In Tsavo East With Some Wilful Wildlife

‘That’s the way to approach Tsavo East,’ my younger son, Jan, said. As the aircraft came down through the clouds, it flew along the jagged edge of the Yatta Plateau, traced the Galana River, flew low over the Lugard Falls, and banked steeply to make the Lugard airstrip. It was breath-taking – in more ways than one.

We were to stay two nights at a Ker and Downey mobile camp that my older son, Andreas, had set up by a sandy lugga and shaded by doum palms. I was expecting cramped tents and frugal food, but we were amazed at the luxury that can be packed into one truck and transported to unpeopled places. The tents were quite spacious; they had toilets, comfortable double beds, and hot water from bucket showers. The food was varied and tasty – from English breakfasts to Indian curries and French profiteroles. And the drinks table in the mess tent was very well stocked.

The wildlife was plentiful, too. On our first game drive in the late afternoon, we came across a family of elephants digging with their feet for water below the sand of another lugga. And late that evening, back at our camp when we were sitting by a blazing log fire, an old bull elephant obviously fancied something stronger than water. He came to a nearby tree and shook it violently to bring down the palm fruit, which he proceeded to eat. However, Andreas assured us that the unfermented fruit of the doum palm, so prized by elephants, is not, as commonly believed, alcoholic.

But the stars of the first game drive were not the elephants. Andreas knew where there was a den of wild dogs – the painted wolves of Africa. He drove us there. Attracted by the sound of the engine, four of the adults came out of the thickets to investigate, while the young pups were playing near the den across a shallow valley. A few decades ago it was thought that wild dogs had disappeared from Kenya. But in recent years they have bounced back – with a few packs in Tsavo and in Laikipia.

We watched these Tsavo dogs for half an hour or so until the light was going. As we drove away, the four dogs chased us. When we stopped, they stopped; when we drove on, they followed. It was a good example of how predators usually attack only when their prey runs – though there was nothing very threatening about what these dogs were doing.

The following morning coffee was brought to our tent just before dawn. As we dressed we could hear the roar of a lion from somewhere the other side of the lugga. Up close, the roar of a male can be a spine chilling sound – beginning loud and gradually fading, like what physicists call a damped oscillation.

On that early morning drive we came across the biggest pride of lions I have ever seen: eight grown females, five cubs, and one lucky male, who was lounging at some distance away but keeping a wary eye on his family. Later, we discovered the male could also be a househusband. When we returned that evening, he had been left to look after the cubs while the females were out hunting.

So the less-favoured Tsavo East has a lot to offer. Along the Galana River there are only private camp sites and the new Galdessa Lodge, but to the south of the river there are popular places such as Aruba Lodge, Satao Camp and Voi Safari Lodge. If you are making for Malindi, you could break your journey and then take the route to the Sala Gate in the north east of the park and then along a good road for 105 kilometres.

A postscript: The old bull elephant came right into our camp on the second night and caused something of a panic. Again, he was after the palm fruit – until a baboon up the tree peed on his head.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation