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260km (161 miles) SE of Nairobi, 300km (186 miles) NW from Mombasa

At the foot of Kilimanjaro, which usually floats on a big fluff of cloud just across the border, Amboseli National Park -- compressed into a mere 390 sq. km (152 sq. miles) -- stands out as one of Kenya's most famous wildlife preserves, second only in popularity to the Masai Mara. If you have a yen to see large agglomerations of tuskers -- big, well-balanced, unthreatened families that are habituated to the presence of humans and their vehicles -- then this is an essential stop, although not necessarily one where you'll escape the crowds.

Comprising several different ecosystems ranging from sulfur-rich springs, swamps, and marshes to lava-rock scrubland, open plains, acacia woodland, and a shallow lake that spends most of its life as a dry salt pan, Amboseli -- which means "Salty Dust" -- is a mercurial environment heavily impacted by changing weather patterns and subject to the destructive tendencies of tree-toppling elephants.

Extraordinarily flat, this often eerie, surreal landscape is given to periods of harsh drought. Dust devils dance across the plains, and the fragile circle of life hangs permanently in the balance. At its most brutal, the terrain is apocalyptic, desertlike. There's a sense of foreboding here, heightened by the helplessness of animals that traipse through the barren wilderness, stalked by death. Skeletons and carcasses litter the land. Hyenas lope across the plains scavenging for easy targets, tackling weakened wildebeest. Flesh-eating marabou storks -- undertakers perched at the fringes of swamps -- hover menacingly, and vultures soar not far above the ground. The scene should evoke misery, but instead it is a mesmerizing, primordial African spectacle.

Strange as all this is to witness, the real mystery of Amboseli lies in its ability to transform, to reveal itself in different guises. A dry, dusty expanse in parts, it's otherwise strewn with immense lava rocks spewed up by Kilimanjaro during its final eruption, and elsewhere -- around its perennial swamps, especially Enkongo Narok (Black and Benevolent), and springs fed by life-saving melt-water runoff from Mount Kilimanjaro -- it's eternally lush and green. Other bodies of water, such as the vast, alluvial, dried-up bed of Amboseli Lake, appear and disappear. A dry, shimmering mirage that's entirely dormant for much of the year, the lake fills with water only during the rainy seasons, if the rains come at all. And when the rains do come, Amboseli transforms overnight, instantly turning from brown to green, its vegetation exploding to life. But it's during the dry seasons, when Amboseli's swamplands are the only source of water for miles, that animals are most evident in the park. When these life-sustaining waters work their magic, extraordinary numbers of game do indeed flourish here; the concentration of wildlife includes a magnificent array of waterbirds -- herons, storks, Egyptian geese -- and as many as six different species of vulture. You'll also spot buffalos, zebras, wildebeest, gazelles, Maasai giraffes, lions, and cheetahs.

And then there are the elephants, Amboseli's pride and joy. They're believed to be the most studied and understood elephants in Africa -- more than 1,400 of them, comprising approximately 58 matriarchal families, roam this terrain and include the oldest and biggest individuals left on the continent. However, the summer of 2009 witnessed one of the area's worst droughts, so numbers could be much smaller. Closely studied by researcher Cynthia Moss for more than 25 years, Amboseli's pachyderms are known intimately by many of the guides who work here.

The bad news is that, as one of Kenya's most popular parks, Amboseli retains reminders that it had its heyday in the '70s and '80s -- essentially boom time for a number of big hotel-style operations established for an inelegant strain of mass-market tourist that spawned thoroughly unromantic images of a Kenyan safari dominated by fleets of minibuses careening through the African bush with Kilimanjaro in the background. Amboseli's credentials -- and those of Kenya itself -- have been a little suspect ever since. Yet while Amboseli remains a busy destination with even more titanic-size lodges today than there were 5 years ago, your experience need not be ruined by the human hordes. It'd be worth your while to stick to the intimate camps if privacy and a sense of seclusion feature among your priorities.

A Beast by Any Other Name -- Sadly, Amboseli is devoid of rhino -- the last members of the park's black rhino population were relocated to Tsavo West in 1995 when poaching finally proved too huge a threat to their continued existence. You may, however, hear occasional references to "Amboseli rhinos" -- it's a total misnomer, of course, and is actually a nickname for the feisty little warthogs that call the park home.