I have been in northern Kenya for four days now, and I really can’t adequately describe the wonder of being in the ‘African Bush’ away from all of the politics of the upcoming elections in the USA and the COVID pandemic. Although I have had some intermittent access to social media, I have used this time primarily to post a few updates from my trip, and I certainly haven’t spent it scrolling through social media to update myself on world events. For me, part of a vacation is to ‘step-away’ from our day-to-day activities and truly immerse oneself into the community/destination we have chosen to enjoy. I am taking in this wonderful view at Saruni Rhino as I write this update.
Having arrived in Nairobi and spent a short first night at the Four Points by Sheraton, which was just a few minutes drive from the airport, the next day I flew from Wilson Airport (the departure point for most visitors heading out to any of the safari destinations) to Samburu Kalama Airstrip, approximately a one hour flight north of Nairobi. Here I was met by Joseph who was going to be my guide for the next four days. A member of the Samburu tribe, Jospeh has been a guide at Saruni Samburu and Saruni Rhino for over 10 years and was an absolute wealth of information, with eyes like a hawk and is a trained rhino tracker. Samburu is a small eco-lodge that sits high above the savannah on a rocky outcrop with brilliant views from every direction you turn. I was pleased to find that they had a few other guests, a French couple from north of Paris, a Pediatric Dentist from Nairobi, and another couple from Nairobi, all of which had arrived in the days prior to me.
After an excellent lunch and a brief nap, Joseph and I went out for an early evening game drive late that afternoon, enjoying some good wildlife sightings as well as a pleasant sundowner out in the savannah before returning to the lodge. The other guests were enjoying fireside cocktails when we arrived back, with all seating appropriately distant but at the same time enabling conversation on the day and the opportunity to meet each other.
The next morning I met Joseph at 6:00 am for our early game drive, which was spectacular. Traversing the Kalama Community Conservancy we headed into the National Reserve area to the river, where we were treated to some of the best elephant sightings I have experienced. A herd of approximately twenty or so elephants with a number of young ones, the youngest Joseph estimated at about four months, all surrounded us as we parked and enjoyed being ‘part of the herd’. It was particularly amusing to watch two young elephants, most likely siblings (per Joseph) as the youngest taunted its older brother to get up. Meanwhile a lone bull elephant was watching the herd from the opposite side of the river bank. As Joseph set up the table for our picnic breakfast the lone elephant decided he would join us for breakfast, resulting at one point of a slightly nervous Joseph asking me to get back in the vehicle, as did he, until the bull had checked us out and decided a nearby acacia tree was a more suitable feast for him!!
Having thoroughly enjoyed the elephants, we were later treated by an exceptional leopard sighting. A young female, approximately two years old had killed a young gazelle and was enjoying it underneath some dense bush which made it very difficult to see and certainly hard to take any decent pictures. There were a couple of other safari vehicles from another nearby lodge taking their turn to get as close as possible to obtain pictures of the leopard as it enjoyed its kill. We waited patiently, and the other vehicles left the area providing an opportunity to get a closer look into the bushes at the leopard. What happened next was brilliant, as the leopard obviously decided it was going to take a break, so dragged the carcass deeper into the bush, as she did so Joseph preempted what would happen next and maneuvered the vehicle round to the other side of the bush, and as we waited she walked straight out in front of me!! Our eyes locked for a moment or two and for a split second I wasn’t sure if she was going to leap towards me – she would have made it in one easy jump we were so close…. Instead she strolled leisurely forward into the shady grass area and lay down to start cleaning herself after her ‘meal’. It was definitely a brilliant experience enjoyed by just Joseph and I.
Having returned to the lodge later that morning I enjoyed an afternoon cool down in the pool, a nap and then a wonderful massage before sundowners on the ‘terrace’ in front of the fire. I think it was my first full day since February and the news of the pandemic starting spreading I had truly relaxed and felt that I didn’t have a care in the world, as the saying goes!
The following morning Joseph and I left Saruni Samburu to drive to Saruni Rhino, a very small lodge with just two one room lodges and a two-bedroom one. Situated on a dry river bed, which flash floods in the rainy season, it is truly a small oasis located in the Sera Conservancy still owned by the Samburu tribe, with the primary reason to head there being the Rhino Tracking, although I personally found the “Singing Wells” an incredible opportunity to experience daily life in this area of Kenya.
The “Singing Wells” are an area approximately one hour drive from Saruni Rhino which stretches along the boundaries of a dry river bed which has natural wells along a stretch of about a half mile. The area is used by both wildlife and the surrounding communities as a water source. We arrived there “between” the wildlife and the communities so were able to view the wells close-up before it became an area that I can best describe as an absolute throng of activity that survives through organized chaos. Joseph and I were accompanied by an armed ranger, after all we were still out in the wild! An older gentleman who didn’t speak any Swahili only the local Samburu language, he knew many of those who later arrived at the Wells with their cattle, goats, donkeys, etc. Most of the wells have bush fences around them as they can be very deep and animals falling in would be unable to get out. Joseph shared that unfortunately a couple of baby elephants have been orphaned by falling into the wells and then been unable to get out. When found by the villagers as they arrive later in the morning, if alive, the rangers will help release them from the well and then keep them close-by for several hours in the hope that the mother or herd will return, but if not they are taken to nearby Reteti Elephant Orphanage started by the Samburu in the region approximately four years ago. Their objective is to provide an opportunity for the orphans to eventually return back to their herd, or at least stay in the region under the auspices of the Samburu and their conservancies.
Each of the individual wells are used buy a number of families who take their turns in watering their herds, as well as collecting water and washing themselves. They have a variety of different troughs on the edge of the wells, carved into tree trunks, made with palm leaves, etc., anything that can reasonably be used as a trough with the addition of some form of plastic ‘tarp’ that they bring with them each day. By around 8:00 am the villagers begin to arrive with their herds and the area becomes alive with activity. What was incredible to me was that there was clearly a process for each of the wells, with the taller young men getting down into the wells and passing up the water into the troughs, with the younger children being responsible for releasing the animals in an orderly fashion from their herds so that each took its own time to drink it’s fill before returning to their herd. It was truly a memorable experience and one which was also incredibly humbling as you realize that these families/communities walk many miles every day to nourish themselves and their animals, as it is the only way in which they can survive and live in this environment. They really aren’t concerned about COVID, they are concerned about the basic necessities of water and food (in their livestock). Humbling indeed……..
Later that afternoon we set out for the Sera Rhino Conservancy, and area of more than 100 square kilometers providing a protected environment for Rhino, and other wildlife. There are currently 17 rhino in the Conservancy, which was initiated almost 20 years ago by the Samburu, and ‘opened’ four years ago with 10 rhino. Since then 7 babies have been born, currently ranging from six months to three years, and at least one of the females is currently expecting her second baby. They do have one three year old rhino who was abandoned at birth, taken to the Reteti Orphanage for about a year and then re-released into a separate fenced area of about 10 square kilometers in the Conservancy. This is to protect him from the older males until he is able to fend for himself, which should be at about five years old. We were lucky enough to find him near the ranger station so were able to see him very easily, before going Tracking.
Rhino are one of the most dangerous wild animals as they can move very fast over a short area, so it was a real thrill to have the chance to track a fully grown lone male, and then a mother and her three year old ‘baby’. She is also the one who is pregnant. Similar to the Gorilla trekking, the Conservancy has Trackers who are there for the primary purpose of prevention of poaching, but they are also able to provide guidance on where the Rhino can be found. Beyond that the similarities differ, in that it is really important for the Rhino to be unaware of your presence, particularly if they feel threatened in any way as they will charge you. Using the whole teams skills as well as his ability to ‘read’ the Rhino, Joseph was able to lead us to within about 25 meters of them. Slowly creeping through the bush, aware that a wrong step on a twig or dead leaves, that would ‘crackle’ when you stepped on them was crucial to the success of both seeing the rhino, and avoiding being faced with a charging rhino, was quite the experience, and there were definitely a couple of heart-stopping moments, especially when it appeared that the male may have sensed our presence. I feel privileged to have had such a great experience and sighting!
Tomorrow I leave the Northern Rangelands and the Samburu region and head for the Masai Mara, which will be another awe inspiring time I am sure. It has been more than ten years since I was last in the Mara, but have such wonderful memories of my time there, I am really looking forward to returning!