Black serval

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.

 

Bad lions

Sometimes, because of the amount of work I had, we could not travel far during weekends and even when going to a place relatively near, our arrival would get delayed. Short safaris of this kind included lakes Naivasha, Nakuru and Bogoria, Amboseli and the Aberdares. We had visited the Aberdares National Park on day trips earlier but these had only given us a very superficial view of the park. This time we planned to spend one night camping and to explore the park a bit more. Unfortunately I had work to do and we could not leave before lunchtime.

Reading our Kenya guide [1] had prepared us for what we would face and I quote: “Steeper, starker and with denser rainforest, the Aberdares (save for the South and North Kinangop) were less settled and farmed than Mount Kenya. For this reason too, they sheltered Mau Mau strongholds, kept flora and fauna intact… and so warranted preclusion as a 228 square-mile National Park in 1950.” Hoping that all the Mau Mau had gone by the time we arrived, we got some charcoal and fresh plums from the roadside vendors near Limuru and went on.

We drove on tarmac towards lake Naivasha and turned eastwards just in front of the Longonot volcano. More from our guide: “Rainfall -80 inches p.a.- makes the steep tracks often impassable… if rain or mist waylays you en route, do not despair: the ‘black cotton’ may spin your car uncontrollably but is seldom deep. So rather than dodge the wheelruts… grit your teeth and stay in them, hard in second gear. They will keep you moving roughly frontwards and, even when waterlogged, should not bog you down.” I enjoyed the author’s sense of humour and thought on the power of our kombi’s engine!

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The Aberdares mountains from afar.

By the time we reached South Kinangop it began to rain and things started to get tricky. All the guide had said was true to the point that turning around would have been a risky manoeuvre! So, as usual, aware that our kombi had a good clearance, we decided to continue and skidded along for the remaining distance until, rather late, we managed to arrive at the gate. I think it was the Matubio gate but I am not sure. Despite our tardy arrival, the ranger let us entered. He probably saw the car’s mud and our look of desperation and thought that we could do with a altruistic welcome!

He mentioned that there was a campsite nearby that we could occupy so we paid and went on, following his directions, hoping to find the campsite soon. We were still driving in the dark after 20 minutes so we realized that we had missed the recommended campsite. Luckily, the rain had stopped but the way was still slippery and slow. We pushed on looking for a suitable spot where to pitch our small tent (at that time we had purchased a second hand mountain tent that although suitable for this occasion, it left us rather “exposed” to the potential night visitors!).

Eventually we found a flat moor and decided that it would do. I started to manoeuvre the kombi careful, avoiding getting into the mud as much as possible until I considered it to be on level ground. I was about to leave the car when I heard a loud “Stop!” coming from my wife. I looked up and, in the headlights of the car, there were about 8 adult lions watching us. They looked rather huge and very white considering the heavy rain we had experienced. As they were also dry, it was clear that they had come out from their rainproof shelter very recently. They started to walk towards us, not the usual behaviour from lions, we thought!

There were four adults and four almost full-grown individuals. The latter were the ones showing the greater interest on us! “We better move off”, my wife said firmly and, almost before she finished her sentence, I was reversing the car, hoping that we were not on soggy ground. We managed to put some distance from the lions and they stopped coming so I turned around and we departed. We drove a few more km until we considered that we were sufficiently far from the lions and then we held a short discussion regarding our camping options. It went something like this: do you want to sleep in a tent?” I said. “No” was my wife reply. Another short family discussion leading to an immediate agreement!

I removed the back seat of the kombi and put it outside while my wife was heating up some pre-prepared food we had brought as we normally did to make our camping lives easier. We dined sitting at the floor of the car and, when we were ready to sleep, we placed our mattresses on the floor. The place looked almost comfortable! While the rain started again we got into our sleeping bags and dozed off almost immediately. I briefly thought about being bogged down the following morning but I was too tired to care and convinced myself -easily- that that would be tomorrow’s problem, and I was gone.

The cold woke me up after midnight! It was a chill that was coming from my back so I started to assess the situation when realized that my wife was also awake. “Did you hear the lions?” she asked. “I would have done if my teeth would not shatter so much” I replied. Then they roared again so near that I was amazed with myself at not having heard them earlier! I felt well as we were better better sheltered than we would have been inside our small tent! But our metal cage was incredibly cold! Eventually, we managed to stick some carton and newspapers between the metal floor and our backs and this, plus putting on all suitable clothes made the trick and soon the roaring faded and I woke up well after dawn, unusually without the need of a night visit to the toilet!

The rain not only had stopped but the sun was shining. A good look at the surrounding grassland did not reveal any lions so we could perform our postponed bodily functions, re-assembled the car seat and have a much needed breakfast under the sun. We felt well and decided to look for the lions now that there was good lighting. We drove backwards and forwards for a while but failed to see anything. Disappointed we decided to explore the park further and enjoyed its beautiful vistas and amazing waterfalls and rivers.

Soon it was time to start our return and, as usual, wishing that we could remain longer, we started our return. We had driven a few km when, as usual, my wife spotted something walking in the same direction we were driving. The animal was about 100m in front of us. We checked it with the binoculars and it was a black cat, smaller than a leopard! We drove slowly on and got a good view before it veered into the bush and disappeared. Its size and shape gave it away as a black caracal, an unusual sight.

We knew that melanistic animals did occur in the Kenya highlands and we had seen black Augurd buzzards earlier during the day.

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A melanistic Augurd buzzard in the Aberdares.

We had also heard about black leopards that were sometimes spotted there but the caracal was special!

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The only snapshot possible of the Black serval just before it disappeared.

Our Kenya guide, however, added some light to the find: “Besides golden cat, bongo and Giant forest hog, the Aberdares’ rarities are Black leopard, Black serval and Black genet… Spotted lions remain unquestionably a legend”. The guide did not mention whether “huge white lions” were also mythical as we were sure that the ones we found the night before were unspotted and real!

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A normal serval cat at Nairobi National Park.

Our trip back was dominated by the conversation about the lions and the Black serval. We enjoyed the good weather and we got to our house in Tigoni in good time. Days later, consulting other wildlife enthusiasts, we learnt that a number of “problem lions” that killed livestock had been relocated to the Aberdares and that this had sparked quite a degree of controversy as it made walking in the park a dangerous activity now. To make matters worse, it was believed that these lions were less wary of people than their “wild” relatives and were not afraid of approaching humans!

We were of course unaware of this bit of rather important information at the time of our visit and lucky we saw them before they found us! During late visits we spotted the lions again and they did not look as white and huge as the first time.

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Later we saw the warning signs.

[1] Tomkinson, M. (1981). Kenya, a holiday guide. Ernest Benn Ltd, London. 144p.