Kenya Travel

Kenyan Dreaming: Samburu Surprises

Animal Count: 18

A good four hour drive north of Aberdare National Park lies Samburu National Reserve. The scenery shifted from the lush forest and rich agricultural areas to a harsher, more arid landscape. The earth is drier, the people poorer, the lifestyle more basic. Colourful buildings and nomadic huts dot the countryside. Gone are the tall trees and the green grass, replaced now with red, dusty earth, small bushes and thorny acacia trees as far as the eye can see. It’s much flatter here, and a good eight or ten degrees Celsius hotter than Aberdare was.

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Now I had read that Samburu had a great variety of animal and birdlife and that we had a pretty good chance of seeing a number of the different species up-close. Samburu even has it’s own “special five” animals – namely the Oryx, Gerenuk (kind of like a long-necked gazelle), Grevy’s Zebra, Retriculated Giraffe and the Somali Ostrich. We were told “don’t worry, you’ll see plenty of elephants and giraffes” but I’m not sure I was convinced that this would be the case. It seemed like a game of chance – looking for a needle in a haystack – and with the weather being the way it was I didn’t want to get my hopes up…

So imagine this…

We drive into the park and start heading along the dirt track towards our lodge (which is about 12km away from the park entrance). Thirty-five seconds later…

“OSTRICH!”

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A lot of scrambling for cameras, then a ferocious snapsnapsnapsnap as everyone in the group tries to get a picture of it as our 4WD flies by. A minute later…

“GIRAFFES!”

The scambling is replaced by squeals and shrieks as we strain to get the far-off giraffes in our viewfinders. Meanwhile our driver is not overly concerned, saying “don’t worry, you’ll see plenty more closer”. Again, I didn’t quite believe him and snapped like a woman possessed just incase there were no more. Then another couple of hundred metres down the road and…

“GIRAFFESGIRAFFESGIRAFFES!!!! OH MY GOD!!!!!”

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And there they were. Ambling next to us, in front of us, behind us. We had happened upon a herd of reticulated giraffes within two kilometres of entering Samburu. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. This is unbelievable… Less than a kilometre later…

“E – LE – PHANTS!!!!”

Bang. Right there. A male next to the jeep’s window, staring me down. Holy hell… again, the road became a pedestrian crossing as the herd meandered past us in search of more vegetation to munch on. Babies, mums and the big bastard having a staring competition with me.

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The remaining ten kilometres to the lodge was amazing as well – gerenuks, dik diks (little mini-bambi-like creatures), oryx, impalas and guinea fowl. We had managed to see four of Samburu’s Special Five within our first twenty minutes of being in the park. Talk about exhilarating!

During a lodge stay in a game park, you would typically go on a morning and an afternoon game drive each day. We went on our first proper game drive on the first afternoon after we arrived at Samburu. Within national parks and reserves, the guides must stay on the gazetted roads and tracks, however in private game parks they can veer off-road and get to wherever the animals happen to be, regardless of the vehicle tracks. Samburu is a national reserve, so there was no bush-bashing, to use an Australian off-roading term.

The vegetation of Samburu is not your stereotypical African savannah with wide, vast plains where you can see for miles. It is filled with trees, shrubs, palms and – thanks to the recent rains – plenty of greenery. This means that animal spotting is a bit of a challenge – a game of hide and seek if you like. You could literally pop around the corner and an animal could appear in front of you, no warning. It also resulted in a few “false” sightings (namely by me – told you I wasn’t a naturalist) – spotting elephants (rocks and anthills) and zebras (oryx – at least this one was actually an animal and not an inanimate object).

I did see my zebra – a lone male hiding out with a herd of Impalas – known as one-elevens (although perhaps not by anyone outside of our group) because of their three perpendicular stripes down their backsides – 1 1 1. Grevy’s Zebras are endangered – we were told that there are only about two thousand of them left in Samburu National Reserve. In fact, Samburu is the only place in Kenya where they are found, they are that rare.

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We also saw the first of the big cats for this trip – two separate leopard sightings. One was perched on a rock, surveying the area (and the dozen safari jeeps gathered near it), while the second was spotted running through the grass and bounding up a tree, where it camouflaged itself amongst the foliage and hid while it looked for prey.

Apart from the zebra and the leopard spottings, my highlight for Samburu occurred the following morning when we happened upon a herd of reticulated giraffes. We counted at least a dozen of them – they were grazing on a row of trees and bushes and meandering across our path. They were amazing to watch – I could have sat there looking at them for hours I’m sure. The reticulated giraffes’ pattern is like brickwork with extremely sharp, white lines dividing each of the brown panels. They are absolutely beautiful and move incredibly majestically given their gravity-defying and gangly builds. I am a new-found appreciation for giraffes now.

A visit to Kenya is not complete without experiencing a local village visit. I am really lucky that on this itinerary I have two opportunities to visit villages – Josphat’s Village near the gates of Samburu, and Richard’s Village near Olonana Camp in the Masai Mara. The first visit was to Josphat’s Village. It’s an incredible experience – the village chief and English-speaking tribesmen meet you at the entrance to the village compound. They then explain about the village – how it is laid out, how many families are within the village, where the animals are kept, how the visit will work and so on. They then take you around the compound in small groups – explaining who people are, introducing you to traditional songs and dances, showing you into people’s homes, showing you how to light a fire, answering any questions you have, and allowing you a press-pass effectively to take as many photos of whatever and whoever you wish within the village. You pay a fee of US$20 to access the village, then have the opportunity to buy wares made by village members at the end of the visit. We were also able to give gifts that we had brought from home to children in the village.

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It’s a fine line. Our beautiful guide, Rodney, spoke freely with me about village life. My main concern was did the village on the whole want to be part of this “open house” session, or did they allow us access grudgingly? I was assured by Rodney that no, this is a good thing. It brings much-needed income to the village, to help pay for education and health care for the families. It also gives outsiders an opportunity to witness and experience what it is like to live in one of these rural Kenyan villages. What does day to day life mean for them? What cultural practices are still important to them? It’s a chance to open your eyes and mind to another way of life.

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Let me try to find the words to describe this village to you. Firstly, you must understand that the Samburu people are nomads. Even these days they move every six to twelve months. Rodney told me that they had been in this current spot for about six months – they had come down from the hills – and will remain for about another six months before they move again. He said that years ago they would move up to twenty kilometres at a time, however now that they have permanent schools and health care facilities in the area, they tend not to move more than three to five kilometres at any one time.

Since they are nomadic, their homes are not permanent structures. They live in small, low, round huts, lined with camel skins for flooring and beds, as well as some plastic and other modern materials to keep the huts weather-proof. The houses are arranged in a circle within the village, with a large animal pen in the centre of the compound and a gate for each family set on the outside of the village perimeter. In Josphat’s Village there are presently twenty-five families living there.

I asked Rodney about marriage and he became very excited as the men in the village marry between the ages of 28 and 30, and he is 27 – in his words, “only one or two years and I can marry!” He said that in his village, they are able to marry for love and they can marry anybody from another tribe if they wish. He said that some marriages are still arranged, especially if the boy or girl have not met anyone under their own steam. Girls are aged between 16 and 20 when they marry and attract an eight-cow dowry, so having lots of daughters is a good thing as you get eight cows for every one you marry off!

I also asked him about childbirth and healthcare, and he told me of a local midwife who looks after women in the area if their pregnancies have complications, but otherwise it is up to the local women in the village to deliver the babies and make sure all is OK. He said there are also doctors that service the villages, but mostly they look after themselves with their own remedies from the bush.

I feel very blessed to have been granted such personalised access and insight into the villagers’ lives and to have had Rodney there to guide me and answer my curiosities and questions.

After the visit, the women set up a market where you could buy beadwork and woodwork from them. Again, the prices were extremely inflated, but I managed to buy two small bracelets for my daughter – this is the lady who made them.

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The most heartbreaking part of all of this experience is the children. They are divine, but filthy with sticky eyes, runny noses and ill-fitting clothes. One beautiful girl wore this green dress that was about four sizes too big and had a broken zipper so that the dress hung open at the back – but her smile was exquisite and she was so happy and alive.

I saw a four year old boy looking at me and my camera, so I knelt down and called him over to me. I took this photo –

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– then he ran around to look at the screen and was so excited to see himself. Then I asked him to pull a funny face and I took this –

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– it broke my heart. My kids love to pull stupid faces for the camera and rush over to see themselves on the camera screen. It brought me so much joy to see his face and the excitement such a simple thing can bring… like the box of bubbles one of the girls brought for the kids to share.

So Samburu was filled with surprises, and Samburu was a surprise. It was incredible to see so much game so close-up, plus to have the village visit was such a bonus. Samburu should be a “must visit” on any itinerary to Kenya.

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