Monday, 08/12/2008: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve
Samburu National Reserve consists of two parts: Samburu and Buffalo Springs, which are located adjacent to each other but are separated by the Ewaso Ngiro River, which means “brown water”. A most appropriate name. There is also a third reserve, Shaba, which lies further to the east and can be reached from Archer’s Post. Apparently animal density there is rather low, so we decided to give it a miss.
Besides hoping for some good elephant encounters, we were also keen to find some cheetahs. Large parts of Samburu are quite bushy, though, and cheetahs generally prefer more open areas, where they can make best use of their amazing speed to run down their prey. During our game drives we tried to drive through both bush and open country, to maximise our chances of animal encounters.
Our first morning game drive on the Samburu side started with one of the specialities of the region: two family groups of gerenuks, with one of the males posing especially for us. They are beautiful gazelles with matchstick-like legs and very long necks, and the only species of gazelle able to stand upright on their hind legs to feed from higher branches in bushes and trees. We were lucky enough to witness this unique behaviour on several occasions.
There were also some reticulated giraffes, impalas and several dik-diks around. The latter always come in pairs, and are especially cute with their big, black eyes. A little bit later, one of the tourist bus drivers told us about a lion near the river, and after some searching we found him too and marvelled at his aloof beauty. Unfortunately, he was rather tucked away in some bushes, so we didn’t get any decent photos.
When we drove away from the river and headed towards the hills, we came across our first herd of elephants, which we saw coming down the hills towards the river. Unfortunately, there was another tourist vehicle, which was driving off the tracks, trailing the elephants closely and rather harassing them. The elephants were not happy, and some of them turned towards the other car with ears wide spread, waving their trunks at their pursuers. We kept our distance but still close enough to get good views of them. The other car soon lost interest in the elephants and headed away, which seemed to be typical behaviour of most of the tourist vehicles we met. “Elephants? Seen! Tick! Next!” In this case, it proved to be a lucky break for us.
We decided to circle widely around the elephants and then stop about a kilometre further down the hill ahead of them. We switched the engine off and sat on the roof, waiting for them to approach. Amazingly, they kept coming straight towards us and after a while we realised that they were walking down the same track that we were parked on! As there was plenty of space around us we thought it was better to stay put rather than to start the car and drive around right in front of the herd. The elephants came closer and closer and slowly but surely we got more and more nervous. Would they be okay with us? The elephants were completely relaxed and showed no sign of being annoyed by our presence.
They lifted their trunks in our direction, trying to catch our scent, and when they arrived right in front of the car, they simply split into two groups and walked right past the car on either side! We felt like a big boulder in the middle of a sea, except that the waves moving past us were a herd of elephants! There were some fully-grown, big matriarchs, a few very small calves and elephants of every size in between. They were only a trunk’s length away from us – it felt like we could have nearly touched them! Or more to the point, they could easily have touched us, perched on the roof of our car! They were really quiet, except for the soft padding of their feet. We were so awe-struck that we even stopped breathing for a while!
When they passed the car, they simply merged again into one big group and continued down the hillside.
We sat on the car with big grins on our faces, trembling a little and not quite believing what had happened to us. After an initial silence, we couldn’t stop babbling like idiots! We were glad to have all the photos we had taken, as they were proof that we hadn’t simply dreamt this amazing encounter! Quite a few of the photos taken with Mick’s big 300 mm lens show only the eyes of the elephants, we were that close! We had certainly never thought that it would be possible to be this close to wild elephants!
As this group of elephants was so friendly, we tried the same trick again, circling widely around and waiting for them again. Apparently, they must have found a mud hole on their way down the river, as some of the smaller ones were completely covered in fresh mud by the time they caught up with us again.
This time they didn’t pass quite so close, but we were able to take some lovely photos of them in the typical Samburu landscape, with Ololokwe, the sacred mountain of the Samburu, in the background.
One of the females decided to cross the river with her two offspring, but we met all the others a third time in the woodlands near the river, where one of the little ones wasn’t quite sure if he should pass us and mum gently ushered him forwards with her trunk. She was obviously satisfied that these two grinning idiots meant no harm to her family. These three encounters were absolutely amazing, leaving us with goose pimples and a mad grin whenever we thought about it, and we felt extremely privileged that the elephants accepted our presence so happily. What an amazing first day in Samburu!
On the way back to the campsite we decided to check out the lion from earlier in the morning, and promptly spotted a lioness lying on the bank on the other side of the river. We stopped, and while watching her, Mick suddenly noticed another one in the bushes right next to the car! This was a young male with only the beginnings of a mane, and he looked quite sleepy. We had to manoeuvre the car a bit to get a better view of him. After a while he started yawning and eventually got up. He looked at us, walked directly towards our car and passed right behind the bumper before walking off and slumping down under another tree on the other side of the track. Maren was taking photographs from the open roof hatch, which felt a little bit scary with a lion only a couple of metres away! Shortly afterwards a second lion appeared out of the bushes and joined his friend, and together they lay down, lazily watching the movements of all the other animals on the riverbank. We encountered these two lions several more times over the next few days, and we could also hear them roaring at night from our campsite.
Our first morning in Samburu had turned out to be a real success! Not only were we pretty much embraced by a wonderful family of elephants; we almost managed to touch the nose of a lion! We wondered what our friendly policeman from Isiolo would have said! In the afternoon we managed to see some oryx on the Buffalo Springs side, another species of the “Samburu Five”.
And in the evening we were in for yet another special treat. Charles had told us that the previous evening a genet had appeared after we had gone to our tent, and we decided to stay up in the hope that it would return once again. We were lucky and after a short while we could see some movement in the bushes behind our camp kitchen. The genet wasn’t shy at all and sniffed around the kitchen utensils, obviously hoping for a few leftovers. Charles was very excited and named the genet “Janet” (What else?), but he became less sure of his new friend, when the genet started sniffing his shoes! As genets are entirely nocturnal, we were very happy to have had the chance to observe one of these beautiful cat-like predators at close range.
Tuesday, 09/12/2008: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve
In the morning we headed over the bridge near camp to the Buffalo Springs side. Up in the hills the bush was more open and we continued our search for cheetahs. Mick found the viewpoint that he had visited some years earlier, and we enjoyed a spectacular view over the typical dry bush landscape with Ololokwe in the distance. After several hours of driving around we had hardly seen any animals except for a couple of waterbucks and warthogs. So we decided to head back along the river in the hope of finding one of the elusive leopards that often hang around in the area opposite one of the lodges, where they used to bait them for the benefit of the tourists. Soon after arriving at the river, we spotted a very large crocodile sunning itself on the riverbank.
A bit further down the river, a small herd of elephants appeared out of the hills from the direction we had just come from. They were obviously heading towards the river, so we stopped the car near where we expected them to cross. They all passed close to the car, and the group included three tuskless females and several tiny calves, which couldn’t have been older than a few months.
The whole family entered the river and started drinking and splashing around. The young calves were especially fun to watch, as at that age they didn’t really know what to do with their trunks. They waved them around wildly, and ran back and forth between mum and their older sisters and eventually knelt down to drink some water with their mouths. We had lots of fun watching them and were completely engrossed with this elephant family.
Only after they had reached the river, which was very shallow and easy to cross at this point, did Mick hear some subtle sound that made him look up. In all the excitement we hadn’t noticed that an even bigger herd was approaching from the hills! And suddenly there were about 60 to 70 elephants; all pretty close already and heading straight towards the crossing point in the river and our car parked next to it.
We were astonished that so many big beasts could just sneak up on us! And they all appeared from the area we had crisscrossed earlier for several hours! We had moved the car closer to the crossing point earlier, after the first family had passed us, so that we had a better viewpoint. However, this meant that we were now pretty close to the track the elephants were walking on. We again decided to simply stay put and quiet, and all the elephants paraded quietly past our car. They were all very calm and apparently not bothered by our presence, and just wanted to get to the river as quickly as possible. It was amazing – there were big matriarchs, younger females, adolescent males, calves of all sizes and even a few big bulls.
With so many elephants in the river, a lot was happening and we didn’t really know where to look! Some drank water, others showered themselves, and some young males tested their strength and pushed each other around. There was lots of trumpeting and in among all this chaos were several small calves having fun. It was absolutely incredible, and although it was already very hot, we opted to stay on and watch the spectacle rather than to seek shade.
When the elephants reached the other side, they either covered themselves in mud from a mud hole on the riverbank or had a dust bath.
Eventually, all the elephants disappeared on the other side of the river and we headed back towards our camp, totally parched and knackered, but also absolutely elated. This was our second amazing elephant encounter in as many days! And, not really surprisingly, we shot many hundreds of photos during this encounter. On the way we came across a large herd of oryx antelope, including several calves and juveniles. Most of them stayed in the shade, but some posed nicely for our cameras.
Whenever we had to use the toilets first thing in the morning, we had to either use flashlights or leave the doors slightly ajar to find our way around. This always got the bats going which were hanging around in the little building. Maren didn’t find it a very pleasant experience to have bats whizzing around her face. After lunch we went on a mission to photograph these rather large bats, which were all having their siesta hanging from the rafters. After a good rest we set off again on the Samburu side, where we encountered a small group of reticulated giraffe and later some Somali ostriches. After the excitement of the morning, the afternoon was somewhat quieter, which gave us a good opportunity to wind down again.
Wednesday, 10/12/2008: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve
During the morning game drive on the Samburu side, we had lots of sightings of a variety of animals. There were plenty of birds, like black-shouldered kite, drongos, kingfishers, several species of bustard and a large flock of vulturine guinea fowl, which look very odd with their little vulture-like heads and beautiful blue, yellow and black feathers.
We came across impala, gerenuk, ground squirrels, plenty of dik-diks and our two male lions from two days ago. They were again resting in the shade of a bush and, as they did not look as if they were going to spring into action any time soon, we left them to it.
We happened to come across a small family of elephants that had just crossed the river and were now enjoying a good mud wallow. They were all in there, throwing mud around and making a big mess. One can really see how they enjoy messing about in the mud; some of the older ones don’t really want to come out again. When they did eventually emerge, they were completely covered from head to toe in mud, but some vigorous dust bathing immediately changed their colour from brown to orange. One female was browsing along the edge of the track, and she walked past us just a few metres away. Another had a tiny calf by her side. It is incredible how easy going and tolerant the elephants are here in Samburu!
We continued along in the woody area near the river and soon came across more elephants browsing on the acacias. We stopped under a tree that had its bark well rubbed off and watched the elephants feeding peacefully. One of the elephants was obviously keen to have a rub on the tree under which we were parked, so we decided to back off. Although all elephants we had encountered so far had been extremely friendly, we didn’t want to stand between an elephant and its rubbing tree and we certainly didn’t fancy a hasty retreat through the woodlands.
We left them to it and continued our drive through the open savannah areas, where we immediately came across a herd of oryx, several ostriches and a large family of warthogs.
On the way back we met yet another family of elephants. They were returning from the river and we happened to meet them right next to a mud hole. The older females simply threw some mud over their backs, but all the younger elephants happily dived in, rolling around in ecstasy! One had the feeling that they could have stayed in their forever, but their mums meandered off in search of more food, so they were forced to come out eventually, although rather reluctantly it seemed.
We left them to go in search of their lunch and, during the remainder of our morning drive, we found more gerenuk, reticulated giraffe and our first Grevy’s zebras, which meant that, together with the Somali ostrich and the oryx antelope, we had completed our “Samburu Five”. The Grevy’s zebras are an endangered species and we only saw a very small herd and later a single stallion out on the barren plains. He looked a bit sorry for himself, not having anything green to feed on and no company from other zebras.
We returned to the campsite for lunch and when we looked at the car a bit later, we found that one of the rear tyres had gone completely flat! When Mick and Charles went to work to change the tyre, one of the naughty baboons immediately saw its chance and grabbed one of our bags of spaghetti! In a flash it was up a tree, and for the next hour little bits of dried spaghetti rained down onto the ground, much to the delight of the birds that gathered to feed on this manna from heaven! What is it about baboons and dried pasta?
After changing the wheel, we took the flat tyre to the nearby Samburu Lodge and asked Abu, the one-eyed car mechanic Mick had met on a previous trip, to fix the puncture. We then headed off into Buffalo Springs again, where we encountered more reticulated giraffes, oryx antelopes, Grant’s gazelles and waterbuck.
Up in the hills we saw a beautiful big bull elephant walking towards us. We stopped the car again, and when he got close, he politely stepped off the track and walked right past our car before heading off into the bush.
Thursday, 11/12/2008: Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserve
This was our last full day in Samburu. First thing in the morning, we came across some fresh lion tracks on the sandy piste, but there was no sign of the beast that had made them. We found more reticulated giraffess, a herd of impala rams (with some posing nicely for us), waterbucks, dik-diks, Grant's gazelles, oryx antelopes and a group of ostriches as well as lots of different bird species.
As we knew from our previous days’ experience that the elephants come down to cross the river around mid-morning in a particular place, we headed back there. And again we were lucky! A family of elephants approached the river from the Buffalo Springs side just as we arrived. This time they entered it from the Buffalo Springs side. After some drinking and splashing, they crossed the river and headed straight towards us. Again, there were several small calves in the group, and their mums and older sisters made sure that nothing happened to them during the crossing. On our side they disappeared in a mud wallow that we couldn’t really see, but then emerged again and had good fun dusting themselves. This method of sun protection is certainly cheaper than buying sun screen factor 50+! Slowly they disappeared into the dense bush near the river to spend the next few hours feeding.
When we returned to the campsite for lunch, we found we had a visitor. A magnificent one-tusked bull elephant was feeding on the opposite riverbank, causing a bit of panic with Charles and an armed ranger, who had quickly arrived to protect us. They seemed to think that we were a bit mad getting so excited about a bull elephant close by! Much to their relief and our disappointment, the elephant decided to stay on his side of the river, munching on the branches of the trees along the riverbank. We decided to have our lunch as well, followed by a peaceful siesta.
The afternoon drive was again a bit quieter. As a farewell to Samburu, we drove up to the viewpoint in Buffalo Springs again and enjoyed the amazing views.
We came across another small herd of elephants on their way back into the hills, more oryx and gerenuks and a family party of dwarf mongooses that lived in a big termite mound.
At camp in the evening we reflected on our adventures, and we had to admit that we had had some amazing and absolutely unforgettable days in Samburu and Buffalo Springs. Never, even in our wildest dreams, had we thought that such incredible encounters with elephants would be possible! Apparently Samburu’s elephants are so friendly and peaceful because the people from the Samburu tribe respect them and don’t hunt them, but instead protect them. We had also seen the “Samburu Five”: reticulated giraffe, oryx antelope, Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk and Somali ostrich. And of course there was our very special close lion encounter, when we could almost touch the nose of the lion as instructed by the policeman in Isiolo on our arrival! The only animals we didn’t manage to see were cheetahs and leopards, although one leopard had a close encounter with us! He walked past our tent in the night, and the next morning we could see his footprints about two metres away from our tent entrance!