The complex formed by Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba reserves is one of the most interesting places in Kenya and can be ranked as unique for several reasons. They are the most accessible and visited of the protected areas in the country’s rough north, right at the edge of what was formerly called NFD or Northern Frontier District. Or, in other words, they are the most remote and inaccessible among the most popular reserves. It is also the place to see some species which are rare in Kenya or difficult to spot in other parks, since they only dwell above the Equator. Among them are Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and Beisa Oryx.
Unfortunately, these three reserves are also the most flagrant example of a practice I personally find excessive, even for such a good cause as nature conservation. Samburu and Buffalo Springs are adjacent reserves, separated solely by a river. Since this stream sets the border between two different districts and reserves are run by district authorities, in principle you are bound to pay the entrance fee to both reserves separately, when they are in fact a single natural unit. Funny enough, the chance to cross from one to another without paying the double fee seems to rely exclusively on the rangers’ whims, obviously leaving aside that other counter practice of “tipping”, which I personally reject. There is a bridge across the river some 3 km upstream Samburu Lodge.
The frontier condition assigned to this region also refers to the traditional problems with the Somali insurgence that occur from time to time north of this area. Little after the gazetting of the reserves, in the 1960’s-1970’s, they remained closed for several years due to continuous attacks by the rebels. Albeit this and the more recent safety problems sadly starred by some rangers, visiting these reserves is a must within the basic itinerary. Initially, Buffalo Springs covered both banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river (Uaso Ngiro, “Dark Waters”) along 16 km, but later on, the north bank was torn apart as an independent reserve, since this area belongs to the Samburu District (“butterfly” in the Maa language) and the south side is under the jurisdiction of Isiolo District, to which Shaba also belongs. The latter district belongs to the Eastern Province, whereas Samburu District is located in the Rift Valley Province.
Shaba, the less visited of the three, is also the largest, with a total extension of 239 km². Samburu and Buffalo Springs are similar in surface, 165 km² the first and 128 km² the second. The area has been traditionally inhabited by the Samburu people, a nomad paranilotic tribe closely related to the Masai.
The Samburu complex landscape preludes what the traveler should expect if he sets his feet for the northern territories, hence its classical “frontier” epithet: arid thorn bush Savannah, scrub-land and scattered acacia. The dusty plains are broken by smooth hills, outstanding the Koitogorr uplift in Samburu (1,245 m) and, lying far beyond, the flat head of the reddish Ol Olokwe Mountain. The extreme heat, in spite of the altitude many times above 1,000 m, and the landscape desolation, are paramount ingredients of Samburu’s particular charm: it is the face of the less hospitable Africa, maybe hence prouder. At first sight, these reserves could suggest a wildlife desert. Actually, this arid scrub is the preferred habitat for some mammals well adapted to this harsh and unfriendly environment, some of them quite rarely seen in milder climates..
It is true though that the bulk of wildlife gathers around the scarce wet areas, mainly the forested banks of the Ewaso Nyiro, which brings the Aberdare waters, and the crystal clear Buffalo Springs, at the eastern side of this reserve, which are formed by the arise of underground streams coming from Mount Kenya. The humid spots give rise to more luxuriant vegetation, with the prehistorical-looking bi-branched doum palms, riverine forests and grasslands. The high fauna concentration at the waterholes and streams is a gift for the wildlife watcher, while animals also seem to amuse themselves staring at the tourists dipping in one of the Buffalo Springs pools, which is conditioned for bathing.
Beyond Samburu and Buffalo Springs, the river heads on licking Shaba’s north border. This place takes its name from a volcanic cone that rises upon the plain and whose lava flow is crossed when accessing the lodge. Beyond Shaba, the river wanders about down to Chanler’s Falls, to finally die in the Lorian Swamp. Shaba’s landscape is seeded with low hills and its four natural springs confer a much higher wetness level than its neighboring reserves, to such an extent that during the rains, Shaba’s tracks are only open to 4WD vehicles. In general, the reserve is less developed and is therefore more peaceful and solitary than its sisters.
Shaba is known for being the place where in 1980 poachers murdered Joy Adamson, authoress of “Born free”. At the time of her death, the famous conservationist was engaged in a project aimed at reinserting hand-reared leopards to the natural environment.
Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba are located some 300 km north of Nairobi, 325 km in the case of Samburu. Due to the roads’ conditions, it is a mad task to cover the distance in a single journey, therefore it is a good idea to stay overnight somewhere along the way, for example in Mount Kenya. From here there are 70 km to Shaba, 85 km to Buffalo Springs and 90 km to Samburu.
The area is best approached by the A2 highway, which heads north from Nairobi passing Thika city. Heading on, the road turns west to border Mount Kenya, leaving the Aberdare Range at the left and going through the towns of Nyeri and Nanyuki. Northbound again, the road enters scrubby landscape and reaches Isiolo, capital of the district in which Buffalo Springs and Shaba lie. Up to Isiolo, the road is paved but in bad conditions north of Nanyuki. From Isiolo it becomes a broad dusty track. Depending on the safety status of the area, you may be retained by the police at the Isiolo barrier to wait for a convoy to be formed for the last stretch.
From Isiolo, the road goes on to the far Ethiopian border. But the reference for accessing the three reserves is the small town of Archer’s Post, some 35 km from Isiolo. The entrance to Shaba is at the right side, while the main gate to Samburu, Archer’s Post Gate, is found 5 km on the left. The latter reserve bears another gate at its western end, but it is seldom used.
Accesses to Buffalo Springs, the southernmost of the three reserves, are found before reaching Archer’s Post. 20 km north of Isiolo, there is a detour left which leads to Isiolo Gate, formerly known as Ngare Mara Gate. 10 km ahead, 3.5 km before Archer’s Post, a second detour leads to the Buffalo Springs Gate.
From the main highlander towns there are buses and matatus for Isiolo. From here there is a daily bus northbound calling at Archer’s Post. This little town is close enough to the reserves to allow covering on foot the distance to Buffalo Springs and Samburu. At the gates, you may have the chance to get a lift into the reserves. Twice every day, Samburu’s official vehicles make their way from Archer’s Post to Samburu Lodge and back. Finally, there is an airstrip near Samburu Lodge.
In these reserves it is easy to find some of the species that live only above the Equator and that therefore you will very hardly spot in southern parks. Among them, outstands the Grevy’s zebra, distinguished from its plains’ relative by narrower stripes and big rounded ears. Oddly enough, some plains’ zebras (Burchell) are also found mainly at the south banks, in Buffalo Springs, but they do not seem to interbreed with their Grevy’s cousins. The Beisa Oryx is a beautiful grey antelope, with black and white marks in the face and long horns in both sexes. The reticulated giraffe, with no mistake the most gorgeous in the family, is easily distinguished by its particular coat, a thin and clear white net splitting the orange spots. Another remarkable inhabitant of these reserves is the gerenuk, a slender antelope with thin neck and long legs that drinks no water and feeds on the acacia’s leaves, supporting its body on the hind legs.
Samburu and Buffalo Springs host basically two different environments for wildlife observation. The first one holds all the arid plains, far off the water sources. Relatively few animals inhabit these lands on a permanent basis, outstanding the Oryx, Guenther’s dik-dik (in addition to the more widely extended Kirk’s), gerenuk, eland and impala. These species are little water-dependent and may be found in the scrublands during the day, sheltered beneath a tree shade. Conversely, the rest of herbivores, including zebra, giraffe, elephant, buffalo, warthog, waterbuck, Grant’s gazelle and bushbuck seek the fresh and shaded riverbanks during daylight, leaving them at dusk. The great advantage for the watcher in Samburu and Buffalo Springs is that driving along the river gives the chance to see a huge lot of animals close at hand. Waters welcome their permanent dwellers, hippos and crocodiles, while up its big trees and down palms roam the vervet monkeys and baboons.
Carnivores are well represented in the Samburu complex. Lions and cheetah traverse the dry areas and seek the shaded riverine forest for a drink and a rest. Hyenas, including the striped of nocturnal habits, travel long distances with their light trotting. But one of the reasons that have made these reserves so popular is the real good possibilities to catch a sight of the leopards, much more probably than in any other Kenyan park. These felines are found elsewhere, but their taste for the high branches helps them to pass unnoticed most of the times. Here, leopards rest and kill by night at the Ewaso Nyiro banks. An early morning drive, when the cats are still active, has a great chance of reward.
The three reserves are also the haunt for a rich avifauna, with more than 300 species recorded. This is the place for the Somali ostrich, with its bluish neck and thighs, and for the Kori bustard, standing a meter high. The scrublands are home for some game birds, like crested francolins, yellow-necked spur fowls and the Guinea fowls, both vulturine and helmeted that actually belong to different genuses and that flock to drink down at the river banks. Red-billed hornbills, marabou storks and superb starlings are a permanent presence. Prey birds include eagles, owls, kites, goshawks and sparrow hawks. Woodpeckers nest in the riverine trees. The Ewaso Nyiro waters attract a great deal of water birds, like pelicans, herons, hamerkops and kingfishers.
Finally, in some sandy soils hollow their tunnels the naked mole rats, rare and small mammals devoid of hair, with a social behaviour similar to colonial insects and whose presence is detected through the mounts which betray their burrows, expelling pulsatile sand puffs like miniature geysers.