After a 35-minute flight, we landed at Amboseli. As we came in I saw several flocks of pelicans and a hippo lounging in a lake – wow! We landed on the single paved runway – in retrospect I’m not sure it was long enough for those big 4-engine planes. The “airport” consisted of a cement block hangar and shed with a ramshackle bathroom (with running water!) out back. A line of safari vehicles sat waiting for arriving clients. A large sign announced our GPS coordinates and a few facts about the park: Amboseli is 390 square kilometers in size, it became a national park in 1974, its highest point is 1,150 meters, and it boasts 56 animal species and 215 bird species. We all visited the bathroom (first rule of safari: avail yourself of every toilet opportunity!), then piled into our two spiffy Toyota Land Cruisers, complete with snorkels, which are customized to extend out over the back wheels, seating two up front and six passengers in the rear, in comfortable captain-style seats. The pop-tops were open and we realized that Tonnie was serious when he said the drive to Amboseli Serena Lodge was going to be our first game drive. DH and I got into the truck driven by Joel, along with N&D and R&C, while MIL and FIL got into the other truck with J&H and R2&B. (This happened by chance, but it occurred to me that one of the advantages of a group tour is that we wouldn’t be with MIL and FIL every minute of every day – no offense to my in-laws, whom I love dearly, but this probably preserved our sanity!) Joel gave us our first lesson in Swahili, teaching us the two most critical words on safari: “simama,” (sounds like “see mama”) which means “stop” (as in, “ohmigod, I just saw something amazing, stop the truck!!”) and “sawasawa” which means “all right,” as in “O.K. I’ve taken my pictures, you can go on now.”
As we drove away from the airstrip,
We passed several small herds of zebra, all on their daily trek to their watering holes. I’ve always loved horses so I have to admit that zebras are among my favorite African animals. We saw several elephants way off in the distance, then more gazelles – both Thompson’s and Grant’s (which can be distinguished by the size of the white patch on their rumps – the Grant’s rump patch is larger and extends up onto the hips), and a huge old male Cape Buffalo lying in the grass, looking more forlorn than deadly (they are considered the most dangerous animal in Africa). We were struck by how green the landscape was; Tonnie had told us that they had experienced unusually heavy rains in December and January – in fact, it had only stopped raining a few days before we arrived. We drove past “Baby Kilimanjaro,” a low hill crowned by an observation hut that was used as a lookout by game wardens back when poaching was more common, and stopped to gaze at a convention of blue herons all clustered around a rotted log. We spotted more elephants way out in a marsh, then finally we got up close and personal with a lone bull elephant, who thoughtfully showed off every angle for us as he browsed in the tall grass.
We saw many more zebras, including some young foals, and watched them gallop across the plain, kicking up clouds of dust as they went. One group was standing stock-still, all staring off in one direction, and we hung around for a while, hoping we might catch a glimpse of whatever had put them on alert. This was near an area of date palms were lions and cheetahs like to hang out during the day, but no predator appeared. We passed another bull elephant browsing in the marsh, surrounded by white cattle egrets that were busy pecking at the insects stirred up by the elephant. As we approached the lodge, we stopped to admire an amazing panorama of zebras and gazelles grazing amidst the graceful silhouettes of acacia trees, all set against the backdrop of Kilimanjaro.
We spotted the electric fence marking the boundary of Amboseli Serena Lodge and passed a group of young Maasai men wrapped in brilliant red and purple blankets sitting near the entrance gate. On our way in we saw black-faced vervet monkeys romping beneath the trees, including a mother with a baby clutched to her chest. After unloading, we were greeted with glasses of refreshing fruit juice, then we waited in the reception area for Tonnie to get us checked in. The lodge is something out of a tropical fantasyland. The main building has high-ceilinged rooms open on one side to the cooling breezes, with comfortable rattan furniture and long, hollowed-out gourds hanging in clusters from the ceiling (some made into fabulous lamps). Outside, there are several tiers of large stone patios outfitted with comfortable lounge chairs all looking out into the bush. We followed the porter through the lushly landscaped grounds to our room, set amidst thorny acacia and candelabra (cactus) trees. Our room was decorated in yellow, blue, and red, with some marvelous touches including Maasai beaded lampshades, an elephant mural on the wall, and a small private patio with a view out to the grasslands.
After settling in, we all met back at the dining room for lunch, which was an excellent buffet with lots of curries and other Indian- and African-inspired dishes. I tried the roast goat (delicious!) and loaded up with chicken curry, lentils, veggies, and rice. The salad bar was also very good. Tonnie told us that all of the fresh produce is washed in bottled water, so we could help ourselves to all the raw fruits and vegetables. After lunch DH and I wandered around the grounds, admired the inviting pool (which we never had time to enjoy), and looked for monkeys, but didn't see any.
We met out front at 4:00 for our afternoon game drive. At first we saw only a few elephants, ostriches, wildebeest, and gazelles. We passed through an area scattered with elephant bones and Joel explained that elephants often come back to their dead and spread the bones around, sometimes picking them up and seeming to play with them. Some researchers believe that elephants can identify the bones of their relatives. We saw another family of Crowned Cranes, this time with three babies, and then two jackals trotting across the plain. We saw our first warthog, running along with tail held high. Joel explained that the warthog has a brain like a chicken – they start running when they are frightened, but they quickly forget why they are running and stop, at which point they often become a lion’s meal. Joel’s eagle-eyes also spotted a saddle-billed stork making a nest in the top of a large acacia tree. This is a striking black-and-white bird with a brilliant red-and-black bill. Other bird sightings this afternoon included Crowned Plover, Helmeted Guinea-Fowl (which has a dinosaur-like horn on its head), and a Hadada Ibis with brilliant iridescent green plumage.
Finally, it was time for the main event: elephants! Amboseli has a population of some 1,300 elephants, which certainly is not a huge number, but they are contained within a relatively small area and thus this park boasts some of the best elephant-viewing opportunities in
I couldn’t believe how close we were to these magnificent creatures – I could see the tiny wrinkles around their wise, solemn eyes, every rip and notch in their enormous flapping ears, and the caked mud and dirt on their broad, humped backs. They walked silently, on huge spongy feet. We watched for a long time, as the sun dropped low in the sky, casting long shadows across the golden grass. One by one the elephants disappeared into the gathering dusk. I don’t think I could ever tire of watching them. Finally, it was time to move on.
Joel took us back to the date palms where he assured us that we would see a lion. How did he know? We soon began to realize that the drivers communicate with one another via radio and cell phone, informing each other about the best sightings. They speak in Swahili of course, so we have no idea what they are saying, we just know that something’s coming! On the way we saw a huge herd of Cape Buffalo. Then, just like magic, as the sun was casting its last rays across the plain, we spotted two lionesses lounging on a bare patch of ground, maybe 200 yards from the road. The setting sun literally glowed on their whiskers. What an incredible end to our first day!
Joel rushed us back towards the lodge, as it was approaching the “witching hour” when all vehicles are supposed to be off the roads. Somehow he timed it perfectly so we could get our ultimate sunset shot of a magnificent acacia tree silhouetted against a lazy brushwork of clouds tinted with gold and peach. Once we got our shots, Joel held up a page from a park magazine so we could compare our photos with a shot of the exact same tree in the magazine. We all agreed that our sunset was better!
Back at the lodge we were handed cool lemon-scented towels to wipe away the dust. We had drinks with MIL and FIL on the patio and then joined the group for dinner. Dinner was a five-course affair: salad from the buffet, minestrone soup, a mini pizza with eggplant, and a choice of entrées. I had
Brief reflections on our first day on safari: I had no idea we would see so much in a single day. If I had to go home tomorrow, I would feel like I had gotten a glimpse of all that