Amboseli National Park – Kilimanjaro, Sunsets and Elephants

If you are after the classic Hollywood image of Africa - elephants silhouetted by epic sunsets, with the mighty Kilimanjaro in the distance - that's Amboseli for you...

Amboseli National Park was the very first stop on our inaugural visit to Kenya. Our experience began even before we were picked up at the Nairobi Airport. Our driver/guide was “only” 3 hours late, something one has to accept and roll with in most of Africa. However, upon arrival, he shook it all off with a contagious smile, and that was it. We took off on the eastward highway, the one ultimately leading to Mombasa.

The peak of Kilimanjaro seen behind yellow dry grasses and acacia trees
The majestic peak of Kilimanjaro is visible from pretty much anywhere in Amboseli, unless shrouded in clouds and fog

On the Road to Amboseli

Now, if you are squeamish about adventurous driving, we recommend you take some sleeping pills to doze off while being driven in Kenya. The traffic is sometimes truly spine chilling here. But everything seems to be resolved in that laid back Hakuna Matata style. I find this attitude to be typical of sub-Saharan Africa in general. Having said that, we did pass by quite a large number of wrecks, so bear that in mind. We would not recommend self-driving in Kenya on your first visit, for sure.

Group of wildebeest or gnu, walking across a dusty plain of Amboseli
Did you know that a group of wildebeests is called an implausibility of wildebeests, and that they are also known as gnus – in either case, there are plenty of them in Amboseli

In any case, once we got off the highway, somewhere around Emali, the ride became a lot bumpier. However, it also became much more scenic and ultimately way more enjoyable. The semi-urban environments, often crowded and covered in trash, gave way to more pastoral scenes. Gently rolling hills uncovered small, colourful villages, where lone, brightly garbed Masai cattle herders took their animals from one side of the road to the other. Occasionally, we would see an odd zebra or giraffe appearing seemingly out of nowhere…

A herd of elephants approaching the viewer across a dry grass of Amboseli National Park
Our first head-on encounter with one of the countless groups of elephants roaming the Amboseli National Park

Amboseli in Sight

The final 20 kilometres or so, saw us getting totally off-road and completing our first truly hole-ridden and dusty ride. However, the environment kept getting all the more enchanting. We were so close to Amboseli, and it felt like we were in true wilderness. We encountered packs of baboons, and zebras became a common sight. Here and there, we saw a random shack or two, which seemed all but deserted…

Finally, we were there, right before the Kimana Gate, at the eastern entrance to Amboseli. We took a short detour to our accommodation for the night – Kibo Safari Camp. It lies just outside the gate, on its left side. Kibo is a great spot to spend a few days, and we thoroughly enjoyed the luxury tents and amazing food. If you have never slept in a tent among wildlife, you are in for an absolute treat. The night came alive with the chirping of birds and the nocturnal chorus of countless insects. In the distance, we heard hyenas laughing. It was pure magic.

Safari Day One – Sunset and Elephants

But, let us not get ahead of ourselves. After we checked in and left our luggage at the reception, we immediately turned back and returned to the bush for our the evening safari. Having arranged, i.e. bought, the 24 hour passes at the Kimana Gate, we finally drove into the Amboseli proper.

Elephants crossing the road in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Africa
You will quickly get used to scenes like this – after all, Amboseli is their home, we are just mere visitors here. Notice how the baby elephants are covered by their elders

I mentioned earlier that we thought we already entered the proper wilderness once we got off the busy roads. Having entered the Amboseli National Park grounds, we realised how wrong we were. First of all, the clouds and mist that hid Kilimanjaro out of sight until then, lifted while we were driving through the first stretch of the bush. It looked as if it was officially welcoming us into its domain. The photographs really cannot do it justice. Its massive bulk seemed to loom over the vast dry grass plains that stretch endlessly to either side of the eternally snow-capped peak.

Zebra and a bird, cattle egret, in the dry grass of the Amboseli National Park in Kenya, Africa
All sorts of unexpected friendships can be found in the Amboseli savannah

It is Just a Single Gnu

We soon committed our first greenhorn faux pas, the one that our driver was obviously expecting. A lone wildebeest, also known as a gnu, appeared on our right side. All of us started shouting at the driver to stop so that we can take photos. He just laughed and waved us off, saying that it is “just a gnu, a single one at that”. He added that we should brace ourselves for the real thing.

Group of elephants silhouetted against the fiery sun of the African sunset in Amboseli
It may be a cliché, but my, is it an impressive one

The Land of the Giants

And the real thing it indeed was. We barely made it out of the short scraggy acacia bush when a collective gasp escaped us all. The first encounter with a group of elephants in the wild is something you can never forget. It was only the first of many, as we were soon to find out, but it shall remain etched in our minds forever.

Allow me to digress a little here. I am as guilty as many others when visiting zoos around the world. I find most of the large savannah mammals simply not interesting in captivity. They always seem somehow limited and passive, despite always being given the largest enclosures. Well, it just goes to show how everything in this world is relative, one way or another. Those enclosures appear so large only in zoo terms. They are not even pitiful excuses for space when compared to the apparently endless territory those amazing creatures get to enjoy and roam here.

Baby elephant and a bird, cattle egret, walking across a dry plain
Baby elephants always seem to be up for mischief or two, accompanied by their faithful little white friends – cattle egrets, to be precise

Definitely Not Your Local Zoo

They – elephants, zebras, buffalos, giraffes, you name it, just give off a totally different vibe in true wilderness. In this limitless sea of grass, they always appear to have an agenda, a place to be, a thing to do. During this and the next day’s ride, I caught myself time and time again asking for a few more minutes to observe, say a lone elephant, walking across the dry grass plains. Even such mundane activities are given a particular gravitas by the intrinsic entanglement of the animal and its environment that simply cannot be replicated in captivity.

Two wildebeest, or gnu, silhouetted by a sunset in Amboseli
The elephants are never too far away in Amboseli, one group or another is always there to provide a background to any photo – this time to these two wandering gnus

Salty Dust

Amboseli is situated around the lake it took its name from. In the Maasai language, it means “salty dust” and it is as good a description as you will ever come across. It is likely the best place in Africa to encounter elephants. Their numbers are not as big as in some other parks, but the openness of the savannah here, and the relative safety that these beautiful creatures have enjoyed for years, mean that they are more approachable than anywhere else on the continent. You will sooner or later find yourself stranded in your safari vehicle, while several groups of elephants cross the road on either side. We genuinely never got tired of seeing that.

Giant fiery ball of the setting sun and a lone elephant on the plains of Amboseli
The enormous fiery Sun silhouetting a lone elephant – Amboseli in a nutshell!

Incredible African Sunset

As we were a bit late with the start of our evening ride, the sunset arrived quite quickly and, as is the case this close to the equator, very rapidly. That is another thing that no amount of stories or photographs can properly prepare you for. When they talk about giant, fiery balls in the skies, bathing endless savannah in myriad shades of gold – well, this is it, and much, much more. The endless horizon, and it really does appear limitless here, suddenly seemed to be on fire, silhouetting elephants and lone trees alike in the inkiest of blacks. The air itself seemed to shimmer in the heat of the setting sun. It gave the entire scene that fairytale look, so recognisable, yet so exotic at the same time.

Panoramic shot of a sunset on the vast savannah in Kenya, Africa
Once you witness your first true African sunset, you will be spoilt for the rest of your life

Be aware that the sun set rapidly here, and you need to make the best of them. In a flash, the magic will disappear, just as quickly as it snuck up on you. Before we even realised it, it was time for us to return to our accommodation for the night. We were not allowed to stay in the park once the sun had set. I am not sure if the camps that are located within the park itself can organise night game drives. I thought this worth checking out for a future visit.

Safari Day Two – There is More to Amboseli, a Lot More

Our second day started with a great breakfast, after which we embarked on our morning safari ride. However, I would genuinely recommend going for the ride first, before having your breakfast, whenever you have a chance. By doing it this way, we were too late for a proper morning ride, much too late. We did not know better at the time, and our guide was, I should think, quite happy not to point that out and enjoy his late morning instead :).

Two cheetahs resting in the yellow grasses of Amboseli
Two cheetahs relaxing in the shade of thorny acacia trees after an exhausting morning hunt

By the time we arrived to the grounds, most, if not all the large predators had already finished their morning hunts. They had eaten, and were getting ready to spend the rest of the day chilling in the shade of the sparse acacia trees. The two cheetahs we encountered were the best example of that. We spent at least half an hour observing them, and it was an amazing experience. However, they were totally docile, barely changing their positions during that timespan. We’ll know better the next time!

Having said that, we still had an absolute blast and spent the best part of the morning criss-crossing the plains of Amboseli. There were amazing encounters at every twist and turn of the dusty tracks.

A hyena and a lion in the grassland of Amboseli
This hyena was patiently circling around the lions’ morning catch and eventually managed to get away with a prize – the head of a wildebeest

Lions and Hyenas – the Eternal Game

We came across a pack of lions, relaxing in the grass. They had apparently just eaten their morning kill – a wildebeest. While the lions were very passive and obviously digesting their meal, it was a group of hyenas that stole the show. They circled the resting lions, sometimes attempting incursions into their “dinning room”, hoping to snatch some leftover meat. As the lions did not care too much to react to the hyenas’ attempts, they grew ever bolder. Their efforts ultimately paid off, with one of them walking away with the head of the unfortunate gnu.

Lake Amboseli – the Home of Flamingoes

I mentioned earlier that the Amboseli National Park stretches around a lake of the same name. While we did not have time to go around the entire lake, we touched upon one of its shallower bays. There we came across another amazing sight. Well, we actually came across an amazing sound before we really saw anything. If you have never heard a large congregation of flamingoes – a flamboyance of flamingoes, to use the correct term, you are in for a major surprise. They collectively emit a sort of an electric, buzzing noise. It reminded me of the sound made by the Geiger counter, only amplified and spread over an enormous region.

A herd of elephants walking through a flamboyance of flamingoes in the shallow part of Lake Amboseli
A herd of elephants walking through a flamboyance of flamingoes in the shallow part of Lake Amboseli

And truly enormous it was – the sheer number of flamingoes we encountered was simply mind-boggling. Lake Nakuru, in the north of Kenya, is way more famous as a destination for flamingoes. However, the truth is that the vast majority of the birds have abandoned its shallows, due to the recent fluctuations in its water level. They are now dispersed amongst other Kenyan lakes. If the numbers we saw here are anything to go by, I really cannot imagine how would a lake hosting many more flamingoes look and sound like.

A pregnant gazelle carefully observing the passing hyena in the grassland of Amboseli
A pregnant gazelle carefully observing the passing hyena, just in case

Close Encounters of the Baboon Kind

One of the animals that often gets a bad reputation for being aggressive is the baboon. While it is not a gentle, cuddly creature that you ought to get to up close and pat, it is also by no means a crazed, foamy aggressor that bites and attacks anything in sight. Just as is the case with most animals labeled aggressive, it merely does its best to protect itself and its family.

Black and white portrait of a baboon monkey in Kenya, Africa
Baboons may have a fierce reputation, but can be extremely photogenic, and this one was very happy to pose for a candid portrait

We came across countless troops of baboons on this trip, often not in the safety of the safari vehicle, but on foot. While they observed us and bared a canine or two, they never seemed intent on attacking. Observing their social interaction and the games the young ones play is an enchanting experience one could spend hours enjoying. Moreover, they are almost always happy to “pose” for the camera, providing for some captivating portraits.

Black and white image of an old buffalo in the Amboseli National Park
An old buffalo, strolling alone, the weight of many years engraved in all of his his once mighty features

An Old Buffalo Says Goodbye

At the end of the game drive, just before our final goodbyes to Amboseli, we experienced the most poignant encounter on this trip. A lone, old buffalo was slowly strolling along the road, all on his own. It was possibly abandoned by its herd, too old and frail to keep up. These animals are some of the most feared in the savannah. In its heyday no lone lion, and only very few prides, if any, would dare attack this majestic creature. But here it was now, its once mighty horns thinned, dented and pockmarked, its ears ragged and torn, its head and shoulders stooped low under the weight of time.

Its mud-covered, twisted back reminded me in a way of nature and the wildlife of Africa as a whole. Both land and beast have been through a lot and have proudly weathered the pressure of the ages. But now, each is very fragile and need our help. If the wilderness of Africa is to continue amazing us with its bounties, it will need our protection. It was a defining moment, a reminder of the frailty of life and something that we will carry back from this trip for many years to come.

A lone vulture at a waterhole in a flat savannah
A solitary vulture serves as a reminder that death is never far away in the wilderness of Africa

FAQs for the Amboseli National Park

Where is the Amboseli National Park?

It is located in southern Kenya, close to the Tanzanian border, about 240 km southeast of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. It is Kenya’s second most popular National Park, after Masai Mara.

When to go to Amboseli?

Although the park can be visited year-round, you should visit it during the dry seasons, in January and February, and from June to October. The game viewing is at its best then.

Where to stay in Amboseli?

The Amboseli National Park has a wide range of accommodation options, from budget to high end. We stayed at the Kibo Safari Park and can wholeheartedly recommend it. It is located just outside the Kimana Gate.

What does Amboseli mean?

In the Maasai language, Amboseli means “salty dust” and that is a very apt name. During the dry season, its grass coverage turns into fine powder, likely by the feet of its many giant wandering residents.

Here are all the photographs from the Amboseli National Park: