. He had an engaging smile and a giggling chuckle which even now, five years later, never fails to give me butterflies.’ On the last day of the trip, Siobhán went to the 4x4 that would transfer the group to the airfield to find that Kasao had placed her bag on the Jeep’s passenger seat ensuring that she would sit beside him for their final journey together. If she’d had any doubts about his feelings, that one small gesture silenced them. Driving to the airstrip, he asked for her contact details, and when Siobhán protested that she had neither pen nor anything to write anything on, four pens and pieces of paper appeared courtesy of the Jeep’s other occupants.

‘Everyone knew there was an attraction,’ Siobhán laughs now. At the airfield, she goes on, ‘We had a little kiss and I took off in the plane.’ Siobhán was having lunch in Nairobi when she received two texts from Kasao. ‘The first one said something like, “Hope you had a safe flight, lovely to meet you…”; The second text message asked

Siobhán not to reply unless she was serious as he didn’t want to be hurt. Siobhán replied to the text. ‘From that day on he texted every morning and night.’ Eager to meet again, they arranged for Siobhán to return the following October. Then, impatient, they brought the meeting forward to May to coincide with a trade fair both Siobhán and Kasao were due to attend in Dubai. ‘That worked out well for me because I thought, “Well, at least I am not going out of my way if it doesn’t work out…”’ However the meeting was not to be – Kasao’s brother was killed in a tragic accident just weeks before they were due to meet. Separated by thousands of miles, communicating primarily by mobile phone text messages, both Siobhán and Kasao must have felt that their chances of a long-term relationship were slim.

‘We hadn’t seen each other since our last day in Kenya,’ recalls Siobhán. ‘But he actually texted that he loved me because I was there for him when he got into an emotional state after his brother died.’ Siobhán knew it was time to throw caution to the wind: ‘I decided I would go down to him when I was in Dubai. I was very nervous, but as soon as I met him, I just knew it was going to work. We have been together since.’

Unfortunately, due to the demands of their respective jobs, ‘together’ means spending considerable time apart. Siobhán’s responsibilities to her travel firm – together with her role as a mother – commit her to long periods either back in Dublin or flying around the world. By contrast, Kasao juggles his job as a safari guide with his personal duties as an elder of the Samburu tribe, a semi-nomadic people who are related to the Maasai tribe. Surely this striking blonde Irishwoman attracted some curious glances when she met her prospective in-laws? After all, it is unusual for somebody from Kasao’s village to marry an outsider – and Siobhán had been gently warned by Kasao that his mother could be difficult, so the Dublin woman braced herself for culture shock as she set out to meet Kasao’s family. ‘We drove there for 12 hours, then we had to walk up the side of a mountain to get to the village,’ says Siobhán. ‘Kasao’s mother was really nice to me: she brought me water to make coffee, and the next day too. On the third day there was no water, though Kasao’s mother was repeating a phrase in her own language, Maa, which I couldn’t understand.

‘I learnt that she was saying, “Daughter, wash my cup.” It meant I had been accepted into the family – and I scrubbed that cup!’ Kasao’s mother now affectionately calls her ‘Daughter with the long hair’ (a nod to her flowing tresses: Kenyan women customarily keep their hair very tightly cropped) and Siobhán gets on well with the family. ‘I think the Kenyans are like the Irish: they have a very good sense of humour, they’re very welcoming, very warm. But the people have no money whatsoever: in some instances they own just a teapot or basin. I don’t even think I saw a plate when I was there: maybe a bowl and a saucepan, and that was it. ‘I like it. When I come back to Ireland after a trip there, people comment on how relaxed and happy I am and that I look 10 years younger.’

After three years together, Kasao and Siobhán chose to formalise their union, marrying in late 2010. It wasn’t the first marriage for either of them. ‘Both of us had been in relationships that ended up being more or less loveless,’ says Siobhán who was married for 15 years. ‘It was harder for Kasao because after I divorced, I went on a few dates; when he split from his partner he didn’t date anyone.’ Between Siobhán’s male brood of four children, and Kasao’s children – Sabaya, nine, and Sariku, seven; he also ‘adopted’ his nephew Dulla, 17, whose education he pays for – the combined Byrne-Learat family is quite extensive. ‘In theory, we have seven boys between us,’ points out Siobhán.

Siobhán’s two younger sons, Sam and Richard, travelled to Kenya for their mother’s wedding in October 2010, followed by a trip by the two families to a camp in the Maasai Mara. In April 2011, they celebrated their marriage once more, this time in Ireland. Now Kasao divides his time between Ireland and Kenya where, with his wife, he runs Adams & Butler Africa. The pair have also set up a charity. The Nalepo Educational Fund provides education and training in the Samburu East region of northern Kenya. ‘The boys all love Kasao,’ says Siobhán. ‘When he goes back to Africa after a trip to Dublin, they all miss him. He’s a very positive, happy person: there isn’t anyone I know that doesn’t like him.’ It’s not an ideal situation for a couple who only found each other in middle age, but Siobhán plans to maintain this hectic lifestyle until her younger sons leave school. At that point, she hopes to move to Africa and spend most of her time in Kenya.

Is the prospect daunting? Not at all. ‘When we started together, Kasao said we’d have to live in Nairobi because he thought I was a city girl,’ says Siobhán, explaining how her husband fretted about how his European wife would adjust to life in a Samburu village. ‘Then it was the suburbs, then an hour or two away from the city, then a town without electricity. . . Now he’s willing for me to live in the bush, hours from anywhere with no electricity and no water. ‘Each time I’ve gone over we’ve gone camping – he knows I can cope.’ And what about Kasao, I ask, when I finally meet him on a cold blustery night in Dublin, does he find Dublin just a little colourless and dull compared to Kenya? He says he doesn’t mind the Irish weather (though he concedes that the unpredictable nature of our climate perplexes him) but admits that the main draw is, naturally enough, his wife Siobhán. ‘Anywhere she is, I will go there,’ he says. ‘Wherever she is, I will visit…’