Mount Kenya, Kenya
William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Day 1: summit and start descent
The eastern horizon is a long band of bright orange, the sky paling by the second; Kili is visible on the southern horizon – so Elija says, although it is hard to discern, to be honest: it is some 300km away. To the west, the great face of 5,188m Nelion is a quiet grey: the world is emerging from the gloom, the melancholy remains of the Lewis glacier already the whitest thing around even though it is a dingy grey in reality. It is a long way below us, but I have seen a photo from just a few decades ago by Walkopedia’s king-contributor Dick Everard showing it coming close to Lenana.
Then the first sliver of Himself touches Nelion’s topmost cliffs, caressing its way down their intricate tracery until the first ray reaches us on our lesser summit. Wondrous. The great circle of peaks is lit up, one by one and the dark voids between them become quiet, mauve cwms and gorges. The Austria Hut emerges, quite close below to the south: you can scramble, cable assisted, up the spine above it to Lenana.
It is time to be off, as the cold is gnawing into us. Eugene has already departed as he is struggling with it. We retrace our steps, careful over the slippery stone and grit, back to the saddle, where we say goodbye to the immaculate Mackinder Valley, and head north-east into new and thrilling-looking territory. We can already see a hint of the top of the famous Gorges Valley, beside a peculiar flat area. The wildly broken ridges and peaks to the north and south make a formidable backdrop.
A further long and rough descent gets us to this plain, the Temple Flats, a mix of dry and damp areas, a world again of senecio and lobelia, to our delight, with low scrubby plants and fine clumps of delicate grasses as complements to their height and charisma. Across the flats, we climb and drop off successive low ridges (old lava flows, perhaps?), coming quite suddenly on our team round behind an outcrop at Minto’s Hut, with a red-clothed table laid for breakfast. Food is a-cooking and Eugene looks well defrosted. It is around 10am and I feel pretty sorry for myself, jet lagged from the early start and too tired to eat; then I manage to scoff some delicious cut fruit and several pancakes smothered with plum jam, and feel improved but for the small matter of sleep. I stretch out on the ground, too tired to get beyond a perfunctory sweep at the littler, and am asleep with my hat on my face in seconds.
We leave, much restored but behind schedule, at 11.30 after a quick appreciation of the beauty of the [ ] tarn just round a corner from the hut. The next 3 hours are exceptional walking. We carry on over the flats, then cross further low broken ridges, with a perfect little round crater nestled within one. We reach the rim of the magnificent Gorges Valley, a platonic ideal of a U-shaped glacial valley in an otherwise igneous landscape. A tarn lies in an upper scoop, with stepped cliffs below it, one complete with waterfall, cutting it off from the lower valley. The floor looks verdant, like another world, which in a way it is, hundreds of feet lower than our windy clifftop.
At a higher, broken ridge, we turn eastward with the Gorges Valley, and begin a delightful long ridge walk on its northern flank, descending gradually into the vivid heather lands of the massif’s mid flanks, enjoying huge views across valleys and moorland to minor peaks, volcanic forms and lakes, and occasionally reaching viewpoints over the Gorges Valley, gazing back up its stepped journey into the heart of the mountains. It is all ravishing, the pleasure somewhat diluted by a turned then jarred ankle (tweaked Achilles?).
The vegetation gradually gets bigger, low shrubs giving way to tussocks, which in turn are subsumed by increasingly tall heather and other shrubs, even proteas, which we thought were a Cape Floral Kingdom speciality, until we are in a tunnel of scrub, finally dropping off the ridge to a valley where we have seen our tents.
The stream at the bottom winds delightfully between vivid banks. A good thing Wordsworth didn’t see it, as he would have spontaneously combusted. Over the bridge, the Nithi Camp is dispersed among little clearings in the bush. We are exhausted: up at 2am, climbing Africa’s second-highest peak, walking 10 km or more since breakfast and some 13 hours in total. We did well, but are a tad grumpy, and a bit cross when supper comes early at 5.30. But they are right – we eat it, although our appetites are somewhat blunted, and cheer up. We start crawling to bed not that long after.
It is much warmer down here (at 3,300m), so I tuck up wearing just two layers, although I need to add a down jacket later on as night cold descends. A long night’s sleep, recovering from our big day.
Wake at the luxurious hour of 7:15, not because my alarm is squealing, but because I am too hot in my sleeping bag. A deliciously leisurely get-up, pack and breakfast, in the knowledge that there are no departure deadlines, with long conversations in the mess tent ranging from yesterday’s great walk to the EU again.
Packs are eventually shouldered for the last full day. We start with a walk down beside the beautiful stream, revelling in the vibrant and varied vegetation. The drop-off of the falls we are visiting comes quite suddenly, the deeper lower valley spread below us, vivid green slopes all around, and nothing else.It is true wilderness.
We fumble our way down the steep path to the base of the falls, my Achilles reminding me of its presence. The bottom is exquisite, a different, damper world. We sit on a bank of clover, no less, below trees dripping old man’s beard. The cliff behind the falls is a lecture in vulcanism: fluting reminiscent of Giant’s Causeway, solid lava-rock above and a layer of ash and boulders at the top.
We clamber back up and return to camp, this time enjoying views back up the valley toward the long ridges and hills of the highlands.
The two or so hours down to the Meru Bandas are exhilaratingly varied. We descend gradually along a track which winds through heathery heath, then drop into the forest. This is a very different place from the Sirimon ascent; we enter an area of rosewood trees, surprisingly large and fine specimens for trees at the top of their range, scattered among the lower plants, but which thicken into damp montane jungle interspersed with meadows of tussock and no doubt bog. The rosewood gives way to cedars dripping with old man’s beard, with grassy glades below. It is exquisite, and looks like it receives a lot of grazing.
We emerge into wide fields of tussock with stands of trees and thick undergrowth. They are reminiscent of carefully planted English parkland, the clumps positioned to create an ideal if contrived landscape. At the bottom of the low valleys are streams and patches of bog. We see a bushbuck pottering on the fringes of a clump.
Up a final grassy hill – we are at around 3,000m/10,000ft here, so a gentle slope no longer seems like hard work - and we are at the Meru Bandas, a charming group of cabins on a ridge, looking back at the mountain.
This was the most beautiful and entrancing walk, so much so that it managed not to be an anti-climax after the previous day’s fireworks, indeed was a perfect antidote.
The Meru Bandas have a vaguely colonial feel, but have received love in recent years. A tree is packed with long-tailed starlings, and elephant and buffalo come to graze/browse at night.
We spend a delightful afternoon lounging on the close-cropped grass after lunch and - gasp - a shower. I sleep stretched in the late sun with hat on face. Then it is Tusker time, as the sun sinks below the great mountain’s distant jagged peaks. Happy days.
A final stew supper in a cabin, with a log fire a-burning. Then it is every Englishman’s nightmare, tip calculation and sorting time. Then diary writing and a happy and comfortable bed.
I had one of those inexplicably bad night’s sleep, during which I heard thunder and thanked our luck with the weather. Eugene, who I shared with, said it was big animals grunting and snorting. We had been told not to go out far at night and I evidently missed a moonlit treat.
The Bandas manage to look beautiful on their bed of close-cropped grass: quite an achievement for fairly basic wooden cabins, and it isn’t all about the setting. Their simplicity of design, the care recently given them, and most of all their slightly random distribution under the specimen rosewoods feel just a touch Japanese.
A quick viewing of the flats just around the back of the hill from the huts. The waterhole is empty, but a herd of waterbuck are grazing placidly nearby.
After a final superb breakfast and a successful tip-giving ceremony (correctly calibrating the tips for a team of 13 is sweaty, but they seem happy), we wander slowly through the Bandas’ grounds, watching the local band of Sykes’ monkeys in their clearing in the nearby bushes, which doubles as the recycling dump for fruit waste, at least.
We only have a final hour or so walking slowly down the track toward the park gate, before we are met by our vehicle.
Beyond the lasthut, we join the track and turn left, downhill. A huge grassy field opens up to our left soon after, emphasizing the Bandas’ brilliant siting. You can sense the woods around it are teeming with game.
The forest soon transitions to thick bamboo mixed with stands of trees. On the road we meet last night’s buffalo droppings, freshish elephant doings, and elegant leopard prints.
Finally, around a bend, our big adapted landcruiser is waiting. What a walk.