PART 3: Sasaab Lodge, Samburu

Photography and report by Bert Duplessis

High resolution photos available on Flickr!

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This June 2014 trip to Samburu was my third one to the area and while they have all been different and had various highlights, there are a few things about Samburu which never change.

For one, the area is very ‘out of Africa’ with the proliferation of acacia trees, the vistas over distant mountains and valleys, and the abundance of wildlife. It is unmistakeably Africa but totally the opposite of better watered elevated areas of Kenya such as the Maasai Mara.  

There’s nothing genteel about the place. Amboseli is harsh.  It is almost always dry, and often in the grip of drought.  This year again, I could see the early signs of what may turn out to be a very severe drought, barring some unexpected late-season rain.  

So it is not surprising that many of the animals found in the area are adapted to deal with this harsh, dry environment and to even thrive in it.  Samburu is well-known for its many endemic mammals, particularly the handsome Reticulated Giraffe, Grevy’s Zebra, Beisa Oryx and the Somali Ostrich.  Other animals to be found in the area are equally fascinating, such as the gerenuk, which feeds at a level well higher than that utilized by other antelopes. Seeing it standing on its hind legs and practically using its two front legs like hands, is a most peculiar yet singularly entertaining wildlife experience. That alone is probably worth a trip to Samburu.  

Samburu’s elephants are likewise an interesting subject.  They are the common Loxodonta Africana found all over Africa yet they are quite unmistakeable with their muddy reddish brown color, imparted by years of Samburu soil and dust coming into contact with their leathery hides.  The Samburu elephants are not heavily tusked and are extremely tolerant of vehicles, so you will no doubt get some very good close-up views of them.  Except if it is very, very dry when many of the elephants migrate out of the area to the highlands.  

On the morning of June 21 I was driven to the airstrip at Loisaba, for the flight to Samburu.  Loisaba’s main lodge and family homes burnt down in a fire some months previously, and driving up to the airstrip it was remarkable to see the high number of elephants and other game in the previously burnt area.  It was clearly much favored by the animals for its newly emergent vegetation and both driving in and flying out we saw literally dozens of elephants dotting the hillsides.  

On this day, I would transfer to Samburu on a private charter flight.  Flying as the only passenger on a private plane is quite a treat.  And certainly not something we do all the time.  But it was either this or a 6 hour road trip over horrible roads to Samburu.  Easy decision.  

The flight turned out to be one of the most interesting ones I’ve done in a long time.  The young pilot asked and got a big ‘yes’ nod from me about low-level flying.  So all the way from Laikipia to Samburu we were never more than 500 feet or so above the ground.  An exhilarating experience compared with the more mundane feel from 5,000 ft and up.  I could clearly see the elevation increasing as the ground dropped away approaching the edge of the escarpment.  Right at the edge of the Samburu area there was a sharp drop-off with the Ewaso Nyiro River glistening below us, to the right and left. 

Even from the air, it was noticeable just how dry it was, as we were later to observe first-hand.  Approaching the Ewaso Nyiro, the pilot glanced over at me (in the co-pilot’s seat), gave me the universal ‘the fun starts now’ thumbs-up sign and then took the powerful single-engined Cessna 206 down over the water, right on the deck in flying parlance, at just 30 meters up from where the air stops and the land begins.   Fun it was and the kind that you cannot find on a computer game or inside a movie theater. This was the real thing with lots of engine and propeller noise and extremely rapid forward motion which will get the adrenaline flowing in even the most jaded of adventure travelers. 

Skimming over the wide shallow expanse of the Ewaso Nyiro was a whole lot smoother than the camel ride with an even better view.  With its flat-six Lycoming engine generating about 300 horse-power, resulting in a cruising speed of 160 mph or so, the C-206 is not an ideal  game-viewing platform that low down over the water, but I did see several elephants just off the water’s edge on our left.  

All too soon, a riverine forest with some very tall trees on the left and right edge of the river loomed up ahead of us.  The pilot made a wise decision to pull sharply on the yoke and bank to the left.  I could feel myself being pushed down into the seat as we swooped up and away from the river, the tops of the tall trees sliding away below and to our right.  Bullet safely dodged. What a thrill!  Who knew going on safari could be this much fun.  From that point the Sasaab airstrip was barely 10 minutes away; we checked the runway for wildlife, came around and landed.  

Twenty or so minutes later, I was being welcomed to Sasaab by lodge managers Ron and Margaret Gratzinger.  Margaret’s bubbly, sparkling personality makes her the ideal host and while she has lost the accent, her innate Southern charm is still very much intact.  Ron strikes one as a steady, no-nonsense all-American guy and the two of them clearly work well together.  I very much enjoyed their company over the next couple of days and so did the other guests who were there at the time, including a young Chinese couple from Hong Kong – celebrating a belated anniversary.  Also with us for the two days were a grandmother and grand-daughter from New York. It turned out that the lady was the founder of Nickelodeon and she soon revealed her formidable personality and tons of charisma, much to our delight.  For the first day we were joined by a French photographer and his companion – both seasoned Africa and world travelers  – with a wealth of stories and experiences from remote, little-visited African locations. Like so often on safari in far-flung corners of Africa, our diverse little group enjoyed some splendid meals and get-togethers, quickly getting to know each other and making the most of our shared experience.  

Sasaab’s spectacular facade and entrance-way is the show-piece of its Moroccan inspired design, which is evident throughout the property and the rooms.  My suite – it can hardly be described as a room or tent – had all the space in the world with a fantastic view over the Ewaso Nyiro and the valley and mountains in the distance.  It is multi-leveled but there is a walkway (no steps) down from the sleeping quarters to the ‘bathroom’ – or rather the area which has a his and hers sink, a separate toilet and a semi-outdoor but private shower.  The rooms are far from each other and they very much have the feel of a private sanctuary.  The large king size bed has a view out over the river and plains as well, and it has a private plunge pool and verandah.  For once the lighting was adequate and easily controlled from the bed.  

The main lounge and dining room/bar area is expansive with several inviting and very comfortable stuffed chairs and colorful couches.  An attempt by the barman at mixing a dry gin martini unfortunately failed due to an overabundance of vermouth.  Like someone once said, very wisely, all you need to do to get the perfect dry martini is to walk through a room with a bottle of vermouth somewhere in it.  Actually a tiny bit, maybe half an ounce or so, of dry vermouth is fine, but anything beyond that pretty much ruins the drink.  And please – all safari bar tenders take a note – everything has to be icy cold.  Including the glass itself.  

The grounds at Sasaab are home to a variety of birds and several dik-dik also hang out around the property, being fed some cabbage from time to time, I suspect.  They are very tame and very photogenic although the ones by my tent disappeared by the time I had the camera ready.  

On our first afternoon at Sasaab we took a bush walk – which was pleasant even if we did not see any wildlife – to a nearby rocky outcrop where sundowners were served a bit later.  The young Chinese couple went on camel-back while the French couple and I were on foot.  The sunset was not the most spectacular one I had ever experienced, but on the right day with the right sun/cloud mix, the spot would be amazing.  As it was the snacks were great and the G & T top-notch.  A perfect end to a very eventful day.  Dinner that evening was served al fresco and our party of eight tucked into the expertly prepared dishes which included chicken breast, freshly baked bread, salad and other side dishes.  All very elegant, much like the type of  dinner party you would like to be invited to.  

The next morning we were up and out quite early for a half day game drive to Samburu National Park.  Initially the game drive was very slow with few animals seen, but it started to pick up by the time we had driven about an hour from the entrance to the  park.  This does present a problem, as it takes a full 2 hours total from the lodge to where one can reasonable expect good game-viewing.  In the process you lose almost all of the good early morning ‘golden hour’ light, i.e. the first hour after the sun is up.  Either you have to leave from camp very early or spend a couple of days at a different property inside the park.  Serious photographers need to give this some thought in making a decision about where to stay in Samburu. 

As it turned out the day of our drive was unseasonably windy – the wind reached near gale strength by late morning with the result that conditions were not ideal at all.  Bird-watching was impossible and photography was most challenging.  I managed to get a few half-decent pics, but nothing nearly as good as on my previous trip to the area.  We did get lucky with some lions which walked right by us, saw a couple of groups of elephants, lots and lots of giraffe, plenty of Grevy’s zebra, some gerenuk and a few other species.  Mixed in with quite a bit of dust but what can you do.  Our ‘bush breakfast’ was served on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro and the Sasaab crew made the best of extremely trying conditions.  I could not believe that our guide succeeded in getting a fire going to cook some delicious pancakes, amongst others.  All in all, breakfast was quite nice despite the occasional swirl of dust blowing across the picnic site. 

On the way back to camp we saw many more animals – it was a pity that the light was quite harsh by then because we did see several very special things including a bird of prey which had taken down a smaller bird (or maybe it was a hare), some dwarf mongoose peering out of a anthill, some young impala, more zebra and several giraffe, as well as some nice groups of oryx and Grevy’s Zebra.   

That afternoon we visited a nearby Samburu village.  It was a sobering experience to see the very basic, stripped down existence which they lead, compared with the over-abundance of possessions which clutter the lives of most of us.  Inside one of the rough houses (designed and built by the women) there was barely anything other than a few calf hides on the dirt floor and a couple of pots and utensils next to a smoldering fire.  No chairs, tables, closets or gadgets.  Nothing.

Outside, the kids were dirty and dusty but seemingly healthy and happy.  Their diet is sparse and they probably don’t know what it feels like to overeat.  Things like candy and sugared soda are rarely consumed – never mind pizza or fast food.  People who get most of their nutrition from ox-blood and goat milk are very lean and one of the kids actually wrapped his little hand around my calve, smiling and chatting away to one of his friends.  What was said about the mzungu’s oversize calves and later about his hairy forearms – the Samburu have no hair on their arms or legs – thankfully will never be revealed.

The smokiness of the room was rather over-powering and gave me a bit of a headache so I was not totally sad to have to say goodbye to the people in the village and get back into the car.  Cultural interaction is almost always interesting but can be a bit depressing for some people.  Other guests thrive on it – I suppose the point is that there is a very authentic Samburu village quite close to the camp and that guest are encouraged to visit it and take photographs without fear of having a fee demanded of them for every pic.  Sasaab management has an arrangement in place with the village to take care of that.  Even so, I was reticent to stick the camera into total strangers’ faces.  The kids were keen to perform in front of the lens, singing their local version of ‘Freres Jacques’ with big broad smiles lighting up their faces.

On the last day of my Kenya trip, Ron dropped me off at the Samburu airstrip (inside the National Park) and I spent the afternoon in a day room at the Ole Sereni in Nairobi before the long flight back to Amsterdam and then Houston.    

On every visit to Kenya I have grown more fond of the country and its people. As I’ve said previously, I still consider it to be the Rolls Royce of safari destinations.

Nowhere else in Africa will you find such a stunning combination of abundant and easily seen wildlife, such diversity of habitat and scenery and such rich culture. Kenya was the original safari destination and once you get there, it is easy to see why.

Yes the Rolls Royce of safaris has a few dings, it needs a paint job and the leather seats need to be replaced. But its powerful 8-cylinder engine is still going strong; a little tune-up and it will be good for many more thousands of miles.

What is more, there are no friendlier people than Kenyans. They genuinely want you to love their country just as much as they do, and they will do anything to make that happen.

I look forward to returning to Kenya again soon and to become even better acquainted with this wonderful country. So many other places yet to be seen and experienced such as Lake Turkana, Tsavo and Kakamega Forest in the west. And of course I will just have to go back to the Masai Mara and Amboseli and to the Chyulu Mountains. The beautiful animals and the friendly people are waiting.

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