I wrote this sitting beneath a spectacular starry sky here in Tsavo. I treasure these starlit hours. In the human world, the setting sun signifies the end of the day; in the natural world, it's simply time for a new cast of characters to take the stage. It may appear more peaceful, yes, but it is by no means asleep. The croaking of frogs, the cries of bush babies, and even the distinctive sawing sound of the leopard remind us that the natural world is very much awake.
For this month's Field Notes, I wanted to share some secrets of Tsavo: some history, some insights I think you'll find interesting, and some of my own memories. When circumstances allow, I hope you are able to come experience the magic of this remarkable place for yourself.
Tsavo, A Land Where Time Doesn't Count
Tsavo is one of those rare gems where nature still reigns. That fact is profoundly evident this year, thanks to unprecedented long rains. Life abounds: Birds chirp from every branch and ipomoea creepers blanket every surface, creating a white veil of flowers atop all the greenery. Staring across its vast horizon, where the heavens dip to meet the land, one can’t help but think this is the world as it should be.
David and Daphne Sheldrick dedicated their lives to creating a National Park out of this extraordinary land, and it is the place I have been fortunate enough to call home since birth. Tsavo has a magic that is difficult to put into words, but no one could describe it better than my mother. Daphne’s absolute love for Tsavo can be felt profoundly through her writing:
“Tsavo is a land where time doesn’t count and where everything is just as it was meant long ago. Trees and flowers are left to grow unchecked, and streams and rivers flow where they will. Cotton wool clouds drift across a sky of brilliant blue whose clarity is unsullied by pollution. Here, all creatures live in accordance with a law that has governed nature since the world was new — the survival of the fittest. We, who lead sheltered and protected lives, might think of it as a cruel and rather frightening place, for it is a pristine world where mercy is unknown, but it is intensely fascinating with a mysterious charm of its very own that is pure and beautiful.
Those that have once tasted its enchantment find it addictive and can never again escape its spell. They are drawn back as though by a magnet to savour the solace that it imparts to the soul. There, stepping back in time, we glimpse the world of yesterday, and we will be reminded that we share it with many other creatures who are also a part of creation with a specific purpose to their being, a vital ink in the chain of life. Then thinking of the wonders all around us, we become mindful also of a great responsibility that has been vested in us, the responsibility to keep the chain of life intact, for to break a link is to jeopardise our own survival and that of many other creatures too. Suddenly things fall into place and we begin to understand a little more about living, and a little more about ourselves as well which is the key to being at peace with oneself and with others.
The solitude of a wild place fulfils another important function in a busy world, for it stirs the chords of our being and appeases a basic yearning deep inside ourselves for things we have probably never known and cannot begin to understand. But here, people caught up in the bustle of life can escape and find themselves afresh in a primitive place where all other cares fade before the basic one of survival.”
Our conservation story began in 1948, when Tsavo was set aside for all things wild. David, who was appointed its founding warden, was given the daunting task of transforming this vast expanse into a place where wildlife could thrive. He and his team were confronted with a largely dense thicket, home to elephants scarred by years of being poached and lions with man-eating tendencies. For the next three decades, they navigated droughts and floods, tackled poaching and political threats, and turned Tsavo into the model for conservation that it is today. (If one ever doubts their commitment to the cause, we need only remember the three-month stint David and his workforce spent marooned on the north bank of the Athi River, after extensive floods left them well and truly stranded! Rather than despair, they devised a way to have supplies ferried across in a small rubber dinghy attached to a cable spanning the raging torrents, so they could continue their work unabated.)
Rivers give and rivers take — and they certainly present their fair share of challenges. One of David’s earliest achievements was finding a way to cross the Galana River to unlock the 3,000 square miles of Tsavo that lay beyond its northern bank. It took over a year to complete, but the Lugard’s Causeway was an extraordinary accomplishment, as they successfully diverted the Galana River and connected the park from top to bottom. This was a practical undertaking, but also something more visionary: After spanning the Galana, the roads follow elephant trails through the Mpia Gap and into the wilds of the north, a place dominated by magnificent tuskers and giant baobab trees. David saw the potential in this remarkable corner of Tsavo, and it is no coincidence that it is where Ithumba, one of our three Reintegration Units, now sits.
In a place ordinarily as arid as Tsavo, rivers become the focal point. Its perennial Tsavo and Athi/Galana Rivers are certainly the places where all life converges, while the seasonal Tiva River to the north and Voi River to the south have their own share of action. Tall acacia, newtonia, and tamarind trees fringe the rivers and tributaries, along with my favourite, the doum palms. It was in the shade of these palms that we would set up camp during my childhood. David was very particular in this regard, and always picked a site that was comfortable, and his safaris were well-organised, and situated in a picturesque area. I have many fond memories of these impeccable camps, basking in nature and watching the sun glimmer above the hulking Yatta Plateau.
For if there is one landmark inextricably linked to Tsavo, it is the Yatta Plateau. This feat of nature dominates the horizon beginning in Ol Donyo Sabuk, close to Nairobi, and continuing south through the Park for nearly 300 kilometres. It serves as the main watershed for the Athi and Galana Rivers and their tributaries. Springs bubble from its steep escarpments, shaded by giant fig trees clinging onto granite boulders. These springs are a source of life during the dry season, which in turn makes them vulnerable to poachers. It was David who recruited Tsavo’s first anti-poaching force, and following his blueprint, our field teams continue to place special focus on these vulnerable and precious areas.
Protecting all of Tsavo’s wild residents is no small task: The park is home to more than 70 mammal species, along with some 500 types of birds. Kenya’s most iconic species — elephants, buffalos, rhinos, giraffes, and lions — preside over its plains. These are the sights that game drives are made of, but I am equally captivated by all that is hidden from our eyes. Take, for instance, the naked mole rat, which leads its life entirely underground. The next time you look upon the Yatta Plateau, just imagine these burrowing machines within, feasting on tubers and creating vast labyrinths amidst the lava. Tsavo is inhabited by the big and the small, each as fascinating as the next, and it needs many lifetimes to unearth and fully understand all its fascinating wonders.
Tsavo has defined my life. While David was creating a network of roads snaking 2,000 kilometres through the park, I was taking my first steps in its red earth. While Daphne was hand-raising orphaned elephants and rhinos, I was enjoying my bottle right alongside them. It is ironic that the campsite along the banks of the Galana River, where I have so many fond childhood memories with my parents, is now the very place where the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust owns an Eco Lodge called Galdessa. Here, we invite guests to unlock the secrets of Tsavo for themselves, to immerse themselves in its wonders and enjoy exclusive access to the property. By staying at Galdessa, you also directly contribute to the continued protection of Tsavo, as all proceeds from the Eco Lodges are reinvested into our conservation projects.
This template is especially fitting now, at a time when we need food for the soul more than ever. I always go back to Daphne’s quote: “The solitude of a wild place fulfills another important function in a busy world, for it stirs the chords of our being and appeases a basic yearning deep inside ourselves for things we have probably never known and cannot begin to understand.” Tsavo, in all its mystery and wonder, has the power to enchant us in a way that we didn't even know was possible in today’s modern world. When you allow yourself to be cast under its spell, you too will find yourself transported on a beautiful journey of self-discovery.
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 be the first to receive future editions of Field Notes, please choose the 'get our emails' option at the bottom of this page and subscribe to the International Newsletter.