‘Come and touch the sky’ is the invitation on a sign on the way up to the Serena Mountain Lodge after the drive from Karatina and up the forested southern slopes of Mount Kenya.
True, you are quite high up there – over 7,000 feet higher than Mombasa and about 1,500 feet higher than Nairobi. The air is clear, fresh and bracing. I was reminded of a line from T S Eliot’s enigmatic poem, The Waste Land, that I studied for my ‘A’ levels many years ago: ‘In the mountains, there you feel free’.
Not that those slopes are anything of a waste land. Lower down, the Kikuyu shambas are greened with cabbages and carrots and such things; higher up, the trees are tall and thick. And you are certainly free of buildings, traffic and even people – except for the guests and the staff in the Lodge, of course.
At first, we thought we were free of animals, too. The water hole out front of the Lodge was deserted – except for a couple of Egyptian geese and their six young. A raucous ibis was calling from a high branch. And a Sykes monkey crept across our bedroom’s windowsill – a monkey with a tail and one leg missing. It was a big contrast with what we had experienced the previous evening at the Ark – where the saltlick was amazingly well stocked with elephants and buffalos and other bit players.
We resigned ourselves to enjoying the comforts of the place. After all, the Lodge is one of the Serena Group of hotels, and so another high was the quality of the amenities and the service. Outside, it is all a green-tinged timber building – something like the original Treetops over in the Aberdares. Inside, with its rooms clad in polished woods and its log fires, it has the feel of an Alpine ski lodge. And all the 41 bedrooms, with either a wide window or a balcony, look out over the waterhole.
It was almost dusk when the first animals came to the waterhole. Two bushbucks crept slowly down a narrow track between the surrounding trees – came timidly and watchfully. A third and a fourth followed. Eventually, they reached the far side of the waterhole and bent their heads to the salt. But, restless, every few seconds they looked up and nervously around them.
Then a female waterbuck walked gingerly round the edge of the waterhole – as carefully as if recovering from a delicate hip operation. She crossed to the small, marshy island and, knee-deep in the water, she started to feed on the sedges.
My wife and I went to bed at about 10.30 pm. Less than an hour later there was a knock on the door. It was our son, Andreas, telling us that a leopard had come out of the trees stage left and was slowly walking away to the trees stage right. And then at breakfast the following morning, we could see through the window a colobus monkey watching us from a nearby tree, magnificent in his black and white coat.
It struck me that the difference between the experience the previous evening at the Ark and the experience at Mountain Lodge was like the difference between watching basketball and football – the difference between instant gratification (score, score, score…) and suspense.
I remember the time an American sports journalist criticised the football World Cup because of the low scores. Obviously, he didn’t appreciate suspense. Arsenal beat Chelsea in this season’s Charity Shield by only one goal but, especially if you were a fan of either team, it was a match of intense drama from the kick-off to the final whistle.
I remember the time, too, when an old friend was out visiting us from England – and it was at the Ark, actually – when, after waiting and watching the waterhole for an hour or so, a huge bull elephant emerged majestically out of the mist. My friend was moved to tears, and a painting of that moment now hangs over the mantelpiece in his living room back in England.
But the Serena Mountain Lodge is more than a game-viewing place. Above all, in a very beautiful setting, it is a place for retreat. Not in the negative, military sense of the word, but in the senses of unwinding, relaxing and recharging. It’s also a good place for uninterrupted brainstorming sessions with colleagues. There are rooms for that on the top deck.
But for more information about the Lodge, its attractions and its prices, have a look at the website, www.serenahotels.com; for information about the Mount Kenya National Park, for which you pay the charges at the Park gate on the way to the Lodge (Ksh.150 for citizens and Ksh.1,200 for residents) check the KWS website, www.kws.go.ke.