The sights of Tsavo West

Last month I wrote a feature on the excellent Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge. I’ve been back to Tsavo West since, and I wanted to focus this piece on the park’s incredible geology.

The view to the north-west in the ‘developed area’ – a 1,000 square kilometre section of the park that receives the most visitors – is dominated by the hazy purple and green peaks of the Chyulu Hills. The Chyulus are among the world’s youngest volcanic ranges. The first eruption stretches back 1.5 million years, while the most recent (and most famous) eruption occurred just over 200 years ago – creating the spectacular Shetani lava flow.

Beyond its sinister name, meaning ‘devil’ in Swahili, there are plenty of signs that this very recent eruption would have been a cataclysmic event for those who witnessed it. The loose rocks strewn across the lava flow are brittle and honeycombed ­– evidence of a spluttering and violent gas-rich explosion. Tales are still told about fire and evil spirits, and legend has it that on still nights you can hear the cries of those who were buried under the hot lava. Locals are said to appease the ghosts with offerings of food, which (of course) are gone by daybreak.

Tsavo West and the neighbouring Chyulu Hills National Park are full of volcanic attractions to admire and explore. There are cones and craters to scramble up and around, including the domed Chaimu Crater a few kilometres from Kilaguni. And in the Chyulus, with the assistance of an experienced guide, you can explore the colossal Leviathan Cave – the world’s second-longest lava tube, with an opening so wide you could fly a jumbo jet through it. Throughout Tsavo West’s developed area, the well-maintained network of dirt tracks skirt lava flows that are much older than Shetani, and that have been reclaimed by the park’s hardy vegetation.

Deep beneath these lava flows is a basement layer of rock that is over half a billion years old. Between that and the lava on the surface is an aquifer layer of water fed by rainfall on the Chyulus and Mount Kilimanjaro. Rain percolates through the rocks, flows under the lava, and then emanates in natural springs – including at the wonderful Mzima Springs.

This crystal-clear oasis was made famous by Alan Root’s remarkable 1983 film Mzima: Portrait of a Spring. Alan and his partner Joan were known for their innovative and often risky approach to wildlife filmmaking, and their work at Mzima was no different. Filming underwater, Joan had her face mask ripped off by an agitated male hippo; the behind-the-scenes footage of her subsequently poking her finger through the tusk-sized hole in her mask is etched in my memory. The same hippo gouged a Coke bottle sized hole out of Alan’s calf.

Needless to say, it’s best not to swim with the hippos at Mzima. But if you’re lucky, you can still observe them comically tip-toeing underwater from the safety of the circular viewing chamber in the top pool. When there are no hippos nearby, it’s also fascinating to watch blue labeo fish feed and drift in the gentle current.  

Although Mzima is a popular spot, and is frequently visited by tourists and school groups, it’s worth being a bit cautious along the trails of the lower pool. With family on my last trip to the springs, we spent a good while admiring the view without noticing a huge crocodile just a few metres away. The croc was dead still with its mouth open, cooling off in a narrow inlet from the upper pool.

So Tsavo West and the neighbouring Chyulu Hills offer a variety of adventure-packed safari experiences. I’ll be back soon to explore more.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation