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.

After two nights in Samburu, we ventured on to the heights of Nyeri, for lunch at the portal to Treetops, the Outspan Golf and Country Club. By this time we were becoming accustomed to the awful roads Kenya has to manage, and had even ventured into reading books along the way: this isn't to say that the journeys are boring - they are anything but - only that there is only so much 'watching energy' to last the day.

Outspan and Treetops are high in the mountains, and therefore very green and unlike the dusty bleached landscapes that surround most of the Rift Valley. Outspan serves as the gateway to the famous Treetops (II), the initial construction being where Princess Elizabeth II discovered she would be Queen, which was then burned down by revolutionaries two years later. The second incarnation is somewhat bigger, but not big enough, and so baggage is stored at Outspan for the overnight stay. Outspan has an interesting garden with some fascinating - and huge - plants, but otherwise really feels like a colonial backwater - a little twee and magisterial amongst the coffee fields and corrugated iron shops.

Outspan also provides an entrance to the nearby Kikuyu 'village', for which a moderate entrance charge gives access to traditional dances and an introduction to tribal culture. We'd seen similar (which isn't to blur the very clear distinctions between different tribal traditions and practices, but rather illustrate that I have no idea how to distinguish between them - my failing) with a group of Shangaan in Hazyview, South Africa, and would see more with the Maasai in Keekorok, but this time there was audience participation, some fun photos to be taken, and an interesting interchange of money for dubious (as far as customs are concerned) cow tail products. Money well spent? Absolutely. Overpriced goods in the UK mean you're being ripped off; overpriced goods in Africa mean you're helping. Charity is easy.

Now laden with necklaces and fluffy sticks, we boarded a bus which had probably seen some time in a Soviet mechanic's workshop. Seated right in the front, the rather torturous grinds of the gearbox and the systematic and well placed punches the driver applied to the gearstick along winding, climbing roads were unsettling but at the same time a calming reminder. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was all part of the show: look how poor we are in Kenya, yet look how loving and alive we are. There is no show and it makes no difference; the wit, the humour, and the huggability of most people ensues throughout, regardless of community or region. There are those who have been consumed by greed, there are those who require greed in order to make a living. The endless curio shops and banana sales at petrol pumps become tiring after a while, and yet the rejection of them is always a harsh and depressing decision. A good economy is based on a non-disparate distribution of wealth, and there are many stories of tribesmen receiving back-payments for land stolen by the government, and ending up in a downward spiral of drink and drugs. That is no excuse to shun the sellers of some beautiful merchandise, but Kenya seems half involved with free trade and white lies, and half blind of the misery that this rocketing rise of wealth causes to those who happen to live off the major tourist routes. Perhaps charity isn't so easy.

To Treetops. After bumping into some absolutely minute baby warthogs, and the bus struggling even harder against the gradient, we stopped and were shipped out. Even having been on a walking safari in South Africa, in which we saw absolutely nothing - not even the ubiquitous impala - but were eminently excited by the experience of being in the wild - there was a certain fear involved in being ceremoniously dumped on the side of a hill, with baboons freely swinging in the trees and buffalo a few hundred yards away, without any explanation or semblance of a plan. After a few minutes of half-hearted joking and genuine concern as the coach sped off, bouncing downhill, a man with a gun presented himself, and all was well. Strange - not the kind of sentence that would work in LA.

We were taken over the crest of the hill, past some worryingly battered wood shelters which we were supposed to congregate in if there was any danger. From the attacks seen previously, it seemed like they wouldn't be much assistance. But the chances of attack are so slim that you cannot help but enjoy the excitement of coming home to nature - knowing that anything can happen and you are utterly powerless, that these animals are completely overpowering in their stance if not their action, and that humanity sinks to a new depth when considering the pain and division caused by our overpopulation and destruction of what is very definitely their environment.

Still, Treetops looms over the hill; a rather odd wooden structure with no discernable beauty or real camouflage; it consists of two main columns linked with a central section. Each column goes right to the ground, where the lowest floor has excellent photography hides which bring you very close to the waterholes; bedrooms and dining rooms are above, and the same in the central section, with the difference being the lowest floor is stilted, so as to allow animals easy passage underneath and prevent further disruption to their travel routes.

The interior of Treetops is quaint; tiny rooms, but big enough for anyone's needs given the amount of time you'll spend in them; shared bathrooms, and corridors with live tree branches still growing through them. It now looks like a rather ghastly explosion of wood from the outside, but from within it really is like a huge treehouse. The buzzer in each room can be set to notify you of any wildlife occurrences throughout the night should you choose not to go the distance, and guides are on hand to explain and explore the animals and their circumstance as they present themselves.

And it is this which really proves to be the triumph of somewhere like Treetops - there is no searching, no radio comms and sudden bursts of speed to congregate around lion cubs or cheetahs. There is what is. You sit there, and what comes to see you is what you receive. There is no eagerness to find certain animals, it is simply a waiting game as it would have been centuries ago. Before dinner, we had seen more than 150 distinct buffalo drinking from the waterhole, sinking into the sludge and requiring their family to help them from drowning; we'd seen small groups of baboons emerge as tiny specks on the horizon to becoming full blown entities in themselves, quite capable to behave as they wish among the buffalo.

After only two days of being bounced around the African savannah and the 'roads', taking a day to sit down and just take in the scenery is engaging. With yellow weaver birds living above the bar, and startling starlings (vibrant blues and greens compared with the contemporary dull black) flitting around the upper balcony, and with lectures going on throughout the afternoon on culture and wildlife, it seems a real haven for nature and for taking time to consider our position in the world. A gin and tonic or two is also useful to add another depth to the occasion. We are, after all, in the presence of "royalty". Hmm.

Dinner is served, after lounging around on the balconies talking to fellow travellers, on ship style dining tables - 10 people to a side, with amusing small trolleys embedded within the table allowing the passing of (certain - no gravy thanks) items of food to be passed among the masses. Compared to the buffets that had greeted us previously, and were to become a lasting memory of Kenya for better or for worse, which were discouragingly tabled with the same people you'd been out on safari with and had travelled with all week - 24 hours of anyone is enough unless you ask for it. That's no criticism of our companions, who were fantastic fun - this was a good opportunity to reintegrate with a wider group with wider aspects and experiences, well worth sharing and discussing. And we did, until near the end of the first of seven courses, at which point everyone evacuated the room to answer the call of three mighty elephants who had ventured to the waterhole.

We have a reasonable SLR camera with two lenses, but even the latter only goes to 200mm; telephoto, but not in the extreme. In the hides, these elephants were 2-3 metres away, and it was necessary to swap back to a wider angle lens to capture more than one at a time. Standing, just the two of us, in a small room with letterbox windows, gazing into the dark at these incredible creatures, hearing every breath and snuffle they required, watched them stir the dirt and explore the landscape as they always do, with such enormity and presence, was overwhelming. Never before have I felt so invisible, so innocuous in my surroundings but still scared - even more alarming, was the disappearance of so many fellow tourists after five or ten minutes of viewing. They'd taken their photos, they'd checked they were OK on their digital cameras, and safe in the knowledge that, memory card pending, their "memories" were safe, they could go back to eat.

Fuck that. We spent over an hour with the elephants alone, and spent longer just sitting watching buffalo in the dark before returning to the meal. These are not memories that can ever be photographed, and shame on them for believing that one sighting is enough. I'm aware that we may have been culpable in South Africa for the same crime, but we had a very limited time to enjoy and explore, and by all accounts Kenya is not the same. There is nothing that can prepare you for three full-grown elephants wandering up to the waterhole next to one hide, and then two wandering off to the right hand side of the lodge: we both sprinted, fully energised, up and down stairways and across balconies, to beat them to their destination, and every second was worth it. There is no need for a main course when an elephant has flailed its trunk at you, looking disconsolate and lost, looking strong yet concerned. As the guide had already told us, the construction of Treetops has interrupted the migratory cycles of several species, particularly because the surrounding foliage cannot sustain them any more, and so they have followed alternative routes. There have been attempts to reintroduce trees in the area, ostensibly in the interest of the wildlife, but presumably also in the aim of attracting more acts for the tourists. Following dinner, we stayed above deck for a few hours until 11pm, enjoying nothing but the African darkness and the beauty of the starscape, and even more, the excitement of seeing nothing at all and knowing how much was shading in the darkness. We awoke without the buzzer sounding once, which in prior consideration would have been a disappointment, but in fact was a telling reminder of how lucky one can be to see animals and their actions. We were not to know, but we would be fortunate enough to see much more.