“The question is, how lucky do you feel today?” Iain Allan said by way of greeting. It was our first morning on safari in Kenya. Over the next 11 days, Iain would lead our group of five, on foot, 160 km across two national parks, Tsavo East and Tsavo West.
We’d taken a small plane and then driven to our first campsite. It lay under the craggy shadow of Ngulia peak, which towers over the muddy waters of the Tsavo river. We were warned to desist from going down to the river because the crocodiles might mistake us for monkeys.
As the evening shadows lengthened, we sat by the river, watching a pair of orange-rumped geese on the far bank, when I heard the groan of a diesel engine. A snorting, grunting blob floated downriver, 20 feet away from us. In the fading light, we sighted a two-tonne hippopotamus. It stayed a long while before wading away. Just four hours in Tsavo, we’d already encountered one of the largest land animals in the world.
With powerful jaws that hold 16-inch incisors and 20-inch canines, hippos are regarded as one of Africa’s most dangerous animals, charging instinctively at speeds up to 30 km/hr. The writer saw pods of hippos all along the Tsavo and Galana rivers. Photo: Image Source/India Picture
At daybreak, our group of five joined Iain, Tioko and Lejore. They instructed us to walk quietly, as that was the only way we’d see any game, and in single file, so as to give our three guides a clear view of what was ahead.
Tioko, a six-foot-three Samburu tribesman, and Lejore, his shorter clansman, were expert trackers who could read the land as easily as I could read a book. They carried rifles, spears, and broadswords. Lejore flashed us a grin and set off, spear-tip bobbing. Iain went next, followed by the five of us, and Tioko sealed the line.
Most of the walking is along narrow game trails, such as this one led by a spear-toting guide, Lejore. Photo: Vandana Mohindra
A tent, prettily located under a stand of doum palms along the Galana River. Photo: Tropical Ice
We walked in silence, listening to Lejore’s blade hacking through the thick Acacia mellifera. We went gingerly past the hooked thorns of the wait-a-bit bush, stepping carefully around the glistening rocks. I marvelled at the ease with which our guides strode on. They knew the land intimately: every bend in the river, every rock and tree. I felt reassured but couldn’t help being startled when a flock of pheasants shot out of the scrub.
In 1978, Iain started to guide climbing trips up Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro. He dreamt of organising walks styled on the hunting safaris of the early 20th century, where small groups looked for big game on foot, led by experienced trackers and safari guides. The next year, he did his first successful walk along the Tsavo river, and over the next 15 years led several small groups along shorter sections of the Tsavo and Galana. That idea turned into the 11-day walking safari along the Tsavo and Galana rivers, called the Great Walk of Africa, that I’m now on.
Lejore, the group’s Samburu tracker, surveys the arid wilderness of Tsavo East, looking for game. Photo: Vandana Mohindra
Iain’s genius lies in his ability to combine a once-in-a-lifetime bush experience with 21st-century luxury. After a 16-km hike, calves patterned with welts from thorny acacia, I was in a unique position to appreciate that talent.
Leopards are incredibly powerful predators that are able to drag animals heavier than themselves up into trees. Photo: Arjun Gupta
As we turned into camp, Matinda, the camp manager, informed us that our baths were ready. After rummaging in the icebox for Tusker beer and marvellous Stoney Tangawizi ginger beer, we stepped into our portable showers. Steaming hot water cascaded through showerheads mounted on canvas buckets. A pile of laundered towels greeted us in our tents, which were equipped with a washbasin, a hanging mirror, a table, a chair and a footstool. Inside, twin camp cots were lined with downy pillows and hot water bottles for our toes.
But it was the meals that were the real highpoint. Kahiu, a Kikuyu tribesman, has been Iain’s head chef for 25 years. Sipping Chilean wine around the campfire, swaddled in cotton kikois, as Kenyan lungis are known, we wound our way to the dining tent. It became clear why Kahiu’s cooking had made a full-length feature in a 1994 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller. In the middle of the bush, we tucked into stuffed avocados, freshwater perch in a Swahili sauce, potatoes and carrots from Iain’s garden, freshly-baked dinner rolls from the coal-fired oven, and sticky date pudding with ice cream.
By day five, we’d settled into a comfortable walking rhythm, weaving in and out along the river’s edge, scattering herds of impala and tiny dik-diks. The scrub was thinning, and in its place, umbrella thorn trees fringed the wide, saltbush plains. Most of the walking was flat and we stopped to rest every 45 minutes. I now appreciated Iain’s pre-trip fitness advice (30 minutes of aerobic activity a day for at least one month).
“A journey through Tsavo is really a journey into the heart of the African elephant,” Iain said, noting that this region is home to some of east Africa’s biggest elephant herds. “The elephant is the keeper of the land. Take the elephant out and the whole ecosystem will collapse.”
The breakfast table is set at the camp at Durusirkale. Photo: Tropical Ice
Lejore spied something around a tall escarpment and mimed, “Let’s go around this way.” We clambered up and peered over the edge. Barely 40 feet below us, two female elephants and a baby walked past. The wind changed direction. “In exactly 30 seconds, they’ll get our scent,” predicted Iain. He’d barely finished his sentence when the matriarch stopped, lifted her trunk, turned tail and ran, the others scurrying behind her.
They were terrified of us and with good reason. Kenya’s poaching wars had nearly wiped out Tsavo’s herds in the 1980s, when Somali bandits slaughtered elephants in the thousands. Many of the survivors had witnessed terrible things.
I marvelled at Tsavo’s vastness: at 20,812 sq km, the combined area of Tsavo West and East made it one of the largest national parks in the world. It’s the size of Mizoram and five times bigger than Hemis, in Ladakh, one of India’s largest national parks.
A faint pugmark and lion droppings told us we were entering lion country. “In fact, we’re very close to Tsavo Bridge and the lions here are the direct descendants of the man-eaters of old,” said Iain. He was referring to the man-eaters of Tsavo, a pair of lions who stalked and ate 135 Indian workers while they were building a bridge over the river Tsavo in 1898. The story is told in the films, Bwana Devil (1952) and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996).
Two reticulated giraffes watch as the group walks past. The word “reticulated” refers to their evenly-shaped polygonal markings. In males, the brown colour darkens with age. Photo: Vandana Mohindra
For six months that year, all anyone in the British Parliament seemed to talk about was the two lions from Tsavo. Together, the lions managed to halt the expansion of the British empire. It took nine months for the chief engineer, Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson, to track down and shoot the lions, later chronicling his exploits in the book,The Man-Eaters of Tsavo. For their troubles, the lions were stuffed and are now on display at the Chicago Field Museum.
Every evening, Iain would drive us along the Galana River in the Land Rover, looking for game. On one such evening, Iain announced quietly, “Lion at 9 o’clock.” On the riverbank, less than 20 feet away, was a young maneless lion, snout stained bright red as it gnawed on the remains of a dead zebra. A female joined him, and looking up, we spied three more lions near the water’s edge. The young male kept looking up from his zebra and stared, unblinking, in our direction. He was fascinated by us, and we stared back. I realised that it is impossible to outstare a lion, whose eyes are like warm treacle and cold steel both at once.
Tsavo’s lions are different from those elsewhere in the world— they are larger and males are maneless. Photo: Tropical Ice
We spent our days sneaking up on elephant herds, and over time, got better at responding to Tioko’s hand signals: “that way”, “behind those rocks”, “quick quick”. We were alert and watchful, alive in every pore. We mimicked Iain, kicking up mud and watching which way it blew to test the wind direction.
When the wind was right, we could get to within 30 feet of elephant herds, following them undetected for over half a kilometre. It was magical to walk beside them; for a brief, glorious moment I felt a part of the landscape.
Creeping up on a matriarch, we watched from a promontory as she led her family to the river. While the younger females sucked up water in their trunks, she fell asleep standing in knee-high water. The babies, barely three or four months old, stayed close to her, hiding behind her girth. From my vantage point, I suddenly noticed two young males heading straight for where we stood. Before I could warn the others, the youngsters spotted us, trumpeting in alarm. In a heart-stopping burst of speed, the matriarch, now wide-awake, ran forward a few yards, making a noise like a train. Iain grabbed me by my backpack and we scattered. Even though she was just making sure we cleared off, there is nothing as terrifying as an angry matriarch.
An old bull elephant crossing the Galana River, Tsavo East National Park. Photo: Vandana Mohindra
As the group nears, this matriarch lifts her trunk, periscope-like, to smell the visitors. Photo: Vandana Mohindra
On another morning, we spied seven bull elephants along the Galana. A magniﬁcent tusker ambled across the river towards another male, who was spending a quiet afternoon under a clump of palms on the opposite shore. They touched trunks in greeting. Just two old guys hanging out, probably saying to each other, “It isn’t like the old days, is it George?”
Iain reads the bones of an old tusker—its last set of teeth still had years of use left in them, indicating it had probably died of an illness. Photo: Vandana Mohindra
Around the next bend, we saw an elephant in the river, lying on its side. It was dead, and the water around it was thick with crocodiles. In his role as honorary park warden, Iain needed to ensure that a poacher hadn’t shot it. Lejore and Tioko stabbed at the water with the ends of their spears to check for crocodiles, waded in and peered at the creature. Its tusks were intact, which meant it had died naturally. They returned to shore making gagging sounds. “Is it because the air smells so bad?” I asked. Said Iain, “No, no. That’s the sound they make to scare away crocodiles!”
Iain informed the park authorities about the elephant via satellite phone. On their next trip, they would remove the tusks and deposit them with the Kenya Wildlife Service, a protocol they follow strictly because ivory poaching has reached catastrophic proportions across Africa.
On our last evening in Tsavo, Kahiu served us hot samosas, Kenyan style. I was glad to I had been able to go off-road in Tsavo to not only see it, but smell it and live it as well.
Our last day dawned misty and overcast. Undeterred, we walked in a sodden line, relishing the breeze, the fat raindrops, and the smell of wet earth. Black glistening rocks formed footbridges across the river, where a crocodile imitated a log of wood, mouth open. Eventually, the grey clouds parted, the sun shone and we spied a rainbow. Tsavo was putting on one last grand show.
Iain led us through dense saltbush to the river’s edge. Not 20 feet away were a pair of Cape buffalo grazing quietly. The next instant, the bull closest to us spun around, knees bent, head lowered, horns at the ready. Transﬁxed, we waited. The buffaloes turned, running up the bank away from river—and us. Cape buffalo have excellent eyesight, formidable horns, great hearing and incredible speed. At 900 kg, they are frighteningly dangerous. I knew then, that Lejore’s eyes and Iain’s experience had protected us more than any riﬂe or spear.
Up ahead was a triangular volcanic crater that marked the park boundary and our journey’s end—Sala Hill. The light was beautiful, the pink and orange sky casting long shadows. A female elephant and tiny baby stood just yards from Sala Gate, as if waiting to say goodbye. They turned and in that slow, sure elephantine gait, walked back into Tsavo’s limitless reaches.
Male impalas form bachelor herds and often challenge the dominant male in jousts that often end in death. Photo: Vandana Mohindra
Tsavo National Park is in southeast Kenya, about 233 km northwest of Nairobi and a three-hour drive inland from the Indian Ocean. the Mombasa-Nairobi highway and railway line divides it into Tsavo East and Tsavo West, whose joint mass spans 20,812 sq. km.
There are direct flights from Mumbai to Nairobi. Flights from all other Indian cities require a short layover in Mumbai, Dubai, Addis Ababa, Doha or Abu Dhabi. from Nairobi, travellers can either hire a car or a taxi to drive to Tsavo.
• A single entry visa (up to 90 days) costs ₹3,000. Confirmed itineraries and tickets are required for the application(Kenya High Commission, 01126146537–38).
• Indian citizens require a mandatory Health Card with a valid Yellow Fever Immunisation stamp. Without this document, you will not be permitted to re-enter India upon your return from Kenya. The main licensed centre in New Delhi is Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital (Wed 10–11.30 a.m. & Sat 9.30–11 a.m.) and for Mumbai it is the Airport Health Organisation Building (Mon-Fri 10a.m.–11.30a.m.). For other cities, enquire with the Municipal Corporation or World Health Organisation offices. You are also required to take a dose of Oral Polio Vaccine at least four weeks before your travel to Kenya. Carry your vaccination certificate along.
Ensure that your travel return date is more than 10 days from the date of vaccination.
The Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West is a haven for black rhinos. Photo: Sven-Olof Lindblad/ Photo Researchers/Getty Images
Iain Allan’s Tropical Ice Safaris is the only outfitter to offer walking safaris through the twin Tsavo National Parks. They also offer vehicle wildlife-viewing safaris. (+254-20-2405573; www.tropical-ice.com; The 14-day Great Walk of Africa includes 11 days of walking; ₹4,21,000 per person; includes stay in Nairobi and Watamu on the Indian Ocean, all ground costs and internal flights).
For non-walking safaris, other outfitters can be contacted through the Kenya Association of Tour Operators (www.katokenya.org, +254-2713348, +254-2713386).
The Great Walk of Africa involves walking for an average of 11–16 km a day to cover a total 160 km across country that is generally flat. The walk is moderately difficult. A basic level of fitness is essential.
Tsavo National Park is open through the year. The coolest months are Jun-Aug (max: 26° C, min: 10° C), which is Kenya’s dry season. Tsavo is particularly warm between Jan–Mar (high season), with temperatures of 38° C and above. There is rain during Apr–May and Nov–mid Dec. Walking safaris are operated between late Jan–mid-Mar and again from early June to mid-Oct.
Rick Ridgeway’s The Shadow of Kilimanjaro is a thrilling account of his 482-km walk with Iain Allan, from the summit of Kilimanjaro to the Indian Ocean through Tsavo’s wilderness in 1996. Animal behaviourist Joyce Poole’s Coming of Age With Elephants recounts her fascinating work with 800 elephants at Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, discovering the intricacies of elephant family structure and communication, their intelligence and extraordinary empathy.
Independent travellers can contact the Kenya Wildlife Service (www.kws.go.ke/) for information and accommodation bookings in Tsavo. The park has a range of lodges, public campsites and self-catering accommodation.
Appeared in the December 2012 issue as “Trail Blazers”.
fell in love with the wild outdoors on an assignment about snow leopard conservancy in Ladakh and has written on wildlife conservation and travel ever since. She is a contributing author of "Conservation in a Crowded World" (UNSW Press Sydney, 2012) and is happiest when she’s in the bush, camera and floppy hat in tow.
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