Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro Mountain is popularly referred to as the “Roof of Africa” because it is the tallest mountain in Africa reaching a height of 5,895m (19,341ft) above sea level. It is also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.
Kilimanjaro is the most popular mountain hiking and climbing destination in Africa attracting tens of thousands of hiking enthusiasts every year who take on the challenge of trekking to the highest spot in Africa, the snowcapped Uhuru peak.
Many who cannot hike Kili look forward to catching a glimpse of the roof of Africa and taking this iconic photo during their safari trip, and, indeed the world’s tallest free-standing mountain is quite a sight to behold, as this massive conic structure with a white crest (snow) elevates above the African plains that are home to the big five and towers through the floating clouds pushed by the monsoon winds blowing from the coastal Indian Ocean.
The controversy of the best place to see Mount Kilimanjaro…
The Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania near the border with Kenya. Therefore, you can see the Kilimanjaro Mountain from Kenya as well. One of the places in Kenya that will give you a brilliant view of the mountain is the Amboseli National Park, so much so that Kenyans have convinced travelers that Kenya is the best place to see the Mount Kilimanjaro, of course to the ire of the Tanzanians who have the mountain.
But, is it true that you will get the best views of Mt. Kilimanjaro from Kenya/Amboseli? Well to appreciate this question you need to know the two sides (or call them faces) of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Understanding the two sides of Kilimanjaro Mountain..
There is the windward side of mountain Kilimanjaro which receives more rain because the winds blow from this side. This side of the mountain is very lush with heavy vegetation and forests. This windward side faces Tanzanian mainland.
Meanwhile the other side of the mountain is the leeward side or rain shadow that receives less rains because the winds loose most of the moisture on the windward side before reaching the leeward side. The land on the leeward side is therefore largely of dry semi-arid plains. This is the side of the mountain that faces Kenya mainland and the epitome of its effect is the Amboseli national park which is a dusty plain in the foothills below the Kilimanjaro
The windward side in Tanzania does not provide the clearest views of the whole mountain due to the vegetation, while the leeward side provides sweeping views of the Kili.
Amboseli in Kenya is arguably the best place to see the roof Africa.
But, if you ask most safari goers fresh from a safari trip to Kenya, that, which is the best place to visit for the safari tour in Kenya? Most if not all, will tell you in an instant it is only Masai Mara and nowhere else, but chances are they went to just that one park or they visited Kenya during the great migration season (June – Oct) and were simply blown away by this natural phenomenon in the Mara.
So, in this article I attempt to compare these two parks that seem incomparable. However, it is not because I want to create a bias in you for one of the two parks, but simply try to make you appreciate both parks.
So, the question again, how does Masai Mara and Amboseli compare when it comes to game and wildlife experiences? Which destination would give you the best safari in Kenya?
Game drives and other activities for seeing animals
The game drive or safari drive is the main activity for exploring the African bush to see animals and other wildlife in the parks. All game drives are done in safari cars which can be a jeep/truck or van, and both of them basically have a popup roof for you to stand in the car and have a 360 view of the bush so that you will not miss anything.
So, how do the games in Masai Mara and Amboseli compare?
The Mara is quite vast and much bigger than Amboseli, and is made of vast grasslands which are not hard to explore. The drive tracks in the Mara are longer and cover nearly all corners of the park. So you can have many game drives in the Mara and not get tired and each day would bring a new experience with different sightings. If you want to spend more time in the African bush and not get bored it is therefore the best park in Kenya.
On the other hand, Amboseli National Park is a small park and most animals concentrate around marshes and wetlands, especially during the dry season. It is therefore much easier to find and see most animals in Amboseli as the drive tracks go along the marshes where the animals are a few meters from you. Amboseli being small means it is easier to explore than Masai Mara and in a single day can cover all parts. If you want a quick safari in Kenya to see as much wildlife as possible then Amboseli is a better option than the Mara.
Additional activities to do
Apart from the game drive, additional activities you can do in Masai Mara to improve your game experience include the balloon safaris offered throughout the reserve and in conservancies, walking safaris which are offered in the private conservancies around the Mara, horseback riding also offered in some conservancies
Meanwhile, additional activities in Amboseli include the balloon safaris.
Amount of wildlife you can tick off during the safari
The Mara has a bigger volume of wildlife, but because of the vastness of the plains and migration which displaces some wildlife, you might miss seeing some wildlife unless if you stay longer in the reserve.
On the other hand, animals in Amboseli concentrate around the marshes which makes spotting more wildlife in the shortest period of life.
Which park gives the best sightings of lions?
The Mara by far is the best place to see lions in Kenya. There is no chance of missing lions in Masai Mara, in fact, the Mara is all about how many prides you have spotted by the end of the day. You can see as many as 5 prides on a single day’s safari drive. You will see lions under a thicket hiding from the scotching sun, in the plains scanning for prey, under a tree or shrub tearing up a kill, or by the river banks taking a sip in the water after feasting on a delicious antelope.
Meanwhile Amboseli too offers high chances of sighting lions but there is also a possibility of missing them because they tend to hide in the bushes around the marshes. Or the views may be a bit distant. But also, on a good day you can get the best up-close views of the lions if you are lucky to find them just by the edge of a swamp or lake.
Best sightings of other big cats – leopard, hyena, cheetah
Leopard – Leopards are difficult to find everywhere because of their solitary nature. The Mara offers the best chances of seeing them. Unlikely to see on in Amboseli Hyena – Amboseli is Hyena country! You can’t miss them. Due to the vastness of the Mara plains you will need a bit of luck to encounter a hyena pride. Cheetah – The Mara provides good chances of seeing cheetahs. It is actually easier to see cheetahs than leopards in the Mara. Meanwhile I am not even sure there are cheetahs in the Amboseli.
Birds and birding
The Mara and Amboseli are excellent birding destinations hosting many species. Either park may be a favorite for you depending on which species you are looking forward. The Mara is great for grassland birds, and especially birds of prey. Meanwhile Amboseli’s marshes and swamps provide great water birding in addition to other habitats.
On a birding outing where you want to tick off as many birds as possible, Amboseli is simply a birding haven! The Marshes and swamps provide such up-close views of so many wetland birds from a few meters away. In addition to the wetlands, the savannah and woodlands of Amboseli provide may special birds of the semi-arid region. Amboseli provides the best chances of sighting the Taveta Golden Weaver, an East African endemic.
The dry dusty plain of the Amboseli, strolled by huge herds of elephants marching towards a water source in one of the many wetlands fed with water by underground rivers originating from the towering Kilimanjaro mountains in the background covered with white snow, is a sight to behold! The scenery of Amboseli is surreal and cannot be experienced anywhere else.