Climbing Mt Kenya 2004

Mt Kenya loses in the altitude stakes to big cousin Mt Kilimanjaro, but we found it to be far more interesting as a walk, not just for the scenery but also the wildlife still present on the slopes.

Jan 1st.  Highpoint Hotel, Nairobi. 
We arrived in Nairobi absolutely exhausted after 24 hours travel time, coming from Brisbane via Dubai. The highlight was passing through immigration at Jomo Kenyatta airport. I handed over US$100, wide and bright smiles from the immigration officers, two thumps on the passport then escorted though the queues to the door.  Maybe we should send ours over for some training. We seemed to be the only tourists on the flight down from Dubai. Our bags arrived undamaged and quarantine waved us through without even a glance and then Patrick from Into Africa was there with our names on a sign. How amazing is that.

His view is that the terrorism threat as stated by the USA is a political ploy to force the Kenyan govt into supporting a US base in the north.  Sounds familiar. The city looks devoid of tourists and there are no other whites in the High Point hotel.  This seems to be an apartment block full of long term residents rather than guests like us, the staff seem surprised at our presence. We collapse in our room at 3 pm and sleep through to 8am.

Jan 2nd.  Highpoint Hotel, Nairobi.
Patrick collects us at 10 for the trip into town to make our final payments. He warns us not to walk into town, as the route goes past a park and an old cemetery, both of which are occupied by squatters (mostly homeless war veterans) who will see us as fair prey.  There are only a few cars and many people on foot.  We’ve booked a half day tour this afternoon, a full day walking in the Rift valley tomorrow,  a week to climb Mt Kenya, then the trip into Tanzania to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Into Africa is very happy with us!

Another couple were in the office who were Wycliffe Bible translators living and working near Nairobi. They offered us a lift out to the travel agent who was arranging our flights out to Zanzibar after the walks. They dropped us near the office in a seedy neighbourhood and we went in to find that no-one had heard of us and the people we had been talking to were unavailable. Our hearts sank as the current manager (Levis) said he would check it all out and bring the tickets out to us at the hotel that night. However they seemed friendly and professional and walked us down to a taxi rank to be taken back to town.

We shopped for some books and chocolate before a quick lunch and back to the Into Africa office for our tour. Karen Blixen’s house and rooms (out of Africa fame), a Rothschild’s Giraffe breeding program and then a display village “Bomas of Kenya” for a song and dance act, gymnasts, and an unintelligible commentary I think celebrating the diversity of African culture.  The giraffes were the highlight for the afternoon, mainly their tongues as they licked food pellets off your hand, reaching 40 cm out to do so.  Rough and slimy at the same time as well as being extremely flexible. Soap and water with a hand towel were then provided! They have several tame breeders, and the young animals are released after training to survive in the wild.

The taxi driver got lost and had to ask the way but he eventually got us back to the Highpoint hotel in time for dinner. Levis then turned up with our Zanzibar tickets and a portable visa machine. Our resident worrier was stunned that it all came together.

3rd Jan.   Highpoint Hotel, Nairobi.
Our driver (Samwell) turned up on time and introduced himself with full details. His wife lives near Mt Kenya so he only gets to see her every 2 months, and he has 2 children in boarding school. He looks like he also chews tobacco with very gappy brown teeth.  We collect Kasim, the guide, and head off for about an hour to the edge of the escarpment of the Rift Valley and a view point.  It’s another half hour down to near Lake Naivasha, and dozens of huge hothouses for flowers. Each is about 100m long, and we are impressed by a sign “No bicycles in the greenhouse”. Apparently flowers can be picked in the morning and sold in Amsterdam in the afternoon.

Samwell dropped us with Kasim at the entrance to Hells Gate and we walked through open plains and savannah with wildlife everywhere. Kasim proved very knowledgeable and was happy with naming everything I could spot.  We managed to see hundreds of Thompson’s gazelle and zebra, 50 Grants gazelle, 50 Warthog, 20 Hartebeast, 10 Impala, 3 Eland, 6 Giraffe but the highlight was a Buffalo.  It appeared on a ridge crest above and spotted us and charged down a path towards us at the same time as I pointed it out.  Kasim yelled ‘Run” and we all took off up the track, leaving Alison last in case it chased us. It crossed the road 100m below us and fortunately never looked like taking chase. Alison was a bit peeved at our priorities. 

We were by then near the shelter where Samwell had lunch ready. After a break and food, we were taken on another loop walk up to the head of a gorge, then down the stream for about an hour before heading back to the bus.  Good views in the gorge but no wildlife, despite stories of the leopard last week. The gorge was made up of tufa, solidified lava ash, so very soft, but with chunks of obsidian up to about 1 meter across.

Rift Valley gorge

There were also hot springs flowing from the gorge wall in several places, boiling hot at one point , with steam rising.  A geothermal plant was in operation above us, but unseen except for a steam plume visible a few km away.

4th Jan, Mountain Rock Hotel, Nanyuki.
Daniel and Samwell arrive on time and we head off to first collect another two walkers. Ian, in his 60’s from the UK, and Claire, in her 20’s from Perth, but working as an engineer in South Africa.  On the way to Nanyuki, we pass many market stalls stocked with fresh fruit, and see large areas of coffee with co-op factories and hectares of drying racks. It had started to rain, so workers were out covering the racks with plastic.

Samwell stopped to give us a break at a WW2 cemetery. There were no Australians present in that one but several other sites nearby did record Australians as being present. One being a young lieutenant from Murrumbeena in WW1, who when being carried out wounded, insisted that he be left behind to protect the other wounded from the murderous enemy. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

We arrived at the Mountain Rock Hotel as the weather broke, thunder and pelting rain for several hours, it cleared by evening but stayed very cold, so higher up could be interesting. The hotel had a 3D model of Mt Kenya in front, olive baboons on the lawns and Kenyans on holiday rowing for pleasure on a small lake. Dinner was 4 courses by a roaring fire, with entertainment for several hours from a withered old Kenyan on an accordion. We clapped and bought him a beer.

Our route up the mountain.

5th Jan, Old Moses Hut, 3400m.
Breakfast at 8 and a walk around the grounds with Sami looking for monkeys. We found one group of Pied Colobus perched in a tree, but the Sikh monkeys could not be found.  We passed a pig in its own elevated shed, the ground underneath deeply covered in fruit pods.

Everybody was eventually loaded into a landrover for the drive to the National Park entry gate where the walking starts. 6 porters jammed across the back seat and 2 more to meet us on the mountain.  We first stop in Nanyuki for fuel and final supplies.  Claire had to buy a new charger for her mobile phone and disappeared into a restaurant to charge it. Sadly she still couldn’t find a connection, so she started showing phone withdrawal symptoms. Alison bought some postcards from a salesman hanging through the window of the landrover as his English was so good.

We finally start walking around 12:30 on a 4wd track gently climbing relentlessly all the way to the hut.  It’s good birding along the way, with Sami able to name them all, so I can find them in the guide book to confirm. Sami also identifies all the dung and tracks so we know that zebra, elephant, buffalo, hyaena and baboon have all passed this way recently. As we climb we also move out of the forest into scrubland. It’s a pleasant climb, with sunny clear skies all day, a vast improvement over yesterday.

MacKindar Valley

Old Moses Hut is really upmarket, with mattresses, flushing toilets and washbasins. There is another 3 course meal, with fish in breadcrumbs and baked potato.

Grey Duiker

6th Jan to Shiptons Camp 3950m.
It’s 81/2 hours at Alison’s pace up the MacKindar valley to the hut at the base of the main climb with all Mt Kenya’s peaks towering over us. Batiaan and Nelion are sheer peaks for rock climbers only, which at their altitude (5200m) would be a real challenge.  We will be heading off to the left to Point Lenana, which is the trekking summit at 4985m.  Glacial snouts are poking out of several valleys.

Mother Hyrax with baby on her back

Many Rock Hyrax line the path with Alpine Chats begging for scraps. We see two Grey Duiker feeding, but they are so flighty they twitch to run at every sound and movement. There are buffalo tracks, but gladly no sightings. All of the track is in open scrubland with spectacular plants, including lobellias, all the way. Worth having a plant guide to appreciate what you are seeing.

We wash our hair in the creek near the hut which is so cold it is painful on the scalp. Our cooks serve up another splendid 3 course meal with soup, chicken and veges and a dessert. After dinner we are allowed into the kitchen to watch the porters make their own dinner from maize meal, ugali. They give us a taste, but it’s more like clag than anything else. You’d have to grow up with it to like it.  The 4 of us are sharing a dorm room for 16 and sleep really well despite the altitude. It’s so cold that our breath comes out as a cloud.

7th Jan up to Hausberg Col (4350m) and back to Shiptons.
Today is for altitude acclimatisation, with a 400m climb to a high saddle above the scrub line with great views of Batiaan, the highest peak of Mt Kenya.  We are back at the hut for lunch after a glissading descent on gravel. It’s a noisy afternoon with groups of walkers and Italian climbers passing through.  It seems that Swahili, like Italian, is also only spoken at high volume.  A couple of objectionable Scots arrive, trying to do the peak cheaply, pleading poverty to their African guide!

Shipton’s Hut is absolutely dominated by the wall of peaks around it. The foreground ridges have Giant Lobelia on them, then rocky crags and cliffs form the amphitheatre and right on the top the peaks with their snow and glacier fields. It’s an awe inspiring view that we soak up for the afternoon.

Our room is almost full, which leads to a night of little sleep. We have to be up for a 4 am start, but other groups are off every hour it seems and there is little regard for other occupants with torches, chatter and crackling plastic most of the night.

8th Jan to Point Lenana (4985m) and down to camp near the park gate.
Porridge and tea at 3 am to set us up for a 13 hour day.  We set off in a strong wind and spitting rain with headlights and a full moon. There is a row of pretty lights all the way up the scree slope above from the earlier departures. It takes us about 2 hours to reach the summit ridge above the scree and we even overtake an older walker. Iain comments that we must be going too fast. We can see where the porters are crossing the ridge way below, taking their shortcut with minimal climbing.

Look Mum, No hands.

The beard is iced up, not grey!

The Scots lad and several others appear coming down the summit ridge, having decided that the path is too treacherous with ice. We carry on regardless and discover the problem several hundred meters higher up. This area is much more exposed to wind and sleeting rain and has frozen making a layer of verglas across the track. The main issue is a 50 m traverse across a steep slope where a fall would mean sliding hundreds of meters down. Hard kicking and stamping was sufficient to crack the ice layer and create a secure foothold, so we are able to cross it without incident. The sky is starting to lighten so we have slightly better light for the final 200 m rock climbing scramble to the summit. The temperature is still dropping and sleet is now freezing on the parkas but we make it to the summit with zero visibility, strong wind and around -10C. Alison had given up on her glasses and was travelling blind, while Iain just coped with an ice layer on his.  The odd sunbeam is breaking through the clouds, but this is not a place to hang around so we take a few photos and start down. The ice is melting now, so the hazard is significantly less for the descent. As we descend, the sun comes out and by 10 am we have lovely views of the summit we have just left.

Second breakfast is waiting for us at Minto Hut, where we also get out of our wet gear and into shorts and t shirts for the rest of the days walking.  Claire is overjoyed because with the altitude helping she is finally able to make a phone connection. Her boyfriend’s visa has been approved so she has something to look forward to after the trip.  The track follows a glacial valley through spectacular gorges with waterfalls, and finally reaches a road head and a cup of tea before the final road bash for another 40minutes to where our tents are waiting. Alison crashes into bed and 4 day old chicken is served for dinner, which everyone except Claire rejects. Today seemed planned for the convenience of the porters, making for an easy last day for them, so we let Into Africa know our feelings.  The hyaenas and rock hyrax chattering in the early evening do little to disturb our sleep.

9th Jan to Park Gate, then Nairobi.
It’s only about an hour down to the park gate where a land rover is waiting. In a formal presentation, with everyone lined up we pay out our tips, with US$27 to each porter, $52 to Sami and Patrick. Iain also gives everyone a coin from the Kenyan money of 50 years ago as a momento.

The porters walk behind the landy as we head down, it will return for them once we reach the bus, but we meet the bus early on as it blows off its radiator cap. Porters disperse to find it before we can carry on.

We pass an Italian group on foot, and Sami tells us that they are on a “rat route” to bypass the park gate and avoid paying the fees. We later see Sami talking to the Ranger.  Rangers are dressed in full army camouflage gear and are expected to help in the fight against poachers.

We arrive at the Chogoria Hotel by 12 but lunch is arranged for 1, so we took everybody up to the rooftop bar and shouted beer all round. Sami leads the porters in singing Happy Birthday to Alison.

There are monster traffic jams entering Nairobi in the late afternoon but we eventually totter in to the Comfort Inn for the night.  We sign off from this trip by having dinner with Iain and Claire at a classy Indian restaurant.  Tomorrow it’s the bus to Arusha in Tanzania to join another walking group to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, but that’s another story.

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