We headed out to Tsavo this weekend. A high point was staying at the spookily named lovely tented lodge called 'Man-eaters'. The lodge was lovely, new, fab food, beautiful tents and right on the river. The name 'Maneaters' is a reference to the man eating lions of Tsavo who terrorised Uganda railway construction workers particularly from March to December 1898 when they were bridging the Tsavo River. 135 deaths were reported at the time.
The lodge is located a short distance from Tsavo train station, the latter is a sort of tumble weed, forgotten kind of a place with original buildings dating from the colonial era that are untouched and have sadly fallen into disrepair. There are no more passenger trains passing through, or passengers on the station platform (perhaps this is fortunate as I gather the current record for derailments in Kenya is 8 per month) but the station is evocative of olden days, especially if you choose to conciously ignor the tin huts, chickens and cheerful, dusty children who play about the place and shout 'How are you!'.
The station master was a friendly man and gave us a guided tour. He uses a Victorian style signal box and is pictured outside the station house above holding a sort of stringless tennis racket thing. A small slip of paper is inserted into the bamboo frame of the 'tennis racket' and when a train passes the driver drops his bamboo thingy out of the window and artfully loops the station master's one through his arm. It's an ingenious system that we watched take place when a freight train carrying Magadi Soda passed through. Apparently the slips of paper ensure that there is only one train travelling along the single track between Mombasa/Nairobi at any one time - but the description of exactly how this works defeated me. My husband put a one shilling coin on the track and triumphantly retrieved it after the train had passed, satisfyingly flattened.
Inside the small station house is a boarded up ticket window, an ancient safe set into the wall and a wood counter worn down into soft curves through years of use. There are dusty shelves and a pair of strange red iron Victorian machines with lots of keys (also did not quite understand what these are for). In spite of the young stationmaster's enthusiasm, you could not help but feel he was a bit abandonned at his outpost.
I read a little about the man-eaters of Tsavo. A pair of maneless male Tsavo lion were finally captured and shot in that exact area by Col Patterson and they were thought to be responsible for terrorising the railway workers during March to December 1898.
However, man eating lions were found elsewhere along the railway track. If you visit the Nairobi Railway Museum you can see the actual carriage that a man named Ryall was killed by a lion inside, when it was located at Kima Station.
The gory story goes that Ryall was an adventurer who asked to put his carriage in a siding overnight so that he could stake out the train station and hopefully shoot the lion who was terrorising local people and railway employees. The lion had recently got so brave that, favouring the flesh of man over that of the plentiful game in the surrounding area, was even known to be hunting during the day. In fact the lion had once tried to rip through the corregated iron roof of the station house while the terrified signalman, pointsmen and station master huddled inside. Ryall was accompanied by two fellow intrepid travellers who were also up for the lion tracking adventure, a German merchant, Heubner, and an Italian named Parenti, a trader and the Italian vice-consul in Mombasa. Both travellers were on their way to Uganda.
During Ryall's watch at night (12-3am), he chose to keep look out through the window, leaving it open so as to be alert to every sound but tragically dozed off on his bunk while on duty. Apparently the offending and brazenly unafraid lion quickly climbed steps into the carriage through an open door at one end. It entered then lion stood on the sleeping body of Ryall's Italian colleague who was stretched out on the floor and was woken in terror, then killed Ryall himself who was on a bunk.
Paralysed with fear, squashed by the lion and overwhelmed by the lion's foul stench, the man on the floor fell unconcious in shock. The third, German man woke and dashed to the loo cubicle which he duly locked himself inside. The story goes that Ryall made not a sound as the lion attacked - so it is presumed that he was killed instantly as the lion's jaws first closed around either his head or neck.
Next, the weight of the exiting lion upended the carriage and the door through which the lion had entered, slid shut. According to the story, the lion (judging by the large pool of blood) took some time to decide what to do next, but finally proceeded out of the high carriage window with the body of Ryall in its mouth. Nobody inside the carriage thought to grab the gun that was lying ready and shoot the lion. The mutilated bodily remains of Ryall were found later in the bush not far off from the station buildings, with the lion standing over it. The men of the search party scared the lion away and the remains of Ryall's body was gathered up as well as possible to be transported to Nairobi for burial.
I got all this info from an extract of 'The Lions of Tsavo, exploring the legacy of Africa's notorious man-eaters' by Bruce D Patterson. You can read this extract online, and learn more about how loins terrorised those working and travelling along the railway line. In fact at Tsavo station there is today a 'lion proof' askari hut with metal grills across the window. I don't think that more than two or three people could sqeeze in it though.
Tsavo was indeed very dry and many rivers were not running. We saw lots of elephants and a couple of the infamous Tsavo lion lounging on anthills and looking rather unthreatening on this occasion. One was asleep on its back, legs in the air, like a cat and five or six minibuses clamoured around it, hoping for it to do something terrible exciting - which it didn't.
On this trip, the most memorable Kenyan roadside signs that I found along our journey were 'The slow but sure hotel' (not kidding) and the rather ordinary looking but promisingly named, 'Dotcom furniture store!' that had the usual array of beds and chairs on display outside on the dirt.
The new Mombasa road was excellent, with only the smallest diversion bit left. We even managed to not get stopped by a traffic policeman... though there were plenty in evidence. Just as well, as my husband had left his driving licence at home! oops.