Marsabit County

Discover Marsabit County

Aerial view of Lake Paradise within Marsabit National Park.  Photo Courtesy
Aerial view of Lake Paradise within Marsabit National Park. Image Courtesy

Brief Overview of Marsabit County

If you write-off the Ilemi Triangle from Turkana County then Marsabit County which covers an area of 70,961 km2 is the largest County of Kenya. Larger than the outmoded Central, Eastern and Western Provinces combined. Although the natural conditions of Marsabit County – bound in the north by Ethiopia, Wajir in the east, Isiolo in the southeast, Samburu in the southwest and Turkana in the west – varies, the general terrain much the same as the abutting counties in the eye of the sun in Kenya, of mainly arid and semi-arid vast lowlands ranging from 400-700 ms interspersed with several mountain ranges reaching altitudes of more than 2,700 ms. That being so, the vegetation profile in Marsabit County ranges from barren land use, varied grass and bushlands to evergreen mountain tropical forest: Each with a unique silhouette, support-capacity and rare beauty.

Just a little over a century ago, Marsabit held a motley collection of wildlife that included giraffe, rhino, elephant, buffalo and lion.  In 1888, on his expedition to Lake Turkana, Count Sámuel Teleki described superb wildlife encounters along the shores of the lake.  In 1895, Arthur Neumann also cited elephants bathing in Lake Turkana. Sadly, poaching truncated the wildlife to a trifle. What Marsabit County now lacks in wildlife displays is made up for by its fine landscapes and a rich cultural disposition. Although few dare live here, with an average density of 4 people / km2 compared to 4,850 people / km2 in Nairobi, Marsabit has no less than 14 distinct tribes who share its vast expanses. Travelling here is akin to walking through an open museum of cultures which takes one across old-world traditional villages where the local communities still uphold their ancient ways.

In spite of the fact that the population of Marsabit is well under 400,000, its importance is far greater than its compact citizenry would suggest.  At the far-flung northeastern corner, nearby the Allia Bay at Lake Turkana, lies the Sibiloi National Park, which is part of the Lake Turkana National Parks inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 for its contribution to the conservation of wild animals and the understanding of paleo-environments. Administratively, Marsabit County is divided into six sub-counties: Laisamis, Loiyangalani, North Horr, South Horr, Moyale and Central Marsabit. About 80% of the residents of Marsabit County are pastoralist, obtaining their livelihood from livestock and livestock based industries, and 10% are agriculturalists living mainly around the higher area of Mount Marsabit. The rest are involved in trade and salaried jobs.

Salient Features of Marsabit County

  • County Number 10
  • Area – 70961 km2
  • Altitude – 400 to 700 ft
  • Major Towns – Marsabit, Moyale, Laisamis
  • Borders – Isiolo, Samburu, Wajir, Turkana

Brief History of Marsabit County

Water has always been rated as the most limiting factor for livestock production in the semi-arid areas and is inevitably a main source of conflict and communal dissent. So, by 1900, when the British Empire first set foot in Marsabit, conflicts were already at fever pitch around the capacious but inhospitable outbacks of Marsabit.  The pastoralist groups, despite sharing deep intertwined histories of integration, were fierce in their competition and warfare.  The British tried to keep the tribes apart, with mixed success.  They themselves had little interest in these conflicts and had primarily occupied the Northern Frontier District as a buffer against Italy and Ethiopia to protect their railroad and thriving tea farms.

View of Lake Turkana.  Photo Courtesy of African Expert
Lake Turkana (at Loiyangalani). Image Courtesy of African Expert

Places of Interest in Marsabit County

1. Losai National Reserve

Losai National Reserve is situated 190 kms north of Isiolo Town along the A2 Nairobi-Isiolo-Moyale Road. The recently completed section of the A2 Road with a glorious two-lane strip of blacktop linking Archer’s Post and Moyale 500 kms away is a joy to drive on. As you cross the area between Nanyuki and Isiolo Towns the land quickly drops, the hillocks extending from Mount Kenya fast disappearing, and the out and out horizons of scrub and bushland associated with the arid Northern Region of Kenya marches on the surfeit of memorable landscapes. The stretch of road between Archer’s Post and Merille (104 kms) travels across the two protected areas of Namunyak Conservancy (west) and Sera Conservancy (east). Past Namunyak and Sera Conservancies, the A2 cuts through the 1,806 km2 Losai National Reserve between Merille and Laisamis. Gazetted in 1979 this has little to distinguish it from the surrounding landscape and it’s totally untamed. The little-known valley of patchy flora enveloped by a striking chain of hills is in the truest sense an off-the-beaten-path adventure. Losai National Reserve is one of the obscure National Reserves in Kenya and probably the most underdeveloped. The park can be accessed by 4X4 vehicles on a rocky, hard to navigate, 50 kms path from Marsabit Town which is mostly used by livestock. There is no accommodation in Losai National Reserve and trippers must be self reliant and self catering. Callers to area must inform KWS.

2. Ndoto Mountains

Past Namunyak and Sera Conservancies, and passing through Losai National Reserve between the centers of Merille and Laisamis (104 kms from Archer’s Post along the A2), the southern region of Marsabit County is marked by great alluvial inland peaks that downslope from 2752 ms declining to crests of 400 ms as you near Lake Turkana. “These are a chain of mountains consisting of old crystalline basement rocks, mainly of extremely durable gneisses and granites”. The steep Ndoto and Nyiru Ranges, reaching up to 2752 ms in southern area of Marsabit County are the highest. Next to these, a series of volcanic peaks like Mount Kulal (2285 ms), Mount Marsabit (1707 m) and Hurri Hills (1479 m) in the mid-west Marsabit County tower over the inland plains. Set at the southern boundary, north of Namunyak Conservancy and west of Losai National Reserve, Ndoto Mountains overlook the broad Kaisut Desert separating it from Mount Marsabit. A dense forest clads the upper reaches although much of the deeply-gullied sides and rocky peaks of remain exposed. This contrast pieces together a striking landscape.  The tallest peak – Mount Poi – rises over 700 ms over the surrounding range.  There are about a dozen or more cliffs rising over 500 m in height, many of these reaching as high as 300 ms and 1 kms in width.  Ndoto Mountains are best seen at Ngurunit 71 kms west of Laisamis through Namarei.

Spatial Location of Ndoto Mountains in Marsabit County
Spatial Location of Ndoto Mountains in Marsabit County

3. Mount Nyiru

The C77 Baragoi-Loiyangalani Road to the southern edge of Lake Turkana goes though Ngurunit, South Horr and along the eastern flanks of Mount Nyiru. From Ngurunit it’s a 161 kms journey northerly to Loiyangalani across an arid bushland and is approachable from both north and south with accommodation options on both ends. Rising to 2,752 ms, Mount Nyiru is one of the highest mountains in the Northern Kenya. The western face of Mount Nyiru is topped with dark forests and some waterfalls, filled with the outpourings of the heavy clouds which often cap the summit; the eastern side much drier with more rock exposure. Due to its importance as a water tower, the 45 km2 forest around Mount Nyiru of which about 8 km2 is covered with true forest was gazetted, in 1956, as a forest reserve. A total of 448 plant species belonging to 104 families have been recorded on Mount Nyiru. The Samburu of Nyiru attribute a use to 249 species (56%) of the local flora. The adventure-lovers who hike up Mount Nyiru, in company of local Samburu guides, are rewarded with peerless cultural insights and mind-blowing vistas; Suguta Valley in the background, the Mowango Sowan Plains in the foreground, and in the middle distance sits the land that slopes towards the flat Rift Valley floor partly filled by Lake Logipi.  The rhapsodized over Desert Rose Lodge is set-up on the south-western slopes.

4. Desert Rose Lodge

The delightful and secluded eco-friendly Desert Rose Lodge situated on the foot slopes of Mount Nyiro has been described as a little wilderness paradise. Built with care and attention that respects both the environment and the cultures of the communities living around it, the lodge intimately fuses to the magnificent forest landscape. Set in a beautifully-appointed side of a hill which opens up to the views of the Elbarta Plains and the Sacred Mount Nyiro, Desert Rose Lodge focuses on providing a heart-warming and memorable experience of the rarely-visited northern wilderness of Kenya. “The lodge consists of five unique houses accommodating up to twelve people, two cottages with double beds, two twins and a family house. The houses are entirely secluded, which guarantees comfort and intimacy. All are hand-made and individually designed around multiple natural features. Each suite has its own private flush toilet and an open air en-suite bathroom with a bath. Each house has a private patio” Desert Rose Lodge.

Much talked about but less often visited, Desert Rose has almost mythical status in Kenya for its unique beauty and location. We were knocked out by the location and the sheer elation of climbing up into this stunning environment. Our visit was a highlight of a recent trip to Kenya and we’ve stored the lodge away as a place we will absolutely return to. We also think it’s perfect for adventurous children and teens, with its pool, local walks and natural waterslide. EA

5. Koros Camp

This equally impressive rustic and luxury lodge sits on the northeastern side of Mount Nyiru, about 22 kms northeast of Desert Rose Lodge. It is reached via the C77 Baragoi-Loiyangalani Road just 16 kms north of South Horr (157 kms northwest from Laisamis and 74 kms south from Loiyangalani). “Set up on the 250,000-acre Ol Donyo Mara Conservancy, the self-catering Koros Camp is the inspired creation of a Nairobi family who have been involved for many years with the nearby Lake Turkana Wind Power Project” – EA Retreats. Here too, the landscape is that of extremes and unfamiliar horizons – the green belt and precipitous backdrop comprised of Mount Nyiru and the Mount Ol Donyo Mara Range contrasting beautifully with the wait-a-bit bush and Acacia woodland in the immediate front and outwith to the parched plain. It is its unique location almost encircled by craggy hills that captures the imagination of this fairyland. The camp itself, with 5 safari-style tented camps, is not over much in modern touches, keeping to simple local materials and designs; but surprisingly cozy. “Hot showers are alfresco, along with lavatories in a separate bathroom block”. The common areas are modestly furnished with restrain of over-styling and with a well-poised burst of colours. One of the camps highlight, and there are many, is the natural rock-pool overlooking the wild county. Nicknamed as the “cuddle puddle” this has top-rate views, a poolside dining area and barbecue pit. Some of the outdoor activities include walking excursions Mount Nyiro, Ol Donyo Mara, Lake Turkana, Lake Turkana Wind Project, and the Chalbi Desert.

Spatial Location of Koros Camp in Marsabit County
Spatial Location of Koros Camp in Marsabit County

6. Lake Turkana Wind Project

Covering 40,000-acres nearby Loiyangalani, Lake Turkana Wind Project with a capacity of 310 MW of low cost energy, powered by 365 wind turbines, creates a rather unexpected landscape in this sparsely populated wilderness. Its scale is quite unprecedented taking into consideration that the 9th largest wind-farm in the world (Sweetwater Windpower in Nolan, Texas USA) operates 392 turbines. The Lake Turkana Wind Farm joined an elite group of large wind-farms around the world that are making a significant difference in reducing carbon footprints. When fully operational (2018) this wind-farm is set to generate sufficient clean energy to power a million homes and which will also be a huge leap forward in Kenya’s development goals of harnessing about 65% of its energy needs from renewable resources, by 2030. Lake Turkana Wind Project will, on completion, be Africa’s largest wind-farm project. It is located 53 kms north of South Horr.

7. Lake Turkana

The C77 Laisamis-Loiyangalani Road through South Horr is also the quickest route to Lake Turkana. Almost 72% of the 7,000 km2 Lake Turkana (300 kms long and 50 kms wide) lies in Marsabit County; the rest lying Turkana County. This oddity, sometimes considered a miraculous anomaly, is widely popular as the world’s largest desert lake and which is also ranked the 4th largest salt-lake following the Caspian Sea, Issyk-Kul and Lake Van. The tempestuous Jade Sea, as popularly portrayed, habours an impressive variety of wildlife that feed on the sub-surface water weeds as well as on the plants whose parts are above the water level. For the avid fisherman, Lake Turkana has been a must-go-to spot, and since the early 1900’s it has etched a reputable name as a leading site for Nile perch fishing. Today, perch of 200 pounds are not as often caught in Lake Turkana as in earlier times, though fish weighing between 100 and 200 pounds are regularly encountered. “On the brighter side, Lake Turkana happens to be an ornithological paradise with over 300 species of birds, notably during the months of European winter. The vast resident bird population is enhanced by thousands upon thousands of migrant waders, water fowl, and raptors. Large flocks of storks soar high overhead while Pelicans form sweeping flight patrols over the surface of the water and flamingos add colorful decor to the lakeshore”.

North Kenya Expedition Part 1 – Time Travel into an Ancient Land.

8. Oasis Club

Situated just 1.5 kilometers from Lake Turkana and elevated to provide a vista of the lake and its unique setting, Oasis Club is nestled amongst a very welcome stand of doum palms with a genuine fresh water oasis gushing from the rocks, providing shade and comfort from the barren and parched surrounding. “It is a basic but comfortable retreat for exploration of the lake and is a famed fishing center. The generous 32°C, purgative springs course between the twenty-four cottages and verdant foliage and feed the two refreshing swimming pools set beneath shady palms. The breeze cooled dining room serves modest, but tasty meals based on fresh fish from the lake, and can include ones catch of the day”. The short ride down to the lake runs through Loyangalani and its very colorful people then down the rolling, rocky slopes past small villages and herdsmen with their sheep and goats. The lakeshore near the Oasis Club offers a variety of good fishing locations, rocky points and shallow bays that are normally leeward of the prevailing east winds. “Trolling 4 rods 25 to 300 yard off shore, 5 minutes from the boat landing for two days between 3:30 PM and 6:45 PM produced a total of 23 fish, totaling over 480 pounds with the average fish weighing almost 20 pounds. Including Larry Shames’ 125.5 pounder, these catches made several heaping wheelbarrow loads when weighed at the Club scales” – John McMillan.

9. Desert Museum

Located a top a moderate hill backdropped by the picturesque Lake Turkana, this museum that opened in June 2008 is also known as Loiyangalani Museum owing to proximity to the small town. The Desert Museum was established to promote, preserve and celebrate the diversity of cultures found in this region. Loiyangalani, which in the local Samburu means ‘the place of many trees’, grew from the presence of freshwater springs and which can be termed as an oasis in the desert has been a meeting-place for about fourteen tribes for many decades.

10. Marti Rock Art

Believed to be other-worldly in nature, the rock depictions at Marti Rock Art near Loiyangalani are consisted mainly of a collection of giraffe paintings and other concentric art shapes. Located within easy reach of the Desert Museum, the Marti Rock Art occurs within a bio-sphere of lovely landscapes. Trippers to Marti Art may also be interested in visiting nearby Sarima and Kargi Rock Arts.

11. South Island National Park

Originally known as ‘Hornel Island’, the 39 km2 island stretching about 12 kms rises abruptly to an average of 1,400 ft near the southern limit of Lake Turkana and easily sighted from Loiyangalani. South Island National Park is the largest and southernmost island of the three main islands alongside North and Central Islands and part of the Lake Turkana National Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is an important flyway refuge and stopover for palaeartic migrant birds and is designated an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International. Sibiloi National Park was gazetted as a national park in 1973 whereas South and Central Islands were gazetted in 1983 and 1985 respectively. South Islands can be reached from Loiyangalani or Kalokol Bay via the hop-on hop-off boat taxis.

Covered end to end in volcanic ash, the nightly glow of its South Island’s luminous vents has inspired numerous tales of ghosts and evil spirits. The island is home to a profusion of birdlife including 34 species of European migrants most spectacularly viewed as they return home between March and May. At least 23 species breed here, including Goliath heron, and African skimmer, while African open-billed stork, Duck and Gulls feed on the shores and the volcanic island lakes attract lesser flamingos. Kenya Wildlife Service

12. Nabuyaton Cone

The discernible Nabuyaton Cone which in the Turkana dialect mean the “place of the war horn” is one of the rare examples of a perfect-cinder-volcano formed from the remnants of a collapsed deep volcano. Situated close to the southern peninsula of Lake Turkana, Nabuyaton Cone was made famous by aerial shots taken in 2011 by acclaimed photographer Martin Harvey while accompanying clients on exclusive helicopter safaris in Namibia, Botswana and Kenya. Despite its almost non-existent mention in modern travel chronicles, the oddity of the Nabuyaton Cone, which rises to about 384 ms, had been widely popular among early-day explorers including Count Teleki. It was a major landmark along the ‘Champagne Route to Abyssinia’ that passed through this region. Aside from its spectacular aerial photos, Nabuyaton Cone is inaccessible because of the steep rock walls. “On the foreshore some five miles away at the end of a stream of lava which seemed to issue from under my feet, stood the cone of Nabuyaton, from here as elsewhere a conspicuous feature of the landscape. On the left stood the great escarpment which I had descended 2 days before, and some fragmentary cones and curious boil-like hills lay scattered like islands in a sea of dark rugged rusty-looking black lava. – Britannica – In Search of the Teleki’s Volcano, 1928.

Spatial Location of Nabuyaton Volcano at Lake Turkana
Spatial Location of Nabuyaton Volcano at Lake Turkana

13. El Molo Village

The El Molo are a tiny tribal community with only about 800 known members surviving and who all live along the fringes of Lake Turkana near Loiyangalani. Bearing common roots and ancestry to the Rendille, the El Molo Tribe is fast-becoming extinct and their language and customs, as anthropologists like to explain, are expected to fade-away in a few decades. For now, they all dwell in the peaceful El Molo Village comprised of woven palm frond traditional huts. Unique to the El Molo Tribe is that they have no livestock unlike most of tribes in the region and rely almost exclusively on fishing. By the same token, the El Molo lack adequate subsistence and livelihood to thrive in this barbarous area.

North Kenya Expedition Part 2 – Encountering the El Molo on the Jade Sea

14. Mount Kulal

Of the landforms within Marsabit County, it is the chain of hills seen along the southwest border (having an average height of 2000-2500 ms and 1500-2000 ms above the surrounding landscape) that leave an indelible impression on the traveller. Equally impressive are the chain of hills which occur in the northeast area near the boundary with Ethiopia. These hills are not only critical in terms of the surface extent but are also important as water catchments areas. Among these important hills are Kulal, Marsabit and Hurri and their surrounding foot slopes. Located just east of Loiyangalani and Lake Turkana with a north-south strike, Mount Kulal is a biosphere with a variety of landscapes and habitats that are best seen along the hiking trails. The fact that Mount Kulal attracts plenty of rain promotes the growth of thick forests on the upper reaches and flourishes farmlands on the footslopes. In the lowest part of Kulal’s landscape where water stagnates, evaporation leaves in it wake salt pans. The Chalbi Desert north and east of Mount Kulal is the result of such a process: A saline area where plant growth is virtually absent due to toxic levels of salt in the soil. The eroded-down extinct mountain of Kulal, that rises to 1,800 ms, is widely known for its deep crater often capped by rain and mist forest. Of interest for travellers to Mount Kulal are the battery of hot-springs and panoramic vistas of Suguta Valley and Chalbi Desert both stretching away as far as the eye can see. Often veiled by a grey mist of clouds, Mount Kulal eminently marks the western end of Chalbi Desert that marches north-bound from here for almost 100 kms to North Horr.

15. Mount Marsabit

“Amidst the flat country, the pinnacles of the mountains announce the arrival of Marsabit, historically the principal centre of the Cushitic Rendille” – Nation Media. Quite unmistakable on arrival at Marsabit Town is the prominent peak of Mount Marsabit rising to 1,230 ms and the most prominent landmark for miles out and easily sighted from 20 kms out. Marsabit is reached by way of the A2 Road 96 kms north of Laisamis. Shortly before arriving at the main Marsabit Town this roads travels across an usually green belt and also separates Marsabit National Reserve and Marsabit National Park. Mount Marsabit and the verging series of smaller hills forms a small frontier of beautiful wooded greens betwixt the vast shrubland. Due to its elevation in altitude and mountain effect, the area around Mount Marsabit is opportune for agriculture and is assuredly the most densely populated area in Marsabit County. It is located 560 kms from Nairobi.

16. Marsabit National Reserve and Park

Midway through the especial verdant green patch of Marsabit and following the signage to take a right turn is the entrance into Marsabit National Park within the Marsabit National Reserve. The road into the park travels across a heavily forested montane of Marsabit National Reserve and past the spell-binding Lake Paradise before arriving at the park offices. This misty montane mosaic lying uniquely between Kaisut and Chalbi Deserts and overlooking Mount Marsabit is wondrous, if not magical. “Rising gently out of a near desert environment, this great volcanic bump has a certain aura of romance about it.” The 1,554 km2 Marsabit National Park well known for its scenery and beautiful craters lakes is also home a sizeable population of elephants. On the slopes of Mount Marsabit, not too far from Lake Paradise, is Marsabit Lodge, operated and maintained by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Although not where it used to be and a tad bit grey, the lodge is of a modern design with running water and electricity. There are several campsites operated by KWS within Marsabit National Park. Marsabit National Reserve owes its almost cryptic fame to the chronicles of Ahmed the Elephant. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Ahmed was conceivably the most famous elephant in the world. The good-natured, almost tame crown-jewel of Marsabit National Park, was world-famous for its epic long tusks rumored to weigh 85 kgs each. Upon his death in 1974, a presidential decree was issued to have the remains of Ahmed mounted and preserved at the Nairobi National Museum in perpetuity for the future ages. Marsabit National Park is 565 kms from Nairobi.

Ahmed of Marsabit was and still is the most legendary Elephant ever to have roamed the African continent. The territory around Mount Marsabit in Kenya may always have been renowned for its extraordinary tuskers, yet this particular ”Bwana Tembo” eclipses all predecessors. Born in 1919, Ahmed came from the forests of Mount Marsabit and grew to become a truly unique giant, justifiably known by locals and big game hunters alike, as “King of Marsabit”.

17. Lake Paradise

“The natural amphitheater of Gof Sokorke Guda, with it’s 150 ms high caldera shelters the fresh waters of Lake Paradise. Sublimely beautiful ringed by forests whose trees are laced with delicate filigrees of Spanish mossand the silken cloaked Colombus monkey.” The Marsabit National Reserve is a well watered area and other water point within it include Elephant Pool, Hulahula wells, Karsa wells, Lagga Lchut, Lagga Lguru, Lagga Mohammed, Lagga Sirba and Lake Bongole (Crater Lake). Tall moss and lichen-laden trees trap moisture from the low clouds and the thick early morning mists to recharge underground aquifers and replenish the water sources within the mountain. The lush forest ecosystem both creates and protects the water; while two crater lakes (Sokorte Dika and Sokorte Guda) serve as small surface reservoirs: the porous mountain is an enormous invisible one. Although Lake Paradise shrinks now and then drastically to no more than a few square feet it is never without a concentration of birdlife. Buffalo are plentiful during the morning and evening hours and herds of elephants habitually pass to water here. It is located within walking distance of the park office and the lodge. It’s widest around May and November.

18. Bongore Crater

Bongore Crater, a busy watering-hole for wild animals like elephants, giraffes and buffaloes resident in Marsabit National Reserve, is among its outstanding natural wonders.  Bongore Crater which sits on the south-eastern periphery of the reserve is one of three prominent craters (also known as Gofs) in Marsabit National Reserve – alongside Gof Reddo and Gof Sokorke Guda also popularly known as the Lake Paradise. Karare Bongore Resort located on the fringes of Bongore Crater and classified as the first tourist resort in Marsabit County is a great stance to view this. The seasonal Bongore Lake supports plenty of wildlife.

19. Jaldesa Community Conservancy

Established in 2013 through Northern Rangelands Trust, the 650 km2 Jaldesa Community Conservancy of a gently undulating plain interspersed by low-lying hills and craters situated east of the Marsabit National Reserve (around Badasa, Jaldesa and Gachacha) is a community-run rangeland aiming to set a balance between livestock keeping and preservation of wildlife through a participatory process led by the Conservancy Board. It lies within a 1,039 km2 communally owned land traditionally swayed by the Borana (90%) and Gabbra (10%) people who are agro-pastoralists keeping livestock and doing subsistence agriculture. Critical wildlife species include elephants, reticulated giraffes, Grant’s gazelles, leopards, lions, ostrich, impala, common zebras, greater kudu and lesser kudu among many others. It is accessed via Marsabit-Jaldesa-Yamich Road passing through Jaldesa borehole and Shurr Town. Callers to Jaldesa Conservancy may be interested in exploring its striking and primitive landscape, viewing wildlife, and exploring the cultural tribal sites. Being a relatively new conservancy, the communities in Jaldesa are concentrating on improving security, infrastructure development and sustainably management. As such, there’s little tourism in the area yet. However, Jaldesa holds great promise, with fascinating, breathtaking natural landforms. So there is no reason natives here could not mark a blossom.

Jaldesa sits between Songa and Shurr Conservancies, and Marsabit National Reserve, in the far north of Kenya, close to the Ethiopian border. Historically, ethnic tensions in this arid and harsh region have been high, as competition over resources for livestock has remained “consistently fierce”.

20. Shurr Community Conservancy

This was launched in 2008 through Northern Rangelands Trust. The Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) partners with local communities to foster peace and stability through conservation. Conceived in 2004 by Lewa Conservancy with support from USAID, NRT brings together local pastoralist communities with land owners and the Government to proselytize the long-term conservation of wildlife in Kenya’s northern rangelands. At present, NRT oversees more than 30 community-owned and managed conservancies, which cover nearly 32,000 square kilometers. The 364 km2 Shurr Community Conservancy nearby Shurr Town and abutting with Jaldessa Community Conservancy (and also accessed via Marsabit-Jaldesa-Yamich Road) was formerly used as a grazing ground by the native Gabbra Community. As a conservancy it aims to protect, restore and bring up to code the rich wildlife and natural resources of the area. Unique to Shurr Conservancy, a dry grassland and bushy savannah with pockets of acacia growth covering a rocky lava-terrain, is that it is a wildlife corridor and a buffer section between the wildlife-rich Marsabit Mountain and Jaldesa Conservancy.

21. Songa Conservancy

The 1,011 km2 Songa Conservancy, to the north of Marsabit National Reserve, is dominated by arid grass-land plains. It is marked by diverse landscape with thick grasslands and bushy savannah with numerous acacia trees to the south and thick forest vegetation to the north, close to Marsabit National Reserve. It primarily serves a buffer and wildlife dispersal area. The overall goal of Songa Conservancy and its two adjacent conservancies is to achieve sustainable use of natural resources and optimize ecological functions, especially water, grazing land and energy. Bordered by Jaldesa, Shurr and Marsabit National Reserve, Songa acts as an important wildlife corridor and dispersal area for elephant and buffalo during the rains. Key wildlife species include elephant, buffalo, Beisa oryx, lion, Grevy’s zebra, lesser and greater kudu, leopard, among others. Songa Conservancy has five small shopping centres in Kamboe, Karare, Parkishon, Hula Hula and Songa. There are schools and health clinics in all these locations. There is also a water bottling company around Songa and a police post in Leyai.

22. Melako Conservancy

The 387 km2 Melako Conservancy is best known as hot-spot to view the rare Grevy’s Zebra, hosting almost 200 Grevys, which represents 9% of the global population. Began in 2004 under the Northern Rangelands Trust, and covering the five locations of Laisamis, Koya, Lontolio, Merille and Logo Logo, Melako Conservancy’s main focus has been on sustainably managing their rangeland to ensure both their livestock and wildlife continue thrive and flourish as well as improving security and relations with neighboring tribes. Sirikoi Lodge (Lewa Conservancy) has been hugely supportive of Melako, bringing guests here to experience the wilderness and learn more about NRT’s work. Visitors pay a conservancy fee which provides valuable revenue for the community. Sirikoi is looking to expand their involvement with NRT in the future, a prospect many communities in the northern conservancies look forward to. The main Isiolo-Moyale road passes through the settlement areas of Merille, Laisamis and Logo Logo. Other roads are murran/earth roads which connect to the villages and outlying areas however many of these roads are impassable in the rains limiting access to the livestock markets, relief food and trading, and security operations.

23. Marsabit Cemetery

During the Second World War, Marsabit had several guard posts overlooking the “main route” between Kenya and Italian East Africa (Somalia). The small enclosure with a low fence located within Marsabit Cemetery commemorates 24 troops who died in the 1939 to 1945 wars nearby Marsabit which were but extensions of World War II. Marsabit Cemetery is found within Marsabit Town.

24. Gof Choba

Gof Choba is located only 23 kms from Marsabit Town along the A2 Marsabit-Moyale Road near the KBC Transmitting Station. “Gof Choba is the whooper on the left – to the forbidding black moonscape of the Dida Galgalu Desert. Dida Galgalu means “plains of darkness”, according to one Boran Story – Richard Trillo. The cauldron like depression of Gof Choba is ringed by a scenic backdrop of hills, diverse flora and rugged plains. It is one of the more spectacular craters within easy reach from Marsabit National Reserve. Gof Ano and other smaller Gofs sits just 5 kms northeast of Gof Choba. Quite a common occurrence north of Marsabit, gofs speckle the landscape. Other notable Gofs include Gof Redo, Gof Dakara, Gof Bongore and Gof Anno. The craters are due to volcanic activity.

Spatial Location of Gof Choba in Marsabit County
Spatial Location of Gof Choba in Marsabit County

25. Chalbi Desert

About 1 km north of Marsabit township and right after Marsabit Airport is the turnoff to C82 Maikona-Kalacha-North Horr Road travelling northwest across Chalbi Desert through Maikona and Kalacha before reaching North Horr, 196 kms away. From North Horr the road then travels southwest to Loiyangalani 85 kms away. For all its glory as the only true desert in East Africa, Chalbi Desert is not completely barren, bleak or dead. It is patrolled by desert hogs, Somali ostriches, hyenas, antelopes and Grevy’s zebra. And from time to time groups of camels, sometimes in a caravan of a thousand, can be sighted trotting across Chalbi Desert in search of water at one of a handful oasis notably of Kalacha Oasis. Spanning 100,000 km2 biased towards a flat sheet of sand stippled with dunes, this off-centre landscape is a mute gospel of Kenya’s ecological diversity. The petrifying silence, wind rushing through twisted shrubs and whistling over the dunes, ratifies the scale of desolation of the dusty desert cleansed and ruled by the power of the mighty Africa sun. True to form, Chalbi (which in the native Gabbra language means hot and salty) is torrid with midday temperatures often hitting 50 Degrees Celsius. In turn, the hot and glaring sun creates beguiling mirages and transmutes miniature bushes and rocks to appear as moving game, obscuring objects in the distance. Chalbi Desert can be explored on a long day out from Marsabit; for those not aiming to get as far as Maikona or North Horr.

26. Maikona Village

The ever pocket-sized Maikona Village which is no more than a row of dukas, a Catholic Mission Church and traditional Gabbra huts is in the same way a very useful half-way town on the back-of-beyond 271 kms journey between Marsabit National Reserve and Sibiloi National Park crossing Chalbi Desert. A far-flung hamlet sprung to life by life-giving oasis, Maikona always beckons as a welcome relief for motorists and the first sign of life after an endless stretch of desolation across the Chalbi. “As we near Maikona Village, the only settlement we’ve seen from Marsabit National Park, the scenery changes and the vegetation becomes more abundant. Straw huts appear across the horizon, goats graze on whatever little greenery they can find and camels are kept in thorny enclosures.” – Grete Travel. Prominent for its spectacular sand dunes reachable on a walking trip, Maikona Village is also a centuries old pit-stop for thousands of livestock often spotted watering around the famous Maikona Oasis. Trippers with a day or two to spare to explore the landscape and cultures of Maikona Village can stay at the Catholic Mission Church running a good lodge that serves cold beers. Maikona is set 124 kms northwest of Marsabit, and 186 kms before Sibiloi National Park.

North Kenya Expedition Part 3 – Tackling the Chalbi Desert

27. Hurri Hills

It is 43 kms from Maikona to Kalacha, resuming the expedition across Chalbi Desert. About 10 kms before arriving at Kalacha, cut from the same cloth with Maikona, you reach the turnoff to Hurri Hills – along C82 Road. That is to say, there are two routes linking Maikona and Kalacha – the E670 Road travelling away from the Hurri Hills and the C82 towards the Hurri Hills. From Kalacha it’s about 71 kms east then north to the hills. “The Hurri Hills, a remote region of large lava cones, is located between Chalbi Desert and the Kenyan-Ethiopian border in central-north Kenya. The Hurri Hills rise about 300 meters (985 feet) above the lava plateau, reaching 1524 meters (5000 feet) above sea level. Just north of the Hurri Hills, separated by a descending plain of black-cotton-soil, lies the granitic Mount Forole (1887 meters; 6200 feet). This sacred mountain marks the Kenyan-Ethiopian border” – National Geographic. The pyramidal series of peaks of the Hurri Hills, at hand with the Ethiopia-Kenya boundary, stage the abrupt end to the seemingly boundless outreach of the Chalbi Desert. Based on appearance alone their greenery is splendid – following the surfeit of the salt-encrusted desert – with over 20 conical low-lying hills. A short journey north of the Hurri Hills (1524 ms) you find the Sacred Mount Forore (1887 ms).

28. Sacred Mount Forore

The Sacred Mount Forore, a magnificent granitic mountain peaking at 1880 ms and marking the Kenyan-Ethiopian border, is at most times of year a plenitude of green, picked-up from where grandiose landscape of Hurri Hills ceases and across the barren plain that separates these two hills. Mount Forore, a facsimile of Hurri Hills, forming an astonishing green belt in contrast to the windswept sun-baked plain, is especially superb soon after the rains in May, June and July.

29. Kalacha Rock Art

Found at the periphery of the Chalbi Desert, in North Horr, Kalacha is a land of a myriad allures. The ancient rock engraving of the Kalacha Rock Art, of mostly animals, are thought to be associated with rainmaking and date back over 1000 years. Also of interest close to Kalacha Rock Art site are the Agfaba Rock Art, Agfaba waterholes, cultural tourism into Gabbra villages, the Annual Kalacha Festival, the Kalacha Cultural Cottages (or Kalacha Camp) and Maikona Village.

30. Sibiloi National Park

The 1570 km2 Sibiloi National Park at the northeast shore of Lake Turkana is a hauntingly beautiful park marked by barren baked rocks trembled and quivered by mirage. Other than a few metres along the shore of the lake, Sibiloi National Park is an endless profusion of arid or near desert scrubland. It’s also along the shore where large populations of both species of zebra, topi, oryx and antelope freely roam, and where one of Kenya’s largest surviving busk of crocodiles also thrives. Perhaps more than any National Park in Kenya, it offers the element of challenge and is not an easy destination to reach. The roads about it are not well demarcated other than the parkway to its headquarters and to the famous base camp at Koobi Fora Museum. Still and all, for all the difficulty of getting there, Sibiloi National Park is a rewarding place to visit and offers a plethora of unique sights far different and diverse in comparison to other parks. Sibiloi National Park is world-famous for its fossil beds which gained international fame as the source of much information on man’s paleontological history. Then, there’s the volcanic formations including Mount Sibiloi, where the remains of a petrified forest can be seen – a once-great cedar forest which covered the Lake’s shores 7 million years ago. At Koobi Fora Museum, caller to the park can also see a well preserved elephant fossil that dates 1.7 million years back which is among the unique archaeological findings here. It’s found about 800 kms north of Nairobi.

31. Jarigole Pillars

The oddity of the Jarigole Pillars, a series of slender and tall pillars standing in isolation over the sweeping sun-scorched valley, is one of the most exceptional achaeo-astronimical stone pillar sites around Lake Turkana. Jarigole Pillars are among the 4 stone pillars of its kind put-up near Lake Turkana in company with Nariokotome, Kalokol Pillars and Lothagam in Turkana County. Excavation at Jarigole Pillars was led by Merrick and Nelson in late 1980’s and early 1990’s, who had suggested links between early herders and the pillar site as a domestic cattle figurine. Dating of the Jarigole Pillars and other stone pillars near Lake Turkana suggest a rapid, not a gradual, spread for the practice of building pillar sites around Lake Turkana. Jarigole and Lothagam are chronologically close but geographically distant, and, Jarigole is more than 100 kms from Lothagam by water and 300 kms by land. Kalokol Pillars near Lodwar was dated only a few years earlier than Jarigole Pillars. By and large, all the pillar sites appear to have held cultural significance for eons after their construction began. A cattle figurine at Jarigole Pillars suggests the natives using the pillar site were aware of herding. Others suggest this may have been a burial site. It’s located 2 kms northeast of Jarigole spring and 0.5 km off the road to Allia Bay Rangers Camp.

9 possible pillar sites have been cited near Lake Turkana. Five of these – Jarigole, Lothagam North, Lothagam West, Kalokol and Manemanya – consisted of massive pillars of columnar basalt and raised platforms. Each would have required coordinated labour by a large group to transport pillars up to 800 kg in weight from sources up to 2 kms away, and to build platforms up to 500 m3 in volume that may have required perhaps 50 000 short trips carrying loads of rock and sediment in baskets or animal skin pulls.

32. Koobi Fora Museum

Kenya as a Cradle of Mankind in Africa owes a large chunk of this fame to Koobi Fora Museum, which earned its enigmatic repute for valorous efforts to answer one of the most fundamental question about the evolution of man. In the recent two centuries of studies, people have tried to define the biological origin of man and his path of evolution. Notable about Koobi Fora Museum, set in a country rich in landscape and culture, is that it greatly contributes to the understanding of the origin of man as a species over the last million years. Research at Koobi Fora, on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana, began in 1968, led by Dr. Richard Leakey and, by 1994, over 200 hominid and animal fossils had been found here; more than any collection the world had ever produced in 60+ years. Unique to Koobi Fora Museum is that it plainly sets-down when the 2 sub-families of old world monkeys (colobinae and cercopithecinae) started to morphologically and ecologically diversify as documented in its formations. It holds over 10000 man and animal fossils. Koobi Fora holds the world’s plentiful record of human pre-history. The longest and most complete chronicle of human ancestry spanning over 27 million years and a rich fossil heritage stretching back over 100 million years into the dinosaur age. This is the largest and passably well-documented collection of human related fossils that exists. It is unmatched anywhere in the world, with most of its relics kept at National Museums of Kenya Headquarters.

Koobi Fora Museum in Marsabit County
Koobi Fora Museum in Marsabit County

33. Illeret Prehistoric Site

Best-known for the 1.5 million-old Homo-erectus footprint which is the second oldest “hominid” footprints ever cited, the Illeret Pre-historic Site and Research Base affiliated with Turkana Basin Institute has a lengthy history in the study of human evolution. Illeret was discovered and excavated in 1969 by Richard and Meave Leakey. In 2007, its research facility, east of Lake Turkana (about 51 kms north of the Koobi Fora Musuem) became a fully-fledged field research outpost.

34. Turbi Forest

From Marsabit Town it is 247 kms to the terminus of the A2 Great North Road at Moyale. “It does so by traversing some of the most dramatic and inhospitable parts of the northern half of Kenya. This section of road goes through the Dida Galgalu Desert and the Shinil Plains, before climbing again onto the low hills around Moyale, where the road passes into Ethiopia”. The project, to upgrade the stretch of the A2 Road from Isiolo Town to the Ethiopian border at Moyale, spanned 3 presidents and construction took 9 years. The finished product is one of the best roads in the country though, reducing travel time from Nairobi to Moyale from 3 days to around 12 hours. After leaving Turbi, the road traverses the villages and trading posts of Walda, Sololo Town, Dambala Fachana, Qate, Funyata, Odda and Butiye before reaching Moyale. Shortly after leaving Turbi Town the A2 Moyale Road skirts the southern limits of the 41 km2 Turbi Forest.

35. Sololo Escarpment

It’s unconvincing for any first-time trippers to Moyale not to get dumb-struck-in-awe by the towering monolith of the Sololo Escarpment at the doorstep of the Sololo township. This outstanding natural sculpture forms part of the stellar Sololo-Moyale Mountain Ranges which rise up to 1,400 ms in the northeast tip. The Sololo Escarpment, an adjunct of the Ethiopian Highlands, is marked by a perennial bushland thicket vegetation. From Sololo it is 83 kms east to Moyale.

Aerial view of the Nabuyatom Cone.  Photo Courtesy of Martin Harvey
Aerial view of the Nabuyatom Cone. Image Courtesy of Martin Harvey

Geography of Marsabit County

Most of the Marsabit County is constituted of an extensive plain, lying between 300 and 900 ms, sloping gently towards the south east. The plain is bordered to the west and north by hills and mountain ranges interspersed by volcanic cones and calderas. The most notable topographical features in Marsabit County are Ol Donyo Ranges in the southwest, Mount Marsabit in the central part of the County, Hurri Hills in the north-eastern area, Mount Kulal in northwest and the mountains around Sololo Moyale Escarpment in the northeast. The main physical feature is Chalbi Desert which forms a depression covering 100,000 km2. This depression lies between 435 and 500 ms elevation, and is separated from Lake Turkana, 100 ms lower in elevation, by a ridge which rises to 700 ms.

Land Use in Marsabit County

Much of the land in Marsabit County is owned communally except few areas in Saku Constituency.  Less than 1% of land is registered in the county. Among the registered area is around Mount Marsabit, Marsabit Town and Dakabaricha in Saku Constituency. Agriculture and rural development contributes about 60% of Marsabit’s economy and employs 70% of the rural population. This is also vital for food security with poverty being a major development challenge. Over 65% of the population is food secure with an average poverty levels estimated at 68%.  Prolonged drought, poor infrastructure, insecurity, wanton degradation and underdeveloped markets inhibit the success of rural initiatives in Marsabit.

Highlights in Marsabit County

Marsabit County has a great number of interesting attraction sites that include Marsabit National Park and Reserve, Sibiloi National Park, Lake Paradise, Mount Marsabit, its tropical rain forests and diverse cultures from different communities.  There are a variety of wildlife which includes rare species of black rhino and great kudu. Other main animals found in the county include elephants, buffalos, lions, bush bulks, baboons, leopards, zebras, gazelles, giraffes and different kinds of birds such as ostriches. It also has Chalbi Desert.

Population in Marsabit County

The vastness of Marsabit County makes population density relatively small, just 4 people / km2 in 2012 – the lowest in Kenya. From the 2009 National Population and Housing Census, Marsabit County’s projected population was 316,206 people in 2012.  The projections are based on annual growth rate of 2.75%.  The population was projected to increase to 343,399 people by 2015 and further to 372,931 people by 2017.  There are two major towns and three urban centres in Marsabit County:  Moyale and Marsabit, while the urban centres are Sololo, Loiyangalani and Laisamis had a total projected population of 70,868 at 2012. Marsabit’s urban population was expected to increase to 99,869 in 2017.

View of the Lake Turkana Wind Project.  Photo Courtesy of Construction Review
Lake Turkana Wind Project. Image Courtesy of Construction Review

Airports in Marsabit County

Marsabit County has five airstrips situated at Marsabit, North Horr, Sololo, Turbi and Moyale. Marsabit Airstrip is undergoing renovation but the others four are in fair condition. It is hoped to connect Marsabit to Nairobi City by air.

Roads in Marsabit County

The newly laid A2 Merille-Moyale Road through Marsabit became the foremost tarmac road ever in Marsabit County. The total road network in the county is 2,431 kms which consist of 397 kms gravel surface and 2,034 kms earth surface.

Climate in Marsabit County

Apart from the areas around the slopes of the Hurri Hills, the lower slopes of Mount Marsabit and the middle slope of Mount Kulal, Marsabit County has low unreliable rainfall and high rates of evaporation. Most regions of Marsabit County are adust with a mean annual temperature of about 30 Degrees Celsius.

Marsabit County Distance Chart
Marsabit County Distance Chart

View of Sacred Mount Forore.  Photo Courtesy of National Geographic
View of Sacred Mount Forore. Image Courtesy of National Geographic

National Monuments in Marsabit County

  1. Sibiloi National Park

Marsabit County Map

Marsabit County Map