Camping with Elephants in Mwea

My process for finding new weekend ventures is pretty simple. I’ll search for ‘Kenya’ in Google Maps and zoom in on any splodges of green that catch my eye. The splodge that I zoomed in on last week had a long, spikey streak of blue next to it, like a bolt of lighting. This turned out to be the Masinga Dam, and the splodge of green beside it was the Mwea National Reserve.

Inspired by these curious shapes, I asked Google to find me more information. There isn’t much about the reserve beyond an informative article by The Kenyan Camper, a brief summary on the KWS website, and an old review on Tripadvisor by ‘Specialist321’. This rather disgruntled visitor advised that it wasn’t worth the journey from Nairobi because there were lots of thorns, and because he ‘didn’t see anything other than three deer’. I didn’t take his word for it.

There are a number of viable routes to the reserve from Nairobi. The quickest (135km) is along Thika Road onto Embu Road, and then right after 5km (signposted) onto a graded road. After about 30km take another right (not signposted) before Thiba River. Alternatively, you can take the longer but more tarmacked route via the Thika – Garissa Road, with a left onto Embu – Siakago Road. The reserve’s Deputy Warden, Maureen, is happy to give directions (0727857640).

We opted for the Thika – Garissa Road route, but were held up for half an hour in heavy traffic around Thika, so this is worth bearing in mind. There’s also a tricky stretch of dirt road skirting the Masinga Dam, that weaves through the surrounding villages, so you may want to give Maureen a call beforehand to avoid getting lost.

The reserve doesn’t get many visitors, so the KWS ranger at the gate was understandably pleased to see us. I’m used to a much more frosty reception from KWS staff at busier national parks and reserves, so this was a welcome change. Evelyn, the ranger on duty, gave us plenty of information, and pointed out the best campsites on a map in her office. There aren’t any lodges or tented camps in the reserve, so your only option is to camp – which suited us fine.

At just 42 sq. km, the reserve is slightly smaller than Hell’s Gate, but makes up for it in a variety of ways. First, the vegetation, which is largely thick bush, screening off the villages beyond the boundaries of the reserve, and providing a sense of solitude. Second, the views, particularly where the Tana River meets the Thiba River and the Kamburu Dam in the east of the reserve. Third, the wildlife, and most notably the presence of elephants, which is unusual for a park this size. Throw in the fact that you’re likely to have the reserve entirely to yourself, as we did, and you’ll start to question why Mwea isn’t marketed as much as many of Kenya’s other key conservation areas.

Given its size, we felt no pressure to explore the reserve on the first afternoon, and chose instead to find the perfect spot to pitch our tent. We had a number of options, including the Mbogo public campsite near the main gate, and a few others dotted along the Tana River and Kamburu Dam. Evelyn recommended the Mavuria campsite by the water’s edge, which we found was overgrown. This didn’t matter, though, as we eventually found an ideal spot on the shore of a little inlet of the reservoir.

As we set up camp, we heard a soft crunching noise, and froze as a large elephant strode across the pebbles on the shore, just 50 yards behind us. He initially seemed unaware that we were there, but he stopped for a second to take in his surroundings. He then carried on along the shore and disappeared into the bushes.

This happened again a few hours later, but in complete darkness, so we could only hear the elephant’s footsteps. And just after we’d climbed into the tent, another elephant walked past our campfire, a few feet away from where we were sitting minutes earlier.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep, we were woken up the following morning by the distinctive hissing and honking of a pair of Egyptian geese. As we cooked our breakfast, a hippo eyed us lazily nearby, and a large crocodile slid into the water on the opposite bank to avoid an irritating troop of baboons. A pied kingfisher caught a fish that was far too big for its beak, and slapped it against a branch for about 20 minutes to kill it. For hours we watched the action unfold, without another vehicle or person in sight.

With a bit of marketing and infrastructure, like more signposts, Mwea could easily rank up its visitor numbers. For now though, take advantage of its relative obscurity, and the sense of solitude that gives the reserve its charm.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation