“Everything in Africa bites, but the safari bug is worst of all.”
There was a very nice flow to this part of the trip and it can just as easily be done in the reverse direction. Nairobi to Amboseli is a half day only, but a world apart. Amboseli to Tsavo West the same and so also to Tsavo East and then to the coast north of Mombasa. One can also avoid much of the truck-loaded Nairobi to Mombasa road.
On this morning I awoke early, even for me. It was still dark at 5H30 but as the sky lightened I could see that there was very little cloud and Kilimanjaro was standing and seductively posing nude of cloud before me. Great excitement as I woke Anne............ and we watched spellbound as for the first time we could see the snow-capped peak, “snow on the equator, you must be insane”! The rising sun’s golden rays started touching on the snow and it appeared aflame. It was a sight to equal any of the natural wonders I have seen; to think that we had nearly missed this spectacle with all the cloud about. This is when if lucky, one gets the best views of Kili. The rain settles all the dust and haze and for the 45min before the clouds and mist started rolling in, we watched in amazement at the crystal-clear view. Once again photos only provide a record but cannot capture the wonder of such moments. It is surprising how close Kilimanjaro seems to Amboseli, it really seems to tower right above you. For this view alone, a visit to this area is worth the trouble. To have left Kenya without seeing this peak of all African peaks would have troubled me deeply. Our good fortune continues!
We had been told by the rangers on entering Amboseli that the direct road to Tsavo could be difficult after heavy rain on Kilimanjaro as there was a drift through a drainage river which often flooded and closed the road. On leaving Amboseli the previous afternoon they told us that a group had come through on this road and there were no problems. I had not relished heading all the way back to the Mombasa road and taking the long way round. This dirt road running due west-east is fine, although slightly rutted and corrugated in places. The flow over the causeway we were concerned about was less than half a tyre in depth. After about 15km there is a military checkpoint and this is where in the fairly recent past, they used to insist on a military escort to Tsavo for tourist vehicles. Not a word was said about this and after some minor formalities we were on our way again. Apparently in the past there had been problems with poachers and banditry on this section. Along the way we once again had wonderful views of Kilimanjaro, shoulder to shoulder with Mt Oloitokital, also impressive just to the east. This drive through rural Masailand with red blanketed herdsmen was a treat in its green guise, apparently when dry the area can be a real dust bowl. Also this road can be a real test when soaked. Along the road we see small herds of gazelle, zebra and even giraffe. The parks are unfenced and some areas of the land are conservancies or ranches.
Where you enter the boundary of Tsavo West there is a new gate, now named New Chyulu Gate, functioning since April 2015. Previously one checked in at the old Chyulu Gate, about 18km into the park. Although one is allowed to enter here from the west, there is no pay point at present. They can only process smart cards (safari cards) loaded with prepaid funds. Preloading can be done at the Kenya Wildlife Society HQ in Nairobi or at the pay point gate of any other KWS park. This is no problem as you are issued with a gate pass with all your particulars and payment due. They radio through to the main gate to inform them to expect you. However you now have to proceed directly to the main gate on the eastern boundary of the park, Mtito Andei. This gate is 30km beyond our campsite, making it a 60km round trip but we relaxed and treated it like a game drive. Leaving payment for the following day may be a problem as you can be stopped in the park and asked to produce receipts. However you do have the gate pass with all your details. I suppose if you arrive late in the day, it would be acceptable to drive through the next day, certainly preferable to breaking the curfew on driving during the dark hours. We passed Chyulu Campsite on the way and made contact with the helpful camp attendant who has a room at the adjacent old Chyulu Gate.
According to the staff it had been raining unusually hard for the preceding month and the phrase El Nino kept creeping in yet again. The park was certainly beautifully green but the roads had dried out well. Only 7km from the new gate we had the exceptional good fortune of a fantastic but brief sighting of a leopard. In an area of thick bush before the lava flow, it slipped across the road just in front of us and then tarried for almost a minute right in front of us. I was so enthralled that there are no photos (would not have been great through the windscreen in any case). Our good fortune seems to have no bounds. Shortly thereafter the road crosses the famed Shetani lava flow. This flow is only 200 years old and a broad swath of a solidified lava river about 600m wide stretches for about 5km into the distance. Our exposure to things volcanic on this trip has been fascinating. Fortunately after about 25km, after the turnoff to Serena Lodge, the road to Mtito Andei becomes first class. The distance between New Chyulu Gate and Mtito Andei Gate is 49km and took about 90min.
They were expecting us at the Main Gate and we made all the payments due and were issued with a temporary smart card (which they then retain). This somewhat cumbersome system is to prevent misappropriation of funds and bribery. You pay the fees and are issued with a receipt. The number of points purchased (corresponding with the fees due and paid) are entered into the temporary smart card which is then swiped and your official receipt tokens issued.
COSTS: They accept Mastercard and Visa credit cards.
Entrance fee US$75 pppd (foreign non-resident).
Camping in public campsite US$20 pppd.
Vehicle, foreign registration, less than 6 seater, TSh350 pd. (US$3,50).
They run a 24hr clock, you must leave the park before your entrance time or pay for an extra day. It is therefore quite important to plan your entrance time in order to allow enough time to get to the exit gate on your day of departure.
They had no maps for sale or photocopies, only a small booklet on the park, with maps, costing a ridiculous KSh 750. We surreptitiously took photos of the map with our mobile phone which proved adequate.
Fortunately we were well read and briefed on what to expect in the two Tsavos and that was not wall to wall animals. Amboseli is to my mind worth the fees for the view of Kili and the fantastic tuskers alone. Samburu was great for its unique subspecies. The Aberdares are also unique within Kenya because of its mountain setting. Nothing can stand comparison with the experience in either the Mara or Serengeti. The lesser game parks in Tanzania such as Katavi, Selous and Ruaha and even Murchison’s in Uganda, all top the 2 Tsavos for game viewing in my opinion. This is of course based on the fact that when we visited Tsavo it was green and heavily bushed, this may well have affected the game viewing adversely, also resulting in far wider dispersal of the animals due to the wide availability of water. However the beauty of these 2 parks at this time more than made up for any other shortcomings. Tsavo East and West are great wildernesses and for an animal, bird and wilderness fanatic like myself they were worth every cent. They certainly have plenty of elephants and their red discoloration from the red soil will be a lasting memory. Comparisons are odious but others might be less fanatical and want to spend their money in another manner. In that case it could be justifiable to leave out some of the minor Kenyan parks such as Meru and the Tsavos, if only because of the expense involved.
The topography of Tsavo West with its varied, but generally dense vegetation, Mzima Springs, volcano-shaped hills, lava flows and lava hill is unique and this is where I found satisfaction. I will always enjoy exploring new wilderness places and at least will not die wondering what each has to offer. The leopard sighting would be a highlight anywhere but we saw a good variety of animals albeit never in dense concentrations. Animals seen: oribi, Rothchilds giraffe, dik dik, elephant, impala, waterbuck (the common variety with a white ring around its backside), buffalo, Burchells zebra, lesser kudu (seen on 4 occasions and a real highlight), vervet monkey, olive baboon, Cokes hartebeest and a new subspecies for us, the fringe-eared oryx.
Areas visited during our 2 and a bit days included also Lava Hill, completely covered in lava, Poachers Lookout with a fantastic view over the plains and finally Mzima Springs with its underwater viewing chamber. I suspect this chamber was originally designed to see hippos and crocs underwater but all we saw was fish. Interesting all the same. We drove on our second morning all the way to the fenced off Rhino Sanctuary only to find that entry was only allowed from 16H00 to 18H00. I do not really understand why this is the case, certainly from certain areas in the park, like Chyulu, it will be difficult to drive the 40 odd km there, drive around in the sanctuary and still make it to camp before dark.
The campsite itself was very nice with lots of shade but no view to speak off. The ablutions were neat and functional with flush toilets and cold showers with good water pressure and also taps with good borehole water. There are probably about 6 or 8 sites each with a firepit and a covered shelter, many of them a bit decrepit. The first night we were alone but on the second we were joined by a British couple late in the evening. Baboons and monkeys are a bit of a nuisance. During our first night we could hear lions roaring about a km away but they left us in peace. The camp attendant provided firewood for which he received a good tip. The turnoff to Chyulu Campsite is signposted at S02 54,325 E38 02,402 and the site itself is at E38 02,402 1km west of old Chyulu Gate. We visited Kamboya campsite, the other public campsite about 8km from Mtito Andei Gate and near the park HQ. At the gate they said it was functioning but it was in a state of disuse and neglect, the toilets were filled with human waste.
The internal dirt roads were in good condition except for the main road from Chyulu to Mtito Andei gate which is quite badly corrugated in places. The photo of the map and T4A enabled us to find our way around the park very easily. Each intersection is signposted and numbered and these numbers are marked on the map. Altogether we travelled 236km within the park game viewing so we certainly worked hard. For those weighing up the pros and cons of a visit to Tsavo West, it really depends on your budget, time available and your interests. It is a very logical loop visiting Amboselli, the 2 Tsavos and then proceeding through Tsavo East to the coast at Malindi (or in the opposite direction). Other than the exposure to wonderful wilderness areas that were in fact not heavily populated with other tourists, the big advantage of this route is the avoidance of much of the very busy and truck dense Mombasa road. We do not regret our time and money spent on this route.
Great joy, a decent view of Kilimanjaro.
1,2, 3 and 4. A series of pics of Kili.
5and 6. New Chyulu Gate.
7. The lava flow.
8 and 9. Mtito Andei Gate.
10, 11, 12, 13 and 14. Msima Springs and the viewing chamber.
15 and 16. Chyulu campsite.
17. Fringe-eared oryx.
19 and 20. Lava Hill.
21, 22, 23 and 24. Views of the park.