Leaving the hustle, bustle, noise and congested traffic of Nairobi behind and hitting the open road towards Isiolo Town is an adventure filled with excitement of what the Northern Kenya Game Reserves will showcase. The drive is long, but interesting as you travel the Thika Highway passing ramshackle towns and markets. Eventually the rugged peaks of Mount Kenya become visible as you leave the towns behind and enter an area of farmlands, the road climbing past the Aberdares and into rural Kenya.
We stopped and recharged our coffee levels in Nanyuki, before driving over the equator, marked by a signpost at the side of the road. From Nanyuki the area becomes much drier and less verdant, other than the agricultural hothouses stretching along the road providing roses for Europe, the landscape begins to look more barren. At last, we reach Isiolo, which is a typical dusty outback type of town, populated by general shops, banks and a large market.
A mix of cultures, dress and languages assault your senses as you drive through this small knot of activity, before you know it you have passed the town and are now heading for a very sparsely populated area.
We turn off the tar road and onto a well-maintained murram road as we enter the first game reserve, Buffalo Springs. The temperature is high; the white murram road shimmers as we drive along following the Ewaso Nyiro River. Doum palms line the riverbanks offering some cool relief to a herd of breeding elephant taking refuge in the shade.
The open plains stretch out before us as we stop alongside a herd of Beisa Oryx, with their ornate scimitar like horns and dune coloured hides blending into the landscape. Travelling further into this semi-arid park, we arrive at the springs from where the reserve gets its name. These cool waters bring some green into the area, with lush vegetation providing food for the wildebeest and impalas.
A tower of reticulated giraffe wander down to the water's edge and inelegantly sprawl their front legs in order to lean their long necks forward to lap at the life giving water. Walking along the dusty road a lion saunters towards the water, the giraffes gallop off and the bush becomes still and tense as he passes by. With his head held regally high, he continues to the water, ignoring all around him and also slackens his thirst.
We continue with our game drive past vast areas of open savanna, the perfect location for cheetah as we make our way out of Buffalo Springs and into Kalama Community Conservancy. The bridge across the Ewaso Nyiro River that connects Buffalo Springs and Samburu National Reserves has washed away, so we head back onto the tarred road, past a very small northern frontier town called Archer's Post and make our way into the Kalama Conservancy where we overnight at the sumptuous Saruni Samburu Safari Camp.
Northern Kenya is known for its pastoralist tribes. Around the game reserves and conservancies live the Turkana, Borana and Samburu people. Each tribe is distinctly different, but all are pastoralists and revere their cattle above all else. As we explored the area we saw many different styles of dress and intricate beadwork adorning both male and females.
The following morning, we get an early start and from camp head directly into Samburu National Reserve, again following the river, which supplies the lifeblood to all the game in the area. Today we spot the strange looking gerenuk, up on its hind legs feeding from the low branches of the acacias.
The Swahili name (swala twiga) for the gerenuk suits it perfectly, which translated literally means impala giraffe. With its long neck, small mouth and short horns it certainly looks like a mixture of a miniature giraffe and impala. Strolling across the open plains, we see a family of Somali ostriches, with the proud father leading the young chicks as they forage on the bare earth.
These northern Kenya game reserves offer a plethora of game and the bird life is prolific. The blue colours of the vulturine guineafowl are doubly striking as they contrast so vividly with the surrounding muted white and brown landscape. The superb starlings and Kenya violet-backed sunbirds add a celebration of colour to this stark land.
The following day we head out to Shaba National Reserve, this small reserve is where Joy Adamson lived and sadly died, while she was documenting the release of Penny. the leopard that she had hand reared, back into the wild.
The roads of Shaba are made of volcanic rubble, as you bounce along these tracks the landscape changes again; the tectonic turmoil from eons past is more starkly visible here. Hills dominate; the flat areas are dazzling white with powdery sand interspersed with sparse vegetation. This reserve is beautifully stark and desolate, a feeling of tranquillity settles over you as you drive over the rutted track with no other vehicles visible, the isolation and remoteness is palpable.
A Grevy's zebra stands alone, defending his territory from other males and hoping for some passing females to come his way. The comical large ears twitching on either side of his long sad looking face, reflects how vulnerable this species is. In a brittle leafless forest glade, the birdsong is sweet music to my ears.
As we arrive at one of the numerous swamps, the area is full of buffalo grazing contently on the green juicy grass. Excitedly I spy some movement in the long grass, it looks like the flick of a tail. With my binoculars out, I focus on the spot and see a leopard lying on the thicket gazing at the baby buffalo.
As the sun begins to cool, we climbed up Turkana Hill, where the summit allows a 360o view across the area, we enjoyed the novel experience of being able to see Mount Kenya in the far distance, have a true panoramic view, surveying all around us, and see no sign of human habitation. It is truly breathtaking.
The three game reserves of Shaba, Buffalo Springs and Samburu plus Kalama Conservancy offer such surprisingly distinct topography, vistas and wildlife sightings from the rest of Kenya and even from each other, no wonder they are a popular tourist destination.