Up in the north of the country, in the hot, arid lowlands beneath Mount Kenya, Samburu National Reserve was set up around the richest stretch of the Ewaso Nyiro (or Uaso Ngiro) River in the late 1960s. Although the river usually stops flowing for a month or two around January, the combination of near-permanent water and forest shade on the banks draws plentiful wildlife in the dry season and maintains many of the less migratory species all year round.
While the wildlife spectacle doesn’t always match that of the southern parks, the peace and scenic beauty of Samburu is unquestionable and, in the kind of mood swing which only an equatorial region can produce, the contrast with the fertile farming country of the Highlands just a few dozen kilometres to the south couldn’t be more striking. In the background, the sharp hill of Koitogor rises in the middle of Samburu Reserve, making a useful reference point. And on the horizon, 30km to the north, looms the gaunt red block of Ol Olokwe mountain. Buffalo Springs National Reserve, the continuation of Samburu on the south side of the river, and Shaba National Reserve, further downstream to the east, are often treated as if they were just part of “Samburu”. They remain distinct reserves with their own entrance fees, but will allow common game drives across them, which means you will only have to pay $70 once. That said, although it used to be very easy to cross from Samburu into Buffalo Springs over the bridge near the Samburu headquarters, the crossing is closed at the time of writing. The bridge was washed away in severe floods in 2010, rebuilt by the British Army and reopened with great ceremony, only to be washed away again in 2011. To get into Buffalo Springs or Samburu from the opposite side, you now have to go back to the highway and cross the bridge there, via Archer’s Post – a 45km diversion to reach the other side of the bridge that takes around two hours without stopping to watch wildlife.
Adjoining Samburu to the north is the 95-square-kilometre Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy, of which a core 31 square kilometres is a crucial wildlife migration corridor, with just one, very high-end, boutique lodge, Saruni Samburu. To the northwest of the reserves lies the Westgate (or West Gate) Community Conservancy, which covers an even larger district of semi-arid grazing land, but has a very small core conservancy area of less than 10 square kilometres around the exclusive Sasaab Lodge.
Isolated incidents of banditry still occur around Archer’s Post and on the roads into the three reserves. Security is generally good, but if you’re driving yourself, it’s always worth having a chat with the police at the checkpoint just north of Isiolo.