Tuesday, November 19

Elephants, Salt and Dust

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“Look, there’s half an elephant!” my daughter shouted. What? I turned around and indeed there was an elephant wallowing in an emerald green swamp, only the top half of their body visible to us.

We were in Amboseli National Park, home to Kenya’s largest population of elephants. Amboseli is in southern Kenya, just northwest of Mt. Kilimanjaro, on the border of Tanzania. The name “Amboseli” comes from a Maasai word meaning “salty dust.” The melting snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro that feed the swamps are the only source of water during the dry season. The park became a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve in 1991.

We were visiting during the rains and there had been recent instances of “mud bathing gone awry,” where rangers have had to pull out elephants stuck in the muddy swamps, using tractors and Land Cruisers. In December 2018, Tim, an icon of Amboseli and one of Africa’s largest and most magnificent elephants was immersed up to his neck in mud in the Kimana Swamp. Tim was completely immobilized with no chance of escaping on his own. Big Life Foundation Rangers, together with Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) managed after a grueling battle, to rescue the six ton animal.

Although Amboseli boasts one of the greatest densities of elephant in all of Africa, we learnt that there are hardly any known incidents of elephant poaching and as a result of this, the elephants are much gentler than they are in other national parks.

Elephant researcher, Dr. Cynthia Moss, believes that the elephant Park is one of the few that has been able to live a relatively undisturbed existence in natural conditions. This rare situation is primarily due to two factors – the presence of researchers and tourists in the park, and the support of the local Maasai people. In the absence of poaching and culling, the Amboseli elephant population has been increasing slowly since the late 1970s.

This is in contrast to what has been happening in Botswana, previously considered one of the few safe havens for elephants in Africa. There has been a sharp rise in poaching coinciding with Botswana parliament’s recent decision to pass a motion considering the lifting of the ban on elephant trophy hunting.

In the late afternoon, sunbeams from the west hit the reflections of the palm trees framing the glittering lake, turning it into a tropical mirage. Lake Amboseli is within the Alkaline Rift Valley Lakes that enable flamingos to engage in Short Distance Migration. During the southern migration to their breeding grounds in Lake Natron, Tanzania, or their northern migration to their foraging grounds in Kenya, Lake Amboseli forms a critical stopover and foraging ground.

A lone hyena gets a little too close to the lake and a flock of flamingos rise into the air, forming a flamboyant pink cloud. He scurries away, his plan of an afternoon snack thwarted. Flamingos are born with grey feathers, which gradually turn pink in the wild because of a natural pink dye called canthaxanthin that they obtain from their diet of brine shrimp and blue-green algae.

Our home for the weekend was the Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge. The lodge has been in existence since the early 1970’s. The Maasai inspired décor may bring back nostalgic memories of that time, but Serena Lodges have become twenty-first century ecotrendsetters, by converting Amboseli into a fully solar-powered lodge, they have sound policies in place, which are guided by a dynamic ecological ethos. The ochre buildings reflect a Maasai Manyatta theme, and are decorated with locally inspired furnishings and artifacts. Our suite was adorned with hand painted murals and intricate beadwork.

On our evening game drive, I was hoping to capture that most iconic image of Ambsoseli; a photo of a herd of elephants standing in front of the snow capped Mt. Kilimanjaro. Kili as it is often referred to, is the tallest mountain in Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world.

Whilst the plains were resplendent with elephants , the mountain was uncooperative and hid behind the most frustrating of cloud covers. “We call it the ‘shy mountain,” said our guide. “The best time to see it is either early in the morning or at dusk.” Well I still had a few more chances to get my photos.

That evening one of our party was celebrating a milestone birthday, and the lodge arranged a Bush Dinner in honor of the occasion. It was a seven-course feast, served in an “Out-of Africa” setting. Elegantly laid tables surrounded by romantic lanterns were set up in a grove of Acacia trees. The main course was an assortment of delectable meat and chicken, barbequed on the open grill, served Rodizio style.

“Do you see what’s over there? ” our server asked. I looked up from my meal into the green reflective eyes of a pride of lions just across the fence. Wow!

This was no certainly no ordinary al-fresco dinner. I don’t know of many other places in the world where we would be able to have an incredible experience like this; an epicurean feast immersed in the wilderness.

The highlight of the evening came after dessert, when a group of Maasai warriors performed a ceremony to initiate our birthday-boy as a “Maasai Elder”. They dressed him in shukas, the red Maasai blankets, and adorned him with colorful beaded jewelry. A traditional spear and shield were placed in his hands. He explained that it was a touching experience, to be accepted in this manner.

The warriors then began their traditional Adumu Maasai dance, using their voices as instruments, and building up to a pulsing rhythm before they began their incredible straight-up jumping. Traditionally the Adumu is part of their rite of passage ceremonies. The highest jumps imply more strength and agility and thus more admiration from the women. They invited us to join them in the performance. It was an exceptional celebration, not in the least dampened by our utter lack of Maasai dancing skills.

I had the best of intentions to wake up at the crack of dawn the next morning, to take my photos of Kilimanjaro, in the hour before the clouds shrouded her. But there was something about the pure mountain air that allowed me to sleep better and deeper than I have in months and I reveled in this rare pleasure.

Later that morning, the children were very keen to do the Guided Nature Walk, so binoculars in hand we were led on an expedition around the lodge. “Do you know that that piece of magma is over three hundred thousand years old?” said our guide. My elevenyear- old daughter looked at the rust coloured rock in her hand with new respect. “ Just imagine the history that that rock has seen! “ she marveled.

Amboseli is in a Pleistocene basin and is filled with volcanic rock and ash. The park is made up of five different habitats; open plains, acacia woodland, rocky thorn bush country, swamps and marshland, and is surrounded by Maasai community lands.

That evening there was another game drive, our vehicle stopped several time to allow families of elephants to cross the roads in front of us. This was one type of African traffic jam that no one resented. Ominous clouds rolled across the sky and our guide hurriedly jumped out of the vehicle to put down the open roof as the first fat drops began to fall. Watching the rains pound over the open plains is a magnificent sight. I love the smell of the rain when it hits the salty earth.

But now my mountain has been completely obscured and the elephants have blurred into indistinct grey shapes.

After a lie-in and a hearty breakfast the next morning, we regretfully said our goodbyes to the staff at the hotel. The level of Customer Service on this trip had been exceptional with everyone going out of their way to ensure that we had a wonderful stay.

“I had a perfect view of the mountain from our room this morning,” my husband casually remarked as we climbed into the Land Cruiser. “Did you take pictures?” I asked excitedly. “No, should I have?” was the response. Sigh. So much for my iconic Amboseli photo; I would just have to return to this magical place another time.

SUSTAINABILITY INITIATIVES AT AMBOSELI SERENA SAFARI LODGE

Unique to Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge is a man-made lagoon, which brings wastewater from the lodges kitchen, bathrooms and laundry. Through a process of aeration, oxygenation and sunlight exposure, the water undergoes a natural cleaning process.

1.5 million trees have been planted both within and outside the Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge. The lodge was named as Africa’s Leading Eco-Hotel in 2013.

Amboseli Serena Safari Lodge also provides safe clean free drinking water to the local communities (and livestock) thus reducing their exposure to a wide range of water-borne diseases.

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