Touching down at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, it’s not unusual for Globetrotters on a Kenya safari to make a beeline for the open plains and big cats of the Maasai Mara. There can be no question that the Mara embodies Kenya at her most wild and romantic, with predators lurking just beyond the safety of vast herds of wildebeest and zebra. From its incredible wildlife to human settlements and traditions dating back centuries, Kenya offers a safari destination that is well prepared for tourism, yet remains uncompromisingly African. But there are other classic images one can only see in Kenya that await beyond its most popular park.
It’s 8am, and our band of wildlife spotters is fresh from a much needed night’s sleep at our hotel in downtown Nairobi. From Melbourne, Amsterdam, Delhi, and Toronto, we’ve all had long flights to get here. While other groups board shuttles bound for Wilson Airport, where they’ll catch their flights to the Mara and other remote parks, we pile into our safari vehicle for the drive south to Amboseli National Park. It’s small by the standards of Kenya’s most popular wildlife reserves, but it does have one huge geographic feature none of its rivals can match.
Sitting just over the border in neighbouring Tanzania, Kilimanjaro, the world’s highest free standing mountain and snow-capped symbol of East Africa, rises above the landscape of Amboseli. We’ll have to wait a few hours before the famous mountain comes into view, but not for our first wildlife sighting. A giraffe hanging out by the side of the highway whets our appetite for what’s to come, even for those in our party who’ve been to Africa – and Kenya – before.
Game drives on an African safari are typically scheduled in the early morning and just before dusk, when the animals are at their most active. So while the heat of the day is quieter, things are active enough for just a taste, as we weave our way through the park to Ol Tokai Lodge, spotting a herd of elephants beneath a small clump of trees in the distance. It’s now just past noon, and most of Amboseli’s herds are camped out in the park’s waterholes, or in all too scarce patches of shade. With tough protections against poaching, the park has become a haven for “big tusker” elephants. This unfortunately comes at the expense of the park’s trees, and reforestation is slow at best. A small herd has gathered around shaded water near remnants of the long defunct Amboseli Lodge, which sits not unlike a 20th–century ruin, close to Ol Tukai’s prime location in the centre of the park.
A refreshing drink and delicious buffet lunch later, we’re settled into well-appointed bungalows overlooking the plains, where a lone elephant and a pair of zebra have popped in to say hello. Again, this is nothing compared to the sightings that await us, but for my first visit to Africa, every glimpse of these magnificent beasts is something special. Still, even after a much needed nap, the herds aren’t quite ready for show time, giving us a chance to visit some of Amboseli’s other inhabitants, the Maasai.
Despite the name, these nomadic peoples are far from exclusive to the Maasai Mara. The Maasai have been roaming the lands of East Africa for centuries, living on a meat and dairy based diet, forming small but vibrant communities in harmony with the local animals and their environment. Accompanied by the chief on our drive, we arrive at the small village in the centre of a landscape dotted with the rocky spoils of a volcanic eruption long in Kilimanjaro’s past. As we approach the entrance to the village, we’re greeted by a traditional welcome song and dance, the most memorable part of which sees the men of the village jumping high as they can – all to appeal to the most desirable mate, of course!
Officially welcomed in this community of 261 people, who share 72 small homes built of natural materials including wood, stones, and elephant waste, we visit the local healer for some Bush Medicine 101. The Maasai have been using local roots – some of which require multiple day trek to the slopes of Kilimanjaro to acquire – to heal most of their ailments for generations. We’re also privileged to take a look inside one of the homes, and pay a visit to the community’s small school, the only building that bears much resemblance to its city counterpart. Truthfully, we could spend an entire day or more with the Maasai and only scratch the surface of what they’re all about. But the sun is beginning to fade, clearing the mists around a far more visible Mount Kilimanjaro and cooling the plains of Amboseli. That means only one thing – our first official game drive is set to begin!
The plains and marshes of Amboseli do not disappoint. Over the next few days, we take full advantage of each game drive opportunity and are rewarded with sightings of giraffes, cheeky baboons, vultures, ostriches, hyenas, herds of buffalo and hippos enjoying the cool swamps, the pink flamingos of Lake Amboseli, and of course, the ever-present herds of zebra, antelope, and wildebeest. The big tuskers however are still the stars of the show. Our route takes us past entire families, partially submerged in the swampy marshes. Amboseli gets a lot of its water from snowmelt off Kilimanjaro. After a hot day under the East African sun, most of the elephants we see are showing off a distinct waterline – even some babies who’ve gone in over their heads.
Our final destination is Noomito, a small, flat-topped hill with magnificent views over the marshes, and Kilimanjaro. The mountain offers a peerless backdrop to our first day’s sundowners on our Kenya safari. We’d repeat this ritual in some form after our evening game drive each day, but never did it come close to our first African sunset, one of cocktails, local bites, and another welcome from the Maasai.
There’s one big gap in our game viewing experience. A solitary lion has been spotted in the long grasses of Amboseli, and every safari vehicle in the park, including ours, is on the hunt for the king of the savanna. A small cluster of zebra staring at something in the grass raises our hopes, but ultimately, Africa’s apex predator declines to make an appearance. We’re told of a kill that took place just before we arrived that has likely left Amboseli’s modest population of lions satisfied, and while the park has a few leopards and cheetah, these smaller cats are even more elusive.
Still, even returning to Ol Tukai without a lion sighting, we can’t feel disappointed. Certainly not while sipping a sundowner on my bungalow’s porch, watching a herd of elephants grazing just beyond the fence – including two adolescent males getting into a spat over… something. A day and a half hasn’t given me quite enough time to decipher the secret language of elephants. But Amboseli has one last surprise in store.
Happy, but tired from our full day of exploring (while most visitors to the park will rest between game drives during the day, we’ve been checking out other lodges and tented camps, including the stunning Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge), our hosts suggest a night-time walk. “Sure,” we say, even if the answer from our muscles is closer to “Umm… sure? I guess?”
This doesn’t mean a walk in the open park of course. Night time is prime hunting time, after all! Instead, we’re led through the darkened bush to a small clearing on Ol Tukai’s grounds, where a delicious outdoor bush dinner awaits us. All of Ol Tukai’s meals have been top notch throughout our stay, but this one is made extra special with selected wines (both African and from elsewhere), and another song and dance welcome from the Maasai.
We don’t see them at first, as they approach along the same path we took to reach the clearing. We only hear their song, repetitive and irresistible as they take up position near our table and start their simple, but striking dance. Among the gender segregated Maasai, only a male is permitted to dance with this group, and… grateful for those couple of wines, I’m “volunteered” into joining in. I’m told I jump pretty well, but I’m happy to take my group’s word for that, as the Maasai bid us farewell and we return to dinner before a much-needed night’s sleep. Tomorrow promises the long drive to Tsavo West, an arid park further along the Tanzanian border, offering a very different experience to Amboseli on our Kenya safari.
Reaching Amboseli from Nairobi is relatively easy, either by small aircraft from Wilson Airport to Amboseli’s airstrip, or by a five hour drive from Nairobi. While flying is a lot faster, the road route is quite direct, easy, and well-maintained by East African standards, though once inside the park, you’ll want to buckle up for the famous ‘African massage.’ The dry season runs from June to early October, and offers the best game viewing opportunities as animals gather around limited water sources. January and February is a great time to visit as well. Keep in mind, Amboseli’s accessibility makes it one of Kenya’s more popular parks, but we never felt as if we were competing with too many vehicles for prime game viewing.
In terms of wildlife, the elephant is Amboseli’s star, while zebra, wildebeest, and buffalo are all abundant. Rhinos are absent here, but you’ll almost certainly see giraffes, hippos, and hyenas, along with a multitude of bird species. The cats are somewhat rare, though your most likely sighting is the lion. Even rarer is the African wild dog, though we were extremely lucky to see two of them on one of our game drives.
Like all safari destinations, Amboseli offers tremendous rewards to Globetrotters with patience and sharp eyes. Watched over by Kilimanjaro itself, there’s no African landscape quite like it, and even with a few animals missing from the roster, it marks a fantastic start to our African safari adventure.