Amboseli – An Elephant Lover’s Paradise

Herd of elephants in Amboseli KenyaWhen 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.”


My “club” key from room 11 at the Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge

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.

Vervet monkey in Amboseli, Kenya

A common sight: a vervet monkey perches on the fence across from my room


Located in Kenya near the Tanzanian border, Amboseli is approximately 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 Ambosel the elephants are the hero.

Herd of elephants walk in Amboseli, Kenya

Elephants in a herd like this could rival any 16-wheeler convoy

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.”

Baby elephant in the middle of a herd in Amboseli, Kenya

The Gang

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.

Elephant dusts himself in Amboseli, Kenya

Elephants kick the ground and then shower themselves with the loosened soil. The dust protects them from the sun and biting bugs

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 then 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 masse, 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.

A large herd walks single-file towards the swamps

A large herd walks single-file towards the swamps

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 that 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.

Baby elephant watches egret in Amboseli, Kenya

Muddy Angels

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.

Two zebra fight in Amboseli, Kenya

At the shallow end, the mud was thick and slippery and the juveniles were beside 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.

Elephant rolls in the mud in Amboseli, Kenya

Sparring Partners

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.

Bee-eater Pity

If you’ve ever tried to photograph birds in flight you know it’s not an easy task—especially when they flit about at lightning 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.

Bee-eater on in Amboseli, Kenya

Little bee-eater prepares to take flight

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.

Going Back

There was something extra special about Amboseli. The elephants, of course, play a huge part in this sentiment but there was something else, a feeling that I must return. That I hadn’t had enough. That there was still so much left to experience that my few days couldn’t possibly satiate me. Few destinations have inspired that reaction and it isn’t easily explained.

I just know, I have to go back.

Categories: Africa, Amboseli, Kenya, Safaris

23 replies »

  1. Hi, Susan went, through all the pics, want to congratulate you! for how professional Camera Clicker you are! My self I’m a Safari Driver Guide in Tanzania and I know what it taking to have a nice, and good wild animal picture… Congratulation…. and keep it up friend… and next time why Not Tanzania…Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Tarangire, or Manyara… Karibu sana friend. you’re warm welcome.

  2. Wow, first off thank you for letting me know where you were. My heart jumped with glee with all the pictures as though I was right there with you. I am not a photographer ( just a simple gal who rehab’s squirrels, opossums and fawns in Caif.) but I am dying to go see these majestic elephants and all of the creatures. Since you are from the USA, please tell me approx. cost to fund such a trip? This is the one and only thing on my “bucket list”. How lucky you are to have such a nice camera ( I would not even know how to use such a big thing) and travel like you do. Can I ever buy a print of the baby surrounded with others? Love it! Take care.

    • Hello! Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. I am so happy that you are enjoying my blog. The elephants are truly magnificent and definitely worth a place on anyone’s bucket list.

      The lens you see in the photo is a rental-waaaaay too expensive to purchase, but thankfully there are many places to rent them when in need. Photography trips, like the one that I was on is a bit more expensive than others because you have the benefit of a professional is there to help with photographic advice. There are many other tours or specialists that can help you find a trip that makes the most sense for your budget. 🙂

    • Thanks, Nancy! Are you excited for your trip to Amboseli? You’ll have a great time. Also, that 200-400mm you’re renting is why it looks so close. :)) You’ll be very happy with it I promise you. See you in the Mara!

    • Hi Jet! Thanks for taking a look. I was just on your blog actually reading about the ground hornbill. You know, I’ve seen them a lot and for the life of me, I can’t remember ever hearing them. I guess I thought they were mute. LOL. Hope you’re having a good day!

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