With the vultures watching

White-backed Vultures atop the trees by the side of the red road of Tsavo Copyright Rupi Mangat
White-backed Vultures atop the trees by the side of the red road of Tsavo Copyright Rupi Mangat

The White-backed Vultures atop the trees by the side of the red road of Tsavo give the game away. There has to be something in the sea of grass. We stop. It’s stunning scenery – a low ridge of black lava outcrop, long luscious grass topped with purple heads and one of the conical hills that make the Five Sisters.

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The lion stands Copyright Rupi Mangat

And then the tawny head pops up – it’s a lion.

The lion does the feline stretch, stands and walks to a carcass a few feet from it, followed by another. The third is seated under the shade of the thorn tree by the lava ridge. The vultures keep vigil waiting for the cats to give way.

It’s close to midday and we’re alone with the lions and the vultures. An hour later, the lions are still there and so the vultures keep their distance, patiently waiting for the cats to go away.

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The lions in the tall grass – hidden Copyright Rupi Mangat

At this point we’re not sure whether these are lions or lionesses because the lions of Tsavo don’t support manes – something attributed to the thorny terrain. In 1898 the maneless lions of Tsavo terrorised the Indian construction workers killing – as per latest research some 30 indentured Indian railway workers. Theories abound why this pair of lions came for the builders who were in the process of constructing Tsavo Bridge. One is that the lions were used to human flesh because of the dead slaves on the slave route traversing Tsavo.

The rains have transformed Tsavo from dry scrubland to oceans of grasses and wild flowers in bloom. A light drizzle starts and heavy clouds hang on the Chyulus while Kilimanjaro is completely hidden. Maasai giraffes browse on the acacias, herds of hartebeest nibble on the plains with ostriches fluttering their large feathers and striding nonchalantly. But it’s the gazillions of butterflies that steal the show, lifting off the ground in animated coloured clouds.

The piercing shrill of an African fish eagle announces water. We’re at the clear water Mzima Springs fed by water percolating down the porous volcanic hills of Chyulu.

Crystal clear Mzima Springs in Tsavo West Copyright Rupi Mangat
Crystal clear Mzima Springs in Tsavo West Copyright Rupi Mangat

Skeletons and skulls of hippos and other wildlife are placed along the path. Shoals of fish swim in the pool while a tiny crocodile snoozes in a quiet bed of reeds. The springs produce 250 million litres of water a day with much of it piped by gravity to Mombasa.

In the underwater observatory that needs its murky glass panes replaced it’s quite something to watch two worlds at once – the underwater world and the world above it.

At the long pool by the ancient fig tree hippos honk and sprout water from their nostrils while the monkeys feed on the figs and the fish stay close to the surface to swallow any droppings.

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Tawny eagle on same tree with White-backed vultures in Tsavo West Copyright Rupi Mangat

By now it’s lunch hour and we take the turn to Kilaguni Serena driving past Shetani flow that erupted in the 1800s leaving a trail of black volcanic rocks. The vultures are now joined by a Tawny eagle – all waiting for their pick of the carcass.

It’s a jaw-dropping picture of the Chyulus at the entrance and while we lunch on a delicious buffet a herd of impalas stride to the waterhole to drink followed by a warthog who simply sits in the pool. In one frame we have two of Africa’s largest antelopes –a Fringe-eared oryx with its scimitar-pointed horns and the eland.

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Monitor lizard basking at Kilaguni Serena Lodge in Tsavo West Copyright Rupi Mangat

I think it’s a sculpted monitor lizard on the bird bath but then it moves. In 1963, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta stood at the same spot at Kilaguni Derena to marvel at the Chyulus and the wildlife from the verandah.

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Wild flower in Tsavo West Copyright Rupi Mangat

Driving out of the park we take the road via the Roaring Rocks in the hope of spotting the famed red elephants of Tsavo. There isn’t a single one around in the dramatic landscape we are in – the surreal sky and scapes. But then Tsavo West is 9,065 square kilometres and with the rains the elephants are scattered all over.

It’s too late to delve deeper in the Tsavo and we have to leave all that we would have wished to do – climb the volcanic Chaimu and up Roaring Rocks, visit the 1st World War Rhodesia Bridge, stand atop Poachers Outlook and dive into the lava cave at Shitani. It’s for another time and we make it at sharp 6 p.m. to the main gate at Mtito Andei before it closes for the night.

Travel to Tsavo

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Tsavo West Gate at Mtito Andei Copyright Rupi Mangat

250 kilometers south of Nairobi. Log on to Kenya Wildlife Service for current rates.

Camp or stay at one of the few lodges in the park.

Carry your ID for entry otherwise you end up paying non-citizen rates.

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Flooded road near Mtito Andei on the edge of Tsavo West Copyright Rupi Mangat

Do you know? White-backed vultures are critically endangered, in the same league as black rhinos.