Tsavo East and West National Parks collectively form Kenya‘s largest protected area, and are flanked by several smaller private reserves. Also known to be Kenya’s largest, second oldest and arguably wildest national park, Tsavo National Park was gazetted in 1948 to protect a 21,812-sq-km tract of savannah that remained largely unsettled as a result of limited water resources. The untrammeled wilderness of Tsavo is split into Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park, the smaller Tsavo West protects a hilly volcanic landscape overlooked by Kilimanjaro, while Tsavo East comprises open semiarid plains stretching 200 km (124 miles) north of the Nairobi–Mombasa Highway. 

Together, they support Kenya’s largest elephant population and plenty of lions as well, although the latter tend to lack the long manes of their Masai Mara counterparts. Cheetah, gerenuk, oryx and hirola are more common in Tsavo East, while black rhino and lesser kudu are more likely to be seen in Tsavo West. 

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Tsavo East National Park 

Even without its westerly neighbour, Tsavo East National Park stands out as the largest of Kenya’s national parks, covering 13,747 sq km (5,307 sq miles) of semiarid scrubland cut into two unequal parts by the perennial flow of the palm-fringed Galana river. Tsavo East safari-goers rarely tour the northern two-thirds of the park, which means that the park looks larger on a map than it feels on the ground. Even so, it is a vast tract of African wilderness, notable for its overwhelming sense of space, but also for the wildlife that concentrates seasonally along the Galana and Voi rivers, both of which are serviced by a network of good game-viewing roads. The main points of access to Tsavo East National Park are the Voi Gate when coming from the Nairobi–Mombasa Highway, the Mtito Andei or Manyani Gates when arriving from Nairobi or Tsavo West National Park and the Sala Gate when driving from Malindi. 

Voi Safari Lodge

The clifftop Voi Safari Lodge, situated less than a 10-minute drive from Voi Gate, makes for an excellent first stop for Tsavo holiday packages in the park, with its commanding position above the scrubby flatlands that run towards the distant Galana river. Below the lodge, a muddy waterhole frequently attracts thousand-strong buffalo herds, while a slow scan of the interminable plains almost invariably reveals herds of elephants grazing below shady trees or making their way to drink at the waterhole. 

Tsavo East safaris to Voi Safari lodge offer visitors an opportunity to watch the wildlife action over a drink at the bar or follow a well-marked footpath down to a small hide for close-up photographs of antelope, baboon and storks alongside the waterhole. The grounds of the lodge support rich and varied birdlife,with Alpine swiftand red-winged starling being particularly con-spicuous, along with the colourful red-headed agama lizards and oddball hyraxes that scurry across the rocks. 

Game Drive via The Voi River Route

The park’s most accessible and reliable game-viewing circuit follows the Voi river east from Voi Gate to Aruba Dam. Impala, zebra and gazelle are common in this area, and it is a good place to look for the localized gerenuk and Besia oryx, as well as striking dry-country birds such as golden pipit, vulturine guinea fowl, golden-breasted starling and Somali ostrich.  The trademark maneless lions of Tsavo East are often seen lounging below trees in the vicinity of Aruba Dam, while cheetahs inhabit the open country around the entrance gate. The dam constructed in 1951 to create a near-permanent water source in this otherwise arid locale, has an attractive setting below low hills. It generally supports a wide selection of waterbirds and wildlife, except when it dries up in years of severe drought. The lush Kanderi Swamp, which lies south of the main game-viewing road between Voi Road and Aruba, is another near-perennial source of water.

Galana River

Running through the heart of Tsavo East before it flows into the Indian Ocean a short distance north of Malindi, this river, also known as the Sabaki, is the second-longest in Kenya. Its 70,000-sq-km catchment area runs from the foothills of Kilimanjaro to the Athi Plains outside Nairobi. Two popular tented camps lie on the river’s southern banks, which are lined with doum palms and lush riverine vegetation. The most significant landmark along the Galana is the misleadingly named Lugard Falls, a series of white-water rapids running across a potholed bed of black dolomite striated with quartzite. 

A short distance downriver, there is a viewpoint over a pool where hippos and crocodiles are almost always in residence. A public game-viewing road commonly used for Tsavo East safari game drives follows the southern bank of the Galana as far east as Sala Gate, through an area of dense scrubland inhabited by large numbers of elephants and buffaloes. The area to the north of the Galana has reopened a few years ago after being closed since the 1980s, when it was overrun with poachers. 

Mudanda Rock

Mudanda Rock, a 2-km long inselberg, rears impressively from the surrounding plains, offering excellent views across to the distant Galana river. The name Mudanda (Strips of Drying Meat) refers to the near vertical quartzite striations that run through the rock like multicoloured veins. The crest of Mudanda Rock, which can be reached from a clearly sign- posted car park via a set of concrete stairs, overlooks a small natural waterhole where large numbers of elephant and other animals, including buffaloes, frequently gather to drink and wallow. The area is also known for its dense leopard population, but these elusive cats are seldom seen in daylight hours. 

Tsavo West National Park 

Although Tsavo West sprawls over an impressive 7,065 sq km, the main Tsavo West safari circuit is relatively compact, focusing on the volcanic landscapes to the north of the Tsavo river. The dense bush means that wildlife is less easily spotted than in some other national parks, and predator sightings are rather hit and miss. Among the more commonly seen large mammals are zebra, elephant, buffalo, impala and giraffe. The Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary within Tsavo West is one of the more reliable places in Kenya to look for black rhinoceros, and the park is also good for the skittish lesser kudu. This area is accessible from the Nairobi–Mombasa Highway via Mtito Andei Gate and the more southerly Tsavo Gate, while visitors coming from Amboseli can use the Chyulu gate. 

Shetani Lava Flow

A relict of the most recent major volcanic eruption in the Tsavo area, Shetani is a solidified stream of magma that erupted from the southern end of the Chyulu Hills about 200 years ago. According to local oral tradition, many people and animals were buried alive by the fast-flowing stream of fiery lava, accounting for its  Swahili name of Shetani, which means devil. The site is strewn with jagged tar-coloured rocks that look like they might have been deposited recently thanks to the sparse vegetation. Tsavo West safari to Shetani Lava flow site can be explored on foot in the company of an armed ranger, although the treacherous caves that undercut some of the rocks probably pose a far greater threat than any wildlife, so it is best to tread very carefully. 

Mzima Springs

A freshwater oasis in the heart of Tsavo West’s dry savannah, Mzima Springs is a fascinating geological phenomenon. Fed by water that drains from the slopes of Kilimanjaro and Chyulu into a network of subterranean streams that flow above the non-porous Precambrian bedrock, the spring surfaces some 50 km east of its source. Having undergone a process of natural filtration via the porous volcanic rocks of the Chyulu Hills, this sparkling water emerges into a series of crystal clear pools at a daily rate of more than 200 million litres, some 10 per cent of which is diverted along an artificial pipeline to form the main source of water for Mombasa and its environs.

A walking trail through the lush palm and fever-tree thickets that surround Mzima might take anything from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how often you stop. The birdlife here can be excellent. The liquid song of the pretty black-headed oriole reverberates through the canopy, while more secretive woodland species include the African paradise flycatcher and Narina trogon. Fish eagles and African darters perch on overhanging branches, while pied kingfishers hover above the surface ready to feast on their favoured prey of small fish. Hippos and crocodiles are resident, antelope such as eland and lesser kudu frequently come down to drink from the pools, while bushbuck and duikers haunt the forest undergrowth.

Chaimu Crater

This volcanic hill rises in stark isolation from a setting of solidified lava flows, forming an almost perfect conical pyramid whose coal black ashy slopes support a meagre cover of yellow grass on one side, and are totally denuded on the other. The natural equivalent of a giant slagheap, the honeycombed hill can be climbed via a steep, soft and shadeless path to the rim, which offers fantastic views over the surrounding plains. The hot, dusty ascent is best taken in the relative cool of the early morning, keeping an eye open for snakes and resting mammals. 

Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary

In the 1960s the combined Tsavo parks had the largest population of black rhino in Africa (between 6,000 and 9,000) and they were a common sight. By 1981, however, Tsavo’s rhino had been poached to the brink of extinction and only 100 animals remained. As a result, most of Tsavo West’s surviving rhino were moved to the 62-sq-km Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, which was established in the northeast of the park in 1986. It is surrounded by electric fencing and has a dedicated KWS anti- poaching unit that provides round-the-clock protection to these rare creatures. 

The sanctuary is only open to Tsavo National Park safaris guided by a ranged from the lodges for a couple of hours each day. It is serviced by a limited road network and five waterholes and the chances of seeing rhino are fairly high in such a concentrated area. However, under the present threat of renewed poaching, the KWS are undertaking a different tactic to foil poachers – by moving rhino out of the sanctuary and dispersing them in greater areas of the park. This approach is simply a way to hide the actual whereabouts of each individual animal, making it harder for poachers to find them. 

The Lengend of Tsavo Man-eaters  

In March 1898, construction of the railway bridge across the Tsavo river was brought to a virtual standstill by a pair of man-eating lions who devoured at least 28 Indian labourers – and possibly as many as 140 – before they were shot dead that December, by hunter, author and army man J H Patterson (see p40). The maneless lions are almost certainly the most dedicated man-eaters on record, and their legend has lived on in books and movies such as Bwana Devil (1952) 

It is now thought that their taste for human flesh was acquired asa result of their scavenging improperly buried bodies of malaria victims associated with the railway. Patterson kept the lions’ skins as floor rugs until the 1920s, when he sold them to the Chicago Field Museum in the USA, where they remain on display to this day. 

How to Get to Tsavo National Parks

Tsavo East and West are separated by the Nairobi–Mombasa Highway. Several entrance gates to both parks lie along this road, including the widely used Voi Gate (to Tsavo East) and Mtito Andei Gate (to Tsavo East and Tsavo West). Despite their vast size and the presence of lodges and camps, these parks carry a low tourist volume and the most popular areas for game drives are the developed Kilaguni-Ngulia area of Tsavo West and the Voi river route through Tsavo East