At over 13,700 rugged square kilometers, and as Kenya’s largest park by quite some distance, Tsavo East has well and truly earned it’s ‘Theatre of the Wild’ nickname. The park offers visitors huge herds of rust-red elephants and its infamous ‘Man-eating lions of Tsavo’. It also offers a true wilderness experience for those willing to brave the isolated northern sections of the park; where safari-goers can go hours, if not days, without spotting another vehicle. If the crowds of the Masai Mara are too much to bear, then Tsavo East could well be the place for you. Whilst it may not have the density of wildlife that you can expect to see in the Mara, the diversity is certainly there; and a two-day safari here, followed by a few days on the beaches of nearby Mombasa, might just be the perfect way to end a Kenyan road trip!
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Wildlife – 4*
Tsavo East is a Big 5 park. That means you stand a chance of spotting lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo on a single visit. Of those five species, three are commonly sighted: elephant, which are abundant; lion, sightings of which are common; and buffalo. Black rhino are only really sighted if you head further north (where most safari-goers don’t venture given the distances involved). Leopard, as always, are notoriously difficult to pin down.
The park’s most famous residents are the elephants; which often appear rust red in colour due to a healthy coating of the park’s deep red dusty soil. Perhaps equally famous, or at least infamous, are the park’s lions. Colloquially known as ‘the man eaters of Tsavo’ the area’s feline population went down in history for killing upwards of 130 construction workers back in 1898; seemingly they haven’t been able to shake that reputation to this day.
Outside of the Big 5, giraffe, hippo, wildebeest and zebra are commonly sighted alongside a whole host of ungulates (hoofed animals) including kudu, impala, waterbuck, gazelle, dik-dik and eland. Cheetah are also occasionally seen given that the park’s vast plains are an ideal habitat for them. Interestingly, (well, I say interestingly, but perhaps it’s only sad safari geeks like me that find this interesting) the park, despite being in southern Kenya, is zoologically linked to regions further north. That means that you’ll also have a chance to spot Somali Ostrich and gerenuk (which is otherwise known as the giraffe-gazelle because of its incredibly long neck…seriously, it looks weird!).
This diversity of game warrants a 4* rating. In fact, if Tsavo East could match the abundance of game you see in some of Kenya’s other more famous parks I probably would have scored it even higher. However, and to a certain extent this is down to the pure vastness of the area, the dispersed nature of animals in the park often means you can go a while without seeing anything. But to my mind, half of the fun is in the ‘hunt’.
Scenery – 3.5*
Epic. That is the best way I can describe the scenery in Tsavo East. It’s a probably a word that you think isn’t reflected in my 3.5* rating; which would be a fair point. You see, Tsavo East is essentially one endless flat plain which, on face value, isn’t all that inspiring – especially during the dry season when the entire park is largely devoid of color except for the rust reds of the sand on which the park sits. With so few geological highlights I’d normally be suggesting a 3* or below rating. But that would be to ignore the vast grandeur of Tsavo East’s never-ending savannah; Savannah which seems only rarely punctuated by the odd baobab or doum palm. It makes a drive through the park almost other-worldly.
Of the few scenic features you might see in the south of the park, the Galana River and Lungard Falls are the only two of any real note during the dry season. Both are in the most northerly portion of park’s southern zone (which is the area most frequented by tourists); in fact, very few safaris will venture any further north than the Galana. Beyond those two features, you’re going to struggle to find navigable landmarks. Therein is my justification for a 3.5* rating. Summary: Epic. Vast. Grandiose. Largely boring.
Accommodation – 4*
Considering its size, Tsavo East has a relative dearth of accommodation options. In part this probably has something to do with the fact that the northern section of the park is largely unexplored by anyone other than the most ardent of adventurers due to a complete lack of infrastructure. As a result, most accommodation options are found in the park’s southern region between the Voi and Bachuma Gates (particularly as you get closer to Voi Town).
The good news is that the available options between those two gates range from budget to luxury and can be found both inside and outside the park. If you’re looking to splurge and stay inside the park then you might want to start by looking at Galdessa Little, perched on the banks of the Galana River, 35km from the Voi Gate. The mid-range in-park options include places like Satoa Camp or Aruba Lodge. For the more budget conscience check out Ngutuni Safari Lodge or Sentrim Tsavo – both of which seemed to be reasonably priced and well located inside the park. The great news is that 99% of the in-park options also house their own watering holes; and there’s nothing better than sitting down for a G&T at the lodge bar and watching the slow procession of a troop of elephants roll in for their evening drink and bath.
If in-park mainstream lodges and hotels are still blowing your budget, then there are several small guest houses located outside of the park in Voi Town which you can book for about USD 20 and up (at the time of writing). Of course, if you stay outside of the park then you won’t have the benefit of seeing wildlife in and around the vicinity; but given that Voi is right next to the park gate, you can be up and in the park nice and early for your morning game drives.
Finally, and given that Mombasa (and it’s handy international airport) are only a 2.5 hour drive away, it’s worth considering the possibility of basing yourself in a Mombasa beach resort (such as the PrideInn Paradise, or a Diani Beach hotel) and taking a day trip to Tsavo. Although that typically means you’ll hit the road at 5am it also means you can have a day of safari followed by sipping a Mai Thai on the beach by sunset. Not too shabby a prospect!
Access – 4*
Considering Tsavo East is about 2.5 hours from Mombasa (to Bachuma Gate) and 3.5 hours from Nairobi it’s surprising just how accessible the park is. For starters, it can be accessed through four main gates spanning a 150km section of the Mombasa Road: Manyani Gate, Voi Gate, Bachuma Gate and Sala Gate. That makes it day-trippable from Mombasa by car (albeit a long day with 5 hours on the road).
If you aren’t self-driving, and don’t fancy long transfers by car, then you still have three options: bus, private plane, or train.
The cheapest option is the bus. As with most bus travel on the African continent, it’s often the most uncomfortable journey fathomable, but does the job (95% of the time). The two most reliable services are Coast Bus and Modern Coast.
By train, the Madaraka Express takes 4 hours from Nairobi to Voi town, which is situated 4km from the Voi Gate entrance to the park. From Mombasa to Voi is just 1 hour 45 minutes. Although the thought of African train travel often evokes historic or even romantic sentiment, the Madaraka Express is more akin to a modern commuter train. It’s efficient, and you needn’t worry about significant delays or cancellations to the service. So long as you have onward transfers set up at the Voi Train Station, I personally think the train is the best way to reach Tsavo East – it’s far more relaxing than sitting in traffic on the Mombasa Road for hours on end. Tickets can be advance purchased on the Kenya Railways website.
There aren’t any scheduled flights to Tsavo East but there are private airstrips at Voi, Aruba, Satao, Sala, Ithumba, Sangayaya, Mopeo, Bachuma and Cottars to which you can charter a flight if you’re feeling particularly fancy. If you plan on visiting Tsavo West National Park as well, then you might want to consider a scheduled flight into Tsavo West offered by Safarilink or Mombasa Air Safari. You can then get ground transfers between accommodation through your hotels.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 4*
There’s no doubt that Tsavo East is one of Kenya’s bigger hitting parks. That said, it falls just short when compared to the likes of the nearby Masai Mara and Amboseli; mostly due to mere abundance of wildlife in those more famous two parks.
From a wildlife perspective, whilst the Big 5 are present, the chances of seeing any black rhino are slim unless you head further north than most safari-goers are typically willing to venture. That puts dent in what is otherwise a stellar line-up of flora and fauna; which includes a strong chance of seeing the park’s short maned, ‘man-eating’ lions and a near iron-clad guarantee of spotting those rust-red elephants the park is famous for.
In all, Tsavo East is well worthy of a 4* rating. Simply put, there’s just something epic and grandiose about the place. With a relative dearth of other tourists (much in contrast to the Mara, for example), and endless plains teeming with game, you’ve found the perfect recipe for a true wilderness safari where you’ll commonly find yourself driving for hours on end while only seeing a handful of other vehicles at most. It’s true safari bliss.
When to Visit: Tsavo East (and Kenya more generally) has two rainy seasons. The first is between late March/early April and June (although by June it’s starting to wind down). This first window of rain typically brings afternoon rain, but not every day. A second rainy season begins in November and runs through the end of December. That means you also have two dry spells. The first is from July until October and the second is from January to March. Arguably, the best time to visit for safari purposes is that long dry period from July until October. Clear skies dominate and the greenery subsides making wildlife easier to spot. Definitely try to avoid the peak of the short rains in November and the long rains between April and May. During both of these periods the plains are a little greener and denser (making wildlife more difficult to spot) and the abundance of water means that what wildlife you can see won’t naturally gravitate to the water holes i.e. wildlife will be more spread out.
Park Entry Fees: AT the time of writing the adult park entry fee for non-residents is USD 52 and is payable by M-PESA, Visa, or Direct Deposit to KWS Bank Accounts. For most western tourists that means paying by Visa unless you’re willing to buy a Safaricom mobile phone sim card and set up an M-PESA account on your phone. If that sounds like a barrel of fun to you, then you can read how to set up an account here. If you want to see the latest free rates and payment methods then make sure to double check the Kenya Wildlife Service website.