Adventure in the Aberdares

by Arnold van Rhijn

Trapped in a Valley

Trapped in a Valley

On 11 January 2022, my wife and I, together with our Dutch friends who have many years’ African safari experience, entered the stunning Aberdare National Park in Kenya for a two night stay at Rhino Retreat, which is part of the operations centre for Rhino Ark, a charitable trust in Kenya.

On our way to Rhino Retreat, our 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser suddenly got stuck in the muddy ditch around 4:00 p.m., hanging over the bank of a little river. It all happened in a split second on a dead-end road, around 3.5 km from Rhino Retreat.

Realising that it was quite dangerous to try to move our vehicle any further as it could easily tip over and that we therefore had to search for help, I tried to call the reception of the Ark Lodge which was closest to us.

However, there was no mobile network coverage as we were stranded in a valley. So, despite the dangerous environment we were in with lots of wild animals around us, like buffalos, elephants, hyenas and leopards, I climbed up a hill to try to get mobile phone reception. While I was doing that, I suddenly looked into the eyes of one of the most dangerous and unpredictable animals in Africa, an African buffalo, standing only 10 metres away from me in the bush on the opposite side of the road. Luckily he run away and so did I.

After a while I went up the hill again, this time with my friend making a lot of noise hoping to keep the wild animals away. It took me in total 40 minutes trying to get mobile contact. Twice my emergency phone call was answered by the reception, but they couldn’t hear me due to bad connection. Thus, I decided to send an SOS message to the reception of the Ark Lodge. After many attempts, I succeeded in sending three of those emergency
messages. Only the next day when I had mobile network coverage, I saw that the reception had tried to call me twice, followed by a text message whom I should call. Meanwhile, the battery of my mobile phone was almost empty.

It was by then around 5:15 p.m.. Walking to Rhino Retreat or the Ark Lodge was no option for us due to the dangerous environment. So, we then started shouting for help as well as car honking SOS in morse code for hours, even after dusk, with the engine running to prevent the car battery from dying. Hoping that rangers from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Rhino Monitoring base close to Rhino Retreat would hear us.

We continued when it became dark by also using my flashlight sending SOS signals. All without getting response. Things got even worse when our friend lost his car keys during a fall. After more than an hour of persistent searching in the dark his wife found the keys in the tall and thick grass on the roadside using the flashlight on her mobile phone.

It was around 8:00 p.m. when we had decided to stay overnight in our vehicle, hoping that someone would find us the next day or in the worst case the day after as Rhino Retreat was expecting new guests by then. Luckily, we had sufficient food and water with us. While getting ready for the night, we suddenly saw the headlights of a vehicle approaching in the far distance! We couldn’t believe our eyes.

It turned out to be KWS Park Warden Tsuma Sidney and one of his colleagues (driver Peter Wanguhi) who purely by chance found us. They initially thought of poachers walking on the road upon seeing our flashlight from a distance. The two men, armed with a rifle, were whole-heartedly welcomed by us, and, after having listened to our story, immediately discussed the best way how to pull our car out of the ditch.

In an attempt to get their 4WD in front of our car on the narrow and muddy part of the road, their car slipped away and hit the side of our car. Warden Tsuma judged the dangerous situation that arose, since his car, by driving it away, could easily push our car sideways into the river. Thank goodness that didn’t happen after some careful maneuvering. The rescue operation that followed took about two hours of hard work, whereby the ranger injured his finger badly while using the winch to try to pull our car carefully out of the ditch. Even then he continued his rescue work with a temporary bandage wrapped around his finger.

We were very impressed with his dedication hearing later that he went straight to hospital later that same night to get his deep wound stitched.
Finally, our rescuers managed to get our 4WD on the road again. As a token of appreciation, we gave both gentlemen an appropriate tip for what they had done to get us out of there. They acted very professionally, were decisive and also helpful to get my wife and my friend’s wife out of the car when it became too risky.

Finally, at around 10:00 p.m. we were able to continue our journey to Rhino Retreat, preceded by Mr Tsuma and his colleague in their 4WD. As Mr Tsuma reassuringly said: “We are together, so we will bring you safely to your final destination.” While driving through the dark forest, our rescuers encountered a huge male buffalo on the road that just kept on running ahead of their car. Suddenly, the bull stopped and it became too dangerous. So, our rescuers decided wisely to back away to let the bull disappear into the woods.

Continuing our journey, we also heard elephants trumpeting in the woods. It was more likely a call to warn others of danger after hearing the roaring engines of the two 4WDs than to welcome us. Finally, upon arrival we were happily greeted by Rhino Retreat’s caretaker Sammy who initially thought we would never show up.

Despite our perilous adventure, our stay in the Aberdare National Park and at Rhino Retreat has been the most exciting and beautiful event of our holiday in Kenya. Blessed that we were given the opportunity to watch the wild animals in their natural habitat.

We also would like to thank Rhino Retreat’s dedicated and friendly caretaker Sammy for making our stay at this truly unique place of silence and peace surrounded by the fascinating sounds of wildlife in the Aberdares an unforgettable one! We sincerely hope to come back one day.

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