Samburu Kenya

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.

Samburu people of Kenya

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).

 rivers in Samburu

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.

lions of samburu national park

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.

road to Joy's Camp

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.)

joy's camp shaba reserve

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.

luxury safari camps in samburu kenya

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.

Grand Gazelles fighting

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).

vultures feeding

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.

endangered Grevy's zebra

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.

Rock Hyrax sighting with Joy's Camp in Samburu

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?

Joy's Camp luxury safaris

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.

African Verreaux's Eagle Owl

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.

Joy's Camp Safari sundowners

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.

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    1. Thanks so much Andi! It was really a spectacular place; I hope you make it there some day!

  1. Lets go back there for our next reunion. Miss you guys and think of you often.

    1. Thumels, it’s on! Though we’ll have to give the baby cousins a
      wilderness survival training course first (and Kelly for that matter ; ) So great to hear from you
      and thanks for following along!

  2. Cam Wears says:

    WOW! Such a cool experience. The photos capture the moment well. It’s been over 20 years since my time in Kenya, I can’t wait to return and witness a safari as an adult (I was only a wee lad at the time, so my memory is spotty).

    1. You have to go back! Though very cool you went as a kid, no matter the age it’s an unforgettable experience. What parks did you visit? Always nice to get comments from seasoned travelers like you two!

  3. David Carillet says:

    I thought the sea cow is the closest relative of elephants? Whatever the case, both species have to contend for extant relatives.

    Love the photos as usual; you guys get some good action shots. That owl looks incredible. Would love to know what led to such an unusual coloring for its eyelids. I would think it would be a hindrance to its camouflage as a predator.

  4. Rashaad Jorden says:

    I love the picture of the gazelles getting reading to rumble 🙂

    Where was the “Gone on Safari” picture taken?

    1. That gazelle face off was super intense. Did you see the rhino battle pics in our Meru post? Which batch of photos were your favorite? The gone on safari sign was at the cute Joy’s Camp gift shop.

      1. Rashaad Jorden says:

        From the Meru post, my favorite image doesn’t come from the rhino battles, it was number 93 – when the lion was looking straight ahead 🙂

    2. Yeah those gazelles were awesome. We watched them for a while in ten early morning light and they were not messing around. It was some full on fight training.

      The awesome “gone on safari” sign was in the hotels gift shop :). Even cooler the shop was still open for you to peruse.


  5. Amazing images…!!! A well-written article. I love each and every image shared in this article. Great photography and great article too. Keep exploring…!!

  6. Joys Camp looks amazing.

    1. Couldn’t agree more Maco. When you make it over to Kenya you should totally check out Joys…magical.

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