black augur buzzard

Aberdares and The Ark

“The nearer to Nyeri the nearer to bliss” remarked Robert Baden-Powell, best known for having started the Boy Scout movement. In 1939 he and his wife Olave moved to a one-room cottage named Paxtu, now a small Scouting museum located on the grounds of the Outspan Hotel. He died two years later and was buried at St Peter’s Cemetery in Nyeri.

At that time the owner of Outspan also owned the Treetops Hotel, approximately 17 km out in the Aberdares Mountains, often visited by Baden-Powell and made famous when Princess Elizabeth became Queen on the night of 5 February 1952 and the renowned hunter Jim Corbett, her bodyguard at the time, wrote the now famous lines in the visitors’ log book: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience she climbed down from the tree next day a Queen – God bless her”.

There was another well-known hotel in the Aberdares, the Ark, built literally in the shape of Noah’s Ark, and -like Treetops- beautifully situated overlooking waterholes in the Aberdares National Park.

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The Aberdares National Park is a part of the Aberdares mountains located east of the East African Rift Valley about 100 km north of Nairobi with an altitude of 2-4,000 metres. Established in May 1950, the park covers an area of 766 km2. Nicknamed ‘Scotland with lions’, the park is very rich on mountain peaks that go up to 4000 metres to its deep valleys where crystal clear streams run with numerous waterfalls, moorland, bamboo and rainforests at lower altitudes. The streams run through ranges that are often covered in mist and heaths and they have been seeded with trout.

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Although bongos (Tragelaphus eurycerus) were already a very rare sight, a number of other interesting species made up for this. Leopards -including black ones- were known to occur and lion had been relocated from cattle ranches further north. Elephants and buffalo were common and there were also giant forest hogs and a number of rare antelopes such as the suni (Neotragus moschatus) and the mountain reedbuck (Redunca fulvorufula).

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It was also a great place to see black and white colobus and sykes monkeys, apart from over 250 species of birds and it was common to spot black Augur buzzards as melanism was a feature of the park and we were very fortunate to see a black serval cat walking on the road in front of us.

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Black Serval.

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Melanistic form of Augur buzzard.

We usually camped at the park’s public campsites. These were frequently visited by very tame bushbucks that, interestingly for me at the time, carried heavy tick loads on their ears.

bbuck Aberdares copySome of the falls offered an opportunity of a refreshing shower that Mabel took often although I did not as the water was truly freezing for me!

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Towards the end of our stay we decided to try one of the lodges, either fame and character at Treetops or the more luxurious Ark. Because of availability we went for a weekend at the Ark. We booked a special -read cheap- package to stay two nights during the low season when more rainfall meant more water available and the game was less dependent on the artificially fed waterholes and saltlicks of the Ark.

The lodge was built in 1969 and many “famous” guests have stayed there: President Tito, Geraldine Chaplin, Peter Scott and Hugh Hefner to name a few. It also had it share of royalty as Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands and the Danish royal family.

We got to the Aberdares Country Club mid afternoon after driving from Nairobi. Although we spent a rather short time in it, we realized that it was worth of a proper visit and we did return later to enjoy its manicured lawns and gardens and to look at Rena Fennessy’s bird pictures [1].

After about an hour we were taken to the Ark by minibus and we arrived after 18 km driven through beautiful forest until we went through the Ark’s gate to enter the park. A short distance later we were left at the entrance of the hotel, a wooden walkway that brings you to the Ark.

It was a while before dinner so we settled in our room, small but comfortable. It had a system of communication through which you could be warned if something interesting arrived at the waterhole after you had gone to bed so you could decide whether to get up to go and watch or not.

After settling in it was time to explore the lodge. There were a number of areas where you could watch the water holes -at that time almost empty of interesting game- and we chose what we thought was the nicest to return later. It was a large window that allowed unimpeded views of the swamp and, those who so desired could also go outside to enjoy the view from a balcony.

While we explored the Ark we immediately realized that the stay was going to be memorable, but for the wrong reasons, a large school party had decided to fill lots of the lodge’s sixty rooms!

So, we had our dinner surrounded by children while the teachers and parents made frantic efforts to keep things under control but failing to do so, at least to my taste! I was quite upset thinking that I had paid good money to enjoy the place one time and found it full of kids, particularly when silence is critical in this kind of places that are in fact large and glorified game hides!

After dinner we marched to our chosen window onto wilderness only to find the room packed with kids shouting the names of the few animals that ventured out of the forest and into a very noisy water hole. Clearly only the desperately thirsty showed up!

We were a few adults in the lodge wishing to see special animals and all we could do was to exchange resigned looks with each other as the situation was hopeless! If we had any expectations that the children would go to bed early, they soon dissipated as they had come to enjoy the place their own way and were determined to stay awake to the bitter end!

As expected, we did not see much coming to the water that night and the next apart from some elephants and a few antelope that were always hanging about the water edge. We also realized that there was no point in complaining to the teachers as there was not their fault but that of the hotel managers that should not have mixed a large school party with a few paying adults.

As soon as we got back to Nairobi I went straight to the booking office of the Ark and, after presenting my case in rather strong terms, I was given a full refund for our stay. However, this did not really compensate for what we had anticipated to be a memorable stay and ended up being a disappointment. We did not return.

 

[1] Rena Fennessy created art for most of the post independent East African countries for about 25 years. She also drew birds and animals for field guides while creating her own artwork of East African wildlife and scenery. No much information is available about her. She lived in Nairobi and was possibly British.