Walking in the footsteps of Kenya's Queen of Shaba

by Kevin Hughes

Shaba, in Kenya's arid north, remains relatively unvisited. Conservationist Joy Adamson, of Born Free fame, lived and died here - now you can safari in the same savage, beautiful land she called home

After arriving at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport it’s only a short, if manic, transfer across town to Wilson Airfield and your 70 minute SafariLink flight to Shaba. As the light aircraft climbs away from bustling Nairobi, its streets clogged with morning traffic fighting for space among the thousands of pedestrians and the odd herd of cattle, you watch as urban sprawl slowly turns to rural farmland.

Then, slowly, the farms and villages thin out to be replaced by wilderness, the seemingly endless red African soil scarred only by the odd sliver of tarmacadam road on which few vehicles appear to move. After a while, in the distance, rising like sentinels from the burnt earth, the hills of Shaba come into view. Moments later you touch down at the small dusty airstrip that serves the national reserve and it’s sole safari camp, named Joy's Camp in honour of naturalist, artist and conservationist Joy Adamson.

Shaba lies to the east of its perhaps better known cousin, Samburu National Reserve. It’s a rugged wilderness with rolling savannah, miles of scrub and areas of arid desert through which the Ewaso Nyiro River cuts a meandering course. Both Shaba and Samburu were established as national parks in 1948 and are now run by their respective county councils, Samburu and Isiolo. As well as its river, Shaba has a number of fresh water springs and areas of natural swamp at which animals congregate in the dry season and in times of drought.

Climbing into our jeep for the ten minute drive to Joy’s Camp, the intense heat of the midday sun sucks the energy from you. The land has an almost lunar appearance and volcanic rocks lie dotted about the landscape while bushes and trees, once green, stand forlorn and bent against the hot winds and dust devils that spring up without warning.

Yet, despite the current drought affecting much of East Africa, life, it seems, clings on. Elephants, some with young babies and others with adolescents in tow, tug at the branches of any acacia trees that remain green. They even pull down, or push over, whole trees to snack on a few leaves before moving on and repeating the process thus leaving great swathes of destroyed, broken trees in their wake. Grant’s gazelles stand under trees motionless, save for the constant flicker of their short tails, gaining what shade they can from the merciless sun while gerenuk stand on their hind legs browsing on what few green leaves they can find.

Then, you arrive at the oasis that is Joy’s Camp. Beyond the camp the swamp and natural spring keep what grass is left green. Herds of buffalo, water buck and the endangered Grevy’s zebra mix with elephant to enjoy the cooling waters and try to find grass long enough to graze.

Joy’s Camp is built on the site of Joy Adamson’s original Shaba campsite and is where she released her leopard, Penny, back into the wild. The camp has a small museum set up in her memory which includes some of her paintings, her original typewriter and photographs of both Joy and George Adamson with Elsa the lioness, Pippa the cheetah and Penny.

The camp, run by established safari firm Cheli and Peacock, has ten guest tents which are built on raised platforms each offering stunning views of Shaba hills and the nearby watering hole, meaning guests can relax on their private deck while watching the abundant game just a few hundred meters away. The huge tents are chic and stylish and are adorned with colourful fabrics and hand-made glass ornaments adding an air of sophistication. And, with solar heated running water on tap and food to die for, this is true luxury amid a wonderful wildlife experience.

Lunch and dinner are served at the permanent restaurant and bar area. After dining you can enjoy a dip in the tiny swimming pool or, in the evening, take drinks around a log fire while gazing in wonder at  the star-filled African sky with no light pollution to spoil the show.

The evening four course dinner is a set menu, although guests with particular dietary requirements are catered for. The food is stunning with roast lamb, beef and chicken dishes cooked in a variety of mouth-watering sauces complimented by some sophisticated delicious sweets all freshly prepared by the wonderful camp chefs.

Our game drives provided memories that will live long in the memory. Our knowledgeable guide showed us, among many other animals and birds, warthogs, klipspringers, lesser kudu, the Somali ostrich, reticulated giraffe, jackal, baboons, lions, which we heard roaring every morning, and two cheetah families, one enjoying a fresh Grant’s gazelle kill.

It’s true to say this is a vastly different experience than the plains of the Masai Mara or Serengeti and you won’t see vast herds in Shaba. However, what you will witness is a huge range of species with some, like the Grevy’s zebra offering, perhaps, a last chance to see experience as they hover on the brink of extinction.

As well as seeing wildlife up close and personal we enjoyed cooked breakfasts served up at a picturesque bend of the Ewaso Nyiro River and sundowners on top of Shaba Hill while watching in wonder as the savage land turned from blood red to indigo blue. For some reason, gazing out over the African savannah where humankind took his first faltering steps, your overwhelmed by an unexplainable sense of belonging.

We booked through Bolton-based Travel Counsellors (www,travelcounsellors.co.uk) using travel counsellor Alison Lester to get us the best deal direct through Cheli and Peacock (wwwchelipeacock.com). A safari in Shaba is by no means cheap and prices vary according to the time of year and length of stay. We booked as part of a package taking in three nights at Shaba, three in the Masai Mara and seven nights on an all inclusive basis at a four star hotel in Mombassa at a cost of £3,000 each including all international and internal flights.

It’s now almost 30 years since Joy Adamson's body was discovered after she was murdered by a labourer she had sacked and a monument now stands at the place where she fell. It’s not hard to see why she fell in love with Shaba’s rugged beauty and stunning wildlife and her spirit echoes in every lion’s roar and every eagle's cry around this harsh, unforgiving yet stunning land.

However, Shaba is a dangerous place for the human soul - visit only if, for the rest of your days, you are prepared to cherish a little piece of unspoilt, wild Africa deep in your heart.

Kevin Hughes

I am a retired police officer who enjoyed a second career in journalism with a weekly newspaper. I now work as a freelance journalist concentrating on politics, sport and local issues. I also do some freelance photography.

I have a passion for travel and enjoy writing about my experiences - good and bad. I have had several travel features published in regional and weekly newspapers and some magazines but I'm hardly a professional travel writer although I certainly wouldn't mind doing more!

Married for thirty plus years and with three adult children and one grandchild my wife and I now have more time to travel. I generally shy away from package holidays finding it more fun to plan where I want to go, how I want to get there and what I want to see and do when I arrive. However, for me, the most important part of any trip is the local people I meet and interact with. It is they who give me a sense of what a place is really all about.

I have been appointed by the Simonseeks editorial team as a community moderator, to review and rate guides on a regular basis.