Tsavo East National Park lies to the northeast of Mombasa road and measures 3,396,958 acres. Tsavo West National Park sits to the west of the highway and is the smaller of the two at 1,745,800 acres. Someone discovered that if you combine the two parks, they roughly form the shape of a kidney. That kidney-shaped wildlife area forms the largest protected area on earth measuring 5,142,758 acres and occupies 4% of Kenya’s land area. Some travellers claim they did seven-day tours inside the Tsavo East National Park without seeing any other vehicle! The experience is just out of this world. Even though it is not as developed as Tsavo West, it is nevertheless a gem worth putting in your itinerary – if only to accomplish these seven things.
1. Retrace the Path of an Old Expedition
History remembers how early missionaries traversed parts of Tsavo East’s 322 KM (200 MI) of thorn scrub on foot. They would trek through this harsh terrain covered in bulbous trunks of baobab trees that separate the tropical coastal vegetation from the great central plateau of the African continent. It was these endless thorn scrubs that kept the people in the interior from western civilisation for so many centuries.
Tsavo East goes by many names. It is called the Nyika, which means thorn country. It is also known as the Nyiri desert or the Taru desert. In spite of its many names, each alludes to Tsavo East National Park’s burnt, dry and dusty nature as it basks in the African sun for a substantial part of the year. Then suddenly, almost overnight, the rains transform the park into a paradise of convolvulus flowers that burst out white and purple, the grass seed germinates, and the bushes are suddenly green.
2. Find Out Why the Old Hated it and the New Love It
Early explorers hated Tsavo East National Park for the very reason that makes it an attraction today – the game. The German missionary Rebmann, even made an entry in his diary on May 11, 1848, thus:
…full of wild beasts, such as Rhinoceros, Buffaloes and Elephants.
Indeed it is full of these and more. However, overgrazing has depleted the vegetation in some parts of the park, and the Elephant population is now quite small. The jumbos are reasonably accustomed to cars now, but if you meet one on the road, drive cautiously – they are still wild.
3. Meet the Famous Lions of Tsavo
Come face-to-face with the lions of Tsavo noted for their ferocity made famous the world over by John Henry Patterson’s book, ‘The Man-Eaters of Tsavo’. Patterson describes how the lions obstructed the building of the railway in the 1900s by, “…the simple expedient of eating the linesmen.” Nowadays they seem to prefer the Eland, Kongoni, Klipspringer, Kudu, Reedbuck, Waterbuck and Burchell’s Zebra, which also inhabit the park. Do not dare them, though. Humans are still an acquired taste, like Pernod or sauerkraut!
4. Visit the Lugard Falls
Visit Lugard Falls where Galana River disappears into a rocky gorge. Named after Frederick Lugard, the falls are rapids in the real sense of the word. They are even more ravaging during the rainy season when they form a thunderous current heading for the Galana River through relatively narrow and bizarre stone formations. Look out for the multi-coloured rocks with strips of pink, light grey and white. You have the option of climbing around the eroded rocks or walking down the river for a better view of the rapids.
5. See Giant Crocodiles at Crocodile Point
Visit a habitat of giant crocodiles at Crocodile Point, located not more than 1 KM after the falls. Hippopotamus and buffalo can also abound here.
6. See the Yatta Plateau
Traverse the Yatta Plateau which rises almost parallel to Mombasa road. It is the only hilly part of Tsavo East National Park. Beyond this slope to the east, is a seemingly endless expanse of low-lying semi-desert, spiked with thorn bushes, most of which you can only visit by special permission of the Park Warden.
7. Take Photos at Mudanda Rock
Mudanda Rock is a long outcrop about 1.6 KM long that is part of the spectacular Ngulia range in Tsavo West National Park. A simple sign here reads ‘Mudanda Rock means strips of drying meat’. The stratified rock is a water catchment area that supplies a dam at its base. The dam is a dry-season congregation point for hundreds of elephants, Buffalo and other game. It offers a vantage viewing point halfway up the rock. The rock is famous for its photo opportunities. From here you get unique endless panoramic views of the two national parks. On the western side, you can climb to the top through a footpath and a carved stone stair. Aruba is another vantage point to view wildlife.
If you want to see the only red elephants in the world, visit Tsavo East National Park or its western sister, Tsavo West National Park. To increase your chances of seeing one, time your visit with the dry season. During this season, the park’s fine red volcanic soil is readily available for the elephants to dust-bathe in hence acquiring the red colour (there’s the spoiler!).
The park is accessible by road through the Mtito Andei Gates. From Malindi, you can use the Sala gate. If you prefer flying, there are airstrips at Voi, Aruba, Satao, Sala, Ithumba, Sangayaya, Mopeo, Bachuma and Cottars. Check the Kenya Wildlife Service website for the most recent park conservation fees.