The combined area of Tsavo West and Tsavo East national parks makes this by far the biggest wildlife reserve in Kenya, and one of the largest in the world, sprawling across 20,812 square kilometres of dry bush country. It’s the same area as Wales, and two-and-a-half times bigger than Yellowstone National Park in the USA.
Of the two Tsavos, Tsavo West, encircled by roads and encroaching human populations, is the most visited and the most developed. Yet within its vast 7000 square kilometre extent, the popular part that receives nearly all visitors is a “mere” 1000 square kilometres, known as the Developed Area, located between the Tsavo River and the Mombasa highway. Here, a combination of magnificent landscapes and good access and facilities (Kilaguni and Severin both welcome casual visitors, and Kilaguni has fuel supplies) attracts visitors in large numbers, while the well-watered, volcanic soils support wooded grasslands and a great quantity and diversity of animal life – though it’s not always easily seen.Read More
The biggest attraction in Tsavo West is Mzima Springs. This stream of crystal-clear water was made famous by Alan Root’s 1983 film Mzima: Portrait of a Spring, which followed crocodiles and hippos in their underwater lives. It’s a delightful, and popular, spot, so you’re advised to arrive very early to avoid a possible tour-bus atmosphere. With luck, some of the night’s animal visitors may still be around, while the luxuriant growth around the water reverberates noisily with birds and monkeys.
You can walk around freely, as elephants and predators rarely visit, and there are KWS rangers posted by the car park to look after you, but make sure you’re not close to the water’s edge, where large crocodiles lurk. Equally be sure that you’re not between a hippo and the water, especially early or late in the day, or during wet weather. They seem settled in their routine, content to snort and flounder en masse, but are notoriously irritable animals.
There are two large pools, connected by a rush of rapids and shaded by stands of date and raffia palms. The upper pool used to be the favoured hippo wallow, though in recent years they seem to prefer the lower pool. The springs’ hippo population was cruelly hammered by the drought of 2009, during which the springs were the only source of water in the region, and the surrounding grasslands, on which the hippos graze at night, were reduced to a dustbowl as wildlife moved into the area. Despite the efforts of the KWS and local lodges to supply bales of hay, dozens of hippos starved to death. Their numbers are increasing again, but it will take years for them to recover fully.
At the side of the top pool, a circular underwater viewing chamber has been built at the end of a short pier. With luck (and it doesn’t happen on every visit), you’ll see the unforgettably comic tip-toeing of an underwater hippo, or the sinuous, streamlined stealth of a crocodile in motion, as well as the blue swirl of large fish.
Mzima Springs’ water is filtered to aquarium transparency by the lava of the Chyulu range, just to the north of here: the porous rock absorbs the water like a sponge and gravity squeezes it out into the springs. A direct pipeline from Mzima to Mombasa, completed in 1966, is the source of most of the city’s drinking water. Engineers devised a way of taking water from beneath the lava, but above the spring, preserving the area’s integrity. There are one or two signs of the pipeline, but most are unobtrusive.
You don’t have to be a botanist to enjoy Mzima’s two tree trails, with examples of various trees labelled with their common uses and their English, local and botanical names. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours in the area: try to sit for a while completely alone on the bank and you’ll begin to piece together the ecological miracle of the place, as the mammals, birds and other creatures forget about your presence. And look out for sycamore figs, the spectacular tree that features in the extraordinary nature documentary The Queen of Trees (Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone, 2006; widely available on DVD) about the symbiotic relationship between the sycamore fig and the tiny fig wasp.
Game-viewing at the lodges
Game-viewing at the lodges
You may not be staying in the relative luxury of Kilaguni Lodge or Severin Safari Camp, but a visit to either can be highly rewarding, for the pleasure of sitting on the terrace with a cold beer, or having lunch (allow $25), while you watch the enthralling natural circus going on a few metres away. At acacia-shaded Severin, guests and wildlife are on exactly the same level, making the experience very intimate, while the waterholes at Kilaguni, spread beneath the panorama of the Chyulu Hills, are a well-known magnet for animal visitors.
At Kilaguni, dazzling birds hop everywhere, agama lizards skim along the walls (the miniature orange and blue dragons are the males in mating colours), hyraxes scamper between the tables, and dwarf mongooses are regular visitors. Out by the waterholes, scuffling baboon troops, several species of antelope and gazelle, buffalo, zebra, giraffe and elephant all provide a constant spectacle, with the possibility of the occasional kill adding tension. At dusk, bats swoop, while genets, jackals and hyenas lurk near the floodlights, drawn by the smell of dinner – though, thankfully, the lodge has stopped the practice of baiting them with meat scraps.
While Kilaguni is a dead cert for animal action, the much newer Severin is beginning to make a mark. The camp at Severin, far from dominating the landscape, seems to be absorbed by its environment, and there’s nothing to stop the animals treating the whole camp as their own. Signs warn visitors not to stray off the paths, but you’ll need little reminding, as families of warthogs trot past the terrace, impala and giraffe nibble audibly, and lion kills take place close to reception. Unlike Kilaguni, which is fenced, guests at Severin have to be escorted to and from their tents after dark.