By FERDINAND MWONGELA – The Standard
Amboseli can be dusty. Sometimes, the dust forms whirlwinds 100 metres high. They call them dust devils but there is nothing evil about them. These whirlwinds are so spectacular and part of the landscape that whoever coined the name Amboseli must have had them in mind — the place of salty dust.
Last weekend, I was on a whirlwind tour of Amboseli National Park, one of my favourite wild haunts. Affordable, accessible and memorable. More than 150,000 visitors flock here annually to watch Amboseli’s main residents—the world’s most studied elephants.
But these visitors have kept off over the last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, yet the beauty remains and local tourists have chipped in to unfurl Amboseli’s exquisite wonders.
Building local tourism
I had joined a group of like-minded travel enthusiasts, about 20 of them to Amboseli as part of the campaign dubbed Tembea Tujenge Kenya, an initiative by local corporates including Tourism Fund, Isuzu East Africa, Sarova Hotels and Shell Kenya.
The campaign, now in its sixth year, aims to ramp up local tourism and reduce dependency on foreign markets.
My driver for the day was Eddah, a safe pair of hands given her four-year experience as an Uber driver in Nairobi.
After navigating the busy Ngong Road, we headed to Kiserian where a smooth bitumen road took us to Isinya and on to Shell Petrol Station in Kajiado.
This was our first stop before tackling the long and picturesque section to Namanga, the border post working hard to catch up with other established urban centres in Kenya.
Our second pit stop at Namanga allowed us to grab some refreshments in readiness for the final leg — the dirt road to Amboseli’s Meshanani Gate.
At 392 square kilometres, Amboseli National Park is relatively small. But the small size is packed with priceless gems that came to the fore the moment we left the main gate.
At the seasonal Lake Amboseli, dozens of flamingoes sifted through the waters while egrets provided company to a herd of buffaloes in their timeless symbiotic relationship. The grazers ruffle the ground and scores of insects ‘flee’ into the waiting beaks of egrets.
On the other hand, the egrets take up sanitation duties, removing ticks from the skins of buffaloes. All win.
Celebrity elephants of Amboseli
Then there are the elephants of Amboseli. They are probably the park’s biggest attraction. In fact, the giants are more like celebrities having been subjects of the longest running study on elephants.
They seemed to know about their elevated status and appeared to pose every time our customized truck stopped for a ‘photo shoot’ with the mountain as the perfect backdrop. They only left after our interest in them waned. But there is more to Amboseli than elephants.
Four years ago, Barry McGonigle folded his hot air balloon business in the United States, came to Africa and set up a similar outfit in Amboseli.
He would have opted for Masai Mara where such businesses were more established. But he reckoned that the Mara skyline was becoming a little more crowded yet, Amboseli, basking in the glory of the highest peak in Africa lacked such experiences.
So Kilimanjaro Balloon Safaris was born. Barry got Daniel Beckwith, a 24-year veteran balloon pilot whose exploits in the Mara are legendary, to pull the strings in Amboseli. How good is he? I was just about to find out.
I woke up while it was still dark — partly due to my phone alarm going off and the grunts of a school of hippos in a nearby marsh.
But even such mighty beasts respect the electric fence meant to keep them off the lush grounds of Ol Tukai Lodge.
In the air in a balloon
The 30-minute drive from the lodge to the balloon take-off site seemed to stretch to eternity. I hate things I cannot control. A balloon, full of hot air, falls on that list. As a consolation, Daniel has lifted up and landed safely more than 1,500 times, and that is a good record.
We meet Daniel at the camp just outside Amboseli’s Kimana gate. “I don’t keep a bucket list,” he says jokingly. “I keep a basket one. And my basket holds 12.”
Every other day, Daniel loads a dozen souls in the balloon’s basket and suspends them in the air where some either break down with tears of joy or go mute as they savour the tranquility of the African wilderness.
On this Saturday, I was part of his basket list. Before first light, his team fired up the giant balloon after a thorough safety briefing.
One after the other, we hopped into the basket, two in each compartment, like animals into Noah’s Ark. “We have half the usual load, the wind is good and we are good to go,” Daniel reassured the anxious group.
And up we went, upsetting cows in a Maasai boma below. Zebras took to flight as did a herd of gazelles whenever Daniel fired more gas into the balloon. A thousand feet over one of the most pristine landscapes in Africa, we watched as the sun rose, first as a tiny crescent, then a full fireball, the first rays of the day casting a golden glow on the snows of Kilimanjaro.
On the western horizon, the full moon was setting, giving way to the new king of the sky. It was a surreal moment immortalised by the words in the ascension certificate: “The wind has welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with warm hands.
“You have flown so high and so well that nature has joined you in laughter, and set you back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
Amboseli’s magic lives on.