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The Beauty of Amboseli

Text by Jan Hemsing, photographs by Mohamed Amin and Duncan Willetts.



Beloved by Ernest Hemingway and Hollywood’s legendary film makers, the fragile grasslands of Amboseli, with their swamps, springs and seasonal lakes, host a magnificent wildlife spectacle with some species unique to the African bush, beneath the majesty of 5,896 metres (19,340 feet) Kilimanjaro.


Rising into the ethereal blue of an equatorial sky, the snow-capped dome of Africa’s highest mountain is testimony to the grandeur of nature’s design.

The Beauty

Trim, travel-sized edition; clear text supported by superb photographs that effortlessly depict the beauty of Amboseli.

The Beauty



This book was designed and produced by Camerapix Publishers International PO Box 45048, 00100 GPO Nairobi, Kenya Š Camerapix 2011 Revised edition 2011 ISBN: 978-1-904722-52-6 Production Director: Rukhsana Haq Text: Jan Hemsing Revised Text: Phillip Briggs Editorial Assistant: Cecilia Gaitho Design: Fatima Janmohamed All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without permission in writing from Camerapix Publishers International. Printed in Singapore.

Special thanks to Karl Ammann for use of his photograph on pages 82-83.

Half-title: Zebra in Amboseli National Park with Mount Kilimanjaro in the background. Title page: An Amboseli herd moves in stately procession against the impressive backdrop of Kilimanjaro. Following pages: A herd of wildebeest files past as the sun sets over Amboseli National Park. 4


1. Normatior


2. Footprints


3. Ol Tukai


4. The Maasai


5. The Heavyweights


6. Birdlife


7. Accommodation


8. Getting There – And Back



1. Normatior


tand on the top of Observation Hill, at the southeast end of Amboseli National Park, where most of the larger mammals tend to congregate, and

the whole park lies spread out below in a patchwork of lakes and swamps reflecting the blue brilliance of the sky. The land shades are of muted pale ochre, chalk white and vestigial green with, here and there, scattered pockets of darker green oases – some small, some larger – of acacia trees and palms. All around, and not so very much changed since it was first seen by a white man’s eyes in 1883, is essential Africa in all its contrasts of beauty and harshness, wilderness, desert and watering places. This is tropical Africa, less than three degrees south of the equator. The view from the hill is vast, encouraging the eye to linger on it. Few places, for such a short climb, can be so rewarding in terms of the immense distances revealed, not only the park’s whole geography but the terrain far beyond, of hills, plains and mountains, all canopied by a boundless sky. Carry binoculars and a bird-book when setting out to climb the hill. It is only a short walk up from where vehicles are left on the level ground at the base of the slope, which is stony but walkable. For keen birdwatchers, a profitable day can be spent identifying the avifauna alone, listed for Amboseli as 425 different species. Raptors glide the air currents overhead, but are not likely to approach the hilltop viewpoint until all humans are safely out of sight. Man is still the enemy, with or without a gun. Opposite: Coke’s hartebeest and young (Alcelaphus buselaphus cokei), usually known as Kongoni in Kenya. Both male and female have horns. 9

Namanga (Meshanani) Gate

To Namanga + Nairobi

Seasonal Swamp

LAKE AMBOSELI (Dry except in wet seasons)







Kitirua Post

Camp Site

Enkongo Naro Swamp



Disused Maasai Manyatt Quarry

Amboseli National Park Š Camerapix

Area of main map


To Emali

Ol Tukai


Kilimanjaro Buffalo Lodge Kimana Lodge




Seasonal Swamp

To Tsavo West

KILIMANJARO To Emali + Nairobi

Lemeiboti (Remito) Gate



Ol Tukai

Seasonal Swamp Amboseli Lodge Ol Tukai Bandas

Kilimanjaro Safari Lodge



Ol Tukai Orok Swamp


Ol Okenya Swamp

Amboseli Serena Lodge

Kimana (Olkelunyieti) Gate


0 0


2 1


4 2

5 3


7 4

8 km 5 miles

New Park HQ To Tsavo West + Mombasa

Normatior The blackish, bottle-green, more permanent of the seasonal swamps, Enkongo (or Ngong) Narok, Ol Tukai and Ologinya (Ol Okenya), fed by the meltwaters and springs from Mount Kilimanjaro behind the hill, are the homes of hippos and prolific birdlife. They stand out vividly against the sun-bleached plain, their waters sometimes daubed, as if by an artist’s hand, with the palest pink of flamingos and the white of pelicans. These and other wetlands, which can appear almost overnight, making this part of Amboseli a mini-lake district, provide the wildlife for miles around with drinking water, which is at a premium beyond the park. In the imagination, substitute for the elephants now azily cooling off in the swamps below, groups of familyloving, 10 metres tall hadrosaurs peacefully feeding with their young all around them – the crested, web-footed, sunseeking dinosaurs of prehistory when great lakes covered the land. Add wheeling, screaming pterodactyls to darken the sky and you are back 65 million years. It is their sort of landscape still. On the eastern side of the dried-up lake bed which gives the park its name – Amboseli, Embosel or Empusel – Lakes Kioko, Simek and Conch have water in them most of the year round, except during drought years. Fed by the Simek River flowing out of the Enkongo Narok swamp, their surrounding beaches – sometimes papyrus-fringed and with ever-diminishing patches of acacia woodland – attract indigenous and migrant water birds. Thousands upon thousands of conch shells on its floor gave Lake Conch its name, discovered during the clearance in the 1950s of the (then) waterless river bed. Of the several waterholes 12

Normatior on the park’s south-western edge, only one, at the base of Kitirua Hill, is visible. On the advantage afforded by the hill, it can be seen instantly where to find, when back on the flatlands below, closer viewing of the herds of elephant, buffalo, giraffe and other species on the park floor. A keen eye is good enough to identify the larger mammals, but binoculars are essential for spotting the park’s smaller denizens. Black-maned lions, for which Amboseli was once famous, are no longer found as easily as they once were when they were the rulers of the plains. Cheetah and leopard, which, when seen, are usually in the Kimana area both inside and outside the park, are more likely to be sighted from the ground. In Kenya’s peak season, Christmas through to Easter, when the weather is usually at its best, the hill is climbed frequently for the panoramic views it offers, but as a rule ‘tourist people’ rarely stay up on it for long. During the months of May, June, July and November a splendid solitude can be experienced there – even, with luck, for the whole day. It is about as near as one can get, at this point in time, to seeing this part of Africa as it once used to be, give or take a minibus or two. Observation Hill – or Normatior, to give it the dignity of its Maasai name – is satisfactorily cone-shaped, as are most of the volcanic eruptions on the slopes and at the base of Kilimanjaro, which towers behind to the south. The word is pronounced Norma-tee-or, though the spoken last consonants of many Maasai words are often almost lost. The Simek River could be written Seemeh; hence a variety of spellings on old maps. 13

Above: Like lions, cheetahs favour tree branches or rocky outcrops from which to survey the landscape for possible prey. 14

Normatior Almost alongside Normatior is its flat-topped twin, El Merisherri. Both hills act as useful landmarks for visitors driving their own or hired vehicles. The park is frugally signposted and the twin hills are visible from a considerable distance away. The barren, usually waterless, expanse of Lake Amboseli lies to the south-west, west and north of Normatior, its sun-cracked and deeply fissured surface pitted with elephant footprints – and the occasional human ones – and haphazardly criss-crossed with tyre tracks. A dryweather track bisects the lake, usable only between wet seasons. This is no place to get bogged down. Advice about using it can be obtained at the gate. In another of the water miracles which have taken place irregularly at Amboseli in the last half of this century, 1991 saw the slow filling of the main lake on its eastern side from the gradually increasing waters of Lake Simek and Lake Conch. The lake bed – 1,190 metres (3,900 feet) above sea level – is huge, extending beyond the park and across Kenya’s border into Tanzania. It escapes the more picturesque features of the Great Rift Valley lakes further west – Manyara, Natron and Magadi – but can display macabre phenomena which are exclusively its own. These will not be seen from the top of the hill, only from Lake bed level. Often in the form of bizarre shapes, they can be little short of unnerving as a first experience. Can one really believe one’s eyes? The mirages are not just of distant sheets of shimmering water where none exists. Grotesque and alarminglyshaped bodies, larger than man, appear to be advancing upon their startled viewer at a determined, mechanical, 15

Normatior prancing pace – almost as if loping along on air above the ground. Their wierd forms may change many times during their approach: monstrously tall, thin and






and box-like on spindly legs the next. It is broad daylight, but it doesn’t lessen a reaction of uneasy disbelief. But take the initiative and go forward with courage to meet the unknown and it will turn out to be merely some distant, quite harmless, solitary grazing zebra where the thin grass meets the cracked and flattened mud. A gloomy, equally as lonely wildebeest can innocently spirit up an illusion just as nasty, as can even the benign stump of a long dead tree. Less heart-stopping, dust devils galore can be seen from the top of Normatior and are very much a feature of the park: mad, pinkish-ochre spirals of dust whipped up by the inland wind, increasing in height and volume as they whirl erratically across the plains, only to collapse quite suddenly as if by cosmic defeat. These are the capricious jokers of the plains and it is not unusual to witness up to a busy dozen of them cavorting about, all at the same time, in a short-lived ecstasy of irresponsibility. Unlike Nairobi traffic they never seem to collide. It is Mount Kilimanjaro, however, the continent’s highest mountain – and many insist its most beautiful – which gives Amboseli National Park a scenic backdrop that








out of the encircling plains in monumental contrast with the moonscape of the dried-up lake bed and flatlands with their dusting of silver ash. This is the greatest single-standing mountain in the world. 16

Normatior A dramatic 5,896 metres (19,340 feet) above sea level, its spectacular peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi dominate the whole of Maasailand at all times of the day, even when playing hide-and-seek amongst low clouds. At 5,149 metres (16,894 feet), Mawenzi is Africa’s third highest peak. A mountain of ancient legend and romance, it was up Kilimanjaro’s rugged slopes to the snowline, according to Kenya’s veteran historian Edward Rodwell, that the ill and ageing Lion of Judah, King Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was carried on his throne by faithful members of his huge retinue, to die there in dignity and peace 3,000 years ago. They were journeying back to Shoa (Ethiopia) from the Queen of Sheba’s mines in ‘distant Ophir’ – now called New Sofala on modern maps. Many have sought it, but King Solomon’s ring, which Menelik was said to be wearing, has never been found. Nor, for that matter, have King Solomon’s mines, and what of the throne itself? But did he turn his face towards Ethiopia before he died? Was his last sight of the continent which gave him birth northwards, across Amboseli? Another curious story is the one used by the author Ernest Hemingway as an introduction to his Snows of Kilimanjaro. It was that there is a leopard’s dried and frozen carcass embedded in the ice high up on the mountain’s western summit. ‘No one,’ Hemingway complained, ‘has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.’ International derision and disbelief surrounded the first reports received in Europe and America in the middle of the 19th century that a snow-capped mountain, just 17


Above: Weaver birds establish colonies in any vacant acacia tree. Opposite top: African fish eagles (Cuncuma vocifer). Opposite: The African jacana or Lily-trotter (Actophilornis africanus).


Normatior south of the equator, had been sighted by the German missionaries Johannes Rebmann and Johann Ludwig Krapf. Rebmann had been the first, in May 1848, to see what he thought was a dazzling white cloud over a distant massive mountain. Told by his guide that what he saw was not a cloud but baridi (cold), he was not slow to conclude that at that height it could only be snow. He was to see the mountain many times again. Krapf, who accompanied him in November and December 1849, wrote in his autobiography that he himself ‘beheld it first 36 leagues from Mombasa’ and afterwards from Kenya’s Ukamba country ‘whence from every elevation the silver-crowned summit of the lofty mountain was visible’. Yet perhaps the most astounding of all sightings before the turn of the century was that recorded by Francis Hall who, in 1893 after a night of heavy rain, saw Kilimanjaro totally covered in snow – not just the peaks. Hall, formerly with the Imperial British East Africa Company, and then with the Administration until his untimely death in 1901, was not a man given to exaggeration. One-fifth of all the ice in Africa is said to lie on Kibo’s noble dome and on the lesser, snaggle-toothed peak of Mawenzi. Taking months, the meltwaters filter down through the porous soil of the mountainside to feed – often with bubbling, gushing springs – the swamps and lakes around the mountain’s base. Sadly, however, Kilimanjaro’s iconic snow cap has shrunk steadily over the last century: it now covers a mere 15 per cent of its extent in 1912, probably as a result of global warming, and the more pessimistic predications are that it will vanish entirely within two decades. 20

Normatior In a visual experience of the most memorable kind, this whole gigantic vista of mountain, marsh and desert wonderland with its animals, birds, amphibians, sparse flora and tree-life, can be viewed at leisure from Normatior. For maximum theatrical effect stand atop the hill at sunrise and watch the snows of Kilimanjaro become slowly high-lighted from the east in iridescent pink against a still dark indigo and purple sky, when the whole sleeping park comes to life below as every visible moving creature continues its endless pursuit of the sustenance upon which its individual survival depends.

Following pages: Mawenzi’s jagged peak, foreground, with the ice-capped dome of Kibo behind it. 21



2. Footprints


s far back as the written records go, Amboseli was part of Maasailand as, within the Republic of Kenya, it still remains. The good-humoured

Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson, as leader of an expedition financed by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) of England, was the first white man to pass across the wild landscape of what is now the park and live to tell the tale, leaving footprints of his own sturdily shod feet in the dry dust of the plains. Prints left by the other members of his expedition would more probably have been of their bare feet. This part of what was then known as Equatorial East Africa was virtually unmapped when he passed through Amboseli in May 1883 on his march from the coast to Lake Victoria. For half a century previously, attempts by white men to cross Maasailand had been without success. The RGS was well aware of the fact that the shortest route would be across dreaded Maasai country and of the reputation of the people who inhabited it ‘in whose presence no white man’s life was thought to be safe’. But with an eye to future commerce and to assist the widely called for suppression of the slave trade, Thomson, at the age of 24, was selected to lead an expedition of exploration, having already had the advantage of African experience behind him in 1879 and 1881. His 1883 brief from the society was to find out whether a useful direct route for European travellers could be made across Maasai country from any of the East African ports to Lake Victoria. He was also to ‘examine’ Mount Kenya and make preliminary surveys of the peoples, rocks, animals and plants of the regions he traversed. 24

Footprints Arriving in Zanzibar at the end of January 1883, he was somewhat dismayed to learn that the German explorer, naturalist and ornithologist Dr. Gustav Adolf Fischer had been similarly commissioned by the Hamburg Geographical Society and might even possibly be using a similar route to the one he had selected for himself. Not easily put down or put off, he made his preliminary reconnaissances, equipped a 140-man caravan and, within five weeks of his arrival, left Zanzibar for Mombasa, bursting with optimism. There, in the sweltering midday heat of 15 March 1883, he turned his back on the Indian Ocean to commence his 15 months exploration of ‘the interior, which all but cost him his life. He returned ‘mission accomplished’ but physically wrecked. The obstacles, dangers and setbacks had been numerous, all faced with unflagging determination. Gustav Fisher’s penetration of Maasailand had taken him south of Amboseli, below what afterwards was to become Amboseli’s southern boundary along the international British East Africa/German East Africa border. Collecting plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, geological samples and ethnological specimens, he crossed through South Maasailand from Kilimanjaro to Longido and on to Lake Naivasha where, at the Njorowa Gorge (Hell’s Gate), he was bombarded by stones hurled at his camp by Maasai moran (warriors) and was forced to turn back, leaving the balance of the trail-blazing of the coast-to-lake route to Thomson who, on a line north of Fischer’s through Amboseli, was hot on his heels. In Maasailand, Fischer recorded 345 bird species, including descriptions of their distribution and habits. 25


Above: The irregular markings of the Maasai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) varies in different animals from dark brown to pale chestnut. Opposite (inset): The ‘horns’ of the giraffe are in fact bony projections covered with skin and hair. 27

Footprints Together with the records of other notable ornithologists (Frederick Jackson, Anton Reichenow et al) this became the basis for all later records. Described by Reichenow as ‘a very modest man, unassuming and with great personal charm’, Fischer’s bird discoveries in the Amboseli region included Fischer’s starling, Fischer’s sparrowlark and straw-tailed whydah. Thomson described his 320 kilometres (200 miles) across quite uninhabited desert country before reaching Taveta – which he achieved within a fortnight of leaving the coast – as ‘the very ideal of a God-forsaken land’. This trek brought him to the threshold of Maasailand, by which time he had been deserted by many of his men. The more those who remained with him heard about the Maasai, the more their fears grew. The formidable Maasai clans were not even friendly with each other; let alone other intruders. The first route he chose northwards was by the southern and western slopes of Kilimanjaro. This, had he taken it, might still have taken him across the Amboseli plains since, after leaving Kilimanjaro behind him, Ol Doinyo Orok – Namanga Mountain at 2,526 metres (8,287 feet) – would have been his most obvious landmark. He was frustrated by the formidable combination of the Maasai and the weather and was forced to retreat, ultimately returning to Mombasa to reprovision and enlist more men. “A thunderstorm on the mountain is an awe-inspiring sight”, he said, referring to Kilimanjaro picturesquely as “that cloud-sucking pinnacle” and news that a great war party of Maasai, about 2,000-strong was in front of him was even more intimidating. Nor was he enchanted to 28

Footprints learn that, ahead of him, Fischer had already had several brushes with the Maasai in which there had been bloodshed. How could he, with his reduced party, continue with this route, he asked himself, when Fischer, with a company of 300 men and 200 more in a second caravan had had to fight? His own first encounters with the Maasai had not been confidence-inspiring. It was his second attempt northwards, in the caravan of the slave-trader Juma Kimameta (Thomson referred to him in his book Through Maasai Land as ‘Jumba’), which brought him to Amboseli. This time his route was via the east and north sides of Kilimanjaro, across the Lengurumani plain and what is now the park to Ol Doinyo Orok, then on to Ngongo Bagas, now called Ngong, and from there to Naivasha. The birth of Nairobi as a railhead and township was still years ahead. Thomson travelled along an old caravan route that had long been closed, due to difficulties with two Maasai sections, the Loitaiok clan of the Kisongo section and the Matapatu. Neither cared much for the other, and each was more than ready to defend their territory against all intruders, whether foreign or indigenous. Moreover, their moran lived for the excitement of their raids and fights. When little was known of Maasai sociology (and their divisions into section, clan, sub-clan and family) other than grim stories brought back by slave hunters and missionaries, Thomson described the Maasai of the ‘dreaded Oloitokitok district’ as the ‘Oloitokitok’ and ‘Matumbato’ Maasai. They are better known now as the Loitaiok – who are of the Kisongo section – and the Matapatu, who are not. 29


Top: Lions still very occasionally penetrate the forest in search of prey. Above: Lion cubs are dependant upon their mothers until they can walk to the kill. Opposite: Amboseli was once the domain of the handsome black-maned lion, but now the golden lion or lioness is more likely to be seen. 31

Footprints It was of Embosel – Amboseli – as part of the great Nyiri desert, that he wrote of ‘sights weird in the extreme’ when his party was passing through a ‘blasted and barren land’. Kilimanjaro was now behind him and Ol Doinyo Orok in front. Each night they built a thorn boma around themselves against surprise attack from the Maasai or wild animals. These he recorded as being great herds of zebra, wildebeest, hartebeest, eland and gazelle, accompanied by predators including packs of hyenas and wild dogs. Each morning Thomson set out in front of his party to shoot ‘rampant rhinoceroses or buffalos, thus at one and the same time starving off a danger and filling the pot’. He made no mention of elephants, but the roars of lions and the cries of hyenas and jackals were heard at night. The next white men to reach the vicinity were the members of the Anglo-German Boundaries Commission who, between 1902 and 1904, having completed about two years’ work in Uganda, set out to physically mark upon the ground with cairns and beacons an international boundary line from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean – as it still separates Kenya from Tanzania. When Britain and Germany decided to divide Eastern Africa between them in the 1880s – both countries having an eye to opening up trade and putting an end to slave trafficking – statesmen in Europe drew an arbitrary boundary line on the map of Africa (such as it was) taking no consideration of the natural features of the ground. Initially it cut across Mount Kilimanjaro. Then politics intervened. First the Sultan of Zanzibar’s flag was hoisted 32

Footprints on Kilimanjaro by the Sultan’s British Army Commander General Mathews, only to be dragged down four months later by Germany’s Dr. Juhlke and replaced by the German flag. All was settled amicably, however, when Britain conceded that a boundary giving half of Mount Kilimanjaro each to Great Britain and Germany would be impracticable. A straight line was then drawn on the map from Muhoro Bay on Lake Victoria to the northern foothills of Kilimanjaro, where it then took a sharp bend to the south to Taveta round the mountain’s eastern perimeter, before continuing in a south-easterly direction to the sea. This sited Africa’s highest mountain in German East Africa and left Mount Kenya, the second highest, in British East Africa – though a more romantic version of the affair still persists. This was that Queen Victoria herself ‘gifted’ Kilimanjaro to the Kaiser’s son, her grandson, ‘because (otherwise) Britain would – unfairly perhaps? – have two snow-capped mountains in East Africa and Germany would have none’. Either way, honour was satisfied and it then fell to the Anglo-German Boundaries Commission to mark out the imaginary line on the ground for all to see. But how, it might be asked, does all this chapter of old history affect Amboseli? Simply that the border between British East Africa and German East Africa (Kenya and Tanganyika) established at the turn of the century initially formed the southern boundary of the park and, though Captain H. A. Wilson of the King’s African rifles (KAR) – seconded to the Boundaries Commission at that time – believed himself to be the first white man to leave 33

Footprints his footprints all through the boundary area in 1904, he was more likely to have been the second. Joseph Thomson had preceded him. Wilson arrived in East Africa from India in 1902 and was given the rank of Subaltern in the KAR. The great attraction was the hunting that the big game country offered. He hunted along the Nile after he was posted to the 4th KAR at Nimule and returned to find his unit had been moved to Fort Ternan and from there to Ngongo Bagas. There his orders were to take over command of a military escort for the British contingent of the Boundaries Commission. The escort consisted of a company of the 3rd KAR. ‘Relations between the British Commission and their German counterparts were cordial,’ Wilson wrote in his 1913 book A British Borderland (and why not, since each country was acquiring great tracts of Africa at a time when the moral issues of colonial expansion went unquestioned?). Supply camps were established for bases along the march – Karungu on Lake Victoria, Mara River, Ndasegara (Entesekera), the Southern Uaso Nyiro and the foot of ‘El Donyo Erok’ (Ol Doinyo Orok) – the black mountain behind Namanga. Porters were the main means of transporting food and supplies – donkeys having proved slower and less satisfactory – and they, like the rest of the Boundaries’ personnel and their escort, also needed to be fed. Wilson’s duties as OC Escort left him with plenty of time on his hands. For months at a time he saw neither a white face nor heard a word of English. They all lived on the produce of his rifle, gun and rod and he was to 34

Footprints look back in later years on his nine-month stint with the Boundaries Commission as perhaps the most interesting period of his life. The area was practically unknown and entirely uninhabited until they reached Kilimanjaro. The animals in the vicinity described by Wilson are much the same as those observed by Joseph Thomson 20 years earlier, with one notable addition: ‘Lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, elephant, oryx, eland, waller’s gazelle, Grantii, hartebeest, wildebeest, impala, reedbuck and waterbuck.’ After Wilson, the KAR escort and the Boundaries Commission personnel of both sides had left the scene, great numbers of footprints were to scar this animal kingdom on either side of the border during the first world war, when bitter fighting took place between the British and German forces at Longido, constantly moving from one side of the border to the other as the battle raged. It was there, just before the March rains of 1915, that the East African Mounted Rifles and others challenged the forces of the charismatic German Lieutenant-General Paul Von Lettow Vorbeck – entrenched in his Longido mountain headquarters – and met with spirited resistance. Ultimately he was driven back, to the west, but not without casualties. A small,




at Kajiado bears witness that most of the fallen white soldiers were between 18 and 22 years old. As in most wars in Africa at that time and later, countless animals were slaughtered to feed the troops of the warring parties or became the luckless victims of hostilities. 35

Footprints When Amboseli was first set aside as a national reserve in 1948 with an area of 3,260 square kilometres (1,260 square miles), its southern boundary along the international line extended from Meto – where the Meto hills form the Great Rift Valley’s eastern wall – through Namanga and Sinya almost as far as Oloitokitok. Ol Doinyo Orok – regarded as Maasailand’s finest hill, where elephant, rhino and buffalo abounded – was within the reserve, and a substantial area west of the Kajiado/Arusha road. The northern corner points were Lemeiboti in the north-east and Emparasha (El Emborasha) in the north-west, now far beyond the limits of the park. In 1973, Amboseli was reduced to its present 392 square kilometres (152 square miles), with its southern boundary moved up and away from the Tanzanian border. In 2005, President Kibaki controversially proposed that administration of the park should pass from the Kenya Wildlife Service to the local county council, but this handover is yet to take place and has been challenged legally.

Opposite: Male bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus delamerei). The female is smaller and hornless. Following pages: The snow covered Kilimanjaro mountain from Maasailand on the Kenyan side of the border. 37



3. Ol Tukai


l Tukai is the park’s treasury, containing much of Amboseli’s wealth. Those describing the park dismissively as ‘a dust bowl’, comparing it

with lusher national parks and reserves – and Kenya can boast many larger and greener – tend to overlook both its value as a unique ecological microcosm and its dual dramatic impact upon its visitors. The first of these is Kilimanjaro, visible in all its snowy splendour from every quarter of the park, one of the most impressive sights of Africa and the inspiration of artists, writers, photographers and film-makers. The second is arriving at Ol Tukai’s green oasis of trees and water after the long approach across a typical African landscape in the harsh volcanic regions within and around the Great Rift Valley lying closely to its west. Red-hot magma (rock), boiling lava and great clouds of suffocating dust once poured down here, scorching and annihilating whatever animal and vegetable life existed and leaving on all the surrounding countryside a thick covering of volcanic ash that thousands of years of wind and rain have failed to disestablish. Instead, over millennia, nature gradually reinstated itself upon the ravaged land. Grass, bushes and trees began to grow, though the great tracts of lava that flow inside and outside the park are still visible, upon which, thousands of years later, vegetation has still been unable to get a life-sustaining grasp. The Ol Tukai region of Amboseli, with its bubbling springs and reed-fringed lakes, often bright with purple or white water lilies, is more verdant than any other region of the park, with sweet grass for the herbivores and enough tree life to sustain bird and animal populations. 40

Ol Tukai The Phoenix wild palms which grow at Ol Tukai – an appropriate name since the legendary bird also rose out of ashes – are the Phoenix reclinata, or Tukai in Maasai language: tall, glossy-leaved trees sometimes known as Makindu or Lukindu palms. For the herbivorous elephants, whose survival depends upon a varied menu of green vegetation, bark, legumes and shrubs rich in minerals to supply all their dietary needs, the centre cores of the Tukai (they leave the rest, so do little lasting damage to the tree) provide supplementary vitamins and a welcome change from papyrus and the short, sweet Cynodon dactylon swamp grass and the longer, tougher Sporobolus consimilis grass found at Ol Tukai. A few harassed, yellow-barked acacia thorn trees at this end of the park, the beautiful but short-lived Acacia xanthophloea, are all that have managed to survive the onslaughts of the elephants, where once great groves and forests of them were the pride of Ol Tukai. Acacia tortilis – the flat-topped umbrella-thorn – has fared slightly better, and is found mainly in the woodlands towards the Lemeiboti and Kimana Gates, where it lends its name to the award-winning Tortilis Camp. In recent years the park has become increasingly impoverished of trees, for yes, undeniably Amboseli is barren in parts. Except for Ol Tukai it can seem extremely so for those who can remember it half a century ago, when many trees and more vegetation supported fewer elephants. But then – when the park was eight times larger than the reserved area which now remains – as now, Ol Tukai was always the favourite place of the creatures which either elected to live there or were born there and never felt the urge to move away. 41

Above: Not nearly so prolific as they were before the park area was stringently reduced, the gerenuk, or Waller’s gazelle (Litocranius walleri walleri) is seen more often outside the park, in the nearby Selengei. 42

Top: Male impala (Aepyceros melampus suara), its horns lyrate and ridged. Above: Female impala – destined to be one of a harem of such beauties collected by the buck. 43

Ol Tukai Not far from the park’s luxury lodges, in a woodland that effectively hides the houses of privileged resident researchers, zoologists and others at the Ol Tukai Research Camp. Work of world-wide interest has been carried out on animal behaviour, not least by the American zoologist Cynthia Moss, whose renowned Amboseli Elephant Research Project, founded back in 1972, is still going strong 40 years later under the auspices of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants. Moss’s best-known book Elephant Memories (1988) and Echo of the Elephants (1992), describing 13 years in the life of an Amboseli elephant family, was appraised by the critics as ‘a labour of love’. In its early days, Amboseli’s main wildlife attractions were the park’s magnificent black rhinos and the lions, not only the powerful black-maned ‘Maasai’ lions, but some handsome gold-maned ones. There were no ‘resident’ elephant herds then. The whole Amboseli area, that is the parts which are now the park and those immediately surrounding it – Kimana, Makutano, Lengesim, Selengei and Namanga – were once the favoured hunting grounds of the not always ‘white’ hunters. They took their toll of the finest specimens, but at the same time effectively policed the vicinity of poaching, trap-laying and, whenever possible, ritual Maasai lion-spearing. Scenically and in every other way it was the ideal place to take their clients, so game-profuse that, given the right opportunity, they could reasonably be promised ‘a good bag’. Others were happier accepting it exactly as it was and proud to show it to the country’s visitors. As early as 1924, a quarter of a century before Amboseli was gazetted as a reserved area – and long before game 44

Ol Tukai lodges proliferated in every part of Kenya where wildlife could be viewed – it was to Ol Tukai that Budge Gethin started taking clients on photographic and gameviewing safaris. With the choice of hundreds of square miles available to him, he selected what he believed to be the finest site in Amboseli – shaded then by huge, yellowbarked Acacia xanthophloea trees, close to spring waters and facing Kilimanjaro. There he established his semi-permanent tented ‘Rhino Camp’ to which he personally conducted those who wanted to live, if only for a couple of nights but frequently longer, closely with nature. Several safari lodges have since opened on or near the same spot, the only extant one being the sumptuous Ol Tukai Lodge, set in a fever tree forest overlooking a near-perennial marsh that’s reliably frequented by elephants. An ardent conservationist whose rarely used full name was Percy St. Lawrence Gethin, Budge was a true Kenya pioneer. As a volunteer he had fought in the First World War in Mozambique and East Africa, seeing action with the machine gun corps during the Battle of Longido. This brought him to Namanga, which appealed to him so strongly that he decided to settle there after hostilities were concluded, and set up a safari business. He established a staging post and base camp for his safaris at Namanga in the 1920s. In due course, he developed this camp into the lovely little Namanga River Lodge, which is still operating today, almost midway along the main road route between Nairobi and Arusha. It was at the foot of Ol Doinyo Orok, on a traditional elephant route when their destination was Amboseli. 45


Above: Ward’s reedbuck in Amboseli live either in swampy surroundings or on the open grasslands. Opposite top: Kirk’s dik-dik (Rhynochotragus Kirkii) hardly bigger than hares, are found in the driest places and are almost indepedent of water. The hornless females are just slightly bigger than the males. Opposite: Thomson’s gazelle (Gazella thomsonii thomsonii) – similar to the Grant’s gazelle but much smaller. 47

Ol Tukai Guests sleeping in the hotel bandas, either after a hot day’s safari or from tackling hundreds of miles of appalling roads, were frequently disturbed at night by the sounds of the pachyderms’ leisurely nocturnal munching of the thatched roofs over their heads. Much later, when the earth road between Nairobi and Namanga underwent improvements, a width of forest was cleared down the mountainside so that huge boulders quarried at the higher levels could be rolled down to the ground, to be used as a hard base for the road. The resulting clearance, which served as an effective fire-break on the then densely forested slope, at the same time gave Budge and his son Patrick the opportunity to do a bit of leg-pulling. This was when they were asked by road users, stopping off at the hotel, what had slashed the naked ribbon down the side of Ol Doinyo Orok. ‘It’s an elephant slide’, they would tell the unwary in all seriousness – and a surprising number would believe them. ‘When the jumbos reach the top of the mountain from the other side, they are almost at the end of their long trek to Amboseli and it saves them having to lumber down’. The park’s first main gate was situated opposite the hotel. Budge’s client safaris were strictly in the non-shooting capacity, and he was to make constant representations to the government for the preservation of Amboseli as a protected area where no shooting would be allowed. After its designation as a reserve in 1948, however, Budge and Patrick found that their in-park movements were too rigorously restricted and in 1958 decided to close down their ‘Rhino Camp’ and concentrate on their hotel. This, hard enough work in itself, carried attendant 48

Ol Tukai penalties both as ‘an outpost’ and for being alongside the Nairobi-Arusha road. Too often they found themselves towing in – either from within the park or further afield – crippled vehicles and their stranded passengers, mending cars and grounded aircraft when there was no one else to do the job, coping with road casualties and other accidents and sometimes even deaths. If there were ever ‘Friends of Amboseli’ they were the Gethin family, Budge before his retirement and, after it, Pat and his wife Dagmar who continued to own and manage the hotel until their own retirement and its final sale. Once the park was established, Mervyn Cowie, Kenya‘s first Director of National Parks, announced that completion of Amboseli’s first ‘Rest Camp’, on which work had commenced in July 1950 with six guest bandas, would be completed by that September. It was reckoned, he said, that ‘if there was one thing folk on safari really needed at the end of a dusty day’s run, it was a hot bath’. The papyrus-thatched bandas, designed for two people but with space enough for a third bed if required, were equipped with beds, mattresses and basic furniture. Each had its own bathroom, water closet and a verandah facing Kilimanjaro. Catering was do-it-yourself, though there was a small shop on the site at which emergency provisions could be purchased. People took their own food, cutlery, cooking utensils, blankets and sheets. Firewood for the campfires was brought in from wherever they could find it by the camp staff. Situated at Ol Tukai, then the park headquarters and where later two wardens’ residences were added, the bandas – along with those at Kitani and Aruba in Tsavo 49

Above: African python suffocating its prey – Thomson’s gazelle. Opposite top: Spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocta germinana) – mainly nocturnal – prefer to hide during the heat of the day. Opposite: Warthog (phacochoerus aethiopicus) enjoys a mud-bath near Ol Tukai. 50


Ol Tukai – were among the first of the country’s in-park selfservice guest facilities. Here wildlife lovers, keen amateur and professional photographers, Kenya’s residents and overseas visitors could be safely accommodated in reasonable comfort as an alternative to roughing it in tents. Spartan though the bandas were initially, compared with the expectations of sophisticated travellers today, the views from the verandahs onto Kilimanjaro’s snows were, and still are, unforgettable. The park’s first senior resident game warden – after Ken Beaton, whose Amboseli duties had to be combined with those of Nairobi National Park, the administration of which took precedence – was C.W. ‘Tuffy’ Marshall, who lived in one of the Ol Tukai bandas until 1951. His replacement, ’Tabs’ Taberer, occupied one of the slightly larger bandas known as ‘The Cottage’, which later became accommodation for visiting VIPs. The house ‘Tabs’ was later permitted to build for himself and his family what was known as ‘The Warden’s House’, where he built a swimming pool. When David Lovatt Smith was appointed assistant warden to ‘Tabs’ he was allocated ‘No. 9 banda’ and was later also given permission to build himself a cottage at the opposite end of the banda site. In addition to the avalanche of daily park work – such as road construction and maintenance, the problems of the Maasai and their cattle, and either the lack of water or too much of it – the duties of ‘Tabs’ and David included the







administration of the guest accommodation in the selfservice bandas. 52

Ol Tukai Appointed senior warden after ‘Tabs’, David Lovatt Smith’s book Amboseli, Nothing Short of a Miracle makes first-class and at times heartstopping reading about Ol Tukai in the early 1950s. It describes his own and ‘Tabs’ fight, after drought, to channel the miraculously rising Ol Tukai swamp waters down the cleared bed of the Simek River to Lake Conch to provide drinking water for the Maasai herds – a thrilling if exhausting exercise completed by the two men with only a handful of labourers, a few willing Maasai and inadequate park funds. ‘Tabs’ Causeway’ on the park road crossing the Simek River and ‘David’s Cut’ from the Simek to Lake Conch are still marked as a reminder on more detailed park maps. The bandas received an upgrading in 1951 when Ealing Studios, whose stars and other senior personnel had occupied them during the shooting of a film on location in Amboseli, gifted them, on departure, with the electric light plant and other facilities which Ealing had installed. The decision to use Amboseli as a filming site was to bring the park far-reaching publicity, though the name of the proposed film was not immediately known. The award-winning Metro Goldwyn Mayer film of the Rider Haggard adventure story King Solomon’s Mines, not seen in Nairobi until March 1951, had been partly shot on location in Kenya in 1949 and released in the United States of America in 1950. It was reported in America to have generated considerable interest in Kenya as a safari/ holiday destination. Starring Stewart Granger – who was to return to Kenya many times later, he enjoyed hunting so much – and Deborah Kerr – who said she had been more frightened of spiders on location than she was of lions, 53


Ol Tukai hippos and crocodiles – it was the colourful forerunner of a series of Africa-oriented box office successes from the classic Hemingway Snows of Kilimanjaro to African Queen, Out of Africa and beyond. Perhaps as a direct result of the MGM success – even though coming at a time when film production around the world was in recession – Ealing Studios were prompted in the middle of 1950 to send out to Kenya director Harry Watt – then of The Overlanders fame – and a party of experts, to reconnoitre possible locations for ‘a new film’. It was to be directed by himself and produced by Sir Michael Balcon, with Leslie Norman as associate producer. Tsavo National Park had been their original choice, but it later changed to Amboseli. That August, Watt started recruiting local personnel in Nairobi for minor roles and by the beginning of December leading stars from Great Britain arrived. The film was Where No Vultures Fly and was shot largely on location in Amboseli (with some sequences at Government House, Nairobi and in Kitui) at the end of 1950 and beggining of 1951. The story was based on the idea of forming national parks where the animals would be protected and the sound of rifles never heard. Starring Anthony Steele as the game warden, Dinah Sheridan as his wife and the child star William Simons as their son Tom – with Harold Warrender, Meredith Edwards and the black

Opposite: Elephant herd beneath Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. 55

Ol Tukai star Orlando Martins in supporting roles – the film was received at the time with a very mixed response. By conservationists and wildlife lovers it was met with with great hope and enthusiasm. Others saw it as a knell of doom for the hunting industry and labelled it ‘controversial’, though it was to be another 25 years before Kenya brought in the hunting ban. So it was through Where No Vultures Fly that the Ol Tukai bandas received electric light and were never to look back. The facility has been enjoyed by thousands over the years. The park’s superb scenery attracted an immediate filming follow-up with the 20th Century Fox star-spangled production Snows of Kilimanjaro with Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner and Hildegard Neff in the leading roles, supported by Leo G. Carroll, Torin Thatcher and Marcel Dalio – though not all of the leading stars were needed in Amboseli. Local professional hunters Donald Ker, Tony Dyer, David Lunan and others were engaged for some of the hunting sequences in Ernest Hemingway’s nostalgic epic about a hunter dying on the slopes of Kilimanjaro and looking back over his life and loves. Strong stuff. Hemingway’s incomparable writing captured much of Amboseli’s magic in this ‘long-short’ story, first published in 1936. He worked up the theme for it, one of his finest, as December 1933 gave way to January 1934, whilst lying in his bedroom in Nairobi’s New Stanley Hotel – recovering from a nasty bout of dysentery contracted when hunting round the base of Kilimanjaro with ‘white hunter’ Philip Percival. It was Hemingway’s first Kenya 56

Ol Tukai safari and left him with vivid impressions which were to provide him with the background for Snows of Kilimanjaro and other epics. Thousands of his readers world-wide had ambitions of visiting Kenya after reading Snows of Kilimanjaro. Thousands more wanted to come after seeing the film. Film-makers Armand and Michaela Denis also made Amboseli their base for their natural history films which were received enthusiastically in East Africa and, more importantly, even more so abroad. Ol Tukai and Amboseli contributed in no small part to Kenya’s tourist boom, which escalated from the 1960s onwards.


Above: No two zebra are identical – their stripes are as individual as the human fingerprint. Opposite (inset): Vivid and eye-catching – a young zebra stays close to its mother’s side.




4. The Maasai othing can over-estimate the importance of water in equatorial Africa, essential to the survival of men and of beasts, whether domestic

or wild. Ol Tukai’s abundance, so precious to the wildlife and Kenya’s tourist industry, for they are inter-dependent upon each other, was always equally so to the nomadic pastoralist Maasai. For them it meant plenitude on the barren plain, for watering their huge numbers of cattle around which their whole lives evolve. The Kisongo Maasai had grazed and watered their livestock below Kilimanjaro since time out of mind, sharing it with the indigenous wildlife. When, in drought years, even Ol Tukai’s generous water supplies failed, they did what they had always done before: moved their cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys away from Amboseli, to find better grazing than the soil could year-round provide. With no fences or surrounding settlement to inhibit them and free to follow instincts’ strong dictates, the wildlife, like the Maasai, would also tend to move on in search of better ground. The Maasai lifestyle in the past was always nomadic. By constantly moving themselves and their cattle on, the vegetation behind them recovered, the natural solution to lasting damage to the soil. They would leave the enkangs and manyattas they had built and reconstruct others wherever it suited them, piling temporary thorn bomas around themselves and their cattle between one semipermanent settlement and the next. In due course they would return – the men, the women, the children, the cattle, the donkeys, sheep and goats. 60

The Maasai The Maasai enkang is the homestead of one family, a single dwelling surrounded by a thorn fence if the man has only one wife, but in a thorn fence completely surrounding the whole compound with a house for each of his other wives if he has more than one. A small cattle enclosure is attached to each wife’s house and another smaller enclosure for calves. Each wife has her own gate into the main enclosure and each family has its own herd, probably of about 70 animals excluding the sheep and goats. Strictly speaking, the manyatta is the village in which the young moran live, but the word has been loosely applied these past many years to any and almost every Maasai dwelling or group of dwellings. Under their old cultures, disciplines ruled Maasai lives from the day they were born until the day they died. These started with helping around the house as little children, herding the goats, sheep and looking after the cattle as they grew older, until entering – if male – the moran or warrior class. Junior eldership followed, then marriage and having their own families before reaching senior eldership. Before education and the conversion to foreign religions took place throughout Maasailand – the impact of which has already made itself felt – the Maasai believed in one God only, their God Enkai (or Engai). He was worshipped under sacred trees or on the mountainside, and still is. Nor are the ancient beliefs likely to dissolve until all the old family disciplines rigorously imposed by parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, whose influence on the young ones is very strong, have passed entirely out of 61

Above: An aerial view of a Maasai homestead. Opposite (inset): Maasai maidens gather in all their finery at Namanga and on most of the approach roads to the park.



The Maasai their lives – if, in fact, they ever do. But change is slowly taking place and already many highly educated Maasai have emerged to take their place in the economy. Beyond Maasailand, Maasai in recent years are lawyers, doctors, chartered accountants and other professionals, politicians,






graduates of Nairobi University and Universities abroad and personnel of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) which administers Amboseli and Kenya’s other parks and reserves. Their great-grandfathers, or even grandfathers, may have been the fearsome Kisongo Maasai who brought terror into the hearts of all who endeavoured to cross Maasailand 100 years ago, but time has moved on and it is a somewhat different picture now. Inside the park, the table waiters, reception staff and managers of the luxury lodges are quite likely to be Maasai people, graduates of the national hotel training school. Maasai-born






languages including their own and, if they come from Amboseli-Maasailand, will have been able to identify the park’s creatures since childhood. Now they will most likely be able to give their names in English, Swahili, Latin and German. The old order changeth, but whether of the old order or the new, in their childhood all would almost certainly have been brought up in the enkang in exactly the same strict traditions as the herdsmen who can sometimes be seen driving their cattle to the swamps, lakes and marshes at Ol Tukai which, occasionally, extreme conditions compel them to do. 64

The Maasai Traditionally, Maasai believe that Enkai gave all cattle everywhere into their safe keeping, a belief which would be hard now to abandon. For the nomadic majority it still prevails. It has been a most convenient creed, justifying raiding the cattle of other tribes, since it was arguable that cattle could not be ‘stolen’ which – according to them – were theirs by right. Paradoxically, their own Maasai neighbours were not immune from plunder. Cattle raiding was and, in the remoter parts of the country, still is prevalent amongst the Maasai themselves, as has been family feuding and inter-clan fighting ever since the dying laibon Mbatian’s sons Lenana and Sendeyo, at the end of the last century, fought over their rights to succeed him and created a split amongst the clans. Killing and stealing each others’ cattle is all part of the pastoral scene – the ceaseless struggle for dominance and survival in their sometimes harsh environment. Only under extreme situations of disease and starvation have they been known to come together. Until relatively recently, the dependence of the rural Maasai upon their cattle was almost absolute. Thirty or so years ago, no bed, sheet, nor any product from ‘the outside world’ would be found in a Maasai home with perhaps the exception of their body cloth or shuka, beads used for decoration and their spears – made for them by the Ilkunono. Their garments were made from the skins of their cattle; their sandals of buffalo hide. Their tribal adornment for ceremonial occasions came from lions speared by their moran; their head-dress feathers from ostriches. The ‘hats’ worn by the women to protect their 65

Above: Three Maasai warriors with their traditional weapons of war and defence: the spear, the club and the shield. Opposite: A young warrior wearing a head dress of ostrich feathers.


The Maasai shaved heads from the rain – and by the moran to protect their elaborate hairstyle – were made from the stomach linings of animals. Their beads came from abroad, brought into Maasailand by the first traders and, with great imagination and artistry, sewn by the women onto hides and skins. Their cattle, sheep and goats provided them with meat and milk. Their medicines came from roots and bark of trees. Home-brewed honey wine kept their laibon (witchdoctors) in the permanently intoxicated states necessary to enable them to predict the future, what was best for the clan, and when they should, or should not, go for war. Their houses were made by the women of crisscrossed leleshwa branches plastered with cattle dung mixed with mud and given a thick final topping of cow dung to keep out the rain. The home fires were fuelled with firewood collected by the women and children. Their donkeys were piled up with their meagre possessions when they moved and nothing more, really, was needed in their lives, except rain to fill the streams, rivers, lakes and marshes to provide grazing and watering for their herds. So year by year the herds accumulated because, for the Maasai of old, there was no need for money and they were loath to sell any of them – their God-given wealth. Only in recent years have they begun to sell them and, as salesmen, are hard bargainers. With the large numbers of sheep and goats which made up their domestic stock, the demand on the sparse lands of Amboseli was more than it could accommodate. Even the natural epidemics which had regularly reduced their numbers in the past – as they did similarly amongst 68

The Maasai the animals of the wild – became less frequent when veterinary services were brought in by the Colonial Government and further reduced the casualty rate. Before 1948 and whilst Amboseli was still a reserve until it was made into a national park in 1971, the Kisongo Maasai were semi-permanent there (some of their ruined settlements can still be seen in places) but once declared a national park, in which the interests of the wildlife were paramount, the ‘resident’ nomads were required to move out, with their stock, to beyond the park’s perimeter – to the resentment of many of them. Contrary to the general belief that rural Maasai live entirely on the blood and milk of their own cattle (the blood drawn from a jugular vein in the neck so that after its blood sacrifice the animal can return to the herd) they have always eaten meat, though the eating is usually confined to special occasions. These are the olpul or meateating ceremonies. It is a very specious part of Maasai eldership, whereby wazee (the old men) can go and sit under a tree and celebrate by eating roasted meat and drinking honey wine. The women are not allowed to join them, watch them, nor see the meat that they are going to eat. The animal arrives ‘on the hoof’, the old men kill it, cut it to pieces and roast it. If the women see the meat it has to be thrown away. For the young Maasai moran, it is all part of their fun to go off with a cow or cattle they have stolen – or have been given as reward for their protection by the residents of the settlements which they have been made responsible for guarding – drive the animal off into the bush and eat and eat and eat. The gorging goes on for days and the 69

Above and opposite: The Maasai, both young and old, are dedicated to the welfare of their livestock. 70

The Maasai amount they consume on these occasions is phenomenal. Unlike the old men, the moran are allowed to take some young, uncircumcised girls with them, to look after them, wash and prepare their food, but not share in the eating. Circumcision of the young men takes place before they become moran and clitoridectomy of the girls on reaching puberty. A fatted sheep is killed for the birth of a Maasai child for family celebration and to bolster the mother’s strength. Sheep fat is also used to help with certain stomach ailments and for mixing with ochre to smear all over the body to keep out the rain and cold. So meat is an important and integral part of Maasai eating habits for certain occasions and at certain times of the year. Maasai do not eat game meat, nor kill game animals for food, with the exception, under dire conditions such as famine or disaster amongst their stocks, of eland and buffalo – perhaps because these two species most resemble their own domestic cattle. Eland have been bred successfully as domestic herds for their meat and milk, but not by the Maasai. Large numbers of Maasai congregate at the Namanga turn-off to the park, where there is a petrol station, bar, snack bar, and stalls selling colourful Maasai beadwork on necklaces, belts, ear-rings, finger-rings, bracelets and purses. Competing for the attention of the potential purchaser are decorated gourds, thighbells, cowbells, the wooden knobkerries carried by Maasai age-set leaders, footstools, cow-horn ornaments and other artefacts. Spears, short swords in red leather sheaths made by the Dorobo tribe, bows and arrows, knives and handsomely decorated shields are on display for purchase, as are baskets and – 72

The Maasai a bit on the side – rocks of semi-precious stone picked up either on the Kenya or Tanzania side of the border, the sale of which is not strictly legal. The crush upon a prospective buyer from individuals of all ages from the very young to the very old, all with some trinket or other to offer and desperate to make a sale, can be a bit intimidating, but is effected with unquenchable optimism and very likeable good humour. Taking photographs of individuals, or the whole vibrant scene, without agreeing to meet the required terms of payment, however, is not to be recommended, though the asked-for prices – and of items for sale – are always negotiable. The tremendous vitality of this human crowd, in which the people of Maasailand play an impromptu part, provides an interesting prelude to the later sighting of the star performers in the Amboseli scenario when, on the empty plains below Kilimanjaro, elephant families in almost equally as large numbers graze along at their own leisurely pace. The temptation is all there, at Namanga, to acquire some of the unusual, colourful and irresistible treasures and safari souvenirs, but the experienced traveller will leave shopping until departing the park, particularly of the more cumbersome items like bows, arrows, spears and shields. In the heat of the day the strong smell in the vehicle of skin articles made in Maasai homesteads, redolent of woodsmoke, cattle and goats, can become quite overpowering, inevitably attracting unwelcomed droves of Maasailand flies, surely some of the most enthusiastically persistent in Africa. 73


Above: Not always the most endearing of creatures, baboon parents are commendable for their loving care of their young. Opposite top: Vervet monkeys (Ceropithecus aethiops johnstoni), also known as the Black-faced guenon. Opposite: The black-backed jackal is distinguished by a broad black band on its back and a white underbelly. 75

5. The Heavyweights


sk anyone returning from Amboseli for the first time to describe in three words their main impressions






‘Kilimanjaro, elephants and dust’ though not always in that order. If they had particularly hoped to see elephants, then it would be ‘Elephants, dust and the mountain’. Forty years ago it would have been ‘Kilimanjaro, lions and rhinos’, for it was lions then that most visitors wanted to see, especially the handsome black-maned variety. Lions were once prolific in this part of Maasailand, where they were hunted until Amboseli was set aside as a reserve in 1948 and in the Maasai Mara until it was declared a reserve in 1961. And perhaps more than any other park or reserve in Kenya, Amboseli was famous for its black rhinos. The desperate years of ‘Save the Elephant’ and ‘Save the Rhino’ have been of the last quarter of the 20th century. As a national reserve, the wildlife at Amboseli was ‘protected’ but ‘the reasonable needs of the human inhabitants living within the area’ took precedence, and the Maasai continued to graze their herds in the park alongside the wildlife as they had always done previously. Once declared a national park in 1971, however, this ‘human’ facility was withdrawn, since the domestic stock of the Maasai could hardly be classified as ‘wildlife’ and the preservation of the wildlife and the ecology became paramount with the park’s changed designation. Not surprisingly, the excision of this relatively tiny pocket of land – 392 square kilometres (152 square miles) – to ensure the preservation of its animals and ecology, did not appeal at all to the local Maasai, cutting them off from their favourite watering places. 76

The Heavyweights In 1991, three rhinos were speared by Maasai as their continuing protest, following the earlier poisoning of six of the park’s few remaining lions, alleged to have killed some of their donkeys. These conflicts have to be borne in mind when appraising the whole Amboseli scene. Records show that 40 years ago, it would not be unusual for elephants, black rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, buffalos, vervet monkeys and yellow baboons all to be seen in a single morning’s drive in the park. As well, there were hippos in the swamps, eland, hartebeest, wildebeest, warthogs, waterbuck, bushbuck, lesser kudu, reedbuck, dik-dik, gerenuk, oryx, impala, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle, hyena (spotted and striped), golden and silver-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes (‘basking in the sun outside their dens on the open plains’ writes the late John Williams in his Field Guide to the National Parks of East Africa), six types of mongoose and, with luck after dusk, from AA to ZZ, aardwolf, aardvark, gorilla and quite a lot of plains zebra. Forty years later, the sharp-eyed park visitor – perhaps not in a morning’s game drive, but in a game drive or two which would include entering the park and departing from it – can still see quite a lot of these, and enough not to be in any way dissatisfied. It is believed that there are more zebras and wildebeest in the park now than ever before – perhaps due to the tragic demise of the lions. ELEPHANTS – Loxodonta africana (Kiswahili: Ndovu or Tembo) Many books have been written and films made in recent years about the lives of Africa’s 77

Dawn paints a pink blush over a lone elephant and the early morning Amboseli landscape. 78


The Heavyweights elephants, most of which, in the face of their persecution and merciless poaching for ivory, show human behaviour at a disadvantage. Described by Kipling as ‘a gentleman’ and by the poet John Donne as ‘Nature’s great masterpiece’, Daphne Sheldrick’s description – and who could say it better? – who for years on the fringe of Nairobi National Park has been rearing orphaned baby rhinos and elephants, many of them parent-deprived through poaching, is: ‘Great in stature, great in goodness too, noble, peaceloving, placid and tolerant. Capable of deep devotion, unbelievable gentleness, unswerving loyalty and mysterious intelligence, the elephant is a being apart, a creature endowed with all man’s better qualities and few of his bad.’ The focal point of a wider-ranging elephant population estimated to stand at 1,600, Amboseli is the park nearest to Nairobi in which large numbers can be seen, and has suffered from over-use as a result. There are few more thrilling sights than a large herd of old bulls, bulls in musth, young bulls, matriarch cows, young and middle-aged cows in calf and calves of all ages ‘at foot’, though it is a matriarchal society and the bulls do not hold a permanent place in the matriarchal herds. An elephant bull in musth is usually an awe-inspiring sight. He is in this mating condition for about nine months of the year, bent on the pursuit of a willing mate. It is as well to keep out of his genitals and ‘marking’ trees, bushes and other obstacles in his path. Musth bulls are high ranking and therefore have the identity that is the cornerstone of male wellbeing. It is his rank within the male hierarchy that determines whether or not he 80

The Heavyweights is fit to breed. Sightings of mating in Amboseli are not rare, but it is the fortunate one-day visitor who is likely to witness one. The gestation period of the elephant is approximately 660 days or nearly 22-24 months and the average weight of the calf at birth is plus or minus 100 kilogrammes (220 pounds), the male weighing slightly more than the female. Like human babies they come in all sizes – varying in height from between 66 centimetres (26 inches) and just under one metre (three feet) to the shoulder. The calf will grow a foot or more in its first year. The tusks begin to show when it is between two and three years old. It reaches puberty around the age of 11-12 years and can mate (but does not necessarily do so) any time after entering its teens. The Ol Tukai area of the park, with its plentiful drinking water, attracts the elephant herds for one elephant will drink, if it can get it, between 136 and 272 litres (30 and 60 gallons) of water daily. This helps to wash down the daily minimum of 136 kilogrammes (300 pounds) of food required by the adult, of which it digests only 40 per cent and deposits mountains of manure. Habitually the elephant also likes a daily bath in mud or water, completely submerging, if it can, to cool itself and wash off parasites. Mud seals moisture in the skin and helps to protect it from the sun. An elephant calf, which for its first year is almost entirely dependent upon its mother’s milk, learns to swim at an early age. When Amboseli elephants look ‘pale’ in comparison with, say, those of Tsavo, it is because the volcanic ash which sticks to their great bodies is white, silver and 81

Elephants with young. These creatures have similarities to human society including the young’s craving for constant contact with their elders. 82


The Heavyweights sometimes palest pink, whereas in Tsavo it is more often a rich ochre-red. See Amboseli elephants by moonlight and they are glistening silver ghosts. If they have been galumphing through the swamps the water-blackened, ash-free skin of their massive legs and feet give the bizarre impression that they are wearing giant-sized Wellington boots. Elephants spend 16 out of each 24 hours eating, continuing to browse throughout the night, and sleep only between three and five hours in each 24. Because the Amboseli herds are accustomed to vehicles and have been for many years, the park affords ideal opportunities for close-up photographing and viewing them – from the vehicle, never out of it. Observe amongst family groups their collective and shared care, concern and tenderness for their young. Like a human, the elephant is in its prime of life between the ages of 30 and 50 years. Its life expectation is up to 70 years, though there have been notable exceptions. Its chances of survival in Amboseli are as good as anywhere on the continent, providing it stays within the confines of the unfenced park – although the creature is migratory by nature, ever in search of the right diet and minerals which it needs. Even as a protected species in Kenya it becomes endangered once outside the park, not just from poachers, but if it gets into conflict with the surrounding agricultural, farming and ranching interests.


The Heavyweights RHINOCEROS – Diceros bicornis (Kiswahili: Kifaru) In the 1950s and 1960s black rhinos were the pride of Amboseli, more so even than the elephants. No ambitious park visitor returned without photographs of ‘Gertie’, famous for her magnificent horns, and ‘Gladys’, who may have been either her sister or her daughter. The horns of both were of record length,’Gertie’s’ believed to have been 1.22 metres (four feet). Their names were given to them by the legendary hunter-turnedconservationist Syd Downey, co-founder of Ker & Downey Safaris, who regularly took clients into the park on photographic safaris. Another great park favourite was ‘Pixie’, the earless bull calf born to ‘Gertie’ in 1953. Herbivorous, the black rhino is a browsing species, living on plants, shrubs, herbs and small amounts of grass. Sophisticated and mysterious, in terms of nature its design has remained unchanged for millennia – ‘an ancient, outdated animal, complex and fiercely territorial, moving by memory, scent and hearing’. Its vision is myopic but only because it doesn’t need its eyes, which are useful in close combat only. According to John Goddard, who did much rhino research in Tanzania and Zambia, the rhino is a creature ‘of temperament, moods, and, to be quite unscientific, personality ... a short-sighted, harmless old beast that deserves the greatest degree of sympathy.’ A one-time Chief Game Warden’s description of them might have applied equally as well to the human members of any gentleman’s club: ‘some are moderately even-tempered and some irritable; some are brave and some are timid; some are volatile and some phlegmatic.’ 85

Above: The ‘horns’ of the Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis bicornis) are not really horns at all, but hair-like fibre growing from the skin. Opposite: Rhino, ‘An ancient, outdated animal, complex and fiercely territorial moving by memory, scent and hearing’.



The Heavyweights Those who have been gored by rhinos and survived might not agree with me. Discounting the fallacy that its horn is an aphrodisiac, Terry Mathews, former hunter now famous for his meticulous bronze sculpture work, after being almost fatally gored in Nairobi National Park whilst helping the photographer/author Peter Beard to get close-up rhino pictures, said, upon assessing his injuries, that he ‘had never felt less sexy in his life’. A






kilogrammes (2,000-3,000 pounds). The length of its horn, for which it has been poached practically out of existence in Eastern Africa, measures between 50 and 90 centimetres (1.5 and three feet) for the front one situated just behind its nostrils and 50 centimetres (two feet) for the smaller one behind it, almost over its eyes. The horn, if broken off, will in time grow again, composed of closely packed hair-like fibre growing from the skin. Amboseli’s rhino population in 1967 – already then on the decline – was about 60. Nineteen were killed in the three years preceding 1970 due to action by man; 15 by spear wounds. Others succumbed to the drought years of 1970-71. By 1975 the number was down to 25. Assessed at an optimistic 17 in 1990, only two remained in 1992. Rhinos are now extinct in Amboseli, though a couple of hundred individuals still persist in the relatively nearby Tsavo West National Park, so recolonisation is not out of the question though it’s unlikely they will ever again populate the plains to the scale of the 20th century’s first half. Few would disagree that if left in peace to go about in their own way, although sometimes tending to be a bit 88

The Heavyweights quarrelsome amongst themselves, they are harmless enough creatures, but make formidable enemies if sensing danger or provoked. Their main means of defence is attack. They are great survivors, but need seclusion and solitude. Their greatest allies in the wild are their askaris (or policemen), the noisy, red-billed and yellow-billed oxpeckers – the tick birds – which accompany them everywhere, cleaning their skins and skin lesions and their open sores of flies and larvae. The tick birds’ clamour at the sight of anything and everywhere they consider dangerous, either by day or by night, gives the rhino sufficient warning for it to be prepared. There were never any white rhino Ceratotherium simum in Amboseli, but these wide-mouthed grazers can be seen in Lake Nakuru National Park and a few of the private reserves on the Laikipia Plateau region near Mount Kenya. BUFFALOS – Syncerus caffer (Kiswahili: Nyati or Mbogo) Because they love wallowing, and the more mud the better, Ol Tukai attracts African buffalos (‘the wild black cattle of Africa’), where they can be seen, often in large numbers, not very far from water of some sort, muddy or clear. They are almost always attended by oxpeckers and snowy-white cattle egrets. Heavily built and dull black in colour, though calves and young animals can often be browner in tinge, a large bull buffalo weighs as much as a rhino – 1,000 kilogrammes (2,000 pounds) – and, with his thickset body and neck, massive head and horns spreading from a solid shieldlike boss in the centre of his forehead up to a metre 89


Top: The African buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) emerges from a long wallow in the swamp with his jockey – the friendly tick bird. Above: Water birds find a useful perch when the hippos carpet the pools from bank to bank. Opposite: Buffalo herd (‘the wild black cattle of Africa’) beneath Kilimanjaro. 91

The Heavyweights (40 inches) or more from tip to tip, is not in peril of being mistaken for any other ungulate of the plains. Herds of up to 40 or more are not unusual in Amboseli, but not the huge herds encountered in the Maasai Mara or, more recently, of 200 or more in Nairobi National Park. Old buffalo bulls are usually rejected by the younger males and tend to lead a solitary existence or congregate, as outcasts, in small groups. Buffalos are grazers, and find the sweet grass around water and the papyrus and sedges bordering the swamps very much to their taste, as well as the short grass of the plains when they can find it. But they need shelter from the midday heat as well as drinking water. Like cattle they need to drink each morning and evening, which tends to keep them in the vicinity of the waterholes. Before Kenya brought in the ban on big-game hunting in 1977, seasoned hunters’ opinions of which of the ‘Big Five’ was the most dangerous – lion, rhino, elephant, leopard or buffalo – often pointed to the buffalo as the most formidable enemy. Many are the tales told of their cunning and vindictiveness; their lust for vengeance or destruction. One of the most violent sights of Africa is a buffalo stampede, when with pounding hooves in a cloud of dust and gathering ‘an appalling momentum’ (to quote zoologist Hugh B. Cott) the herd thunders off in a solid, mighty, heaving tidal wave, from which every other animal flees for its life.


The Heavyweights HIPPOPOTAMUS – Hippopotamus amphibius (Kiswahili: Kiboko) The Greeks called them ‘River Horses’, but the hippo is of such a weight – similar to that of an adult cow elephant – that it can walk on the bottom of a lake or swamp with its whole body submerged. They are found in the Ol Tukai region where there is enough water to accommodate them, grunting and blowing water noisily through their nostrils throughout the night, but distant enough from the luxury lodges not to disturb the visitor’s night’s peace. Though amphibious, hippos still have to raise their nostrils (which can be closed with valves when it submerges) out of the water every three or four minutes to breathe. Obese and grotesque of body and with stumpy legs – their ungainly shape copied so often in flowerdecorated pottery for children’s piggy banks – their bulging eyes and tiny ears high on the head give a false impression of a good nature which is not lived out in the flesh, though they can be inoffensive enough if left undisturbed. They have been known to snap a man in half between their jaws, and for no greater offence than having walked, mistakenly, between the creature and its refuge in the water when it was grazing on dry land. Both male and female hippos are endowed with four curved tusks projecting from the front corners of each jaw and ugly, forward-projecting incisors. An average curved tusk measures 75 centimetres (30 inches) and a straight one 51 centimetres (20 inches) – the males’ tusks larger than the females’. Fights between the males quite often end in death. 93


The Heavyweights An extraordinary scene witnessed near Ol Tukai in 1991 involved a hippo which, by ill fortune, had fallen into a disused pit which no one knew was there. It was stuck there for three anxiety-filled days for the lodge staff, though park personnel came to give a helping hand. The ground was dug away from behind its back where it could not get at them but it remained jammed in the hole until a gradual slope was created and it was eventually able to stagger out. It instantly charged its exhausted helpers who were fortunately aware that it doesn’t take much to turn a hippo nasty, and this hippo had three days more than enough. They managed to flee to safety before any injuries were done.

Opposite: Hippo in the crystal clear waters of the Mzima Springs, in Tsavo West National Park. 95

6. Birdlife


here are ‘LBJs’ in plenty in Amboseli – everyone’s description of the ‘Little Brown Jobs’ which either flew by too fast or couldn’t have been recognised

anyway. There are ‘BBJs’ too – Big Brown Jobs’ of course – like

the fabulous Hamerkops (Scopus umbretta) with their beautiful dark brown feathers, handsome crests and gigantic, incredibly untidy nests, who find the streams and swamps below Kilimanjaro entirely to their liking, along with other quite spectacular water birds. Hamerkops, friendly to man, though semi-nocturnal, are easily observed by day searching for small fish, tadpoles and delectable Platanna frogs. Their shrill, piping whistles are unlike those of any other bird. Be ready to capture on cine or video camera what just might be your only ‘Blue film’ brought out of the park. Hamerkops have group mating habits, congregating for their orgy on the banks of a lake or swamp where, with frenzied shrieks, they mount each other indiscriminately. The female is just slightly smaller than the male. The Goliath Heron (Ardea goliath), largest of eight heron species which make Amboseli their home (the others being Grey, Black-headed, Purple, Squacco, Madagascar Squacco, Green-backed and Black-crowned Night), can be found mostly by the waters below Normatior and along the edges of the Ologinya swamp. With purplish-grey top body feathers, long chestnut neck and body underparts, they are not much likely to be confused with the other heron species, being 1.4-1.5 metres (55-60 inches) in height, though the Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) is almost its counterpart at a mere metre (three feet) tall. The Goliaths also tend towards communal mating. 96

Birdlife Running daintily on top of the water, the long-legged, less than foot-tall, plover-like birds with bluish headshields and chestnut, white and black plumage are the African Jacanas (Actophilornis africanus), also known as lily-trotters thanks to the enormous feet that enable them to walk lightly on large leaves or floating vegetation. Grey Crowned Cranes (Balearica regulorum) – which feed on aquatic creatures, grasshoppers and snakes – can be found in large numbers wherever there is water, and sometimes on the plains where there is none. They can be guaranteed to put on a spectacular display when performing their ceremonial dances and it is believed that they too mate for life. Found all over Eastern Africa, especially around Lake Victoria, they are the national emblem of Uganda. Almost every Amboseli waterbody has its populations – some of them seasonally – of Egyptian and other Geese, Storks, Cranes, Darters, Teals, Ducks, Fish Eagles, Coots, Avocets, Grebes, Sandpipers, Stints, Snipes, Curlews, Terns, Plovers, Warblers, Pratincoles and Kingfishers (the Pied, Pygmy, Grey-headed, Striped and the glorious Malachite). The Giant Kingfisher is uncommon but is seen frequently at Kimana. Pelicans and Flamingos can be seen fairly consistently but are temporary residents. The flightless Maasai Ostrich (Struthio camelus) – the largest living bird in the world – is probably the most easily identified bird in the park. The males are those with black and white feathers, crimson necks and thighs. The females and young are more brownish in colour. Their clutches of eggs – 42 is about the maximum counted in one clutch – may not all hatch, but are worthy of a photograph or two. Males and females will take turns at sitting on them.


Above: A saddle-billed stork finds a tasty dish in the swamps of Amboseli. Opposite top: Hammerkop (Scopus umbretta) – found wherever there are swamps, rivers and marshes. Opposite: Tawny Crowned (Aquila rapax) – one of 10 types of eagle likely to be seen in the park and its surrounding areas. Like the Steppe eagle, it is a bird of the steppes. 98


Birdlife Look out for Secretary Birds (Saggitarius serpentarius) stalking about in open country, pale grey and over one metre (40 inches) tall. Birds of prey include two rare species, the Southern Banded Snake-Eagles (Circaetus fasciolatus), with three to five dark tail bands, and the Taita Falcon (Falco fasciinucha) – a smaller edition of the Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus) also found in the park, half a metre (18 inches) tall and itself resembling a pale Peregrine, which has darker underparts. Eagles to be seen include the Long-Crested, Steppe, Crowned, Tawny, Booted, Martial, African Hawk Eagle, Black Crested Snake-Eagle, Brown Snake-Eagle, African Fish Eagle and the Bateleur. The Buzzards are the Steppe, Augur and Grasshopper and the Goshawks, the Gabar and Pale Chanting. Seven types of Dove – seen without much difficulty – are the Red-eyed, Mourning, Ring-necked, Laughing, Tambourine, Emerald Spotted Wood Dove and the Namaqua. Of the Sturnidae, the Starlings are well represented with the Wattled (often perching on the backs of Zebras), Violet-backed, Blue-eared Glossy, Ruppell’s Long-tailed, Red-winged and Fischer’s. Canaries in Amboseli (classified as Finches) are the Brimstone (Serinus sulpharatus), the White-bellied and Yellow-fronted (Serinus mozambicus) and might well be mistaken for Weavers and vice versa. The Streaky Seedeaters (Serinus striolatus) with their dark embroidered crowns and streaked upper parts look as if they have been cut out of an old tapestry. The tawny-grey Yellowrumped Seedeaters have bright yellow rumps. The night fliers include the African Marsh Owl, which in spite of its name likes open grasslands as well as the 100

Birdlife swamps and marshes; the Spotted Eagle Owl (Bubo africanus, also with ear tufts); Verreaux’s Eagle Owl – perhaps in an acacia tree; the 203 millimetres (eight inches) Pearl-spotted Owlet; the 254 millimetres (10 inches) White-faced Scops Owl and – the tiniest of all – the minute 178 millimetres (seven inches) Scops Owl. The Nightjars, looking like little dead leaves on the ground, are the European, the Dusky, the Plain and the Long-tailed. Some of the most beautiful birds in the park – in the world, even – are the Meropidae (the Bee-eaters), the Upupidae (the Hoopoes) and the exquisite Nectariniidae (the Sunbirds). The most likely to be seen of the slim-bodied, brilliant Bee-eaters are the European, the Little, the Madagascar, the White-throated and – an uncommon migrant – the Blue-cheeked. The resident population of perky African Hoopoes, rufous with a black-tipped crest and wings and tail black-barred with white, is supplemented by an influx of almost indistinguishable European Hoopoes during the European winter. The Green Wood-hoopoe is a slender black bird glossed with green and found where there are acacia trees. Ant-lion larvae are important to their diet. Of more than 20 species and sub-species of Sunbird found in Kenya, no less than 10 can be identified within the park, particularly in the cultivated lodge gardens and in the park’s eastern section where they are attracted by the flowering acacias. Look for the brilliant metallic plumage of the Bronzy, the Beautiful, the Mariqua, the Variable, the Amethyst, the Scarlet-chested, the Hunter’s, the Olive, the Kenya Violet-backed and the miniscule Collared, only 102 millimetres (four inches) from the tip of its bill to the end of its longest tail feather. 101


Above: Egyptian geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus), usually found in pairs on the ground, form flocks when in flight. Opposite top: Ground hornbills (Bucorvus leadbeateri) are the largest of the African hornbills; the skin of face and throat is bright red in the male, red or blue in the female. Opposite: White-backed vulture (Pseudogyps africanus). They often clean up kills left behind by predators. 103


7. Accommodation


wo world-class safari lodges lie within Amboseli National Park. The most venerable among these is the 80-room Ol Tukai Lodge (formerly Amboseli

Lodge), which is set in a lush fever-tree grove alongside the Ol Tukai park headquarters, and overlooks a swamp frequented by water birds and elephant a few hundred metres away from the site selected in the 1920s by Budge Gethin for his ‘Rhino Camp’, when he had the whole of Amboseli to choose from. Due to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2013, the luxurious 96-room Amboseli Serena Lodge, notable for its Maasai themed architecture and décor, stands at the southern end of Enking Narok Swamp, where its founder the Aga Khan planted 60,000 indigenous trees in 1991. Similar in quality and size is the Amboseli Sopa Lodge, set within a private Maasai concession bordering the national park. Also bordering the park are several smaller and more exclusive tented camps that combine luxurious accommodation







atmosphere. These include the award-winning Tortilis Camp and new Satao Eleria Camp, both of which lie on private Maasai conservancies offering easy access to the park or exclusive game viewing immediately outside it.

Opposite top: Harmonising entirely with the environment, one of Amboseli’s international-class tourist resorts. Opposite: The gentle and timid waterbuck silhouetted against a golden Amboseli sunset. 105

Above: Cheetah family on the alert. No moving object, nor many a still one, escapes their keen eye. Opposite (inset): The leopard is rarely seen, being a nocturnal and solitary animal.



8. Getting There – And Back


he fastest way to reach Amboseli is by air, leaving from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport and landing at the airstrip north-east of Ol Tukai 45 minutes later

where, by arrangement, a safari vehicle awaits. The road journey takes longer, but allows driver and

passengers more time to fully absorb and acclimatise themselves to the changes of scenery between Nairobi – or Mombasa – and the park. From Nairobi to Namanga by road is a distance of 165 kilometres (102 miles), with a further 127 kilometres (79 miles) from Namanga to the lodge areas of Ol Tukai. The road link to the park from the Nairobi – Mombasa trunk road is generally known as ‘The Pipeline Road’ (C 102), running alongside the pipe carrying water from the foot of Kilimanjaro at Oloitokitok to Emali, Sultan Hamud, Athi River and Machalos. During the year’s two wet seasons, ‘The Pipeline Road’ is best taken by four-wheel-drive







experienced in this sort of terrain. Nairobi to Namanga entering the Park by the Meshanani Gate The delight of approaching Amboseli by this route can be enjoyed long before entering the park gates. There is something of interest to capture the imagination almost immediately after turning to the right onto the A 104 from the A 109 at Athi River. This is Kenya’s through road to the Tanzanian border and Arusha, the capital of Northern Tanzania. The direction is clearly signposted. For the first several miles, though perhaps not exactly what one was anticipating, evidence lies both sides of the road that enterprise is alive and well, but beyond the 108

Getting There – And Back Kitengela shopping vicinity, really still an extension of Athi River township, the country begins to open out to plains of scant grass and dwarf bushes, interrupted here and there by a small quarry or two and agricultural development. Maasai men and women cadging lifts along the road are a sign that you have now entered Maasai country. Herdsmen drive their cattle all through and along these parts, some of the herds a hundred or more strong. At certain times of the year, though less frequently than in the past when no human habitation or development of any kind was there to inhibit them, quite large migrations of zebra and wildebeest may be encountered, hurtling across the road from the right side to the left in their urgent haste to reach Amboseli from Nairobi National Park. Beyond Kajiado (ol Kejuado or Olgejuado – Olgeju in Maasai language is ‘a large river’ and – ado means ‘long and deep’) – the administration headquarters of Southern Maasailand – the whole landscape becomes more like one’s dreams of Africa, lusher, greener, more rolling and with hills dominating the scene. Beehives (some made from shoeboxes, others hollowed out of lumps of wood) hang from the acacia trees, sweet smelling when in flower. Ipomoea hildebrandtii and jaegeri (Convolvulaceae) carpet the roadside – white, white and purple, and pink with darker pink centres. The average traveller does not go to Amboseli to see the wildflowers – and indeed they are few inside the park – but it doesn’t take a degree in botany, only a love of nature, to appreciate the variety that can be seen and identified on the roadsides between Kajiado and Namanga. 109

Above: A black-winged stilt at Amboseli, demonstrates its name. With its improbably long legs, it searches for food in deeper water than most other waders. 110

Top: In search of prey, Goliath heron stalks one of Amboseli’s perennial swamps fed by Kilimanjaro’s ice melt. Above: African jacana and young wade amidst some of the magnificent variety of water lilies found in the perpetual swamplands of Amboseli. 111

Getting There – And Back This is wildflower country at its best after rain and the clever traveller carries for reference a copy of Wild Flowers and common Trees of East Africa by David J. Allen (Camerapix Publishers) to add to the journey’s fascination. At a higher altitude than the park, beautiful flowers flourish here, despite the depredations wrought upon them by Maasai herdsmen and their voracious livestock. Look for the Crossandra subaculis, with its pale orange clusters of flowers only a few inches above the stony ground, or the glorious pink Adenium obesum. Both species are indigenous to the Kajiado vicinity. More exciting specimens could not be found in any horticulturist’s carefully tended rock garden. After leaving the small township of Bissel behind, be prepared for one of the most magnificent sights of Africa – one which contributes much to the beauty of Amboseli. Kilimanjaro, in all its massive splendour lies forward to the left and there is no mistaking it, even if encircled by cloud on the lower slopes. Tip-tilted Longido looms directly in front. Namanga, at the foot of Namanga Mountain which has been visible, because of its size, from miles off, is another wonderfully fertile place, watered by the Namanga River and surrounded by trees which are the home of monkeys, baboons, birds of prey and smaller birdlife. Turning sharply to the left, leaving the bustle of the border post ahead, the next miles are of sparse thornbush country but with Kilimanjaro all the time alongside. Few wild animals will be seen in this rather dry approach to the park gate but there are birds in plenty to tease anyone keen enough to want to identify them. Once the park gate is reached, the dried-up lake bed is visible on the right and there is the choice of two roads to Ol Tukai – the road you are on or, conditions permitting, the road across the lake. 112

Getting There – And Back Nairobi to Amboseli via Sultan Hamud and the Pipeline Road Taking this route from the capital to Amboseli – the A 109 to Athi River and straight on to Sultan Hamud – the first section from Nairobi to Sultan Hamud, 109 kilometres/68 miles, is tarmac, much of it running parallel with the railway. The countryside becomes wilder and more interesting after Sultan Hamud and entering the park from this side avoids the ‘busyness’ of the early parts of the Namanga route. It is more rural with more trees. Maasai at the roadside call greetings to the traveller: ‘Soba’ in Maasai – or sometimes ‘Jambo’. Maasai enkangs and manyattas are built quite close to the roadside. Except during the rainy season, the dirt surface of the road is rough and dry. A signposted right turnoff indicates the direction of Ol Tukai and the Lemeiboti Gate; otherwise the pipeline road continues on, ultimately to Oloitokitok but, before reaching there, offering another right turn-off at Kimana onto the C103 to Kimana Gate. On this road, be prepared to meet elephant, buffalo and leopard as well as less dangerous species. Each of the road routes described for reaching the park takes the traveller through Maasailand, which was fraught with dangers and virtually impassable up to a 100 years ago. The two approaches differ quite dramatically from each other and are explorations in themselves – not just the first time, but time and time again. The safari which enters the park by one gate and departs by another is the most rewarding. It is not only at the park gates that the Amboseli adventure begins. 113



Altitudes along the routes Nairobi:

1,635 metres (5,451 feet) above sea level.


1,716 metres (5,719 feet) above sea level.


1,210 metres (4,200 feet) above sea level.

Amboseli Park:

Varying around 1,200 metres (4,000 feet).

Amboseli dried-up

1,190 metres (3,900 feet) above sea level.

lake bed:

Sultan Hamud:

1,207 metres (4,025 feet) above sea level.


1,252 metres (4,108 feet) above sea level.


1,638 metres (5,613 feet) above sea level.

Opposite: Aerial view of the crown of Africa, the snow and ice-encrusted 5,895 metres crater of Kibo, highest point of Kilimanjaro – and the continent. Previous pages: A herd of elephant on the move in Amboseli National Park, with the imposing bulk of Mount Kilimanjaro as a backdrop. Following pages: Maasai giraffe on the gallop provides an unusual frame for Kilimanjaro’s snowcap. Page 120: Days in Amboseli start – and finish – with dramatic sunrise and sunset. 117



The Beauty of Amboseli

Text by Jan Hemsing, photographs by Mohamed Amin and Duncan Willetts.



Beloved by Ernest Hemingway and Hollywood’s legendary film makers, the fragile grasslands of Amboseli, with their swamps, springs and seasonal lakes, host a magnificent wildlife spectacle with some species unique to the African bush, beneath the majesty of 5,896 metres (19,340 feet) Kilimanjaro.


Rising into the ethereal blue of an equatorial sky, the snow-capped dome of Africa’s highest mountain is testimony to the grandeur of nature’s design.

The Beauty

Trim, travel-sized edition; clear text supported by superb photographs that effortlessly depict the beauty of Amboseli.

The Beauty Of Amboseli  

Travelling, book