Tsavo East Safari and Wasini Island
So much has happened in the past few days. The first thing is the weather has changed and is now so extremely hot that it’s worthy of comment. It began on Sunday afternoon, and through Monday it was almost unbearable. It probably sounds like a lot of fun to you who are stuck in winter-gripped Europe but it really is no fun, believe me. It’s not possible to do anything, you need to drink all the time, which is actually quite a problem since I need to collect and purify water and then wait before drinking it. The only thing you can do is keep going into the sea, having showers, and sitting directly in front of the fan wearing as few clothes as possible!
On Friday 27th I went on a two day safari to Tsavo East National Park. I got collected pretty early – 6.20am – and accidentally left my phone behind. We drove through Diani and up through Ukunda to Likoni, crossed on the ferry to Mombasa. And Jess was right, that ferry is a completely different experience in a vehicle! From my open window in the van I looked out at the four thousand or so foot passengers all crushed in like cattle in a pen, and wondered how I did it too! And lucky me I get to do it again this weekend when I leave Diani! We drove through Mombasa and out onto the highway to Nairobi, alongside the train track that I travelled on two weeks before, going in the opposite direction. I thought we would be transferred to another vehicle for the safari, but it turned out that we weren’t! The matatu we were in had been converted to a safari van, with a sunroof/viewing platform in the top. Our driver was called Nguta; I liked him right away from meeting him outside my cottage when he came to pick me up, and he put me in the front directly behind him – this is well know to be the best seat in a matatu!
It seemed to take forever to get to the park, after toilet stops, petrol stops, stops for bottled water, stops where we inadvertently had to walk through a long hall of souvenir sellers to get to the toilets at the back, and having ridiculous and amusing conversations with the hawkers, who come out with the most ludicrous prices and suggestions as to why you might want to buy something. Finally we got to the gate at Buchuma, the entrance point in the far south east of the park, and the easiest gate to get to coming from Mombasa. Tsavo East & West parks combined are the largest national reserve in Kenya, and one of the biggest national parks in the world. I bought a safari hat at the gateway, and once Nguta had paid our entrance we were ready to go – into the wild!!
Inside the park, I was really enthused with the landscape: lots of bright red soil, flat Acacia trees and green savannah as far as the eye could see. I was in the safari van with Nguta, our driver, a French couple and a Swedish couple from Stockholm, who became my friends during the journey; their names are Lasse and Maria. I was standing up looking out the sunroof from before we even got through Buchuma Gate, complete with Indiana Jones style hat and ready to spot animals! We all searched the landscape hard but the first sight we saw (after spotting a few relatively small, colourful birds like grouse and partridges) was gleaned from the two-way radio that the drivers have in their vans. All the different safari companies use codes for the animals they have sighted, so that the other, rival drivers can’t find out what it is. Nguta knew they had seen something, but we didn’t know what it was, so we headed off to see it. When we got to the place, the first thing we saw was a herd of matatu vans grouped near a couple of stunted trees, other safari vans like ours, with adventurers leaning out of the roof, cameras in hand. Under the trees, sitting in the shade were two lions, a male and a female. The lion stood up and it was then that we could see he was actually very big.
The most striking thing to me was the large amount of bones lying around near where the lions were. All around the matatus there were huge bones, that could have been from buffalo they were so huge, great jaw bones complete with sets of teeth, and thick thigh bones, and non-descript broken fragments of bone. This bone debris was a real reminder that we were not in a zoo, but in a sectioned off part of land where the animals live as they have always done, killing and eating each other. Ever after this point during the safari, I would keep thinking of Jurassic Park.
Throughout that day we saw giraffes, zebra, a buffalo, ostrich (which are Huge! even from a distance!), eagles, Grant’s gazelles, giraffe gazelles, Impala, waterbuck, and many, many elephants. Tsavo East is famous for elephants, and there certainly are thousands.
It was like a game, driving around the landscape looking out trying to spot animals, and then homing in once we found something, staying and watching and photographing for a while and then moving on to continue the hunt and see what we could find next. Many enjoyable hours were spent, touring the park, leaning out of the sunroof, getting covered in the thick dust from the red mud on the ground. A really fun thing is thinking what you might see next, and when and where you might find it. The landscape itself was really varied and fascinating, although it only seemed to be me who was as interested in taking pictures of the surroundings as photographing the animals themselves.
Lasse and Maria stayed inside the park at a place called Ndololo camp, where there are lots of gazelle standing in groups outside, and lots of eerie buffalo skulls inside the camp itself. The French couple and I stayed just outside the park near Voi Gate, at a place called Lion Hill Lodge, which isn’t in my Rough Guide but it was a really good place. It is set up on a hill which is right up at the edge of the park boundary, complete with electric fence to keep out marauding wildlife. Before the park was fenced, lions used to sit up on the hill, hence the lodge’s name. I had a luxury tent, made of green canvass but with a solid outer roof above it. Two beds inside, electricity, and at the back, a solid and beautiful clean bathroom with running water and a flushing toilet, plus the best and nicest shower I have used in several months. We left our things and had lunch – a buffet – in the lodge’s restaurant, and looked out at the view, which is splendid. It sees right across the park, in a panorama of more than 180 degrees. After lunch Nguta came and picked us up, we went to collect the others at Ndololo, and saw lots more elephants on the way. More hours of game hunting followed, until sunset fell over the park and we drove back at 6pm in the failing light, back to the comfort of the lodge and a delicious dinner. I was extremely excited about the food, and having full board at the lodge, because since arriving in Diani I had had nowhere to cook or prepare food, and no fridge. I had been eating out of tins, and when the tins ran out, eating plain bread, biscuits and glucose tablets. It was an incredibly dull week and a half, food-wise. Having proper meals, which were warm and balanced, and being presented with them without any effort on my part, was absolutely fantastic. One of the highlights of the safari, for me!
Spent the night in the lodge in my luxury tent, where I didn’t actually sleep that well because I had forgotten my phone and thus had no alarm, and was worried about oversleeping. We had breakfast at 6.30am and left the lodge by 7. We drove out to a lake near Aruba Lodge where a family of hippos live. Nguta had promised me this yesterday when he had asked us what we wanted to see and I had asked to see hippos. On the way there we saw other animals, elephants wandering across the dirt track and very close to our van, giraffe close-up too and zebra, whole herds of zebra and some of them right outside my window. You couldn’t see much of the hippos, they were just laying down mostly submerged in the water, not doing very much. But there were five or six of them, with at least one baby hippo. On the opposite bank of the lake was a vast crowd of Ibis.
Driving back we heard about some exciting sighting on the two-way radio again. We headed off in hot pursuit. Heard that a leopard had been seen, and drove about in the area it was last sighted, all of us looking keenly and hoping, but we had to give up. Then we heard about some more lions, and followed a whole chain of matatu vans to the scene, but we were too late; they had already gone. I realised that although Nguta was trying really hard, he didn’t seem to be in the inner circle of drivers, since we always seemed to be the last to hear about anything, and following a chain of other vehicles whenever there was a particularly exciting animal to be seen (generally, a cat). We saw no more lions, and definitely no leopard. The people who had seen the leopard drove past and said they had also seen cheetahs the day before. We got to see more elephants though, which I loved.
We left the park and began our drive back. We got stuck in traffic and a queue for the Likoni ferry in Mombasa, and sat in the van for an hour in the sticky, scorching heat. There was nothing to be done about it. I kept myself entertained by making videos on my camera of matatus driving in the other direction, in so many colours and varieties. When we got back it was quite late, near sunset.
The next day, Sunday, I went on marine safari – again! It had been so wonderful the first time that I had been tempted to go back, and the second time I managed to get a discount. This time the trip was even better, for a few reasons. Firstly, the boat did not break down this time so we had more time in the water. We saw more dolphins, in two separate places this time. Also we snorkelled in a different location, where the reef was deeper, and we were swimming for about an hour so got to see a lot more. The coral where we went was quite brown and unexciting, but the fish themselves were brilliant. I saw lots of big, colourful fish and also large shoals of fish swimming together for protection through the reef. I also saw a really big blue starfish, with long thin pale blue arms. I got lost because my group joined another snorkelling group from a different boat without me realising. When I looked around, I suddenly saw a lot of people I didn’t recognise, and thought I must have ended up in the wrong group. So I swam away, down to the next group along. I saw no-one I recognised there either, so I kept going. When I got to the last group, who were leaving the reef and swimming back to their boat, there was nowhere else to look. I swam back in the direction of the other groups further into the reef. I found a Kenyan, who I assumed was a guide, but he was actually lost too and was a tourist. Neither of us were worried, and there were lots of people and boats around, just nobody that either of us knew. I stuck with him for a while, swimming around, looking. By chance I noticed a guy called David who I knew, and realised I had found my group at last! I still had plenty of time for snorkelling and looking at fish, before we got back in the boat. And I had a really good swim when I was travelling around between the groups, being lost, so it all worked out pretty well.
After snorkelling, we swam back to the dhow and climbed onboard, and set off to the island of Wasini for lunch. I spoke to Ali, the captain, who told me that a big, good dhow would cost 500,000 shillings, which is under 5000 pounds. One day I want to buy one; they are awesome, awesome boats. I have always wanted a boat, and the East African dhow is the one I would like the most.
We travelled back through a shallow water channel that is only passable at high tide. The water was spectacularly tropical green, and the islands amazing, as it all was last time, and I am so happy that this time I had my camera with me, so fingers crossed I should have some good photos of everything. We ate lunch at the restaurant Charlie Claw’s, and then I went on a tour of the village, the only one on Wasini. We went through the alleyways between houses and then walked through a coral garden, on a raised boardwalk. The sea once covered it over and these coral rocks were once at the bottom of the sea, but the water has retreated a long way and now Wasini is an island above the waves, and the coral garden is a memory of a reef that used to be. The garden turns into a mangrove swamp and it was really cool to wander through the mangrove trees on the boardwalk. A fun aspect of the boardwalk itself was the pieces of wood missing, leaving large gaps at intermittent places where you might put your foot unexpectedly and fall through below into the swamp. I went on this tour with two Croatian girls from Zagreb, a Kenyan Muslim woman called Fatima, who became my friend that day too, and our guide Saleem who was on the boat and who lives in the village on the island. Saleem showed us how to plant mangrove trees, by dropping stalks from the adult tree gently and vertically down into the swamp below, where they stick into the mud, and will grow. There were lots of sprouting stalks all around where other people before us had planted their mangrove trees.
We got a boat taxi off the island back to our dhow, drifting through the green clear water in a small rowing boat paddled along by a Wasini islander. We sailed back to Shimoni, and Fatima played me “Yori Yori”, on her phone, a song I miss a lot and haven’t heard in a long time. We climbed up at the jetty, and Yori Yori was still playing on repeat so Fatima and I danced to it on the jetty. I think everyone thought we were crazy, but who cares. I spotted our driver in the car park, said goodbye to Fatima, and rejoined my group from the matatu (I’d come with two retired British couples and another single man, David, and lunched with them at Charlie Claw’s.) Iddy our driver said we had time to see the slave caves, which I was delighted about as I didn’t get to see them last time. By the way Iddy made a brilliant joke in the morning: he said “My name is Iddy…. but not Idi Amin. He was a dictator… but I just drive you to Shimoni, and back here. So no dictator.” I found this hilarious, but it seemed like I was the only one.
David and Alan (one of the other men) came with me to see the caves. Alan came to be friendly and show solidarity with me; David came because Alan was paying for him (they are staying at the same hotel and made friends already before the trip). Everyone else very dully stayed in the van. The caves were cool, but the best thing about them was seeing them with David and Alan, who were hilarious.
You can see metal cuffs in the wall where the Arabs used to punish slaves who tried to escape. As David said, it was nice that “for once it wasn’t the British.” There are lots of large bats in the other caves, which run for miles and miles, but are mostly impassable and blocked off now. We went into several caverns that are still accessible, but it was very dark. The woman who was guiding us round only gave us one torch, and she gave it to David. It was left to Alan and I to blunder around in the blackness, bumping into the walls and the stalactites and each other. Occasionally bats flew screeching over our heads. David, with his torch, which was incredibly dim, and didn’t make him a lot better off than we were, found an old defunct electric light bulb. “What’s this? So you do have electricity down here then?” in an amused tone.
“We did,” said the woman. “But it went off.”
“I prefer it like this anyway,” said David.
“More atmospheric!” said Alan, as I bumped into the back of him.
The whole time I was in the caves I felt like I was on some crazed Famous Four adventure. It was brilliant. On the way home, David asked to stop for beer, so we did, because the drivers always do whatever somebody requests. I have made many requests of drivers in the past, asking to see hippos, caves, etc, so I didn’t mind at all. I talked to David about hiring a motorbike because he has done it, and wants to do it again, and I want to try it too. I had already had this idea last week as a way to entertain myself… but David considered that since I don’t have a license, or any experience, that I had better leave the idea, as he didn’t want to be responsible for my death. David doesn’t strike me as the type of person to worry unnecessarily about things, or regulations, so I decided to take his advice.
Yesterday and today I have been swimming, reading, and writing, and coming into town to do some food shopping and go online. I have – excitingly – moved into a cottage with A KITCHEN, bringing an end to my time of near starvation. Now I am going to the eis cafe here to have delicious straccietella ice cream… mmm! I am leaving Diani on Sunday, staying in Mombasa and then planning to take the bus to Lamu, an island and city-state in the north of Kenya’s coast.