1980s

Tsavo National Park

Background

After a while being in Kenya we decided to explore the Tsavo National Park. Eventually, after the first rushed trip that gave us a feel for the area, we returned to both Tsavo East and West in several opportunities.

The journey to either of the two park sections was very picturesque as the Mombasa road follows the Athi river with the Yatta plateau, the world’s longest lava flow (290km) that runs along the road and also forms the western boundary of the park. On clear days Kilimanjaro could be seen towards the southwest and then the Chyullu hills (to which I will return later on when dealing with Tsavo West) will make an appearance on the right.

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Kilimanjaro from the distance on a clear afternoon.

t west chyullu hills best copy

The amazing Chyullu hills with its hundreds of small volcanoes.

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Giraffes by the Mombasa road.

Tsavo National Park was gazetted as a wildlife reserve by the Kenya colonial government in 1949 despite not being the best wildlife area in Kenya but by virtue of being an area of arid scrub too dry for agriculture and, being infested by tsetse flies -vector of trypanosomiasis- also unsuitable for livestock and, largely without human habitation.

David Sheldrick became its first Warden and, apart from dealing with the problem of armed poachers, he developed the original infrastructure of the park while studying the elephants’ behaviour and food needs, and, with his wife, Daphne, rescuing and hand-rearing vulnerable elephants, rhinos and antelopes. After his premature death Daphne established the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in his memory that runs the well-known Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi.

The park occupies 22,812 km² of the 41,000 km² of the original Tsavo ecosystem, 13,747 km² and 9,065 km² for the East and West sections respectively [1]. At its inception it was rich in wild animals with about 45,000 elephants and 8,000 black rhinos. Regrettably, after its creation, pressure from the climate and the surrounding human population interfered with elephant movement and brought about a gradual loss of the woodlands due to the high numbers of elephants and the area was transformed into grasslands, good for other species but less so for browsers like rhino and elephants.

The deeper the white man went into Africa, the faster the life flowed out of it, off the plains and out of the bush…vanishing in acres of trophies and hides and carcasses” wrote Peter Beard in his now classic book “The End Game” that highlighted the Tsavo crisis and that anyone interested in nature should look at and read [1].

tsavo east mendizabal and ele bones

Examining elephant bones with Luis.

So, a severe collapse of the elephant and rhino population followed, particularly the black rhinos. By the time we started going to Tsavo the black rhino had already banished. There were rumours that some had sought refuge in the most remote areas of the park but we never saw any.

I will deal with the two parts of the park separately (starting with Tsavo East) as they both offer their own interesting features.

Tsavo East National Park

Usually we entered the park at the Manyani Gate and travelled through it on our way to the beaches in the Indian Ocean. Sometimes we stayed at the National Parks’ accommodation at the Aruba dam when we were late to complete the traversing of the long distance inside the park.

Mendizabal Tsavo copy

A stop for Luis to photograph an interesting bird.

Before you reached the Manyani Gate we travelled through the territory where once the man eaters of Tsavo ruled. Two lions stopped the construction of the railway in the Tsavo River for nine months and killed more than a hundred workers since March 1898. “The Man-eaters of Tsavo” written by Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, who was in charge of the work and shot them, is a fascinating read! [2]

In his book Patterson wrote: “. …Two most voracious and insatiable man-eating lions appeared upon the scene, and for over nine months waged an intermittent warfare against the railway and all those connected with it in the vicinity of Tsavo. This culminated in a perfect reign of terror in December 1898, when they actually succeeded in bringing the railway works to a complete standstill for about three weeks… Their methods then became so uncanny, and their man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the workmen firmly believed that they were not real animals at all, but devils in lions’ shape…”

We came face to face with some of the man-eaters but they presented no danger to us as they had been stuffed with straw for years at the entrance of the Muthaiga Country Club in Nairobi.

Before arriving to the Manyani Gate we usually stopped for re-fueling at the Man-eaters’ Motel stop where there was a memorial that commemorated the event. It was precisely there that I had my life-threatening encounter, not with a man-eater lion, but with a huge baboon that snatched my packet of crisps! [3].

Once you turned at the Manyani Gate the road was rather monotonous until you arrived at the Galana river where we usually stopped to look at the Lugard falls where the river passes through volcanic rock, carving a narrow path that had created a series of rapids and falls as the water flows faster. It was named after Frederick Lugard [4], who passed this place on his way to Uganda.

Most of the times we continued following the river towards the coast (a more interesting drive than the usual way via the Mombasa road) but, a couple of times we deviated south towards the Aruba dam, built in 1952 across the Voi River, a reservoir created to provide water to the game and birds. There we spent a few nights during which we found it difficult to sleep because of the noise the elephants made while coming to drink.

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Early group travellers from Germany.

Tsavo East is a good place to see fringed-eared oryx grazing on the open plains. The very shy lesser kudu could also be spotted during the early morning when they were away from the thicket. Rarer still was the finding of the long-necked gerenuk standing on its hind-legs to reach the sparse foliage of trees and bushes in the arid environment.

Although there were still elephants at the time of our visits, they were “diluted” because of the size of the park. For the same reason lions were also difficult to bump into. However, when you did you were in for a surprise as the males were maneless [5] and probably its ancestors were of the man-eating variety!

The “baldness” in these lions is attributed to an adaptation to the thorny vegetation in the park as their hair could interfere with their hunting. As their colleagues in Tsavo West that live in a similar environment have normal manes, I personally believe that their baldness, as in humans, is due to high levels of testosterone that may also explain its aggressive reputation.

 

[1] As a comparison, the Kruger National Park has an area of 19,485 km².

[2] Lt Col. J. H. Patterson in Chapter II of his classic book “The Man-eaters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures”, published by MacMillan and Co. Limited, London in 1919. If you are lazy, you can ruin a good read and watch the 1996 Hollywood-style movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” (Paramount) with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2016/06/07/mean-kin/

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Lugard,_1st_Baron_Lugard#Exploration_of_East_Africa

[5] See: https://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/hay-leonas-con-melena-521461839096

 

 

 

 

 

A brave camping attempt

Although I had camped once before in Bogoria with Richard and Philip [1] our first attempt at spending a couple of nights under canvas took place at the Sand River campsite in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. This pioneer effort took place way before I knew I would be working at Intona ranch in the Transmara, something that would require lots of driving through the Reserve as well as camping for many years.

We were still staying at Muguga House then and we hatched the idea together with Kevin, a young forester that was had arrived to work a short time at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI) a sister organization of the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute, both of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI).

Aware that his time in Kenya was limited, Kevin wished to visit the well-known Maasai Mara before returning to the UK so he was the main promoter of the idea. He managed to convince our friend Ranjini to come as well so we created a four-person team for this rather new undertaking.

Kevin did most of the footwork for the trip, Ranjini borrowed some stuff from other colleagues and I borrowed a large and strong tent from our laboratory in Muguga. We rented the 4WD car we could afford and ended up with a Subaru van. Unfortunately, we could not pack lots of things in it so our safari lacked a few essentials we have learnt to love over the years we have spent camping in comfort.

We did not have a table, chairs or mattresses. Luckily we were able to borrow four sleeping bags, basic cooking utensils, cutlery and crockery and, wisely, the ladies decided to stuff four pillows (borrowed from Muguga House!) at the last minute! The rest, we thought, would be overlooked by our enthusiasm and excitement at camping in the open surrounded by wild animals!

The trip started on a Friday morning traveling about 30 km in the wrong direction as we needed to catch a matatu (packed public minibus) to Nairobi to get the car only to go back to Muguga to load it and start our journey. Kevin drove all the way as I had not driven a right hand drive car yet.

Although he drove rather fast to get to our destination before closing time, the trip went well. We got a bit of a scare when, trying to save petrol, he switched the engine off during a long descent and both the power steering and the brakes stopped working! Luckily this only lasted a few seconds until the engine re-started and all functions returned to normality! After a rather long journey, we arrived to the Maasai Mara rather late but luckily we managed to get in before the closing time and reached the Sand River campsite rather late.

Although we all had assembled tents before, putting up the large tent for the first time in the dark was a bigger challenge than we had anticipated. There was a lot of trial and error and, after our best combined effort we were very pleased when we managed to get something with a V shape erected that served the purpose for us to rest our tired bones after a quick supper.

camping ranjini kevin

From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and Mabel (kneeling down) and a good tent badly assembled!

That night we herd grunting noises very close to our tent. Although we were sleepy and tired the situation demanded some discussion as, at times, the situation became rather nerve-wrecking with the grunts coming from an animal or animals very close to the tent! After a while we unanimously decided that buffaloes were responsible for the noise, as we had seen them nearby earlier on. Today I believe that we all knew which animal was responsible but that we took the decision for our own peace of mind and refuse to accept that there were lions inspecting our camp!

Lion grunts

Despite the nervous start of the night we slept through and, luckily, we were in a good enough shape in the morning. When we saw the way our tent looked, we had a good laugh and decided that it was worth spending some time reassembling it to manage to close its zips fully! We finally managed to get it more or less in shape and to close it.

We decided that it was time to explore the area searching, as any first comers to the Maasai Mara, for lions. However, before departing we walked to the dry river bed to check for spoor. The overwhelming lion spoor we saw left us in no doubt of the kind of night visitors we had.

We drove many kilometres through the bush, got lost a few times and, finally to our delight, we found a couple of sleeping lions. Although the objects of our desire hardly moved, they made our day!

Maasai Mara lions

Our first lions.

Again, we returned to our camp very late after our drive to prepare supper. Unfortunately, while we were cooking we heard Ranjini saying that she had just lost her contact lenses in the grass, just outside the tent while trying to clean them. We postponed supper and all joined efforts in search of the tiny lenses in twilight. After a while, luckily, Mabel’s eyes came to the rescue and she, miraculously, found both of them stuck to some blade of grass!

That evening we also heard our first hyena call and we could also herd lions roaring in the distance. Our British friends knew both sounds from the BBC documentaries. We believed them.

Hyenas calling.

Lion roar

That night the grunting took place inside the tent and it was equally disturbing to everybody except me, the cause of the noise. My snoring was such that both Ranjini and Kevin were planning to wake me up (or worse!) when we had a partial tent collapse that solved the problem as we all woke up and my roaring, apparently, ceased!

Although this first camping was very basic and limited in what we saw, it wetted our appetite for the bush and showed that there was a lot to explore in Kenya and that you did not need to pay a fortune to do it. We promised ourselves that, as soon as our finances allowed it, we would get camping equipment and start going out to enjoy beautiful Kenya.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/02/22/pink-bogoria/

 

 

 

Spot the beast 48

Trying to find pictures to illustrate the coming posts on our Kenya days I found this rather old and rare gem for you to look at. It is easy.

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I posted the image more for its rarity than for its difficulty. This young leopard was spotted near the Mara Buffalo Camp in the mid eighties. I still remember that the camp manager told me where to find the mother and the two cubs. This is one of the cubs in the cave they used to inhabit. Luckily they stayed there for a while and we managed to see them several times.

The first picture above was taken from a distance. It shows a relaxed leopard that, the moment we got closer, became more alert.

m mara leop 2

m mara leop 1

The pictures are poor but I believe worth it.