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Samburu - Marsabit

Cool!

sunny 25 °C
View The Journey to the Jade Sea - Northern Kenya 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Day three of our private Journey to the Jade Sea with Undiscovered Destinations. I can't believe it is only our third day here - we've had so many adventures already!

Another noisy night with the monkeys tap-dancing on the roof and the unmistakable warning barks of the baboons followed by the low growl of a leopard. Oh the joys of the bush! At least it was cooler in the night – the temperature dropped to 28 °C inside the cabin. Not exactly cool, but an improvement on the 33 °C the night before.

Breakfast is taken in the company of a troop of baboons, foraging through the grounds. The baboons are foraging, not us. The waiter makes small talk, asking us where we are heading to next. “Marsabit and then across the Chalbi Desert to North Horr and Lake Turkana” we explain. His face takes on a worried expression. “I hope you are taking an armed guard” he says forebodingly. We shrug and finish our eggs.

Checking out at Reception leads to the same question about our onward destination, followed by another sombre warning about having armed protection. Feeling a little unsettled, I ask John about it. He confirms that we are indeed taking an escort, but no, he won't be armed. “If you are attacked by bandits and they can see you are carrying guns, what's the first thing they will do?” John asks. “They will eliminate the armed guy” he reasons. Fair point.

As we load the car, John points out the elephant pug marks right next to the vehicle. So that's where he was in the night! Apparently he is still within the grounds, but we don't see hide nor hair of him as we say our final goodbye to Sentrim Samburu Safari Camp this morning.

To reach the main road we have to drive right the way through the national park, so we get a game drive thrown in too! What a bonus!

And what's the first animal we see? A gerenuk on its hind legs, the one remaining thing on my safari wish-list. Another bonus! There's been quite a few bonuses on this trip already – having stated to John that “my main interest in Samburu is to see the gerenuk, anything else is a bonus”.

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A dull 'thump', followed by a furious hissing sound suggests a puncture. Great – that's all we need now! A national park full of wild animals including all three big cats and the start of a long journey across the wild northern frontier of Kenya: this is not a good time for a flat tyre.

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While John assesses the damage and puts the spare wheel on, we keep a close eye out for predators as well as birds. Fortunately no man-eating animals were seen, just birds.

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Blue Naped Mousebird

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Augur Buzzard

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White Browed Sparrow Weaver

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Secretary Bird

You will be pleased to know that no hunting took place on our safari in Samburu and the only shooting I did was with a camera lens. No lions (named Cecil or otherwise) were hurt in the making of this blog.

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A Dik Dik and an elephant later, and we are out of the park and back on the paved roads again.

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For now.

While the lovely level surface of the sealed road may make for a smoother ride with less dust, it also means John can drive faster. And 'faster' means the audible speed-limit warning on the vehicle is activated. It starts as an intermittent 'beep' and ends up as an annoying high-pitched whine. John turns the music up to drown out the noise.

The road is so smooth in fact that both David and I drift straight off to sleep, having endured mostly sleepless nights so far on this trip. However, our new-found comfort doesn't last long and soon the tarmac gives way to gravel, sand and dust yet again.

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A new road is being constructed in this area: the proposal is that one day the entire stretch of the TransAfrica Highway between Nairobi and the border with Ethiopia at Moyale in the north will be paved. Until then we have to put up with road works, gravel tracks, diversions and heavy vehicles throwing up clouds of dust.

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Dirt tracks merge with pristine new surfaces, but how long will they stay in such immaculate condition with the heavy seasonal rains and huge trucks that ply this highway? Today traffic is minimal.

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The new road is not merely creating an improved transport infrastructure, it is also helping to reduce crime in the region in a roundabout sort of way. During the construction work, contractors are sinking bore holes along the side of the road to increase the number of available watering holes for animals and people, thus decreasing the struggle for water and the ensuing deadly conflicts.

John tells us how not so long ago you would see many, many herders along the side of the road carrying guns; whereas these days, unarmed young boys usually tend to the cattle, with the armed elders overlooking the scene from a nearby high point, ready to step in if necessary. A great leap forward, but cattle rustling is in the blood of these people, so it is unlikely to ever be completely abolished.

Cattle rustling
The pastorialist people here in the north place such a high value on cattle that they often raid other tribes to acquire more animals. This was traditionally not seen as theft, more like a cultural sport and is still considered a perfectly acceptable traditional custom. The difference today is that the raids are becoming increasingly militarised and more and more warriors rely on firearms, with devastating effects. After a prolonged drought, there are more people than ever with guns, ammunition and little else; as the newspaper clipping below shows.

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The journey to reach water can be long and arduous for both man and beast, and often animals (and even sometimes the people) don't make it. The circle of life means a dead donkey becomes a good food source for vultures and other carrion-eating carnivores.

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Once they reach a watering hole, their strife is not over. Often there are already many other people and animals waiting in line to fill their bellies and jerry-cans with clean water. In the picture immediately below you may just be able to make out the guns the men are carrying in order to protect their livestock and themselves from would-be bandits.

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The scenery is constantly changing the further north we travel, from the verdant vegetation around Ewaso Ng'iro River in Samburu, to the dusty edge of the Chalbi Desert near Marsabit. Dust devils, creating impressive mini-tornadoes. Stark barren scenery. The ever-present red sand that covers everything: the road, the plants, the car, us.....

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Especially if we don't remember to close the windows when we meet or overtake another vehicle.

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As the road starts to climb the lower slopes of Mount Marsabit, the air gradually becomes cooler and the vegetation more green and luxuriant. The roads, however, appear even worse if that's at all possible. Just outside the town of the same name, we pick up a rough track which takes us to Marsabit National Park and Ahmed Gate.

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Marsabit National park

Meaning 'place of cold', this surprisingly cool and green oasis soars refreshingly above the hot and inhospitable plains. A true desert oasis, the park encompasses three crater lakes that are the only permanent surface water in this otherwise desolate region. Further moisture is generated by mist forming on the hillsides as the rising hot desert air cools overnight, thus creating a micro-climate. Large tracts of indigenous forests have established as a result, accommodating a wide variety of wildlife. The downside to this is that the thick vegetation and heavy creeper-swathed jungle makes game viewing challenging.

Ahmed, The King of Marsabit
For over 50 years, Marsabit National Park was patrolled by a very famous elephant called Ahmed who was known as the 'King of Marsabit' because of the size of his tusks - the largest ever recorded. In 1970 Kenya's president issued a mandate to place the large elephant under 24-hour protection. Never before or since has this occurred in Kenya, making Ahmed the only elephant to be declared a living monument.

For four years the gentle giant was guarded against poachers day and night by two wardens, until 1974 when he died of natural causes aged 55. His body was found resting majestically on his famous tusks, half leaning against a tree. Ahmed is now honoured by a life-sized statue in the grounds of the National Museum of Kenya in Nairobi.

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I am hoping to catch a glimpse of one of Ahmed's descendants later.

A challenging road takes us up through the thick forest, past the lodge where we are staying tonight. All the staff are out on the front porch, happily expecting us to drive in. When we don't, their expressions turn to that of puzzlement, and they wave at us frantically! We merely wave back and continue on our way.

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Matsabit Lodge

Gof Sokorte Guda – Lake Paradise
We head ever higher, bouncing our way on rudimentary tracks through the dense forest, until we reach a viewing area overlooking an extinct volcano.

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Marsabit National park has a number of volcanic craters known locally as gofs. At the bottom of the one of the largest of these crater, Gof Sokorte Guda, lies Lake Paradise.

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Bordered by scenic forest, the area around the lake is famous for its range of birds and diversity of butterfly species. The lake, which forms a natural amphitheatre measuring more than 1 km across, is also a refuge for the rare Lammergeier Vulture, one of 52 different birds of prey found here. Today we only see a few zebra, a number of sacred ibis and a hamerkop.

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Sacred Ibis

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Grévy's Zebra

Marsabit is also something of a snake sanctuary, said to be home to some very large cobras. Unfortunately (some may say fortunately), we don't see any snakes either. And there are no elephants, large-tusked or otherwise, up here. Maybe later.

It's the surface of the lake that captivates me, however, with its artist's palette of surreal colours and outer-worldly patterns of nature. It's like I have entered different world and am looking down on another dimension.

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Beyond the leafy slopes of Mount Marsabit and the lush crater of Gof Sokorte Guda we see the flat and arid Chalbi Desert which we will be crossing as part of tomorrow's adventure.

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Making our way back down to the lodge again, we hear a worrying knocking sound coming from the car. Not more problems?

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Marsabit Lodge
One of Kenya’s older game lodges, dating back to 1974, Marsabit Lodge is set on the the inner slopes of another volcanic crater, Gof Sokorte Dika. After being mostly closed for years, the lodge has apparently had a facelift and now provides rudimentary comfort and excellent service.

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View of the crater lake from the lodge

On arrival we are greeted by smiling staff with a welcome drink and a cool, damp towel. What a pleasing sight that is! My face is covered in red dust and I warn them that the cloth will get dirty. Very dirty. “No problem, that's what it is for” is their reassuring reply.

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Yep, I was certainly one filthy girl and that is just from my face!

We go to the room to freshen up further before lunch. We are the only guests here at Marsabit Lodge, and there are at least a dozen staff serving us in one way or another.

Lunch is chicken, spinach, potatoes and rice with a mutton stew served inexplicably in a separate bowl. It may be simple fare, but the grilled chicken is one of the tastiest I have ever had!

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Rono, the lodge's facilities manager, informs us that the “generator is sick and has gone to town for repair. We don't know when it will be back”. OK. Of course no generator means no shower. Oh well, what does it matter if we are dirty for a few more hours? This is a holiday after all!

John goes off to Marsabit Town to get the tyre repaired and the knocking noise checked out, leaving us with another unexpected afternoon at leisure. We ask at the lodge if there are any walks available, but are told that “it is too dangerous in the national park”, so we spend the afternoon on the terrace drinking coffee (and beer), watching the birds and animals who come to drink at the waterhole and feast on the fresh grass surrounding it.

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Baboons, buffalo and bushbuck

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Black Headed Heron

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Common Fiscal Shrike

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Buffalo

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Reichenow's Weaver (female)

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Rufous Chatterers

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Baboons

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Common Bulbul

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Bushbuck

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African Harrier Hawk

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Juvenile Common Fiscal Shrike

But no elephants. Maybe later. “They come at 6 o'clock” the waiter informs us.

As soon as Rono lets us know the generator is back, we go to the room to take a shower. Afterwards we sit on our private balcony which also overlooks the gof.

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Buffalo at the lake

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Common Fiscal Shrike feasting on a banana

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Black headed heron

No elephants here either.

Half an hour later the lodge's security guard just 'happens' to walk by to tell us not to go out on the balcony after dark as often the buffalo and elephants come right up to the lodge at night; raising my hopes of seeing the famous long-tusked elephants later.

When he asks where we are going from here, my heart sinks a little. “You have security with you? With gun?” he asks. “We have an escort” we reply diplomatically. “With gun?” he persists. We try to sidestep the question: “Our driver is arranging it all.....” Thankfully he changes the subject and enquires if we would like a drink. Good man.

This is the life: comfy chairs, camera/binoculars in one hand and a Tusker in the other while watching the birds and animals. We even seem to have room service - no need to move from the verandah.

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A bushbuck strolls by.

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A couple of Tawny Eagles soar overhead.

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A lone buffalo.

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But no elephants.

“Is spaghetti, chapati and beef OK for dinner?” asks the waiter as he swings by to ensure we are OK for drinks. I muse about what would happen if we said “no”, as I expect that is all they have available in the kitchen.

A large flock of Egyptian Geese take off and skim the surface of the water for a few moments before returning to the same place they just left.

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6 o'clock comes and goes, with no sign of the famous elephants. “Maybe later” says the waiter who brings our third beer (or is that the fourth?) “After dinner”.

As the light fades, more bushbuck appear, the geese settle down for the night and the lake glistens with a wonderful golden glow despite there being no sunset to speak of. As the sun goes down, the air is beginning to feel refreshingly cooler. We are delighted to have to dig out our fleeces and layer up as the temperature plummets. If only we could harness and bottle up this night-time chill for the coming days in the desert.

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Time for spaghetti, chapati and beef methinks.

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Spaghetti, chapati and beef. Beef? It looks like chicken to me...

An unusual combination, but certainly not unpleasant. We get the feeling they really struggled to put something together for us. The chicken on the plate confuses me initially; until the beef arrives in a separate bowl.

The security guard catches us as we leave the table to take coffee on the terrace: “You must take guard to North Horr. I come with you. I have gun” We suggest he talks with John in the morning; and go outside to look for those elephants.

No elephants. It must have been their night off. Oh well.

The stars are out in force this evening though, with the Milky Way looking particularly radiant.

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The glow in the bottom left hand corner is the bright lights of Marsabit!

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Milky Way

The romance of standing under a star lit sky with the man I love is totally wasted on us: while I fiddle with ISO settings, adjust the shutter speeds, change the aperture on my camera and count down the seconds for the timer; David enjoys a drink in the comfort of the bar. Sigh. The loneliness of the long exposure photographer.

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So that we will not be attacked by those pesky elephants (what elephants?), the security guard walks us back to the room. As he bids us goodnight, he asks what time we would like the generator on until. Now that is really personal service.

The bed feels nice and cosy, with a light fluffy quilt and no mosquito net to get tangled up in.

Purely for medicinal reasons: to keep me warm at this cold altitude (believe that and you believe anything), I pour myself a Captain and Coke before bed despite the large sign in reception stating: "No food and drink allowed other than that bought in the lodge". What a rebel I am!

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Cheers and welcome to Marsabit

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:35 Archived in Kenya Tagged animals birds elephants safari kenya roadtrip dust marsabit transafricanhighway Comments (0)

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