Looking for a wilder side of a Kenya safari where the serenity of a wildlife sighting makes up for a thinner quantity? Tsavo West could be your perfect destination.
The vastness of Tsavo National Park – both West and East – in Kenya makes it a less fruitful one for those looking to spot as many animals as possible. But the lower density of animals also leads to a lower density of vehicles and tourists. We leave Voyager Ziwani Safari Camp behind, bound for Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge. It’s not the longest of our drives by a long shot, but it does offer an opportunity for another high-quality “African massage” as our vehicle traverses dirt tracks and uneven roads where bridges have been washed away by heavy rains. Still, it pays to look sharp, even in the heat of the day, for pockets of wildlife, including an adorable family of dik-diks, the smallest of the antelope family.
Our first stop is Mzima Springs. Besides being a beautiful spot to stretch our legs, it’s one of the few places on our Kenya safari where we can drink fresh water right from the spring. A local guide takes us along the circular track to the pool at the base of the springs, where we can spot another pod of hippos cooling off from the afternoon sun. Mzima Springs are also famous for an underwater observation pod, though the hippos and crocodiles aren’t feeling social enough for a close encounter through glass. In fact, the crocodiles here are masters of camouflage, and our guide needs to point out one in particular, cannily laying in wait on a spillway for any unwary fish that tries to jump to safety.
Continuing our drive to Kilaguni Serena, we learn a little more about Tsavo’s violent history. Significant portions of the area are covered by a dark and ancient lava flow, and the entire valley is coated in red dust, giving rise to the legend of the “red giants” (elephants) of Tsavo. But it’s not just the mountains that have a violent history here. Tsavo is a native Kamba word meaning “slaughter,” and was so named after Arab slavers who traversed the region until the British banned slavery in their colonies. One bloody legend of Tsavo gave way to another, as two lions developed a taste for workers along the Uganda Railway in 1898, becoming known as the Tsavo Man-Eaters. Between them, the pair are believed to have claimed 135 victims before they were shot and killed by Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson. Their rampage quickly took on mythical proportions as lions rarely attack human beings. After a quarter-century as Patterson’s floor rugs, the Tsavo Man-Eaters today stand stuffed in the Chicago Field Museum. So, even if we don’t see any live lions during my Tsavo visit, I can at least say I’ve seen the park’s most infamous pair!
We arrive in time for lunch at Kilaguni, and after coffee with an elephant family in Amboseli, and sundowners overlooking hippos at Voyager Ziwani, I’m not sure what could possibly top… Okay, I’m not playing favourites between our three accommodations, but the view overlooking the valley and two very active Tsavo West waterholes from Kilaguni’s dining room is pretty hard to beat. Over lunch, we watch zebra, antelope, one of the famed “red giant” elephants, and most plentiful of all, Cape buffalo come to drink. Tsavo may be light on big herds, but overlooking one of its few reliable water sources, we enjoy a big advantage.
In this environment, water makes all the difference. Our afternoon game drive is our first sobering reminder that Africa’s wildlife are not here at our safari-going pleasure. If the animals don’t wish to be seen, there’s no guarantee you’ll see them, even with an expert guide like Daniel behind the wheel. On the upside, this vast red valley is utterly spectacular in the dying afternoon light. So, I sit back to enjoy the ride, taking in the view and appreciating the odd impala or zebra sighting until Daniel stops the vehicle mere feet from a gigantic red tusker.
The animal’s sudden appearance through the bush has caught us all off guard. Careful not to make any sudden moves, we can see every muscle in the creature’s body as it dismembers the tree chosen for its evening meal. But our own sudden appearance at its dinner table has pushed the animal’s buttons, and it’s clear we’re being sized up. Deciding we’re not a threat, the elephant stalks away and we drive on. But it’s late in the day. Doubting we’re going to catch a better sighting, we drive back the way we came, where the flapping of two great ears and several huffing breaths make it clear our second intrusion on someone’s dinner definitely isn’t welcome.
Getting off the old man’s lawn with our photos safely stored, we return for sundowners, hoping for more sightings at Kilaguni’s waterhole. We aren’t disappointed. After twenty minutes, three red giants make their steady walk between the two waterholes before returning to the safety of the bush. It makes for an impressive dusk photo, but the real show is still to come. An entire family of elephants, then another, then a third, all emerge from the darkness, making their way to the floodlit waters for a night of fun and fresh water. It’s impossible to keep track, but at our best count, this elephant pool party will include over 40 animals of varying ages and sizes, bringing together what could be a half dozen families. The whole show lasts around 45 minutes as we watch, mesmerized, our cocktail glasses long empty. Tsavo may not serve up abundant herds for a Kenya safari, but when it chooses to put on a show, it doesn’t disappoint.
Before our return flight to Nairobi the following day, we have one more game drive, and this time, the animals of Tsavo are more inquisitive. Zebra, antelope, a few more elephants, the odd buffalo, ostriches, and one up-close encounter with a giraffe, who just seems above it all. Our drive back to the lodge however is delayed by a visit to Lion Rock, where pristine white tablecloths and smiling staff from the Serena promise a delicious breakfast buffet in the middle of the valley. The menu includes everything we could hope for, including plenty of much-needed coffee, while the setting offers one final reminder of the awesome vastness and beauty of Tsavo, before our afternoon flight back to Nairobi.
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