Garissa County

Discover Garissa County

View of wildlife in Garissa.  Photo Courtesy
View of wildlife in Garissa. Image Courtesy

Brief Overview of Garissa County

Garissa is reached on a good road from Nairobi, through Thika and Mwingi, which runs across the northern portions of Kitui and Tana River Counties and forms the main line of communication to its capital town of Garissa, 369 kms away. Owing to the comparatively low rainfall and to the indigenous practice of overgrazing with both cattle and goats, the vegetal profile after Thika is mainly of the thick thorn-bush type with little grass. Around Mwingi, where the road crosses the River Kanginga, the ground slopes away eastwards with a few low-lying hills. Rising abruptly from this plain are three small hills – Endau (4,387 ft), Engamba (3,100 ft) and Kandelongwe (1,570 ft). This featureless plain, on which are wide-spaced valleys and scanty inselbergs, continues eastwards and north-eastwards until Garissa Town is reached (situated on its western border).

The perception that venturing to Garissa County is only for the strong-minded and intransigent intrepid is slowly changing.  Indeed, the budding hospitality in Garissa Town is a great indication that it’s turning a new leaf. The proximity of Garissa Town to Lamu Island makes it ideal for linkage through to the Northern Frontier. What’s more, the fascinating and rich traditional culture of the Somali Community who inhabit Garissa offers one of the greatest cultural extravaganza found in Kenya.​ Still relatively untravelled, it does offers a chance to explore an unusual landscape, full with extremes. For the most part, Garissa County is flat and low-lying country without hills, valleys and mountains – a vast featureless plains sloping south and southeast from an altitude of about 300 ms to sea level near Kiunga in Lamu – making communication easy and extraordinarily scenic.

Large tree, like Acacia, are found only along its drainage ways. What is opulent, on an unprecedented scale, is scattered shrub and grasslands spreading out in unbroken patches of tens of kilometres at a time, and which supports a sizeable amount of wildlife. Almost all its parks have abundant game, yet, because of the rarity of vehicles its wildlife is shy. Excepting the Bour-Algi Giraffe Sanctuary found near Garissa Town, its other reserves (Rahole, Arawale, Ishaqbini Hirola, Boni and Lag Badana) are far-flung, either on its extreme corners or along its boundaries. Garissa Town serves as a great jump-off to explore its reserves and sanctuaries. From Garissa Town, the road swings east through Daadab to Liboi at the Kenya-Somalia border. Besides A3 Nairobi-Garissa Road, the B9 Isiolo-Mandera Road runs across its northern region from Garba Tula to Harbeswein. 

Salient Features of Garissa County

  • County Number 07
  • Area – 44174 km2
  • Altitude – 20 to 400 ms
  • Major Towns – Garissa, Masalani, Hulugho
  • Borders – Lamu, Tana River, Isiolo, Wajir

Brief History of Garissa County

Garissa County (part of NFD) was carved out of Jubaland territory of present-day southern Somalia during the colonial period. Like most regions in Kenya, Garissa had its share of tragedies arising from the colonial era, notably of the Garissa Bulla Kartasi Massacre of 1980. Garissa County experienced political oppression and economic exclusion by the government until very recently. The unconcern for Garissa County goes back a long way. In 1960, the NFD, guided by the Northern Province People’s Progressive Party, sought to secede it from Kenya and be reunited with Somalia; but it failed. This did not sit well with the Government and it was rendered a ‘closed space’ on a national level, perhaps to reinforce ethnic consciousness. As this went on, the Shifta Wars that pitted the Government against the NFDLA begun in December 1963, further alienating it.

Aerial view of Hirola Ishaqbini Conservancy.  Photo Courtesy of Northern Rangelands Trust
Aerial view of Hirola Ishaqbini Conservancy. Image Courtesy of the NRT

Places of Interest in Garissa County

1. River Tana

Although River Tana never get into Garissa County at any point, it is the major physical features in Garissa County and a very important life-line.  River Tana flows just over the entire western boundary of Garissa County, destined south to the Indian Ocean. It has a big effect on climate and it can be noted that most settlement patterns and economic activities within Garissa County are centered around Tana River.  Although it is 5 kms beyond the boundary of Garissa Town, it is the permanent source of water for the Somali People and the livestocks of Garissa – which is the cornerstone economic activity. It is perhaps needless to point out that Garissa, almost in its entirety, is a water-deficient area and life is an endless search for water (for those living far from River Tana) at laghas or seasonal riverbeds which water runs occasionally. Season come season go, the people of Garissa have petitioned for the 4 kms-wide strip of riverine along the boundary of Garissa and Tana River Counties to be scrapped, with little success.

2. Almond Resort

Almond Resort, near Garissa Town, represents part of fast-growing hospitality industry in Garissa catering to the middle-budget business and casual travellers to this region. Almond Resort ticks all the boxes of a modern resort to include, but not limited to, large spacious rooms with AC, cable TV, internet and king-size bed, swimming pool, gym and spa, outdoor garden, terrace and a business centre. All in all, the resort has 75 en-suite rooms (45 standard rooms and 30 deluxe rooms) housed in a two-storey complex overlooking the swimming pool and gardens. All things considered, this resort in company with Nomad Palace Hotel and Lantern Resort are among the greatest attractions today in Garissa County. This is exemplary in Garissa in that they cater, luxuriously, for business and casual travellers to the region. It is located just 5 kms from Garissa Airport.

Spatial Location of Almond Resort in Garissa County
Spatial Location of Almond Resort in Garissa County

3. Suuq Mugdi Market

Garissa Town has two main markets, the Suuq Mugdi and the Municipal Stage Market – although micro enterprises are generally spread in all streets of the town. Suuq Mugdi Market, also dubbed as the ‘dark market’, provides a better experience, and it is to Garissa Town what Lamu Market is for Lamu Island – a stripped-down version of the community. At the least, a visit to the market is a moment to pause the general anxiety carried on a trip to Garissa County – by extension NFD – and it is a rare opportunity to get to the heart and DNA of the people of Garissa who, much to the surprise of many, are a very friendly coterie.

4. Garissa Culture and Heritage Center

Garissa is rich in the ancestry and heritage of the Somali Culture, and Garissa Culture and Heritage Center, within Garissa Town, is of a national importance and is dutifully the equivalent of a Garissa Museum. Each year, in September, it hosts a cultural week when residents meet here to exchange ideas and to impart the future generations with rich centuries old traditions. Progress in developing and promoting the center are almost continuous, and of a recent development the County Government of Garissa approved Shs. 30 M for the construction of a multi-purpose hall and gallery museum in a bid to bolster the efforts to protect both the tangible and intangible facets of the Somali Culture. Highlights include a display of the ethnographic pottery making technology practiced for centuries by the Jareer Clan (a Cushitic-speaking community of Garissa County), and an exposition, in pictographs, of the migration of refugees into the globally-famed Dadaab Refugee Camp, quoted as one of the largest of its kind across the world.

5. Garissa Solar Power Plant

Another, and yet to be an increasingly popular location in Garissa is the Garissa Solar Power Plant, located about 20 kms north of the main Garissa Town. Here, in a thoroughgoing effort to harness solar energy, sits one the finest examples of Kenya’s mettlesome goals of tapping into clean renewable energy, diversifying the power generation intermix and reducing energy costs. Currently this project is contributing about 2% of the national energy mix and has significantly led to a reduction of energy costs in the country, thereby promoting the development of clean, reliable, sustainable, and affordable energy. “Garissa power plant has proved to be an exemplary project with many environmental advantages. Due to that, we shall be investing more on sustainable means of energy production in future,” REREC chairman Simon Gicheru. The 54.6 megawatt (MW) plant, the largest in East Africa, begun injecting power to the grid and has lend a hand to cut reliance on high-cost geothermal power, with a drop in use of the cheaper hydro power following the dry spell. The 85-hectare solar plant, built by China Jiangxi International (K) Limited at a cost of Sh13.5 billion, comprises 300,000 solar panels that generate 76,410 MWh a year; enough to power 621,100 homes.

6. Bour-Algi Giraffe Sanctuary

The 121 km2 Bour-Algi Giraffe Sanctuary, a community-based and community-held sanctuary located a short distance from Garissa Town, was established as an initiative by the locals to host the internally displaced giraffes that had been affected by the Kenya-Somalia border fracas. “First to arrive was a colony of 30 giraffes, some of which, residents say, had gunshot wounds” – Standard Media. With adequate protection and abundance of acacia trees, the giraffes prospered, leading to its recognition by Kenya Wildlife Service. Since 1991, the population has grown to over 60 reticulated giraffes that now call it home. The Bour-Algi Giraffe Sanctuary is hosted within the Bour-Algi Village, which is set along the riverine strip of River Tana.  Today, this sanctuary is associated with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, National Museums of Kenya, Wildlife Direct and the Somali locals, who collectively support it. Other wildlife seen here include Kirk’s dik-dik, Gerenuk, lesser kudu and warthog. It’s located 10 kms south of Garissa.

7. Rahole National Reserve

This is situated 72 kms north of Garissa Town and is contiguous with the Kora National Park to the west. The extensive 1,270 km2 Rahole National Reserve, which is by and large is a tract of dense thorny dry bushland, offers out of the ordinary scenery owing to the fact that it is a rarely explored reserve. While it is entirely safe to visit Rahole National Reserve, it has no accommodation and, likewise, the adjoining Kora National Park on the eastern flanks of Tana River, has no accommodation and trippers must be self-sufficient. Rahole once held significant numbers of elephants and rhinos which were raged by poaching in the 1970’s.  At present, there are no displays of the big-game aside from giraffes.

Spatial Location of Rahole National Reserve in Garissa County
Spatial Location of Rahole National Reserve in Garissa County

8. Merti Plateau

Merti Plateau in the northwest frontier of Garissa County forms an important potential source of ground water for the water-scarce region from Habaswein up to the Kenya-Somalia border.  Not far from Merti town, ground water of top-tier quality has been run-down and which can be acquired from many aquifers pinpointed by experts in the Merti Plateau via boreholes drilled to depths of 110-150 metres. Merti Plateau, extending 160 kms west of Habaswein, offers a one-of-its-kind scenery composed of a featureless plain of grey silt interspersed by a badland of red granitic rocks stretching as far the eye can see, giving it the illusion of an unending desert. It’s best seen along the B9 Isiolo-Mandera Road from Garba Tula onto Habaswein or at the edge of Merti Town in Isiolo County.

9. River Ewaso Nyiro

The boundaries between Garissa and Isiolo and Garissa and Wajir are roughly demarcated by the River Ewaso Nyiro’s drainway, which rises on the west side of Mount Kenya and courses north then east bound to water the dry plains that stretch east from the Great Rift Valley (Laikipia, Isiolo, Samburu and Marsabit) before reaching Garissa County. Along its entire treacherous journey over these semi-arid plains, the murky waters of Ewaso Nyiro are a life giving support. By the time it nears Garissa, it is in all ways a pale shadow of itself, reduced only to a non-perennial transient stream. The Ewaso Nyiro River finally disappears at Habaswein, at the western end of Lorian Swamp. Wildlife in particular – at the Buffalo Springs, Shaba and Samburu National Reserves – benefit tremendously from the Ewaso which passes through these reserves. Of all the rivers in Kenya, Ewaso Nyiro is one of the most critical for its wildlife heritage, yet its drying – as experts warn is imminent – will be the most catastrophic loss for the region.

10. Lorian Swamp

The Ewaso Nyiro River flows for over 450 kms before it finally reaches the lofty bed of reeds, near Habaswein in the northern corner of Garissa County, simply known as Lorian Swamp. The 151 km2 Lorian Swamp, which means swamp in the native Laigop dialect, was first cited by William A. Chanler and Ludwig Von Hohnel in 1898, who detailed it as “of a great extent filled with high reeds.”  The voluminous Ewaso Nyiro River drainage that also includes the Lorian Swamp is a critical life-line in Garissa County. Little is known of the Lorian Swamp due to the hostile terrain and inaccessibility, despite being one of the largest wetlands. 

11. Dadaab Camp

From Habaswein, officially marking the northwestern corner of Garissa County, a deserted road takes southerly from here to terminates at the much publicized Dadaab Refugee Camp – 160 kms away – which is popularly chronicled as ‘the largest refugee camp in the world’. The scale of Dadaab Camp as seen on any aerial photos is massive and incomprehensible. It is overwhelming at ground level!  It has five separate refugee precincts within it – Dagahaley, Ifo 1, Ifo 2, Kambioos and Hagadera – which collectively hosts a population of 400,000 refugees, making it one of the world’s largest. Dadaab is a very unique area, in the sense that it not only hosts a large population of refugees but also because the refugees, who are mostly of Somali descent, freely interact with the native Somali host community on issues such as trade, livestock, and marriage. Still and all, Dadaab was a temporary solution which no one would have expected could mushroom to this extent. So much so, that the Government’s attempt to shut it down in 2019, and expedite relocation of the refugees residing therein, was a cause of international concern that also violated the 1951 United Nations Convention on refugees. Three decades later, Dadaab is still steadily expanding.

The first camp was established in 1991, when refugees fleeing the civil war in Somalia started to cross the border into Kenya. A second large influx occurred in 2011, when some 130,000 refugees arrived, fleeing drought and famine in southern Somalia. – UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency

12. Arawale National Reserve

This is situated 124 kms south of Garissa Town and is reached on B8 Garissa-Bura-Lamu Road which crosses it on the western flank. The 513 km2 Arawale National Reserve, made up of a sweep of arid bushland on the eastern bank of River Tana, is inter-territorial and is shared with Tana River County. Started in 1974, it was the first wildlife sanctuary set-up primarily to conserve the relic Hunter’s Hartebeest, locally known as Hirola, which is a critically threatened gazelle endemic to north-eastern Kenya and the southwest region of Somalia. There is no accommodation and adventure-makers who visit Arawale National Reserve must have a strong wish to venture off the beaten circuits and be fully self-contained. Most visiting Arawale Reserve make Bura the jumping-off place.

Spatial Location of Arawale National Reserve
Spatial Location of Arawale National Reserve

Hirola or Hunter’s Hartebeest is a local variant of the Hartebeest with horns longer than those of the common Hartebeest and bear some resemblance to those of the impala. It is far smaller than the Kongoni and slightly larger than the impala. It has a long, gainly face, a red coat and lyrate horns similar to the impala’s. It’s highly rare and inhabits a small area on the north bank of the River Tana.

13. Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy

In the southwestern quarter of Garissa at Ijara sits the 19 km2 Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, globally-famous for retaining part of the last remaining Hirola or Hunter’s Hartebeest. A trip up to this conservancy gives you a scenic driving tour, especially from Garsen – 166 kms south of Bura – to Kotile location, 36 kms from Garsen. Here again, the route is served with bushland strewn with acacia and far-between hills. Much the same as Bour-Algi Giraffe Sanctuary, Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy was begun as a local innitiative by the people of Korissa, Hara and Kotile to conserve wildlife. “The conservancy has employed 20 community scouts to patrol the conservancy 24 hours a day and a team of managers and labourers also from the community to build the infrastructure” – Rupi Mangat. In a rare twist of conservation, these communities built houses around Ishaqbini to ensure wildlife was secure.  Today, it holds a collection of the rarest, and in 2016, a pair of white giraffes also known as leucistic giraffe were spotted in Ishaqbini Conservancy. This became the second reported of its sighting in Africa, next to one in 2015 in Tanzania’s Tarangire’s National Park.

See a Pair of Rare White Giraffes | Nat Geo Wild

14. Lake Ishaqbini

This thriving 2.5 km2 lake, whose name is “derived from the Orma words ishaq for wetland and bini for mosquitoes”, is at most times of the day – especially at dusk and dawn – called in on by bushbuck, zebra, waterbuck, the inconspicuous Harvey’s Red Duiker and a very impressive diversity of birds that come to water and escape the heat of the day. The shallow oxbow Lake Ishaqbini, in Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy – after which it is named after, is found near bank of River Tana and which it links to during prolonged rains. In the early morning hours, a small group of Cape buffaloes convene at the Lake to feed on the aquatic foliage.

15. Boni National Reserve

On a much grander scale, and more easily approached from Lamu, is the 1,339 km2 Boni National Reserve situated at the extreme southeast corner of Garissa County in between Dodori National Reserve, in Lamu County, and Lag Badana Bushbush National Park, in Somalia. Established in 1976, as a dry season refuge for elephants and other wild animals, this far-out backwoods reserve, covering a roomy area of indigenous coastal forest, has a sizable concentrations of valuable hardwoods, most of which are listed as very rare, vulnerable or endangered.  Its 680 km2 forest section is the only notable forest in Garissa County. Enclosed in this rarely visited forest are many ancient sacred and traditional groves used by the Bajuni, Somali and Boni Communities as well as a handful of historic sights and cultural landmarks.  The open canopy forest of Boni National Reserve is a part of the broad and continental Northern Zanzibar-Inhambane coastal forest. In recent years, it has gained unwelcome notoriety as a ‘lair’ for the Al Shabaab.

Spatial Location of Boni National Reserve in Garissa County
Spatial Location of Boni National Reserve in Garissa County

16. Lag Badana National Park

Also dubbed as the Bushbush Park, the 3,341 km2 Lag Badana National Park, contiguous with Boni National Reserve along the Kenya-Somalia border, was decisively the first national park established in Somalia, in the 1980’s. Aside from its pristine coastline, Lag Badana National Park has almost 200 vascular vegetal species.  Of these, almost 20 are classified as endemic.  Although not a common travel corridor, the two (Boni and Lag Badana Park) are linked at Ras Kamboni at the Indian Ocean, from where one can travel northeasterly to Lag Badana’s pristine beaches. While it is still unconfirmed whether cheetahs are still present in Somalia, they may be extant in the southern area of Lag Badana.

Entrance at the Almond Resort near Garissa Town.  Photo Courtesy
Entrance at the Almond Resort near Garissa Town. Image Courtesy

Geography of Garissa County

Garissa County is basically flat and low-lying without notable hills, valleys and mountains. It rises from a low altitude of 20 ms to 400 ms. The major physical features are seasonal laghas and the Tana River Basin on the western side. The River Tana has tremendous effect on the climate, its settlement patterns and on economic activities within the county. Given the arid nature of Garissa County, there is great potential for expansion of agriculture through harnessing of River Tana and the laghas.  Aside from a few areas like Balambala, the rest of Garissa County has sandy soils that support only scattered shrubs and grasslands, and which are ideal for livestock production. Garissa County land is highly erodible.

Land Use in Garissa County

Pastoralism is the salient economic enterprise of Garissa County.  Much of the County’s livestock population are indigenous sheep, goats and cattle, found in the southern parts, which receives more rain; while its camels occupy the drier north. During the dry season, there is a general migration of livestock from the hinterland to areas near River Tana where water is readily available. However, some move with their livestock to adjacent counties of Tana River and to Lamu.

Highlights of Garissa County

Garissa County has a high potential for tourism development. This includes its wide range of wildlife such as Hirola, lions, giraffes and zebras. Furthermore its has a rich Somali traditional culture and a highly developed hospitality industry in Garissa Town. The proximity of Garissa County to the tourist coastal town of Lamu makes it ideal for linkage through a tourist circuit. This, coupled with the rich traditional culture of its Somali clans, would enormously boost its tourism.

Population of Garissa County

The average population density in Garissa County is 16 people/km2. Garissa Town has the highest population density of 194 people/km2.  Garissa County had a total population of 699,534 in 2012 (consisting of 375,985 males and 323,549 females). The population was projected to increase to 785,976 and to 849,457 persons in 2015 and 2017.  Urban population in Garissa accounts for 16%. It has two major towns – Garissa and Masalani, and six unclassified urban centres – Balambala, Bura East, Dadaab, Modogashe, Nanighi and Hulugho.

View of Hirola or Hunter's Hartebeest in Garissa.  Photo Courtesy of Juliet King
Hirola or Hunter’s Hartebeest in Garissa. Image Courtesy of Juliet King

Airports in Garissa County

There are 8 airstrips in Garissa County, 2 at Garissa and one each at Lagdera, Hulugho, Fafi, Balambala, Dadaab and Ijara. Garissa Airport has regular flights from Nairobi. Its IATA code is GAS, while its ICAO code is HKGA.

Roads in Garissa County

Garissa has a total road network of 1,804.5 kms, which comprises of 29.9 kms of bitumen surface, 1,479 kms of earth surface and 304 kms of gravel surface.

Climate in Garissa County

Garissa County follows the bi-modal rainfall pattern (short and long rains). Rainfall is normally in short torrential downpour, making it unreliable for vegetation growth.  Given the arid nature of the county, temperatures are generally high throughout the year and range from 20C to 38C. The average temperature is 36 C. The hottest months are between September and January.

Garissa County Distance Chart
Garissa County Distance Chart

A section of Daadab Refugee Camp.  Photo Courtesy of Newd Deeply
A section of Daadab Refugee Camp. Image Courtesy of Newd Deeply

National Monuments in Garissa County

There are no designated national monuments in Garissa County.

Garissa County Map

Garissa County Map