Mount Kenya

Mount Kenya, Kenya

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

Day 1

So, we’re here at last: the Sirimon gate into the Mount Kenya National Park. Here at 2,650m, it is warm and gently breezy, sunny with a few clouds. Our group is cheerful and apparently thoroughly prepared, other than that I was up 5 times with the squits last night. Our guides, and the rest of our support team, seem competent and smiley, so all is looking good.

We stride off up the road at 1.30 – it is metalled all the way to our hut, which is a tad disappointing somehow, but makes for an easy climb. Elija, our leader, sets a deliberately slow pace, the experienced climber’s invaluable acclimatisation tool, the steady plod.

The forest is a bit scrappy, podocarpus with low bamboo, but soon reforms into thicker trees and more mixed undergrowth. Delightful. Discussions range from an early addressing of Brexit issues, to aid to Africa and how to measure countries’ worthiness and the aid’s effectiveness.

Lunch is on shady grass under a fine podocarpus. All is well with the world. A cinnamon-fronted beeeater flits by.

Old man’s beard appears, indicating cloud forest, then we are into a bamboo zone; then hagenia (rosewood), scattered trees above thick scrub, then we are out above the treeline, into the world of heathers and shrubs and a ravishing variety of colours and forms. And, even better, big views to high green ridges which could be in the Scottish Borders, with the great icy tower of the Batian peak soaring above the skyline ahead, reaching into a sky which is now clouding up. The hut at Old Moses Camp appears on a ridgetop above. All very encouraging: we’re making good progress, and it isn’t hurting.

A delightful meander up through this gorgeous landscape gets us to our ridgetop hut at 3,300m a bit after 3pm. Happy view-appreciation ensues, then we head inside the hut to a table on which tea appears soon after. Both the huts on the Sirimon route had the same plan, on big bunk rooms off a long, thin common room set with tables, a basic but clean bog at one end, the kitchen at the other. It is scruffy and draughty, but fitting to a proper adventure.

Some while after, we head out to sit in the lee of the hill – a stiff, cold breeze is now blowing – for a gorgeous half hour with the evening light. A group of plump and confident francolin saunter close by and, after some raucous and unlovely squawking, back again.

We have a room for 16 between the 5 of us, so lots of space. We unpack, then sit about and chat. Supper is at 5.45: butternut soup, fish with chips and veg, particularly delicious mangoes. Then a quick whizz outside to enjoy the golden sundown light on the hillsides. We are driven back in by a cold wind, and huddle back at our table and talk and read until a 9-ish bed.

A good day. A surprisingly cold night, but we have layers.

Day 2

This is a magical day’s walking.

Up just before 7am. It is cold but not freezing; the wind has died down, but is still quite fresh. Dress and pack.  A huge breakfast – fruit, uji sweet maize porridge, pancakes and eggs and sausages. Even I struggle to do it justice.

We are off at 8am, promptly: not bad for a first morning. It is now a lovely if breezy and still chilly day, and we strike up the hill on a good path, with the vast slopes of the moorland leading up to high and very distant looking ridges, with the harsh drama of the Nelion and Batiam peaks protruding above the skyline. The plants are beautiful and fascinating all day. At first we are climbing through thick heathery scrub and tussocks, which gradually thin into thick hairy tussocks which Felice Benuzzi in No Picnic on Mount Kenya described as hellish walking with the risk of a sprained ankle at every step. We can see why.

The weirdness increases as cabbage groundsel appears, and senecio. A long stretch of tussocks gets us to a low ridge of sorts, where the great peaks look a lot bigger and closer. A delightful traverse through tussocks and shrubs, which are becoming familiar and are now joined by tall, droopy-feathered ostrich-plumed lobelias, gets to another low ridge with, on the other side, a little valley filled with the sort of intense little botanical garden which Benuzzi describes, both beautiful and fascinating. A slow puff up to a final ridge gets us to a fine view of the deep Liki valley, our destination for the night. Its wide bottom contains a lonely little hut, wrecked on closer inspection, beside an obvious flat campsite. At the valley head are dry, tough, broken crags and cliffs; across the valley is a high, rough ridge and the great peaks looming behind it. Gorgeous. It is reminiscent of Ladakh or even Tibet.

A steady descent gets us to the valley floor at 12.30, with a large mess tent and our own roomy tents already pitched. We luxuriate in the warm sun.  Lunch is called soon, and we repair to the mess tent, which is too hot as well as having no view, so we take our plates outside to a large picnic table with a flimsy roof, which looks recently erected and decidedly incongruous, furniture from a foothills park at nearly 4,000m.

A kip in the sun, one of trekking’s great luxuries. It is hot to the extent that I have to retreat to the shelter. Then we are off, reluctantly at first after our work of the morning, on an acclimatization walk, 50 minutes up the far slope to a fine viewpoint over the deep Mackinder valley, tomorrow’s way up to Shipton’s Camp. It is an effort, but the beauty of the hillside has our attention. We should have our best-yet view of the great peaks from the ridgetop, but they are cloud-girt. We’ll see them tomorrow. We retrace our steps, reaching base at 4.20pm, just as the sun leaves it, so we scuttle into our tents to set up for the night before the cold hits.

Back in the mess tent, we chat until supper at 6pm, delicious beef stew and banana fritters, of which I eat 6. Then it is diary writing, extra layers needed as the cold intensifies despite the sound tent with cooking stoves burning at the other end. The rest head for their bags, leaving Parry and me. I turn in at 8-ish. A fantastic day.

I lie in my bag listening to Leonard Cohen. It is VERY cold, and I burrow down further and further into my bag. Diamox-driven pees are needed, which is tedious beyond belief, so I lie there bursting and unable to sleep until driven out into the cold. One time I am so deeply tied into my bag, I struggle to get out and have a minor claustrophobia attack. Take a sleeping pill at 2.30am. That’s altitude for you.

Day 3

Up at 6.45 after a sleep-deprived night. It is crystalline and beautiful in the campsite, the sun already slanting sharp golden light onto the hillside behind us. Breakfast at 7.30, then we are off at 8.30, half an hour late despite being basically ready at 8.

We walk back up the hillside we tramped yesterday afternoon; it is even more beautiful in the early light, with shadows throwing everything into vivid relief.

At the ridgetop we take in water – and the view. This is luxurious walking, with no rush to get to Shipton’s Camp, indeed an imperative not to. The Mackinder valley is looking gorgeous in the early morning clarity. We make a steady descent, then traverse the valley side some way above the stream, winding through a scattered forest of surreal giant lobelias, with the broken crags and spires of the ridge we have crossed as a background. An intense hour.

The trail up from Old Moses Camp climbs up from the river to join us. More lobelia forest, which thins out into a scattering among elegantly arranged tussocks and low Alpine scrub. We spot a rock hyrax on a warm slab by a lobelia, we cross the stream and start a gentle climb up the far hillside to a tougher stretch, beyond which we quite suddenly meet the full glory of the high peaks and ridges at close quarters. Heroic. Shortly after, we reach Shipton’s Camp, named after a famous early climber of the great peaks, at a creditable 12.45.

Another good and filling lunch, then a photo delete (worried my card is almost full) and a snooze (I never tire of this luxury) in our many-bedded dormitory.

At 3.15, we climb the beginning of tomorrow’s walk as a further acclimatizer, a beautiful swing round an outcrop through a giant lobelia grove in this high but relatively sheltered nook. Elija explains that the burnt-looking lower leaves of the lobelia are in fact merely dead, but remain, packed in, as insulation for the plant. We hit a really steep bit, which won’t be much fun tomorrow, then stop after 35 minutes, 500+ feet higher, which is encouraging. A good return descent through another little valley.

We prepare for a prompt departure tomorrow’s assault on Lenana,  the trekking the peak, then gorge on another large and tasty meal: we all wonder at how Samuel achieves them, in particular how he keeps the meat fresh. Then diary and bed at 8 in preparation for the big day tomorow. Lucky us.

Day 4

A brisk military operation first thing. We’ve slept in as many of our walking clothes as possible, so, when my alarm goes at 2am, I leap up and am fully packed and ready to go at 2.30, wearing 6 layers: thermal, wicking walking shirt, thin fleece; with down jacket, thick fleece waistcoat and a windcheater on top, all undone at the front until it gets really cold. I never sweat, despite the exertions to come. We have tea and snacks (plain biscuits), then we’re off into a cold, clear and starry night. Beautiful, and there is a full moon, so our head torches are semi-redundant; I even turn mine off for a bit, as walking by starlight is to be savoured – if you feel well enough, that is. 

All goes well until we reach the steep but loose slope we began yesterday evening.  This is a very long haul, and increasingly exhausting as the altitude gain takes its toll. But we stay together, with a small gap growing between the speedier ones and Alex and me. My memory is a bit altitude-fuzzy, but we gain a saddle on the high ridge which leads to Lenana, where the Chogoria Route and our Sirimon meet, and turn right. The breeze stiffens and chills. Steep and slippery sections are interspersed with slightly easier ones, but it is a long, panting slog in thinning air.

The eastern horizon becomes faintly red, then more pronouncedly orange, picking out the tops of ridges. We are on the far side of the ridge from Batiam and Nelion, so don’t see their faces emerging from silhouettes against the stars – negative spaces – to distinct if murky masses.

We eventually reach the summit, at 4,985m, climbing a short fixed ladder and up a final rock wall, and we’re there, in 3.5 hours at 6.20am, a quarter hour before sunrise, so we’ve got here faster than our guides expected – they don’t want to keep one waiting at the top as it is bitterly cold.

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.

Day 5

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.

Day 6

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. 

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