Below the Snows of Kilimanjaro
On a good day, the Amboseli sunset takes some beating. Improbable, you might think, on arriving at lunchtime, when the harsh midday light envelops the dry, dusty plains in an aura of wracked desolation. But wait until dusk approaches, when the suspension of fine volcanic dust, kicked up by thousands of ungulates, refracts the dying sunlight into a festival of orange and red hues. It is then, too, that the cloudy shroud hovering over the southern horizon most often dissipates to reveal the park’s scenic piece de resistance: the towering snow-capped dome of Kilimanjaro.
Amboseli supports abundant herbivores — wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and giraffe — and while predators were at one time victimised by local Maasai (in dispute with the park authorities), numbers are recovering and lion and Spotted hyaena at least are reasonably certain. A memorable feature of the park is the marshes that contrast with the surrounding aridity and harbour a wide array of waterbirds.
But Amboseli’s most enduring and endearing residents are its elephant, which — largely unaffected by the ivory poaching of the 1980s — sport some stupendous tusks and are remarkably relaxed around vehicles. There is no finer place for observing elephant behaviour and interaction within trunk range. Relatively small, Amboseli is serviced by at least five upmarket-to-luxurious lodges, as well as a fine community-run campsite, but it tends to be one of the region’s more congested parks — something that threatened to have a lasting ecological impact until off-road driving was banned.
Africa Through the Looking Glass
The gerenuk — Swala twiga (antelope giraffe) in Swahili — is not a stereotypical gazelle. Distinguished by its extraordinarily distended neck and a freakishly small head, this otherwise rather impala-like antelope also possesses a unique manner of feeding, standing near-erect on its hind legs to stretch two metres above the ground and nibble on the leaves that other browsers can’t reach.
The gerenuk is one of several dry-country “specials” that ensure Samburu boasts the most unusual fauna of all East Africa’s major savannah reserves. There is the densely striped Grevy’s zebra (twice as heavy as the familiar Burchell’s zebra), the Reticulated giraffe (neat, geometrically marked coat), the regal Beisa oryx and a comically long-horned race of Grant’s gazelle. There is, too, a long list of northern birds — look out for the brilliant cobalt-chested Vulturine guineafowl — which within the restraints of an ordinary safari itinerary are likely to be seen only here. What’s more, Samburu supports healthy populations of elephant and lion, and must rank with the top handful of East African reserves for leopard sightings.
Part of a trio of roughly contiguous and ecologically similar reserves (the other two being Shaba — of Survivor fame — and Buffalo Springs), Samburu lies in the brooding austere badlands that divide Kenya’s central highlands from Ethiopia. Less crowded than the Mara or Ngorongoro, these reserves are nevertheless serviced by half a dozen upmarket lodges strung along the riparian forest fringing the Ewaso Nyiro River — an incongruously luxuriant ribbon through the surrounding dry scrub. The Maasai-affiliated pastoralists that share their name with the reserve are often to be seen herding their cattle in the area and several nearby traditional villages welcome tourist visits.
The Flaming Lake
Thousands of flamingos — in ideal conditions, up to two million — routinely gather in the shallows of Lake Nakuru, the only one of Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes protected within a national park. Viewed from the soda-encrusted shore, it’s a compelling spectacle, as a flock of several hundred might rise above the general squawk-and-chatter to reveal, in flight, a harmony of bright pink, black-fringed underwings. The full scale of the phenomenon is apparent from the surrounding cliffs, the individual birds blending into a solid shimmering pink band that separates the alkaline water from its bleached rim.
Compact and (uniquely within Kenya) fenced in its entirety, Lake Nakuru NP has for some years been earmarked as a relocation site for endangered animals. As a result, it’s probably the best place in East Africa for rhinos — both Black and White — as well as an important (albeit artificial) stronghold for the rare Rothschild’s giraffe. Nakuru means “Place of Waterbuck” in the local dialect — no mystery about that — and the fever forest along the shore also harbours prodigious numbers of bushbuck, impala and buffalo. Leopard are seen with increasing regularity, while lion and Spotted hyaena are reasonably common.