Nairobi resident Rupi Mangat seeks refuge in the Aberdares, home to the elusive bongo and the African crowned eagle, as well as the setting for the recently refurbished Treetops Lodge, with its royal connections
I saw my first wild bongo (the magnificent copper-coloured forest antelope with ivory-tipped horns and white stripes) as it dashed through the Hagenia forest on the high slopes of the Aberdares National Park. The mist was descending on the peaks in the late afternoon, spritzing moss-clad trees that dripped with wisps of old man’s beard. Faint with exhaustion and lack of oxygen after a hike to the highest point of the massif, Ol Donyo la Satima, the sighting gave me fresh energy to complete my journey. I’ve been hooked on the Aberdares ever since.
In 1883, explorer Joseph Thomson was camping at an altitude of around 2,750m when he woke to see, emerging from the mist, a fine mountain range of about 80km in length, rising to an altitude of around 4,000m. In nearby marshes he saw, for the first time, red hot pokers which – although similar to those found in English gardens – were new to science. The exuberant blooms of Kniphofia thomsonii were named after him, while Thomson christened the mountains in honour of the president of the Royal Geographical Society which had funded his expedition through the uncharted terrain that is now modern-day Kenya.
The Aberdares range is famous for its majestic peaks, moorlands and waterfalls. Part of it, protected as the Aberdares National Park and covering 767 square kilometres, is home to the elusive leopard, giant forest hog, and the bongo. I have yet to see the giant forest hog ‘discovered’ by the infamous Richard Meinertzhagen – who killed a Nandi chief in cold blood after luring him to a ‘peace’ meeting in the late 19th century.
Gazetted in 1950, the year that Nairobi attained city status, the Aberdares is one of the five main natural ‘water towers’ in Kenya. Nairobi depends on the mountains – clearly visible from the city on a fine day – as a crucial source of supply. In addition, over half of Kenya’s electricity is generated by water flowing from the Aberdares and nearby Mount Kenya.
Elephants once migrated between the Aberdares and Kenya’s highest peak, until their ancient routes were blocked by human settlement and farms a few decades ago. During the infamous poaching era of the 1970s and ’80s, elephants were hard hit for their tusks, while the black rhino was almost exterminated. In 1989, a far-sighted project was started in the Aberdares by the charity Rhino Ark. The Rhino Ark Aberdare Electric Fence is an ecosystem conservation tool. Its purpose is to resolve multiple challenges facing the protected area known as the Aberdare Conservation Area (ACA). These include poaching, crop damage by wildlife, death or injury to people by straying wildlife and illegal farm practices and logging. Fence construction was completed in August 2009. The fence is nearly 400km long and completely encircles the entire Aberdare Conservation Area – over 2,000 square kilometres.
Treetops Lodge in the Aberdares began life in the early 1900s as a board nailed high in a tree branch for Captain Eric Sherbrooke Walker and his wife, Lady Bettie, to watch the prolific wildlife in the dense forest without disturbing it. It became so popular that in 1932 Sherbrooke Walker decided to build a treehouse. Over time this treehouse morphed into the iconic Treetops Lodge, where guests could sit all night and watch the rhino, elephants and other game coming to lick salt and drink water under the ‘false’ moonlight.
So famous did the tree house become that, on 5 February 1952, Princess Elizabeth came to stay. She walked up into the treehouse as a princess and descended the following day, as the uncrowned queen of the British Empire, for her father King George VI had passed away during the night.
The media was agog reporting the young royals’ visit to Treetops. I’m reading the enormous scrapbook with cuttings from the newspapers in the new ‘business centre’ equipped with the Internet while watching a pair of black rhino at the waterhole. They keep away from the elephants who obviously feel that this is their territory. Amidst much splashing and trumpeting, the elephants chase some buffaloes away and provide enough antics to keep me glancing at the waterhole frequently – much as the princess must have done six decades earlier.
A Verreaux’s eagle-owl silently lands on a stump by the waterhole as the rhino duo lumber off into the dark recesses of the night. The recently renovated Treetops has little in common with the old. The 1952 Treetops was set ablaze by the Mau Mau freedom fighters, and a new site chosen across the waterhole. Over the years it has expanded, attracting both royalty and guests from around the globe. Today, all the rooms are en suite, there are two ground level hides to enable eye contact with the elephants, and a rooftop terrace. The quaint old room that Queen Elizabeth stayed in is now an enormous modern suite with a bathtub. It is now truly fit for royalty and even has had the rickety staircase replaced with a ramp to the rooftop so that the physically challenged can also admire the spectacular sights and scenery.
All about the Aberdares
The Aberdares range in west central Kenya, lies north of Nairobi and just south of the equator. The 160-kilometre-long range is easily accessible through various gates dotted around the national park.
By air: Flights land at Mweiga airstrip.
By road: A four-wheel drive is a must. Take the A2 out of Nairobi, past the pineapple-covered slopes of Thika into Nyeri (Nairobi-Nyeri 150km). From Nyeri take the Nyeri-Nyahururu Road where the Ruhuruini, Treetops, Ark and Wandare are signposted.
Scaling the highest peak, Ol Donyo La Satima. Suitable for strong walkers, your starting point is at the Wandare Gate. You will need to hire a guide at the KWS gate. Before the trek, why not treat yourself to a stay at the beautiful Sandai Farm (www.africanfootprints.de)? It is the perfect homestay location, being just half an hour’s drive from the gate – from here you can go looking for the endangered Makinder’s eagle owl, grass owls and the African wild dog outside the confines of the park.
Night game watching
For sightings of black rhino and elephant, check in at Treetops (www.aberdaresafarihotels.co.ke) or the Ark (www.thearkkenya.com). Both lodges lie in the Salient – you will be transported by the lodge vehicles and are therefore limited to watching game in their concessions within the Salient.
Places to stay
Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Lodges & Campsites For more flexibility in the park, the KWS (www.kws.go.ke) has three beautiful self-catering properties – Kiandogoro fishing lodge, Sapper Hut and Tusk Camp – as well as campsites. Carry your food and very warm clothing. From here you can drive to waterfalls such as Karuru – Kenya’s longest waterfall; Gura – Kenya’s highest waterfall; the Queen’s Cave (where she picnicked in 1952), and numerous trout fishing spots.
Outspan Hotel in Nyeri Built in 1926, the Outspan is the base hotel for Treetops built by Captain Sherbrooke Walker. The colonial-style hotel has spacious modern rooms, a tavern, swimming pool, tennis grounds and a squash court set in a lavish garden with clear views of Mount Kenya from the verandah. Set in the grounds is Paxtu – now a museum – which was home to Lord and Lady Baden-Powell, founders of the Boy Scout and Girl Guide movement. Golfers can hop across the road and enjoy a game at the Nyeri Golf Club. Other activities include walks along the Chania river, which flows from the Aberdares, bird watching and excursions to the coffee and tea farms in Nyeri. www.aberdaresafarihotels.co.ke
Aberdare Country Club This elegant 1930s country club in Mweiga (close to Nyeri) is set in a 1,300 acre wildlife sanctuary with gazelles, warthog, impalas, zebra and other wildlife. Night game drives are offered, as are nature walks. You can also enjoy a swim or a game of golf. www.marasa.net