KENYA

Aberdare National Park

The Hotel Where the Wildlife Welcomes You

The Ark, a hotel shaped like a ship, in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park

The Ark, a hotel shaped like a ship, is strategically marooned next to a waterhole and salt lick in a mountain forest in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park, allowing its guests to view wildlife in comfort.
TED DAVIS/Meridian Writers’ Group

USUALLY, THOSE planning a wildlife-viewing vacation to Africa need to be ready for long, bumpy, sometimes chilly rides in jeeps, looking for big game. The Ark, 200 kilometres north of Nairobi, switches that around: the guests stay put and the creatures come to them.

The Ark is a hotel in the middle of a mountain forest. Designed along a narrow axis, it presents a ship-like silhouette—its four floors are called decks, and its small rooms are cabins. It has been strategically marooned next to a swampy waterhole and salt lick. The animals are drawn nightly to this gastronomic double feature, which Ark staff periodically enhance with extra salt to keep the show rolling.

On this ark it’s the humans who line up two by two, walking down a long wooden bridge high above the forest floor to enter the hotel at its stern. They’ve come by shuttle from the Aberdare Country Club, an 80-year-old resort now run by Fairmont. The drive into the national park takes about 45 minutes along gravel roads.

At 6:30 p.m., the heavy wooden doors to the Ark are closed for the night, and no one is allowed out. As guests take their leisurely evening meal in the Ark’s dining room, hotel staff deploy on the viewing decks to watch for animal action.

After finishing dessert, guests head to the hotel’s various viewing positions. Most popular is the main outdoor deck at the ship’s prow, with the salt lick and waterhole directly below.

The animals start showing up as the sun slides toward the horizon. Lights bathe the scene with just enough candlepower to enable photography, but apparently not enough to disturb the natural proceedings. Elephants, Cape buffalo, cats and hyenas as well as more timid species, like antelopes, all seem unfazed by the illumination.

Beneath the main outdoor deck, another viewing room, at ground level, is enclosed by big picture windows to preserve some warmth. Next to it a small, turret-like blind with open-air portholes gives guests their closest access to the wildlife. Outside, the nighttime silence is broken only by pawing at the ground and the occasional bellow of outrage or infant reprimand.

As the night air cools, guests can retreat indoors to refuel on tea, coffee and snacks. There is also a library and a lounge with a fireplace, where staff naturalists give an overview of the local ecosystem.

By midnight, most travellers have retreated to their cabins. Staff watchmen stay on the job, alert for activity. Any news is communicated by an in-room buzzer system. (Guests have the option of turning it off.) One buzz indicates a commonplace occurrence, like the arrival of elephants. A four-buzz alarm means something special is up.

It might be a rare bongo sighting or, as it was it on my visit, a dawn hunt unfolding. Bleary-eyed, we responded, arriving in white bathrobes on the open deck as the sun slowly painted the morning sky. This, as we were about to learn, would be a hotel wake-up call unlike any we’d ever had.

 

ACCESS

For more information visit the Ark’s website at www.thearkkenya.com.

For information on travel in Kenya visit the Kenya Tourism Board website at www.magicalkenya.com.