For a very different take on Kenya’s best safari experiences, try a camel ride through the country’s northern wilderness. Traverse the stark, arid landscape at a gentle pace to the soft tinkling of camel bells, and relax into the seductive rhythm of this unique safari.
We were bound for an exotic camel ride in the northern wastes of Kenya. After a dusty, two-hour drive through arid country we came to Laikipia, a region north of Mount Kenya known for its vast tracts of wilderness and superb wildlife. The area boasts the highest diversity of large mammals in Kenya and is home to several endangered species, notably Grévy’s zebra, African wild dog and Jackson’s hartebeest.
We reached camp in the late afternoon and had some time to relax, get to the know the team and meet the camels before supper around the fire. The four-day safari ahead of us was tailor-made to suit our group. The party comprised my family of four, our guides, 11 camels and their Samburu handlers – an exclusive safari just for us. There were no vehicles involved in the venture; the size of our camp was limited to how much the camels could carry.
Next morning, we were up early for a hearty breakfast. Then it was time to saddle up. ‘Okay, let’s go!’ called out Warui, our guide. Slowly, we loped off at a gentle pace.
A few camels stayed with us to carry our refreshments and day packs. The rest of the animals went on ahead, carrying tents and so on, which allowed us time to explore things of interest along the way without holding up the team who would set up our next camp.
Sometimes we rode on the backs of our hairy steeds, at others we walked beside them. I soon slipped into the rhythm of camel riding. The awkward swaying motion became less awkward. The soft tinkling of the bells around the camels’ necks created a dreamy, soporific sensation. I was sliding inexorably into my ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ impersonation.
The Samburu people and their camels are perfectly suited to northern Kenya. For them, a camel train through the wilderness is a way of life. Moving seasonally with their cattle herds, they know the land and the wildlife intimately.
When young Samburu boys are only five or six years old, they’re sent out to watch over the goats as they browse in the harsh terrain. This time is well spent learning the secrets of the land: discovering where barbets make their nests, how to recognise leopard tracks, and heeding the call of the honeyguide. Travelling with these ochre-painted warani – the warriors – and their camels is one of the best ways to truly get in touch with this elemental wilderness.
At noon, we reached our next camp. Everything we needed had been carried on the camels’ backs, so there wasn’t a lot space for mod cons. However, I was surprised at how much we’d brought along! The camp comprised large tents, soft beds, safari toilets, hot-water showers and comfy chairs. Most importantly, there was always room on the camels for beer, wine and excellent food, which was freshly prepared each day.
After a delicious lunch of green salads, bread and cheeses, the afternoon was passed with a little siesta and later, an evening stroll and sundowner drink at a rocky vantage point. Then there were hot showers for us all, before a three-course dinner under the stars, reminding us how simple true luxury can be.
The second day was longer. We trekked through a rugged landscape that offered vast, arid vistas. At noon, we reached another beautiful campsite on a river. After lunch, I tried a spot of fly-fishing. Hammocks were strung up in the trees for us adults. The children cavorted in the river, calling out in thrilled excitement as the camels came down to drink beside them.
On the third day, I noticed a tall, rocky tooth rising out of the horizon. ‘It’s called Nyasura,’ said Warui. ‘For us, it is sacred ground, used for millennia by hunters and others seeking shelter. Ancient graves, flints and pounding stones, called boluses, have been found in its caves.’
That afternoon, we camped beside Nyasura and in the evening we climbed its slopes for a G&T. The views in every direction were simply spellbinding.
On the last day, our camel train traversed acacia-bush country thronging with plains game. Antelope were everywhere: eland, Thomson’s gazelle, gerenuk, impala, highland hartebeest and beisa oryx. Warui warned us that predators were about, and later we caught a glimpse of a pair of hyena, cantering through the veld.
‘This area is rich in traditional culture,’ explained Warui as we passed a small settlement. ‘On market days in the villages around here, all the warriors and women come dressed in their finest adornments.’
With the help of Warui, I’d been brushing up on my bird identification and the tally was mounting by the hour. We’d seen everything from ostrich, kori bustard and tawny eagle to rosy-patched bushshrike, Marico sunbird, and rufous chatterer. ‘Look!’ cried Warui, ‘a red-fronted warbler.’ It was yet another first for me.
Our camel ride came to an end on the banks of the Ngiro River, the second largest in Kenya. As we drew closer, elephant emerged from the trees to wallow in a muddy stretch, loudly trumpeting at our arrival. It was the perfect farewell to an unforgettable safari.