Created specifically for the protection of the sitatunga , a rare and vulnerable semi-aquatic antelope, Saiwa Swamp National Park is the smallest in the country and is rarely visited, despite its accessibility, which is a pity. The requirement that you walk (rather than drive) around the jungle and swamp, plus the chance of seeing the antelope as well as various monkeys and birds, makes it an exciting and interesting day out. If you’re staying at Barnley’s , think about hiring a guide there for the trip, which is worthwhile and not at all expensive.
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You’re almost bound to see one of the park’s sitatunga, an unusual species of antelope which lives most of its life partly submerged in water and weed. Similar in size and general appearance to the bushbuck, the sitatunga is reddish-brown with a slightly shaggy coat and very large ears, while the males have spiral horns. The sitatunga’s most unusual features (usually hidden in water) are their strangely splayed and elongated hooves, evolved, it’s believed, to help prevent them sink as they pick their way gingerly through their native swamps. It’s hard to see how much help these feet really are in keeping the antelope from sinking into the swamp, as the hooves are only moderately elongated: the theory makes sense, but evolution has a little more work to do here. Due to poaching, numbers in the park are down from more than seventy in the 1980s to fewer than twenty at the last count.
Sitatunga can be found in scattered locations throughout western and central Africa, but in Kenya they are restricted to Saiwa Swamp, the Kingwal swamp south of Eldoret, a few spots around Lake Victoria, and Lewa Downs, which has a translocated group (see Eating and drinking). Only at Saiwa Swamp, however, have they grown really used to humans. They can be watched from observation platforms, which have been built in the trees at the side of the swamp – two on the east side, two on the west. These somewhat precarious, Tarzan-esque structures enable you to spy down on the life in the reeds, while one of them – Treetop House – has been converted into a snug overnight stay. The best times for sitatunga-spotting are early morning and, to a lesser extent, late afternoon.
The drier parts of the park also shelter bushbuck, easily distinguished from the sitatunga by their terrified, crashing escape through the undergrowth as you approach. As well as the antelopes, Saiwa Swamp is a magnet for ornithologists, with a number of unusual bird species, including several turacos, many kingfishers, and the splendid black-and-white casqued hornbill. Most conspicuous of all are the crowned cranes – elegance personified when not airborne, but whose lurching flight is almost as risible as their ghastly honking call.
A delightful, easily followed, early-morning walk takes you across the rickety duckboards over the swamp and along a jungle path on the eastern shore. Here you’re almost bound to see the park’s four species of monkey: colobus, vervet, blue, and the distinctively white-bearded de Brazza’s monkey.