Amboseli -Oltukai swamp drive

One of  the first things Andrew Beck of Wild-Eye asked me was what did I want out of the Amboseli-Tsavo trip?  Apart from wanting to go to a new destination and all its associated excitement, I wanted to learn new ways to re-frame the way I look at my subject and scene. I wanted to learn to see the world in a different way. Andrew, you did that for me in a number of ways – for which I thank you. The first was you took us to an amazing place. Amboseli was a revelation,and its diversity and abundance were spellbinding.

For the purposes of these posts, I have divided our Amboseli trip into a number of regions and drives, because each offered us very different scenery, wildlife and photographic opportunities. In this second post on our Amboseli trip I have focused on Oltukai which is the central zone in the park. This area starts just west of the Ol Tukai Lodge which is nestled in an acacia forest and includes a long swamp area surrounded by dry low grass plains and stretches west towards Observation Hill to a small dam about a kilometre past it. From a distance, we saw a huge flock of flamingoes in shallow pan water on the left hand side of the swamp area and tried to get closer to watch and photograph them.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”

~Jawaharlal Nehru
I had preconceived ideas about Amboseli and it was so much more than its famous elephants and much more than just a national park in an arid area of Kenya. The swamps and the birdlife were a big surprise. At the edge of the swamps we saw numerous Grey Crowned Cranes.


Our time in Amboseli was characterised by extensive cloud so we got lots of practice working in relatively low light. Not only did the clouds softened the contrast but we were able to slow the shutter speeds giving us opportunities to try some panning. This was the start of trying something new. I still need much practice but this was a new technique which will enable me to keep shooting creatively in low light.


Another aspect that Andrew emphasised repeatedly was creating context. Backgrounds are as important as the subject and in some instances more so. It usually helps to give the viewer a sense of the environment in which you found your subject. This Greenshank (identified by its slightly upturned bill) was foraging in the reeds in the midst of a large swamp. This scene reflected the peace and solitude. To convey a sense of this peace and solitude I included more of the reeds.


On the road leading west through the swamp towards the airstrip we found a very productive area for photographing birds. This occurred by happenchance as we were trying to get close to the large flock of flamingoes. Close to the right hand side of the elevated dirt road through the Oltukai swamp we found an amazing variety of birdlife. This Purple Heron was hunting in the long swamp grass but keeping an eye on us all the while.


It was intriguing to see so many Long-toed Lapwings in the swamp area, as the only other place I have seen them is along the Chobe river in Botswana.


We saw this huge flock of Lesser Flamingoes and as if to emphasise the abundance of the scene this male Saddle-billed Stork flew past.


While we were watching the flamingoes there was action all around us. This Black-winged Stilt chased a Red-billed Teal out of its patch of water. Perhaps this Stilt had chicks because I have never seen stilts chasing teal before.


Although the sun was not shining through the clouds it was bright. I liked the sepia coloured reflection of this Wood Sandpiper in the dead still water on an open patch of the swamp.


As a keen birder this patch proved to be highly productive. Minutes after the stilt-teal chase this female Painted Snipe flew in to forage right in front of us. Unusually in the bird world, the female is the colourful one of the Painted Snipe pair.


Once away from the attention of a maternal Black- winged Stilt, this Red Billed Teal settled down. This particular character had just finished bathing and was flapping its wings to shake off the water.


In the middle distance beyond where we were watching the Red-billed Teal, there was a mixed congregation of Lesser and Greater Flamingoes.


Even with these beautiful flamingoes further out I could not take my eyes off the female Painted Snipe. This painted lady was stunningly beautiful – nature can put on a show.

“I’m an adventurer, looking for treasure”
Paulo Coelho


I don’t know how much time passed but it was time to move on out of the swamp into the drier part beyond. On our way, I took this image because of the surprising colour variations in the fore and middle ground. This is part of the unexpected spell that Amboseli casts on its visitors.


Further on beyond Observation Hill at the junction of three roads, a small dam was bustling with life. We watched this juvenile Goliath Heron hunting, without success.


Just downstream of the small dam wall, the water course turned into a swamp. The swamp was a narrow ribbon of water and emerald green vegetation flowing through an otherwise dry area with zebra and wildebeest grazing on the far side. In the foreground was  a Bohor’s Reedbuck foraging in the swamp. This is another example of the astounding variation in the scenery of this park.


Perched on a long stem of grass next to this swamp was this Malachite Kingfisher – a little jewel in this incredible variety.


Close to the Malachite Kingfisher was what I think was this juvenile Stout Cisticola.


Without moving, we watched this family group of  elephants walking up along the side of the swamp. The contrast in the light was muted by the cloud and the blue foothills of Mount “Kili” provided a perfect background.

“Live as if you were going to die tomorrow,

Learn as if you were going to live forever.”

~Mahatma Ghandi


The elephant seem to love feeding in the swamp. Not only do they keep cool but there is plenty to eat.


Some of the youngsters got deep into their food with a Cattle Egret keeping watch.


The ground next to the swamp was dry and dusty. Once the elephants had finished feeding in the swamp they proceeded to dust themselves. This family’s dusting session was interrupted by the attentions of a roaming bull.


Often we came across young elephants lying down on the ground among the family. I have never seen this before in the middle of the day. Perhaps this is a sign that they feel comfortable enough to rest like this, and the adults were very relaxed.


The bull was trying his luck, but the females were too preoccupied with their youngsters.


“The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams.”
~ Oprah Winfrey

Away from the groves and forests, the dry areas in Amboseli offer ‘big skies’.


There were lots of youngsters in the park. 


On our way back from the dam we found a place to stop and again watch the flamingoes.  This was part of a large group of Lesser Flamingoes who seemed to be congregating and bathing rather than feeding.   


Andrew told us that the year before there had been no water in this part of the swamp and no flamingoes. The amount of water in the swamps had partly to do with the rains the previous summer but more to do with the melting snow from Mount Kilimanjaro in the background to the west. 


A Bohor Reedbuck wandering through a shallow part of the swamp. I really liked the colour graduations.


“Let me, O let me bathe my soul in colours; let me swallow the sunset and drink the rainbow.”
~ Kahlil Gibran


A lone wildebeest disturbed the flock of Lesser Flamingoes. When this number of flamingoes takes to the sky it is a blaze of colour. 


“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Not only is this a spectacle of movement and colour but these flamingoes could be heard from far off.


Every now and then something (often a Fish Eagle) would disturb the flock which would take to the air. The flock would fly in anti-clockwise circles above the open water of the pan, not quite a murmuration, but they all circled together.


Back along the elevated dirt road through the swamp towards the Ol Tukai Lodge we found this adult Goliath Heron hunting in the swamp grasses alongside the road.


A small group of Fluvous Whistling Ducks rest in the shallow of waters of a pan in the swamp.


“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
~ Terry Pratchett

There were also small flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks.


Red-billed Teal relaxing away from the attentions of a protective Black-winged Stilt.


The male Saddle-billed Stork we saw flying by as we started our swamp drive was having some success in the waterlogged swamp grasses.


On our way back to the Serena Lodge, probably 300 metres from the lodge entrance we stopped to watch this huge bull walk out of the acacia savanna, with cloud shrouded Mount Kilimanjaro in the background.


“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
~ Christopher McCandless

Explore, seek to understand, marvel at its interconnectedness, and let it be

Have fun,


2 thoughts on “Amboseli -Oltukai swamp drive

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