At the mention of safari in Kenya, the Maasai Mara immediately springs to mind. But although the Mara is undeniably a fantastic place to see wildlife, there is much more to explore in Kenya. The conservancies of rugged and scenic Samburu County, north of Mount Kenya, are the perfect destination for an off-the-beaten-track safari. Although abundant, wildlife is a little less easy to spot here, but the landscapes and local culture more than make up for that. A truly authentic and adventurous experience!
Northern Kenya’s mountainous and arid landscapes don’t allow for the congregation of the same numbers of animals as the savannah, but they are a very photogenic backdrop for wildlife sightings. While there is no guarantee you’ll see all of the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino), the so-called Samburu Special Five (gerenuk, reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Beisa oryx and Somali ostrich), that cannot be seen in the rest of the country, are common. Here, you can alternate game drives with hikes and walking safaris. The local Samburu tribes, which are mainly pastoralist and still very traditional, add color and interest.
Going on safari in Kenya is expensive, but a big part of your money goes (or should go) to conservation efforts. It is important to choose lodges that are sustainable and benefit the local population. Kenya has a tradition of community-based tourism. Its system of conservancies is based on eco-tourism operators renting large areas of land, often bordering on national parks, from local communities, reserving it exclusively for wildlife (and tourists). They employ mainly locals, giving them a stake in the conservation of their surroundings. Without the money and jobs lodges like Saruni Rhino and Kitich bring in, it might become impossible to preserve the special habitats of northern Kenya. All the places mentioned in this itinerary are part of the Northern Rangelands Trust.
There are daily Safarilink flights to Samburu Kalama airstrip from Nairobi Wilson airport. Respective lodges can organize further transportation. Roads are generally in terrible condition, so expect travel times to be long, but by no means boring! You’ll see beautiful landscapes, local villages, herders with their cows, goats and camels, and the occasional wild animal. A week is enough to get a feel for the region and see plenty of wildlife, but if time and money are no issue you can add a few extra nights and actually do some relaxing at the stunning lodges.
The best time to go on safari in Kenya is during the dry season. There are two rainy seasons: the main one lasts from April to early June, and there is a shorter period of rain between late October and December. But, like everywhere, the climate is becoming more unpredictable (there had been unusually heavy rains just before our trip for example). Right after the rainy season nature is beautiful and lush, with wildflowers everywhere, but as the dry season advances you’ll have more and more chances of seeing wildlife flocking together at watering holes. During the rainy season roads may be impassable, and most lodges are closed.
Saruni Rhino: 2 nights
First stop is Saruni Rhino lodge, a 90-minute drive from Samburu Kalama airstrip. Located within Sera Conservancy, this lodge has exclusive access to the Sera Rhino Sanctuary, a conservation project for black rhinoceros. Once fairly common, black rhinos are now critically endangered and a rare sight in Kenya. In 2015, ten rhinos were translocated to the fenced-off sanctuary, where they are monitored and protected from poachers. They are thriving and there are now sixteen.
What makes a stay at Saruni Rhino unique is that you will go on walking safaris to track the black rhinos on foot. The guides and rangers that accompany you come from the local community, some are former poachers. They are all very knowledgeable and seem to genuinely care about the program. There is no guarantee you’ll get an unobstructed view of these shy giants, but it’s an exciting experience and it’s interesting to see the terrain from up-close (it’s best to wear high sturdy shoes, as itchy grasses and prickly bushes abound). And if you don’t get lucky, there is always Loijipu, a young rhino that was abandoned by his mother and raised by rangers. Living near their headquarters, he is always happy to see visitors.
Saruni Rhino lodge itself is beautifully situated on the bank of a wide, dry riverbed, sheltered by huge doum palms. There are only three cottages, of which one a family villa, ensuring you’ll have a very intimate stay. There is a small but pretty pool and the friendly staff do everything to make you comfortable. Lovely dinners are served by candlelight outside on the sandy riverbed.
The rhino sanctuary is a half-hour drive from the lodge, but you have good chances of seeing other wildlife along the way. There are various types of antelope (including gerenuk and lots of dik-dik), reticulated giraffe, elephant, smaller mammals like warthog, jackal and rock hyraxes, and plenty of birds, both in and around the sanctuary. Vervet monkeys sleep in the trees above the lodge and at the height of the dry season, elephants and others come to drink at the waterhole just in front. At other times, it’s more difficult to see wildlife from the comfort of your cottage, but the dry riverbed is studded with the tracks of all kinds of animals, from zebra and hyena to the elusive aardwolf, so you can always get lucky!
Kitich Forest Camp: 2 nights
The next destination is Kitich Forest Camp in Namunyak Conservancy. Located in the Mathews Mountain Range, the camp is surrounded by pristine forest and very different from anywhere else in Kenya. Even in the dry season it remains green and relatively cool, in stark contrast to the arid plains below. Kitich is very remote, which adds to the appeal, once you’re there at least. It’s a very long and bumpy drive (about 4 hours from Saruni Rhino and up to 3 hours from Kalama airstrip), and although the road is interesting it’s something to take into consideration. I recommend you go there with Saruni’s rather ambitiously named Northern Express, a comfortable jeep-minivan with great driver Joseph.
If you’re willing to make the trip even longer, consider adding a visit to Reteti Elephant Sanctuary on your way to or from Kitich. Reteti is a community-owned elephant orphanage, where they rescue and rehabilitate abandoned elephant calves and other wildlife (like Loijipu the rhino), before reintroducing them to the wild.
Kitich Forest Camp consists of six elegant and comfortable canvas tents and an inviting common area overlooking the Ngeng River. Service is very friendly, although the food could be improved. The camp is run entirely on solar power, hot water for showering is brought to your tent upon request. Staff, trackers and rangers are mainly from the local Samburu tribe. This is a very traditional region and if you’re lucky your stay coincides with some cultural event.
Here, there are no game drives, but beautiful hikes to viewpoints, picturesque picnics and swimming in rock pools. There are quad bikes for the adventurous and books for those looking to relax. Birds and butterflies flit around the camp, but other wildlife is not easy to see, hiding behind the dense foliage. Here too, at the height of the dry season elephants come to drink right in front of the lodge. At other times, you might see warthogs and vervet monkeys. There is often lots of movement at night, when forest buffalo, giant forest hog, bushbuck and others are most active. Leopards are known to roam around the area, and we even spotted fresh lion tracks, but predators are rarely actually seen.
Kitich is not your classic safari lodge, and it’s not for those who are only interested in seeing big mammals. A lot of guests are people living in Kenya, rather than foreign tourists, who are attracted to Kitich for its singular wildness and authenticity. But even if you’re only in the country for a short while, this is a special spot that well deserves the effort of getting there. Plus, your stay will help the preservation of this unique and still largely unexplored ecosystem.
Saruni Samburu: 3 nights
Keeping the best for last, head to what might be the most stunning lodge in all of Kenya. Saruni Samburu is built right on top of a big volcanic rock and has a breathtaking view over the wildlife-rich plains below. The six stylish villas are luxurious and super spacious and make the most of the sweeping views. The outdoor showers are a nice touch. There are not one but two stunning pools and even a spa. Leopards live nearby and cheeky baboons occasionally steal food from the fridges. Even though you’re here to go on safari, you’ll have a hard time leaving the lodge!
Saruni Samburu is set in Kalama Conservancy, a short half-hour drive from the airstrip and from Samburu National Reserve. You can go on game drives in both the reserve and the conservancy. You’ll be sure to see lots and lots of elephants and all of the Samburu Special Five, plus plenty of other wildlife. There are good chances of seeing big cats (lion, leopard and cheetah) especially as the dry season advances.
The Samburu guides know the area and its fauna very well, they know exactly how close they can get and are very respectful of the animals. Like at all Saruni lodges, they use open jeeps, which are much more comfortable for wildlife watching than the minivan safari vehicles many other lodges employ.
When it was time for us to leave, we had the best farewell one could wish for. Arriving a little early for our flight back, we had to clear the airstrip from a gathering of giraffe, zebra, oryx, gazelle and warthog, so the plane could land safely. What better way to end a safari?!
Extra: Maasai Mara
Of course, you can add a few days in the Maasai Mara to this itinerary. Although definitely not off the beaten track, it is a must-see safari experience for a reason. Don’t go to the Maasai Mara National Reserve but rather to one of the adjoining conservancies (unless you want to experience the Great Migration taking place between July and early November: the Mara River crossing points are all inside the reserve). The conservancies are far less crowded and allow visitors more freedom, like going off-road, night-time game drives and bushwalks. There are daily direct flights from Samburu Kalama airstrip to Mara North Conservancy.
If you go to the Mara, I can highly recommend the two Saruni lodges there. We spent a few days at Saruni Mara in Mara North Conservancy. It’s a lovely, comfortable and intimate lodge nestled into the forested hills at the edge of the open plains. Another option is Saruni Wild, a luxurious tented camp hidden in a thicket right in the middle of the savannah. A classic safari experience, this camp is right at the centre of the action. Both have very capable Maasai guides and drivers, impeccable service and great food.
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