PART 3: SARARA CAMP, NAMUNYAK CONSERVANCY

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Sarara made a good first impression.  From its imposing main lodge there is a fantastic view over the Mathews Range.  Always a plus for any property which I visit?  Animals in camp on arrival.  This time, it was in the form of two large elephant bulls at the water hole below camp.  The remainder of my 2-night stay at Sarara confirmed and strengthened the initial impressions.  Sarara is a seriously good choice for a place to spend a few days on safari in northern Kenya.

The area is remote and private with no other vehicles or visitors around, other than the camp guests.  From being a shooting gallery for roaming bandits from Somalia – who decimated the elephant and rhino population in the 1980’s and early 1990’s – the Mathews Range has become a conservation success story and Sarara plays no small part in it.  As we could see for ourselves, there are nowadays numerous elephants and many other wildlife species such as the remarkable Reticulated Giraffe, gerenuk antelope and others populating the area.

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One of the highlights of my visit to Sarara was visiting the Singing Wells.  This unique dry-season spectacle involves observing Samburu warriors forming a human chain with their buckets, retrieving water for their livestock from the wells in the dry riverbed below the camp.  All the while chanting traditional family songs to their cattle, they pass the water up by hand, to be deposited in drinking troughs.  More about that later.

Sarara offers a particularly diverse range of activities for guests.  In addition to game drives and visiting the singing wells, the list of available activities is a long one indeed:  bird-watching, walking/foot safaris, Samburu homestead visit, climbing up to 8,000 feet in the Mathews Range, a day trip to the ‘sacred mountain’ of Ololokwe, scenic helicopter trips to Mt. Ololokwe or to go trout fishing or all the way to Lake Turkana, overnight fly camping, and finally a Sarara bush pony horse-back safari.

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A particularly worthwhile outing from Sarara is a visit to the nearby Reteti Elephant Sanctuary which has rescued more than 40 orphan elephants in its first year of existence. Reteti, which helps to protect the remote Mathews Range, is Kenya’s first community owned elephant orphanage.  We listened to a presentation, experienced some first-hand interaction with the young elephants and I took a few photographs of the staff at work.

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Sunrise at Sarara

Don’t oversleep the sunrise at Sarara.  Summer, winter or fall, it happens just before 7 in the morning.  With several bird calls preceding it and heralding it, the sun gently lights up the Mathews Range which can be seen in the front left quadrant of a simply stunning view over the acacia-strewn woodland.  The view is seemingly never-ending, fading into a hazy confluence of earth and sky.

At times like these you can let your mind wander along with the views of the mountains, sky and bush.  Like I did, you may experience a sense of belonging, of inner peace and clarity.  In this timeless place, past and future seem to fall away and like the natural creatures around us, we can embrace the present with all our faculties.  Look, listen, smell, feel.  This is Africa at its finest, in front of your very eyes.

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The Singing Wells 

On my first morning at Sarara, a few of us started off walking out of camp after breakfast, in the direction of the river, to visit the famed singing wells.  I had no idea of what to expect at the wells and was somewhat apprehensive that the experience would be artificial or canned or would feel awkward.  Quite the opposite happened.  Upon first walking up to the cattle watering area, there were already about 1,000 plus head of cattle present, bunched together but held apart in herds by closely attending Samburu tribesmen, clad in their traditional red wraps.

As you get closer, you realize and observe that the cattle are being called or mostly sung – to the side of a water trough on the edge of a deep well.  At various levels in the well – depending on the depth of it – two or three Samburu men – stripped naked – are wedged in on the side of the well,  passing up a bucket of water from the bottom of the well upward from one person to the next, to be deposited in the trough.  The Samburu herder would be singing a traditional repetitive or rhythmic phrase and melody, recognized by his cattle as the signal for ‘water’.   Six or so of the cattle would separate themselves from the melee of other cattle and herders and quickly approach the trough, lower their heads and start to drink.  All the while being closely observed by the herders, who would intervene with the crack of a whip or a loud exclamation if one animal got out of line or stayed too long.  Each herd gets watered every second day and it is a communal activity – the Samburu work together and use each other’s wells, depending on the level of water.  In the height of the dry season the water can be as far as 16 to 20 feet or more below the surface.  This watering activity takes place every morning in the dry season, starting around 10am or so, when the cattle is deemed safe from attacks by predators.

Experiencing the Singing Wells was special for all of us.  Right here in Samburu is probably the only place in the world where it can be experienced.  It is pastoral in the full sense of the word, animal and man in close proximity, illustrative of the close – one may even call it emotional – bond between the Samburu and their much-loved cattle.  No photography is allowed at the Singing Wells; this is something you simply have to go and see first-hand!

While fascinating to observe the practice, the abundance of cattle is a growing issue in the Namunyak Conservancy.  By early 2018 there were already too many cattle in the area, estimated to be around 20,000 total.  This displaces many wild animals including lions, which simply cannot thrive around such intense human and domesticated animal pressure.

As a result, Sarara is not a full-on ‘big game’ experience.  There is plenty to see, for sure.  Lots of elephants and Reticulated Giraffe, some gerenuk and lesser kudu, but not much else.

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My stay at Sarara was made even more special because of the personal attention of the managing couple Rob and Meg, who are raising their young daughter Eva in this most wonderful of places.  Rob and Meg are naturals to the role of camp management, with an easy-going nature and friendly, welcoming manner.  Even so they clearly have a firm hand on the wheel in terms of maintenance, overall standard and quality of food & beverage, the appearance of the lodge and so on.  Accommodation at Sarara is first class.  The hybrid tented rooms are large and comfortable, with en suite toilet, and hot and cold water on demand.  My room – #5 – had a separate yet connected (a few steps) outside bathroom with a shower with a view over the landscape.

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Food at Sarara was stellar with well-prepared home-style cooking, such as roast chicken, leg of lamb, a great variety of pizza, pasta, frittata, with beetroot and many other salads for lunch.  Always with a tempting dessert.  More than enough in the way of variety, choices and certainly quantity, to satisfy a demanding palate.

Dinners were communal, mostly served al fresco overlooking the water hole where there was almost always some wildlife present, including elephants, kudu and baboons.

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