Samburu-land is the vast stretch of country to the southeast of Lake Turkana inhabited for the last three to four hundred years by the traditionally nomadic Samburu people, who are very closely related to the Maasai, and speak the same language, Maa. The easiest way to explore the region is to take an organized safari, but if your budget is tight, and you have time, a flexible attitude and don’t want a spoon-fed adventure, you’ll get the maximum exposure to the area by travelling completely independently and without your own vehicle.
Some of the Laikipia settlers who ended up around Rumuruti would have dearly liked to set themselves up around the cool, conifer-draped highlands of MARALAL. But even before British administrators made this the district capital, Maralal had been a spiritual focus for the Samburu people and, despite some dithering, the colonial administrators didn’t accede to the settlers’ demands.
Maralal is a peculiar town, spread with abandon around a depression in the hills. Samburu people trudge its dusty streets – creating a brilliant collage of skins, blankets, beads, brass and iron, and giving the town a special smell, too, of sour milk, fat and cattle. You’ll see warriors in full rig on bicycles; warriors with braided hair and bracelets, but wearing jeans and singlets; women decked with flanges of necklaces; old men with sticks; and young men carrying old rifles. The main town-centre watering hole is the Buffalo Hotel: the place sets itself up for Wild West comparisons and the climate is appropriate – unbelievably dusty, almost always windy and, at 2220m, sharp enough at night for log fires. All it needs is coyotes – and even there hyenas fill the role with their nocturnal whooping.
A notable resident of Maralal until 1994 was the travel writer and Arabist Wilfred Thesiger, who had made the town his home and had adopted a number of orphaned boys. Thesiger made his name with his accounts of the Shia Arabs of southern Iraq and the Bedu of the Arabian peninsula, and followed up these achievements with several books on Kenya, notably My Kenya Days. Among the Samburu he found equally congenial companions for his old age.