A walk in the wild paradise of the Sable antelope

Sights and sounds of Shimba Hills National Reserve. [KWS]

It is not always a fact that a visit to a national game park or reserve is an opportunity to go for adventurous game drives and to see the big five - lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. At one time, the “Big Five” were at the top of hunters’ lists, as they were considered the most difficult of Africa’s big game to shoot while on foot. That is how they got their name. 

However, not all reserves (game parks), or national parks are endowed with the big five, while some are too small to host plenty of wildlife.  For instance, Saiwa Swamp National Park (on my bucket list) in Trans-Nzoia County is the smallest national park in Kenya, only 3 km2, and was created as a habitat for the Sitatunga, a rare aquatic antelope. On the other hand, Shimba Hills Game and Forest Reserve is 300 Km2 and is home to the endangered rare Sable antelope. It is the only place where you can see this antelope. 

After being on road trips for a while, it is now time to experience a bit of the wild - the first stop is Shimba Hills National Forest Reserve the habitat for Sable antelope. 

Before travelling, I found that though there isn’t much wildlife in this animal kingdom, safe for elephants, buffalo, sable antelope, tailed mongoose, and other small mammals like fruit bats and Sykes, the reserve is home to the largest coastal forest in East Africa, after the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest. The scenically beautiful forest reserve is home to a great diversity of Kenya’s plant species, many of which are endangered. 

Armed with warm clothes (after a heatwave experience in Malindi), track shoes (for trekking), water, binoculars, and a camera, I am ready for the nature drive of a lifetime - to the spectacular Sheldrick waterfalls. One of the activities for the two-day visit is a game drive and nature walk to the renowned Sheldrick waterfalls. We arrive at our hotel in time for dinner, and some cultural entertainment before retiring. 

The next morning, after coffee, we leave at 5.50 am. A few metres away, we encounter a huge tree branch, purportedly left behind by a resident elephant. Our guide cum driver had to get off the van to remove the branch. We are lucky to encounter the rare and endangered sable antelope a few meters from the scene.

About a kilometre ahead, the driver slows down and asks that we remain “dead silence” and before we settle into silence, he points ahead of us. The hugest elephant I have ever seen stands in the middle of the road blocking our way. Right behind him is a “convoy” of about 10 elephants, some trailed by a young one, and at the end of the tail is another huge one.  

In a second, he turns towards us, as if ready to “surge”, the driver signals for us to maintain status, and with one more look, the “monster” turns around, and swiftly follows the rest, trumpeting in the loudest voice I have ever heard. This too, was the most scary thing I have witnessed in the recent past. These are the elephants of the Mwalunganje sanctuary. 

The guide explains that the reserve is well known for its large elephant population, which in the early 2000s became unsustainable. In 2005, he told us, KWS translocated over 150 elephants to Tsavo East National Park, a move described as “the single largest translocation of animals ever undertaken since Noah’s ark”. 

Even with this development, elephants still cause tense human-wildlife conflicts. To help reduce this conflict the Mwalunganje Elephant Sanctuary was established and shares a boundary with Shimba Hills National Reserve providing the elephants a migration corridor.

Next to encounter was a lone ostrich, and from the guide’s story, I learnt that the male ostrich was “so lonely”, that he was always in the company of giraffes. “He thinks that he is probably one of the giraffes,” said the guide hilariously.  Another 30-minute drive punctuated with spotting the reserve’s small mammals, our driver stops at the foot of a hill. We step out of the van. This is our starting point for the 5-kilometre nature walk. 

“You see that hill over there to the right and the white house on top of the other hill to the left? Well, right there in the middle of the two hills is where we are headed for,” our guide cum-naturalists said. I have difficulties scrutinising some speck of a house on the far side of the valley in Shimba Hills. 

We are a pack of eight walkers, with a ranger leading the team and another at the tail-end.  The hills to the distance ahead of us were still covered in wisps of mist. The guide told us the contrast between the protected forest and the inhabited area to the east is immense. A whole swath of forest at the time of our visit had been cleared and was it not for the deliberate preservation efforts, Shimba Hills forest would be no more.

 Before starting the one-and-half-hour walk, our naturalist had advised us “to speak the language of the animals!” - not to talk.  

I could understand why he was insistent on this. The area we were trudging was a buffalo zone, with dangerous animals. 

Fifteen minutes into the walk, our front-line ranger signals us to stop. There is a strong stench - the smell of urine. We are now dead quiet, and our naturalist is attentive, pausing at every bend, lest an animal surprises us. My stomach is churning, my feet trembling as I struggle to take the next step. 

We troop behind the ranger and guide like boy and girl scouts. The naturalist would occasionally stop to explain the identity of a cry or a bird perching on a tree or explain the name and use of a certain tree or shrub. This was his way of ensuring we were relaxed by detracting us from the danger of wildlife around their surroundings. 

We walk through the thick foliage for another five minutes, before we are motioned to stop beside a giant tree. The naturalist explains that this was the famous Mugumo tree, a rare tree nowadays, due to its high-quality timbers. 

The naturalist explains that its hardwood is used to make expensive furniture. He estimates this particular one to be over 150 years old, yet it can take a few minutes to bring it down and a few more days to be in our sitting rooms. 

We can now hear the waterfalls to our left, as we descend a steep incline nearly on all fours before we emerge at the bottom of a spectacular nature’s waterfalls. 

“Wow!,”  everyone exclaims. The sight before us is one to behold. This is Sheldrick Waterfalls, falling from 50 metres above, a splendid natural phenomenon. The falls are most attractive with a shelf allowing walkers to walk right behind them. At the base of the falls is a pool, perfectly safe for swimming and bathing in. 

I stood transfixed, staring at this phenomenon for eternity. The guide explains that it had been named Sheldrick after David Sheldrick who helped fence the Shimba Hills Forest Reserve. 

He also explained that the pool was a splendid swimming place before the 1998 el-nino rains that brought into the pool debris and sand. 

However, it still is a spectacle and we spend almost an hour before embarking on our return walk. We are already sweating and we are no longer whispering. All we want is to reach the van and rest our wobbly knees. 

All of this is forgotten on arrival at our base - The breakfast waiting for us, the hearty conversations, and the witticism from our naturalist make it worth it.


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