Northern Kenya is one of the world’s last great wildernesses. This rugged, dusty land is rich in history, cultural heritage and isolated appeal and offers the most epic of adventures for the wild at heart. Here, fiery desert plains give way to luscious jungles; bubbling oasis streams are set against imposing, glorious mountain ranges and black, volcanic lakeshores are trodden by some of the world’s most remote tribes.
Visit a popular hotspot like the Maasai Mara during the wildebeest migration and you will struggle to see wildlife for the herds of safari jeeps blocking the view. Yet in northern Kenya spine-jangling roads and long travel times mean it is virtually tourist free. Visitors here are treated to jaw-dropping landscapes and cultural interactions that most tourists will simply never experience.
Lake Turkana, the world's largest permanent desert lake and biggest alkaline lake, is a must-see for the adventurous soul. It’s fondly referred to as the Jade Sea because of its breathtaking turquoise colour. Here, the frothy white waves of the crocodile-infested waters lap over surrounding craggy volcanic residue: a barren, Martian landscape that stretches as far as the eye can see.
Avid hikers head to northern Kenya for spectacular climbing, such as the challenging Mount Kulal: a 2285m-high mountain next to Lake Turkana that dominates the northern horizon as you approach from the south. It’s a tough hike, comprising two summits joined by a narrow ridge with wind, dust, heat and altitude to contest with, but the views from the top over the lake and searing Chalbi Desert are almighty.
Northern Kenya offers some of the most spectacular ways to experience Kenya’s thriving wildlife, from horseback safaris in Laikipia to quad bike adventures on the Borana conservancy. On the Lewa conservancy, the rare Grévy's zebra live in abundance (you can jog past them during the Lewa Marathon), or take a boat trip on Lake Turkana to witness the thriving crocodile population – reportedly the Nile’s largest.
The region’s rich cultural heritage is one of the most rewarding reasons to visit northern Kenya. In many places here, life continues unchanged as it has for centuries: the El Molo people – one of the last true hunter gatherer communities – fish on the shores of Lake Turkana as their ancestors did. The nomadic Turkana tribe also move across the harsh landscape, adorned with ornate beaded jewellery and stunning hand-printed fabrics. In Marsabit, local herdsmen lead their cattle to water each morning and follow the age-old tradition of singing as they scoop water from the well to the trough above.
Visiting northern Kenya is a pilgrimage to the land where our first ancestors once roamed. Leading research suggests humans originated in Africa and the largest numbers of human fossils have been found here. One of the most important and complete early human skeletons (a 1.6 million year old Homo erectus fossil) was discovered on the shores of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, named Turkana Boy.
One of the best reasons to visit northern Kenya is for the incredible wild camping on offer. Head to the banks of Lake Paradise in Marsabit National Park to camp in your very own crater, shared only with large herds of elephants slurping up lake water as the sun sets. Alternatively, pitch up on the smoking volcanic rim of Central Island in the middle of Lake Turkana, or sleep high up among the trees in the Ngare Ndare Forest.
If camping isn’t your thing, northern Kenya is scattered with luxurious lodges that take a fair amount of effort to get to, but are well worth the journey. In Laikipia, Loisaba Wilderness is a star bed camp where giant double beds are rolled out on to wooden decking with nothing but a million stars above your head to nod off to. Further north, Desert Rose Lodge is a luxurious lodge perching at the top of an incredibly steep mountain track, with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and natural water slide.
In May each year the people of the north come together for the annual Lake Turkana Festival on the eastern lakeshore of Loiyangalani, a colourful event of traditional singing and dancing performances. It’s a brilliant way to meet and interact with local people, and perfect for photographers who wish to capture local tribes in their glorious full attire.
For more ideas for your holiday in Kenya, explore our guide to the best things to do in Kenya.
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