It’s a mercurial place. One minute Hollywood golden girl, wreathed in improbably blue skies, and patrolled by great herds of elephants that pose, as if on the director’s cue, against the backdrop of Mount Kilimanjaro. The next it’s a set for Game of Thrones: dark, and menacing.
And it all depends on the mountain.
Kilimanjaro, though technically in Tanzania, rules the tiny kingdom of Amboseli National Park. When Kilimanjaro is wrapped in its cloak of clouds, Amboseli shrinks into a pancake-flat land where crooked fingers of dead trees stab the sky. When the mountain emerges, sugar-snow-dusted, Amboseli returns to the realm of magic.
Encased in the bubble of its own mountain-controlled microclimate, Amboseli deceives. Flat but streaked by swamp and forest, it warps your perspective. What seems distant telescopes close; what seems large shrinks when set against the vast bulk of the mountain.
Slung like a belt across the waist of the park is a swamp, the remains of a once vast prehistoric lake. Surreally, half-submerged, some fifty elephants wallow amid its luridly green reeds. They’re truncated, legs out of sight. And they all carry a passenger – a white cattle egret.
Small, hunched of posture, and long of leg, egrets are usually found in the company of cows, off whose parasites they dine. In Kilimanjaro’s kingdom, however, they ride elephants. A young elephant glides by, trunk aloft. On its back is an egret jockey, eyes directed straight ahead. He’s going places.
It’s a place of drama. One minute devoid of life, the next heaving with it. A clump of dull-gold doum palms reorganizes itself to reveal an old bull elephant with only one tusk: minutes earlier he had been invisible.
Loping across the plains comes a lone hyena. He’s furtive, casting the odd glance over his shoulder as if in expectation of pursuit. Ahead is the carcass of a buffalo, so sun-bleached as to be a mere rib-shack upturned to dry. He circles it, then sets to work pulling and tugging at the ribs. Finally giving up the ghost, the buffalo’s skull falls off. And the great black boss of horns rocks briefly in the dust.
Suddenly, as is Amboseli’s way, the rain streaks diagonally across the landscape and the mood of the wildlife changes. Great chains of wildebeest, hitherto patiently grazing, are now galvanized to caper across the plains, tails swishing, horns lowered. It’s a mini-migration orchestrated by the great showman, Kilimanjaro.
In a small hollow, perhaps of his own making, stands a lone bull elephant, his rump turned into the driving rain. Once pale grey he is now black-streaked with rain and his face, half-pale, half-dark, presents an elephantine Phantom of the Opera mask to the world. Trailing his trunk across the ground he steadily kicks dry dust into its open end. Then he lifts it, caterpillar-curled, and blows the dust all over himself: Pouff!
In the centre of the park erupts a conical hill encircled by a lake. On its wind-lashed waters rides a flotilla of pinkish-white pelicans, feathers fluffed like galleons in full sail. On the shoreline, rising slowly from the water, is a large hippo, enticed by the rain to contemplate a stroll. But his exit is blocked by a line of sleeping pelicans. He stares accusingly at them. Can they not see that HE wishes to emerge? At first the pelicans preen their feathers, seemingly unimpressed by the glowering presence of several tons of irritated brawn. But, one by one, they waddle away until only one remains: and it’s fast asleep.
Out comes the hippo, his stubby legs slithering up the bank, his little hooves scrabbling for purchase on the slime, until he stands, affronted, over the sleeping pelican. Which remains, steadfastly, asleep. Incredulous, the hippo lowers his great head until his raspberry-pink snout is inches from the pelican. Stand off. Then, as mercurial as his ecosystem, the hippo slithers slowly backwards down the bank and disappears beneath the water. Defeated by a pelican. The pelican opens one eye, surveys the empty lake, and returns to sleep.
As swiftly as it arrived, the rain ceases and a herd of elephants emerges from the swamp and marches off across the plains. Overhead, the sky has turned lilac-pink. Beneath it, sunshine gilded, the zebras frolic.
It’s just another day in Kilimanjaro’s Kingdom.
Towered over by the magnificent bulk of Mount Kilimanjaro (5,896m), Africa’s highest mountain, Amboseli is one of Kenya’s earliest game sanctuaries; it is also one of her most popular attracting over 200,000 tourists per year. Amboseli means ‘salt dust’ in Maa, the language of the Maasai, and refers to the fact that the area was once a Pleistocene lake. Easily flooded during times of heavy rainfall, the lake is fed by underground streams, which flow from Kilimanjaro to rise in a series of lush papyrus swamps.
Altitude: 1,100 – 1,200m above sea level.
Area: 392 sq km.
Distance from Nairobi: 230 km south of Nairobi.
Wildlife: lion, cheetah, leopard, elephant, zebra, hippo, spotted and striped hyena, Maasai giraffe, oryx, wildebeest, gerenuk, impala and Grant’s gazelle.
Birds: more than 425 species have been recorded including over 40 species of birds of prey, amongst which are two great rarities, the Taita falcon and the southern banded harrier eagle.