Nestled below Kenya’s Abedare Mountain range is a haven unaffected by time
— a place where man and nature live together in perfect harmony.
A dog-eared book in my grandfather’s library first got me thinking about the Aberdare Mountains in Kenya. The book, Haven under the Hill, by Monty Brown didn’t paint a conventional picture of Kenya with its game drives, beautiful savannah grasslands and the Masai culture. I was, instead, taken by the beauty of the dense bamboo forests of the Aberdare Mountain Ranges, and the streams and rivers that cascaded over spectacular waterfalls. And weaved into this setting was Brown’s story about two houses that had become inseparable companions since 1969.
One was the Aberdare Country Club, built by the English couple Mickey and Dot Lyons in the late 30s and the other a forest lodge built much later in the shape of Noah’s Ark by their son, Kevin. While the club was tucked in the foot slopes of the Kamatongu Hill in the Kikuyu heartland, the Ark nestled deep in the forests of the Aberdare Mountains. The more I read about the two houses and their close relationship, the more intrigued I was to be part of the Ark experience.
From Nairobi it takes little more than a three-hour drive across the lush Kenyan Highlands and coffee plantations to reach the Aberdare Country Club. The journey also offers the spectacular views of vast stretches of pineapple and corn fields. The property is inside a 1,300-acre wildlife sanctuary with splendid views of the Aberdare Mountains in the west and Mount Kenya in the east. The Club was initially first called the Steep and the original idea came from Dot Lyons herself. In early 1967 Kevin Lyons planned to turn Steep into a base for the new lodge, Ark, where visitors could relish the charms of the Aberdare forest undisturbed and uninterrupted. Since then the two have been inextricably linked and in order to visit the Ark, it is important to pass through the precincts of the Club.
Sound of silence
My afternoon lunch at the charming old-world dining hall was followed by a quick tour of the Club grounds that abound with Thompson and Grant’s gazelles, Masai giraffes, zebras and warthogs. The garden is a riot of colour and a haven of unhurried charm where the silence of nature forces you to speak in whispers. If you decide to have your evening tea on the lawn, it’s not unusual to have a peacock for company at the table right next to you.
Sharp at four in the afternoon we started out for the Ark with Rosemary Kiboi, our hostess for the night. The Ark had opened its doors for business in November 1969. Designed like Noah’s Ark, the building has three viewing decks at three different levels and an additional viewing gallery in the basement.
As we entered the Aberdare National Park, Rosemary set the rules for the night:
“No stepping out of the Ark once you enter it, no speaking loudly, and no making any noise. We buzz you once if there are elephants, twice if there is a rhino, thrice if the elusive leopard is spotted and four times if something really spectacular happens.” We were also told that the salt-pit outside the Ark was a favourite with the elephants, wild buffalos, the endangered black rhino and bushbuck and, if we were really lucky, the golden cat would come along as well.
The interiors of this dimly-lit lodge were another world altogether. Warm, incredibly romantic, but completely cut-off from all civilisation, it gave the perfect opportunity to be one with the wilderness. Once the doors of the Ark closed and everyone settled in, the ship was ready for its nightly their salt lick. It was raining that night and herds of elephants and buffalos a came out to feast on the grounds. Long after the captain of the ship, Rosemary, had regaled us with stories of the many kills that she had seen in her 22 years of service, we were still waiting and watching, suspense building every minute for something exciting to happen. At 5am the next morning I joined Rosemary to feed the birds on the catwalk outside, the only elevated area we were allowed to walk on. A scrumptious breakfast later, she packed us into the pick-up bus that took us back to the Aberdare Country Club.
With their history and old-world charm, the Aberdare Country Club and the Ark make for a very different holiday in Kenya. The relationship is made even more beautiful by the local Kikuyu staff and their stories from the past that keep the history of the two houses alive. Each relies on the other, and in turn provides a wonderful service to those visiting the country.