Posted On 24th December 2015
Way back in 1932, in the heart of the Aberdare Ranges, Lady Bettie and her Husband Major Eric Sherbrooke Walker, one time secretary to founder of the scout movement Baden-Powell, built a private two-roomed tree house to provide a safe platform for viewing and shooting-with cameras of course, wildlife . As fate would have it, the tree house’s location with an unparalleled view of a waterhole surrounded by salt deposits resulted in a demand to cater for more guests. The tree house hence started hosting overnight guests acting as an adjunct to the Major’s other property, The Outspan hotel. Open only on nights with a full moon, the tree house was touted as probably being the most expensive in its day, costing a smashing ten pounds.
The year was 1952 and Treetops would host its most famous guest yet. Twenty five year old Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary and her husband Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh were visiting Kenya as part of their Commonwealth tour and a personal visit to the Walker’s would not have been complete without a visit to his now popular tree house. Not married long, this was the couple’s maiden visit to an African forest and its enchantment could not be shrouded as they excitedly clicked away especially after a rousing welcome by a herd of angry elephant. Sadly, however, as the pair enjoyed themselves, King George VI who had been ailing for a while lost to Lung Cancer thrusting the Duke of Edinburgh into Prince Hood and transforming the princess into a Queen. With its newfound relationship with the British Crown, fame thus hounded Treetops as other VIP guests and dignitaries trooped to the Aberdares among them Walker’s former boss, Baden-Powell who went on to commission a cottage christened Paxtu on Outspan’s extensive grounds. All was not rosy for the lodge though, the Mau-Mau would also troop into the cover of the forest albeit for different reasons. The heat of their struggle against colonial rule was becoming unbearable and the forest seemed ideal for their guerrilla activities. Hot on pursuit was the King’s African Rifles, a British multi-battalion regiment whose operations whilst perched on the tree house which acted as a look-out led to the demise of many an outlaw. Not surprisingly, a match’s wrath meted on the lodge ensured that only charred remains stood as the remaining relic of Treetop History.
All was not lost, as a determined Walker rebuilt Treetops three years later albeit on the opposite side of the water hole but maintaining its predecessor’s quaint charm. By the time her Majesty made a return visit in 1983, the lodge had grown to fourty rooms including two suites although the lodge remained largely an overnight destination with guests being driven in from The Outspan; allowed only overnight luggage. Not much notable change occurred since, except that the lodge shifted hands as Sir Malin Sorsbie, Block Hotels and the current owners, Aberdare Safari hotels acquired the two properties. Well, that and the fact that time slowly took its toll and the lodge inadvertently took a break for renovations. Renovations that would cost a hefty $1.5 million and eventually, on April fool’s day this year, treetops was reborn.
It is with this rich backdrop that I toured the ‘new’ Treetops when it opened. Two tour vans assembled at the Eurodent center in Westlands where the hotel chain’s offices are located on a clear Saturday morning. A quick briefing by Elizabeth Nguraru, Sales Executive on the trip’s itinerary flagged off the tour that soon snaked onto Thika highway. A smooth ride hounded by good cheer with a brief break stop en route ensured that we arrived in Nyeri in three hours. One could not help notice the change of environment as we left the smoke ridden capital to the agricultural driven town. One kilometer from town and we arrived at the lush Outspan hotel; base hotel for the Treetops. Hot towels and a cocktail welcomed us before we were ushered into the lounge where the colonial architecture and decor of the establishment, notably its Gaulish chandeliers, rubbed off on us. My insatiable curiosity ensured that I noticed a typewriter tucked in a corner, purchased by the Walkers in 1921 whilst our hosts checked us in. With no time to spare and our taste buds tingling, we attacked the buffet lunch all the while getting acquainted to one another. The dining hall opens up to a balcony where meals are also served. An expansive lawn follows that gives you that sense of country which for me was welcome considering the eyesore that can be Nairobi.
A guided tour conducted by Julliah Hinya, was the next activity for a closer feel of The Outspan whose fact file is available on the hotels website. The Chania wing an extension of the original structure by walker stood out as did the Kirinyaga Tarven where we chanced upon the resident peacock couple who wowed us with their beauty. Hard to miss was settler tradition and elements of Kikuyu culture which kept rearing their head as captured in most of the photographs that float in most of the suites. Paxtu museum was quite something, cottage where Lord Baden Powell spent the last three years of his years, a Mecca of sorts for girl guides and boy scouts with its unsettling number of flags and badges. A surprise awaited us when we left the museum. Nahashon Mureithi, who worked at tree tops when her Majesty the Queen first visited, was on hand to share his experience as we all boarded the Treetop van that was to take us into the park. A charming driver Francis confirmed our comfort before the eighteen kilometer long drive that had to detour to KWS-Mweiga Park offices for payment of our Park entry fees also payable from the Langata Head Office. The warden manned gates opened after a mostly uphill drive to an altitude of around 6450 feet above sea level. Noteworthy is the fact that the park does not allow visitors into the park on foot and or after six in the evening unless of course they have made accommodation arrangements and entry is by safari cards only which may be loaded but not obtained at KWS-Mweiga Park offices.
A few meters into the park and boom! A solitary jumbo was sighted beside the road as Francis halted for us to have a closer view as he also pointed out the endangered Colobus monkey on the opposite ridge. After we had had our fill, we continued till we came to an open clearing where we were asked to disembark. The remaining distance would be covered on foot, a fact that made the ladies in the group squeal in fright. A rifle wielding warden, however, was on hand to ensure we got to the lodge in one piece even as cape buffaloes with their menacing looks looked on.
There it was standing immaculately in the afternoon sun, supported by at least thirty feet high stilts-The indelible Treetops. We were received by the treetops resident naturalist Stephen whom we had met at The Outspan who briefed us on the lodge’s restrictions as we downed apple juice. As we walked into the lodge the changes became evident, importantly it incorporates a ramp and as we later learnt during the tour, the lower floor houses a user friendly room for the disabled. The refurbishment had reached its goal: thirty six luxurious en-suite rooms including three superior suites with the best view of the water hole named after her Majesty, a photographic hide and a view deck at ground level and on the rooftop respectively, lounge complete with a bar all designed to allow unobstructed game viewing are the amenities the lodge now boasts. What grabbed me most, however, was the new look restaurant fitted with an active cooking area, salad bar, buffet counter for breakfast and an impressive sitting arrangement with several individual tables which signalled a new turn for treetops, from an overnight destination into a fully fledged hotel. The ambience boosted by the low hanging lighting, well set tables with good ware, cushy dining seats , broad windows that let the wild in coupled with an unmistakable live tree trunk going right through the restaurant’s floor and ceiling as well as through other rooms triggered interactive dinner talk. Chef Peter Kasamu and his team did not disappoint either with impeccable service and good food especially the traditional lamb muteta soup and grilled beef steak on thyme soup I savoured.
As the night wound up, awe inspiring Stephen shared a lecture on the lodge’s history and animal behaviour over coffee. Right as he was concluding, as if to crown his talk three black rhinos showed at the edge of the water hole for a drink much to the delight of all who hurdled at the lounge windows for a closer view. After the excitement subsided, the party dispersed to different points for more intimate views of the animals before retiring to their rooms aware of a buzzer call in the rooms meant to alert guests of animal sightings throughout the night though I opted out when a spotted hyena was spotted in the night, a result of the day’s hectic pace; the only thing that would have managed to grab my attention would have been the elusive leopard found in the park.
At dawn after downing wholesome breakfast, a check of the animal sightings book showed that a remarkable226 of eight animal species and six different species of birds had visited the water hole the duration of our stay. Later, a debriefing session hinted the inevitable even as all concurred that for a comprehensive experience, at least two nights complete with game drives and guided foot tours into the park would suffice. I particularly, will have to make a return trip for another shot at the shy leopard hoping for a superb visit; at least if their slogan ‘like the first time, Every time’ is anything to go by. For now though, I count myself privileged to have