Amboseli, the Maasai’s “Place of Dust”, is a small and very popular park, and often full of visitors. Scenically, however, it is redeemed by the stunning spectacle of Kilimanjaro towering over it and – in those clichéd but irresistible photos taken with telephoto lenses – appearing almost to fill the sky. In the right light, the snowy massif, washed coral and orange, is devastatingly beautiful. Sunrise and sunset are the most likely times to see the mountain, especially during the rainy season when the air is much clearer, but for the most part it remains tantalizingly shrouded in a thick shawl of cloud.
On the animal side, Amboseli is elephant country par excellence. You will see large herds, and some individuals with big tusks. Predators, apart from hyenas and jackals, are relatively scarce (lions are almost absent, thanks to the revenge wrought by the Maasai upon the expulsion of them and their herds from the park (see Amboseli’s history), but good numbers of herbivores are present. In the dry season, most of the animals crowd into the impenetrable marshy areas and patches of hardy acacia woodland where food plants are available. But during and shortly after the rains the picture is different, with the animals more dispersed and the landscape greener.
In the dry season, Amboseli can seem a parched, unattractive place, with Kilimanjaro disappointingly hazed into oblivion. Heading straight for the park’s centre at Ol Tukai, with its lodges, workers, filling station, fences and barriers, doesn’t improve first impressions. During the rains, however, it all looks far more impressive, with the shallow and seasonal Lake Amboseli partially filled, and a number of other seasonal lakes and ponds – the temporary home of small flocks of flamingos, pelicans and other migratory species – scattered across the landscape.
What is now Amboseli was part of the Southern Maasai Reserve at the turn of the last century. Then tourism arrived in the 1940s and the Amboseli Reserve was created as a wildlife sanctuary. Unlike Nairobi and Tsavo national parks, created at the same time and sparsely inhabited, Amboseli’s swamps were used by the Maasai to water their herds and they saw no reason not to continue sharing the area with the wildlife and – if necessary – with the tourists. In 1961, the Maasai District Council at Kajiado was given control of the area. But the combined destructive capacities of cattle and tourists began to tell in the 1960s and a rising water table in the following decade brought poisonous alkali to the surface and decimated huge tracts of acacia woodland.
Kenyatta declared the 400-square-kilometre zone around the swamps (the present-day Amboseli) a national park in 1970 – a status that formally excluded the Maasai and their cattle, although in practical terms the park staff could do nothing to keep them out. Infuriated, the Maasai all but exterminated the park’s magnificent long-horned black rhinos over the next few years, seizing on Amboseli’s tourist emblem with a vengeance (the surviving rhinos were translocated). They also obliterated a good part of the lion population, which has still not recovered. Not until a piped water supply was set up for the cattle did the Maasai finally give up the land. For years, compromise appeared to be the order of the day, and, in the dry season, you’ll see numerous herds of cattle and their herders encroaching well into the park unhindered, as they always did. Tensions rose in 2012, however, after a Maasai boy was killed by a buffalo and a number of animals, including elephants, were speared in retribution.
The erosion of Amboseli’s grasslands by circling minibuses did a great deal of damage in the 1980s, turning it into a vehicle-clogged dustbowl that appealed little to animals or tourists. A concerted programme of environmental conservation, road-building and ditch-making was initiated, and this, combined with the toughest approach of any park to off-road driving (including fines and expulsions), has improved the situation enormously.
Small enough to explore easily in two or three game drives over a couple of days, Amboseli is mostly open country with good visibility. A good first stop is Observation Hill. Early in the morning, with Kilimanjaro a pervasive sky-filler to the south, the swamps of Enkongo Narok, replenished underground from the mountain top, are looped out in a brilliant emerald sash beneath. You can get out and walk around up here, and chat with the rangers posted on-site.
There’s always a concentration of animals around the swamps and along the driveable tracks which follow their fringes. These marshes are permanent enough to keep hippos in Amboseli all year, and the park is also home to hundreds of elephant and buffalo and a raucous profusion of birdlife. Lake Kioko, between Lake Amboseli and Ol Tukai – most easily seen along the track between junctions #21 and #26 – is a particularly worthwhile oasis, and similarly Olokenya swamp, with its seasonal lakes north and east of Ol Tukai, is always worth slow exploration.
Lions are quite rare, but cheetahs are seen fairly frequently in the woods a little further south, and there are often dozens of giraffe among the acacias. Look out, too, for the beautifully formed, rapier-horned fringe-eared oryx antelope, and for gerenuk, stretching their long necks up to forage in the trees.
The open plains are scoured by zebra and haphazard, solitary wildebeest. The two species are often seen together – a good deal from the zebras’ point of view because in a surprise attack the predator usually ends up with the less fleet-footed wildebeest. There are tail-flicking gazelle out here, too, of both species: the open country provides good protection against cheetah ambushes.
The most glorious views of Kilimanjaro are often on clear mornings during the rainy season. At these moments, when the dust in the air has been washed away and the clouds separate, the whole mountain seems to glow in the sky. Heavy rain often falls on the upper slopes in the form of snow, leaving a thick white topping and creating the impression that all is well with the atmosphere. It is of course an illusion: the glaciers are melting. The solid 10,000-year-old ice that rests on the peaks and once smothered the mountain with an icecap more than 20km across, has been steadily disappearing since Kilimanjaro was first seen by outsiders, and glaciers now cover only about one-tenth of the area they did when German geographer Hans Meyer made the first ascent of the peak in 1889. From the late nineteenth century until the 1980s, the melting effect was slow, reducing the ice cover by about one third over the course of the century; but another third has vanished in the last thirty years, and glaciologists now variously estimate that the mountain is likely to be ice-free at some point between 2030 and 2060.
North of the park proper, but only easily accessed from it, with a driver-guide who knows the way, the
is one of Kenya’s pioneering community conservation success stories. Here, Gamewatchers Safaris, one of the country’s most environmentally sound safari operators, co-manages
Porini Amboseli Camp
with the local Maasai community. With a maximum of eighteen visitors, there are no time-serving, long-distance staff here: you’re looked after by local warriors, generating direct income for their families.
Although the Selenkay (also spelled Selengei) area is bushy, with few stretches of open savanna, and wildlife is much less habituated to vehicles than in the park, the game-viewing can still be good, with predators frequently seen, as well as elephants, several species of antelope, and often the more infrequently observed mammals – there’s a porcupine den close to the camp, for example. And the beauty of being here is the chance to go on game walks with your Maasai hosts, as often as you like. Down in a sandy area near the seasonal Merueshi River, they do sundowners and bush dinners, while their tree platform, near a waterhole, is a regular bush breakfast and sundowner spot.