Heritage tourism in Marsabit offers alternative to wildlife and beaches

The signage of Koobi Fora Museum at Sibiloi National Park, regarded as the Cradle of Mankind. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI

What you need to know:

  • Kenya has developed an over-reliance on wildlife and the Indian Ocean beaches as tourist attractions
  • With its rich cultural heritage, Marsabit County is the best bet for heritage tourism

For many years, Marsabit has been considered a prime example of all that is wrong in Kenya.

Placed at the periphery of policy makers' agendas, the region suffers from insecurity and poor road and communication networks.

But Marsabit County could help boost the tourism industry in Kenya by offering an alternative form of tourism: heritage tourism.

According to the National Tourism Industry Strategy, 2013-2018, Kenya has developed an over-reliance on wildlife and the Indian Ocean beaches as tourist attractions.

While Kenyan wildlife coupled with beaches have in the past made Kenya one of Africa’s top tourist destinations, the strategy paper notes the urgent need for players in the industry to diversity their products.

Both wildlife and their habitats are threatened by climate change with poaching posing a big challenge to the industry while Kenyan beaches are facing stiff competition from the pristine beaches of Mauritius and Zanzibar.

In these circumstances, Kenya has to shift its focus from beach and safari products to cultural and historical destinations.

With its rich cultural heritage, Marsabit County is the best bet for heritage tourism.

The County has always carried a mystique of the remote and unexplored. It boasts six World Heritage Sites, a part of 981 properties forming part of the cultural and natural heritage which the World Heritage Committee considers as having outstanding universal value.

A combination of different ethnic groups and spectacular landscapes ensure a memorable stay.

In the largest county in Kenya, covering an area of 70,961.3 square kilometres, one is truly spoilt for choice.


Sibiloi National Park borders the eastern shores of Lake Turkana, the planet’s biggest permanent desert lake, offering untamed landscapes consisting of islands, shorelines, deserts, volcanoes and forested mountains inhabited by a multitude of peoples of diverse traditions.
Covering 1,570 square kilometres of scenic wilderness, the park, which is about 800 kilometres from Nairobi, offers much more than just wildlife. The semi-desert ecosystem was established to protect wildlife as well as the unique prehistoric and archaeological sites, some of which are linked to the origin of man.

The park is waterless except for the alkaline lake but still boasts of a variety of wildlife including common zebra, giraffe, hippos, crocodiles and numerous bird species such as flamingos, pelicans and ducks.

But the main attraction of Sibiloi National Park is Koobi Fora; the Cradle of Mankind. Visiting the park takes one back millions of years in time.

Scientists have found the earliest evidence of man who walked upright as well as animal domestication.

The park was partially established through an initiative of the National Museums of Kenya and in 1997, it was inscribed on the World Heritage list by UNESCO. (UNESCO World Heritage List)

It houses the Koobi Fora Museum and Research Station where thousands of fossils dated over millions of years have been found.

Koobi Fora holds an unsurpassed archive of human prehistory and is renowned for its fossils sites. Ancient Kenyan history indicates that early forms of man once roamed the region from approximately 4 million years ago.

The fossils includes a giant tortoise, a 45 foot long crocodile and a giant elephant believed to have lived millions of years ago with their remains still intact in the exact places they were discovered.

More than 70 hominid fossils had been recovered from this area which holds the world’s richest record of human ancestry spanning over 27 million years and a rich fossil heritage stretching back over 100 million years into the dinosaur age. The experience of visiting Koobi Fora gives one the sense of “coming home” to the origin of every man. Here, one finds an answer to the question every human faces: Where do I come from?

Sibiloi National Park borders Lake Turkana providing breath-taking views of the shorelines which also serves as an important breeding ground for the Nile crocodile.

Another attraction at the park is the Petrified Forest which contains the remains of primeval forests. The forest serves as an example that the effects of climate change are real.


Marsabit National Reserve covers an area of 1,500 square kilometres and consists of a forested mountain that rises like an oasis in the middle of the desert wilderness.

The reserve has three spectacular crater lakes that provide a habitat for a variety of birds.

Located 560 kilometres north of Nairobi, Marsabit National Reserve can be accessed both by road and air. It is served by an airstrip, located only one kilometre north of Marsabit town.

Apart from Lake Paradise, the Reserve has some of the largest elephants in the country such as Ahmed who was provided with 24 hour protection by presidential order.

Ahmed who boasted some of the biggest tusks ever recorded died aged 55 and his body was preserved and is now on display at Nairobi National Museum.


Chalbi desert is the only terrain in the whole of East Africa that can be classified as a true desert.

Located east of Lake Turkana, Chalbi desert is the largest permanent lake desert in the world and is believed to be the hottest and most arid region in Kenya.

Chalbi, which in the local language means bare and salty, is believed to have been a lake that dried up millions of years ago.


For those looking to interact with the smallest tribe in Kenya, Loiyangalani is a fascinating place to visit.

Loiyangalani is a small native town located on the southern coast of the Lake Turkana. In the native Samburu language, the name Loiyangalani means a place of many trees.

Loiyangalani is the home of the El molos, the smallest tribe in Kenya still living in their traditional ways.

Located on top of a hill, with the picturesque Lake Turkana as a backdrop, the Desert Museum in Loiyangalani was opened in June 2008.

In a bid to promote local and international tourism in the region, the National Museums of Kenya in collaboration with other partners organise the Lake Turkana Festival, a cultural festival held annually in Loiyangalani to celebrate the culture of the region.

The Marsabit County government says that it ready to work with the Kenya Tourism Board and the National Museums of Kenya to promote heritage tourism, with county governor Ukur Yatani says that his government is investing in infrastructure to make the sights easily accessible to both local and international tourists.