Amboseli, Chyulu and Tsavo

"Home to Africa’s 'super tuskers' with Kilimanjaro as backdrop, photographer’s heaven”

Southern Kenya’s safari circuit is dominated by Mount Kilimanjaro. Despite being just across the border in neighbouring Tanzania, “Kili” has both a physical and aesthetic role to play in these Kenyan ecosystems.

Tawi Amboseli Kenya Elephants

Generally a semi-arid region, rainfall is unpredictable in this southern part of Kenya. Therefore, animals concentrate around the permanent springs and swamps that well up from an aquifer that is fed by rainwater and snowmelt that percolates down from the mountain. The best example of this is in Amboseli.

Amboseli National Park

Famous for its elephants, including some of the largest ‘tuskers’ in Africa, and the magnificent mountain backdrop, Amboseli is a photographer’s dream. This little National Park, less than 400 square kilometers in size, sits in an ancient geological depression that once was home to a huge, prehistoric lake. The remnants of which can be found to the west of the park, where every few years, when rainfall is high enough, a thin layer of water forms in the lowest part of the ecosystem.

However, it’s the permanent swamps, fed by the aquifer, that make the park so special. In times of drought, it can be the only water available for hundreds of miles. As a result, the Amboseli Trust for Elephants has recorded over 1,500 individual elephants that use the park each year. Thousands of Eastern White-bearded Wildebeest and Common Zebras migrate inward to quench their thirst too.

Thanks to the efforts of conservation organisations such as Lion Guardians and the Big Life Foundation, predator populations are healthy too, having recovered from a perilous situation at the turn of the millennium.

As with most popular parks in Kenya, the busiest times of year tend to be in the dry months of June to October. Lodges range from budget to mid-level, with numerous on the outskirts of the park on community-owned land.

Despite wildlife spreading out during the rains, resident cats, elephant bulls and spectacular bird life make a visit still worthwhile. Ironically, the best views of Mount Kilimanjaro tend to be in the rainy season too. Clear dawn skies, washed clean of dust by the previous day’s rainfall, tend to reveal a freshly snow-capped peak, before rain clouds build up again.

Amboseli is part of a much wider ecosystem that connects southwards across the international border into Tanzania and eastwards to Kenya’s largest wilderness, Tsavo.

Between these parks lies community-owned land, most of which is open to wildlife as it is pastoral grazing space for the Maasai clans that live here. However, a narrow bottleneck forms between the two little towns of Kimana and Isinet. Here, a special fence funnels animals safely through the gap, across a main road and into the tiny, but vital, Kimana Sanctuary.

Kimana Sanctuary

At only 2,000 hectares in size, Kimana Sanctuary is small, but is nearly always full of wildlife. It borders a little stream that is fed by another mountain-borne spring, which allows for the growth of a stunning forest of Fever Tree Acacias. A common sight here is herds of large bull elephants, that come to feed, relax and socialize. Many then venture into Amboseli when in their ‘musth’ cycles, to search out for mating opportunities.

Accommodation options are limited in the sanctuary, with a few beautiful campsites and a self-catering house. However, day trips in from Amboseli are possible, which is less than an hour’s drive from the eastern gates.

Once through Kimana, animals can travel further eastwards from Amboseli, toward the Chyulu Hills.

The Chyulu Hills

The youngest volcanic range in Kenya, the Chyulu Hills were formed over the last 1.5 million years, with the last eruption only 200 years ago. Made up of many volcanic cones, all with extremely porous soils, there is no permanent water here. Somehow, lush forests exist on the tops of the hills, fed entirely by mist that forms most nights.

On the northern slopes is a National Park that is largely neglected, unfortunately. No accommodation options, except for the odd overgrown campsite, makes it difficult to explore. Wildlife is scarce, but a special network of lava tube caves attracts the odd visitor each year. The largest, known as ‘Leviathan’ is so cavernous, a jumbo jet could fit in it!

Thankfully, the southern slopes of the hills feature some world-renowned lodges, leasing land that is owned by neighbouring Maasai communities. From here, views of Kilimanjaro are magnificent, and a variety of activities, sheer luxury and exclusivity make up for the somewhat limited game viewing – horse riding, lava tube hikes, cultural experiences, spa treatments, fly-camping, forest walks and hide photography are all on offer. The lodges recycle grey-water to feed waterholes that attract animals, including resident bull elephants and Maasai giraffe. Sunken hides mean for exceptional photographic opportunities.

The most recent eruption in the Chyulu Hills was in the far south-eastern corner of the range, which sits inside Tsavo West National Park. In its wake was left a four kilometer-long black tongue of a lava flow, known as ‘Sheitani’, or ‘the Devil’ in Kiswahili.

Tsavo West National Park

Emanating nearby, are the prolific Mzima Springs. Here, up to 250 million litres of crystal-clear water emerges each day. Made famous by documentaries on the Hippos here and the “Queen of Trees”, the Sycamore Fig, it’s a popular spot to visit on a game drive. You are allowed to get out of your vehicle and walk along designated paths that meander through the oasis. At one end of the path is an underwater hide, into which you can climb and watch various fish species swirl around the glass windows. If you’re lucky, a hippo or crocodile will come past too.

Half of Tsavo West is dominated by ancient rocky hills, which precede the volcanics of the Chyulus by over half a billion years. The bush is thick in places, but wildlife is plentiful and the landscape breathtaking. Further east, the park opens up into a semi-arid grassland, which ends up at Lake Jipe on the border with Tanzania. This hardly visited region has no operational lodges, so only camping or mega daytrips are required to explore it.

The vast Tsavo ecosystem is divided by the famous railway that connects Mombasa to Nairobi and on to Uganda, built by the British colonial administration at the turn of the 20th Century. The notorious ‘man-eaters of Tsavo’ wreaked havoc on the railway building teams as they engineered the bridge over the Tsavo River. Depending on which book you read, anywhere between a dozen and well over a hundred people were killed by a coalition of maneless male lions. Their taxidermied bodies now reside in the Chicago Field Museum.

Parallel to the original railway is now a highway and a brand-new standard-gauge railway. This makes for the boundary between Tsavo East and West.

Tsavo East National Park

At just under 14,000 square kilometers, this is the largest park in Kenya. Most of it is also the least visited. The Voi and Athi-Galana Rivers are the focal point for tourism due to the presence of thirsty wildlife.

Away from the busy areas around Aruba Dam and Voi, you can drive for days and not see anyone else. Wildlife is hard to spot at times, due to the thick bush in places, but Tsavo East has a healthy lion and wild dog population and is one of the best places to find super-tusker elephant bulls.

Across the Athi-Galana is the Yatta Plateau, the world’s longest lava flow, at nearly 300km’s in length. This dominates the northern skyline and divides the tourism area to the south from the wilderness of the north. The only tourism operation currently north of the plateau is the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s Ithumba camps, where young orphaned elephants continue their rehabilitation and are eventually released into the wild.

The relative proximity to the coast, plus the upgraded railway and new tarmac road to Sala’s gate make Tsavo easy and cost-effective to combine with the beach.

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