The Best Safaris In Kenya

Safari In Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba National Reserves

Safari In Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba National Reserves
By Stuart Butler

Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves are three interconnected reserves on the edge of northern Kenya’s vast semi-desert wilderness.

Far removed from mainstream Kenyan life, these northern regions have a wild reputation. The landscape is harsh with endless sunburnt plains of acacia thornbush out of which rise the occasional fertile and densely forested mountain peaks, ranges, table lands and volcanic plugs.

The people who live here, the Samburu, are close cousins to the more famous Maasai, but by and large, they continue to live a far more traditional lifestyle.

And then there’s the wildlife. The lack of development up here means that – despite the hostile landscapes and climate – wildlife thrives, although you do have to be patient to find it.

Of the three reserves Samburu is easily the most popular. The Ewaso Nyiro River runs through the reserve and provides year round water and greenery for the wildlife.

Buffalo Springs, immediately to the south and on the opposite side of the river, is in many ways very similar to Samburu.

Shaba, which is just to the east and over the A2 highway connecting Kenya with Ethiopia (this is such a wild journey that vehicles are few and far between), is easily the least visited of the three parks and an ideal place to have a real African wilderness adventure.

In the 1990’s the areas surrounding these parks were renowned for insecurity and at times it was considered unsafe to visit. Although long ago the reputation has stuck and you may hear Kenyans in Nairobi (few of whom have ever ventured up here or know much about the area) tell you that it’s a dangerous area to visit.

And while it’s true that some parts of the far north do still have a dicey security situation (especially close to the Somali border), these areas are all a very long way from these reserves and all three reserves are perfectly safe to visit. Don’t let the rumours put you off. This corner of Kenya is truly one of the wonders of Africa.

Safari in Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba

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Shaba Game Reserve Kenya

Crowd-free safari in Shaba Game Reserve

Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba wildlife

Elephants, in particular, are the main event here. There are large herds who tend to migrate huge distances in search of water.

But there are also a few lion prides, leopards, lots of baboons, superb birding and some unusual desert adapted species such as gerenuk, the beautiful reticulated giraffe, the finely striped Grevy’s zebra and the blue-legged Somali ostrich.

Until they were poached out, Northern Kenya was home to huge numbers of black rhino but the good news is that today even those are back – but only in one highly protected location.

Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba highlights

Bush walks

Although walking in the reserves themselves is forbidden it is possible to arrange fascinating bush walks led by Samburu tribesmen on the periphery of the reserves (the best place to organise this is the fast growing village of Archer’s Post, which is the main gateway to the reserves). You’ll learn how people survived in this semi-desert environment and have a pretty good chance of spotting some wildlife.

Conservancies

Like the Masai Mara, these three reserves are largely hemmed in by wildlife conservancies. These are community owned land that’s managed for the benefit of both local people and wildlife and they offer incredible game viewing and interactions with local people, as well as a real sense of exclusivity. Some of these conservancies have no more than one small top-end camp on them and are closed to non-guests.

Try Kalama conservancy or West Gate for experiences you’ll never forget.

Rhino spotting

Once abundant in northern Kenya and then virtually wiped out by poachers, the rhinos are back! Travel a couple of hours north of Samburu reserve to the Sera Community Conservancy and you can witness one of the most exciting conservation stories in Kenya as black rhinos are re-introduced to their former stomping ground.

Oh, and did we mention that tracking the rhinos here isn’t done from the safety of a vehicle:oh no, you track them on foot. And you’re going to get close to them. This is a safari with an added shot of thrills!

Ol Olokwe Mountain

It fills every vista and has become something of a symbol of the north. The perfect table-top mountain of Ol Olokwe is considered holy by the local Samburu people.

Climbing to its summit makes for a hot and exhausting day but the views from the top are simply stunning. The mountain is not just holy for the Samburu though. Ruppell’s vultures appreciate the sheer cliff sides of the peak as well and have made this their biggest nesting site in Kenya.

Elephants

No other animal symbolises Samburu like the elephant. There are an estimated 800 of them moving in and out of the reserve (they migrate huge distances in search of water so might not always be in the reserve) and they are often seen playing and drinking along the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River.

Shaba

Of the three reserves, Shaba is by far the least visited and those who do make the effort of getting here are in for a treat. It’s almost a given that you’ll have this vast wildlife filled wilderness pretty much to yourself.

When to go

Although this part of Kenya can go months without rainfall, when it does rain here it rains in anger. Roads are quickly washed away and Samburu and the other reserves can be difficult to manage during the rainy season (March to June and November). January and February are dry but can be brain meltingly hot.

How to get to Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba

There are regular flights in small 8-12 person planes from Nairobi. These flights often go via Lewa and other conservancies on the Laikipia plateau which means it’s simple to combine these two diverse zones. The two main airlines serving the area are Air Kenya (www.airkenya.com) and Safari Link (www.flysafarilink.com).

If coming overland it’s about a six hour drive from Nairobi (once you’re clear of the Nairobi traffic) to Archer’s Post, a large village and the gateway to the three reserves. The road is in excellent condition and takes you straight across the wet and fertile Central Highlands at the foot of Mt Kenya.

Where to stay in Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba

The bulk of the accommodation is located within Samburu National Reserve and there’s plenty of choice. Highly recommended is Elephant Watch Camp (www.elephantwatchportfolio.com) which is run by renowned elephant experts, the Douglas-Hamilton’s.

Just outside the reserve entrance, and on the edge of Archer’s Post village is the Umoja Village Camp (www.umojawomen.or.ke). A very simple riverside campsite that also has some huts to rent, it’s part of a womens’ help NGO. Superb bush walks can be organised from here.

The conservancies offer some of the finest accommodation in East Africa as well as a real sense of isolation and an unforgettable safari experience. They’re far from cheap places to stay, but you should remember that what you pay is going directly to the local community to help finance conservation and community development projects. That means that staying at a conservancy is both good for your soul, good for the environment and good for the local people!

Kalama Conservancy: There’s only one lodge within the Kalama conservancy (which is immediately to the north of Samburu Reserve) and it’s likely going to be one of the most spectacular places you’ll ever stay. Built into, around and onto a huge granite outcrop, Saruni Samburu (www.saruni.com) is almost invisible from a distance but the stunningly turned out rooms offer a cliff side view over what feels like half of northern Kenya.

West Gate: Just to the west of Samburu Reserve, West Gate is a continuation of the same landscapes, but with just one dreamy lodge, Sasaab (www.thesafaricollection.com) where the huge ‘tents’ have a distinctly Moroccan touch.

Safari In Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba National Reserves

Stuart Butler

Stuart is the author of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal, the Rough Guide to Nepal, the Tibet chapter of the Rough Guide to China and the Bradt guide to Kashmir & Ladakh. He also writes widely about East Africa and conservation issues.

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