Chosen as one of the names for Kenya Airways’ new 787 Dreamliners, Tsavo National Park is an area of protected wilderness that is a stronghold for some of Africa’s most iconic species, including the elephant.
East Africa’s largest national park, Tsavo, extends for more than 21,000 square kilometres across the wild and practically uninhabited acacia-studded plains that slope coastward southeast of Nairobi. This vast and untrammelled tract of semi-arid bush is in many respects the antithesis of the better-publicised and more popular Masai Mara. Tourist densities are exceptionally low, wildlife is more sparsely distributed and relatively skittish, and the park as a whole retains a thrilling wilderness character that makes it a favourite with connoisseurs seeking a holistic safari experience rather than an opportunity to tick off the so-called Big Five as quickly as possible.
Which is not to say that Tsavo offers substandard game viewing. On the contrary, it is home to Kenya’s largest elephant population, with more than 11,000 individuals counted in a 2014 aerial survey, while the electrically fenced Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary protects one of the world’s densest concentrations of the endangered black rhino. In addition, the plains of Tsavo are roamed by some of Africa’s largest remaining buffalo herds, a host of large predators including lion, cheetah, leopard and spotted hyena, and iconic ungulates such as giraffe, zebra and wildebeest. The park is also an important stronghold for the fringe-eared oryx, shy lesser kudu, and the bizarre, stretchy-necked gerenuk.
Originally gazetted as one national park in April 1948, Tsavo was later split into two contiguous but separately administered areas. Though they share a common border, Tsavo West and Tsavo East have quite distinct characters. The 9065 sq km Tsavo West protects a volcanically moulded landscape of jagged black outcrops and solidified lava flows overshadowed by Kilimanjaro on the southwest horizon. Drier and more sparsely vegetated, the 11,747 sq km Tsavo East protects a relatively flat landscape of red earth and acacia scrub alleviated by the life-giving waters of Kenya’s second-longest river, the Galana. It also supports localised dry-country birds, including the northern carmine bee-eater, red-and-yellow barbet, golden pipit and rosy-patched bush-shrike.
1 Shetani Lava Flow
This jumble of jagged and practically unvegetated black rocks bordering Tsavo West looks as if it was deposited yesterday. In fact it formed some 200 years ago, when a stream of fiery magma erupted from the nearby Chyulu Hills, moving so quickly that many people and animals were buried alive – hence the Swahili name Shetani, which means ‘Devil’.
2 Mzima Springs
Fed by subterranean streams that rise on the slopes of Kilimanjaro before being filtered through the porous volcanic rocks of the Chyulu Hills, Mzima is a genuine oasis, with a daily inflow of 200 million litres. A walking trail through the palm and fever-tree forest fringing the crystal clear pools offers the opportunity to see colourful birds such as African fish eagle, African paradise-flycatcher and black-headed oriole. There’s also an underwater observation chamber from where you can watch circling shoals of carp-like fish, and might catch a fish’s eye view of one of the hippos that frequent the pools.
3 Chiamu Crater
Rising in stark isolation from the wooded plains of Tsavo West, this stark conical pyramid is actually a dormant volcano whose coal black honeycombed slopes are almost totally denuded of vegetation. The steep and shadeless path to the rim offers fantastic views, but can be oppressively hot in the middle at midday.
4 Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary
This 62 sq km sanctuary-within-a-sanctuary was created and electrically fenced in 1986 to prevent commercial poachers from killing Tsavo’s last few remaining black rhinos. Today, it protects around 60 rhinos, which receive round-the-clock protection from a dedicated anti-poaching unit. A density of around one black rhino per sq km makes this one of the best places in Kenya to seek out these endangered creatures, which often gravitate towards one of the five waterholes in the afternoon heat.
5 Mount Kilimanjaro
Though its snow-capped 5891m peak lies across the border in Tanzania, Africa’s tallest mountain dominates the southern skyline of Tsavo West, at least on the relatively infrequent occasions when it emerges from its customary cloudy cover. In clear weather, it’s simply one of the most breathtaking sights on the continent.
6 Lake Chala
Set on the southern footslopes of Kilimanjaro, a short drive from Tsavo West, this lovely 3km-wide crater lake remains practically invisible until you stand on the edge of the caldera rim wherein it nestles. A steep footpath leads down sheer cliffs draped in tropical greenery to the translucent water, which is claimed locally to host a menagerie of mysterious and malignant beasties.
7 Lake Jipe
Arguably the best birdwatching site in the vicinity, Jipe is a shallow papyrus-fringed lake set on the remote southern border of Tsavo West, below Tanzania’s North Pare Mountains. Avian specials such as pygmy goose, lesser jacana, black egret and black coucal are most easily seen from a boat, but the shore is often visited by elephants, while the dense hippo and crocodile populations mean that pedestrians should avoid straying too close to the water.
8 Mudanda Rock
Kenya’s answer to Ayers Rock, this mile-wide inselberg, run through by near vertical multicoloured quartzite striations, rears impressively above the plains of Tsavo East. A short footpath leads to the crest, which overlooks a small natural waterhole that often attracts large elephant and buffalo herds. The rock is also a well-known haunt of leopards, which are seldom seen during daylight.
9 Voi Safari Lodge
Good for a pit stop even if you are staying elsewhere, Tsavo East’s most spectacularly sited lodge (on a cliff offering views to the distant Galana River), supports plentiful small wildlife, ranging from colourful red-headed agama lizards to the rock hyraxes that scurry across the slopes. Better still is the small photographic hide next to a waterhole that just about always hosts a few antelope, baboons and water birds, but is also regularly visited by thirsty elephants.
10 Galana River
A genuine treat for sun-dazzled eyes in the austere plains of Tsavo East, the Galana is the country’s second largest river. The palm-dominated fringing forest is home to large numbers of elephant and buffalo, while the flanking plains are good for gerenuk, black rhino and lesser kudu. Be sure to stop at Lugard Falls, a sequence of fast-flowing rapids that cross a black dolomite bed striated with white quartzite, and the hippo pool a few kilometres downriver.
Did you know?
During World War I, British troops built fortresses along the Tsavo river to counter threats from invading German soldiers from Tanganyika (now Tanzania).
Need to know
The most usual way to explore Tsavo is on an organised road safari with any of the dozens of safari companies based in Nairobi or along the coast. Tsavo West is commonly visited as a 2-3 night stand-alone trip out of Nairobi, or in tandem with nearby Amboseli National Park. Tsavo EAST is a popular goal for a short add-on safari out of the coastal resorts around Malindi, Watamu and Mombasa. Either way, Tsavo is also one of the easier Kenyan parks to explore on a self-drive basis, thanks to the relative ease of access (the main entrance gates are on the asphalt road between Nairobi and Mombasa) and the good internal roads (though 4WD may be required in some areas after heavy rain). The gateway towns of Mtito Andei and Voi both have a few low-key hotels and eateries, and a couple of ATMs and filling stations. See the Kenya Wildlife Services www.kws.go.ke for more details.
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• Kruger National Park, South Africa
Nowhere beats the Kruger when it comes to affordable self-drive safaris. Any saloon car is adequate to get around the well maintained roads and affordable accommodation and campsites are easily booked. The park also hosts the greatest mammalian variety of any African reserve, along with 500-plus bird species.
• Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda
The opportunity to visit mountain gorillas in their misty mountain home is arguably the single most rewarding wildlife encounter Africa has to offer. Indeed, for many visitors, staring into the deep brown eyes of a 200kg silverback is a life-altering experience. And that one hard-to-trump trick aside, the location is also fantastic, set at the base of the Virungas, a chain of freestanding volcanic mountains whose bamboo-swathed slopes rise imperiously above the 4000m contour.
• Ruaha National Park, Tanzania
Mention Tanzania to the average safari-goer and the first thing they’ll think of is the Serengeti. Underrated Ruaha, by contrast, is the country’s largest national park, but also one of its most untrammelled, and home to a dense population of elephant along with an unusual selection of dry-country antelope species. A must for the well-heeled connoisseur.
Where to stay
• Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge
Situated at the heart of Tsavo West’s main safari circuit, Kilaguni was the first lodge built in any Kenyan National Park, but a recent makeover by the highly regarded Serena chain has helped it to age gracefully. The large, well-equipped rooms and buffet meals are both above average, but its strongest feature is the killer setting, overlooking a busy waterhole below a backdrop of the Chyulu Hills and (weather permitting) Kilimanjaro.
• Satao Tented Camp
Jaw-dropping in-house game viewing is the speciality of this relatively small, low-key and eco-conscious tented camp, which lies alongside a waterhole that’s been known to attract more than 500 elephants on a busy day. Satao’s remote location in Tsavo East makes you feel like you are on a private game-drive circuit that runs through an area rich in ungulate action and birds.
• Galdessa Camp
The most exclusive lodge in Tsavo East, this intimate luxury tented camp boasts a fantastically remote and scenic location on the palm-fringed banks of the Galana River. It also offers something close to the last word in safari chic, including world-class Italian-influenced cuisine and top- notch service. Game viewing in the surrounding area can be a little hit and miss, but the hits tend to be spectacular – a charging black rhino and two male cheetahs hunting on my previous visits – and elephants pass through camp most days. Birding is exceptional.
Listen to the locals
“Tsavo is one of Africa’s most unique and spectacular wilderness areas. Its vast plains offer an incredible variety of experiences, including the Mzima Springs, Shetani lava flow and Galana river, and the opportunity to see some of the world’s largest-tusked elephants backed by amazing views of Kilimanjaro. It is one of my favourite places anywhere in the world, due to the sheer expanse of the place, and the ability to get away from everything except nature’s best!”
Torben Rune, Director, Satao Camps Ltd
“Tsavo East is a great wilderness destination. With so few camps in such a huge area, you often feel like you have it all to yourself. And it isn’t one of those reserves where guides are calling each other on their radios non-stop. If you want to see wildlife, you have to find it yourself. This gives me a constant sense of anticipation, never knowing what might lie around the corner or over that hill. The dry season is best for wildlife but the wet season shows the park at its dramatic best: the stormy skies, green wetlands and red earth make for the most stunning landscapes and colours.”
Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa-specialised travel photographer
“Tsavo has it all – landscape, vegetation and wildlife. There are valleys, rivers, springs, lava flows and hills, as well as many species of animals – all the Big Five including the famous red elephants, whose colour is created by the characteristic red earth. When early explorers first came to Kenya via the coast they encountered plentiful wildlife in this region, and more than 100 years later it remains undisturbed and offers a real wilderness experience.”
Jonathan Mutisya, camp manager at Finch-Hattons