You rarely think of deserts in Kenya, but the North – more than half the country – is an arid zone, most of it cinder-dry for ten months of the year. The old “Northern Frontier District” remains one of the most exciting and adventurous parts of Africa: a vast tract of territory, crisscrossed by ancient migration routes, and still tramped by nomadic Samburu, Boran, Rendille, Gabbra, Turkana and Somali herders. Unfortunately, it also has a dangerous reputation, with livestock-rustling and tribal feuding widespread, while banditry, and the spillover from Somalia’s civil conflict, make it too risky to visit northeastern Kenya – the whole area east of the Isiolo–Marsabit–Moyale road. By contrast, the vast territories to the north and west of Mount Kenya, including Lake Turkana and the beautiful Laikipia region, are safe – if still adventurous – areas to visit.
The most obvious attraction in northern Kenya is the Laikipia plateau, a region of hilly savanna, northwest of Mount Kenya. Second in wildlife density only to the Maasai Mara, Laikipia boasts more endangered species than anywhere else in the country (including Kenya’s biggest population of black rhinos) alongside some very successful examples of mixed ranching and conservation, and some very upmarket boutique lodges and camps.
While Laikipia is increasingly popular for high-end fly-in safaris, the classic travel target in the far north is the wonderful jade splash of Lake Turkana. The lake’s islands, prehistoric sites and, over the past decade or so, the Lake Turkana Festival, are major attractions to add to the strong appeal of the adventurous journey to the lakeshore.
Although Moyale is little more than Kenya’s border town with Ethiopia, the remote road north to the frontier runs past fascinating Marsabit National Park, with its misty, highland forests rising above the desert. Looking east, not many people take the long road to Garissa or use this route to reach the coast, but as long as the Tana River route remains relatively safe, it’s a recommended alternative to joining the heavy traffic on the Mombasa highway.
In terms of climate, although the landscape is parched for most of the year, when the rains do come (usually around May) they can have a dramatic effect, bringing torrents of water along the ravines and luggas (watercourses) and tearing away bridges and concrete fords with a violence that has to be seen to be believed. Flood waters often sweep over the plains to leave an ooze of mud and, within twenty-four hours, new shoots. In these conditions, you can easily get stranded. However, if your plans are flexible, being up north during the rains is an exciting time to explore.