Elephants and reticulated giraffes in the Samburu National Reserve
Kenya

Samburu Special Five

While Samburu does not have the immediate allure of its more famous peers, the Samburu Special Five make it a worthwhile destination for any safari-goer…

The Samburu National Reserve will likely never attract the crowds of tourists that flood its more famous siblings in the south. However, the cryptic phrase in the title of this text, the “Samburu Special Five” is a reason enough for any visitor to Kenya to consider this somewhat remote location. We will get back to it, but let us first discuss this National Reserve and its peculiarities.

A lone elephant passing behind a doum palm tree inside the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A lone elephant walks away behind a doum palm tree – these trees are ubiquitous throughout the region and can grow a bit further away from the river

What is the Samburu National Reserve?

When talking about Samburu, most people actually refer to the congregation of three national reserves, spread along both sides of the Ewaso Ng’iro River. Apart from the most famous Samburu National Reserve, there are also the Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves. They are separate reserves, with their own entrance gates. However, you can hop between all three upon paying the entrance fee at any gate.

A solitary Grévy's zebra crossing a dirt road in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Zebra crossing has a whole other meaning in the Samburu National Reserve – we gave way to this solitary Grévy’s zebra

The Ewaso Ng’iro River and its Muddy Waters

This is a large protected area and the town of Archer’s Post sits at its fulcrum. It is a small settlement on the main road from Nairobi up north, towards Marsabit. The region largely depends on the Ewaso Ng’iro River for its well-being, because it is the only major water source in the region. The river is seasonal and entirely dependent on Mount Kenya’s glaciers. Those are unfortunately severely affected by climate change, thus causing many problems for the local residents.

A solitary nile crocodile basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun at the banks of the Ewaso Ng'iro River in the Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, Africa
A solitary Nile crocodile basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun at the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River

The Samburu Reserve is located on the north side of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, along its left bank. The other two reserves border its right bank. This is an arid region, with denser woodlands stretched only along the river. In the local language, its name means “muddy water” and is a very apt one. Do not expect to take a swim in it. Not only is it home to countless crocodiles, but its currents are also dangerous and relentless too.

Elsa, Born Free and Kamunyak

There are only a handful of safari-goers, particularly in Kenya, who have never heard of either Elsa the Lioness or the “Born Free” movie. The Samburu National Reserve was actually one of the two areas in which conservationists George Adamson and Joy Adamson raised Elsa. This incredible, heartfelt story was since described in numerous books and films. However, the most famous and faithful are the best-selling book and award-winning movie of the same name – “Born Free”. The account was written by Joy Adamson herself and published back in 1960.

A commemorative plaque for Elsa the lioness inside the entrance gate to the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
The commemorative plaque for Elsa the Lioness inside the entrance gate to the Samburu National Reserve

Back in 2003, the Samburu was made world famous again by yet another lioness. Kamunyak, a lioness in question, “adopted” a baby oryx, against all odds and her predatorial instincts. She cared for the infant very successfully for 15 days. Unfortunately, their relationship was cut short by an elder male lion who killed the calf while she was drinking water. This has allegedly not been the solitary case of lionesses adopting baby herbivores in the Samburu National Reserve, so it pays to keep your eyes peeled for any odd pairings when on safari here.

Large acacia tree covered with weaver birds' nests, in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
This large acacia tree seems to be decorated with countless weaver birds’ nests

Visiting the Reserves

I visited the region twice, both on our way to and back from Lake Turkana. The first time, we actually went to the Buffalo Springs Reserve. On our way back, we spent half a day in the Samburu National Reserve. As the topology and wildlife encountered are for all practical purposes absolutely identical, I will hereafter talk about Samburu in general.

The entrance gate of the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
The entrance gate of the Samburu National Reserve “proper”

There is only one small caveat though. While the Samburu National Reserve seem to be “navigable” in a simple safari van, my impression is that you may want to have a proper 4×4 car in the Buffalo Springs Reserve. Several tracks we traversed there were not that well maintained and posed a proper challenge to our own 4×4 vehicle.

Entrance Gate of the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves in Kenya, Africa
The entrance gate of the Buffalo Springs National Reserve

I visited the Samburu Region with Chris Temboh Muriuki. He is a mountain guide and a longtime friend, and we shared many adventures together. We first met on my first attempt at going up Mount Kenya, which I ultimately failed to do, but loved every moment of the trip nonetheless.

Two Faces of the Samburu – the Colour Blue

As I mentioned above, we visited the Samburu National Reserve on two occasions, a mere week apart. However, it seemed as if we visited two completely different regions. On our way up, the region was, yet unbeknownst to us, at a tail end of a long and devastating drought. The Ewaso Ng’iro River was as close to dried out as it ever was. The smallest of the children were comfortably chasing each other to and fro the opposing bank through the trickle of the once mighty river, just outside our camp.

Dried riverbed of the Ewaso Ng'iro River in the Samburu region of Kenya, Africa
The dried riverbed of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, as we encountered it on our way up north

During our safari drive in the Buffalo Springs Reserve that afternoon, there was a persistent cloud coverage that gave most photos that bluish tint, with no discernible shadows in sight. Not that I am complaining, mind you. I always enjoy both the benefits as well as challenges of any particular weather and climate combination. It is only that it could not have been more different than what awaited us upon our return to the region.

Silhouettes of a young baboon and its mother, sitting on a tree branch in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Silhouettes of a young baboon and its mother, relaxing on a tree branch during an overcast late afternoon

Two Faces of the Samburu – the Golden Hue

The afternoon of our second visit was just amazing when it comes to the weather. The skies were bright blue, and the entire region was bathed in the warm rays of that glorious African sunshine. The colours were almost surreal, the greens and yellows were saturated out of this world. Little did with know what the unpredictable climate had in store for us.

Young elephant and its mother, with a couple of reticulated giraffes behind, in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A young elephant and its mother, under the watchful eye of a reticulated giraffe, bathed by the golden light of a sunny afternoon

As the day was drawing to a close, the wind suddenly picked up and clouds materialised seemingly out of nowhere. Rain followed suit shortly thereafter. At first, it brought even more magic upon us as the rainbows started popping up everywhere.

A lone lioness walking towards a rainbow at dusk in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A lone lioness heading towards a proverbial pot of gold, perhaps in Elsa’s footsteps

As we concluded our afternoon drive and got back to the camp, the curtain of clouds got ever thicker. That night, we welcomed our first proper thunderstorm on this trip. The rain flooded our camp, and we spent half a night in our car. The car actually started sliding on an almost invisible slope on one occasion, as the entire region was turned to mud. It was a glorious experience nonetheless – experiencing the wrath of nature up close and personal. After all, both we and our equipment went through the ordeal pretty much unscathed with only amazing memories in tow.

Farewell to the Samburu National Reserve

On our way out of the park the following morning, we crossed once again the Ewaso Ng’iro River. What a difference one rainstorm could make! Instead of a shy trickle, there was a roaring current of mud, an uncontrollable beast that pummeled the very banks it could not even reach a few days ago. An incredible sight and a fitting farewell to an amazing natural destination.

The roaring current of the Ewaso Ng'iro River in the Samburu region of Kenya, Africa
The roaring current of the very same Ewaso Ng’iro River, a week and one overnight rainstorm later

Encountering the Samburu Special Five

Now, let us briefly touch upon that perhaps cryptical phrase in the title of this post. What does “Samburu Special Five” actually refer to? You are probably aware of the idiom “the big five”. It does carry a number of negative connotations nowadays since it was coined by colonial hunters to list the five most desirable animals to hunt. (Do check the initiative “New Big 5” for an alternative and much more contemporary take on the subject.)

A Grévy's zebra and a beisa oryx, two of the Samburu Special Five, in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Two of the Samburu Special Five, a Grévy’s zebra and a Beisa oryx, happily posing together

Nonetheless, “the big five” is nowadays ubiquitous in describing the variety of wildlife one may encounter in any given national park. It sort of “guarantees” the chance to see elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, lions and leopards in the park. Actually, 4 out of the big five are present in the Samburu National Reserve, only the rhinos are missing.

Single horned beisa oryx and an impala, somewhere in the bush inside the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Single-horned Beisa oryx and an impala, foraging together deep inside the bush

But, the relative isolation of the area when compared to the other famous Kenyan wildlife reserves further South has led to the development of a particular wildlife population here. Thus the phrase “Samburu Special Five” was coined. The five animals in question are, in no particular order, the reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, Grévy’s zebra, Somali ostrich, and likely the oddest of the bunch, a gerenuk. They are all quite common in the area and we saw all five practically within an hour of both of our visits.

A lone reticulated giraffe, eating leaves off a tree inside the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A lone reticulated giraffe, one of the Samburu Special Five, enjoying its afternoon snack

The Weird and the Wonderful

All of the Samburu Special Five are interesting in their own way and there are numerous online sources explaining everything about their genealogy, behaviour, etc. I will here only briefly mention a few interesting bits of information that piqued my interest.

Gerenuk family grazing in the bush in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
Gerenuk family grazing in the bush – gerenuk is likely the weirdest member of the Samburu Special Five

Grévy’s zebras are the largest of all zebras and have a very distinct, tightly spaced pattern of black and white lines. It often really dazzles the viewer, pun intended. While a group of zebras is often called a herd, it can also be referred to as a dazzle of zebras. They are not as social as their “plain” cousins and are often seen wandering around alone or in very small groups. Solitary male Grévy’s zebras can weigh up to 430 kg and are generally even not afraid of lone lions.

A herd of Somali ostriches in the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya, Africa
A herd of Somali ostriches – yes, a group of ostriches is generally referred to as a “herd”

Most oryxes can quite easily lose one of their horns, Beisa ones not being exceptions. It happens either in fights for territory or while running through the bush and striking a low-lying branch. Some believe that the legend of a unicorn may be related to encounters with such single-horned oryxes. I will leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions about it.

It Is Not All About the Samburu Special Five Though…

As I mentioned above, save for the rhinos, visitors to the Samburu National Reserve can expect to encounter elephants, lions, buffaloes and the ever-elusive leopards. The leopards remained well hidden during both of our visits, but we encountered all the other “major” animals, plus many others to boot. The elephants were plentiful, as were the lions. We came very close to a den of warthogs and could observe them being silly for quite a while.

A family of warthogs at the entrance to their den in the Samburu National Park in Kenya, Africa
A family of warthogs at the entrance to their den in the Samburu National Reserve

Numerous other smaller animals crossed our path too. I particularly enjoyed a number of sightings of the extremely cute ground squirrels. They are plentiful throughout Kenya, but very difficult to spot out in the field. The barren patches of land all over the Samburu National Reserve, devoid of any grass coverage, gave us many chances to see these lovely creatures zip around every which way.

Ground squirrel in the Samburu National Park in Kenya, Africa
This extremely cute ground squirrel stopped its frantic running around for just the briefest moment here

That would be it about this visit to the Samburu National Reserve. It is an enchanting place to come to and offers many unique possibilities that are well worth a trip. Are we going to come back? You bet we will, the first chance we get!

FAQs for the Samburu National Park

In which country is the Samburu National Park located?

The Samburu National Park, or more correctly, the Reserve, is located in Kenya, north of the Laikipia region.

How to get to the Samburu National Park?

The Samburu National Park Reserve is located approximately 350 kilometres north of Nairobi. It can be reached in about 7 hours’ drive on good roads. One can also fly from Wilson Airport, with AirKenya and Safarilink.

When to visit the Samburu National Park?

The Samburu can be visited throughout the year, but the best periods to visit would be during the dry seasons – June to September and January to February. You may want to avoid the peaks of the rainy season as the roads can get really muddy and difficult to navigate.

What are the Samburu Special Five?

The Samburu has its own, not “big”, but “special” five. They are, in no particular order, the reticulated giraffe, Beisa oryx, Grévy’s zebra, Somali ostrich, and gerenuk.

Here are all the photos we took in the Samburu National Reserve: