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Thrilling sights and sounds of Tsavo West

TRAVEL & DESTINATION
By Jayne Rose Gacheri | August 15th 2021

A herd of Elephants drinking water at the Serena Kilaguni Water Hole.[Wilberforce Okwiri,Standard]

If you are travelling by Madaraka Express, you need to be at the Syokimau SGR station an hour earlier to beat the queue for the passenger train.

I was travelling to Mtito Andei using the inter-county train that leaves at 8am. Five minutes later, the train that strictly keeps time, was on its way to Mombasa. It cost me Sh490 to get to my destination.

My adventure to one of Kenya’s top destinations – Tsavo West had just begun. Travelling by rail offers a faster, safer and cheaper way to discover magical Kenya.

Madaraka Express takes its passengers on a thrilling ride traversing enchanting landscapes. You also get to see wildlife such as giraffe, zebra, antelope, and the love-struck dik-dik that are always a couple.

Four hours later, I am at Mtito Andei, and within moments, I get to experience my first game drive, right after the Mtito Andei Tsavo West KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) gate.

Our guide and driver, Geoffrey Musoka gives us a brief on Covid-19 protocols. 

Our 30-kilometre dusty drive to Serena Lodge, our base, is worth it as it is eventful.

Indeed, within a short distance, photographer Wilberforce Okwiri is already clicking his camera as I enjoy the wildlife, magnificent sights and sounds - a reminder that it has been quite some time since I did this.

Rugged beauty

I notice that the park is a beautiful rugged wilderness whose savanna ecosystem comprises open grasslands, scrublands and acacia woodlands; belts of riverine vegetation and rocky ridges. I cannot help speaking aloud about my fascination, looking forward to what awaits me.

An hour later, we are checking in at the lodge, where we go through the Covid-19 check-in protocol before the lodge manager, Henrietta Mwangola takes us through the guest’s programme.

I cannot wait to explore all the magnificent places, which Antony Keli, a naturalist with the lodge, informs me are a must-see and are part of a “Serena Active” package. 

The captivating Mzima Springs

First on the list is Mzima Springs, an oasis of green in the west of the park. Musoka notifies us that we can only tour this greatest attraction of Tsavo West National Park when accompanied by a KWS ranger.

When we arrive at the entry to the springs, the guide hands us over to Ibrahim Mustafa, a delightful ranger who thrills us all through the one-hour tour. 

I notice that KWS has done a wonderful job since my last visit 15 years ago.

The beautiful walk paths are well marked, and engraved information pillars are placed throughout the path walk, and educate one on the type of vegetation, animals and the ecosystem, including the flora and fauna around the springs. 

The spectacular upwelling of clear freshwater gushing out from the volcanic rocks, in sharp contrast to the surrounding valley of arid lava is a remarkable sight. 

Mzima Springs situated forty-eight kilometres from Mtito Andei is a spectacular site and the greatest attraction in Tsavo West National Park.[Wilberforce Okwiri,Standard]

 

Mustafa explains that the source of the springs rises from Chyulu Hills, 40 kilometres away, and travels underground through porous volcanic rocks before popping up at the site. Mzima is Swahili word meaning alive and true, the springs produce an incredible 250 million litres of fresh water a day that supply water to parts of Mombasa. 

 

The highlight of the visit is a trip down a more than 50 years old viewing chamber. The first time I was here, I had a creepy feeling, but this time around I am excited to view the thousands of primeval-looking fish that at a glance looked blue in colour.

However, the KWS guide points out that they are grey and only look so due to the reflection of the sky. 

Enchanting landscapes

From Mzima Springs we drive across the park, with Musoka pointing out splendid landscapes and sceneries. He takes time to introduce each sight. Some of the landscapes include Chaimu Lava Flow, one of nature’s trails.

This is an extinct volcano. Stark black coke made into various lava fountains, split cones and blown holes. “Sometimes visitors to the park take a hike up and slide back with the help of the cone,” explains the guide.

Next is the rhino sanctuary, home to the indigenous black rhino from which Kilaguni derives its name – a place for young rhinos.

The roaring rocks called so because of the sound they produce (at night) are patched high and provide us with an opportunity to view the landscapes of the park.

These include caves; the Five Sisters Hills called so because of their look-alike appearance, the Lion Rock, a vast hump of volcanic rock that rises from the plains offering unique views. Lion Rock is called so because it used to be a favourite lion haunt.

It offered the king of the jungle a vantage point and a place to bask in the sun. I learn from the guide that the rocks may have been home to the famous ‘man-eaters of Tsavo’.

The showstopper –  Shetani Lava

After exploring these enchanting landscapes, Musoka tells us we have yet one more to go.

“Your visit is incomplete if you do not visit this place (he keeps the place as a surprise),” he says. 

After a 30-minute drive from the Roaring Hills, the guide asks me to close my eyes and only open them when he asks me to do so. I oblige and after about a five minutes-drive he softly says, “surprise, open your eyes now”. 

When I do so, I am completely awestruck. We seem to have driven into the middle of a vast farm looking like a recently ploughed field waiting to be hallowed! 

The Serena Kilaguni Water Hole has been an attraction to many visitors since 1962.[Wilberforce Okwiri,Standard]

The “startling stretch of land that is over 70 acres, spreading for eight kilometres long, six kilometres wide, and five metres deep, (otherwise known as Shetani Lava) is a coalesced tide of tar-like lava that spewed down the Chyulu Hills as they burst out of the plains only a few 100 years ago. 

“Shetani means devil in Swahili and refers to the time, relatively recently when the molten lava erupted from the bowels of the earth and engulfed the area,” says Musoka.

He says that so terrifying was this event to the local people (Ngulia and Kamba, many of whom were buried alive) that they believed it to be the devil incarnate. The tales, he says, are still rife with fire, hails and brimstone and evil spirits. 

The lava flow is also riddled by a series of caves, many of which can be explored, though caution is recommended.

The grand finale

We are back to base, and the resident naturalist takes us through the vegetation of the surrounding. Worth noticing is an over 200 years baobab tree that is an attraction to visitors. It provides a safe nesting place for some bird species. 

Another surprise awaited us – the historical water hole that has for decades provided Kilaguni Lodge visitors with a view of a wide variety of animals that come to drink water. 

The Water Hole has been an attraction to many visitors since 1962 with its first high profile visitor, the Duke of Gloucester, late President Jomo Kenyatta as the second, followed by Prince Bernard of the Netherlands. 

At sunset (or sunrise), from the terrace, you can watch a glorious spectacle of the sudden African sunset/sunrise against the backdrop of Chyulu Hills as various animals, each following its path and looking out for predators as they make their way to quench their thirst. 

The spectacle also happens in the morning sunrise, with the elephants and buffalos taking a mud bath. As I watched the dramatic show of a giraffe “reaching out for its fill”, albeit, keeping alert, I realised that my excursion had ended. 

 

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