Amboseli: Where the Elephants Amble

7th Oct 2016 heralded a pleasant Friday morning in Nairobi. We were eager to get to the third and last of the parks on our Kenyan itinerary – the Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. But first agenda for the day was a brief visit to the Nairobi National Museum where we got a basic understanding and perspective on Kenya’s history. At 53 years, Kenya is a young nation that has gone through its struggles to see itself as one nation instead of the distinct regional tribes it had been for centuries before its colonisation.

Let’s get a quick perspective on Kenya

After a (not so) brief stop at the Big Time Safaris office in the CBD, we left Nairobi heading out on Mombasa Road. It was a busy but comfortable highway.


It was a four-hour journey with the last stretch seeming like an eternity of rattling bones!! And the landscape had changed completely to a dry scrubby one, it was perceptibly hotter and we could see little sand/dust “tornadoes” blowing every now & then (looking it up later, came to know they are termed “dust devils“). The name Amboseli originates from the word “Empusel” in the Maa language (of the Maasai) meaning “salty, dusty place”. One could only wonder how this environment could be the habitat of Africa’s big 5. All doubts were put to rest and the bone-rattling made worthwhile by some fascinating sights and all these still over 20 km outside the park. The first was a gerenuk, also known as giraffe gazelle, a species categorised as NT (near threatened) by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Not having seen any of these beautiful creatures in Maasai Mara, we were delighted to see one from so close!

Gerenuk – a unique gazelle with a long neck, it stands on its hind legs and reaches up to get to the leaves on shrubs and trees
The male gerenuk is a real stunner!
The largest tower (group of giraffe) we have seen thus far!
Appeared right next to the road!

We reached the Amboseli Sopa Lodge just after 3 pm and gratefully rested our spines on the restaurant chairs while being lavished with attention over our lunch, it was signature Sopa hospitality. We were delighted with our room, constructed with locally sourced material and in traditional style, it was spacious and pleasant. No question of an air-conditioner, no fans either, but it was perfectly comfortable indoors. We deposited our luggage in the room and headed out for a short evening safari.

As we left the lodge, our guide Richard pointed in the westerly direction and said that is where Mt. Kilimanjaro is and if we are lucky we could see it one of the days! All we could see then was a haze and clouds with the outline of a hill extending ahead. A 40-minute ride, all dusty and most of it bone-rattling, took us to the Kimana Gate of the park. The Kenya Wildlife Service has branded Amboseli National Park as “Kilimanjaro’s Royal Court”. The highest peak of Africa is more than a backdrop to the entire park, it is the secret behind the vibrant natural life in this semi-arid region that only receives an annual rainfall of 350 mm. Water from the Kilimanjaro that seeps down through porous volcanic rocks springs up in Amboseli and feeds the swamps that sustain the entire ecosystem here.

The sun was near setting as we drove in. We spotted a few elephants in the distance, herds of grazing zebra and quite a few vultures on tree tops. And then as we neared another vehicle that had stopped ahead, Richard said we should be able to see cheetahs lying on the ground to the left. And yes, there they were, three of them with just their heads visible. Looked like they were done for the day, but luckily for us they started up and strolled on for a bit giving us a great view of their athletic forms!

The sight of these 3 cheetahs resting and strolling with the light of the setting sun on them was breathtaking!
Admiring the sunset 🙂

We decided to head back and leave the viewing of big elephant herds for the next morning when we would all be a lot more energetic.

The next morning dawned with a clear view of Mt. Kilimanjaro, lady luck was smiling on us! We were not the only ones to be thrilled, all the staff in the lodge were too. They have had guests who have left without ever getting a view of the mighty peak.

View of Mount Kilimanjaro from our lodge
What a view for breakfast!
Sharing our Kilimanjaro excitement with the colourfully adorned Maasai youth 🙂

Attributing our luck to Richard, we set out for the day in search of the herds of gentle giants that are synonymous with Amboseli. We saw so much more! Including lilac-breasted rollers and saddle-billed storks that we had expected to see but had been unable to spot in our visit to the Lake Nakuru National Park.

A snake eagle basking in the morning sun
The clouds are beginning to gather around Mt. Kilimanjaro
A giraffe with the barely visible Kilimanjaro in the backdrop
Lilac-breasted Roller, the national bird of Kenya
There they are! The big herd we were waiting for – in all sizes, ranging from XS to XL!!
A male ostrich marches across

Richard informed us that we were making our way towards the marsh / swamp around which all the animals gather in the morning. Soon enough the scenery changed and it was like a school with multiple playgrounds and all students out on them! Elephants, buffaloes, hippos, wildebeest, zebras, gazelles, warthogs and a stunning array of birds to feast our eyes upon. A lesser known fact about Amboseli is that it plays host to around 400 species of birds.

Oxpeckers on an African cape buffalo – a symbiotic relationship
An African Spoonbill and Egyptian Goose
A Grey Heron stands still apparently reflecting!
Elephants, zebras, gazelles – all enjoy the swamp together
The unmistakable pink of flamingos behind the wildebeest!

As we watched the flamingos which were at some distance, there was a sudden restlessness amongst the birds nearer to us with a whole lot of egrets and ibises taking flight. The cause – an African Fish Eagle that was flying. The beautiful bird of prey perched upon a rock on the roadside presenting the perfect photo opportunity! And then it took flight again causing a flutter all around before settling on the next rock. This little “show” continued a couple of times giving us plenty of good views.

An African Fish Eagle – a beautiful majestic bird of prey

We drove on enjoying the visual bounties the swamp had to offer, just as the residents here were doing with its edible bounties 🙂

A Saddle-billed Stork with numerous egrets in the background
African Red-billed Quelea, such pretty birds!
Malachite Kingfisher, its head is a bright metallic blue!
A massive elephant emerges from its dip onto the dry brown grass that contrasts with the green on the swamp
The closest we could get to seeing a warthog, a very shy creature that scampers away on hearing the noise of any approaching vehicle
A herd of elephants enjoy the swamp accompanied by egrets
This little one stayed out of the water while the rest of the herd waded around

We watched this baby elephant that stayed on the side and the rest of its herd which were quite close to our only stop during the safari, at the base of Observation Hill. It is the only place in the park where people are permitted to step out of their safari vehicles and walk to the lookout point at the top. On the way up we saw plenty of superb starlings and weaver birds. The lookout point gave us panoramic views of the swamps and animal herds all across.

View from Observation Hill – the swamp is an oasis !
Another view from Observation Hill
Numerous herds of animals can be seen all around, looking so tiny from up here!
A superb starling glistens in the bright sun, hardly a shy bird!

Back from Observation Hill, we continued around the swamp heading back to the Kimana gate to get back for lunch.

Mom & baby hippo enjoying the water!
Spotted Hyenas, they are predators and not scavengers
Two female ostriches look on as we pass by; females are grey in colour while the males are black
We saw more Masai giraffes here than in Maasai Mara

After lunch and siesta we met up with Sammy, the resident Maasai at our lodge and learnt some interesting facts. The Maasai of the Amboseli region are way more traditional than the folks in the Mara region Sammy informed us. That was also evident to us on observing the attire and jewellery of the people we had seen in and around the area. Sammy told us about the transformation of his clan from being lion hunters to wildlife guardians, thanks to the efforts of Kenya Wildlife Service and the tourism industry. He showed us the spear he had used as a youth, now on display at the lodge and seen on the pillar behind us in the below photograph. He told us lion hunting was done both as a rite of passage into adulthood and for protection of livestock, the source of living for the Maasai people. No more killing now, he said decisively. He is happy that he now has a job and his kids go to school as do other kids in the nearby villages. They dream of becoming engineers, doctors, pilots and maybe even President!

The towering personality of Sammy and his experiences are both impressive!

Sammy was curious to know about mountains, forests and animals in India. He told us that the Indians in Kenya are very good business folks and that the lodge we were in and most of the leading ones in the area were owned by Indians. For someone who hadn’t been to school, Sammy knew and spoke English quite clearly. We were completely in awe of his appearance and it was sealed with firm handshakes!

That night’s dinner was arranged outdoors by the staff with live folk entertainment by a group of Maasai women. It was a wonderful atmosphere with their rhythmic, lyrical renderings bringing the night alive under the stars. We could only wonder at the inborn musical talent in these folks whose only training was by the ear from generation to generation. What a rich heritage! Reminded us of the tribal and folk music and dances from back home that we have had the good fortune of experiencing, but sadly most of our kids growing up in cities have no connection with.

These Maasai women are so talented!
These Maasai women are so talented!

Refreshed and rejuvenated after a sound sleep, we woke up to a clear view of the Kilimanjaro again! Everybody agreed that we were indeed very fortunate. After breakfast set off bag and baggage for our last safari with the plan to head directly to Nairobi, making our exit out of the park through Meshanani gate. This served the double purpose of covering a different part of the park and getting us faster to Nairobi. We had great sightings of elephant herds, flamingos flying in formations and quite unbelievably a lion sitting in the open grass near a carcass. The lion sighting was indeed special because they are very few in Amboseli, the number stated at Observation Hill being a meagre 35, their population having been decimated by years of human-animal conflict in this tough terrain.

A Lappet-faced Vulture spreads its wings in the morning sun
The gerenuk doesn’t disappoint, making an appearance on our last safari at Amboseli
We can’t stop admiring the beauty of nature’s creations, the Lilac-breasted Roller is so colourful!
We wondered why they are only 3? The Amboseli herds are typically 10-12 each
The little ones are always so cute!!

It was when we stopped to watch, wondering at this rather small family of 3 elephants that we spotted the only lion we saw in the park. In the distance a herd of elephants was emerging. So we waited and much to our delight the threesome were heading towards this large herd. Soon after we saw the leader of the herd next to the adult and they seemed to be having a little chat! The other two meanwhile mingled with the rest of the herd. So we thought it was a little family tiff, now all sorted out! This was a big herd, we counted 26 members.

The threesome we were wondering about are part of this large family! We watched them coming back together, looked like there had been a small disagreement and took some patching up by the elder matriarch
Much to our delight, the herd was walking towards the road we were waiting on
And then they crossed from behind our van, what a sight to see these huge creatures from such close quarters!
I love ellies 🙂
A Spotted Hyena, may not be very pretty looking, but a pretty important part of the ecosystem here

Ahead we had a great aerial display awaiting us – as we watched a large group of flamingos (called flamboyance!) in a stretch of pink, they suddenly took flight. There were hundreds in the air who started flying in various formations for a long time. We identified the shape of a whale repeatedly, it was mesmerising!

A flamboyance (group) of flamingos in flight, a truly impressive sight !
As if putting up an aerial display for us, this flamboyance continued flying in different formations for a long time!

Thrilled and most satisfied, we bid goodbye to Amboseli and firmed up our intention to visit this part of the world again to appreciate the beauty and diversity, possibly next time across the border in Tanzania.

Next destination for us is Rajasthan with a brief stopover at the bustling Mumbai. Thanks for reading and see you in Rangeelo Rajasthan!

Masai Mara: In quest of The Great Migration & Africa’s Big 5

Apart from a 2 hour delay and constant turbulence during which I clutched Meha’s hand for a majority of the flight while chanting Hanuman Chalisa, the KQ 211 dreamliner from Mumbai to Nairobi was uneventful and comfortable, specially with Tusker as faithful companion!

Kenya special

Before that Meha and Mika bonded in the reasonably comfortable Card lounge at the new and swanky Mumbai airport.

Mommy baby time !

As a part of our world trip, we are on a 10-day visit to Kenya to fulfill a lifetime dream of visiting Masai Mara during the great migration, as well as Lake Nakuru & Amboseli national parks. The excruciating 90 minute wait to clear immigration queue meant we reached our airport hotel only around midnight. In a perverse way, we mentally celebrated the improving standards of Indian airports and immigration. The hotel foyer looks deceptively grand in this morning picture but the experience of lights not working at midnight was not funny at all!

It’s nice and bright. I have forgotten the silly midnight experience

After a lovely breakfast next morning, we offloaded most of our dollars at Big Time Safaris (who have arranged our trip) office in Nairobi, and were on our way at 9:30 am. The lovely views of the Great Rift Valley emerged after an hour. It is part of the intercontinental ridge system that runs through Kenya and was formed when Mother Earth failed to rip Africa apart 8 million years ago!

The Great Rift Valley

We cruised till Narok, with very Indian-like landscapes in between, and then the fun really began.

Rural Kenya, just like India
The omnipresent Kenyan veggie stall by the highway

Whoever in the Kenyan government decided to NOT tar the 40 km stretch between Narok and Masai Mara, must be one sadistic %$$#@. Bone-crushing, this road will easily win the world cup for the worst road in the world.

Now we know why sensible people fly to the Mara

Under the expert driving of our guide-cum-driver Richard who handled a puncture with aplomb, we reached Mara Sopa Lodge by 3:45 pm with some lovely views of the surrounding Masai village.

OMG. Are we gonna reach in time ?
Kids in the countryside herding cattle
Quintessential Masai male with the trademark red cloak

Tastefully done rooms with lovely food and appealing common areas, we immediately felt welcome at the Sopa lodge.

I already love this lodge
South of the equator for the second time this year

Masai Mara (northern half of Tanzania’s Serengeti plains) easily tops everyone’s safari wish list in Kenya – and has been described, along with Serengeti, as one of the top wildlife destinations in the world. With rolling savannahs interspersed with acacia trees, this magical ecosystem presents you with wildlife viewing opportunities like no other reserve. Open roofed safari vehicles jostle for space in search of the big 5 – lion, leopard, African elephant, black rhino and buffalo. The other noteworthy protagonists include wildebeest, zebras, giraffes, elands, impalas, waterbucks, warthogs, gazelle and many more, including multiple bird species.

Between July and October, one of world’s most wonderful spectacle unfolds here – the Great Migration. Driven by Masai Mara’s rains and greenery, millions of wildebeests, zebras and other animals flock north of the adjoining Serengeti into Mara in search of greener pastures. Crocodiles and other predators like lions and leopards join the feast, while the hapless wildebeest attempt the river crossings at Mara. It is the complete cycle of life, playing out in all its glory !

But I digress. It’s already 5 pm and time for our first safari. Richard, our guide, opens up the roof top and we stand up like eager vultures waiting to devour what lies ahead.

Love the roof top

Suddenly the van races towards a hill and our hearts start to race. Surely Richard has spotted something. And lo and behold ! We are presented with the magical sight of a male lion basking under the sun, totally oblivious of the safari vehicles around. We click away breathlessly while self-congratulating ourselves for having made such a bumper start.

The king of the jungle, with a modern radio collar !
We heard him roar

After a few minutes, he stood up and started walking.

Enough of these minions . I need to go

Richard continues to stay one step ahead, providing us vantage photo opportunities.

A majestic walk

The lion is now getting uneasy with the circus surrounding him and decides to finally walk away. It is over as quickly as it started.

See you later.

Just as we are digesting what we just saw, Richard violently turns the van around towards another grass mound and we are presented with the wonderful sight of a cheetah. In my nervousness, I end up spoiling all my pictures due to terrible focus. Mika comes to rescue with some super shots from her backup camera.

How did Richard know he/she was lurking in the bush??

Every great experience in life comes at a price. We see a ranger pull up. In his over eagerness to please us, Richard has gone off track. A long conversation with the ranger ensues. Richard nonchalantly informs us that he has been fined. Suddenly we see a bunch of lions in the distance, with a lone buffalo guarding himself. Could it be a live kill ? We are not that fortunate, but we get to see a bunch of lovely lion cubs frolicking with their pride members.

In anticipation of a kill that did not materialize
With kids around, the buffalo isn’t worried anymore

It is now getting dark and a lovely impala appears as our smashing day 1 comes to an end.

Lovely antlers of the male Impala

Day 2 begins with the chirping of birds and baboons right outside our room.

Is it a mom feeding the baby ?

We are determined to make the most of the day with a full day safari, aided by a lovely packed lunch from the lodge.

Here we go – long day ahead

A variety of wild life emerges as soon as we enter the park.

Star of the great migration – Wildebeests
An Impala male has an entire her of females to look after!
Black-backed Jackal – has a lovely golden body contrasting with its back
Topi – a medium sized antelope has fascinating brown and grey shades
African Buffalo – a majestic creature that reminds us of the bison/Gour in Indian forests
Zebras – the stripes never fail to fascinate!
Africn Guinea Fowl
African Grey Hornbill, we know from our Indian safari experience that their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem
Grant’s Gazelle – lighter in shade than the Thompson’s Gazelle and missing the characteristic black stripe on the sides
Hartebeest – another of the multiple ungulates that are found in Africa

We suddenly encounter a cheetah savoring its kill behind the bushes. We waited for half an hour but who wants to lift its head for silly humans while gastronomic delights on offer on the other side.

This spotted beauty relishes her meal, oblivious of the cameras clicking away!

A lion quickly appears to the right, barely giving time for my aging eyes to focus.

Where did His Majesty suddenly come from?

As we rue the missed opportunity, Meha points to another majestic male relaxing under the bushes to our left.


After posing royally for us, he decides to take a nap and we move on.

Siesta time!

The landscape has now decidedly turned lusher and we can see the migration unfolding in front of us. Thousands of wildebeests and zebras graze on the expanse of grass, as far as your eyes can see.

Herds of wildebeest and zebra as far as the eye could see – this is the Great Migration!
Wildebeest are all over the place
Wildebeest are quite fascinating when you take a closer look
They look like the MMM trio, that’s us!
Thrilled to be right there in the thick of things!

We drive on towards the Mara triangle area with more magical wild life appearing on the way.

An Olive Baboon locks eyes with us !
The majestic Waterbuck
This spotted beauty is the Serval
That’s the Serval again!

It’s around 12:30 pm and we reach the hippo pool where an arrogant ranger demands a tip for no reason. We get put off and leave immediately after clicking the crocodiles and the hippos.

Biggest congregation of hippos we have seen in the wild

We reach the Mara Triangle area around 1 pm with a welcome toilet break. Having spoiled by the World class visitor centers of the USA national park, we found the Mara one too lame to even describe !

The Mara visitor center was a poor shadow compared to absolutely grand ones of USA. Come on Narok council !
Thank you Decathlon India for making us feel out of Africa

It is time to now turn back but not before clicking this rock at the Tanzania Kenya (TK) border. Very cool feeling to be in Serengeti and Masi Mara at the same time !!

The border

The first African elephants appear and the contrast with the desi counterparts is obvious. They are shorter in height with wider ears, compared to the Indian ones.

African elephants are shorter with much wider ears than Indian counterparts
I love ellies !

Very soon, a very cute-looking African buffalo stares straight at us.

African buffalo

It’s 4 pm. We are tired to the bone but as we head back we do not miss the opportunity to savor these gems.

Brilliant colors of a superb starling . They were as ubiquitous in the park as the wildebeest !


Secretary bird ! What an interesting walk he/she had !
Ostrich in the wild

The day concludes with the classical view of the acacia trees in foreground of the savannah.

The classical Masai Mara landscape view

Day 3 begins with clear strategy of looking specifically for lions and giraffes. Giraffes immediately appear with this one being my favorite.

Looking straight at us. There were tons of them all around us !

A colony of baboon appears along with some buffalo-bird bonding.

Olive baboon perched at atop a tree
Barely clinging on to mom !
A pair of oxpeckers help keep the African buffalo free of ticks

What happened over the next couple of hours would remain etched in our hearts and minds for ever. As the terrain became mountainous and with no other vehicles in sight, we knew something special was coming up. Suddenly the following emerges : a bunch of buffalos standing in defense against a bunch of non-interested lions.

A most dramatic spectacle

It took a while to realize that this was actually a one-sided love story with the male in hot pursuit of the uninterested female.

I am trying but she is not keen 🙁
What a jerk. Leave me alone !

While the pair played hide and seek over the next hour, another female emerged right behind us. We have never been this close to a lion in our life and all this seemed too good to be true. We had lunch in the van with lions all around us and no other vehicle in sight ! For a change it was for real.

This lioness was right behind us
Giving us company while we have lunch. Absolutely magical !

Very soon Musafa and Sarabi decided to climb pride rock and this chase was straight out of a Govinda-Ravina starrer.

Very difficult. Ladki hai ya chadi hai ?
Reminded us of the pride rock from The Lion King
Roothe rab ko manana aasan hai, Roothe yaar ko manana mushkil hai !
Elephant decides to join the party. Did the lion succeed ? Only God knows.
Can you spot the lioness behind us ?

As we left the amorous couple together, reality dawned on us that last 2 magical hours would count as THE topmost wild life encounter in our entire lives ! Still pinching ourselves, we were on seventh moon but destiny had more in store with a whole pride of giraffes presenting itself !

Grace personified

By this time we are overwhelmed. If Richard was a corporate employee, his appraisal would have read “Over Achieved” along with employee of the year award. Its getting close to end of the day but some more cool stuff is in store.

Warthogs; Really hilarious – they started running away from you the moment you get near
The magical Topi with thoughtful eyes and brilliant shades of black and brown
A young black-backed jackal scavenging a meal
Part of the big 5, we loved the African buffaloes

As we say bye to Masai Mara, we are given a befitting farewell by this lioness.

Snoozing in the savannahs

We get back to the lodge, cherishing the beautiful experiences of the last 3 days. The Masai dancers arrive at the lodge at 9 pm, giving us a great cultural experience. Tomorrow we head to Lake Nakuru National park looking for flamingos, tree-climbing lions, black rhinos, white rhinos and more.

Thanks for reading and see you at Lake Nakuru. Bye.