After a privileged visit within her picturesque borders it is not difficult to understand why visitors – domestic and international alike keep returning.
By Brennen Mathews
In the days of my youth, my mates and I loved to throw caution to the wind and dash off to the great outdoors. For us, the motto of the day really was, ‘the wilder, the better,’ and we took risks that would have made our parents shudder – if they had known of course. Now that I am older, I realise that I am a little more fearful and a lot more picky on where I rest my head. It is always fascinating to me how our worldview and even personal culture changes as the years go by. But that is a different story.
Some years back, on one of my countless adventures, we found ourselves in Amboseli National Park. The safari, like most, was impromptu and therefore ill planned, but such was life in those days. Sitting on shukas (Maasai blankets), alone, in the public camp ground, in the middle of the park, we drank coldish beer and gorged ourselves on healthy snacks like potato crisps, chocolate and marshmallows that we singed on the flames of our enormous fire.
It was a time of bonding and of forming and building our characters and connection with Africa. Also we couldn’t afford anything better than rugged camping!
As darkness descended heavily over the land, my mates decided to turn in, which meant crowding into the Toyota pick-up truck that we had borrowed to get to Ambo. I, however, decided to brave the wilderness and vowed to stay awake throughout the night, enjoying the cool breeze and voices of primordial Africa.
As 1am became 2am and soon 3am, fatigue got the better of me; I began to sink into slumber, oblivious to the world around me. Somewhere in the distance of my consciousness I recognized the sound of a branch snapping nearby and in an instant I was wide awake; the hairs on the back of my neck stood tall and my heart thumped furiously.
Turning on my torch, I flashed the only light south of the stars (my fire had died out significantly) and to my horror, sitting just two metres away from me was a very, large stripped hyena who seemed none too pleased about me disrupting his dinner plans.
Jumping to my feet, I realized how utterly enormous this fellow was and as he growled aggressively, displaying very lethal looking teeth, I instantaneously appreciated the precariousness of my situation.
To my exhausted mind, these gentle giants had come to protect me from the dangers that lurked in the darkness and as the first rays of sunlight began to paint the morning sky, I watched in amazement as my temperate protectors slowly made their way out of camp, as silently as they had arrived.
This incident forever altered my perception of elephants and was an experience in Amboseli that I have never forgotten.
Owing its name to the Maasai word ‘empusel’ meaning salty dust, Amboseli National Park was created in 1968 and was initially a part of the Southern Maasai Reserve. Amboseli was inhabited by indigenous wildlife and local Maasai who
With tourism numbers climbing steadily, and clashes between domestic animals and indigenous wildlife for vegetation and scarce water resources increasingly common, environmentalists mounted pressure on the Kenyan government and in 1974, the late President Jomo Kenyatta gazetted the reservation as a protected park, covering an area of 392 square feet.
Its terrain consists of acacia woodland, vast open plains that are part of a dry Pleistocene lake basin that houses Lake Amboseli – a temporary lake – and swamps/marshes. Supporting a fragile ecosystem with over 50 species of mammals and 400 species of birds, Amboseli National Park is one of the best places in Kenya to watch large herds of free ranging African elephants as well as other grassland animals.
Now many moons later, I am once again in Amboseli, on assignment, and I am eager to reconnect with my memories and hopefully learn a little more about this beleaguered, but hearty, national park.
The road from Namanga is no longer the smooth welcoming route that prepared visitors for a safari of a lifetime; it is now a bumpy, corrugated nightmare that is a disgrace to our tourism product – domestic or international. On my last visit, the outskirts of Amboseli were covered with game.
However, with last year’s devastating drought that resulted in the death of a huge number of animals; zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and even elephant, the park has changed dramatically. It is no longer like an old familiar friend but rather, an unfamiliar stranger.
I knew that the Kenya Wildlife Service is working hard to protect and reinvigorate the Amboseli eco-system but prior to this trip, I had not appreciated the magnitude of the task at hand. Driving through the park I am astounded by how flat the terrain is. There is only one hill that breaks the rolling of the plains – Observation Hill – and it is puny when compared to the endless grasslands that seem to flow forever, leading perfectly to the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Zebra and wildebeest begin to come into view, while the odd giraffe and ostrich can be seen casually walking across the plains in the distance. Bones rest peacefully on the dry earth, remnants of those not strong or lucky enough to have survived last year’s drought. The rains have come and gone and a watery marshland serves as a blessing to all animals who call Ambo home.
Crossing a narrowing in the roadway, the water surrounds us to our left and right, alive and energized with the calls and splashing of hundreds of birds from numerous species such as heron, white faced whistling ducks and yellow billed storks. A lone hippo peeps from beneath the surface, enjoying a mid afternoon bath and an escape from the relentless heat of southern Kenya. Lake Amboseli is dry and pink flamingos hover over what remains of the seasonal body of water.
Kibo Villa, our destination on this trip, is a private house that is owned by the 01 Tukai group. Built using stone and gum trees, the retreat is a simple but pretty design of three ensuite bedrooms, a spacious lounge and dining area and kitchen. Each of the bedrooms boasts of a fireplace that’s perfect for the cold winter nights in Amboseli and the top floor room even has a Jacuzzi that has the most amazing view across the plains to Kilimanjaro. It is a very posh addition.
We are the only guests in Kibo during this safari, but guests can book a single luxury room if they do not wish to enjoy the pleasure and the privacy of taking the whole house. The house is comfortable and well planned for a memorable escape.
“The view is amazing,” my wife whispers, stepping out on to the wooden balcony as Kilimanjaro’s snow covered peak shows itself from under a protective layer of thick white cloud. The mountain is simly mesmerizing and it is not hard to understand why Amboseli still remains one of Kenya’s most beloved game parks; the lovely scenery with the mountain as the backdrop is out of this world and somehow mystical.
After a tasty 3-course lunch we head off on our first real game drive in the park. “Would you like one of our guides to take you?” Rachel, the Guest Relations Manager asks us. We appreciate the offer but generally prefer to find our own way around when on safari. We have logged thousands of hours in the wild and somehow feel that roving about with a stranger detracts from the personal and spiritual experience of being alone on the plains with the game; with only the wind and in the case of Ambo, dust devils to keep you company. “Okay, why don’t you take my cell phone number just in case?” she cautions. Reluctantly we accept, confident that we will not need to use it, but then again, better safe than sorry.
The late afternoon sun is still high in the sky and the earth is dry and dusty. We enjoy a herd of buffalo as they wander across the savannah, while birds circle high in the heavens, using the thermals to help them glide with little effort. Driving on, we stop at a swamp and watch as a family of elephants enjoy splashing around in the water.
When another vehicle joins to watch the performance, we move on. We take a left at a fork in the road and navigate down a road ‘less travelled’. We are in exploration mode. A marsh provides an interesting opportunity for game viewing, which is further enhanced by an enormous bull elephant gleefully enjoying a late day snack on the swamp’s edge.
Turning off the engine we watch and listen, in silence, enthralled by an experience that one can never really grow tired of. We are alone on these great plains and are immediately overwhelmed by the surreal feeling of stepping back in time, to simpler days. The wind howls somehow soothingly through the long yellow grass and the voices of wildebeest calling to one another is carried over us. A sense of peace fills the atmosphere as the contented pachyderm crunches away. He is certainly doing a fine job at clearing the succulent green grass at the water’s edge. Stopping, he sniffs the air, his senses attuned. A shudder shakes his enormous frame. Slowly he saunters towards us, trunk in the air, eyes wide open.
I begin to reverse to give the big guy space, but lo and behold, we have a seriously flat tire. Our first EVER in our beloved Prado (even though it is a little aged). The bull stops, only two metres away and stares deeply at us. We hold our breath, terrified and awe-struck all at the same time. Thoughts of disaster fill our minds and the idea of this immense fellow thrashing our beloved Toyota is not endearing. But we soon learn that in Amboseli elephants are not given to rage as in other wild areas throughout the country and our respect and amazement for these superb mammals grows even more.
After mere moments, but at the time it feels like an eternity, he finally returns to the sweet meal that has gripped his taste buds. We watch, hoping that he will soon move on to greener pastures and grant us an opportunity to sort out our flat tire. “We need to call Rachel. She can send someone to help.” As usual, my better half is right and it suddenly dawns on me that we almost left without her phone number. Thank the Lord for small mercies!
Over the next two hours the bull makes his way back to us several more times, causing our hushed voices to seem like screams and our hearts to beat wildly. But he means no harm and time and again returns to continue his meal. As the sun begins its descent to make way for the darkness to begin its reign, the enormous fellow slowly makes his way past the vehicle one last time and around the marshlands. When he is a safe distance away I jump out and begin the task of replacing the punctured tire. Spare tire removed, vehicle jacked up high, we are moving quickly now.
The night is upon us and i am struggling to see, while the calls of those rousing from their rest to look for dinner grow increasingly louder. Suddenly a blinding pair of headlights crash over the ridge and salvation is upon us. Long story short, the rescue team is not able to get the tire off and decide to drop us back at Kibo for dinner, while they make their way back into the African night to wrench our tire free. It has been a long afternoon.
Back at Kibo, we thankfully take the warm wet cloths that the steward hands us and wipe away the afternoon dust from our hands and faces. Out on the lawn a table is prepared; the setting is just right for a romantic meal. A delightful surprise after an ‘eventful’ afternoon. A roaring camp fire casts an inviting glow in the cold windy night and the sweet aroma of dinner wafts through the air. The mood is dreamlike and relaxed and we watch in amazement as a gigantic orange moon slowly rises as though out of the very earth, moving higher and higher into the dark starry sky.
The food is delicious, service impeccable. As we polish off the main meal, debating with each other whether we have room for dessert, another surprise presents itself. A lone musician appears, as though from thin air, and serenades us with soulful ballads as he softly strums his guitar. The music is soothing, a perfect way to complete the reverie of the night.
After a champagne bush breakfast supervised by the mountain, we are off again in search of more elephants and other wildlife. This time however we decide to drive in one of Ol Tukai’s Land Cruisers with Isaac, our trusted guide. Isaac has worked with the lodge since 1996, when it first opened its doors. He knows the park well and entertains us with fascinating bits of information that we will in turn regurgitate to our mates in an effort to awe and impress.
We spot a lone hyena sauntering off into the distance and innumerable zebra and gazelles as they graze on the open plains. Isaac tells us that these are some of the zebra that the Kenya Wildlife Service relocated to Amboseli from Naivasha, in an effort to restock the park after the devastating drought.
“After the drought, it was heartbreaking to go on a game drive. Some tourists even refused because of the stench from the dead animals.” He adds, “On one game drive, we came across an old bull elephant that was lying on the ground, weak and at death’s door. The next morning, as I passed by the same spot again, the elephant was dead.” However, Amboseli is on the mend and the wildlife that once fled in search of food and water is now beginning to return. Everyone that we speak with is very optimistic.
As we continue on with our game drive, we see more elephants, hippo, giraffes and seven sleepy lions that are lying in the tall grass. While the park does seem a little empty compared to my earlier memories, there is still a lot to do and some incredible things to see.
In the distance we spot a family of 15 elephants walking towards us in single file, the matriarch bringing up the rear. “They are heading towards the river. Let’s move up ahead so that they will cross right in front of us,” Isaac suggests.
Turning off the vehicle we wait. Slowly, steadily and surely, the elephants make their way along a narrow foot path, each in line, none moving out of place. As they finally cross directly in front of us, it is an incredible sight. Oblivious to our stares, they cross focused, with one goal in mind – water.
In the horizon we marvel at the view of boggy marsh, open grassy plains that stretch as far as the eye can see and the towering peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, which seems like only a stone throw away. With a cold Tusker Malt in one hand and a plate of snacks in the other, we shake our heads in appreciation for the privilege that we have of experiencing what must truly be one of Kenya’s most unforgettable parks.
Porini Camp – Game Watchers
Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge
Ballooning in Amboseli