kenya: treetops

Lunch at Outspan - the reception for Treetops is almost a necessary evil. Desperate to catch a first glimpse of Treetops, Outspan, disappointingly offers no views of the lodge as you imagined it, perched atop a hill in the rainforest, neither does it provide any relief for your anticipation. Instead, for 3 hours you have the opportunity to relax among the beautiful gardens, visiting the local Kikuyu tribe nestling in the grounds of the hotel and, if you are lucky, secure a dance with the local males. After a ridiculously huge lunch, as you store your remaining luggage in a small room, label your overnight bags and clamber into a rickety bus for the ride to Abedares, reality once again begins to kick in.

As you approach Abedares what becomes quickly apparent is how exclusive the park is. Surrounded by an electronic fence and a new born baby acting as a gate marshal, the park is ferociously guarded to ensure no forbidden visitors are permitted entry. What is therefore different about this park is that you'll never run into ambling safari vehicles, or ever find 2 other vehicles crowded around an animal. Instead, you are the select few allowed in for this one evening and with that comes a certain responsibility. The rules and regulations of the park are sensibly and sternly dictated, but if you are one of the few who fancies descending the 4 story building into the wild and untamed landscape, be my guest!

However, somewhat not in keeping with regulations and sensible practice, the 'bus 'drops us off atop a hill next to a ram-shackled hide that has clearly been attacked by more than one herd of animals in its time. As the rangers introduce themselves, I quickly decide to become more acquainted with Paul - the one guard to have a fantastically sized gun strapped to his back. As we begin the walk up the hill, the wooden stilted structure gradually comes into view. As the buffalo roam behind us and the Reus monkeys bound over our heads in the trees, we zig zag hide to hide to approach the lodge. What strikes you as amazing is how open the plain is. We are about as camouflaged as a donkey's carrot on a stick. In reality, should a herd decide to attack there's no way we'd all squeeze into the one hide, let alone fit through the entrance in a fit of panic. It's this thought that occupies your mind as you stalk carefully across the grassland, minding your ankles on the rough grasses and young trees sprouting from the ground. Your mind in a constant dilemma; to bump into an elephant or rhino would surely be the making of the holiday - but possibly the end of yourself. Yet you still yearn for that interaction and that split second choice of life or death.

Nothing you ever read about in brochures, guidebooks and traveller logs could ever prepare you for Treetops. For some, the experience is disappointing but the imaginatively designed ship cabin rooms, the simple single beds, the shared facilities and the 'everyone club together' atmosphere is not the purpose of the trip. Neither is the necessity to rise at 5:30am to get a shower, to hurl the veggies down the centre of the medieval styled dining table to fellow travelers and the sharing of travelers' tales over after dinner drinks, but never-the-less it's part of the charm.

Neither is convenience and comfort the name of the game. If you want to view animals up close, domesticated and at your leisure, visit a zoo. If, on the other hand, you want to be interrupted in the middle of your dinner by the cry of "elephants outside", miss two courses and forget you were ever hungry, then Treetops is for you.

MAli and I were one of the few to become totally mesmerized with the elephants, so much so that our friends considered us lost and came looking for us during the desert course. Hiding in the ground floor hide, we stood silently, daring not to breathe, nose to tusk with no less than two female elephants. Alone in the hide it was as if the spectacle was for our pleasure only. As the larger of the two dug and snuffled in the dirt just centimeters from us, we were so close that we could see the rise and fall of her eyelashes as she blinked, to see the depth of her eyes and the breadth of her soul. I imagine the love, marvel and depth of feeling that evokes to be only similar to that of viewing your newborn child. So at ease with the world, she had no idea that human predators were so close at hand, she was vulnerable and yet so ultimately powerful.

It was a totally humbling experience that makes you cry just to recall it. Treetops is like no other. To sit atop the hotel in the depth of a dark African night with a glass of wine, wrapped in a blanket watching shooting stars overhead as buffalos and warthogs roam below, it's possible to question if you have ever felt so at ease with the world before.

Many visitors yearn for the sighting of the big five, and the sightings book on the second floor offers you a tantalizing glimpse of what you missed last night, and what may appear that night. But with 100 buffalo surrounding the waterhole throughout the one afternoon, you can be forgiven for forgetting that this animal is one of the big five, especially as you giggle at the young calves sinking in the quicksand and view the adults' astonished faces as they disappear into surprisingly deep water. Among the herds mingle a couple of curious warthogs. Using the herds as protection from larger predators they have not yet fathomed that they are incredibly annoying to buffalo. Frequently getting underfoot, loitering at the waters edge and battling their own kind just to stave off boredom, you can almost see the buffalo regard them out of the corner of their eyes with such pity and scorn, yet these 'gentle beasts' still protect them.

The observation of animals at their most natural is what makes the holiday. From the incredibly noisy Egyptian geese who love nothing better than to bounce on their partner's head until they disappear into the quicksand, to the buck nervously pacing the old site of Treetops - almost sensing the destruction and devastation that became of the original royalty hot spot - every little interaction is to be savoured.

Throughout our stay, what the purpose of Treetops is becomes quickly apparent; to view incredible animals in their natural surroundings without man-made intervention; to feel humbled by the lack of the chase as animals, both big and small, chose to grace you to with their presence.

By far the biggest dilemma you face on holiday is at Treetops; whether to stay awake or steal previous moments asleep. The luxury of night wardens and optional room buzzers provide you with the decadence of being able to sleep and yet wake at the first sighting of any big predator. If I remember correctly, it's one buzz for leopards, two for hyenas and rhinos and three for elephants. Sadly we were awakened by none, but that's probably for the best as a (romantic and voluntary) 5am start beckoned Ali and I to view the sun rise over Mount Kenya. I cannot recommend it enough.