Travel writer and author, Jane Barsby, takes a dive into Mzima Springs, one of Tsavo West’s greatest tourist attractions.
Mzima Springs is a world unto itself. Here in this magical bubble of an oasis, the air is filled with birdsong and the water bursts out of the ground literally gurgling with laughter. And so it might. It has been trapped underground for 25 years or more and now, finally freed from the underground chasms where it has achieved diamond-clarity, it will flash briefly through the pools of Mzima Springs before disappearing again.
The underwater hippo-viewing chamber
We’re in an underwater viewing-tank sunk below the waters of Mzima Springs in Tsavo West National Park. The water, melt-water from the snows of Kilimanjaro, has flowed here through many kilometers of underground tunnels. The tank smells damp and subterranean. Our voices echo hollowly. The tank, or so the brass plate bolted to the wall informs us, was installed in 1969. The other brass plate reads: Do not stick fingers into water. Crocodiles abound.
Tiny square windows are set into the structure’s cylindrical sides. Through them we can see hundreds of blue-grey fishes. The fish, known as barbels, are a type of fresh-water carp. They’ve got miniature shark-fins and translucent fangs and they’re all swimming around and around and around the diving bell in an anticlockwise direction. It’s dizzying to watch.
The water beyond the squared windows is crystal clear. In the shimmering distance we can just make out a set of short stubby legs. They’re paddling their way through the water with a vaguely pig-like submarine trot; and they’re attached to a vast chocolate-brown body with a raspberry-pink belly. It’s a hippopotamus. And it’s heading our way.
For a second or two the door of the chamber emits an eerie sci-fi glow as multiple cameras flash. Then the cavalcade emerges and snakes on down the path to the lower pool.
The hippos of the lower pool
Here, some thirty hippos are wallowing against a Hollywood-perfect backdrop of trailing lianas and dense green jungle. There’s a general snorting and blowing as they rise briefly to the surface to survey their audience. And a resounding chortle as they sink once more beneath the surface.
From the murky shallows a long, brown snout protrudes. Slowly, silently, hardly breaking the surface of the water, it drifts out into the wider reaches of the hippo pool. It looks like a log. But it has teeth. And so do all the other logs.
Mzima Springs Factfile
The word ‘Mzima’ means ‘alive’ in Kiswahili.
The transparent water of the three Mzima pools is filtered by the porous lava of the Chyulu Hills. Through a pipeline installed in 1966, Mzima Springs is also the source of most of Mombasa’s drinking water.
There are two nature trails which lead to the underwater viewing chamber lined with date and raffia palms. As well as hippos and crocodiles, expect to see vervet and Sykes’ monkeys and an incredible variety of birds.
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