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A Memory of Elephants

The way it was

The overnight at Treetops began at the Outspan in Nyeri, a three hour drive north of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. An upcountry hotel, the Outspan’s walls were still hung with trophies and black and white photos of game, just as it was in the days when ivory hunters started and ended their safaris here. The elaborate luncheon served on the verandah was a relic too, of the legendary ‘safari days’ I’d read about, when the more remote the situation, the more refined the food and service became.

I and my fellow tourists, however, were very much of the day – a mixed lot of Americans, Italians, Germans in jeans, running shoes, tee shirts, our necks hung with cameras, in search of packaged adventure, an overnight in the wild. Two hours after the last coffee was sipped we boarded a coach for the Aberdare game reserve. Throughout the bumpy 45 minute ride I kept my eyes fixed on the window, searching for ‘Africa’ but seeing only a stretch of red-earthed farm land fringed with pine.

Just inside the gates to the Aberdares, in a small clearing at the bottom of a steep hill, the bus came to a stop. A ‘hunter escort’ of the Kikuyu tribe, picturesquely kitted out in safari gear and cradling a shotgun, was waiting there to escort us up the ridge to Treetops.

We tourists stood in a half-circle, smiling indulgently, while he gave his well-practised speech. We were, he stressed, to keep silent, stay close behind him, and give way to dangerous animals. it was hard to take him seriously. The only immediate threat came from safari ants. I counted 27 of them on my running shoes as we staggered up the hill.

The elephants and ourselves arrived on the ridge at the same moment. They were a heard of 30 or 35, all ages and sizes, emerging from the rain forests of the Aberdare mountains, covering ground rapidly with a curiously graceful baggy-kneed glide, single file behind the matriarch. We were a herd of 20 or so tourists, all ages and sizes, gasping from our uphill struggle at an altitude of 6,450 feet, strung out behind our hunter escort.

They saw us and stopped in their tracks. We saw them and froze like children playing ‘statues’.A male elephant wheeled away from the stationary herd and took a few steps in our direction. Ears fanned wide, he occupied a disproportionate amount of sky, like a wooly mammoth in a diorama. For a few moments he stood looking down on us in judgement. Silence, broken only by the whir of a video camera. Presumably he found our motionless group as innocent as tree stumps. Perhaps he thought we were tree stumps. In any case, he and the rest of the herd abruptly swung their heavy heads towards Treetops and resumed their trek.

Their leader, armed with long curved tusks, lead them on a path to the right of the building. Our leader, armed with his shotgun, took us to a path on the left. We crowded behind him, treading on each other’s heels in panic disguised as simple haste. We clambered up the spiral staircase to the viewing deck. The elephants blundered clumsily through the pilings under us, the structure trembling with their passage.

The original Treetops was a tiny platform for two in a fig tree overlooking a watering hole at the edge of the dark and silent Aberdares. Enlarged it held eight for the overnight visit of England’s Princess Elizabeth in 1952. A few years later the Mau Mau slipping down from their forest stronghold, burned Treetops to the ground. Now rebuilt in a gigantic pear wood tree, its bulk supported by pilings, it is a three-storied, cedar shingled cross between a tree house, a log cabin and a Mississippi river boat with accommodation for as many as 100 people.

We reached the viewing platform and the elephants rumbled into view, speeding up as they neared journey’s end. Like a family reaching the seaside after a long, dusty ride in the family car, they waded straight into the water, their comical bulk creating tidal waves. And we, safe, comfortable, and at a distance, were served afternoon tea. The world resumed its familiar perspective.

‘Do not feed the baboons’. The notices were posted about the viewing platform railings but no baboons appeared. They were sulking in the trees at the edges of the clearing, their primeval fear of elephants stronger than hunger. All through the afternoon, hump-backed buffaloes, sway-backed hyenas, nervous antelopes, stiff-tailed warthogs and fidgety monkeys visited the water hole. They drank quickly and departed discreetly. This day, the waterhole belonged to the elephants.

And the elephants, as I watched them through the warm African afternoon, became familiar personalities. I felt sympathy for the timid baby sheltering between the legs of her vigilant mother, was often alarmed for the playful young bulls jostling like boys in a school yard and touched by the ponderous old elephant who raised his wrinkled head now and then to survey the herd through wise red eyes.

All afternoon the big herd jostled and splashed, wallowed, squirted and paddled. The ear-splitting trumpeting and their roaring signals to each other (a sound like a lion calling in the bush) was still going on when we reported for dinner at 7.30.

The dining room was lit by electric lanterns. The walls were of logs. Tree branches, growing at odd angles through the floor and up through the ceiling, were wrapped in sheepskin to protect diners’ heads. Handwritten cards marked our places at a  long, narrow mahogany table which had a groove running down its centre. A plank of mahogany, rather like a skate board, was fitted into this. Waiters set the serving platters of chicken and steak on the plank and sent it rolling down the length of the table. Dinner was served.

After dinner we adjourned to the small verandahs near our bedrooms. A second herd of elephants was just arriving at the floodlit water hole and 50 or more elephants milled below. There was a fight, a thunderous dispute with tusks and trunks, stamping, trumpeting and squealing, the afternoon games now played in earnest. There seemed to be much at stake.. honour surely and possibly more. Females and babies stood rigid in the shadows while the bulls pushed and shoved like cars in a demolition derby in the theatrical glow of Treetop’s dim spotlights. Finally, the second herd departed as slowly as they dared, heads down, meekly tolerating an occasional charge from the rear.

The original herd reclaimed the water hole but the mood had changed. They were fearful and restless, shifting their feet in a morass of churned-up mud. My mood changed with theirs. I felt somehow that the day had ended badly and went to my bedroom. It was a tiny space, like a cabin, with a narrow sleeping cot built against a wooden wall. A small table held a carafe  of water and a glass. The window was barred against thieving baboons but there was no lock on the door. Communal toilet facilities were down the passageway. The buzzer by the bed was no longer in use. Once guests would have left lists of animals for which they wished to be awakened. Now staff would alert guests for every worthwhile night-sighting by tapping on the doors.

This night there would be no more sightings at the water hole. But hours later I happened to wake up. Glancing out the window, back towards the ridge where we had first met the elephants, I saw them for the final time. Pewter-coloured in the moonlight, tusks gleaming white, they were disappearing silently, single file, back into the ancient woods from which they’d come.

*****

Treetops has been significantly updated in the 30 years since this report was written. For a current picture, check its website: treetops.co.ke and the comments on tripadvisor.

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