Sounds of the wild African night filtered through the vast wilderness as Edwin Koome rested in his dark cabin late one night.
As he listened in awe to the scampering hooves of herbivores escaping from hungry predators and the occasional, gutturals roars of King Lion that swept through the vast bush land, he was startled by a bang on his door.
Under the light of a starry sky stood an enormous elephant, flapping its ears, its long tusks hugging the ground.
“I was in big trouble, so I quickly retreated into the room and said what could have been my last prayer,” says Koome. We are on a morning game drive in Amboseli National Park and our tour guide Koome fills the silence with stories of his experiences in the bush.
Apparently, his past encounters with Tim, one of the most popular bull elephants in the park and among jumbo watchers globally, had made a lasting impression on him. Tim, 50, is a patriarch with some of the longest tusks in Africa.
Amboseli is the place for close encounters with jumbos. Half an hour after leaving our base at Ol Tukai Lodge we have seen several herds of elephants hurdled in families of between 10 and 15. As Koome winds up the story of how Tim spared his life, we are treated to yet another view of a family herding nearby.
According KWS, there are about 900 jumbos in the park, but an estimated 2,000 in the wider Amboseli ecosystem. Overall, Kenya has about 26,000 jumbos.
Given the huge population easily seen at close range and hosting some of the largest tuskers, Amboseli is considered a favourite spot for jumbo lovers.
Located near the border town of Loitokitok in Kajiado county, the 392 square kilometre park features diverse landscapes that are in part dry and scrubby, then transition into green wetlands and endless savanna plains all set beneath the shadows of Mt Kilimanjaro on the Tanzania border.
Inside the park is Lake Amboseli, a modest water body inhabited by a variety of birds, including pink-feathered flamingos.
Another family of elephants is enjoying mud baths in a nearby soggy swamp, with four buffalos later joining in.
Who annoyed mama?
Further along the park, as shafts of sunlight seep through the misty mountain clouds and gently bounce off the dry, golden grass, we are treated to some elephant drama.
A mature female elephant from a family of about 10 thuds her feet on the ground, flaps her ears and trumpets wildly. Unlike the rest of the herd grazing peacefully, she is visibly agitated.
The big animal swivels its trunk, then retreats. But in what seems like a quick change of mind, she charges with renewed vengeance, her eyes set on a jungle green land-cruiser with an open rooftop. In a convoy of more than 10 vans, the elephant is agitated by just one van. “Someone inside that car must have annoyed mama elephant,” quips Koome.
Sensing the hostility, the green Land Cruiser drives away. The female lowers its trunk and walks away in a different direction. Older female elephants referred to as matriarchs often lead herds. The matriarchs have a powerful memory that allows them to remember friends and enemies and deal with them accordingly.
We drive past herds of impalas, wildebeests and zebras , African crowned cranes, ostriches and geese pecking at insects along the lake.
Serena and Ol Tukai lodge are the only two hotels within the national park. The park is feeling the impact of the high tourism season that started last month and ends in September, receiving an influx of tourists mostly from US and Europe keen on maximising on the summer break.“Visitors take advantage of that time to visit Africa,” says Kathurima Mburugu, Manager, Amboseli Serena Lodge.
The peak season is also anchored on the Maasai Mara-Serengeti wildebeest migration that starts in July all through to October. Amboseli Serena is currently enjoying 85 per cent occupancy, up from 40 per cent during the low season.
We drive back to the 170-capacity Ol Tukai for lunch. Situated at the heart of the park, the rustic resort with elegant villas nestled under canopies of acacia trees offers spectacular game viewing. Throughout the day large herds of jumbos mill around the electric fence that barricades the hotel compound from wildlife.
At sunset, we return for an evening game-drive and watch a pride of 12 young lions hunt. A lioness walks slowly across short, dry grass and then lies down in a crouch, its eyes set on a herd of gazelles.
By now close to 30 tour cars — alerted by other tour guides on radio call— have gathered to witness the hunt. Confused, the gazelles watch the cars around them intently, tails wagging, sensing danger.
When the lion stealthily raises its head, the gazelles scatter. With its eyes glowing intently through the savanna, the big cat leaves empty-handed, probably to strategise again. First half of the game is over.
Round Two: Another lioness brushes past our vehicle and begins stalking the impalas. For this determined pride of lions, it does not matter how long it takes to make a kill, for the King of the Jungle and his family must have dinner tonight…