When we arrived at the Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge, I was handed a room key attached to a foot-long wooden club. “That’s in case the monkeys get too friendly,” explained the woman behind the counter. I chuckled and threw her a smile. She grinned and said, “I’m not kidding.”
The notion that a monkey could come so close to you that you might have to beat it with a stick would be a deal breaker for some, but I loved the idea. Not that I wanted to thump a monkey mind you, I just wanted to see some up close.
As it turned out it only took five minutes before I got my wish. Three vervet monkeys appeared on the path in front of my room. First they froze and then scattered when I approached, climbing on a fence that topped the building across from me. We stared at each other until a couple of other monkeys appeared and then I lost their interest.
I watched as two adults groomed each other while a baby played with one of their tails, less than 20 feet away. It was a good omen I thought, I don’t even have to travel for a decent sighting.
I knew then it was going to be a good trip….and it was.
Located in Kenya near the Tanzanian border, Amboseli is about 5-hours southwest of Nairobi by car. Kilimanjaro looms over the countryside and, when not hidden under a sea of clouds, the mountain delivers an iconic African backdrop that’s postcard perfect.
The region is known for its elephants. Many, many elephants. Or as my jeep-mate coined them, amboselephants. Of course there are plenty of other animals too, and we had some wonderful sightings, it’s just that in Amboseli, the elephants are the hero.
During the dry season, Amboseli is a paradise for the gentle giants and for those who love them. Underground rivers feed lush green marshes that produce the hundreds of pounds of vegetation necessary to fuel their massive bodies, plus oodles of mud to wallow in to protect their sensitive skin from the sun and biting bugs.
The area is not exclusively marshes however, quite the opposite, and that’s what makes it so special. In a relatively small radius there are a variety of distinct landscapes perfect for an enthusiastic photographer like moi. There are dry, cracked riverbeds; fields of tall grasses; a phenomenal acacia forest that could easily pass for the set of Jurassic Park, and a lot of flat open plains that kiss the horizon. In the esteemed words of my friend Paula, it was “awesome sauce.”
I was on a Wild Eye photographic safari, part of a small group of seven that included four guests, two guide/drivers and our photographic guru, wildlife photographer Andrew Beck. (More on Andrew in a future post). I’d just come from South Africa’s Timbavati Game Reserve, a dense, rugged environment that was completely different from the wide open spaces of Amboseli. I was looking forward to the change of pace.
My fellow travelers and I shared two jeeps, enabling us to spread out our equipment and photograph in comfort. I shared one jeep with another solo traveler, a couple took the other. Andrew split his time between us offering inspiration and guidance as needed.
We enjoyed two game drives per day—one in the early morning and one in the late afternoon, each lasted 3-4 hours depending on the sightings. Most meals were spent at the hotel, which was fine, but I preferred when we ate out in the bush. The hotel would pack us a picnic lunch with enough food to feed three armies and we’d drive until we found a picturesque spot. There, we’d lay down our blankets and drink in the landscape while we dined. It was delightful.
On The Move
Anytime you see an elephant, it’s a heady experience, but en mass, it’s mind-blowing. They’re a wall of flesh that could rival any 16-wheeler convoy. In the mornings we’d see them cross grass fields on their way to the swamps. They walked in single file lines that moved at a surprisingly fast pace, leaving a trail of dust in their wake. I’m used to seeing elephants loll about grazing but these herds were on a mission and, apparently, there was no time to waste.
Through the Haze
On the edge of a woods filled with towering acacia, we found a herd milling about. They were kicking at the surface of the soil with their toenails then using their trunks to dust themselves, creating a fog that hovered in the air. Like a slow-moving subway platform at rush hour, the scene was a jumble of bodies, legs, tusks and trunks would materialize then fade into the haze.
A tiny baby, a few months old at best and barely knee-high to the other elephants, tried to eat some grass, only to have his trunk betray him as it flipped around like a wet noodle. After a few attempts I wanted desperately to jump out of the jeep and pick it for him but I figured that wouldn’t go over well with the rest of the herd. Moments later, an egret landed in front of him and he was mesmerized, the grass instantly forgotten.
It never ceased to amaze me how Amboselephants could virtually disappear in the marshes. Between the height of the vegetation and the depth of the water, sometimes it was only the ever-present egrets that perched on their backs that gave them away. The elephants slowly powered through the water with ease, carving channels into the greenery as they ate their fill.
A python with the head the size of an apple silently slithered through the foliage. I don’t know how long it was but it seemed to go forever before the tip of its tail finally glided by.
At the shallow end, the mud was thick and slippery and the juveniles were besides themselves with glee. They’d roll and slide and stick their faces right into the ooze—their joy was palpable and I was happy just watching them. I could’ve been headed to the gallows and they would’ve made me happy. In fact my cheeks hurt I was smiling so much. It was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen, and I felt this immense sense of privilege that I was able to do so in person.
Animals fight with each other all the time, sometimes they’re playing, other times it’s a competition for dominance. On this trip we saw plenty of both: zebras, wildebeests, elephant, even egrets were duking it out. Sometimes it was intensely combative while other times it was like watching puppies wrestle. Every time, it was highly entertaining.
If you’ve ever tried to photograph birds in flight you know it’s not an easy task—especially when they flit about at lightening speed. I’ve had very little luck on my safaris in the past but in Amboseli a pair of sweet little bee-eaters took pity on me. They perched themselves on a tree branch and used it as a home base. If one flew away it would return a few seconds later.
They were still incredibly fast but at least they were predictable. All we had to do was focus, wait, and shoot. Thankfully, the little fellows gave us hundreds of chances to screw it up and try again. The repetition taught me a lot and, more importantly, it was a helluva lot of fun