LOCATION: TREETOPS LODGE, ABERDARE RANGES FOREST, CENTRAL KENYA
It’s a cloudless starry night. It is pitch dark and silent. The air is chilly. The only sounds that can be heard are the sporadic high pitched laughs from some hyenas close by. As I look out the window, I am grateful to be here in the Aberdare Ranges forest, miles away from a world that has so many demands and expectations.
I am so exhausted that I should still be asleep. The ‘animal sighting’ buzzer woke me up.
Earlier, I was asked by the lodge staff, “Are there any animals you wish to see? If they come to the watering hole during the night, we will ring the buzzer to alert you.”
“Elephants, a herd of buffalo and rhinos. It would be nice to see a predator too. Perhaps a leopard,” I replied.
I glance towards the watering hole beneath us and the salt lick that surrounds it. There is a large herd of buffalo. I gasp. Their number and size takes me by surprise. They drink leisurely, a sign that there are no predators nearby. Once they are done, the buffaloes depart, making their way up a slope and disappearing into the thick forest. Moments later, a few elephants approach the hole. As they draw close to the water, they stop and begin to dig their trunks into the ground. When they have had their fill of salt and other minerals found in the ground, these majestic beasts move towards the water. I watch them for a while and then I head back to bed.
Earlier in the day, when we arrived at Treetops, we were ushered in and immediately briefed on our surroundings, proof that this was no ordinary hotel.
“Welcome to Treetops,” Mr. Walker said. He was a rugged sort of man, evidence of one who spent a lot of time outdoors. He was dressed in a pair of white shirt, khaki shorts and safari boots.
“As its name suggests, Treetops lodge was built on trees in the Aberdare Ranges forest twenty years ago to provide an observation point for wildlife.”
“I will proceed to give you some do’s and don'ts:
DO have a splendid time;
DO enquire about any animals that you wish to know about;
DO ask if you need any assistance.
DON’T make sudden or loud noises. We are here to observe wildlife in their surroundings, not startle them.
DON’T attempt to leave the lodge. You can’t outrun a lion or outclimb a leopard.
DON’T attempt to open the windows. They are sealed shut to keep us in and the animals out.
DON’T be disrespectful to other guests. This is a tight space and we have to make the best of it.”
After a slight pause, he added, “DON’T expect breakfast. There is none, except for the honeymooners.”
At this, we all laughed.
We all had a splendid afternoon and evening and were thrilled to be so close to wildlife. Our hosts did their best to make us feel welcome. But, I was also aware that whereas the Aberdare Ranges forest was a magical place to experience wildlife for us, this forest and the surrounding areas meant something else to a different group of people. This was hard to ignore owing to the presence of the heavily armed guards all around us.
Aberdare Ranges forest, located in Central Kenya, formed part of the Aberdares mountain range whose most famous peak was Mount Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa. The weather in Central Kenya was cool, the rainfall abundant and the soil was perfect for growing crops like tea and coffee. These lands, which came to be known as ‘the Highlands’ had attracted British settlers for over half a century.
There had been a lot of violence in this area over the past few years, brought about by the growing discontentment of the Kikuyu people, who had lived here before the arrival of the settlers. This had led to a movement by some freedom fighters known as the Mau Mau. The aim of the Mau Mau was to drive the settlers out of Central Kenya. They launched deadly attacks on the settlers and destroyed their property. The Aberdare Ranges forest was one of their hiding places owing to its impenetrability.
Even here, I straddled two worlds. On the one hand, I was traveling to celebrate my honeymoon and I was eager to enjoy all the pleasures associated with our visit. Our hosts had gone to great lengths to ensure our safety and comfort and spared no expense. On the other hand, I wielded enormous power and influence and matters such as the continued violence in this place concerned me greatly.
I sighed. For now, I decided, I was a new bride. The responsibilities of the future were just that, for the future. I would try and enjoy myself as much as I could with my husband.
I fell asleep and woke up a few hours later. As promised, a simple breakfast awaited us. We headed to Sagana Lodge, a fishing lodge at the base of Mount Kenya. It was a few hours away and an early start was necessary. Travelling during the day allowed us to avoid the nighttime ambushes by the Mau Mau.
As we drove away from Treetops, I was grateful to have enjoyed such a brief but memorable overnight stay. I did not know it then, but that night was to be memorable for years to come.
On the night of 6th February, 1952, the night I spent at Treetops, my father King George VI died in his sleep. The visitors log book of TreeTops, recorded an entry by Jim Corbett, a hunter who had travelled with my entourage in 1952. He said, “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a princess and after having what she described as her most thrilling experience climbed down from the tree the next day a Queen.”