We are greeted by two life-size statues of Rothschild giraffes at the entrance to Giraffe Ark Lodge after a three-hour drive from Nairobi.
What a relief it is to be in Nyeri. It is not as hot as Nairobi. In fact, as we disembark from the vehicle, there is a welcome breeze. It looks like it will rain. One of the staff members tells us it rained the previous night.
Giraffe Ark Lodge stands out from the outside as well as the inside. It is on a large piece of land — 15 acres — and has been built with families in mind.
The story of how it was started is something that is catching on among the Kenyan middle and upper class. It all began with a five-bedroom mansion that was initially a holiday home for the owners, who later turned it into a business venture.
We arrive just in time for lunch, which is served at a restaurant on stilts. There is a group of business people having lunch too.
Then it begins to rain. I have mixed feelings because I can see that the browning grass on the lawn needs water to restore it to its luscious green, but at the same time I am saddened because it comes in the way of my playing the giant outdoor chess.
Yes, outdoor chess. The giant chess pieces are knee-height, and the ‘chess board’ is made of black and white ceramic floor tiles.
I have no choice but to check in instead. My room is in the five-bedroom mansion, with a large balcony overlooking Mt Kenya.
At 6.30 am the following day, I can see the silhouette of mountain peaks. The sun is out too, already sending out its fiery orange-red rays.
An hour later, after breakfast, we set out for a full-day game drive at Aberdare National Park.
Established in May 1950, the Aberdare National Park covers 766 square kilometres and forms part of the Aberdare Mountain Range. The park contains a variety of landscapes – from the mountain peaks that rise to 14,000 feet (4,300m) above sea level, to their deep, v-shaped valleys intersected by streams, rivers and waterfalls. It has moorland, bamboo forest as well as rainforests in the lower altitudes.
I am glad to have had the foresight to pack warm clothes. It is cold.
This park teeming with wildlife is where Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, when her father passed away in 1952. We see Treetops Lodge – an old, unassuming building on stilts — where she was staying at that time.
The vegetation and geographic characteristics of Aberdare are varied. On the game drive, half of the area we cover has red volcanic soil, while the other half has loam soil. Where the soil is red, there is a lot of game and bird life.
We see olive baboons crossing the vehicle trails and running to watch us from a safe distance.
A friend who is a naturalist says that butterflies are a sign of an area being environmentally sound, and I remember this statement as we drive through the park. There are numerous white butterflies, flying about at a graceful, enchanting pace.
As we drive along, I notice hoof prints on the ground. I guess that they may be buffalo hooves, and it turns out that I am right. We bump into a solitary bull grazing in a thicket. We are too close, and it is just as startled as we are. It runs off in fright and we experience a brief, scary moment. The African cape buffalo is the most unpredictable animal, and can charge at any moment.
The vegetation changes as we drive along, and we soon come to a bamboo forest. It is said that bamboo purifies the air. The air is definitely different here. It is lighter, and feels really clean, like the type of air you would breathe in an unpolluted rural setting.
And its here that the birds are in plenty. We see the streaky seedeater, cinnamon-breasted bee eater, white-eyed slaty flycatcher, and beautiful sunbird. The beautiful sunbird does get its name from its physical attributes; it is a small and very beautiful bird.
Birds watchers will tell you that one of the qualities needed for a bird watching safari is patience. We take some time here, driving slowly so as not to scare the birds away, with just a fraction of a second to take a photo or two of the feathered wonders.
Ernest, our tour guide, is a walking encyclopaedia on birds. He later shares that this is his passion, and he is self-taught. He has a photographic memory, so when he sees a bird, he commits the picture to his mental gallery, then looks for it in the birding books.
Just as we are leaving the bamboo forest for the savanna, we come across a Sykes monkey. We are only a few feet away, but the monkey is far from shy. Instead, it looks back at us with the same curiosity we are staring at it.
It is the fist time I am seeing this species of monkey. It has golden brown fur on its back, while its limbs are black. The neck is white, and the eyes brown. We stare at each other for a while, until a Jackson’s francolin emerges from the thicket on the left.
The fowl looks just like a hen, but is slightly smaller and has a yellow neck and reddish-maroon speckled feathers. Ernest tells us that these birds are usually shy, but this one seems to have a bold streak. The others we meet along the way run out of sight.
Aberdare is also part of our colonisation history, where caves underneath the Karura Waterfalls are said to have been a refuge for Mau Mau fighters during the struggle for independence. The cave entrance is also a lunch spot. Charred charcoal is a sign of recent activity. Two female water bucks peer at us from the bushes nearby as we eat our sandwiches.
Going by Kenya Wildlife Service regulations, we have to be out of the park by 6 pm. We make it in the nick of time, but it starts to rain as soon as we are out of the gate.
There is a power outage back at the hotel – something about a power interruption from the main supply in Nyeri. But we were entertained by a ‘one-man guitarist’, who plays popular songs from Fundi Konde and the Safari Band. He also sings his own romantic compositions.
It is quite hot the following morning, with no sign of the downpour from the previous night. I think of playing the giant chess again, but settle for reading a book in the ‘love nest’. There is piped music playing in the background, and butterflies as well as birds are flying about. It is quite peaceful, and I am not aware of how much time has passed until I am told its time to go.