A 45-minute flight northwest of Nairobi takes you past green farmland and into the arid mountains of the Samburu National Reserve, the first stop on our Kenyan safari in November. My wife and I had reserved three nights at Sasaab, a luxury tented camp on the outskirts of the park.
Upon arrival at the small airstrip, we were greeted by our Samburu guides, Jacob and Kupiru. The Samburu people are a pastoral tribe related to but distinct from the more well-known Maasai. Jacob’s colorful sarong and jewelry put my drab khakis to shame, and Kupiru’s intricate bead-and-feather headdress was thing of beauty.
We loaded into the Land Rover for the long, dusty drive through the park to Sasaab. At first glance the landscape seemed desolate. In the face of a historic drought, many of the herders had moved on to greener pastures on the slopes on the mountains. Only baboons remained to scratch the dirt for any morsels that may have persisted. However, as we crossed the bridge over the Ewaso Ng'iro river into the park, more signs of life started to emerge. The land had been grazed less, and the first scattered storms of the rainy season had passed through the previous afternoon. There were buds on the thorny trees and movement in the bush.
On our way to the lodge, Jacob decided to take a short detour into a riparian zone to see if we could find any game. We rounded a corner and encountered a small herd of elephants and impalas happily grazing in the clearing.
Jacob turned at the sound of a warning call, “Did you hear that? There may be a leopard close by.”
We spun the car around, and sure enough, an adolescent male leopard was passing through. Vervet monkeys, waterbucks and impalas all sounded the alarm, but he paid them no mind. He wasn’t hunting. We observed for a while longer and then continued on toward the lodge, happy with such a great start to our safari.
On the way we passed the park gates and two Samburu villages with their distinctive bomas (livestock enclosures) and manyatta huts. Many people were occupied herding goats, but some chatted with our guides, as many of them were family. Small children waved as we passed.
Sasaab lodge is a unique blend of Moroccan architecture and Kenyan style. Luxury tents are arrayed on the hillside with thatched roofs that mirror the silhouettes of the distant mountains. The common areas are open air and feature Moorish arches and fountains.
The camp managers, Scott and Nikki, were waiting to greet us when we pulled up. We were given a short orientation and then joined them for a lunch buffet with the other two guests who were staying there. (Since it was the end of season, some days we would have the camp almost entirely to ourselves.) This meal and all the others were a consistently good mix of Kenyan-, Indian- and Mediterranean-inspired dishes, prepared with ingredients from the hotel garden. The egg yolks, from the happy chickens raised on site, were a beautiful orange color, and other options were prepared specifically for my wife, Wynn, who is a vegetarian.
A friendly staff member walked us to our room, which had a stunning plunge pool overlooking the river. Most of the time it was too cold to swim, but the beautiful photos we took made up for it. We found the main pool to be a better option for swimming.
Our tent included a four-poster king bed, large seating area and bath with double shower heads. The room, and indeed the entire camp, is powered completely by the sun, which is rare to find. We spent most of the afternoon resting on the porch, casually painting with the watercolor set in our room, and watching elephants and herders along the riverbanks.
After our short break, we returned to the lobby for our afternoon walk. Because the reserve closes in the evenings, game drives are limited to the mornings, but the lodge offers a variety of afternoon activities within its private 3-square-mile reserve to make up for it. We decided to start with a nature walk to get the lay of the land. Jacob and a friendly ranger toting an AK-47 for protection walked us along the river and instructed us on the basics of tracking.
The following afternoon we visited the Samburu village on ATVs. It was a fun drive, and sitting inside a small manyatta in the village makes you realize how many things we take for granted. Everyone was very friendly and accommodating of our rudimentary grasp of the Samburu language.
On our last day, we opted for the sunset camel safari. The novelty of riding a camel wore off after 30 minutes, but the journey was well worth it. We had sundowners on a large rock outcrop that overlooked the valley, and it proved to be one of the most stunning views I’ve seen in my life.
Every morning we woke before dawn to make the long drive toward the park. Fortunately hot coffee was always waiting for us on our porch first thing. We also got in the habit of cleaning our teeth with the minty tasting stems of the local toothbrush trees with the locals.
The wildlife viewing was much better than I expected, and Jacob and Kupiru were an endless source of knowledge about the area. We had multiple elephant sightings every day, and saw many more than on our last safari in Sabi Sands, South Africa. Rare Grevy’s zebras, lions, reticulated giraffes and ostriches were all common sights as well.
Each morning ended with brunch in the bush prepared by our guides. They would unpack a camp stove under a multitrunked palm tree and make made-to-order egg dishes and pancakes, while we drank coffee and observed roaming lions and elephants across the river.
The only troublesome aspect were the herds of cattle we came across each day. Because of the drought, some herders had moved into the park to graze. It was not a huge problem, but apparently some herders had been killed the previous month in a conflict with rangers. There seemed to be legitimate grievances on both sides, and thankfully much-needed rain was on the way.
All in all, Sasaab was the best safari experience we’ve ever had. There are too many memories to relate, but a few stand out.
Most of all, there was the leopard that missed a kill just a few feet outside our tent at midnight. When the impala escaped its clutches, the leopard growled in dismay (called sawing), groaning off and on over the next two hours. We were zipped in our tent safely, but it still made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Hyrax warning calls preceded the soft plod of leopard feet and heavy breathing as it passed on its nightly migration between the hills and the river. I found myself praying for Rosie, as she had just given birth to a fawn.
We left early the next morning to catch our flight and got in one last hour of game viewing. The few short rains had made trees that were bare on arrival a leafy green on departure. We shook hands with our new friends as we boarded the airplane, and Jacob asked us to say hello to their Maasai brothers when we got to the Mara.