Ol Tukai, Amboseli, and Dusty Roads

Day 1 – A Road Less Traveled

trooperIt was Summer 1996, we had a one-week break from our Swahili language lessons, and we wanted to see more of Kenya. We built a comfortable place for our two girls (ages 3 and 1) to play and relax in the back of our 1988 Isuzu Trooper for a safari to Amboseli National Park. We drove down through the Ngong Hills, passing tea and coffee plantations, descending for nearly 2 hours before entering the semi-arid, and arid regions along the southern border of Kenya. July is the dry season, and our SUV was kicking up dust as we left the paved road, following a dirt road that I am almost certain would not exist on Google Maps today.

These dirt roads led us through small villages among the Masai of southern Kenya. We had seen very few Masai in the central part of the country and were captivated by their bright red, purple, and orange clothing. We stopped in a small village to buy a few supplies – the kind of village that has one dirt road which runs down the middle with thatched and mud huts on either side. We were hoping to buy a stalk of bananas and any other fruit we could find. The left side of the vehicle was quickly surrounded by Masai women trying to sell Traci bracelets. Traci wasn’t interested in what they were selling, and tried to politely decline. Polite was not getting the point across. She tried rolling her window up, but they kept slipping bracelets in before she could get the window all the way up. It was a circus act – they were slipping bracelets in faster than Traci could stick them back through the window. I was dying laughing while the gentleman I was speaking with on my side of the car wanted to get the mayor so he could see these white people who spoke Swahili. They brought us a stalk of bananas. I paid them, greeted the mayor, all the while Traci was still fighting the bracelet bandits on her side of the car. The girls were enjoying the scene and screaming with the excitement. We could all barely speak from laughing so hard. Finally one Masai woman spoke in clear English, putting a halt to the circus, settling on a price for the bracelets that Traci had not managed to slip back out the window yet. We paid her about 100 schillings, and we left out the other side of town.

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The dirt roads transitioned into a rocky river bed. GPS was not yet available in 1996, and cell phones were barely a dream back home in the States. I switched into 4WD and slowly navigated up and down the rocky river bed. Could this truly be “the road” that led to Amboseli National Park? When I wasn’t climbing the 40 foot rocky inclines, we were traveling over a rough, corrugated road, shaking our bones relentlessly to the core. Several hours had passed since we left the paved road, and we had no idea if this corrugated path and river bed were leading us to our destination. I would glance to the left at Traci, and she would be shaking as we bounced and vibrated down the road. All we could do was laugh, maybe lost, but laughing.

gerenuk2Suddenly, the SUV slammed to a halt, pulling sharply to the right, killing the engine. We were absolutely in the middle of nowhere. We had not seen another vehicle or person for more than an hour. I started the vehicle back up and slowly moved forward. Sure that the issue was over, we proceeded. About 30 minutes later, it did it again – slamming to a halt and killing the engine. I proceeded onward. We couldn’t just sit there. We had to get where we were going by nightfall. Driving unmarked roads in rural Africa can have its challenges, and those challenges exponentially increase after dark. After a inexorable pounding from the road, we finally came out of the riverbed and found smooth ground. The dirt roads were a sandy orange, and scrub brush and flat-topped acacia trees began to fill the landscape. We began to see occasional antelope, giraffe, and zebra. Not many, but we knew we were getting close to the park. We saw our first gerenuk, a tall, long-necked antelope, standing on his hind legs, eating the high leaves from a small acacia tree.

Continuing eastward along the Kenya/Tanzania border, we spotted the first structure we had seen in a few hours. This tall brown structure was a wooden gate, the southwest entrance into Amboseli National Park. Somehow the riverbed and unforgiving corrugated road had brought us exactly where we were supposed to be. We came to a stop, greeted the guard, who likely saw very few people on a weekly basis. We handed him our passports. Our “resident-student” visas stamped in our passport allowed us into the park for just about $2/day. This was quite incredible! A “tourist” visa would have been about $100/day. We smiled, paid our fees, offered the guard a few bananas, and entered the park.

We only thought we had been on a dusty road up to this time. The gate we drove through as we entered the park placed us right on the shores of Lake Amboseli. It was the dry season, and apparently it had been some time since this lake had seen a drop of rain. The lake, about 800 square miles in size, was completely dry. We could see 100 foot high dust devils swirling in the distance. We were told by the guard we could drive through the middle of the lake, just stay on the hardened path. Don’t leave the path! The one-lane, gray, dusty trail was surrounded by a gray, cracked, dry lake bed. Part way through the lake our vehicle again slammed and skidded to a stop. By this time I was getting concerned about “why” this happening. Thankful we didn’t skid off the path, we proceeded. We drove by the occasional wildebeest skull and bones and other unidentifiable bone fragments. Things were beginning to take a wild edge. We lost sight of the shore and kept driving.

It took about 45 minutes to cross the lake. We reached the eastern edge and climbed the banks of the lake, and proceeded. There weren’t any directional signs. There weren’t any roads or trails. It was pure wild… and I was loving it! It was time to put my true male instincts to the test. We knew our lodge was somewhere to the east. The sun was moving down the horizon behind us, so we knew we were going in the right direction. We came upon a 15-foot wide gully. It was the first sign of water we had seen in hours. One heavy slab of concrete went down into the gully, another slab went out the other side. Between the two slabs of concrete was my watery dilemma. I pulled up, but wasn’t sure how deep it was. Could we make it? How deep was this gully actually? I couldn’t see from the driver’s seat of the Trooper, so I opened my door, stepped out, and walked up to the edge of the concrete slab. This water would be better described as soup. I couldn’t see an inch into the water. I had no clue as the actual depth of the water. As I was bent over examining the coffee-colored soup, trying to determine if it was safe to drive through it, Traci shouted, “Rich, get back!” I wheeled around, only to see 3 hyenas pop their heads up over a small dune not too far to my left. With speed I didn’t know I had, I raced back to the Trooper and jumped in. I think the hyenas were as surprised to see a random white guy as I was to see Shenzi, Banzai, and Ed. I didn’t realize how large hyenas actually were. They were ominous with their brown fur and black spots, large barrel-chests and powerful jaws. With my heart thumping I told Traci, “We can make it. The water looks fine.”

Curiously, right before leaving on our safari we had heard of a missionary losing his 3 middle fingers on his right hand to a hyena. Hyenas have one of the most powerful bites in the animal kingdom, stronger than a lion, great white shark, or even an alligator snapping turtle. Lesson learned – water in Africa attracts game, which in turn attracts predators. Stay in the vehicle!

With my toes crossed and in 4WD, we drove through the soup and came out on the other side of the gully with no issues. We drove onward, finally seeing our first directional sign since we had left the guard tower before crossing the lake. There are 3 lodges in Amboseli National Park, and we saw the name of our lodge, Ol Tukai, up ahead a few kilometers. We relaxed the next 30 minutes, enjoying the scenery, and spotted Ol Tukai up ahead. We pulled into the gravel lot, greeted the parking lot guard, and grateful to step out of our vehicle.  We entered the lobby of the rustic, yet elegant lodge. This place was magnificent! It blended in perfectly with the environment. Wooden walls and floors, thatched roofs, with large open areas to view all of the scenery outside. We walked up to the counter and handed the clerk our passports. $7 per night. Normal prices average $300/night. Lodging, entertainment, and dinner included. Our resident-student visas were becoming quite beneficial. We were handed the keys to our cabin and given a grand Kenyan welcome.

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Leaving the main lobby building, the lawns were lush and flowers and colored plants decorated the landscape. Fifteen-foot poinsettia trees were planted outside the lobby. The cabins were spread out to the south of the lodge about 50 feet apart, connected by sidewalks. We got the keys to our “second” cabin and unpacked. Our first cabin had a problem with bats in the ceiling, so we requested new quarters. They tried to assure us the bats were harmless, but bats are bats, and we weren’t crazy about bats in our bedroom at night. The cabin was beautiful. A small porch led into the main room – a nice size sitting area and a large four-poster bed with an expansive mosquito net canopy made up the main room. A dressing area and our bathroom were down the hall. Stepping out onto the porch, the primary savannah opened before us. Miles wide and miles deep, scattered throughout the plain were wildebeest, zebra, and other antelope. A few dozen as far as I could see. Miles in the distance rose Mt. Kilimanjaro on the other side of the border in Tanzania. The view was breathtaking. Separating our cabin from the savannah was one small electric wire about 30 inches off the ground. “Huh,” I thought to myself, “that one small wire seems inadequate. I might need to be cautious.”

We saw a swimming pool while leaving the lobby and decided to change into swimming suits after the long, dusty road trip. My 2 young girls were ready to jump in the pool. I was too. It was a picturesque pool with a large tree house overlook on one side and the wide open savannah on the other side. There aren’t too many places you can swim while having wild animals graze nearby. I should have just jumped in. Instead, I walked to the side and dipped my toe in the water. I tensed up with a rigidness that probably startled the locals. The dichotomy of the situation could not be greater. I stood in an arid, low elevation climate. The equatorial sun had been testing us with our own “scorch trials” all throughout the day as we traveled through southern Kenya. The water I felt with the tip of my toe apparently had come from some deep underground stream directly connected to Alaska’s Denali National Park. The tip of my toe was numb and goose bumps covered my body. The water was a beautiful clear blue, but I concluded it was the perfect place for a “polar bear plunge,” not a place to cool off from the hot African sun.

We moved to the tree house overlook just above the pool to take in the scenery. We sipped on Cokes and ate some light snacks. Movement overhead in the tree that grew up through the middle of the overlook made us realize we were not alone. Small monkeys had come to watch us and wondered if we might have a small handout. Experience spoke (Traci) and reminded me of our vehicle being filled with monkeys a couple months prior, raiding our stash. We hovered over our Cokes and descended from the overlook back to the pool deck, and back to our cabin. The monkeys were cute… but cuteness can be quite deceptive.

I inquired at the front desk about a place to have our vehicle looked at. Obviously there was something wrong causing our SUV to slam and skid to a stop. They sent me about 500 feet up the road to their mechanic. Apparently the rough terrain of the riverbed had cracked one of the brake pads, which caused it to inadvertently lock up and cause the Trooper to slam to a stop. He fixed it. No cost. We were ready for an incredible week ahead!

Dinner time was nearing. We all showered, got cleaned up, and made our way to the main building. The concrete sidewalks wound through the maze of cabins. Walking past us was a Muslim man, apparently of some stature. Behind him were 4 wives walking single file, spaced out about 10 feet apart. There were in all black burqas with full veiled face. We made our way to the main building. It was well lit with several people gathered around a couple young Masai warriors who were doing traditional dances – one dance to prepare for the lion hunt, one dance of victory after the lion hunt. Brilliant red robes, colors in their hair, spears in hand, and sandals on their feet. They were tall, lean, and muscular. They spoke English with all the guests, but spoke Swahili with us. We had met them during check-in and they knew we could understand them. They shouted and jumped. They would jump straight up with little effort, springing several feet into the air. After about 20 minutes we made our way into the dining area.

We had paid only $7 per night for our lodging and dinner. We weren’t sure what kind of meal we would be getting for that price. The host asked us to follow him, taking us to the formal dining room. It was elegant. White linen table cloths with napkins folded and creased on our plates, crystal goblets, 5 china dishes per place setting, and 11 different pieces of silverware placed perfectly on each side and above our plates. We were receiving the same meal as all of the other “full-price quests” – we were getting the $300 treatment. Management did not distinguish between “resident” guests and tourist pricing. Salads and bread were paraded out by multiple servers, followed by soups, followed by the main course of Beef Wellington. I wasn’t sure which utensil to use with what portion of the meal. How do you use 11 different pieces? I don’t recall our dessert, surprisingly. I was still in awe of our main course, the hospitality of our hosts, the parade of servers, and the knowledge that we had journeyed into an experience far beyond our expectations. Traci and I decided the next few nights we would order a light “kid’s meal” earlier in the evening for the girls, put them to bed, then make our way to the dining hall for our fancy dinner date. A local guard would watch over our cabin while we ate like royalty. To this day, those 4 dinners we ate at Ol Tukai were the most elegant and elaborate meals we have ever eaten. Each night of fish, chicken, or beef were masterfully prepared, and the presentation was divine.

Day 2 – Elephants and Baboons

The next morning was our first full day driving out into the park. It was just us in our trusty Trooper. Almost every guest at Amboseli was in a tourist van or mass passenger vehicle. We were on our own and loving it. We packed pillows, meals, water, cameras, binoculars, and filled our Trooper up for the day ahead. We were using a map of the park we had purchased at a bookstore in Nairobi. This two-sided, colored map listed most of the animals that were in the park, as well as a general map of the roads. We weren’t sure how accurate the map would be since all the roads were essentially dirt paths. The guides in the parking lot had not heard of lions or other cats being spotted. They had killed the day before, so they would likely be resting in the oasis south of the lodge.

We headed due south from the lodge, out the gate, and into the park. It was stunning. The early morning skies were blue with very few clouds. You could see the peak of Kilimanjaro in the distance. Zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, and now a few elephants completed the view. We approached the oasis after about 20 minutes. It was lush. Tall trees, a huge natural, spring fed lake was in the middle. We slowed the Trooper to a crawl, and then to a stop. In the midst of antelope and Thompson gazelles, we parked. Small, brilliantly colored birds flew from one tree to the other. A fish eagle landed on one of the tall trees near the water’s edge. Taller birds walked through the short grass looking for insects. Somewhere back in the tall grass, behind some of the fallen trees and brush, the cats were resting. We couldn’t see them, but the antelope grazed cautiously on the fringe of the oasis, knowing danger was a few hundred yards away.

We made our way back toward the massive savannah. The heat of the African sun was beginning to take hold of the day. We could look across the savannah and see 3 to 8 dust devils spinning like small wispy tornadoes at any given time. We were going to try and drive around to the other side of the savannah. We had been driving about 20 minutes, making our way counter-clockwise from 6 o’clock up to 1 o’clock. Zebra and wildebeest were scattered sparsely. A large cloud of dust was hovering in the air up ahead. We approached the cloud of dust and pulled the Trooper to the side of the path. A herd of 45-50 elephants was crossing the path, and they were in no hurry. I shut the engine off. This was why people came to Amboseli. Large herds of elephants is what made this park famous. A few large females, a couple babies, several juveniles, and other adult elephants were making their way from the line of trees about a quarter mile to our right, to some unknown destination to our left. They kicked up dust with each step of their large, round, grey feet, as well as occasionally using their trunk to pick up dust and throw it into the air onto their backs. A few of the adult elephants stopped near our vehicle, looked our way, sized us up, and realized we were harmless before moving on. Thirty minutes later, the last of the elephants had past.

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We spotted an area on the map that led into some trees to the south west. We started the Trooper and turned around, making our way to the trees.

It was more of a small forest than a few scattered trees. The map showed a path into the eastern side, and out the west side. How the road actually wound through the forest was anybody’s guess. We weren’t sure what we might see. I was hoping for a leopard. We drove slowly as the path twisted and turned, maneuvering through the trees and rock croppings. We found several impala and other antelope. The shade of the forest was a nice break from the African sun. Making our way around one turn, Traci spotted something small. It was a tiny, yet full grown antelope known as a dik-dik. A full grown disk-dik is barely more than a foot tall. This was a rather rare sighting, especially when the female came into view. Dik-diks are monogamous and seeing the two of them together was quite beautiful, quite magnificent. We had spent about an hour in the woods. No leopard – at least not that was seen by us. With Traci’s incredible ability to spot animals, we saw many things on this trip, but I often wonder what eyes were watching us even though we did not see them. Who knows… the leopard (s) may have been watching us the entire time in the woods. At least I had the sense to stay inside the vehicle this time.

The remainder of the day we checked off several more animals and birds as we navigated the different regions on the south side of the park. Traci was becoming a professional game spotter. She would see animals I would have otherwise driven by. Hippos lying low in the water of a small oasis, hyenas seeking shade in the low scrub brush, vultures squabbling over the remains of something small, watching flocks of 5 or 6 ostriches make their way across the dusty plain, and water bucks and kudu grazing amidst the other animals. We pulled to a stop again to watch a secretary bird walking through the tall, wispy brown grass looking for a snake. White with black feathered accents, he stood about 4 feet tall, stepping slowly and deliberately, watching for movement down in the grass. None of the other antelope would come near the grassy area were the secretary bird was working. Maybe they knew that where there is a secretary bird, there is likely to be a snake. In the States, a robin stops to listen and detect the movement and presence of a worm. The secretary bird works in much the same way, only 4 feet taller detecting the movement of vipers instead.

Late in the afternoon, after 8 hours of driving the trails through the south and central areas of Amboseli, we pulled back into Ol Tukai. We bought some Cokes and snacks and made our way toward our cabin. Our cabin was on the very edge of the savannah. No more than 5 paces from our porch, the grass ended and the savannah stretched out in every direction. The thin electric wire still didn’t provide much comfort. We went inside to get cleaned up and changed out of our dusty clothes. Less than an hour later I stepped back onto the porch, greeted right away by some visitors that had come looking for the green grass. A family of a dozen or more baboons had come to feed on the seeds that were down in the grass. They sat there, picking out the seeds with their nimble fingers, eating them while they kept one eye on us. A couple of the mothers kept a very close eye on us. They had some very tiny babies clinging to them as they walked, sat, and ate. One large male sat to the side, eating and watching us quite closely. We sat on the porch, drinking our Cokes, and snapping photos of the babies – wild baboons just a few feet away.

Dinner was approaching. We left our wild visitors and walked up to the main building, got the girl’s meals, and took time to share our day’s adventures with the staff. They were anxious to teach us the Swahili names for these animals. Punda milia is a zebra. Twiga is a giraffe. Tembo is an elephant. It was time to get the girls back to the cabin and get them ready for bed before Traci and I came back to this evening’s royal feast. As we approached our cabin, something was different. The baboons were no longer there, but apparently after we left they had come onto our porch and had been playing with the bottle caps from our Coke bottles we had left on the table. There were teeth marks on the bottle caps.  The males in the group apparently had felt a need to show their dominance and decided to make sure we knew we were the ones who were trespassing; we were the visitors, not them. They had “marked their territory” all over the porch. Thank you. Learning later how dangerous male baboons can be, I’m grateful we only received this “sprinkling” warning, and not a physical challenge.  The electric wire hovering 30 inches above the ground was not going to stop a family of baboons moving around as they wished.

Day 3 – Big Cats and Bulls

I awoke early the next morning. Traci stirred, but our girls were still sound asleep. I slipped out from under our mosquito net canopy, slipped on my jeans and boots, grabbed my camera, and made for the parking lot. The sun had not yet risen, but there was promise of light on the eastern horizon. I greeted the parking lot attendant, climbed into the Trooper, and made for the main oasis.

I pointed my Trooper toward the south and slowly made my way down the dirt road. As I got further away from the lodge, I could see the occasional sets of eyes as my headlights would shine on a wildebeest or zebra. I shifted into 3rd gear and figured the oasis was another 20 minutes. Turning on my dome light to check my location on the map, I noticed a small path veering to the west I had not noticed before.

Ten minutes later I was surprised to actually realize the map was accurate. I found the path, leading to an outcrop of the large oasis. On the map, this path goes for about an inch, and then nothing. I made the choice to turn right and see what might be down this path. The map was again correct. I drove about 3 minutes and then the path just ended. I was alone. No other tourist or vehicle was in sight. Perfect!

jackal0001I shifted down into 1st, the outcropping off to my left, and a broad savannah opening to my right. I noticed something about 100 yards from where I was parked on the savannah. I shut the engine off and tried to make sense of what I was seeing in the low light. As I was sitting there, a small, black-backed jackal scurried up and sat down near my front tire. He also was staring intently out across the sandy plain.

Where there are jackals, there must be…

Lions!  As the day’s light began to reveal the details of what I was straining to see, the growling and snarling from the scrum also became evident. The small pride had a kill. Most of the lions were on the kill. Three were on sentry duty, fighting off the growing crowd of hyenas. As the light continued to illuminate the plain, I could begin to see the golden lionesses, and one young male with the beginnings of his adolescent mane. Spotted hyenas were circling, waiting their turn, facing off with the occasional jackal that wandered too close. My little nervous jackal could take it no longer – he scampered into the fray to try and grab a piece of the action, only to take off faster than he had entered.

I counted 9 lions. One male, five females, and 3 juveniles. Not an impressive pride, but more than up to the task of survival. I am not sure what fate the previous dominant male had met, but this male seemed to have prematurely inherited this pride. I didn’t doubt his ability, after all he was a lion and the females gave him his space.

One female stood up and began walking my way. She drug a hinds quarter of what used to be a wildebeest. The remaining lions began to follow her, more interested in what she was taking away than what lay before them. Vultures, buzzards, and marabou storks descended from the sky on the remains. Hyenas and jackals raced in for the remaining scraps, cackling and snarling. The feathered meat eaters hopped and flapped their wings. I leaned out my window soaking in the scene.

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A few other vehicles had pulled up behind me, but I had the prime spot. The lions passed a few yards in front of the Trooper, still dragging the leg and thigh of the wildebeest. Half the lions laid down in the grass on the edge of the oasis, stomachs full, and weary from the fight. The male climbed a fallen tree, perching himself above the rest of his pride. Three lionesses snarled, growled, and fought for the last few bites of flesh. When they were done, the bones and hide were all that remained. Two jackals saw their opportunity, darted in, and ran off with their prize. All of this happening within a few feet from where I had parked. Even in low light I was able to click off a few nice photos.

The pride climbed the fallen tree, wandered in and out of the tall grass, and lay down swishing their tails back and forth. The male climbed down from his perch, disappearing into the tall grass, and his pride followed. A few vultures and storks were still on the plain. A few hyenas could still be seen in the distance. Antelope and zebra once again began to fill in and graze, no longer feeling the threat of predators. I started the Trooper and turned toward the lodge.

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I should have woken my family – what a regret to have them miss what I was just able to witness. The jackal within a few feet, the lions fighting with hyenas, the 4-foot tall storks and vultures, and having the pride cross by within yards of where I was parked. I made it to the cabin, told my family what I had seen, and we packed quickly to try and hurry back to where I had seen the lions.

I drove Traci and the girls back to the outcropping, hoping to find some evidence of the take down, the battle, or the cleanup. Unfortunately the big cats had moved on. The impala seemed to still stare nervously into the oasis grass. The zebra and wildebeest grazed. There was no sign that lions had recently feasted. Everything was gone. Nothing had gone to waste. We decided to drive to a new area we had not been, back to an area near the dry lake where we had first entered the park.

There was an area with tall grass, trees, and a natural spring-fed body of water up ahead. As we neared the water hole, Traci noticed movement in the water. A couple dozen hippos were cooling themselves as the Kenyan sun continued to climb higher in the sky. A bit further to the right, elephants had gathered, but something different was going on. We advanced the Trooper closer to observe what was going on. Suddenly two bull elephants charged each other. They wrapped trunks around each other, pushing and shoving back and forth, tusks flashing, dirt and dust flying into the air as these two giants battled. It was an incredible sight. It was an incredible fight. Not having learned my lesson completely from the day we arrived in the park, I stepped out of the vehicle (much to Traci’s dismay) so I could get a more clear video of the fight. I am not sure if the fight was over a female, the herd, territory, or just two old bulls being grouchy. We all watched in awe, yet ready to run in case the melee turned in our direction. Satisfied with my footage, I got back in the Trooper – no harm done. Several minutes later of exhausting battle, the two bulls separated and the herd returned to normal grazing and watering.

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After lunch among some trees, watching the Thompson gazelles and giraffe graze nearby, we headed northeast. We passed the area in the middle of the park where the lodges were located. Ahead the roads turned into a sandy, tan dirt path. Dust devils twisted in the savannah. Ahead was a crossroads with a lone, large bull elephant coming from the cross direction. We slowed to a stop, giving plenty of room for him to walk by. Slow and deliberate, he labored with each step. His tusks nearly reached the ground, and his trunk was so long, it drug between his front feet in the loose sandy surface. He was the largest elephant I had ever seen. He had no equal. He turned to face us, just about 10 feet from our front bumper. He towered over us. He was old. He was wise. He had seen it all. Our eight eyes watched intently through our front windshield. After a moment he turned and continued down his path, dragging his trunk, leaving a distinct trail as he went.

Stray antelope, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, and gazelles were along the road as we continued further westward. We saw an occasional stork or buzzard foraging for a scrap. Up on the left we came across a large bull cape buffalo. We had seen herds of buffalo from a distance in different areas of the park, but this guy was different. He was a loner and the most ominous specimen we had seen. He was on Traci’s side of the vehicle, and he seemed rather annoyed at our presence. We seemed to lock eyes (probably not smart on my part). This buffalo was a solid ton of bone, muscle, and mean. His shook his head, showing us the full size and force of his hooked-shaped horns. If he charged us, he’d easily flip our Trooper. We had heard stories of this happening before, and I was positive this bull was well able. I wondered if I had 10 more seconds to snap a photo before he’d make good on his threat. He stomped the ground a few times, the shutter of my camera clicked twice, I put the Trooper in gear, and we moved along quickly. He snorted, pawed the ground, and watched us pull away.

capebuffaloWe made our way south where I finally caught my breath. Traci had not been thrilled for “1-ton Grumpy” to be on her side of the vehicle. We were ready for slightly less threatening mammals to view, at least none that wanted to flip or crush us. We thought we would drive around the savannah for another hour and then head back to the lodge.

There was a large stone out on the savannah where we watched zebra walk up to it, stand over the top of it, and rub back and forth, scratching their bellies. It was pretty humorous to watch. We were treated to a tower of giraffes among a grove of acacia trees on the southeast edge of the savannah. They stretched their long necks and reached into the thorny branches with their long tongues, peeling off tasty acacia leaves. They moved with grace from tree to tree, respecting the space of one another. They moved deeper into the trees where our vehicle could not go. Turning the key, I headed back to the lodge.

We made it back to our cabin before the sun set. Standing on our porch, we noticed large numbers of wildebeest, intermixed with zebra gathering on the savannah. Many were quite close to the electric wire – our safeguard from all danger. Hundreds were beginning to gather. When darkness fell, we could only feel that hundreds had turned into thousands, gathering for the night on the wide open plain. You could hear the breathing, the snorting, and hooves stamp on the sandy ground. In equatorial Africa, when darkness falls, it falls. The sun sets at 6:00 like someone turning the lights off in a room. Without the glow of any city lights, and without the assistance of the moon, we experienced a new level of pitch black.

Day 4 – Oases and Watering Holes

Somewhere in the middle of the night, the herds that had been gathering on the savannah became restless. It was obvious that since we had fallen asleep that the animals now numbered in the thousands. Merely a dozen or so yards outside my cabin, hooves began to stomp, zebras began to “bark,” and wildebeest began to grunt. Traci and I awoke in a startle. You could feel the tension rising outside. We couldn’t see anything. I strained to open my eyes wider. I had never been in such blackness. Not sure what I would expect to see, I climbed out from under the mosquito net, crept to the window and looked out. Blackness.

I climbed back into bed. The herds continued to grunt, stamp, and bark. The fever was growing… then the stampede began. Hooves, barks, yelps, grunts. It felt like it was all around us. We opened our eyes wider, straining to see. Something, or somethings had startled the herd and they were on the run. It wasn’t difficult to imagine what was happening out there. Lions? Leopard? Cheetahs? Hyenas? My heart was beating, but I’d have to wait till daybreak to see what had happened. I laid back in bed, eyes still wide open. I had no idea what time it was and I was waiting for the hint of the new day’s dawn.

We apparently were not the only ones who had heard the commotion in the middle of the night. At first light we jumped in the Trooper and took off for the west side of the savannah. Less than 3 minutes from leaving the parking lot, we saw where something had gone down. Several safari vans were already parked along the side of the road. We pulled into a vacated spot in the line of vehicles to see what we could see. We scanned the horizon, the underbrush, the grassy areas, but we could not see any signs of a kill having taken place. We inquired what had happened from a nearby vehicle. These people had been out since before dark. Apparently the lions had struck again in the night and had taken down another wildebeest. Things had gone quickly. Not even the hyenas, jackals, or birds of prey were still on the scene. We may have missed the action, but I’ll never forget hearing and feeling the panic on the plain just outside our cabin.

We returned to our cabin to grab breakfast and pack for the day ahead.  We discussed where we wanted to go that day, what we wanted to try and see, and how we wanted to spend our last full day at Amboseli. We had seen most of the immediate area. There were areas to the north and east we had not seen yet. We had only seen about one-third of the park, and it was going to be too vast to see it all on our final day. In the end, we decided to just drive where the road took us. We were on vacation and there was no use being tied to a plan.

One of the greatest scenery shots etched in my mind came when we were pulling away from the lodge.  The savannah stretched out before us with an array of iconic acacia trees on the far horizon. Rising above the flat topped acacias was Mt. Kilimanjaro. We could see the sides of the mountain climbing higher, interrupted by a line of clouds, and then the snow-capped, flat topped peak of the highest mountain in all of Africa.

The day ahead was mostly spent driving around the various oases and water holes that we could find on the map. We found a lot of gazelles, zebra, wildebeest, giraffe, kudu, hartebeest, impala, warthogs, and waterbuck.  One of the greatest points of enjoyment for me while in Africa, and especially at Amboseli, was locating birds. Traci had bought me a book in Nairobi of the birds of East Africa. I would go through the book, checking off birds I had seen. On our drive today, we encountered a large variety of birds, including eagles, kites, hawks, secretary birds, ostrich, and many other small, brilliantly colored birds. We really enjoyed pulling into the far end of the oasis, among some of the lush green trees, watching all of the birds. It was an incredible open-air aviary.

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This open-air aviary was interrupted by a dozen elephants walking through and into the water. The water was deep. These elephant were up to the tops backs in the water. I’m not sure if they were swimming or walking on the bottom. It was an incredible sight to see these great gray giants move through the trees, wade through the deep water, navigate the floating foliage, and make it to the other side to continue on their journey.

We wrapped up the day by visiting one more water hole. Hippos were lying in the shallows. A few hyenas were wandering about. It amazed me that the zebra and wildebeest paid no attention to them. They saw them as no threat. They could sense when a predator was a threat and when it was in a passive state of mind.

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It had been the trip of a lifetime for us. We pulled back into the parking lot and went into the lobby of the lodge. We spent time with some of the Masai, speaking in Swahili, learning, and letting them know how much we appreciated them. One of the problems that exists at national game reserves, like Amboseli, is that the Masai are seen in the same light as the sights of the park – almost as a tourist feature – rather than sitting down and chatting with them, letting them know you appreciate them, learn about their families and their culture, and letting them know you value them as a fellow, happy human being. Yes, it’s good to hear about their culture and to let them express the pride in the culture through dance and war cries. Like almost everything in life, it just needs to be in balance.

We packed our suitcases and prepared for the journey back home. I wasn’t looking forward the corrugated roads. They were brutal – much like driving over a corrugated tin roof for 100 miles. The sun set, we got our girls their dinner, put them to bed, and made our way to the dining hall. We enjoyed our final meal, dining like royalty. We climbed under the mosquito net of our four-poster bed, and fell asleep.

The journey home is no where in my conscious memory. I know we drove the river bed, endured the corrugated road, and drove back through the Masai villages. The only recollection I have of this 5-hour journey is being back on the hard road, and pulling the Trooper back home, beside our cottage. We were back home. I was anxious to get our pictures developed and share the stories of our adventure. We could have stayed home during our summer break. We could have relaxed, played games, and visited with friends. That would have been time well spent. But, I am grateful to have an incredible wife, a professional game spotter, who is an incredible partner in adventure, risk, exploring, and taking advantage of opportunities that surround us to live and enjoy life to the fullest.

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