Some of you with more time on your hands than you know what to do with might stay up nights wondering how some of my travel ideas come about. Sure, sometimes it takes months of planning but sometimes things unfold in the simplest way possible; like this email I received…
Mr. T: Hi, I took a quick trip up into Namunyak last week and visited a really cool little campsite which is being developed by Museums of Kenya. The really cool part though was their research work on the rare De Brazza monkeys which they have been studying there for a number of years. I am hoping to plan a trip up that way later this year to explore more around the Mathews/Namunyak region. It is big though so will need to give it a few days… are you keen?
KC: Yes! A thousand times yes!
I know, I really should play a bit hard to get sometimes, if I was a lady of the night I wouldn’t make enough cheese to feed a mouse. So thats how 9 explorers, 3 cars, 2 dogs and a mountain of supplies find themselves in this part of Kenya to expose sample its many secrets.
Namunyak Conservancy in Samburu County is one of the ‘old boys’ in the Northern Rangeland Trust stable formed in 1995 and covers close to 850,000 acres supporting a population of approximately 13,200 people. This conservation area completely surrounds the Mathews Range, an important water catchment and teeming with lots and flora and fauna.
The conservancy neighbours some names that hopefully by now have started sounding familiar to long time readers, the Ndoto Mountains to the north and Westgate and Kalama conservancies to the south all of which I’ve written about previously.
Due to it’s location and altitude this ‘sky island’ forest is not only home to a huge diversity of wildlife which include, elephant, rare monkeys, buffalo, lion, bushbuck, forest hog; but is also home to over 150 species of butterfly, over 350 species of birds, wild forest orchids, and the endemic giant cycad. This mountain range was the last habitat of the Black Rhino in Northern Kenya, the last of which was poached in the 1990’s. (They have since been re-introduced in Sera Conservancy in a bid to create a breeding population.)
The journey from Isiolo to to the turn-off to Wamba is pretty straightforward on tarmac, we passed a pretty dry Ewaso Nyiro.
This is exciting for me as I’ve passed this turn-off countless times and its the first time I’m hitting a left at Mount Ololokwe!
Took me 2hrs just to make the below map of what the entire trip looked like ,still looks like crap. I’m a big believer in maps, they go a long way in demystifying travel especially in places like northern Kenya. Don’t you agree?
Isiolo – Ololokwe: 57km (40min)
Ololokwe – Wamba: 53km (1hr)
After meeting up with the rest of the convoy at Wamba we beat feet towards out first campsite. One of these cars will later need a tow, can you guess which one?
After a few hours we realize we have been heading in the totally wrong direction. We’re supposed to be heading to the northern part of the Mathews but thanks to miscommunication with our guide we are now on the western side! On hearing this one of the dogs vomits in the car. (no photo, it was calamity)
This is just before heading down to Ngilai and the Kitich area, I marked this section ‘Heartbreak Hill’ on my map. At what seems like a 90-degree angle on a rocky and unstable surface it’s quite the trouser browner. And we have to come back up the same way tomorrow, harrowing.
On the road again.
After yesterdays navigational fiasco today we have to back track 20kms back through Oromoidei to get the road to the northern part of the Mathews and our next campsite. First we stop at the nearby Kitich Camp where every makes a new friend in this baby buffalo. Only in the North do you have this kind of experiences, sure beats being cooped up in a safari van.
Driving back on this clear morning is not the worst thing that could happen.
The ubiquitous kids cheering on the side of the road.
Heartbreak Hill claims her victim; the sacrifice is accepted.
Kim is moved by the landscape and randomly breaks out a
De Brazza Campsite
Due to to the high altitude of the mountain range it is slightly jarring to arrive at this very green, well- shaded, river-side site high in the mountains.
A mzee at camp who confirmed a monitor lizard we were looking at, was in fact dying.
You might be wondering what’s so special about these monkeys. Before 2007 the De Brazza was only thought to live on the western side of the Great Rift Valley and this particular colony was only discovered in 2007 bringing Kenya’s population up from 700 to 1000, hence the National Museums of kenya setting up a research camp here.
I’m determined to get a good look at the De Brazza’s hanging around camp which is easier said than done, they are arboreal and spend 70% of their time well camouflaged high up in the trees. Mama Billy and I head out with Adamson who has been studying these primates on a daily basis since 2011 using line transects and other methods I pretend to understand.
This is an exercise in extreme patience, the monkeys can recognize strangers and we have to inch ourselves forward, pausing for absurd amounts of time to catch a glimpse of vague shapes high up in the trees.
As the monkeys get used to us we start getting regular glimpses of them and I finally get to properly see what I came all this way to experience.
Why is always the most beautiful animals who are most under threat?
We spend an entire afternoon tracking these rare and shy animals, watching them feed, socialize and interact with their environment. I could go on and on about the experience but that would needs another article.
On the last evening we take a short drive out of camp to look for elephants.
So beautiful…times like this I wish I was more patient with my photography.
We get some great views looking north towards the Ndoto Mountains.
With the night still as clear as a bell on our last evening I once again try my hand at some astrophotography. I get some of the clearest shots of the Milky Way I’ve gotten to date. Why are we not selling Kenya as an astrophotography destination yet? We have some of the darkest skies anywhere in the world.
De Brazza Campsite – Sereolipi: 90km (4hrs)
- A trip to the Mathews is a long haul and there’s lots to see so 3 night minimum recommended. 4WD accessible only (2 vehicles if possible), nothing too technical if you know your vehicle. Great riding for motorcycles with long-range tank or with a support vehicle.
- Both campsites have no facilities so you need to be entirely self sufficient. De Brazza campsite has long-drop toilets. Non-potable water available at both sites from mountain streams but could be boiled/purified in a pinch.
- The last cellphone signal is at Wamba town so keep your convoy tight. There is intermittent signal in some places but cannot be relied upon.
- Costs for campers Ksh2000 $(20) per person per day, this includes conservancy and camping fees. Ranger costs are Ksh 2000 per day. For bookings and further information call the NRT tourism hotline on +254 (0) 701 295 357 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- For non-campers, accommodation options in the conservancy are Kitich Camp and Sarara Camp. Fair warning; they are both stunning camps with the price to match. If walking/camel safaris and fly camping are your thing check out Wild Frontiers.
- I’ve mapped out all roads and campsites on the free app ‘Maps.me‘ so you can now navigate yourself around the conservancy. I cant stress this enough if you’re ever visiting any of the places on my website, download this app!
In all my travel to Northern Kenya, I can’t help but think there is an amazing opportunity here for marketing adventure travel in this half of the country. As a community conservancy or county with limited funds it’s all well and good to dream of investing in high end lodges and infinity pools but what do you do in the meantime? Just chill and twiddle your thumbs? It might come as a surprise to some but not everybody wants to shack up in a lodge and bounce around in a mini-van looking at game. There’s a whole activity based market for camping, hiking, biking, rock climbing, 4WD driving, stargazing and sunset chasing: who is speaking to us?
We’re out there and we’re listening. Talk to us!
Further reading (for nerds like me):
Magical Mathews – Sophie Harrison