Samburu National Reserve

North of Laikipia is Kenya’s vast traditional homeland of the Samburu people, who were drawn to this region by the reliability of the Ewaso Nyiro, northern Kenya’s biggest and least seasonal river, for watering their herds.

Samburu National Reserve

The wildlife is plentiful here for the same reason – dozens of species of plains grazers and browsers gathering in the thick acacia and doum palm forest along the river banks to drink and seek shade.

Focusing on the river banks and a few kilometers of dry bush on either side, the 104km² Samburu National Reserve is one of a pair of much loved reserves in northern Kenya, the other being the 131km² Buffalo Springs National Reserve, on the south side of the river and Downstream, on the right bank and across the highway, lies 239km² Shaba National Reserve, with its gaunt scenery. A 24-hours entrance ticket to any one of the reserves entitles you to visit the others during the same period.

The Ewaso Nyiro and its tributaries flow north through Laikipia from the Aberdare range and Mount Kenya in the central highlands, and the main river then elbows east through a series of ravines, before tumbling out onto the sandy plains of the Samburu ecosystem and then meandering into the semi-desert beyond where it finishes in a vast seasonal marsh, the Lorian swamp. Although the river is almost perennial, it sometimes dries up in January or February.

Safaris in Samburu National Reserve
Samburu-Buffalo Springs-Shaba complex is good enough to explore quite thoroughly in a day or two. In practice, most visitors come to Samburu National Reserve itself, on the north bank of the river, where the majority of the region’s relatively few safari camps and lodges are located. It is also possible once again to visit the Buffalo Springs side of the ecosystem within the duration of a single game drive by using the reopened bridge across the river near the reserve headquarters.

Game drives often follow the winding, sandy tracks close to the meandering river, where almost anything – from a pride of lions to a herd of elephants or a flight of graceful, leaping impala – can appear at any moment.

Geography and landscapes of Samburu National Reserve
Scrubby, open bush country is the dominant theme in most of the reserve areas, with the fringing riverine forest of acacias, figs and palms extending anything from 50m to 200m back from the edge of the river.

The Ewaso Nyiro River, while heading east, does so in a series of north-south loops, around the district’s rocky ridges and the meanders created by the river itself. The river is 50–100m across, shallow and dotted with sand bars. For much of the year, bigger animals can walk across, while in periods of drought, crocodiles and hippos bury themselves as far as possible under riverside overhangs, and elephants gouge wells in the dry river bed to reveal water.

From the south bank, the flattish Buffalo Springs Reserve rises very gently to the south, but there’s much more variety in Samburu National Reserve, which rises more steeply away from the river towards the Kalama Conservancy in the north.

The Samburu people
The camel-, cattle- and goat-herding Samburu people are closely related to the Maasai (they speak the same language, Maa), wear a similar traditional dress of blankets and beads, and maintain a very similar lifestyle – although they have been quicker to absorb non-traditional practices, such as farming and trading, into their economy. Despite the reserve’s name, the Samburu heartland is further to the north, and especially in the forest-flanked hills and mountain ranges that rise out of the desert. Nevertheless, at all the camps and gates you’ll meet Samburu staff, askaris (security guards), guides, spotters and rangers, and visits to Samburu villages are available – as are plenty of opportunities to buy Samburu crafts and beaded jewellery.

Kalama and Westgate Conservancies
North of the national reserve, the land rises as you enter the Kalama Conservancy – a forbiddingly beautiful, rocky landscape with just one, spectacular camp, Saruni Samburu. Westwards, following the Ewaso Nyiro upstream, you enter Westgate Conservancy to reach the equally luxurious Sasaab Camp, high above the river. Good-sized herds of very rare Grevy’s zebras range across both conservancies, a combined region that forms one of the key sanctuaries for this highly endangered species.