Into the lion’s den

Lodgings at Finch Hattons Safari Camp.
Lodgings at Finch Hattons Safari Camp. Photo: Alamy

Lance Richardson follows the trail of Tsavo lions whose cunning is etched in Kenyan history.

The overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa leaves the capital at 7pm, sliding through darkness towards the Kenyan coast. The rail website advises that interesting sights begin to appear at the invigorating hour of 5am, when the train bisects the twin national parks of Tsavo West and Tsavo East.

"If [the] train gets delayed, you have the best animal views," it notes, putting a positive spin on what is otherwise considered the bane of African travel: assured tardiness and inexplicable pauses. However, according to the digital arm of African train travel, it's in your best interests to be late. Just take a look out the window.

Lost world... Colonel John Henry Patterson (above, third from left) at a tent camp near the Tsavo River in the late 1890s.
Lost world... Colonel John Henry Patterson (above, third from left) at a tent camp near the Tsavo River in the late 1890s. Photo: Getty Images

Tsavo is a rolling volcanic savannah punctuated by deep springs and lava fields, with acacia trees shading agama lizards from the sun. While it's true that delays here offer the chance to take in a starkly beautiful landscape, they also allow a traveller to ponder one curious detail the website neglects to mention. A relatively smooth first-class ride from Nairobi to Mombasa costs $US75 ($77). Unbeknown to many passengers, it also includes the historical toll of 135 souls. Though the exact figure is contested, the railroad across Tsavo River has an intriguing and grisly past.

It's a warm December night in 1898, and tensions in Tsavo are running high. Africans and Indians, in Kenya to help construct a rail bridge under the direction of Colonel John Patterson, huddle by firelight in a boma, a crudely constructed enclosure of knitted thorns. For nine months now, workers have been disappearing. The Ghost and the Darkness, as the two beasts have come to be called, shadow the camp with brutal, leonine efficiency. Whatever they want, they take.

All frantic attempts to thwart the siege have failed, including the boma, beneath which they slink like foxes into a chicken coop. The Africans and Indians try to sleep, recovering strength for another day of work as their bridge inches across the river – but how do you sleep when death stalks the savannah?

Wild thing... a lion lazes on a hill in Tsavo as the sun sets.
Wild thing... a lion lazes on a hill in Tsavo as the sun sets. Photo: Alamy

Recalling nights like this in his classic memoir, Patterson writes that more than once a "lion burst into the midst of the terrified group, seized an unfortunate wretch amid the cries and shrieks of his companions, and dragged him off through the thick thorn fence". Again and again, either singly or as a team, the male lions effortlessly took their victim of choice.

The modern train traveller might make a mental connection between the Tsavo outside and these infamous "Maneaters of Tsavo", immortalised in legends, video games and a Michael Douglas movie (with the risible tagline "Prey for the hunters") since Patterson's account was published in 1907. They might even wonder where the original rail bridge is located; or where the old lions' den, a virtual morgue, lies tucked away in the twin national parks. But then the train jolts into life, rumbling off to Mombasa and other African tales. This trip owes a huge debt to the fallen, but there's little time to pause.

I head into the heart of Tsavo West by plane rather than train, drawn by the maneaters' tale. More than most places in the world, Africa offers a thrillingly tactile experience. Dirt roads relay the texture of the earth through the shuddering compartment of a safari truck; dust settles on clammy skin. I hope that roads here are never sealed for the same reason I avoid the train on its polished tracks: it is not enough to see the place, a passenger peering through a pane of glass; I want to feel it. And I want to

With pride... wildlife at a Tsavo watering hole.
With pride... wildlife at a Tsavo watering hole. Photo: Getty Images

take a game drive that connects this feeling with the fauna, the space and the dramatic history of Kenya.

There are a number of places to base yourself in Tsavo West, though none seem more appropriate than Finch Hattons, given the spirit of this expedition. Famously characterised in Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa (and played by Robert Redford in the 1985 film), Denys Finch Hatton walked between two worlds, equally at ease in the African wilderness and in the porcelain and crystal world of colonial society. As an established camp clustered around a hippo-inhabited lagoon, Finch Hattons takes inspiration from the man, presenting white tablecloths, portmanteaus and chess sets even as dangerous buffalo wander across its footpaths. Fine dining is followed by a harrowing moment when, returning to my room, the shadows in front of me churn to life – a crocodile bellies into the lagoon as a guard sporting a bow and arrow springs to my defence. I hide in the tent after that, mulling over Finch Hatton's sage remark that "this continent of Africa has a terribly strong sense of sarcasm".

We set out in search of the maneaters' story early next morning. The 1898 rail bridge site is more than 100 kilometres away across a rough landscape that changes colour with startling abruptness. Dry acacias decorated with bauble-like nests give way to yellow-fever trees as we rumble through oases. Baboons scatter before the truck. Rocky buttes alternate alongside the road with termite nests as tall as a man.

Tsavo River Gate, a prominent entrance to the national park, opens on to a busy highway. We leave the truck here and continue on foot, hiring a ranger to show us the way. The old bridge site, across the road and partly along train tracks, is largely gone. The Mombasa to Uganda railroad (it continues beyond Nairobi) crosses a new bridge over the Tsavo River, which rendered the old one obsolete. The ranger points out the position of its original pylons, but all is mud and confused animal footprints now, with murky water rushing down from Mzima Springs. Any echo of the Ghost and the Darkness has long since faded.

Disheartened, though unsure of what exactly I was expecting, I trudge back to the truck, heckled by several monkeys sitting in a tree like a peanut gallery. But then the ranger climbs in the truck as well, directing the driver down another road into Tsavo West. "When they killed the workers," he says, cradling a rifle, "the lions carried them very easily – and very far."

In a small clearing, the ranger gets out and slides down an eroded slope. There are several plaques here detailing the story of the maneaters, but more notable are the skeletal branches, the mounds of dried palms, the zebra skulls half-buried in red mud. The heat is disorienting. I stumble on elephant dung, a thorn sliding deep into my left knee. We push through cactuses and clamber over rocks.

Then the ranger stops, pointing down. There's a shallow puddle of water at the mouth of a cave. We glimpsed it from the front but now we've come around the back, standing on the top where the roof has partially collapsed. This, the ranger says, was the lions' den, where they brought their prey. A bat flies out, then everything returns to a stagnant silence. If the bridge site felt emptied out by the rushing traffic and modern railroad, this feels different – awe-inspiring and darkly oppressive.

Colonel Patterson eventually killed the two lions. He had their skins turned into floor rugs, which he walked over for more than 25 years before selling them in 1924 to the Chicago Field Museum for $US5000. The museum reconstructed the bodies and put them on public display, where they remain today – maneless, like male Tsavo lions characteristically are, though slightly smaller than their original size following decades of neglect.

When Patterson shot the lions, both were about 2.7 metres in length. DNA testing has confirmed their grisly diet, though the museum contests the number of men actually killed.

On our drive back to Finch Hattons we stop at the Shetani lava caves, hidden in a wrinkled wasteland of solidified magma. Shetani is the Swahili word for "devil"; locals believed that the flowing lava was the devil walking at night. The caves are filled with the foetid smell of resident bats. My companions – city girls from New York and Nairobi – cling together, jumping at every change in temperature and flutter of wind.

"Didn't they find Gaddafi in a cave like this?" the one from Nairobi asks, trying to dissuade our guide, another ranger, from going any further. The cave could hold lions – yet, despite all we've seen, this is where her mind wanders. It reminds me that the Africa today is very different from the one seen by Colonel Patterson, or even Finch Hatton, in the first decades of the 20th century. These days, there are far greater monsters around than a pair of maneating lions.

Lance Richardson travelled courtesy of the Kenya Tourist Board and Air Mauritius.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air Mauritius has a fare to Nairobi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2275 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Perth (4hr with Virgin Australia), then to Mauritius (twice weekly, 8hr 35min and overnight stop at own expense), then to Nairobi (4hr 20min); see airmauritius.com. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days, obtained on arrival at Nairobi for about $US50 ($51.50). From Nairobi, several domestic carriers fly to Tsavo West National Park. Park entrance costs $US65 a person a day.

The Nairobi to Mombasa overnight train leaves daily at 7pm. Tickets cost from $US65 (second class), which includes dinner, bed and breakfast; see kenyatraintravel.com.

Staying there

Finch Hattons has comfortable (and safe) raised tents with en suite bathrooms and hot running water, in Tsavo West National Park. Six-course meals mean nobody goes hungry on safari (which are also catered). Cost is $US645 for a double tent; $US460 in low season (April 10-June 30). Package deals including game drives and return airfares also available; see www.finchhattons.com.

Touring there

The Maneaters' Den is close to Tsavo River Gate and can be reached on a game drive or with the direction of a hired ranger.

To find the Shetani lava caves, a ranger should be hired for a small fee at Chyulu Gate. The small mountain behind the caves can be climbed for views across the lava fields.

Though recovering from a prolonged drought, Mzima Springs is an astonishing site and miniature ecosystem. Nile crocodiles and hippos can be seen from a submarine viewing chamber.

Watch the sun set over Mount Kilimanjaro with sundowners and appetisers arranged by Finch Hattons.

More information

See magicalkenya.com.

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