Published 6 October 2018

I feel like l’ve stepped into a hidden, magical world on the heights of the Aberdares. We’re entering a part of the Aberdares that until recently was shrouded in mystical mists only accessible for tough hikers and mountaineers. We’re in the northern part of the 160-kilometer range that looms in the skyline when driving along the Nairobi-Naivasha upper road or towards Nyeri-Nanyuki.

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Newly graded road in northern Aberdares. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The newly graded earth roads weave their way through sky-rocketing cedar trees richly laden with lush green moss and trailing wisps of lichens. The clouds above the high mountain heave with moisture. All is quite.

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Chalet at Cedar’s Retreat in northern Aberdares. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“Until recently few people came up this way because there were no roads or places to stay,” tells Tarsem Sehmi of Cedar’s Retreat, new lodge in the midst of the cedar forest where not a tree has been cut. Clambering up the wooden platform built around the girth of an ancient tree fat of girth, the sound of breaking branches reaches our ears. Peering through the impenetrable forest, a dark shade lumbers in it and then the unmistakable white tusks of the elephant show.

It’s a dream spot to be in surrounded by trees dripping with lichen. The grass glade and natural salt lick attracts the forest denizens like magnet and soon the bull elephant steps out of the forest and heads to the huge salt puddle as we watch from the platform. He’s a magnificent young bull who draws in the salt crust, whips up some dirt with his trunk and splashes around. When play time’s over, he leisurely ambles back into the forest and vanishes. Meanwhile, the colobus monkeys have rented the air with their grating loud calls but do not reveal themselves. But our attention is diverted by a soaring raptor that lands swiftly in a tree by the glade. It’s an Ayer’s hawk-eagle, a bird that’s not easy to see except if you’re old forests like the Aberdares.

The drive along the ridge of the northern Aberdares is surreal. The forest gives way to the moorland flowers so close to the heavens.

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Blue-green Delphinium – copyright Rupi Mangat

These are the show stoppers. At 10,000 feet in the cold air we stop to gape at them bursting from the thick tussock grasses – red hot pokers and wild gladiolus in soft shades of orange; everlasting flowers in pink blooms, carpets of yellow sunbursts and everlasting helichrysums, geraniums and giant groundsels, Blue-green Delphiniums and delicate lilacs – it’s flower power up here that can hold its own from the more famous flower bloom of Namaqualand in South Africa.

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Twin Peaks on the Aberdares – copyright Rupi Mangat

The iconic Twin Peaks overlooked by the Dragon’s Teeth break through the flat moorland. They are from a volcanic past for the Aberdares are the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley. The granite peaks are for serious hikers. Much as l would like to run up and down them, they require a serious level of fitness and a guide to lead you to them. It’s a practise ground for climbers to Batian, Mount Kenya’s highest peak at 17,057 feet. Trying to scale Satima, the highest point on the Aberdares was challenging enough a few years ago. It’s eight kilometres away and too late to walk there.

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Florets on Rosewood (hagenia) tree – copyright Rupi Mangat

Fresh water streams glide down the moors and the ‘only seen in the Aberdares’ Jackson’s francolins forage in the swamps. The road along the ridge goes through gentle slopes and finally we’re on the descent where glades of beautiful rosewood tree or otherwise called Hagenia burst into view. They are all in flower – showy bouquets of florets in pink. In a word – enticing.

On an epic climb to Satima a few years ago, a pair of bongo – one of Africa’s rarest antelopes with ivory-tipped horns had dashed across the road. We scan the thickening forest of cedars and podos that give way to the bamboo. It’s at this point the lone leopard startles us and just as suddenly steals away into the dense undergrowth not to be seen again.

The bongos don’t appear but the bamboo gives away to the lush grasslands where herds of buffaloes and mountain zebras graze away.

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Twin Peaks and Dragon’s Teeth on the moorlands Aberdares. Copyright Rupi Mangat

The Aberdares are an escape into surrealist nature.

Aberdares from the KWS Shamata Gate

From Nairobi drive to Nyeri and about 50 kms north to Shamata Gate. It’s a 3-hr drive on good tarmac. Check KWS website on current rates for the park.

Stay at Cedar’s – book through African Footprints

Camp at KWS or check in at the only lodge in this part of the park. Alternatively stay in Nyeri and do a day drive with a picnic.