A magical place up in the forest

Sunday July 28 2013

PHOTO | JAN FOX Visitors who stayed up late

PHOTO | JAN FOX Visitors who stayed up late were able to see this family of elephants. NATION MEDIA GROUP

By JOHN FOX [email protected]

“Tha’s nowt sa queer as folks,” my dad would have said. Which, in translation from his strong Lincolnshire dialect, means “There’s nothing as strange as people”.

Yes, he would have thoroughly enjoyed the trip we had last Sunday to the Ark in the Aberdares. And I reckon he would have enjoyed the people-watching even as much as, if not more than, game viewing.

The Ark, like Treetops, Mountain Lodge or Shimba Hills, is a place for watching animals at a waterhole and most of the animal action is after dark and well into the night. The rooms are nothing special: simply a bed, a basin and a shower, where you can grab some sleep when you can’t stay awake anymore and where you can freshen up before an early breakfast the next day.

There must have been about a hundred guests there last Sunday but, after dinner and by only 9.45 pm, there were only a handful of us in the lounges, up on the viewing platforms, or down in the bunker, and looking out over the saltlick and the pool.

Even when a staff member rang the buzzers in the rooms to alert the sleepers (those who had left the switches on) that a family of elephants had arrived, very few guests bothered to put on clothes and emerge from their rooms. Even before dinner, many of the guests, once they had taken a few photos, had retired to the inner lounges and the bar. A group were engrossed in a card game; a couple were curled up on a settee reading novels; a teenager was listening to music through her headphones.

So what is the reason? I reckon many of the tourists (hardly any of them, by the way, were local tourists) must have been on typical safaris to the coast, lakes and game parks, and the Ark to them was just another lodge where they could unwind — and sleep — after days of being bumped around in minibuses.

Tourist numbers

On this occasion, well over a third of the guests were Chinese. And the staff of the Aberdare Country Club (which is the superb lunch rendezvous for being bussed to the Ark) told us that the majority of the bookings right to the end of August are from Chinese tour companies. But the early-to-bed phenomenon at the Ark is something we have remarked on before when the guests were mainly Europeans.

It occurred to us, though, that we are missing an opportunity when there is such a captive audience of Chinese or other East-Asian tourists. Now Charles, the Ark’s host for the night, gave an excellent talk about the history of the Ark, the ecology of the Aberdare National Park, and the animals and birds that we were encountering.

But, given that the East-Asian nations (and particularly China) are the main culprits in the trade for poached ivory — and given that China has a death penalty for killing a panda — perhaps such Chinese tourists might have had their awareness aroused if they had been asked how they would react if a group of Kenyans were considering visiting China to poach pandas.

As for the elephants at the Ark that night, they were the stars. There were two young males on the salt lick in the early evening. It was difficult to work out their relationship. After slowly walking around each other for a while, they came close and intimate enough to feed salt into each other’s mouth with their trunks — and then they squared up and separated again.

And the family group was fascinating; led by a matriarch who gouged out a hole in the soil with her tusks, for the younger ones to enjoy the salt. While the grown females were very protective of their young, one male youngster was pretending to be brave by making little sorties to mock-challenge a buffalo.

Nature’s best

But there were other interesting animals that came to the Ark that night: three disgruntled buffalos, a lone and graceful bushbuck, three genet cats who came for a plate of raw eggs left out on the external stairs — two of them black — two tiny suni antelopes under the bushes, a mongoose that scuttled among the rocks at the base of the building, and a bush baby that actually got inside and left its droppings on the carpet.

Maybe, the carpets in the newly refurbished Ark are too pale to absorb such treatment. But, overall, the decor is good – stylish and comfortable. The bedrooms, though small, have brightly painted walls, slatted wood ceilings, hot showers – and hot water bottles in the beds at night.

When we have first-time visitors to Kenya we often choose the Ark as their introduction to our wildlife. It is a magical place, up in the forest. You are bound to see a lively cast of animals – and there must be few other places where you can get so close to elephants.

“I think I could turn and live with animals,” wrote Walt Whitman, the American poet. I remembered that line last Sunday at the Ark.

John Fox is Managing Director iDC