At Satao Camp

Deep in the heart of Tsavo East


It’s the night of the 21st of November when a dazzling red-orange meteor with a blazing tail zips across the sky making it an incredible OMG moment for no one in the group sitting around the camp fire at Satao Camp in Tsavo East has ever seen such a celestial event.

We take it as a sign of good tidings of what’s to follow in the great Tsavo that only sixty years ago was the kingdom of the greats. Thousands of elephants and black rhinos roamed the thorn-filled plains of Tsavo East where no road had been carved save for the Lunatic Line constructed in 1900.

And now – the luxury of the unpretentious camp set deep in the heart of Tsavo is enchanting. “The spot where Satao Camp is built is called Mwakwaju,” explains Mike Kirkland of Satao. “Satao means giraffe in Waliangulu.”

Ah huh!

The Waliangulu were the master elephant hunters who used poison tipped arrows to hunt.

“The Waliangulu still exist,” continues Kirkland. “When Tsavo East was gazetted in 1948 they were re-located from Tsavo East to the Sagalla Hills where they were given land.”

The iconic hill at Voi is part of the Eastern Arc chain of mountains that harbour some of the rarest endemics in Kenya like the worm-like Sagalla caecilian – an unusual amphibian (same family as frogs) and threatened with habitat loss.

It’s the bird song that awakens us in the morn and a beautiful blue sky on unzipping the tent. The waterhole so stark blue is blinding by the centuries-old tamarind tree. It’s intriguing for tamarind trees are from the Orient and associated with the slave trading caravans of centuries past. Was this a staging post?

Everything is enchanting in the simplicity of the camp. A pair of tiny Pearl-spotted owlets settles on is favourite tree for the day – the thorny commiphora. They are the world’s tiniest owls – the size of a hand. As we enjoy breakfast, golden sunbirds hold the eye.

And then we’re out for the day in the mighty Tsavo derived from the Waliangulu word for slaughter. It’s taken just one storm after months of drought for the plains to transform. Red termite mounds dot the palatial plains and every tree of the Delonyx elata is in a burst of gorgeous flowers. The space is heady.

“Tsavo East completely transforms when the rains come,” Kirkland explains. “It usually misses out on the long rains until the November/December short rains.”

We’re the sole vehicle for hours on the plains. And then suddenly there’s a herd of three hundred of Tsavo’s iconic red elephants – big tuskers, teens, mums and babes. It’s beyond belief to see a herd like this today but still nowhere near the tens of thousands that literally filled the horizon even until the 1960s.

In 1976, 20,000 elephants remained in Tsavo East according to the writings of Dame Sheldrick. But the next three decades reduced the elephant population to just 6,000 within the entire ecosystem, an area twice the size of the Park itself, where once there had been 45,000.

With poaching under control and great security, the bright side is that elephant numbers are on the increase with 12,000 around Tsavo East according to the 2014 count.

“We now have 13 black rhinos in a new black rhino 100-kilometer-square sanctuary, all fenced and we’re moving 10 more rhinos from Ngulia sanctuary and Nairobi National Park,” tells John Wambua, the park’s senior warden.

The day passes with a picnic lunch on the Dika plains with hills of Kasigau, Maungu, Sagalla, Dawida and Mbololo stretched in the skyline.

The following morning at Lugard Falls on the Galana River water gushes over the chasm of rocks now submerged. During the dry season, rocks gleam where the rich earth-coloured water flows. Named after the colonial administrator, Lord Lugard who first described the area and had his finger bitten by a crocodile, a new steel bridge shimmers over the river.

On a whim, we drive to it stopping at Crocodile Point where the slithering reptiles rest on the beaches and rocks and over the bridge and up the Yatta Plateau – the world’s longest lava flow.

“The new bridge links the southern and northern side which for long was not open. Now because of security we have animals like elephants in the northern area,” tells Wambua.

That means there’s more to explore of the mighty Tsavo.

Map of Tsavo East drawn by David Sheldrick - first warden of the park in 1948
Map of Tsavo East drawn by David Sheldrick – first warden of the park in 1948 Copyright Rupi Mangat

Stay at Satao Camp

A leisurely hour’s drive from KWS Voi Gate, Satao Camp is ideal for nature-lovers yet rustic luxury for all.

If you’re driving in from Malindi, use KWS Sala Gate. Or KWS Manyani Gate to access Nairobi-Mombasa road. The enormous SGR and the 70-meter underpass for wildlife are by the gate.

The park is big – 13,747 square kilometres – so two to three nights is ideal.

Happy Birthday Nairobi National Park

Celebrating her 70th ‘Birthday’ on the Saturday 17th December, 2016
Nairobi National Park will be celebrating her 70th ‘Birthday’ on the Saturday 17th December, 2016.
We will mark this day with a peaceful Save Nairobi National Park/Commemoration Walk From Nyayo Stadium to Bomas of Kenya along Lang’ata Road from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
This is a great opportunity for those who have not been able to participate in the peaceful protests we have had during the midweek.

Kirepwe Island on Mida Creek, Watamu

Exploring ancient ruins

By Rupi Mangat

The plan is to have a feast of all things oceanic at the Crabshack at Dabasso Creek on the greater Mida Creek. I wade in the shallow water of the mangrove-lined creek to the dug-out canoe past village kids splashing around for a sunset sail on the water before the feast.

Local fishers' canoes on Mida Creek Watamu
Local fishers’ canoes on Mida Creek Watamu Copyright Rupi Mangat

Kahindi Charo – my local gondolier takes the oar and pushes the canoe into deeper waters while l enjoy the ocean-swept breeze (like a diva). The water turns deep blue in the mangrove-lined waterways splashed with a streak of gold of the setting sun. Charo is also a bird-guide and manager of Crabshack, the community-owned restaurant which you enter along a raised platform through a mangrove forest.

With the rising tide, the sand banks disappear and birds of many feathers – ospreys, yellow-billed storks, Goliath herons – settle on the mangroves to roost. A man on a surfboard with twenty-litre jerry cans sets off from Dabasso Creek to the island of Kirepwe. “It’s twenty minute away,” tells Charo. We make a date for the following morning to sail there because Charo tells of ancient ruins on the island – a sort of a ‘mini’ Gede.

Continue reading “Kirepwe Island on Mida Creek, Watamu”

Musanze Caves in Rwanda

Exploring Musanze Caves, Buhanga Eco-Park and Red Rocks Community Camp

Published Saturday magazine, Nation newspaper 3 December 2016

Musanze caves near Virunga National Park in Rwanda.
Musanze caves near Virunga National Park in Rwanda. Copyright Maya Mangat

Basking in the afterglow of having been in the company of the critically endangered Mountain gorillas on the high slopes of Volcanoes National Park in north-western Rwanda, we’re now in the belly of the ancient caves that are a product of the fiery volcanic drama of the volcanic Virungas. In Kinyarwanda, Virunga is the word for volcano.

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Amboseli’s Swamps

Part 2 of 2

Published Nation 26 Nov 2016


Kilimanjaro is resplendent in the blazing morning sun – but its snow cap’s on the peak of Kibo has melted to a thin teardrop. The Maasai bring their cattle into the park under the watch of the Kenya Wildlife Service rangers. As the skeletal cattle head for the swamps, they raise a halo of dust on the dry plains of Amboseli – derived from Empusel, the Maasai word for dry dusty plains. “There’s no water outside for the cattle,” explains the KWS ranger. “So we allow the community to bring the cattle for a few hours to drink in the swamps.”


Away from the edge of the park, we’re up on Observation Hill or Noomotio that’s juxtaposed between the lush swamp and the dry-white dust plains under the watchful gaze of Kilimanjaro. It’s surreal for in the midst of the drought-parched land, the deep blue lake has an islet brimming with the beautiful pink bird – the lesser flamingos and flocks of white pelicans.

It’s an exciting game drive in the custom-designed safari cruiser from Ol Tukai Lodge. By the edge of a swamp an enormous Verreaux’s eagle owl with its pink-eyelids so visible through the binoculars is perched on its yellow-bark acacia tree. It is Africa’s largest owl and the only owl with pink eyelids – we’re suitably impressed.

Continue reading “Amboseli’s Swamps”