Maralal, the capital of Samburu County, lies in the centre of Samburu sub-county. Its setting in the foothills of the Kirisia Hills, at the deepest point of a mountain bay that opens towards Laikipia plains and Mount Kenya to the south, is picturesque. It is a frontier town, the beginning of the Great Northern wilderness and the staging post for many great adventures. This simple town is a thriving center for the local Samburu people, and the streets are always busy with camels, passing warriors and traders.
Maralal is the ideal ground for camel racing; every year hundreds of tourists and Kenyans throng this less trodden territory for the Maralal Camel Derby to watch a race by animals famed as the ship of the desert. For centuries camels have been an important part of life in this region of Kenya, used as the mode of transport for the nomadic people of the north. The camel derby is thus a celebration of the local way of life and winning is a great local honor, with competition running high. With the camel derby, comes an assortment of cultural activities the Samburu, Turkana and Pokot are known for. Different communities showcase their culture, types of food, dressing among others bringing cohesion among various communities.
Flagged off by local dignitaries, the race begins with initial chaos as the camels break across the line. The less ‘professional’ camel jockeys often lose control of their over-excited steeds, which often decide to run the race in the completely opposite direction. As the amateurs head off in whichever direction their camel chooses, the professionals break free and head for the course at breakneck speed. Cheering supporters line the route, and the final stretch is always alive with excited spectators as the winners cross the line.
A cycling race is also now held concurrently with the derby, with mountain bikes racing over a demanding course. The cycle race also attracts its share of dedicated professionals on world class bikes, as well as local amateurs on bikes that in some cases never see the end of the race.
The Maralal Camel derby is more than just a race. It is an entertaining festival of fun and local competition that brings this small desert town to life.