Expert Reviews – Amboseli NP

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Busy park, overlooked by Kilimanjaro
Overall rating
4/5

Those wonderful photos of Kilimanjaro rising majestically above a thicket of acacia trees, with elephants ambling past and perhaps a hot air balloon floating serenely overheard? They’re taken in Amboseli. Kili’s snowy cap may be much depleted but for me, the sight of the crater still brings on that thrilling buzz of recognition one gets when face to face with any of the world’s great landmarks, from the Statue of Liberty to Victoria Falls.

It’s best not to get too excited about the game-viewing experience in Amboseli though – it’s a small park that’s all too easy to reach from Nairobi and Mombasa, so tourists come here in droves and it’s rare to have a moment of peace without another vehicle in view or in earshot. There are plenty of elephants in Amboseli, along with zebras, giraffes and buffalo, but few predators – local cattle herders have more or less wiped out the lions.

Amboseli: In the Shadow of Kilimanjaro
Overall rating
5/5

Mt Kilimanjaro may lie in Tanzania but the best views of Africa’s highest mountain are from Amboseli. Elephants, long-tusked and large, are an Amboseli specialty – I’ve never been as close to elephants as I have in Amboseli – and the sight of them crossing the plains or wallowing in the swamps with Kilimanjaro behind is an iconic East African safari image. Lions, too, are commonly sighted, often within a short distance of the lodges in the centre of the park, as are giraffe, zebra and various antelope species; the open plains are classic cheetah country and I was lucky enough to see a family of five last time I visited. For a park of its size, Amboseli hosts astonishingly rich birdlife with 370 recorded species, almost one for every square metre of the park. Added to the drama of mountain and mega-fauna is the oft-sighted presence of the Maasai – Amboseli lies deep in Maasai land – draped in blood-red blankets and striding across the plains.

A land of Giants
Overall rating
3/5

By East African standards, Amboseli is quite small – a mere 150 square miles of arid plains that become a dustbowl in the dry season months of July to October. And yet this is a land of giants. Amboseli is the park where Kenya’s biggest tuskers roam against the stunning backdrop of Kilimanjaro – the world’s highest freestanding mountain. At its foot lie lush green swamps – a dream of water in a thirsty land. Fed by the meltwaters of Kilimanjaro’s glaciers, they are vital to the park’s well being. Without these dense, reedy oases, Amboseli and its wildlife could not exist. My abiding memory of Amboseli are the evening game drives, heading back to Tortilis Camp when the light turns to gold and the air is filled with a fog of dust in which solemn processions of marching elephants appear as ghostly silhouettes.

One of Kenya’s most picturesque parks with spectacular views of Kilimanjaro
Overall rating
5/5

I creaked into Amboseli after a frantic break-neck drive with the military convoy from Tsavo in a near-dead Suzuki Vitara hire-car. I had a soldier riding with me and the cartridge of his AK47 wore a hole through the dashboard because of all the spine-jaggling potholes. The Suzuki’s suspension finally gave up altogether when I was already alone somewhere near the lakes in Amboseli and I began to think about spending a long night sleeping in the car deep in lion territory. Eventually staggered into camp about dusk though and was rewarded with one of the finest sundowner spots (and sweetest G&T I could have imagined) overlooking a waterhole with Kilimanjaro as a backdrop. One of the highlights of Amboseli is surely the elephant herds which spend a lot of their time up to their bellies in the lakes and can be very entertaining to watch. This is also prime Maasai country though and apart from wildlife you should take a chance to enjoy a cultural trip to one of the local manyattas.

Amboseli National Park – the weekend safari
Overall rating
4/5

There is a classic view of Africa with an elephant walking across the open grassland beside a solitary acacia tree. In the background, soaring into the sky like a triumphant Christmas pudding is the rounded bulk of Mt Kilimanjaro, topped by a lavish portion of glacier cream. I had seen it in countless brochures and films. I couldn’t quite believe it when our jeep bumped to a halt and there it was, elephant and all. Does he hang around every day, just waiting for the shot? ‘Left profile, only, please, I’ve got a chip in my right tusk…’

Amboseli is a small park, at 392 sq kms (151 sq miles) on the Tanzanian border, just west of Tsavo, but because it is easily accessible from both Nairobi and Mombasa over a weekend – and has the best view of Kili in the country – it is one of the most popular in Kenya. It became a national park in 1974 and a UNESCO Biosphere in 1991. A dispute about returning control of the park to the local council is currently going through the courts.
The name means ‘salty dust’ in Masai and most of the park is a flat, arid plain covered in dry as dust sand, the outer fringes of the Serengeti Plains. What makes it special are the Enkongo Narok and Olokenya swamps, the tail-end of old superlakes, in which happy animals wallow through emerald-green reeds in vast numbers, up to their knees in mud. The drawback in sightseeing terms is that all the tourists are also gathered in a relatively small area, so that with the prevalence of minibuses, any feeling of wilderness quickly disappears in favour of Windsor Safari Park.

Elephants and Mount Kilimanjaro
Overall rating
3/5

Amboseli hugs the Tanzanian border and makes for one of Kenya’s most dramatic photo opportunities – herds of elephant lumbering past with Mount Kilimanjaro as a backdrop. The park is famous for them and groups of up to 100 are not uncommon.

Aside from this, however, some find Amboseli a disappointment. The landscape is for the most part, dry, flat and unappealing and, during my visit, there were other tourist vehicles at almost every turn.

There are plentiful buffalo, giraffe and zebra here and predators are also found. Lions are few, but I did see a cheetah and plenty of hyenas on my visit. The flat open landscape makes animals easy to spot.

Amboseli – an elephant’s playground set against Africa’s highest peak
Overall rating
4/5

There are few images in Africa as iconic as elephants walking in front of Kilimanjaro. This image, which basically screams ’East Africa’, is in Amboseli National Park. Amboseli, which teems with elephants, lies at the base of Kilimanjaro. ‘How difficult can it be?’, was me thinking as a photographer. I still need to go back sometime, because it is harder than you think. Kilimanjaro is more elusive than most animals. Mostly covered in clouds, you might not actually know it is there during your whole stay.

This very scenic park is great for lots of elephants with some serious big tuskers among them. Although not great for predators, herds of grazers like buffalo and zebra can be found on the grassy plains. The marshy areas are also excellent birding spots.

Elephants under the snows of Kilimanjaro
Overall rating
4/5

Amboseli National Park is one of the classic parks of Kenya and a staple on most Kenyan safari circuits. Quite rightly it’s best known for its elephants and there are large herds of big tuskers here (these are some of the best studied elephants in Africa) who are completely unfazed by cars meaning very up-close encounters are possible. Amboseli is also where all those classic pictures of elephants with a backdrop of the snows of Mt Kilimanjaro are taken.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Amboseli isn’t one of my favourite parks. Whenever I have been the park has been something of hot dust bowl that’s scenically never inspired me much (and I am still yet to get the classic views of Kilimanjaro). I know that at the right time it can be green and lush, but aside from the areas of swamp where lots of animals gather, I have never seen it looking like that. Perhaps the other reason I’m not enthralled with Amboseli is because I don’t get wildly excited watching, or more precisely, photographing, elephants compared to some other animals (elephants are just large grey blobs whereas I prefer the colours and patterns of zebra, giraffe and the cats) and although there are a lot of other animals in Amboseli this is really a park that is above all else all about elephants.

So would I recommend a visit to Amboseli? Absolutely yes. Despite me being fairly non-plussed about the park, this is a classic of the Kenyan safari circuit for a very good reason. Most people love elephants and there’s probably no better Kenyan park for the long-nosed ones. It’s also a (relatively) small park meaning it would be a good one for a family safari.

Giant tuskers in the shadow of Kilimanjaro
Overall rating
4/5

I have two dominant images of Amboseli. The first is the spectacular views afforded of Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, whose peak actually lies across the border in Tanzania, but is nowhere seen to such advantage as from the plains of Amboseli, most frequently revealing itself from its cloudy blanket at dusk or dawn. The other is the mighty tuskers – arguably the most habituated population in East Africa – that range outside the park by night, but aggregate there by day, to forage in a series of lush marshes fed by underground streams that rise on Kilimanjaro. These marshes also support an excellent selection of plovers, herons and other water-associated birds, while back on terra forms, the park is home to large herds of buffalo, zebra, wildebeest and various antelope. My one quibble with this park is that it can become quite crowded with tourist vans, and on our most recent we were glad to stay in the neighboring Selenkay Conservancy, which is used exclusively by one small tented camp.

Guaranteed wildlife-viewing at the foot of Kilimanjaro
Overall rating
5/5

Amboseli has instant likeability and although it can be crowded with game-viewing vehicles, there are plenty of good reasons for its popularity. For a start, it’s a straightforward drive from Nairobi via the newish C102 road – the horribly rutted Namanga road can be avoided altogether now. Once there, it’s easily navigable and there’s a great choice of accommodation from Kenya Wildlife Service campsites to 5-star safari lodges. More importantly, animals are everywhere and well-used to vehicles, and there’s a variety of landscapes from sandy dust bowls with endless horizons to glistening lakes and swamps fringed with lush foliage. Highlights for me are watching the (many) elephant and buffalo half-submerged in the reed beds of the marshes, thousands of tail-flicking herbivores scattered across the open plains around Ol Tukai, and views of the emerald-green Enkongo Narok swamps from the top of Observation Hill. Predator numbers are low but they are there so look hard – I’ve seen a lioness escort her young from a thicket to drink in a stream and a family of cheetah emerge from woods to eye up prey on the savannah. While animal action is guaranteed, the sight of Kilimanjaro is not – except for occasional glimpses at sunrise and sunset, the formidable mountain is usually shrouded in a thick shawl of cloud.

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