There’s something about the almost-desert that lingers in the mind. Here in Samburu National Reserve, the arid climes of Kenya’s north paint an ecosystem a world away from the un-breached horizon of golden grass seen in more familiar locations such as the Mara, and is so much richer for it.
From a raw and jagged terrain of sandy earth and rock as red as Mars, bony shrubs and ragged acacias spring from the hard ground in remarkable abundance from this seemingly harsh landscape. Doum palm trees twist high to the sky, their fanned heads ungainly topping skinny trunks that branch off on another like a botanical hydra, and the occasional desert rose bush throws spotlights of here otherworldly pinks and scarlets over the orange-brown rockery. Overseen wherever you look by looming hillocks of rock that block out the morning sun from their roots well until midday, it’s a dreamscape that could have escaped the mind of Salvador Dali.
Many of the animals found here also blend into this eccentric aesthetic, and are not typical of your average safari. The gerenuk is a gazelle that struts on incredibly high, stick-thin legs which barely seem able to support it’s equally long and wobbly neck. This is very handy however when it comes to standing on your back legs, allowing you to browse higher than your neighbours like some form of proto-giraffe.
Around their hooves, flocks of vulturine guineafowl give a dramatic insight into what having dinosaurs around today would look like. With a gait just like that of the ‘compies’ from the second Jurassic Park film, and a long feathery strand from the rump looking for all the world like a scaly tail, their prehistoric eeriness is compensated by their comical clucks and bounding gait that give them the aura of fat little people trying to catch up with a departing train. Their name stems from the bald heads, complete small patch of brown furry-feathers on the back that bring Celestine monks to mind, yet their colour is anything but vulturine; night-blue and indigo hues that dazzle in the light.
With the most intense heat of the sun resided, it’s time to begin the last evening game drive of our fortnight in Kenya. Before the light had even begun to fade, the creatures of the night shift were already making themselves known. From under an acacia, two bat-eared foxes, the size of a thick-set jack russell but wearing enormous hare-like ears, loped out from the shade. They fixed us with a vaguely exasperated stare from eyes set in bandit-masked fur, before swiftly loping off to quieter grounds.
The river was bone dry; this season has been exceptionally so, and the hippo and crocodile that would usually be wallowing contently are understandably absent. All to be seen some 200 metres away on the far bank are two hammerkop, four marabou storks – and a large male leopard. Most of life for the African big cats involves doing as little as you possibly can, and he sticks fast by this rule, resting up on the bank and only occasionally flicking up his tail with a quick furl of flashing white. Far closer to us are the nocturnal denizens stirring in the tree above our heads; two verreaux’s eagle owls, an adult and a juvenile. Covered in silver feathers a soft as pillow down, their wide faces are rounded by a black rim surrounding deep, china-doll eyes with the most glamorous eyelashes bristling from creamy pink eyelids, that would be the envy of any Parisian model. Still not quite recovered from fledging the nest, the younger owl lets out waning chick calls every half-minute, high-pitched yawns contested only by the squawks of a nearby go-away bird.
By now the light is turning into the same bronze hue as the desert, and duly our bus lurches us away from the riverbank. We trundle past the elephants that browse indifferently on the only lush vegetation to be found on the river’s edge, silent but for the grinding of their munching teeth, and disappearing as easily into the thickets as if they were ghosts.
Our destination lies in the rocky hills above, already covered in shadow. That’s where we’ve been promised caracal lynx anyway, based on someone’s lucky observation in the same place two years before. The road turns into a rocky passage that would make a highways agency representative faint on the spot, and the number of birds we see flitting around the scrub begins to steadily drop off. As we begin to move along the craggy foothills, an eerie and exciting silence takes hold, one that we convince ourselves is telling us we’re in carnivore country.
We’re in luck. From within a small ditch some forty metres to our right, a vaguely lupine face fixes us with a doleful stare, and then gracefully slips away into the bush: A striped hyena. Elusive compared to its famous spotted cousin, it’s a solitary hunter of small animals rather than a pack-roaming scavenger and predator of big game, but in my view it is much more beautiful. Its grey fine-furred, almost bald head is contrasted by a golden mane that sits sail-like along its spine, and sends wispy streaks of hair down its haunches that brush a fur coat streaked with dark rippling stripes like sunlight breaking a forest canopy. It brings to mind a primeval creature that should not even be of this Earth, and to see one even this briefly is a window to a long gone wild.
Except that wasn’t our only view. Only a few minutes later, we come across a second individual, this time standing on an open stage of sand for all to see as if it were about to reward us with a song. We quitely observe one another, until the hyena continues with its evening; sauntering up, across the road and through the acacias. It is some time before it is completely out of view.
Of all the places I visted in Kenya, it was here in Samburu I felt most at home. But the striped hyena, so perfectly blended to this region, reminds me I am only a visitor, and that this is a wild I can never truly comprehend. I’m glad that’s the case.