Just north of the Kenyan equator, nestled in the Matthews Mountain range, lies the 850,000 acre Namunyak Conservancy, one of the only community-owned wildlife conservancies in Kenya. Started in 1995, the conservancy is still very much in its infancy but thanks to the support of the 2,300 Samburu families that collectively own and manage the land, it is thriving. On a recent trip to Kenya, our Africa expert, Katie, fell in love with this remote corner of the country. Read on to find out what's so great about it...
During my trip, I stayed in Sarara, a wonderfully intimate camp with breathtaking views over the conservancy. Meaning 'Meeting Place', Sarara is the keystone of the area, employing around 100 people in their two stylish camps (who in turn each support a further 11 family members on average). The team run the camps beautifully and are excellent hosts, opening people's eyes to the greater importance of the conservancy succeeding and the benefits of conservation in Kenya.
Conservation in Action
While the Namunyak Conservancy offers some lovely wildlife, this is not an area to come to if you want to witness vast herds of wildlife found elsewhere in Kenya. The real draw here is the combination of breathtaking wilderness coupled with exposure to community issues, conservation goals, unique ecology and deep-rooted cultural beliefs, things that are so easily overlooked in busier tourist areas. During my trip, I had the chance to learn about how the Samburu families manage the land: ensuring the fine balance between livestock; gathering honey; and overseeing the wildlife conservation, including anti-poaching rangers. Through seeing the financial gain of positive conservation and tourism, they are staunch custodians of the land and protectors of their wildlife and the benefits of this are far-reaching from the hundreds employed on the conservancy to the investment in a mobile Montessori school to provide education to local children.
Reteti Elephant Orphanage
Africa's first community-owned and run elephant sanctuary, Reteti Elephant Orphanage works to rescue, rehabilitate and rewild orphaned and abandoned baby elephants north of the Equator. Set up in 2016 by founder Katie Bastard, the orphanage is a shining example of a grassroots project. From employing local women and acting as a fantastic educational centre for the community, to its success with releasing six elephants to the wild and returning six to their heard, Reteti has a lot to shout about.
The Mathews range experiences very little annual rainfall with the rivers dry for around nine months a year. In order for their cattle to survive, Samburu Warrior herders dig deep wells in sandy river beds until they reach the water table and pass the water up by bucket to pour it into troughs. All the while, they sing a deep and consistent song which the cattle learn to recognise as a signal to come to drink. The riverbed is filled with Samburu Warrior's song, a hypnotic sound that connects the warriors to their animals. Today, the herders fill in the wells after their cattle have drunk so baby elephants cannot fall down them and the whole process starts again the following day.
Culture and Community
The Samburu people are Nilotic semi-nomadic pastoralists. Spending time at one of their villages is perhaps a highlight when staying at Sahara. Speaking with some of the local ladies clarified the strong connection between the conservancy and tourism, most notably the jobs that have been created in both areas providing stability for the future. This is a completely uncommercialised experience (they don't even allow photographs) whereby the communities want you to leave understanding their passion and vision for the future.
The Mathews mountain range is simply beautiful, partly due to its remoteness. I visited in early January, at the end of the rainy season when the hills are green and lush. Surrounded by butterflies and colourful wildflowers, the hikes are steep but rewarding and you may even get the chance to spot a rare colobus monkey too. Throughout the rest of the year, the rock is red and views dramatic, perfect for full-day hikes with picnic lunches.
By staying at Sarara you will not only be beautifully looked after, be able to jump in THAT infinity pool (also enjoyed by the elephants, birdlife and dragonflies), dine like kings and connect with wonderful people but most importantly, you will be supporting conservation in Kenya and providing essential support to the future sustainability of the conservancy.