We followed a dusty two-track in the forested salient of the Aberdares. Thick patches of striking purple Vernonia shrubs bulged into the road, and twisted white tree trunks punctuated a sea of deep green on the hillsides. We rounded a bend, and a mud-coated buffalo lay in our path, unperturbed. A large male leopard suddenly emerged from a bush beside us, and strode purposefully up the road. He gave the buffalo a wide birth, who eyed him suspiciously, but was still reluctant to heave himself off the ground.
The leopard continued along the track for a few hundred metres, and we inched forward behind him. Every now and again he paused to scent mark a bush or a tree, by rubbing up against it and cocking up his tail to spray it with urine. ‘If you guys sniff the air as we drive past’, my brother said, ‘you might be able to pick up an aroma of buttered popcorn’. I couldn’t smell it, but I didn’t really want to start thinking of leopard pee the next time I went to the cinema.
The Aberdare Range is thought to be home to some of the largest leopards in the world, but they are elusive creatures. So it was incredible to watch such a relaxed big male on his territorial patrol. He eventually disappeared into the bushes, causing a troop of colobus monkeys to croak frantically in alarm.
As the light faded, we headed to the Prince Charles campsite in the east of the salient. The history of the British royal family in the Aberdare National Park is well documented; Princess Elizabeth famously stayed at the Treetops Lodge in 1952, on the night when her father, George VI, died. Prince Charles has also been hosted on safari in the park, and there’s now a campsite in his name.
The campsite is certainly not fit for royalty, though. The track leading to it is overgrown, and our path was blocked by a termite-ridden tree trunk. We managed to winch it out of the way, and then squeezed our Land Cruiser through the thick bush toward the open camping ground. This is one of six ‘special campsites’ scattered across the park, which cost more than the public campsites and need to be booked in advance. You also have to be completely self-sufficient, as there are no facilities at all at these campsites.
What you do get is exclusive use of the space, surrounded by wildlife in very scenic spots of the park. I say exclusive, but we actually shared the campsite with a very bold hyena. As we sat around the campfire, we shone a torch towards a tent behind us, and spotted a hyena curled up in the grass. Annoyed by the torchlight, it stood up grudgingly and slinked behind a nearby bush. Every 20 minutes or so, we caught it sneaking around the campsite, until we eventually made enough noise to send it scurrying into the darkness. Throughout the night hyenas whooped all around us, and tree hyraxes treated us to hours of their distinctive, spine-chilling calls.
The following morning, still bleary-eyed from a night of whooping and shrieking, we drove west towards the moorlands. As we climbed higher, dense bamboo forest opened out to plains of tussock grass. We followed an overgrown circuit towards Sapper Hut, a self-catering KWS banda in a remote valley of the park. The hut has sadly been taken over by bees, but the waterfall nearby provided an ideal spot for lunch. As we clambered down into the valley, a lone elephant grazed across the river.
I really hope that KWS renovate Sapper Hut in the near future, and rid it of its stinging tenants. But if they don’t, there are still plenty of other options – including the Prince Charles campsite, if you’re not put off by the idea of camping with inquisitive hyenas.
Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation