Shooting Kilimanjaro: Visiting Kenya’s Amboseli National Park
It’s all Toto’s fault. In their chart-topping hit from the 1980s, the lead singer of the Canadian dad-rock outfit crooned the line ‘Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti’.
To those who know their geography, such a scenario is absurd and that you can’t, in fact, see Africa’s greatest mountain from its greatest national park; one quick look at an atlas will show you that there’s actually a couple of hundred miles separating them.
But in singing those lyrics the band unwittingly provided a mental picture, at least for those who’ve never been to Tanzania, of what the country looks like: that is to say, a foreground filled with the archetypal Serengeti scenery of acacia and fever trees, all set against a backdrop of a whopping great mountain with snow on top.
It is presumably for this reason that the guide book’s publisher, Trailblazer, always insists that this scene should always grace the cover of the book.
Well, surprising as it may seem, this idyllic picture – savannah in the foreground, mountain in the background – does actually exist in the real world. Only not in Tanzania. On the Tanzanian side, the slopes are too well watered (most of the rainfall received by Kilimanjaro falls on its southern slopes, remember), and the mountain on this side too densely inhabited as a result, to provide us with the necessary remote acacia-clad landscape.
So instead you have to go round the northern side of Kili, to Kenya and its famous Amboseli National Park, to see the ‘classic’ Kili view. The plains that skirt this northern side of Kili are much drier than those on the 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 – including over 900 African elephants as well as wildebeest, giraffe, lion, monkey, zebra, hyena and antelope – and form the centrepiece of Amboseli National Park.
And surrounding these swamps is semi-arid bush, a land of acacia and fever tree – perfect, in other words, for a cover shot.
Unfortunately, taking the right picture is still largely a matter of luck. During our time there, the mountain tended to appear naked only first thing in the morning, before 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 indistinct for most of the time. Apparently, this is pretty much the norm – which explains why the blogs I read all talked about seeing Kilimanjaro, though none actually illustrated their blog with a picture to prove it.
Because, simply put, the results are usually underwhelming.
I’ve since been told that August is the best time of year to go to increase your chance of a clear, photogenic view of Kili from this side. But whether this is true or not, I shouldn’t be surprised at my lack of success. Whenever I am in Moshi or Marangu 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 – 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 though few Tanzanian safari companies offer trips to Kenya parks. Prices start at about US$250-300 for a private two-day trip for one person, including a night at a lodge just outside the park gates.
The dry season of July to October is the best time to visit for the swamps provide one of the few sources of water in the region, so 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, and there are fewer mosquitoes too.
The disadvantages of going at this time is that it’s also the busiest time and prices in the lodges are higher as a result.
There’s a wide range of accommodation from fairly basic tented camps near Kimana Gate, the main eastern entry point into the park, up to the luxury Tortilis Camp, situated on its own private conservancy to the 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.