Driving north up the Thika highway from Nairobi and that familiar feeling of excitement settles. I must have driven this route hundreds of times but leaving the dual carriageway for the scenic single lane up to Mount Kenya and beyond is a journey I’ll never tire of. Mangoes in Sagana, the ever-chaotic town of Karatina, young guys on the roadside selling sacks of miraa… Climbing higher and higher in altitude the temperatures become colder. Past Lewa Conservancy, down, down, down towards the dusty, desert heat of Isiolo, the land of Boranas, Turkanas, Samburus, Rendilles, closer to the wilds of northern Kenya. A few hours north of here and the edgy city life of Nairobi is but a distant memory.
Samburu National Reserve is one of my favourite places in the world. As well as the Lenkiyio Hills – the heartland of the Samburu people and a region where time has virtually stood still and embalmed it in the sort of natural beauty only found in areas of extreme remoteness. No roads, no mobile phone network, no light pollution… just endless hills, green valleys, mountain streams, wazee (old men) who walk tens of miles to reach neighbouring villages or Thursday’s market day. This is a place of folklore, where stories are transmitted by word of mouth and the legendary ngambit lives deep inside the forests (a fictional creature – perhaps). Samburu manyattas (homesteads) exist as they’ve done for hundreds of years, houses made of cow dung, ash, and earth and filled with smoke from the little fires kept burning inside. There are a handful of lodges but mobile camping is our favourite way to connect to nature here.
Samburu National Reserve is one of the best places on the continent to spend quality time with elephants. Comparatively, they are less nervous of humans here and tolerant of being observed up close. Watching them cross the Ewaso Nyiro River - stopping in the shallows for mud baths and keeping their young closely protected along the way - is surely one of life’s greatest privileges. But there is more to it than this. Perhaps it’s the omnipresence of sacred Mount Ololokwe which seems to keep a watchful eye over the reserve, the symbiosis of nature and people, the doum palm groves which parch under the sun, the flash of red as a Samburu moran passes through on foot… but the area is enchanting and deeply stirring. The long rains bring colours of utter spectacularity. Twilight in particular with its brilliant orange and lilac streaks against a petrol blue sky.