As the grand tusks above Moi Avenue are symbolic of Mombasa, the arch of tusks at the entrance of Tsavo Inn are an icon of Mtito Andei. I get a glimpse of the hotel as our convoy drives past, triggering happy childhood memories of long journeys to the coast. Not far along the road, in the town’s dusty outskirts, is an unexpected sight: a set of real tusks on an elephant calmly foraging by the tarmac.
The construction of the new railway line has altered the movement of animals and humans through Tsavo’s vast landscape. The juxtaposition of the park’s past and present is perhaps most striking by the junction to Man Eaters Camp near Manyani.
Within a grove of doum palms, the famous railway bridge where lions terrorised construction workers still spans the dry River Tsavo. On the opposite side of the highway, an abandoned motel still stands on the ridge of a gentle valley. And now, there are the tall columns of the SGR tower above them.
We turn off at the Manyani Gate to Tsavo East National Park. A man dozing on a wooden stool in front of a ramshackle curio shop leaps to attention and hurries over with a broad smile and a handful of animal carvings. Amongst the beaded bangles and wooden statues in his shop is a surprising item — a “Calendar of Dictators”. It has all the usual suspects, but the inclusion of Margaret Thatcher alongside Hitler seems a tad harsh.
Leaving the calendar on the shelf, we drive through the gate and into a mass of scraggly bush. Tsavo’s rust-red earth and gnarly vegetation is unmistakable.
One of our South African friends accompanying us has spotted a new animal. It’s the bizarre-looking gerenuk, with its comically stretched neck and wide antenna ears.
We continue east along smooth dirt roads, dodging dik-diks darting out from the thick bush. There’s a sudden burst of static from our radio, followed by a cry of “cheetah, cheetah!”
Our friends in the car behind us have somehow spotted a lone cheetah through the tangle of branches. She watches us warily, and wanders off as we poke our heads through our roof hatches.
We skirt the immense Yatta Plateau, as it curves eastwards across the arid landscape. At its base, we reach another of Tsavo East’s most recognisable landmarks — Lugard Falls on the Galana River. The water level is low but still powerful as it churns through sculpted gullies in the striated rock. I think of a tale told to me years ago, of a rangers’ vehicle swallowed by the river after heavy rains and never seen again.
Beyond the falls is a high bridge that we cross to the river’s northern bank, and we follow the road through a gap in the plateau. From here, the road is arrow-straight, up to the wide River Tiva. Along the way, we come across the sun-scorched shell of an old Mercedes minivan.
The truth of how it got here is unclear, but one story is that it belonged to a crew of Air France flight attendants which broke down and they wandered into the bush to get help, also never to be seen again. As our surroundings glow golden in the evening light, we find a suitable campsite to pitch our tents along the River Tiva, beneath a canopy of rustling doum palms. Further along the dry riverbed, elephants dig for water below the sand, and above them marabou storks glide in a spiral on rising thermals.
We scramble up a nearby kopje to watch the sun sink behind the distant Yatta Plateau. There’s not another soul in sight for miles in every direction, and for a moment, Tsavo feels as wild as it has ever been.
For more information about Tsavo East and the campsites along the Tiva, head to kws.go.ke.