Deep in the heart of Tsavo East


It’s the night of the 21st of November when a dazzling red-orange meteor with a blazing tail zips across the sky making it an incredible OMG moment for no one in the group sitting around the camp fire at Satao Camp in Tsavo East has ever seen such a celestial event.

We take it as a sign of good tidings of what’s to follow in the great Tsavo that only sixty years ago was the kingdom of the greats. Thousands of elephants and black rhinos roamed the thorn-filled plains of Tsavo East where no road had been carved save for the Lunatic Line constructed in 1900.

And now – the luxury of the unpretentious camp set deep in the heart of Tsavo is enchanting. “The spot where Satao Camp is built is called Mwakwaju,” explains Mike Kirkland of Satao. “Satao means giraffe in Waliangulu.”

Ah huh!

The Waliangulu were the master elephant hunters who used poison tipped arrows to hunt.

“The Waliangulu still exist,” continues Kirkland. “When Tsavo East was gazetted in 1948 they were re-located from Tsavo East to the Sagalla Hills where they were given land.”

The iconic hill at Voi is part of the Eastern Arc chain of mountains that harbour some of the rarest endemics in Kenya like the worm-like Sagalla caecilian – an unusual amphibian (same family as frogs) and threatened with habitat loss.

It’s the bird song that awakens us in the morn and a beautiful blue sky on unzipping the tent. The waterhole so stark blue is blinding by the centuries-old tamarind tree. It’s intriguing for tamarind trees are from the Orient and associated with the slave trading caravans of centuries past. Was this a staging post?

Everything is enchanting in the simplicity of the camp. A pair of tiny Pearl-spotted owlets settles on is favourite tree for the day – the thorny commiphora. They are the world’s tiniest owls – the size of a hand. As we enjoy breakfast, golden sunbirds hold the eye.

And then we’re out for the day in the mighty Tsavo derived from the Waliangulu word for slaughter. It’s taken just one storm after months of drought for the plains to transform. Red termite mounds dot the palatial plains and every tree of the Delonyx elata is in a burst of gorgeous flowers. The space is heady.

“Tsavo East completely transforms when the rains come,” Kirkland explains. “It usually misses out on the long rains until the November/December short rains.”

We’re the sole vehicle for hours on the plains. And then suddenly there’s a herd of three hundred of Tsavo’s iconic red elephants – big tuskers, teens, mums and babes. It’s beyond belief to see a herd like this today but still nowhere near the tens of thousands that literally filled the horizon even until the 1960s.

In 1976, 20,000 elephants remained in Tsavo East according to the writings of Dame Sheldrick. But the next three decades reduced the elephant population to just 6,000 within the entire ecosystem, an area twice the size of the Park itself, where once there had been 45,000.

With poaching under control and great security, the bright side is that elephant numbers are on the increase with 12,000 around Tsavo East according to the 2014 count.

“We now have 13 black rhinos in a new black rhino 100-kilometer-square sanctuary, all fenced and we’re moving 10 more rhinos from Ngulia sanctuary and Nairobi National Park,” tells John Wambua, the park’s senior warden.

The day passes with a picnic lunch on the Dika plains with hills of Kasigau, Maungu, Sagalla, Dawida and Mbololo stretched in the skyline.

The following morning at Lugard Falls on the Galana River water gushes over the chasm of rocks now submerged. During the dry season, rocks gleam where the rich earth-coloured water flows. Named after the colonial administrator, Lord Lugard who first described the area and had his finger bitten by a crocodile, a new steel bridge shimmers over the river.

On a whim, we drive to it stopping at Crocodile Point where the slithering reptiles rest on the beaches and rocks and over the bridge and up the Yatta Plateau – the world’s longest lava flow.

“The new bridge links the southern and northern side which for long was not open. Now because of security we have animals like elephants in the northern area,” tells Wambua.

That means there’s more to explore of the mighty Tsavo.

Map of Tsavo East drawn by David Sheldrick - first warden of the park in 1948
Map of Tsavo East drawn by David Sheldrick – first warden of the park in 1948 Copyright Rupi Mangat

Stay at Satao Camp

A leisurely hour’s drive from KWS Voi Gate, Satao Camp is ideal for nature-lovers yet rustic luxury for all.

If you’re driving in from Malindi, use KWS Sala Gate. Or KWS Manyani Gate to access Nairobi-Mombasa road. The enormous SGR and the 70-meter underpass for wildlife are by the gate.

The park is big – 13,747 square kilometres – so two to three nights is ideal.