Ironically, one of the enduring images of Kenya lies just over the border in Tanzania. There, like a gigantic pudding forming a surreal backdrop to some of Kenya's most quintessential landscapes, is Mount Kilimanjaro. Shimmering in the near-distance, its snow-capped presence looms so large you feel you could reach out and touch it -- when, indeed, it can be seen at all. In Kili's shadow are several of Kenya's most important game parks, clustered within its southern tip between the coast and the Tanzanian border.
Kilimanjaro -- which, had it not been for some colonial-era political wangling and suspect deal-signing, might well today have been a part of Kenya -- stands out as the dominant geographical feature here. Visible on a clear day (or, at least, in the early morning), it forms the perfect backdrop to images of large elephant herds that have found their way onto swaths of Kenyan marketing material.
Southern Kenya is really southeastern Kenya and is the country's largest wildlife-intensive region -- among its important preserves are Amboseli, known to have the most intensively studied elephants in Africa, and the enormous Tsavo National Park, so vast that it's divided into two distinct entities. Between these long-established parks are the little-known Chyulu Hills, which form a spine of undulating volcanic mounds that stretch across a magnificent, permanently green landscape. Although hardly discovered -- even many decades after Hemingway wrote about them -- the Chyulus stand out as one the country's most idyllically beautiful and unspoiled regions. Along with easily encountered wildlife and beautiful vistas is the immediate presence of the Maasai communities -- particularly around Amboseli and the Chyulus, where many have gone into partnerships with conservationists to protect massive tracts of land in an attempt to make them safe for animals to roam freely.
Scenically diverse -- with startling contrasts between dusty, arid terrain and lush, spring-fed forest -- this wildlife-rich corner of Kenya is easily accessible from both Nairobi and the coast. Tsavo is particularly convenient if you're looking to break up a beach holiday with a few days of game viewing -- you can drive from Mombasa to Tsavo along a good highway within hours and be ogling red elephants or stalking overly hormonal lions before lunch. Some argue that Amboseli long ago fell victim to the mass tourism market and has been overexploited, while wildlife sightings are patchy. But Amboseli's slightly ominous landscape -- its parched terrain interrupted by life-giving swamps and springs -- is a mesmerizing foil for Kili's looming presence. It's also quite possible to steer clear of the masses by staying in its smaller, classier camps and lodges. Chyulu Hills is the less commercial, more scenically enchanting option. But with arrival more difficult by road, and only private charters providing viable access to the region's two exclusive lodges, it remains for many an elusive, undiscovered gem -- and one well worth the extra effort.