Aberdare Country Club & The Ark
"Aberdare Country Club"
One of my last and most enjoyable stops in Kenya was a stay at Aberdare Country Club and from there an overnight visit to a game lodge called The Ark. The drive from Kijabe, where my parents were living, to Aberdare was several hours long; the first part covered 'good' roads--those that are paved and have a minimum of potholes—but the last bit was horrible! These, the worst dirt roads we encountered while in Kenya, somewhat wide and well-weathered roads had more and larger potholes than anywhere else, with sections washed out enough to create a two-level road!
At last we arrived at Aberdare Country Club with our teeth intact and no major headaches or even a flat tire.
We arrived just in time for tea on the grounds amongst the peafowl.
Although I am normally less than fond of early mornings, I arose early the next day with two objectives. The first was to catch a glimpse of Mt. Kenya, since we had been told early morning was the best time to see it. Unfortunately it remained as enshrouded as yesterday afternoon.
My second objective, to look for animals on the golf course, proved more fruitful, though I was a bit miffed at the lone early-morning golfer for landing a ball on the first hole in the midst of a group of waterbuck and zebras I wanted to photograph, thus scaring them away.
Farther down the golf course we spotted, through the trees, what looked from a distance like a cow! As we got closer we could see that it was a group of eland, the male of which was easily the size of a cow! We were able to get within about 30 yards of the group.
While we were watching a family of the largest antelope we spotted off to our right a pair of the smallest antelope--two very shy dik-diks grazing on the far side of a large tree. By keeping the tree between them and me I was able to get close enough to get a good look at them before they bounded rabbit-like into the woods.
After breakfast we walked around a bit while waiting for our 11:00 horseback ride into the nearby game reserve. The ride was led on foot by two of the grooms, which would have made taking pictures much easier if I hadn't been the only one in the group whose horse wasn't being led!
At first we rode through a dry grassy area where we spotted a black crested eagle perched on a low, dead tree. Just past him we encountered a small group of zebra and waterbuck lounging and grazing the dry grass. The horses and game animals seemed equally comfortable around each other; as we rode by them very few of the animals that were lying down bothered to get up as we passed within 30 yards of the group.
Past the zebras we entered a thinly wooded patch where a group of giraffes were grazing scrubby little trees barely two-thirds their height. We rode right through the middle of the somewhat scattered group, with most of the giraffes barely giving us a glance. There was a youngster in the group who seemed a bit interested in us, though uncertain whether to be curious or intimidated.
Past the giraffes we entered a thicker growth of forest, though we encountered no other large animals on our ride.
That afternoon we, along with many of the other visitors to the Country Club, boarded buses to go to The Ark, bringing only an overnight bag. We had the choice of going directly there or of taking a game drive on the way. Although we didn't expect to see much on a middle-of-the-day game drive, this was my last full day in Kenya so we decided to take it anyway.
As it turned out, that was definitely the right choice! Retrospectively, we guessed that the cool, humid climate in the thick, lush forests of the Aberdare mountain range meant that animals were more active in the middle of the day, (whereas in warmer areas like the Serengeti the animals are mainly active at dawn and dusk). Whatever the reason, we saw a variety of animals on the drive.
From the Country Club our van passed through patches of local farmland before arriving at the gates of the game reserve. Most of the reserve is thickly forested, though here and there we encountered open areas of short shrubs and grasses. It was usually in such areas that we encountered buffalo scattered here and there, occasionally mixed with a group of wart hogs.
While the dense forest does prevent spotting animals very far off, we had numerous opportunities to see animals browsing on the edge of the road. I guess if we couldn't see them, they couldn't see us either, though I would think they could have heard us coming. Nevertheless, some of the animals we encountered seem to give us a look of surprise, and some seemed unsure how to react. Some fled, some looked us (or smelled us) over thoroughly then left, some just kept eating (mainly the buffalo).
We came upon a troop of baboons while we were still following one of the other buses. The baboons were not only unsurprised by the two vehicles, they seemed rather unimpressed and were in no hurry to get out of the road.
The other primates we saw appeared equally unimpressed, but I suspect it was primarily because of their safe vantage point about 80 feet up in the treetops! The long shaggy black & white tails were our first glimpse of a small group of colobus monkeys meandering through the branches. There was even a little baby among one of the groups we saw.
One animal I was rather surprised to see (I think it was mutual!) was a hyena we encountered as we rounded a curve. It seemed to give us a once over, loped toward us a bit, then disappeared into the brush. (I was surprised because I didn't associate hyenas with dense forest such as the Aberdares. I guess I forgot how opportunistic they are!)
We even had a (very!) brief encounter with a black rhino that charged out of the woods in front of us. It hesitantly stopped on the road ahead of us and pivoted toward us (I was impressed by how easily such a huge animal executed a one quarter turn on the haunches). He almost seemed to say, "What is that thing? Oh no! People!" before disappearing into the woods from which he came. The whole encounter barely lasted a few seconds. (Looking at the photo of the rhino about to charge back into the woods I notice the lone oxpecker nonchalantly riding out the encounter!)
The widest variety of animals we encountered were, not surprisingly, birds. This brown bird is called a hammerkop; we were told it makes one of the largest nests of any bird. (There is an interesting fact sheet on hammerkops at www.oaklandzoo.org under the “Animals A to Z” section.)
These are Egyptian geese, which we also encountered at the Ark.
Come to think of it, the peafowl weren't the only birds hanging around the tea tables!
We also saw one of these black crested eagles while horseback riding.
Our game driver told us that this raptor was a vulture, but I don't know what type.
At the top of a hill our driver pulled over to let us walk around a little. In the bushes about 20 feet away, my Mom startled a bushbuck which disappeared into the forest. I did get a photo of this bird, a yellow-winged something or other.
Reaching the top of a hill toward the end of the drive we just caught a glimpse of our destination above the forest canopy. The Ark, named for (and built to resemble) Noah’s Ark, is a three story game lodge overlooking a waterhole and a salt lick. Our first view of its roofline above the treetops certainly did look like Noah’s Ark floating among the trees.
Built inside and out to resemble a ship, The Ark’s narrow hallways, berth-like rooms and “forward” lounges did remind me of a cruise ship or ferry. The front of The Ark faces the salt lick with the “port” decks facing the waterhole to the left. While most of the Aberdares is thickly wooded, the salt lick and waterhole are open areas bordered by shrubs and trees. The ground and first floor forward ‘observation decks’ were glass-front indoor lounges, while the third floor and ‘port’ second floor observation decks were outdoor balconies. The ground floor also had a little stone “turret” with slots for open-air viewing. I kept wondering if those slots weren’t big enough for a fair-sized cat (ie, leopard) to get through. (Though there wasn’t really anything to stop a leopard from climbing up onto the balconies either, but I doubt it is often a problem!) I spent most of my time on the ground floor deck—elephants are much more impressive from ground level looking up at them than from the first floor looking down! (Though I occasionally pondered the fact that any of the elephants or rhino could easily go through the lounge’s floor to ceiling windows.)
Shortly after our arrival at The Ark a group of buffalo wandered up to the salt lick.
The salt lick itself is just a large muddy patch next to the water hole. Although originally a natural salt lick, it has been depleted over time by the animals, so the staff replenishes it now. It seemed a bit strange watching various animals come to lick the mud! Not all of the animals that frequent the salt lick come for salt or water, though—a pair of hyenas began to lurk about, though I’m not sure when they arrived. For the most part they stayed on the fringes, though occasionally loping across the salt lick.
After awhile the buffalo wandered off toward the waterhole, and a group of elephants arrived. As the buffalo headed back toward the woods the two hyenas became increasingly interested in the younger animals in the group, but were easily deterred by the adults. Not surprisingly, the younger elephants in the arriving group drew little or no interest from the hyenas.
Rather than licking the mud like the buffalo, the elephants picked up chunks of it with their trunks. I couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like they ate the whole chunk of mud!
The feeder hanging near the patio tables contained a variety of fruit and attracted those birds not so interested in tea and biscuits.
Additionally, the elephants used their tusks to dig in the mud, I guess to dig up more salt.
One of the last elephants to arrive looked (to my uneducated eye) to be the oldest of the group, and we guessed she was the matriarch. One of her tusks curled over the other so that she could only dig sidewise with one tusk.
At some point two rhinos approached the salt lick, one behind the other. At first I thought they were coming together until the first turned to confront the second. They seemed to have a bit of a face-off before the second backed down and left. The rhino and the elephants seemed to get along, though for the most part the elephants kept clear of the rhino. The younger elephants, however, occasionally showed some curiosity toward it which provoked a reaction from the rhino, which in turn provoked a reaction from the older elephants. For the most part, though, things were still peaceful by the time dinner started.
As dusk approached The Ark turned floodlights on the waterhole and salt lick, but while it was still light enough that the animals didn’t notice. Unlike Shimba, we were repeatedly cautioned not to use flashes when photographing the animals, so high speed film was a necessity once it got dark. At one point one of the elephants came up to the ground floor lounge to browse the trees just to our. One of the guest took a flash photo of it (it was only about 10 feet from us!) and startled it away (and was immediately reprimanded by the staff).
Shortly before dinner started I noticed this little guy, a genet, lurking in the grass right around the windows of the ground floor lounges. Resembling a cross between a serval (a wild cat) and a ferret, the genet is an agile predator of small animals, and, it seemed, insects. Two of them prowled the grassy patch in front of the lounge, frequently perching in windowsill and occasionally taking an insect off the window—crunch, crunch, crunch! Just like one of my cats!
The dining room was on the “starboard” ground floor, and although it was glass all around it faced a wooded area where very few animals came. The food was quite good.
After dinner we returned to the observation decks to find the rhino still at the salt lick. A group of elephants was still around, but it didn’t seem to be the same group as earlier. The interaction between the rhino and this group of elephants seemed to favor the rhino more than earlier (I guess it was the same rhino?). I think this was partly because the current group didn’t have any especially young animals, so they weren’t as protectively aggressive. The lone bull elephant seemed to want to confront the rhino, but the rhino, rather than backing down, just swung its head at him; in the end the elephant begrudgingly usually backed off. (However, there is a rhino head mounted in the main lounge at the Ark—according to the plaque it was killed by an angry elephant!)
In addition a lone bull buffalo had arrived. Compared to the group we saw earlier he was massive—even in the night the muscles in his back and sides were easily visible from 30 or 40 yards away! Compared to the other animals at the salt lick, however, he was the smallest, and he kept a careful, if calm, eye on his companions and their little confrontations.
The pair of hyenas continued to lurk, occasionally coming in close enough to provoke the elephants who quickly reacted to the mere sight of them with trumpeting and sometimes a mock charge.
At some point in the evening a lone bushbuck wandered up to the waterhole; though quickly spotted by the two hyenas he easily swam out to a little island in the water before they could reach him. The two predators eagerly circled the shore but it was clear that if they started into the water the bushbuck could swim to the opposite shore before they could get to him. Eventually, however, the bushbuck headed for the shore opposite the hyenas; I wasn’t sure if he would get there before the hyenas did but he made it and ran off into the night with the hyenas in hot pursuit. Several minutes later the bushbuck came back into view and ran off into a different direction with one hyena on his heels and the second following his trail. A little later he crossed back into view; both hyenas had fallen back a bit. Later again the bushbuck passed through again and disappeared before we saw either hyena—both were trailing him now. The next time we saw him pass through the hyenas were even farther behind and turned off in the wrong direction—I then realized why the bushbuck kept crossing back over the salt lick (I didn’t really think it was just for our benefit!); by crisscrossing his trail the hyenas eventually were unable to select the freshest track and lost him.
By the time this little bit of excitement started many of the other animals had drifted off, though I remember the lone bull buffalo watching all the commotion without budging from his spot at the salt lick. Many of the guests also had drifted off to their ‘bunks,’ and eventually I did too, only after I was sure nothing else was likely to happen!
The Ark has an interesting custom at night to announce the arrival of large animals after guests have gone to bed. Each room has a little speaker in it; the staff rings a bell if any large animals arrive at night—twice for the ‘big three’ (buffalo, rhinos, elephants) and three times for lions or leopards. Unfortunately, we had an disturbed night!
The next morning I got up in time to go watch the animals at the salt lick for about half an hour before breakfast (which was at 7 or 7:30). I finally got a good view of Mt. Kenya!
The only animals around were a small group of bushbuck.
Though not quite as active as the animals last night, I was still glad to finally get to see some in daylight, since when I first woke up I started thinking of all the animals we had seen and thought that I never had gotten a photo of a bushbuck.
These two males occasionally faced off, though it always seemed to be in play.
Shortly after breakfast the guests all loaded back into buses for the drive back to Aberdare Country Club (for some reason, no one ever stays at The Ark for more than one night!). At the Country Club we relaxed on the grounds a little bit before packing up for the drive back to Kijabe.
Some of the birds were too shy to actually come to the feeder, at least while there were people around. These little brown crested birds were quite cute, but it took forever to actually get a photograph of one!
After tea we walked around the lovely grounds for a bit. Aberdare Country Club’s entrance drive winds through a partially wooded golf course bordered by denser forest. I’m not sure how much of the forest belongs to the Country Club, but I got the impression that a fair-sized portion of it did, especially since they had horses stashed somewhere but I never saw where. The grounds immediately around the buildings were well groomed and beautifully planted. I counted four or five colors of begonias in flower, as well as a variety of other flowers I didn’t recognize.
We did have to watch where we stepped as we walked, as there is ample evidence that a variety of hoofed animals frequent the grounds! Most evidence was of either horses or zebras, but we weren't sure which. As we continued walking toward the golf course we encountered warthogs grazing the greens. The weather in this part of Kenya had been unseasonable dry, and the pampered grass on the golf course provided some of the greenest grazing around.
I wonder what kind of penalty you get for hitting a wart hog?
Most of the wart hogs seemed to tolerate visitors fairly well. They kept their distance, but a few circled around us as though curious (maybe they were baffled by our lack of golf clubs!) Most ignored us as long as we were still and quiet. As evening approached more animals emerged from the woods bordering the golf course. In the dusk some of animals were difficult to identify, though the zebra, of course, were obvious.