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Melissa Shales

Death and Rebirth at Tsavo, Kenya


Nature is extraordinarily forgiving. After three years of drought, a few days of rain and even the road is sprouting in Tsavo. A forbiddingly grey landscape a short two days ago is now green, we see a decidedly nervous elephant matriarch protecting her baby from our monstrously large 4WD and a much more chilled giraffe couple teaching their twins to browse. There are young in the park and the cycle of life is turning nicely. Yet Tsavo’s name (which means slaughter in the Kikamba language) is forever linked with blood as red as its earth – both in the fight against poaching and for the survival of Kenya’s wildlife and for the legendary story of the Maneaters of Tsavo.

In her glorious book, West with the Night, early aviator Beryl Markham talks of spotting from the air for big game hunters and how the elephant herds soon learnt to huddle round and hide the giant tuskers from her plane when they heard the sound of her engine. Tsavo’s elephants were legendary and suffered more than their fair share, first from hunters and later from ivory poachers. Security is now ferocious here and the park is a cornerstone in the preservation of endangered species. At its heart is the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, a heavily protected inner sanctum for the black rhino. It is also to Tsavo that the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage in Nairobi brings its toddlers at the age of two, to start their reintroduction back to the wild. Yet poachers still prowl around the fringes of the park searching for a way through the heightened security.

The other story – of the Maneaters of Tsavo – belongs to history and the railway. A reign of terror began in 1898 as the railway builders reached the Tsavo river. There had been a long drought followed by a flood, bringing with it disease, during which many of the Indian workers died and were left, according to local African custom in an open cave. There they were found by two exceedingly hungry lions who went from corpses to live Indian ‘coolies’ and over the next eight months created havoc, despite the best efforts of railway boss, American engineer Colonel John Henry Patterson, and a great many hunters who latched on the story and rushed to the area to join the hunt. In all around 135 workers were taken before Col. Patterson eventually managed to shoot the killers, shipping their trophies over to the Chicago Field Museum, where they remain to this day. The Kenyans have asked for them back, enlisting the help of one Senator Barack Obama, and are hopeful that they may one day be displayed in the Railway Museum in Nairobi where they rightfully belong.

Kenya Time – on the Jambo Express DeLux

Nairobi to Mombasa by train

A hollow whistle, a sigh, clank, wheeze, creak, squeak, clack, squeak, clackety-clack and the train finally groans back into life. It is 4.43am on the blackest night imaginable somewhere in the middle of the African bush, between Nairobi and Mombasa. At about 10.30pm, less than 4hrs after leaving Nairobi and well under a third of the way into our extremely leisurely journey, we came to a total standstill behind a derailed freight train. The party mood on board is forgiving. A couple got off and went up to watch the activity at the crash site, getting locked off the train by their well-oiled cabin mates, ending up prowling the windows begging to be let back on. Most people are happy because it means we will be travelling through Tsavo National Park in daylight offering far better chances of spotting wildlife. It is hard to imagine the same reaction back in Britain where impatient commuters demand refunds if the trains are 10 minutes overdue.

I wish I could post this now, but of course, even my mobile dongle is way out of reach of any server. Instead, there is just the glow of the keyboard, the infinity of the African night sky, and clack of the train wheels to rock me to sleep for what little remains of the night in my first class sleeper on the Jambo Express Delux.


Update. It’s now 11.30am and we are in the middle of the Tsavo National Park, vast acreage of red dust and grey scrub with tiny glimmerings of vivid green shoots, the instant results of the first rains in nearly three years. Wildlife count so far – one large indeterminate bird, one dead zebra and three live ones, but I have hopes. The train captain has just been round to say we will make it to the Mombasa area by 4pm (we were due in at 8.30am) but when I say area, I don’t mean station – we are ending our journey at Mazeras on the outskirts of the city as, apparently “a second train has capsized, and this time it is more serious.” Two derailments in one night on one line is quite a track record.


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