Expert Reviews – Shimba Hills NR

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Sables, squirrels and bushbabies
Overall rating

Though it doesn’t compare with Kenya’s finest in terms of overall game viewing, this small hilly reserve offers much to wildlife connoisseurs and it’s also a great overnight add-on ’to a beach holiday, situated less than an hours drive from Mombasa and the resorts of Diana Beach. It is the only place in Kenya that supports the sable antelope, and I’ve successfully spotted the handsome male – with its black coat and backward-curved horns – on each of four previous visits. I’ve also had good luck here with elephant, buffalo and other antelope, but large predators seem to be very rare and/or secretive. A wonderful feature of the reserve is its only lodge, which feels like a rambling, overgrown tree-house rising from above a jungle-swathed waterhole. which really does feel like an extension of the luxuriant jungle surrounding it. Elephant and birds such as forest hornbills and fish eagles are often seen here, but the real stars are the beautiful red-bellied coast squirrel that clambers around the building during the daylight shift, to be succeeded at night by a multitude of bug-eyed greater bushbabies. Great fun!

A short excursion to see a variety of large mammals near the coast
Overall rating

Shimba Hills is less than an hour’s drive from Diani Beach and is characterised by coastal rainforest and patches of rolling grasslands. Its home to a variety of large mammals and is best-known for its herds of buffalo and elephant and being one of the few places in Kenya to see sable antelope. Our short safari was pretty eventful; our guide pointed out spoor and we saw monkeys and birds on our walk to the impressive Sheldrick Falls, on the Lango Plains we saw graceful sable, and from the look-out at Giriama Point, entrancing views of the Indian Ocean. A day trip here is rewarding and includes lunch at Shimba Lodge, from where elephant viewing is virtually guaranteed from the wooden balconies. The hills are much cooler than the coast making it a refreshing excursion.

Herds of sable antelope, close to the Indian Ocean
Overall rating

Despite being within easy driving distance of the hugely popular Indian Ocean resort of Diani Beach, Shimba Hills receives relatively few visitors. It’s a modest park, but I found it enjoyable for a quick visit, and a refreshing change from the coastal strip in every way – not least because it’s considerably less humid up here, and there’s an excellent forest safari lodge with a raised wildlife viewing platform.

The hills are a lush and pleasant mixture of tropical woodland and grassland. You’ll definitely see elephants here – a translocation programme reduced their numbers in recent years, but there are still plenty left. It’s also fairly easy to see sable antelope – this is the only park in Kenya where these magnificent creatures are found. Other species you may encounter include ostriches and buffalo.

Bush and Beach
Overall rating

This very underrated reserve is less than an hours drive from Diani Beach, the biggest beach resort in Kenya, and is ideal for an easy morning game drive. True the wildlife variety and concentrations don’t come close to Kenya’s big name parks and reserves but for a break from the beach and a taste of the bush it couldn’t be better. Many hotels in Diani and elsewhere along the south coast organize half or full day packages to the reserve which often includes (a very mediocre) lunch at the Shimba Lodge.

I’ve always enjoyed my visits to Shimba Hills and the quantity of wildlife has generally exceeded expectations. The park is best-known for the huge, graceful sable antelope and indeed this is the only place in Kenya that they can be seen. The park is also known for its elephant as well as a good mix of antelope. Whilst I have only ever seen a couple of elephants here I have seen sable antelope on each visit as well as plenty of buffalo, warthog, impala and a few giraffe. One of the highlights of a visit for me is the short (ranger-led) walk through the forest to the impressive Sheldrick Falls. There aren’t many parks or reserves you can walk in so don’t miss this opportunity.

If you come to Shimba Hills expecting wildlife on the scale of the Masai Mara then you will leave disappointed but lower your expectations somewhat and you’ll likely find this a highly rewarding park. I would say that it’s best for those with limited time and who just want a little sample of the Kenyan bush, but most of all I would recommend this park to anyone with younger children: the short distances, good roads and low costs combined with just enough animals to keep interest levels from flagging put this park alongside Nairobi and Nakuru national parks as the best for families.

Hilltop retreat
Overall rating

This little jewel of a reserve is nestled among attractive hills just an hour’s drive inland from some of Kenya’s most popular beach resorts. It can’t offer the Big Five drama of Tsavo or Masai Mara, but you will see plenty of wildlife – from colobus monkeys in the forest clefts to Kenya’s only sable antelope in the rolling grassland. Most significant, perhaps, are the 600-plus elephant: this growing population is damaging much of the precious indigenous forest, so a corridor has been created to allow the pachyderms access to land outside the park. Big game aside, this is a great place to get to know smaller wildlife, from monitor lizards to warthogs.
To get a good feel for the landscape I highly recommend the 2km hike to Sheldrick Falls – escorted by a ranger, if you’d rather not risk a solo meeting with the odd buffalo or elephant. The falls are impressive, the forest bird life rich, and it’s a rare chance to feel the bush underfoot – something that may not arise during the rest of your Kenyan safari.

My one visit was a day-trip, so I did not stay overnight at the Shimba Hills Lodge. But this old timber construction is known for its pleasant bush ambience, especially after dark, when game visits the floodlit waterhole and nocturnal species, including bushbaby and genet, swing by the terrace in search of snacks.

Shimba Hills, the last refuge for sable antelopes in Kenya
Overall rating

This very accessible coastal reserve is a real gem. Sables are one of my favourite antelopes and this park, the only sanctuary in Kenya for these majestic antelopes, is one of the best places to see them in Africa. The sable antelopes here are in fact localized sub-species under the name of Roosevelt’s sable.

The park is small and you should be able to take most of it in during a day visit from any of the coastal resorts nearby, but if you stay the night at Shimba lodge you’ll get a real feel for the surrounding forest. The stilted lodge overlooks a waterhole, which attract a stream of forest dwellers including elephant and buffalo. A real delight for me, are the striking red-bellied coast squirrels and the nocturnal greater galagos, which seem to have taken resident around the lodge.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.2/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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