We left Nairobi on a Wednesday afternoon, looking to spend a day out of the city.
The KWS Ol Donyo Sabuk Park offers just the right place for a quick getaway. Less than an hour’s drive out of town we had ourselves an adventure in scaling one of the tallest mountains in Kenya, Kilimambogo.
Leaving the Nairobi city’s environs, we quickly found ourselves in the industrial town of Thika. The town has a vibrant life to it, and Nairobi has crept up on it already, especially with the construction of the new Nairobi-Thika superhighway. We quickly grabbed lunch at the popular Coco Grill restaurant next to the Tusky’s supermarket and quickly shopped for our supply of food for dinner and breakfast the next day.
Driving past the green acres and acres of Delmonte Farm pineapples, we branched off at Donyo Sabuk and headed out to Fourteen Falls. The waterfalls cascade down 14 distinct sets of rocks, hence the name. Falling over 65 meters deep, it’s a thrilling sight to see the guides diving into the pools from above (at a fee, of course). I wouldn’t dare do that, and I don’t recommend you try it either; these guys are experienced and know the layout of the falls.
With a fine spray from the water cooling us off, we made our way across the river by boat, then walked to the bottom of the falls, a spectacular sight to view the cascade. With the slippery rocks everywhere, we had to be careful and despite our guide’s efforts, a lot of us managed to slip and slide into the water. Thankfully it was only waist deep (and the phone in my pocket did not die a watery death).
Eventually we made it back to safe ground and into our van, and drove out to the Ol Donyo Sabuk Park just as darkness set in.
KWS has a number of clubhouses around its national parks and reserves, giving you the perfect accommodation for groups of up to 14. The clubhouses have been recently renovated giving them a great finish and are a luxury when you’ve been out in the wild and after a long day.
We quickly checked in to Sabuk clubhouse and set out to make our dinner and get some rest, as we were out to climb the mountain early the next morning. Well, the best made plans always have a spanner in the works… and we stayed up really late, getting to know each other. With a few hours to spare, we made it to bed and got some rest.
Early breakfast and we made it out to the KWS headquarters to chat with the park ranger and meet our guide. And with the hot sun on our backs, we headed up the mountain.
Let not the gentle slope view from Thika road deceive you… we found out soon enough that the hike was a gruelling affair. The first three kilometres were gruelling, and on reaching 1700 feet, I had to give up and hitch a ride from a team that was driving up the mountain. The rest of my group stoically walked the rest of the 5.6km up to the summit.
While I was at the top, I got to enjoy the cool breeze, and the spectacular views of the Yatta plateau, and Juja towards Nairobi. The place was dotted with lots of wildflowers. A troop of baboons came by, but they were shy and raced off as soon as I tried to photograph them. Word of caution: you need to ensure there’s a ranger or guard at the summit, as there are buffalo occasionally strolling there.
The ecosystem constitutes a mountain (Mt. Kilimambogo) which is entirely covered with dense montane forest except for a small area at the top.
Buffalo are the dominant animals in the ecosystem. Other wildlife include bushbuck, leopard, olive baboon, colobus monkey, vervet monkey, Sykes’ monkey, Kirk’s dik-dik, bush pig, common duiker, reedbuck, rock hyrax, bush-baby, tree and ground squirrel, aardvark, porcupine, mongoose, python and monitor lizard.
The park is home to 45 species of birds and the easily spotted ones include; white-browed sparrow weaver, grey- headed sparrow weaver, African pied wagtail, mourning dove, augur buzzard, African hawk eagle, purple-breasted sunbird, yellow-vented bulbul, speckled mousebird, helmeted guinea fowl, black-headed oriole, grey tit, ring-necked dove, bateleur, great sparrow- hawk, bronze sunbird, superb starling and Mackinnon grey shrike.
Eventually the rest of the group caught up with me, and we sat at the summit for a while catching our breath.
Our van had followed us up the road (you can drive to the summit), and we quickly piled in and drove down the mountain and headed for the McMillan Castle. Somewhere on the route up the hill is the McMillan grave, where the white settler was buried. Legend goes that he was obese, and when the hearse was being pulled upward by oxen, the wheels broke. Since he was too heavy for his porters to carry, he was buried right at the spot where they stopped, not at the top where he wished to be buried. Beside is grave is that of his wife, a servant, and their dog.
Lord Macmillan was an American who migrated to Kenya and was one of the settlers who introduced agriculture and cash crop farming to Kenya. His land stretched as far as the eye could see from the top of Kilimambogo – the Yatta Plateau, the Lukenya plains and down into Nairobi. While his success in agriculture was limited, he was a notorious game hunter, and was the one who hosted US President Teddy Roosevelt during his Kenyan safari. McMillan was so popular and successful in some feats that he was one of the few Americans to be knighted by the British monarchy.
The McMillan castle was a grand edifice and was the scene of many a notorious party. Think Happy Valley and you get the idea. Other settlers like settler Ewan Grogan, the governor of Kenya then Sir Evelyn Baring, and Sir Winston Churchill were semi-residents of the castle.
The house has a lot of history: at some point, it served as a POW camp for Italian soldiers during WWII and the 100 or so Italians died in the dungeons beneath the castle. These dungeons are gruesome – with barely enough space to sit up, they were forced to live there with little light and fresh air circulating, while listening to the life above their heads in the household. The dungeons in reality were the space between the floorboards of the house and the foundation, so you can imagine how small the spaces they lived in – rather, they were left to rot in and die.
With such a dark history, the house fell into disrepair and was left to rot, but has recently been taken up by the Museums of Kenya and the local community, who are currently repairing and restoring it.
I am particularly glad to hear that, since my very own grandfather, popularly known as Ngea, built it among a whole lot of construction works in the area.
The Macmillan’s did leave a positive legacy in the building and support of the McMillan library in Nairobi, as well as the curriculum books branded ‘McMillan’ that so many of us used in our primary schools. You can visit the library for more history on this family of settlers.
Eventually our tour ended and we made it down the mountain and back to Nairobi.
Ol Donyo Sabuk national park offers the perfect retreat for a quick getaway and some exercise, with plenty of accommodation for large groups and families. It’s a quick drive from the city centre, so you won’t be bogged down by driving for endless hours. Do take some time and visit this park and enjoy your heritage. Twende tujivinjari!
Read more on the park : KWS Kenya
Read Zack Mukewa’s account of our trip
View more pictures on our Facebook Fan Page
How to get there:
Drive about 45 minutes on the Thika superhighway, branching off to the Thika –Garissa road, and turn off at the town of Ol Donyo. You will see signs pointing you to the national park.
KWS offers the Sabuk club house in the park, ensure that you have made your booking before you leave Nairobi. It’s self-catering, so ensure you have your shopping done. The kitchen is well equipped.
There is ample accommodation in Thika town, in case you find the guest house booked.
- There’s a mountain to climb! (You can also drive up the road to the summit)
- Bird watchers will also find lots of species to observe
- Hike around and in the Fourteen falls
- Camping out in the wild – Turaco campsite is situated close to the main gate.
- Plenty of picnic areas around and on the mountain.
Remember to wear suitable clothing and shoes for the hike, and carry a snack and water for consumption as you hike.
You should always have a KWS guide with you, as there are plenty of buffalo on the mountain.