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Amboseli- Home of the gods
Cast against wide skies and far horizons which blend with swampy springs and parched earth; Amboseli enjoys the exclusive position of having the highest mountain in Africa cast as its background in an exceptionally unique ecosystem which few other places in the continent can match in panorama and cultural history.
Amboseli derives its name from the Maasai word empusel, which means dust in Maa, in reference to the grey saline volcanic ash that was deposited by Mount Kilimanjaro during its volatile infancy.
When Joseph Thompson, the renown Scottish geologist cum explorer, first accessed the once dreaded Maasai territory in 1883. He was confounded by the phenomenal disparity between the arid areas of the dry-lake bed and the oasis like swamps which he went on to describe in his 1885 best-selling book, Through Masai Land.
It has since then been described as the ‘home of the gods’ by other famous authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark who have also based their works on the game culture of Africa’s wilderness on this region.
The Amboseli landscape covers an area of approximately 5,700 Km² stretching between Mt. Kilimanjaro, Chyulu Hills, Tsavo West National Park and the Kenya/Tanzania border. Amboseli National Park, formerly Maasai Amboseli Game Reserve, is situated in a small area at the heart of its ecosystem that is almost twenty times its size. It is the third most visited wildlife park in Kenya after the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Lake Nakuru National Park .
The park is also one of Kenya’s premier parks both in terms of biodiversity conservation and tourism potential making it probably the most visually impressive of Kenya’s National Parks.
Amboseli began as the ‘Southern Reserve’ before its restoration to the local community in 1948. It was later gazaetted in 1974 to protect its unique ecosystem.The park was subsequently proclaimed a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve from 1991 in recognition of its special combination of ecology and culture.
On September 29, 2005, former Kenyan president Mr.Mwai Kibaki declared that the custody of the park should pass from the Kenya Wildlife Service to the Olkejuado County Council and the Maasai people.
The park is located in Loitoktok in the Rift Valley about 140 kilometres south of Nairobi. It stands at an altitude of 1150 meters above the sea level in an area of about 392 km2 in size consisting of basement plains mingled with fresh water swamps and Kilimanjaro’s volcanic terrain.
The scenic beauty of the park consists of five basic wildlife habitats covering the open plains. The sharp contrasts in the landscape were due to its being a very fragile environment comprised mainly of golden savannah plains, with low scrubby vegetation.
The main vegetation in the plain is elephant grass, high turfs of whitish-yellow grass sometimes as high as elephants. The dominant plant species are dropseed grasses in the grassland and the yellow barbed Acacia in the woodland. Some species of Suaeda Monoica, which are common in mudflats and salt marshes, are plenty in the bush land. There are also areas of rocky patches where nothing seems to grow for there are no major surface streams which flow into its basin.
The park’s topography is characteristically flat while the soil composition is fine. It creates a surface seal which forms seasonal pools around the park during rains. Amboseli can swing from droughts to floods due to its erratic climate. As witnessed in the early 1990’s when ceaseless rain changed the area into a swamp before the grass-covered plains turned back to dust.
The temperature here ranges from about 20-30 degrees with an annual rainfall usually between 200mm – 700 mm.
The two main rain seasons are around March/April in the long rains and Nov/ December during the short rains though there have been recurrent droughts in the recent years. The park never the less has an endless underground water supply filtered through thousands of feet of volcanic rock from Mount Kilimanjaro’s ice cap which funnel into two clear water springs in the center of the park.
The thawing snow and rainfall infiltrates into Kilimanjaro’s porous lava terrain before reaching the lower foot hills where it re-emerges in the park’s basin. There are a series of emerald green everglades i.e. Enkongu Narok, Longinye and Ol Tukai swamps which also form a major source of water for the park’s wildlife.
The park offers some of the best opportunities to see Africa’s wildlife which is attributed to its sparse vegetation due to its long dry months. Amboseli hosts numerous plains, game and fauna which include the African elephant, Cape buffalo, rhino, lion, cheetah, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest among other animals like hyena and wild dogs.
The elephants of Amboseli are the most celebrated wild elephants in the world. This area has remained the home to some of the regions oldest and bulkiest elephants with an estimated 1 300 elephants living in the park. It presents itself as one of the best wildlife viewing experiences in Africa and indeed the world where you get as close to free-ranging elephants.
These wonderful pachyderms are drawn in great numbers to the park by the swamps and marshes. The typical papyrus and cyperus plants growing in the shallows also attract hosts of other wildlife; turning the watering holes into virtual animal spas at dusk and dawn.
The bird life is plentiful, boasting a diversity of Kenyan birds both large and small, with almost 600 species of birds including within the vicinity of the swamps and lakes. Varieties of pelicans, kingfishers, crakes, lily trotters, egrets, hammerkops and the rare Madagascar squacco heron can also be spotted sometimes. The open plains also support an array of birdlife including the secretary bird, the yellow necked spurfowl and the pangani longclaw.
So far about 50 carnivorous birds have been identified in Amboseli including the rare taita falcon and southern banded harrier eagle.
The park is one of the smaller reserves in Kenya making it the ideal place for starters, since the tracking won’t be that demanding . On arrival, you will be met by the vast arid plain, that is ‘ Lake Amboseli’,which is reminiscent of a desert but that is only a veil. The park is in fact teeming delights beyond what we have described which you will soon discover.
You can explore the park on game drives, even horse-back safaris and also go for guided nature walks.
Amboseli has featured in several films like Where no vultures fly, King Solomons Mines, Tomb Raider 2 and documentaries like ‘Echo: An Elephant to Remember, a TV series about a remarkable matriarch of a family of elephants in the park.
Echo was the most studied elephant in the world and subject of several books.
The local people are mainly Maasai, but people from other parts of the country have settled there attracted by the successful tourist-driven economy and intensive agriculture.
In addition to the abundant wildlife, the interesting cultural interactions with the Maasai draw tourists and safari lovers to Amboseli.
Other attractions in Amboseli
Amboseli is compact enough to experience in a day or two, the park is included on most Kenya safari itineraries and combines well with the Masai Mara and nearby Tsavo National Park. Other opportunities in the park include meeting the Maasai residents and visiting their villages.
The park also offers spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest free-standing mountain in the world!
Indisputably one of the most celebrated mountains in the world, Kilimanjaro which forms the backdrop of this region is always a sight to behold. It stands at 5,896 meters above the sea level with a snow capped summit that overshadows the landscape on any clear day. The best time to view ‘Kili’ is at dawn and sometime in the late afternoon towards sunset when the clouds lift and the light is clear and soft.
An Amboseli safari can also be combined with several Tanzanian parks which lie just across the border. Other highlights of Northern Tanzania like the Serengeti, Tarangire and the Ngorongoro Crater can also easily accessible from this area.
It is located on the south east side part of the park from where you can enjoy a panoramic view of most of the Amboseli Park. Scaling will give you a wonderful birds-eye view of the whole park; especially the peculiar landscape further south made by expelled volcanic rock a few centuries ago. Observation hill is known as ‘Noomotio’ meaning a rocky depression that holds water in the local Maa tongue; it was inhabited many years ago by the Ndorobo who were hunters and gathers.
It may have also got it’s name in allusion to its black porous rock, a product of the same volcanic activity that created Kilimanjaro.
At the end of the rains, game viewing can be truly fantastic making the marshes below observation hill one of Amboseli’s principal attractions. The Enkongo Narok swamp and other permanent swamps which demarcate the grey landscape are preferred resorts for big game while numerous birds feed, breed and nest in the lush vegetation. The Oltukai Swamps, at the heart of Amboseli’s woodland of yellow fever trees and the doum palms known as ol tukai by the Maasai or Makindu in Swahili, is another cool oasis. It is a perfect retreat for wildlife that is greatly favored by the elephants.
Contemporary Maasai culture
All proceeds from the park now go directly to the Maasai communities situated in the park after its control was transferred to the Olkejuado County Council and the Maasai Tribe in 2005. There are six Maasai group ranches with a combined area of 5583 km2 supporting approximately 50,000 Maasai pastoralists and 280,000 head of livestock. Their indigenous lifestyle is a traditional system of nomadic pastoralism practiced by the Maasai.
The pride in their own culture that has been impressively steadfast in the midst of rapid social and economic developments. Perhaps more than any other community in Kenya the Maasai have learned to live in complete harmony with their environment and the wildlife which surrounds them. Both pastoralists and wildlife share the same ecosystem and shadow each other’s movements through the seasons.
This is a flat and dry area, which was a large and permanent lake of 40 meters deep about 10’000 years ago, covers a third of the Amboseli Park on the western side. Most of the “lake” is inside the park although the southwestern end is actually outside the park’s boundaries. A clay mineral know as “meerschaum” in German for the ‘sea foam’ was a variety of sepiolite that was also mined here. This immense pan gets filled with water when Amboseli receives a good rainfall.
More often, Lake Amboseli is a barren expanse of cracked clay, swept across by swirling armies of dust devils and the occasional herd of browsers.
Amboseli Elephant research project
It was founded in 1972 and is the world’s longest running study of wild elephant population in the world with its influence reaching out to elephant conservation, management and policy-setting globally. The project has compiled three decades worth of births and deaths within a community of 50 elephant families totaling about 1500 individuals and due to its efforts the local elephant population in Amboseli was spared the attention of poachers who were mostly active in the early 1980’s.
As a result the elephants in Amboseli have little fear of vehicles thus making this park arguably the finest place in Africa to observe elephants at close quarters.
Practical Travel information
Amboseli National Park can be accessed via its five gates and is open daily to visitors from 6.00 am to 6.00 pm including public holidays and visits can easily be done in a weekend. Proof of identification will be required and no entry is permitted on foot and you can only use a safari card or visa card to enter. The Safari card may be obtained and loaded at any KWS Safaricard office or at the Iremito Gate.
The park has adequate and good infrastructure that make most parts of the park accessible. Nonetheless soil that is otherwise only dusty in the dry season is usually rendered impassable in the wet season. As is always the case several rules have been installed to protect the wildlife; so please do not to get out of your vehicle except at designated spots nor attempt to harass the animals in any way. Remember, no off-road driving, keep to the tracks and always give the animals the right of way.
Always carry enough drinking water, picnic items and camping equipment if you intend to stay overnight. Also useful are a pair of binoculars, camera, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and updated guidebooks. The area is a high malaria risk, so do come prepared with enough mosquito repellent and you may also consider using antimalarial drugs that should be taken before you travel, especially during the rainy seasons, if you want extra peace of mind.
How to get there
By Road: Amboseli is approximately 240km from Nairobi and the usual route is via Namanga on the Nairobi – Arusha Road, through Meshanani Gate. The road is tarmacked up until Namanga from where the ride becomes rough and the other option which is about 228 km long is via Emali on the Nairobi- Mombasa road. Access from Mombasa is mainly through Tsavo West National Park via Kimana (Olkelunyiet) Gate.
By Air: The park has a single airstrip for light aircraft with Air Kenya providing daily flights at Empusel gate. Other airstrips exist at Kilimanjaro Buffalo Lodge and Namanga town
Where to stay
Hoteliers and developers will have had to forego new developments within the Amboseli National Park as well as the ecosystem surrounding the park for the next one year. This follows the National Environment Management Authority (Nema) ban on developments including tourism facilities. The moratorium will be in place for this duration or until the conservation plan for the fragile ecosystem is implemented.
In – Park Accommodation
The suspension also covers upgrades of existing facilities, sinking of bore holes and human settlements along the stretch from Mt Kilimanjaro on the Kenya-Tanzania border to Chyulu Hills and Tsavo West National park.
All in all accommodation in Amboseli is available in the form of several luxury safari lodges. Most of its lodges and safari camps are of world class quality and are conveniently located in the park. The luxury lodges are splendid and will cater to your every caprice; you may also opt for one of the comfortable chalets or canvassed tent lodges if you are inclined towards a more earthy experience.
Tawi consists of 12 cottages with verandas, bath and showers, fireplace and mini bars for those very special sun-downers. The bar and dining area being the central point of the Lodge with fine cuisine and the attention to details and the excellent and friendly service is particularly noticed while dining. A butler service is provided for maximum privacy and comfort.
It is located on a private conservancy of 6,000 acres just five minutes from Kimana Gate, the eastern entrance to Amboseli National Park. It is a community-run conservancy and together with African Wildlife Foundation, promotes and maintains a harmonious development for the wildlife and the Maasai people along the corridor between Amboseli and the Chyulu Hills.It is also an eco-friendly operation, which takes maximum care of the environment and its people. Ideally located on bush land facing Kilimanjaro.
The style of the lodge is a harmonious combination of modern comfort and traditional aestheticism .
Its is secluded within a grove of acacia trees, close by are a series of emerald green swamps, which are fed by the melting snows of Kilimanjaro and looks out over the golden savannah plains, with uninterrupted views of the mountain itself.
At the heart of the lodge, shaded by palm trees, is a free-form swimming pool; to either side of which stretch the rooms. Each room is housed in a single storey building opening directly on to the grounds, each reflecting a Maasai manyatta theme: each with its own hand-painted wall frescos.
The central dining area is reached by a timbered bridge over a melt-water stream, while the lounge and bar feature a broad terrace and a blazing fire-pit where evening cocktails can be enjoyed.
Amboseli Sopa Lodge
The lodge is constructed as individual huts, spacious with en-suite bathrooms and verandah are 83 rooms in total all available for the honeymooners, the physically challenged, generally everyone is been well thought of at the lodge. The pathways leading to the rooms are sheltered with beautiful plants and trees.
It is nestled in 190 acres of wooded Masai land and sits on the foothills of Mt Kilimanjaro with features including a restaurant bar e.g Hemingway’s bar, a unique historical structure, designed like the shape of Africa, sitting right at the top of the property between rocks which has an uninterrupted view of the park. It also has a pool bar painted in bright orange colour and blue mosaic tiled counter, it is situated in one corner, and adds a contrast to the greenery of the garden around the pool area and the azure water of the swimming pool.
Ol Tukai Lodge
It has been cited as one of the best spots in the world to watch elephant with the background of Africa’s highest mountainin a place of rugged beauty, abundant water, lush grass and forest, set like an oasis in surrounding savannah scrub. It is ideal for the executive traveller with a self-contained log cabin with three luxurious ensuite rooms, roof terrace and jacuzzi.
Ol Tukai is an Eco-rated lodge having excellent outdoor and indoor facilities with its unique collection of African art. All rooms have private bathrooms and individual terraces and two rooms have been designed according to EU standards to accommodate physically challenged guests.
Tortilis has the undeveloped western half of Amboseli to itself and is named after the flat-topped, umbrella thorn tree, the Acacia Tortilis, and is situated in one of Amboseli’s pristine areas of Acacia Tortilis woodland, with the majestic backdrop of Kilimanjaro.
The accommodation includes large tents with luxurious king sized or twin beds, large family houses and the camp is child friendly. Delicious traditional North Italian meals are prepared from the owner’s family recipe cookbook, while the accompanying herbs and salads are prepared from those grown in the camp’s own garden. Also available are massage parlors within the camp.
There is also comfortable accommodation in the park like the KWS facilities which offer more budget friendly provisions like;
Kilimanjaro Guest house and Kibo Guest House
The two guest houses are more or less the same, the more being on Kilimanjaro Guest House for its extra bedroom. Kibo on the other hand has only two bedrooms to offer. The facilities come with one bathroom with a bath, shower and WC, a fully furnished sitting with doors leading to a veranda. It also has a modestly equipped kitchen and also a provided caretaker, a generator which supplies electricity from 6.30pm-10pm, blankets, pillows, bed linen, towels, soap and toilet tissue.
The bandas are divided into two units with each unit having two single beds which can accommodate a total of four persons. Each unit has bathroom with shower and WC. They also have a seating area with two chairs a basic kitchen with a care taker who will attend to your stay.
Simba and Chui bandas
The bandas have two single beds for a total of two persons, a bathroom with shower and WC,a seating area. The bandas have with two chairs, a kitchen with a caretaker and essential amenities.
Olgulului Public Campsite and Nairushari Campsite :
These are the two main campsites in Amboseli National Park near the Nairushari and Iimbireshari hills a few kilometers south the Observatory Hill. They are both located in a non-dusty area in the southern part of the park where vegetation is composed of green bushes and dry grasses. One is a public campsite managed by K.W.S. and the other one is managed by the Maasai community.
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