It was my granddaughter, Nicole’s, birthday – the first day after flying out from the UK for a holiday.
‘What would you like to do on your birthday?’ her mother had asked.
‘I would like to go to the Ark,’ Nicole said.
‘And what would really make your day?’
‘To see a leopard.’
So that’s what we did – and that’s what we saw.
It was a large, female leopard, by the side of the road, only about a kilometre beyond the Ark gate to the Aberdare National Park. She was eating some plants, and she didn’t stop doing so when we slowed the vehicle and stopped only a few metres from her. But after a while she went off and was hidden in the tangle of undergrowth.
‘Perhaps she has an upset stomach and wants to purge herself,’ said our son, Andreas, who has made himself something of an expert in such things (in the behaviour of wildlife, not in over-eating, you’ll understand).
But let me back-track a little…
The Ark is high up in the Aberdare forest, built in a shape something like we imagine Noah’s ship, and beside a waterhole and a saltlick. For visitors, the usual package is a most generous lunch at the Aberdare Country Club, a 45 minutes’ (depending on what is along the road) bus ride to the Ark, a late night watching the game on the saltlick, an early but hearty breakfast before the bus-ride back down to the Club.
The most distinctive and wonderful thing about the Ark is that you get so close to the animals, looking down on them from three viewing balconies or, if you wish, having eyeball-to-eyeball contact from the ground-level bunker.
We were very lucky that day. The clouds lifted, the sun shone, and the animals came out, not two-by-two but in good numbers to lick and to drink – it was, of course, people and not the animals happily becalmed in the Ark.
Until well after dark, there was never less than twenty elephants in view, sharing the place – not always peacefully – with a big herd of buffalos, along with some bushbucks, waterbucks, and a family of giant forest hogs, all these keeping well to the fringes. There was a particularly bad-tempered male buffalo that seemed to have an exaggerated idea of personal space. He even head-butted a fully-grown female elephant.
Before dinner, the Ark Captain, Charles Mathenge, gave his enthusiastic talk about the history of the place, the ecology of the Aberdares, and his own commentary on some of the area’s animals.
After dinner, some of the guests went back to the balconies to continue watching the animal show on the saltlick; some congregated in the bar or warmed themselves by the log fire in the main lounge. And when you went to bed you could choose to leave a buzzer on that would alert you if any special animals put in an appearance during the night.
But it was on the drive back down the mountain that the very special thing happened. Again, by the roadside, the driver spotted a leopard. This time it was a cub, nine months to a year old (according to Andreas who, as I have said, has made himself an expert on these things). The cub peered at us from a thicket, alert and curious. And our cameras clicked happily for at least ten minutes before he slid away into the bushes.
It was about nine o’clock when we arrived at the Club. We were not due at the Serena Mountain Lodge before lunch, so we had time to relax. Some of us went for a horse ride around the estate; some took a walk to see the giraffes in the animal sanctuary; I stayed on the terrace, drinking coffee and thinking about this piece.
Both the Club and the Ark have been tastefully refurbished after the Marasa Africa Group took them over a few years ago. The greens of the old nine-hole golf course look in really green condition. And now there is also the Ayurveda Health Club and Spa with its intriguing selection of consultations, treatments, rituals, and immersions.
Whenever we have visitors who want to see Kenya’s wildlife but have time for only one overnight, we always recommend the Ark – where they can see so much and so closely. And this time, for our granddaughter, it was a birthday treat she will never forget.