Tsavo West National Park

Tsavo West National Park

A large male leopard was the first animal we saw when we entered Tsavo West National Park for th first time. This immediately placed this park among the top in Kenya, even before we saw anything else! After that, we visited it many times as it was relatively close to Nairobi and ideal for a weekend escapade. It never disappointed us as, apart from fewer tourists than Amboseli, Tsavo West had a number of attractions, all of them framed by some of the most magnificent scenery I have seen in Africa.

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Although we camped at first, we soon discovered the Kenya Wildlife Services self-catering lodges in Ngulia and Kitani. The latter became our favourite: cheap and quiet. It was simple but roomy, well located and with a great verandah. In addition the bungalows were close the Poacher’s lookout a great place to take in the immensity of the park and with great morning views of Kilimanjaro. We stayed there most of the times we visited.

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Map of Tsavo West showing the places mentioned in the post. Kitani at the bottom with Mzima Springs nearby and Chaimu volcano near the scenic Rhino valley.

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The area around Kitani at dawn.

Although, compared with the Maasai Mara and Amboseli, Tsavo appeared as devoid of animals, gradually you learnt to find them and it was one of the best places to see lesser kudu, klipspringers, fringe-eared oryx and gerenuk, apart from the expected large game.

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A sleepy lioness pondering where to go!

The exception being black rhinos that had by then already disappeared. In addition, it was a bird paradise and, during the rains, although some of the roads were treacherous, the flower blossom was stunning!

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Getting stuck with the kombi was not too hard and this happened sometimes when the rains were heavier than usual. I recall when, in desperation, I dug under the spinning wheel and placed our BBQ grill to get some grip! The result was disastrous as the grill was ejected far into the bush and we did not have barbeques that time! But these were exceptional days and usually the roads were dry red dust as it did not rain that much.

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The red soil turned to mud in the waterholes and gave elephants and buffalo an interesting look that blended them well with the surrounding redness of the area.

Tsavo West was not only large but lots of it was very broken terrain, product of the intense volcanic activity that the area suffered eons ago. More than sixty species of mammals, four hundred species of birds and one thousand plant species are found at Tsavo.

Of interest is that to the north of the Mombasa road the park, being drier, belongs to the Somali type of environment while the South is of the Maasai type. The result of this was that species that are normally separated by hundreds of kilometres such as the Somali (Struthio [camelus] molybdophanes) and the common ostriches (Struthio camelus) are both found there [1]

Our favourite view, apart from Kilimanjaro were the Chyulu hills and the Shetani lava flow, one of the first things you see when you enter through the Chyulu gate. Shetani means ‘devil’ in Kiswahili and it was named by the locals when they first saw fire erupting and flowing on the ground some five hundred years ago, as they believed that it was the devil himself emerging from the earth! The Shetani black lava flow is 8 km long, 1.6 km wide and 5 meters deep.

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The Chyulu hills as seen from the road to Kitani.

The Chyulu hills are also the source of the water for one of the best-known features of Tsavo West: Mzima springs. The hills are composed of volcanic lava rock and ash, which is too porous to allow rivers to form. Instead, rain and mist penetrate through the rock, and may spend many years at an underground “lake” before emerging fifty kilometres away at the springs.

We went to the Chyulus and camped in one of the hundreds of small volcanoes, where the only track we found took us. At the time there was nothing there and we not only needed to cut the grass to make our camp site but also to carry all the necessary water as, although misty and wet in the mornings, there was no surface water. Although we had great views from there, wild animals were scarce and we did not enter the Shetani caves, not for fear of the hyenas that are believed to dwell on them, but for lack of proper lights to do so.

While on the subject of volcanoes, the last major eruption is believed to have taken place around two hundred years ago and, apart from some of the still black hills at the Chyulus, there is another black cone at Tsavo West itself: Chaimu, also of relative recent origin.

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The view from the Chaimu cone.

Coming from Uruguay where the highest peak is just over five hundred metres, we had never set our feet on a volcano, leave alone a recent one! By then our knowledge of vulcanology was zilch as we had only seen Sicily’s Mt. Etna from the plane! It was extremely interesting to see how the lava had solidified forming long black ribbons of rock that could be extremely sharp and hard and so fresh that there was only incipient vegetation.

Walking on the cone was rather dangerous as the floor was not stable and you were likely to slip and fall on razor sharp rocks. Despite this and the warning sign that you could meet dangerous inhabitants while climbing, our friend Luis managed to persuade us to go for it. I must say that we did enjoy the steep walk and the views from the top and that we only saw scattered hyena dung but did not meet any dangerous animals.

The first we heard of Mzima springs was through a couple from Britain: Ken and Betty that were at Muguga with us and with who we later shared a couple of outings. They had been walking towards the springs when they came face to face with a lioness. Luckily they did not run but stood their ground until the lioness moved off. Then they managed to slowly retrace their steps and, once they reached the safety of the parking area and still shaken, they mentioned their encounter to the Game ranger on duty. “Oh, there are usually two of them!” was the reply! Our friends did not return to see the springs that day!

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So, it was with that story fresh in our minds that we first visited Mzima Springs. We got the “all clear” from the ranger on duty and followed the same footpath that Ken and Betty had followed. Although we never came across any lions that first time we had difficulties with rather vicious monkeys, both baboons and vervets and, somehow, Mabel was surrounded by them and had to use her binoculars to defend herself and come out of a tight spot!

The path to the springs was indeed lionesses-free and what we found amazed us as few places had so far. The walk took us through the usual red dryness of the area and then, suddenly, we were surrounded by lush vegetation while the noise of running water became more audible.

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Hippos at the top pool.

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Mabel about to find something!

Eventually we got to an area where you could see several springs gushing out of the volcanic rock that produced crystal clear and cold water. The various water channels gradually converges following a gentle slope and some way down formed the first of the pools. The water there was still crystal clear and we could actually see the hippos under water while crocodiles sunning themselves in the shores.

Amazingly 227,000 cubic metres of water gush daily from the various springs. The water had been filtered during its 40 kilometres traveled underground from the Chyulus. The Mzima waters start running as a stream and then get blocked by solidified lava, disappear underground two kilometres downstream and resurfaces again to later join the Tsavo river that, in turn, it reaches the Galana River. Since 1966 the springs’ water supplies the coastal city of Mombasa.

In this true oasis the fever trees were spectacular and full of weaver nests to the point that the branches seemed not to be able to support them all. There were also fruiting trees such as date and raffia palms, waterberries (Syzygium cordatum) and fig trees grew near the water, their submerged roots absorbing nutrients to be transformed into fruits that fed the various primates and birds. We spotted vervet monkeys, baboons the rare Sykes monkeys (Cercopithecus albogularis) while hearing the calls of the fish eagles and seeing flashes of colour as the various kingfishers darted from their perches to the pool and back.

At the various pools the hippos did their part to sustain the food chain by grazing outside the water and coming back to defecate in it. A number of invertebrates will feed on the dung and these are, in turn, preyed upon by fish and the latter by cormorants and terrapins.

The springs were made famous by Alan and Joan Root documentary “Mzima: Portrait of a Spring” filmed in 1969 and much later Alan directed a Survival Special “Mzima: Haunt of the River horse” in 2003. Below I include a clip of the latter.

Attribution: Clip 1 of Mzima: Haunt of the River Horse (2001). Filmed by Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone and Directed by Alan Root. Survival Special.

Apart from the hippos Mzima Springs offered water to a variety of animals such as zebra, buffalo, giraffe and various antelopes as well as elephants. It soon became our favourite spot and we spent many hours contemplating it while enjoying its relative freshness compared to the usual heat of the area.

An observation hut to facilitate watching what goes on under water was built in 1969. We spent many hours in it waiting to catch a glimpse of hippos underwater. This was not easy and we ended up watching lots of fish turning around the thick glass with the occasional sighting of terrapins and cormorants.

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None of these distracted us from our primary objective that remained to spot hippos underwater, the way the Roots had seen and filmed it. Eventually, before we knew all the fish by name!, we managed to have a couple of great sightings in eight years, two every four years of waiting!

However, when it happened, it was such a spectacle that I still remember it vividly. It started when we spotted a moving floating papyrus island that moved. A while later a hippo appeared very close stepping gently and slowly on the bottom of the lake while it passed in front of us and slowly vanished, followed by a few dozen fish!

The second sighting was a female with a young that, again, walked in front of the observation window and, again moved off getting lost in the mud that their passing rose. But not all was sweetnes in the Mzima hippo world.

One occasion we arrived and an agitated ranger warned us that two males were fighting at the top pool and that we should be careful when approaching the area. We heard their splashes and loud gruntings way before we got to the pool so we knew that they were inside the water so we approach them slowly and carefully.

The pool was totally changed as the water was getting muddy because of the stir that the two behemoths had created. It was clear that this was not the usual face off that lasts a while and then one of the opponents leaves the fighting area. They were goring each other ferociously while some other hippos were close to them and it looked to us that it was a fight to the death or at least until one of them was severely injured.

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We watched for a while and left as it was a really bloody afair and not nice to watch particularly if you, like us, liked hippos. However, the following morning we returned to see the results of the fight but the pool has returned to normal. We did not find traces of what had happened and certainly we did not see a dead hippo anywhere so we still do not know what the outcome was.

Unfortunately in 2009, a severe drought killed most hippos at the springs and they were no longer at the top pool when I visited Mzima springs in 2012. Luckily, the large hippo pods that were present downstream were still there and, apparently, thriving.

While planning one of our visits to Tsavo we learnt of a small little camp by the Athi river known as Bushwhackers. In Nairobi we found Mrs. Jane Stanton, its owner, and she gave us valuable information on how to get there following the turn-off at Kibwezi on the Mombasa road.

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Resting at Bushwhackers.

From Jane, who was about to retire after almost 30 years of bush life by then, we learnt that Hugh Stanton came out to Kenya as a small boy in 1907 and started collecting animals for museums. Afterwards they started Bushwhackers as a game trapping camp for museums and zoos and that Martin and Osa Johnson [2] used as their base in the 1930’s while visiting Kenya during their pioneering film-making in Africa.

At first we found the place rather disappointing as, not being a reserve or national park, was being encroached by people and, apart from baboons and vervet monkeys, no other mammals were seen. The exception was, according to Paul, a large male eland that would come down to drink after midnight when things were dead quiet. I never knew where he got that story and we could never confirm it.

We soon realized however that, despite the absence of land mammals, there were still hippos and crocodiles as well as a large numbers of birds and insects that were worth watching and also it offered an entry point to the Athi River and great walks through its sandy bed.

We visited the place often afterwards and we could see, by the photographs that decorated the reception area, that years back it had been an area where large mammals did flourish! Still there were interesting creatures like the angry baby spitting cobra (actually spitting at us!) that we found at the bottom of a river pit and that we rescued despite its anger!

Genets often visited us at night. They managed to squeeze through the chicken wire to get at our food and refuse and they often woke us up when they knocked things in the kitchen of our simple reed-walled bungalows. On one occasion a mother with two tiny replicas of her came earlier than usual and they were a joy to watch

 

[1] See: http://kenyabirdmap.adu.org.za/index.php

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_and_Osa_Johnson#Osa_Johnson’s_The_Big_Game_Hunt