Why Kenya’s Amboseli National Park is the best place to take a photo of Kilimanjaro
Everybody wants to take that classic photo of the Roof of Africa. The one where the mountain provides a spectacular backdrop to a foreground filled with marching elephants. But few climbers ever get the chance to capture this image for themselves. It’s not difficult to see why. It’s simply because Tanzania doesn’t really have that classic African landscape, the acacia-clad savanna, near the mountain. Which is why you have to cross into Kenya to take that classic shot. Because the best place to photograph Kilimanjaro is actually Kenya’s Amboseli National Park.
This has always annoyed me slightly. For one thing, a lot of people already think Kilimanjaro is in Kenya, much to Tanzania’s chagrin. So it’s painful to admit that, while Kili is in Tanzania, it’s actually best viewed from its northern neighbour.
The other reason why it irks me is that for the first four editions of the guide book, I never took the cover photo. Everything else in the book was my work, and I was proud of that. But the book’s publisher, Trailblazer, insisted (rightly) that the ‘classic’ image of Kili should grace the cover of the book. Simply because, they believed (again correctly, in my opinion) that it would help sales. And because I’d never been to Amboseli, so for those four editions we had to buy a picture in.
So where is Amboseli, and what’s it like?
The plains that skirt the northern side of Kili are much drier than those on the mountain’s southern side. Indeed, the word ‘amboseli’ is Maasai for ‘dust devil’ – the mini tornados of dust that whip across the surface of the park. Which gives you some idea of how parched the land skirting its northern side can be.
But there is some water coming down these northern slopes too. Via several miles of underground channels these waters emerge on the Kenyan plains as large swamps. These swamps attract a lot of animals to the area. Animals such as African elephants, of which around 900 call Amboseli their home. But there are other beasts too, including wildebeest, giraffe, lion, monkey, zebra, hyena and antelope. It is these creatures that are the A-list celebrities of Amboseli National Park.
But only a part of the park is swampland. For surrounding these swamps is semi-arid bush, a land of acacia and fever tree. The classic East African landscape, in other words. Which is just one reason why the park is tailor-made for a cover shot.
You still have to be lucky
Unfortunately, taking the right picture is still largely a matter of luck. During our visit there, for the fifth edition, the mountain tended to appear naked only first thing in the morning. After that, modesty overcame it and it hid behind its screen of clouds.
But even when cloud-free, a combination of evaporation, dust and heat haze ensure Kili’s summit is usually obscured. Apparently, this is pretty much the norm. This perhaps explains why the travel blogs all talk about seeing Kilimanjaro from Amboseli, but none actually illustrate their post with a picture of it!
I’ve since been told that August is the best time of year to go. Apparently, this increases your chance of a clear, photogenic view of the mountain.
That may be so. But the bottom line is, I shouldn’t be surprised at my lack of success when I visited Amboseli. Whenever I am in Moshi and the mountain appears bright and clear, it’s enough to send me scurrying up to the roof of the nearest building to take a few shots. Why? Well, for the simple reason, of course, that it doesn’t happen very often.
So gambling that a two-day safari in Amboseli would reward me with the cover photo I was after was always going to be a long-shot.
Practicalities for visiting Amboseli National Park
A visit to Amboseli is easiest to organise from Kenya. That said, a few Tanzanian safari companies offer trips to Kenya parks too. Prices start at about US$250-300 for a private two-day trip for one person. This will include a night at a lodge just outside the park gates.
The dry season of July to October is the best time to visit. The swamps provide one of the few sources of water in the region. As a result, lots of game gather in the park at this time. The vegetation is not as thick, so it’s easier to spot wildlife in the undergrowth. What’s more, there are fewer mosquitoes too.
The disadvantages of going at this time is that it’s also the busiest time. As a consequence, prices in the lodges are higher as a result.
There’s a wide range of accommodation to choose from. Near Kimana Gate, the main eastern entry point into the park, there are several fairly basic tented camps. While at the other extreme there’s luxury Tortilis Camp, situated on its own private conservancy south of the main reserve. In addition to Kimana, you can also enter the park at Meshanani Gate, 45 minutes from Namanga on the park’s western side.