Part 2 of 2
Published Nation 26 Nov 2016
Kilimanjaro is resplendent in the blazing morning sun – but its snow cap’s on the peak of Kibo has melted to a thin teardrop. The Maasai bring their cattle into the park under the watch of the Kenya Wildlife Service rangers. As the skeletal cattle head for the swamps, they raise a halo of dust on the dry plains of Amboseli – derived from Empusel, the Maasai word for dry dusty plains. “There’s no water outside for the cattle,” explains the KWS ranger. “So we allow the community to bring the cattle for a few hours to drink in the swamps.”
Away from the edge of the park, we’re up on Observation Hill or Noomotio that’s juxtaposed between the lush swamp and the dry-white dust plains under the watchful gaze of Kilimanjaro. It’s surreal for in the midst of the drought-parched land, the deep blue lake has an islet brimming with the beautiful pink bird – the lesser flamingos and flocks of white pelicans.
It’s an exciting game drive in the custom-designed safari cruiser from Ol Tukai Lodge. By the edge of a swamp an enormous Verreaux’s eagle owl with its pink-eyelids so visible through the binoculars is perched on its yellow-bark acacia tree. It is Africa’s largest owl and the only owl with pink eyelids – we’re suitably impressed.
A few feet away the swamps open up with a myriad of birds – big, small, enchanting, noisy, busy. There are hundreds of Egyptian geese, strikingly tall Goliath herons (world’s largest heron) and Saddlebill storks with tiny ruffs, Jacanas, plovers – and then we see it – an enormous hippo on the edge of the road lying in stagnant water. His tiny ears and eyes look comical on his enormous frame. In the broad daylight he’s just lying there with a deep gush on its back. “He was in a territorial fight with another hippo and he lost,” tells Moses Ole Sipenta, the driver-guide at Ol Tukai
There’s nothing we can do for the hippo except let nature take her course. The swamps begin to fill up with elephants and buffaloes half submerged munching on the water vegetation. What look like stepping stones in the water – grey-black boulders –turn out to be hippos.
At the close of the day, we’re at the famed dry Lake Amboseli. It’s bone dry with a cracked earth jigsaw. There’s no animal on the large expanse of a noxious dry lake bed – except us. Again – it’s strange to think that in 2008 we were standing on the edge of the same lake that was brimming with a few inches of water after many years.
At the close of the day, as the sun momentarily sits on the tip of Mount Longido in Tanzania we break into a yoga session on the dry lake bed with the massifs of Mount Meru in Arusha and closer home the Namanga hills fading into the darkness.
Back at the lodge we check into the private Kibo villa. It’s enchanting – a home away from home. I’m in the upstairs bedroom named after Echo the famous elephant matriarch who had a perfect set of curved tusks, the tips almost touching each other in symmetry. In May 2006, l watched her from the lodge with her family after the long rains. Echo became the longest studied elephant in the wild when Dr Cynthia Moss began her pioneering research on elephants in the wild and went on to establish Amboseli Elephant Research Project and later Amboseli Trust for Elephants. Echo died of natural causes in 2009 aged 65.
The room is whimsical – the solid wall has a glass mosaic of animals and peering closer, we’re looking at a bathtub with gold-clawed feet and positioned by the glass wall with Mount Kilimanjaro as a backdrop. Exquisite.
Downstairs. The double-bed room is named after Adam – who l also saw in 2006 – a naughty elephant who took to breaking fences. And the twin room is named after Elli – Echo’s son who was born handicapped. It’s an amazing story of how Echo and her family stayed with Elli – even when he was speared. Echo’s behaviour studied by biologist Marc Bekoff argues that elephants are like us with complex emotional lives and breaking up families for zoos and circuses is an emotional trauma and break down of sanity.
In the first light of dawn, as the sun rise from the horizon and herds elephants stream to the swamps for the day, could Ella, Echo’s daughter now the matriarch, be leading one of herds?
Ol Tukai is the Maa word for the palms – it’s a luxury lodge – and if you’re a family book the private Kibo Villa.
Amboseli National Park at 374 square kilometres and is a tiny fraction of the greater Amboseli ecosystem. For road directions, info and rates check Kenya Wildlife Service http://www.kws.go.ke