Buffalo Springs: Of Blue Pools and Pink Elephants

‘You guys missed all the action!’, one of the rangers said, as we returned to camp from a long morning game drive. ‘A big crocodile dragged an impala into the river, and then fought with three other crocodiles over the scraps!’

They would have had a good view of this toothy tussle – the Spring Campsite sits on a high bank of the Ewaso Nyiro River, close to the Chokaa Gate of the Buffalo Springs National Reserve. It is one of a number of ‘Special Campsites’ dotted around scenic spots of the reserve, which you can book for exclusive use.

The Spring Campsite is one of the best, shaded by a tangle of acacia tortilis trees, with expansive views across the Ewaso towards Samburu. It’s proximity to the gate, too, makes it easy to pop across to the Samburu and Shaba National Reserves, which you are entitled to do with your ticket for Buffalo Springs.

This, incidentally, is why we had missed all the croc action, because we had spent the morning searching for leopards in Samburu. These usually elusive cats are often spotted within the dense riverine forest skirting the edge of the Ewaso, or in the adjacent band of saltbush.

For hours we slowly weaved our way through the forest, crunching on fallen doum palm fronds scattered across hidden tracks, scouring every bush and log for a flash of black rosettes. We didn’t have any luck with leopards in the end, but we did spot a couple of vocal Verreaux’s eagle-owls, staring at us with those eerie big black eyes.

We also spent a large chunk of the morning watching herds of elephants crossing the river. I say crossing, but they stopped frequently to enjoy the cool water, some fully submerged with just their trunks sticking out, and others clambering on top of each other clumsily.

One of these herds, known as the Royal family, has become quite famous because a number of them have distinctive blotches of pink on their skin. The latest born to the family looks like it’s been half dipped in a can of pink paint. According to Save the Elephants, this lack of pigmentation is similar to human vitiligo, which is seen commonly on Asian elephants but not so much in Africa. It is only present in this one family in Samburu.

I’ve talked a lot about Samburu, but there was plenty to see and do in Buffalo Springs, too. The Spring Campsite is so called because it’s very close to one of the reserve’s ‘natural springs’. Encircled by a rough stonewall, the spring is crystal clear, and we often jumped in for a swim to escape the searing heat of the afternoons.

The history of this oasis is fascinating, because it’s actually a bomb site. During World War II, a squadron of Italian fighter planes was flying back to Ethiopia, when they spotted a huge herd of buffaloes drinking from the spring. They mistook the buffaloes for the tents of the British, who were advancing towards the Ethiopian border, so they dropped a bomb on them.

Understandably, this spring, or what the reserve calls a ‘natural swimming pool’, has become a popular attraction for visitors. Every afternoon safari vehicles dropped off their passengers for a refreshing dip – even when there were a pair of mating lions just a few hundred yards away.

In the evenings we explored the reserve, which has flourished after the prolonged rains. We drove past large herds of beisa oryx, and even the odd group of Grevy’s zebras. A lot of the wildlife was concentrated around the Isiolo River in the heart of the reserve, which like the Ewaso is flanked by thickets of doum palms. We didn’t manage to spot any leopards here either, but the scenery more than made up for it.

For more information about the reserve, call 0725 985790 or 0720 724058.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation