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Information about National Parks we did visit in Kenya

Masai Mara

Masai Mara is "The" park of parks in Kenya. Its grass-carpeted smooth hills, the chocolate Mara river waters with frolicking hippos, as well as the rich faunal diversity, fulfill the expectations of any visitor searching the African landscapes portraited in motion pictures such as "Out of Africa" or "Mogambo". Save particular tastes or special requirements, this is the park on top of the "must" list in the country: no trip to Kenya would be complete without a visit to Masai Mara. True that it's not the best park for birdwatching, and true that some species are not easily found. However, leopards and rhinos abound, and with more than 450 bird species, the reserve should not be envious of Samburu or the great Kenyan bird sanctuaries. Albeit, in an area only slightly smaller than the State of Rhode Island and with a diverse and complex geography, getting lost is far easier than finding a leopard or sighting a given bird species in its multiple woods.

The reserve, gazetted in 1961, is located west of the Rift Valley and is a natural extension of the Serengeti plains, in Tanzania. The Mara river, the reserve's backbone, traverses north to south heading for its westbound way unto lake Victoria, through the Tanzanian park. This course is the natural barrier crossed every year by the large migratory herds of wildebeests and zebras which march across the two parks. As explained below, more than one million wildebeests and 200,000 zebras move in a quest for the best pastures, finding along the way the crocodile-crowded river. When the herds ford the stream, many animals die flattened or drowned and leave their bones by the Mara banks. From July to October, Masai Mara is at its peak, with the seasonal visitors populating the vast grasslands.

Masai Mara's location and altitude, above 1,500 m, yield a climate which is milder and damper than in other regions. The grassy landscape and the nutrient wealth for the great herds are mantained by the abundant rains, which here last from November through June, as a fusion of the two rain seasons (long and short) typical in other Kenya areas. Night storms are frequent. In the hills and plains, grasslands are scattered with acacia woods and bush. The riverbanks of the Mara and of the multiple tributary streams are bordered by dense riverine forests with a good chance to find some of the reserve's bird species.

The long distance to the country's main urban centers poses a difference that allows this reserve to keep one of the features which is becoming today an oddity in African parks: wildlife roams in complete freedom, without fences or other obstacles around. Animals make no notice of the borders drawn on the papers, not only those which split Kenya from Tanzania but the limits of the protected area as well. The reserve is surrounded north and east by the so-called dispersal area, inhabited by the Maasai but otherwise similar to the territory within the limits, with equal or even higher opportunities to spot wildlife than at the reserve itself, frequently overcrowded by tourists arriving and wandering around by car, minibus, airplane, balloon or microlight.

Since it is protected as a reserve and not as a national park, Masai Mara is not managed by Kenya Wildlife Service but by the local authorities, namely District Councils. The problem appears with the administrative divisions, defined by the Mara river. The eastern sector belongs to Narok District, whereas the western side lies in Transmara District. This detail, apparently irrelevant, is actually something to bear in mind: in theory, the fees paid at the gate cater for visiting the sector under the jurisdiction of the district through which the visitor has accessed. In practice, this condition is usually overlooked, but just in case you'd better leave the park through the same district you entered.

And in this wildlife webwork, where do the Maasai fit? The nomad pastoral tribe, formerly feared because of their warrior attitude, inhabits these lands from old. When in 1911 chief Lenana signed an agreement with the colonial government, he accepted selling the Maasai's territories and moving southward, for the sake of Nairobi's urban development. But the Masai Mara region had already been deserted over the 19th century, when epidemics and tribal warfare decimated the Maasai people and drove them to a decline which they are still expecting to recover from. Thus, an ancient Maasai prophecy which forecasted the arrival of the foreigners also foresaw a future that would bring back the old splendour days.

When the reserve was inaugurated, in 1961, it was done so as to protect animals in a deserted and wild country, in which wildlife was coming to an end due to massive killings committed by white hunters. The protection of this area, among other factors, favored re-population of the territory by the Maasai, who by virtue of the reserve status were put in charge of the reserve's management through the District Councils. Though land conflicts are still about, the chosen formula for preserving this natural space attempts to render some reward to the Maasai by means of trade with tourists, both through campsite management, handicraft selling and visits to villages. All of it provides a permanent income source, albeit scarce and fluctuating, for this people who fight for preserving their traditions against progress. Their aspect and legend has made them become over time a mythical tribe that sparsely corresponds with the romantic image forged around them.

The truth is that the Maasai struggle between their classical conservationism and the temptation to join the files of industrial revolution seeking a more buoyant life. Their tendency to take a grip on tradition has granted them sympathy and admiration from tourists longing for picturesque scenes, but also rejection from the more progressive Kenyans, who believe that a nomad pastoral tribe in the 21st century's global economy is condemned to poverty. Today, many Maasai customs are restricted by law, such as lion hunting, while others like traditional nurturing on blood and milk fall into oblivion little by little. Meanwhile, tourists expect to find at the same time the Orzowei's Maasai and a safe and peaceful country, devoid of poaching, with no cattle in the reserves and without muggers. An impossible combination, save obliging the Maasai to become something similar to thematic parks' employees, youngsters wearing jeans and eating hamburgers that at night dress up in their parents' attires to perform their tribal millenary dances. After all, some of it can be found today in the pierced ears of many lodges' waiters and cooks.

May these latter iconoclast paragraphs be like one of those outdated spears we could see in that old Martin and Osa Johnson's movie, "Simba" (1928), where a group of Maasai moran chased a lion. In this case, I throw my spear against the monster of standardisation imposed from the Western World, and for the defense of a better future for all the Maasai, which may allow them to freely choose their own destiny away from the give and take they are continuously suffering.

Masai Mara is located 270 km west of Nairobi, at a remote southwestern corner of the country, right at the edge of the Tanzanian border. The fact that there is no major road to the reserve, joined to Masai Mara's geography itself, split into two by the river, makes it advisable to study the route for each particular situation. The optimal way for each case will depend not only on the place of departure, but on the destination as well, whether it lies outside or inside the reserve, and in the latter case, whether at the eastern or western sector.

Of course, the road conditions is another factor to take into account, and you can not tell this on the maps. Speaking generally, no access road to Masai Mara is in good condition. The range varies from acceptable to abominable. This without adding the rain factor, which during the wet season quagmires the tracks and makes driving even tougher.

Because of all, a large number of visitors chooses to travel to the Mara by plane. Air Kenya offers two scheduled flights daily from Wilson Airport in Nairobi. The trip lasts a mere 45 minutes, for the six hours plus that the road traveller will bear, obligatorily in a 4WD vehicle. Not to talk about buses, which only cover the distance to the town of Narok, still far off the reserve.

Obviously, travelling by air is costlier than the road trip. If you are not convinced by this choice, neither am I. The following paragraphs attempt to synthesize the diverse options for accessing Masai Mara according to the place of departure. Most of the routes converge in the B3 road, which runs east-west parallel to the Tanzanian border and is the starting point for several tracks down to the reserve. Afterwards, and so that you can make up your mind as to what is your best bet, I will make an overview of the road communications within the reserve and the routes connecting both sectors.

From Nairobi:
Don't be deceived by the 270 km distance from Nairobi: it will take you some six hours just to the eastern side of the reserve, to which you should add -if this is your case- the driving time within the limits. In Nairobi, take the A104 road toward Naivasha and Nakuru. After passing the Kikuyu Escarpment, holding your breath with the Rift Valley views and descending to the bed of Kedong Valley, at Maai-mahiu take the left turn-off toward Narok along the B3 road. Some 15-20 km past Narok, the road reaches Ewaso Ngiro, where there is a crossroad. From here there are two possibilities for accessing the reserve:

Option A:
this is the most frequent route, leading to the eastern sector of the park, where Keekorok Lodge is located. At Ewaso Ngiro, turn left to the C12. Some 40 km ahead the road divides. Both tracks lead to Masai Mara, but to different gates, and converge within the reserve at Keekorok Lodge. The one at the right is the main access, leading to Sekenani Main Gate. The left route reaches Ololamutiek Gate crossing a collapsed bridge (1998), but it is passable for a 4WD vehicle.

Option B:
less used because of its worse conditions and mud abundance after the rains. At Ewaso Ngiro, go straight ahead along the B3 some 40 km more up to Ngorengore. At this town turn left to the C13. From here there are two further choices. The first one is driving straight to Oloololo Gate and Kichwa Tembo Camp, at the western side of the reserve. The second option is turning left at Aitong to the E177. This track leads to the eastern sector through Talek Gate.

From Naivasha:
If you depart from Naivasha you have two main routes for reaching Ewaso Ngiro, from where the two options mentioned under "from Nairobi" apply.

Option A:
take the main A104 road heading for Nairobi. At Maai-mahiu, turn right to the B3 towards Narok and Ewaso Ngiro. This is the preferred access because it uses a stretch of the main highway.

Option B:
just south of the lake, take the right turn-off to the C88. This track crosses the Mau Escarpment and offers beautiful sights, but becomes heavily muddy during the rains. It finally reaches the B3, which you will take right heading for Narok and Ewaso Ngiro.

From Nakuru:
The Nakuru case is similar to that mentioned for Naivasha. Basically there are two possibilities, one is more straightforward and scenic but more complicated, and the other one uses a stretch of the main A104 highway to Nairobi. Both routes reach Ewaso Ngiro, at the B3. From here the route is the same as in "from Nairobi".

Option A:
take the main A104 highway to Naivasha. See "from Naivasha".

Option B:
in Nakuru, take the road heading south to Njoro and Mau Narok across the Mau Escarpment. This track is a quagmire during the rains. The road finally leads to the B3 at Narok, then turn right to Ewaso Ngiro.

From the north (Kericho):
Take the C23 southward heading for Kisii and turn left at Litein to the paved road that covers some 40 km before reaching Bomet. Here, turn left to the B3. From this track you can drive down to Masai Mara taking the C13 at Ngorengore (some 40 km off Bomet) or either the C12 at Ewaso Ngiro, as explained under "from Nairobi".

From the west (Kisii):
Option A:
take the main A1 highway heading south for Tanzania. Past Migori, at Suna, little before reaching the border, there is a left turn-off toward Lolgorien and Masai Mara. This track crosses the Soit Ololol Escarpment and is very steep in places. You will enter the reserve through Oloololo Gate, at the western sector (Transmara).

Option B:
from Kisii take the B3 eastward to Keroka and Sotik. Head on along this road passing Bomet and Kapkimolwa to drive down the C13 from Ngorengore or the C12 from Ewaso Ngiro, as explained under "from Nairobi".

From Tanzania:
This option is possible only if you travel in your own vehicle, since the renting companies do not generally allow for it unless there is a previous express agreement under special circumstances. There is in fact a gate to Masai Mara from Serengeti, Sand River Gate. This access is seldom used and there is a 12 km distance between both countries' border posts. If you enter Kenya from here, you will initiate the immigration paperwork that you will need to complete in Nairobi.

I've heard of some case in which someone has crossed the border in a rented car using what they call "green arguments", that is, plain and simple bribe. Please, avoid this practice, do not support corruption, otherwise you will lose the right to complain about it or about any abuse you might suffer.

How to move around in Masai Mara:
A first important consideration is the location of your chosen lodging. Many visitors who opt for an accommodation outside the reserve don't even get to cross the limits. Masai Mara is one of the most expensive parks and, conversely to what happens in others, animals abound outside the protected grounds. The dispersal area north and east of the reserve is equally rich in wildlife, with the only difference that there are Maasai settlings. The only problem for those choosing this option is that south of the B3 road there are no communications connecting the different tracks leading to the gates, therefore a vehicle coming from Nairobi must make a detour to reach the northwest of Masai Mara without entering the reserve. In fact, the route from Kericho is frequently used in such cases, since remains passable even during the rains.

In any case, all roads lead to Masai Mara and within the reserve it is possible to pass easily from one sector to the other, albeit making a long detour, since the crossing is at the south limit of the reserve and the country. This New Mara Bridge is located along the reserve's main road, the E176, which connects Keekorok Lodge with Oloololo Gate. There is a second bridge over the Mara, but it lies outside the reserve, northwest of the limits shortly after Oloololo Gate.

Keekorok Lodge, where the E176 dies, is the main crossroads in Masai Mara. From here three roads spread to Talek Gate (E177), Sekenani Gate (C12) and Ololamutiek Gate (E301), respectively. The C12 comes from Ewaso Ngiro and does not end at Keekorok, but it follows southward past the lodge to Sand River Gate, at the Kenya-Tanzania border.

Apart from this main network, there is a web of minor roads in different conditions, some of them passable all the year round and others flooded during the rainy season, specially at the northwest. Off-track driving over the years, in addition to damaging the substrate, has caused the sprouting of wheel-track tangles that are hard to discern from the authorised roads. Though the maps available are generally far from perfect, this makes their utilisation even more complicated. This and the vast reserve's surface make it easy to get lost in Masai Mara, unless you use a GPS and you are armed with a good collection of waypoints. As a general advice, if you are convinced that you see a road, use it, but bear in mind that you might not find it in the map. Keep a record of your movements in a log book: if you get lost, you will want to be able to trace your steps back. Getting lost, but knowing how to "find yourself" again, is the best way to leave the beaten tracks for discovering landscapes and wildlife in solitude.

The extension of the regions to explore will depend on the time you devote to the reserve, but if your visit is short, you might pay special attention to the areas highlighted in the next section, according to your particular preferences.

In general, lodges are equipped with a filling station. They usually keep a good fuel provision, but drought might affect the regularity of supply.

Masai Mara boils in wildlife. During the dry season from July to October, when the big herds roam through these grounds, wildlife spectacle is unparalleled all around the world, evoking what Africa must have been in the old days of the "great white hunters".

It must be made clear that Masai Mara is a reserve for mammals. Though the number of bird species is well above 450, the dispersed geography makes birdwatching here a less rewarding experience than in places where birdlife is more concentrated, such as Samburu or the great lakeside sanctuaries. In spite of all, in this section we will review as well the main bird species to be found.

In such a vast territory, it is useful to know where to look at and when. The second question has an easier answer. Dusk, and better dawn, are the best moments for wildlife watching. Specially at sunrise, nocturnal mammals are still active, while the diurnals enjoy the cool hours to move around or chase their prey. It is at this time when it is likely to witness a kill, or simply watch the big cats wandering around the grasslands, before the sun plummets over the plains and it is time to look for a shade to ease the day out.

During the central daylight hours, the excessive heat imbues the bush with a state of lassitude that shows up in the animals' behaviours. Movements are slow, racing is out of the question and wildlife flees for a shade beneath the nearest acacia. This is why safari companies schedule their game drives for dawn and dusk, leaving tourists at their lodges for the rest of the day. Albeit actually, the central hours are also very interesting for the wildlife watcher. First, the few tourists allows for a quieter enjoyment devoid of the hectic minibus races searching for lions at dawn. Besides, felines are the only diurnal animals you might find difficult to spot at full daylight (not actually true, scan the trees' shades). The remaining wildlife is visible also at this time and, unless you are only interested in watching the reality show of the kill -an attitude grossly similar to attending the bullfights or the "tablao flamenco" in Spain, making the gondola trip in Venice, or boarding the "Bateau Mouche" down the Seine in Paris, i.e. things that may be done but are not all these places have to offer-, you will enjoy your drives at any time of the day. Further, if this is not enough of an incentive, you can also witness a kill at daylight: many animals don't easily admit encroachment by human visitors and have modified their habits accordingly. It is becoming progressively frequent to watch cheetah killing at midday, which requires from them a much bigger effort and reduces the output of their races, but this is the only moment when these shy and solitary cats can perform their speedy chases without the annoying interference of vehicles.

Regarding "when", it is also worth to make a mention of the seasonality. A frequent question is whether during the dry season there are less animals at sight. It is all the way round: the dry season is optimal for wildlife watching. Many animals usually like to remain hidden so long as it is possible, prey for not being chased and predators for not being adverted. When water abounds, animals seclude in the bush or woods, where any small puddle serves as a waterhole. During the dry season, seasonal water sources dry up and the inhabitants of bush and forest are bound to the permanent waterholes, easily located both by human visitors and for predators, the latter patiently hiding close at hand.

We had a pending issue, where to look for animals. The answer to this question is not so straightforward, but here you will find some general guidelines both from my experience and from other sources. Obviously, it doesn't mean to be dogma, but just likely possibilities.

The plains from Mara river to Soit Ololol Escarpment (Esoit Oloololo or Siria), at the west part, is a favourite haunt for Masai Mara's famous black-maned lions, which usually walk these grasslands searching for prey and doze beneath the scattered acacia trees during the day. This area holds beautiful scenics, the flat topped trees vanishing in the haze before the backdrop of the far-off bluish mountains. Another place to find lions is Musiara Swamps, which actually remain dry for a great part of the year. Lions are probably the major attraction in Masai Mara: it is nearly impossible to leave the park without spotting some of them, since their population here is the largest in Kenya.

Cheetah can also be found between the Mara and Oloololo, as well as in the Talek area, along the Sekenani-Talek road. The solitary prairies near Sand River are also a good place to spot these beautiful animals lying beneath the acacia trees.

Leopards abound in Masai Mara, but their nocturnal and tree-climbing habits make them difficult targets, usually camouflaged among the high branches on top of the acacia canopy, not far away from the water courses. In Masai Mara there are uncountable trees and plenty of streams, reason why sightings are not an everyday routine. You may find their prints on the sandy Mara riverbanks at the north end, outside the limits of the reserve.

The spotted hyena's ungraceful silhouette can be seen romping about at anytime. They usually drop by the big herds, coveting the remains of the lions' or cheetah's banquets. But far from this cliché which has granted them the general dislike -partly enhanced by the Disney factory-, the truth is that hyenas also earn for a living, but usually kill by night. It wouldn't be atypical that the carcass you find at dawn surrounded by a lion pride really corresponds to prey killed by hyenas during the night. On the other hand, and despite their ugly look, watching the activity in a hyenas' den makes a very enjoyable while.

Hippos remain submerged during the day in the plentiful Mara pools, specially around Mara Serena Lodge and next to the New Mara Bridge at the southern limit. At the latter place there is also a basking crocodile colony. If night falls while you are still on the road, which is unusual due to the time restrictions for driving, you may sight the elephantine shadow of a hippo crossing the road with a dancer's agility that hardly fits its gawkish image. By night, these animals graze quietly -or not so- on the grasslands and embark themselves in long treks across the plains, making the illusion that they pop up spontaneously in every waterhole as if they had fallen from the sky with the rains.

Herbivores can be seen anyplace at the reserve. Elephants feed on the foliage beside the rivers and they can be sighted in family groups marching through the plains, as well as around the Musiara Swamps. Black rhinos are a hard prey for the photographer, since they hide amongst the bush to browse the trees and shrubs, but it is possible to get a glance of their far-off silhouette standing out against the shrubbery over a hill at Rhino Ridge. Now the park also hosts a couple of white rhino imported from South Africa. Elands, with their corpulent ox-like aspect, can be observed around the bushlands and at the hills' slopes. Wildebeests, zebras, Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, Maasai giraffes, Coke's hartebeests or Kongonis, impalas, warthogs and buffalos inhabit nearly every region in the park.

Masai Mara is the home of some mammalian species sparsely found in other Kenyan parks. The topi, a bluish antelope with a glossy coat and resembling a Kongoni, is seldom seen in other parks except the Mara. Highly gregarious, topis make up big herds which usually appoint a sentinel on duty. Other species with limited distribution is Roan antelope, a voluminous animal with a proud standing and thick and long curved horns that in Kenya can only be seen at the southwestern sector of Masai Mara, at Shimba Hills reserve and at Ruma national park (formerly Lambwe Valley). Finally, the bat-eared fox, a nice pet with unmeasured ears, is quite a common sighting, since its bulky lairs are easily identified.

I mentioned above that I wouldn't forget the birds. Raptors monopolise the starring with more than 50 species. Vultures are omnipresent, flying in circles above the herds stalked by predators, on the ground at a cautious distance from the lions and their fresh prey, or finally dipping their beaks and their whole heads into the prey's viscera, once lions and hyenas have enjoyed the most exquisite portions. Marabou storks, probably the weirdest and ugliest birds in the universe, also prowl around carrion. Looking at their badly disfigured faces so strongly reminding the murderer of the wax museum's crimes, it is hard to believe that their feathers were once a luxury article for high-cradle ladies and high-bed starlettes. Other prey birds populating the grassy plains are the secretary birds, with their civil servant look wearing visor and oversleeves, wandering about with their "arms" at the back looking for reptiles. The crowned cranes roam around the marshes, as do many species of migratory waterbirds, specially during the rains. The riverbanks shelter beautiful Schalow´s and Ross's turacos, Pel's fishing owls and nervous flocks of crested Guinea fowls. The driest lands are the habitat for ground hornbills and Jackson's and Hartlaub's bustards.

The Great Migration:
Let us face it. Africa frequently seems not any more what it used to be. Human encroachment of traditional wildlife haunts, together with development associated to modern times, have erased the ancient image of wild animals roaming free through unspoiled and savage wilderness. Today, many national parks and reserves in Africa are fenced, both to prevent poaching and to safeguard the human settlers from the occasional raging raids by hungry animals. Fencing is expensive and to some extent disrupting, but it may be the price to pay for preserving nature while favouring the much needed progress in African countries that struggle to move forward.

Still, some places retain the charisma of an open and limitless land. Masai Mara National Reserve, located at a remote southwestern corner of the Kenyan territory, is one of the only places in Africa that yet show wildlife concentrations evoking the days of the great white hunters, when the whole East Africa was a free and wild hunting ground. The reserve is unfenced, hence animals find no obstacles to move at their whims, as long as permitted by their mates' territorial demarcations. No other limits exist, not even the national boundaries: wildlife wanders about through the 1510 km2 encompassed within the protected area, but also in the so-called dispersal area, north and east of the reserve, as well as in the adjoining Loita Plains and Hills, and further into the Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania. All of it builds up what is known as the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, comprising a 25,000 km2 worth piece of Africa.

Wildlife movements are highly conditioned by climate. The vast plains of Serengeti, which allow a wide dispersion of the large herbivore herds, receive seasonal precipitations that are not enough to support an all-year-round provision of forage. The wettests area of the ecosystem is the Masai Mara region, blessed by rains from November through June, with frequent storms throughout the year and the permanent water source of the Mara river. Thus, Masai Mara is a strong magnet for the large herds seeking fresh pastures, and this is the spark that triggers the great migration. Each year, up to 1.5 million wildebeest (or white-bearded gnu), 250,000 Burchell's zebra and half a million Thomson´s gazelle trek through the Serengeti-Mara complex along a cyclic march that covers annually some 1,800 miles.

The migration is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the 1960's, seasonal treks were observed by Dr. Bernhard Grzimek, who first described a definite pattern in the migratory moves. The wildebeest population boomed in the 60´s and 70´s, peaking from some 250,000 to the current nearly one and a half million, making the migration a massive display that could well rank top in a list of the world's nature wonders. Meanwhile, the native Maasai people try to rear their livestock in direct competition with what they call "the wild cattle", which they consider a calamity, since they transmit diseases to their own cattle and poison the waters with their foetal sacs.

When and where does the migration start? Strictly, the migration has not a start nor an end, each wildebeest's life in the Serengeti-Mara is a constant pilgrimage that is never over until the animal dies. Thus, the only beginning to consider is birth. During the wet season, Serengeti is a nice place to live in. Grass abounds on the southern plains and in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where the animals find a safe and sound place to graze and drop their calves. From late January to mid-March, along a six week period, 400,000 newborn wildebeests see their first light. Many are grabbed by jackals and hyena early after birth, and will never have the chance to experience their hiking fate. Survivors have scarce time to strengthen their legs, since the trek starts in April. By then, the rains are over in southern Serengeti and the plains have dried up. The great herds then gather and face the long march northwards and westwards.

The solemn procession will not travel alone: a constellation of carnivores will follow closely, mainly lion and hyena, whilst the vulture squadrons overfly the parade. Thousands of weak or ill animals will end up devoured during the trek, and only one out of three calves will ever see the Serengeti again.

Under the command of a mysterious shepherd God, the lawn mowers abandon the exhausted grasslands of southern Serengeti to head for the tall grass of the Western Corridor, near the shores of Lake Victoria. Compenetration between wildebeest and zebra is perfectly accomplished and biologically favoured, since zebras enjoy the long woody stems that wildebeests refuse.

In late May, the herds leave the Western Corridor to take the northern Serengeti plains and woodlands, where they exhaust the prairies smelling the rains that are falling northward, at the other side of the humans' border, in Masai Mara. The fresh, tender and mineral-rich pastures are the irresistible bait for the wild cattle to finally invade the Kenyan reserve, an event which usually starts in late June to early July. The troops coming from the south meet here another migratory contingent: the resident wildebeest herds of the Mara region. These animals, adding up to 100,000, reside in the Loita Plains and Hills, northeast of the Mara, until the dry season brings the tougher days and it is time to seek the evergreen Mara basin.

Throughout the month of July, the herds cross the Sand River, a mostly dry tributary of the Mara which roughly follows the boundary line between Kenya and Tanzania. The parade thus takes the eastern sector of Masai Mara, surrounding the Keekorok Lodge area. The trek follows westward, leading the herds to face the major challenge along their quest: crossing the Mara river and frequently also its tributary, the Talek. By then, the rains at the Mau Escarpment, where the Mara rises, have fed the stream to its highest levels. The steep banks are populated with trunk-looking basking crocodiles that seem almost to be expecting their annual banquet.

The operation of fording the river is the most delicate along the migration, and as such seems to plunge the gnus in a state of anxiety that only relieves when the whole herd has crossed. It is a very enjoyable experience to observe the highly social and gregarious behaviour of these animals, resembling more a flock for its coordinated movements. The trekkers walk along the left (eastern) bank of the Mara looking for a suitable point to cross. There are plenty of preferred crossings along the course, which are easily identifiable by the lack of vegetation, the depressed slopes and the deep grooves carved by the animals' hooves. These are the most secure places to ford the river, those that ensure a minimal mortality. Nonetheless, the apparent programming of the whole process sometimes seems to collapse, and the nervous herds occasionally choose places where the banks are too steep and many of the animals break their legs down the cliff or fall flat into the waters.

The herds gather at the suitable points and wander around nervously, their grunts sounding loud in the air. Eventually, one animal takes the lead and approaches the rim, scanning the opposite edge to analyze if any danger awaits after the crossing. When it finally dives into the stream, this seems to haul the rest of the herd. More animals follow in a single line across the river, while the lagged ones throw themselves towards the stream until the rearguard pushes the troops to a frantic race that ends up with some animals trampled to death, lying aside the course.

During the ford, if only one single animal detects any danger, it will jump back pulling the rest of the herd to a general retreat that sometimes brings panic and triggers a crazy stampede. When the line breaks, the animals that have successfully crossed will not follow their trek until the whole herd has passed: they will remain at the opposite bank, grunting at their mates as if encouraging them to cross. Occasionally it is the zebra minority who takes the responsibility of keeping the herd´s cohesion, even though these animals are clearly infrarepresented. In fact, zebra are not actually herd animals, rather they form small groups headed by a dominant stallion, but during the migration they seek the herd's protection, mixing themselves up with the wildebeests to such an extent that they seem to be fully identified with their white-bearded pals. Finally, once the herd has resumed the crossing, the leaders head on towards their unknown destiny.

The fording has finished and some animals have died, smashed to pieces by the crocodiles' jaws or trampled by their mates. The crossing, as determined by the wildebeest's survival instinct, ironically brings many of them to an end. Vultures and marabou storks become then permanent dwellers of the river banks where carcasses decay. The disgusting massacre landscape, that literally stains in red the chocolate waters, is nothing but one more step in the circle of nature, actually it is not a scene of death but one of life, since the abundance of meat feeds a great lot of species and controls the herbivores' populations.

Along the boreal summer, the crossings repeat over and over, and the survivors graze peacefully on the Mara Triangle grasslands unless disturbed by the early-morning and late-evening hunts of lion and cheetah, the latter preying on the calves. At night there is an additional threat: hyenas, which despite their fame of carrion-seekers, gather in groups to siege the herds, frequently losing their prey to lions after the sunrise.

By October, the rains are heading south back to Serengeti. This is when the pace of the march reverses, bringing the herds to face once more the quest for the southern grasslands. The rite of fording the river is again part of nature's call. In the last days of October, the migration is on to the vast plains of southern Serengeti, where a new generation of calves will be born to start the cycle of life all over again.

From July to October, the image of the wildebeest columns traversing the plains is one of the most beautiful the visitor can watch in Masai Mara. The large herds populate the grasslands while we drive along the reserve's roads and tracks, and any lookout conveys the superb display of the lines crisscrossing the landscape in different directions. The choreography reaches its top splendour when seen from above, from one of the balloons that fly with the first morning lights.

The banks of the Mara are flanked by tracks from where, with a little bit of luck and a good dose of patience, you can catch a thrilling glimpse of the herds crossing the river. The right (western) bank is bordered by a track that starts in the north, near Oloololo Gate, and follows the stream southward through Mara Serena Lodge to the New Mara Bridge, at the south limit. At the left (eastern) bank there is a track from Governor's Camps that borders the Mara down to the junction with the Talek. A brief study of the columns' movements through the grasslands will give you a hint on possible fording sites. Once you have located an area in which animals concentrate, look for a point where the traces of crossing are evident. If possible, choose the "departure" bank rather than the arrival one, since wildebeests will never cross if they detect any danger awaiting at the opposite side, and a vehicle is certainly a threat. If you are bound to the "arrival" bank, choose a vantage point above a bend of the river, a place that allows you to watch the crossing from behind. Hide your vehicle among the bush, get your camera ready, sit back and enjoy.

Besides the overwhelming accommodation list, Masai Mara offers a large number of campsites, but with the flaw that most of them are in the periphery or outside the reserve. This peculiarity, disturbing for camping fans and low-budget travellers, may be originated by the atmosphere of exclusivity which is progressively growing around the Mara. The abundance of luxury lodges and tented camps including game drives in their full board rates, as well as the remote location of the reserve, seem to invite an increasing number of visitors to fly to the reserve instead of using ground transportation, therefore campers may be a bit mistreated. Anyway it is not actually a big deal, since wildlife abounds outside to a similar extent than inside the reserve.

The total figures usually speak of 25 campsites, but as in all other parks and specially in the largest ones, the number varies depending on the source and most maps don't record every site. In theory, they should be booked in advance, but for public campsites it is possible to do it right at the reserve. Camping fees are paid at the gates, but if you want to hire a Maasai askari, you will pay his services directly to him.

There are campsites close to every gate. The one near Oloololo displays a nice view of the mountains. The Musiara campsite is very popular for being a safe area, shaded and with plentiful wildlife -lions included. Near Talek there are 10 campsites located east of the gate, bordering the river at the north bank, which at the same time is the reserve's limit. Several of them are nearly always booked up by safari companies. West of Talek Gate there is another campsite called Riverside Campsite.

Still near the gates, in Sekenani there are 4 campsites, placed half a kilometer from the gate, outside the reserve. Finally, the Sand River Campsite, next to the gate of the same name, is located by a waterhole usually visited by animals at night.

Except for the latter, which is equipped with toilets and tap water, campsites are devoid of facilities, save perhaps drinking water.

In addition to those located by the gates, there are other campsites such as the Crocodile Campsite, a private site close to the outer limits; Naunerri Campsite, 3 km off Sand River Gate; and the Mara River Campsites, 4 of them, by the east riverbank outside the reserve. One of them is located right south of Mara Camp. Finally, near Olkurruk Mara Lodge there is another site, overlooking the plains from the mountains.

Lake Nakuru NP

Nakuru is one of the alkaline Rift Valley lakes and a fantastic bird sanctuary, its shores populated at times by more than one million flamingoes. The famous ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson defined it as "the greatest bird spectacle on earth". The fortunate sentence has now become a cliché and is used up to fed-up-ism for promotional purposes. Sadly, along the past years flamingoes have vanished sporadically to reappear later in a similarly weird way, but flocks are now greatly reduced.

The park was gazetted in 1968, but since 1961 there was a bird sanctuary at the lake's south sector. With the support of the World Wildlife Fund, Kenyan government started a plan to purchase the adjacent grounds in order to widen the protected area. In 1964 the sanctuary yet included the whole lake, whose surface varies from 5 to 40 km², in addition to a shore strip. Since its gazetting as a national park, both authorities and conservation organisations have kept on winning the battle to private property and human settlings, further broadening the park limits in 1968 and 1974 to its current extension of 188 km².

Although the pictures on this page don't let it show, the truth is that the park lies only 4 km off the populous Nakuru town. This poses various consequences, almost all negative for the conservation of this natural area. After Nairobi National Park, this is the second most accessible park, since Nakuru is the fourth city in the country and the headtown of the Rift Valley. Hence the park receives a high visitor number, more than 100,000 every year, of which a great proportion corresponds to Kenyan citizens and residents.

But traffic is not the only nor the biggest of the threats: uncontrolled dumping from the nearby city produces a strong environmental degradation, to such an extent that at critical times flamingoes have completely vanished from the park. In 1994-95 there were massive flamingo deaths caused by water poisoning with heavy metals and toxins, due to a combination of climatic and human factors that favoured the overgrowth of cyanobacteria and toxic blue-green algae. This resulted in the start up of a program aimed at processing Nakuru's industrial and urban residues, water and pollution monitoring and protection of the lake basin.

On the other hand, encroachment of the environment by the surrounding population and of the rhinos by poachers urged to fence the park perimeter with 74 km of metal wire. The first fence was erected in 1976 and reinforced ten years later with a sun-powered electric fence, thanks to the cooperation of the British Rhino Rescue Trust.

The different measures are directed to protect an exceptionally important area for wildlife conservation, not only birdlife diversity which inspired the park creation but also a great lot of mammal species, native or introduced, which live and breed successfully in the park. Among the latter are rhinos. The park was declared a sanctuary for the protection of these voluminous and endangered animals in 1987. From then on, re-introduction of specimens of both species, black and white, has made Nakuru become one of the main rhino refuges in Kenya and the place where the visitor can easily find two of the five rhino species surviving in the world.

The park covers the lake and a land strip around the northern, eastern and western shores, whereas southward the grounds extend farther to Makalia Falls, which define the south limit. The shores are surrounded by swamps, that during the driest seasons disappear to give rise to huge white salt crusts. The riverine forest opens up southward in a bush and acacia tree savannah. The eastern and western shores are framed by ridges that offer splendid lookouts over the lake: Lion Hill, Baboon Cliff and Out of Africa. At the west shore, Baboon Cliffs are the preferred habitat for some of the park's species, while at east, a part of Lion Hill is covered by a magnificent Euphorbia or candle tree forest, giving the landscape a prehistoric look. The park hosts several picnic areas and some hides have been erected nearby the lake for bird observation.

In addition to birds and rhinos, the park is home for a large number of mammals, including carnivores such as lions and leopards.

The short distance to the city and the frequent conflicts between environment conservation and development of the local communities have prompted a number of projects aiming at improving life conditions in the area and providing the residents a chance to meet this unique wildlife refuge. Kenya Wildlife Service has financed programs for health and education, namely for building classrooms and dispensaries, purchasing equipment and books, etc. On the other hand, the park owns a bus which offers low-priced guided tours to the park for Nakuru residents.

The lake and the city of Nakuru are located on the bed of the Rift Valley, 156 km northwest of Nairobi. The road connecting the two cities, the A104, is a tarred and busy route, since it is the main communication artery other than railroad between the country's capital and the valley. The heavy traffic makes it also a dangerous route with a high accident rate, so if you drive, drive safely.

The Nairobi-Nakuru road is the starting route for many safaris. Therefore, plenty of visitors get their first sight of the Kenyan landscape from here. Not a bad place. Suddenly, at the turn of a bend at the highlands' rim, the earth opens up to the huge Rift Valley emptiness. Beside the stands offering their curios, a wooden lookout with a weak look displays a breathtaking view. The visitor obtains here a first impression of the primary role of the Rift Valley in East Africa's physical geography. Some hundreds of meters below, the acacia-scattered Kedong Valley bed conveys a neat and archetypical snapshot of the African landscape. Farther away, you get a glimpse of Mount Longonot, Hell's Gate national park and Lake Naivasha.

From the viewpoint, the road falls down hanging from the steep slopes of Kikuyu Escarpment. Meanwhile, trucks drive up slowly and heavily, and you will witness some impossible overtakings in which you'd better not get involved. Once down the valley, you will leave Longonot and Hell's Gate parks behind, border Lake Naivasha, cross the town of Gilgil and glance Lake Elmentaita before finally reaching Nakuru.

The town of Nakuru is very well communicated with Nairobi. The train, the famous Lunatic Express, also calls here, or precisely all the way round, the city grew at the edge of the railroad, just as many of the major Kenyan towns. Plenty of buses and matatus cover the distance from Nairobi to Nakuru and back, as well as from the Rift capital to the most important towns in the valley and western Kenya.

Due to the proximity to Nakuru town, this is one of the only parks which can be visited in a taxi, though it is definitely not the best way to travel a national park.

Naishi airstrip offers the chance to fly from Nairobi right to the heart of the park, but only during the dry season.

Obviously, Nakuru is accessible as well from Nyeri via Nyahururu, bordering the Aberdare Range (170 km), from Kisumu at the Lake Victoria shore (116 km), or from Naivasha on the main Nairobi road (65 km). If your trip includes a Nakuru-Masai Mara journey or viceversa, you can use the road that joins both towns via Mau Narok traversing the Mau Escarpment (100 km), though during the rains this track may become a quagmire.

The most frequent way for accessing the park is the Main Gate, 4 km south of Nakuru downtown, next to the park's headquarters, where you can reload your Smartcard. From Kenyatta Avenue, take Moi Road and turn left to Stadium Road, which will lead you right to the gate. Here there is also a map showing the spots of the latest animal sightings.

If you come from Nairobi and you want to avoid the Nakuru fuss, you can enter the park through Lanet Gate, though signposting is deficient. Before reaching the city, take the left turn signposted "Lanet Gate", right in front of the Stem Hotel and ahead the railroad bridge. Just after take the right turn-off that runs parallel to the A104. This track will lead you directly to Lanet Gate.

Finally, Nderit Gate lies at the east side of the park, close to Lake Nakuru Lodge. This is a suitable way for visitors arriving from Mau Narok or Lake Elmenteita.

The park's tracks are usually well-kept, still you may find some mud during the rains. The main road circles the lake completely. The north drive is very busy and is hence less interesting for wildlife viewing. The biggest stretch of land in the park is located south of the lake. There is a track network here which is much less visited and where you will have the chance to meet some of the park's herbivores, such as Rothschild's giraffes, the elusive black rhinos and the bulky elands.

In this brief trip through Nakuru's wildlife, we must by all means start with the flamingoes, traditionally the main attraction in the park. However, nowadays rhinos compete with flamingoes for tourists' attention and photo shots.

Lesser flamingoes gather at the lake shores to filter the water through their beaks and obtain their food, the blue-green algae Spirulina platensis, which proliferate in this aquatic alkaline environment. The birds use up annually 250 tons of algae in each lake hectare. Greater flamingoes also visit the lake, in smaller numbers than their shorter relatives. Flamingoes have likely reached two millions at best times, but sadly over the past years these birds suddenly disappear to return on a cyclic basis, always in smaller flocks. Occasionally and due to pollution, cyanobacteria and some toxic species of blue-green algae thrive in the lake waters and poison the lesser flamingoes. This is the price nature and wildlife are bound to pay for the hard coexistence with the human milieu. Albeit efforts targeted to prevent and avoid these deaths, sprouts regularly happen while flamingoes fly around looking for the cleanest habitat. On the other hand, climatic alterations in one or other way strongly impact the birds' populations: excessive rains reduce the water pH and thus slow down the growth of nutritive algae, whereas severe droughts have occasionally dried the lake up. For some strange reason, flamingoes never form breeding colonies at the lake.

Nakuru national park was declared a rhino sanctuary in 1987, when there were only two resident black rhinos. A further 16 were introduced from Solio Ranch, followed by four specimens brought from Nairobi national park in 1990. The first two white rhinos were introduced in the park from Lewa Downs. In 1995, a bigger group of 10 was brought from South Africa. Secure from poachers' attacks thanks to the electric fencing, the rhino population at Nakuru progresses positively and it is easy to find the white rhinos grazing on the clearings by the lake. The browser black rhinos feed on the bush and forest areas, therefore it is unfrequent to sight them in the open field. Both species are not different in colour, in spite of their confusing denomination; both are greyish. Actually, the "white" epithet is a wrong understanding of the afrikaaner term "weit", which does not mean "white" but "wide". The Dutch settlers named this rhino after its wide and flat snout, suitable for grazing, as opposed to the triangular prehensile lip of the black rhino that serves for browsing.

Other species have been introduced in Lake Nakuru's protected environment. In 1974, Rothschild's giraffes from the Soy Plains, in Eldoret, where they had invaded the wheat farms, were released in the park. These animals have thrived here to such an extent that in 1996 some specimens were donated to Uganda and Soysambu Estate at Lake Elmenteita.

Besides rhinos and giraffes, the park hosts a plentiful mammal life which accounts for more than 50 species. Among the large herbivores you can find both common and Defassa waterbucks, which can be distinguished by the white mark on the rump, a hollow circle in the former and a blurry patch in the latter; impalas, Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, buffalos, plains' zebras, elands, warthogs, dik-diks, duikers (bush and black-fronted), klipspringers, bushbucks and reedbucks (Bohor and mountain). A small hippo herd inhabits the northeastern part of the lake (Hippo Point) and at night grazes around. Other small herbivores include hares and rock hyrax.

Primates are represented by baboons, vervet monkeys and black and white colobus. Stare at the latter with your binoculars. Don't they have a human face?

Predators, lions and leopards, introduced from other areas, have successed at the park in such a way that leopards are becoming a quite common sighting. Some 40 lions populate the park; even if you don't get to see them, since the park is small if you prick up your ears you may hear them roaring from the lodge by night. The two species of hyaena (spotted and striped), mongooses (slender and egyptian), African wild cats, civet cats, silver-backed jackals and bat-eared foxes are present as well. Otters swim at the streams that die in the lake. The rare leaf-nosed long-eared bat is a park oddity, though a sighting is unlikely.

Besides the flamingoes, more than 450 bird species populate the park. Fishing birds are present thanks to the abundant fish in the lake. Graham's tilapia, adapted to the saline waters, was imported from Lake Magadi in 1956 and serves as food for great white pelicans, great cormorants and African fish eagles. The best time for bird watching is the rainy season and during the boreal winter, when the lake hosts a wide range of European migratory species. In addition to those already mentioned, among the water birds outstand the little grebe, white winged black tern, avocet, black winged stilt, cattle egret, great white egret, ducks, hammerkop, yellow billed stork, sacred and Hadada ibis, Egyptian goose, blacksmith plover, sandpipers, grey heron, African spoonbill, African snipe, king fishers and African Jacana.

Among terrestrial birds are the ostrich, secretary bird, marabou stork, ground hornbill, Guinea fowls, starlings, ox pecker, bee eaters, fiscal shrike, Kori bustard, martial eagle, European roller, drongo, mourning dove, augur buzzard, yellow necked spurfowl and tawny eagle.

The nearby Nakuru city offers several choices for accommodation, but no top category hotels. There are two lodges within the park limits:

Lake Nakuru Lodge:
Lake Nakuru Lodge is located at the southeastern end of the park, close to Nderit Gate, on top of a hill overlooking the landscape around the south shore. The place used to be a farmhouse belonging to the vast Lord Delamere's properties. It was purchased to broaden the park limits and was transformed into a lodge. There are 120 beds in attached huts, swimming pool, restaurant and bar. In front of the terrace there is a waterhole where some animals may be found.

Sarova Lion Hill Lodge:
The lodge belonging to the Sarova chain is located near the eastern shore, above Lion Hill and the Euphorbia forest. Formerly it was a tented camp, which was re-built as a lodge. It has 65 rooms chalet-style, swimming pool, sauna, bar and restaurant, as well as an excellent service and a privileged location.

Naishi House:
Naishi House is a self-service lodge belonging to Kenya Wildlife Service. It is composed of one house and an adjacent cottage, both fully furnished. The main building hosts two bedrooms, each with a king size bed and a single bed, plus an equipped kitchen, dining room and an outside terrace with pergolas. The maintenance staff takes care of cleaning and providing firewood, but guests must carry their own food. On the other hand, the cottage has only two single bedrooms, thus it is conceived as an annex to the main house and not an independent facility.

There are three public camp sites inside the park. All of them have water and latrines. The Backpackers Campsite is close to the park's Main Gate, near the HQ. It is a very popular and usually crowded place, therefore you can expect everything but repose. It has full toilets. The second one, Njoro, is located next to the Njoro river, 1 km off the Main Gate. Finally, the Makalia is at the south end of the park, far off the lake and close to the waterfall. Actually there are two camp sites here, at both sides of the falls. They are much less used than the former two.

The number of special camp sites varies upon demand, but so far seven are usually available. The most popular ones, frequently used by safari companies, are Nyuki and Nyati, both beneath the acacia trees at the northeast shore, past the Hippo Point when driving from the Main Gate. The latter is smaller. Other sites include Soysambu, Naishi, Reedbuck, Chui and Rhino.

Lake Baringo

Lake Baringo is part of the Great Rift Valley, the Earth's great scar, which in Kenya is fringed by a string of lakes. After the huge Turkana, Baringo is the northernmost and the largest, with 130 km². Together with Naivasha, Baringo offers the only freshwater shallow in the Kenyan Rift.

The lake is not officially ranked as a protected area, but it is the shelter for more than 400 bird species that give the area its main attractive. The lake is -or used to be- a quiet and solitary oasis embedded in the abrupt and arid land that foresees the northern deserts. Until the end of the 19th century, Baringo and Bogoria were only visited by the slaves caravans; the remains of Fort Baringo, dating back to these years, are still visible there. The lake was first described by Joseph Thomson in 1883. Nine years later, in 1892, the English geologist J.W. Gregory explained the Rift Valley creation from his observations at Baringo.

Tourism in the area has increased over the past years, hence Baringo is no longer a place off the beaten track. Still, at the lake's shores you can enjoy a peaceful mood very different from the most crowded parks. Its chocolate waters, stained with the region's soil, change in tonality along the day and depending on the sky's colour. After the sunset, the visitor can watch the hippos emerging from the water to graze in noisy groups at the moonlit pastures.

The lake is also populated with crocodiles, considered harmless by the local Njemps people, paranilotic fishers and shepherds related with the Maasai that speak a dialect of the Maa language. The Njemps sail the lake in small boats and dip into the water for fishing, while crocodiles wander about with the same purpose. The locals state that fish abundance has supported the croc population in such a way that the reptiles have forgotten the taste for mammal's meat. In fact, the high fish concentration has accustomed the Njemps themselves to this kind of food, which is not very frequent among the pastoral tribes.

It is true though that the lake's crocodiles are small and, therefore, neither they are as dangerous as their bigger relatives nor they have been hassled by hunters. In spite of all, in 1981 a presumed man-attacking reptile was shot down.

Baringo fresh waters host a fish variety absent in the alkaline lakes, which attracts a broad range of waterbirds. The rocky isle of Gibraltar, at the eastern shore, is blessed with the largest Goliath heron population in all East Africa. Another place of interest is the escarpment which lies next to the town of Kampi ya Samaki, at the western shore, where a lucky watcher could find Verreaux eagles, Hemprich's hornbills and bristle-crowned starlings.

In addition to bird watching walks and boat trips, with the guidance of a professional ornithologist, the lake offers a range of activities which include fishing, water sports (ski, wind-surfing), camel rides, day trips to the nearby Lake Bogoria National Reserve or visiting a Njemps village, where you can get a sip of the local handcrafts and dances. Activities are mainly run by the lake's two lodges, Lake Baringo Club and Island Camp. Local fishermen also provide boat trips, during which they usually spread fresh fish as a bait for the fish eagles.

Accessing Baringo from Nairobi, 307 km away, in a single daytime is not the wisest choice. The easiest daytrip is from Nakuru, only 125 km away and with a good tarred road. Eldoret is 138 km off the lake, but the road is much worse. If you make it from Samburu, the 300 km of rough to terrible roads bind you to a midway overnight stop, for instance at Maralal reserve. Obviously, a comfortable journey is from Bogoria, but the lack of accommodation here advices right the opposite, make Bogoria as a daytrip from Baringo.

Driving from Nairobi, take the A104 heading for Naivasha, Gilgil and Nakuru. Some 30 km past Nakuru you will turn right to the B4, toward Kampi Ya Moto, Bogoria, Marigat and Kampi Ya Samaki, the latter town being at the lakeshore 2 km away from the main road. The road is tarmac up to the north tip of the lake.

From Eldoret, take the C51 heading northward to Cherangani Hills. 33 km ahead, at the town of Iten, the road turns southeast. From there you will pass the towns of Kamarin, Tambach, Chebloch and Kabarnet to finally reach the junction with the B4 in Marigat, where you will turn left for Kampi Ya Samaki and Lake Baringo.

Finally, from Samburu you will head north along the A2 past Archer's Post. This stretch could perhaps be unsafe, you should better ask at the park gate before driving off. 22 km past Archer's Post you will turn left to the C78 leading to Wamba, Kisima and Maralal. This route will shatter your wheels and you will rather stay overnight at Maralal. The next day, take the same track you used to access the reserve and head on to Kisima, where you will turn right to the C77 heading southward for Rumuruti. After 33 exhausting kilometers, you will turn right to the C77D. This road traverses Lerogi Plateau and borders Laikipia Plains, rewarding you with an interesting journey through the Tugen and Pokot lands and splendid vistas of Lake Baringo. The road passes Tangulbei and leads to Loruk, at the north end of the lake. Beware, along this whole journey there is petrol available only at Archer's Post, Maralal and Lake Baringo Club. In addition, after the rains you will find plenty of mud along the roads.

From Nairobi and Eldoret there are several buses and matatus to Nakuru every day. From here, there are two buses daily to Kampi Ya Samaki, but matatus only reach Marigat.

The boats for Ol Kokwa island, where Island Camp is located, may be hired at the jetty north of Kampi Ya Samaki.

Birds are the kings and queens of Baringo. More than 400 recorded species make the visit to the lakeside a competition to achieve the highest numbers of species sighted, the world record set at 342 species in 24 hours. The experience is more rewarding during the rainy season, when many birds fly back to Baringo. If you are not an expert ornithologist, you will enjoy it in any case with a good field guide in your backpack and responding to the chants you hear.

Gibraltar Isle, at the eastern bank, hosts the largest Goliath heronry in all East Africa, whereas the escarpment next to the west shore is the place for watching, with a bit of luck, Verreaux eagles, Hemprich's hornbills and bristle-crowned starlings. Among the multiple birds nesting on the lakeside acacias, you will find several beautiful species of starlings, as well as grey-headed silverbill, grey-headed bush shrike, curly-crested helmet shrike, silverbird, West Nile red bishop and northern masked weaver.

Apart from the herons, waterbirds are represented by the fish eagles, hovering over the fresh fish used as a bait by local fishermen, cormorants, pelicans and even some flamingoes from the nearby salty Lake Bogoria.

Right south of Lake Baringo Club, walking along the road, there is a stretch in which you may find rare species such as the male paradise flycatcher in its white phase, the violet wood hoopoe, the grey-headed bush shrike and several kingfishers species. In this area, it is not infrequent to see hippos grazing.

From Lake Baringo Club you can join bird walks under the guidance of the resident ornithologist. Walks at 7 AM are led along an area next to the main road, at the foot of the cliffs populated by baboons and hyrax. Here you will find a variety of hornbills including Hemprich's, maybe a Verreaux eagle, and the large Hamerkop nest, an engineering piece made up of wooden sticks near the water and with a side entrance. At 5 PM there is another walk, this time by the lakeside.

Lake Baringo Club:
The main advantage of bird watching is that sometimes the lodge itself is a place of privilege, and this happens at the gardens of Lake Baringo Club, property of Block Hotels. At the lake shore, a signpost warns that wild animals are dangerous. Obviously it is not for the birds, but for the hippos, which also graze at the Club's gardens after dusk. The lodge, with swimming pool, restaurant and bar, is a luxury and tranquil place with activities targeted to know the local birdlife: bird walks, film shows and audiovisuals.

Island Camp:
Island Camp is the other only lodging option at the lake. More expensive than Lake Baringo Club, this luxury tented camp with 25 double tents is located in Ol Kokwa Island, right at the center of the lake. In addition to the usual facilities of swimming pool, restaurant and bar, the place offers wildlife and sport activities like waterskiing and wind-surfing.

Other accommodations:
There are some cheap and modest hotels at Kampi ya Samaki, the small town bordering the lake. These include Papyrus Annex, Hippo Lodge, Bahari Lodge, Ushirika Lodge and Lake View Lodge.


Lake Bogoria

Lake Bogoria is a saline water shallow located at the northern region of the Kenyan Rift, 25 km south of Baringo. The reserve covers the lake and adjacent lands, with 107 km². In the Colony days the lake was known by the name of its discoverer, the Kampala bishop James Hannington, who in 1885 was the first European to sight this place while he was heading for his diocese following Thomson's route. This would be the glory day for the priest, but also his last journey, since upon reaching Lake Victoria he was murdered by order of the cruel king of Buganda, Mwanga II.

If Baringo is increasingly attracting more visitors because of its plentiful birdlife, Bogoria is, or at least it was until few years ago, a place where the visitor can enjoy the spectacular African scenery in full solitude. Except for ornithology lovers, who don't forgive the pilgrimage to Baringo, this region is quite off the most common itineraries, specially the one-weekers. The reason is that Bogoria is far from outstanding for its mammals' wildlife, the paramount objective for most tourists. Albeit, whether I had to choose a single park for which just the beauty of the landscape is worth a visit, it would probably be this one.

J.W. Gregory, the English geologist who travelled the region in 1892, blessed the site as "the most beautiful view in Africa". He wasn't off track. The lake displays a superb scenery of bluish hills populated with dry bush, grasslands and riverine forests, framing the calm water shallow pinned with flamingoes. Beyond the eastern shore, the soil rises abruptly to 600 m in the Laikipia Escarpment. At the opposite edge, the earth forms strangely coloured swampy crusts, which break up in deep gaps spitting stinky sulphur waters and steam jets. The close-up geysers, the pink brushstrokes of the flamingoes on the lake and farther the dramatic backdrop of the Laikipia Escarpment, convey a hardly beatable aesthetical composition. But watch out, don't get too close, the signposts warning "Stop - danger zone - go back" are serious: the earth collapses under your feet and beneath there is boiling water.

Bogoria is not even the least of a wildlife desert. Good wildlife fans will appreciate the unparalleled value of being the most accessible place in all the country where you have the chance to spot the majestic greater kudu. In addition to other mammals, flamingoes and a variety of birds fill up the wildlife supply of this reserve.

Lake Bogoria is located at the Rift Valley, only 25 km south of Lake Baringo, though the actual distance by road is greater. Therefore, to arrive from Nairobi, Nakuru, Samburu or Eldoret, applies everything mentioned under how to reach Lake Baringo. Given that there are no lodges at Bogoria, the most usual choice is seeking accommodation in Baringo and making it for the nearby reserve on a day trip.

There are three gates to the reserve, all of them accessible from by-roads off the B4 main road leading to Baringo. The main gate is Loboi Gate, at the lake's north end. The detour eastward from the B4 is 4 km south of Marigat. A paved road, the E461, heads for Loboi and the gate after a 21 km stretch.

The two remaining gates are southward, taking the east turn off B4 at Mogotio, 59 km south of Marigat. This road covers some 20 km up to Mugurin. One kilometer ahead, the road splits into two. The left track heads on for some 20 km until a right turn-off which leads you to Maji Moto Gate, close to the hot springs. On the other hand, the track at the right, badly damaged and quite steep at some stretches, covers 14 km before reaching Emsos Gate, the southernmost gate, at the reserve's forest area.

Finally, there is also a scenic route to reach Emsos Gate from Nakuru, climbing from the Rift Valley bed up the eastern escarpment to drop back down again to Bogoria. A good part of this way is only accessible to 4WD vehicles. Leaving Nakuru along the A104 to Nairobi, take the tarred B5 road northeastward to Nyahururu. Along the way there are several detours heading northward for Bogoria, taking as reference points the towns of Subukia and Solai. If you are not self-driving, you can take a bus or matatu for the paved stretch, but afterwards you will have to walk for some two days.

Bogoria is not recognised as a place of mammal diversity, though the quantity is far from a demerit to quality. The top attractive of this reserve relies on the fact that it has become a sanctuary for the protection of the greater kudu, a shy antelope usually inhabiting open forests in mountain regions. If Bogoria and Baringo are the northernmost stops in your trip, you will never see this animal in any other park. They are so abundant in Bogoria now that sightings are not rare. The greater kudu is a beautiful animal with large spiral horns and a fringe of hair on the throat (only the bulls), wide ears, the body vertically striped in white and a characteristic white chevron between the eyes. The greater kudu population, formerly very extended, was severely affected by rinderpest transmitted by cattle over the 19th century, restricting its habitat away from the livestock haunts.

Other mammals in the reserve include buffalo, baboon, Grant's gazelle, Kirk's dik-dik and klipspringer, the latter at the rocky slopes south and east of the lake.

Same as in all the Rift Valley lakes, birdlife is plentiful and diverse in Bogoria. The lake is regularly visited by thousands of greater and lesser flamingoes, which gather at the shore opposite to the hot springs. However, occasionally curiosity kills the flamingo as well, since some unaware specimens die victims of sulphur emanations and high temperatures. The reserve also hosts among others some vultures, bustards, larks and prey birds, worth to mention the fish eagles, which due to the lack of fish have learned to hover on flamingoes.

In the last years, deaths of lesser flamingoes have increased alarmingly, replicating the high mortality recorded in 1994-95, specially at Lake Nakuru. Apparently, the phenomenon is due to the poisoning of waters by heavy metals and toxins as a consequence of toxic algae overgrowth in the lake waters, which the flamingoes filter through their bills while feeding.

There are no lodges at Bogoria, just a couple of hotel-style accommodations. Both are located outside the reserve, nearby Loboi Gate. The Lake Bogoria Hotel offers a hot water pool. Nearby is the Papyrus Inn, belonging to the same owner as the Papyrus Annex in Baringo. You may camp at the garden here for a modest sum.

If you prefer a lodge-style, the best choice is to stay at one of the Lake Baringo lodges, from where you can plan a day trip to Bogoria.

The reserve hosts three camp sites, all south of the lake and all without facilities, so bring your own supplies. The one you will hear about is the Fig Tree Campsite, a place shaded by the figs, traversed by a clear water stream and with a natural jacuzzi, a cool haven within Bogoria's high daylight temperatures. Access to the site is a winding rocky narrow track. The Acacia Campsite, obviously placed beneath the acacias, lies at the rocky lake shore and has latrines. Finally, the Riverside Campsite does not have even water.

There is also the chance to camp by the Loboi Gate, as well as at the Papyrus Inn garden.

Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha is a beautiful freshwater lake, fringed by thick papyrus. The lake is almost 13kms across, but its waters are shallow with an average depth of five metres. Lake area varies greatly according to rainfall, with an average range between 114 and 991 sq kms. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Naivasha completely dried up and effectively disappeared. The resulting open land was farmed, until heavy rains a few years later caused the lake to return to existence, swallowing up the newly established estates.

Afternoon wind and storms can cause the Lake to become suddenly rough and produce high waves. For this reason, the local Maasai christened the lake Nai'posha meaning ''rough water'', which the British later misspelt as Naivasha..

The lake and its surrounds are rich in natural bounty, and the fertile soils and water supply have made this one of Kenya's prime agricultural regions.

Much of the lake is surrounded by forests of the yellow barked Acacia Xanthophlea, known as the yellow fever tree. These forests abound with bird life, and Naivasha is known as a world class birding destination.

The waters of the lake draw a great range of game to these shores. Giraffes wander among the acacia, Buffalo wallow in the swamps and Colobus monkeys call from the treetops while the Lakes large hippo population sleep the day out in the shallows.The region surrounding the Lake is well worth exploring. There are two more smaller lakes nearby, Oloidien, and Sonachi, a bright green cater lake.

Hell's Gate National Park lies beside the lake. This Park was named for its pair of massive red tinged cliffs framing a geothermically active interior of steam vents and bubbling springs. The park is home to a profusion of plains game and birdlife. Walking is permitted, making it ideal for hiking, biking, and rock climbing.

Boat trips on the lake are widely available, and is a great way to spend an afternoon or morning.

Sunsets are always stunning, with the haunting call of a Fish Eagle high over the Lake bringing the day to a perfect end....

Main road access to Naivasha is directly from Nairobi by bus/Matatu or private transport. The main highway continues from Naivasha to Nakuru. Naivasha is just over an hour from Nairobi. There is an airstrip in Naivasha, with charter flights available. Some lodges and guesthouses here have private airstrips. Many hotels and lodges here can organize transfers from Nairobi to Naivasha. See the Accommodation section for details.

Hell's Gate NP

Hell's Gate National Park is located 90 km from Nairobi, and covers an area of about 68 square kilometers. Opened in 1984, the park is suitable for a day trip from Nairobi, or as a stopover en route to the Masai Mara Reserve. The park is located at an altitude of about 5,000-7,000 ft above sea level. Visitors to this park are offered a wide range of activities, ranging from driving, walking, camping, rock climbing and even horseback safaris. There are three camping sites. Hell's Gate is well known for its hot geysers. Popular tourist spots within the park include Fisher's Tower, Central Tower and Njorowa Gorges. There are extinct volcanoes such as Olkaria and Hobley's. Moreover, a black glassy rock called Obsidian forms from the cool molten lava. Visitors can observe animals like the buffalo, Masai giraffe, eland, Coke's hartebeest, lion, leopard, and cheetah. Moreover, there are over 103 species of birds in the park, including vultures, Verreaux's Eagles, augur buzzard and swifts. Finally, there is also a Masai Cultural Center for educating visitors about the culture and traditions of the Masai tribe.

Meru NP

Meru National Park lies about 80 kms east of Meru town and can be reached by a farily good road passing through green farmland and the rolling Nyambene Hills. Of all of Kenya's national parks and reserves, Meru likely has the greatest variety of habitats and landscapes within its bounds.
Savannah, forest and swamp can all be found in the reserve which is dissected by at least 15 seasonal rivers, including the Tana River. Meru's proximity to Mount Kenya and the Nyambene's contribute to the Park's good rainfall, particularly in its western sections. The eastern section of the park is generally more arid. There is a great variety of wildlife at Meru, including elephant, cheetah, leopard.
Meru National Park is perhaps most famous as the place where Elsa, the lioness, was returned to the wild in Joy Adamson's famous book Born Free.

The main route into the park is from Meru along the C91 to Murera Gate. It is also possible to enter the Park via the Ura Gate, from the C92 Meru - Tunya road and a small track from C92 to Gatunga. Once within the park, the western section is well marked and accessible by tracks throughout, while the eastern sections require good four wheel drive vehicles.

During the rainy season, travel within the Park can be difficult for passanger cars, so four wheel drives are recommended. Buses from Nairobi to Meru town are frequent, as are buses from Meru to nearby Embu and Nanyuki. From Meru, there are occasional buses going to the town of Maua and further on to Murera Gate, though these are far and few between, and walking further into the Park from the gate is prohibited.

Reptiles: Python, Puff Adder, Cobra.

Insects/arthropods: Scorpion, Dragon fly, Butterfly, Grasshopper.

Major Animals: Aardwolf; Ant Bear; Baboon, Olive; Bat, Angola Free-tailed; Bat, Banana; Bat, Epauletted Fruit; Bat, False Vampire; Bat, Flat-headed Free-tailed; Bat, Hollow-faced; Bat, Lander's Horseshoe; Bat, Lesser Leaf-nosed; Bat, Pale-bellied Fruit; Bat, Rousette Fruit; Bat, White-bellied Free-tailed; Bat, Yellow-bellied; Bat, Yellow-winged; Buffalo, African; BushBaby; Bushbuck; Caracal; Cat, African Wild; Cheetah; Civet, African; Dik-dik, Kirk's; Dog, Hunting; Dormouse, African; Duiker, Blue; Duiker, Bush; Eland; Elephant, African; Galago, Greater; Gazelle, Grant's; Genet, Common; Genet, Large-spotted; Genet, Small-spotted; Gerenuk; Giraffe, Reticulated; Hare, African; Hare, Spring; Hartebeest, Coke's; Hedgehog, East African; Hippopotamus; Hyaena, Spotted; Hyaena, Striped; Hyrax, Rock; Hyrax, Tree; Impala; Jackal, Black-backed; Jackal, Side-striped; Kudu, Lesser; Leopard; Lion; Mongoose, Banded; Mongoose, Dwarf; Mongoose, Large Grey; Mongoose, Marsh; Monkey, Black-faced Vervet; Monkey, Patas; Monkey, Sykes; Oribi; Oryx, Beisa; Otter, Clawless; Pangolin, Lesser Ground; Pig, Forest Bush; Porcupine, Crested; Rat, Cane; Rat, Giant; Rat, Naked Mole; Ratel; Reedbuck, Bohor; Rhinoceros, Black; Rhinoceros, Square-lipped; Serval; Shrew, Giant White-toothed; Shrew, Spectacled Elephant; Squirrel, Bush; Squirrel, East African Red; Squirrel, Striped Ground; Squirrel, Unstriped Ground; Steinbok; Suni, Small-spotted; Warthog; Waterbuck, Common; Zebra, Common; Zebra, Grevy's.

Major Birds: Duck, African Black; Eagle, African Fish; Eagle, African Hawk; Eagle, Bateleur; Eagle, Black-chested Harrier; Eagle, Brown Harrier; Eagle, Long-crested; Eagle, Martial; Eagle, Steppe; Eagle, Tawny; Eagle, Wahlberg's; Egret; Egret, Great White; Eremonela, Yellow-bellied; Falcon, Pygmy; Falcon, Red-necked; Finch, African Fire; Finch, Jameson's Fire; Finch, Red-billed Fire; Finfoot, African; Fiscal, Long-tailed; Fiscal, Taita; Flycatcher, Ashy.......

Lodging in Meru National Park can be found at the Meru Mulika Lodge, with 132 beds or the Leopard Rock Lodge with 20 beds located at the extreme north of the Reserve.

There are a number campsites at Meru National Park. Sites with facilities include the Murera Gate Campsite and the Park Headquarters Campsite, both of which have toilet and water services. The eight other campsites in the Park do not have any services, these are: Fever Tree, Rojewero, Kampi ya Nyati, Simba, Kithanga, Mugunga, Kanjoo, Bisanadi and Kindani.

Samburu and Shaba NP

The complex formed by Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba reserves is one of the most interesting places in Kenya and can be ranked as unique for several reasons. They are the most accessible and visited of the protected areas in the country's rough north, right at the edge of what was formerly called NFD or Northern Frontier District. Or, in other words, they are the most remote and unaccessible among the most popular reserves. It is also the place to see some species which are rare in Kenya or difficult to spot in other parks, since they only dwell above the Equator. Among them are Grevy's zebra, reticulated giraffe and Beisa Oryx.

Unfortunately, these three reserves are also the most flagrant example of a practice I personally find excessive, even for such a good cause as nature conservation. Samburu and Buffalo Springs are adjacent reserves, separated solely by a river. Since this stream sets the border between two different districts and reserves are run by district authorities, in principle you are bound to pay the entrance fee to both reserves separately, when they are in fact a single natural unit. Funny enough, the chance to cross from one to another without paying the double fee seems to rely exclusively on the rangers' whims, obviously leaving aside that other counterpractice of "tipping", which I personally reject. There is a bridge across the river some 3 km upstream Samburu Lodge.

The frontier condition assigned to this region also refers to the traditional problems with the Somali guerrillas that occur from time to time north of this area. Little after the gazetting of the reserves, in the 1960's-1970's, they remained closed for several years due to continuous attacks by the rebels. Albeit this and the more recent safety problems sadly starred by some rangers, visiting these reserves is a must within the basic itinerary. Initially, Buffalo Springs covered both banks of the Ewaso Nyiro river (Uaso Ngiro, "Dark Waters") along 16 km, but later on, the north bank was torn apart as an independent reserve, since this area belongs to the Samburu District ("butterfly" in the Maa language) and the south side is under the jurisdiction of Isiolo District, to which Shaba also belongs. The latter district belongs to the Eastern Province, whereas Samburu District is located in the Rift Valley Province.

Shaba, the less visited of the three, is also the largest, with a total extension of 239 km². Samburu and Buffalo Springs are similar in surface, 165 km² the first and 128 km² the second. The area has been traditionally inhabited by the Samburu people, a nomad paranilotic tribe closely related to the Maasai.

The Samburu complex landscape preludes what the traveller should expect if he sets his feet for the northern territories, hence its classical "frontier" epithet: arid thornbush savannah, scrubland and scattered acacia. The dusty plains are broken by smooth hills, outstanding the Koitogorr uplift in Samburu (1,245 m) and, lying far beyond, the flat head of the reddish Ol Olokwe mountain. The extreme heat, in spite of the altitude many times above 1,000 m, and the landscape desolation, are paramount ingredients of Samburu's particular charm: it is the face of the less hospitable Africa, maybe hence prouder. At first sight, these reserves could suggest a wildlife desert. Actually, this arid scrub is the preferred habitat for some mammals well adapted to this harsh and unfriendly environment, some of them quite rarely seen in milder climates.

It is true though that the bulk of wildlife gathers around the scarce wet areas, mainly the forested banks of the Ewaso Nyiro, which brings the Aberdare waters, and the crystal clear Buffalo Springs, at the eastern side of this reserve, which are formed by the arise of underground streams coming from Mount Kenya. The humid spots give rise to a more luxuriant vegetation, with the prehistorical-looking bi-branched doum palms, riverine forests and grasslands. The high faunal concentration at the waterholes and streams is a gift for the wildlife watcher, while animals also seem to amuse themselves staring at the tourists dipping in one of the Buffalo Springs pools, which is conditioned for bathing.
Beyond Samburu and Buffalo Springs, the river heads on licking Shaba's north border. This place takes its name from a volcanic cone that rises upon the plain and whose lava flow is crossed when accessing the lodge. Beyond Shaba, the river wanders about down to Chanler's Falls, to finally die in the Lorian Swamp. Shaba's landscape is seeded with low hills and its four natural springs confer a much higher wetness level than its neighbouring reserves, to such an extent that during the rains, Shaba's tracks are only open to 4WD vehicles. In general, the reserve is less developed and is therefore more peaceful and solitary than its sisters.

Shaba is known for being the place where in 1980 poachers murdered Joy Adamson, authoress of "Born free". At the time of her death, the famous conservationist was engaged in a project aimed at reinserting hand-reared leopards to the natural environment.

Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba are located some 300 km north of Nairobi, 325 km in the case of Samburu. Due to the roads' conditions, it is a mad task to cover the distance in a single journey, therefore it is a good idea to stay overnight somewhere along the way, for example in Mount Kenya. From here there are 70 km to Shaba, 85 km to Buffalo Springs and 90 km to Samburu.

The area is best approached by the A2 highway, which heads north from Nairobi passing Thika city. Heading on, the road turns west to border Mount Kenya, leaving the Aberdare Range at the left and going through the towns of Nyeri and Nanyuki. Northbound again, the road enters scrubby landscape and reaches Isiolo, capital of the district in which Buffalo Springs and Shaba lie. Up to Isiolo, the road is paved but in bad conditions north of Nanyuki. From Isiolo it becomes a broad dusty track. Depending on the safety status of the area, you may be retained by the police at the Isiolo barrier to wait for a convoy to be formed for the last stretch.

From Isiolo, the road goes on to the far Ethiopian border. But the reference for accessing the three reserves is the small town of Archer's Post, some 35 km from Isiolo. The entrance to Shaba is at the right side, while the main gate to Samburu, Archer's Post Gate, is found 5 km on the left. The latter reserve bears another gate at its western end, but it is seldom used.

Accesses to Buffalo Springs, the southernmost of the three reserves, are found before reaching Archer's Post. 20 km north of Isiolo, there is a detour left which leads to Isiolo Gate, formerly known as Ngare Mara Gate. 10 km ahead, 3.5 km before Archer's Post, a second detour leads to the Buffalo Springs Gate.

From the main highlander towns there are buses and matatus for Isiolo. From here there is a daily bus northbound calling at Archer's Post. This little town is close enough to the reserves to allow covering on foot the distance to Buffalo Springs and Samburu. At the gates, you may have the chance to get a lift into the reserves. Twice every day, Samburu's official vehicles make their way from Archer's Post to Samburu Lodge and back. Finally, there is an airstrip near Samburu Lodge.

In these reserves it is easy to find some of the species that live only above the Equator and that therefore you will very hardly spot in southern parks. Among them, outstands the Grevy's zebra, distinguished from its plains' relative by narrower stripes and big rounded ears. Oddly enough, some plains' zebras (Burchell) are also found mainly at the south banks, in Buffalo Springs, but they do not seem to interbreed with their Grevy's cousins. The Beisa oryx is a beautiful grey antelope, with black and white marks in the face and long horns in both sexes. The reticulated giraffe, with no mistake the most gorgeous in the family, is easily distinguished by its particular coat, a thin and clear white net splitting the orange spots. Another remarkable inhabitant of these reserves is the gerenuk, a slender antelope with thin neck and long legs that drinks no water and feeds on the acacia's leaves, supporting its body on the hind legs.

Samburu and Buffalo Springs host basically two different environments for wildlife observation. The first one holds all the arid plains, far off the water sources. Relatively few animals inhabit these lands on a permanent basis, outstanding the oryx, Guenther's dik-dik (in addition to the more widely extended Kirk's), gerenuk, eland and impala. These species are little water-dependent and may be found in the scrublands during the day, sheltered beneath a tree shade. Conversely, the rest of herbivores, including zebra, giraffe, elephant, buffalo, warthog, waterbuck, Grant's gazelle and bushbuck seek the fresh and shaded riverbanks during daylight, leaving them at dusk. The great advantage for the watcher in Samburu and Buffalo Springs is that driving along the river gives the chance to see a huge lot of animals close at hand. Waters welcome their permanent dwellers, hippos and crocodiles, while up its big trees and doum palms roam the vervet monkeys and baboons.

Carnivores are well represented in the Samburu complex. Lions and cheetah traverse the dry areas and seek the shaded riverine forest for a drink and a rest. Hyenas, including the striped of nocturnal habits, travel long distances with their light trotting. But one of the reasons that has made these reserves so popular is the real good possibilities to catch a sight of the leopards, much more probably than in any other Kenyan park. These felines are found elsewhere, but their taste for the high branches helps them to pass unnoticed most of the times. Here, leopards rest and kill by night at the Ewaso Nyiro banks. An early morning drive, when the cats are still active, has a great chance of reward.

The three reserves are also the haunt for a rich avifauna, with more than 300 species recorded. This is the place for the Somali ostrich, with its bluish neck and thighs, and for the Kori bustard, standing a meter high. The scrublands are home for some game birds, like crested francolins, yellow-necked spurfowls and the Guineafowls, both vulturine and helmeted that actually belong to different genuses and that flock to drink down at the river banks. Red-billed hornbills, marabou storks and superb starlings are a permanent presence. Prey birds include eagles, owls, kites, goshawks and sparrowhawks. Woodpeckers nest in the riverine trees. The Ewaso Nyiro waters attract a great deal of water birds, like pelicans, herons, hamerkops and kingfishers.

Finally, in some sandy soils hollow their tunnels the naked mole rats, rare and small mammals devoid of hair, with a social behaviour similar to colonial insects and whose presence is detected through the mounts which betray their burrows, expelling pulsatile sand puffs like miniature geysers.


In Samburu:

Samburu Lodge:
Samburu Lodge is the most classical facility in the reserve, property of Block Hotels. It was built on the former camp site of the famous elephant hunter Arthur newmann, right at the north bank of the Ewaso Nyiro, today close to the reserve's HQ. It offers 59 rooms and services like swimming-pool, bar, restaurant, petrol station and mechanic workshop. At dusk, employees lay a bait for the leopard up a tree at the opposite bank. The guest occasionally shows up. The lodge's location provides a look at the crocodiles resting on the sand by the bar, like the huge Thomas. The reptiles are also fed by the employees.

Larsens is a luxury tented camp belonging to Block Hotels. The camp is located at the north bank of the Ewaso Nyiro, downstream Samburu Lodge. It offers 17 tents, restaurant and gift shop. Children under 7 are not admitted.

Samburu Intrepids Club:
This tented camp belongs to Prestige Hotels and has 54 beds. It is located at the north bank, west of Samburu Lodge. Its facilities are built entirely on top of stilts.

In Buffalo Springs:

Samburu Serena Lodge:
The lodge belonging to the Serena group is located at the south bank, west of Samburu Lodge. Technically, Serena lodge is outside the reserve, though it must be accessed from the inside and there's no gate to cross for accessing the lodge. Facilities include swimming pool, restaurant and bar, in addition to the usual bait for the leopards. The verandah in front of the rooms allows for the observation of crocodiles in the river. Both at this lodge and at Samburu Lodge, it is a good idea not to leave the floodlit paths after dusk, since leopards sporadically drop by the human domains.

Buffalo Springs Tented Lodge:
Buffalo Springs Lodge, at the south bank, offers 92 beds and is the cheapest lodging option, with both rooms and bandas. From the bar you can see the crocodiles receiving their meal from the lodge. For campers, this is the best place to take a shower, a bath at the pool (paying), a drink or a meal. It is a quiet place, less crowded than the other lodges.

In Shaba:

Sarova Shaba Lodge:
The luxury lodging facility of the Sarova group is the only accommodation in Shaba. It offers 85 rooms, restaurant, bar, petrol station and a magnificent swimming pool. Water streams run through the facilities.


Buffalo Springs has five camp sites with bad or no facilities at all. The public camp sites along Champagne Ridge, close to the Isiolo or Gare Mara Gate, are devoid of services and are seldom used, mainly due to the fact that their vicinity to the main road makes it an unsafe area. The lack of use has allowed vegetation overgrowth to such an extent that they are even difficult to find. The special camp site of Kubi Panya, in the south side at the west bank of the Maji Ya Chumvi river, is rarely used and different reports about its services vary depending on the source.
There are three camp sites in Samburu, scattered along the Ewaso Nyiro between Samburu Lodge and the West Gate. All of them are cleared spaces shaded by the trees, with scarce services. The sites closest to Samburu Lodge are safer. From the Butterfly public site, you may walk into the lodge for a refreshment, but do it only until 7 PM, since at this time the lodge gate is closed and the employees bring the leopard's bait to a tree across the river. If you happen to walk around after this time, seek the protection of an armed escort. The Vervet camp site, also close to the lodge, is frequently used by safari agencies.
Finally, Shaba hosts three distinct camp sites.

Abedare NP

Aberdare national park is located in the range of the same name, described by Joseph Thomson in 1883 during his journey through the Maasai Land. Kikuyu people still use the range's traditional name, Nyandarua. From 1947 to 1956, the misty and rainy forests in the range served as a hide for the Mau-Mau guerrilla. The park was gazetted in 1950 with an extension of 584 km², but was afterwards enlarged to 770 km², making it the third largest park in the country.

The Aberdare range, 160 km long, is located in the Central Highlands, Central Province, west of Mount Kenya and north of Nairobi, serving as the Kenyan Rift Valley's east wall. The national park comprises a longitudinal strip from south to north, with a projection toward the east denominated The Salient, that runs down to an altitude of 2,130 m, near the town of Nyeri. The Salient has its origin in an ancient migratory route of elephants between the range and Mount Kenya.

The park is the highest in all Africa, since most of the plateau is located above an altitude of 3,000 m. The highest peaks in the park are the Kinangop, with 3,906 m, and the Oldonyo Lesatima, "the mountain of the young bull" in the Maa language of the Maasai, with 4,001 m. The landscape is dominated by deeply foggy rain forest, which confers the park a fairyland atmosphere. Trouts breed in the mountain streams, that burst down spectacular waterfalls, like the Keruru Kahuru of 270 m and the Gura of 240 m in the South area, or the Chania Falls in the central sector of the park. Due to the high humidity, the tracks crossing the park are muddy for a large part of the year.

Aberdare contains a rich botanic wealth, a mixture of equatorial exuberance and alpine vegetation. Above the 2,000 m level, the rain forest gives way to the bamboo jungles, that at 3,000 m become mountain prairies in which groundsel and giant lobelias grow high.

Though the park registers a high number of visitors, most of them just do it for an overnight stay at its famous lodges, reason why in fact the park is largely unknown for most of the visitors.

Formerly, visits to Aberdare national park were arranged only in organised groups escorted by a park ranger, or either appointing the visit in advance by contacting the Park Warden, Aberdare National Park, P.O. Box 22, Nyeri. Private access is granted nowadays, but only 4WD vehicles are authorised into the park.

The park is 100 km from Nairobi and 17 km northwest of Nyeri. From Nairobi there are several buses to Nyeri, but there is no public transport from this town to the park gates.

It is worth mentioning that the most suitable access to the park depends on your final destination, since the range, that is, the park, is actually a barrier between the two main northbound roads from Nairobi. In general, the best option is to take the A2 leaving Nairobi through Thika Road, heading for Thika and Nyeri. The road is tarred and in very good conditions up to Sagana. From here to Nyeri, potholes abound and transit is more difficult. This itinerary is most adequate if you travel for an overnight stay at Treetops or The Ark, since this road leads to Nyeri, where the base hotel for Treetops, the Outspan Club, is located. From Nyeri there is a road to Mweiga, the town close to which is the Aberdare Country Club, base for The Ark. In Mweiga you can also find the Kenya Wildlife Service Aberdares Headquarters, where you can reload your Smartcard.

Conversely, if your intention is to travel the park, you may rather use another route which is in fact shorter. In Nairobi, take the A104 north to Naivasha, where you will take a turnoff to Nyeri. Pitifully, if you just intend to travel from Naivasha to Nyeri this way is not suitable, since the road crosses the park, so you would be bound to pay the entrance fee.

Concerning the park gates, coming from Naivasha or Gilgil you can access the park through Mutubio West Gate. The steepest section of this track, formerly impassable during the rains, is now paved.

From Nyeri you can enter the park through three different gates: Ruhuruini Gate and Wandare Gate are in the Salient area, south and north respectively, whereas the Kiandongoro Gate, more to the south, leads to the Chania Falls area. Access to the park from the north is now not possible since Shamata and Ngobit (Rhino) Gates are currently closed to tourism. Altogether there are four open public gates to the park, plus two private entrances restricted to the buses carrying overnighters to Treetops and The Ark.

The park's road network cross-sectionally traverses from east to west, from Kiandongoro Gate to Mutubio West Gate, through misty moorlands that lay at an altitude of 3,350 m. Connecting the two slopes of the range, this road gives the shortest way from Naivasha to Nyeri.

The Aberdare wildlife is awesome, though the thick vegetation cover makes it difficult to spot animals except from the lodges. The rich forest sustains populations of elephant, buffalo, warthog and several species of antelope, like waterbuck, duiker, suni, dik-dik, eland, bushbuck and reedbuck. The park protects a healthy population of black rhino and also offers the chance to see some of the typical forest species, such as the giant forest hog or the shy and beautiful bongo, perhaps the rarest and most splendid of all Kenyan antelopes.

Primates are represented by black and white colobus, Sykes' monkeys and vervet monkeys. Regarding the felines, lions show their mountain adaptation, tree-climbing behaviour and a longer and speckled coat. Lions have proliferate in such a way that a culling program has been undertaken to protect some of the herbivores, particularly the rare bongo. Leopards and servals are also found, sometimes in their melanic variety, showing a black coat which is usually associated with an adaptation to the high altitude.

More than 200 species of birds have been registered in the park. Among them the visitor may spot the crowned eagle, which feeds on monkeys, or hear the noisy silvery-cheeked hornbill. Sunbirds are represented by the violet Tacazze, the malachite or the scarlet tufted malachite in the high moorlands. Some species of doves and pigeons are usual inhabitants of the upper forest layers. Waterholes usually host black-headed herons, Egyptian geese, sacred ibis and yellow-billed ducks, among other species.


The Treetops, belonging to Block Hotels, is no doubt the most famous, historical and unique of the Kenyan hotels, permission given from the Norfolk in Nairobi. The Treetops was built in 1932 next to a waterhole in the area known today as the Salient. The Treetops site is a privileged location where the mountains give way to a high plateau that offers a magnificent view of the surrounding Highlands. In clear days, which seldom happens, the snowy peaks of Mount Kenya are at sight.
Originally, Treetops was nothing more than a two-room treehouse sitting on top of a fig tree. The intrepid travellers reached on foot escorted by hunters that protected them form wild animals during the walk. Guests were left on their own with just a picnic supper and some oil lamps. At dawn, the hunters reached back to escort them back, after an exciting and chilling night in the midst of the forest watching the wildlife roaming below their feet.
In 1952, Treetops was enlarged for a royal visit from princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip. A third room was added and a small cabin for the hunter on duty was attached. A wood stove was placed in the salon to help mitigate the Aberdare nights' freezing cold. During their overnight stay, the young princess and her husband witnessed a thrilling fight between two waterbucks, that ended with one of the bucks laying dead on the damp soil. But that night would become historical because of different reasons: far away from Aberdare, the princess's father, king George VI, expired in London. Though the princess was not aware of the bad news until her next stop at Sagana, the morning she descended from Treetops she had become the queen of England.
The hotel would be burnt down to ashes by the Mau-Mau two years later, but it was rebuilt in 1957 at the opposite side of the waterhole. The modern building, several times enlarged since then, is a pillared wooden house embracing the branches of a chestnut tree. A second waterhole was artificially opened at the back side of the building to favour wildlife gathering in the vicinity, though for some reason the animals prefer the original pond. The lodge's employees spread salt on the soil, that animals lick with delight. Though today's Treetops keeps little resemblance, if any, with the primigenic treehouse, nevertheless it preserves a touch of charm and romanticism, making it a mandatory visit for every traveller in Kenya.

Access to Treetops is made in groups from the Outspan Golf & Country Club, in Nyeri. The last bus departs at 5 PM. Due to the special conditions at Treetops, children under 7 are not allowed at the lodge. The 50 cabins are very small, reason why bulky luggage is left overnight at the Outspan and only one handbag per person is permitted. Nights at Treetops are chilly and there is no heating, so make sure to drop some warm clothes into your handbag. Some cabins have a private bathroom, whilst others share showers and toilets. There are spare blankets available at the front desk.
During the afternoon, guests can relax watching wildlife from one of the observation decks, from the open air rooftop or from the ground level bunker. The old 5 o'clock tea, formerly served with complimentary pancakes, is no longer offered. Of course there is tea and coffe, but at a price. Supper is served in the evening at the dining room.
After the sunset, you can sit and watch wildlife for as long as you wish, since the lodge's lights keep the area floodlit at night. Elephants, buffalos, waterbucks, bushbucks, mongooses and warthogs are usual visitors to the Treetops' waterhole. Occasionally some rhino would step out of the darkness, but currently the possibility to spot one of the many Aberdare's carnivores is fairly remote. Small mammals, like bushbabies and genets, which used to daringly drop by the rooftop attracted by the food left for them by the lodge's employees, were formerly a nice amusement for those who defied the cold night at the open air, but lately there is no trace of them. If you prefer sleeping, there is a buzzer in each cabin that the hunter on duty will use to warn guests should any elephant, rhino or cat come up. Finally, at 7:30 the next morning, with the mountains damped by a thick mist, guests are brought back to town. Breakfast, which is included in the price, is served at the Outspan.

The Ark:
Opened in 1970 and belonging to Lonrho Hotels, The Ark basically follows the same regime as Treetops, including the prohibition for children under 7. The base hotel in this case is the Aberdare Country Club, in the town of Mweiga, 12 km north of Nyeri by the B5 road. The Ark is located more deeply in the park that Treetops, next to a waterhole in the area where the Salient meets the main body of the park. The building is made to resemble the appearance that, in the architect's opinion, Noah's Ark must have had.
After a 40-minute trip from the Aberdare Country Club, visitors access The Ark walking along a wooden boardwalk that flies over the forest's canopy. The hotel is more modern and roomy than Treetops, and it is said to be the most favourable site in the park to see the bongo. The truth is that the actual possilities are quite low.
The ship-building is composed of three decks with various observation lounges plus a ground level bunker. There is an outside terrace, smaller and less hospitable than the one at Treetops. Along with the comparison, the 60 cabins at the Ark are larger and all are equipped with private shower and toilet.
Wildlife is similar to Treetops. Elephant and buffalo almost guaranteed, some occasional rhino, mongooses, waterbucks, bushbucks and warthogs. Among the less usual, giant forest hogs and bongos.
In general, all explained above for Treetops also applies to The Ark. For a choice between the two, state your preferences. If you seek a more romantic experience, that could bring back to you at least a slight scent of the old Africa, Treetops is your place. If you prefer comfort, then you should choose The Ark.

Tusk Camp:
Tusk Camp is a self service lodge located at the eastern slopes of Aberdares, at an altitude of 2,300 m, in a clearing surrounded by the forest. The place has four wooden double bandas, accommodating eight people. It must be booked as a whole. Rooms are equipped with beds and mattresses, and lighted by kerosene lamps. The living room has an open fire and wood is provided, and from the verandah you can enjoy views of Aberdares' forest and Mount Kenya. The washroom has a shower with hot and cold water, as well as a flush toilet. Apparently there is an additional pit latrine that offers magnificent vistas, outward, of course. The place also holds a firewood cooker. Animals, specially buffalo and elephant, usually graze at the clearing in front of the bandas.

Fishing Lodge:
Located on the high moorlands above Magura river, the Fishing Lodge belongs to Kenya Wildlife Service. The place hosts two bandas, fully furnished but where the guests must carry their own food. Each banda is composed of an equipped kitchen, dining room with fireplace and three bedrooms, accommodating seven people in total. Two bedrooms have a king size bed and a single bed, plus an ensuite bathroom. The small bedroom has one single bed.

Other accommodations:
Obviously, if you don't feel like the overnight rush at the mountain lodges or you simply wish to extend your visit to Aberdare, but in a more comfortable setup than what camping can offer, both base hotels for Treetops and The Ark, Outspan Golf & Country Club and Aberdare Country Club respectively, are perfect choices. Both offer a wide variety of facilities and services that care for guests and their entertainment during their stay.


Camping in the park is restricted since at the beginning of the 80's some campers were attacked by lions. It seems that the attacking animals were several semi-tame lions used for a film. Possibly these lions had become so familiar with humans that did not dare to attack. Otherwise, perhaps they encroached the rest of the population that then had to modify their killing habits. In any case, incidents resulted in the prohibition to camp outside of the Salient and in limitations for walking through the high moorlands.
The Reedbuck public camp site, relatively new and close to the fishing lodge, is now the only authorised camp site in the high moorlands. It provides water, firewood, toilets and rain shelter, but there is no food, so do not forget your own supplies. Public camp sites at Chania Falls and Queens Banda, closed in the early 90's, seem to be open now.
In the Salient area there are eight special camp sites, one in Prince Charles, two in Kiguri and five in Muringato. For reservations and appointments for nature walks, contact the Warden, Aberdare National Park, P.O. Box 22, Nyeri.

Kakamega Forest

Although the Kakamega has been a protected area for a long time, it was declared a national reserve in May, 1985. It is the only natural tropical rainforest left in Kenya today - quite a change from the olden times when dense rainforest covered West Africa and Central Africa, extending to the walls of the Great Rift Valley. The Kakamega Forest National Reserve covers an area of about 240 square kilometers. The terrain includes hardwood forest, swamps and rivers, glades and shallow forests around the edges. It is located about 418 kilometers from Nairobi. The rainforest is old and impressive - some of the trees are easily over a hundred years old. Some of the trees in the region include Elgon teak, red and white stink woods, varieties of Croton, Aniageria Altisima and orchids. There are about 380 species of plants in the reserve.

For visitors, the best time to visit the park is during the rainy season (April-July) when the flowers are blooming. Accommodation is provided at the park in the form of a guesthouse, self-help bandas and two campsites. Also, the Rondo Retreat has recently been opened, and there are hotels available outside the reserve. Visitors can enjoy the beauty of the park by walking on its nature trails, camping, picnicking and even going out on night-time game walks. The trails cover about 7 km and visitors are accompanied by guides. The highest point in the forest - Buyango Hill - is recommended for hikers.

There is a wide variety of unique wildlife and birdlife to be observed in the park. There are about 350 species of birds, including snake-eating birds, which are rare. Visitors can observe animals like the bushpig, gray duiker, civet, Sunni, clawless otter; nocturnal animals like the ground pangolin, porcupines, leopard; rare primates like the black and white Colobus, De Brazza monkeys, Blue monkey, olive baboon, and red-tailed monkey. Incidentally, the De Brazza Monkey is called "Karasinga" in Swahili, due to its white beard.

                                                       copyright: Paul Janssen