Board the train early in the morning, and by midday you could be eating lunch in front of a Tsavo watering hole.
Thanks to the recent arrival of the SGR train, Tsavo East and West, Kenya’s largest game reserve combined, are making a comeback. Since last summer, the train has stopped at Mtito Andei and Voi, both entrance points for the national parks. Instead of dodging the trucks on Mombasa Road, you could be safely ensconced at a lodge in the midst of the park within four hours of getting on the train in Nairobi or Mombasa.
Tsavo was once Kenya’s most exalted bit of African bush. It was here the famous man-eating lions of Tsavo picked off Indian labourers building the railway from the coast to Uganda, and where Theodore Roosevelt led a hunting expedition that killed more than 11,000 animals.
Over the years, Tsavo has faced a multitude of threats, not least the poaching epidemic that wiped out much of its elephant population in the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years, it has been eclipsed by the plains of the Maasai Mara, much smaller in size, but teeming with game, offering a more consistent wildlife experience.
Yet Tsavo still has plenty to offer. Its elephant population has partially recovered, and it is the only place in the country where “tuskers” still roam, the elephants with tusks of more than 100 pounds (45 kg). Tsavo West boasts both the eerie Shetani lava flow and the remarkable Mzima Springs, not to mention Lakes Jipe and Chala to the south. In the much larger Tsavo East, the landscape is classic Africa, the red dirt soil dotted with scrub, where one can drive for miles without spotting another vehicle.
To make the most of a weekend in Tsavo, we suggest you aim for at least two nights – the timings of the train make a one-night stay frustratingly short. Here, we highlight six lodges we like in different parts of the greater Tsavo area to suit different budgets and tastes. All of them offer transfers to and from the train station, whether as part of package or at an additional cost.
SATAO, TSAVO EAST
On any given day (particularly in the dry season), you are likely to find hundreds – yes, hundreds – of elephants outside your tent, with every room facing the watering hole. This is a charming camp, furnished in classic safari style – think simplicity, not opulence – with an inviting downtime area with daybeds and loungers. Much of the game comes to you, with the boundaries between park and camp pretty fluid. Vulturine guinea fowl, semi-tame impala, and other creatures wander in and around the 20-plus tents. We were particularly ‘wowed’ by the food here, with marinated kebabs grilled in front of us. The camp doesn’t have a pool, so arguably less suited for small children. FB starts from Ksh 5,500 pp, sharing, and Ksh 9,500 pp, sharing, for game-drive package. One-way transfer to and from Voi (around an hour) costs Ksh 2,000 pp (minimum of 2 guests).
TSAVO SAFARI CAMP, TSAVO EAST
The adventure begins at the river with guests arriving via inflatable dinghy to this intimate camp in the northern section of Tsavo East. Accommodation is in classically-furnished tents, providing a yesteryear feel without the usual modern-day refinements. All sorts of characters have passed through this camp, including Beryl Markham, the photographer Peter Beard, to name but a few. Most have left their mark in the guest book, a remarkable slice of history. This camp is pretty family-friendly with its own pool, and a more lenient game-drive experience in landrovers, where guests can ride on the roof. Its location doesn’t lend itself to the park’s best wildlife viewing, but longer drives are possible. FB starts from Ksh 10,500 pp, sharing, and a package with game drives and Mtito Andei transfers costs Ksh 18,375 pp, sharing.
LION’S BLUFF, LUMO CONSERVANCY
Perched on a hill – or bluff – with 360-degree views towards Tsavo West and over the community-run Lumo conservancy, this is a camp with a truly incredible perspective. Accommodation is in 12 solarpowered tents or two cottages overlooking the plains, all furnished in a rustic but colourful and cosy style. For families, particularly those with young children, rooms 11 and 12 consist of two adjacent cottage-style rooms. The lodge offers bush breakfasts, sundowners out in the bush, archery for kids, night game drives and nature walks. There’s also disabled access to one of the tents (as well as elsewhere in the lodge), although there are still about fi ve shallow steps to negotiate. FB rates start from Ksh 7,500 pp, sharing. Oneway transfers to and from Voi cost Ksh 4,000 per vehicle. Game drives are charged at Ksh 2,000 pp.
FINCH HATTONS, TSAVO WEST
After a two-year renovation, this already luxurious lodge reopened in 2015, bringing new meaning to the word ‘luxury.’ Little expense has been spared, with the addition of a state of the art spa and spacious cabins clustered around a small lake. Rooms have vintage “old Africa” fittings, indoor and outdoor showers, brass baths and outdoor decking overlooking the lake. Abundant water features from the pool to the watering holes help create a serene environment here, and it’s little wonder that this lodge has had an impressive guest list over the years. Behind the huge family cabin is a Little Explorers Club, which includes a fountain room for kids to run through. The camp offers a full SGR package, arranging tickets and transfers. Two nights all-inclusive of food and drink, game drives, transfers and train tickets cost $820 pp, sharing.
SEVERIN SAFARI CAMP & KITANI BANDAS, TSAVO WEST
This German-run lodge in the heart of Tsavo West is situated next to a watering hole, making mealtimes a prime game-viewing opportunity. Accommodation is in rustic wooden cabins, while honeymoon cottages a short walk from the main lodge hug another watering hole, and can offer exceptional game sightings. The lodge also runs the cheaper Kitani bandas, converted KWS houses that sleep two (or more if kids) on a s/c basis. It is equipped with a tiny kitchen and barbeque grill. Banda guests can use the lodge’s facilities, such as the pool. Severin’s FB rates start from Ksh 10,700 pp, sharing; the Kitani bandas from Ksh 7,300. Game drives are charged at Ksh 4,000 pp. A one-way SGR transfer costs Ksh 10,000 per vehicle.
KILAGUNI, TSAVO WEST
Location, location… Serena’s Kilaguni hotel, one of the oldest and largest properties in the park, occupies pride of place in front of a watering hole, the perfect lure for buffalo, elephant, buck, and other game. A sundowner veranda overlooks the spot, and all of the rooms to either side of the main block face the watering hole. Standard rooms are on the petite side, but comfortable. Each has its own private veranda, with the upper-level rooms enjoying the best views, with Mt Kilimanjaro usually visible. There’s a pool for refreshment in the heat of day, and a running track around the perimeter. Full-board rates start from Ksh 9,200 pp, sharing, with game drives costing Ksh 4,500 pp, or Ksh 6,800 for a night-time safari. A one-way transfer to or from Mtito Andei costs Ksh 1,600 pp.
*All rates given are for residents, based on low-season travel