For a million years the huge rock hill with steep sides stood undisturbed in the middle of the Great Northern Frontier, alone on 200,000 acres yet in the shadow of the sacred Samburu mountain, Ololokwe. Then, a camp was built on its top.
Just as the camp’s first customers arrived Ugali was born in one of the narrow caves pierced from the cliff side by the brief, slashing rains of April, several hundred feet below Tent 4.
The cliff side was perfect for her mother and herself. It was packed with hyrax for a light snack and baboon for something more substantial. There were also klipspringers, although their dexterity defied capture.
Why does a miniature scorpion in Samburu remind me of one of the world’s greatest paleontologists?
When Richard Leakey published The Sixth Extinction nearly a quarter century ago, many disparaged what they contended was just another publicity stunt in the then ongoing personal wars between paleontologists who were finally getting their air time with Oprah.
Grevy’s and twigas and giant hogs, oh my! We got almost all of them! The point of the Kenyan extension to a big game safari in Tanzania is to see all the unusual and rare game not found in Tanzania.
The Aberdare National Park is a highland rainforest. There are several in Tanzania, but none as large and none that still have the rare game we saw there. In Samburu, a remarkable ecosystem at the very edge of the great desert, dozens of animals and birds are found nowhere else.
We are in a “safari camp” called Saruni in Kenya. It’s the only “camp” in the Kalama Reserve, 220,000 extremely wild acres that sit just on top of Samburu National Reserve. I’m hard pressed to think of a more beautiful place for tourists to stay in all of East Africa.
Later today and tonight we begin our game viewing, but arriving just for lunch it was universally decided to just “hang out” for the rest of the afternoon. You can imagine why.
‘Laikipia’ runs off the tongue into conversation exactly like the beautiful waterfalls that burst out of the high jungles over the dramatic cactus landscapes of deep canyons and endless vistas in north central Kenya.
Laikipia was a beautiful story in the 1970s, still compelling two decades later in “I Dream of Africa,” but it’s a grim and dark tale, now.
The great King of Beasts might soon be something less. It’s not just the statistical decline. It’s losing its glamor. It’s important that we outsiders don’t force this issue. Africans are handling it just fine.
I’m finishing this blog atop a jutting mountain overlooking at least 500 square miles of the Great Northern Frontier. It would be easy to think I was overlooking a secret little national park in Utah or Arizona. But there are no airplane or car sounds, only the sounds of the crested francolin announcing the sunrise, and the very distant groans of lion returning from an evening’s hunt.
Several times during our three days here I saw my favorite bird: the golden breasted starling. The bird field guide calls it “resplendent, wild, restless and unapproachable.” That’s Samburu. That’s where we are now.
There are five unique life forms in Samburu and today we found them all!
The reticulated giraffe, the blue-legged Somali ostrich, the gerenuk, the Grevy’s zebra and the oryx. The oryx and gerenuk can be found, rarely, in other southern parks, but the other three are wholly endemic to this area.
And by the way, we also had a wonderful experience with two leopards!
I can’t help but thinking that our enormous success game viewing here has to do with how few tourists there are. Not too many years ago we would have had 30 cars around the leopard. Today, we were two of five.
The rest of the special animal attractions we found all by ourselves, with none others to share even if we wanted to.
Kenyan tourism remains sorely depressed. Many lodges are at the brink of bankruptcy. Special unimaginable deals are now available for last-minute bookers.
At the same time this group has such a remarkably positive attitude and is untiringly persistent. We’d not found the ostrich or zebra after a long but wonderful six hour early morning game drive. So after our brunch set up in a grove of doum palms was over, the plan was to return to camp.
Not this group! On we went and within a half hour we’d found the ostrich and another half hour we’d found Samburu’s greatest prize of all, the very endangered Grevy’s zebra.
Samburu’s unique big game is because of its geographical isolation in the near desert environment of the Great Northern Frontier. Once this area was as lush and rainy as those not too far north, and when that changed thousands of years ago, the animals that were captured here by a changing geography speciated.
They need less water and they regulate heat much better than their distant cousins to the south. And for many of us, they’re more beautiful!
The reticulated giraffe’s distinct markers present a major contrast with its pure white background. The ostrich has deep blue, rather than red legs during breeding.
A quarter way through my marathon 40th Anniversary of Guiding Safaris-safari, we prepare now to leave this magical place for still another of my favorites, the Maasai Mara. Stay tuned!
Jutting mountains, horizons to the end of the earth, really rare and beautiful game and lodging at one of the most luxurious, remote lodges on earth. That’s Samburu Saruni.
In two days we’ve seen reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, elephant, lion, a leopard kill (without the leopard, we were just minutes late) and are enjoying some of the most expansive vistas Africa can provide.
After yesterday’s wonderful drive around Mt. Kenya (which hasn’t once seemed to disappear from the skyline) we pulled past Isiolo and even Archer’s Post and continued on the desolate desert road north.
But not for long. Within a half hour we’d turned into the private Kalama Conservancy, a community based reserve that adjoins Samburu National Park. Eight villas are built on a steep mountain about a thousand feet above the mojave like desert of this incredible Northern Frontier.
Our first game drive within the conservancy found elephant and the reticulated giraffe, found only in these northern areas. It’s a beautiful, more colorful giraffe than the common one found most everywhere else, with additional horns and darker, very articulated markings.
Gerenuk were everywhere. That’s the weird long-necked antelope with an ET-head and giant ears.
Last night we went to bed under a starlit sky with a full moon that laid on the enormous landscape like a silk veil. Hyaena swooned and nightjars piped all night long. In the morning genet cats joined us in our individual villas to share the chocolate cookies of early morning tea.
Then this morning we left at 6 a.m. in the dark but with the full moon still radiant above, Jupiter just below it, Mars and Venus also visible. We encountered many elephant and giraffe as we entered Samburu National Park.
We set up breakfast on the river shore and watched two lionesses on the opposite bank, obviously irritated with an unsuccessful night of hunting. Honey badger tracks were all over our sandy knoll.
Under the towering doum palms at riverside we increased our bird sightings to the highest level I’ve ever achieved on a safari of this length so far: just under 400 species. Today we added the palm nut vulture, rosy-patched shrike, magpie starling and white-headed mousebird among many others. We saw lots more of the remarkable vulturine guinea fowl.
But the most amazing bird sighting of all was our own North American Northern Wheatear, a small thrush like bird that makes the longest migration on earth, even greater than the arctic tern. Some of the birds migrate 30000 km per year, from North America via Asia to here in Samburu. Their migration is so long that they spend more time migrating than in either their breeding or wintering grounds.
There are many luxury lodges in Kenya, but few this remote. It’s an outstanding place with incredible rooms, outstanding food and drink and a remarkable staff.
I am singularly impressed, in fact, with the Samburu staff. Their knowledge of the area is unmatched, of course, but who would have suspected the guides would know the Latin names of birds?
I was astounded to learn that all of them had rarely left this place, and that their entire education was from government schools in the area. Frankly, I think several of them would be better managers than the white faces that owners feel compelled to provide as a welcome.
The current South African couple (actually a Californian who married a South African) is incredibly nice, but they don’t know the language or Kenya. They’ve been here for less than a month having come from a presumably successful stint running a dive resort in Malaysia.
So I hold nothing against this wonderful couple. But it’s time Kenyan lodge owners understand that Kenyans, not wazungu, should manage their properties.
A ranger’s report filed yesterday from northern Kenya explains so perfectly why lions in the wild may quickly becoming a thing of the past.
Ewaso Lions is a stellar NGO working in the Laikipia/Samburu region of northern Kenya, a beautiful semi-arid terrain just north of Mt. Kenya. The small under 25-person group is run by a 4th generation Kenyan Asian, Shivani Bhalla, whose list of prizes from conservation organizations takes up a dozen lines of her resume.
More than half the staff is composed of local mostly Samburu. Jeneria Lekilelei, the Field Operations and Community Manager, won last year’s Conservation and Field Hero Award from the Walt Disney Foundation.
Jeneria’s field report explains that lion/human conflict in his region increases with the onset of the rains. During the dry season lions have a relatively easy time picking off wild game that must necessarily congregate at certain water sources.
With the rains wild game disperses. So does domestic stock: out of their bins where they’re fed hay during the dry season, they seek the same natural pastures that the wild game seeks.
Jeneria recounts one morning when “the lions killed camels in 5 locations so I was getting calls from all over. I raced to one area where Lengwe and his pride killed a camel and its baby…
“Three warriors from the village came and they all had guns. I was sure Lengwe was going to be killed by these warriors, so I sat with them under a bush all day” and talked them out of the killing.
There are several critical back stories to this positive tale.
The first is pretty evident: “I was getting calls from all over.” These weren’t warrior’s whoops, they were cell phone calls. Even the most remote wildernesses on earth are peppered with cell towers and there are generally more mobile phones per person in the developing world than in America.
Cell phones represent increasing connections of everything, including government and people. Killing a lion in Kenya is a crime.
The second back story is of Lengwe the lion. Lengwe would be a goner in the truly wild world of times past. Jeneria first encountered Lengwe when he was nearly dead, incapacitated by a broken femur. Ewaso Lions mobilized a remarkable rescue operation that included not only rounding up vets and federal wildlife rangers to immobilize Lengwe, but even of transporting an X-ray machine into the area for a correct diagnosis.
Lengwe was not exactly nursed back to health, but he was certainly monitored carefully and eventually he became a pride leader. Losing Lengwe to three young warriors would have been a rather sorry end to an otherwise heroic tale.
Finally the third back story was the rationale that Jeneria used to dissuade the warriors from their revenge killing: Where were the kids?
Stock – whether camels or cows or goats – is traditionally the responsibility of young boy herders. As Jeneria recounts asking the warriors, “Have you ever heard of a camel being killed when herded by a proper person?”
The question shamed the warriors. The implied answer is also quite illustrative: lions won’t go anywhere near Samburu or Maasai herding stock and this particular stock was being neglected. Not tending stock doesn’t just remove protection, it essentially cedes ownership.
Because of the good work of Ewaso Lions, the great Northern Frontier’s predator is faring better than it would otherwise. Because of cell phones, Maasai boys herding stock are going to become increasingly delinquent so that they can pass their CPAs.
This wonderful story with wonderful, positive characters ended beautifully, but its lesson is proof things will not go well as currently arranged. Climate change and human progress might be at odds in some places, but in this case they are working hand-in-hand to wreck havoc on this traditional tapestry of life.
More guns make more war and less guns make less war and the truth is shown clearly today in Kenya’s Samburu district.
Since the incredible arming of Kenya by the Obama administration for the Somali Invasion four years ago, the number of weapons in northern Kenya has increased by a ridiculous amount. It’s particularly noticeable now that the war is winding down.
Guns don’t wind down.
So all the tens of thousands of unused machine guns and grenades have reached the black market and they’re available for a song.
The Samburu district of Kenya has always had a sort of wild west flavor, including messy cowboy entanglements. For one thing it’s where two historically antagonistic tribes, the Turkana and Samburu, meet.
Both tribes hold creation myths stating that God created cows only for them, so if the other tribe has cows, they must have stolen them. The young warrior class is charged with recovering as much of these stolen goods as possible.
So cattle rustling has existed at least for as long as anyone has written about the area, well back to the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s different, now.
To begin with, there’s more competition. There are more people, so more food and more cows are needed at the same time that climate change is exacerbating the desertification of these northern areas.
So while it used to be pretty much an ethnic conflict between two or three major tribes, today the issue of enough land for grazing is just as important.
The Kenyan government is moving perhaps too quickly to ameliorate this by generating new local revenue from deep-hole oil wells financed by the Chinese.
But the most important difference is how people fight.
Guess where they might come from? Amazing, isn’t it, that they cost less than fashioning a good spear?
In the most recent cases it appears the warring factions are better armed than the police.
Kenya has a strict firearm policy: it’s not easy as a private citizen to own a gun. But in the Samburu district of Kenya it’s hard to find a Samburu without a gun.
In an attempt to reduce the weaponry, Samburu authorities announced an amnesty several weeks ago for anyone who turned in an illegal firearm. That program expired Tuesday and “no firearms had been surrendered.”
It is, of course, a common argument promoted by arms manufacturers that peace prospers when more people have guns. This presumes that the vast majority of people are good and only use guns to defend themselves.
That argument is about as cogent as the idea that God created all cows for Samburu.
I’m on vacation until July 23 when I guide my last safari of the year in Tanzania; please come back then! Meanwhile, I’m posting some of my favorite photos taken on my safaris over the last 39 years. Scenes like the one above don’t really happen, anymore. This was taken nearly 30 years ago near Archer’s Post in Samburu, Kenya. Many of the people in this area, today, remain poor compared to the rest of modern Kenya, and many will still adorn a few beads and bracelets over tattered dresses and old gym shorts, but except for some “living museums” or lodge staff dressed up in traditional regalia, this is a picture of many years ago.
A remarkable investigation published today in Nairobi shows the enormous difficulty that traditional societies have preserving their life ways in the modern world.
Kenyan Anthony Kuria concludes his excellent investigation:
“Children are meant to enjoy the purity of an untainted childhood, have the opportunity to go to school as well as the privilege to freely enjoy and experience the simple things in their lives. Finding alternatives to [“Beading”] is, therefore, an imperative.”
“Beading” by Samburu people in the north of Kenya is a practice closely associated to FGM and forced marriage. Kuria is modern. The people he was interviewing were not.
Samburu land is an area I know well, and I’ll be returning to it in February with another group of loyal travelers. It’s one of the most beautiful areas in the world, very similar to America’s great southwest. And like America’s great southwest, much of it is not particularly hospitable to humans.
Several generations ago the traditional people who lived here – the Samburu, Turkana, Rendile and Boran among others – were strictly shepheds. This is a near universal life way of people all the way from lower Egypt down to the equator who survive in very arid conditions.
The cattle munch what little greenery exists, and there’s not much. So the cattle are forever wizened and probably sick, but they are the critical ingredient for survival of these near-desert people.
The people don’t eat the cattle, they concoct a yoghurt made from the blood and milk of the herd that is probably among the most nutritious health foods on earth! (I have tried it only once and do not expect to duplicate the experience.)
The goats are kept to support the cattle: when a baby cow is born, the mother’s milk is the most nutritious, so it is kept for the people. The calve is taken away from the mother and raised on the less nutritious goat’s milk.
This simple survival method has worked for millennia for millions and millions of people. But in my life time radical changes have beset Africa. The arid lands are now rich with oil and other minerals. Even leapfrogging fossil fuels, many remote parts of the near deserts of Africa now support massive solar and wind farms.
This rapid change dislocates traditional peoples and their values. “Beading” was part of a lengthy process of ritual in the traditional Samburu tribe, linked to FGM and forced marriage, that probably was as critical to the survival of the Samburu as were cattle.
But it’s not just that it has changed, it must change.
In today’s modern Africa those who linger in the past are tread upon, ignored or miserably manipulated. They become the pawns in terrible conflicts, as today we see in Samburu where ancient enmities between various tribes are exaggerated by modern weaponry and instant communications.
FGM and associated practices like “Beading” have been outlawed in many African countries for a number of years, but enforcing these laws has – until now – been intentionally lax:
“Jail sentences only last a few days or weeks after which they are released on condition that they will not violate the rights of the girls again,” Kuria reports.
The main reason enforcing “modernity” is so hard in places like Kenya is because in the modern world, not the traditional world, tribal practices are deemed wrong and immoral. That’s a near unbridgeable divide.
Were development to occur more rapidly: were more good schools built more quickly, more good roads laid, more electricity provided, then the preeminence of “modern” becomes inviolable. But that isn’t the case yet in much of Samburu.
Not until deep oil wells or huge solar farms are cut into the landscape does real development come along. That brings its own controversies among modern Kenyans, just as among modern Americans.
“Beading,” FGM and forced marriage ought not be condoned. But to ban them without providing modern alternatives to the people who still embrace them is as equally wrong as to allow them in our more enlightened world.
Just as Russia’s leap into modernity created a powerful mafia, so it now appears that Kenya’s is doing the same. And for travelers this unfortunately means you can no longer travel overland north of Mt. Kenya.
I’ve found myself becoming peculiarly cautious in my golden years, so I reflect when I was a twenty-something year old gallivanting through Idi Amin’s very dangerous Uganda, or even daring to cross the Omo in the presence of desperate, armed thugs. So jungle on, you young’uns, but keep your eyes wide open.
And if you’re one of my clients, I’m afraid we’re staying clear. Of where? Of some of the finest wilderness left in Africa: Samburu and Laikipia, to be precise.
Now there’s still a very safe way to visit these places: fly in. If you fly into the reserve’s airstrip, I’m absolutely confident that you’ll be as safe as the Queen of England shopping at Harrods. But that spectacularly gorgeous drive off Mt. Kenya onto the Great Northern Frontier, or those amazing landscapes between Samburu and Laikipia seen only from the ground … it’s over. At least for the foreseeable future.
This past weekend saw one of the most spectacular, clearly well planned cattle raids ever seen in the history of Kenya. Seven people were killed and scores wounded and a thousand cattle whisked away.
It happened about 50 miles northeast of the Samburu National Park Archer’s Post gate, and about 35 miles north of the nearest lodge in Shaba National Park.
Now admittedly this particular raid is pretty far from tourist areas, but its size got me, and it’s one of a series of raids that’s been increasing in the area. Last year, for instance, there was a gun battle in broad daylight right on the bridge over the Ewaso Nyiro River at Archer’s Post.
This is the only way tourists can enter the area overland.
The weekend raid is about 20 miles from where Joy Adamson was killed by bandits more than three decades ago.
And that’s what gives me perspective. The “Northern Frontier” has always been a lawless land. It’s just too hard to patrol. I remember only 4 years ago having to charter an aircraft for a group of only 11 of us who wanted to drive all of 20 miles from Samburu to a lovely retreat in the Mathews Mountains, because bandits had been sighted on the road we were scheduled to drive.
But bandits stopping cars and taking an occasional goat are way different from what is being reported in today’s modernizing Kenya.
First of all, in order to steal 1000 head of cattle in a single raid, you’ve got to have someone who has a 1000 head of cattle to steal from. That never existed in the days of subsistence herding, where a man with 25 head was a royal chief.
Second, it’s rather hard to conceal 1000 cows. These guys had multiple trucks, using the new Chinese paved road built through the desert to whisk their booty into the markets down south.
According to the police commissioner of the area, law enforcement was outgunned. Shotguns against AK47s.
Recognizing this danger was coming, the Kenyan Government has been aggressively trying to disarm everyone in the area. But according to Member of Parliament from the area in which this giant raid occurred, Abdul Bahari (Isiolo South), “people in Samburu have not been disarmed and even if they have, we have not seen the effect as they seem to have guns during the raids.”
And playing to his constituency as I suppose he has to, a neighboring MP, Adan Keynan (Wajir West) continued during the press conference with a warning to the government.
“We’re giving them seven days, or else we’ll tell our people to protect themselves. We cannot be perpetually talking to a government that does not see, does not hear and does not sense the value of life,” said Mr Keynan.
The drought has something to do with this, of course. It makes the weak, weaker, and it makes the markets more ready to take on stolen goods.
And finally what concerns me most is that the old days’ criminals were very respectful of us tourists. Sometimes, it took a bribe, but nary a hair was mussed. I felt we were respected as distant foreigners interested in a distant land, and part of a movement that in the end everyone living in the area really gained from.
A thousand cattle is a hefty haul. You’d have to have a pretty good tourist season to reach that booty. So I just don’t want to be on that new Chinese road when these guys are in the midst of a heist.
One little bridge has been repaired in Kenya’s cockamamie system of big game parks. Is this Kenya’s Bridge to Nowhere?
To no fan fare whatever the bridge over the Ewaso Nyiro River was reopened on Saturday, theoretically reconnecting the two big game parks of Samburu and Buffalo Springs.
The key word here is “theoretically.”
This is the only bridge besides the main road’s at Archer’s Posts which links the two sides of the river. The bridge suffered its third washout in my life time last February during the heavy floods which ended the three-year mini-drought.
Theoretically, the bridge now allows tourists staying at lodges and camps on the south bank of the river (which is technically “Buffalo Springs Reserve”) to visit Samburu, and tourists staying on the north bank of the river in Samburu to cross over and visit Buffalo Springs.
Simple, eh? Well, no.
First, why would you want to cross over? Is the grass always greener on the other side? (There isn’t any grass in Samburu.)
The river was formed over thousands of years as a line in the sand at the point at which the Mathews Mountains watershed is meaningful.
North of the river (Samburu) is higher, hillier and catches more rainfall from the prevailing winds that butt against the Mathews Mountains. So there are usually more antelope, and therefore, more cats.
South of the river is remarkably much drier: gravel and flat, which usually attracts larger numbers of the rare northern desert game like Grevy’s zebra and the blue-legged Somali ostrich. Until Somak’s lodge opened on the south side last year, then flooded out, then reopened, there were fewer tourists on the south side, and the animals knew that.
So transient families of elephant, shier cats like leopard and mothers with babies like newborn giraffe were usually found on the south side.
So yes, you do want to see both sides, and seeing both sides would be the only way to attain the expectations of most brochures, pundits and Kenyan Government PR about “Samburu.”
Ergo the bridge.
Erstwhile Kenyan politics.
Click here to go to the Kenyan Wildlife Service website list of national parks and reserves. Can’t find Samburu? Can’t find Buffalo Springs? Is this a mistake?
Yes, it is a terrible mistake, but not for the reasons you might think. There’s no oversight here in the website. It is alphabetical, left to right by row. Still can’t find this reserve which is so important in every publicized safari to Kenya?
No one can. It isn’t a national park or reserve. It belongs to the county council.
(By the way. Can’t find the Mara? No, that isn’t a national park or reserve, either. It is three separate county council reserves like Samburu and Buffalo Springs are two separate county council reserves.)
This, of course, is lunacy. But that’s ordinary Kenyan politics, and regrettably, the new constitution which is doing so much good to bring sanity to places where there was lunacy before has not even touched on this subject of wildlife management.
Richard Leakey in his earlier days as head of the KWS tried diligently to bring all the important ecosystems under the authority of the federal government, the KWS. He lost his legs trying.
The Mara and Samburu bring in the greatest amount of tourist revenue of any of the great wilderness reserves in Kenya. But each are administered separately from the federal government. (The Mara is actually in an unbelievably worse situation.) Why?
So that the fat cats in the county council can pocket the proceeds.
See my earlier blogs on wildlife management for a continued harangue. Back to the bridge.
Now that the bridge is opened, the two county council’s which own the respective northern and southern parts of the great wilderness are fighting once again. Each side wants tourists to pay to cross the bridge and enter their land.
Well, I suppose there’s logic to that. But the logic ends when the tourist who is residing on one side, pays to go to the other side, than has to pay again to return to the place where his laundry is being done!
With fees rising this could mean $50 every time you cross over the bridge!