Male cheetah at Samburu in the last light of the day

Male cheetah at Samburu in the last light of the day

The tones of the African landscape become increasingly muted as the road stretches north from Nairobi, and the mid-day sky loses much of its deep blue color … transitioning to a featureless expanse of white with not a cloud to be seen. This desolate region is the periphery of a desert that extends from Kenya through the Sudan and beyond, eventually becoming the great Sahara as it progresses into Egypt. The land is for the most part flat, with a few rolling hills and an occasional wadi to interrupt the monotony. There are low, free standing mountains in the distance … many of them are derelict volcanoes, extinct now for many millenia.

We are headed for the Samburu game reserve in north central Kenya … a place I’ve wanted to visit for many years.  As we draw closer to our destination (my friend and fellow photographer Kevin W. has joined me for this trip), our superb guide, David Muteti, warns us that Somali outlaws have made incursions as far south as our present location. David makes no attempt to hide his animosity toward these thieves. His hard feelings are well founded. Not too many years ago he was robbed of his possessions in this area as completely as a man can be … left stranded in the desert with nothing … not even a stitch of clothes. We note his warning but don’t dwell on it … the impulse to photograph Samburu’s wildlife supersedes every other consideration.

Samburu is much as I imagined it, dry with a few hardy but leafless trees and ancient volcanic rocks strewn across the sand. There are patches of green along the banks of the single spring-fed rivulet that winds through the reserve, and a wide, shallow riverbed cuts through the heart of the landscape. Water flows in it during the wet months, but this is September – the middle of the dry season – and it is bone dry. Our lodge is situated near its banks, in a low area that seems to collect sufficient year round moisture to generate a mini-oasis. The lovely grounds attract some gorgeous birds, a variety of monkeys and a small family of Africa’s most underrated animal, the warthog. We are assigned a room with a small verandah looking out towards the very dry Samburu riverbed.

Alpha male baboon just, taken from the porch of our room at Samburu

Alpha male baboon, taken from the porch of our room at Samburu

On our first morning game drive, we find that Samburu is home to a large and exceedingly active population of baboons. It may be my imagination, but I somehow sense that these baboons are a bit more ill-tempered than most I’ve encountered. A review of my images seems to confirm the impression … their facial expressions are often downright malevolent, and their actions border on the “cheeky,” as our friends from across the great pond might say. A group of them, including an outsized alpha male, hovers near the porch of our cabin with eyes glued on the door, clearly waiting for an opportunity to enter our quarters and ransack our belongings. Another troop spends its mornings in the streambed that curls around the perimeter of the lodge grounds. On an early drive we stop to photograph them. I lock focus on a particularly bellicose looking pair when the viewfinder in my camera goes completely dark. I lift my eyes to find a young female perched on the roof of our vehicle, just inches from the business end of my lens. She grunts loudly, takes an impressive crap and raucously leaps onto the pop-top that provides our shade … and she does it all with attitude, noise and the utmost disrespect.

Samburu baboons just prior to visiting our vehicle

Samburu baboons just prior to visiting our vehicle

The larger animals at Samburu are less entertaining but perhaps a bit more peaceful. The elephants are numerous, many more than one might expect given the scarcity of vegetation. They routinely make late day visits to the dry Samburu riverbed and dig into the sand with their tusks to extract residual water from the earth. Their families are much smaller here than the vast herds at Amboseli or in the Maasai Mara. Large groups require abundant and concentrated food sources, which do not exist here. Reduced family size is a necessity at Samburu, and elephants here have done what elephants do well anywhere … adapt.

Solitary elephant reaching for acacia branches

Solitary elephant reaching for acacia branches

Many of the “hoofers” found at Samburu are common in east Africa. These include the ubiquitous impala, the waterbuck and the elegant and graceful Grant’s gazelle. But there are other, less ordinary antelope here at the desert’s edge. The oddly shaped beisa oryx is a routine sight … thick bodied with spindly legs that appear too frail to support the animal’s girth. But somehow, magically, the oryx not only remains upright, it is actually nimble and fairly adept at evading lions. The oddest of Samburu’s hoofers, however, is the gerenuk. This antelope is very similar in appearance to an impala. The body colors and shape are a close match, but the gerenuk’s elongated head makes it distinctive. It is also unique among antelopes in its behavior … it stands on its rear legs and stretches high into the acacias to feed on the leaves and branches.

Typical gerenuk behavior, standing upright to reach dinner

Typical gerenuk behavior, standing upright to reach dinner

Grant's gazelle ... one of my favorite antelopes

Grant's gazelle ... one of my favorite antelopes

The glorious reticulated giraffe, the most beautiful of all sub-species and completely unique to this region, actually seems to thrive here. On several occasions we see adult males “necking,” a term that assumes an entirely different meaning for giraffes than for humans. Necking males are in competition for mating rights … they stand hoof to hoof for hours, pounding at each other with their upper bodies. It is a violent and dangerous business that occasionally inflicts serious or even fatal damage. One of the goals of this trip is to capture quality giraffe images, particularly of young ones. In this effort we can declare success within the first two days of the trip. We photograph an adolescent with two necking males in the background, and we’re very fortunate to see a young one sitting under a tree near its mother, posing for us with great patience and tolerance.

Young giraffe ... adult males "necking" in the background

Young giraffe ... adult males "necking" in the background

Baby reticulated giraffe ... note the tile-like design as opposed to the patches seen on the more common species

Baby reticulated giraffe ... note the tile-like design as opposed to the patches seen on the more common species

Young reticulated giraffe hiding behind Mom's flanks

Young reticulated giraffe hiding behind Mom's flanks

There are rumors of leopard, but we never see them. Shy and mostly nocturnal, a good leopard sighting is always the safari holy grail. We will see them later on this trip in the Mara but not here. We do find a pair of male cheetahs late in the day in the warm evening light … one sits quietly under a bush staring towards the dying sun, allowing an impeccable opportunity to put the new 600mm lens to the test. As always in Kenya, the lions are plentiful. We find them here resting in the shade, crouching in the grass and on one bright morning, pursuing a large female buffalo. By the time we arrive on the scene the conflict is winding down. The buffalo has successfully fended off four lions … a lioness and three sub-adults, obviously her offspring. The lions eventually give up the fight, but long claw marks have left bloody streaks on the buffalo’s flanks. As the sun rises and the morning wears on, the hunters and hunted cease staring hatefully at each other and drift apart.

Samburu cheetah .... obviously a male

Samburu cheetah .... obviously a male

Young female Cape Buffalo ... a formidable opponent, she survived this lion attack

Young female Cape Buffalo ... a formidable opponent, she survived this lion attack

The most prominent impression of Samburu is simple astonishment that such a large number and wide variety of animals can survive in the harsh, dry environment. With the exception of the rowdy baboon troops, they do seem to move more listlessly here than in other reserves. I suspect that they are generally in the energy conservation mode and will only exert themselves in pursuit of food or evading a predator. That aside, they are healthy, beautiful and thriving, and seem to have adapted successfully to a hot and arid existence. I’m reminded of Jeff Goldblum’s comment in the first Jurassic Park … “life finds a way.”

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