Going-it-alone on safari has that addictive mix of the unknown and the unexpected; there is nothing more thrilling than discovering a lion sunbathing in the bush or to catch a rare glimpse of a jackal from the corner of your eye. It gave us the opportunity to explore the park in our own time and this was half the fun. We would often spend an hour watching one group of elephants or admiring the disarming glare of zebra, which seem to conduct everything in unison.
The Tsavo East National Park, in South East Kenya, stretches over an area of 13, 747km2. Inland from the coast, it spans the East, North and coastal provinces. In the distance sits the Yatta Plateau, this is one of the longest lava flows in the world. The landscape of Tsavo East ranges from the blood-red-dust of semi arid acacia to the flourishing vegetation of the Voi river circuit.
Watamu/ Malindi/ Mombassa
Watamu is a northern coastal town that attracts its fair share of honeymooning couples, families, deep sea fishing enthusiasts and the odd kite surfer thrown in for good measure. We stayed at a guest house run by a Christian conservation group called A Rocha. The centre usually provides basic accommodation for those working on conservation projects, but during less busy periods it doubles a guest house.
It is a picturesque and quiet location with access to a relatively secluded beach, away from the large resorts that dominate Watamu. It was an ideal location from which to explore the attractions of Kenya’s coastal region, from visiting Lamu Island to taking an eventful 100km bus ride to the bustling city of Mombassa.
The larger tourist town of Malindi has a sizeable Italian community; which has an electric mix of beautiful Arabic Mosques, nightclubs and Italian pizzeria’s. There are no cash points located in Watamu so you may need to travel to Malindi for these general amenities, but besides the nightlife and its major transport connections there are very few daytime attractions in this coastal town.
Journey to the Sala Gate
We travelled to the Sala gate from Gede which is 90km from the national park, near the towns of Malindi and Watamu. There are many alternative gates for entering Tsavo East, but it is easily accessible from the capital Nairobi or from the southern coast at Mombassa. We were told by local tour guides that it is safer to travel in convoy because the road to the Sala gate has a reputation for banditry.
Our jeep often took leave of us on more than a few occasions. For the adrenalin junkie: careering off road, maneuvering out of sand-traps and changing the odd flat tyre or two, is a definitive highlight of solo safari.
Safari: Day One
At peak times of day the wilderness of the park would often turn into a fair ground experience, with crowds of safari trucks buzzing around competing for the best view of game. You should try to arrive at the park when it opens at 6.30am, to avoid the crowds and this it also the best time of day for spotting game.
But this did not spoil our experience, once the safari trucks had left we would often stay to watch and this produced some surprising results. We caught a leopard sunbathing on some rocks and a lion inches away from us on the opposite side of a dry river bed, as a pervading smell of dead meat hung in the air. In the burning heat of arid scrubland, we caught a Somali Ostrich fanning its stunted wings and a troop of Yellow Baboons helping each other to cross the road.
On the Voi river circuit we saw an array of wildlife from the carnival colours of the Rufus Rolla to the delicate and regal Dika, who only travel in pairs. You should visit the Lugards Falls on the Galana River; they are an impressive example of this landscape and made great photography.
Toward the end of our first day in the park we became stuck in a sand-trap, on the way to the Voi gate. We sat in the pressure cooker of the jeep and the clouds of thick dust, fanned by our multiple attempts to push the jeep out of its bind.
I had made the error of hiring a jeep without viewing beforehand. It was a ‘white elephant’ that was not only a powerless automatic, but it also had a set of retreat tyres that were in very poor condition.
The safari driver that stopped to help us warned that we were stuck in leopard country, and we could be in a very difficult situation, because the park would be closing soon and no one would be travelling along this road. He spent a considerable amount of his time coaching us on how to manoeuvre our vehicle out of the sand-trap, when all attempts had failed he towed-us-out, much to the bemusement of the tourists in his company. You should always carry a tow rope in case a situation like this arises when in the park. There is also no mobile phone reception, so the use of a mobile phone for emergencies is limited.
We were finally on our way to Voi where we were planned to stay overnight, before heading back to the park at first light. As we headed toward the Voi gate the Yatta Plateau, the backdrop to Tsavo East, was a transfixing view as the sun disappeared beyond its plains.
Voi is a prosperous town that is situated on the route to Nairobi and Mombassa by road and rail, based on this location the town has a thriving trade from long distance truck drivers. The first thing that stuck me about Voi was how developed it was, in comparison to other town I had visited during my stay in Kenya. Voi was awake all night; it had a constant flow of juggernauts and people mingling around the bus station late into the night.
Due to the abundance of truckers there was a range of hotels to choose from; they all had the equivalent of a greasy spoon downstairs and clean but basic accommodation above. We stayed at the Distarr Hotel which was very cheap at only 500KHS a night. In the restaurant we sampled nearly everything from the menu but the food was not up to much, although they did have great Masala tea and fresh fruit juices.
At breakfast the following morning the radio recited Arabic prayers and a lone customer danced to the music from a tape player. As the heat set in, Voi became a hive of frenzied activity, it has the feel of a pint sized Mombassa.
Safari: Day Two
The beauty of the park is at its best in the early morning, before the wildlife takes to the shade to hide from the harsh rays of the sun.
We spotted a jackal, which is a rare sight and a giraffe gracefully crossing the road. In the late afternoon our jeep once again encountered another flat tyre, the safari drivers were not only exceptionally helpful but also looked out for our safety. This event provided great entertainment because it was unusual to see two females alone on safari; they even radioed the event round to all the other drivers in the park.
Solo safari is addictive and an experience that I am already craving to repeat. It gave us the flexibility to discover the park in our own time and a hand’s on experience of searching for game.
1. Take the best pair of binoculars that you can afford, it makes a huge difference between a good safari and a bad one.
2. When hiring a jeep you should ask to see the vehicle before the day of your trip. Always check the condition of the tyres and photograph any noticeable damage.
3. Access the park costs US$27 for adult non-residents/ US$50 for non-resident children and students. Entry to the park requires a KWS Smartcard which can be obtained and loaded at the Voi gate. If you are accessing the park through another gate you can arrange with the ranger on entry, for the next arriving safari company to pay for you using their card.
4. If you are travelling to the Sala gate, the Crocodile Camp (located along this route) has a pressure pump. This is the only place to stop off if you get a flat tyre.
5. During the dry period the temperatures can range from 20-40 degrees Celsius, therefore an adequate supply of water in a cool box is a necessity.
Accommodation: (Formerly known as Mrs. Simpson’s Guest House)
A Rocha Kenya
Mwamba Bird Observatory and Field Study Centre
PO Box 383
Watamu, 80202, Kenya