Observation Hill - Normatior
Stand on the top of Observation Hill at the south-east end of Amboseli National Park, around which most of the larger mammals tend to congregate, and the whole park lies spread out below in a patchwork of lakes and swamps reflecting the blue brilliance of the sky. The land shades are of muted pale ochre, chalk white and vestigial green with, here and there, scattered pockets of darker green oases — some small, some larger — of acacia trees and palms.
All around, and not so very much changed since it was first seen by a white man's eyes in 1883, is essential Africa in all its contrasts of beauty and harshness, wilderness, desert and watering places. This is tropical Africa, less than three degrees south of the equator.
The view from the hill is vast, encouraging the eye to linger on it. Few places, for such a short climb, can be so rewarding in terms of the immense distances revealed, not only the park's whole geography but the terrain far beyond, of hills, plains and mountains, all canopied by a boundless sky.
Carry binoculars and bird book when setting out to climb the hill. It is only a short walk up from where vehicles are left on the level ground at the base of the slope, which is stony but walkable. For keen birdwatchers, a profitable day can be spent identifying the avifauna alone, listed for Amboseli as 425 different species. Raptors glide the air currents overhead, but are not likely to approach the hilltop viewpoint until all humans are safely out of sight. Man is still the enemy, with or without a gun.
The brackish, bottle-green, more permanent of the seasonal swamps, Enkongo (or Ngong) Narok, Ol Tukai and Ologinya (Ol Okenya), fed by the meltwaters and springs from Mount Kilimanjaro behind the hill, are the homes of hippos and prolific birdlife. They stand out vividly against the sunbleached plain, their waters sometimes daubed, as if by an artist's hand, with the palest pink of flamingos and the white of pelicans. These and other watermasses, which can appear almost overnight making this part of Amboseli a mini-lakeland, provide the wildlife for miles around with drinking water, which is at a premium beyond the park.
In the imagination, substitute for the elephants now lazily cooling off in the swamps below, groups of family-loving, ten-metre-tall hadrosaurs peacefully feeding with their young all around them - the crested, web-footed, sun-seeking dinosaurs of prehistory when great lakes covered the land. Add wheeling, screaming pterodactyls to darken the sky and you are back sixty-five million years. It is their sort of landscape still.
On the eastern side of the dried-up lake bed which gives the park its name - Amboseli, Embosel or Empusel - Lakes Kioko, Simek and Conch have water in them most of the year round, except during drought years. Fed by the Simek River flowing out of the Enkongo Narok swamp, their surrounding beaches - sometimes papyrus-fringed and with ever-diminishing patches of acacia woodland - attract indigenous and migrant water birds. Thousands upon thousands of conch shells on its floor gave Lake Conch its name, discovered during the clearance in the 1950s of the (then) waterless river bed. Of the several waterholes on the park's south-western edge, only one, at the base of Kitirua Hill, is visible.
On the advantage afforded by the hill, it can be seen instantly where to find, when back on the flatlands below, closer viewing of the herds of elephant, buffalo, giraffe and other species on the park floor. A keen eye is good enough to identify the larger mammals, but binoculars are essential for spotting the park's smaller denizens. Black-maned lions, for which Amboseli was once famous, are no longer found as easily as they once were when they were the rulers of the plains. Cheetah and leopard, which, when seen, are usually in Kimana area both inside and outside the park, are more likely to be sighted from the ground.
In Kenya's peak season, Christmas through to Easter,when the weather is usually at its best, the hill is climbed frequently for the panoramic views it offers, but as a rule'tourist people' rarely stay up on it for long. During the months of May, June, July and November a splendid solitude can be experienced there - even, with luck, for the whole day. It is about as near as one can get, at this point in time, to seeing this part of Africa as it once used to be, give or take a minibus or two.
Observation Hill - or Normatior, to give it the dignity of its Maasai name - is satisfactorily cone-shaped, as are most of volcanic eruptions on the slopes and at the base of Kilimanjaro, which towers behind to the south. The word is pronounced Norma-tee-or, though the spoken last consonants of many Maasai words are often almost lost. The Simek River could be written Seemeh; hence a variety of spellings on old maps.
Almost alongside Normatior is its flat-topped twin, El Merisherri. Both hills act as useful landmarks for visitors driving their own or hired vehicles. The park is frugally signposted and the twin hills are visible from a considerable distance away.
The barren, usually waterless, expanse of Lake Amboseli lies to the south-west, west and north of Normatior, its suncracked and deeply fissured surface pitted with elephant footprints - and the occasional human ones - and haphazardly criss-crossed with tyre tracks. A dry-weather track bisects the lake, usable only between wet seasons. This is no place to get bogged down. Advice about using it can be obtained at the gate. In another of the water miracles which have taken place irregularly at Amboseli in the last half of this century, 1991 saw the slow filling of the main lake on its eastern side from the gradually increasing waters of Lake Simek and Lake Conch.
The lake bed - 1,190 metres (3,900 feet) above sea level - is huge, extending beyond the park and across Kenya's border into Tanzania. It escapes the more picturesque features of the Great Rift Valley lakes further west - Manyara, Natron and Magadi - but can display macabre phenomena which are exclusively its own. These will not be seen from the top of the hill, only from lake bed level. Often in the form of bizarre shapes, they can be little short of unnerving as a first experience. Can one really believe one's eyes?
The mirages are not just of distant sheets of shimmering water where none exists. Grotesque and alarmingly-shaped bodies, larger than man, appear to be advancing upon their startled viewer at a determined, mechanical, prancing pace - almost as if loping along on air above the ground. Their weird forms may change many times during their approach: monstrously tall, thin and overpowering one moment, ludicrously squat and box-like on spindly legs the next. It is broad daylight, but it doesn't lessen a reaction of uneasy disbelief. But take the initiative and go forward with courage to meet the unknown and it will turn out to be merely some distant, quite harmless, solitary grazing zebra where the thin grass meets the cracked and flattened mud.
A gloomy, equally as lonely wildebeest can innocently spirit up an illusion just as nasty, as can even the unmenacing stump of a long dead tree.
Less heartstopping, dust devils galore can be seen from the top of Normatior and are very much a feature of the park: mad, pinkish-ochre spirals of dust whipped up by the inland wind, increasing in height and volume as they whirl erratically across the plains, only to collapse quite suddenly as if by cosmic defeat. These are the capricious jokers of the plains and it is not unusual to witness up to a busy dozen of them cavorting about, all at the same time, in a short-lived ecstasy of irresponsibility. Unlike Nairobi traffic they never seem to collide.
It is Mount Kilimanjaro, however, the continent's highest mountain - and many insist its most beautiful - which gives Amboseli National Park the scenic backdrop which is unparalleled, even in Africa, rising sheer out of the encircling plains in monumental contrast with the moonscape of the dried-up lake bed and flatlands with their dusting of silver ash. This is the greatest single-standing mountain in the world. A dramatic 5,896 metres (19,340 feet) above sea level, its spectacular peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi dominate the whole of Maasailand at all times of the day, even when playing hide-and-seek amongst low clouds. At 5,149 metres (16,894 feet), Mawenzi is Africa's third highest peak.
Mountain of ancient legend and romance, it was up Kilimanjaro's rugged slopes to the snowline, according to Kenya's veteran historian Edward Rodwell, that the ill and ageing Lion of Judah, King Menelik I, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, was carried on his throne by faithful members of his huge retinue, to die there in dignity and peace. They were journeying back to Shoa (Ethiopia) from the Queen of Sheba's mines in 'distant Ophir - now called New Sofala on modern maps.
Many have sought it, but King Solomon's ring, which Menelik was said to be wearing, has never been found. Nor, for that matter, have King Solomon's mines, and what of the throne itself? But did he turn his face towards Ethiopia before he died? Was his last sight of the continent which gave him birth northwards, across Amboseli?
Another curious story is the one used by the author Ernest Hemingway as an introduction to his Snows of Kilimanjaro. It was that there is a leopard's dried and frozen carcass embedded in the ice high up on the mountain's western summit. No one, Hemingway complained, has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.
International derision and disbelief surrounded the first reports received in Europe and America in the middle of the nineteenth century that a snow-capped mountain, just south of the equator, had been sighted by the German missionaries Johannes Rebmann and Johann Ludwig Krapf.
Rebmann had been the first, in May 1848, to see what he thought was a dazzling white cloud over a distant massive mountain. Told by his guide that what he saw was not a cloud but baridi (cold), he was not slow to conclude that at that height it could only be snow. He was to see the mountain many times again. Krapf, who accompanied him in November and December 1849, wrote in his autobiography that he himself 'beheld it first thirty-six leagues from Mombasa' and afterwards from Kenya's Ukamba country 'whence from ever elevation the silver-crowned summit of the lofty mountain was visible.
Yet perhaps the most astounding of all sightings before the turn of the century was that recorded by Francis Hall who, in 1893 after a night of heavy rain, saw Kilimanjaro totally covered in snow - not just the peaks. Hall, formerly with the Imperial British East Africa Company, and then with the Administration until his untimely death in 1901, was not a man given to exaggeration.
One-fifth of all the ice in Africa is said to lie on Kibo's noble dome and on the lesser, snaggle-toothed peak of Mawenzi. Talking months, the meltwaters filter down through the porous soil of the mountainside to feed — often with bubbling, gushing springs- the swamps and lakes around the mountain's base.
In a visual experience of the most memorable kind, this whole gigantic vista of mountain, marsh and desert wonderland with its animals, birds, amphibians, sparse flora and tree-life, can be viewed at leisure from Normatior.
For maximum theatrical effect stand atop the hill at sunrise and watch the snows of Kilimanjaro become slowly highlighted from the east in iridescent pink against a still dark indigo and purple sky, when the whole sleeping park comes to life below as every visible moving creature continues its endless pursuit of the sustenance upon which its individual survival depends.