By Peter Muiruri
The journey to Sarova Salt Lick Lodge is not for the faint-hearted. On this chilly Friday, I had driven from the coastal town of Malindi, enjoying the smooth road up to Voi.
Then the nightmare began. True, the road from Voi to Mwatate was getting a fresh layer of tarmac, raising our spirits, but a detour several kilometres off Mombasa Road almost dampened our spirits.
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The worst was yet to come: If the offroad driving was bad, then the stretch of the road after Mwatate Town can only be described as a section of lunar landscape. Some wags have suggested that it is the worst road in Kenya.
Bad road or no road at all, my mind was racing, imagining what it would be like to stay for a night or two at the iconic lodge on stilts that I had only seen in pictures.
We arrived at the lodge a little after five in the evening, and were welcomed with a cold drink that made up for the treacherous road.
Salt Lick Lodge is located in the Taita Hills Sanctuary, a 28,000-acre private conservancy at the foot of the Taita Hills. It borders Tsavo West National Park, one of the world’s largest game reserves.
After a sumptuous dinner with a touch of Swahili, it was time to retire to our room, one of the 96 oval-shaped rooms complete with a panoramic view of the open savanna.
From here, one can enjoy the famed show of elephants strolling to the water holes below. Few sights are as unforgettable as observing the huge animals up close and personal.
As the evening wore on, the view from the room got hazy. With my one-year-old son, we headed to the restaurant for an excellent photo opportunity made possible by the powerful floodlights. Minutes turned into hours, yet the show was not about to end.
From far they came. Two, ten, up to herds of 50 or more. Great and small, they trained their trunks into the water, gulping gallons by the minute. Elephants, as your class teacher might have told you, are creatures of habit. Usually led by the matriarch, they will follow her as long as she lives. The jumbos of Salt Lick have been at these water holes for ages and were unbothered by our prying eyes.
The drinking spree was briefly interrupted by loud trumpeting and commotion from further afield. Those at the watering hole rushed to meet the oncoming group with even greater excitement.
“Was a fight imminent?” we wondered.
To every visitor’s amazement, the elephants were celebrating the presence of a newborn baby. With the young one safely tucked in the middle of the herd, the entire group regrouped at the waterhole.
Those who study elephant behaviour say they exhibit similar characteristics if the herd loses a family member. It is hard to imagine that such gentle creatures are the targets of poachers out to get the jumbos’ only defence mechanism — their tusks.
The following morning afforded us yet another chance to observe the elephants at close quarters. After breakfast, we headed to the underground tunnel that leads to a bunker, where ground-level windows provide close but safe access to the animals as they drink.
Other species abound here, too. Buffaloes, zebra, jackals, civets, genets and various types of antelope. I will investigate their lives in more details at a later visit.
With memories of elephants cooling off right under my bed, it was time to head back to Nairobi’s rat race.