kenya: tsavo west

Possibly the most novel and yet rustic of the accommodation, the Ziwani Tented camp offers you the opportunity to “camp? in the bush of Tsavo whilst not surrendering all creature comforts. The tents are amazing. For anyone who is put off by the idea of a night under canvas, I promise, it can actually be the most rewarding and best night’s sleep you will have.

Imagine not your traditional two man dome tent and airbeds, the stench of rubber and your canvas flapping in the wind, but a large, comfortable tent with a king sized double bed, electrics and, I kid you not, en-suite with an open air shower and hot and cold running water. You can almost forget you are in a tent – but fear not. This is soon brought swiftly back to you when, upon chancing an afternoon nap, you are awakened by the sounds of canvas being eaten. Presuming such a racket to come from a primate – a big one - at the very least, we crane our necks up to the roof, out of the mesh ‘windows’ and, upon establishing that there’s no holes in the roof big enough for a primate to fall through, we bravely start to jab the canvas roof from inside the tent, awaiting a squeal or at the very least a growl. Receiving neither, and expecting to at least encounter the warmth of a bare primate bottom, our curiosity deepens. Seemingly undeterred by the chaos unfolding within the tent, the “creature from space? as it could be aptly dubbed, ferociously continued its reign of terror, munching closer and closer to the lighting rig. Wondering whether it’s allowed, ethical, or even possible to electrify a primate through repeatedly switching the lights on and off, there seemed little available option other than being held ransom in the tent until it chose to leave – and that could be for hours! The cruel, and somehow amusing, option of electrification was soon dismissed – the tent, we discovered, had no electricity during daylight hours. Common sense really, but not really much help when fighting for your life. All that remained was to sacrifice our solitary breakfast bar to the beast and run towards the lodge faster than my little legs have ever carried me.

Slowly unzipping the tent, at the same time debating what was preferable: death by hideous primate beast or by the creepy crawly beasties we were letting inside, we hurled ourselves out of the entrance, jumped up to view the roof and scampered back indoors, furiously zipping as we went. With expectant eyes we looked at each other, neither yet voicing what we saw. Me, I saw sweet FA: nothing, zip, nada - but that was to be expected, I am, after all, almost as small as the largest primate. But Ali saw nothing either.

We had 4 options: either the beast was invisible, very fast, a figment of our imagination or as small as a mouse. It turned out to be the fourth, it was, indeed, a tiny, little, curious lizard: demonstrating that even the smallest and seemingly most insignificant of animals will impact on you in a country as diverse as its inhabitants.

Gaining confidence from our discovery we boldly left the tent and headed to the entrance of the camp for our evening safari. This was our only evening safari of the holiday and our second in a lifetime. We’re addicted! There’s something refreshing about exploring the African bush in the dead of the night, with nothing but torchlight to guide the way. Standing with our heads peeping above the vehicle roof we are prime targets for dive bombing flies the size of golf balls, but you soon learn to stand adjacent to the wind and wipe the bugs from your face without observation.

Comparatively, we saw little on the evening safari, but what we did see sent a chill down our spines. In the true depth of darkness there is little to spot other than eyes peering from the undergrowth, from tree branches and, most shockingly, right next to your vehicle. It’s entirely possible to literally bump into a herd of elephants under the veil of darkness, to literally be able to reach out and touch the buffalo wandering across your path.

Driving at breakneck speed through the darkness, you soon become accustomed to the body-jolting emergency stops signaling wildlife nearby, none of which you’d be able to spot without the able locals sitting at the front of the vehicle, eyes peeled toward the horizon. They can spot in 2 seconds what can take the tourist’s eyes 5 minutes to see: a distinct advantage when you are in the middle of God knows where!

Returning red-faced and breathless from our evening safari we arrived back at the camp to find the restaurant literally empty. In celebration of the balmy African evening, all furniture had been lifted onto the grass adorning the watering hole at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. We’ve rarely experienced such a romantic setting. As we dined under the stars next to the camp fire, accompanied by the chorus of the nearby bullfrogs, time literally stood still. I’d give anything to be back there now. There was such a sense of serenity, of purpose and of discovery. Seizing that rare opportunity to allow time to wait for us, we dined largely in silence, observing the water and shoreline for any sign of life. From time to time we’d lift our eyes to the trees overhead from which the bats were starting to emerge, and focus on the moonlight filtering through the branches and bouncing off the still lake. You knew there was wildlife out there, a reality brought home to you by the fact that it was common knowledge that it was wise to wear full length socks and trousers, and shuffle carefully across the grass to the buffet cart to avoid the snakes and crocs, but you simply didn’t mind. This was their territory after all, we are just two of the lucky few visitors determined to take nothing but memories and leave nothing but footprints.

Our final safari led us into Tsavo West, to a night at Ziwani Tented Camp: a small cluster of family tents, each sheltered by a wooden roof, nestled around a large lake/marshland. In contrast to the huge distances we'd covered in previous parks, Ziwani is much more about experiencing nature in close proximity - we embarked on a late afternoon walking safari, followed by a night drive, and then a second walking safari in the morning before we departed for Mombasa. We'd been on a walking safari in South Africa before - drove for a while into the heart of the reserve before leaving the vehicle and walking on foot for 2 hours. On that walk we didn't see a thing but the experience was exhilarating and educational, and we were looking forward to repeating it. The difference here was that the walks began from our campsite - literally metres away from our tent, we wandered past the rather understated warning signs and were back in gameland again. Minutes later, a basking crocodile appeared on the banks on the river, metres from where we passed. Hippos and storks followed, with the burbling roars announcing their presence long before we spotted them.

The afternoon sun was blazing and the walk was long and challenging - considering we'd been cooped up in a minibus for 9 days, our muscles and stamina weren't used to such a rigorous workout. But it was of course worth it - groups of baboons slowly meandered out of our path, the birdlife soared all around us, and the feeling that there was always something around, that at each point in this holiday we could only physically see perhaps 10% of the animal life that existed in every scene; and even that much was far in excess of our expectations. On the way back we passed the 'landing strip', an elongated bumpy field which would challenge even seasoned pilots, finding a group of the camp staff happily playing volleyball in the setting sun.

We encountered these kind and friendly employees later on, as they moved all the tables and chairs out of the restaurant and onto the banks of the lake; candlelit while the sun set through the trees, the log fire crackling away and the wine flowing. The stars began to twinkle, and despite the odd gradient the table found itself on, and the disparity in height between table and chairs, we again had chance to reflect on the wonderful fortune that we have, to be able to visit these parts of the earth more easily and with better knowledge than before, and to be able to have permanent trust that the people, the wilderness, and the setting will be as wonderful as each time previous.

The safari that night was dark and bewildering. In contrast to the intimate, windy roads we'd been taken through in Kruger two years before, with delicately constructed forests concealing bushbabies and aardvarks, here we roared along open roads, passing herds of impala and other buck, noting the cues left by elephant and other animals on their endless travels around the park, and trying to keep up with the spotlights frantically scouring the bush for those two tell-tale glistening little eyes reflected back from the now barren black landscapes.

Our final excursion was an early morning walking safari, just as the sun broke and the moon sank, affording us our only glimpses of the mighty Mount Kilimanjaro before the haze obscured it from view. It was a majestic sight - to the east, the sun climbed slowly through the trees, to the west the twin peaks towered high above, the moon nestling between them before disappearing. Within minutes the mountain and scene had both disappeared, remaining only as another precious memory.