ISIOLO – the northeast’s most important town and the hub for travel to Marsabit and Moyale – is a frontier in every respect. The Somali influence here is noticeable everywhere in the northeast, and Isiolo is one of their most important towns in Kenya. It was here that many veteran Somali soldiers from World War I were settled: having been recruited in Aden and Kismayu, they gave up their nomadic lifestyle to become livestock dealers and retail traders.
The town is a real cultural kaleidoscope, with Boran, Meru, Samburu and some Turkana inhabitants, as well as the Somalis. To someone newly arrived from Nanyuki or Meru, the upland towns seem ordinary in comparison. Women from the irrigated shambas around Isiolo sell cabbages, tomatoes and carrots in the busy market; cattle owners, nomadic camel traders and merchants exchange greetings and the latest news from Nairobi and Moyale; in the livestock market, goats scamper through the alleys, while hawkers stroll along the road raising their Somali swords and strings of bangles to the minibuses heading up to reserves. And, in the shade, energetic miraa-chewing and hanging around are the major occupations. Miraa has a long history in Somali culture; the Nyambeni Hills, where most of the Kenyan crop is grown, are just 30km away.
The town is lively and welcoming, relatively safe and generally hassle-free, though it has become outrageously scruffy and litter-strewn in recent years. And when the tourist season is in full swing, with vehicles driving through to Samburu and the other reserves, it can seem as if you can’t take a step here without being approached to buy something. If you’re staying the night it’s worth getting up early enough to have a chance of seeing the distinctive silhouette of Mount Kenya rising directly above the main A2 highway through town, 60km to the south.