27 January 2023

Aberdares/Treetops 2017

Back in 2017, Jane Bussmann kindly took me along on her writing gig. Because I was just chatting about the elephants of the Aberdares, I went back to fish out the bits and pieces I put on Facebook back then.


Treetops is like a street cafe on a busy high street. There are no doubt more magnificent settings to people watch, but everyone and their ill-behaved relative stop by. Lots of hanging out, a bit of bitching and shoving and flapping of ears. In related issues, teeny tiny baby elephants are, of course, The Best. This is official and the truth. But teeny tiny baby warthogs are also Very Very Good.


So don’t tell anyone, but Treetops has two fire-escape ladders, and when you climb down the one near the entrance, it gets very dark, but you end up in a little cubby hole. It’s just above ground level and has a few small windows that a not-very-tall person like myself can just about look out of. So after dinner, Jane and I climbed down into the cubby hole and there, right on the other side of the fence, was a group of elephants.

They look even more otherworldly and ancient in that orange-y light. They don’t stand still: they snuffle the ground with their trunks, and either stand, or walk, with swaying motions. And they breathe out noisily. The group pulls closer together, then gradually expands again. You can only see the really tiny baby when they move apart – it’s so tiny that it will still fit under the big elephants. There were two moments of upset while we were watching, one with trumpeting. And we just stood in the dark very quietly, utterly charmed.

Now that we’re upstairs in the bedroom, we can still hear them: every once in a while, they make an odd sound, almost like a low-key rumbly roar (if there is such a thing), something I’d have expected to hear from a lion.


So the obligatory game drive. We set off with Francis, the guide/driver, at around 4pm, the time when equatorial sun turns into that fat golden light. The Aberdares park is green, hilly and forested. I asked: They didn’t have much rain either, but still more than Nairobi, and there is just a lot more ground cover, so it’s by far not as dusty and brown. Not tropical rain-forest lush, but very green.

The view from the top of the hills is stunning: even with a bit of mist, you can see the hill (mountain?) ranges in the distance. Had we not seen a single animal, it would have still been a gorgeous drive. But we were lucky. And it turns out that the Bachelor Buffaloes of the Aberdares – those that are not allowed to hang out with the herd – are a lot more laid back. We spotted a bunch in the bend of the river just hanging out, no squabbling. One of them had his own little mud pool.

And then, Francis spotted some elephants up on the hill, so he backed up to the junction and took us up. I was mumbling ‘Oh oh OH!!l’ like an idiot when we reached them, hovering a little nervously with their ears out sideways in the green. So close! They are such odd, magnificent animals.

We also saw two hyena trundling along (or possibly just one very shifty one), and the rare Giant Forest Hogs – slightly surreal enormous pigs basically! They are very shy. A bush buck with his heart-shaped snout was watching us carefully from a few meters away, half hidden in the bush, just the right combination of presence and mystery. Colobus monkeys being very swish and glamorous with their bushy white tails. Baboons looking well fed and with nice shiny coats. Several gaggles of warthogs.

And then we reached the view point: a grassy plateau with mindblowing view for kilometers. And a very chilled buffalo just … chilling. Getting out of the vehicle and taking pics? No problem. Eventually he got up, gave us a longish look, and wandered off. Time up. I’m now convinced he’s called Kamau and gets a text message when we leave the lodge to get in position, and KES500 per week via M-PESA. We’re back at Treetops. The lodge clearly runs on its historical princess-turned-queen legacy. It’s small and fairly simple, and a little underloved (although not to the extent that it justifies Jane sending messages about ‘I’m in a POW camp with a skinhead German’). The food is amazingly awful, British boarding school level, but the staff are very nice indeed. I have forgiven them for the food because the park is so very beautiful.

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