Above: Sitatunga in Saiwa Swamp National Park. Copyright Maya Mangat
Published: 12 January 2019
It’s the last days of 2018 and we’re en route in search of things still not seen over the many years. Topping the list is the sitatunga of Saiwa Swamp past Kitale. The sitatunga is special for it is strange and rare, an antelope of the swamps and the only protected area to see it is at Saiwa Swamp National Park that measures a paltry 2.9 square kilometres. It takes pride of place as Kenya’s smallest national park.
The journey so far has been exciting leaving Nairobi before sunrise on Christmas Day and choosing the Eldama Ravine road to Eldoret, past Kitale and into the swamp-filled park. It’s a scenic winding road between ancient forest straddling tall forest lobelias and overlooking the Kerio Valley and its sharp cliffs and flat plains. In the midst of it all are the erythrina in a bloom of gorgeous red.
Driving into the park past the busy homesteads lining the murram road to the enclave of the sitatunga, the swamp is lush lined by old forest. The guide reveals the sitatunga has been spotted and even before we unload, we trek through the swamp on the wooden bridge in earnest. The sitatunga is a spot in the swamp – but alas we have seen it. We will search the swamp in the morn for better sightings.
The tree-house is free for the night and we jump to the chance of spending a night in it perched above the swamp. Watching the star-sprawled sky, a light in the eastern horizon reveals a full moon that bathes the swamp in its glow.
The dawn is ethereal. The mist has clad everything in white and it’s cold. The sitatunga rarely come this close to the tree house, l’ve been told. So not expecting it and rushing to meet the guide to seek the sitatunga, an animal chomping on the glade below the tree-house reveals the earth-brown sitatunga.
It’s the moment l’ve been waiting for.
The swamp-antelope is unaware of being watched and continues to feed on its favourite swamp-foods as the mist lifts.
The hike through the swamp and along the forest edge is filled with anticipation. Will we or will we not see more of this rare creature that until the early 20th century was prolific around the swampy shores of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater lake?
It proves to be a successful walk. By 8 a.m. we’ve seen five in the swamp along the 11-kilometer nature trail from the watch towers. The only problem is that it isn’t an easy animal to photograph because it’s so swamped in the reeds. With its splayed hooves that don’t sink in muddy ground, the antelope rules the swamp.
In the horizon the long range of the Cherangany Hills is visible and it’s proving to be an exciting walk for the rare sitatunga shares its swamp with other animals that are also just as endangered. A trio of otters swim in Saiwa River flowing through the swamp. We startle a troop of ten colobus monkeys sunning themselves on a log on the ground. Maya, my niece manages to snap three as they flee to their towering trees. And to cap it off, a pair of the critically endangered Grey crowned crane fly above the green glade.
Chatting with Richard Barnley of Sirikwa Safaris and Brankeys Guest House later in the day, l learn more about the sitatunga. Barnley, born and bred by the swamp knows it better than most. Before independence, most of the area was farmed by white settlers and the swamp a haven for the sitatunga. With the winds of change at independence, many settlers sold their large farms that teemed with wildlife like the rare oribi, Rothschild giraffes, bongo, leopard and more.
Barnley’s father, the late Timothy, realised that with all the farms being sold out to small land owners, the sitatunga would be on a fast path to extinction. He called on many of the farmers selling the farms to donate some land around the swamp to save the sitatunga. In 1974, the swamp was gazetted.
Sojourn at Saiwa Swamp
It’s an exciting destination to chart 400 kilometres west of Nairobi. Combine the journey with the Cherangany Hills via Kapenguria (infamously famous for the Kapenguria trial of the Kapenguria Six – Bildad Kaggia, Kung’u Karumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Fred Kubai, Paul Ngei, and Achieng’ Oneko – the six leading Kenyan nationalists who were arrested in 1952, tried at Kapenguria in 1952–53, and imprisoned after that in Northern Kenya. Continue to Lake Turkana.
Or drive to Mount Elgon, the stunning volcano that is Africa’s fifth highest massif on the Kenya-Uganda border.
Kenya Wildlife Service (http://www.kws.go.ke/) is the custodian of Kenya’s national parks and has beautiful camping grounds and bandas at both national parks that are so affordable.
Make it your new year’s resolution to discover more of Kenya – the beautiful country.