When we roll out a list of the most famous Kenya safari options, you can count on the Maasai Mara to sit on top, closely followed by Samburu, Lake Nakuru, and Amboseli National Park. None of these, however, can compete with Tsavo National Park for size or heritage. Established in 1948 and broken into Tsavo West and Tsavo East, this is a Kenya that feels far from the busy roads of the Mara or Amboseli. One that invites you to gaze out over a deep red valley covered by ancient lava flows with barely another safari vehicle in sight.
It’s a very different style of safari to our days in Amboseli, where animals have kept us constant company, but so have our fellow visitors. After one last morning game drive – on which we come oh so close to seeing our first big cat, but not quite – we set out for Tsavo West, with mighty Kilimanjaro keeping us company from just over the Tanzanian border. After a stop for some souvenirs handcrafted by the local Maasai, we zip through local communities where people are dressed in their Sunday best for church. It’s worth staying awake for this reminder of what everyday Kenya looks like away from the majesty of its wild beasts and beautiful parks.
Exchanging waves with groups of local kids, I chat with our guide, Daniel, about the different tribes who make up the Kenyan population as it is today – and he’s just as knowledgeable about them as he is about the animals. The Bantu and Nilotic peoples dominate, and while the Maasai get the lion’s share of tourist attention, they account for less than a million of Kenya’s population of 47 million.
Entering the gates of Tsavo West, there’s a tangible sense of the park’s vastness as we crawl along the road bound for Voyager Ziwani Safari Camp. The once black and white zebra have taken on a distinctly orange hue from rolling around in Tsavo’s red dust, while a family of giraffes remind us once again of just how tall Kilimanjaro is as it looms behind them. Settling into Voyager Ziwani for a delicious a la carte lunch, we meet our dining companions, the local hippos and crocodiles that inhabit the property’s dam. Fortunately, they’re unable to climb the steep embankment to the camp, but it proves no such barrier to monkeys and the odd warthog, who roam freely throughout the property.
Speaking of “roaming,” we’re about to get better acquainted with the locals than expected. After a short nap, it’s time for a walking safari, something we’d not yet done at Amboseli. With an expert guide and an armed escort just in case, we track impala, zebra, and huge flocks of local birds in their native habitat, learning about the Kenyan “toothbrush” tree (which works just as well as the real thing) and…
Wait, are those hippos? Is that an actual pod of hippos just metres away from us in the water right now? The most dangerous large animal in Africa? Why yes, yes it is. In the expert company of our guide, and with the hippos already in the water, we have nothing to worry about, and it’s extraordinary to come so close to these awesome creatures on foot. After this up-close and silent hippo encounter, coming within metres of the same Nile crocodiles we’d spied over lunch is an extra thrill (we’re reassured they can’t sprint more than 20 metres or so at a time). The hippos vacate the water each night, and even as dusk settles, we can hear them laughing, probably at the half dozen humans who’ve since retreated to the safety of Voyager Ziwani’s bar for sundowners.
There’s no time to get too comfortable though. After sunset, it’s time to embark on a night time game drive, in the hope of glimpsing some of Tsavo’s nocturnal creatures. To be honest, after our near misses at Amboseli, we’re all holding out to see a lion. An hour on the road brings us no such luck. We do however spot native owls, primates, mongoose, and to the enormous credit of our flashlight wielding guide, a chameleon. Returning to camp, we’re more than ready for dinner, but so are the dozens of mostly European guests (Tsavo is a popular safari side-trip for Europeans enjoying the sun on Kenya’s beaches). A solitary table is set under a small gazebo over the dam. Unbeknownst to us, this is our table for a delicious five course dinner – all to the soundtrack of hippos, chortling somewhere in the darkness.
Staying in Voyager Ziwani’s tented camp is another new experience. Sleeping in comfort under canvas, with the sounds of the odd monkey or warthog just outside, creates a feeling of true immersion in the African bush, even though we haven’t left the luxury of the camp! In case I needed any more reminding, the imprints of four little paws make their way across the roof of my tent, the giveaway sign that someone is on the prowl for food! Kenya’s oh so cute monkeys are notorious when it comes to helping themselves to the possessions of unwary travellers, and a carelessly unlocked room or unzipped tent can be all the invitation these creatures need. This one is out of luck, and I catch a filthy look through the gauze of an exposed – but still sealed – flap in the ceiling. Even more importantly, the tents are also designed to be mosquito-proof when zipped up by the staff each night.
Lacking certain amenities taken for granted at traditional lodges, such as wi-fi in every cabin, the tented camp experience is an ideal choice for safari-goers wanting a slightly wilder experience without sacrificing a good night’s sleep or personal comfort. Tents are typically quite spacious with sealed floors, reliable electricity, and a private bathroom. Most camps also offer a family configuration. Since you’re likely to be visiting several parks on your Kenya safari, I highly recommend using a combination of lodge stays and tented camps for the best all-around Africa experience.
Don’t skip the walking safari either!