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.'' ``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 savannah 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. Mystical Abedares
But the Mara, Tsavo and others are the classic parks. Impressive as they are, they tend to loose some of their magic as onslaughts of striped safari vans criss-cross the grasslands in clouds of dust. In comparison, the Abedare Mountains, rising to over 13,000 ft. emerge as mystical and brooding. 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.''
Situated on the eastern fringe of the great Rift Valley and one of the highest game reserves in the world, the Abedares seem totally out of place in Africa.
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 Switzerland or 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 been partitioned and distributed among Kikuyu farmers. Today, their neat peasant shambas, each with its own plot of maize, punctuate much of the landscape. Farmlands and forests
At the foot of the mountains, their peaks more often than not enveloped in cloud, the farmlands merge into forests of cedar and pine. The air is crisp and there is a smell of freshly cut wood from a nearby saw mill. As the road climbs, comamanding a spectacular view of the Rift Valley, Lake Naivasha, and the distant volcano of Longonot, the cedars are replaced by thickets of bamboo.
At a crest, I halt the vehicle and step out. The silence is overwhelming. 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. Elephants at high altitudes
It is suprising to see elephant at this altitude and in such a steep, forested terrain. But there are some 1,000 in the Abedares. Their foraging has worn a network of red laterite trails up and down the gulleys and across the mountain sides. Unlike their brethren in the plains, the Abedare variety is a far larger animal. But its tusks are smaller as mineral deficiencies in the soil have slowed growth.
Covering some 300 square miles, the Abedares were gazetted in 1950 as a national park. But it was also during the '50s that the mountains befame an ideal base for independence guerrillas in their attacks against settlers and farms during the Mau Mau uprising. Many of the present day tracks weaving their way through the park were carved out by government troops in order to hunt down the rebels.
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 disdain, wheels around and disappears into the bush.
Or, parties of black forest hog rummaging for berries, roots, and plants. 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. But exactly how many, Mr. Rajab refuses to reveal. ``That must remain confidential,'' he explains. ``We have to be careful of poachers. We have rangers tracking them the whole time.'' Awesome lions
The most controversial animal, however, is the lion. Reintroduced some 15 years ago, they have developed into particularly awesome creatures, ``as big as buffalos,'' 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 the 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 several fishing camps, adding, needless t o say, unnecessary excitement to the sport.
Initially, the Abedare lions were transferred from other areas, notably the nearby Solio Game Ranch where they had become a nuisance. They were also used to being fed by humans and showed no particular fear of man. According to one of the region's wildlife specialists, the lions were relatively easy to catch and were brought in ``to contain the buffalo and antelope populations.''
There are now between 50 and 100 lions in the park, most of them second and even third-generation. Mr. 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 motheaten 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. Ecological importance
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 catchment area,'' says Mr. 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 nature reserves must be protected. Although comunal forests bordering the park act as a buffer zone, animals such as buffalo, elephant, and wild pigs ocasionally saunter out of the park and into the cultivated areas. Monkeys, too, make periodic raids giving rise to numerous complaints.
Tourists who do not have the opportunity to walk and drive miss much of the park's unique beauty. Accompanied by two park rangers, my companion and I tried to walk to the top of Oldonyo Lesatima, a 13,120 foot peak with a magnificent view of Mount Kenya. We never made it. Heavy rains folowed by sleet and snow forced us back.
I only regret that I did not have the time to hike the length of the park, a three- or four-day trek, pasing through a terrain loking one moment like the Scottish Highlands with their alpine tussocks and gurgling brooks to the ``real'' Africa of jungle, hanging mosses, and waterfalls.