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Trip Report - The Great Walk

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Conjure up a marriage between “Out of Africa” style camping and hunter-gatherer game tracking and you get the Great Walk. Taking place in Kenya’s largest national park, Tsavo, the walk covers a comfortable 153 kms in 12 days.
Situated in south eastern Kenya Tsavo is approximately 12,000 km2 and was designated in 1948 by the colonial government. Divided into East and West the boundary between the two sections of the park is formed by the Mombasa-Nairobi highway and the railway line that connects the hinterland to the coast.
We started near the World Heritage site of Mzima Springs in Tsavo West and the walk followed the contour of the old WW1 road alongside the Tsavo River. In most places the road had disappeared and we stayed on gametrails, weaving in and out of Acacia mellifera scrub. The distinctive doum palms lining the red mud river provided our compass to the east. Not that we needed one with 5 very competent guides, one of whom has walked these paths for the past 30 years as an anti-poaching officer in the Kenya Wildlife Service before becoming a tourist guide.
The remains of several WW1 British forts were seen along the river. Fearing an incursion from German East Africa along the Tsavo River, the British built and manned these forts to protect their Achilles heel, the railway bridge.
Typically each day’s walk was no longer than 15kms. Every night was spent on the banks of the river in comfortable walk-in tents with a private “verandah”. Hot bucket showers and a limited laundry service were provided each day. The food, served up by the best safari cook I’ve come across, was fantastic. We ate quiche, roast turkey, traditional Kenyan food and fresh salads, to name but a few. Tusker beer and imported wines were served with every dinner.
Tsavo is home to all the major African plains game species. There are two very successful rhino and elephant re-introduction programmes in the park. The latter having survived the so-called poaching wars. The war with the Somali shifta armed with AK47 automatic rifle in the late 1970s and early 80s was especially damaging to the elephant numbers. However, they have recovered and it’s now estimated that around 15,000 live within the park. We were treated to many encounters with these imposing animals and it is a privilege to be part of their world. There’s nothing like that immediate smell of fresh elephant dung and the thrill of hearing that peculiar rumble they give when communicating with each other - especially when you’re on foot.
Of course, a story about Tsavo wouldn’t be complete without reference to the man-eating lions. In the last few years of the 19thC two opportunistic male lions found the labourers working on the railway bridge over the Tsavo River, easy pickings. It is estimated that in a 10 month period over a 100 workers were snatched and devoured. The engineer in charge of the building project was Colonel Patterson and his book “The Man Eaters of Tsavo” describes his trials and tribulations in bringing the culprits to book. He claims to have found their den, a small cave in a lugga (dry river bed) where bones were supposedly scattered. Whether or not this is true, a feature of the trip is a visit to the cave where one’s imagination can run wild with gruesome fantasy.
We popped into the Tsavo Railway Station which is a blast from the past with its original features still intact … and functioning. The dates on the oven-fired clay roof tiles were 1893, the logo on the wrought iron bench, UR (Uganda Railways). Considering the highway conveying modern containers and articulated trucks runs parallel to the railway hardly a kilometer away, I had difficulty in putting the two together in the same mental picture.
Not far downstream from the railway bridge the Tsavo River joins the Athi River and becomes the Galana. This large, sluggish river is deceptive as it can, and does, turn instantly from languid to raging when flash floods occur. And as the only permanent water for Tsavo East it is a magnet for wildlife.
We saw thousands of buffalo and elephant. And other species such as waterbuck, Peter’s gazelle, gerenuk, fringe-eared oryx and zebra were abundant. Of course, the predators weren’t far behind and we had a sighting of a leopard and several of lion. On the last morning we had four different lion sightings - all the more exciting for being on foot, on their level.
One of the highlights for me was the remains of the camp that Denys Finch Hatton and Blor Blixen used on their hunting trips. It wasn’t so much from what was left (a few non-descript bricks lying about) but more from the imagining of their lives, while we sat and drank sundowners on the banks of the river.
Our final night was spent at Hemingway’s in Watamu on the coast. With its well-run comfort it provided a soft landing from the highs of the walk.

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