Salty dust [1]

In the 1980’s Amboseli National Park (established in 1974 as a National Park but already a park from 1948) was the most popular among all the Kenya parks. This was probably because it was relatively near Nairobi, despite the corrugated road to get to it, and it offered abundant quality accommodation. The latter I cannot confirm as we always camped there! Tourist packages included an Amboseli and Tsavo National Parks circuit, as there is a road that joins them. The result was that travel companies would take tourists in large numbers and we found it rather crowded, particularly around the lodges and the swamp area.

amboseli 3 enhd

Despite its popularity, the park was still beautiful mainly because of Kilimanjaro that in a clear day offered an amazing view . With its 5,895 metres summit it truly showed itself with its well known peaks Kibo (the flat one) and Mawenzi (the rugged one) above the cloud cover creating a really special atmosphere [2].

amboseli 2

Elephants and buffalo were plentiful and there were still black rhinos that could occasionally found browsing on the scarce trees and bushes, unaware of their sad but approaching extermination.

In 1982, David Western wrote: “…The Amboseli population, at a low of eight animals in 1977, had only two breeding males and three mature females. Given such low numbers and localized populations it is inevitable that the black rhino will, like the white rhino, have to be managed in many cases as a national or even international herd…” [3]

It was the park’s flatness and its scarce vegetation, together with the abundance of prey species, that made it an ideal place to find large predators such as lions and spotted hyenas, although they were already decreasing in numbers.

The abundance of Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles also made Amboseli a great place to spot the already scarce cheetah and, if you were lucky as we were, to watch them hunting.

Although not considered among the great cats for anatomical reasons [4] these are very interesting and exciting animals to watch. Relying on speed to catch their prey, they are forced to hunt during the day so that they can see where they step while running -for short bursts- at a maximum speed of 100 to 120 km per hour! An injury could have severe consequences to the animal that can cause its death due to starvation! It is this behaviour that exposes cheetah to tourism interference and often leads to them getting disturbed by over-eager drivers.

Although we witnessed a few chases, we only managed to observe a couple that ended with a successful capture and kill of a Thomson’s gazelle. Several times we watched them loosing their prey during the chase when the latter in desperation entered terrain that was too rough for the cheetah or when the latter took a tumble at speed!

Even if the hunt was successful, the cheetah requires about a quarter of an hour of rest before it can start eating and, although their instinct directs them to consume the hindquarters (the richest part of the animal) during this recovery time cheetah are very vulnerable to larger predators -particularly spotted hyenas- to snatch its prey forcing it to hunt again!

Although we saw cheetah defending their prey against a single hyena by bristling and increasing their size dramatically, most of the time we watched while a pack of hyenas harassed them away from their freshly killed prey.

I will not attempt to describe a cheetah hunt as this has been done many times and through different media during hundreds of years. Instead of of that, as pictures I dare recommending my favourite sequence that, despite its age, is still one of the best I have seen (except seeing it live, of course). It is a Survival documentary called “Two in the Bush” filmed by Alan and Joan Root. Although the film (link below) is worth watching in its entirety, the cheetah sequence starts at the 15:32 minutes mark when the Roots are seen driving on the plains. It is important to bear in that the movie was filmed in the 1980’s with cameras that were not those we have today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X8NzgBqOgJY

We did not attempt to emulate the Roots in filming the hunt but we were lucky enough to take a few shots of the action but the only good ones were those we took after the hund ended when we were lucky that a combination of positioning and camera zoom worked miracles, at least for our standards!

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We visited Amboseli several times over the years and eventually we got to know it quite well. Already at that time it was showing sigs of severe erosion, particularly during the dry season and we thought that it should be closed to the public for several years to allow it to recover. The park was so degraded by 1991 that the New York Times published an article highlighting its poor status [5]. Since then, a number of initiatives to manage the park have been initiated although I do not know about their degree of success.

To enter Amboseli you crossed the lake that gives the park its name, a usually dry ash lake and the first place where we saw both dust devils and mirages, the latter framed by Kilimanjaro.

Amboseli dry lake and giraffecopy

Funnily the lake was occasionally flooded! During these times it became a quagmire that took some driving to negotiate.

Land Rover Amboseli flooded lake copy

At first we camped at the now called Amboseli campsite but the lack of adequate shade prompted us to seek other places. We then found the palm tree campsite that our friend Paul also used when staying at the park. Although lacking ablution facilities, this was a shady and cool camp, ideal to rest during the hot time of the day and even to have a short nap before embarking on a late afternoon game drive.

Being rather secluded and with small camping areas it had the advantage of not being frequented by the overland trucks that were beginning to be common at the time and that immediately crowded the limited space and facilities available at the other campsites. We soon learnt the reasons for this seclusion…

While Paul was investigating a rinderpest outbreak we took the opportunity to join him a couple of times at the palm tree campsite where he was staying with his camp hand Tobias as usual. He was a great help at the camp as well as producing some good food, particularly in the evening when we were tired after driving all day. However, the English breakfast was his “special” and this prompted Paul’s say of “with such breakfast, who needs to think about cooking later” in reply to our criticism to the rest of the English cuisine!

After dinner we usually made an inventory of the birds seen during the day as well as planning where we would go on the morrow. That night, however, Paul was starting to tell us about what had happened to him earlier at that camp when, suddenly, we started hearing people shouting!

We stopped talking and listened. After a few seconds we clearly heard a loud and frantic scream: “elephant!” that got repeated until finally we heard a desperate “help us, elephant!” Without hesitating Paul and Tobias grabbed their torches and ran towards the source of the voices. I followed.

We did not have a lot of ground to cover, perhaps one hundred metres, when we came to the next camping spot, a clearing in the bush where the drama was unfolding. There were tents and a Land Rover with three terror-stricken occupants in the back, two men and a woman rather scantily clothed. Outside there was a large elephant holding the roof rack and vigorously shaking the car as much as its springs would allow and, in so doing, badly shaking the people inside!

We then realized that the elephant had stepped and flattened an aluminium camera case and scattered camera(s) and lenses on the fine dust. Luckily, as soon as we shone the torches on the intruder, it took off tail up, aware of its guilt, crashing into the low palm trees to the relief of the vehicle occupants and mine when I saw it running in the opposite direction rather than charging!

After helping the “victims” to collect their dusty gear and their wits, we reassured them that the elephant would not come back as it got quite a fright, not being sure of this ourselves as it was unusual that elephants would attempt to raid a camp in Kenya. After we saw that our neighbours were as calm as the situation allowed, we returned to our camp.

After commenting the incident with the rest of the campers it was Paul’s turn to return to its interrupted story that, funnily enough, also dealt with elephants! He told us that one night he was woken up by some noise outside the tent. Through the door he realized that there were elephants outside and then he felt a rush of hot air in his face, coming from one of the visitors. It was trying to get to the food he had in the tent. Quite alarmed, he tried to get out through the other tent exit that went to his “kitchen” area only to find it blocked by a white elephant that blocked his way. The intruder had managed to break a sac of flour and it was enjoying it!

In the meantime, another pachyderm was busy trying to get at Tobias’ tent where some dirty pots and pans were kept to be cleaned the following morning. His smaller tent was lifted from the ground and Tobias got very frightened and -according to the storyteller- proffered such screams that he managed to scare the animals away, saving the day! After that achievement Tobias rushed to the Land Rover where he spent the rest of that night! (Something I would also have done! – Bushsnob)

It was then apparent that the campsite was a rather uninhabited one in virtue of its naughty elephantine visitors that have become used to get food from campers and the news had spread prompting campers -except us!- to stay away. As it is inevitable in these cases, the camp was closed soon after and, possibly, the elephants destroyed as wild animals always pay for being fed by people who do not realize the consequences of their actions.

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I always wonder if some of these were the culprits!

 

[1] The English meaning of the Maa word Amboseli.

[2] There is apparently a third peak called Shira that I learnt about when writing this post! See: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Kilimanjaro (Consulted on 19/10/19).

[3] Western, D. (1982). Patterns of depletion in a Kenya rhino population and the conservation implications. Biological Conservation, 24: 147-156.

[4] The word “Cheetah” is derived from the Hindi word “Chita” meaning “spotted one”. The Cheetah is the fastest land animal reaching speeds of 45 – 70 mph. Cheetahs have also been known to swim, although they do not like to. “…The Cheetah is not one of the Great Cats, because it does not have a floating Hyoid bone in its neck it can not roar, therefore it is a Lesser Cat…” See: https://bigcatrescue.org/cheetah-facts/?amp (consulted 16/10/19)

[5] See: https://www.nytimes.com/1991/05/19/travel/an-african-park-in-peril.html (consulted 16/10/19)

 

 

 

 

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