Expert Reviews – Tsavo East NP

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Tsavo East – pink elephants and man-eating lions
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Tsavo is fascinating. By far the largest park in Kenya, it covers about 4 percent of the country (about the same size as Massachusetts). It’s officially split into two parks, Tsavo East and West, divided by the main Nairobi-Mombasa road. It’s also linked to the Chyulu Hills National Park to the west, Tanzania’s Mkomazi Game Reserve and various private game conservancies spreading the gigantic swathe of protected land still further to the size of a medium-sized country. Tsavo East covers 11,747 sq kms (4,536 sq miles), but around two-thirds of the park are more or less closed to visitors, with few roads and no accommodation, although walking and camping safaris do go in and there are canoe safaris on the Athi River. It was along the Tsavo East section that the infamous the man-eating eating lions snatched 142 unfortunate railway workers in the 1890s.

It does have an extraordinary range of wildlife including some 500 species of birds, but with that much space to roam, the game has room to spread out, so the gameviewing experience isn’t always as intense for visitors as it is in some other parks. You have to work that little bit harder here. There’s less of the game farm and more true wilderness. There are few lodges and camps, most of them clustered in or around Voi on the northern edge of the park. The landscape, while not always beautiful, is wild and untamed. Tsavo as a whole suffers terribly from droughts and the rich red earth acts as a stark foil to the dry grey grass and tree trunks, particularly in Tsavo East, where the vast plains stretch to infinity, a scene in the dry season of almost unimaginable desolation. The elephants douse themselves in dustbaths of the red earth, taking on a pinky-red hue, particularly under the setting sun.

Tsavo East is home to the Daphne Sheldrake Sanctuary, where the older elephant orphans are brought for release back into the wild. Only those who are patrons of the orphanage are allowed to visit the centre. Any visitors to the park can visit the other enclosure, the securely guarded 90 sq km (35 sq mile) Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, home to most of Kenya’s black rhinos.

Tsavo East: one of Africa’s wildest parks
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Tsavo East is one of Africa’s great wilderness destinations. With very limited accommodation in a huge area, you almost feel like you’ve got the place to yourself. Everything is here which always gives me a sense of anticipation: you never know what you’ll find around the corner or over that hill. This isn’t a place where guides are calling each other on their radios non-stop. What you find, you find by yourself.

Game viewing isn’t as productive as in some of the other great parks in Kenya, but you’ll always see something interesting. The park is home to the very localized, rare fringe-eared oryx and lesser kudu is often seen darting off into the bushes. Most of the park seems to be made of wide-open spaces and elephants and giraffes can usually be spotted on their way to nowhere or so it seems.

The Taita hills form an interesting background to this scenic park. You probably see a bit more game in the dry season, but to me the wet season is the time to see this park in its full glory: the dramatic stormy skies, green wetlands and red earth make for the most stunning landscapes and colours.

Kenya’s largest wilderness park
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Kenya’s largest national park at 11,747 square kilometers, Tsavo East is a compelling slice of wilderness situated at the core of a vast block of contiguous conservation areas (among them Tsavo West on the opposite side of the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway). In my experience, game viewing here is rather patchy. Some areas are excellent, most notably the Voi River Circuit near the eponymous entrance gate. Here, you’re almost sure to see the reserve’s trademark ‘red’ elephants – their colour attributable to the orange dust characteristic of the area – and might also encounter dry-country antelope such as Grant’s gazelle, fringe-eared oryx and gerenuk. I’ve also had good cheetah and rhino sightings in the area. Tsavo East is one of my favourite birding sites in East Africa, as it offers the opportunity to see a number of localised dry-country beauties – among them the golden pipit, rosy-patched bush-shrike, northern carmine bee-eater and golden-bellied starling. Another area of interest is the palm-fringed Galana River (Kenya’s second largest), which divides the public part of Tsavo East from the remote wilderness area to the north. There are several viewpoints from where hippo can be seen, along with water-associated birds such as African skimmer, palmnut vulture and African fish eagle. Overall, this park may not offer the best game viewing in Kenya, but it rates highly for a sense of untrammeled wilderness.

The Big 5 in a wide East African savannah
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A vast, flat scrubland, broken by the emerald-green meandering Galana River fringed by doum palms, Tsavo East is popular since it offers a pretty sure chance of seeing plenty of wildlife, just half a day’s drive from Kenya’s coastal resorts. Because of its open environment, I’ve always found animals such as cheetah and lion easy to spot on game drives and the highlight for me is seeing elephants covered in the distinctive bright red dust ambling along. I’ve always had great luck at the camps too, and even the floodlit waterholes at the lodges in Voi on the park’s perimeter fence attract scores of elephants, hooved creatures and birds (a spectacle that has sometimes kept me up well into the night). Its vastness too is an attraction as the landscape dotted with occasional baobab trees seemingly goes on forever. The best game-viewing is south of the Galana River, where you may also encounter the steady stream of minibus safaris coming up from the coast, but it’s easy to get away off the two or three beaten tracks, and you may find something special – perhaps a serval or lesser kudu.

Tsavo East: Home of the Red Elephants
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The largest section of the two-part Tsavo National Park – together with Tsavo West, this is Kenya’s largest protected area – Tsavo East is a vast savannah landscape perfect for tracking down big cats. Cheetahs are most easily seen on the plains east of the Aruba Dam, while lions, including the Tsavo males with their famously straggly manes, are found throughout the park – when I was last there one pride’s territory was centred on Aruba Dam. Some 12,500 elephants inhabit the two Tsavo parks – and their habit of bathing in the famous red Tsavo mud gives them an appearance unlike any other elephants in Africa; they’re also more skittish than the elephants of Amboseli thanks to widespread poaching here in the 1980s. Tsavo East is one of the most visited parks in Kenya, thanks to those on short-haul safaris from Mombasa and the coast, but most restrict themselves to short excursions in the park’s south. To escape the crowds, I like to cross the savannah plains that extend north to the Galana River – lion sightings are possible here and the striated rocks of Crocodile Point are extremely pretty.

The lesser-known section of Kenya’s biggest wildlife reserve
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At roughly half the size of Wales, Tsavo East is even larger than its sprawling neighbour, Tsavo West. But while the appealing hill country in the northern part of Tsavo West attracts visitors in droves, relatively few are inspired to explore Tsavo East’s rather relentless, dry, scrubby plains. It therefore appeals to those who prefer to watch elephants or giraffes in peace, without the constant company of other vehicles.

In the dry season, there are huge herds to admire: the animals rarely stray too far from the waterholes or the wooded banks of the Voi and Galana Rivers, where most of Tsavo East’s thinly scattered lodges are found. To me, the Galana riverbanks are the most attractive part of the park, particularly their dense stands of palm trees and the time-worn rocks of Gulard Falls.

The Land of Red Elephants
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Tsavo East is Kenya’s largest big game stronghold and is much bigger than neighbouring Tsavo West, from which it is separated by the Nairobi to Mombasa highway. It is also much drier, an arid wilderness renowned for its large herds of red elephants - including some of Africa's last giant tuskers - which acquire their terra cotta colour by wallowing and dust-bathing in Tsavo’s red laterite soil. Tsavo lions are different, too. The males have little or no mane and in my experience tend to be far less relaxed when approached. Maybe they are descendants of the notorious man-eaters who terrorised Tsavo when the railway was being built in the late 19th century.

From the veranda of Voi Safari Lodge high up on its rocky ridge you can look out over a vast sweep of the park that includes the Aruba Dam and Kanderi Swamp – both of which attract lots of game. Another dramatic viewpoint is the granite whaleback of Mudanda Rock that overlooks a favourite watering hole for elephants. And be sure to include a stop at Lugard Falls where the Galana River rushes over a series of foaming rapids.

Kenya's biggest park is one of Africa's great 'lost worlds'
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If you have your own vehicle and can explore farther afield – and even to drive into the virtually unexplored region north of the Galana River – you’ll find that Kenya’s biggest national park (roughly the same size as Israel) is a unique adventure. Only the area nearest Voi (on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway) sees any tourism. Ndolo Campsite near Voi Gate is a wonderful public campsite that is frequently the haunt of elephants, hyenas, lions and (unfortunately) big troops of baboons. After the ivory poaching horrors of the ‘70s and ‘80s Tsavo East is once again becoming one of the gems of Kenya’s national parks and the great elephant herds are on the increase. A decade ago the park was basically one immense thicket of scrub-bush and wildlife spotting was challenging, to say the least. Now the elephants are making massive inroads into opening the country up (with the help of occasional bushfires) and much of the park is once again covered in savannah, and even spectacular sections of open desert.

Average Expert Rating

  • 4.1/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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