Part 1 of 2
21 October 2016
Published Nation newspaper 19 November 2016
A dry lake bed catches the eye near Iremeto Gate into Amboseli National Park off the Emali Road. On a whim, we decide to take a walk over the small hill to the dry pan that looks similar to the dry Lake Amboseli inside the park in the shadow of Kilimanjaro.
The parched earth is littered with stones of many kinds including the volcanic tuff and obsidian glistening under the intense morning blue sky. There’s hardly a tree in leaf save for the hardy dryland ones like the thorny wait-a-bit acacia, elephant toothpicks (Sansevieria) and the commiphora. A clutch of helmeted guinea fowl startled by us scamper through the scrub. As we climb down a narrow path, we see a mound of dry elephant dropping. It’s hard to imagine elephants so close to the main road with humans wandering around.
We continue down the path and there’s more elephant dung dry to the core along it showing that the elephants traversed the route many months ago. It’s packed with coarse grass. Looking around, the elephants use this path to cross into the Chyulu Hills that stretch across the skyline and further beyond into Tsavo.
Reaching the dry and parched ancient lake bed means that the drought is intense and therefore the park must be full of elephants because the world’s largest earth-mammal use the swamps of Amboseli that are fed by Kilimanjaro as a dry-season refuge when the larger Amboseli ecosystem is dry.
The pan is devoid of any vegetation – again just like the dry lake bed inside the park that allows for nothing to root because of its noxious salts, fooling animals into its midst with its shimmering mirages.
Bells tinkle and a herd of Maasai sheep and goats materialize from the plains browsing on the little remaining stalks of dry grass and bush, staying on the edge of the salt pan. In the intense heat, dust-devils rise and swirl, wavering on the plains like animated dancers. In the distance the hot air shimmers and mirages appear. And on the plains filled with thorns and dry scrub, we return to the car that now has a flat tire.
With no shade, it’s hot work changing a flat but soon we’re on our way to the iconic park that’s famed for its elephants for they are the longest studied elephants in the wild. It’s an interesting drive with a herd of gerenuk browsing on the dry scrub by the side of the road, standing on their hind legs. A creature of the arid lands, this beautiful antelope with a long giraffe-like neck is called swala twiga in Kiswahili (giraffe-necked antelope) and the only antelope that browses standing on its hind legs to reach higher scrub.
Giraffes appear towering over the stunted scrub and by lunch time we’re checking into Kibo Safari Camp on the edge of the park by Kimana gate. It’s a subtle setting of tents under makuti with beautiful mature tortilis trees and savannah grasses in the amazing Amboseli landscape.
Stepping out the tented abode in the morn, it’s an OMG moment with Kilimanjaro in its entirety – the perfect dome of Kibo with a sliver of white and the jagged jaw of the eroded Mawenzi.
We drive into the park. It’s dry. There has been no rain since February and now it’s late October. White ghostly dust-devils swirl upwards and the only green on the dust-swept plains are the few tortilis trees in leaf.
It’s hard to imagine that in 2012, the same plains were lush green filled with wild flowers in bloom and herds of elephants happily browsing away. I was with Soila Sayapel, a veteran elephant researcher, who reeled their names and told me tales of each – elephant gossip at its best.
Following the green glades and swamps that break the monotone gold of the dry grasses, it’s the proverbial garden of Eden with herds of zebra, white-bearded wildebeest, giraffes, buffalo and elephants. A line of wildebeest cross the water-filled glade like the crossings in the more famed Mara and in the setting sun we watch the elephants. Two tuskers – a huge male and a youngster – battle it out clashing their tusks, flapping their ears and raising their trunks. And then on the side, a tiny baby adds comic relief running around without a care in the world.
Kibo Safari Camp www.kibosafaricamp.com – it’s simply charming. You pay for the days you enter the park on the KWS www.kws.go.ke 24-hour Safari card . Temporary safari cards are available at Kimana and Iremeto gates.
Amboseli via Emali from Nairob is 250 kms.