If two icons in world history - Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi and Queen Elizabeth – were to meet in one place that had hosted them at different times in history in the Aberdare forest, they would both have a reason to smile, but also different reasons to grieve.
While Kimathi used it as a hideout and command centre against the colonial government, the Queen visited for leisure to enjoy its unique features, natural beauty and wildlife.
The place is Queen’s Cave, about five kilometres from the Karuru waterfalls, with its serene environment, wildlife, and natural vegetation that comes in different colours, green, whitish, blueish and gray.
The earth varies from red, rocky and natural murram to cotton black soils, scenes that make one feel in different worlds within minutes.
Both the Queen and Kimathi will smile at the well-maintained natural vegetation covering the cave and its surroundings, which had made it a perfect place for a hideout for the Mau.
On the other hand, Queen Elizabeth, who visited the cave for her last dinner before leaving for the United Kingdom to be crowned, might feel frustrated that a small structure built by the British army is in bad shape and needs urgent repairs.
The staircase from the small house at the entrance to the cave, now known as Queen's Picnic Site, is also vanishing, swallowed by the green vegetation.
Kimathi might frown at the presence of the staircase, which makes access to the cave easier. Thousands of tourists also visit the site, resulting in improved roads and denying it the taste of originality he enjoyed in the hideout.
Mau Mau veterans are also unhappy that the cave was named after Queen Elizabeth, who visited Kenya in February 1952.
“It is a good thing that it is named after Queen Elizabeth to attract tourists, but it reignites the dark colonial history because the state of emergency was declared in October 1952, a few months after the Queen left Kenya to be crowned,” said Mau Mau General Kihiko Kibue, also the Nyandarua Mau Mau Association chairperson.
“There were no roads at that time and the site was invisible to colonial soldiers. It was among our favourite hideouts and Kimathi loved it very much. We believe the reason the Queen visited the cave was to give it a blessing as a White Settlers area.”
Mau Mau fighters, he said, mapped areas settled or visited by the British, because they understood the visits to mean that the areas had been identified as potential settler land.
“Besides being a hideout, we also wanted to protect the area against settlers while targeting the farms and sites they had already occupied,” said Ruheni Kibanga, a Mau Mau veteran.
“We are unhappy with the naming of the place as Queen’s Cave. We will have places named after freedom fighters. The initiative has already started and we urge the county government to hasten the process.”
The cave lies at the base of the Magura waterfall, revealing a breathtaking sight.
From the outside, the natural cave appears to have been designed by an experienced architect, standing under a well-curved pillar-like design. The pillars are so strong that the heavy missiles fired by colonialists at freedom fights were no match for the ancient stone.
Our guide, Kenya Wildlife Service Joseph Gachara, says Queen’s Cave is the most visited after the Karuru waterfalls, the highest in Kenya.
“Local and international tourists come to enjoy their lunch at the small house at the entrance to the cave after hours of hiking in the Aberdare Forest,” he said.
“Its location and landscape, its history, the different colours of the vegetation, with a view of the beautiful mountains and valley, and the cool weather make the place conducive for family fun days and tourist stopovers for snacks and lunch.”
But the roofing, as with many other historical sites that draw local and international tourists, is in dire need of repairs, though the structure, measuring about ten-by-four feet, still stands strong.
To get to the cave from the small house, tourists walk the 200-metre meandering wooden stairs built by the British to its natural door.
Mr Gachara, our tour guide, informs us that on lucky days, guests can enjoy some sweet honey trickling from hives in the natural rocky habitat at the top of the cave that bees find irresistible.
“You will walk the whole day in the national park and still not visit all the sites. Most families and groups enjoy their packed lunch at the structure at the gateway to Queen’s Cave, making it a very popular site for UK visitors and local tourists, Mr Gachara said.
The easiest and nearest route to Queen's Cave from Nairobi is through Ndunyu Njeri.
Most visitors take the longer route from the Ndunyu Njeru gates and exit at the Shamata Gates, allowing them to visit most of the historical sites, including Mt Satima, the highest in the Aberdare Forests.
Young men and investors have taken advantage of the gateway to the Aberdare markets to earn a living from the flow of tourists, with several hotels operating in the area and new ones coming up.
To get a share of the tourism business, the Nyandarua Department of Tourism is marketing the historical sites and organising events to further promote the industry.
Among the recently organised activities attracting dozens of local and international tourists with dinners in the forest are the 4X4 rally adventure Bundu Rovers and hikes.
Mary Waithera, the Tourism chief officer, said the new hotels have increased bed capacity from 301 to 510, a 40 percent rise in two years.
“Events are a vital ingredient in promoting tourism through the MICE (Meeting, Incentives, Conferences, and Events) concept,” Governor Francis Kimemia said.
“In line with this, my administration has been supporting the hotel industry in Nyandarua through the Buy Nyandarua, Build Nyandarua initiative. I remain committed to supporting the directorate in conducting high-level events touching various sectors.”
Governor Kimemia said the events have promoted the local economy by offering spending opportunities to visitors.
“These opportunities remain unexploited and are great ingredients in promoting sustainable approaches to local tourism development through the MICE and business tourism. The events are an icon in taping and promoting local talents among the youth,” he said.