Overland Samburu is OUTlawed

Overland Samburu is OUTlawed

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.

Kenya’s Bridge to NoWhere NoHow

Kenya’s Bridge to NoWhere NoHow

$50? $75? $100? $150? $200?
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!

What we need is a bridge to reality.

Samburu Struggles

Samburu Struggles

Samburu's beautiful trademark, the gerenuk.
Samburu was devastated by the flash flood of February. It can recover, but only if the authorities act quickly, now.

We spent the entire morning of Day 4 on the Cronan family safari in Samburu. I’ve always loved the place, and this morning was no exception.

We weren’t even out of the private Kalama Reserve when we spotted kudu. This beautiful large antelope is quite common in southern Africa but hard to see here. It was a real treat and an indication that for some reason they’re an animal that doesn’t like the big protected game parks.

We had been in the Samburu reserve for too long when we saw lots of lion tracks along the dry river bed that begins near the old airstrip. We followed them in circles, actually, there were so many, until in the not too far distance we saw a small collection of vehicles.

Sure enough, it was three female lion screwing up another hunt. They all looked very desperate and hungry. It was one fully grown female and two nearly fully grown female cubs. When we arrived they were stalking gerenuk! That’s hardly an hors d’oeuvres for them but they obviously had had a number of failures during the night.

We left them and almost immediately saw a large, satisfied male cheetah resting in shade. The rest of the morning was equally rewarding, with three sightings of martial eagle, East Africa’s second largest and in my opinion, most awesome raptor. It has a funny, squared head because of its feather configuration, which looks like a astronaut’s helmet (minus its impressive beak!)

But throughout the game drive we saw the terrible destruction that the February flood had on the park. The roads were a mess. There were huge caverns in some places making passage impossible. The river is still twice its normal width, and dead trees were everywhere. The beautiful thick forests that used to run along and out from the embankment have been seriously compromised.

But it was at the bridge which connects the western part of the reserve with Buffalo Springs to the south that you could see exactly how horrible it had been.

The main cement bridge itself is still standing and looks pretty good. But the slopes up to it on both the south and north sides have been entirely swept away, and the steel railing bent completely under itself, in some places ripped out of the concrete.

The power of this flood had to be unimaginable.

If the Samburu authorities work quickly before the routine of not using the bridge etches its way into safari culture, then the important attraction for all of us being able to visit both reserves will be preserved. If they wait, itineraries will be adjusted and it could take years before the interest in Samburu recovers.

Similar to the bridge, the work on the lodges and camps that were washed away continues but doesn’t seem to be progressing too quickly. We talked with managers and workers at Larsen’s, Intrepid’s and Samburu Lodge, and they all looked exhausted but admitted they were far behind schedule.

Samburu is a magical place. The private sector is working tirelessly to rebuild this Kenyan masterpiece. Not it’s the government authorities turn to rebuild the roads and bridges.

Beautiful Saruni

Beautiful Saruni

John Cronan and daughter, Debbie DeSilva, at Saruni.
The new Chinese road has made travel from the Aberdare to Samburu easy, just like in the old days. More for less, again!

On the third day of our Cronan safari we left The Ark after a wonderful night which included sightings of all the regulars (lots, and lots, and lots of elephant; buffalo, hyaena, bushbuck) with the added bonuses of giant forest hog and porcupine!

Our African porcupine is considerably bigger than the one at home, and shaped more like a dinosaur than a round ball of spines. His large head and stumpy almost fish-like snout is particularly intimidating. But at the same time it’s one of the shyest creatures on the veld. It showed itself twice for only minutes, and the moment there was any significant noise from the lodge, it went scurrying back into the forest.

We left The Ark pretty much on time and got to the Equator before most of the other tour buses and cars, so were first in line for the “Coriolis demonstration.” When I had briefed my three scientists (Dad and two sons) on this upcoming attraction, there was great laughter and enormous skepticism.

The chief honcho at the equator gives the demonstration. You walk 20 meters north, and the twig he places in his plastic pitcher that has a small hole at the bottom, twists around clockwise. And the stream of water coming out of the pitcher twists clockwise.

Then, you walk 20 meters south, and the effect is counter-clockwise. And then, on the Equator, there is no twisting, just an unmoving twig and a single untwisted stream of water out of the hole.

20m N of Equator Curios, it twists clockwise!
After watching the demonstration, the scientists were … well, dumbfounded. Now, I still don’t know if it’s for real!

We got to Samburu around lunchtime and picnicked at the gate. We spent the afternoon being introduced to most all of Samburu’s unique species and ended the day at Saruni, a luxury ecolodge in the Kalama conservancy just north of Samburu.

The property is beautiful, but it’s truly unique attraction is the view. It sits atop one of the hills at the start of the Mathews Mountains and the view extends all the way past Isiolo up the slope to Mt. Kenya. It is absolutely one of those expanses that just sucks up your soul and makes you breathless.

As we had sundowners on the highest hill in the area, the view was 360 degrees of some of the most beautiful landscape in Africa!

When is the best time for Samburu?

When is the best time for Samburu?

From angie@

Q.    When is the best time to visit Samburu and the northern frontier areas, like Laikipia?

A.    These beautiful areas just west and further north of Mt. Kenya include two actually different ecological zones, and so the answer is just a bit different depending upon which zone you have in mind.

The southern and western portion, commonly referred to as Laikipia, is still at a fairly high altitude, ranging from around 6,000′ (Ol Pejeta) to 4,500′ (Ol Mukutan).  This zone is divided from the much larger which includes Samburu by a steep escarpment, and everything in this much larger zone is much lower, around 2,500′.

Both areas are semi-arid, very similar to much of America’s southwest.  Most of the year it is dry, and when the rains come (late March and again in November), the desert plants like a variety of cactus and heavy-wooded bushes bloom spectacularly and it transforms in a very short time from a sort of brownish, wind-swept area into a vertible Garden of Eden.

So for both zones if you’d like to see the area at its prettiest, and when many of the birds are at their peaks, then travel just after the rains begin, either in late March or mid- to late November.

Animal viewing is great in these areas year round, but it is better during the dry seasons.  This is particularly true of the southern zones, where several important rivers (like the Ewaso Nyiro through Samburu) concentrate huge amounts of game.  But if you are traveling to the southern zone (Samburu, Shaba, Buffalo Springs and the Mathews Mountains) too long into the dry season and even the animals start to disappear, because these rivers dry up.  So for the southern zone for game viewing I recommend December, January and the first half of February; or July and August.

The northern zone is less effected by the dry season because of its higher altitude.  And so for places like Lewa Downs, Sweetwaters, Borana, etc., there is a wider window for good game viewing: December – March, and July – October.

Dry Samburu

Dry Samburu

The weather in the Northern Frontier continues to tease us in a mean way, and I fear that a real drought has taken hold.

It use to be that droughts came about every ten years, were horrible for about two years, then quickly faded into memory. The last 4-5 years in East Africa has not seen the devastation of the last real drought of 1992-94, but more agonizingly, has hit certain areas even worse, while flooding others.

This extreme patchwork of weather is a blessing on the one hand, but is beginning to foment real fear among the local population that farming can no longer be planned. Northern Kenya starting around Mt. Kenya has been hit pretty hard since the heavy rains of 2003 flooded much of the area. And year after year since then, there are sections that have been utterly devastated.

This year it appears that one of those areas will be Samburu and Buffalo Springs national parks. Even as we watched heavy rains on Mt. Kenya to the south, the angry winds were creating dust storms in the parks.

From the Aberdare we headed to the Equator and stopped for the great fun demonstration of the coriolos effect. Then, to bargaining! Tourism is way down and prices are too, and India in her endless quest for all things orange, picked up a beautiful beaded shawl for ten bucks!

We then stopped at the Nanyuki Weavers for a full tour and the kids took time to disrupt the school day of the local primary school. As I’ve written before, I discourage “charity” of the sort most tourists would like to evince, (see blog of February 20 of this year), but on-the-spot generosity is heart warming.

The kindergarten kids literally mobbed Nicky, Phoebe, Emma, India, Ellery and Zanzy. They grabbed their hands, wanted rides on the shoulders of the older boys and posed for many of Ellery’s photos. Then towards the end of the “gathering” Nicky asked his mom, Hillary, if he could give them his football.

As the blue-and-white slightly undersize football soared into the playground to endless cheering, I think, too, a few of my clients souls soared just as high.

We continued on the Chinese road, a most amazing story that I wrote about in the blog of March 15 of this year. Its rapid development has slowed slightly, and so there are deviations along the way that take us back to the old road. Nicky delighted in these “bumpy” times!

For the time being, anyway, game viewing isn’t so bad despite the drought. In fact, there were some very unusual sights that worry me, but very much pleased my clients.

Grevy’s zebra is an unusual species found only in the northern frontier. It is seriously endangered even though its numbers have increased nicely in the last 4-5 years. There are now about 2700 individuals. In Samburu park, there would normally be around 200.

We saw at least 400, and in truly analogous behavior, they were herding. Grevy’s are normally solitary. This could mean that they are trying to migrate out of the dry area into the fresh and well watered areas of Mt. Kenya and Meru. On the other hand, it might just mean they’re all coming to the dry river’s edge, because that’s where the last grass is found.

I think they’re trying to migrate. But they’re going to have a difficult time this time, as the Chinese are completing construction of a main road from Isiolo north into the desert, and there is increased traffic and a lot of heavy equipment commotion. It’s still possible, but will undoubtedly confuse them.

Vulturine guinea fowl are the beautiful cousins of the very common helmeted guinea fowl, but this time we saw dozens more vulturine than common! In fact, we estimated seeing nearly 2000 vulturine guinea fowl. These are a desert species in the best of times, and their unusual congregation must mean that the drought is deepening.

We also encountered good numbers of oryx, Grant’s gazelle, lots of impala and baboon, and reasonable numbers of elephant. On the east side of the park, the Isiolo river continues to flow pretty well, actually creating a flowing stream under the Archer’s Post bridge and keeping alive the Lorian Marsh. The river is fed by underground streams and aquifers created by Mt. Kenya, an indication that the rains there weren’t completely bad.

And the wildlife in that area is wonderful. We found three cheetah on a Grant’s gazelle kill, and many beautiful reticulated giraffe.

But east of there, where our Larsen’s Camp and most of the other lodges and tented camps are located, the river is completely dry, since this area is fed by the Aberdare, and the rainfall there has been sporadic. Where elephant have dug wholes in the now dry Ewaso Nyiro River, the lodge staffs are beginning to. It’s the only way to save most of the animals.

Normally Kenya’s Long Rains end in June, but it continues to rain on parts of the Aberdare and Mt. Kenya. It won’t be able to break the dust of the drought of Samburu, but if it can restart the Ewaso Nyiro River, total devastation might be avoided.

Never to worry about the monkeys, however! India and Anne’s tent was invaded early one morning by the ever present vervet. The early morning cookies were taken, but according to India, Anne’s demonstrative screams saved them from further monkey destruction!

Fantastic Samburu

Fantastic Samburu

Dry Samburu gives us great game viewing!

It’s a real fallacy that the dry season is better for game viewing than the wet season. I think this myth was propagated by safari companies who didn’t have the right equipment capable of driving over slippery roads or getting out of mud.

Wet areas draw the animals, especially the herbivores. The veld is beautiful and fresh. Healthy herbivores mean the predators, like lions, have a better chance of raising larger families of cubs. All told, I always prefer wet season game viewing.

But when done correctly, the dry season can also be fantastic, and so it was for us on Saturday and Sunday, March 15 and 16, in Samburu.

The short rains of November had failed. The river the defines the parks of Buffalo Springs, Samburu and Shaba, had lasted only a week, when it should have rained for 6 or 7 weeks. The river has been dry since January, when normally it is dry for only the month of October. The Lorian Swamp is in serious risk of becoming a terrible ecological disaster.

But we know that the source of Samburu’s river, the Ewaso Nyiro, is the Aberdare Mountains, and it is getting rain, now. It remains to be seen if this will develop into a true rainy season as it should, but our fingers are crossed. And meanwhile, the game viewing in Samburu was great!

The Isiolo river, which joins the Ewaso Nyiro near the new Sobek Lodge, is flowing normally. The river comes out of Buffalo Springs. At this junction, all the crocodiles had to come, since the rest of the river is dry. We saw a pile of crocs! One of them was nearly 16 feet long, and it reminded me of what I had only seen before at Lake Turkana, and once on the Grumeti in the Serengeti.

Several of my clients were astounded that most of the large groups of elephants that we saw here weren’t drinking from the shallow water that was flowing east of the junction of the E.N. and Isiolo. Instead, the elephants were walking several kilometers west onto the seemingly completely dry E.N., then digging holes until they hit water flowing under the sand.

But the fact is that the water filtered through the sand is cleaner and sweeter than the shallow surface water which draws many birds and smaller animals. So while we saw great storks and plovers and hammerkops, and a few impala sipping the surface water flowing near the new Sobek Lodge, the elephants and most of the other animals were further west drinking from meter-deep holes the big tuskers had dug.

This means that despite the failure of the short rains, things still are pretty good for the Samburu animals. The elephants were healthy, and we saw families of buffalo that were nearly 100 individuals large! Baby ostrich, lots of Grevy’s zebra, dozens if not hundreds of reticulated giraffe, plenty of impala and two prides of lion.

That’s pretty good for a 2-day stay in Samburu, and I know this will tank if the long rains don’t come. There were some ominous signs that further north, things aren’t so good.

For the first time ever, I saw lots of magpie starlings in the park. And we found two Jackson’s hornbills. These are real desert birds that normally aren’t seen in Samburu. It must mean that wherever they normally reside further north, things are truly desperate.

It’s been almost 18 years since the last real drought. We had a spell like this about 8 years ago, and the short rain failure then was broken by a good long rains. That’s what we hope happens, now, but it remains to be seen.

But for the time being, what a wonderful time we had here! And it ended with our sundowners at the s-curve view point down from Larsen’s camp where we were staying. As we watched the sun set over the seemingly dry river, the sky turning a beautiful pink and lavender as the blurry yellow orb disappeared in the dust of the horizon, a leopard ran across the river’s sand!