If you’re thinking of embarking on that trip of a lifetime, to witness the amazing site of the “Big 5” in their natural habitat, it can be a little overwhelming making the vital choice as to which safari is right for you and your family. At AJ Tours and Safaris our goal is to help you make the right decisions so you can create your dream holiday, armed with the facts.
Call one of our expert local guides who have experienced the wonders of the different game drives, on +254(0)725 769238or email firstname.lastname@example.org with your specific queries and we will be happy to fill in the gaps!
Kenya offers a very diverse range of experiences. Of course the country is perhaps best known for the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara. There is also a great deal of history here, especially from the Colonial Era, as well as popular movie and television connections, notably Born Free and the BBC Big Cat Diary.
Over the coming weeks we will outline the key factors that make a trip to each Kenyan National Park a unique experience, and provide details that will help you visualise what you can expect, depending on which safari trip you choose.
This week our focus is on the Tsavo region of Kenya, which is split in to two distinct areas for safari trips, Tsavo East and Tsavo West. The Tsavo East region became a national park in 1948 and safaris in Tsavo West became popular in the late 1960s when the first charter flights began arriving in Mombasa, and really took off when the Mombasa-Nairobi road was first surfaced in 1969.
Although Tsavo East and Tsavo West share a name and a common border, coinciding with the Mombasa highway, they are two distinct national parks with different eco-systems: the wooded and hilly landscapes, dotted with volcanic cones and dramatic, black lava flows of Tsavo West National Park and the much flatter, more open plains and scattered bush that characterise Tsavo East National Park.
The Tsavo East National Park is one of the oldest and largest parks in Kenya at 13,747 square kilometres. Situated in a semi-arid area previously known as the Taru Desert it is located near the town of Voi in the Taita-Taveta County of the former Coast Province. Named for the Tsavo River, which flows west to east through the national park, it borders the Chyulu Hills National Park, and the Mkomazi Game Reserve in Tanzania.
Tsavo East is nine times bigger than the Maasai Mara National Reserve: indeed you could fit the whole of the Mara reserve into the southern tip of Tsavo East National Park, south of the Voi River. Most famous for its huge herds of dust-red elephants, more than 10,000 of them bulldoze their way around this vast park.
Tsavo East has another big draw: you can set off on a game drive across the seemingly empty wilderness and return to camp three hours later without having seen a single other vehicle. There are very few camps and lodges here and, relatively speaking, almost none, with the majority of them close to Voi in the west, near the Mombasa highway. You often have the park to yourself, watching the wildlife under a huge sky: no matter what you’re looking at, Tsavo East always feels like a big spectacle.
When considering a Tsavo East safari, it’s worth knowing that nearly all safaris take place in the south of the park, south of the Galana River. The enormous northern region of Tsavo East was closed to the public for many years and, although it is now open again, distances are vast up here and there is virtually infrastructure. In practice, it’s an area for adventurous explorers, not game drives.
As well as a viewing ground for the “Big 5” there are other great landmarks to observe whilst on a game drive in Tsavo East:
Mudanda Rock is an Ayer’s Rock-like sandstone inselberg whose bare flanks form a natural water catchment area that feeds into a large, seasonal lake, attracting large numbers of animals.
The Yatta Plateau is a 300km ancient lava flow that stretches along the east and north bank of the Athi-Galana. Its geomagnetic qualities are believed to play a role in guiding migratory birds and large numbers of Palearctic migrants can be seen in the area.
Lugard Falls are a series of short falls and steep rapids on the Galana River, where relatively harder rock has created a bottleneck in the valley and impedes the river’s progress. Crocodile Point, where the big reptiles can often be seen basking in the sun, is just downstream from here. At some point on most Tsavo East safaris, you’re almost bound to stop here to stretch your legs and takes photos.
The plant communities of Tsavo East are dominated by short grasses, thorn bushes and two major species of tree. The baobab is the iconic tree of Tsavo West National Park, across the Mombasa highway, but you still find significant numbers of these compelling trees, with their enormous trunks and stumpy branches. They form important habitats for many species of birds and insects: you’ll often seen hornbills using holes in baobabs to nest in. The doum palm is a curious tree, a native of North Africa, with edible dates and kernels, whose southernmost territory is the Galana River. When young, the trees are a mass of bushy fronds, but as they mature and the trunks grow they create an arresting visual image of forked palm trees.
Although wildlife densities are much lower here than in some parks, the numbers and variety can be surprisingly good. On a Tsavo safari you can often see cheetahs, the charactersitically short-maned Tsavo lions, zebras, and the elephants as they surge across the river, frequent the waterholes and parade along the red earth roads.
Tsavo West safaris are focused in the north, known as the Developed Area, a relatively small, 1,000km² area north of the Tsavo River. This district’s well-watered, volcanic soil supports a good range of woodland and a range of Kenyan wildlife.
Unlike Tsavo East safaris, however, you’re not restricted to road access as there are two main airstrips that are frequently used by the scheduled safari airlines, either as part of longer safari incorporating some of Kenya’s other parks, or as a stand-alone safari add-on, either from Nairobi or from Mombasa, Malindi, Watamu coastal regions.
To the South of Tsavo West the 500km² of Lumo Community Wildlife Sanctuary (LUMO is an association of the Lualenyi, Mramba and Ossa ranches whose communities have come together to promote wildlife tourism) is one of Kenya’s most successful new community conservation initiatives. Lumo shares an open boundary with the much smaller Taita Hills Sanctuary, and visitors can do game drives in both areas. Both sanctuaries usually have plenty of elephants, and you’ll see many other species of plains game, including buffalo, giraffe and several species of antelope and gazelle.
The most iconic attraction in the Tsavo West National park is Mzima Springs. The crystal-clear water of this chain of lakes is filtered through the volcanic rocks of the Chyulu Hills just to the north. The lakes swarm with fish, large crocodiles and some big pods of hippos. You can leave your vehicle and follow a pretty nature trail, though you need to keep an eye out for large animals, especially early in the morning or before dusk. If you’re lucky, the underwater viewing chamber, accessed by a pier, can provide unique photo opportunities.
The Shetani Lava Flow is the largest of a whole series of lava flows in the park, with several places where you can get out of your vehicle and stretch your legs, including a series of lava caves below the surface. These caves used to be notorious for trapping prey animals that had stumbled inside in search of water, and then trapping predators that had followed them. The Shetani Lava Flow is named after the Swahili for devil or malevolent ghost.
The developed area of Tsavo West also has several steep, recent volcanic cones, one of which, Chaimu Crater, is a nature trail where, again, you can leave your safari vehicle and hike, though it’s best to do this early in the morning if you want to do the 30-minute hike to the summit as the heat on the cinder track becomes brutal as the sun rises. When you get to the top, you have superb 360-degree views of the Developed Area.
Marking the southern boundary of the Developed Area is the Tsavo River. This is strongly seasonal river, whose flow is very much determined by rain and snowfall on Kilimanjaro and its eastern foothills. The sandy roads along the riverside are a good area for game drives, especially in the dry season.
The hilly landscapes and woodland of Tsavo West mean that spotting wildlife can sometimes be tricky. There’s plenty of it, however, including large numbers of elephants and good lion prides. There’s also a good chance of seeing black rhinos in the secure rhino sanctuary. The experience of being on safari in Tsavo West is very different from a safari in Tsavo East or a Maasai Mara safari, where you often have views across wide-open country. Tsavo West safaris are more about unexpected sights as you turn a bend on a wooded track.
The birdlife in the park is outstanding. If you’re on a birdwatching safari you’ll be amazed by the number of different species you see. The white-headed buffalo weaver is a particularly noticeable species, with its prominent bright red rump, and there are at least eight recorded hornbill species here. If you have time for an all-day game drive to the southwest corner of the park, you could visit Lake Jipe, which is a real waterbird paradise.
Amboseli is another Kenyan safari that offers a unique holiday experience. It is a popular option from Mombasa or Nairobi.
Amboseli National Park is located in Loitoktok District, Rift Valley Province of Kenya.
The park is 39,206 hectares (392 km2; 151 sq. mi) in size at the core of an 8,000 square kilometres (3,100 sq. mi) ecosystem that spreads across the Kenya-Tanzania border.
The park is famous for being the best place in Africa to get close to free-ranging elephants among other wildlife species. Other attraction of the park includes opportunities to meet the Maasai people and also offers spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
In Amboseli’s case it is big skies and far horizons combined with swampy springs and dry and dusty earth trampled by hundreds of animals. 240 kilometers (150 miles) southeast from the capital city Nairobi, Amboseli National Park is the second most popular national park in Kenya after Maasai Mara National Reserve.