Despite its remoteness, Samburu probably has the highest guest bed density of any game park in East Africa. Sadly, Samburu's fame as an elephant stronghold has made it immensely popular, and the majority of accommodations here are large compounds -- impersonal (and often unattractive) lodges where the game-viewing experience is drastically inferior to the smaller, pricier places. Fortunately, the better lodges are adept at working their areas with enough grace and savvy to steer you away from the worst of the traffic. If you want to be inside the reserve itself, there's none better than the infinitely stylish Elephant Watch; otherwise, the two super-chic concessions (SaSaab and Saruni Samburu) on community-owned lands adjacent the park are among the finest lodgings in the country. In Shaba, Joy's Camp provides a singularly luxurious tented experience with other safari vehicles unlikely to be seen at all, while those seeking an intrepid escape head much farther north -- too far to visit the reserves by road, in fact -- to the remote, little-known Mathews Mountains, where there are two luxury camps with access to a massive untouched forest.
Private Concessions Near Samburu Reserve -- Two of the most exciting accommodations projects in the country occupy private concessions on community-owned land beyond the borders of Samburu National Reserve. Of course, you also have direct access to Samburu and Buffalo Springs, neither of which is fenced. However, staying here you have the distinct advantage of access to huge additional tracts of land that will feel like your own private wilderness -- they're entirely off-limits to the minibuses, so you can effortlessly escape the crowds when you've had your fill of Samburu's dense game viewing.
Samburu National Reserve -- The best -- and, by a long stretch, most exclusive -- place to stay inside Samburu National Reserve is Elephant Watch, which operates in conjunction with Save the Elephants, the labor of love of world-famous conservationist Ian Douglas-Hamilton and his design-conscious wife, Oria. Their handsome seasonal camp is not only the most ecologically sound place to stay, but it's also the least crowded and the only one where the animals are accorded the respect and dignity they deserve and where you also have every chance of savoring a personal moment with the reserve's wild elephants. Exclusivity such as you'll find at Elephant Watch doesn't come cheap, though, so you may find yourself looking into staying at one of the less intimate camps -- not necessarily a disastrous option if you're keeping your visit very short. Tread with caution, however, because there are a handful of total duds, with prison compound-like accommodations worth avoiding.
There are two midsize, relatively acceptable options that you may want to investigate: One is Larsens Tented Camp (reviewed below), and the other is Samburu Intrepids (tel. 20/444-6651; www.heritage-eastafrica.com; $515-$963 double, including all meals and two game drives per day), a slightly tired, old-fashioned place with cluttered public areas set on large wooden stilts under a high thatched ceiling. Reached via stone and concrete pathways, the tented accommodations are raised on sturdy plinths beneath straw-pitched roofs; neatly refurbished, with dark strip-wood floors and mass-produced furniture, they're pretty dull. They're well-shaded, though, and each room also has a ceiling fan -- although nights are coolish, daytime temperatures tend to be around 33°C (91°F); you also have a personal terrace with views toward the Ewaso Nyiro River. Whereas sleeping quarters are tidy, maintenance in some of the public areas is sorely lacking, especially around the pool (where monkeys come to drink) and in the dark, dinky massage room and adjacent gift shop. As you'll soon pick up from the price lists stuck up all over the public spaces here, most activities cost extra; these include camel safaris, visits to Samburu homesteads, and overnight fly-camping on sacred Mount Ololokwe.
Mathews Range -- The farther north you suggest traveling in Kenya, the more confounded locals become, often hinting at the "adventure" that lies in store, always warning of the potential dangers, and, more often than not, utterly unable to imagine where you intend to stay. As you dip off the Laikipia Plateau and enter the badlands of the Northern Frontier District and beyond, you, too, may start to suspect that you're leaving all contact with the civilized world behind. Don't fall for the doomsayers' gloom. If you want to penetrate north, moving beyond Samburu National Reserve, it's certainly possible to do so in style. The Mathews Mountain Range, midway between the Samburu and Marsabit preserves, is a thickly forested, untamed mountain park covering approximately 1,000 sq. km (390 sq. miles) that rises majestically out of the arid surrounds; at its highest point (Mathew Peak), it reaches 2,375m (7,790 ft.). The forest is home to elephant, melanistic leopard, bushbuck, giant forest hog, rhino, and buffalo, as well as ancient cycads, wild orchids, spectacular butterflies, and turacos -- bulky, colorful birds you'll spot scrambling around the forest floor. There are black-and-white colobus monkeys in the forest, too.
Here, beside the Ngeng River, beneath towering fig trees, is Kitich Camp (www.kitichcamp.com; $800 double, including all meals and most drinks, airstrip transfers, activities, laundry, and daily conservation fees). Kitich is one of two upmarket camps in the region -- relative luxury in one of four safari-style twin tents (each with a private alfresco stone bathroom) is accompanied by infinite solitude in the unspoiled bush. Based here, you basically have the whole mountain range and forest to yourself. Walk along forest paths guided by the Samburu and Ndorobo people, swim in natural rock pools of the crystal-clear mountain streams, or idle away the hours in the fire-warmed lounge overlooking the river glade. Reservations are through Cheli & Peacock (tel. 20/60-3090/1 or 20/60-4053/4; www.chelipeacock.com).
Even better than Kitich is Sarara Tented Camp (www.lewa.com; all-inclusive doubles $960-$1,380), located on the Namunyak (Place of Peace) conservancy, a 343,400-hectare (848,198-acre) tribal community-owned wilderness area with five guest tents situated just below Warges peak to the north of Ol Donyo Sabache (also known as Ol Lolokwe, the sacred mountain). The setting affords unrivalled views of the Mathews Range, and since the camp isn't in the mountains themselves, Sarara can offer game drives through the Namunyak wilderness, where guests have a better chance of seeing lion, leopard, and two separate groups of African wild dog -- one pack here numbers more than 30 individuals, making this Kenya's most significant wild dog habitat. Now that once-furious poaching has been stopped -- much thanks to the Sarara community initiative -- Namunyak also attracts large herds of elephant. The emphasis here is mainly on walking excursions -- you can head across to the Mathews forest for a walk with a Samburu scout. Sarara tents each have an open-air bush shower, veranda, and comfortable beds, and quality bed linen, bathrobes, towels, and other essentials are provided. The lounge and dining banda overlooks a natural pool (for swimming) and a waterhole (where animals drink). Don't miss a chance to check out the Sarara Singing Wells, where Samburu warriors water their herds during the dry season. Since some of these wells are as much as 10m (33 ft.) deep, the men strip off and climb into the pits, forming a human chain. For several hours each day, they'll chant traditional tunes as they haul out the water, passing it up by hand for the cattle.
You have to make an effort to get to Sarara Camp, but the journey is completely worth the time and expense. It is approximately 5 hours from Nanyuki to Sarara by road, so it is recommended to go by air; Boskovic Air Charters (out of Nairobi) or Tropic Air (from Nanyuki) are your best bets for private air charters directly to Namunyak airstrip. Reservations for Sarara Camp are through Bush & Beyond (tel. 020/60-0457; www.bush-and-beyond.com).
At Home with the Elephants
In conservation circles, the Douglas-Hamiltons -- Ian and Oria -- are global crusaders. They launched their trendsetting pachyderm-tracking program, Save the Elephants, right here in Samburu National Reserve. Besides initiating the first all-Africa elephant census, conducting a major study on the ivory trade, monitoring the movements of elephants around the continent, and authoring ellie-centric books (for grown-ups and children), they've brought global attention to the plight of these creatures and shared their enthusiasm (and fund-raising know-how) with everyone from politicians and celebs to ordinary travelers.
For several years, Oria has also been hosting privileged guests (including celebs) at her intimate, personally styled, semi-permanent tented camp inside the Reserve. Elephant Watch is without question the best place in Kenya to get up close and personal with the eponymous big beasts, many of which pass the time hanging around the camp and are known individually -- by name -- to Oria and her Samburu staff; you'll easily spend entire days watching and listening as they wander into camp, ripping up the grass as they feed, mudding in the river, or picking pods beside the tents -- don't panic, there are Samburu warriors to protect you. As you witness them going about their business, you'll notice a range of behaviors that bear an uncanny resemblance to human emotional and social patterns.
An ecologically sound camp ("no waste, no pollution, and no noise") with just six large desert-style tents under thatch, Elephant Watch is dotted along a winding sandy bank of the Ewaso Nyiro River and barely visible beneath the broad-spreading trees. Everything is solar powered, and even your hand-washed laundry is pressed using irons powered with hot coals; during the rainy season, the entire camp is dismantled to allow the environment to recover fully. Oria's got "shabby chic" down to a fine art -- her tents are simple, rustic, fabulous creations with hessian-covered sand floors and outdoor bathrooms. Yet, thanks to her compulsion for glamour, they're pretty, feminine, and eye-catching, with hand-painted four-poster beds; swathes of bright, colorful cotton fanning in the breeze; huge cushioned sofas; handcrafted furniture made from elephant-felled trees; and locally woven palm mats. Built around a tree, the simple bathrooms provide a touch of novelty -- under the gaze of cheeky monkeys, you wash using sun-heated water (from the camp well) provided in hand-painted buckets.
The eye-catching use of vividly colored fabrics -- made by Samburu and Turkana tribespeople -- continues into the mess tent, furnished with padded daybeds and handcrafted chairs made from gnarled and twisting acacia branches. Besides the usual game drives, guests are encouraged to take away intimate knowledge of the ellies; staff introduce you to the families, and you can visit Ian's elephant research facility nearby. Go on guided bird walks, hike Ololokwe, the sacred mountain of God, or choose a remote spot for a sundowner. For the culturally inclined, you can learn to milk goats, throw spears, and make jewelry on a visit to a Samburu homestead. The kitchen uses fresh ingredients directly from Oria's farm in the Rift Valley, and every meal might be served in a different location, depending on the position of the moon and the seasons -- and the well-stocked bar is always open.
Reserve your tent well ahead through Elephant Watch Safaris (P.O. Box 54667, Nairobi; tel. 20/89-0596; www.elephantwatchsafaris.com). Doubles run $1,100 to $1,230 and include all meals, drinks (excluding champagne and special wines), game-viewing activities, elephant interactions, visits to Samburu villages, local transfers, and laundry. A portion of your payment also helps support Save the Elephants.