A Weekend at the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge

Tales of riverside campsites, crystal-clear springs and waterfalls had recently elevated Shaba to the top of my list of places to visit in Kenya. The 240sq.km reserve forms part of a much larger ecosystem that includes Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, but Shaba is the least visited of the three. This relative obscurity simply adds to its charm and, as I found out last weekend, the reserve has just as much to offer as its more familiar neighbours.

Shaba’s western Natorbe Gate is 314km from Nairobi, a journey that took us five hours. The gate is about 8km from the A2 highway turnoff just south of Archer’s Post. This short stretch of road cuts across an ancient lava flow, which blots the arid landscape like a long, giant ink stain.

Our plan for the first night was to pitch our tent at one of the many campsites along the Ewaso Nyiro River, which winds across the north of the reserve. For the second night we had booked a room at the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge, which is the only other accommodation option since the indefinite closure of Joy’s Camp. I’ll write a piece about our camping experience over the next few weeks, but for now will focus on our stay at Sarova.

The lodge is only a short drive from the main gate, on the southern bank of the chocolatey Ewaso. The grounds are lush, in contrast to the parched terrain of the bulk of the reserve. The entire lodge is encircled by a network of ponds and streams, which are fed by a nearby spring, and which eventually trickle into the river.

The central Chemi Chemi Bar and Surpelei Restaurant wrap around a commanding sycamore fig tree, and overlook the large free-form swimming pool. The lodge’s 84 rooms face the river either side of the reception and dining area, under the shade of doum palms. Wooden staircases lead up to each block of rooms, which have thatched roofs and stone wall exteriors.

The stone cladding is also a bold feature of the interior, in addition to wicker chairs and cupboards, and dark, thick wooden beams. Large windows take full advantage of the view out towards the river. Our Standard Double was comfortable, but would benefit from a bit of a spruce up. The fan was a welcome relief from the heat outside and, coupled with the rustling of the wind through the palm fronds, made for a very relaxing environment.

The impressive buffet spread at the Surpelei Restaurant was also welcome after the previous day of camping food. At lunch, the live kitchen served barbeque chicken and lamb, and the other stations offered soups, salads, traditional Kenyan fare, Indian vegetable curries, desserts and various other dishes. A rich slice of chocolate cake stood out for me, as well as a Spanish quail egg omelette for breakfast the following morning. As we enjoyed our food on the terrace of the restaurant, we watched a monitor lizard bask in the sun beneath a sausage tree, and a fat crocodile wriggle against the strong current of the river.

After breakfast, I had a brief chat with the Lodge Manager Josphat Ngali, who knows the Samburu – Buffalo Springs – Shaba ecosystem well. He said that the conservancy fee entitles guests to explore the other two reserves, but that there was no reason for them to leave Shaba at all. Based on my experience last weekend, I couldn’t agree more.

The landscape in this part of the country is stunning, and Shaba is no exception. Like its neighbours, the palm-fringed Ewaso Nyiro river is a defining feature of the reserve, but so too is the jagged peak of Mount Bodich, and the rounded top of Mount Shaba. To the northwest, the blue hue of Ololokwe looms over the horizon like the crest of a giant wave, and across the reserve natural springs provide splashes of green to Shaba’s dry and chalky complexion.

The springs we came across were teaming with life. At the Funan Spring in the heart of the reserve, we disturbed a tower of reticulated giraffe, a herd of oryx and a couple of Grevy’s zebras. By another spring, we bumped into a very skittish herd of elephants with a week-old calf, and spotted an aardwolf and a leopard in quick succession, before they disappeared into the long, golden grass.

Shaba has left a lasting impression on me, and I still have plenty near the eastern boundary of the reserve to explore, like the Sharinki Falls. It certainly deserves more attention, and with a bit of investment could easily be marketed as one of the country’s premier safari destinations.

There isn’t much information about the reserve online, but for reservations at the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge, visit: www.sarovahotels.com/shabalodge-samburu, or call 0728 603 590.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation