Isiolo County

Discover Isiolo County

View inside Shaba National Reserve.  Photo Courtesy of Audrey Travel
View inside Shaba National Reserve. Image Courtesy of Audrey Travel

Brief Overview of Isiolo County

As you cross the peripheral area between Nanyuki and Isiolo Towns, the line of hills extending from Mount Kenya form a fantastic view, fading away north as the road gradually deeps at Timau Escarpment after the rolling farms at Timau and across the semi-arid lower area of Lewa Conservancy. Although subject to seasonality, the large scale wheat farms around Timau, about 27 from Nanyuki, marches on the surfeit of memorable landscapes, en-route Lewa, to near Isiolo, where the dramatic sweeping meadows repose a most beautiful landscape that never fails to impress. 79 kms from Nanyuki, Isiolo Town, the biggest in Isiolo County, is reached. This borders Leparua Community Conservancy to the west.

As you leave Isiolo Town northerly heading, the gently undulating to flat relief begins its epic domination. West of Isiolo, the hills and foot slopes also begin to disappear and, as you go further north, the large tableland stands out lordly in the vast undeveloped flat plains as a universal welcome to the fabled Northern Frontier District of Kenya. If you are travelling during the drier months of the year, the untenanted out-and-out shrubby wilderness plains give the miniature thorn bushes the appearance of moving game and often conceal objects in the far distance. Hot as it may be, the drive is always a wildly beautiful one. Archers Post set along the border with Samburu County and the last centre as the North beckons is 34 kms from Isiolo. It is also set along the ‘narrow foreland’ of Isiolo.

Much of the forked-fishtail shaped Isiolo County stretches east of Isiolo Town, with Merti, Habaswein, Mado Gashi, Benane, and the Kora National Reserve marking its furthest frontiers. A good road from Isiolo Town through Garba Tula, Habaswein and Wajir eventually terminates at Mandera, 715 kms away, which is the outermost northeast town in Kenya. The rangeland between Isiolo and Garba Tula and onwards across the Northern Frontier District to Somalia may be one of the driest blocks of land in Kenya, yet, what it lacks in water is made up for with superb and unfamiliar horizons which are dominated by the extensive wildlife rich acacia covered plains and unmatched natural wonders. From Archers Post, the road north passes through Merille, Marsabit and Turbi before reaching Moyale – 466 kms away; the last town before entering Ethiopia.

Salient Features of Isiolo County

  • County Number 11
  • Area – 25700 km2
  • Altitude – 3500 ft 
  • Major Towns – Isiolo, Merti, Garba Tula
  • Borders – Marsabit, Samburu, Wajir, Meru, Laikipia, Tharaka Nithi, Tana River, Kitui

Brief History of Isiolo County

During the First and Second World Wars, the Borana and Somali Communities living in Isiolo County (by extension the communities in the Northern Frontier District) found themselves on opposing sides of a war – the one supporting the British and the other assisting Italians. These two communities had always had a history of conflict, yet, these hard-line alliances led to the perpetuated enmity between these clans. The effects of these differences, by and large, contributed to the “Shifta Wars” of 1963 to 1969. As a result of the Shifta Wars, this region remained under a state of emergency until 1992.  These also contributed to the marginalization of Isiolo County. Decades later, with the main road to the north radiating out of Isiolo Town, its importance as a hub helped its towns to thrive.

View of main gate into Buffalo Springs National Reserve.  Photo Courtesy of Safari Booking
View of main gate into Buffalo Springs National Reserve.  Image Courtesy

Places of Interest in Isiolo County

1. Isiolo Town

Isiolo Town, which gained unwelcome notoriety during the “Shifta Wars”, was for many decades since vilified as a dusty outpost, being little more than a row of administration stations and shops where existence was sluggish and sleepy. Rightfully, Isiolo Town, which acts a jumping-off place to the Northern District of Kenya, has turned a new leaf and much of its shadowy history lost in history. Now a fast-growing township, it has slowly and steadily grown to become one of the main hubs in Northern Kenya. There is now much to commend Isiolo Town not least for its good tarmac roads, hotels and the Isiolo International Airport. Rather than dashing through Isiolo Town on a trip taking to one of its national reserves or wildlife conservancies, or if northerly heading to Samburu, one opts to stop for a brief moment to inspect the town, it quickly reveals a few gripping sites, most often sold short. Like clockwork, the bells of the stately St. Eusebias Cathedral ring across Isiolo Town, which should guide any first-timers towards this impressive edifice. Not too far from here, the august white-marbled Jamia Mosque, one of the largest Masjid in the northern region, is also well worth the look-around. The history buff on a quick tour of Isiolo would also be interested in visiting the Isiolo War Memorial Site, along Hospital Road, commemorating twenty soldiers who died in the 1939-45 wars and interred in unmarked graves.

Spatial Location of Isolo Town in Isiolo County
Spatial Location of Isolo Town in Isiolo County

2. Isiolo Memorial

Isiolo Memorial is situated at the junction of Isiolo Road and the lane leading to the District Commissioner’s Office. It commemorates 19 African soldiers who died during the 1939-1945 War, whose unmarked graves in Isiolo Cemetery (an African burial ground) are intermingled with civilian graves. 3 of them are not identified. The Memorial consists of a screen wall inset with panels of Portland stone on which are engraved the names of 16 African soldiers and 3 unknown African soldiers. The dedicatory panel reads: “The Soldiers who are honoured here gave their lives in the serice of their county and are buried in this District”.

3. Kaita and Degushi Hills

The twin hills of Kaita and Degushi which dominate the landscape to the west side of Isiolo Airport offer great prospects for an afternoon adventure especially for hikes and outdoor lovers.  The twin hills of Kaita and Degushi overlook the Kisingu Gap and the proposed site for the ambitious 6,500-acres multi-billion Isiolo Resort Village.  The Hills are located only 1.6 kms east of Isiolo Township.

4. Jombeni Range

The sequence of volcanic ash cones puys of the Jombeni Range seen around the Isiolo-Garba Tula area remain unknown to many, partly because travelling to this region was only previously made by few strong-minded trippers who had to brave the sultry, dusty, parched and desolate country with roads in disrepair.  Today, the Jombeni Range is within reach, on a newly constructed road that will end up in Wajir.  From Jombeni Range, the plains merges with smaller lava cones, which extend this bolster rugged puys to near Isiolo Town, 46 kms away.

5. Magado Crater

Magado Crater, peculiarly formed of pools of saline water shinning with many colours and which has been a shared well for salt and a meeting place for the multiplicity of communities living around it, is truly a marvel of nature. A trip to the Magado Crater not only offers a chance to visit an untravelled oddity that lacks recognition as a great spectacle, but one that also offers a rare chance to watch miners extracting the raw salt brine.  It is accessible from Mutuati, off the Isiolo-Mandera Road, or from Nakuprat-Gotu and Shaba National Reserve. The small lake on the floor of the Magado Crater evaporates to form the kooky soda salt crust. The Ameru people have apparently been collecting soda at this Crater for thousands of years. In recent years, the Ameru as well as the Borana and the Somali cultures have shared the salt pools. During the rainy season, these three tribes communally water their cattle in this natural collecting basin. During the dry season, as the small lake recedes, the soda that remains behind is collected. It is located at the eastern edge of Nyambene Reserve 64 kms from Isiolo Town.

Location of Magado Crater within Nyambene National Reserve
Location of Magado Crater within Nyambene National Reserve

6. Cave Dwellings

Just a short distance from Magado Crater is to be found yet another muted and untravelled oddity unique to Isiolo County. Lo and behold, just over the hill, are the antediluvian cave dwellings – perched high on the upper reaches of a small ridge near Magado Crater – and where, by will or by the forces of conflicts, the pastrolalist and mining communities close by Magado have opted to reside in these not-so-common domiciles. Appearances aside, the residents of these cave dwellings do enjoy unboken vistas of the valley and hills, and which, based on the difficulty of getting into, offers some security in case of any alarm. The cave dwellings are found 2 kms from Magado Crater about 10 min. walking distance.

7. Kula Mawe Anthills

The gangling cone-shaped anthills found near Kula Mawe between Magado and Garba Tula Town are among Isiolo County’s noteworthy roadside attractions. The tall anthills, sometimes reaching 6 ft in height, with a base of 3ft, are easily spotted along the road, and whose prospects may be enliven with the proposed LAPPSET corridor – a mega road network from Lamu Port to South Sudan and into Ethiopia – that’s planned to pass through Kula Mawe en-route Isiolo Town.

Spatial Location of Kula Mawe in Isiolo County
Spatial Location of Kula Mawe in Isiolo County

8. Bisanadi National Reserve

The 601 km2 semi-arid patch covered by the Bisanadi National Reserve, 50 kms south of Garba Tula Town, is generally-speaking a wildlife dispersal area for the contiguous Meru National Park, Mwingi and Kora National Reserves. The veldt unspoiled wilderness of Bisanadi National Reserve, set in a virtually unpeopled, rugged and totally untamed boondocks, offers trippers an interesting excursion into an unusual landscape that is seldom travelled. There is no accommodation at Bisanadi National Reserve and callers to the park must have a strong mind to venture off-the-beaten-circuits.  Bisanadi also offers avid anglers some pristine fishing spots along River Tana and River Rojewero.  It is more easily accessed through the Meru National Park, using the Kenya Wildlife Service Murera Gate.

9. Merti Plateau

Merti Plateau in the far northeast frontier of Isiolo 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 within the Merti Plateau via boreholes drilled to deeps 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.

10. Leparua Conservancy

The 34 km2 Leparua Conservancy situated in Burat region of Isiolo County was originally used as a shared common-grazing ground by the Turkana, Samburu, Somali and Borana Pastroralist Communities is a worthy of mention wildlife corridor linking the conservancies of Il Ngwesi, Nasuulu, Lekurruki and Mpus Kutuk. Lepaura Conservancy aims to emulate some of the models in the nearby conservancies, including Lewa, with regards to their land management, peace-building and wildlife conservation.  At the moment, it has no accommodation. Due to its prime located just west of Isiolo Town, Leparua hold great prospects.

11. Ol Lentille Conservancy

The expansive 64 km2 inter-territorial Ol Lentille Conservancy, which straddles the boundary between Isiolo and Laikipia Counties, is distinguished as one of “the most secluded wildlife conservancies in the region.” While the 41 km2 Ol Lentille Conservancy sits in Isiolo County, the 24 km2 Sanctuary at Ol Lentille is located in Laikipia County. Collectively, this conservancy offer total privacy, seclusion and an intimate safari experience. It has impressive golden savannas too. The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille has four private houses, perched on a crag on the rocky hill – Colonel House, Chiefs House, Sultans House and Eyrie House – all with astounding views of the plains and access to its horizon swimming pool.

12. Oldonyiro Conservancy

Formerly known as the Mpus Kutuk Conservancy, the mega 111 km2 Oldonyiro Conservancy, which was established in 2007, covers the entire Oldonyiro Ward which is made up of four locations bordering Samburu and Laikipia Counties. It is set on the western edge of Isiolo County and is almost completely surrounded by several community conservancies, excepting its western side, and flanked by River Ewaso Nyiro. It is contiguous with Ol Lentille Conservancy on its eastern side. Over the past few years, it has struggled with spells of insecurity, elephant poaching and its atrophied rangelands.  It’s hoped that the establishment of the conservancy will enable communities to spearhead dialogue and foster tourism.

Spatial Location of Oldonyiro Conservancy in Isiolo County
Spatial Location of Oldonyiro Conservancy in Isiolo County

13. Nasuulu Conservancy

The 34.9 km2 Nasuulu Conservancy is strategically located between the Buffalo Springs National Reserve and Samburu National Reserve forming a part of the Laikipia Ecosystem – which hosts an impressive population of the endangered Grevy’s zebra as well as being a refuge for significant numbers of elephants and various large herbivores.  Started in 2012, Nasuulu Conservancy currently has representation from each of the four communities who call this place home, and which has greatly edged-off decades of fierce inter-tribal conflicts and poaching. “Nasuulu is one of the youngest NRT conservancies, and serves as an important buffer for the wildlife in the Buffalo Springs National Reserve. Nasuulu is in the process of building a new conservancy headquarters. The 12 rangers employed in Nasuulu represent the diversified ethnicity around this conservancy” – NRT.

14. Buffalo Springs National Reserve

The 131 km2 Buffalo Springs National Reserve lying to the south of Samburu National Reserve, separated by the River Ewaso Nyiro, also forms part of the wide-ranging Samburu Wildlife Conservation Area established to safe guard the integrity of this great rangeland and to perpetuate its wildlife.  Unique to both these reserves – Buffalo Springs and Samburu – is that they were the foremost reserves in Kenya to have google street view, providing virtual representation of their surroundings on Google Maps. Both offer good game viewing and much of their beauty arises from their wide and open un-tamed and un-fenced frontiers. Although their elephant and rhino populations were much reduced by poaching in the 1970’s, concerted efforts by both Government and conservation counsels have turned around their fortunes. The demographic cataloger of the elephants utilizing Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, collected from 1998 through 2003, designates that their elephant populations were increasing at an average rate of 4.6% per year. These free-ranging elephants constitute 18% of the 5400 elephants counted in the aerial census of 2002 within Samburu and Laikipia Counties. Ashnil Samburu Camp and Samburu Simba Lodge – both on the fringes of River Ewaso Nyiro – are the two main accommodations at Buffalo Springs National Reserve. The reserve is located 28.5 kms north of Isiolo Town.

15. Buffalo Springs

A visit to the Buffalo Springs National Reserve exposes you to a cornucopia of scenery among them the outstanding sparkling springs and natural swimming pool from which the reserve gets its name. “Shorty before taking the Samburu Game Lodge turnoff, you may, however, be interested in visiting the sparkling waters of Buffalo Springs, where game species gather. The springs are on the left of the A2 Nanyuki-Marsabit Road, travelling North.” Indubitable among its centerpiece attractions, the Buffalo Springs attract many local and international travellers either to marvel at the sizeable wildlife or swim at the secured natural pool believed to have medicinal quality that treats skin conditions. It is among the most attractive swimming pool at the Reserve receiving on average 6,000 international tourists and about 5,000 locals all eager to swim here. This pool was apparently created after a bomb set off here during the Second World War.

Map of the Samburu Ecosystem.  All Rights Reserved to Expert Africa
Map of the Samburu Ecosystem. All Rights Reserved to Expert Africa

16. Samburu Simba Lodge

One of the present-day safari destinations in Isiolo County, at Buffalo Springs National Reserve, is the Samburu Simba Lodge – a double-storeyed row of 5-detached modern villas built of local bricks and timber. Rather than flow in a straight line, these quintet villas are resolutely built at an angle to maximize on both privacy and the stunning views of the range. Situated just a stone’s away from River Ewaso Nyiro, the considerable highlight at Buffalo Springs National Reserve, it is a pleasant locale to cherish the wildlife in and around the reserve. The Samburu Simba Lodge comes complete with other amenities of civilization including electric lighting, a well-stocked bar, a massage parlour, gift shop and a snooker room. The sprawling swimming pool is the real star here, perched on the side of hill, because it offers a precious place to tardily connect with nature.

17. Shaba National Reserve

Set up in 1974, just 52 kms from Isiolo Town, the exotic 60 km2 Shaba National Reserve, flanked to the north by River Ewaso Nyiro and more or less completely encircled by the expansive Sera Community Conservancy, offers one of the most secluded and ways-out idyllic safari destination in Isiolo County and perhaps in the whole of Kenya. The reserve itself is never without a good concentration of wildlife, and what’s more, its un-wooded landscape makes it easy to spot game. There is a road running along the banks of River Ewaso Nyiro, and around each bend in the river a wonderful ever-changing landscape unfolds. By evening, the sandy banks along River Ewaso provide a splendid set-up to enjoy the awesome eventides. Shaba National Reserve is home to Sarova Shaba Lodge and to Joy’s Camp. Sarova Shaba Lodge, situated alongside the striking River Ewaso Nyiro – typified by doum palms and sand banks – is a haunt of beauty, and although it’s off the beaten track, its boasts of a fulsome swimming pool and other amenities like electricity, bar, and gazebos. From either of these establishments, holiday-makers get to enjoy open-top game drives, guided bush walks and excursions to Magado Crater.  It’s found 52 kms north of Isiolo and is served by two airstrips.

18. Joy’s Camp

Joy’s Camp, set up on the original site of Joy Adamson’s Camp and overlooking a beautiful spring, is comprised of only 10-tented camps. It is the smaller of the two accommodation options at Shaba National Reserve, yet, it’s arguably more romantic. Moreover, as the home of the Adamson’s, it’s no wonder the modest camp is so famed for its eccentricity. Also found within Joy’s Camp are the Joy Adamson Monument, a photo gallery, and a memorabilia collection in honour of the celebrated wildlife conservationist Joy Adamson. She met her untimely death while trying to release a leopard back to the wild. The history, superior workmanship in almost every detail at the camp and its location add up to one of the surely romantic safari lodges in Northern Kenya. It has a dainty pool too.

19. River Ewaso Nyiro

Rising from the western slopes of Mount Kenya, the mighty River Ewaso Nyiro, which traverses seven arid and semi-arid counties on its 728 km2 course to the Indian Ocean, is the major lifeline for the people and the swag wildlife found in Isiolo County. River Ewaso Nyiro dissects Isiolo County into two. To the north of the river is the Merti Plateau and to its south are the vast wildlife rich plains lying at an altitude of just 1,000 ms and typified by sweeps of rolling grasslands, interspersed by bushes, acacia woodland and inselbergs.  Throughout its route, the life-giving River Ewaso Nyiro, flowing with muddy red water, draws wildlife in numbers. Heading north, River Ewaso Nyiro is crossed close by Archers Post.

River Ewaso Nyiro, a fragile ecosystem, has drastically reduced its water flow over time, with extreme variations. 2011 recorded a significant low flow as a result of one of the worst droughts in recent times. 1998 recorded one of the highest flows due to the El Nino rains experienced during that time. In 1984 the river had no flow; it was completely dry, a time when the worst drought hit the entire region of the horn of Africa – Pinisiolo / Mary Mwendwa.

20. Nakuprat Gotu Conservancy

The 393 km2 Nakuprat Gotu Conservancy under the umbrella trust of Northern Rangelands Trust is a prolific wildlife plain, that also supports close to 15,000 patrolalists mostly from the Turkana and the Borana Tribes. “In 2010, leaders from both the Turkana and Borana communities from Ngare Mara and Gotu locations came together to discuss founding of a joint conservancy.” Nakuprat-Gotu acts as a buffer reserve for Sera Community Conservancy and for Shaba, Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, making this a critical wildlife dispersal area with plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing. Wildlife aside, it has many places of interest which include the variegated flora along the Ngare Mara River, Gotu Falls, Akunoit Forests, the Boji Dera Springs and Campsite, Simpirre Camp, and the Magado Crater. Its eastern flank, which supports vast plains, is home to one of the abounding herds of Beisa oryx remaining in Kenya.

Video of Gotu Falls in Nakuprat Gotu. Published by Kenyan Camper

21. Sera Conservancy

More proper Sera Wildlife Trust, the 3,450 km2 Sera Conservancy forms the largest widlife conservation area in Northern Kenya. Its western border runs astride the A2 Isiolo-Archer’s Post-Merille Road for 104 kms from Archer’s Post until Merille Town; extending about 30 kms at its widest easterly towards Merti and Barata. It was established in 2001 under Northern Rangelands Trust with the aim of bringing together three historically rival ethnic groups and to foster conservation and sustainable use of resources in their traditional lands. Unique to Sera Conservancy is that it is the only place in Eastern Africa where visitors can actively track the black rhino on foot, and is the only sanctuary in Eastern Africa to operate a sanctuary principally dedicated to the vital conservation of the endangered black rhinos. Despite its size, Sera Conservancy has real beauty about it with plenty of mind-blowing landforms. The landscape is typified by a mix of bush and grassland with a few forest patches, teeming with respectable wildlife. It is also well watered. Some of its perennial streams including Kisima Hamsini, Lenkolii, Lerigrig, Lontopi and Lchoro losowan. Other water sources include boreholes, hand pumps and shallow wells at Kapai, Chapulo, Lesura, Losesia, Laresoro, Lbaa Lolparuai, Sereolipi lugga, Kauro, Naitolai, Lenkaya, Lantana and Turgung. In recent times, the discovery of a Rock Gong and Rock Painting at Kisima Hamsini, thought to several thousand years old, highlighted its historic importance. Its HQs office is located about 47 north of Archer’s Post.

Key wildlife at Sera Conservancy include Elephants, Reticulated Giraffes, Beisa Oryx, Lions, Grevy’s Zebras, Elands, Lesser and Greater Kudus, Leopard, Cheetah among others, and a diversity of bird species including sandgrouse which gather in large concentrations at water points in the dry season. A small population of critically endangered Black Rhinos were reintroduced in 2015.

View of Merti Plateau in Isiolo.  Photo Courtesy of Coverage Monitoring
View of Merti Plateau in Isiolo.  Image Courtesy of Coverage Monitoring

Geography of Isiolo County

Isiolo County is fractionated into three ecological zones, namely: semi-arid, arid and very near desert arid. The semi-arid zone covers only 5% of Isiolo County, around Kinna area, with vegetation mainly of thorny bush with short grass. Arid zone covers 30% of Isiolo County around Oldonyiro and Ngare Mara.  The very arid area covers the rest of Isiolo. Much of Isiolo plains are a flat low-lying peneplane resulting from weathering and sedimentation. The plains rise gently from an altitude of about 200 ms at Lorian Swamp (Habaswein) in the northern area of Isiolo County, to about 300 ms above sea level at the vast Merti Plateau. 

Land Use in Isiolo County

Much of the land in Isiolo County – close to 80% – is communally-owned and is predominantly used as grazing land. The larger portion of the County, which is arid and cannot support meaningful crop farming, is dedicated to pastoralism. There are seven key livestock markets within the County at Isiolo, Garba Tula, Kinna, Modogashe, Merti and at Oldonyiro. The main livestock traded in Isiolo County include cattle, goats, sheep and camels. The lion’s share of houses are constructed of mud, grass and wood. These dwellings are called manyatas and are temporary in nature. A total of 9,850 of manyatas are made of mud and sticks walls, while 5,491 are built using only grass and sticks walls. Permanent housing structures are only found in Isiolo Town and few other market centers.

Highlights in Isiolo County

Isiolo County has three game reserves – Shaba, Buffalo Springs and Bisanadi National Reserves. Samburu Reserve and Meru National Park as well as Sera Community Conservancy also border Isiolo County. These parks and reserves are famously known for their natural beauty and abundance of wildlife. Most conservancies in Isiolo are also popular for providing sanctuary to black rhinos.

Population in Isiolo County

Isiolo County has a popultion density of only 4 people/km2.  Its population, based on the 2009 census, stood at 143,294. The population was projected to rise to 159,797 by the end of 2012 and 191,627 by 2017.  The population consists largely of Cushitic communities (Oromo, Borana and Sakuye) and Turkana, Samburu, Meru and Somali.  Isiolo Town account for 74% of urban population.

View of River Ewaso Nyiro in Shaba National Reserve.  Photo Courtesy of Standard Media
River Ewaso Nyiro in Shaba National Reserve.  Image Courtesy of SMG

Airports in Isiolo County

Isiolo County has 5 Airstrips. Isiolo Airport has international standards. 

Roads in Isiolo County

Isiolo County has a road network of 975.5 kms, of which only about 34 kms was bituminised in 2012. Gravel and earth surfaced roads account for 22 percent and 75 percent of the total road surfaces. Most roads are motorable year-round.

Climate in Isiolo County

Isiolo County is quite hot and dry at most months of the year, with two rainy seasons.  The rainfall received in Isiolo County is usually erratic, scarce and unreliable.  High temperatures are recorded in the county throughout the year, with an average of 30’C. Additionally, strong winds blow across the flat and open county throughout the year, peaking in the months from June to August.

Isiolo County Distance Chart
Isiolo County Distance Chart

Distant view of the Magado Crater.  Photo Courtesy of Derek White
Distant view of the Magado Crater.  Image Courtesy of Derek White

National Monuments in Isiolo County

There are no designated national monuments in Isiolo County.

Isiolo County Map

Isiolo County Map