As a wildlife photographer, one of my favourite and most successful strategies is to park next to a waterhole and wait. I find this is often more rewarding for photography than driving around, covering tens of kilometres in search of animals. All animals have to drink water, and it makes sense to wait at a place that they will come to. I also enjoy just sitting there, listening to the sounds of the wilderness, and taking it all in. I tune in with all my senses and revel in the sights and sounds.

On my first visit to Tsavo West National Park, I was surprised at how different it was from other Kenyan national parks I had visited. It was hilly, and wherever I drove, I felt I was either in a broad valley or being watched by a long, brooding escarpment. I was visiting in December, at the tail end of a wet season, and the park was lush. Most of the scrub vegetation was at most a metre or two high, with trees interspersed. Although not high, it was tall enough to conceal most mammals unless they were grazers out in open grassland. This made it all the more important to find a waterhole. We were staying at Ngulia Lodge, which had created waterholes for game viewing, and this drew elephants, water buffalo, warthogs, and baboons, amongst other mammals. But I was surprised at how few waterholes were present in the park. This was a complete contrast to Tsavo East National Park, which I visited a few days later. The two parks are vastly different and not what one would expect from two contiguous national parks where the only obvious boundary is the highway and railway line that divides them. However, although they are contiguous, they cover a large area, which results in big changes in the surface geology.

Tsavo East is largely flat, noticeably drier, and warmer, with a profusion of small and large water bodies and grassland. It is much more typical of the East African national parks. Given the amount of water and grassland present, a not surprisingly large number of elephants could be seen with ease, sometimes the herds were only separated by a distance of a kilometer or less. Finding mammals in Tsavo West was more challenging, but nevertheless, it was beautiful and cool. I find it hard to decide which of the two parks is better for me.

Because I was keen to find a waterhole, Charles, my safari guide and driver, took me to perhaps the only decent waterhole that was in the area. It was actually a string of small pools that were connected by a stream that threaded through them. I could see that there had been some human intervention to channel the water. On one side, above the stream, the ground gently sloped up to form a large hill, seemingly rising up to meet a nearly full moon. I suspect the stream is formed by the water flowing down the gradient. The hillside had tall grass. On the other side of the stream, the ground was flat across a broad area before adopting a hilly contour again. A few medium-sized trees bordered each of the water bodies. The largest of the water bodies was at the far end and looked like it had been enlarged by the park’s management team.

As we approached the first pool, a small line of Coke’s Hartbeest were making their way away. A Kori Bustard was strutting purposefully along the grass. A water monitor carefully threaded its way along the water channel. A buzzing noise alerted me to a flock of social weavers. Weaver birds are as much a characteristic of East Africa as are the famous thorn trees, or Acaccias. The botanical genus of Accacia is no longer used for the trees in Africa, but that is a different story. Weavers, some of which have a superficial resemblance to sparrows (family Passeridae), are birds in a different family (the family Ploceidae). The sparrows, unlike some of the weavers, do not weave complex nests. Weavers seem to be especially noticeable around human settlements. In fact, the noise and hubbub of a weaver colony is part of the welcome when one drives into some of the game lodges. I had particularly enjoyed the colonies of different species of weaver at the AA Lodge, which I had stayed at a few days ago near the Amboseli National Park. I suspect there are many reasons why weavers are found near human settlements. Firstly, people protect the large trees with wide canopies for their shade. Secondly, there is often spillage of food which happens near human settlements. Thirdly, I suspect some potential predators are deterred by the presence of people. To me weavers are a signature feature of Africa.

On my trip, I was using the excellent ‘Birds of East Africa: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi’ by Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe. I was using the second edition published in the Helm Field Guide Series by Bloomsbury Publishing. The book includes no less than 78 species of weavers and allies (including widowbirds and bishops). Some of these species are widely distributed in the region, but the large majority are confined to very small areas, sometimes just a pin point on the distribution maps. This is because even across a relatively small span of a few hundred kilometers, the combination of topographical complexity and rainfall creates very different habitats. Africa is a complex matrix of different island habitats set close to each other, which has led to the evolution of species adapted differently to their specific environmental conditions. To read more about this, I would recommend the various books by Jonathan Kingdon, especially his book ‘Island Africa: The Evolution of Africa’s Rare Animals and Plants’.

The buzz at the waterhole came from a flock of Chestnut weavers. The males were still in breeding plumage, with black faces and plenty of chestnut on their plumage. Also present in a smaller number were red-billed Queleas. Fortunately, the breeding plumage helped with identifying them. In non-breeding plumage, the male weavers look like females, and the females of many species are similar and hard to tell apart. A line of African savanna elephants appeared over the hill and made their way down across the slope without coming to water. A drongo flitted about. A Wood sandpiper probed the water’s edge.

We drove to the largest pool at the end and found a pair of hippopotamuses with a striking difference in size. After grazing on the grass, they both slipped into the water and seemed at ease. A solitary elephant approached the water. I did not expect much to happen other than for it to drink and leave. To my surprise, the larger hippo, which I assumed to be a courting male, took great exception to the elephant’s arrival. It began gesticulating madly by opening its mouth and baring its formidable looking teeth. It thrashed about in the water, at times performing rolls. The elephant seemed taken aback a bit and paused its stride toward the water. Having taken stock of the situation, it seemed to decide that a little bit of aggression on its part was also due and charged into the water, raking the water with its trunk and creating a foamy spray. The hippos kept their distance, and fortunately neither party made physical contact, which could have only ended in death or injury. The elephant stepped back to the edge of the pool and drank. Each party had made their displeasure known.

As the elephant was walking away, it turned around and faced us. It was clearly not in a good mood. Charles, realising that the once peaceful elephant was no longer the same beast, started the engine and revved it a bit to discourage a closer approach. The light was fading, and the park rules required that we should be back at the lodge before dusk, so we left. It had been another thrilling wildlife encounter, which had only become possible because I had chosen to spend a few hours at the waterhole complex and take things in, rather than frantically driving around in search of wildlife.