To some, the name Tsavo brings up memories of huge herds of red-dusted elephants uprooting trees with their trunks, shaking the earth as they move, and scaring birds away with their trumpeting. These beasts own and roam this land.
It’s the largest game reserve in Kenya. Tsavo East, our destination, is nine times bigger than the Maasai Mara and has what is arguably a richer history. Arab slave caravans passed here for centuries on their way to Mombasa, but some did not leave the place alive. They trod through paths full of Tsetse Flies, whose bites cause sleeping sickness. The death count was high. When the slaves died, their captors left their bodies in the bushes. And that’s how the lions in that area acquired a taste for human flesh.
In 1898, when the Nairobi-Mombasa railway was under construction, two man-eaters terrorized the workers. Legend has it that the lions killed about 135 people. They devoured everything, down to the bones. There’s a movie about the guy who eventually shot them, Lt. Colonel. John Henry Patterson. He sold their bodies to a museum in Chicago. Now people bring their kids to see them.
The rising sun found us cruising along the Dongo-Kundu bypass, well on our way towards Tsavo. We’d left Mombasa at half-past five and picked up some passengers at Likoni. Laban was going on a Safari for the first time. Kaisha was here for the birds. Then there’s Uba, the serial traveler. And the sisters, Adelyne and Susan, who’ve always loved to go out and see what’s out there. Those of us who’d woken up earlier than usual slept all the way.
We had breakfast at a local eatery, some would dare call it a kibandaski. We got there early, only to find that they’d not prepared anything yet. So we waited, but it didn’t take long for them to whip up what we’d ordered. Nelly thought their fries were some of the best she’d had in a long time, but what we know for sure is you’d not find the kind of chicken soup they serve there for miles. Both locals and foreigners flocked the place.
Next to the eatery is a place where you can get a souvenir. There, you’ll find some unique handmade pieces or anything African that floats your boat.
There are several entrances to Tsavo East, but if you’re coming from Mombasa, you’ll come across Bachuma gate first–It’s a short distance from the Nairobi-Mombasa highway. When loosely translated into English, Chuma means iron. They call it Bachuma because it’s believed there’s iron melting gradually below the ground where the entrance stands.
There’s a new structure now where the old entrance once stood. It’s a far cry from the small gate that was here before. It had a red-tiled roof, with a seemingly omnipresent satellite dish on top, and a tiny ticketing office that sat between the entrance and the exit. Now they have a towering structure, with columns running the full length from the ticket office on the ground to the other room on the upper floor.
About a minute into our drive, we came upon another species that calls this place home — the Maasai giraffe. It’s a majestic animal with a noble spirit. We watched it stretch up its long painted neck to reach for twigs on the crown of an acacia tree. It remained unbothered, as cameras clicked away.
Just like humans, animals don’t like wet ground. It had rained for several days around the Kenyan coast. When it rains most of them migrate to dry areas. Tsavo’s vastness makes it difficult to spot animals easily. We had a tough time finding them, but we did. Our guide talked to someone else on the other end of a walkie-talkie who led us to where the animals were.
The animals are always up to something different. Tourists fly for miles to come here because it gives them a unique experience every time they visit.
The elephants like it here. We saw one cow, probably the head of its family, marking her territory by rubbing her skin on the bark of trees. We later came upon a trio that won our hearts: A cow, a bull, and their baby in the middle. Perhaps they were showing the baby elephant the ways of the wild. Then there’s a lone bull that tried to charge at us, seemingly disconcerted by us staring at it. Our guide said it had probably crossed paths with poachers, making it wary of any human contact, even the friendly ones. The next one was taking a mud bath — It helps protect their skin against the scorching sun and regulates their body temperature. It used its trunk to spray itself with mud and later walked onto a log for a rub.
Elephants are the most intelligent and self-aware creatures on earth. They express grief and compassion just like we do, and they’ll even hug you with their trunk if they like you. Baby elephants are playful things with boundless energy, to the extent that they sometimes make fools of themselves. But their herds watch over them with a communal affection, and their mothers love them too much. The bulls are dangerously overprotective and when a young one is in danger they all lose their minds.
Later, we saw two lions mating. The guide had a better name for it. He referred to it as a harusi, the Swahili word for wedding. We caught them from a distance. They were so into it, and they’d take breaks then go back to shagging each other.
As we drove deeper, we spotted zebras, waterbucks, warthogs, and different species of antelope and gazelle. There were cheetahs too. We heard of one perched on a tree as we were leaving the park, but that spot was out of our way.
If you don’t come to Tsavo to see the big five, then you’re here for the birds. Over 500 species have been recorded here. We had a bird lover amongst us, and he’d stop the car every time he spotted one. He’d then explain the interesting details to us. Did you know that pipits walk and run rapidly, but never hop? Bird watchers and photographers would love it here.
If you litter in the park, you might as well start buying landmines there to make your destruction more potent. You’d be feeding plastic to the animals, like an anarchist.
When you go to a park, stay in your car. You never know what would happen. So you have little chance of survival without the company of a KWS ranger. During your drive, they advise you to drive in front of the animals. It’s easier for you to escape that way. It’s hard to escape from danger when driving in reverse. That said, switch off the engines when you stop to view the game, and avoid any loud music, shouting or howling. It’ll make the animals irritable, and they might attack you.
Our lunch was served at Voi safari lodge. It’s mostly made of hardwood and is perched on a hill like an African castle. It gives you a breathtaking view full of little patches of bush littered across the savannah. Downhill, there’s a man-made water pan, where animals come to drink. We even spotted an elephant. There’s an open pool but hidden from public view, such that you can enjoy the panorama as you swim. In the distance, we could see Chyulu Hills and Taita Hills.
The staff surprised Nelly with a cake since it was her birthday. They even sang to her, and posed for photos. Wouldn’t you want that for a birthday too?
We wish we would have stayed more to experience the grandeur of Tsavo: animals gathering around water holes, hippopotamuses yawning, and a lion or cheetah on a kill. The park houses other lodges including Anuba Asnil lodge, Sentrim lodge, Lion Hill Safari Lodge and Sarova Saltlick lodge. All have accommodation options for both travelers on a budget and those not afraid to spend. However, if your main goal is to tick off a grand experience of the big five, Tsavo East national park would not be the best choice. It’s not guaranteed you’ll see all the animals due to how vast it is but it is the best option if you are looking into a safari, while on a budget.
Without Omar, our able guide and driver, we’d not have gotten much out of Tsavo. We also thank New Generate Africa, a car hire and rental company in Mombasa whose driver Omar,a jolly good fellow, has been on the wheel as a tour driver for years. He made us feel safe, though he insisted we leave on time. We only left because we had to. Cheers!