Expert Reviews – Shaba NR

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Joy and solitude
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Shaba is perhaps best known as the park where Joy Adamson, of Born Free fame, met her demise at the hands of a disgruntled employee. The maverick conservationist, then working to reintroduce a hand-reared leopard, now gives her name to Joy’s Camp, an upmarket safari lodge. The park, which also provided a backdrop to the Oscar-winning movie Out of Africa, lies to the north of Mount Kenya and is effectively an eastern extension of Samburu. Its terrain is similar to that of the latter: largely semi-arid thorn bush, punctuated with dramatic volcanic formations – including the 2145m Shaba Hill. Its network of game-viewing roads also takes in natural springs, barren lava plains and ribbons of riverine forest along the meandering Ewaso Nigiro river, which forms its northern border.

Wildlife viewing at Shaba is generally less productive than in the better-known Samburu, at least in terms of quantity. Though all three big cats occur, sightings are unpredictable and during my three-day visit the only evidence came in the form of fresh lion tracks. Elephants pass through seasonally and large buffalo herds congregate around the springs. Other large mammals include arid-country species such as reticulated giraffe, oryx, gerenuk and the rare Grevy’s zebra. It is also a good park for seeking out such lesser-known species as bat-eared fox and aardwolf, and a striped hyena foraging in front of the lodge was a highlight of my stay. The impressive bird life includes numerous raptors, dry-country specials such as coursers and bustards, and – for the dedicated birder – the endemic Williams’ lark. Furthermore, Shaba is far less visited than neighbouring Samburu, and you will thus have the park’s impressive terrain largely to yourself as you seek out its more subtle charms.

The Wild North
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The twin sister (alongside Buffalo Springs) of the more famous neighouring Samburu National Reserve, Shaba is the connoisseurs safari destination. Wildlife here doesn’t grow on trees (which is lucky because there aren’t that many) and you need to work harder for your sightings than in Samburu reserve (where animals gather alongside the river banks), but despite what some people say there is a lot of wildlife in Shaba and, as with Samburu, many of these animals are the less commonly seen northern variations of animals you know and love so well from the southern park: the zebra here come with extra stripes, the ostrich with polar blue legs and the giraffes are of the ravishingly beautiful reticulated type. But it’s not just the animals of Shaba that are good looking. With its giant rocky outcrops and clusters of doum palms lining the banks of the Ewaso Ngiro River this is one of the most scenically impressive of all the Kenyan parks.

What I like about this park is how quiet it is. There are only two camps here (including Joy’s camp: one of the most ornate tented camps in Kenya) and I have spent full days here without seeing a single other tourist safari vehicle. This gives Shaba a wonderfully wild feel. One of my abiding memories of a safari here was climbing to the top of one of the granite outcrops known as a kopje for a sundowner drink. After twenty minutes we looked down towards the parked jeep to see three lionesses prowling around between us and the jeeps. I did what any sensible grown-up would do in such circumstances and quickly knocked back a couple more G&T’s (for gin infused courage and to numb the pain if we didn’t get back to the jeeps!)

One of Northern Kenya’s desert gems
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There’s a good reason why Joy Adamson set up her leopard research operations in Shaba National Reserve and these days many people return to relive those famous experiences (albeit on a markedly more grandiose scale these days) at the luxurious Joy’s Camp. Big Cat sightings are far from guaranteed but even if you just sit still at the waterhole where Joy camped (and was murdered) the procession of wildlife that passes through is truly astounding. Without even moving from your chair in front of your perfectly appointed Hemingway-style tented suite you are likely to have good sightings of elephant, oryx, zebra, giraffe and impala. When water gets extremely scarce in nearby Samburu Reserve then Shaba, with its springs, can often be the best bet. It can get hot and dusty in this area too but this park, with its sandy gullies, rocky lava plains and spectacular kopjes gives the feeling of remote, backcountry Africa and you will rarely see other visitors.

Samburu’s wilder eastern cousin
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Set in the same part of Kenya as Samburu National Reserve, from which it ids separated by the main road running north to Ethiopia, Shaba is the place where Survivor Africa was filmed a few years back. Fittingly, this tract of open acacia scrub has a wilder and more untrammeled feel than Samburu itself, with very little tourist traffic exploring the dusty roads than run east from its only large lodge, offering a genuine wilderness experience to those who do. However, while it protects a similar range of species to Samburu, including gerenuk, Grevy’s zebra and lesser kudu, wildlife is thinner on the ground, and relatively skittish, so best to come here for the overall bush experience rather than for pure game viewing.

Part of the dry-country safari ecosystem in Northern Kenya
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On the fringes of Kenya’s desert region, Shaba shares the Ewaso Ng'iro River system with neighbouring Samburu and Buffalo Springs national reserves on the other side of the Isiolo–Archers Post road (A2). I spotted elephant, jackal, bat-eared fox and plains game, including the beautifully-marked Grevy’s zebra and the handsome reticulated giraffe, but my experience was you have to work harder to find the animals. Unlike Samburu and Buffalo Springs where almost all game drives are concentrated along the flat riverbanks, Shaba’s wildlife is also drawn to the marshy areas and scattered natural springs. Some of the tough four-wheel-drive tracks to get around the reserve negotiate steep hills, rocky kopjes, thorny scrub and gritty volcanic surfaces and can be bumpy and uncomfortable. The advantage is that Shaba is more scenic and solitary than the other two, but in terms of animals, I found it not quite the equal of its neighbours for population density and ease of locating them. As such, it’s a good idea to combine all three national reserves on a combined safari.

Shaba NR, where the acacia trees give the only shelter
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Shaba borders the more popular Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves. Wildlife seems thinner on the ground, but very few tourists come this way, so you’ll have a more exclusive experience. I haven’t seen many of the big five here, but a range of rare, localized dry-country animals are the real attraction for me. These include several types of dikdik, the gerenuk with its elongated neck, the over-sized Grant’s zebra and the reticulated giraffe. In the heat of the day, these grazers are usually found huddled up in the shade offered by the many flat-topped acacia trees.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.5/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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