Samburu is 347km (215 miles) N of Nairobi, Buffalo Springs is 300km (186 miles) N of Nairobi, Shaba is 343km (213 miles) N of Nairobi
These three reserves, remote and isolated to the north of Mount Kenya, form a big block of vital conservation area. Bare granite inselbergs rise from the semi-desert like marooned tombstones in endless seas of bush and scrub. Volcanic mountains add drama to the skyline, and through the heart of it all runs the Ewaso Nyiro (River of Brown Waters), a ribbon of life graced by tall doum palms and shade-giving acacias. Here, in addition to the more formidable predators, live the beautiful dry-country animals of Northern Kenya that make up the Samburu "Special Five" -- gerenuk, oryx, reticulated giraffe, Somali ostrich, and the endangered Grevy's zebra, characterized by its big round ears and designer pinstripe coat.
The busiest of the three reserves, Samburu covers a relatively small area of 165 sq. km (64 sq. miles) and is mostly semi-arid savannah, rough highlands, luggas (or dry washes), and riparian forests. As a wildlife preserve, it doesn't disappoint -- sightings of the Big Five (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhino) are prodigious, and you have a remote chance of seeing packs of wild dog and the critically endangered pancake tortoise -- two rare species besides the Grevy's. Cheetah sightings are particularly good, too, and do look out for those fabulously unwieldy-looking kori bustards (the largest flying birds on Earth). Above all, though, Samburu is known as elephant country.
Elephants -- large, busy herds of them that have grown particularly accustomed to the presence of humans -- are dominant and the focus of a massively important study project, Save the Elephants, under Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a Scottish biologist who first came to Kenya with an eye on being in the bush in the early 1960s. They're especially active in and around the muddy waters of the Ewaso Nyiro River, where they're regularly spotted bathing and drinking in the morning, and you're likely to encounter them along the roads as you explore the reserve.
The downside, as with all things that have earned a reputation for magnificence, is the relative onslaught of visitors. Charging around the limited confines of Samburu and its adjoined neighbor, Buffalo Springs National Reserve, are ubiquitous minibuses stuffed with camera-toting travelers, often under the guidance of ill-mannered, uninformed drivers who lack the skill or patience to deliver a positive impression of the African bush. If you have any influence over your game drives, request that your driver respect the sanctity of the park and its animals. Keep your distance when observing any living creature, don't interfere with predators engaged in the hunt, and, for heaven's sake, don't stalk or pursue any wildlife in an undignified, off-putting manner.
If you really want to escape the crowds, be sure to choose one of the more intimate camps outside Samburu's confines, or escape to seldom-visited Shaba National Reserve, a mere 9km (5 1/2 miles) east of Buffalo Springs, but somehow worlds apart and with only a fraction of the safari traffic. Although it's part of the Samburu ecosystem, Shaba has a number of springs and swampland areas, not to mention a distinctive topography (starkly beautiful landscape dotted with rocky kopjes and dominated by Shaba hill, a massive volcanic rock cone that rises above a rugged landscape with steep ravines). On Shaba's remote eastern boundary, you can stay in one of the classiest tented camps in Kenya, and -- given how few people actually visit Shaba -- probably the best antidote to Samburu's dense visitor numbers. The camp is also where conservationist Joy Adamson -- who was murdered here in the 1980s under mysterious circumstances -- kept leopard and lion orphans, and where Born Free was filmed. Admittedly, the game is often thinner in Shaba, but there are rewards that come with the solitude and pristine landscape. Try to find time for a hike along the river, a surefire way to imagine yourself in an absolute, personal Eden.