Amboseli National Park
Amboseli is one of Kenya's oldest and most-visited parks. Much of its magic is derived from the fact that it is towered over by the snow-capped bulk of Mount Kilimanjaro which, at 5,896 metres, above sea level is Africa's highest mountain. Comparatively compact, the park is dotted with a series of bright green swamps, in which great herds of elephants can often be seen half-submerged amongst the papyrus grasses. As renowned for its photo-opportunities as it for its large elephant population, Amboseli remains one of THE great safari destinations.
Altitude: 1,100-1,200 m above sea level.
Area: 392 sq km.
Location: Kajiado District, Rift Valley Province, close to the Tanzanian border and Mount Kilimanjaro.
Distance from Nairobi: 230 km south of Nairobi.
Gazetted: established as a reserve in 1968 and gazetted as a National Park in 1974.
Climate: hot and dry, the park lies in the rain shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. The rainy seasons are usually April/May and November/December.
Vegetation: semi-arid acacias and grasses with papyrus sedges in the swamplands.
Wildlife: includes: lion, cheetah, leopard, elephant, plains zebra, hippo, spotted and striped hyena, jackal, Masai giraffe, oryx, wildebeest, gerenuk, impala, Thompson's and Grant's gazelle. Birds: more than 425 species have been recorded.
Roads: 4WD is recommended, especially during the rainy seasons.
One of Kenya's oldest and most famous parks
Once part of the Great Southern Game Reserve, Amboseli is one of Kenya's earliest game sanctuaries; it is also one of her most popular attracting over 200,000 tourists per year.
Lake Amboseli and the swamps
The park covers part of a Pleistocene lake basin, now dry. Within this basin is a non-permanent lake known as Lake Amboseli, from which the park takes its name (Amboseli means ‘salt dust' in Maa, the language of the Maasai). Easily flooded during times of heavy rainfall, the lake is fed by underground streams that flow from Mount Kilimanjaro to rise in a series of lush papyrus Cyperus papyrus swamps. These are surrounded by tracts of Acacia xanthophloea (more commonly known as ‘fever trees') woodland while open Acacia tortilis woodland also occurs along the drainage lines of the southern part of the park. The basin is surrounded by Acacia-commiphora bushland, while the alkaline soils of the lake floor support thickets of Salvadora persica and Suaeda monoica. There are three large swamps (Enkongo Narok, Engone Naibor and Loginye Swamp) in the south-eastern area of the park, all of which are fed by underground springs from the melt-waters of Kilimanjaro. Filtered through the volcanic strata, these springs are crystal clear and, as the only permanent water sources in this otherwise arid landscape, attract large concentrations of wildlife and exceptional birdlife.
What to see
Amboseli is world-famous for its populations of large mammals, most especially elephant of which there are around 700. The swamps are a centre of activity for elephants, hippos, buffaloes and abundant water birds. The surrounding flat grasslands are home to grazing antelopes. Spotted hyenas are plentiful, as are jackals, warthogs, olive baboons and vervet monkeys. No longer present in their original numbers, lions can still be found in Amboseli though the famous black-maned lions have long since disappeared, as have the black rhinos that were once so plentiful.
Over 400 bird species
Bird life is abundant, especially in the vicinity of the lake and swamps where a great variety of water birds may be seen. Over 425 bird species have been recorded here, including over 40 species of birds of prey, amongst which are two great rarities, the Taita falcon and the southern banded harrier eagle. Several species of global conservational concern occur, including lesser kestrel, small numbers of non-breeding Madagascar squacco herons and lesser flamingo in variable numbers. Perhaps the most frequently seen and easily identified of the park's birds, however, is the aptly named superb starling with its gorgeous iridescent plumage and fearless behavior. Grey-crowned cranes are also frequent visitors to the plains.
One of the high points of the park, Observation Hill towers above a small car park and its summit is easily accessed by a winding stone stairway. Once at the top the views are tremendous, the photo opportunities countless and, as the sun begins its descent, it provides one of East Africa's finest sundowner venues.
lion, cheetah, leopard, elephant, zebra, hippo, spotted and striped hyena, Masai giraffe, oryx, gerenuk, wildebeest, gerenuk, impala, Thompson's and Grant's gazelle, olive baboon and vervet monkey. Birds: 425 recorded species.
The people of Amboseli
The Maasai have long remained the ideal mental conceptualisation of the Western European idea of an African ‘noble savage'. Tall, elegant, handsome; walking with a gentle spring of the heel, seemingly proud and indifferent to all but the most necessary external influences.
S. S. Sankan, Maasai Elder
Perhaps the best known of Kenya's tribes, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai are a nomadic people whose style of life has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. Their daily rhythm of life revolves around the constant quest for water and grazing for their cattle. Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai are distinguished by their complex character, impeccable manners, impressive presence and almost mystical love of their cattle. The latter is based on the Maasai belief that the sky god, Enkai, was once at one with the earth. When the earth and the sky were separated, however, Enkai was forced to send all the world's cattle into the safekeeping of the Maasai where, as far as the Maasai are concerned, they have remained. Brave and ruthless warriors, the Maasai instilled terror in all who came up against them, most especially the early explorers. ‘Take a thousand men' advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley when speaking of the Maasai, ‘or write your will'.
Today, cattle are still the central pivots of Maasai life and ‘I hope your cattle are well' is the most common form of Maasai greeting. The milk and blood of their cattle also continue to be the preferred diet of the Maasai people, while the hides serve as mattresses, sandals, mats and clothing. Cattle also act as marriage bonds, while a complex system of cattle-fines maintains the social harmony of the group. Visually stunning, the Maasai warrior with his swathe of scarlet ‘Shuka' (blanket), beaded belt, dagger, intricately plaited hair and one-legged stance remains the most enduring icon of Kenyan tourism.