Samburu Land – Treasure of big game and unique traditional culture
Samburu Land is a vast region stretching from the foot hills of Mt. Kenya into the North which offers all of what makes up the wild beauty of Kenya’s outback. Open spaces, serenity and some of the best opportunities for game safaris as well as other outdoor activities and not to forget this is where you can still encounter the fascinating pastoralist culture of the Samburu people who lent the land their name who are also cousins of the famous Masai. Apart from the new tarmac road leading from Isiolo towards Marsabit, there is no other stretch of Kenya’s wild North which is so easily accessible.
Dare and come, experience the outback for starters!
Lighthouse attraction: Samburu National Reserve
It is a freaky ride approaching the lighthouse attraction of the Samburu region. After crossing the vast green wheat farms on the shoulders of the giant Mt. Kenya you branch off northwards about halfway between Nanyuki and Meru. What follows is a 30 kilometer plunge of the road towards the open plains of the North which you will see shimmering yellowish in the distance.
The air becomes hotter and the land drier with every meter of the drive. And when you pass through Isiolo, the gate town to the outback on the Great Northern Highway towards Ethiopia you might wonder; ‘Have I missed the right road and took a turn towards Arabia instead?’ With its beautiful Jamia mosque and many Somali people Isiolo has the strong flair of the orient.
The remaining 30 kilometers to the region’s lighthouse attraction will carry you over arguably one of the best tarmac roads Kenya has to boast. Interview a safari driver and you’ll understand what a toil this stretch had been until two years ago if you need further proof of the many achievements Kenya has made on its way to the future. But as soon as you branch off the black belt of the highway right after the bridge over Ewaso Ng’iro river in the small town of Archer’s Post, nothing seems to have changed since time immemorial.
You still get the real feel of the wild – and fortunately so!
The Ewaso Ng’iro River which means ‘brown water’ in Maa, the joint language of Masai and Samburu,carries precious water from the misty Aberdare Range and Mt. Kenya through Samburu land before merging with the huge Lorian Swamp further to the East. This river’s water is the ultimate lifeline for man and his cattle as well as for the huge herds of game. Its silted waters turns the Samburu National Reserve into possibly the best place in Kenya to go on safari second only to the Masai Mara.
Although Samburu National Reserve is only 165 km² in size, it offers very diverse landscapes ranging from riverine forests, patches of doum palms and acacia trees on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro river to grasslands with impressive rock outcrops and kopjes peaking at Koitogor mountain at an altitude of 1225 meters.
Samburu National Reserve is Elephant country and you can frequently witness huge herds bathing in the river. This is most likely attributed to the existence of the research centre,The Elephant Watch Camp, initiated by the famous Kenyan researcher Oria Douglas-Hamilton. During dry season, the jumbos dig deep waterholes with their tusks in the empty riverbed which then become a focal point for other animals in the area.
Once the rains upstream bring back the river, huge herds of buffaloes, impala and other thirsty animals flock to its waters. But the shady groves of the riverine forest are very perilous for they are the hunting grounds of leopards. Not to mention the danger lurking in the waters of the river with the return of the hippos and massive crocodiles.
Lion and cheetah are also frequently seen in the savannah stretches of the reserve. In the trees of Samburu National Reserve bird watchers will find hundreds of species, including the rare Palm nut vulture and the Vincaceous dove.
It is worth noting that there is no other place so close to Nairobi where you can witness the diverse species of the Northern Kenya’s dry-land flora and fauna such as the beautiful Reticulated giraffe, the highly endangered big-eared Grevy’s zebra wearing its fine striped skin, the blue legged Somali ostrich, the spike-horned oryx, the Vulturine guinea fowl with its ruby eyes, croaking hornbills and the delicate gerenuk which some people call the giraffe antelope because of its long neck.
All in all the integral part of the natural richness of the region are the Samburu people who have co-existed peacefully with the wild animals for centuries which permitted their survival. Around the main gate of Samburu National Reserve, there are various villages which are open to visitors and explain about the impressive culture that evolved from being exposed to a harsh environment.
Other attractions of the area:
Buffalo Springs National Reserve
While Samburu National Reserve lies on the Northern side of Ewaso Ng’iro river, the Southern banks are occupied by the Buffalo Springs National Reserve which is 30 km2 larger in size. But for whatever reason Buffalo Springs does not boast the same abundance of animals – unless when it gets so dry that the huge swamp area at the merger of Isiolo river and Ngara Mara river forms the last source of water which attracts wildlife from close and far. On the Eastern rim of Buffalo Springs you will find hot salty springs which seem to be an agreeable home to the herds of buffalos – hence the name of the reserve. What has been written earlier about the eco system of Samburu is generally true for Buffalo Springs as well.
Buffalo Springs is much quieter and more remote; owning less lodges and camps, a feature which has its own merits. Many of the current camps and lodges were initially founded by European hunting safari operators a century ago.
Shaba National Reserve
Shaba National Reserve stretches along Ewaso Ng’iro on the same river bank as Buffalo Springs but on the Eastern side of the highway. Shaba is another Treasure of its own a couple of kilometers distance from Samburu and Buffalo Springs. The open savannah plains are what make Shaba outstanding.
The national reserve became known mainly through the work of Joy and George Adamson who resided here attending to and releasing big cats into the wild. In fact the painter, author, conservationist and researcher Joy Adamson lived in the reserve until her very last day back in 1980. There is a humble memorial close to a distinguished luxury camp which bears her name. Shaba also served as the location for the hit series Survivor Africa, which pitted its contestants against the challenges of this wild remote country.
The film about Joy’s husband George ‘To walk with lions’ was also shot here. The structures built by the film company to act as George’s camp in a remote area which is today’s Kora National Park is still standing here and can be visited by enthusiastic visitors. Lastly, Shaba also happens to be the home of Kamunyak, a lioness who became famous for adopting several oryx calves!
The major attraction of Shaba however is its spacious landscape which is dominated by grassy savannah. If you are one of the very view to leave the reserve on its Eastern side and follow Ewaso Ng’iro downstream towards Lorian swamps you will reach Chanler’s Falls. Come to think of it they could be better described as rapids at a point where the river cuts through a belt of granite.
Kalama Conservancy to the North of Samburu National Reserve is an adorable example which offers visitors the chance to do a foot safari with a experienced Samburu guide learning some of the exceptional outback skills. Apart from the national reserves which are managed by the county governments, a lot of communal land in the region which are the so called group ranches owned by Samburu clans, have been opened for individual safari tourism. On one hand, it enables the Samburu to continue their lifestyle as pastoralists co-existing with nature as they always did, on the other hand the people can earn money for educational, social and conservational projects to stay on track with the general development in the country.
Specialised safari operators and some of the lodges offer a multitude of activities to bring you closer to the unique environment of Samburu Land and its inhabitants.
White Water Rafting
A 3-8 day white water rafting expedition on Ewaso N’giro river offers thrill seekers the ultimate adventure whenever the river carries enough water. While riding up to 30 kilometers of rapids you will drift past elephants, antelopes, zebras and giraffes. At night you camp on the sand banks of the wild river. Experienced guides and professional equipment ensure your saftey on the river and as you sleep under the stars, surrounded by the sounds of the African night.
Another unforgettable nature experience is a close on-foot encounter with the Big Five. Some of the accommodation in the region offer on foot safaris outside of the reserves. But the best option would surely be a hike with a Samburu guide in one of the sanctuaries like Kalama who can give you an entry into the local culture and teach you about the rules of the wild and how to read the myriad tracks and signs.
Although Samburu adore cattle, Samburu Land is predominantly camel country because of frequent droughts. Several of the lodges and camps within the reserves have camels for guided rides and trips but the real deal is an extended camel safari through the region further to the North which will carry you far beyond any motorable tracks. The camels are mainly meant for carrying equipment, food and water while travellers hike alongside and only ride when they feel like it. There are some highly specialised tour operators for camel safaris available for this experience.
You can design new routes on the Ololokwe, an impressive rock face of which is a couple of hundreds meter high. The massive bold granite head on the Northern horizon of Samburu National Reserve can be climbed in a long day or a two days hike that leads you through lush forests to a breathtaking view point facing the plains and Mt. Kenya. If you hear the call to become a pioneer rock climber and have credible skills,
Boasting almost 400 recorded species of birds; the whole area of Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba is really ideal for birding safaris. Some remarkable species in the region include arid endemics such as Donaldson-Smith’s sparrow weaver, the shining Sunbird, the bristle crowned Starling, the Vulturine Guinea fowl, several hornbill species, Somali ostrich and rare species such as the Taita falcon, migratory kestrels and William’s lark.
Samburu Cultural Safari
The Samburu people have a rich pastoralist culture which is expressed through their adorable bead work and colourful attire. Their ranging lands stretch up to the Eastern shores of Lake Turkana with several places offering the unique opportunity to share a couple of days in a village or visit one of the community owned lodges within the sanctuaries of the region. This will give you the chance to learn more about the Samburu culture concerning the use of traditional medicine and herbs, their incredible knowledge of livestock as well as the slowly fading practice of divination, prophecy and reading the stars.
The Umoja Village near Archer’s Post offers visitors the chance to experience Samburu culture. The village is run by the highly engaged UMOJA UASO Women’s Group with Rebecca as its chair. It was founded to improve the livelihood of its members and the Samburu community through education and poverty alleviation. The group helps fight the many inequalities faced by Samburu women and enriches the livelihood of those living in the village by providing greater opportunities for their children’s futures. In addition to a guided tour of a traditional Samburu cultural centre and village, guests will find a restaurant, camping facilities, bandas and a safari vehicle for rent. For further information please visit www.umojawomen.org
Isiolo as the gate to the North faces the bright future of becoming a booming town. The new international airport just opened by the President, Honorable Mwai Kibaki marks the start for the Northern Transport Corridor which is one of the flag ship projects of Vision 2030. It will put Isiolo at the future crossroads of the projected South Sudan and Ethiopia railway and road links while a planed tourism resort city is meant to open the Northern Tourism circuit.
Right now, the town is a meeting point of Meru, Somali, Samburu, Borana and Tukana people and becomes especially lively during the days of the local cattle market. The only tourism attractions of Isiolo are the St. Eusebius Cathedral with its paintings of the story based on the Book of Exodus by Italian painter Guido Villa and its islamic complement, the beautiful Jamia mosque.
Practical Travel Information:
How to get there
Most visitors come to the Treasure of Samburu Land as part of a safari package from Nairobi or with a hired car. Samburu, Buffalo Springs, Shaba and Kalama are all accessible by road via Isiolo and Archers Post, driving time from Nairobi is approximately 6 hours.
Inside the conservational areas, there is a network of signaled tracks. A 4WD is very advisable, especially during and shortly safter rains.
There are airstrips in both, Samburu and Buffalo Springs with daily scheduled flights from Nairobi. Air Kenya connects Nairobi and Meru with Samburu while Safarilink also serves Samburu.
Budget travellers can also travel by matatus which leave Nairobi from Nairobi’s Accra road stage. To get to Isiolo or Archer’s Post through Nanyuki will cost you around Ksh 700-800. In Archer’s Post, there are a couple of cars for rent if you ask around.
Where to stay
All of the conservation areas notwithstanding their individual status of protection offer campsites to pitch your tent. It is simply unforgettable to spend an evening on the fire site before crawling of into your tent. A ranger to guard you over night can be obtained from the gates if you are not so experienced with camping in the wild and this will make you feel more comfortable. The most practical base is the campsite next to Samburu Game Lodge although the site is not a real beauty. But it offers a decent infrastructure and you can use the pool, bars and restaurant of the lodge. If you don’t have a vehicle you may even manage to get a lift around the reserve. You can always take the option of booking yourself onto a game drive on a lodge car if you find it more conevnient. Be cautioned though, baboons are the menace of the campsite, don’t leave your tent unguarded!
The cheapest option is to stay at Umoja Village’s campsite anyway, which is located right at the river banks outside of the national reserve close to the main Samburu Uaso Gate. Apart from that you can sleep in one of the bandas available. There is also a bar and a restaurant overlooking the intriguing Ewaso Ng’iro river. Umoja also provides unique cultural experiences for visitors as highlighted above. For further information please visit http://www.umojawomen.org
Lodges & Tented Camps
Samburu National Reserve
Of all the reserves, Samburu National Reserve offers the biggest choice of accommodation with;
Samburu Game Lodge, the oldest lodge in Samburu which is centrally sited near the park HQ,
Elephant Bedroom Camp with its well-designed airy tents
Elephant Watch Camp of elephant researcher Oria Douglas-Hamilton with six individually styled tents and open-air bathrooms (www.elephantwatchsafaris.com),
Larsen’s Tented Camp with all of its luxury tents facing the river and a pool (www.wildernesslodges.co.ke)
Samburu Intrepid Camp built on stilt platforms surrounded by the riverside thicket offering public deck areas on the river bank and a good pool (www.heritage-eastafrica.com).
Buffalo Springs National Reserve
The only two accommodations worth mentioning are Ashnil Samburu with its 24 chalets on the South bank of Ewaso Ng’iro and a pool (www.ashnilhotels.com) and Samburu Simba Lodge overlooking the swamps and the Ewaso Ng’iro river (www.marasimba.com).
Shaba National Reserve
Shaba equally has two good accommodations to mention: The Sarova Shaba Lodge with its stunning garden watered by a warm spring, a big swimming pool and luxury cottages (www.sarovahotels.com) and the very intimate luxurious Joy’s Camp managed by Cheli & Peacock (www.chelipeacock.com)
Within Kalama Conservancy just 8 kilometers North of Archers Post and eleven kilometers West of the highway there is Saruni Samburu which has been constructed on an exposed rock overlooking the vast plains towards Mt. Kenya. A marvelous pool, tasteful style and lots of privacy as with most Cheli and Peacock premises are granted (www.sarunisamburu.com).
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Until the next time its many thanks from the 50 Treasures of Kenya Trust for every contribution in this feature with special mention made to Mr.Harmut Fiebig for the wonderful photography and most of all to you our treasured audience for your company.
You are highly treasured.