The Road to Samburu

Every year our family drives down the 500km stretch from Nairobi to Mombasa. Although staying at the coast is the main attraction, the journey there usually provides an added incentive. The recent rise in the volume of traffic, though, can make the journey very frustrating, and it can therefore be difficult to appreciate the changing landscape as you descend to the coast. A couple of months ago we drove to Vipingo in 12 hours; a journey that once lasted six. So I wondered if Kenya offered an alternative – a drive with similar breath-taking views that was short enough to keep you sane. And last week I found it: the road to Samburu.

Our plan was to camp at one of Samburu National Reserve’s many public campsites for the weekend, so we left early on the Friday to leave enough time for an afternoon game drive before setting up camp. The journey takes about five hours, so we left Nairobi just after the morning rush hour. The road to Samburu, like the Mombasa Highway, is fairly straight, and the new Thika super-highway has now made it very easy to leave behind the congestion of the capital.

Once through Thika and its pineapple fields, the road narrows as you climb passed Sagana and approach the fertile, misty hills around Karatina and Nyeri. If it isn’t too foggy, which it often is at this point, then Mount Kenya provides a useful and very scenic reference point as the road veers past its western slopes. Here the landscape levels out, and the road is flanked by open plains all the way to Naro Moru – the base for those climbing the most popular route up the mountain.

The road continues through Nanyuki and Timau, before straightening out to Isiolo passed the junction to Meru. I had rarely ventured past Nanyuki, so when we circled round to the north of Mount Kenya we were in for a surprise.

The views from up there are astonishing. Unrivalled, I’d argue. Once past Timau you are immediately surrounded by wheat fields – a spectacle more at home in Scotland than in Kenya. And beyond the fields the highlands open up to what seems like the whole of northern Kenya. The hazy plains are punctuated only by the a few sharp hills in the distance, such as the gaunt red block of Ol Olokwe Mountain. The contrast to the fertile highlands just a few kilometres south is striking.

The road then weaves down, straightens out to Isiolo, and is followed by a 50km stretch to Archer’s Post and the turn off to the Samburu Reserve. Though we drove straight through, the Rough Guide claims that isolated incidents of banditry still occur around Archer’s Post, and that it’s worth having a chat with the police at the checkpoint north of Isiolo.

Samburu’s lifeline is the almost perennial Ewaso Nyiro River. The river and its very brown water (from which its name derives) dictates the appearance of the landscape; when it flows its wide banks are lined by swathes of green which attract an array of wildlife. Among others the forest shade by the side of the river is home to elephant, the long-necked gerenuk, reticulated giraffe and the occasional leopard.

We pitched our tent at Edward’s Camp, and then stayed at the Lion King Bush Camp – both very basic but good options for the budget traveller. For those after mid to up-market accommodation, there are a number of lodges lining the banks of the river; including Elephant Bedroom Camp, Larsen’s Tented Camp and the Samburu Game Lodge. The latter used to bait leopards but has since stopped. Not because it distorts their natural feeding habits, by the way, but because the bridge to the opposite bank of the river collapsed in a flood three years ago.

Samburu forms only part of a wider eco-system that includes Buffalo Springs to the south of the Ewaso Nyiro River and Shaba National Reserve on the opposite side of Archer’s Post. As they are part of the same eco-system, you are free to drive around all three after paying a 24-hour fee at one of the parks’ gates. Because the bridge is impassable, though, the only way to get to the other reserves is by going back to the main road.

Exploring the Samburu eco-system is not the only excuse you need to take the stunning journey from Nairobi into the north past Mount Kenya. For those willing to go the extra distance, there is the Mathews Range – the 150km long stretch of mountains just north of the Samburu Reserve. Another option is Laikipia, which lies on the threshold of Kenya’s northern rangelands, and has lots to offer in terms of game viewing, hiking and scenery.

There are plenty of places to stop off along the way too. The Blue Post Hotel in Thika, Naro Moru River Lodge, and Barney’s Airstrip in Nanyuki are all great places to eat lunch, have some coffee, or simply take in the wonderful views of this part of the country.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation