It doesn’t take long for the Tsavo Madness to set in. Within thirty minutes of entering Tsavo East National Park, we’ve become hypnotized by the road. Winding away into the distance, it’s the colour of red rust. Straight and wide, it skims over the bush to drop, almost without warning, over the edge of the blue horizon. Smoothed earth, it slips beneath the tyres soft as caramel.
The vibration arrives without warning; beginning with a gentle shudder, it climaxes to a crescendo of juddering that rattles the very teeth in your head. The car is shaken like a giant’s dice box. The transmission screams. The wheels thunder. You’ve hit what’s known as the wash boarding effect.
There are many views as to how to deal with the ridges caused by constant tyre pressure on loose grit or earth. Some, (they’re typically not owner-drivers), claim that attack is the best form of defence. Adopting a Kamikaze-styled charge, they drive headlong at the ridges, hoping to achieve a hovercraft effect. Hope, however, rarely triumphs over wash boarding. Maddened beyond endurance, they’ll find that their heads are jiggled virtually off their spines… and their wheels off their axles. Other drivers, more caring of their bearings, might slow to a compliant crawl. To no effect. Scientific research has revealed that the only way to win over wash boarding is to drive at less than three miles per hour. Thankfully, wash boarding comes in waves. One minute you’re being shaken to hell and back: the next you’re spinning along as if on wings.
It’s not the only thing to come in waves. The elephants do too. »
It’s estimated that there are around 15,000 elephants in Tsavo East National Park, perhaps one third of all the elephants in Kenya. Liberally coated in thick red dust, they wash across the landscape in rust-red waves. First comes a great bull; he’s wandering alone.
Then a matriarchal herd; they’re gathered in the shade of an acacia tree. Thereafter the great red shapes roll across the landscape in tidal waves. Behind every bush, or so it seems, is an elephant. Around every bend, a herd of mothers, sisters, aunts and cousins with babies frolicking in their wake. Finally, even the road signs, massive piles of red rock white-painted with directions, look like elephants. Indeed many of them ARE elephants. Within an hour’s drive of the gates, we’ve seen at least three hundred elephants. It’s a jumbo tsunami.
We’re impressed. The elephants are not. Some gaze at us with mild curiosity as we judder past, bouncing down the road like a kicked tin can. Others raise their great heads and seem to flap their ears in despair at the madness of mankind. One, a young bull, startled out of his peaceful lunchtime bark stripping, makes a mock charge at our vehicle. It’s a feint. He runs a few feet, raises his trunk, tosses his head, then dashes back beneath the sheltering skirts of the female herd.
Then, as suddenly as it came, the wave passes. And the elephants disappear as ethereally as they arrived. There’s only one problem: we’re all so used to discerning elephant shapes amid the wilderness that we can’t stop. Now we’re hallucinating elephants. They’re everywhere. Every anthill is moving, every bush has ears, every tree-trunk is waving. Great, red, hunched shapes rear and lumber wherever we look. And they’re all delusional.
There’s only one cure for elephant-conjuring and that’s the radical readjustment of your safari vision. Instead of looking for BIG, you must look for small. Luckily, Tsavo excels in miniature marvels. Pairs of dik-dik, the smallest of the antelopes, freeze like fairy tale fawns as we pass. Patient dung-beetles roll their balls of elephant dung through the red dust until the balls, no more than a couple of inches in diameter, appear like so many cocoa-coated truffles. Moving gradually up the size-scale, a kori bustard, the largest flying bird in Africa, strides his stately way through the grass. Hornbills swoop from tree to tree, brilliant green and yellow bee-eaters dive for insects. Ground squirrels, the size of a computer mouse, fly through the air with their feathered tails streaming. A leopard tortoise lumbers his lonely way through the dust, a giant monitor lizard waddles down the centre of the road his tail switching to and fro like a dwarf dinosaur.
But we’ve taken our eyes off the BIG ball. Rounding a bend, we’re confronted by a huge herd of elephants. They’re streaming through the bush, threading their way like so many monstrous dust-red bobbins. This is a mega-herd some several hundred strong; and in a few minutes they’ll be crossing the road in front of us. We brake fast. Though typically peaceable, elephants are more than capable of charging a car. And when it comes to confrontation, elephants always win.
We wait patiently until the great beasts, so elegant in their rolling gait, have crossed the road and headed off, trunk to tail, to the waterhole in the distance. Here they wallow and squirt, siphon and spray before coating themselves in the thick mud that serves as elephant sunscreen and body lotion alike. Eventually they move off, disappearing one by one into the khaki camouflage of the bush.
We start the engine and move off.
The wash boarding, absent for hours, returns with a vengeance. The road ahead is riddled with killer ridges and we’re sucked into a maelstrom of juddering so violent as to make every vertebrae vibrate in its socket.
It’s known as the African massage.