It’s a little past eight o’clock in the evening and about time for the campfire dinner at the Satao Camp in Tsavo East National Park, Kenya. The crunching sound interjected by grunts above my tent is a little distracting though. Apparently, a giraffe is feasting off the tamarind tree which provides shade during the day. The tent itself is a combination of wood, thatch, raffia and canvas. Access is granted or denied through vertical and horizontal zippers and it takes a while to get to grips with an abode without doors and knobs. It is neat and comfortable inside the tent with well laid beds, bedside lamps and a hot water shower in the bathroom. No television but of course, that is not why you’re here. There is wifi internet, even if you have to go to the camp lounge to be sure of connectivity. Thankfully, there is electricity all through the night and the camp lights – among other things – make the animals aware of human presence.
There is no air-conditioning though, as it’s cool and breezy at night. There’s a fan however for hot afternoons. There is also a can of insecticide on the reading table, as well as a torch. The torch isn’t just for light at night. It is also a form of communication. A series of flashes is meant to alert trained workers at the camp to come get you and accompany you around because all forms of wild animals roam around freely. Home to the ‘Big Five’ Satao is unique due to its amazing location in the heart of the park. It’s 50 kilometres from the Buchama gate of the park and the closest water source is about 20 kilometres away. However, there are depressions where water collects to form waterholes across Tsavo and one is right in the middle of the camp. This ensures that various animals converge for their daily drink and Satao is one of Africa’s premier elephant viewing camps. There are no fences around the camp; no dissuading animals from practically moving in at night, especially the herbivores who see the camp as safe from lions and other big cats. In actual fact, Satao is resident to over 100 impala and waterbuck that literally walk within feet of your tent. You are usually reminded that the animals own this place and the humans are mere guests.
There are almost 700 lions at Tsavo East and they are a major reason why we (a team of Nigerian corporates and media on a RwandAirfamiliarisation tour) are here. Tsavo National Park, which at 20,000km2 is approximately the size of Israel, Belgium or Wales, is Kenya’s largest park covering approximately 40 per cent of the total area of all of Kenya’s national parks and one of the most diverse in the world when it comes to wildlife. It is divided almost equally into East and West. Among many animals, the ‘Big Five’ are represented here; elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo and leopard.
The game drive earlier in the afternoon had yielded sightings of hippos submerged in waterholes as well as close encounters with giraffes, zebras and elephants. In the case of the latter, you can argue that it was too close. A few adult members of a herd got slightly agitated by our safari truck and the ‘nosy’ tourists clicking away with cameras and filming with video recorders. The largest land animal on earth displayed their intelligence by strategically fanning out and boxing the truck in a semi-circle. The state in the truck ranged from seriously concerned to petrified. Thankfully, the elephants just wanted to make sure that the calves in the herd were safe as they slowly retreated while keeping an eye on the truck inching away slowly.
There is a wide variety of animals to be seen in Tsavo East. Apart from the earlier mentioned Big Five, giraffe and zebra, you can also find cheetah, impala, stripped and spotted hyena, gazelle and more. Some 500 bird species have been recorded in the area, including ostrich and some migratory kestrels, while buzzards stop at Tsavo East during their long flight South. The game drive which could last up to two hours at a time is not all about following elephant dung for clues or tracing lion footprints in the sand. There is also the joy of the scenic view deep in the African bush. Sunsets are especially beautiful and worth catching, especially with acacia trees in the foreground and numerous hills in the background including the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro which can be seen from Tsavo East.
It’s dinner time at the Satao Camp and if lunch is anything to go by, it promises to be a sumptuous meal. It is amazing the contrast between being deep in the bush close to wild animals on the one hand and dining like you are at a five-star hotel on the other. The munching above my roof continues as I flash the torch to attract an escort. We proceed to dinner. It’s someone’s birthday. A young South African just turned 19. The waiters dim the lights and sing him a song. There’s a feel good vibe around. It seems to attract the animals; gazelles, impalas, more giraffes, a few elephants, monkeys… they are drawn to the campfire; they come closer and the cacophony of animal sounds blends with human chatter; all against a backdrop of shadows caused by flickering flames.
Despite not getting to see the elusive lions, getting up close to – and living with – some of the most amazing animals on earth is certainly unforgettable. The sounds get louder, the deeper into the night it gets. It’s time to sleep and wake up early for another game drive. It is usually the best time to see lions and other cats. It is certainly better than coming across them in the dead of the night on the few occasions when they come to camp in search of prey. Paul has worked at Satao for 13 years and is a resident. He inadvertently stumbled across a few lions not long ago. He calmly walked by, he said, especially because it was too late to turn back. They were uninterested in him. “The animals can smell us. They know us. They probably know there are new guests around,” he smiles, mischievously perhaps. Another reminder to flash the torch; one short burst, one long, one short.