Expert Reviews – Marsabit NP

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Island in the Sky
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Even with the new tarmac road that currently extends halfway to Marsabit from Isiolo and the Samburu National Reserve area, travelling to Marsabit, in the far north of Kenya, is a long, bumpy and hot bounce through semi-desert acacia scrub country. But then, in the heat haze ahead rises the huge volcanic cones of Marsabit. Like an island in the sky the tops of these hills are covered in dense forest that, when the rains have been kind, can appear to glow in greens.

Home to some famously long-tusked elephants, loads of forest buffalo as well as bushbuck and leopards (which are almost never seen) Marsabit National Park is very rarely visited. In fact on my five previous visits I have never seen a single other tourist in the park. A classic driving safari would be rather pointless here as the very dense forest means animal sightings in much of the park are very rare and rather fleeting. But there are at least two large crater lakes surrounded by open marshland and when animals come out of the forest to drink they are easily seen at these. Overlooking the Gof Sokorte Dika lake is the Marsabit Lodge, a very faded place that nevertheless has charm. I have spent a couple of wonderful evenings sat on the grassy terrace here with beer and binoculars in hand watching elephants, rusty-red forest buffalo and bushbuck come down for their sundowner drink.

Every time I have visited the park the experience has been a little different and your enjoyment of the forest will rather depend on how much rainfall there has been recently. In 2011, during the worst drought in decades, the park was parched, the lakes dry, the leaves fallen from the trees and a fine shroud of dust covered everything. There were virtually no animals present and I really got the impression the park was dying. On my last visit in 2014, after a year or so of good rain, the park was re-born and compared to the deserts of the surrounding lowlands I felt like I was in the Congolese jungles so lush and green and healthy did everything appear. So, if you do make the effort of going try and go in a year when the rains have been favourable.

A forested island
Overall rating

Among the most remote and surprising of Kenya’s national parks, Marsabit protects the forested upper slopes of an isolated massif surrounded on all sides by the arid badlands characteristic of northern Kenya. It is serviced by what must surely be the country’s quietest game lodge, set on a low cliff above a first-fringed crater lake teeming with birds. I have had great elephant viewing here, and other wildlife includes greater kudu and the forest-dwelling bushbuck, Sykes monkey and black-and-white colobus, but otherwise I felt it to be pretty low key in terms of game viewing, and probably not worth visiting unless you plan to continue northward to Ethiopia or westward to Lake Turkana, in which case it make for a wonderfully refreshing stopover. Of interest further afield is a scattering of ‘singing wells’, named for the local Borena custom of singing while several dozen of them form a queue along up the steep walls to pass along buckets of water one-by-one.

Deep, dark woodland and crater lakes
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With its remote location and terrible access roads, Marsabit National Park doesn’t make it onto many tourist itineraries. Those that do journey up here won’t find big five excitement but can instead enjoy wild, dense forest and crater lakes, and, if their eyes are keenly focused on the thick vegetation (though they’d still have to be pretty lucky), long-tusked Marsabit elephants, lions, leopards and shaggy striped hyenas. Birding is also good here, with some 400 species including 52 birds of prey. Snakes fans will be pleased to know that there are lots around, most ominously, plenty of very large cobras.

Marsabit lodge, perched above Lake Paradise, is the perfect place to stay. Though the rooms aren’t up to much, I enjoyed the feeling of utter solitude and outstanding views of buffalo grazing by the forest shrouded, blue and green tinged water.

An unlikely oasis in Kenya’s inhospitable Northern Frontier
Overall rating

The drive to rarely-visited Marsabit passes through an endlessly flat wasteland of volcanic rock. But on our approach, we were rewarded with the incredulous sight of mist-covered Mount Marsabit rising like a silhouette above the empty horizon, and once in the park, the air was much cooler and the hills thickly vegetated. We camped at the Kenya Wildlife Service’s campsite on the forested rim of Gof Sokorte Guda (Paradise Lake) with its beautifully still waters reflecting the steep mountain shores. Buffalo came to drink in the late afternoon, there were plenty of forest monkeys, we saw fleeting glimpses of greater kudu and reticulated giraffe, and elephant on the distant hillsides, but overall the animals were few and very shy. To visit you need to be either totally self-sufficient for camping and in a four-wheel-drive (the few tracks are steep and muddy), or bank on Marsabit Lodge being open (the only formal place to stay, it gets very few visitors so has routinely closed over the years). The park isn’t enough of a standalone destination to make the effort of getting there worthwhile, although access has improved considerably with the upgrading/tarring of the once torturous A2 road north from Isiolo which has recently been completed all the way to Marsabit (a distance of 258 km). But the park’s appeal is undoubtedly its relative isolation, forested beauty, and oasis-like character surrounded by stony desert.

The elephants walking around the crater lake
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Marsabit National Park on the mountain with the same name is home to some beautiful forested crater lakes. Buffalo, several antelope species including the secretive forest-dwelling bushbuck, sykes monkey and the black and white colobus monkey can all be seen, but it is the herd of elephants that walked around a crater lake by the name of Gof Sokorte Dika that was the star attraction for me. Sitting outside Marsabit Lodge I watched these gentle creatures walk silently from the other side of the lake all along the edge of the water towards me. It took them more than an hour to finally reach me, which added to the exciting anticipation. Afterwards I was told, they do this every day!

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