Mandera County

Discover Mandera County

View of the landscape near Malka Mari National Park.  Photo Courtesy
View of the landscape near Malka Mari National Park. Image Courtesy

Brief Overview of Mandera County

Mandera County occupies the extreme northeastern triangular corner of Kenya, bounded by Kenya-Somalia border in the east and by Daua River on the north, where this river contrives the boundary between Ethiopia and Kenya. Excepting several hill ranges and the peneplain which has been dissected in the north by Daua River, Mandera County is marked all over by a bright limestone and shale sandy soil covered, often scantily, by an open thorn shrub with large trees along some of the dryer river courses, with far between switchbacks to thorn bushland and patches of trees. The bushland vegetation is sometimes unpleasantly dense along gullies and glades in the southern region, and often around ‘laghas’ where water accumilates during the rainy season. In the dryer season the monotony of dry ‘bushland’ is only relived by the fringe of the doum palms along River Daua.

Mandera Town, its capital, set at the very northeast tip, is reached from Garissa through El Wak by a road that follows the international boundary to Bur Mansa where it leaves the border and skirts the Hegalu Hills. A road from Mandera to Malka Muri National Park runs along the Daua valley roughly parallel to the Ethiopian border through Rhamu, where a road branches off to the south. The 1,135 kms unsung odyssey from Nairobi to Mandera is, at best, a death-or-glory gutsy journey for the strong-minded intrepid. An undertaking of will and brute strength. From Garissa Town, where the smooth road ends abruptly, begins the 735 kms Mari-Run that cuts through the desolate and unrelenting plains, only punctuated by few and far between hills. It is necessary to fill up with petrol at Garissa and carry reserves. Beyond Garissa, filling stations are almost mythical.

The dusty road northerly heading through the unforgiving plains is layered with limestone outcrops which render it difficult to drive over even with a good 4X4 vehicle. So if the object of the journey is to get to Mandera Town, it should take you the better part of 24 hours. During the rainy season, the B7 Wajir-Mandera road is almost impassible. During the rains vehicular traffic through the area is discouraged in order to conserve and protect the surfaces of the road. To boot, the tiny towns along the Mari-Run rarely have adequate supplies or provide any reasonable accommodation. In spite of its impertinent security, inhospitable weather, tough drive and unsparing dust-clouds, Mandera County is a rarely seen landscape with sweeping vistas over the mountains and wide-bay peaks that off-again fill the scene. Mandera is also a focal point for the Somali Culture.

Salient Features of Mandera County

  • County Number 09
  • Area – 25991 km2
  • Altitude – 2000 ft
  • Major Towns – Mandera, Tabaka, Banissa
  • Borders – Wajir, Somalia, Ethiopia

Brief History of Mandera County

Mandera County has five Semitic clans with a long-standing history. The three prominent clans – Murulle, Garre and Marehan – attract most attention. For most part of the year these clans are found either along the stretch of country near Daua River or centered around the wells of El Wak in the southern region where they water and herd camels, goats and cattle. On arrival at Mandera, the Imperial British East Africa Company merely rode shotgun and let the already turbulent relationship among the clans (especially between Murulle and Garre Clans) work to their favour. Into the bargain, Mandera Administrative District of the Northern Province and was a closed district under the Outlying Districts Ordinance; Proclamations Nos. 89 of 1925 and 35 of 1926. By 1921, they had introduced small arms and armed the Garre Clan to engender their schemes. Later on, during the esoteric 1963 Shifta Wars, the porous border with Somalia amplified the spread of arms, which put eternal strain on the clan-relationships.

Aerial view of Mandera bordering Beled Somalia.  Photo Courtesy of Mandera Journal
Mandera Town, near Beled Somalia. Image Courtesy of Mandera Journal

Places of Interest in Mandera County

1. Elwak Ancient Wells

From Garissa Town northerly heading through Wajir it is a 493 kms expedition to El Wak, the major town in the southern area of Mandera County. “The loose murram road provides an endless supply of pebbles in constant collision with the car’s underbelly. The vegetation is made up of acacia trees and thick layers of dust. Occasionally, a raised water pan emerges out of the horizon, beckoning caravans of camels and tribes of goats plus their herders who have walked miles to get to it” – Daniel Wesangula. Livestock is the single most important natural resource for the people of Mandera County and its main economy activity. 80% of the land (about 20,000 km2) is gazetted as Trust Land and communally used for grazing. Be that as it may, the land itself offers little vegetation to support the livestock and water is even harder to come by. Much of Mandera County is covered with open bush (a poor thorny type of savanna) covered with bare soil between the bushes with little grass cover to protect the surface from erosion. Against all odds, the nomads of Mandera have developed means of surviving in this inhospitable place where many could not, and use an ingenious indigenous knack to find water that keeps the livestock hydrated. The Elwak Ancient Wells offer a fine example of these ancient wells, most of which date back to 17th and 18th Century some up to 45 ft deep. El Wak is found 168 kms south of Mandera.

Spatial Location of El Wak Town in Mandera County
Spatial Location of El Wak Town in Mandera County

2. Fort Elwak

Fort Elwak was originally an Italian occupied frontier outpost. The British had previously conceded this region to the Italians citing inhospitable climate and its relative unproductive nature. However, Fort Elwak was an indispensable fort and the British kept a close eye on proceedings; always weary of the aggressive Italian troops who were eager to advance their course in Kenya. In the never-ending saga of small wars between the two, the British, in 1940, embarked on an all-out war to finally expel the Italians in a showdown of military strength. On September 19th, 1940, a battalion of the 3rd Gold Coast Regiment seized a landing ground 11 kms from Fort Elwak, before their main attack on December 15th, 1940, when they captured Fort Elwak in a brilliantly worked night raid. Consequently, the Italians prepared for retaliatory bombing, expected at dawn and dusk on December 17th, 1940. To avert the Italian bombers from reaching Fort El Wak at dawn, the British deployed their Hurricanes (military planes) to defend their air space. Undaunted, the Italians dispatched 3 Italian bombers to attack Fort Elwak, now under Allied control. What ensued was one of the ‘Bold Africa Aviation Odysseys’ as both parties waged full-out war in the skies; which the British won. Today Fort Elwak serves as a roomy and striking police station.

The spectacular raid on Fort Elwak, speeding Allied victory in Abyssinia by almost a year, by revealing the weaknesses in the Italian resistance, was one of the major achievement of the British East Africa forces. Fort El Wak was a serious blow from which the Italians, on their Kenyan front, never recovered. The battles had far-reaching effects. Doubtless, the triumphant 1941 Somaliland and Abyssinia campaigns were due in part to the success at Elwak – D. L. Van Dyke

3. Marehan Sandstone

After El Wak, the rocky road proceed to Iresuki, then Wargadud and Gari. From here the roadside is sprung with hills. But no signs of life. Passing through Sala and Defo Epag you arrive at Tabaka (36 kms before the larger town of Rhamu). Of the hills and outcrops that freckle the low-lying landscape between Gari and Elwak, in the northeast region of Mandera County, the Marehan Sandstone is outstanding. Also known as Marehan Massif this is a most impressive landform. Towering almost 200 ft above the surrounding landscape and stretching for 1 km, the massive limestone hillock is made prominent by the striking saw-edged arcs and ridges. Usually rofous in appearance, Marehan Sandstone appears to magically change colour with the sun’s movement especially at dawn and dusk when it’s hue glares with a radiant bright orange glow. Marehan Sandstone has great sweeps as a hikers paradise. It is found at Tabaka 36 kms south of Rhamu.

Road to Mandera via Garissa-Wajir-El Wak-Rhamu. Published by Citizen TV

4. Malka Mari National Park

From Wajir there are two alternative routes to Mandera, with little to separate the challenges of the journey. The first, through Duse and Lafey, travels north easterly from Tarba following the international border to Mandera Town. The alternative route travels just east of north before turning northeast as it aims for Rhamu from where it heads east to Mandera. The latter travels 70 kms outside Malka Mari National Park en route Rhamu. From Mandera Town, through the road that runs west along Daua Valley roughly parallel to the Ethiopian border through Rhamu, it’s about 229 kms to Malka Mari National Park. That is to say, this is one of the remotest parks in Kenya and conceivably the least visited. The 1500 km2 park gazetted in 1989 is enigmatic even for the natives of Mandera.  Moreover, the few trippers who have accomplished a visit to Malka Mari have reservedly done so by air – rarely by road. The account of this inscrutable park is one of bewildering landscapes, teeming with wildlife and a handful of unique historic sites – notably of Malka Mari Fort. Its sure advantage are its knockout vistas of Awara Plains, River Daua Gorge and the undefined Mandera Triangle. At the moment, this park is undeveloped and trippers aiming to visit should be totally self-reliant. Malka Mari National Park is accessible via Mandera Airport.

Spatial Location of Malka Mari National Park in Mandera County
Spatial Location of Malka Mari National Park in Mandera County

5. River Daua

Mandera’s drainage to a large extent dispensed by the River Daua. Almost every other stream is intermittent with exception of the Daua whose headwaters are in the Ethiopian Highlands. Needless to point out, Mandera County owing to its low altitude is a water deficient outback and life here is an endless search for water at Laghas or riverbeds in which water runs occasionally. A vital lifeline, River Daua flows for 160 kms along the north – northeast area of Mandera and along Mandera Plateau (or Daua Valley) which marks the boundary between Kenya and Ethiopia. Here, in stack contrast to much its landscape, rises a lovely riverine vegetal profile with a mix of woodlands and doum palms. River Daua is the main source of water for the people and livestock of Libehia, Malka Mari, Rhamu, Dimti and Khalalio Townships. The riverine areas of Rhamu, Kalicha, Girissa, Rhamu, Dimti and Shantolei also use the water from River Daua for irrigation to grow varied crops like cowpeas, onion, pawpaw, citrus and melons.

6. Dandu Hill

Dandu Hill at Banisa Village is situated about 120 kms west of Rhamu through an all rugged and totally untamed country. It is pleasant enough, but only worth visiting using a sturdy 4×4 vehicle which should be planned in good weather. Dandu Hill in company with the Chiracha Hills form part of Mandera’s salient water-catchments forests. To which end, Dandu Hill is at present protected under the Forests Act and has been earmarked for upgrading to a conservancy. Currently, less than 1% of the land in Mandera County has been reserved for conservation, mainly at Malka Mari National Park. The establishment of Dandu Hill Conservancy together with two other planned conservancies, at Arabi and Tabaka, will be a step-forward in Garissa’s initiatives of diversifying its tourism.

7. Red Sea Resort

“Rhamu is unremarkable. The entire town is located on a sideways v-shaped stretch of road. Here, you do not need to call in advance to book a room. To begin with, there are no rooms to book per se. The hotels have no name. The lodging arrangements are simple. Boarders can take one of two options. Inside or outside” – Daniel Wesangula. Rhamu is the last town before the 72 kms (about one and half hours drive) easterly to Mandera Town. Much to the delight of business and leisure travellers to Mandera, the 50-rooms, 3 star-rated Red Sea Resort, Mandera’s first tourist resort, is a sun-awning retreat set in the backdrop of the beautiful hillocks and unsual beauty of bushlands. Opened in 2017, Red Sea Resort offers an ideal jumping-off place for trippers to the far-out unfamiliar wilderness. Some of its highlights include its superbly furnished and detached suites with air-conditioning, its gazebos and gardens, and traditional huts. Red Sea Resort is found within Mandera Town and near Mandera Airport.

Experiential video of the Red Sea Resort in Mandera

8. Mandera Town

If the rate of development in Mandera Town, its largest and most populus town, is a yardstick to go by, the county has turned a new leaf for the better. 2018 and 2019 was a season of firsts at Mandera: with the opening of its first tourist class hotel, the first supermarket and the first bitumen standard road in town. On going projects include the construction of the county headquarters, a stadium and upgrading of Mandera Airport. The County Government in collaboration with the National Government and the African Development Bank is building a Shs 2.4 Bn water supply system for Mandera Township. Mandera has suffered countless Al-Shabaab terror attacks spilling over from abutting Somalia, yet, despite the insecurity challenges it has pursued meaningful and sanguine goals.

View of the Marehan Sandstone near Tabaka.  Photo Courtesy of Mandera County Forum
Marehan Sandstone near Tabaka. Image Courtesy of Mandera County Forum

Geography of Mandera County

The landscape about Mandera County is only exemplified by its low-lying rocky hills situated on the predominating plains – which rise gradually from 400 ms south at Elwak to 970 ms above sea level along the border with Ethiopia. The rest of the topography is typified by low lying plains characterized by scanty vegetation of thorny shrubs which is only dense along the foot-slopes where the areas covered by bushes, shrubs, boulders and coverage. The flat plains make drainage very poor, causing floods during heavy rain season. There are no lakes, swamps or dams but earth pans and “laghas” are numerous in Mandera County.

Land Use in Mandera County

There are two ecological zones in Mandera County – arid and semi-arid. 95% of Mandera County is semi-arid with dense vegetation mainly thorny shrubs and bushes along foots of isolated hills and trees along river banks and gullies. Most of the land is rangeland supporting mainly livestock production. In the context of agricultural production, the land suitability for crop production is limited to availability of water hence the concentration of crop production activities along River Daua and other places with laghas where water sits. Generally, the soils in most areas of Mandera County are fertile since they have never been cultivated.

Highlights in Madera County

The presence of hilly landscape, wild animals and birds are the main highlights in Mandera County, although still underdeveloped. The only game reserve in the county is Malka Mari National Game Park in Banissa Constituency which is a harbour for plentiful wildlife notably of lions, hyena, cheetah, leopard, oryx, baboons, gerenuk, dikdik, antelopes, gazelles, crocodiles (along River Daua), waterbuck and Reticulated giraffes. There are no tourist hotels in Mandera County. Most common are the ordinary lodges that are build using the local expertise. There are however, medium class hotels mostly found in the major centers of the county and some under construction. Bed occupancy is 120 beds.

Population in Mandera County

Mandera East, which hosts the County headquarters at Mandera Town, is the most densely populated constituency with 72 people/km2 and which was project to be 81 and 87 people/km2 in 2015 and 2017. Mandera North is the least densely populated constituency with a density of 35 people/km2 which was projected to be 39 and 41 people/km2 in 2015 and 2017.  There are six major markets or urban centres in Mandera County – Rhamu, Elwak, Takaba, Banissa, Mandera and Lafey.  Mandera Town is the largest town in the region, with a population of approximately 100,000 inhabitants. The smallest is Lafey.  

View of Fort Elwak near Kenya-Somalia Border.  Photo Courtesy
View of striking Fort Elwak near Kenya-Somalia Border. Image Courtesy

Airports in Mandera County

Mandera County is served by four functional airstrips in Rhamu, Elwak, Tabaka and Mandera. There are 3 defunct airstrips at Malka Mari, Arabia, and Banissa.

Roads in Mandera County

Mandera County has a total of 1,884 kms of road network. There is only 25 kms of bitumen surface road in Mandera Town. Gravel surface covers an estimated length of 494 kms while earth surface cover an approximate length of 1391 kms.

Climate in Mandera County

Temperatures are relatively high in Mandera County, with a minimum of 24 Degrees Celsius in July and a maximum of 42 Degrees Celsius in February. Altitude differentiates temperatures across the county and places near Banissa experiences lower temperatures due to the effect of the neighbouring highlands in Ethiopia. Rainfall is scanty, unreliable, brief and unpredictable. The long rains fall between April and May; and the short rains in October and November.

Mandera County Distance Chart
Mandera County Distance Chart

Aerial View of River Daua and farmlands.  Photo Courtesy of County Review
Aerial View of River Daua and farmlands. Image Courtesy of County Review

National Monuments in Mandera County

There are no designated national monuments in Mandera County

Map of Mandera County

Mandera County Map