Safari Adventures in Kenya's North
Safari companies are a dime a dozen in Kenya, and you'll come across numerous touts pushing many of these on the streets of Nairobi. Here's a selection of the more exclusive safari companies that run tours in Kenya's north. If you have the stamina and yearn for an experience that will feel like true adventure, consider one of the multiday camel safaris offered by several companies.
Abercrombie & Kent Extreme Adventure (www.akextremeadventures.com) offers an 11-day whirlwind tour led by top East African guide Toby Fenwick-Wilson. On his tour, you'll sample the best of Kenya's north, sinking your teeth into some of its most exciting activities, with relative luxury always in the foreground. You'll get to ride horses, go mountain-biking, ride in a replica vintage 1920s biplane, and even take a helicopter to the remote, beautifully located Desert Rose lodge. In the Chalbi Desert, you'll walk with camels and meet all kinds of tribespeople along the way. There are only six departures per year, so it's worth investigating way ahead of schedule.
Horseback in Kenya (tel. 0727/532-091; www.horsebackinkenya.com) -- the name says it all. El Karama is a 5,665-hectare (13,993-acre) cattle and wildlife ranch between Mt. Kenya and the Great Rift Valley, and folks here offer horseback-riding safaris for intimate groups. You'll saddle up on animals bred on El Karama from a mixture of Arab, thoroughbred, and Somali bloodlines -- they're hardy, intelligent, and generally well mannered. Camels come along to carry supplies for the temporary camping sites, which are set at new locations every second day. Each day, riders set off just after breakfast and settle in around 4pm, with a midday break for a picnic lunch.
Karisia Walking Safaris (www.karisia.com) is based on a 1,215-hectare (3,001-acre) ranch called Tumaren. Your hosts specialize in luxury walking safaris with a strong eco-friendly emphasis. Guests (never more than 12) are accompanied by local tribespeople trained as guides, and nights are spent in classic safari tents. You can also opt to combine walking safaris with game drives, or ask to put together a specialist trip (from ornithology to local culture). Rates for Samburu-led walks start at $612 double per day. Karisia also acts as a booking service and can arrange for other parts of your East Africa itinerary.
Charlie Wheeler's Northern Frontier Ventures (www.laikipia.org) is based on Laikipia's renowned Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and offers exciting walking safaris (with camels to assist by carrying the heavy loads) into the wild, little-traversed terrain of Kenya's far north. With professional guides, you'll follow old elephant migration routes and trek to some of the region's high-altitude oases, including the Mathews Mountains and Mount Marsabit. Each safari is tailor-made, lasts between 3 and 14 days, and takes on no more than six guests. On Charlie's trips, you're invited to turn up the sense of adventure a couple of notches, too. Opt to climb the sacred mountain, or do what only a handful of foreigners have ever dared do -- slaughter a goat and drink the blood with your tribal guides. You can end your camel experience at one of the luxurious Laikipia community-owned lodges, Tassia being the best located, to tie in with Charlie's safaris. A 2-night camel safari commencing from Lewa Airstrip and culminating at Tassia costs $400 per person, plus $150 in conservation fees for the three different conservancies (Lewa, Il N'gwesi, and Lekurruki) you'll traverse along the way.
Offbeat Safaris (www.offbeatsafaris.com) offers horseback-riding safaris for small groups of relatively experienced riders. Days in the saddle are long, but nights are spent in luxury mobile tented camps set up by a support team that travels ahead by Land Rover. Either join a prearranged safari or have Offbeat design one to meet your needs and interests.
John and Amanda Perrett's Ol Maisor Camels (www.laikipia.org; firstname.lastname@example.org) is based on their family-run ranch, where they have more than 60 working camels available to accompany you on walking trips as far as Lake Turkana. If time is limited, they'll put together 1- or 2-day taster safaris; all their safaris are designed to order, and it's best to go for an all-inclusive deal so you never need worry about a thing. If you're limited by budget, this is perhaps the most attractive option -- costs are Ksh7,000 per person, per day (covering your camels and their handlers, full catering, tents, and equipment -- although you pay for bottled water, drinks, and any camping on private or community-owned ranches). Safaris take about 3 days to organize, so this is also a good bet for relatively last-minute arrangements.
If you want to overland through the north in style, your best bet is Robert & William Carr-Hartley Safaris (tel. 722/510-673 or 722/510-556; www.carrhartley.com). The Carr-Hartleys have years of experience in various destinations around Africa, and they focus on luxury camping -- not only do you sleep in large, comfortable, insect-proof tents, often with attached bathrooms, but, of course, you always have the option of staying in Laikipia's intimate, upmarket lodges. You can also design your own itinerary or go with suggestions made by experienced guides.
Ol Siruai Horseback Safaris (www.laikipia.org) operates horseback and photographic safaris (or combinations of both), with trips to just about anywhere in Kenya. Tailor-made to meet your needs, there's plenty of flexibility to your program, but with an emphasis on the type of luxury that goes with meeting local (white Kenyan) landowners, dining with them, and soaking up the decidedly neocolonial vibe.
Riding Wild (www.borana.co.ke) is one of Kenya's finest horse safari operators.
Robin Hurt Safaris (tel. 020/88-2826, 020/88-4068, or 0722/644-131; www.robinhurtphotosafaris.com) are specialists in photographic safaris, with luxury-minded trips that combine bivouac-style camping; nights in private, established camps; and camel-assisted on-foot trekking. They're not cheap -- their 12-day African Bush safari (which includes 4 days of camel-assisted walking) costs anywhere between $6,840 and $12,935, depending on the level of exclusivity and time of year -- but you get a quality experience in return.
Owned by Helen Douglas-Dufresne and Pete Isley, Wild Frontiers (www.wildfrontierskenya.com) organizes custom-designed camel-assisted walking safaris around the Mathews and Ndoto ranges. Each trip is tailor-made according to your interests, available time, and the season -- look at spending at least 6 days to get a genuine feel for the region. You'll be walking between 8km and 20 km (5-13 miles) a day, guided by a Samburu crew, and sleeping in netted tents or right beneath the stars.
Aboard the Flying "Squirrel"
The quickest way to see Northern Kenya -- and, for many, the most exhilarating -- is by chartered helicopter. With the great advantage of being able to explore otherwise difficult-to-access regions and touch down in remote, untouched spots that don't have the advantage of runways or roads, nothing really comes close to the possibilities posed by helicopter flight. Tropic Air (tel. 20/203-3032 or -3033, or 734/333-044; www.tropicairkenya.com) offers on-demand flights in its turbine-engine Eurocopter Squirrel (apparently the quietest helicopter on Earth), with space for up to five passengers for a princely sum of $2,050 for an hour (2 hr. minimum). Bookings can be made through your lodge, from where you'll also be picked up.
Trekking with the Ships of the Desert
They're big-eyed, ever-so-slightly dopey-looking beasts, but when it comes to padding it across the arid, open plains, there's none as elegant as a camel, and the sight of them is one of Northern Kenya's eternal, iconic images. While camel riding does happen, it is by all accounts a real drag and hard-going on the backside. Rather than ride them, local tribespeople tend to use them as beasts of burden, for milk, and even for meat, rather than for personal transport. Camel safaris are perhaps the most authentic way of experiencing the vast open territories of Northern Kenya. Camels are used for carrying supplies and camping equipment, a bit like pack mules, only with greater carrying capacity and less likelihood of suffering dehydration. You'll be accompanied by local tribespeople who set up camp, prepare meals, provide protection, and alert you to many of the wonders of the bush you mightn't notice until your senses became more accustomed to your surroundings. The details of each day and the route you take to get to your next camp is never the same and ultimately depends as much on you and your team as it does on the vagaries of the wildlife and terrain. There are usually elephant and buffalo on these walks.
Safaris such as these typically last 3 to 4 days, with nights in attractive, unspoiled locations, often near a river. At the end of a pretty grueling morning -- 3- to 4-hour's trekking once you set off at 8am -- afternoons are spent recuperating and escaping the heat. Meals are prepared over an open fire while you're off exploring or enjoying sundowners. You return to camp for a good feed before bedding down, usually in shade-netted tents. Comfortable bedrolls, hot showers, and portable ablution facilities should also come standard, but check before signing up. It's not always fancy (although the price you pay will determine the level of luxury you can expect), but it is perhaps precisely the experience you came to Kenya for.
Traveling on foot in desertlike conditions under blazing sun and intense heat can be physically and mentally challenging. You'll need to be fit and have sufficient stamina to withstand the heat; spare camels are usually available if someone falls ill. While you're not necessarily signing up for a pampered, lazy sojourn, you'll be rewarded with a real sense of accomplishment, traversing little-explored terrain with hardy warrior-class Africans.