We were returning
from an afternoon safari when the first bell buzzed over the intercom. Having
already spent a night at the Ark, a
quirky Noah's Ark-like lodge tucked into the thick, verdant forests of Kenya's Aberdare National Park, I was
familiar with the drill: one bell meant elephants arriving to the salt lick and
watering hole that the back of the lodge overlooks. Two bells signalled a
rhino. While I would have jumped at the chance to catch even a glimpse of
either a few days back, Kenya's easy proximity to buffalo, giraffe, zebra and
other African wildlife has an odd way of dulling your senses. Rather then run
to the lodge's triad of decks with camera in tow, I turned down the hall toward
my room. But as I reached my door, the bell buzzed a third time – a pattern we
had never heard before.
A small group had
already formed on the third-floor outdoor deck when I arrived, breathless.
Charles Mathenge, the Ark's affable ”captain” during my stay, was beckoning us with one hand while motioning to
be quiet with the other. Partially hidden in the brush was a leopard, its
yellow fur covered in densely packed rose-shaped markings that illuminated it
against the dark green backdrop. He was staring intently at a mother warthog,
her four tiny piglets foraging nearby.
“You remember Pumbaa,
the warthog from [the film] The Lion King?” whispered Mathenge. “Pumbaa means
“stupid” in Swahili.” At that exact moment the leopard leapt from his perch,
bolting toward one of the piglets. The mother warthog ran after him at a
surprising speed, grunting and repelling him backward.
“That didn't look
dumb to me,” I said.
said, “but now watch this”.
Within seconds the
mother warthog had turned her back on the leopard, grazing obliviously as
though the entire scene had never taken place.
It is hard to beat
Kenya for its unfettered access to wildlife, but visitors often forget
that getting up close does not have to mean being confined in a vehicle. For
example, while much of your day at the Ark may be spent roaming Aberdare
National Park in 4x4 jeeps seeking out playful monkeys, elusive lions and the
occasional waterfall, at the lodge you are still sleeping within the animals’
hunting grounds. Step into the Ark's ground-level, wildlife-viewing room and
you may find yourself within steps of a black rhino, easily photographable
through the thick window. Or curl up with a hot water bottle as the temperature
drops and listen to the whoop calls of hyena as you drift off to sleep. One
evening I stood on the deck and watched more than two dozen elephants – including a mother and baby – grazing on
the lick below.
And the Ark is
just one of many alternative opportunities within a few hours of Nairobi,
Kenya’s capital city.
Boat safari on Lake Naivasha
There is no shortage of hippos in Lake Naivasha, a freshwater body lying 1,890m up in the highlands of Kenya's Rift valley, 120km
northwest of Nairobi. And most nearby lodges offer boat tours, including Lake Naivasha Sawela Lodge.
As your guide navigates the
motorised boat past papyrus stands and fisherman standing waist-deep in the
water, it is easy to envision the hippos rising up like sharks at any minute.
But once you spot them – their
disproportionate ears and widespread eyes hovering just above the water's
surface – you almost forget your fears.
Huddled together in pods, they seem surprisingly (and wrongly) nonthreatening,
their massive bodies gliding around the bottom of the lake.
But hippos are not Lake Naivasha's
only wildlife; it is also a bird-lovers paradise. The lake is home to hundreds
of bird species, from mohawked pied kingfishers to brightly-coloured brimstone
canaries to majestic fish eagles that glide easily through the air. Meanwhile,
buffalo meander along nearby swampy banks and beyond them, black and white
colobus monkeys dangle lazily on the crooked branches of flat-topped acacia
Bicycling through Hells Gate National Park
Its name is intimidating enough (though Hell's Gate actually refers to a narrow
break in the cliffs at the park's entrance), but the – albeit slim – prospect of
coming upon a voracious lion while riding nothing but rubber tires and a metal
frame is downright formidable. Hell's Gate is one of only two
national parks in the entire country that you can walk and bicycle through.
Imagine, cruising along on two wheels while a group of zebra graze curiously
from a few metres away. You are likely to encounter herds of hartebeest,
Thompson's gazelle and buffalo. And while the occasional carnivorous feline
does make an appearance, they are extremely rare. The park itself is exquisite,
with hot springs and nesting raptors. In fact, its jagged Fischer's Tower –a tower
of basalt rock ideal for climbing, in the park's northeast corner – is the main
inspiration for Pride Rock in Disney's 1994 film, The Lion King.
Hell's Gate is about 90km northwest
from Nairobi, and the city's Goshawk Tours offers day-long bicycling and
walking tours with round-trip transportation.
Walking among giants in Aberdare Country Club
A course where a baboon absconds with your golf ball is not your typical
putt-putt, but rather daily life on the grounds of Aberdare Country Club, a sprawling 1,300 acre
wildlife sanctuary with a nine-hole golf course and lodge surrounded by
primates, warthogs and more. Peacocks wander the trails and lounge on the
rooftops, while giraffes graze on the trees a few hundred meters away.
Aberdare's nature walks and horseback riding tours also get you up close to the
animals, literally wandering among zebra, elands and impalas.
Despite a recent renovation, the
property has the relaxing feel of an old-world country retreat like something you
would see in the movie Out of Africa. In fact, cast members from the early-20th
century period piece stayed here during filming. The lodge, located 190km
northeast of Nairobi, offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside,
and is the perfect spot for simply enjoying Kenya's vast natural beauty –
preferably with a Tusker lager in hand.