Expert Reviews – Saiwa Swamp NP
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
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Kenya’s Smallest & Most Pedestrian-friendly Park
This tiny and little-known park in western Kenya is not likely to be of interest to mainstream tourists. But for more experienced wildlife enthusiasts, it offers the opportunity to see several rare creatures. Foremost among these is the elusive sitatunga, a rare marsh-dwelling antelope easily seen from one of several viewing platforms overlooking the swamp. It is also the one place in East Africa where I’ve seen the ultra-localised de Brazza’s monkey, and my most recent visit also yielded a short view of a Cape clawless otter. The birding is a treat: our list on our most recent visit included grey crowned crane, black sparrowhawk, the stunning Ross’s turaco, and two real rarities in the form of yellow-billed barbet and grey-winged robin-chat. As a bonus, we went the entire day without seeing another tourist on the network of walking trails. A low-key gem!
Stuart is a travel writer and author of numerous Lonely Planet guidebooks, including Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Birds and swimming antelope
I have a real soft spot for the highlands of western Kenya. I love the greenery, the cool temperatures and the muddy little agricultural towns and villages where everyone seems to drink milky tea and wear welly boots. Kitale is one of my favourite such towns and Saiwa Swamp is one of the main reasons I’m so fond of Kitale (along with it being the very first town in East Africa, after Nairobi, that I ever visited). It’s a park I always try and slot into any travels around western Kenya. On the surface this might seem strange because this tiny park (at only 1kmsq it’s the smallest park in Kenya) doesn’t have any safari royalty mammals and there’s little in the way of a wilderness feel to the place (farmland comes right up to the fence that encircles the park). But what I like about Sawia Swamp is simply that it is so different to Tsavo, the Mara and the others. It’s a small patch of swamp with a thin border of jungly trees and the only way to explore it is on foot – a rare delight. The only large mammals you will see are sitatunga, a type of semi-aquatic antelope and this is probably the best national park in all of East Africa in which to see them. There are also plenty of monkeys with the flowing locks of the black and white colobus being the most memorable. With luck you might also catch a glimpse of Cape clawless and spot throated otters. But it’s birds where Sawia really excels. More than 370 species have been seen in this tiny park including some that are more commonly associated with the jungles of the Congo or Uganda. I’m no expert birdwatcher but even I get excited about each flash of colour in the forest here and to help the non-experts like me highly knowledgeable ornithological guides are available from the park entrance. It pays to take one.
Lizzie is a reputed guidebook writer and author of the Footprint guides to South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
A short wetland nature walk with the possibility of seeing an unusual antelope
Kenya’s smallest national park, this is best-known as a refuge for the rare semi-aquatic sitatunga antelope, which unusually has splayed hooves, allowing it to walk on the swamp vegetation. We didn’t this display of bravery, but we did see a couple gracefully sliding through the water with their heads raised and nostrils flaring. Additionally, black-and-white colobus monkeys were fairly common in the wild fig trees, and several varieties of kingfisher fluttered around the bulrushes. The short walk through this tiny park (less than three square kilometres) was easy along raised boardwalks, but it’s out of the way to get to there and the sitatunga remains elusive most of the time as it rests semi-submerged and is very well hidden during the heat of the day. Its best described as a nature walk to enjoy the birds and butterflies.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
Sitatunga antelopes in Saiwa Swamp
Saiwa Swamp National Park is tiny. It basically encloses one big swamp with a few short trails around it. It doesn’t have any big game in it either. In fact its significance is probably lost to a lot of people. For me the draw was a chance to see the very elusive Sitatunga antelope. We set out early and positioned ourselves on one of the platforms overlooking the swamp. We were more than rewarded. I would have been happy to see one of these strange aquatic antelopes sneaking through the high reeds in the marsh, but within the first hour we must have counted about 20 individuals. We spend the day in the park, but 99% of our sightings were in that first hour.
The forest surrounding the swamp is wonderfully tropical and we saw several black and white colobus monkeys swinging in the trees. The very rare De Brazza’s monkey was high on my list, but we didn’t get lucky on that front.