Kenya: Bridge Linked to Man-Eater Lions Turns 120

Tsavo Bridge in Taita Taveta County.
18 October 2019

Motorists driving through Tsavo West National Park on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway marvel at the giant bridge on the modern railway line at Man Eaters near Manyani Township.

The 1900-metre-long concrete and metal behemoth standing on thick concrete pillars across Tsavo River was installed by Chinese engineers as they built the standard gauge railway (SGR).

The railway line, whose construction started in 2014, was commissioned two years ago.

The super bridge dwarfs a humble bridge on the old and narrower railway line installed across the same river, which starts at Mzima Springs and moves deeper into the park.

Simply known as Tsavo Bridge, the metallic installation has been in existence for 120 years.

TERROR OF LIONS

Indian engineers working for the Imperial British East Africa, the company, tasked with building the old railway line, built the bridge. Though a little rusty, the metallic installation on robust concrete pillars looks as strong as ever.

The bridge that was completed in 1899 opened up the dreaded section of the park, known for deadly lions, to sightseers, enabling travellers to soak in the beauty of the park.

A pair of lions roaming the region frustrated the building of the railway line. They killed about 28 and mauled more than 100 railway workers within a year before they were gunned down. That is how the place earned the name Man Eaters.

The terror the lions visited upon the poor workers is amplified in the book The Man Easters of Tsavo and Other East African Adventures published in 1907 by Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, the head of the bridge construction project, who hunted down and killed the lions.

EASY PREY

The story of the lions is further popularised by "The Ghost and the Darkness", a Hollywood adventure film produced by Stephen Hopkins 68 years after the lions were killed.

The carcasses are displayed at the University of Chicago Museum. A study involving scientists at the university, Kenya Wildlife Service and the National Museums of Kenya revealed that the pair had rotten teeth and malformed jaws.

The study that was published two years ago suggests that this made the lions prefer prey that was easy to subdue.

Scientists believe the lions may have developed a taste for human flesh from eating bodies of slaves abandoned in bushes by traders heading to and from Mombasa.

The deadly tale is further immortalised in the name of the region around the bridge. Man Eaters Hotel, an inn set up by a private investor in the area that overlooks the bridge, further popularised the name.

MAN EATERS HOTEL

The single-storey hotel was designed such that it offers a bird's eye view of the old bridge and a panoramic view of the Tsavo landscape.

The inn was a major stopover for motorists to and from Mombasa before insecurity brought it down in the late 1990s. "Man Eaters Hotel was a popular spot in the 1960s and 1970s during the reign of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. This is where administrators of Eastern Province handed the President's entourage over to their counterparts from Coast Province, who would escort him to Mombasa," Mr Pascal Kyule, a retired Mtito Andei chief, reminisces.

The Chinese firm that built the SGR set up a camp at Man Eaters.

A fresh coat of paint on the inn and extension of electricity to the facility provides the much needed assurance that the eatery is set to bounce back in the wake of the irresistible SGR super bridge.

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