Above; Snow-capped Kilimanjaro from Tsavo West Kitani bandas April 2020. Courtesy Severin Safari Lodge
Published: The East African Nation media
By Rupi Mangat
It was predicted that the snows of Kilimanjaro would vanish by 2020…but look at what’s happened
Kilimanjaro’s snow hat is perfectly on its head – that is on its dome-shaped Kibo also dubbed the roof of Africa because at 19,340 feet high, it’s the continent’s highest point.
Late March and the first surprise after leaving Diani famous for its powder white beach and blue warm water on Kenya’s South Coast was the mist covered peaks of Shimba Hills. It was surreal watching from the ridge of the escarpment as the mist rose, warming up to the rising sun.
Shimba Hills National Park is famous for being the only home in Kenya of the regal-looking Sable antelope whose head is adorned with a pair of sharp-pointed backward sweeping enormous horns.
Despite its regal bearings, the Sable is on a declining curve with as few as 50 from a high of 300 in the late 1950s. The park also has elephants and other big game and is listed as one of the top 25 biodiversity hotspots in the world for plant life.
But time is not on our side to enter the Sable-famous park. We hasten to Tsavo West in the corona curfew days.
We’re the first visitors entering through Tsavo Gate by Tsavo River. A stunning Scarlet-chested sunbird has us enthralled as we wash our hands before driving in. A train speeds by on the SGR over the enormous bridge standing on towering columns over the Tsavo River. With few gaps between the mounted rail, it has forever blocked one of the greatest migrations on earth – that of the elephants between the two great Tsavos. Instead we watch the famous red elephants of Tsavo – three at three different points along the main road browsing as huge trucks pass by.
Historically this side of the park by Tsavo River is where the two man-eaters of Tsavo disrupted the bridge being built over it during the construction of the Uganda Railway in 1896. For months a pair of lions crept into camp at night to snatch a sleeping railway builder. Eventually Colonel Patterson the English supervisor managed to shoot the two. At first, it was thought to be a pair of lionesses but they were maneless males. The lions of Tsavo do away with the manes because it’s too hot to support such a mass of hair.
Patterson then sold their bodies for US$ 5000 to the Field Museum in Chicago where the lions stare out at visitors to this day.
Scanning the rocky crags where the lions hid (identified by researchers from a 1890s photograph) there are no cats around.
Instead under a cloud-filled sky, the rocky crags give way to the wide stretch of the Ngulia escarpment which is home to another amazing phenomenon – that of tens of thousands of southward bound migrating birds from Eurasia flying over the escarpment. It was discovered only in 1969, when the newly-built Ngulia lodge switched on its lights and down came the migrants. It’s provided ornithologists with the opportunity to catch the birds in the mist nets and ring them so as to learn about their fight patterns.
We drive via the Roaring Rocks not far from the Rhodesia bridge built during the First World War over Tsavo River as the British and Germans from the neighbouring Tanganyika (now Tanzania) fought in the bush.
It gets less dense and the grass plains open to the lava flow of Shetani from the Chyulu hills. With no cars around, Lesser kudus and Fringe-eared oryx browse away. A snake stirs on the road and by the time we realise what it is, we’ve driven over it. We stop to check if we killed it. It’s nowhere in sight – and l’ve heard stories where snakes have tagged themselves under cars to make an appearance later.
Nothing of that sort happens when we arrive at the bandas. Relaxing by the bonfire at night the manager tells of leopards, big groups of elands, waterbucks, giraffes, elephants and at night the lions roaring.
It’s in the morning that Kilimanjaro makes its appearance with its snow-topped hat that hasn’t been seen in decades.
The corona virus has brought the world to a near standstill. But it’s doing wonders for nature. We make it to Nairobi just as the lockdown is announced on 24 March.
Once the lock down is over, make it to Tsavo. Kitani self-catering bandas are inexpensive and ideal for all. Booking: Severin Safari camp. You can drop in at Severin for meals and the spa. It’s 70 kms from both Mtito Andei and Tsavo gates – so you can drive in through one and exit through the other. Gate fee is payable only with credit card or MPESA.
From Nairobi to Diani South Coast is a whole day drive. You can avoid Mombasa island and its traffic by branching off at Samburu and driving through Shimba Hills and onto Diani. The Samburu-Diani stretch is almost all tarmac and takes two hours to drive.
You can also fly to Ukunda/Diani or take the (5 hours) to Mombasa island which means crossing the ferry to South Coast which can take a while if you are caught in traffic.