We’re in a great iron diving bell. It smells damp and subterranean. Our voices echo hollowly. Tiny square windows are set into the structure’s cylindrical sides. Through them we can see hundreds of blue-grey fishes. They’ve got miniature shark-fins and translucent fangs and they’re all swimming around and around and around the diving bell in an anticlockwise direction. It’s dizzying to watch.
The water beyond the squared windows is crystal clear and shines an otherworldly blue-grey. In the shimmering distance we can just make out a set of short stubby legs. They’re paddling their way through the water with a vaguely pig-like submarine trot; and they’re attached to a vast chocolate-brown body with a raspberry-pink belly. It’s a hippopotamus. And it’s heading our way.
Are we hallucinating? Or about to wake from a nightmare? No. We’re in an underwater viewing-tank sunk below the waters of Mzima Springs in Tsavo West National Park. The water, melt-water from the snows of Kilimanjaro, has flowed here through many kilometres of underground tunnels. The fish, known as barbels, are a type of fresh-water carp. The tank, or so the brass plate bolted to the wall informs us, was installed in 1969. The other brass plate reads: Do not stick fingers into water. Crocodiles abound. Instinctively, our fingers clench.
The entire scene is surreal. We’ve just driven for three hours through tinder-dry bush. We’ve traversed dry wadis where great rivers once swirled. We’ve seen huge herds of elephants mining for water with their tusks (and unearthing little more than muddy puddles). It’s been uniformly khaki, the only flashes of colour delivered spasmodically by the pink blooms of the bulbous-trunked Desert Rose. And by the sapphire-blue flashes of the lilac breasted rollers as they sweep down to snap up an insect, their wings as gorgeous as a pharaoh’s necklace.
This huge park, one of the world’s largest, is a vast arena of sleeping volcanoes and solidified lava flows. Coiled on the landscape like sleeping dragons, they lie simmering in the heat. And yet here we are in an enchanting oasis fringed by papyrus, dripping with luridly green ferns and punctuated by great orange spiky flowers the size of tennis balls – the aptly named fireball lilies. Jurassic Park.
Here in this magical bubble of an oasis, the air is filled with birdsong and the water bursts out of the ground literally gurgling with laughter. And so it might. It has been trapped underground for 25 years or more and now, finally freed from the underground chasms where it has achieved diamond-clarity, it will flash briefly through the pools of Mzima Springs before disappearing again into its subterranean prison.
For the hippos are locked in too. Marooned amid a vast sea of dry bush through which they cannot travel, they create their own food chain. Browsing the undergrowth by night, they return to the pools at dawn and spend the rest of the day wallowing. It is their dung that feeds the fish and nurtures the roots of the fruiting trees that halo the pools.
Below the water, invertebrates feed on the dung, fish feed on the invertebrates and huge, oily black cormorants feed on the fish.
Mzima Springs is a world unto itself.
It’s also one of Tsavo West’s greatest tourist attractions. In the carpark a stream of safari vehicles deposit their passengers. And while the visitors set off down the long narrow volcanic-cinder path that leads to the pools, the safari drivers gather to chat with the Kenya Wildlife Service guards. The drivers are frequent visitors so there’s plenty to discuss. Plenty of interest for the monkeys too. They swing down to peer into the vehicles in the hope of fruit; then set off for the picnic site. If the fruit is not in the safari vehicles then it must be about to hit the picnic tables. And they’re consummate fruit-snatchers.
On the narrow, winding cinder-path there are stone signs giving the names and medicinal uses of the trees. Sapphire-blue and orange agama lizards pose before an obliging whirr of cameras. Ten minutes later, there’s a collective gasp of wonderment. The visitors have reached the springs: the ultimate in surprise and delight features. Because no matter how prepared one is for Mzima, the emerald sparkle of its impossible lushness still delivers a knock-out punch. And there are more to follow. Because the further you travel the path, the better the show.
Dutifully the visitors wait in line until their turn comes to descend the three metal steps into the underwater viewing chamber. For a second or two the door of the chamber emits an eerie sci-fi glow as multiple cameras flash. Then the cavalcade emerges and snakes on down the path to the lower pool. This is Act II of the floor-show.
Some thirty hippos are wallowing against a Hollywood-perfect backdrop of trailing lianas and dense green jungle. There’s a general snorting and blowing as they rise briefly to the surface to survey their audience. And a resounding chortle as they sink once more beneath the surface. The water, transparent as glass, reveals hundreds of barbels threading their way amid the polished blue pebbles. From the crystal depths shoots a black cigar shape, deadly as an Exocet. It lands on a rock and extends its wings, batman-like, to dry. A cormorant.
From the murky shallows a long, brown snout protrudes. Slowly, silently, hardly breaking the surface of the water, it drifts out into the wider reaches of the hippo pool.
It looks like a log. But it has teeth. So do all the other logs.
Need to know
Tsavo West (9065 sq. km.), Kenya’s largest National Park, is home to all the members of the ‘Big Five’ (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant). Together with Tsavo East it also plays host to the nation’s largest elephant population. Other wildlife includes: cheetah, giraffe, hippo, baboon, waterbuck, Coke’s hartebeest, gerenuk, gazelle, zebra, crocodile, mongoose, hyrax, dik-dik, porcupine, lesser kudu and oryx. The prolific birdlife features 600 recorded species.
An essentially volcanic landscape, punctuated by great chains of extinct volcanoes and solidified lava flows, Tsavo is so vast that one can often drive for hours without encountering another vehicle. A place of magnificent vistas it also offers the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary and the caves of the Shetani lava flow, a solidified tide of molten rock that flowed across the park only one hundred years ago.
Mzima Springs, one of the park’s main attractions, achieved fame thanks to wildlife film-makers Alan and Joan Root whose 1969 documentary Mzima: Portrait of a Spring, featured underwater footage of the hippos and crocodiles. They were also the subject of the 2003 Survival Special, Mzima: Haunt of the Riverhorse.