Northern Kenya

Northern Kenya

Most of northern Kenya is arid country, scorched and roasting under the equatorial sun, and sometimes going for months or even years without a drop of rain. The landscapes vary from craggy, volcanic cinder fields to impassable areas of sand-dune systems and gritty scrub where jackals scamper and ostriches peck. The mountains that rise from the deserts are, however, often luxuriantly forested. Safaris in northern Kenya tend to use these areas as more comfortable oasis refuges away from the shadeless plains.

Wildlife

Wildlife in the north is relatively sparse, but all the more striking for its appearance in these arid regions. The ostriches here are the Somali version, in which the males have blue skin. Naturalists and photographers will also be looking out for the rare Grevy’s zebra and strikingly marked reticulated giraffe. In protected areas like the Namunyak Conservancy and Marsabit National Park, elephants and, with luck, big cats and even wild dogs can be seen. Birdlife in the forested mountain areas is abundant and varied, with many areas having hundreds of frequently seen species, and Palearctic migrants often seen between October and March. Lake Turkana has Africa's largest population of Nile Crocodiles and the tiny Central Island National Park – with its crater lakes within a lake – is a renowned breeding area where hatchlings can often be seen.

Culture in the north

Apart from the landscapes and occasional wildlife, the big draw in northern Kenya is its people. Eking out a living from the tough, dry environment, there are twelve tribes in the north, including the fishing Turkana, near the lake that bears their name, the camel-herding Samburu (closely related to the Maasai), the farming Burji and cattle-owning Boran, the be-turbaned, camel-herding Gabbra and the nomadic Rendille, who also herd camels.

The peoples of the north come together for the annual Lake Turkana Festival on the eastern lakeshore in May, a colourful jamboree of singing and dancing, most easily accessed by charter flight from Desert Rose Lodge. This is a really outstanding opportunity to meet and interact with local people in a relaxed and uncommercial way. It’s easy to take photographs, for example – and in fact you may well be the subject of locals, decked in colourful finery and taking pictures of you, their exotic visitor, on their mobiles. As well as being a showcase for the traditional dress, dance and song of the northern tribes, the festival is a point of contact for the peoples themselves and helps in reconciling groups who frequently clash over scarce water and pasture rights. It’s a very low-key affair, with a loose programme of activities for visitors and locals, and a Saturday showcase in an open-air arena near Loiyangalani’s airstrip, in which a troupe of dancers and singers from each tribe entertains an audience of several hundred locals, NGO workers, expats and adventure-seeking tourists. If you’re interested in attending the festival, please speak to the Kenya team at Expert Africa who will be happy to advise you, based on our visit in 2012.

Travel in northern Kenya

In the absence of railway lines or navigable rivers, the four roads into the north of Kenya radiate from the highlands in central and western Kenya. In the far west, a rough road runs north from the market centre of Kitale to Lodwar on the west side of Lake Turkana, and from there on to the South Sudan border. In the far east, a desolate track shoots out from Isiolo to the remote desert outposts of Wajir and Mandera in the far northeast of the country. Between these two spokes run two shorter ones – a gravel, sand and cinder road that runs through the magnificent landscapes of Samburu-land and past Mount Nyiru to Loiyangalani on the east shore of Lake Turkana, and another road that goes north to the Namunyak Conservancy, Marsabit National Park and on to the Ethiopian border.

At Expert Africa we love driving on these desert roads, but they leave you feeling bruised and battered and take hours out of any safari itinerary in northern Kenya. We have therefore arranged with TropicAir, one of Kenya’s most respected air charter operators, based at Nanyuki airport on the slopes of Mount Kenya, to provide air transfer services for our travellers wishing to visit lodges in the north.

Northern Kenya Safaris

Accommodation in the north is scattered and there are very few high-quality places to stay, but we’ve recently stayed at three lodges located in contrasting highland regions in northern Kenya. Tribes and wildlife are part of their varied appeal, but each area has its own idiosyncratic attractions, and the landscapes and moods at each one are utterly distinct.

Marsabit National Park Safaris

Rising 1,000m above the Kaisut Desert to the south and the Dida Galgalu and Chalbi deserts to the north, Mount Marsabit is an old shield volcano created by ancient outpourings of lava, roughly mid-way between Mount Kenya and the Ethiopian border. The mountain is well watered by the clouds that form over it daily, and consequently it’s permanently green. The mist-shrouded rainforest and moorlands on these lonely heights are home to greater kudu, buffalo and some very big elephants (the famous big tuskers Ahmed and Mohammed lived here), but overall you have to look pretty hard here to see much wildlife, as the forest is very wild and dense, with dangling lianas and ancient trees festooned in hanging moss. Birdlife is excellent in the park, with more than 400 species recorded here. There are particularly good birdwatching spots around the forest-fringed Crater Lake (near the lodge) and the much larger Paradise Lake (also a crater), where the park road skirts right to the edge of the steep, jungle-covered cliffs.

Namunyak Conservancy Safaris

The Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust is a 350km² community-managed conservancy at the southern end of the Mathews Range – a wild and rugged, forest-swathed mountain area, known in local languages as Warges or Ol Doinyo Lenkiyo – that rears out of the semi-desert north of Samburu National Reserve.

The Namunyak Conservancy forms a critical elephant corridor linking the Mathews Range with Samburu and Laikipia (and thus with Mount Kenya) and it has the support of Tusk Trust. Local people enthusiastically adopted conservancy ideals once they appreciated the benefits of owning a tourist attraction, and particularly after a tented camp was set up here in 1997.

The camp, rebuilt as Sarara in 2008, is a permanent, luxury, hosted camp. We loved it here: a stay feels like a very worthwhile exposure to the traditional lifestyle of northern Kenya’s semi-desert regions, while striking a perfect balance with guests’ expectations. Bush walks, for example, don’t promise unrealistic wildlife sightings – though we were delighted to see wild dogs here. The key local mammals are two species of rare monkey – the de Brazza monkey (a forest species usually only seen in scattered areas of western Kenya) and an endemic colobus monkey, the Warges guereza. There are usually elephants in the area, as well as quite elusive klipspringer, Chandler’s mountain reedbuck and leopard. Birders are drawn by good sightings of Rüppell’s vultures, Gambaga flycatcher, shining sunbird, tiny cisticola and stone partridge.

In the dry season Namunyak’s ‘singing wells’ are a spectacular and uncontrived cultural experience: with well water levels very low, local people form human chains to pass up buckets of water for their livestock, singing as they work, creating an almost mournful rhythm which is magical to watch and listen to – though no cameras are permitted.

Mount Nyiru Safaris

Rising up to the west of the lonely road that leads off the highlands to Lake Turkana is Mount Nyiru (also known as the Nyiru Range), a sheer stack of rugged mountains, partly covered in thick forest. Giant rocks jut out from the flanks, and gushing streams pour through the ravines, while near the summit perches one of Kenya’s most remote and beguiling luxury lodges, Desert Rose. Most visitors who don’t take a helicopter to one of its terraced, lawn-swathed helipads, fly in to the lodge’s airstrip on the plains at the foot of the mountains. From the airstrip, you’re transferred by the lodge’s 4WD through the settlement of Ewaso Rongai – with its shady covering of huge acacia and fig trees – and then up a vertiginous track cut through the mountain bed rock that requires nerves of steel to negotiate and offers magnificent views through the crags and euphorbia trees.

Mount Nyiru is camel country, and the one-humped dromedaries are everywhere, grazing in groups, tethered together or hobbled with one leg tied up to prevent them wandering. If you like the idea of a camel safari, this is the place to do it. Treks can last from a few hours to several days and you normally walk alongside the camels rather than ride on them (most people find riding uncomfortable and do it for a short time, if at all). A camel trek in the Mount Nyiru area gives you the best chance of seeing some of the local wildlife, which includes gerenuk, zebras and even elephants.

Desert Rose is one of the best places in northern Kenya to enjoy an unaffected type of cultural tourism. The owners’ links with the local Samburu community are very warm and long-established. Rituals and ceremonies, including circumcisions and weddings, often take place near the top of the mountain and the Desert Rose staff and guests are invariably included.

Desert Rose is also a common base for flying safaris to Lake Turkana. These can be organized at the same time as air charter transfers from Nanyuki, and offer the opportunity to explore Lake Turkana, including landing at the rough airstrip at South Island National Park, or going further north to the prehistoric sites at Sibiloi National Park on the shores of the lake, close to the Ethiopian border.
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