Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Castle Forest Lodge

I thought I'd start posting up some favourite places from recent travels. We really loved Castle Forest Lodge. It's exactly what you hope it will be. It's been in the Rough Guide for a while but I'd hadn't personally visited before - it was included by my Central Highlands researchers on the last three editions, since 1999. Here's the proposed text for the forthcoming 9th edition of the Rough Guide:

A private home built for British royalty before World War I, Castle Forest Lodge nestles in a fragrantly piney forest clearing at 2100m on the southern slopes of the Mount Kenya. Remotely sited, personally managed by its Dutch leaseholder, far from the main road and overlooking a waterhole regularly visited by most of the usual suspects, this is what Treetops might aspire to be if the famous tree-hotel hadn’t already destroyed its environment. Even if you’re simply passing by, there are few nicer ways to spend an afternoon than sitting on the veranda with tea and homemade cakes.

The old house has several modest, comfortable rooms (“King’s Room”, “Queen’s Room”. . .) with camphor-wood floors. In the grounds there are three bungalows each sleeping four, an arc of stylish, individually decorated double and twin cottages with fireplaces, and also the option of DIY camping (Tel: 0721/422908 or 0722/314918 website; $88BB for two, camping $8 per person). They use solar panels for electricity, but most lighting is by kerosene lamp. Good-value meals are available to order and there’s a well-stocked bar. In between sleeping and eating, you can walk in the woods, sit by the waterfalls of the Karute stream (a short walk from the house through beautiful thick forest), fish the stream for trout or take a horse out for a ride.
If you’re keen to try an unusual approach to the summit of Mount Kenya, the seldom-used Kamweti route begins at the road-head, a steep 8km north of Castle Forest. This southern part of the mountain shelters the last remaining wild bongos on Mount Kenya, as researchers’ night-surveillance cameras proved in 2008. The lodge can arrange a hiking trip for you for $120 a day all-inclusive, regardless of the size of the party, via Mackinder’s Camp and Point Lenana, terminating either in Naro Moru (4–6 days) or Chogoria (6–9 days).

Castle Forest Lodge is 40km from Sagana via Kagio. Take the C73, direction Embu. After 18km, reaching Kutus, continue east on the C73 for 400m, then turn left on the tarmac D458 signposted “Castle Forest Lodge 22km”. After 2km, turn left onto an excellent road which eventually becomes a forest track in reasonable condition. En route, 5km before the lodge, you pass the moribund Thiba Fishing Camp.


  1. The following comment has been emailed to me:

    While a pleasant location, beware of taking so-called "guided" walks into the surrounding forest. The lodge owner will promote these walks and claim that her guides are trained and knowledgeable but they are not. Even after a recent tragedy where a young mother and her daughter were killed by an elephant after taking a recommended walk with a guide, the owner has not changed her practices, or even required additional training of her guides (she even handed a bill to the family of the mother and daughter, but pointed out that she didn't charge for the camping!) Again, while a pleasant location, beware of what you sign up for, and one may want to question whether such a lodge owner deserves the business.

    Bryan Slavan

  2. Dear Rough Guide,

    Yes, it is true, Castle Forest is a beautiful location. However, as it is operated, it is also a potentially deadly location that is managed by an owner who, as the above posting states, promotes walks into the surrounding forest with untrained guides. I am the husband and father of Sharon and Margaux Brown who were killed by a charging female elephant protecting her calf on Jan. 4, 2010. The forest walk was actively promoted to us on the day we arrived, Jan. 3, 2010, and the morning of Jan. 4, 2010. At no time were we warned as to potential dangers, and we repeatedly insisted that any walk had to be suitable for my family. It is also true that Melia van Laar (the owner) had no emergency contacts on hand, and she tried to dissuade me from having a helicopter arrive on the scene to airlift the bodies off of Mt. Kenya. She actually did this by sticking her head inside the tent where I was in the middle of cleaning the dirt off of my daughter Margaux, who was already dead and inquired to me whether it was necessary for the helicopter to be sent. Without the helicopter which carried an armed KWS ranger with body bags and additional personnel, how else would we have retrieved my wife's body? It is also true that the owner handed my brother a bill after I had departed in the helicopter, and she did point out that she didn't charge for the camping.

    Even more upsetting is that I found out at Wilson Airport after arriving back in Nairobi with my wife and daughter that a similar incident had happened at Castle Forest back in 2002 under the same management. I later confirmed the death of Ingegerd Zetterlund from Sweden with the tour guide who was on that walk, and he confirmed that the walk was led by a local guide who later turned out to have no training whatsoever. Ingegerd was also killed by a charging elephant.

    The news outlets never reported on the incident in 2002, and in addition reported several inaccuracies like the fact that the owner "warned us about possible dangers". She did nothing of the sort and I believe the lodge probably said this to protect themselves. Only the most irresponsible of people would proceed on a forest walk with known elephants in the immediate vicinity.

    I would warn any potential visitor against taking any walk promoted to them at this lodge, and from an ethical perspective, would question how the lodge can continue to operate with the same negligent practices after having had 3 deaths occur under the same circumstances.

    Thank you Rough Guide for the chance to give readers honest commentary regarding this lodge. I look forward to your next Kenya edition.

    Jeff Brown

  3. Im sorry about your loss but i saw the report of the 2002 death on the news and the pilot who flew her is a close friend of mine. I also visited the same loddge two weeks after the 2002 incident The pilot later got lost in the same Mt.Kenya forest for two weeks after his plane crashed deep into the forest and was found by the same locals that you call "untrained locals".
    Its wrong to blame tragedies on anybody because patients die under Doctors care.Dont warn anyone about not visiting castle forest because you have no right to do so.Its ones choice to take risks because thats what life is all about.You never know you might end up eaten up by a hungry lion or even your house collapses on you.
    Melia lives by chance not knowing when an elephant might crush her but, she is determined to keep risking and do business.I admire her courage and she reminds me alot of Joan root who was murdered in Naivasha.Im 100% sure that she would never want any of her clients to get hurt but it tragically happens even to the locals.

    thank you

  4. I was there 2 days ago, nothing to write home about but the elephants.

  5. It doesn't take genius to discern the dripping racism in the above comments, that the local guides are "untrained" with this presumption based on guides being African, and that the unsubstantiated allegation of other deaths under similar circumstances of unaccounted and unmentioned "locals'. This is typical colonial nonsense that see a superlative value to human life based on Race alone!

    I hold no brief for Melia, she is a Caucasian and I an African "local". I share her circumstances, and her objections to the slant in these comments above. But Kenya isn't the tribal "backwater" that the dastardly and brutal Colonialists left it when they departed in panic fifty years ago, which generations of Europeans still fantasize about.

    Castle Forest Lodge is Licensed and all its various Operations strictly regulated by the License. And this in their nature, quality requirement, frequency, timing and location. So that not only does the Lodge have License to Guided-Game Walks, but is strictly legally & structural complaint with all Government regulations of Safety, Evacuation, Insurance, Competence. And because the consumers of the Lodge's services are also International Customers, Africans are an important component of its clientele, these Regulations are bench-marked to International Standards as would be legally expected by the Source-markets of those Customers.

    And is specifically defined in the Game Walking License and Regulations, each incident that involves contact, whether fatal or just transient with ANY Wildlife, indeed the guides must file returns to the Wildlife Authority of all animals sighted during each walk, is reported and investigated by both the Government Agencies charged with Security (Humans and Animals) and Industry Regulatory Bodies. A fatality report is also filed with the Agencies carrying the Insurance Policies of both the Lodge and the Clientele involved. A finding of any Negligence on the part of Castle Forest Lodge, in this and all other cases, would not have escaped this net, and neither gone unreported - there are no reports of negligence up to the present moment. Further, such established negligence would have procedurally resulted in the cancellation of Castle Forest Lodge's License specific to Game Walks, possibly also of the Hotel License and hence leading to closure of the Lodge, hefty Insurance payments made in regards to each such incident. Criminal prosecution would inevitably follow. None of these results is reported and hence negligence never established.

    Every life lost under whatever circumstance is tragic and undesirable. There is no superlative value to human life. But when rational human beings make informed, conscious decisions, they must take responsibility for the outcomes as well. In this incident narrated above, tragic as it is, it is disingenuous to shift Jeff Brown's personal responsibility.

    Karibu Kenya, Hakuna Matata Kenya.

  6. Thank you for your comments. It's unfortunate and not very constructive that you aren't prepared to stand behind them publically by giving your name, especially since you make statements about the lodge that suggest you have close connections with it.

    However, I still think it's better to post your remarks and let the discussion continue - if it will. As this tragedy took place six years, ago, I have written to Jeff Brown to give him the opportunity to respond. From my point of view I see absolutely nothing to substantiate your comments that any racist views are included above, and incidentally there is no comment here from Melia van Laar. As the blog owner and thus the "editor", I'm always keen to seen robust debate, even on a subject as sensitive and upsetting as this one, although I fully respect the right of those involved to remain silent.

  7. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kirinyaga District, in 1970 and 71, my friends and I often took the road up to the Castle Forest Station. We sometimes camped up there. The Main House was there but there was no lodge or organization. We did some hiking in the area, and also went into the stream nearby. The altitude and fast running water made it safe from parasites. The place did not seem dangerous and holds a special spot in my heart. When I returned to the area for a visit in 2008, I had hoped to make a trip up to the area. Had I known there was a lodge, we certainly would have made more effort. I am sorry that there has been deaths caused there. And wonder what choice I would make if I were to visit Kenya now.

  8. Many thanks for your comment. It is a beautiful spot. Which shouldn't make these events any harder to consider, but somehow does.