Many safari goers ask whether Amboseli is worth visiting as part of their Kenya safari. Here are our expert thoughts on this small but exciting park in southern Kenya on the border of Tanzania.
What is Amboseli like?
Against a backdrop of looming Mount Kilimanjaro, you can see everything from lush primeval swamps to wide, dry plains here. ‘Amboseli’ is an English corruption of the Maa word Empusel, meaning ‘salty, dry place’ but underground streams flowing from the melting ice-cap on Kili keep certain areas of the park well supplied with water, which in turn attracts elephants and plenty of birds.
Parts of the forested swamp have been fenced off to prevent elephants from munching their way through the trees and to allow the vegetation time to regrow. During the long rains between about March and April, the dry plain can become a shallow lake, filled with wading birds (there are 400 species here alone). Because it is quite small, Amboseli is easy for rangers to patrol and is very well kept.
Amboseli is a great choice for first-time safari goers or first-timers to Kenya. Its compact size allows you to see virtually every aspect in about two days and its proximity to Nairobi means you don’t have to follow a long-haul flight with a very long drive or another longish flight. Short-haul flights between Wilson Airport and the Amboseli airstrip take less than an hour in a light aircraft.
Amboseli is definitely a convenient place to ease into your Kenya safari. It’s closeness to Nairobi does mean that lots of Kenyans drive through for weekends and school holidays, and you may experience traffic congestion during Easter and Christmas so your Africa Safari Expert will help you plan your trip with that in mind.
What will I see?
The diversity of the landscape is reflected in the diversity of the game. Elephants are commonly sighted and many are known by name by the guides because they’ve been studied by researchers at the Amboseli Elephant Research Centre (during our trip in November 2016, we came across ‘Neil’ and ‘Tim’, two male ellies that have been tracked for years as well as ‘Craig’, named after top scientist Dr Craig Parker. Group rates are available if you want to visit the research centre, which was founded by world-renowned expert Dr Cynthia Moss).
There is also a baboon research centre here to find out more about these very social, inquisitive and intelligent primates.
We can’t guarantee the Big 5 in Amboseli: leopard and rhino are virtually non-existent here. But don’t let that deter you as they are easily found elsewhere in Kenya (Lewa is fantastic for rhino and the Masai Mara for leopard). You won’t see the weirdly proportioned gerenuk either as they prefer the aridness of Samburu in the north.
But we did see masses of birdlife, bat-eared foxes with puppies (a very rare sighting), non-migrating wildebeest and a fat African python coiled up in a stream among the reeds! For getting your game-spotting eye ‘in’, Amboseli is ideal. Look out for Thomson’s gazelle and how they differ from impala; Maasai giraffe; Burchell’s or plains zebra; and plenty of spotted hyena (known as ‘spotties’ – there are no brown hyena here).
Will I see Kilimanjaro?
Although Mount Kilimanjaro is actually in neighbouring Tanzania, the best views of the world’s tallest free-standing mountain and Africa’s highest peak are in Kenya (Africa is often like this: the best views of Victoria Falls, which plunge down the Zambian border, are from Zimbabwe).
Because of its proximity to the Tanzanian border, Amboseli does have the best vistas of Kili. But – and this is a serious but – Kili is 5 895 metres / 19 341 feet high, meaning its summit is almost always swathed in cloud. Your best chance of seeing the peak is at dawn - when conditions may have cleared overnight – so don’t skip the early-morning game drives!
Bear in mind that professional photographers spend ages in the field capturing the perfect shot so don’t put pressure on yourself or feel disappointed if you can’t replicate in a day or two what they spend weeks and months finding.
Where to stay?
During our November 2016 trip, we stayed at Tortilis, a luxurious tented camp in its own fenced private concession (this means you have access to the concession and national park for game viewing but no-one who isn’t a guest can enter the concession, making for a far more private and exclusive game viewing experience).
Named after the iconic Acacia tortilis thorn trees that are so evocative of Africa, Tortilis Camp boasts the best views of Kili from its spacious bar and deck – when the mountaintop decides to make an appearance, of course. On a clear day you may even be able to see Mount Meru, also in Tanzania.
Should I go?
Yes. Transfers are easy, the landscape is beautiful and there is much to see. Amboseli is a good kick-off before you head to the Masai Mara and ideal for first-time visitors to Africa.