Aruba’s past and present in Tsavo East National Park

Published Saturday magazine Nation newspaper 24 December 2016

Aruba holds a special fascination because of the sighting of the critically endangered antelope, the hirola that number 300 to 500 in the wild with none in captivity.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List reads that “The loss of the Hirola would be the first extinction of a mammalian genus on mainland Africa in modern human history.”

Also known as the Hunter’s hartebeest and found in the arid lands of northern Kenya and Somalia, it was first described by the zoologist H.C.V. Hunter in 1888. By the 1970s the numbers were about 15,000 but rapidly crashed to over 90 per cent following a wave of hunting. In 1963 and 1996, some were brought into Tsavo East. Today the number is about 77.

As one of the animals l’ve never seen the chances of seeing this critically endangered antelope in the vistas of Tsavo around Aruba were high.

Wandering through the great plains of Tsavo, Steppe eagles from Russia soared high in the great blue sky. Taking advantage of the rising heat, other mighty raptors soared the skies too – bateleaur eagles, white backed vultures, Lappet-faced vultures to complete a list of 100-plus species of birds seen in four days.

Elephants and herds of Jackson’s hartebeest, many antelopes, warthogs and Maasai giraffes wandered on the great plains and at the close of the day, we checked into Ashnil Aruba Dam that for the old timers was Aruba Self Help Lodge. Built in the 1960s by the banks of Aruba Dam during the time of the first game warden of Tsavo East, the legendary David Sheldrick, the dam was to provide water to relieve pressure on the Galana and Tsavo rivers during Tsavo’s very long dry seasons – which in the drought of the 1970s wiped out 10,000 elephants in the park.

Today, Aruba Self Help Lodge has morphed into a modern lux-lodge called Ashnil Aruba complete with a figure 8 swimming pool. In the luxury lodge, strolling the grounds for an early morning bird walk, an antelope is spotted through powerful binoculars. Seeing the man dash across the lawn can only mean one thing – it has to be the hirola.

We follow suite.

The antelope through the powerful binoculars has all the trimmings of a hirola – white rump and the back-swept long horns. Only in this case, the hirola is only one-horned. The watchman informs us that the antelope lost his horn in battle with another and has been ousted by the herd. Despite assurance that we would see more on the Aruba circuit, the incredibly shy herd remains elusive.

Instead driving slowly around a bare wind-swept patch of land with a few thorn bushes, we chance upon a female lioness with seven cubs of mixed ages. The cubs are bundles of energy, playing with the female and clambering over each other. Driving back to the lodge, four more lions surface playfully chasing each other in the eventide, raising a hail of dust.

The lions of Tsavo are steeped in history when a pair of lions – dubbed the man-eaters of Tsavo – devoured more than a 100 Indian railway workers including several African and Europeans working on the first modern infrastructure in Easter Africa – the Uganda Railway at the close of the 19th century.

The night passes with few animals at the water pool in the silted dam and a red hot sun rises through an opening in a carpet of grey cloud. Armed with a picnic lunch from the lodge, we take the road to the 1.5-kilometer long Mudanda Rock.

It’s breath-taking, high and hot on the rock. Walking to the furthest point of the rock past water pools and flowers in bloom including the emerging peaks of the Taita Hills, a thin strip follows the main road. It is the standard gauge railway raised high on steep embankments blocking what until now was a free crossing for migrating elephants and other game over into Tsavo West National Park. The elephants now have to cross from where the gigantic openings are – the 70-meter-wide and five-meter-high underpasses between the two Tsavos – the 13,747-square-kilometre Tsavo East and the 9,065-square-kilometer Tsavo West – making the two parks the largest protected elephant park.

Explore Tsavo East

A leisurely hour’s drive from KWS Voi Gate, Ashnil Aruba  is a luxury lodge by the famed Aruba Dam. Easy access through KWS Voi Gate.

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.

Places to check out – Lugard Falls, Crocodile Point, Mudanda Rocks, Tsavo-Athi River confluence to become the Galana, Yatta Plateau and more.