Seeing lions, leopard, rhino and is always a huge thrill but the Samburu region of Kenya is about so much more than the big five. Samburu, Buffalo Springs, and Shaba are three parks that come together connected by rivers, volcanic mountains, and golden waves of grass–and with a backdrop like this, everything seems to come alive. Adding to the drama, this is the land where Joy Adamson, naturalist and author of Born Free, raised and released Penny the leopard and wrote her novel about the experience. We had the privilege of staying the site of her former home where she captured it all: Joy’s Camp. With her legacy on our side, our wildlife encounters with Joy’s Camp were some of the most intimate and intriguing to date.
Without wasting a moment, the Joy’s Camp team picked us up in the town of Archer’s Post and we set out on safari. Heading into the reserve we passed through a fascinating Samburu village. This tribe is similar to the Maasai in that they are nomadic herders but their vibrant dress and unique homes of mud and cloth were perhaps even more striking. (I’ll never forget the little boy who came running to the roadside to wave to us, not minding one bit that he was stark naked).
Arid woodland dominates the landscape but lush rivers like these cut through giving an instantly tropical effect. Doum palms grow like weeds along the shore and reticulated giraffes, elephants, and baboons can almost always be seen having a drink.
This is one of the amazing things about safari. We passed this very spot before lunch but an hour later we returned to find a large lion relaxing in the shade of the toothbrush tree (the bristle-like branches are used by locals for teeth cleaning). It reminded me of the constant dance between animals and safari-goers and that just because you didn’t see an animal doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Crossing into Shaba National Reserve to reach Joy’s Camp, the grasses move like threads of gold, the mountains grow taller, and the Weavers’ nests dangle like ornaments from the acacias. (These clever birds always build on the tips of the thorny branches to keep predators away and in the west to keep their nests warm after sunset. Locals use these as a way to navigate.)
Driving up to camp you can barely see the ten canvas tents tucked into the trees; integrated into the wild, it would be perfect for a naturalist like Joy. Walking into reception, the mood is set to capture her creativity. Her typewriter sits out on the desk, her line paintings and sketches hang on the wall, and her antiques decorate the space.
Though our canvas tent may have appeared demure from the outside, inside was as luxurious as safari can be. Silk trimmed our mosquito net, handmade glass lanterns illuminated the space, and graphic African accents gave it a sense of place.
The next morning we left for an early drive and this incredible Grant’s gazelle training session was our first encounter. One alpha male dominates a herd of females while the rest of the bachelors band together plotting his demise. To keep each other’s skills sharp, they occasionally have sparring sessions. Watching these two lock horns and joust their way around the field felt as official as a fencing match. (Especially with that referee in the middle).
There was an intensity level to each encounter at Samburu and Shaba reserves. What would normally be an average sighting, like vultures picking at a skeleton, turned into one of the most cut-throat Darwinian moments. Here, thirty-five vultures scratched, squawked, pecked with desperation to get at the last bits buffalo. Watching the power change hands by the second, we were captivated.
There are only 2,000 Grevy’s zebra remaining in the wild and Samburu happens to be a place they thrive. We were lucky enough to study the close-knit stripes of this beautiful endangered species on a few occasions with Joy’s Camp.
The narrative from our knowledgeable local guide Eric brought so much more meaning to each encounter. Did you know these adorable little rock hyraxes are the closest relative to the elephant?
Rather than eating breakfast before dawn or racing back to camp for sustenance, the Joy’s Camp chefs would set up the most incredible meals along our route. A grill, complete with omelet station, fruit bar, and pastry table were ready as soon as we pulled up to this exclusive river spot. That’s service.
Just past our brunch spot, Eric pointed out this Verreaux Eagle Owl looking ready for a beauty pageant. Wide eyes and pink lids, plus a pretty little head head that can spin 360-degrees.
Safari in Samburu is as well rounded as a safari experience can get. Fascinating cultures, breathtaking landscapes, thriving wildlife make you feel like you aren’t just on a game drive, you are exploring Africa.