By Philip Briggs
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.
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.
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.
Lake Nakuru is included on many standard safari itineraries through Kenya: a couple of upmarket lodges lie within the park, as does a lovely leafy campsite. It is unusually accessible to budget travellers: there's plenty of cheap accommodation in nearby Nakuru town, from where the park can be explored by taxi. The flamingo flocks have been erratic over the past decade (in some years absent altogether) and larger numbers are often amassed at nearby Lake Bogoria. Good numbers of flamingo are currently present at Nakuru, but do seek up-to-date advice before you go.
The setting is a swampy pool encircled by lush gallery forest and capped by the ragged glacial peaks of Africa's second-highest mountain. Syke's and Colobus monkeys cavort through the trees accompanied by the manic braying of hornbills, while a bright green Hartlaub's turaco breaks cover to reveal its lustrous crimson underwings. Every so often, the waterbuck and buffalo that maintain a constant presence in the glade scatter to accommodate an elephant herd as it emerges from a forest path. Darkness descends, invoking a white noise of insect chatter punctuated by the banshee wailing of Tree hyraxes, then comes a passing parade of spotlighted nocturnal creatures — most reliably Giant forest hog, bushpig, genet, White-tailed mongoose, Black rhino and often leopard or lion.
Another night at Mountain Lodge on the forested slopes of Mount Kenya, which — together with the forests in nearby Aberdare NP — is perhaps unique in harbouring a wide range of forest creatures alongside several big game species more widely associated with bush habitats. Also more-or-less unique to this region is the so-called tree hotel, a game-viewing concept (in a nutshell, let the animals come to you) patented in colonial times by Treetops in the Aberdares and perfected today at Mountain Lodge. The lodge is, for several reasons, the most alluring of the trio of tree hotels in the area. It is, ironically, the least publicised and thus the least crowded and institutionalised. And while The Ark (in the Aberdares) might have a slight edge in terms of Big Five sightings, Mountain Lodge is infinitely superior for forest specialists.
Not least, there is the stirring setting below the peaks of Mount Kenya — itself a highly rewarding destination for hikers, offering a comparable challenge and supporting a similar procession of altitude-related vegetation zones (forest, moorland, barren alpine rocks) to Kilimanjaro and the Ruwenzoris.
July 1988: Tsavo stands at the epicentre of a poaching war that has practically exterminated its 6000 rhinoceros and threatens to take its elephant the same way. Living specimens of the 20,000 elephant that once roamed this vast 22,000km2 reserve are scarce and, when located, stampede terrified into the thicket. Along the roadside, heaps of tuskless carcasses stand as flesh-and-blood cairns marking the site of recent massacres. The vultures aren't complaining, but few give Tsavo's elephants much hope of surviving into the 21st century.
Tsavo's resurrection since those gloomy days (the turning point being the 1989 CITES ivory ban) is little short of miraculous. The elephant population is nudging towards the 10,000 mark and 100 rhinos have been reintroduced — some free ranging, the rest coddled in a large stockade in Tsavo West (entry is permitted in the company of a ranger). Most other key savannah species are present, and while sightings aren't as fast and furious as in some more popular reserves, the relatively low tourist traffic — and aura of rejuvenating wilderness — compensate.
The two Tsavos — divided by the Nairobi-Mombasa Highway — are markedly different in character. Tsavo West, serviced by several upmarket lodges, is characterised by intimate landscapes of volcanically formed hills descending south to the papyrus-fringed Lake Jipe near Kilimanjaro. Tsavo East, with fewer lodges, is a vast tract of fine red sand and dry acacia scrub harbouring several dry-country species also associated with Samburu. Its compelling wilderness character is alleviated by the lovely, palm-fringed Galana River. Landmarks include the game-rich Aruba Dam and bald Mudanda Rock in Tsavo East, and the Sheteni Lava Flow and unique underwater viewing tank (with hippos occasionally in range) at Mzima Springs in Tsavo West.
It's the soul-stirring sense of space that, for some, endures in the memory: the oceans of grassland, cropped and yellow in the dry season, tall and green after the rains, alluded to in the Maasai name Serengit ("endless plain"). For most, however, it's the staggering volume of game, in particular the annual migration of up to two million wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and other grazers. Hyped? Possibly. Over-hyped? Says who, exactly? This vast cross-border ecosystem, centred on Tanzania's Serengeti NP and Kenya's abutting Masai Mara Reserve, is Africa's premier game viewing destination — no ifs or buts about it.
Impressive on every conceivable level, the Serengeti-Mara is surely without equal for predators. Trademark blond-maned lions lounge nonchalantly in the shade, solitary cheetahs pace the open plains, hyaenas lope and sniff around their subterranean dens — even leopard are seen regularly in specific areas. Smaller plains residents include the dainty Bat-eared fox, all three African jackal species and half-a-dozen endemic birds, while punctuating kopjies (granite outcrops) are frequented by the colourful Agama lizard, scurrying Rock hyrax and dainty klipspringer.
A great many upmarket lodges — some say too many — operate on both sides of the border, ranging from impersonal "hotels in the bush" to intimate luxury tented camps. Somewhat obtusely, crossing directly between the Mara and the Serengeti is forbidden, so most visitors opt for one or other reserve or country. For pure game viewing, the Mara possibly has the edge, but the Serengeti is more extensive, with remote corners such as Lobo and the Western Corridor still carrying remarkably little tourist traffic. If it's wildebeest you're after, December to March is when they calve in the southern Serengeti, moving northward through Lobo or the Western Corridor over May to July, then concentrating in the Mara from August to October.
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