Kenya // The National Parks and Mombasa Highway //

Mzima Springs

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.

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