Remote, thinly inhabited and practically unknown to outsiders, Northern Kenya is one of Africa’s last great wilderness areas. While the Lake Turkana and the Chalbi desert are areas that even the locals have not visited, there lies a belt in Northern Kenya that is fiercely popular with locals and tourists alike.
That stretch is the Samburu National Reserve that is situated near Isiolo and offers exceptional wildlife viewing. Samburu is an unfenced reserve that protects semiarid savannah land flanking the Ewaso Nyiro river. It’s ecology is defined by the contrasting habitats of riverine forest along the Ewaso Nyiro and austere acacia scrub and rocky slopes extending from it.
This reserve along with the neighboring Buffalo Springs reserve (that is currently inaccessible due to a broken bridge) probably offers the best chance of sighting the leopard in Kenya, and lion, elephant and buffalo are also quite common. The main attraction, however, is a host of dry country specials absent or rare in most other East African parks.
This includes mammals such as Beisa Oryx, Grevy’s Zebra and Gerenuk, and a long list of birds of which the cobalt-chested vulturine guinea fowl is the most spectacular. The star attraction is however the Grevy’s zebra, which is larger than the more widespread plains zebra and with a narrower stripe pattern. This endangered species is more or less endemic to North Kenya. I tried hard to spot this beautiful mammal, but luck was not on my side on those game drives.
The Samburu landscape is dominated by the Ewaso Nyiro river, a place around which most of the wildlife action happens especially with the elephants and the crocodiles. This river rises in the Aberdare mountains and arcs through the Laikipia plateau before eventually emptying into the expansive Lorian Swamp in Kenya’s remote northeast.
Although it has been known to cease flowing in the dry years, the river is essentially perennial and its name, which means muddy water or brown water, refers to the rich red-brown top soil it carries down from Laikipia.
Within the reserve, the river supports a lush ribbon of palm studded riparian forest that contrasts pleasingly with the surrounding aridity. The jeep tracks that run parallel to both the north and south banks offer the best wildlife sighting opportunities during game drives.
Hippo and crocodile are resident and easily seen as are a host of water associated birds like fishing eagles, kingfishers and spoonbills. The riverine vegetation also attracts plenty of elephant and buffalo. The reticulated giraffe is also seen close by.
The other special area in Samburu National Reserve is the Ol Doinyo Koitogorr, a 4,100 feet high mountain that supports a tangled cover of dry thorn scrub dominated by stunted acacia trees. It is on these acacia trees that the buffalo weaver and the sparrow weavers build innumerable nests.
Wildlife concentrations are lower away from the river, but one can spot some unique species here. Like the rubber-necked gerenuk that can be seen in family parties foraging on acacia canopies. The dik diks and larger antelopes such as the eland, impala, lesser kudu and Grant’s gazelle are also very visible.
This northern scrubland is especially rewarding for birders who are on the lookout for dry country birds such as vulturine guineafowl, yellow throated spurfowl, blue legged Somali ostrich, Egyptian vulture, golden pipit, golden-breasted starling, black capped social weaver, white-headed mousebird, Somali bee-eater, bristle-crowned starling and more.
Personally, I loved the wildlife experience that Samburu offered to me during my 4 game drives here. In my mind, it is possibly the prettiest wildlife reserve in Kenya and the most interesting part of this forest is the rich abundance of birds in spite of most the terrain being semi arid.
Seeing a rich haul of hornbills here was the main highlight. This is one place that you should try and add to your Kenya Wildlife itinerary that I am sure includes Maasai Mara, Amboseli, Nakuru and Tsavo.
Distance from Nairobi: 400kms or 6-7 hours by road. Nanyuki can offer a short, yet entertaining pit stop.