The lifeline that is the Athi/Galana River, and the very special place we have created along its banks.
What a month we’ve had! In the past few weeks, eight babies said goodbye to the Nursery as they took the next step towards their wild lives and graduated to our Reintegration Units: rascals Mapia, Malima, and Kuishi to Ithumba, joined a few weeks later by best friends Jotto and Ambo, with mischievous Emoli and older girls Tagwa and Sagala headed to Voi. The long-overdue rains have also brought Tsavo back to life. The National Park is once more swathed in green in parts and the rivers are, if not yet rushing at full force, certainly reinvigorated. This brings me to the topic of this month’s note: The lifeline that is the Athi/Galana River, and the very special place we have created along its banks. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do.
– Angela Sheldrick
Visitors to Kenya are spoiled for choice among the country’s many natural wonders, from the flamingo-filled waters of Lake Nakuru to the towering peaks of Mount Kenya to the wildlife-dotted plains of southern Tsavo. Among all these incredible sights, its rivers remain largely underrated gems, yet they are the source of life for so much of the country. One of the more notable rivers — and one that factored large in my early childhood — has to be the Athi/Galana River. With its headwaters near Nairobi, the Athi enters the northern end of Tsavo East and snakes 100 kilometers into the heart of the National Park. Here, it is joined by the Tsavo River, which is fed by waters from the Mzima Spring. Never have you seen such crystal clear water, which percolates from the Chyulu Hills and seeps through lava. When the Tsavo River meets the Athi, its name changes to the Galana River. This flows through the southern third of Tsavo East National Park for another 100 kilometers, before exiting the park and continuing to its final destination, the Indian Ocean.
The Athi/Galana River is inextricably linked with Tsavo East and all the creatures who call it home. Each season, the river reinvents itself: During the dry season, it bravely streams onwards, offering a lifeline to the thirsty wildlife in the region and nurturing a needed blaze of greenery along its banks. During the height of the rainy season, it is a different beast entirely, raging mightily, accompanied by a deafening roar. From the hippos wallowing in the shallows, to elephant families strolling on the sandbanks, we see all manner of life unfold in and around the Athi/Galana River.
As a young girl, I remember many a game drive taken from our home in Voi to the Galana River in the company of my Mum and Dad, David and Daphne. In those days, Tsavo was home to a population of 8,000 black rhino and never was this hearty population more on display than along the river. It was always an exciting journey, one that was invariably punctuated by a rhino charge along the way. Because of these treasured memories, we have always held a deep passion and love for this special area.
Two years ago, a lodge called Galdessa became available. This property was first built on the banks of the Galana River nearly 20 years ago, well after David and Daphne had left Tsavo. The Trust immediately took up the opportunity to include this remarkable site in our portfolio of eco lodges. As if we needed any confirmation of who truly rules the land, the dramatic flooding of 2018 served as a reminder! The waters of the Galana River rose to unprecedented heights, taking with it much of the Camp. What began as an extensive refurbishment of the property soon became an entire rebuild.
The flooding of Galdessa happened just weeks after Daphne died, and in the midst of my despair, it was apparent to me what my parents would have done in similar circumstances. This, of course, would be to rise again stronger than before, because life presents constant challenges — and it is up to us to surmount them, not be defeated by them. So, starting from scratch, we created an exquisite property worthy of the site on which it stands. Galdessa truly takes your breath away. Standing on its grounds, one is privy to a wonderfully unspoilt world, as everyday life unfolds in one of Kenya’s rare remaining wilderness areas. Facing the landmark Yatta Plateau, which is the longest lava flow in the world, the camp offers a unique glimpse into this natural world: at any given moment, you might see hippos wallowing in the mud, elephants strolling across the river or crocodiles soaking up the sun’s rays. While the regular rhino charges of my childhood are more of a rarity these days, as populations throughout Kenya have been severely diminished through rampant poaching, there are still some black rhinos who call the area home.
Galdessa also offers access to another key aspect of the Trust’s work: Voi. Until now, access to our original Reintegration Unit was sullied by the poor quality of properties in its proximity, but Galdessa has changed all that. Now, guests of Galdessa can visit our Voi Reintegration Unit, where they can have a firsthand look at our work rescuing and raising orphaned elephants, and meet some of the orphans who are currently taking their steps back towards a wild life there. Best of all, by staying at Galdessa, one is giving back to the protection of the area, as the lodge’s not-for-profit template ensures that revenue generated from Galdessa is put back into conservation projects within the Tsavo landscape.
It has certainly been a convoluted journey to reach this stage — not unlike the twisting and turning route that the waters of the Athi/Galana River take on their journey from Nairobi to the Indian Ocean. After all this, however, we can now proudly pronounce Galdessa open as of 8 June 2019. This stunning property complements our existing camps at both Umani and Ithumba. Each location is so different and individual that it makes for a wonderful circuit. This allows you to truly experience all that the Tsavo Conservation Area has to offer, while simultaneously contributing towards its protection and future. It also allows you to follow the journey of the orphans at our three Reintegration Units, as they work their way towards a wild life. Tsavo is Kenya’s biggest and most important National Park, home to Kenya’s largest wild elephant populations, and a place steeped in history for the Sheldricks. As you journey along its remarkable rivers, I hope you derive as much joy as I did as a child — and do to this day — from the life unfolding on its banks.
Learn more about Galdessa
Angela Sheldrick produces Field Notes as a special monthly email, providing her personal insight into varying aspects of Kenya's wildlife and habitats, along with the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. To receive the email edition of Field Notes, which includes interviews with our staff, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.