Tsavo West – the real Jurassic Park

Tsavo. To be honest with you, I was not excited to write about the last national park we visited in Kenya. Not because I was sad to end this journey also virtually, but because I knew it would be the hardest text to write in comparison to the others. Tsavo West touched me deep for so many reasons. I look at this word in the beginning of this paragraph and so  much comes to my head, that is hard to organize the thoughts and decide where to begin. In a much simplistic nutshell: Tsavo is what one day Kenya really was, and, in a sense, what the future should be in terms of safaris. But I´m not sure the tourist industry is ready to let history become posterity.

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The landscape of Tsavo West reminded me so much of the Big Island in Hawaii

Talking about history, Tsavo´s past is what made me want to visit this park so much. Its past is as dark as its deep green vegetation, encompassing tribal conflicts (therefore the Kamba natives used to refer to Tsavo as the “slaughter” region), slave trade and the difficult building of the Uganda Railway, during which more than two thousand workers died. But the adverse working conditions were not the only reason why people kept dying during the construction of the line…

Since the slave trade, when many slaves were left dead on the side of the roads while the Arab caravans crossed the park, the lions of Tsavo acquired a taste for human flesh. Years after the slave trade was gone, between March and December of 1898, the construction workers who were assembling a bridge over the Tsavo river as part of the Uganda Railway footed the bill: the laborers, who were mostly Indian, started to get killed or to disappear. The attacks were led by two male lions who would mostly target the camp sites where the workers slept. As time went by, they became bolder and also attacked other sites, with even the district officer of the region escaping a charge by the skin of…his back. Literally. You can read more about the story here.

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Area dedicated to Tsavo´s history at our hotel
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An old Uganda Railway marketing poster

The fate of the two lions was the same we still read today in the news, when wild animals act accordingly to their nature against human threat or territory invasion – they were killed by men´s most coward tool, firearms. Then they were used as a rug by their killer for many years. At least nowadays they serve a better purpose: they were recuperated and stuffed to then be exposed at the Field Museum in Chicago.

This story is, to me, the perfect example of a still very contemporary conflict between nature and human-kind, and the devastating consequences of our choices as the species on top of the food chain. Since the railway was finally completed it caused many accidents that killed wildlife in the region until recently. Somehow, in the avalanche of thoughts this train track wreck brings me, all I think of is that last man-eater lion who was captured. He died with nine bullets fired on different days, still fighting and trying to reach for his executioner with his claws.

I wanted to experience the park who produced such relentless creatures, maybe even be (un)lucky enough to cross one of their descendants´ paths. This task proved to be near impossible due to the parks´ incredibly dense and vast vegetation, where even elephants disappeared easily. Disappointed? Hell no. I saw in Tsavo what I had been waiting to see since my ultimate dream became to go on a safari: wilderness, solitude, isolation, peace. Kenya had left me hanging there until we arrived at Tsavo gates.

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A herd of distracted buffalos
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Lava fields 
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Playing a bit of Sherlock: leopard footprints on the mud.

As soon as we entered the national park and drove deeper into its high greenery, we realized this experience would be different. What I found was much of what I imagined Tsavo would have looked like when the men eaters were still around: impenetrable and quiet (no wonder they never saw the attacks coming!). There was a somewhat whimsical flair of abandonment given by an opaque fog lingering a few meters above the vegetation.

I stood up in the 4×4, admiring the dense grass up until the horizon and trying to imagine what was happening under all of that. Could lions be eating a fat meal? Is a leopard silently watching a prey approach? Are elephants rolling in the red mud puddles that recent rains had produced? I couldn´t see. The trained eyes of our guide couldn´t see. To be honest, we struggled to see anything in Tsavo, basically because there, animals live the way they should in all parks: free, safeguarded by nature. I suddenly understood the feeling of abandonment I felt from the beginning: it was actually the estrangement and  the shelter the park offered its inhabitants from the human race.

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Jurassic Park vibes!
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I could have never spotted the leopard if it wasn´t for our guide! Can you? (tip: find the place where the bigger tree rises from the vegetation. The leopard is chilling on top of the first branch on the right)

No wonder our guide said that though Tsavo is the largest national park in Kenya (measuring about 22.000km2), and one of the largest in the world, it´s one of the least visited in the country. Most of the tourists want to get their money´s worth in animal sightseeing, preferably in parks like Masai Mara, where it is basically guaranteed to see the big 5, multiple times, depending on how long you stay. I understand that. Safaris are definitely not cheap, and how disappointing it would be to go back home without a close encounter account to tell your friends. I do get that. I even confess that I probably enjoyed Tsavo as much as I did, because up to the time we arrived there, we had already seen pretty much everything one desires to see in a safari. But what I had seen before had also disappointed me hard in terms of animal wellbeing, visitor etiquette and rules´ reinforcement. Tsavo felt so right because all the others before felt so wrong at times. Tsavo was my safari dream, the Jurassic Park I thought I would never find after all of the safaris we had done in Kenya. Who knows, that high vast vegetation could be hiding a dinosaur after all….

The fact that the park is not as much visited as others means that tourists and guides need to be more careful there. The animals are not as used to cars, which proved to be true since most of the ones we saw challenged us in a staring game they ended up winning. We were actually supposed to have our sundowner there, but our guide said Tsavo is a park he doesn´t trust enough to let his tourists wander around.

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An antisocial antelope
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The cute Klippspringer! Doesn´t it look like they wear eyeliners?

The only place you are indeed allowed to walk by yourself is near the lava fields and by the beautiful Mzima Springs. At the latter you can visit crystal clear water lakes infested with huge crocodiles and playful hippos (they could also be fighting, but I chose my Disney version of it). The fresh water comes from the Kilimanjaro and you can even see how clean it is through a little underwater fortress with glass windows.

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A part of the Mzima Springs
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You do not want to fall into the springs…
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Can you count how many hippos are there in the pic? They are really good at hide and seek!

The game drives in this park are, of course, not easy. You have to count a lot on luck to spot animals that are rarely close to the roads, or are camouflaged by the surrounding plants. During the two days we spent there, we saw a bunch of buffalos, adorable Klippspringers, Kudos, a leopard with a kill up on a tree, gazelles, hyenas, zebras, giraffes, baboons, oryx, dik diks, tsessebes and, my personal highlight, the red elephants of Tsavo. Though we did see some elephants in Amboseli who were slightly dusted in red because of the park´s soil, the elephants in Tsavo are c-o-m-p-l-e-t-e-l-y dark red!! It´s so mesmerizing. The earth there has a very strong clay color and the elephants, of course, don´t miss an opportunity to bathe in the mud. Though no lions were spotted, considering the park´s conditions I found our game drives very successful.

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The first elephant we saw in Tsavo! He disappeared in the woods right after.
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A tsessebe

Last and definitely not least, our accommodation in Tsavo West was the Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge. I never expected much from our hotels, and I think that´s why I was always so pleasantly surprised by the ones our guide arranged for us. When we got to Kilaguni, I was sure this hotel could not possibly top some previous ones we experienced. Well…I gasped when I entered the main reception area. In 35 years of life, right there was when I finally understood the meaning of the expression “my chin dropped”.

The hotel main area is designed so the guests are always facing the beautiful landscape of Tsavo West with the gorgeous mountains in the backdrop. I think it is the hotel we stayed in in Kenya with the most beautiful open view to the wild. It´s so incredible, you feel like you are staring at a huge painting. At their spacious veranda, you can enjoy the waterhole where even lions come at times during the dry season. It was also there where I saw and heard the laughing hyenas, something I was dying to experience from day one.

The rooms at Kilaguni are not tent-like which, at that point, we appreciated. The bed was super comfy and the staff friendly. One thing we did not enjoy at all was the food, but of course, this is a matter of taste. They still get extra points for the Iced Coffee Menu! If you want to read my truthful review about Kilaguni on Trip Advisor, click here. Their ratings there are amazing, by the way.

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Kilaguni Serena Hotel
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The spacious veranda looking at the most gorgeous scenery
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Isn´t the decoration stunning? I miss dining overlooking Tsavo 😦

Want to color the words you read here? Click on the video below and let´s experience Tsavo West together!

 

Important Note:

We visited the park in November, during the rainy season, one of the reasons why the vegetation was so dense and the air so foggy.

 

 

 

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