Amboseli National Park in Kenya was my first ever safari experience, back in November 2006. Weyn, a fellow volunteer, was planning a solo visit to Amboseli before heading home and when I got a call over breakfast letting me know that the school where I was volunteering would be closed for the next three days he suggested I join him. I think I thought about it for all of 5 seconds before running into my room to stuff an extra set of clothes into my backpack, roll up my sleeping bag and grab my, now ancient, Nikon D50.
We arrived at the park a little later than anticipated, but what’s a road trip in Kenya without a flat tire or two? The first thing that struck me about Amboseli was the gorgeous landscape. One thing I love about Kenya is how close I feel to the clouds. On my first day walking around Nairobi (about 5,500 feet/1,660 meters) I noticed this phenomenon but it didn’t strike me as beautiful until I arrived in Amboseli. The shadows cast from the clouds painted beautiful patterns on the vast, yellow savannah. The landscape reminded me instantly of an impressionist painting and I thought it a shame that Van Gogh never had a chance to paint it.
As we drove into the park the clouds parted and dramatically revealed Mt. Kilimanjaro in all her glory. Little did I know that less than three years later I would be standing high on Uhuru Peak, surveying Amboseli from above.
We arrived at our modest camp in time to admire a gorgeous sunset. Once the glow melted away Weyn and I found constellations in the suddenly cloudless night sky using a program he had on his laptop. Yes, Weyn my safari friend brought his laptop to Amboseli for the sole purpose of stargazing! It was an experience like no other – lying on the savannah, gazing at the African sky with a clear Kilimanjaro cut out and listening to the animals just outside the camp. To this day, that was the most romantic non-date I’ve ever been on.
The next morning Tony, our driver and guide, was full of information about the animals we saw and, when there was a lull, he would fill us in on information about the park. Amboseli is a strict park, he explained, because vehicles have to stay on the designated roads. For that reason it’s harder to get close up views of the animals as you must wait for them to come to you. He also told us that in a few months, when the long rains hit, Amboseli would be impossible to visit because the roads would be flooded and impassable.
Tony and Cutter, the cook, observed at breakfast that it would rain – Kenyans can predict the rain by looking at the sky. And not just Kenyan farmers, city dwellers do it, too. The rain came in the early afternoon and we could see it moving across the savannah toward our camp. First the wind picked up, then the dust and finally the rain hit. Weyn and I sat in our tent with the flap open so that we could watch the downpour. Then, just as quickly as it came, it was gone, leaving in its wake a rainbow that seemed to last the rest of the afternoon and into our next game drive.
It seems that each park in Kenya is known for seeing a specific animal or animas. The Maasai Mara is famous for lions and the wildebeest migration. Lake Nakuru for rhino and flamingos. Amboseli is known for its large population of my favorite African animal: elephants. In fact, that’s all Weyn had to tell me over breakfast to cause me to pack my bag and join him. All vehicles are supposed to be off of the park roads by nightfall at Amboseli but as we were heading back to camp Tony spotted four elephants walking toward us. At my request he stopped the van and we waited for several minutes as they made their ways toward us. The biggest one led the rest in a single file line, slow and steady. Everything was perfectly still save the heavy footfalls of the magnificent animals and they passed in front of us just as the sun was setting. Magical.
I didn’t see as many animals in Amboseli as I did on trips to Lake Nakuru or Maasai Mara, but the beauty of the park itself made up for that. It was a perfect first safari experience and I returned to Nairobi refreshed and energized and with an understanding of why so many people become safari addicts.