Mind-blown on safari: ‘Asheole!’

The Buffalo Springs National Reserves have been hit by the ongoing drought

In all my life, I have always considered myself an island girl. I have a deep love affair with the ocean for how small and insignificant, by comparison, it makes me feel.

I always find it fascinating how it has such tempers and still retains a sense of gracefulness to it.

As such, my ideal vacation would always mean I go somewhere in or close to the ocean, even though I can’t swim at all.

Until recently, I was your typical tunnel-visioned and narrow-minded millennial who always thought other vacation ideas, especially safaris, were a pass time for white people.

I never quite understood why every time folks outside Africa talked about visiting the continent, a drive out in the wild was always the highlight of their trip.

It also didn’t exactly help that a lot of media presented safari excursions as an interest for everyone but African natives.

In sharing my experience, a lot of my peers seemed to marvel at the fact that I actually enjoyed a Safari.

When the Kenya Tourism Board prepared its Magical Kenya Travel Expo, what they called media fam trips was part and parcel for the hosted guests.

Guests were placed in small teams with local hosts and taken to different destinations and given plenty of experience and exposure of Kenya’s tourist attractions.

Although some individuals were aware of their destinations, I was completely unaware and looking back, I am glad I wasn’t aware simply because I was forced to keep an open mind and live in the moment.

My team went on a safari tour to Shaba National Reserve which covered Buffalo Springs Natural Reserve and then Lake Nakuru National Park.

Part and parcel of this also was community visits which shed light on how deeply rooted tourism really is and to an extent, helped shift my mentality on why we can’t afford to limit certain experiences to certain people.

Shaba National Reserve

Shaba National Reserve is a protected area in Isiolo County in northern Kenya to the east of the Samburu and Buffalo Springs national reserves. Together, the three reserves form a large protected area.

Our stay at the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge offered comfort and views of a beautiful sunrise and sunset by the river.

However, the saying goes that when in Rome, do what the Romans do and in this case, when in the wild, do what the wild demands of you.

While the hotel views were great, it was the game drives that had me from the get go. The three nature reserves are not+ separated by fences and the wild animals are free to wander from one reserve to the next.

Seeing as I have grown up learning about the Big Five and the Little Five, these national reserves offered me a chance to get up close and not too personal with some of the lesser spoken about animals such as the Dik who mate for life, the Hoopoes and Martial Eagles as well as the vegetation like the desert rose which looks nothing like a rose.

This arid wild ecosystem has forced animals to develop their own unique characteristics and while many of us knew that there were zebras and giraffes and gazelles out in the wild, seeing their differences in terms of their subspecies and behaviour is a whole lot different experience.

Grévy’s zebras for example, are a common species in this area and have significantly thinner stripes and larger ears than their counterparts in the south, while gerenuks are also called giraffe antelopes due to their long necks.

You will also see the reticulated giraffes in large numbers here. They are the most distinctively patterned giraffe subspecies. Their familiar brown and white, brick-like pattern, called a reticulated pattern is where they get their name.

While I found the dust rather irritating at first, once I got into the feel of things and observed love triangle stories play out in the wild with the giraffes, marriages happen with the wild dogs and motherly instincts kicking in with the elephants; I made peace with the fact that we are not so different after all.

Samburu communities - tourism for sustenance

While I found myself so content looking at love triangles with the giraffes, an afternoon spent with people who depend largely on tourism jolted me into a reality I took for granted.

It is commonplace to hear locals lament on how expensive the Maasai people make their beadwork and sell it to tourists.

Unashamedly, I have been one of those people who would vehemently haggle with a vendor to sell me merchandise at a low price with complete disregard for what they may have gone through to get to this final product.

The Samburu community makes up a part of the ecosystem of the Shaba reserves and the people in this community have lived harmoniously with the wild for many years.

They welcome us with song and dance and my personal favourite, the handcrafted beads placed on my neck. The men sing us songs to welcome us and their dance moves like the jumps are meant to illustrate just how strong they are.

When they finish their songs, it is the women’s turn to sing and dance. They perform songs to welcome us into their communal homesteads and individually take us by hand to dance with them.

There is obviously the initial awkwardness since none of us are familiar with the language, the music or the dances but these women are persistent and do not take no for an answer. Eventually, we give in and are surprised by how much fun we have dancing with them.

Once the welcoming is done, the head of this particular village that we visited tells us about their life and community ways.

Lkeriton Benson and his brother have been the heads of this homestead for a while and after splitting us into two groups, he takes us on a tour, explaining how tourism has been one of the villages’ best source of sustenance for years until the onset of Covid-19 and currently, the persisting drought.

“We the Samburu people are pastoralists and we have been heavily reliant on our livestock for survival for years. This drought we have been facing has killed a lot of our livestock and wild animals alike. As a result, sometimes we have had wild animals wander close to our homestead in search of prey,” explained Lkeriton.

“We also depended heavily on tourists like yourselves because we were always able to sell our wares and get money to feed our families and send our kids to school.”

When the pandemic hit, these communities were hit the hardest because unlike many of us who lived in the cities and were up-to-date with the changing of events and restrictions thereof, many in these communities learnt of this way too late once tourists stopped visiting.

This meant that many weren’t prepared adequately to deal with the dry periods that came as a result of the abrupt cut-off of financial assistance that came with tourism.

While we complained about the monotony of staying home and not getting on planes to see places, they struggled with where the next meal would come from.

“Now when people visit our homesteads, the money we earn from the handmade wares we sell them is divided equally amongst the families and there are those who opt to buy us non-perishable foods which we also share amongst ourselves,” Lkeriton explained.

As we drove off, the guilt that racked at us was palpable as none of us was prepared for the reality of what we got to witness. Tourism is not just leisure. It is life rooted so deep and leaves no one untouched.

MKTE’s goal to drill that into us was met in completion and as the Samburu say, ‘Asheole’ meaning thank you; for the lessons learnt.

Lake Nakuru National Park

Nestled in Nakuru County in northern Kenya, the Lake Nakuru National Park offered us the complete opposite of what Shaba did. Where Shaba was dry and arid, Nakuru was lush and deeply green. While the water bodies in Shaba were muddy and less filled, Lake Nakuru was overflowing.

According to our boat safari guide Mary, the lake’s water levels had dropped so drastically but recovered significantly and between 2013 and 2020, the water levels rose higher than ever, and covered a portion of what made the former shoreline while some homes close to the lakes suffered flooding.

A lot of the vegetation eventually died as a result and all that is left as a marker for what was is dead tree logs and stumps that are now home to some of the birds on the lake like the pelicans.

The wildlife and birdlife here is equally different. While we saw the reticulated giraffes in Shaba, the subspecies found this side were different. The waterbucks present at Shaba were different from the species in Nakuru too.

While ideally I would never have been the one to excitedly get close to a lion, seeing one out in the wild, no cages around and barriers around and in an open car sent my adrenaline off.

All my logic somehow took a back seat and in the presence of what I would normally consider danger, I tried to get as close a shot as I could of the king of the jungle.

Oddly enough, according to our tour guide John, a hippo was more likely to attack us than the lion was. As a result, we never got anywhere near the hippos on the lake.

The birds on the lake however, are what Lake Nakuru National Park is widely known for. The beautiful flamingos, pelicans and African spoonbills make up a good portion of the birdlife on the lake.

It is one thing seeing wildlife on National Geographic or watching nature documentaries. When out of your comfort zone and deep in the wild, the humility that comes with being one with nature and going to bed with the sound of lions roaring just outside your room hits you a little differently.