Aberdare national park is located in the range of the same name, described by Joseph Thomson in 1883 during his journey through the Masai Land. Kikuyu people still use the range’s traditional name, Nyandarua. From 1947 to 1956, the misty and rainy forests in the range served as a hide for the Mau-Mau guerrilla. The park was gazetted in 1950 with an extension of 584 km², but was afterwards enlarged to 770 km², making it the third largest park in the country.
The Aberdare range, 160 km long, is located in the Central Highlands, Central Province, and west of Mount Kenya and north of Nairobi, serving as the Kenyan Rift Valley’s east wall. The national park comprises a longitudinal strip from south to north, with a projection toward the east denominated The Salient that runs down to an altitude of 2,130 m, near the town of Nyeri. The Salient has its origin in an ancient migratory route of elephants between the range and Mount Kenya.
The park is the highest in all Africa, since most of the plateau is located above an altitude of 3,000 m. The highest peaks in the park are the Kinangop, with 3,906 m, and the Oldonyo Lesatima, “the mountain of the young bull” in the Maa language of the Masai, with 4,001 m. The landscape is dominated by deeply foggy rain forest, which confers the park a fairyland atmosphere. Trouts breed in the mountain streams that burst down spectacular waterfalls, like the Keruru Kahuru of 270metres and the Gura of 240 m in the South area, or the Chania Falls in the central sector of the park. Due to the high humidity, the tracks crossing the park are muddy for a large part of the year.
Aberdare contains a rich botanic wealth, a mixture of equatorial exuberance and alpine vegetation. Above the 2,000 m level, the rain forest gives way to the bamboo jungles, that at 3,000 m become mountain prairies in which groundsel and giant lobelias grow high.
Though the park registers a high number of visitors, most of them just do it for an overnight stay at its famous lodges, reason why in fact the park is largely unknown for most of the visitors.
Formerly, visits to Aberdare national park were arranged only in organised groups escorted by a park ranger, or either appointing the visit in advance by contacting the Park Warden, Aberdare National Park, P.O. Box 22, Nyeri. Private access is granted nowadays, but only 4WD vehicles are authorised into the park. The park is 100 km from Nairobi and 17 km northwest of Nyeri. From Nairobi there are several buses to Nyeri, but there is no public transport from this town to the park gates.
It is worth mentioning that the most suitable access to the park depends on your final destination, since the range, that is, the park, is actually a barrier between the two main northbound roads from Nairobi. In general, the best option is to take the A2 leaving Nairobi through Thika Road, heading for Thika and Nyeri. The road is tarred and in very good conditions up to Sagana. From here to Nyeri, potholes abound and transit is more difficult. This itinerary is most adequate if you travel for an overnight stay at Treetops or The Ark, since this road leads to Nyeri, where the base hotel for Treetops, the Outspan Club, is located. From Nyeri there is a road to Mweiga, the town close to which is the Aberdare Country Club, base for The Ark. In Mweiga you can also find the Kenya Wildlife Service Aberdares Headquarters, where you can reload your Smartcard.
Conversely, if your intention is to travel the park, you may rather use another route which is in fact shorter. In Nairobi, take the A104 north to Naivasha, where you will take a turnoff to Nyeri. Pitifully, if you just intend to travel from Naivasha to Nyeri this way is not suitable, since the road crosses the park, so you would be bound to pay the entrance fee.
Concerning the park gates, coming from Naivasha or Gilgil you can access the park through Mutubio West Gate. The steepest section of this track, formerly impassable during the rains, is now paved.
From Nyeri you can enter the park through three different gates: Ruhuruini Gate and Wandare Gate are in the Salient area, south and north respectively, whereas the Kiandongoro Gate, more to the south, leads to the Chania Falls area. Access to the park from the north is now not possible since Shamata and Ngobit (Rhino) Gates are currently closed to tourism. Altogether there are four open public gates to the park, plus two private entrances restricted to the buses carrying overnighters to Treetops and The Ark.
The park’s road network cross-sectionally traverses from east to west, from Kiandongoro Gate to Mutubio West Gate, through misty moorlands that lay at an altitude of 3,350metres connecting the two slopes of the range, this road gives the shortest way from Naivasha to Nyeri.
The Aberdare wildlife is awesome, though the thick vegetation cover makes it difficult to spot animals except from the lodges. The rich forest sustains populations of elephant, buffalo, warthog and several species of antelope, like waterbuck, duiker, suni, dik-dik, eland, bushbuck and reedbuck. The park protects a healthy population of black rhino and also offers the chance to see some of the typical forest species, such as the giant forest hog or the shy and beautiful bongo, perhaps the rarest and most splendid of all Kenyan antelopes.
Primates are represented by black and white Colobus, Sykes’ monkeys and vervet monkeys. Regarding the felines, lions show their mountain adaptation, tree-climbing behaviour and a longer and speckled coat. Lions have proliferate in such a way that a culling program has been undertaken to protect some of the herbivores, particularly the rare bongo. Leopards and servals are also found, sometimes in their melanic variety, showing a black coat which is usually associated with an adaptation to the high altitude.
More than 200 species of birds have been registered in the park. Among them the visitor may spot the crowned eagle, which feeds on monkeys, or hear the noisy silvery-cheeked hornbill. Sunbirds are represented by the violet Tacazze, the malachite or the scarlet tufted malachite in the high moorlands. Some species of doves and pigeons are usual inhabitants of the upper forest layers. Waterholes usually host black-headed herons, Egyptian geese, sacred ibis and yellow-billed ducks, among other species.
Treetops: The Treetops, belonging to Block Hotels, is no doubt 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 a day, which seldom happens, the snowy peaks of Mount Kenya are at sight.
Originally, Treetops was nothing more than a two-room tree house 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 lying dead on the damp soil. But that night would become historical because of different reasons: far away from Aberdare, the princess’ 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 keep little resemblance, if any, with the primigenic tree house, nevertheless it preserves a touch of charm and romanticism, making it a mandatory visit for every traveler in Kenya.
Access to Treetops is made in groups from the Out span Golf & Country Club, 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 coffee, 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 bush babies 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.
The Ark: Opened in 1970 and belonging to Lonrho Hotels, 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 favorable site in the park to see the bongo. The truth is that the actual possibilities 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, mongoose, 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: Tusk Camp is a self service 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 Aberdares’ forest and Mount Kenya. The washroom has a shower with hot and cold water, as well as a flush toilet. Apparently there is an additional pit latrine that offers magnificent vistas, outward, of course. The place also holds a firewood cooker. Animals, especially buffalo and elephant, usually graze at the clearing in front of the bandas.
Fishing Lodge: Located on the high moorlands above Magura River, the Fishing Lodge belongs to Kenya Wildlife Service. The place hosts two bandas, fully furnished but where the guests must carry their own food. Each Banda is composed of an 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.
Obviously, if you don’t feel like the overnight rush at the mountain lodges or you simply wish to extend your visit to Aberdare, but in a more comfortable setup than what camping can offer, both base hotels for Treetops and The Ark, Outspan Golf & Country Club and Aberdare Country Club respectively, are perfect choices. Both offer a wide variety of facilities and services that care for guests and their entertainment during their stay.
Camping in the park is restricted since at the beginning of the 80’s some campers were attacked by lions. It seems that the attacking animals were several semi-tame lions used for a film. Possibly these lions had become so familiar with humans that did not dare to attack. Otherwise, perhaps they encroached the rest of the population that then had to modify their killing habits. In any case, incidents resulted in the prohibition to camp outside of the Salient and in limitations for walking through the high moorlands.
The Reedbuck public camp site, relatively new and close to the fishing lodge, is now the only authorised camp site in the high moorlands. It provides water, firewood, toilets and rain shelter, but there is no food, so do not forget your own supplies. Public camp sites at Chania Falls and Queens Banda, closed in the early 90’s, seem to be open now. In the Salient area there are eight special camp sites, one in Prince Charles, two in Kiguri and five in Muringato.