Celebrating World Earth Day – beautiful Samburu in Kenya

The more my hubby and I travel around our planet, the more special we realize that it is. We’ve also seen what’s been lost already — creatures already extinct, more headed there now, and entire habitats destroyed by humans. If humans aren’t careful, within our lifetime there may be no more lions, no more elephants, no more orangutans, no more polar bears.

And the loss of each species degrades the entire ecosystem, until a point where it may threaten all life on earth — even ours.

Many people around the world are working very hard to keep that from happening; you can read about some of them on the Earthday.org website.

And to show you how special our global ecosystem is, I want to share with you one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. It’s not on the standard safari-tourist track, which is both a shame and a blessing. This is a longer read, with lots of photos; I hope you enjoy it.

Located more or less smack-dab in the centre of the country on the fringe of northern Kenya, Samburu is about a 7-hour drive north from Nairobi, along paved highways that pass through numerous small towns holding fascinating slices of Kenyan life.

Our safari vehicle was essentially a van with big slider windows, as well as a pop-up top; this had to remain closed while we were on the main roads. However, as soon as we turned off onto the reserve property, our guide opened the top up to allow us amazing views as we rode through the ruddy landscape.

Our lodging for two nights on this mobile safari was the Samburu Sopa Lodge, and although it’s only a mid-range lodge, it remains one of my favourite places in all of Africa.

The lodge is fairly remote, surrounded by miles of wilderness in all directions. Thatch-roofed buildings blend into the landscape, and have a casual feel, as if you’re staying at your own second home. The rooms are simply furnished but comfortable, with full bathrooms and electricity for part of the day (typical for remote lodges like this), which means you can use some small grooming appliances and charge up your camera batteries when needed.

The rooms each have their own walled patio looking out onto the surrounding bush — lovely places to sit in the morning or at dusk…

…and often a great place to watch wildlife meander past. Our room was visited every morning by a very inquisitive Yellow-billed Hornbill, which would perch in a nearby tree and squawk loudly.

The main areas of the lodge were atmospheric and authentic without being pretentious. The photo below shows the walkway from the lobby to the dining room.

The dining room was one of my favourite places to spend time, overlooking the wide acacia-studded savannah. We’d often see animals grazing in the distance while we were eating a meal — Baboons, Dik-dik and more.

Game drives start early in the morning, just as the sun is making its way over the horizon.

Samburu is located in the drier northern part of Kenya, so there were many standard African species of animal as well as some specially adapted for arid conditions. We were there in the dry season (late February), which was actually a fantastic time to go. Most people go in our summer to see the Great Migration, whereas we practically had the reserves to ourselves, and the dried-out landscape allowed us to have wonderful views of the animals. It was easy to see this tiny Dik-dik, one of the smallest types of antelope, in the shade of a thorny bush.

On the other hand, you can never miss the raucous Olive Baboons, quarreling and romping as if they own the place.

Secretary birds are common in eastern and southern Africa, with their spiky headdress picking up the morning light.

There is a lot of bird life in Samburu, including some species we hadn’t seen before, making it a bird-spotter’s paradise for creatures like these spectacular Vulturine Guinea-fowl…

and the sleek Eastern chanting-goshawk.

The East African Oryx, or Beisa Oryx, is well-suited to the dry landscape, able to retain water by raising its body temperature to avoid perspiring.

Two unusual species that are found here and hardly anywhere else are the gorgeous Reticulated Giraffe — the photo below shows one grazing just yards from another group’s safari vehicle —

— and Grevy’s Zebra, which lives in only in northern Kenya and Ethiopia, and can survive up to five days without water. It is strikingly beautiful, with narrowly-spaced stripes that cover its face and extend all the way down to its hooves. (The standard zebra that you’ll see in most photos is Burchell’s Zebra.)

One of the most unusual antelopes we’ve ever seen lives in Samburu as well — the Gerenuk, also known as the ‘giraffe-gazelle’. It not only has a much longer neck than most antelopes, but can also stand up on its hind legs, stretching its body into the higher portions of trees to graze where other antelopes can’t.

Elephants in Samburu have the same grey hides they do elsewhere, but bathing in the reddish dust has given them their ruddy hue.

Even the termite mounds are red-tinted, making them look like strange alien growths against the dry grey shrubs.

Just as in other parts of Africa, roads through the reserve are minimal and make for quite an interesting ride as you bounce and sometimes tilt sideways along the way. Roads back home in North America aren’t nearly as much fun!

Of course the big cats make a home in Samburu. Leopards are here, although we didn’t spot any, but we did see this cheetah family out on the prowl…

,,, and these lion cubs chowing down on their evening meal in the shade with their mother.

Lions are stunningly beautiful out in the wild. Because of habitat loss and diseases caught from being forced to turn to livestock for food, they are rapidly reaching endangered status. It would be heart-breaking indeed to lose these magnificent creatures.

Samburu Reserve runs along the banks of the winding Ewaso Ng’iro river, which was almost completely dried up during our visit. Nevertheless, it had a lush, primordial beauty, fringed by riverine forests sprinkled with multi-branched doum palms (seen in the photo below). This is what I have always imagined the Garden of Eden looked like.

In fact, as we stood on the red sands of Samburu, I had the most remarkable feeling: as if we’d stepped far, far back in time to when the world was created. There was no sound except the breeze rustling through the trees and the animals walking through the bush. The land seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, beyond the blue hills and devoid of any other humans or the stamp of civilization. The land felt ancient and untouched.

The Samburu people, who are believed to have migrated from the areas around the Nile, have a village near the river, and we had the opportunity to visit it.

They still live in a very traditional way, in huts constructed of tree branches and other found materials. They keep the lions out at night by closing the gap in a thick perimeter fence made of thorn branches.

As a semi-nomadic people, they hunt but also keep cattle, let out for the day to graze.

Women wash their clothing at the river, even during dry season.

Children do chores and play, as all children do…

… while the adults put on their colourful robes and performed traditional dances for us. They make beautiful beaded jewellery; I bought a necklace from the woman who made it.

We also saw a demonstration of how to make fire in the old way.

The provision of a school by the government has curtailed their nomadic existence, and we also saw the odd cell phone around the village.

A word of warning should you ever go to Samburu and make a point of visiting the village: take lots of water and cover up well. We spent two hours in the hot sun, and as fascinating as it was, by the time we returned to the lodge I had some heat exhaustion, relieved by beverages and a long dip in the cool on-site swimming pool.

Sunsets in Samburu were glorious as our guide brought us back to the lodge; in Kenya, as in many African countries, night drives are forbidden because the spotlights used disturb the animals.

One of the most amazing stories to come out of Samburu — you probably saw it somewhere in the news media in 2002 — was the wild lioness who, instead of killing and eating a vulnerable baby oryx, decided to adopt it. You can read more about it on the African Wildlife Foundation website.

No one knows why the lioness decided to adopt the little antelope, whose mother was still alive and would stop by to feed her baby — perhaps it’s just the magic of Samburu.

As always, all photos are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights reserved.