My Time at Saruni Rhino, by Sacha Craig

The perfect combination of community conservation in action and the luxury of Saruni Rhino

I recently moved back to Kenya from London and started working for Saruni shortly after. Of course, the obvious thing to do first is to head out on a FAM! Being a sales representative for many years in London these opportunities didn’t come around very often, so I grabbed this one with both hands! I managed to persuade my parents to come along with me, mainly so I had a private pilot (my father is an extremely talented pilot and if you have stayed with us at Lewa Wilderness you may well have flown with him yourself!).

The most beautiful thing about flying into Saruni Rhino is seeing from the air, Mount Ololokwe – the Sacred mountain of the North. A spectacle in its own right. Of course, most of our clients will fly direct from Nairobi to Kalama on Safari Link or Air Kenya and then drive 2 hours to Saruni Rhino. But do remember, Saruni Rhino has its own airstrip and you can take a private charter to within a 10-minute drive of the lodge!

Sammy (your host) and his team are there to greet you on arrival with a very welcome cold towel and a delicious freshly-squeezed orange juice. There are a lot of lodges throughout Kenya and Africa with some pretty cool WOW factor entrances, but there is something about arriving at Saruni Rhino that feels very much like you have just got to the beach, but in the middle of the bush!  Your first sight of the lodge as you drive in, is a very inviting swimming pool that looks over a huge ‘Lugga’ – a dry sandy river bed on which the lodge is built alongside the banks. The doum palms that line the lugga give even more of a beach feel and provide the lodge with the perfect shade and shelter from the Sera heat.

This is actually something a lot of people misjudge about Northern Kenya is the change in landscape and temperature. Sera Community Conservancy is approximately 150 kms north of Lewa and it drops around 2,000 ft. The landscape is dry and dusty and is an incredible change from the more luscious Laikipia plains, but yet not far at all. Not to mention a completely different ecosystem from the Mara.

The community-based tourism ethos at Saruni is wonderful and you certainly get this feeling while staying at Saruni Rhino; Sammy is from the Sera Community and is wonderful to talk to, with amazing insight and knowledge of the area and of course of the new rhino sanctuary. Saruni are among the founding members of Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) which is one of the leading community-owned wildlife conservancy’s in Kenya. They are very proud to be a part of this organisation and play a part in the vital connection between communities and conservation through their influence of tourism.

The lodge is small and intimate with only three bandas; each positioned carefully under a suitably shady doum palm along the banks of the dry river bed. The views from the bandas are unbeatable; completely wild and overlook a waterhole in the dry river bed, which has a family of elephants drinking at it daily. 

MY TIP – Make the most of the swing bed or sun beds outside your banda for an afternoon siesta! Perfectly shaded and a great view of the water hole!

Why come to Saruni Rhino… of course to go tracking endangered black rhino on foot! This is the only place in Kenya that you can actually do this. Yes, there are other conservancies, such as Lewa and Borana to name a few that you can also go walking and see black rhino.

However, at Saruni Rhino you are merely out to track black rhino with the help of the Sera rangers using all the natural tracking methods such as; sight, smell, wind direction, dung and broken branches to name a few.

You set out from the lodge, which is a 30 minutes’ game drive to the sanctuary. Sammy your host, can also be your guide (along with Joseph and Sambara from the Saruni Samburu lodge) with four or five armed Sera rangers, who are the amazing men and women who protect these rhino on a daily basis.

The sanctuary is 54,000 hectares in the centre of the wider 350,000-hectare Sera Community Conservancy. There are with currently 15 resident rhino, along with plenty of other game, but please remember the Saruni Rhino guests have complete exclusivity of this incredible experience and landscape, which is very rare now days in Kenya!

The tracking experience is exhilarating! You may spend half an hour or up to two hours slowly walking through the bush tracking. The rangers have multiple hand signals which are all explained beforehand, but you as walk and get closer and closer to the rhino you have been following, your group becomes silent as you start crouching and tip-toeing closer to the black rhino who may well be a few meters away from you.

I have never been that close to a male black rhino on foot before, I don’t think you get a real idea of just how big they are from the comfort of your safari car! But this is an experience I cannot encourage enough and rate more highly! To put you at ease, you feel completely safe in the hands of these rangers and they make the experience what it is.

We had a pretty successful tracking afternoon, seeing a big male rhino but we were also lucky enough to fit another tracking of a mother a calf into the same afternoon. Most guests will stay two nights at Saruni Rhino to ensure they see a rhino!! But some get lucky like we did and will see more they barged for!

The welcome home to the lodge that evening after a long afternoon of walking was another spectacle for me.  The fire lit in the middle of the dry river bed with comfy dhow seats await you. What else can be done other than kick your shoes off, stick your feet in the sand and order a delicious G&T while you gaze endlessly at the perfect night sky.

A lot of people do ask what else is there to do at Saruni Rhino, other than track black rhino, like that’s not enough!! BUT  there are two pretty spectacular things that are unique in this area of Kenya which we did, and I cannot recommend enough!

Firstly, waking up at the crack of dawn to go and see the amazing Lichtenstein sandgrouse spectacle. These rare birds are only found up in northern Kenya and they travel for miles in huge flocks to water near Kisima Hamsini (‘Fifty Wells’ also known to many as ‘The Singing Wells’). We left the lodge around 6am to watch them water at 7-7.30 am and it was a sight not to be missed. The noise of the birds flocking in to water is something I can’t even explain, but a truly magical sight.

We were surprised by a very pleasant picnic breakfast in sight of wells after witnessing the sandgrouse spectacle! If there is something Saruni gets right, it’s their food! So many delicious options for a picnic breakfast and some of the best coffee I have ever had in the bush!

A privilege is an understatement, when you get the chance to visit the Singing Wells. Kisima Hamsini (The Singing Wells) is a relatively famous spot in this area. A dry river bed with multiple wells dug down for underground water. Samburu herders will walk for miles and miles to get to Kisima Hamsini in the dry season to give their cattle water. Witnessing the Singing Wells in action is somewhat biblical – something you are not allowed to take photos of, but peacefully in the background you are able to watch the warriors pull water from their individual well, whilst they sing. The song echoes up the well to attract their herd of cattle in for water. Amazing to think that with so many warriors and cattle in such close proximity each warrior’s song draws in their own herd of cattle to their well.  Truly astonishing!

Image courtesy of Saruni lodges

There is something to be said about escaping the ‘normal’ and by normal, I mean the crowds of major national reserves and escaping into the pure wilderness that northern Kenyan has to offer, in particular Sera, where it’s just you in 350,000 hectares being hosted by the local Samburu community.

Staying at Saruni Rhino and getting the opportunity to walk with rangers to track black rhino is an experience that showcases pure community culture and conservation in action and is a rare experience that shouldn’t be missed. It was my ideal few days in the bush and I’m sure will be for many more to come.