Tsavo West – the beginning of firsts

After a wonderful five days in Amboseli, we drove to Tsavo West National Park. The road trip took around four hours (around 150kms on mostly dirt roads). Tsavo West and Tsavo East were once one large park. It was split into two by the construction of the railway line which was routed from Mombasa to the interior of Kenya. The park is located equidistant between Nairobi and Mombasa.

“If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

~Bruce Lee

Our Wild-Eye guide, Andrew Beck told us these two parks have quite different eco-systems. The slightly larger Tsavo East is generally flat with dry plains across which the Galana River flows. By contrast, Tsavo West National Park has much more wooded, hilly landscapes, and is dotted with volcanic cones and stark black lava flows.

As we entered Tsavo West, Andrew suggested to us that we were in for an unusual couple of days. Unusual because of the landscapes, wildlife and birds, all of which were going to be quite different to those in Amboseli.

” A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions”.

~Oliver Wendell Holmes Jnr

Tsavo is known for its “ghosts in the darkness”, those two infamous man-eating lions. Tsavo males look different to the Mara and Serengeti lions. The most vigorous Serengeti males grow large dark manes, while in Tsavo they have short, thin manes or none at all. The thinking is that the thickness of the manes has much to do with access to water. Tsavo is hotter and drier than the Serengeti. A male lion with a thick mane “would squander his daily water allowance simply panting under a bush, with none to spare for patrolling his territory, hunting or finding mates”, according to Patterson. – ”http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/man-eaters-of-tsavo-11614317/

In 1898, the infamous two male lions were believed to have killed, most of whom were eaten, between 120 and 140 construction workers who were  builing a bridge over the Tsavo River as part of the Uganda railway line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria in Uganda. The man-eating took place  until John Henry Patterson, a military officer working on the railway line,  hunted them down and stopped the man-eating spree.

With these stories swimming in our thoughts we entered Tsavo West National Park at the Chyulu gate in the north west of the park. We had just driven through the Tsavo West entrance when we came across a pair of White-bellied Korhaans. This was sign of interesting sightings to come.


Tsavo West National Park, covers an area of just over 9,000 sq. km. This park has wide savannah plains, hilly landscapes, lava flows, springs, large permanent rivers and its southern boundary is the border with Tanzania.

“A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience”.
~Oliver Wendall Holmes

About four kilometres west of the Chyulu gate inside Tsavo West National Park are the Shetani lava flows. ‘Shetani ’ means ‘devil’ in Kiswahili. These flows occurred a few hundred years ago and local peoples believed that it was the devil himself emerging from the earth. This vast expanse of folded black lava spread across the savannah at the foot of the Chyulu Hills. These larva flows are a reminder that as old as this area is some of the tectonic activity was recent.


The Shetani Lava Flow is a black lava expanse eight kilometres long, 1.6 kilometres wide and averages five meters deep. We walked over the hardened larva flow. Its surface was very hard and jagged. We did not see any animals on this dark stark landscape for very good reason. The surface was hostile for any living thing with just the odd tree and tuft of grass or creeper managing to gain its footing. Perhaps sufficient dust had gathered into pockets in the larva to sustain this limited flora.


The last major eruption in this area is believed to have taken place around 200  and 240 years ago, a fraction of a second in geological terms.


“Knowledge gained through experience is far superior and many times more useful than bookish knowledge.”
~Mahatma Gandhi

Sammy, our driver and guide – a man with a great sense of humour, excellent knowledge of the parks and their wildlife and birdlife,  and a man with eagle eyes.


This larva flow was like nothing I had ever seen before. Very interesting and different but I have to admit I prefer savannah, woodlands and sand roads.


The entrance to the Kilaguni Serena lodge. This is one of the oldest lodges in Kenya and still well cared for.


As we walked through the entrance onto the veranda, we looked out onto an incredible view of the Chyulu Hills.


Directly in front of the lodge were two waterholes and the area was covered in red soil. The animals also took on this red colour. The elephants and zebra were noticeably red.


Southern White-crowned Shrike minding its own business on the side of the road. I find it quite incredible that some five thousand kilometres north of South Africa you will find the same birds – adaptive, genetic survivors. The fact they have not changed shape or colour tells me there is something about these birds which enables them to move around a continent intact.

Experience is a jewel, and it had need be so, for it is often purchased at an infinite rate.”
~William Shakespeare

We were starting to get a sense of the unusual landscapes in this park, when we got our first of many firsts, a lesser Kudu. The lesser Kudu has a single white stripe running down its back and white stripes running off this central stripe down the sides. The males do not have the bearded neck. Instead their neck is a plain dark grey-brown colour with two white  horizontal stripes. The horns and shape of the lesser Kudu are similar to their larger cousin but the Lesser Kudu is around two-thirds the size of a Greater Kudu which we see frequently in southern Africa and is closely related to the Nyala. It feeds primarily at dusk and dawn, and is a mainly a browser eating leaves, shrubs, twigs but will also eat grasses, herbs and roots. The Lesser Kudu has adapted to hydrating from the moisture collected in leaves.  


The next image is of one of the volcanic rock outcrops we saw on the way down onto the river valley floor. We were half expecting to see a large raptor sitting on a prominent rock or a Klipspringer looking down at us.


This Black-backed Jackal was scavenging something on the black larva soil when it looked up to see what we were doing.


We then travelled south-west of the lodge into a very mountainous area. On the way we found this unusually dark male Masai Giraffe. Giraffes’ “pelage” varies in colour with age, usually the spots change from sienna-brown in the young to coal- black blotches in the old. Another way to get a sense of their age is to look at how worn their ossicones are and how big the bone protrudence is on the males forehead.


“One learns from books and example only that certain things can be done. Actual learning requires that you do those things.”
~ Frank Herbert

After an interesting and bumpy drive down into the valley, we found a young female elephant lying on the ground. After seeing so many elephants sleeping in Amboseli, we thought this elephant was just resting. Unfortunately, we found out later that she had died from wounds from a poacher’s spear, which had become infected. There are no doctors in the bush!!!! 


Down in the river below the fallen girl elephant was this “lightning bird” or Hammerkop.  The lightning bird is a mythological creature in the folklore of the tribes of South Africa. The impundulu (which translates as “lightning bird”) takes the form of a black and white bird, the size of a person, which is said to summon thunder and lightning with its wings and talons. With a little luck that thunder and lightning will be directed at that poacher!!!


We found d’Arnaud’s Barbet in the undergrowth down near the river, waving its tail and noisily trilling.


The Hornbills were also different in this part of the world. This was a Von der Decken’s Hornbill.


“All your life you’re yellow. Then one day you brush up against something blue, the barest touch, and voila, the rest of your life you’re green.”
~ Tess Callahan

Another first, this was a gorgeous Golden Breasted Starling. This was a male, the female looks similar but her head and shoulders are much duller.


We desperately tried to get closer to get a better shot but this wiley bird kept its distance.


Yet another first was this Kirk’s dik-dik. This is a small antelope much like a duiker but it has a prehensile nose. This particular character was a male as the female does not have horns. Dik-diks are some of the world’s smallest antelopes. The largest of the group is the Kirk’s dik-dik, standing between 14 and 18 inches tall and weighing no more than 7.2 kg. The dik-dik has a hairy proboscis with tiny slit-like nostrils. This proboscis contains an enlarged nasal chamber which is supplied with a rich amount of blood that is cooled via rapid nasal panting.


A dik-dik would make an easy meal for this young Martial Eagle, only it was  much further down the river near a large herd of buffalo.


Down on the valley floor we were watching a large herd of buffalo around a waterhole as more and more buffalo streamed in along the valley floor for a drink of water and to join the herd.


“To my mind the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted”.

~Bill Bryson

Even the go-away birds are different in this part of the world. This was a White-bellied Go-away bird. There were many in the park and they behaved just like our Grey Louries.


Some familiar faces, this pair of Egyptian geese and their five goslings were waddling away from the small waterhole to a safer place away from the multitude of black legs.


Also looking for a drink at the waterhole were a small herd of Coke’s Hartebeest.


The pelage pattern of a Masai giraffe. There are nine different pelage patterns of the giraffe in Africa. Each has a distinct pattern and colour according to its specific geographic location.


I cringe just looking at this male Masai giraffe wrapping its tongue around these acacia  leaves and thorns.


This was the gathering herd of buffalo down at one of the small dams along the valley floor. I converted to image to black and white to tease out the drama of the gathering herd.


The heavy cumulus clouds added to the drama of the waterhole setting. Further drama was added by the knowledge that where there are buffalo there are sure to be lions.


“The purpose of life is to live it, taste experience to its utmost, to reach out eagerly without fear for a newer  and richer experience.”

~Eleanor Roosevelt

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness and let it be.

Have fun,


4 thoughts on “Tsavo West – the beginning of firsts

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