by Tim Dawe
Think Kenya and thoughts soon turn to a safari, perhaps in the famous Maasai Mara, shooting the Big Five – with a camera of course. My first visit to Kenya, and first safari, sees me travel to Samburu National Reserve in the remote, dry north. There is a sense this place is at the end of the road. In reality the Trans-African Highway continues as a pot-holed, “road-to-hell” through the badlands – and possibly bad people – towards the Ethiopian border; a desolate place travel writer Paul Theroux coined, “figawi”, from the expression: “where-the f#*k-are-we?”
If the key to travel is the journey then driving to Samburu in an ancient pop-up van is a locked-in memory for me. Our tour consists of driver and guide Patrick, his twenty-year-old assistant Martin, and me, as the sole passenger.
“Martin’s learning and will take over from me,” says Patrick, the limit of his conversation on his dogged drive.
We leave the teeming millions and clogged streets of polluted Nairobi heading for Thika via Kenya’s only freeway. I recall Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 book, The Flame Trees of Thika, and its screen adaptations. After 45km through Nairobi’s industrial sprawl, sadly I can find no trace of a flame tree at the unlovely Thika. There’s a slight incline – and corresponding climate change – on the road to Thika. Beyond it gets cooler, greener and lusher.
Nyeri, near Aberdare National Park, has green hills and fertile valleys and is a town known for its connection with Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Scout Movement. His remains are here with wife and Girl Guide leader Olave in the grounds of their cottage. We turn north spiralling clockwise up dramatic Mt Kenya (5,199m), its peaks jutting out under swirling clouds. It is Africa’s second highest mountain, home of the Kikuyu god, and accessible to a diverse range of environments at lower slopes.
Nanyuki is a busy and thriving town first established by English plantation owners as their administrative centre. We slow long enough for me to photograph Hotel on the Equator, and its resident donkey. Yes, Nanyuki is on the equator but at 1947m it’s un-equatorially cool and temperate. We’ve come through many changes already with more to come. Around Thika it’s hot and dry enough to grow pineapples. Here, there are rolling vistas of green plantations, tea and coffee and swathes of hot-house flowers, principally roses grown for the Amsterdam market. And just up there is barren rock, snow and glacial ice. We’ve driven 190km.
Mt Kenya dominates the landscape. Productive greenery spreads to the horizon as villages, and subsistence farmers opportunistically hoeing the side of the road, whiz by. We level off on the edge of the Laikipia plateau with the mountain out of sight behind us and gently descend. Things change. We lose altitude steadily – 1000m. If this were a flying van there would be bother. It becomes hotter, dryer and browner; Australian arid-straw brown. We arrive at another world: Isiolo, a frontier town geographically on the edge. The land flattens and extends to the horizon covered in low-lying acacia scrub. This town is different. Buildings are of Arabic design. Mosques and minuets appear and women wear the hijab. All this in the space of a few minutes…so it seems.
Isiolo is on the edge culturally as the beginning of northern Islam but it’s also home to Christians with a Catholic cathedral and numerous community-based corrugated iron churches. It’s a melting pot of tribes across Kenya and Somalia. Many wear the distinctive dress of the Turkana people who seek a better life from their even harsher lands. And there is another edge. We drive through Isiolo and drop 300m very sharply. It’s suddenly hotter and dryer and even more desolate. After hours of driving, and this sharp descent into hellish heat, I lose my focus and begin to wilt. I’ve no idea where we turn off but it is sudden and bumpy. No more sealed road, we bounce along a gravel road for 20km passing tiny hamlets, goats and little children waving. I see a giant giraffe that turns out to be the design of the entrance to Samburu National Reserve. Our mid-afternoon arrival at up-market Sopa Lodge brings another change in this dry and barren landscape. It sorts jangled nerves and sooths a stiff and dusty body in its five-star luxury. After lunch there’s time for a short nap before the promised dusk game drive.
Samburu forms part of three ecologically affiliated, unfenced reserves of about 450sqkm with the Ewaso Nyiro River flowing through. With arid to semi-desert lands to the north, Samburu has a different ecology. And many animals are different, some slightly, others boldly so. Its marketing ploy is, “The Samburu Big Five”. I record them all as I shoot – with my camera of course. The Reticulated Giraffe spots are large plates; the Somali Ostrich has splashes of blue; the Grevy’s Zebra stripes are uniformly straight; the Besia Oryx is indiscernibly different, but the Gerenuk is unique. He is the antelope that thinks he’s a giraffe. With an elongated neck he can be seen standing on hind legs eating the tops of small acacia trees. However, the cat-sized, paired-for-life antelope, the Dik-dik remains my favourite.
The national reserve is the homeland for the Samburu tribe that split from the Maasai as they migrated south around 400 years ago. The Maasai tribespeople now reside on the greener Rift Valley with its two rainy seasons. The Samburu largely retain the same dress, costume and language.
On the track the seemingly barren landscape glows golden in the after light. Indeed it shows previously unseen features of wavy blue mountains on the horizon and the striking pyramid-shaped Ol Doinyo Koitogorr. Driving sedately and watchfully, we witness unhurried animals and birds unconcerned by our noisy, smelly van. The four-wheel-drive waddles precariously down by the wide river, where lodges hide among trees. There’s a connection with this life-giving river that at times rages all the way to Somalia. I saw its beginnings way back at Aberdare National Park. Elephants are in abundance by the river and there is evidence in strewn bones and some body parts that this apparent Garden of Eden is necessarily a violent plteace.
There’s a lot of excited Swahili talk on the two-way. Explosively, without warning or explanation, we’re hurtling down a pot-holed track, dangerously, if expertly, driven – a commanded performance by Patrick. Half of me is sticking out of the roof, all of me is hanging on, more exhilarated than scared. Where did all these vehicles come from? I thought we were alone. The vehicles form a ragged circle to witness the most elusive of the (real) Big Five – the leopard. He’s atop high rocks, calmly silhouetted against the sky at the dying of the day. It’s a first wild sighting for me, and possibly for most of the snapping tourists.
And this is only day one of my first six-day safari. It’s been quite a journey.
The Samburu Big Five