Riverside campsites, crystal-clear springs and waterfalls. The 240sq.km reserve forms part of a much larger ecosystem that includes Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, but Shaba is the least visited of the three. This relative obscurity simply adds to its charm, and the reserve has just as much to offer as its more familiar neighbours.
A short stretch of road leads to the western Natorbe Gate, cutting across an ancient lava flow. Viewed from the air, this blots the arid landscape like a long, giant ink stain. The palm-fringed Ewaso Nyiro River is another defining feature of the reserve, but so too is the jagged peak of Mount Bodich, and the rounded top of Mount Shaba. To the northwest, the blue hue of Ololokwe looms over the horizon like the crest of a giant wave, and across the reserve natural springs provide splashes of green to Shaba’s dry and chalky complexion.
There are over 15 of these springs, according to our rangers, Duba and Mohamed, and those we came across were amassed with life. At the Funan Spring in the heart of the reserve, we disturbed a tower of reticulated giraffe, a herd of oryx and couple of Grevy’s zebras. By another, we bumped into a very skittish family of elephants with a week-old calf, and spotted an aardwolf and leopard in quick succession, before they disappeared into the long, golden grass.
Once you’re familiar with Shaba’s topography, it isn’t too difficult to navigate. From the Natorbe Gate, the main road heads straight through the middle of the reserve to its eastern boundary. A big stretch of the chocolatey Ewaso runs parallel to the main road, and there are lots of circuits that skirt the river. One of these tracks winds right beneath the imposing Mount Bodich, which we found was a popular nesting site for Rüppell’s griffon vultures. A few kilometres downstream, the track leads to Robin Hurt’s campsite, where we pitched our tent for the first night.
This campsite really ticks all the boxes for me. It’s situated on a broad bend of the river, in between two gentle sets of rapids, and opposite a small rocky outcrop. The main camping ground is shaded by doum palms, and the low canopies of drooping acacia tortilis trees. The spiral seeds from these acacias coated the riverbank, giving off their very distinctive sickly-sweet scent.
There was also plenty of wildlife around the campsite when we arrived. A troop of baboons made mischief on the rocks on the opposite bank, and a large crocodile sunned himself on a distant beach (a clear reminder not to swim in the river). In front of us a pair of Egyptian geese waddled along the river’s edge, and above us orange-bellied parrots squawked within the trees.
Once we’d settled into our surroundings, we clambered over the rocks to find a suitable spot for a sundowner, while Duba built a fire on the riverbank. Though the sky was clear that evening, it was unexpectedly warm, so we took down the flysheet to invite the breeze into our tent. The crashing rapids had a cooling effect, too, and the rustling palm fronds mimicked the rain.
There are three other campsites in Shaba, two of which are also along the river. The other is inland by the clear water of the Funan Spring. The remaining option for accommodation is the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge, where we decided to stay for the final night of our trip.
The lodge is only a short drive from the main gate, across the lava field. The grounds are lush, in contrast to the parched terrain in the bulk of the reserve. The entire lodge is encircled by a network of ponds and streams, which are fed by a nearby spring, and which eventually trickle into the Ewaso.
The central Chemi Chemi Bar and Surpelei Restaurant wrap around a commanding sycamore fig tree, and overlook the large free-form swimming pool. Each of the lodge’s rooms face the river either side of the reception and dining area, under the shade of doum palms. Wooden staircases lead up to each block of rooms, which have thatched roofs and stone wall exteriors.
The stone cladding is also a bold feature of the interior, in addition to wicker chairs and cupboards, and dark, thick wooden beams. Large windows take full advantage of the views, out towards the river on one side, and the garden on the other.
The impressive buffet spread at the Surpelei Restaurant was welcome after the previous day’s camping food. At lunch, the live kitchen served barbequed chicken and lamb, and the other stations offered soups, salads, traditional Kenyan fare, Indian vegetable curries, desserts and various other dishes. A rich slice of chocolate cake went down a treat.
As we enjoyed our food on the terrace of the restaurant, we watched a monitor lizard bask in the sun beneath a sausage tree, and a fat crocodile wriggle against the strong current of the river. Superb starlings fluttered in the branches of a tall acacia, and hopped onto tables to steal scraps of bread whenever the waiters weren’t looking.
After lunch, I had a brief chat with the Lodge Manager, Josphat Ngali, who knows the Samburu – Buffalo Springs – Shaba ecosystem well. He said that the conservancy fee entitles guests to explore the other two reserves, but that there was no reason for them to leave Shaba at all. I couldn’t agree more.
Whether you camp or prefer the comfort of the lodge, you’re bound to be charmed by this little reserve. The natural springs and alkaline grasslands add colour to a landscape already renowned for its beauty.
For reservations at the Sarova Shaba Game Lodge, visit: www. sarovahotels.com/shabalodgesamburu And to book a campsite contact Jane Nairoti on 0725985790.