Central Kenya: Aberdare, Treetops, The Ark and Lewa Downs

in Kenya

The Walleighs took another trip to central Kenya with their friends Fred and Judy (and their adorable sons) to the Outspan Hotel near Aberdare National Park, not far from Mt. Kenya. While there, Rick and Wendy traveled nearby to the Treetops resort, famous for its waterholes and salt licks (both man-made) that attract many animals without the tourist having to bother with a safari vehicle.  In its previous incarnation (the original Treetops burned down), it was also famous for its hosting Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in 1952.  That night, her father King George died.  So the memorable phrase associated with Treetops is: “Elizabeth went up [into Treetops] a princess and came down a queen.”

Both Treetops and its more modern version The Ark, operated by the upscale Fairmont hotels, are disappointing because in reality, few animals truly visit the adjacent waterholes and salt licks except in very dry conditions. The most exciting element

to their visit to The Ark—when the Walleighs were accompanied by their children, nephew and family friends–was the bus ride from the meeting point to the resort.  Incredibly, for several minutes the bus trailed a leopard just casually walking up the paved road.  Normally leopards are extremely hard to see–the Walleighs had seen only one from a distance during their 1997 three week safari in East Africa.  After the leopard stopped and looked at the bus passengers for a while, the driver decided that the show was over.  Other than that, give both Treetops and The Ark a miss!

Lots of Animals and Excitement at Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy

During the Walleighs’ family and friends’ visit in October 2007, their best Kenya safari experience—besides the Maasai Mara—was their trip to Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy.  These friends had read about it so wanted to go there. It is a private reserve near Meru in central Kenya that since the 1970s has transformed from ranch land into this conservancy (for more details, read below).  Rick and Wendy stayed for four days with family and friends in 2007 and returned on their own in 2008.  The facilities are wonderful, the guides are very competent, and the animals are prolific.

Perhaps the funniest story from the 2007 visit occurred on their first night safari shortly after arrival.  With nine in their party, the safari vehicles divided into parents in one and grown children in the other.  Both guides, as is typical, stayed in touch by radio as each drove in different directions.  About one hour into the ride, the parents’ vehicle got a flat tire so everyone got out while the driver and guide replaced the tire.  Of course, they were cautiously looking around the whole time because once out of a safari vehicle, people are not part of this “big animal” aka safari truck so game animals realize they may potentially have found dinner.  Whew, tire was repaired, truck got back on its way and less than 5 minutes later their car met three adult lions just off the road.  Hmmm…pretty darn close to the breakdown spot…In any case our guide radioed the other safari truck to tell them where the lions were and after a few minutes, the parents’ vehicle carried on.  Well, the kids’ guide and driver looked high and low for the lions to no avail.  However, just as the truck was backing up to turn back toward the camp, Wendy and Rick’s daughter and nephew looked down over their side’s railing into the eyes of the three lions.  They screeched—not supposed to but couldn’t help it—and practically threw themselves over to the other side of the vehicle.  The lions stared into the truck, the kids calmed down, looked their fill and have remembered this experience for the rest of their lives. Needless to say, Lewa Conservancy is highly recommended—for many reasons.

History of Lewa (from their website, http://www.lewa.org/)

With the precipitous decline of black rhinos (aka hook-lipped rhinos which eat shrubs vs. white rhinos with flat lips for eating grass) across Africa in the 1970s, government wildlife agencies and conservation organizations increasingly turned to private landowners, non-profit organizations and indigenous communities to protect the few remaining animals. In Kenya, the number of black rhinos dropped from an estimated 20,000 to fewer than 300 animals, and the only way to prevent their complete extinction was to create high security sanctuaries.

In 1983, David and Delia Craig set aside 5,000 acres of their ranch as the Ngare Sergoi Rhino Sanctuary; conservationist and philanthropist Anna Merz threw in her savings; and together they recruited game-trackers, bush pilots, veterinarians and others to round-up and protect Kenya’s rhinos. For the next few years, they tracked, captured and relocated every remaining wild rhino in northern Kenya to the refuge for breeding and safekeeping.  The program was so successful that within a decade more space was needed, leading the Craigs to dedicate their entire ranch to conservation and form the non-profit Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in 1995.

Today, Lewa employs more than 300 people and  encompasses the 40,000 acres owned by the Craig’s, an additional 8,000 acres owned by others and 14,000 acres of national forest. The reserve supports over 440 species of birds and more than 70 different mammals. Its rhino population has grown steadily, not only restoring local numbers but enabling black rhino reintroduction in regions where they long had been absent. Lewa is also a founding member of and manages black rhino conservation and security in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, 90,000-acre reserve near Lewa that protects the largest single population of black rhinos in Kenya.

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