It was my first hour on my Amboseli safari and upon checking into the Serena Amboseli Lodge, the receptionist handed me a room key attached to a foot-long wooden club. “That’s in case the monkeys get too friendly,” she explained. I chuckled and threw her a smile, assuming she was making a joke. She grinned and said, “I’m not kidding.”
The notion that wildlife could come so close to you that you would have to beat it with a stick might be a deal breaker for some but I loved the idea. Not that I wanted to thump a primate mind you, I just loved watching them up close.
In truth, baboons and vervets are smart, crafty little buggers and they understand that with humans comes food. In the past, guests fed them and now generations later they have learned that if they hang around the lodge long enough, they’ll drop food, or feed them or forget sunglasses on a table that are too fun to play with to resist.
As it turned out, it only took five minutes before two two adult vervet monkeys groomed each other while a baby played with one of their tails less than 15-feet away from my room. In less habituated areas, they would have run when I approached.
Located in southern Kenya near the Tanzanian border, Amboseli is approximately 5-hours southwest of Nairobi by car. Kilimanjaro looms over the countryside and when not swallowed up by a sea of clouds, the mountain delivers an iconic African backdrop that’s postcard perfect.
Amboseli National Park is the place to go if you want to see large herds of elephants in Kenya. Of course, there are plenty of other animals too but, here, the elephants are the heroes.
During the dry season (June – October, and January to February), Amboseli is a paradise for the gentle giants and for those who love to see them. Underground rivers fed by the mountain, in turn, feed lush marshes which 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. From dry, cracked riverbeds and fields of tall grasses to 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.
My fellow travelers and I shared two jeeps, giving us plenty of room for our equipment and to photograph in comfort. I shared my vehicle with another solo traveler, a couple from London 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 in the bush.
When we did, the hotel packed us a picnic with enough food to feed three armies. We’d drive until we found a picturesque spot, lay down our blankets and drink in the landscape while we dined. It was delightful.
Game Drive Stories Diaries
One such Alfresco meal was at Lake Amboseli, or more accurately, the late Lake Amboseli because it dried up centuries ago. It’s about as flat as flat can be and much of it is off-limits to walking and vehicles to keep it from getting torn up.
A large bull elephant was at one end grazing, we were at the other. We put down blankets and ate lunch while photographing the freakishly large pachyderm hundreds of yards away.
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 on our Amboseli safari, herds of elephants crossed grass fields on their way to the swamps. They walked 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.
The Acacia Woods
On the edge of a woods of towering acacia, we found a herd loosening the topsoil by kicking at the surface with their toenails. When they had enough dirt freed, they used their trunks to dust themselves by throwing the earth over their bodies, creating a fog that hovered in the air.
The scene was a jumble of bodies, legs, tusks, and trunks like a slow-moving subway platform at rush hour, 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. He forgot all about the grass.
It never ceased to amaze me how elephants 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 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.
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 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 lightning speed. I had very little luck on my safaris before Amboseli, but 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.
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.
How You Can Go on An Amboseli Safari
If you’re coming from the states there is a direct flight to Nairobi on Kenya Airways to Jomo Kenyatta Airport. To get to Amboseli you can drive five-hours or take a half hour bush plane on AirKenya or Safarilink from Wilson Airport.
For a photographic Amboseli safari I can only vouch for the Wild Eye tour I was on, however, there are many photographic safari tour companies that included Amboseli as part of a larger itinerary.
(Here’s a post on determining whether a photographic tour is right for you. If you’re pretty sure it is but you want some advice on how to choose the right company, here are 7 Questions you should ask yourself before booking a photography tour. )
The Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge can be booked directly but if you want to concentrate on photography I recommend you arrange for a private vehicle (which can be pricey) but will allow you to stay out longer than the two-hour limit the lodge game drives last as well as stay at a sighting for as long as you want. (FYI – For my trip, we used Wild Eye guides and vehicles. I cannot speak for the quality of either from the lodge.)
An Amboseli Safari Without Photography as a Focus
A classic safari in Amboseli can be booked directly but I recommend using a safari specialist who knows Kenya well. I speak about it in my Comprehensive Guide to Planning Your Kenya Wildlife Safari.
Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge
The Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge is a 92 room, three-star accommodation with a large pool. What makes it special is its location in the heart of Amboseli National Park. The rooms are comfortable with colorful hand-painted wildlife murals, a private patio, complimentary wi-fi, and 24-hour room service. Meals were fine, nothing fancy and buffet style in the main restaurant. There’s a large patio for breakfast but don’t be surprised if you’re visited by a few monkeys. The lodge hosts a lot of large group tours and while we were there, I swear to God, a conga line broke out.
Be advised: Room rates do not include activities, game drives or park fees. You’ll want to look at the website and see what packages may be available and what additional costs you should expect.
Other Camps and Lodges Inside the Park
A few other hotels, camps, and lodges within the park include (note, I have not stayed at these and can’t provide an opinion). Also, be sure to ask what is and is not included in the nightly rate.
Amboseli Porini Camp ( Nine Guest Tents, bar, Braai (bbq) ) area)
Tortilis Camp ( 17 guest tents, pool, bar, laundry facilities)
Ol Tukai Lodge (80 guest rooms, conference rooms, bar, swimming pool, Jacuzzi)
Ol Donyo Lodge in Chyulu Hills
Ol Donyo Lodge is not within the Amboseli National Park but between it and Tsavo East in the Chyulu Hills. I mention it because it is owned by Great Plains Conservation (GPC) and while I have not stayed there, I stayed at other GPC camps (Duba Explorers Camp and Selinda Explorers Camp in Botswana, Mpala Jena in Zimbabwe, and Mara Plains Camp in Kenya’s Masai Mara) and loved them. At Ol Donyo you can make a day-trip of it into the park.
Tipping isn’t mandatory but it is customary and should be in cash (U.S. dollars). I’ve never been on safari (15 now) where gratuities weren’t earned and then some.
Budget $15 to $20 per day, per person for the staff. The pooled tips are split amongst them. There’s typically a wooden letterbox in the main tent where you can place it (E
Your guides, who spend hours of their time and works very hard to make your stay as wonderful as possible, should also receive $15 to 20 per person, per day. You tip the guide directly.
If there is anyone else who makes you feel extra special, of course, feel free to reach out to them directly as well.
Some advice: I prepare my tips before I fly to Africa. I use two envelopes per camp (one each for staff and guide) and fill the envelopes beforehand so I don’t have to worry about pulling the money together at the last minute. It also helps to know the cash is spoken for and I won’t accidentally spend it. I label the staff envelopes and add my guides’ names to the others once we’ve met.