Northern Kenya Wilds - Africa Point Blog
Kenya's north is a vast country of rugged dramatic scenery, whose native people have shunned the modern world, and indeed appear contemptuous of it. It's hot and dry, vistas are perched with scorched desert, merciful oases, beautiful plains, barren mountains, enchanting forests, and a selection
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Northern Kenya Wilds

Published 1st January 2014
Modified 15th June 2015
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Kenya, Travel Planning & Tips, Samburu, Game Watching

The Dream of Adventure Travelers

Kenya's north is a vast country of rugged dramatic scenery, whose native people have shunned the modern world, and indeed appear contemptuous of it. It's hot and dry, vistas are perched with scorched desert, merciful oases, beautiful plains, barren mountains, enchanting forests, and a selection of wildlife and prehistoric sanctuaries.

In this harsh, remote and beautiful world, the last of Kenya's proud nomadic tribal people live out their days as their forbearers did before them, perhaps for thousands of years.

Adventurous and intrepid explorers, see in Kenya's north a world of marvelous possibilities- in terms of the natural world and the people. Wilfred Thesiger- one of the 20th century's leading explorers and travel writers spent over 20 years of his life amongst the Samburu and Turkana of northern Kenya. He was a passionate fan of traditional societies; particularly desert tribal people who remain untempted by the allures of the modern world.

In the wilds of northern Kenya, Thesiger -an Eton and Oxford educated Englishman, found people after his own heart and spoke like one of them when he wrote of a "deep-seated resentment of western innovations in other lands, and a deep distaste for the drab uniformity of the modern world." Through his splendid writings and unsurpassed black and white photography, the world has heard about these lands and its people from a sympathetic voice. Two of his books you should look out for are: "The Life of My Choice" (1987) and "My Kenya Days" (1994).

Kenya's northern frontier region unwraps from Isiolo and rages on through to the borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. The region can be split into two; the eastern and the western sections. The eastern section -from the Moyale cut-off point, onwards to the Somalia border -is rather inhospitable, hostile and has little to offer. The area is un-touristy and the security situation is unfavourable: only guided tours by the Kenya Wildlife Service or under police or military escort are viable.

The much friendlier western section is the heart of the northern country and offers plenty for the adventurous spirit. The region shares in the Great Rift Valley and is endowed with amazing topographic diversity, and is an incomparable prehistoric treasure house. It hosts 10 national parks and reserves, where flora and fauna is protected. The Lake Turkana national parks are a UN World Heritage Site.

The semi arid expanse is home to an assortment of tribal peoples. The El Molo -of whom there are no more than 500 of them - are among the last of the remaining true hunter-gatherers. They live on the southern shores of Lake Turkana. They are great weavers of basketry, and fish using simple tools and equipment. Other hardy residents include the colourful Samburu, the crocodile eating Turkana, the Borana, Rendile, Pokot and Somali. These peoples are primarily itinerants who constantly traverse the blistering panorama.

Isiolo has an air of desert culture and is the market town where the north comes to trade. Here you can buy local desert souvenirs from as far as Somalia and Ethiopia. A little further north, Archers Post - a former British military training base - offers another possible shopping spot for souvenirs and basics.

Slightly south of Archers Post, the Ewaso Nyiro River brings life to this semi-desert land. The Ewaso Nyiro rises from the foothills of the Aberdares. Eastwards, the river crashes into Chanler's Falls, while westwards it quenches the national reserves of Samburu, Shaba, and Buffalo Springs, before finally vanishing in the Lorian swamps. The area is parched, with lots of acacia and scrub, except the banks of Ewaso Nyiro, - which attracts wildlife -elephants, crocodiles, hippo and other thirsty animals. The region is so dry that the Ewaso Nyiro at times in the year completely vanishes.

The adjoining Samburu (165 sq km), Shaba (239 sq km), and Buffalo Springs (128 sq km) are the most accessible and frequented of the northern sanctuaries. Many meet here: hunters and prey, game and viewers, birds and watchers, herders, campers, lodgers, writers, filmmakers, scientists, game wardens. Game found here includes the big five- elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo, and Somali ostrich, hippo, crocodile, gerenuk, cheetah, hyena, giraffe, Grevy's zebra, and oryx. Some of the wildlife is not found elsewhere in Kenya- such as Beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe and Grevy's zebra.

Grevy's zebra - the biggest and wildest of Africa's three zebra species, are endemic to the northern Kenya and Ethiopia. Their numbers have fallen sharply in recent years - from about 15,000 in the 1970's to an estimated 2,500 in 2005. They are now classified as endangered as a result of habitat loss, competition with livestock, and hunting.

Samburu National Reserve with its walking trails and observation points promises an unforgettable game viewing experience. It is in this sanctuary in 2002 that the Biblical promise that lions shall lie together with lambs came true. In an event that captured headlines worldwide, a lioness adopted a newborn Beisa oryx, defying common practice and common sense.

The lioness protected the baby oryx, and only occasionally allowed the real mother to suckle it. The fun finally ended when game wardens intervened to separate them after the oryx had gone hungry for two days. Samburu National Reserve is 325 km to the north of Nairobi.

The Samburu/Shaba/Buffalo Springs complex is home to 365 bird species. Some birds commonly sighted are Vereaux's eagle owl, night heron, redheaded weaver, and pygmy falcon and palm nut vulture. In Shaba you find the endemic Williams lark.

A blend of grassland and woodland, Buffalo Springs National Reserve is a land of rolling plains, riverside forests, and swamps. Shaba, though the least visited of the three is the most appealing. The Shaba Hills steal a landscape marked with low-lying plains, springs and swampy perches where animals gather in the dry season.

Shaba was the last home of the legendary Joy Adamson -author of "Born Free" and it is here that she was murdered in 1980. Shaba has become a choice location for many moviemakers. It was here in 2001 that the American reality TV series "Survivor" was shot. There is excellent lodge accommodation serving the three sanctuaries, in addition to campsites. You can tour Samburu, Shaba and Buffalo Spring as part of a Kenya safari package that will also include some of the other popular game parks and reserves the country is famed for.

The Samburu, who dominate this region, are a colourful people popular with seekers of authentic Africa. "Samburu" means butterflies in the Masaai language and is perhaps inspired by their partiality for colourful adornments. The tall and dark Samburu have a nomadic lifestyle and like their Maasai tribal kin share a fetish for the colour red. In full regalia, a Samburu man will have a bright red fabric to cover the waist downwards, bare chest, simi (sword) tucked at the waist, a spear in hand, and face and hair dyed in red ochre paint.

Samburu women wear colourful cloth, with red as the dominant colour. The men move with their animal herds in pursuit of water and pasture leaving the women and children behind with no guarantees given of their return. Their herds are most important to them, and nothing will deter them in seeking their happiness and increase.

Rising tourist activity has however sensitised them to other possibilities besides herding. Their time invested beadwork and handicrafts have now become fashionable trade items from which some derive a livelihood. The Samburu place great value on their hand-me-down practices, and like most of the northerners they have adamantly refrained from embracing the modern world.

Further north of the three reserves but still within Samburu land lies Wamba, a scenic mountain town. The mountains give way to Maralal, -a town that marks the beginning of the pure northern frontier wilderness. The market town appears all-ancient with its camels, caravans and trails, traders and warriors. Maralal is 350 km from Nairobi - and can be accessed either from Isiolo or Baringo.

Maralal -'The Place of God' is where the Samburu in times past asked their gods for spiritual guidance and intervention. Maralal National Reserve, the Loroghi Hills and the towering Matthews Range provide magnificent climbing, mountain cycling and hiking trails. There are also opportunities for camel safaris with the excellent Samburu guides, who navigate the wilds on camel back as part of their daily life.

Sleepy Maralal comes alive for 2 days in August when local and international entrants arrive for the annual Maralal International Camel Derby. The Yare Club is the base of this event, which is Africa's premier camel race. The race is great fun and racers are grouped in professional (42 km), semi-professional (20 km) and amateur (10 km) categories. Many amateurs are embarrassed by the obstinacy of the camels, which can head off in a completely different direction from that planned by the organisers.

In recent years, a parallel professional mountain bike and amateur bicycle race event also takes place. The bicycle race is on the calendar of the International Cycling Union and winners tally credits accordingly. The 2005 camel race attracted 60 international and 150 local participants and was won by the reigning champion Sanju Lenengoi, a local herdsman. Harry Ross- an Australian took the third position and was the best performing international.

You can lodge at the Yare Club or its camping grounds or stay over in one of the budget hotels in town. If you can spare the cash or need to unwind after the event, head for the upper end lodge just outside town whose amenities include a golf course and swimming pool.

Further ahead of Wamba and Maralal, the Ndoto Mountains rise grandly, interspersed by the Milgis River, which waters the Losai National Reserve to the north. Losai is tacked between two rivers, and rich woodlands twine the riverbanks with a moderate thorn bush inland. This is a land of rocky hills, where snakes and lizards find comfort; and is home to elephants, greater and lesser Kudu, Grant gazelle and gerenuk. During rainy spells, the rivers bring such floods that the reserve is impenetrable even on mounted truck. You are advised to clear with the reserves' warden before trucking to Losai- for at times the difference between an adventure and a death trap is razor thin!

Further and higher ahead, in the heart of the desert, you come across an amazing forested sanctuary atop a mountain. You are in Marsabit- a paradise of the northern wilderness. This is the domicile of the Borana - a nomadic people who moved to Kenya from Ethiopia in the early 18th century. Other peoples who inhabit the area are the nomadic Rendille and Gabbra, and the sedentary Galla.

Mount Marsabit is a thickly forested mountain that forms Marsabit National Reserve. It covers 1500 sq km and rises above the plains by 1700 m. The mountain has created its own microclimate and its name means "Mountain of Cold". Emerging from the plains, the thorny bush changes into a thicket of evergreen forest, and further up into an acacia dominated grassland, and finally the volcanic craters.

And here lies the fascination of the mountain - three permanent fresh water crater lakes. The crater lakes have been the focus of a number of writers and filmmakers, including Martin Johnson and Vivien de Wattville, who were particularly spellbound by the picturesque Lake Paradise. Marsabit is good birding country, and 370 bird species, among them the atypical Lammergeyer vulture are on record.

The sanctuary is well known for its larger breed of elephants and has every species of northern wildlife including greater Kudu, reticulated giraffe, striped hyena, aard wolf, buffalo, bushbuck, leopard and caracal. On safari, patience is called for, as animals can be difficult to sight due to thick vegetation. There are a number of public campsites within the park.

Ahmed, Kenya's most celebrated elephant had his home in the Marsabit. Armed with Africa's biggest recorded set of tusks, the animal was protected by presidential order in 1970. Ahmed was accorded a round-the-clock guard in the last years of his estimated 63 years. Today, his preserved body is at the National Museum in Nairobi.

There are rock-climbing opportunities at the Ol Olokwe mastiff to the south of Marsabit. Marsabit is 620 km from Nairobi, with the last nearly 300 km best navigated by 4-wheel drive vehicle.

Further north looms the inhospitable Chalbi Desert. It is the harshest of the entire northwestern section and only the toughest of species survive. Stretching up to Huri Hills towards the Ethiopian border, Chalbi pretends to be a simmering lake; but it is actually an ocean of hot and dry volcanic sand raging from horizon to horizon, with no shelter or oasis to offer respite. When the rains come, the desert turns into a non-navigable shallow lake.

The Chalbi's harshness breaks off at the much extended western oasis front of Loyangalani, -'The Place of Trees'. This was definitely created to reward those who successfully transverse the uncouth dryness behind. The oasis extends to the shores of Lake Turkana -the jade coloured water mass - widely known as Jade Sea. Count Samuel Teleki, the Hungarian explorer who was the first European to reach it in 1888 had named it Lake Rudolf.

The crocodile infested Lake Turkana has the triple honour of being Kenya's largest lake, the world's largest desert lake and the world's largest alkaline lake. It occupies 6,405 sq km, and stretches for 250 km lengthwise. The rivers Omo, Turkwel and Kerio feed it, but except for evaporation it lacks an outlet. The lake carries the world's largest Nile crocodile numbers, 60 fish species and over 350 bird species. Its shores are the dwelling place of the Turkana and El Molo people - a people undeterred from their traditional lifestyle by the allures of western civilization.

Further south of Loyangalani, the lake nurses the blessed South Turkana National Reserve; a haven for animals tortured by the Chalbi Desert and local herdsmen fleeing the vagaries of the dry season. At this sanctuary, wildlife and birdlife alike flourishes at the nourishment of the Jade Sea. North of Loyangalani is Koobi Fora, which has established Lake Turkana's reputation as an unmatched repository of the prehistory of mankind. This is the only place in the world where hominids and remains that link modern man to his immediate ancestor, Homo Habilis have been found.

Dr. Richard Leakey, the archaeologist, unearthed his 2 million year prize findings here in 1972. In 1984, Kimonya Kimeu discovered the remains of a Homo erectus youngster. Later Meave Leakey came across a 3.5 million skull of our earliest ancestors. Since then, more relics have emerged about this site, triggering the establishment of the Koobi Fora Museum.

Moving further north beyond Koobi Fora, the Sibiloi National Park (157 sq km) emerges- home to a variety of wildlife including the hippo and crocodile at its water end. At Sibiloi, many fossils have been found as well. These include the extinct Behemoth -akin to the elephant, and the 5 ft jaws of an enormous 45 ft crocodile believed to be 1.5 million years old now sitting in the Koobi Fora Museum.

Taking a boat ride into crocodile territory, the Central Island National Park and the South Island National Reserve await. These are tiny islands within Lake Turkana believed to have resulted from volcanic action. Central Island encompasses 5 sq km of a dry and hot land that is crowned by three crater lakes named after their common inhabitants- that is Crocodile, Flamingo and Tilapia Lakes. This island park is part of Sibiloi and is an important breeding place for crocodiles. South Island lies at the southern tip of the jade waters and spreads over 39 sq km. Here, birds flock in numbers in search of breeding grounds and is an exceptional location for bird watching.

The Lake Turkana national parks are a UN World Heritage Site on the basis of their importance to the natural and prehistoric world.

The ferocious Turkana feed on crocodiles, and along the banks of Lake Turkana you will see children as young as 7 years heroically shouldering their crocodile catch. The renowned photojournalist Mohammed Amin and his partner Duncan Willetts captured this enthralling shots in the book "The Insider's Guide to Kenya" (1989), written by Michael and Peggy Bond.

West of the Jade Sea, Eliye Springs mark the culmination of the wild north as the Lotikipi plains disappear at the Kenya - Sudan border. Turkana is Kenya's remotest destination- 800 km from Nairobi partly on rough roads- and is visited mainly by those adventure travellers who relish off-the-beaten track.

Northern Kenya can be accessed from Isiolo and from the western countryside via Baringo or Kitale through the Marich Pass, Laikipia, Lokichar, and Lodwar to the northern shores of Lake Turkana. The road to Isiolo is all weather, but beyond, the region has well tracked rough roads suitable for testing your 4WD. Most of these roads are impassable during the wet seasons. To travel north, you need organised transport, as there is no reliable public transport service. If you are visiting just one specific locality in the north- say Lake Turkana, you can get there by charter aircraft from Nairobi.

Most parks and reserves are well equipped with campsites, lodges, bandas, inns, and have walking and hiking trails and observation points. In this adventure-land, there is no room for standard hotels and restaurants. Due to the logistics required to make a successful trip, it is advisable for visitors to be accompanied by competent guides as part of a professionally organised northern Kenya safari package.

Northern Kenya borders territories of Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan that have been unruly in the recent past. Incidents of banditry have been reported, especially past Samburu National Reserve and it is prudent to travel in convoys with police escort. The northern tribal peoples place great stock on cattle and cattle rustling has been reported between rival communities. This however does not generally affect tourists and other travellers who have no cattle they can covet. To the west of Lake Turkana, it is considered quite safe for tourists.

On your northern Kenya safari, wear light cottons and linen. It is advised on walking safaris and game drives to wear down to earth colours, as bright clothing will draw the attention of the animals to you. You will need a robust luggage pack able to withstand the handling, and dusty conditions. For protection against the unrelenting equatorial sun, bring along a good pair of sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat.

To help bring the animals and landscapes closer, pack a pair of binoculars. Carry cameras and video equipment to preserve the images you will doubtlessly need to record. Do not forget to pack sturdy footwear equal to the tough conditions. If you plan a long trek, a basic medical kit is advised.

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