Like many other travelers, I, of course, have my own bucket list. Africa has always taken an important place on that list, but my position to actually checking it off has been so far: “Well.. maybe in 5-10 years when I have too much money and no idea how to spend them…” As you might have already guessed, the fate ruled otherwise, and this October I happened to find myself on an actual African safari (have no worry, no animal got hurt =)).
Here I learned what is a real animal horror caused by a gaze of a lion just a couple of meters away; woke up in the dark from cries of hyenas surrounding my tent; understood why Africa and Kenya in particular are invaluable to every human on Earth, since this is exactly the place that gave birth to humanity millions years ago.
What am I even talking about
Since my sight and my mind alike were getting a bit unclear at any mention of Africa, it was decided to not try to save money on this trip. This experience is from a luxury safari but, nevertheless, affordable to normal people. My one-week trip was organized by a company called Saruni and touched two parts of Kenya: Samburu and Mara North. This blog post is about the first part of the trip to Samburu.
In short, having decided to spend big money, you gain the following benefits:
- Accommodation in luxury lodges or tents;
- Quality food and drinks, including alcohol;
- Relative exclusivity;
- Personalization (it won’t be like “go there, do this” as it often happens on organized trips; one may ask the guide to do/see things which are of interest to yourself);
- Transfers via airplane flights as opposed to a truck for cheaper safaris (which obviously means more comfort and more time for actually doing things: flights were the only reason why we managed to visit two locations in a week).
But I believe that planning and technical details deserve their own overview, and now it is the time for the story =)
A Kenyan safari always starts in Nairobi. Depending on your arrival/departure times, you might have a half or even a full day to roam around the country capital. But if you are thinking whether you should add another day for this city… I would not recommend it. Nairobi is a poor, boring, and dirty city. An unsafe one, too. In case you are sold on going there, add this day in the beginning of the trip, before the safari – it will not leave any positive impression after the beauty of raw nature. Check out this main panorama of the city from a viewpoint in Uhuru park:
Don’t even try to move around the city on your own (especially if you are pale, like me)! Hire a driver with a car – it is really not that expensive (your safari organizer can help you with this as well). The beggars are very aggressive here, they come to the car at every stop, every traffic light. Our driver from Nairobi knew how to deal with it, but even then it was quite a scary experience. Otherwise… nothing really special about the city.
Only trees, instead of usual pigeons or crows, are full of giant and ugly marabou storks.
Finally it is time to meet the nature. Safaris are so big in Kenya that in Nairobi they built an entire airport for safari flights exclusively. Every day a few flights depart towards different national parks, executed by these small 20-passenger airplanes.
It’s time to say goodbye to this city and set our way to the very heart of wild nature.
Arrival to Kalama Conservancy
After about an hour of a very shaky flight our aircraft finally started to descend. I looked out of the window, trying to spot the runway, but saw nothing but desert and dry bush which we were approaching very fast. Only when we successfully landed, I realized that a safari “airport” is nothing else but a patch of land clear of bush and just long enough for this tiny plane to land or take off.
Directly at the airstrip we were met by a Saruni guide to be transferred to our lodge. He is dressed in clothing traditional for the Samburu tribe which lives in this land. Almost all the guides and lodge staff which we met during the trip came from local tribes.
Our truck did not have any windows which was very nice for wildlife watching and pictures.
Suddenly the guide drove off the road. “There’s a giraffe”, – he explained casually. This, of course, caused a lot of excitement among the truck passengers. After a couple of minutes of searching for the best angle, we saw it, our first giraffe…
There it is… See it?
Alright, I’m going to tell you. Have another look at the picture above, then continue scrolling.
This was all so exciting that we didn’t even notice how we got to the lodge.
After a refreshing drink on the terrace with a view we were escorted to our room… rooms. Here is a riddle for you: how many villas are there on this picture?
I also thought at first that there are six villas in a row but there were only two. It’s just that each of them has three rooms on two floors, and two terraces, of course.
A cherry on top is an outdoor shower with a view towards the desert and the mountains. It is fenced on all other sides so the privacy is protected.
When the sun started it’s decline on the West, we headed out for our first game drive. Dry spiky bush was trying to make its way inside the car, the desert breathed sand at us, and any, even the smallest, animal inevitably caused excited “here it is, here it is!” and camera shutter clicks.
Like in my previous giraffe story, suddenly our guide Sombara stopped the truck and pointed to the horizon. “Do you see the elephants?” I looked into my binoculars and lied that I did. Sombara laughed. “Search for a large dust cloud – this is how elephants take a bath”.
When we got to the place we actually found an entire elephant family. Most of them did not give a damn about us, and only one teenage elephant was desperately trying to prove something to us.
The elephants took sand in their trunks and threw it on their backs to protect themselves from the heat and insects. That’s how those dust clouds appear by which it is easy to spot them from afar.
Our lodge was located outside of the national reserve itself, in a special Kalama Conservancy territory, and ours was the only lodge in Kalama. Thanks to that, over the course of multiple hours we met only one other truck. Such exclusivity would be impossible in the reserve where you are always accompanied by other safari groups. From below the lodge is really hard to notice so you feel completely reunited with unspoiled nature.
The sun was quickly falling below horizon which meant it was time for a great safari tradition – sundowners. A group of ostrich kept us company while we were sipping our drinks and admiring the sunset.
When the sun was completely gone, we had to go back to the lodge for a tasty dinner and early sleep – safari day starts before the dawn.
Samburu National Reserve
It was still dark when gentle knocking on the door woke us up. “It’s time to get up, dear guests”, spoke an employee behind the door. “I brought you tea”. We quickly got dressed and jumped into the car where Sombara was already waiting for us. Our destination for the day was the Samburu National Reserve. We even got a reward for waking up so early: African sunrise is fantastic!
The skies were clear, and we could see the full majesty of Mount Kenya in the distance.
Suddenly we noticed shadows of small animals flickering between the thorns. A herd of gazelles? Not really! As we got closer, we saw that these are just some domestic goats. Sombara explained that Kenyan “conservancies” are not only for wild animals but also for people – the tribes that live in conservancies actually own the land. Safari organizers have to give a part of their earnings back to these communities for the right to run game drives here. Besides, as I have already said, safaris also provide jobs and economic opportunities for the villagers.
We slowly moved towards the center of the reserve. On the way we had a chance to admire a lot of species endemic for this region.
Among them – reticulated giraffe:
And the elegant gerenuk, the giraffe gazelle:
We were already on the way to see oryx – another special species of Samburu – when Sombara’s phone rang. He responded with a couple of words, after which he sharply turned the car around. Our astonished faces got us an explanation that another guide spotted lions in that direction.
At the start of a safari they always tell you safety rules: don’t stick your arms out of the truck, don’t speak too loud or too excited (this can scare or anger the animals, and the car does not have any doors or windows). In case of lions… all these rules were unnecessary. I think I wouldn’t be able to shout or stand up from my spot even if I wanted to. My voice as well as my body were paralyzed by a deep instinct which every human possesses for all those millions of years.
When an alpha lion passes by your car and casually looks inside, it seems that your body is petrified, and it is virtually impossible to take your eyes away from those other eyes, unblinking and yellow. A second turns into eternity while he is making a decision whether the monkeys in the truck get to live another day.
It was so magical and unbelievable that our first lions turned out to be a full pride with an alpha male, a few younger males and females, and even a couple of cubs.
The lions scanned the surrounding areas and generally looked very relaxed as they headed towards the river. We just managed to catch some breath after this wonderful encounter, as a huge herd of elephants slowly sailed out of thorny thickets. They maintained a strict single file order with children and teenagers protected by their mothers and grandmothers.
Both the lions and the elephants were most certainly aware of each other, but each party pretended to not notice the other.
As usual, suddenly Sombara bent over to the ground and peered into vague footprints on it. Apparently, there was a leopard somewhere around, and it had just killed an impala (yes, the guides can tell that by some disordered sand and a couple of blood drops). We followed the prints of the impala body which had been dragged away by the predator. At the end of the tracks the impala waited for us, half eaten. The leopard was nowhere around to be seen.
Nowhere life and death are so close and real as in Africa.
The sun was fully awaken and that meant breakfast. A bit later – and the midday heat will make it impossible to get out of the car. For breakfast Sombara picked a very picturesque spot with huge palm trees and giraffes.
The muddy river tempted us with its cool, but we knew we could not trust its calm surface.
The gazelles also have an idea of what is hiding in these red waters: they stretch their necks further and further to be as far as possible from the river.
While the sun is high, all the animals are hiding from the heat in the bush, having rest and sleeping. There is nothing to see on safari anymore so it is time to have some break from the shaky truck in the lodge. On the way back we finally caught some oryx in sight (nearly forgotten with all these lions and leopards =)).
After lunch we set our way to a local village. I have very strange impressions left of it. I don’t think I would go there again. The village is surrounded by trash that just lies around in the desert.
The Samburu live in small huts made of sticks, cardboard, and metal plates. They are nomads so the huts are as simple as possible so that it is easy to assemble and disassemble them when the tribe is moving again.
And… it was very clear that tourists are annoying to them. Of course, as a part of the tour, they danced and sang for us (and made us dance, too), but all that was accompanied by an attitude of “I wish you leave soon” (which is completely understandable, I would also not like to entertain some rich dorks every day). After the dance, we went to a “market” which was laid out for us personally right on the ground. It was obvious that they expected us to buy some of these handcrafted items (which costed a hefty sum, by the way). So, to sum up, a Samburu village visit felt like a charity act but they also look at you like you stole something from them.
When this strange experience was over, our guide Sombara started driving to the river bank, again. He was going to search for the leopard once more. At that time, to be honest, we didn’t really understand why there is so much fuss about a single leopard. We realized that much, much later, when we were already in Mara… The setting sun and dark clouds made the already familiar landscape more dramatic:
Looks like there is something interesting ahead!
All this was because of a single cheetah mother and her three cubs. Can you spot them in this dry grass?
As we got to the dead impala, it became clear that we were not going to meet the leopard that day.
While the king is eating, lionesses are only allowed to watch from a distance. They were hungry and got too close, to which the alpha responded with a threatening growl. Looks like they are not getting any food this time…
On the way back to the lodge we met the charming cheetah mother again. A cheetah is almost a leopard, right?
Mount Ololokwe hike
The next morning we had to wake up even earlier… Our goal was to scale the holy Mount Ololokwe. Our guides warned us that the ascend alone is going to take from four to six hours! That is why it is very important to start climbing before the sunrise so that the heat does not catch you in the middle of the most exhausting part.
It was my first hike where I was accompanied by three people carrying my breakfast up the mountain, and one person with a gun.
At first the trail was quite steep indeed, but it only took an hour for the path to flatten out.
One hour later we were at the summit. So… where are those four hours that were promised to us?
Nice breakfast under the blue sky in a company of vultures – and it is already time to descend. Going down was much harder than up because the sun was at that time quite violent.
The last evening in Samburu was reserved for a “night safari” – a game drive after the sunset which gives a chance to spot nocturnal species. Night safaris are not allowed in national reserves so it is a unique opportunity provided by a private conservancy. While we are waiting for the day to end, it is a good time to bath in a pool and relax legs tired after the hike.
Our last Samburu sunset was as magnificent as the other two.
As for the night safari itself, it left an ambiguous impression. On one hand, it was interesting to see the area in a different light. On the other hand, the animals were noticeably irritated by the noise and the spotlight. Ostrich family woke up.
The elephants were not amused either.
The only pleasant encounter was with these aardwolf pups. Their mother was resting in the hole, but the children were very curious about a strange roaring construct that came to them in the night and was shining light at them.
The last night was quiet. By that time I got used to the noise of a midnight desert, constant humming of cicada and a rare roar of predators. Having slept enough, I went to the shower, as normal. I was about to jump into the booth and turn on the water as I noticed something dark on the floor. A closer look made me gasp with horror.
When I managed to get my eyes off the scorpion and looked up, another shock came. From the other side of the terrace a huge black baboon was looking right at me.
When the animal realized that I noticed it, it immediately jumped on the tented terrace roof right above me and quickly ran away. At this moment I was wide awake without any shower.
This experience was the parting gift of Samburu. After breakfast we were transferred directly to the airstrip to continue our adventure in Masai Mara. But that is a different story.