“Remote and the last wild and unchartered territory of Kenya”
“Remote and the last wild and unchartered territory of Kenya”
Northern Kenya, a land of harsh contrasts. Unforgiving lava fields, deserts and soda lakes, pristine spring-fed oases, the hardiest of indigenous communities and a burgeoning population of unique animals that thrive in these environments.
As a safari region, “northern Kenya” encompasses millions of acres of conservation land. Between the extremes of Lake Turkana to the north and the designated National Parks and Reserves such as Meru and Samburu in the south, most of the land is owned by communities practicing their traditional pastoralist lifestyles alongside free-roaming wildlife.
Life here is dictated by the fickle presence of water. The Ewaso N’yiro river is the lifeblood for most of the region. Translating from the “Maa” language, the “Brown River” is fed by rainfall on the Aberdare Mountains and the Laikipia plateau, as well as snowmelt from Mount Kenya. It snakes its way through the low-lying area to the south of the Matthews Range and disappears into an inland delta known as the Lorian Swamp. Along its way, it sustains thousands of animals and it’s no coincidence that it passes through some of the region’s best wildlife destinations. The most famous of which is Samburu…
These three little reserves abut ‘The Ewaso’ and are famous for being the best opportunity to spot the “Northern Five”. This gang of special creatures features the blue-necked Somali Ostrich, the bizarre Gerenuk antelope, the Beisa Oryx and two stunning, but critically endangered animals – the Reticulated Giraffe and Grevy’s Zebra. The latter of which there are currently only around 3,000 left – less than all the Black rhinos in Africa!
The elephant population here is also thriving, with hundreds returning to the river each dry season, having spent the green periods in their favoured haunts across the ecosystem. The Save The Elephants organisation have their headquarters here and are worth a visit to learn more about their conservation work and the local elephant herds.
One of the best places to see leopard in Kenya, these reserves boast numerous accommodation options, mainly catering to the budget and mid-level traveller. Most lodges are nestled on the banks of the river, in groves of Doum Palms, making for great opportunities to spot drinking elephants and basking Nile crocodiles.
Samburu and Buffalo Springs are the densest for wildlife, but also vehicles and tourists, especially during the peak months of June to October. The quieter months tend to be in March to May and again in October and November. While non-territorial wildlife tends to be have spread out after the rains, the region is transformed with wildflowers, grasses, birds and insect life.
Across the ‘Great North Road’, is the entrance to Shaba, which some claim to be the prettiest park in all of Kenya. With only one lodge here, crowds are few and far between. While wildlife can be harder to spot at times, having Shaba’s springs, rocky outcrops and Tortilis woodlands to yourself is well worth it. Mobile camping in one of the many campsites is the best way to immerse here.
Surrounding Samburu are community conservancies that offer exclusivity and a range of different activities.
A number of community-owned group ranches in Northern Kenya have been turned into conservancies, providing an opportunity for sustainable traditional pastoralist lifestyles and economic benefit from wildlife and eco-tourism. Most options here are high-end, low-impact models, focusing on luxury, exclusivity and genuine cultural experiences.
Right on the boundary of Samburu, their location means that guests staying at the lodges here can get their wildlife fix, but then escape any crowds to enjoy the freedom to off-road, night drive and walk – all not allowed in the reserves. The many spectacular rocky outcrops here make for some of the most beautiful sundowner spots.
At over 320,000 hectares in size, Namunyak is one of the largest. It encompasses the entire Matthews Range, which means that guests staying in one of the few lodges here get to combine authentic cultural experiences with decent wildlife viewing and the Matthews’ forests, which is home to numerous endemics, such as butterflies and prehistoric Cycad plants.
Also found in Namunyak is the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, which is well worth a visit. Set up by the community, it is an organisation that rescues, rehabilitates and releases elephant calves that have lost their mothers to poaching, drought or human-wildlife conflict.
To the east of Namunyak is the Sera Community Conservancy. Here you can find the first community-owned Rhino sanctuary in Kenya. Over 100 square kilometers of the conservancy was fenced to create a safe haven for Black rhinos that were translocated in from places such as Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Here, guests can experience the unique activity of stalking the rhinos on foot with a team of trained guides and rangers.
To the south east of the region lies a chain of volcanoes known as the ‘Nyambene’s’. These create a pattern of rainfall as they catch the warm, moist air from the Indian Ocean that travels inland over eastern Kenya’s deserts.
Numerous streams of crystal-clear water emanate here and tumble down to create ribbons of palm-fringed oases in what is otherwise a harsh ‘thorn-veld’. Naturally, these conditions attract wildlife and it was for this reason that Meru National Park was created.
Off the beaten tourist path, Meru is often cited as a secret gem. A thriving rhino sanctuary means all of the Big Five are here and the contrast of habitats makes it one of the most spectacular parks in Kenya.
Along with neighbouring Kora National Park, it was here that George and Joy Adamson hand-raised and released Elsa the lioness and subsequently the lions used in the creation of the Born Free movie. Guests here can visit George’s grave, next to that of some of his lions.
Lodges in the park range from budget-friendly to some of the most romantic on the continent.
To the far north west lies the “Jade Sea” – Lake Turkana. The largest alkaline lake in the world, it is also the planet’s largest permanent desert lake. It sits in the floor of the Great Rift Valley and is surrounded by fascinating geological and anthropological history. The shores of the lake continue to reveal hominid fossils and stone tools, searched for by the Turkana Basin Institute, set up by the famous paleoanthropologist family, the Leakey’s.
The southern end of the lake is blocked by a barrier volcano that last erupted in the late 1800’s. This barrier also blocks the Suguta River. It flows seasonally to form a small isolated lake that is so alkaline due to the extreme evaporative forces here, it creates the perfect conditions for the algal food for Lesser Flamingos. At times, over a million can be seen here.
The only way to see this spectacle is from the air, as part of a scenic flight. Chartering a helicopter as part of your safari is one of the ultimate experiences. The access afforded by these machines allow you to travel between all these varied landscapes in a matter of hours – a journey that would take weeks by car, camel and foot.
For the really intrepid, a few specialist operators offer lightweight mobile expeditions to the lake. Beyond the search for adventure, remote tribes and geological treasures, these trips are also an opportunity to go fishing for Lake Turkana’s monster Nile Perch.
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