Wonders of Kenya’s first game lodge and 'place of the young rhino'

Friday June 17 2022

Giraffes at the waterhole at Kilaguni in Tsavo West. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG


All day long, animals come for a drink, including Tsavo’s famous 'red' elephants that like to dust bathe in the red soil

A visit to the Kilaguni Serena Safari Lodge, in Kenya's Tsavo West National Park, was educative about Kenya’s first lodge in a national park.

The road trip from Nairobi takes four and a half hours. We took the Madaraka SGR Express train, disembarking at Mtito Andei station, from where we were picked up by a four-wheel safari vehicle from the lodge.

Kilaguni Serena has hefty ceiling beams, high thatched roofs, and heavy wood carvings. The lodge is well maintained, with a lush front lawn and a dining area overlooking a waterhole.


Kilaguni Serena Lodge. PHOTO | POOL

Kilaguni opened in 1952 as a sport hunting lodge. In 1962, it came under the African Tours and Hotels group. A photograph in the lobby shows Kenya's first president Jomo Kenyatta gazing over the waterhole.


All day long, various animals come for a drink, including Tsavo’s famous "red" elephants that like to dust bathe in the volcanic soil. In the distance you can see the Chyulu Hills to one side and Mt Kilimanjaro on the other, clearly visible in the early morning.

My room had views to the waterhole.

Besides lounging by the swimming pool, I enjoyed a walk around the gardens with resident naturalist Anthony Keli.

“Kilaguni means the place of the young rhino in the Ngulia dialect. There was a breeding ground for black rhinos here before they were translocated to the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary,” he said. He pointed out cycad trees, baobabs and large sycamore figs that were fruiting, attracting lots of hornbills and go-away birds.

Tsavo was established in 1948 and is Kenya’s biggest park at 22,812 square kilometres. For better administration, in 1949 the park was split into two, Tsavo East and Tsavo West, separated by the Kenya-Uganda railway and the Nairobi-Mombasa highway.

“Tsavo means slaughter in the Ngulia language, and is derived from the wild animals that attacked during the construction of the ‘Lunatic Line’,” said Keli. In 1898, two male lions terrorised railway crews for almost one year.

Best-known features

A game drive the following day took us to the park’s best-known features — Shetani Lava Flow and Mzima Springs. Shetani Lava is a vast plain of black rocky ground formed about 500 years ago by volcanic lava from the Chyulu Hills. Local legend attributes the eruptions, some as recently as 200 years ago, to demonic forces hence the name shetani ("devil"in Kiswahili).

Hardly any vegetation grows in the sun-scorched area. Only hardy animals live here such as golden baboons, rock hyraxes and klipspringer antelopes that move easily over the stony ground.

In the middle of the semi-arid park is the green haven of Mzima Springs, where gallons of clear water gush out of the rocks into a small lake. The water originates from the Chyulu Hills, flowing underground before reaching the springs. It disappears underground again, and flows on to Kenya's coast. “This is the main source of water for Mombasa city,” said Keli.

From an observation hut, visitors can view the lake beneath the surface.

The bushy terrain of Tsavo requires keen eyes to spot wildlife. We came across giraffes, zebras, buffaloes and Oryx and kudu antelope. A sundowner was up on Mawe ya Simba, a high rocky outcrop with sweeping vistas of the park.

Apparently, lions like to relax at this spot but there were none in sight that evening. We enjoyed light refreshments, watching the deep yellow sun slowly slip down the western horizon.

No wonder Tsavo is one of the world’s best wildernesses, featured on the Netflix documentary series Our Great National Parks.