Expert Reviews – Aberdare NP

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Wildlife Refuge on the Roof of Africa
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Unlike the rolling savannahs and thorn tree country of lowland Kenya the Aberdares are a world apart, a sky-high paradise in the clouds, whose dense hagenia forests and deep ravines provide a refuge for all kinds of animals including some seldom seen elsewhere, such as the elusive bongo. Melanistic serval cats roam the high moorlands above the tree line and the Aberdares are about the only place in the world where you might – just might – see a black leopard. The entire park has been ring-fenced to keep its elephants in and the poachers out.

There are only two places to stay, both situated in the northern salient. Treetops Lodge has the history. It’s Kenya’s oldest lodge and is where Princess Elizabeth was staying when her father died in 1952. But I prefer The Ark, a triple-decker ship of the forest that lies deeper in the salient beside a floodlit waterhole. Elephant, buffalo, leopard and giant forest hog are regular nocturnal visitors. When daylight comes, head for the high country above the bamboo zone. You could almost imagine yourself to be in Scotland. But then you see a herd of eland and know you are standing on the roof of Africa.

Kenya’s equatorial misty mountains and famous ‘tree lodges’
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Kenya’s Aberdares feature dramatic peaks, deep valleys, waterfalls cascading down sheer rock faces, and undulating moorlands. On the downside, the weather is generally misty and damp thanks to the altitude (the highest peak, Mount Satima, is 4001 metres), and wildlife in the high moorlands is rarely seen. A more feasible option is staying at one of the two ‘tree lodges’ in the lower-altitude Salient section; Treetops and The Ark. Both offer fairly simple rooms, but they have viewing decks over waterholes and are perhaps better described as ‘hides’ with accommodation. On my stay at The Ark, I was thrilled by the procession of wildlife that emerged from the forest including a couple of dozen elephants, a large closely-packed herd of buffalo, and several spotted hyena that brazenly darted around the elephants’ legs. The bird tables at the lodge too attracted pretty birds like speckled mousebird and resplendent sunbirds, as well as a couple of daring genets. However, criticisms of the ‘tree lodges’ are that they are usually busy with large tour groups, and when the floodlights are switched on, the waterholes take on rather a theatre-like ‘staged’ ambience. Nevertheless for a quick overnight safari, they offer an excellent opportunity to see several species almost from the comfort of your room.

The Aberdares – paradise in limbo
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If the weather is anything like it was when I was there, arm yourself with woollies and Wellingtons for a trip to the Aberdares. Set between Mt Kenya and the Rift Valley in Kenya’s Central Highlands, these mountains begin in earnest about 100 kms north of Nairobi, running north-south for about 160kms. The National Park, which covers an area of 767 sq kms, has an extraordinary range of terrain with altitudes from 1829m to 4001m above sea level. The western flank of the mountains form part of the Rift Wall.

The scenery is pure drama – sweeping panoramas, plunging canyons headed by waterfalls and lined by richly tangled cedar and bamboo forest and, high up at the top, stark moorland filled with extraordinary giant heathers and groundsels. Getting right up to the top can be problematic at times. Frustratingly, I never got there. After Mt Kenya was closed by rain and my car broke down at Mt Elgon, the Aberdares were my last chance to see the strange giant plants that only grow above 14,000 ft. We skated our way up the hairpin bends on slippery black cotton mud to 13,000 ft, our coastal Swahili driver going grey and praying (or possibly cursing me, never was sure which) to 13,000 ft before I finally admitted defeat and let him off the hook. It was simply too wet and dangerous. Next time!
The reason that most people go to the Aberdares however is that the mountains are relatively close to Nairobi (only 180 kms/112 miles) on good roads) so are easily accessible. They are also home to two of the most famous safari lodges in Kenya – Treetops and The Ark. Treetops is famously where Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was staying in 1952 when word reached her of her father’s death and her accession to the throne. Both places have changed massively since their early days as rickety tree houses and more resemble very cushy safari-themed corporate 5-star hotels. However, they are extremely comfortable, you can still have a wonderful weekend with the added benefit of being able to pad out onto the viewing deck in your dressing gown to watch elephants and buffalo at the waterhole, never having to stir further from the bar than the reach of a G&T. And while the wildlife isn’t perhaps up to the standard of the Mara, you do get to see forest creatures such as bongos, colobus monkeys and giant forest hogs and the scenery en route is magnificent. Unfortunately, yet again, because of the park’s popularity, Kenya Wildlife Services have upped the fees to ridiculous levels to cash in.

Treetop hotels are offering a different kind of safari
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A visit to this densely forested park in the highlands of Kenya is a nice change from the hot savanna reserves. Buffalos, elephants, bushbuck and monkeys are readily seen. You can drive around the park and you should pick up a fair amount of game, but I love settling down for a couple of days in one of the tree-lodges, which act as hides on stilts within the park. Treetops and The Ark both offer an almost unique experience. They both date back to colonial times and the stuffy atmosphere has been maintained to a huge degree. Both overlook a waterhole. A saltlick almost guarantees a good stream of animals coming past on every given day. At night, with spotlights on, the viewing continues. One of my highlights was witnessing an interesting standoff between a black rhino and her calf and a group of hyenas.

The easiest wildlife watching in Kenya
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The scenery is truly wonderous at this sky-high park, where East Africa’s savannahs are left far behind and temperatures plummet. Instead you’ll find valleys carved between soaring forested peaks, waterfalls, thick bamboo forests and moorlands all shrouded in misty drizzle.

There are only two places to stay, both designed for package tourists. But the experience is something special. I stayed at The Ark, a 4-storey lodge perched on a forested bluff where guests peer out of windows, or off balconies, at a floodlit waterhole and surrounding grasslands to view elephant, buffalo, waterbuck, bushbuck, giant forest hog, and, if lucky black rhino. If that all gets a bit much you can retire to your room where a series of buzzers lets you know when something interesting is outside!

It has a very packaged feel but if you like sipping a glass of red by the open fire while watching elephants play around in mud baths just outside, then this is the experience for you.

Life in the Treetops
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For most visitors, myself included, a visit to this montane park really means a visit to one of two so-called ‘tree hotels’ (hide like construction where all game viewing is done from the hotel and all rooms face a waterhole) that lie on its forested lower slopes. Treetops is the older of these, founded in 1932, and having attained global fame in 1952 as the place where Princess Elizabeth was staying when she unknowingly became the Queen of England upon the death of her father George VI. Royal connections aside, a newer hotel called The Ark is the better bet for good game viewing, with buffalos, elephant, rhino and various antelope making an appearance most nights, and lion and leopard also regular visitors. Other forest wildlife likely to be seen at The Ark includes the lovely black-and-white colobus monkey, a beautiful spotted cat-like predator called a genet, Harvey’s red duiker, and some alluring birds.

Average Expert Rating

  • 3.3/5
  • Wildlife
  • Scenery
  • Bush Vibe
  • Birding

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