Westgate Conservancy – A Conservation Conversation with The Kenyan Camper
Conservation can be a really boring subject. Depending on how it’s presented on a scale of 1-10 some might rate it ‘watching Olympic golf’. Now most of us like the idea of conservation just as long as not too much is asked of us; liking a photo of a cute elephant on Facebook? That we can do. But actually understanding what impact we have on our environment and working to reduce it? Not so much fun. So there are reasons why conservation can be boring to some, but there are also ways to make it interesting as I find out for myself….
Westgate Community Conservancy in Samburu County, part of the Northern Rangelands Trust, was formed out of the Ngutuk Ongiron Group Ranch in 2004. If you haven’t heard of it previously it’s because setting up a conservancy is a long and continuous process so the word ‘formed’ does not always equate to ‘up and running’.
The conservancy borders Samburu National Reserve (SNR) to its south, Kalama Community Wildlife Conservancy to its east, Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust to the north and it’s southern and western boundary is the Ewaso Nyiro River. It has seasonal concentrations of up to 500 endangered Grevy’s zebras and is also a corridor for elephants migrating between the Matthews Ranges and Laikipia.
From Nanyuki it’s about a 3hr drive to Westgate. As southern access to the conservancy is through SNR, so I arrive expecting some issues at the park gate because it’s not clear what the drive – thru agreements are between the two conservation areas, remember the same issue came up in Nakuprat – Gotu? But on mentioning I’m heading to Westgate they wave me through and I get to have a nice little game drive through the reserve, lovely start to the trip.
The drive through the SNR takes about 1 hour and from the Westgate gate (ha!) it’s about another hour to the HQ. Safaricom network ends just before the entrance to Westgate and since I’m rolling solo I crank up the tunes and hit the gas, free of the technological ties that bind.
This what my trip from Archers Post looked like. Don’t dilly-dally driving through SNR as if you’re busted without a ticket you’ll have some ‘splaining to do.
Up and About
Chris, the conservancy manager who I’m due to meet is running late so I pass the time making friends with Sura the resident eland. She came here as an orphan and now spends her days hanging aroundHQ (the rope is so she doesn’t wander when there are hyena about at night).
I also take this time to have a chat with Alex the grazing manager, a cool cat whose special skill is making the subject of grass actually interesting! As I get to see the link between pastoralism-pasture-livestock-wildlife-tourism for myself I find myself enthralled by the subject. Chris finally shows up and we bundle into the car along with Peter one of the community rangers and we’re off.
Westgate is all about vast landscapes stretching for what seems to be impossible distances. The rock about a 30min drive from HQ) at the northern end of the conservancy is one of the best places to drink it all in. With 360-degree views of the conservancy I can’t even begin to imagine what the night sky would look like from here, astrophotographers and star-gazers take note.
There’s not much shade here so if you want to camp out here it might be prudent to time your arrival in the late afternoon, the wind also kicks up something fierce as it races across the plains. Bring a kite if you have kids!
View towards the southern end of the Matthews Range.
From here you can also see ‘Matiti’ Hill, no surprise why it’s called that. Wonder if anyone’s ever explored the nip…I mean the top.
We make a stop at the Lojiuk Swamp and getting anywhere close to it means a bit of bundu-bashing and getting close to the water’s edge on foot is a real slog as the ground is extremely waterlogged so this is as close I get. There is so much bird life surrounding the swamp and it’s quite amazing seeing ducks in the heart of Northern Kenya.
This campsite is 15min from HQ on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro in a well shaded location. On my visit the campsite is not cleared but when it is it must be a really stellar spot (there is some push-and-pull over whose responsibility it is to clear the site) but as it is close to water and is within the core conservation area your chances of spotting wildlife here are very high.
Another massive rocky kopje which is 10min from the HQ overlooks the core conservation area (no grazing is allowed within this area so it’s very inviting to wildlife) so carry your binoculars.
From here you get another almost 360-degree view across the river and into Mpus-Kutuk Conservancy. Notice the difference in colours before the river and after it? That’s the difference between a conserved area and an area that’s been grazed into oblivion.
Chris tells me that the community here are on board as regards managing their grazing areas and encroachment on to the conservation area rarely happens as the fine for anyone trespassing in the core area is a few goats.
You can take a little game drive in the core area as animals have now become accustomed to the fact that the area is protected and that pasture and security is assured. Chris tells me poaching incidents are now a thing of the past; I really hope thats true.
Landscape lovers would really love this area, sure there is an animal population but the truth is if thats what you are after there are other areas in Kenya better suited for that. But these landscapes? Only in Northern Kenya.
Many hours later I find myself back where I started. The campsite here is right next to a lugga (which I love) and is situated far enough from HQ to have enough privacy. This would be a nice camping spot for large groups. There is an added bonus of a ‘network tree’ where you can juuust about get a mobile signal. I call The Muse back in Nairobi to let her know all’s well, I’m used to travelling solo but I’ll admit on this trip so company would have been nice.
A quick set up later and it’s time to chill. It’s been a long intense day and I’m finally able to get some grub inside me pull out a good book and connect with Westgate the best way I know how….doing nothing.
When evening falls I light a small fire to keep me company. However I don’t stay up late, I can barely keep my eyes open and as I begin to count sheep the ‘whoop, whoop’ of hyenas near the camp lull me into a deep sleep. I hope Sura is safe.
None of the campsites have facilities so you need to be self-sufficient. The last chance for shopping is Archers Post.
There is no cell network in the most of the conservancy. Last network is at the edge of Samburu Reserve. There is slight network on Sundowner Hill and at the HQ campsite.
If you’re not into camping and your money’s right there is accommodation at Sasaab Lodge. You could also pay a visit to the Grevy’s Zebra Trust or Ewaso Lions and learn a little about what they do here.
Camping/conservancy fees are Ksh 2000 per person and rangers are Ksh 500 a day. For more info contact NRT Tourism on 0701 295 357 or email@example.com.
So why Westgate ? Its location puts it smack dab in a nice circular route from Archers Post, through SNR, heading up to Wamba, (maybe get some of that sweet Namunyak Conservancy action) and rejoining the A2 at Mount Ololokwe. It could also be an alternate route if heading up to Lake Turkana as an alternate route to South Horr. Circuits people! This is how to open new destinations to tourism.
What do I learn about conservation? It gets much more interesting when you’re actually living it. Seeing the work people like Chris, Alex, Peter and the community at large have come together to achieve really makes you feel your travel here is all worthwhile. You become a part of the effort and through your little bit of tourism continue to show that conservation can be a source of revenue.
But don’t take my word for it, fire up your travel spirit and visit these amazing landscapes for yourself. I promise you it’s more interesting than golf.