There’s a memorable line in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice when Basannio rejects the shiny gold and the brilliant silver caskets—in favor of the drab, colorless lead. When just in front of the gold casket, here’s what he says: “So may the outward shows be least themselves: The world is still deceived with ornament….Therefore, thou gaudy gold, Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee.” And looking at the silver casket here’s what he says: “Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge.” But when he comes to the lead casket, his choice is strange, his preference odd: “thou meager lead, which rather threatens than promises, thy paleness moves me more than eloquence.” And with that, he chooses the lead.Northern Kenya is more like Basannio’s lead casket that threatens more than promises. That appears pale and colorless on the outside—until, of course—one summons a closer, longer look.

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Why Samburu Is Kenya’s Best Kept Secret

Samburu has the best of Kenya but in a different, stunning cast. The giraffes, elephants, lions—and the rest of the graceful big 5 cats that Kenya is globally known for—are all within its thirsty boundaries. And while most of Kenya’s interior landscape is rather uniform, with miles of plain, acacia-dotted grasslands that stretch to the horizon, Samburu’s landscape is beautifully diverse and varied.

Samburu is also very much uncrowded, gifting travelers a surreal alone-time with nature in its stupefying best. Then there’s the rich, intriguing culture of the semi-nomadic Samburu people, who are easily identified by their traditional, colorful attire and their warm, infectious friendliness. The Samburu are near relatives of East Africa's most famous traditional Maasai tribe and share some cultural practices including life in the manyattas, where between 5 and 10 families huddle together in little structures made of cow dung, sticks, and grass.

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Top Attractions In Samburu, Kenya

This is not a hoax. Samburu is listed second by CNN Travel as one of the 25 most beautiful places around the world. While the name Samburu is an ethnic identity, the name refers as well to the county in northern Kenya where the Samburu people predominantly live. The county’s administrative capital is Maralal, a sleepy, market town set on the foothills of the spectacular Kirisia hills, 343 kilometers directly north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The town itself looks frozen in time. People walk slowly and leisurely as if consciously protesting against the fast-paced frenzied life of big towns. The sight of camels, walking gloomily in groups along the town’s streets, is not an infrequent occurrence. Every year in August, the town hosts the International Camel Derby, a sporting event that attracts excited participants from all over the country. This is usually the perfect time to interact with the colorfully dressed Samburu people—and learn a little about their nomadic culture. The event itself involves camel races in a thrilling spectacle designed to mimic the horse races of western towns. Make no mistake: it’s quite a sight to see camels, with their huge, ungainly bodies, dashing for the finish line. But there are other stunning places and interesting things to do.

Nothing in the world will prepare a traveler for the beauty hidden at the Samburu National Reserve on a landscape that looks stunningly pristine even if arid. Actually, it’s this reserve that justly puts Samburu on the world map. There are so many different wild animals in this reserve in numbers that compares only to the Maasai Mara, popular for the annual wildebeest migration. The icing here is that animals are relatively crowded in higher densities, making it possible to catch a glimpse of many different animals in a few hours. Samburu is particularly an elephant’s haven. However, travelers will also easily spot the buffalo, African leopard, hippo, baboon, warthog, zebra, and cheetah in addition to over 450 species of birds. The reserve is also home to 5 unique animals, affectionately known as Samburu’s “Special 5.” This unique group includes the gerenuk, a species of antelope that’s known to remarkably lift itself on its two hind legs and walk just like humans. Travelers will also find reticulated giraffes, spotted by beautiful polygon-like patterns; and the Grevy's zebra—animals which are increasingly becoming rarer to spot. To round up the Special 5, there’s also the Somali ostrich and Beisa oryx. Another star attraction in Samburu National Reserve is Kamanyuk, meaning “the blessed one,” a lioness that at one time adopted some oryx calves in an odd, unnatural spectacle that caused sensations around the world.

  • Distance and Directions From Nairobi To Samburu National Reserve: The distance from Nairobi to Samburu National Reserve is between 310-325 kilometers depending on the access point.
  • Entry Fees To Samburu National Park: $70 for adults; $40 for children.
  • Distance From Maralal To Samburu National Park: About 163 Kilometers

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Other attractions include Kenyatta House in Samburu town where the founding president of Kenya was briefly detained by the British colonial government during the heady days of the Mau Mau rebellion. There’s also Maralal Wildlife Sanctuary right in Maralal town. The only other park that’s right inside an urban center in Kenya is the Nairobi National Park. Then from Maralal town, a 90-minutes drive—through some spectacular, forested landscapes—will take you to the Malaso, or the “Earth’s End.” The escarpment here is one that causes the heart to miss a bit. It would be sinful not to photograph the jaw-dropping scene.

As Shakespeare's character Bassanio in the novel Merchant of Venice would say, there’s a paleness of Samburu that hides a cool, irresistible charm.