Giants Below Kilimanjaro

If anyone wants to know what elephants are like, they are like people only more so.

~Pierre Corneille

Although we enjoyed our beach break in Mombasa, it was soon time to get back to business with some more game drives. This time we’d be spending a couple of days in Amboseli National park, which is known for its large population of elephants, and its views of Mount Kilimanjaro. We would be meeting back up with Fred for this last portion of the trip, so we took a morning train out of Mombasa. The train ride was comfortable, and we passed through Tsavo West National Park along the way, where we caught sight of a lone elephant and lots of thick baobab trees.

By early afternoon, we’d arrived in Emali where Fred was waiting for us. After hopping into the familiar van, we started the drive to Amboseli, stopping briefly for lunch, and to get out and look at giraffes along the side of the road.

After a couple of hours on the road we made it to our accommodations, AA Lodge Amboseli. Fred checked us in, and then a few staff members led us down a long thatched pathway that was lined with lush foliage. Back in Maasai Mara, Fred had mentioned that he’d gotten us an upgrade for our Amboseli stay, and he wasn’t kidding. Instead of tents, the hotel staff led us out to beautiful little thatched roof cottages. One of them pointed at the horizon right outside of me and Vince’s cottage. It was covered in thick clouds, but he said that’s where we would see Kilimanjaro if the sky cleared up.

We had a bit of time to unpack and explore the camp, but soon we were back in the van, heading into Amboseli. I asked Fred what he preferred between Amboseli and Maasai Mara and he said that the parks are very different and each are good for different things. Somehow the way in which he explained this left me with the strong impression that he preferred Maasai Mara, so I made a mental note to not expect quite as much excitement on this portion of the trip.

Somewhat miraculously, the clouds had cleared up a bit, and as we entered Amboseli we were able to see the summit of Kilimanjaro. Different herbivores (including an eland, the biggest antelope species) grazed in green fields bordered by acacias as the tallest mountain in Africa rose from the savannah to pierce the sky. This was my first time seeing any of the seven summits, and I was beyond excited.

It seemed like no time at all had passed from when we entered the park to when we encountered a large herd of elephants. They were still a little ways in the distance, but they were moving towards the road, so Fred stopped the van and we waited for them to come to us. The elephants were slow moving, but I didn’t mind watching them get closer and closer to us. Little egrets seemed to follow them wherever they went; some rode on elephants’ backs, and others made the seemingly riskier decision of walking along beneath them.

Finally the herd was directly in front of us. They stopped to drink water from a roadside ditch, which was quite a show. Every time the big elephants lifted their trunks to drink, a baby elephant would be revealed. If I didn’t know better, it would have seemed like they were posing for me, as they all perfectly timed their drinks and looked straight in our direction.

Once they’d had their fill, they crossed the road and tromped off in the direction of Kilimanjaro. With only the elephants’ butts in view, Fred continued driving and we made stops to look at some zebras and a giraffe that also crossed the road right in front of us.

Then without much warning, Fred was speeding down the dirt road, which could only mean that he’d caught wind of something really good. I wasn’t sure what to possibly expect since big cats are more prevalent in Maasai Mara than Amboseli, and Fred had previously warned us not to expect any rhinos on the trip. Imagine my surprise when we pulled up to verdant jungle where a few other vehicles were parked. A man with a massive zoom lens in the next car over pointed out a barely visible ear of a female lion far back near the tree line. Fred wasn’t satisfied with this sighting, so he creeped down the road a little farther and we saw another lioness walking towards us!

There was also a male lion with a thick mane even farther off, but for the time being we kept our attention on the lioness as she gracefully stalked past our van. By the time she had passed us, we’d noticed that there were actually two male lions in the distance. One of them was a subadult with a much smaller mane. The young lion got up and started walking toward us, soon to be joined by the older lion. Much to my delight, they shared a loving snuggle as they walked toward us.

As the pair walked right passed our van, I couldn’t believe that we had gotten so lucky. I hadn’t expected to see any cats in Amboseli at all, so this was a welcome surprise. It was the perfect end to our first day in the park. Kilimajaro had disappeared yet again on our drive back to camp, and a soft pastel sunset lit up the sky.

Back at AA Lodge we enjoyed a hearty dinner, where we ran into Fred who was telling some other drivers about all of the animals we’d seen that day. He later mentioned that none of them had seen the elephants or the lions. Apparently Amboseli is a bit of a tricky park. You can drive through it all day and see nothing at all, all the while a car only a few miles away can be having a totally different experience. I was definitely happy to have had a game drive that would make Fred brag to the other guides. We left dinner to attend a short fireside performance from a local group of Maasai. After that it was time for bed.

Vince and I were ready slightly early the next morning, so we got in and out of breakfast before Amy, Andrew, Rachel, and Jared. We used our extra time to take what would end up being a last look at Kilimanjaro. The scene couldn’t have been more perfect. The mountain was illuminated by the warm glow of sunrise, but the summit looked even more cold and foreboding than it had the previous evening. I shivered slightly as my mind produced memories of ice climbing and of my own (much less intense than Kilimanjaro) mountaineering attempt a few years ago. On this day, I was happy to be looking at the mountain from a distance, instead of battling with altitude and cold on its summit.

By the time we all got into the van for our day of game drives, Kilimanjaro was behind cloud cover again. Lucky for us, there were plenty of animals to see instead. The drive started with a couple of unexpected finds. After a sighting of a waterbuck and a large bull elephant, we encountered a couple of smaller mammals. First we saw a mongoose before it dove into a bush, and then immediately were surprised to see a hare that looked very much like the ones that are commonly found around North America. Right across the road from them was a pair of spotted hyenas.

With so much action in such a short period of time, we were bound to run into a lull, but luckily the scenery was pleasant as we drove into a much wetter section of the park. Small ponds of pooling rain water acted as a giant mirror of the cloudy sky, and I enjoyed just watching from the top of the van as we drove. Just when I thought the road we’d taken might be a bust, we spotted a flock of flamingos in one of the ponds!

For a bit of context, I have been dying to see flamingos for years now. I keep a list of places that may have flamingos stored away in my brain, and if we are ever going anywhere slightly near them, I desperately try to find some excuse to try to add it to our itinerary. I tried in vain to work a flamingo lake into our Egypt trip, once planned a trip (that never materialized) to a remote region in Mexico to try to see them, and when I first found out we were going to Kenya I had floated the idea of going up to Lake Nakuru in search of flamingos. None of these things ever panned out, so when I finally caught sight of wild flamingos in Amboseli, I was ecstatic. They were every bit as strange and beautiful as I’d imagined. I loved their borderline creepy neon orange eyes, and their awkward spindly legs. I loved watching them drag their beaks through the the shallow water to filter out algae to eat. All-in-all I was very much pleased with how the morning was going.

As an added bonus, another elephant lumbered towards us while we were watching the flamingos. It stopped in a patch of dust and began sucking the dust up with its trunk, and then showering it back over its body. Fred explained that elephants do this to protect their skin from the sun.

The landscape became marshier the further we drove and we stopped to look at hippos, elephants, and more birds. We were approaching a large lake, and when we came to its shore, we saw a couple of saddle-billed storks (yet another bird from my long list of birds I want to see). There were also a few African spoonbills (my first time seeing a spoonbill), but they weren’t close enough for me to get any great photos of them.

The storks were striking birds with their long necks and bright red and yellow bills. Everyone else was nice enough to humor me and stick around so I could watch them for a while.

When Fred finally pulled the van away from the storks, I looked up and noticed that he was driving towards an abandoned camp that was surrounded by a ghost forest. The camp and surrounding land had been flooded and now the buildings were inhabited by vervet monkeys and yellow baboons. The ghost camp had an eerie vibe, but it was strangely beautiful.

Following alongside the flooded camp eventually led us to the gates of Ol Tukai Lodge, a luxury eco lodge where we stopped for a bathroom break and mid-morning tea. I must admit I felt completely underdressed as I walked into Ol Tukai’s elegant dining room in my safari outfit, but nobody else batted an eye.

Once our brief break was over, we left Ol Tukai and drove back through the ghost camp. By the time we were back at the spot where we’d seen the storks, the spoonbills had moved close enough to the road for me to get some good pictures.

In my spoonbill distraction, I almost didn’t notice that a herd of wildebeest were approaching us from the direction of the camp. Vince called my attention to them racing across a field towards us, and we watched as they crossed through the lake. We may have missed the Great Migration by a few months, but this was a small taste of what that would look like, so we started referring to it as the Mini Great Migration. I was surprised at how cute the wildebeest babies were. Adult wildebeest appear somewhat haggard, almost like a creature from a monster movie, but the young ones were adorable.

Once the wildebeest had disappeared into the distance, Fred steered the van across a narrow road that had been built across the lake, giving us views of flamingo filled waters on either side of the van. There were more flamingos here than there had been at our previous stop, along with white pelicans, black-winged stilts, and a large flock of gray crowned cranes. We even got see some of the flamingos fly, which looked utterly bizarre.

Soon it was time for our picnic lunch, and Fred drove us to the base of Observation Hill. We carried our box lunches up the hill where we found a pavilion with picnic tables, and a view of the lake far below. Kilimanjaro was still invisible behind thick clouds, but we spent our time looking for animals in the water below as bright African weaverbirds watched us intently, hoping we’d give them some food.

After lunch, we got back on the road and soon we encountered another large herd of elephants. This herd was not on the move; they were settled down in one place and we got to watch them exhibiting a wide range of behaviors. Some elephants waded into shallow pools of water, while others stood on the waters edge to drink. One elephant picked a fight with a few hippos, scaring them out of the water.

The elephants also played amongst themselves. In particular a pair of brothers were rough housing and chasing each other around an open field. As they chased each other, a handful of adults were chasing them, trying to get them to settle down. It was all very (for lack of a better word) human. We could see their social structure, and their fun-loving nature playing out before us. When I first saw elephants in South Africa and Botswana, I quickly noticed their intelligence, and this scene in Amboseli offered yet another perspective on just how complex elephants are.

After this elephant encounter, our luck dried up. The rest of the day we drove around looking for more animals, only to find a handful of flamingos, some yellow and olive baboons, and some more birds that we’d already seen.

Our return to AA Lodge marked the end of our game drives, but we still had a lot of time left to explore around camp before our departure the next afternoon. We spent that evening and the next morning investigating an abandoned section of luxury tents on the fringes of camp, trying to interact with vervet monkeys, following massive bugs and little geckos around, and birdwatching. We saw African weaverbirds spinning their nest, and a beautiful sunbird sipping nectar from some flowers.

I was sad to check out of the lodge, especially because it meant our trip was coming to its end. Our two weeks away hadn’t felt nearly long enough, and it had reminded me how much I love international travel after a year and a half of being stuck in the US. Right now there’s no definite travel on my horizon, but I have some ideas floating around in my head. For now, we’ll just have wait and see what 2021 brings our way.

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