We had already been somewhat massacred from the nearly four-hour journey along Mombasa Road, via the C-102 and C-103, leaving early in the morning from Nairobi.
Driver John's warning sounded with a mixture of satisfaction and surprise: “Okay, we've reached the bat land diversion.
going to the park entrance. The good news is that there is much less to go, the bad news is that we are going to vibrate. Let's vibrate and it won't be short!"
The erratic traffic on the asphalt here and there, full of craters on the road that linked the Kenyan capital to the country's second city and the Indian Ocean, is behind us.
Finally, we stopped passing trucks and old buses and matutus overcrowded, even so with difficulty since the company that employed John kept limited to 80km/h of its fleet of jeeps.
End of Asphalt. The Savannah Road to Amboseli National Park
Little by little, we penetrated into a savannah of tall yellow grass.
Always trembling, we saw the first bouncing flocks of impalas, a little later, ostrich lost in the endless landscape, and then small herds of zebras. The bar-coding pattern of those braying donkeys broke the pallor that had gripped the trip.
From time to time, we scrutinize the horizon, among the acacias and related grasses. We tried to unveil the silhouette as haughty as it was dubious that imposed itself to the south, among the heavy clouds that persist as a legacy of the rainy season.
Until we reach the final destination, in vain.
Meanwhile, the road passes through soggy meadows devoured by the first of many elephants and buffaloes that we would see in the following days. And others, aquatic, full of rotting old trees, dotted with wading birds.
We skirted another one of these rather tenebrous bogs and entered the forested area of the lodge that was going to welcome us. We stretch our legs and take care of the check in and of settling into one of their tribal wooden huts. Shortly after, also dinner.
Between the two moments, John caught up on the conversation with fellow guides and conductors, in a lively exchange of the latest adventures of their itineraries and gamedrives, of the most unprecedented observations and actions of customers who were forced to transport and pamper.
Towards the end of the night, we negotiated an awakening in line with the times of the animals that we had come from so far away to enjoy. With the inn's generators turned off, we were left in the African blackness.
We fall asleep enjoying the distant sounds – or not so much – produced by the creatures around.
Dawn at the Foggy Foot of Mount Kilimanjaro
The new dawn did not take long.
It forced us to get up, frustrated and struggling, which only the tepid water on the bodies and the cozy breakfast alleviated.
Shortly after greeting the guard on duty, we went through the lodge gate and out under the soaring canopies that protected it from the elements.
Overnight, most of the clouds from the day before had migrated elsewhere. As it leapt over the horizon, the sun splattered in the warm hues we'd missed the previous afternoon. We were at an almost equatorial latitude.
Even so, at an altitude of 1200 meters, its slant rays barely disguised the cold that was felt, even more humid, due to the great amount of water that soaked the plain.
We found ourselves rubbing our hands. The unexpected cold may have been responsible. But it is more likely that we did it out of sheer joy.
The Dazzling Vision of the Roof of Africa
Onward, the once elusive silhouette had become the sharp cone of Mount Kilimanjaro, with its soaring 5896-metre snow-flecked summit above a rim of tough cloudiness.
"Why, there he is!" confirms us John. “And right on your first morning! Do you know that there are many people who stay here for a week or more without being able to see it properly…?!”
We had the roof of Africa ahead of us. In the times we spent in Amboseli National Park, it served us as the main geographic and photographic reference.
Confident of its presence, we proceeded in search of the prolific fauna that lived in the vast northern foothills of the largest isolated mountain on the face of the Earth.
Joseph Thomson and the Feet of Wind for which the Amboseli National Park is named
The European pioneer in this remote part of Africa was the Scottish explorer, geologist and naturalist Joseph Thomson, a nickname that would be attributed to the Thomson's gazelle, also present in Amboseli.
Thomson had the motto “Whoever travels smoothly travels safely; who travels safely, goes far.”
Probably for this reason, in 1833, he was the first protagonist of the Sharing of Africa to manage to enter the dreaded Masai territory known as Empusel, a term from the local Maa dialect that defined the salty and dusty plains found there.
John belonged to the predominantly Kikuyu Kenyan ethnic group, but he was used to contacting the Masai and wanted to make the concept more concrete for us. "Do you see in the background?" he asks us pointing to a series of gusts lost in the vastness. "It's what the Masai call Amboseli."
Thomson saw the strange phenomenon over and over again.
The Scotsman led an expedition in the service of the Royal Geographical Society that aimed to find a route between the east coast of Africa and the northern coast of Lake Victoria that would avoid both the fierce Masai and the German merchants vying for dominance in that region.
All in all, Thomson's expedition was enormously successful and his biological, geological and ethnographic observations were considered a significant contribution.
Thomson's Adventures and Misadventures to the Conquest of Mount Kilimanjaro
However, the intrepid Scot has had its share of defeats and disappointments. He was too ambitious when he set out to conquer the summit of Kilimanjaro (white mountain in the Maa dialect) in twenty-four hours and failed.
During the journey back to the African coast, on the last day of 1883, a buffalo that was trying to shoot down attacked him and pierced his thigh. Along the way, he still contracted malaria and suffered from dysentery.
In 1885, already back in Great Britain, he published “Through Masai Land".
The book became a best seller. It inspired a young writer who was also knowledgeable about Africa by name Henry Rider Haggard to write your own novel. “King Solomon's Mines” – which would go on to become world famous – enraged Thomson.
The Scotsman had been the first to credibly describe the existence of snowy mountains above the equator and how he himself had terrified the Masai warriors by removing their false teeth and reassuring them that it was magic.
What was Thomson's astonishment when, reading Rider Haggard's work, he came across the description of snowy African mountains.
And with the character of Captain Good doing the same to a newly imagined Kukuana tribe.
Between Elephants and Hippos of PN Amboseli
O Kikuyu John was not aware of all this literary-historical commotion.
He knew the path that the herds of elephants took to reach water and pastures. “They don't stay here at night. When sunset approaches, they gather at the edge of the park. Then, at dawn, they return in caravans to spend the day.”
No other region in Kenya allows for such a rewarding approach and contemplation of pachyderms as Amboseli.
There, the almost absence of high, dense vegetation and the abundance of dirt tracks allowed us to follow them and photograph them up close, with the bonus of being able to frame them with Kilimanjaro as a backdrop.
One of the favorite places for elephants and hippos are the swamps of Olokenya and Enkongo Narok, both fed by the scattered waters of the river Sinet.
We cross the second on the way to the Normatior observation hill. There we found them.
Huge adults with newborn cubs, all of them half-sunken in the dark muck devouring grass in industrial quantities, in the company of dozens of opportunistic herons.
We continue to the top of Normatior, one of the few places on the Amboseli PN where it is possible to get out of the vehicle and use your legs.
All around, the latent threat of attacks from wild animals prevails.
Living with the Masai People on Normatior Hill
We conquered the hill side by side with some Masai women who, as is the hallmark of their people, do everything to ensure that we don't photograph them without paying first.
At the top, we enjoy the surreal Africa all around, unfolding from the swamps and meadows at the foot to the endless yellow savannah and the imposing Kilimanjaro massif.
In the meantime, we took the opportunity and got along with some colorful and elegant young Masai who had gone there for a dance performance.
As expected, we also photographed them and with them we photographed ourselves.
That privilege took its toll, of course.
And, as a rule, the Masai convert them into cows, the more the better, or if the cows were not the expression of wealth that this proud and warrior people continues to consider sacred and supreme.
Soon, it would start to get dark. John gave the signal and we walked back to the lodge without haste.
We arrived at dusk. The guide was tired of the driving that was accumulating and retired to his room.
We continued with energy. We told him that we wanted to stay at the entrance of the lodge photographing Kilimanjaro at dusk. “Uhmm, they won't be alone for sure! answered us right away.
Let's see how we solve this…”
And the Marathon and Safety Masai Philippe
In three moments, he appeared to us with the guard at the entrance of the lodge, who was ready to keep us company for as long as necessary. “Actually, I just thank you,” confessed Philippe. I have to spend my shifts all cooped up in that cabin.
It's a pleasure to come out here and chat with you. In the meantime, I make sure nothing happens to you. Just yesterday there was a leopard probing right here in front.”
Phillipe was Masai. “In addition to working at the lodge, I'm a runner. I've participated in several marathons. Now I'm injured and I'm looking forward to training again.
"Where do I train?" he replied satisfied with the interest. “I usually train right here on these roads and trails around. To us Masais, lions do not usually attack us. They fear us.”
Before the cold and hunger overcame us, we continued a good forty minutes talking about the rival running tribe kalenjin, which gives the most successful runners to Kenya and whose name the Decathlon chain gave to one of its lines of sports equipment.
With sunset over the horizon, we are talking about the Kenyan predominance in world middle-end athletics and so many other subjects.
Until the sky settled in full over the savannah and Kilimanjaro, and hunger and the cold forced us to retreat inside the inn.