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Amboseli National Park 'Kilimanjaro's Royal Court'

Amboseli National Park offers one of the most classic and breathtaking views of Kenya, the gigantic Kilimanjaro mountain, with its 5,985 m dominating the plains like a powerful god ruling the world from his silver throne. Before the discovery of the mountain for the western world by the missionary Johannes Rebmann in 1848, ancient swahili and arab legends used to tell about a great inland mountain, in the summit of which lived a terrible god who punished those who dared to approach his dwelling by paralysing their hands and feet. In this very poetic way the inhabitants of the tropical shores described a phenomenon that was alien to them: freezing.

Curiously enough, Kilimanjaro is not within the limits of Amboseli, in fact it is not even in Kenya. But the Tanzanians have not found yet the way to avoid that one of the most famous views of their mountain is provided by their neighbours. Actually, if you look at the map you will tell that the absurdly straight line that divides both countries detours to leave the mount in Tanzanian territory. The reason? Upon the partition of East Africa into two spheres of influence, German and British, England had two mountains vs. none for Germany, so queen Victoria gave the Kilimanjaro as a birthday present to her nephew-grandson, kaiser Wilhelm II, and the deal kept everyone satisfied.

The national park was gazetted in 1974 with an extension of 392 km², though it is surrounded by a much larger reserve in which the Maasai people settle and breed their cattle. Amboseli is located in the Rift Valley province, close to the Tanzanian border northwest of Kilimanjaro. Despite the high temperatures, the park's lands are elevated above 1,180 m. The mountain's summits remain hidden by the clouds for the most part of the day, dawn being the best moment to catch a view of its snowy square head.

The Amboseli territory belongs to the land of the Maasai, the legendary tribe of nomad warriors and shepherds that feed on a mixture of blood and milk. The Maasai keep living today in the reserve surrounding the park the way they always did, grazing their herds around the plains and moving their household searching for the best pastures. Along their migrations, restricted today by encroachment of their territories, the Maasai build their settlings, the enkang' or more popularly manyatta or emanyata, using wooden sticks and poles plastered with cow manure. With their long and slender bodies, their proud and hieratic faces, their colored clothes and their plated and red-stained hair, the Maasai are a visually pleasant motif for the photographer, but for your own safety never take pictures of them without their consent.

Amboseli is a very fragile ecosystem, submitted to great seasonal variations. The overall sensation is of a dry land, in fact annual rainfalls are scarce, in the range of 350-400 mm. The northwestern area is occupied by the dry bed of the Amboseli Lake, which for a large part of the year is nothing but a huge frying pan covered with shattered saline earth populated with dusty whirlwinds. The mirages blend with the herds of zebra and wildebeest that traverse the scalding plain one after one, crestfallen and with a weary and lost look.

During the wet season, the rains flood the lake bed and the surrounding area. Though, this plentiful water does not sustain a rich vegetal variety. The cause is the high salt deposits in the lake bed, which the flood dilute and disperse hindering plant growth. For this reason few trees grow in the park, only small patches of acacia and some palm trees far off the lake. Contrariwise, salt-rich pastures grow and are very appreciated by the herbivores.

Despite the first impression of a dusty and arid land, actually Amboseli is overflowing with water all the year round, but under the ground. The snows of Kilimanjaro melt and flow downhill, soaking the porous subsoil layers of volcanic rocks. Waters converge into various underground streams, that rise in two clear water springs in the center of the park and ooze from down under in several points giving birth to large marshes like the Loginya Swamp, in which papyrus grow and elephants, hippos and buffalos find their particular spas, together with their accompanying cattle egrets.

Amboseli's geography is so simple that its description brings to mind the pirates' treasures maps. The vast plain starts in the dry bed of Amboseli Lake, that welcomes the visitor with its desolating image. Southward and eastward the area named Ol Tukai shows up, a patch of luxuriant green that hides some of the park's lodges. Following southward there is a palm tree forest, a cool oasis that supplies shade, water and shelter for plenty of wildlife. To both sides of the forest it's the swamps' reign, and at the western part rises the Observation Hill, the only height in the park, a smooth hill to be climbed on foot that displays a magnificent view of the whole park and beyond. Southward, the layers of volcanic rocks expelled by Kilimanjaro some hundreds of years back rise to the surface, giving the landscape a lunar aspect. Right at the edge of the lava flow there is another lodge, the Amboseli Serena. Finally, at the south border of the park lay several Maasai villages next to the Tortilis Camp.

Amboseli is threatened by continuous pressure, both from tourists and natives. The flat and sparse geography encourages off-road driving, but this is a highly destructive activity that the park's authorities attempt to stop. On the other hand, the locals keep grazing their herds within the park borders, despite the prohibition. But this is a thorny issue, since the Maasai were already thrown away once from their historical dwelling lands, when the city of Nairobi was founded.