Mweiga, Central Kenya — ``If you want to go see animals, go to the Masai Mara. Go to Tsavo. Even Nairobi,'' said M .A . Rajab, an assistant warden of Abedare National Park. ``They have more animals,'' he added. ``But if you want sheer beauty, tranquility, and fishing, you'll find it in these mountains. The Abedares are a park with a difference.''
I had, in fact, just driven up from the Masai Mara. A vast savanna of green hills and plains, it is the northernmost extension of the Serengeti and boasts some of East Africa's best game viewing. Indeed, camping on the edge of the Mara, I made daily excursions into the reserve to watch the massive migrations of wildebeest and zebra, lions tagging along in their wake expectantly.
The Mara and Tsavo are two of the classic parks. Impressive as they are, though, they tend to lose some of their magic as onslaughts of safari vans crisscross the grasslands in clouds of dust.
In comparison, the Abedare Mountains, rising to over 13,000 feet, emerge as mystical and brooding. They are a Jules Verne lost world of bamboo forests, jungle ravines, swampy moorland, and alpine heather. As Mr. Rajab, who studied political science in the United States, told me, it is still a highly original park. ``There are some valleys here where humans have hardly ever been.''
On my first trip to this clustered mountain range, I approached by Land-Rover from the Rift and the Kikuyu escarpment. At the top of the escarpment, before reaching the mountains, I found a beautiful rolling plateau reminiscent of western Switzerland or southern Germany.
At first used by the Masai for grazing, then taken over by European settlers as part of their fertile ``white highlands'' policy, this used to be a region of expansive wheat fields and fruit orchards. Much of the land has, since the days of the white farmer, been partitioned and distributed among Kikuyu farmers. Today, their neat peasant shambas (huts), each with its own plot of maize, punctuate much of the landscape.
At the foot of mountains whose peaks are more often than not enveloped in cloud, the farmlands merge into forests of cedar and pine. The air is rich with the smell of freshly cut wood from a nearby saw mill.
At a crest I halt the vehicle. The silence is overwhelming. Reverential. Gradually, however, my ear tunes in a sound. But then there is a crunching among the bamboo. An enormous bull elephant appears, placidly grazing its way through the undergrowth several hundred yards away.
It is suprising to see elephants at this altitude and in such a steep, forested terrain. But there are some 1,000 in the Abedares. Unlike their brethren in the plains, the Abedare variety is a far larger animal. The Abedares do not lend themselves to easy animal viewing. Yet that is part of the exhilaration. Sometimes you might roam for miles without seeing anything. Then suddenly you turn a corner to encounter a huge Cape buffalo, partly obscured by the trees. He glares menacingly, then, in complete d isdain, wheels around and disappears into the bush.
During my several forays into the park, I also spied waterbuck, eland, hyenas, hyrax, genet cats, colobus monkeys, and countless species of birds and butterflies. I also saw a rhino with its calf. There are a number in the park. The most controversial animals, however, are the lions. Reintroduced some 15 years ago, they have developed into particularly awesome creatures, ``as big as buffaloes,'' said one observer. While that may be a slight exaggeration, they have grown distinctive shaggy coats and long
black manes because of the cold.
Among wildlife specialists, the reintroduction of lions and other large predators is a hotly debated issue. Park authorities are also not too keen on discussing their lion problem.
Late last year, a young woman carrying a baby was badly mauled as she walked from her car to view a waterfall, provoking a spate of bad publicity. Anglers, too, who for years have extolled the superb trout fishing of the Abedares, have reported seeing lions lurking around the park's fishing camps, adding, needless to say, unnecessary excitement to the sport.
There are now between 50 and 100 lions in the park, most second and even third generation. Rajab maintains that most tend to stick to the moorlands and the upper reaches of the forests. ``They have become extremely elusive and generally shy away from man,'' he says.
But wildlife specialists also point out that old lions that can no longer easily hunt for themselves are the most worrisome. They become outcasts. One moth-eaten and almost toothless male recently ventured as far as one of the park gates in search of easy food, possibly from the bordering farms. Park authorities have been trying to shoot these animals, but have so far failed.
Although a recreation park, the Abedares are of particular ecological importance to Kenya. With tributaries to the Tana and other rivers, these mountains play a vital role in water conservation. ``This is a water cachement area,'' says Rajab. ``Even if you don't have animals, this region has to be conserved. The animals are fringe benefits.''
As with many other parks, the authorities face difficulties in convincing local people that these reserves must be protected. Although communal forests bordering the park act as a buffer zone, animals such as buffalo, elephant, and wild pigs occasionally saunter out of the park and into cultivated areas. Monkeys, too, make periodic raids giving rise to complaints. In a country where land is scarce, the park is often regarded as unused land.
The benefits of the Abedares are also ignored by many tourists. Most tend to spend a night at the Ark or Treetops hotels to watch animals at the waterholes. They then leave without visiting the interior where the real magic of the park lies.
I, too, stayed overnight at the Ark. But it was only by driving around and by walking that I came to appreciate its unique beauty. Accompanied by two park rangers, my companion and I tried to walk to the top of Oldonyo Lesatima, a 13,120-foot-high peak with its magnificent view of Mount Kenya. We never made it. Heavy rains followed by sleet and snow forced us back.
The whole tourism industry here has been structured on animals. ``Come to Kenya and see animals,'' quipped Rajab. ``But the Abedares have a lot to offer for the outdoor type.'' For the aficionados, the fishermen, the climbers not content to sit in their cars, these mountains offer an enchanting alternative.