WE'VE GOT THE BEST VIEWS . . .
Kilimanjaro IS in Tanzania concedes George Njuguna Mwaura, our guide and self-confessed chief entertainment officer, when we first spot the famous mountain rising out of the horizontal landscape, but “we’ve got the best views”.
He has a point. People climb it from the Tanzanian side but a quick Google search reveals a consensus that it’s best photographed from Kenya - and the Amboseli National Park in particular if you want to get the classic view with flat-topped acacia trees and elephants in the foreground.
On this eight-day Kenya Safari Experience we’ve already visited the Masai Mara National Reserve and Lake Nakuru National Park but as far as famous backdrops go it’s hard to beat snow-capped Kilimanjaro.
We are, as it later turns out, extraordinarily lucky in that the weather is perfect during our stay and a mountain that can so often be shrouded in mist and clouds for days on end is beautifully visible all the time.
We are staying at the 420-acre Kilima Safari Camp, just a few hundred metres from the Amboseli park entrance. There are 60 luxury tents, 12 lodge rooms, three bars, two restaurant areas, a swimming pool and a lookout tower – all of which naturally genuflect toward the mountain. The lookout is especially remarkable at dawn.
Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano with three distinct peaks (Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira). At 5,895 metres above sea level it’s the highest mountain in Africa - and the highest single free-standing mountain in the world.
And it’s that which makes it so imposing. In much the same way that Uluru pokes out of the smooth red earth around it, Kilimanjaro rises majestically out of the dead flat plains of Africa ‘like Olympus above the Serengeti’.
Oh, I know, but I couldn’t resist it. Kilimanjaro isn’t anywhere even close to the Serengeti but the geographically incorrect lyrics from Toto’s number one best-selling song Africa are still stuck in my head. This is because that song is dragged out kicking and screaming and played in the bus pretty much every day, alongside Circle of Life from The Lion King.
And while Toto’s opening “I hear the drums echoing tonight” still resonates, I defy anyone to see Kilimanjaro for the first time while listening to Lebo M’s spine-tingling Zulu chant at the start of Circle of Life and not get the chills.
Amboseli is most famous for its elephants but the first animals we encounter are waterbucks. These large antelopes are beautiful and impressive beasts with radar-dish ears and a distinctive white ring around their rear that looks to me like a shooting range target – an unfortunate marking for a wild animal, I’m sure you’ll agree. Another story goes that the waterbuck was the first animal to use the freshly painted toilets on Noah’s Ark – hence the white mark.
There are, indeed, elephants galore here and we spend a lot of time following herds of these gentle giants and taking photographs. As always, despite going on quite a few safaris, I’m pleasantly surprised at how unconcerned they are by our presence and how close we can get to them.
We are not lucky enough, though, to encounter Tim, an old bull elephant who is famous enough in these parts to be worthy of appearing on T-shirts. Tim* is a super tusker
– photographs show him with enormous, curved tusks - who turned 50 recently and has been both a boon and a bane for the park.
He’s a boon because he’s a character who brings people to the park but he’s also a troublemaker who sometimes causes strife among local farmers when he wanders out of the park and damages their crops. This has seen Tim twice turn up at the rangers’ station injured by rocks or with spears stuck in him.
Our driver explains that as a result of this Tim was fitted with an electronic tracking collar so the rangers would know when he began wandering out of the park and could head him off at the pass. A possibly apocryphal story (I’ve been unable to confirm it) is that Tim endured the collar for a few days but eventually managed to get it off and brought it back to the station where he dropped it off in disgust.
There are zebras, buffaloes, wildebeest, ostriches, baboons, black-faced vervet monkeys, hippos and giraffes in the 392 square kilometre park but some of my enduring memories – apart from the elephants, of course – are of the birdlife (take binoculars or a camera with a good zoom).
At various points we come across glossy starlings, kingfishers, white bellied bustards, pink flamingos, golden palm weavers and the stunning crowned crane (which is the national bird of Uganda and features on the country's flag). There are said to be 400 species of birds here.
In one section of the park there is a small knoll called, oddly enough, Observation Hill where we park up and walk to the summit. It’s an easy enough climb and, as the sign there says, “it is a gift from the gods and the short climb is worthwhile”.
At the top there is a flat section that our guide says is horribly packed in the high season (June, July and August) but which we have completely to ourselves. There are 360-degree views of the park up here, with Kilimanjaro off to one side and the one of the swamps for which Amboseli is well known just below us.
The place is also much frequented by a type of starling I have never seen before, but which seems curiously unperturbed by our arrival. It is the superb starling, brazen little things with a deep red belly, an iridescent blue chest and head with a thin white bar separating the two. They’re not quite up to the flashing brilliance of the lilac breasted roller (the Kenyan national bird, just FYI) but what they lack in the colour spectrum they make up for in numbers, chatter and cheekiness.
I take some time to sit away from our group, small as it is, and soak up the atmosphere. In the far distance a herd of elephants is crossing the savannah in picture-postcard perfect single file and just at that moment a single superb starling floats down and settles close by.
“Not too shabby at all, mate,” he says. Though that might just have been in my head.
*Sadly, Tim died in February last year, of natural causes.
Keith Austin travelled as a guest of G Adventures. (www.gadventures.com.au). Our tour was an eight-day Kenya Safari Experience small-group (no more than six people) National Geographic Journeys tour.