Aberdare National Park splits into two different environments: the high moorland and peaks which form its bulk, and the lower Salient to the east where the vegetation is dense rainforest and there is considerably more wildlife.
In order to protect the park’s wildlife, in particular its black rhinos (one of the largest populations in Kenya), but mainly to arrest the conflict between wildlife and humans, which most visibly manifested itself in the trashing of crops and homes fringing the park by “rogue” or “rampaging” elephants, the KWS has built a 388km electric fence to encircle the national park and the forests of the Aberdare Conservation Area, with the support of Rhino Ark and the annual Rhino Charge motor race.
The high moorlands have some exceptional walking and include three peaks, Lesatima (the highest at 4001m) in the north, Il Kinangop (3906m) in the south, and Kipipiri (3349m), an isolated cone outside the park above the Wanjohi Valley in the west. They can be climbed relatively easily, given good weather conditions. It takes about three hours to climb Lesatima and two hours back down again. Sandai organize climbs, or ask the Mountain Club of Kenya in Nairobi for details. El Paraiso can also arrange guiding. Hiking in the park is allowed only with the approval of the warden, so apply in good time. You may be required to take a guide (whom you’ll have to pay).
Unless you’re planning several days of walking, fishing or camping, the most straightforward visit to the moorlands is to spend a day driving through from one side to the other between the main gates, Matubio and Ruhuruini. There are two other eastern gates further from Nyeri (Wandere and Kiandongoro) and two at the remote north end of the park (Shamata, accessible from Nyahururu, and Rhino Gate, from the B5 Nyeri–Nyahururu road), but there’s no reliable route through the park between north and south, and the small circuit of tracks in the north is very rough. Driving via the park from Naivasha to Nyeri (or vice versa) is easy enough in good weather with 4WD. If conditions are less than ideal, however, and you get stuck, you could be in for a long day, or a miserable night. You need to check road conditions with the rangers at the park gates. Surfaces are mostly red murram, though there are also a few, very steep, rocky sections. It’s usually permissible to wander a short distance from your car, though the lion situation changes from time to time.
The Kikuyu called these mountains Nyandarua (“drying hide”, for their silhouette) long before Joseph Thomson, in 1884, named them after Lord Aberdare, president of the Royal Geographical Society. In their bamboo thickets and tangled forests, Kikuyu Mau Mau guerrillas hid out for years during the 1950s, living off the jungle and surviving thanks to techniques learned under British officers during the Burma campaign in World War II, in which many of them had fought. Despite the manhunts through the forests and the bombing of hideouts, little damage was done to the natural habitat, and Aberdare National Park remains one of Kenya’s most pristine forest reserves.
On the western side, the range drops away steeply to the Rift Valley. It was here, in the high Wanjohi Valley, that a concentration of settlers in the 1920s and 1930s created the myth of the glamorous, decadent Happy Valley out of their obsessive, and unsettled, lives. There’s not much to see (or hear) these days. The old wheat and pyrethrum farms were subdivided after independence and the valley’s new settlers are more concerned with making their market gardens pay. The memories live on only among veteran wazungu. The Kinangop plateau was settled by Europeans, too, but in 1950 the high forest and moorland here was declared Aberdare National Park.
Kenya’s most famous hotel, Treetops, was hosting Princess Elizabeth in February 1952 when she became Queen Elizabeth II on the death of her father George VI. The original tree house she stayed in was burned down in 1955 by Mau Mau freedom fighters; the present, much larger, construction is an ugly box, built on stilts, with a few trees growing through it. The main Nyeri road passes by just 3km away, and shambas and villages are easily visible: this is no jungle hideaway. Both tree-hotels, Treetops and The Ark, are located in the controlled area called the Salient, a lower-altitude extension of the Aberdare National Park. Depending on the season, mist and low temperatures can affect both lodges: take warm clothes.
The problem at Treetops is clear when you survey the scene from the open-air “top deck”. It is a victim of its own success. The laying of salt by the waterhole guarantees the nightly arrival of heavyweight camera fodder, but has brought about the destruction of all the nearby forest by elephants. The current scene – tree-planting areas enclosed by electric fences and acres of mud – is neither popular with visitors nor good for wildlife. That shy forest antelope, the bongo, hasn’t put in an appearance since 1988. Despite the lack of cover, black rhino are seen often, and leopard two or three times a month. But efforts to encourage hardwood forest regeneration behind the electric wires seem doomed to fail – they’ve been trying for more than thirty years.