Since our lives were turned upside down and movements hindered by Covid-19, I chanced a visit to the lush highlands by the Aberdares Mountain range.
A small group of us spent a weekend at the Kipipiri Campsites, located three hours from Nairobi, in the saddle between the northern Aberdare and Mt Kipipiri. Campsite owner Alnavaz Amlani, was on hand to greet us when we arrived in the mid-afternoon.
The two-acre camp has green metal bandas with bunk beds or the option of pitching up tents. There are hot showers, flush toilets, and a mess area in a stone house with a fireplace. Two cows keep the grass trimmed and a pair of cackling geese give the place a farmyard feel.
After biscuit and tea refreshments, Mr Alnavaz led us on a tour of the neighbouring area. Most people are smallholder farmers. In colonial times, this rich farming region was part of the infamous Happy Valley where a small population of British settlers occupied thousands of acres. As part of the walk, he regaled us with tales of the scandalous Happy Valley set, with their lives of wild parties and wife swapping.
We passed a charming white cottage, one of many historic houses from the Happy Valley days. It was constructed of mud and wooden roof slates, and has survived since the early 1920s. At independence many settlers sold their property and left the country and the land and houses came into Kenyan hands.
When Alnavaz bought the campsite in 2006 it was a disused timber mill. “I wanted to continue working in mountains but also run my own business,” said the outdoor adventure instructor and avid mountain climber. “Nobody wanted to farm here because elephants were still coming down.”
We walked up to the electrified wildlife fence that was erected in 2009 by the Rhino Ark Charitable Trust in collaboration with the Kenya Forest Service. Before the fence, wild animals regularly invaded the farms, wreaking havoc to crops and livelihoods. There was also excessive extraction of forest resources.
Later, we enjoyed a hearty supper of stinging nettle soup, grilled lamb and roast potatoes. Then sat around a roaring fire swapping stories and singing songs to Alnavaz’s guitar. There is electricity but the nights are cold at this elevation of over 3,000 metres. So after a hot shower I bundled up in my warmest clothing inside my sleeping bag.
Morning dawned crisp and bright with the sun rising over the mountain ridges as monkeys bark in the forest. After a hearty breakfast, forest hike time.
On the outermost forest edges, we passed small herds of sheep and cows, where the locals are permitted limited grazing in the plantation sections. Mexican cypress, blue gum and pine trees are grown for commercial purposes.
The ground beneath is littered with pine needles with little undergrowth — a clear disadvantage of exotic trees that do not support biodiversity.
Further along the trail we came to the indigenous forest area. Instantly, we noticed greater variety of native trees and thick underbrush. Birds and butterflies fly around, and there are little streams and wetlands. Colobus monkeys grunt and leap through the canopy. Clearly the hard forest boundary not only protects farmers and crops, but also enables regeneration of the forest.
Although the day was warm, among the trees it was pleasantly cool. A grassy glade in the forest was a good place for a break and more of Alnavaz’s stories. He gave a brief history of the Mau Mau, the independence revolt against British rule in 1952 which started in the Aberdares.
Coming out of the forest later, Alnavaz took us to an old creamery dating to the late 1940s. The single-storey homestead now belongs to a Kenyan family, but in the back of the house you can still see the milking area where dozens of cows were hand-milked twice daily.
We got back to camp in time for lunch, a healthy spread of chicken stew, beef broth, rice and chapatis. After lunch, we reluctantly bid farewell to Alnavaz and his team.