If the Masai Mara is Kenya's commercial wildlife hotspot, then its expansive northern frontier -- virtually everything above the equator -- must represent the opposite end of the spectrum. A Holy Grail for seasoned purveyors of African game and adventurers seeking forgotten worlds, the vastly untamed north makes up more than half the country. Much of this has a reputation as harsh, waterless desert populated by quarrelsome tribes, its meager roads roughshod, rutted, and historically plagued by heavily armed Somalis known as shifta, classic gun-toting highwaymen. But to those looking for unsentimental beauty and haunting images of classic, unspoiled Africa, the forbidding expanses of its sweltering deserts -- the Chalbi and the Dida Galgalu (Plains of Darkness) -- are mystifying and magnificent.
By contrast, at the southern fringes of this immense northern zone are some of Kenya's best-managed game-viewing regions. The wide, central Laikipia Plateau is where prime agricultural lands have been co-opted for hugely successful environmental management programs, juxtaposing areas of human habitation, cattle husbandry, crop production, and zones of wildlife habitat. And the successes are everywhere. Ranches where livestock farming, conservation, and low-impact tourism run concurrently have been developed to benefit both animals and local communities. Laikipia's patchwork of wilderness preserves and private game parks represents the more sustainable future of Kenya's conservation industry and a welcome alternative to the heavily touristed government-run parks that see much higher visitor numbers. The result is a genuine -- if cosseted -- safari experience that's perfect for visitors looking to get away from the overburdened mass tourist circuit. It's also where you'll discover some of the most intimate and authentic places to stay in all East Africa -- each one enviably positioned. Many are personally managed and hosted by the very people who've dedicated their lives to these conservation projects.
And right in the center of the country, just north of Mount Kenya, Samburu National Reserve -- practically indistinguishable from two neighboring parks, Shaba and Buffalo Springs -- is another of Kenya's most important wildlife sanctuaries, not only popular with tourists, but also where one of the world's great animal research projects, Save the Elephant, is based. In fact, there are about 5,400 elephants living within the combined Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem, and you're likely to be inundated with sightings of large multigenerational herds, many of them thoroughly habituated to vehicles and their human passengers.
But if you're after an adventure that feels on the edge of reality, then you might consider setting aside time for the untamed far north -- one of the most remote and isolated regions on Earth. In contrast with Samburu, the area north of Laikipia and Shaba, stretching all the way to the Ethiopian border, is hardly seen by travelers. Here, where little grows (except, perhaps, UN and NGO funding) and common sense tells us that nothing should exist at all, beautiful tribes survive against all odds, and the immense Lake Turkana -- breathtaking enough to be called the Jade Sea, its shore longer than the entire Kenyan coast -- shimmers like a gigantic diamond in the rough. To visit the far-flung north, you'll need to join either an utterly exclusive and expensive fly-in excursion or an overland journey during which you'll see some of the world's hardiest tribespeople -- the Turkana, Rendille, Boran, Gabbra, and Samburu -- eking out the ultimate minimalist existence, hunting crocodiles and surviving the harsh, barren nothingness of the inhospitable desert, often with camels at their side. Although there are isolated towns and backwater outposts here -- African versions of Wild West settlements slogging it out under dire conditions -- and even a handful of wildlife reserves where specialized habitats and pockets of lesser-known animals are protected, for the most part, Kenya's north is one of Africa's final frontiers -- little explored, more than a touch surreal, and startling to behold.