Mount Kenya’s man-made paradise

Karuru Falls in Aberdares.[File, Standard]
Truth be told. Central Kenya evokes the spirit of adventure than many places. For nature lovers, Mount Kenya looms large and defines the region’s ecological landscape. Then there is the Aberdares, the mountain ranges with some of Kenya’s spectacular waterfalls and some of the most reclusive wild animals. Travel further north and the Laikipia plains beckon. Laikipia is the last bastion for our diminishing wildlife. The region hosts more than 70 per cent of Kenya’s wildlife outside of the protected areas.

The region hosts some of Africa’s most exclusive hotels and lodges. There is Mount Kenya Safari Club with its romantic past, the Treetops where the current head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth began her royal career. The Ark with its unique design offers residents an opportunity to watch wildlife from their bedrooms. Need we say more?

In the midst of the ‘big ones’ is Wajee Nature Park, an ornithological marvel located deep in Mukurweini, Nyeri County. Before visiting the green haven last Monday, I knew little about it. Wajee is a story of how man can transform even the most unlikely of locations into a mini paradise.

It all started with phone call with Robert, the park manager who invited me to Wajee. I left Nairobi early Monday morning and headed towards Muranga. The terrain becomes hilly after the agricultural town towards Nyeri. Temperatures dropped too. Save for a signpost along the Sagana-Muranga Road, there was little to indicate the presence of a world-acclaimed park in the hilly countryside.

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Wajee is perched on top of a hill with clear views of Mount Kenya to the north and Aberdares to the west. It is the brainchild of one Jagi Gakunju who is perhaps one of the most adventurous corporate honchos in Kenya who has had several brushes with African wildlife. The 20-acre park stands on his ancestral home where global ornithologists (people who study all things birds) flock to inspect its avian wonders.

After some light breakfast that included sweet potatoes (these are always on the breakfast menu here) I set out with Robert for the famed walk in the park.  The adventure starts at the old farm house constructed in 1941 and now partly serves as a museum for the family history that spans more than a century.

Nearby are some self-contained cottages. They may not resemble the high end affairs we mentioned on the outset but they do have the basics: a comfortable bed, hot water and good views. Those who love the outdoors can camp in the expansive grounds next to the cottages. I was told of how a diplomat in Nairobi would regularly drive to Wajee Nature Park for a weekend and not even the property managers would have a clue as to who he was as he pitched his camp in the compound.

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The rare bird

From the camping grounds, the path meanders down a steep slope with moss-covered stones that act as a one long stairway to the valley floor. The depression is aptly named Hinde’s Babbler Valley after an endangered bird that is found here only. We were fortunate enough to see a fleeting glimpse of the rare bird. Few visitors, Robert told us, ever get to see the bird. The valley had more than Hinde’s Babbler. Variable sunbirds darted from flower to flower, collecting nectar while enjoying the late morning sun. Singing cisticolas darted along the route while wagtails showed off their ever-riveting backside. In all, more than 120 bird species have been recorded here, earning Wajee the rare distinction of being one of the Important Bird Areas in the region. The thick undergrowth at Wajee acts as a perfect hideout for some small animals including the slender moongose, the common duiker, genet cat and the rare side-striped jackal.

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The nature trail is woven around the entire park and the walk back toward the camp proved quite a task. I have always taken pride in my early morning jogs but it appears that these had not prepared me fully for the steep ascent. The exhilarating views from the top however provided a welcome treat for the weary. 

Back to base, it was time to relive the experience while enjoying a bowl of rice and fried goat meat. We took time to go through our bird list while playing some of their calls from a device. A Cape robin chat that heard her own call came hurtling towards us thinking another bird had invaded her turf. It seems there is no dull day at Wajee.

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