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Parks & reserves: Aberdare National Park


The Treetops, Aberdare National Park. Javier Yanes/ The Treetops, now belonging to Aberdare Safari Hotels, is arguably the most famous, historical and unique of the Kenyan hotels, permission given from The Norfolk in Nairobi. The Treetops was built in 1932 next to a waterhole in the area known today as the Salient. The Treetops site is a privileged location where the mountains give way to a high plateau that offers a magnificent view of the surrounding Highlands. In clear days, which seldom happens, the snowy peaks of Mount Kenya are at sight.

Originally, Treetops was nothing more than a two-room treehouse sitting on top of a fig tree. The intrepid travellers reached on foot escorted by hunters that protected them form wild animals during the walk. Guests were left on their own with just a picnic supper and some oil lamps. At dawn, the hunters reached back to escort them back, after an exciting and chilling night in the midst of the forest watching the wildlife roaming below their feet.

In 1952, Treetops was enlarged for a royal visit from princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip. A third room was added and a small cabin for the hunter on duty was attached. A wood stove was placed in the salon to help mitigate the Aberdare nights' freezing cold. During their overnight stay, the young princess and her husband witnessed a thrilling fight between two waterbucks, that ended with one of the bucks laying dead on the damp soil. But that night would become historical because of different reasons: far away from Aberdare, the princess's father, king George VI, expired in London. Though the princess was not aware of the bad news until her next stop at Sagana, the morning she descended from Treetops she had become the queen of England.

The hotel would be burnt down to ashes by the Mau-Mau two years later, but it was rebuilt in 1957 at the opposite side of the waterhole. The modern building, several times enlarged since then, is a pillared wooden house embracing the branches of a chestnut tree. A second waterhole was artificially opened at the back side of the building to favour wildlife gathering in the vicinity, though for some reason the animals prefer the original pond. The lodge's employees spread salt on the soil, that animals lick with delight. Though today's Treetops keeps little resemblance, if any, with the primigenic treehouse, nevertheless it preserves a touch of charm and romanticism, making it a mandatory visit for every traveller in Kenya.

Access to Treetops is made in groups from the Outspan, in Nyeri. The last bus departs at 5 PM. Due to the special conditions at Treetops, children under 7 are not allowed at the lodge. The 50 cabins are very small, reason why bulky luggage is left overnight at the Outspan and only one handbag per person is permitted. Nights at Treetops are chilly and there is no heating, so make sure to drop some warm clothes into your handbag. Some cabins have a private bathroom, whilst others share showers and toilets. There are spare blankets available at the front desk.

During the afternoon, guests can relax watching wildlife from one of the observation decks, from the open air rooftop or from the ground level bunker. The old 5 o'clock tea, formerly served with complimentary pancakes, is no longer offered. Of course there is tea and coffe, but at a price. Supper is served in the evening at the dining room.

After the sunset, you can sit and watch wildlife for as long as you wish, since the lodge's lights keep the area floodlit at night. Elephants, buffalos, waterbucks, bushbucks, mongooses and warthogs are usual visitors to the Treetops' waterhole. Occasionally some rhino would step out of the darkness, but currently the possibility to spot one of the many Aberdare's carnivores is fairly remote. Small mammals, like bushbabies and genets, which used to daringly drop by the rooftop attracted by the food left for them by the lodge's employees, were formerly a nice amusement for those who defied the cold night at the open air, but lately there is no trace of them. If you prefer sleeping, there is a buzzer in each cabin that the hunter on duty will use to warn guests should any elephant, rhino or cat come up. Finally, at 7:30 the next morning, with the mountains damped by a thick mist, guests are brought back to town. Breakfast, which is included in the price, is served at the Outspan.

Buffalos at The Ark's waterhole, Aberdare National Park. Javier Yanes/ First opened in 1970, The Ark basically follows the same regime as Treetops, including the prohibition for children under 7. The base hotel in this case is the Aberdare Country Club, in the town of Mweiga, 12 km north of Nyeri by the B5 road. The Ark is located more deeply in the park that Treetops, next to a waterhole in the area where the Salient meets the main body of the park. The building is made to resemble the appearance that, in the architect's opinion, Noah's Ark must have had.

After a 40-minute trip from the Aberdare Country Club, visitors access The Ark walking along a wooden boardwalk that flies over the forest's canopy. The hotel is more modern and roomy than Treetops, and it is said to be the most favourable site in the park to see the bongo. The truth is that the actual possilities are quite low.

The ship-building is composed of three decks with various observation lounges plus a ground level bunker. There is an outside terrace, smaller and less hospitable than the one at Treetops. Along with the comparison, the 60 cabins at the Ark are larger and all are equipped with private shower and toilet.

Wildlife is similar to Treetops. Elephant and buffalo almost guaranteed, some occasional rhino, mongooses, waterbucks, bushbucks and warthogs. Among the less usual, giant forest hogs and bongos.

In general, all explained above for Treetops also applies to The Ark. For a choice between the two, state your preferences. If you seek a more romantic experience, that could bring back to you at least a slight scent of the old Africa, Treetops is your place. If you prefer comfort, then you should choose The Ark.

Tusk Camp, Aberdare National Park. Javier Yanes/ Tusk Camp is a self-catering lodge located at the eastern slopes of Aberdares, at an altitude of 2,300 m, in a clearing surrounded by the forest. The place has four wooden double bandas, accommodating eight people. It must be booked as a whole.

Rooms are equipped with beds and mattresses, and lighted by kerosene lamps. The living room has an open fire and wood is provided, and from the verandah you can enjoy views of the Aberdare forest and Mount Kenya. The washroom has a shower with hot and cold water, as well as a flush toilet. There is an additional pit latrine that offers magnificent vistas to Mount Kenya. The place also holds a firewood cooker. Animals, specially buffalo and elephant, usually graze at the clearing in front of the bandas.

Tusk Camp is currently closed for renovation since March 2012 until further notice.

Fishing Lodge, Aberdare National Park. Javier Yanes/ Located on the high moorlands above Magura river, the Fishing Lodge is a self-catering guest house belonging to Kenya Wildlife Service. The house is fully furnished, but guests must carry their own food. There is a caretaker who provides the cleaning and the necessary help for guests.

There are two bandas, each consisting of a fully equipped kitchen, dining room with fireplace and three bedrooms, accommodating seven people in total. Two bedrooms have a king size bed and a single bed, plus an ensuite bathroom. The small bedroom has one single bed.

The Fishing Lodge is currently closed for renovation since March 2012 until further notice.

Sapper Hut, Aberdare National Park. Javier Yanes/ Sapper Hut is the smallest of all self-catering accommodations in Aberdare National Park, and also the most isolated and solitary, since it is located at a remote spot at an elevation of more than 10,000 ft (3,000 m), hence nights are very chilly. However the views are magnificent, since there is a waterfall nearby.

The key to Sapper Hut must be collected from the Fishing Lodge, 6 miles (10 km) to the east. The place consists of a single timber cabin with a bedroom sleeping two people in two single beds, a separate living room with a table, two chairs and a firewood cooking stove, a kitchen and a veranda. There is an outside basic bathroom. No caretaker is available, and no towels or bed linen are provided. There is firewood and lamps, but you must bring your own kerosene or paraffin.

Other accommodations:

Sangare Tented Camp. Javier Yanes/ Within the park there are no full service accommodation options other than the one-night wildlife watching lodges Treetops and The Ark, as mentioned above. All other sleeping choices inside the park are self-catering. If you wish to extend your stay but would rather not do your own cooking, around the park there are some excellent hotels and camps.

The Outspan, the base hotel for Treetops, in the nearby town of Nyeri, is a colonial classic hotel set by a deeply forested valley and offering rooms or cottages. A similar option is the base hotel for The Ark, the Aberdare Country Club, which is located near Mweiga, by the road heading north from Nyeri.

Taking the same turning to Aberdare Country Club, but a little farther on this same road, is Sangare Tented Camp (in the image), placed by a fresh water lake in a private game ranch. A day game drive through the ranch is included in the price and there are other available activities, including night game walks, fly fishing, horseback riding, boat rides and bird walks. Access to Sangare is only by 4WD, since the track is quite rough.


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