As we drive down the plains and it turns into a more swampy area, I see them. Just little dots in the distance at first, but I soon reliase they’re not so little. I have never in my life seen so many elephants at the same time, I don’t even bother trying to count them. I’m in awe. Brian is, as usual, not that easily impressed and mumbles something about the amounts of elephants in the parks back in Zim. I don’t care. We are here now and I’m looking at massive herds of one of the most remarkable – and in fact the biggest – animals on earth.
We had more or less decided not to visit any national parks or do any game drives in eastern Africa, mainly because it’s way more expensive than down in the south. We were too late for the wildebeest migration and we couldn’t afford a hot air balloon ride – which we would have loved to do – and I have been to the Ngorongoro before so we said we will give the NP’s a miss up here and go game viewing more towards the end of the trip. But then we were recommended Amboseli national park, known for all its elephants with Mt Kilimanjaro as a pretty impressive backdrop. As it was on the way down to the border to Tanzania, we decided to go and check it out.
Money is always a big thing when you’re travelling like this, you’ve been working hard to scramble up the budget and don’t want the money to run out before you hit your final destination. We constantly have to think about our expenses. So we were a bit frustrated when it turned out that the prices at Amboseli had gone up just since our guide book was printed a couple of years ago. The entrance fee had gone from 50 USD to 80 and the camping used to be 10 USD and was now 25! Bringing your own car in was cheap, however, so we have to give them that. And sure, getting to see loads of elephants costs money. But the campsite? There was not a single staff there to greet us, no information about anything, just a tiny little shared kitchen and decent toilets that we managed to find after walking around. In total, we paid 210 USD for 24 hours in the park, not including any food. (To be compared with, for example, the Wild card in South Africa, roughly 200 USD for the two of us, that allows us to visit almost all parks and reserves in the country as much as we want for a year!)
Amboseli was nice and small enough for us to drive around there and feel pretty satisfied with a 24 hour stay. Oh well, I don’t think I would ever get satisfied, I would always want to wait for something extraordinary to happen (grazing plains game isn’t that extraordinary when you’ve been watching them graze for hours) or try and get a better photo opportunity of something. But with Brian around, who grew up with these animals in his backyard, I get pulled down back to earth.
We saw a herd of something at a distance and tried to figure out what they were. I said to Brian ”It’s not wildebeest… Not buffaloes… They’ve got too many different colours… ARE THOSE COWS??” Yup. Two big herds of cattle. And at the end, of course, a little boy herding them. So a bit disappointed we concluded that there can’t be any predators in here then, with little boys walking around like that. But a member of staff told us ”Sure, there are lions and cheetah here. Those boys may look like little boys but they are warriors! This big” he measured with his hand by his waist ”but already warriors with spears to kill lions with.”
Of course, the masai. We soon found out that there was several masai villages around the national park and the park isn’t fenced. And we got to meet the masai too, however, not in the way we would have liked. A few guys came up to the car at different times and wanted us to come and visit their village. All of them were either the son of the chief or the chief of his village. There was a wedding today and we must come and watch! We started wondering what was going on when two men from the same village had approached us, and the man who said he was the son of the chief looked the same age as the man who introduced himself as the chief. And when we said we wouldn’t come today but maybe tomorrow there was a wedding tomorrow as well! We just felt so sad – we could have gone there for an hour but with so little time we chose to spend it in the park instead. We could have supported them financially, but what are we supporting, the conservation of their cultural heritage or a tourist attraction? I really wish it would have been possible to visit the masai in a less arranged, more genuine way than this. Then I would have definitely gone to visit their village.
That afternoon we did see lions, but only at a distance. Three females lurking in the grass, watching some gazelles. In the middle of the herd there was a lone wildebeest who wouldn’t take its eyes off the lions. But when nothing happened and we couldn’t see the lions anymore we decided to move on. We thought we would be able to spot them again, they wouldn’t go into the swamp and the other way had only short grass. But they had disappeared in the way only wild animals can.
One of my best moments from the park was when we opened up the roof rack hatch and I climbed up via the center console from inside the car (an invention of ours especially for this purpose). Brian kept driving and I was keeping an eye out for anything interesting. I had the evening breeze in my face and the camera ready in my hand. We stopped and watched some late swimmers, elephants still splashing away in the swamps before returning to their night hideouts and Kilimanjaro was quickly turning purple in the background.