Spotting Elephants and Lionesses in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park
If you do a search of where to travel in Kenya, Tsavo East National Park doesn’t appear at the top of the list. But a few months ago, my husband and I chose it over more famous Kenyan game parks, and it was worth the gamble. Tsavo East offers more affordable and intimate game drives, away from the most tourist-filled parks.
We currently live in Rwanda, but we move around a lot, so we want to make the most of the East African region while we can — which is made easier with RwandAir’s reach to 30 destinations. Last August, with plane tickets to Nairobi, Kenya, we had only two prerequisites for this trip: dip our toes in the ocean and see wild animals in their natural habitat. Deciding where specifically to go was a little more difficult since Kenya has more than 40 national parks and reserves, as well as a remarkable coastline that stretches over 800 miles along the Indian Ocean.
Choosing a lesser-known location
Whatever search you do about Kenya, the Masai Mara game reserve appears at the top of the list, especially between June and September. Those months are the dry season, when over two million wildebeest migrate from the northern Serengeti of Tanzania to the pastures of Masai Mara, risking their lives by crossing the crocodile-filled Mara River. The scene is said to be spectacular, and Masai Mara is undoubtedly an incredible place to glimpse cinematic wildlife escapades — especially because of the density of animals in a relatively small habitat.
However, in dire need of a restful holiday, my husband and I felt our FOMO thoughts dissipate — except for some unspoken doubts about whether this would be one of our biggest travel mistakes. On that note, we ditched the world-renowned Masai Mara to visit Tsavo East National Park. We were drawn to Tsavo East, as it’s fewer than 120 miles away from picturesque Diani Beach and Kenya’s coastal Mombasa city.
Tsavo is in the Coast Province, and for ease of administration, it’s split into two parks: Tsavo East and Tsavo West. Even though Tsavo East isn’t as well-known as the Maasai Mara, at 5,308 square miles, it’s 14 times bigger, comprising the biggest national park in Kenya.
Getting to Tsavo East National Park
Tsavo East can be accessed through four gates: Manyani, Voi, Buchuma, and Sala. If you’re coming from Mombasa by car, you drive 65 miles on the Nairobi-Mombasa Road (A109) to the Buchuma Gate. Most people coming from Nairobi enter through the Manyani Gate, driving 180 miles to get there. From the beach town of Malindi, it’s 66 miles until the Sala Gate.
Driving yourself isn’t recommended, especially if you are coming all the way from Nairobi, due to bad road signage, traffic loaded with heavy vehicles, and lack of car-breakdown services. Our guide service, KT & Safaris, was recommended to us by friends who had used them before. They offered a private safari tour (just me and my husband in the vehicle) at a very good price with accommodation, transport, and food included.
With thorough online research, you can find exactly what you are looking for depending on days available, budget, and location. Every hotel and Airbnb works with a different tour operator, and most will be happy to organize it for you.
As we were coming in from the coast, our driver, Suleiman, drove us in through the east side’s Buchuma Gate. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was the limitless flat and dry earth. Within minutes, we had shifted from the traffic-infested A109 Road linking Mombasa to Nairobi to a vast and silent hideout.
Widely spaced trees and bushes will make you wonder how life exists here and, if it does, what it takes for it to adapt to water scarcity. Almost immediately, I reached out for my hat and sunscreen lotion while the hardy Land Rover was trundling on the arid terrain covered in phosphorescent red soil.
Seeing elephants going about their lives
We stuck our heads out of the vehicle’s open roof and let the natural environment — and the blaring clutter of the 4×4’s engine — suffuse our senses. “In 1898, the maneless lions of Tsavo ate more than 100 railway workers who were building the single-track Mombasa-Kampala railway,” Suleiman informed us. And he continued, evidently pleased with the dramatic irony and his dark humor, “With God’s will, you will also see lions.”
After only a few minutes of driving, we stumbled across the first herds of elephants and zebras who were refreshing themselves around a shallow waterhole. Elephants are abundant in Tsavo, and during our two-day game drive, we caught them in different actions: families strolling, adults giving friendly taps to each other, and babies learning how to use their trunks. We also learned that an elephant’s trunk can weigh up to 400 pounds and has about 100,000 muscles and delicate finger-like endings. If you are a fan of elephants, Tsavo is the park to visit.
As we were driving deeper into the park, we encountered wild boars, which run so fast locals call them the “Kenya Express,” and ostriches. We also saw three kinds of antelope: the spiral-horned lesser kudus, the long-necked gerenuks, and the tiny and skittish dik-diks. Not far from our accommodation, we spotted a cheetah and her cub snuggling under a bone-dry tree. At this point, we wished we had packed a pair of binoculars, but we admitted our beginners’ mistakes and added “binoculars” to our list of lessons learned.
Gazing at zebras over lunch
Tsavo National Park offers a wide range of accommodation options, from budget to luxury and anything in between. KT & Safaris checked us in the mid-range Voi Safari Lodge, which neatly blends into the savannah scenery. Voi Safari Lodge is a retreat on top of a rocky hill above a permanent water source for the animals to quench their thirst, especially during the dry season.
The best time of the year to spot wildlife is during the arid months from June to September. The lack of verdant vegetation during this season makes spotting animals easier, and the waterholes become popular meeting points for mammals. Just keep in mind that during the dry season, the environment is very dusty. If you suffer from a respiratory condition, you should take preventive care. If you are an avid bird-watcher, however, the best time to visit is from November to May when the rain comes.
After our morning drive through the park, we dropped our stuff at our cozy room overlooking the plains of Tsavo and headed to the balcony restaurant for a lunch buffet of Kenyan dishes such as ugali (a firm maize porridge), savory pilau rice, nyama choma (grilled meat), and fresh fish.
While the hungry and justifiably worn-out expeditioners were exchanging impressions of the animals they had encountered, below us big mammals were living in peace with the tranquil environment. A herd of elephants was leaving the water source whereas another was just arriving. A bird was resting on a buffalo’s back, and a few zebras were gamboling around.
The second part of our ride through the savannah lasted from 4:00 PM until sunset, guaranteeing exceptional views of the boundless sky and the ever-present horizon. We drove along with a herd of hundreds of buffalos heading to a manmade lake to cool down before the night fell and saw up close loner Masai giraffes — the largest of their subspecies — munching on the sparse leaves of 17-foot-tall trees.
Spotting lionesses in the dark
Back at the lodge, and before dinner, we went down the stairs to an underground, barred room, used as a lookout point to observe the animals by the waterhole from very close. Irrefutably, the highlight of our safari experience was the glorious arrival of a pack of 12 tawny lionesses from the pitch-black fields. Even though we were all holding our breath, a few of the lionesses snapped their heads around trying to figure out who else was present but quickly lost interest and continued drinking water for minutes without pause.
The next day we had an early start so that we could fit in a few more hours of game drive and the three-hour journey back to Mombasa. We woke up in time for a dazzling sunrise and ate our breakfast at the sound of different bird songs. From our base on the coast, we’d only come to spend one night in Tsavo National Park. When we exited through the park’s gate, we were a bit heavy-hearted for not spotting a “king” as male lions are sometimes called. But then, this is part of Tsavo’s exceptional charm: There is a lot of suspense as to what you will encounter.