Mention of Treetops in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park inevitably brings up residue of British colonialism, and in particular the extraordinary connection with the UK’s present monarch. The original Treetops was little more than a 1930s bungalow-affair, a rickety contrivance lodged in the branches of an ancient mugumo tree, a species of wild fig which happened to be very sacred to the local Kikuyu people. Princess Elizabeth spent the night there in February 1952 and, as the well trammelled narrative goes: she went up the tree as a princess and came down a queen, although it was only later in the day that she was informed that her father, George VI had died.
Here’s the original Treetops where the royal party stayed, taken from the book by its builder, Eric Sherbrooke Walker, Treetops Hotel.
The Sherbrooke Walkers, like most of the early settlers in British East Africa, were of the officer-gentry-aristocracy class. Eric Sherbrooke Walker had served in the Royal Flying Corps during World War 1, followed by a stint in military intelligence with the White Armies in Russia during the Bolshevik uprising wherein he earned the Military Cross and other honours. After the war, during America’s prohibition era, he took up rum running off the West Indies and made enough money to marry Lady Bettie, daughter of the Earl of Denbigh. They then set off on an adventurous trip across East Africa, which soon left them short of money and in turn led to the notion of setting up their own country house hotel.
In 1926 they pitched up in Nyeri in the forested highlands of Kenya’s Central Province, bought 70 acres from the colonial government, and set about creating the genteel Outspan Hotel. By the end of 1927 they had built ten rooms and opened for business for the New Year of 1928. The big attraction to their settler guests, who though well-heeled usually had very primitive facilities on their African farms, were rooms that came with private bathrooms and running water. So began a successful enterprise of country inn-keeping in the English manner but with views of snow-capped Mount Kenya and the Aberdare range thrown in.
The 1920s was the era of the grand East African shooting safaris when the likes of Bror Blixen, Denys Finch Hatton and John Hunter acted as Great White Hunters for extravagant entourages of European (especially British) royalty and Indian maharajas. But by the 1930s, many safari goers had begun to turn their attention from trophy hunting to big game photography – an activity greatly promoted by American adventurers and film makers, Martin and Osa Johnson.
And it was this new craze that prompted the Sherbrooke Walkers to create Treetops. Small parties of guests could spend the night in the top of the mugumo tree and watch elephants, rhino and forest hogs lit up by a spotlight, do more early morning game watching over tea and biscuits before being transported back to the Outspan for hot baths and breakfast. As a unique combination of eccentric British-gentry-rustic with elephants thrown in it could not fail. As more and more visitors wanted to stay there, so rooms were added, and more props put in to hold up the tree branches.
And then in 1954 the original Treetops was burned down. This was during the so called Mau Mau uprising when it apparently became a target for the Land and Freedom Army. Later the place was rebuilt and added to over the years. The header version dates from September 1996, the fourth iteration under the ownership of Block Hotels. When we went I had been spending previous week alone at the Outspan, which still served as ‘base camp’ for Treetops, while Graham was at a seminar at the nearby Aberdares Country Club. He then joined me for the trip to Treetops.
In a letter to my aunt written shortly afterwards I told her that were among a party of 99 – (Israelis, Koreans, an international museums outing, and 40 retired Americans from the Friendship Club) all of us being ferried into the Aberdare National Park in a bus, and then deposited in the bush so we could walk the last few hundred yards to Treetops – ‘a rustic fortress between two waterholes’ was how I described it back then. Before we set off Dishon, the ranger who met us pointed out the well timbered refuges along the path, to be resorted to in case of charging buffalo or elephant. He was also carrying a rifle.
But there were no alarming encounters. In fact we saw no sign of any big game while were there, only the red billed hornbill that sat on the tree outside the dining room, baboons, buck and warthogs.
The rooms were tiny, more like cubby holes, and the building was very noisy. Many of the elderly women guests were up all night. When I could not sleep around 2 a.m. I got up and found them, of all things, putting on their make-up in the ladies’ communal washroom. When the actual ‘wake up’ call came at 6.30 a.m. the place was surrounded by an Aberdares fog. And so it seemed that whatever romance there might once had been was quite lost. The best bit was driving out of the park through the Kikuyu smallholdings. Out of the stands of maize came files of school children in coral coloured sweaters and jade green dresses and shorts, trotting off early to the local primary school.
I gather from looking at the current website that Treetops is under new management and the number of rooms much reduced in order to provide en suite bathrooms. It all looks very luxurious, but somehow also misses the point, the batty English tree-house charm of the original. Though whether that was ever at all an appropriate installation in the African highlands is another question.
Square Tops #9