Samburu National Reserve ©Daryl Balfour, Elephant Watch Camp
SAMBURU AND BUFFALO SPRINGS NATIONAL RESERVES
I’m a firm believer in responsible tourism. With the sixth extinction looming, we must all join hands to stem the tide. But to earn the term “eco”, tourism has to be linked to real conservation action. This is our focus at Elephant Watch Safaris and luxury tented camp - founded by my mother, Oria Douglas-Hamilton - that now provides critical support to conservation NGO Save the Elephants (STE), rallying people to the environmental cause and helping raise funds.
My family has been based in the Samburu and Buffalo Springs national reserves for the past 18 years, studying a resident population of about 1,000 elephants and pioneering this new form of conservation tourism. Frank and I moved up here on a more permanent basis last year to lend a hand, bringing our kids in tow.
The greater Samburu/Laikipia area, which includes the Ewaso ecosystem, is home to about 6,000 free-roaming elephants, as well as a plethora of other unusual or endemic wildlife. And this is why we chose these northern rangelands as STE’s core research area.
The presence of abundant fauna is largely thanks to the tolerant attitude of the pastoralist communities that live here. The Samburu, Rendille, Turkana, Somali and Borana tribes are stoic and hardy nomads that have become our neighbours, workmates and friends. Some are also passionate ambassadors for wildlife, so it’s been a deeply rewarding journey for all of us, and the relationships that we have forged are yet another reason why this place has become our home.
We are also fortunate enough to share this expansive wilderness with Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, Beisa oryx and Somali ostrich, which are all endemic to the area. Numerous antelope, all the big cats, and wild dog can also be seen, and there are even rhino further to the north that were recently reintroduced in the Sera Conservancy.
WHERE TO STAY: Built on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro River, Elephant Watch Camp is an exquisite blend of Afro-Italian flair and eco-chic. It’s both feminine and bohemian, luxurious and conscientious. The camp specialises in extraordinary elephant encounters and, because we can individually recognise the elephants and they know us, we are accepted into the heart of each family. This makes for an experience I can only describe as being akin to swimming with wild dolphins.
Be aware that Samburu is a malarial area so it’s always best to take a prophylactic or, at the very least, do what you can to avoid being bitten by wearing long sleeved tops and trousers in the evenings. There are also snakes and scorpions, but most of the time they stay well out of your way. The only things that you really need are a decent pair of binoculars to appreciate the stunning diversity of animal and bird life, a good sun hat, and lightweight clothes to protect you from the sun.
WHEN TO GO: After the rains that fall in November and April, experienced female elephants encourage the formation of super-herds in anticipation of the arrival of dominant musth bulls. This makes December or May the best times to come and watch the elephants, as it’s when they are feeling fat and frisky. Having observed each individual elephant’s trials and tribulations for almost two decades, we have fascinating insights into the lives and minds of these intelligent, sentient creatures. It is as close to an elephant paradise as it gets.
The easiest way to get to Samburu is on a scheduled Safarilink or Air Kenya flight from Nairobi. Or you can drive north along the Cape to Cairo highway via Thika, Nanyuki and Timau, skittering across the foothills of Mt. Kenya then winding down a long escarpment towards Isiolo and Archer’s Post, where you enter the national reserve. Door-to-door, it takes about six hours by road, but you can stop for lunch en route at the famous Barney’s (La Rustique) restaurant at Nanyuki airstrip or the Trout Tree that is closer to Naro Moru. It’s about a three-hour drive to Samburu from either of these restaurants, so you can still arrive in good time for a sundowner.