Within hours of arriving at Tsavo East National Park, we are surrounded with bull elephants sporting huge tusks.

They are turning and tossing their heads, jostling for places at the water hole, chasing off buffalo, zebras and reticulated giraffes for the prime spots at the water’s edge. Tsavo dust clouds hang in the air. It’s great to be back on safari in the African bush.

These are large tuskers by modern standards. Some look like their ivory weighs 80 lb per side. In the past, any elephant weighing less than 100 lb per side was considered normal. Nowadays most elephants bear modest toothpick tusks, so these big Tsavo bulls are a rare treat — and a sign the area is in good shape. These are some of my favorite bull elephants.

Satao Camp, pictured, is 'a delightful 20-tent encampment set among tamarind and acacia trees'

Satao Camp, pictured is a ‘delightful 20-tent encampment situated among tamarinds and acacia trees.

Close encounters: The wildlife in Tsavo East National Park is thriving. Pictured is Satao Camp

Close encounters: Tsavo East National Park’s wildlife is thriving. Satao Camp is pictured

A leopard in Tsavo East National Park

A leopard in Tsavo East National Park

Another notable and equally rare treat is the fact that there are very few safari vehicles.

Since the scourge and corruption of Covid nearly ended international safari tourism 18 months ago, Kenya has been welcoming a small number of intrepid travelers who are willing to take on the regulations.

In 2019, the country hosted around 180,000 Britons. In 2020, the country lost nearly a billion dollars in tourist revenue.

Security experts say that there has been no increase in poaching due to the lack of traffic through the parks. Protection of the most vulnerable animals — elephants and rhinos particularly — has been maintained thanks to continued international NGO support for Kenya Wildlife Service patrols.

Satao Camp visitors on a safari trip. Graham says that the Tsavo East elephants 'view the presence of humans in Land Cruisers with some suspicion'

Satao Camp visitors during a safari trip. Graham said that the Tsavo East Elephants “view the presence humans in Land Cruisers as with some suspicion.”

The lodges remained open and were managed by skeleton staff. Locals provided the main source of visitors traffic. They anticipate a Christmas celebration now that Kenya has been removed from the Red List.

Why not? It’s enough to just breathe in the fresh, clear air, to see the endless horizon and feel the connection to the wild. An African safari is an unforgettable experience, not only because of the endless parade of wild animals that swirl around you, but also because of the added bonus of being surrounded by them.

Nick van Gruisen, founder and former licensed professional guide in Botswana, is my companion.

As the elephant herd leaves the watering hole, the sun sets across the plains. We drive back to Satao Camp, where we are based. We are accompanied by small squadrons carmine bee-eaters along both sides of our Land Cruiser. They fly alongside the vehicle, feeding on insects disturbed by the transport’s bounce across the dirt tracks. It is apparently common in Tsavo. It is a vivid and profound demonstration of the adaptability animals and birds display in the wild.

Safari suite: Tented comfort at Satao Camp. A stay there can be booked through The Ultimate Travel Company

Safari suite: Tented comfort in Satao Camp. A stay there can be booked through The Ultimate Travel Company

A warm welcome at Satao camp

Satao camp: Warm welcome

I’ve never seen anything like it, and it is affirmation that the splendour of the African bush experience isn’t all about the large signature animals such as elephants, rhinos and lions.

The resilience and adaptability of these carmine bee-eaters is crucial for the survival of the African wild and its fauna and flora.

Tsavo, fifty years ago, was considered a disaster zone and a sign of the end of wild Africa. The famous American artist-photographer Peter Beard, who died last year, dubbed it ‘Starvo’ and cited the massive elephant die-off in 1971 — a result of drought and over-crowding — as a portent of things to come not only for Kenya but for the African wilderness as a whole.

He flew over the national park in a light plane for days, photographing carcasses scattered across Tsavo Plains. These images were used to dramatic effect in his 1977 edition entitled End Of The Game.

Fifty years ago, Tsavo, pictured, was being written off as a disaster area and a portent of the ultimate demise of wild Africa

Tsavo (pictured) was being considered a disaster area fifty years ago and a sign that wild Africa would eventually die.

Beard’s bleak assessment of what he regarded as man’s mismanagement of nature did not go down well with the country’s wildlife authorities and he was subsequently banned from the park, although this was more for his general dissidence than his philosophical stance on conservation.

However, although he was prescient about many things, mainly that if you crowded elephants into a confined space they would destroy woodlands and have a profound impact on biodiversity, he was wrong about the inevitable destruction of ‘Starvo’.

In 1971, more than 10,000 elephants were killed by drought. Modern conservationists consider this area to be a stronghold for biodiversity.

We are joined by Danny Woodley and Bongo by night at Satao Camp. It is a 20-tent encampment that is set among tamarind, acacia, and populated with a large, relaxed herd of impala.

Their father Bill was one of the founding wardens of Kenya’s national parks, a highly respected conservationist who was also one of Peter Beard’s closest friends.

The sons of Bill, Bill’s father, confirm that Tsavo’s rise is a testimony to nature’s ability to rebound over dinner. Not only was there the 1971 drought, which led to a die-off, but a decade later, there was a massive poaching pandemic that left the grassy plains covered in elephant skeletons and their tusks.

A military anti-poaching campaign, driven by then President Daniel arap Moi’s shoot-to-kill policy, put an end to most of the poaching.

Graham describes how at night at Satao he would sit under the stars in canvas chairs watching the animals at the camp’s waterhole

Graham describes how at night at Satao he would sit under the stars in canvas chairs watching the animals at the camp’s waterhole


The Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk, 020 7386 4646) offers a seven-day Kenya safari trip that includes four nights in Tsavo East National Park at Satao Camp and one night at Hemingway’s in Nairobi. Includes all transfers, full board, AMREF insurance, park fees and B&B at Hemingway’s for £2,085 pp. Flights with BA from £544 return (ba.com) or Kenya Airways from £540 return (kenya-airways.com) are extra. 

Bongo Woodley points to the astonishing 45,000-square-miles of greater Tsavo conservation zone, which includes the neighboring Tsavo West National Park, and surrounding conservancies. This area is half the size the UK.

This gives the elephant herds more space and, as we discovered, gives visitors the impression that there is an endless and endless landscape to themselves.

There is still evidence of human-wildlife conflict. These Tsavo elephants tend to wander beyond the great park’s boundaries into rural communities and raid crops in local villages. Many of the large bulls have evidence of poison arrow wounds. They all seem to have healed, but this may explain their unpredictable behavior.

These animals are not like the calm, habituated Maasai Mara elephants. These are spiky, agituous animals that look at humans in Land Cruisers suspiciously, which gives this safari a welcome frisson.

At night, we sit out under the stars in canvas chairs watching the animals come to the camp’s waterhole. Elephants, zebra, baboons, hippo, giraffe — all wander up, jostling for places at the edge.

The resident lion pride roars in the darkness, reminding us that they are the descendants the famous man-eaters Tsavo, wild mane-less and lion-like lions who killed and ate many workers building the Mombasa railway line in late 19th century.

We will see some of the pride on the following day’s game drives but it seems apposite that their chilling roars echo through the inky black Tsavo night.

After four days of recuperative Safari, we return to Nairobi to spend two nights. This allows us to take in the many delights of Nairobi.

We are staying at Hemingway’s, a colonial-style hotel in luxurious gardens in the city’s Karen suburb, named after its most illustrious resident, scribe Karen Blixen, and it provides a sumptuous retreat after the dust and sweat of a full-blown safari.

We are just a mile away from the Karen Blixen Museum, a few miles from Peter Beard’s famous Hog Ranch encampment, and on the horizon we can see the fabled Ngong Hills of her Out Of Africa story looming over the Rift Valley. It’s a fitting end to this Kenyan adventure. 


Kenya offers a unique safari experience that is very affordable.

Massive Maasai Mara

This is an outstanding reserve, a perfect expanse of savannah that runs along Kenya’s border with Tanzania. It is well-known for its wildebeest migration (usually in August and July) and its lions.

Speke’s Camp is a small eight-tent camp located along the banks of the Olare Orok River. The canvas structures are made with reclaimed wood, animal bones, and African fabrics. This ticks all the green credentials boxes. Cost: £275 pp per night sharing, plus £58 community conservation fees, (spekescamp.com).

Cottars 20 Camp, located at the farthest south-east corner of the Mara, is a luxury camp consisting of ten tents. It is situated on its own 7,500-acre private conservation. It is owned by the oldest established safari family in Africa — the Cottars — and plays a major role in local community conservation. Cost: £715 pp per night sharing, plus £85 community fee, (cottars.com).

Laikipia Plateau

An often overlooked safari area which harbours more endangered species than anywhere else in East Africa, including Grevy’s zebra, Jackson’s hartebeest and wild dog, also the gerenuk, and large lion, leopard and cheetah populations.

The Il N’gwesi lodge is a prize-winning conservation initiative run by locals. It is more basic than other camps. Cost: £220 pp per night plus £48 community fee (ilngwesi.com).

Amboseli National Park

South Kenya is known for its elephant herds and stunning views of Kilimanjaro.

Tortillis Camp was named after the flat-topped tortillis, thorn trees that dominate this area. It is small and elegant, located on a private concession accessible from the park. All tents offer stunning mountain views. Cost: £298 pp per night plus £45 community fee (elewanacollection.com).

Samburu National Reserve

Located on the banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro River, It was here that George and Joy Adamson raised Elsa the lioness.

Elephant Bedroom is a 12-tented camp located on the riverbank. It is a birder’s paradise with more than 450 species recorded there. Cost: £285 pp per night plus £58 community fee (atua-enkop.com).