The Ugly Irony -- Kenya's ban on hunting hasn't necessarily thrown up the kind of animal-saving goodwill one might expect. Prior to the ban in the 1970s, the north was rich in wildlife -- Burchells' and Grevy zebra, Reisa oryx, topi, rhino, ostrich, cheetah, lion, hyena, leopards, elephant, reticulated giraffe, and numerous gazelle species were seen here in good numbers. But the hunting ban kicked off a dramatic rise in poaching, since there were no longer hunters and wardens keeping an eye out, and economically there was no longer any reason to protect the animals. So many were slaughtered, in fact, that the north has become relatively barren, its larger animals particularly affected. It's up to tourism now to remedy the situation, since travelers' dollars might be the only motivation to start providing better protection for the animals.
There are no scheduled flights to Lake Turkana, but if time and comfort are of any concern, the only reasonable way of visiting the far-flung north is on an exclusive and expensive fly-in excursion. You'll need to charter a plane, with costs well upward of $2,000 just for the one-way air transfer (from Nairobi) -- which doesn't account for the fact that you'll pay again to be collected if you wish to spend a couple of days. Given sufficient warning, a few of the Laikipia lodges will arrange a 1-day or multiday outing, during which you'll camp in relative luxury, receive five-star service, and get personal insight into local tribal customs and culture. One of the best options for a comparatively upmarket, quality fly-in adventure is through Oria Douglas-Hamilton's boutique safari operation (which includes her fantastic Elephant Watch tented camp in the Samburu National Reserve). Oria and her team put together bespoke itineraries with chartered flights to Lake Turkana, where you'll enjoy exclusive camping on its shores and islands. You'll get to meet local tribespeople in a totally noncommercial way and be treated with the reverence of a visiting dignitary. Contact Oria by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The vast expanse north of Samburu and Shaba was never inhabited by European settlers or ranchers and has always enjoyed a high degree of isolation from the rest of Kenya. Still referred to by old, white Kenyans by its colonial-era name -- the Northern Frontier District, implying a strong degree of insecurity and danger -- Samburuland is a combination of upland plateaus created by the same tectonic movements that created the Rift Valley and immense deserts of varying degrees of aridity. Many consider it the most visually astonishing part of Kenya. Die-hard adventure-seekers are quick to point out that the wild, empty, harsh, untamable north is where you just might find your very perception of the term civilization takes on an altered meaning. Here, closer to Kenya's borders with Somalia and Ethiopia, desertlike conditions and a harsh climate prevail.
These flat, dry expanses are speckled with microclimatic pockets, such as lush, green Marsabit -- a mountainous forest that rises high above the surrounding Dida Galgalu Desert -- and the Kalacha oasis, where water unexpectedly flows from beneath parched, cracked soil. If you travel overland toward Turkana, you'll inevitably be stopping off at these bases.
If you choose to travel overland, you'll be facing all kinds of challenges -- your mettle will be tested by the long, difficult, unkempt roads and the frustrations that will come with vehicle breakdowns or getting stuck in the mud (if it should rain) or deep sand (at any given time), not to mention an overwhelming lack of infrastructure, basic amenities most of us take for granted, and the inevitable disquiet that comes with traveling into the unknown with a group of strangers. For much of your journey, your overland safari company will also need to enlist a police escort (included in the cost of your trip), mandatory practice in these uncertain parts where bandits are believed to pose a legitimate threat to the safety of travelers. Happily, hold-ups are increasingly rare, but there's little point taking any chances hereabouts.
Choosing the Safari That's Right for You
Deciding how, and with whom, to venture into the badlands of the north is extremely important. Known as the experts in overland trucking safaris in Northern Kenya, Gametrackers (5th Floor, Nginyo Towers, Moktar Daddah St., Nairobi; tel. 020/222-2703 or 020/221-4568; fax 020/31-3619; www.gametrackersafaris.com) is a well-established operator that has been covering the Lake Turkana circuit for years. Standard Turkana packages include 8- and 10-day overland shared-truck safaris (the type Theroux so vehemently despises), with up to five departures per month. Costs are between 540€ and 665€ per person, excluding park fees, which must be paid in cash at the various park gates. Gametrackers will do upgraded versions of the same tours, should you wish to tackle the route in a more exclusive way -- the 8-day Chalbi Desert safari in a 4X4 vehicle, and with no other passengers, will cost $3,760 double. On request, you could ask to also swap tented accommodations for nights in the lodges for a corresponding uptick in price. Gametrackers also offers a 10-day camel safari led by Rendille tribesmen, and there's a 2-week Jade Sea Journey (with 8 days spent on foot with Rendille tribesmen and their camels), available through their sister company Wild Horizons (www.wildhorizonsafaris.com; $5,040-$7,356 double). Don't even begin to contemplate any of these desert walking safaris unless you are in excellent health and physically (and emotionally) fit -- conditions are harsh. Note that none of Gametrackers' rates include any beverages (you even need to bring your own water), toilet paper, cultural activities, or the hire of sleeping bags.
The other option -- particularly if you outright shun the idea of camping -- is Origins Safaris (tel. 20/22-9009; www.originsafaris.info), which offers all-inclusive airport-to-airport packages with a strong focus on meeting members of tribal communities. The itinerary is not as time-and-travel-intensive as the completely overland schedule of, say, Gametrackers; instead, Origins combines chartered flights with limited driving (around Lake Turkana and across the Chalbi Desert), but you'll fly between Nairobi and Loiyangalani, and, after 2 nights in each of three lodges (Oasis, Kalacha, and Marsabit), fly from Marsabit back to Nairobi. You'll travel in relative luxury, too -- solid 4X4s rather than bulky overland trucks shared with sweating, slightly nervous, always frustrated budgeters. Costs are considerably higher than you can expect on a purely overland safari; you're looking at around $1,000 per person, per night, depending on the size of the group that makes the trip. You can't book directly through Origins, but should instead contact Tom LaRock of U.S.-based Safari Professionals (tel. 800/779-2146; www.safariprofessionals.com).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.