Amongst local wild residents

Above: Grounds of Voyager Ziwani on the edge of Tsavo West
Copyright Rupi Mangat

Published Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 27 January 2018

It’s the last days of 2017 in December. Centuries-old gigantic baobab trees are cloaked in thick green leaves. At most times, the tree stands with bare branches in the arid plains that see rain so rarely.

Under the intense blue sky and red earth another tree is celebrating the rain – which is my favourite – Delonyx elata in a burst of yellow, beige and orange flowers.

After a few days in the mist mountains of the Taita Hills, in a space of an hour from Wundanyi, we’re on the plains and veer towards the newly opened tarmac road to Voyager Ziwani near Taveta on the Kenya-Tanzania border under the gaze of Africa’s tallest mountain – Kilimanjaro.

Historical route between Voi and Tsavo West during WW1 Copyright Rupi Mangat
Historical route between Voi and Tsavo West during WW1 Copyright Rupi Mangat

It’s a historical road that during the First World War was busy with troops – both local and from as far as India fighting in a war that had nothing to do with them. The British in British East Africa (Kenya) and German East Africa (Tanzania) decided to take up arms in loyalty to their monarchs.

A railway was hurriedly constructed from Voi to Taveta to provide provisions and water to the troops in garrison towns that sprung up like Maktau. As we speed by it, l catch a glimpse of the memorial inscribed in the Indian scripts of Gurmukhi, Urdu, Gujerati and English to the fallen soldiers.

'Red' elephant coloured by the earth on side of road to Tsavo West Copyright Rupi Mangat
‘Red’ elephant coloured by the earth on side of road to Tsavo West Copyright Rupi Mangat

The new tarmac is fast with signposts warning drivers to drive at 70 kilometres per hour during the day and at 50 kilometres per hour at night because the road passes through Tsavo West National Park with wild animals like elephants, antelopes and more crossing. We stop on the side of the road to watch a family of red elephants browse in the bush. A few metres away zebras cross the road and run alongside it stirring the red dust.

The suddenness of Salaita Hill takes me by surprise – again because of the new tarmac road. It was here that on 12 February 1916, a bloody battle ensued between the Brits and the Germans.

The Germans had marched across the border town of Taveta – annexed it and continued with the advance towards Voi.

En route, they stopped at strategic points like the lone hill from whose summit they could scan the great vistas of Tsavo for the enemy.

The Brits had been warned not to attack the trenches mid-way up Salaita Hill because the

Germans were manning the trenches at the bottom of the hill. But this vital piece of advice was disregarded and on 12 February 1916, the Allies ran up the hill and bombarded it.

When the troops reached the base of the lava hill, the Germans showed themselves unscathed from behind the lower trenches and opened a devastating fire. Aptly, Salaita is a misnomer for slaughter.

We’re studiously following the road on Google Earth. The police man tells us that we’re at the turning for Voyager Ziwani but Google Earth shows another route and we follow our marker which takes us on a 15-kilometer long route for us to return at exactly the spot that had been pointed to us.

Tented abode - Voyager Ziwani by the banks of River Samte Copyright Rupi Mangat
Tented abode – Voyager Ziwani by the banks of River Samte Copyright Rupi Mangat

After four days of hiking on the hills of Taita in pursuit of the rare endemics of the high ancient forests it’s luxury at Voyager Ziwani the tented lodge on the edge of Tsavo West National Park.

Our detour took care of the game drive with eland, hartebeest, ostrich, giraffe, zebra and many other plains game seen including storks from either the wintery Asia or Europe flying into Africa in search of warmth and food.

Crocodile by River Samte Copyright Rupi Mangat
Crocodile by River Samte Copyright Rupi Mangat

In the late afternoon relaxing by the luxury of my tented abode by the River Sante that flows through the dry plains of Tsavo, a crocodile lies still. It doesn’t move the entire afternoon.

As the sun sets over the shoulder of Kilimanjaro with Mawenzi the smaller peak in the clouds, constellations spread in the sky.

Hippos emerge, the males engage in territorial dispute while crocodiles slumber away and a hyena howls.

In the morning with the sun so stark a pair of Malachite kingfishers – gorgeous in brilliant shades of colours perch on an acacia over the river where a black-headed heron stalks for toads and fish. It’s at that point as l settle for breakfast that the crocodile decides to slip into the water before l can click the camera.

Stop at Voyager Ziwani Tented Camp

It’s close to Lake Jipe and Lake Challa. Stop at Sniper Tree for the tale of the embittered German widow. The guides at the lodge are well-versed with the history of WW1.

Read James Willson’s Guerrillas of Tsavo to really enjoy the historical route shrouded in the tempests of WW1.