Samburu Sunrise

Sarara Treehouses, Matthews Range, Kenya

I giggled as we walked across a miniature red carpet to our chartered 12-seater plane for our flight to the Sarara Treehouses, our first of three stops on our 12-day safari in Kenya, organized by wildlife photographer, conservation writer and Africa aficionado Kathy Karn.

Woman in black sweater walking on mini red carpet between two small planes as the pilot in a black jacket looks on, Nairobi, Kenya

The flight was a journey in itself. We got a bird’s-eye view of Nairobi, with its high rises, slums and lush upscale neighborhoods. We passed Nairobi National Park, which offered a hint of the vast expanses we would soon explore.

Arial view of Nairobi, Kenya

As we flew inland, the land pleated itself into a series of hills and canyons. Brown and scrubby, it reminded me of Southern California until we saw several round bomas, or compounds, built by the nomadic Samburu people for their families and livestock. We followed a muddy riverbed and passed herds of cattle and camels as we descended.

Arial view of three round bomas, tribal village enclosures, in Kenya_

We were met at the landing strip by our team of guides dressed as the Samburu warriors they are. I was fascinated by their colorful cloth wraps and elaborately beaded neck necklaces, headdresses and bracelets. Their smiles were direct and welcoming as they ushered us into the Land Cruisers that would become our portable headquarters for touring Africa’s wild lands.

Four people in an open-air Land Cruiser, two Samburu guides in the front and two western women in the back, Samburu County, Kenya

In the land of leopards and lions, hippos and rhinos, our wildlife adventures started small—remarkably small—with butterflies. Seriously.

Close up of a White Caper butterfly, Sarara Treehouses, Samburu County, Kenya

Like magic, clouds of small White Caper butterflies danced from bush to bush and into the trees. They flew in and out of our open-air cruiser, bringing delight all around. I felt like I was in the middle of a snow globe shaken by a three-year old just discovering the world. The weight of travel lifted from my body and my jet-lagged mind. I was Here. It was Now. Everything was Perfect. In that moment I didn’t care if I ever saw a lion or an elephant. I was bubbling over from seeing common butterflies in uncommon numbers, a gift of nature that refreshed my spirit.

Green bush dotted with small White Caper butterflies, Samburu County, Kenya

Our Samburu guides immediately began to share their knowledge. They explained that the butterflies had awakened after the rains that engulfed Kenya just before we arrived, causing flooding in lowland communities. Here, high in the hills of the Matthews Range in the Namunyak Conservancy of central Kenya, the reddish earth was dotted with green bushes and trees that had just had their first deep drink of water after several years of drought. The sky was a crisp blue, punctuated with puffy clouds. The hills around receded into a blue-green haze.

Five impala, including male with curved black horns, Samburu County, Kenya_

We startled a herd of impala as we drove by. Suddenly, we were in a Disney nature film watching them sprint away.

Two impala, bounding to the right and one looking to the left, Samburu County, Kenya_

A few rocking and rolling twists and turns uphill, we arrived at Sarara Treehouses. We settled in the comfy main lodge, with its open air living room, bar and dining area, as our hosts welcomed us. Philip, manager of the lodge, greeted Kathy with his bright eyes, beguiling smile and nine fabulous bracelets.

Kathy Karn greeted by Piliip Leeresh, manager of Sarara Treehouses

We were also introduced to Ian, Tilas (aka Mr. T), Kevin, Paul and assistant manager Kerry, a fourth-generation British Kenyan.

They led us down a steep set of stairs to our tents on platforms high above the forest floor. The mesh picture windows looked out to the bush that enfolded us with a sense of gentleness and peace. We were told that the waterhole just out of sight was a magnet for elephants and that monkeys were fond of snatching underwear off the clotheslines in our outdoor showers. This clearly wasn’t Southern California.

View of guest tent, with wood railing, overlooking greenery and mountains at Sarara Treehouses, Namunyak Conservancy, Kenya

Sarara Days

After a deep sleep that first morning, a tiny glimmer of light called me outside to greet the dawn. The trees were barely shapes against the hillside, but an electric soundscape hummed and buzzed around me. As I inhaled the crisp mountain air, the clicking and clacking of nocturnal insects gave way to calls of birds waking for the day. Down below our elevated home, I heard rustling in the brush and a grunting sound I didn’t recognize. An elephant at the waterhole? Could be. It was time to explore.

Our days at Sarara were a combo of game drives, nature walks, cultural experiences and serious talks about where we were and who we were with. Everything, including our British-style sundowner—with cocktails on the rocks—was a revelation.

Group of western guests and their Samburu hosts, at a Sarara Treehouses sundowner, (cocktails on the rocks), Samburu County, Kenya

Game drives rolled out early in the morning or late afternoon because that’s when animals were most visible and the temperature most comfortable.

Paul (left) and Kevin took us on our first ride out into the bush.

Three giraffes, facing to the right, in the green brush, Samburu County, Kenya

In the valley below Sarara we saw herds of impala and journeys of giraffes. (Yes, groups of walking giraffes are called journeys.)

Two weaver birds and their nests, in Samburu County, Kenya

We also saw beautiful birds and learned that weaver birds hang their orblike nests on the west side of acacia trees with the entrance facing down to ward off predators. Why on the west side? Because the prevailing winds blow from the Indian Ocean to the east. Thus weaver nests provide a simple compass to help the Samburu navigate.

And we met Boris, a local bull elephant. He has a reputation as a troublemaker because he likes to break the water lines that serve the Treehouse lodge. But he is also a beloved icon.

Boris, mature bull elephant in brush, Samburu County, Kenya

Sarara Nature Walk

Our group of ten, half American and half Canadian, was eager to get out on the trail for a nature walk. We wanted to experience the land for ourselves. Before we left, Tilas, our guide, cautioned us to trade our sandals for walking shoes. “But,” he said slyly, “you’ll remember Africa better if you wear open shoes  because you’ll bring home so many marks.” With that, joined by Ian and one of the Sarara rangers, we set off laughing.

Ian (left) in yellow and blue cloth and two beaded headbands, and Tilas, with an orange cloth and bare chest and three beaded headbands, guides at Sarara Treehouses, Samburu County, Kenya

As we headed to the foothills, Ian (left) and Tilas introduced us to local trees. “Some of our plants are poisonous; some are edible; some are good medicine,” Tilas explained. The aptly named “elephant ear” leaves irritate the skin.

Tilas, Samburu guide at Sarara Treehouses, showing an elephant ear leaf, in Samburu County, Kenya

“When I walk, because I don’t wear a shirt, I avoid plants that can cause this kind of irritation,” he warned. On the other hand—with our Samburu guides there was always another perspective—he told us that the fruits were edible.

“The staff has been eating from this one, especially Ian,” Tilas said, pointing to his colleague. “We depend mostly on wild fruits during the rainy season. We don’t grow any kind of produce at home.” The Samburu diet is mainly meat, milk and blood from their herds. They don’t typically hunt, but depend on their goats and cattle, which is how they count their wealth.

They shared stories about other trees along the way. The mimosa, with tentacles that snag clothes, are called “waiting” trees because the snag forces you to wait, to look around. The snag is a warning. A lion might be hiding in the nearby brush, they explained, but village children are taught to be prepared.

Red cloth caught on mimosa tree, aka, waiting tree. Samburu County, Kenya

“You take five or six rocks with you, and when you reach a dense place like this, you toss the rocks,” Tilas told us. “If a lion is there, it will run away because it doesn’t want to be hit in the head. Then you’ll reach home safely.”

A bit further on we saw trees that the Samburu fashion into basic furniture. “We make tables from these trees after they have died. That’s a new thing we are learning because we didn’t used to make tables. We make three-legged stools for sitting,” Tilas offered. David wondered if the beautiful railings at the lodge were made from branches of that tree. “No, the rails are from the Newtonia buchananii, which is found in the highland forests,” Tilas answered, switching easily to the Latin plant name.

Slowly, slowly (polé, polé in Swahili), the Samburu story unfolded for us. Not only are the guides familiar with every twist and turn of their territory, which they’ve absorbed since boyhood, but they are also college educated. As far as we could tell, their educations didn’t compete with their indigenous knowledge, but enhanced it.

Tilas and Ian reveled in telling us about adaptations they called, “smart in the wild.” They showed us ants that take their eggs to higher ground just before the rains come. “When we see the ants move their eggs, we expect a lot of rain,” said Tilas. That’s one way Samburu people learn about incoming weather. Ants as weathermen? Who knew?

As we continued uphill, we came across a large pile of elephant dung. Not surprising, but what we learned about elephants was. “Elephants eat two to three percent of their body weight every day, but digest very little,” Ian explained. “They only digest 40% of what they eat, so 60% is wasted.”

Pile of elephant dung, seen on nature walk from Sarara Treehouses, Samburu County, Kenya

“These twigs help us know that this is an old ele because it doesn’t have a full set of molars like a young ele.” Tilas added that you can tell whether you are looking at a full-grown male or a female. They surmised that this was from a middle-aged male. Boris? Maybe. The water lines he likes to mess with were nearby.

With that, our group of middle-aged humans crossed a creek and climbed to a spring-fed grotto for a refreshing dunk. This seasonal pool is one of many treasures in this magical land.

Several people in a spring-fed pool surrounded by big boulders with mountains in the background, Samburu County, Kenya

Meeting the community

The day continued with a deep dive into Samburu culture. Back at the lodge, Kathy and Kerry confirmed that we had been invited to join the local village later in the afternoon for a post-circumcision ceremony honoring a fledgling warrior. A village visit during a real ceremony was a special treat. We would be honored guests, but no photos would be allowed.

At Sarara that afternoon, local community members visited us to share other aspects of their culture. Women from the village showed us how they make the beaded ornaments worn by both men and women. It was a delight to sit on the patio with them and a pleasure to receive the necklaces they made for us.

Five Samburu women with colorful skirts and tops and elaborage beaded collars, visiting Sarara Treehouses, Kenya.

Augustine, the village blacksmith, and Grace, his youngest wife, dropped by to demonstrate his craft. He lit a small fire without matches, and once he got it started, she kept it going with a simple bellows while he melted and shaped metal for a bracelet.

Blacksmith Augustine and his wife Grace in red skirt and yellow top, kneeling to demonstrate metal work, Sarara Treehouses, Kenya

Of course we were interested in how the pastoral Samburu forge metal objects. But honestly, we were much more curious about how marriages work when each man has several wives.

That discussion, like so many that gave us insight into our host community, took place around the communal dining table. Leftover snippets from earlier conversations during our nature walk and game drives were fleshed out with Samburu openness and humor over Sarara’s delicious stews and salads.

Someone asked how Tilas lost his two lower front teeth. “I was kicked by a cow I was rescuing,” he deadpanned. “Rescuing? What do you mean by rescuing? Was it hurt?” we asked, tossing our questions across the table.

“We have to rescue the cows that have been stolen from our village,” came another voice. “That’s our job as warriors, rescuing cows.” Kerry, sitting across from me, barely stifled her giggles. Suddenly it became clear that they were teasing us with the truth. Rescuing cows—AKA cattle rustling—was a traditional part of Samburu culture. Hmm, we bantered back, is it OK to rescue a watch from Rolex? With that, “rescuing” became our recurring joke.

Samburu guide at Sarara Treehouses,wearing bead decorations and smiling, Samburu county, Kenya

About Tilas’ teeth? They were removed purposely so medicine could be administered in case of lockjaw, once common in the area. “It’s also a tribal identification marker,” he acknowledged.

To prepare us for our village visit, Tilas explained that circumcision marks the passage between childhood and adulthood. The initiation has several steps, including blessings by the elders and fetching water in a ceremonial gourd. The next morning, the water is ceremonially poured over the boy’s head before he “faces the knife.”

“You must not flinch or weep,” emphasized Tilas. We asked what happens if he reacts. “Then you bring disgrace on your family.” Ouch. Bravery is an important part of Samburu cultural pride, and the years leading up to initiation offer serious lessons in self-control before teens transition to warrior status as protectors of the community. Later they will mature into junior elders and be allowed to marry before becoming the elders who make decisions for the community.

We also learned that in a Samburu village each wife has her own home. All her children, whether conceived with the husband or not, belong to his family. Often the younger wives have partners other than their husbands, who might be old enough to be their fathers. It was curious to our western ears, but after meeting Augustine and Grace, somewhat relieving. He can fill the protector role, while she is able to pick a younger partner.

The village visit

We were excited as we clambered into the Land Cruisers for our drive to the village. I put on a pretty top to show my respect for the occasion, even though I had little idea about what to expect—or what was expected of us.

From our hilltop perch, we meandered down to the valley, past fields of cattle, goats and camels. Why camels? They drink little, yet produce rich milk to feed the clan. The Samburu had been diversifying their livestock portfolio for quite a while, but the recent drought that devastated their cattle populations convinced the Samburu that keeping camels was a wise choice.

We parked outside the boma fence like the ones we had seen from the air. Once inside we passed several wood-framed mud houses with thatch roofs. Children skittered about. It seemed like a quiet afternoon until we got to the dried riverbed where the action was about to begin.

A group of young men milled around, waiting restlessly. They were all dressed up, many wearing Pippi Longstocking-style striped socks under their colorful wraps. Girls with elaborate beads around their necks and shoulders gathered along a row of bushes. We were ushered to a spot near the teen girls, where we watched their mothers fuss over them, adjusting their necklaces and murmuring advice.

The mother of the new initiate stood with a group of elders under one of the few shade trees. Although it was after five, the sun was still hot. Philip, our emissary and guide to the village, told us that she wore a special skin over her skirts to denote her status as the mother of a new warrior. She looked proud, but tired. Nonetheless, she asked Philip to invite us over to the tree to introduce ourselves. One by one she asked our names, then repeated them and shook our hands. Her gesture made us feel like guests, not tourists.

While we were talking, rhythmic chanting, whoops and calls drifted up from the riverbed. One at a time, the guys started jumping. And jumping higher. From a dead stop, they shot straight up, their feet as high as their neighbor’s knees. Paul, one of our guides from Sarara and an impressive jumper, had colored his hair and neck red for the occasion. The girls watched with keen interest while the guys kept chanting and jumping. Eventually the girls joined in, and together they danced out of sight, their voices wafting back while we waited for them to return. It was an impressive show of playful contests, all designed to make a match—or many!

On our way back to the cars, the new warrior’s mom stood outside her house so she could invite us in. One by one we stooped under the wooden doorframe, stepping into a dark, smoky space with curved walls. Her son rested on a suspended goat-skin cot, a gourd of milk and blood hanging by his side. We offered our congratulations, and he smiled his thanks. He will stay at his mother’s house for the next month before heading out to the bush to assume his duties as a Samburu warrior.

Samburu sunrise

The next morning, our last full day at Sarara, we joined an early game drive to catch the sunrise.

Woman in blue jacket taking a photo sitting on top of a Land Cruiser at sunrise, Samburu County, Kenya

The morning was cool, the air fresh. Ian, our guide, knew just where to go to see the sun peek out from behind the mountains.

Samburu Sunrise, from safari game drive at Sarara Treehouses, Kenya

The drive was our best yet, with a reprise of giraffe and impala. On our way back to the lodge, Ian noticed a track in the dust. We stopped so he could take a good look. Sure enough, it was a lion’s print.

Male African hand with five colored beaded bracelets, measuring a lion's paw print, Samburu County, Kenya

But sighting a big cat had to wait until another day in another place. Our next stop, Maasai Mara, turned out to be our cat haven, with sightings of leopard, cheetah and prides of lions. But that’s another story and a post for another day.

Learn more …

Our trip leader was Kathy Karn, wildlife photographer and conservationist from the Toronto area. Her website, Kathy Karn Photographer is a treasure trove of photos and inspiring stories.

Ryan Snider of Socially Responsible Safaris worked with Kathy to organize the logistics for our trip.

The Sarara Foundation runs three ecotourism lodges with the Samburu people to protect the natural resources of the Namunyak Conservancy in central Kenya.

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  1. Ellen what a wonderful report on our magical time at Sarara! I enjoyed remembering our visit with the Samburu through your delightful story telling and images. Ashe Oleng!

    • Thank you Kathy. And thanks for organizing such a wonderful trip.

  2. After Tilas explained “cattle rescuing,” I asked him what he would call it if other people “rescued” his cattle. His response: “That would be harassment.” It clearly depends on whose ox is being gored — or rescued.

    • The guides’ sense of humor was amazing. A lot of truth-telling went on disguised as jokes.

  3. Thanks for the entertaining and rich reporting.

    • And thanks for reading!

  4. One goes on safari for the game viewing and comes back loving the people of Africa even more.

    • Absolutely! We expected to see the wildlife, but meeting the people made the trip truly special.

      • Great job sarara

  5. Trip of a lifetime!

    • It was. I’m so glad we went. It’s well worth the jet lag to have this experience.

  6. I was taken back to Sarara on a magic carpet reading your writing! Such a rich story and so well told. The quality of your photographs brought our unforgettable journey back to life.

    Thank you, Ellen, for this gift of a story,

    • Thank you Betsy for being such a fantastic traveling companion. It was a pleasure to share this amazing experience with you.

  7. Very informative, and as always beautifully descriptive.

    • Thank you Freni. If you can swing it, you should try to schedule a trip to Kenya. It’s not so far for you, and it’s a wonderful experience.

  8. What a wonderful journey you’ve shared with us, Ellen! Your stories and photos really brought this place to life for me. Thank you.

    • Many thanks Cynthia.

  9. The wildlife alone took my breath away and I always wanted to stay in the treetop hotel years and years ago but your Sarara Treehouses look even better. And your photos made me feel like I was there! Another trip of a lifetime.

    • Thank you Carolyn. One of the joys of this trip was traveling with great people. Kathy Karn, our organizer, planned a wonderful itinerary for us and introduced us to locals who welcomed us warmly.

  10. Ellen
    What a wonderful way to remember the first official stop on our journey. Thank you so much for your story shared with elegance, respect and joy.

    • Thank you so much Olaf. It was a joy to travel with you and great fun to meet you.

  11. Thank you, as always, for nourishing my vicarious traveler! Another amazing place to add to my list.

  12. Beautiful photos and stories, Ellen. Africa is an amazing country with so much diversity.
    My husband, Mike, and I went on a photo tour to South Africa last March. You motivate me to get back to editing my images.

  13. Beautifully done. I feel like I was with you. Would have been even more spectacular if I was.

  14. Thank you, Ellen, for this new view of the safari Kathy Karn organized for you and this group! What wonderful photos, especially those of the Samburu people!

  15. Ellen, your photos and colorful descriptions of your adventures are inspiring me to want to travel there! I am intrigued by their gorgeous and interesting costumes and adornments, the impalas caught mid-air, the humor of the guides, seeing you photographing from atop of the jeep (yikes – how did you get up there – and down!), and the special opportunities you had of attending the post-circumcision ceremony as guests – lucky you! Thanks for capturing and sharing such a unique experience.


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