Searching for the real queens of Shaba

A ealk along Ewaso Nyiro at Sarova Shaba. Photo | Rupi Mangat

What you need to know:

  • Built around the underground springs that gurgle through the doum-palm gardens, it was one of Joy Adamson’s camps, she of the ‘Born Free’ fame
  • Having successfully raised Elsa, the orphaned lioness and Pippa the cheetah and returning them to the wild

We’re on the return from Loiyangalani on Turkana’s south-eastern tip and on day seven with two nights in the comfort of Sarova Shaba. The drought in Kenya’s northern drylands is biting. There’s little water in the Ewaso Nyiro, the river that is akin to the Nile for the Egyptians.

The severity of the drought is even more pronounced on reaching Natorbe gate to Shaba National Reserve. Herders from the northern rangelands are milled around at the gate while others are herding their camels out of the national reserve.

Ewaso Nyiro running low during drought in Shaba Natinal Reserve. Photo | Rupi Mangat

“We have just finished a meeting with them (herders) and they have agreed to move the camels out,” tells the ranger at the gate. It’s been an amicable meeting addressing the perennial issue of drought. The reserve unlike a national park allows for some leeway for the herders to access the pastures during lean times. The concern now is that droughts are happening after every five to seven years and they’re more prolonged than in previous years. According to a recent report by the UN International Panel on Climate Change, it’s ‘Code Red for humanity’, meaning we’re entering a period of severe heating caused by ourselves – and we must address the issue by lessening our dependence on fossil fuels – or else we’re going to fry.

It’s late afternoon checking in at Sarova Shaba Lodge on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro. Built around the underground springs that gurgle through the doum-palm gardens, it was one of Joy Adamson’s camps, she of the ‘Born Free’ fame. Having successfully raised Elsa, the orphaned lioness and Pippa the cheetah and returning them to the wild which was a first in history, Adamson settled in Shaba with the eight-week old Penny the leopard in 1976 after a ranger found her and alerted George Adamson aka Bwana Simba, Joy’s husband who had been the senior warden of the then Northern Frontier District (NFD) from 1938 to 1961. The NFD included Shaba, a vastly closed territory, little-known to the rest of the world. 

Joy’s book on Penny the leopard was titled ‘Queen of Shaba’. Penny also successfully returned to the wild and had her cubs. The book was published after Joy’s murder in Shaba by a staff in 1980. Adamson shared the book proceeds to supporting conservation projects.

Searching for the Queen of Shaba

We hear of leopard sightings and at dawn we’re watching the ethereal sunrise in the reserve. Our mission is to find a leopard since we know that Penny had hers in the reserve.

Shaba is surreal – tough grasses, acacia forests and white moonscapes against the line of hills. We follow the shallow flow of the Ewaso Nyiro with her wide mud flats and doum palms. The ‘Samburu Special’ are around – long-necked gerenuks standing on their hind legs browsing on thorny shrubs, purple-necked Somali ostrich, stately Beisa oryx with long piercing horns, finely patterned Reticulated giraffes with the equally finely stripped Grevy’s zebra, all adapted to living in the drylands.

Relaxing by swimming pool at Sarova Shabat in Shaba Natinal Reserve. Photo | Rupi Mangat

Above, the vultures ride the thermals to fly over vast territories in search of carcasses. We tick the eagles and goshawks. The LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs not to be confused with LBD i.e. little black dress) flitting around drive me mad. I know of William’s Lark, a LBD that was only described in 1955 – and Shaba is the only protected area that has it. Serious birders go to great lengths to tick these rarities like the time l found myself with a group in search of the Somali sparrow (another LBJ) in Kapedo, north of Baringo.

The game drive ends without a dalliance with the Queen of Shaba. But back at the lodge, one group tells of seeing her.

The rest of the morning is spent strolling along the river, spotting the resident crocodiles and the Yellow-billed storks sunning themselves. A monitor lizard quietly makes its way to the pool to drink with its forked tongue as a pure white Great egret wanders by the fish-filled ponds. The lodge is part of their home.


Stay at Sarova Shaba

It’s a modern lodge complete with a swimming pool, spa and special offers for the travellers. It’s 313 kms north of Nairobi on the A2 tarmac road. From Shaba, you can also explore Samburu and Buffalo Springs national reserves with one ticket. Hence in the afternoon we cross the A2 into Buffalo Springs.

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