“Humbling” was the word used by a fellow traveller to describe the day’s safari when we met at the Sarova Salt Lick Game Lodge at the edge of Kenya’s Tsavo West National Park, and humbling it certainly was.
When your head is sticking out of the top of a jeep, bumping along a barely-there track at the top of a hill, and all you can see are the plains, the vast, grassy plains that stretch as far the horizon, and even further to Tanzania, you feel small. I felt dwarfed by the sheer expanse of the environment around me, and almost physically struck by its beauty.
Tsavo West, located in south eastern Kenya, really is lush: long grass; little pink, purple and yellow flowers swaying by the side of the track; leaves on the umbrella-shaped trees that litter the incredible landscape. It even smells green here. The air is warm, fresh, and sweet, an almost heady combination that rushes through the open-top truck.
That first day in Tsavo West, we didn’t see many animals in comparison to neighbouring Tsavo East – gazelles, a few elephants, the footprints of a lion – but I didn’t care. From the open plains to the distant sight of Kilimanjaro peeking out above the clouds at sunset, the landscape was enough.
We had arrived earlier that day just in time for lunch at the Taita Hills Hotel after an eventful journey from the edge of Tsavo East. Following a brief stop in the bustling town of Voi to stock up on water, Joseph drove us towards the reservation on what is one of the main roads that connect Kenya and Tanzania: a rutted, red earth track.
No-one followed the rules of left and right, but simply drove on whichever side of the road offered the most traction for the tires. We rumbled past jack-knifed trucks, whole families crowded onto scooters, women balancing belongings on their heads, and countless roadside villages, churches and schools.
Salt Lick, the hotel on stilts, reminded me of a cluster of luxurious treehouses. The central section houses the reception, the restaurant, and a drinking area across three floors, while the bedrooms stretch out left and right across wooden bridges.
From the cafe on the top floor we watched gazelles in the distance, none venturing as far as the watering hole in front of the hotel, which attracts animals during the dry season. The tea and snacks, however, did attract the attention of the supremely confident Superb Starlings, strutting their stuff and positioning themselves in prime spots, ready to swoop if a crumb fell to the floor.
Our second day in Tsavo West saw a sleepy, pre-sunset start to a game drive that began with a just-missed sighting of a lion. No matter how many times I refocused the binoculars, I couldn’t see hide nor hair of the lion that had supposedly been there minutes before.
So we kept moving, driving through more beautiful scenery, chatting amongst ourselves, and spotting gazelles, water bucks, ostriches, and eagles – even giraffes running, awkward and elegant all at once. But everyone was thinking about the lion.
Joseph, who leads safaris right across Kenya, was clearly trying hard to spot signs of any recent big cat movements. As the time to head back for breakfast drew closer, I resigned myself to the fact that we wouldn’t see a lion after all – and then all of a sudden, there she was, a lioness stalking through the long grass.
The atmosphere in our jeep, and in the smaller open-topped vans nearby, was euphoric: a lioness on our last day! Joseph drove us as close as he could without frightening her, driving off-road into terrain that only our jeep could conquer, leaving the other safari-goers behind. She sauntered right past us, each muscle movement one of elegance and strength, before she sat down languidly under some trees.
We thought that was the end of the experience, but Joseph drove us on, braving a precarious-looking stretch of half-washed away track to get closer to the cat. She didn’t seem fazed by our presence, but then again six tourists are small fry compared to the crowds that descend on the reserves in the dry months of December and January.
It felt like a privilege to be so close to the lioness, acutely aware of the power she had sitting just six feet away. A lion hadn’t been at the top of my wish list of animals to see (I had been most eager to see zebras and giraffes) but once she was in front of me, I understood the others’ enthusiasm – and felt it myself.
Back at the lodge, we arrived late for breakfast (accompanied by thick, dark, Kenyan coffee for me) but no-one cared: we had finally seen a lion. Before leaving the park, Joseph took us up to a high point that offered panoramic views of the landscape. The scenery was stunning, and it was the first time we were able to leave the jeep and walk around, providing a few quiet moments of reflection, and of course the chance to capture some final photographs.
As we left to start the journey back to Diani Sea Resort, I was still high with the excitement of it all, the sheer exhilaration of seeing these wild animals in their incredible natural environment. The safari was so much more than I had ever expected, from the landscape to the lives of the animals: it was, without exaggeration, a truly unforgettable experience.