Tsavo East Trip Report - January/February 2006
On January 30th I left Amboseli behind and headed for Tsavo East National Park. We boarded Air Kenya at the airstrip and had to wait for four Asians coming from the Serena. When they finally arrived they didn’t immediately board the plane but proceeded to take pictures of the plane, even walking right under where the left propeller was starting to turn. I yelled out the door and waved them out of the way. We landed at Wilson Airport and I was transferred to JKIA Airport for my 11 o’clock flight to Mombasa. Checkin was delayed because all the computers were down and they couldn’tmake out the tickets and luggage tags. These were finally made out by hand and boarding continued. Again the flight was held up briefly due to someone not showing up on time. This time it was a Muslim couple who were in the airport before I was but were apparently lollygagging in the terminal! The flight finally took off and was uneventful. We landed at Moi Airport in Mombasa right at noon. I was met at the airport by one of my favorite Southern Cross Safari guides, Joshua, in a Toyota Prado which was air conditioned and drove right to Tsavo East National Park (about two hours away). The road from Mombasa to Mariakani is even worse than ever, not only uncomfortable but dangerous. Cars traveling in both directions were zigzagging around huge deep potholes everywhere! In some places the potholes were so deep that people were driving off road on the shoulders! This road is a national disgrace for Kenya. It is the main highway in the country, a contract to the Chinese was written several years ago to re-do the highway but as yet nothing is done. Even the politicians don’t know and care how bad it is. I am told that when President Kibaki went to Mombasa recently his driver skirted the highway, drove through Tsavo East and picked up a chartered flight from there to Mombasa so he wouldn’t even have seen this section of road. Believe me, the dirt and gravel roads in the parks are far better than this highway. Let us hope that something gets started on this soon.
We arrived at Satao Camp and received a very warm welcome. I have stayed at this Camp on each of my previous eight trips and love it here. Since I would be staying for nine days this time I proceeded to unpack and put everything away where I could find things quickly. I was again fortunate enough to be placed in Kocha tent, the suite tent at the end of the camp adjacent to the path where many of the elephants proceed to the waterhole. There are two different types of tents at Satao. 16 tents are regular size, some with multiple beds for families and one or two are handicap accessible. The suite tents are larger, contain a small refrigerator stocked with drinks and a fan (which is sometimes necessary as Tsavo is much hotter and often humid than other parks. Most of the tents are built on stone foundations about 3 feet high. The main attraction at Satao is their two waterholes which are approximately 50 - 100 yards from the tents underneath several beautiful very old tamarind trees. The waterholes are filled from a borehole so there is always cold fresh water for the animals.
Tsavo is probably one of the most underestimated parks in Kenya. So many people leave it off their itineraries because they don’t understand what a jewel it is. Tsavo is a mammoth park. It is the size of the state of Massachusetts. Until recently only the small southern part of the park has been opened to the public. In the 1970’s through the early 1990’s the northern sector was heavily poached. Therefore the northern sector has been closed to all but Kenya Wildlife Rangers. Amboseli and Tsavo Parks have the highest population of elephants in Kenya. And, of course, there are the famous “man-eaters of Tsavo”. Conservationists in the past had decried the destruction caused by the elephants knocking over the trees in the southern sector. However, the elephants didn’t ruin the park as some stated. They just changed it from heavy bush where nothing but elephant could live to savannah-like where now all kinds of wildlife live including zebra, buffalo and giraffe. However, at this time there are no wildebeest there.
The first full day at Tsavo I was standing at the sink brushing my teeth when I saw motion out of the corner of my eye. I immediately stepped back thinking the worst (another snake) and was honored to see Paka, the mother of all the camp genet cats on the top of the bathroom wall. It made me really feel at home. Later we drove to Ndara Plains area and saw a 7 year old elephant that had been killed by lions the previous night. KWS had already been there and extracted the tusks so that no-one else could get them and get them into the black market. Also saw a huge herd, approximately 1,000, buffalo. On return to camp I was thrilled to see a newborn baby elephant and its Mom right near my tent. The baby was still pink behind the ears and could barely walk. It was still unsteady on its feet. Mama and big sister walked extremely slowly to the waterhole with the baby between them. Imagine my horror when the baby accidentally fell into the waterhole! The Mama immediately jumped in and attempted to help the baby out. However, another female with a short trunk (probably due to a snare), chased the mother away. Motherly instincts won out though and the Mom sneaked around the other side and pushed the baby up the bank of the waterhole with her trunk and feet and we all breathed a sigh of relief. The baby was the tiniest baby elephant I have ever seen! It tried to nurse but couldn’t reach the teats and pushed on Mom with the trunk for leverage and then reared up on its back legs (I think it might have been premature). Before the week was over I saw about 20 newborn elephants!! It made me wonder if the drought might have brought on early labor for the Moms. The adults look fine, not emaciated, but they do have to walk farther to get food than they usually do, and then do an about face and head back to the only water source nearby.
Dame Daphne Sheldrick, who cares for the orphaned elephants and rhinos, has opened a third nursery in the northern sector of Tsavo National Park . I had received permission to go to that nursery and see some of my adopted orphans there. Since neither my driver nor I had been that way before, we decided to check out the route on the Wednesday before our planned trip on Friday. We drove up to Lugards Falls and checked out where the ford/bridge over the Galana River was and what the condition of the river itself was. You might remember that about a year ago a vehicle carrying 8 KWS rangers was washed over the bridge and all the men were washed down the Galana River to Crocodile Point. Their bodies were never recovered. We wanted to be sure that the ford/bridge would be safe for us to cross. We were pleased to see that no water was running over the bridge, so we felt it would be safe for us on our trip. Had water been rushing over the bridge we would have had to drive from Voi to Mtito Andei and cross over the Yatta Plateau (a much longer trip than using the bridge).
Later that day a friend came and got me and told me to quickly bring my cameras. When we got to his place he instructed me to sit quietly on the chair on his veranda. I looked into the bushes on the right of the veranda and saw a huge pair of tusks. I realized right away that the tusks belonged to an elephant I had seen on several trips before and had been inquiring about regularly. I had hoped that he hadn’t been the one hit with the poison arrows a few months back. My friend had been filling his ground level bird bath and was inviting the elephant to come and drink, but the elephant wasn’t moving. Then the friend crept to the birdbath and swirled the water with his hand. Suddenly a HUGE 45 year old bull elephant crashed though the bushes and proceeded to drink the contents of the birdbath (constantly being refilled by a hose). We sat and talked with him for 15 – 20 minutes. It was truly a once in a lifetime event! He was only 15 feet from us!! I never would have believed it possible! This bull recognized our voices and knew we were no threat to him. Just knowing that he was still alive was a thrill. After he had had enough water and enough of our company he backed up and started to leave. However, he was leaving the wrong way. He was headed for a throng of people who would be frightened, running, screaming, etc. Though the bull had never seen my friend standing tall, (he was always sitting on the veranda when the elephant was around) he felt he needed to encourage the bull to go in another direction so he stuck his head around a bush and called the bull. In less than 2 seconds the bull pivoted and charged my friend! Luckily there were bushes nearby that he could duck into. When he got back onto the veranda we both talked with the bull again to let him know he was alright and we were still friends. The bull then left in the direction we wanted him to leave returning to the bush. WHAT A THRILL!!!!
The next morning I awoke at 3:45 a.m. to the distant roar of lions. I wondered if they would be coming closer as they did in August, but no such luck. At dinner that night I was fortunate enough to meet the parents of Torben, the managing director of Southern Cross Safaris. They are exceptionally nice people. Torben’s Dad was teasing me because I had “his tent” (we both love having the same tent because of its close proximity to the waterhole, but he said he was willing to give it up to me because I had come so far so see Tsavo.
Friday morning I was up early at 5:30 in order to get an early start for the northern sector. It was a one hour ride to Lugard’s Falls, we crossed over the ford/bridge with no problems and then had a one and one half hours drive from the bridge to the new Sheldrick Camp in Ithumba. The northern sector is heavy bush along the whole way. One could have 1,000 animals standing 100 feet off the road and you’d never see them. We did have one small elephant family run across the road in front of us, but they were really WILD and terrified. Remember, the wildlife has seen no-one in years except for poachers and KWS rangers. We did see quite a few kudu and dik dik but not much else. The bush was just too thick.
The Sheldrick Camp has been set up for adoptive parents of the orphaned elephants so they may visit their “babies”. There is a main building which consists of two stories. This is covered with a lovely traditional makuti roof. On the first floor is a small dining area and a living room, tastefully furnished. On the second floor (accessed by a circular lighthouse-type stairs) is a lounge with chaises, beanbag chairs, table and large openings in the roof over looking the Yatta Plateau and the mountains and the views are spectacular. There are three tents which are very comfortable. The bathroom areas directly behind the tents are surrounded by lovely rock walls. There is a small separate building which is the kitchen area complete with stove, refrigerator and freezer as well as a separate building which acts as a car port.
This is an exclusive, self-service camp. That means that you bring all your food and drink with you. Unfortunately they are limited to three tents because of the extreme shortage of drinkable water in the northern sector (not just due to the drought). The water in the boreholes is extremely saline and in short supply. Any water derived from the borehole has to be put through a desalinator which can handle only a very small volume of the water needed for the camp, KWS headquarters and for the orphaned elephants. Therefore, the Sheldrick Trust has purchased a water bowser and this truck has to make round trip rides to the Galana River and pump water into the bowser and transport it back to headquarters.
Shortly after arrival at camp we drove to KWS headquarters and were lead to the site where the elephant orphans come in from the bush around 11 a.m. to get their milk bottles and mudbath. It was really thrilling to be standing right in the middle of the orphans while they dined and bathed. The keepers for the orphaned elephants and rhinos in all three locations (Nairobi, Voi and Ithumba) do a Herculean job being mothers to the babies 24 hours a day 7 days a week. It isn’t just a job for them – it is a passion and love for the animals they care for. Many of these men are college graduates, but feel strongly that their wildlife is worth saving. They even sleep with the orphans, so that when one of the orphans gets ill or dies, it is a deeply emotional event for the keepers. After the mudbath was over, we returned to the camp to relax and explore. Then when it was time for the orphans to return to their stockades at night (for protection from predators) we returned to see them get their bottles, browse and prepare for the night ahead. The next morning we returned to the southern sector.
The following day we again saw a herd of over 1,000 buffalo. Nearing Aruba Dam we saw a pride of lionesses and babies keeping cool under some bushes and the body of a young buffalo killed during the night (obviously the females had already eaten). Soon a young male lion approached the carcass, nibbled at first and then stuck his entire head inside and proceeded to eat. When several other safari vans approached, he attempted to lift the entire carcass off the road to get it into a quieter, cooler area. The next day when we drove past the same area all that was left of the buffalo carcass was the ribs!
On all game drives we saw lots of zebra, buffalo, giraffe, impala, oryx, waterbuck, elephants.
The last of my nine nights at Tsavo was very exciting. We had gone to dinner when all of a sudden the camp impala became restless and started their “barking” (the impala and waterbuck come into camp about 4:30 every evening for protection from the lions). When the camp manager and I looked out toward the flood lit waterhole we saw nine lions running the length of the two waterholes. One lion was on the far side of camp roaring at the other lions. The askaris were following their movement with their torches when suddenly one lion ran right into camp and stopped right at the sign for tourists stating “DO NOT GO BEYOND THIS POINT”. It then had a change of heart and turned and ran back to the waterhole. Wouldn’t you know it, no-one had their cameras at dinner because it was dark so we didn’t get pictures of this 10 minutes of chaos. All the tourists were a little nervous about returning to their tents for the evening knowing a dozen lions were around! However, it was a thrilling end to my nine days at camp.