In the land of lava and leopards

As they scouted Tsavo West in the early ‘60s, the developers of Kilaguni would have been spoilt for choice while deliberating the location of Kenya’s first park lodge. 60 years on, and the site they settled on still ranks highly among the country’s top safari destinations.

The lodge’s long thatched terrace frames a spectacular panorama: two endlessly busy waterholes beneath the rolling Chyulu Hills and the iconic twin-peaked silhouette of Mount Kilimanjaro. ‘Many guests walk in and think they are looking at a painting’ – Kilaguni’s manager, Henrietta Mwangola, told me last weekend. I was there with my wife for a couple of nights, and we spent a good chunk of our stay glued to the view and the natural spectacle playing out in front of us.

A brief rain shower three days earlier had replenished the parched landscape, but the waterholes below were still a magnet for the park’s wildlife. In the heat of the day, they attracted herds of zebras, waterbuck and buffaloes, while giraffes browsed in the acacias on the fringes. And then in the early evening, like clockwork, the elephants emerged. Each herd of 10 or 20 would have a drink and a splash, have a fascinating interaction with the next group arriving, and then dash back into the bush. Meanwhile, once the sun had set behind the Chyulus, bats swooped in the floodlights, and jackals and hyenas lurked in the shadows.

With the same view from the dining area behind the terrace, and an even better perspective from the balcony of our first-floor room, we didn’t miss any of the action. The architecture of the lodge draws inspiration from its surrounding environment, in true Serena Hotels fashion (who have managed Kilaguni since December 1999). The land within which it sits is full of craters, cones, caves and other signs of very recent volcanic activity, and this is reflected in the lodge’s lava stone cladding. Kilaguni also showed its commitment to the environment in 2018, by becoming Kenya’s first fully solar-powered lodge.

Early on our first morning, we joined our guide, Geoffrey, in an open-top Land Cruiser for a gamedrive. Having worked at Kilaguni for six years, he was in tune with the Tsavo landscape, and he followed a scenic circuit towards the doum palm forests on the banks of the Tsavo River. Along the way, we skirted an ancient lava flow, and caught a glimpse of a female leopard with her cub by the road. Not keen to hang around for photos, they quickly clambered up onto the black rock wall and disappeared.

Later that morning after breakfast, we made the short trip to the striking Shetani lava flow. It’s quite incredible (and slightly disconcerting) how recently the lava was spewed out of a volcano in the Chyulu Hills. I can appreciate why those who witnessed the eruption 200 years ago considered it to be the work of the devil. Today, it’s amazing to trace the flow back to the gaping crater nearby, and to walk across its black and brittle surface. We also managed to find the Shetani caves up the flank of the volcano, which can be explored with a guide and a powerful torch.

In addition to these incredible cave systems, we have the Chyulu’s lava to thank for another Tsavo West attraction – Mzima Springs. Also just a few kilometres away from Kilaguni, Mzima is a wonderful spot to stroll around, and to quietly observe the area’s abundant bird and animal life. The water here is crystal clear, filtered to transparency by the porous igneous rock to the north.

Like the floating baby crocodile we spotted at Mzima, I’ve only touched the surface of the sites of Tsavo West. You’ll have to go explore them for yourself – which is now easier than ever with the SGR station at Mtito Andei. For more information about Kilaguni, head to http://www.serenahotels.com/kilaguni.