LIFE ON MOUNT KENYA
A Traverse of Mount Kenya - 7 Sept 1988
I was plodding up the track, head down, the better to distinguish elephant droppings from mere boulders. An immense, unknown darkness brushed against the cocoon of yellow light, which bobbed along in front of me and kept the black menace at bay. At length, the veil seemed to draw back a little as the trees thinned and stars glittered. I looked around, casting a lighthouse beam with my head torch. Eyes, many eyes, unblinking yellow eyes, glared back at me from all sides. My flesh crawled, the legs trembled a little. I whispered a warning to Terri. We walked on, tiptoeing, pretending invisibility, trying not to disturb the eyes .... At length we reached the Park Gate where a man ushered us into a bare office and explained that it would be dangerous to go on. He offered us a chalet at an exorbitant price. We protested, then succumbed - the price was fixed, it seemed, by the government.
It had been a trying day. In Nairobi the bus had failed to turn up. Sometime after our third breakfast, a helpful inspector had found us seats on an alternative service which left us a mere kilometre from our starting point, the village of Chogoria. Then the man who drove people up to the Park Gate had resolutely refused to go more than halfway. It had, he declared, been a wet month; the road was flooded, impassable. An accomplice had appeared and had promised to take us the whole way - 24km. But the price had been too high so we’d sat in a cafe playing the waiting game. After an hour the price had dropped only slightly and nightfall approached - we’d conceded and were packed into the Land Rover, a dilapidated specimen, with five Israelis, the driver and two Africans whose function was unclear. The driver seemed to regard the trip as ideal training for the East African Rally - he had engaged the clutch, pressed the accelerator to the floor and had kept it thus for the duration. As the vehicle hit the first bump so a number of heads hit the hardtop roof; Terri had yelped as her thigh was crushed against a projecting bit of the interior. We charged into canyons of red clay, their floors gouged with deep, slippery ruts. Our Rallyman had a way of avoiding the ruts: he would jerk the steering wheel to left or right and cruise along the canyon walls. Our speed must have imparted sufficient centrifugal force to maintain adherence to this Wall Of Death. Sitting squashed in the front I had suppressed gasps as the vehicle lurched and juddered and threatened to topple into the ruts. But gradually the weltering had ceased as the ground softened and we slid and splashed through seas of sloppy red mud. Inevitably momentum had slowed, despite (or perhaps because of) a roaring engine and spinning wheels. We had slurped to a standstill. No amount of pushing and levering and revving could coax our transport any further forward. The Israelis had haggled energetically and a new price had been fixed, and paid. To no avail. As we trudged away through the mud, someone remarked that we had come as far as the driver had originally intended - about halfway. We’d turned and watched with wry smiles as the Land Rover backed easily out of its muddy trap and disappeared down the track. Finding a clearing, our new acquaintances had decided to camp. We two had continued as first mist, then night, enveloped us, running the gauntlet of the jungle, before emerging, fearfully, at the Park Gate.
Next day, we stood on our veranda at 10000ft and gazed out on a crystal morning at the jagged rims surrounding the central peaks of Mount Kenya. Of the previous night’s eyes there was no sign, apart from a few antelope grazing peacefully on the plain below the chalets. We packed, paid the Park fees, and wandered up through savannah and bush country to the end of the track. On a grassy patch among spiny tussocks we pitched our new Phoenix tent for the first time. Although the altitude was less than 11000ft, the next reliable water supply was more than 4 hours away: it seemed pointless to force the pace at this early stage. We decided on an excursion to Lake Ellis, arriving in mist and finding the shores carpeted with little pink daisies. Ambling back in the twilight, we examined protea flowers and spied a bushbuck leaping away between the Helichrysum bushes.
With the dawn came a screeching and a whirring of wings - a francolin was stirring. The light was golden and clear but already we could see cloud massing above the jungle. The trail to our second camp, at Minto’s Hut, followed the bouldery crest of a ridge overlooking the spectacular Gorges Valley. But the views were masked by the ascending mists after only an hour of climbing. It grew cold and damp, though not enough to persuade Terri to don overtrousers. We moved up through a silent, looming landscape, marvelling at strangely eroded lava towers, confronted by woolly spears of giant lobelia, passing beneath the grotesque forms of Senecio keniodendron. It began to sleet. Terri began to lag as I scrambled up a rocky bluff and wearily crossed a series of sandy basins. Behind a ridge at 14000ft I found a grey lake fringed by giant groundsels. The wreck of a hut littered its eastern shore and a few tents were scattered nearby. With a sense of urgency I pitched camp, put a brew on, then went to look for my companion, finding her damp, exhausted and shivering, stumbling through the sleet in her shorts. She recovered quickly enough on mugs of sweet tea while I traced a leak and patched a torn door in the tent we’d been so impressed with the day before.
An overcast morning cast doubt on the day’s programme. Besides, we both had headaches and felt sick. Irritatingly, in an adjacent tent, an expat vet and his wife were enjoying a headache-free, Diamox-assisted, bonking session. A noisy one. We pottered around camp, hearing tales of an epic descent in a blizzard the day before. The English climbers concerned had lost their tent in a crevasse on the Lewis Glacier and had been fortunate to find space in a tent belonging to the workers building the new Minto’s Hut. As the sun came out, we walked out on to a great bastion of rock which dominated the valley below. This was the Temple, a suitable place for gazing upon the newly revealed spires and crenellated pinnacles of the crater rim. By midday the sky was almost clear as we struck camp and moved slowly up through groundsel meadows to the base of a huge scree slope below Simba Tarn. Somewhere in the middle of the slope we lost the faint trail and emerged, off route, below a bleak col where tarns lay frozen and silent among chaotic boulder fields. Our Israeli friends were there too, looking equally bewildered. We took comfort from each other’s lost-ness and, searching together, eventually found the trail, which does a rising traverse behind Point Lenana, to the Austrian Hut at 15700ft. In the misty half-light it seemed a bleak spot, perched on a bare rock platform overlooking the Lewis Glacier. A bitter wind ventilated the wooden hut as we slumped there, too tired even to make ourselves comfortable. To fetch water I had to go down to the Curling Pond, a pool with stones and smooth ice and shiver while the pot filled slowly with a mixture of slush and melt water. We shared a room with an American veteran of the mountain. He astonished us by producing a bag of potatoes and a pressure cooker from his rucksack: I had always deemed it advisable to keep loads small and light in the mountains; yet although we were delighted with the tastiness of the dehydrated food we had brought, later culinary disasters led me to recall the aroma of steamed potatoes.
It wasn’t a comfortable night. In the darkness before dawn I fancied that a column of troops was tramping past, booting me in the skull as it went. I woke and peered out of the window at a streak of red in the east. The tramping noise was still there; there were voices, African voices. Someone came in and said a hundred Kenyan recruits had just come up from MacKinder Camp on a training exercise. I passed them later on the short climb up to Point Lenana. They were bunched together on the glacier, silent, uncomprehending, trying to jab their bamboo poles into the ice to assist their descent. I carried on to the top, a small rock pinnacle at 16350ft and gazed down at this wonderfully complex and varied mountain, trying to pick out our proposed descent along the little frequented Sirimon Route. Across the glacier I thought I could make out two figures scaling the red rocks of Nelion, the second highest summit. Back at the hut we sunbathed and successfully managed to keep breakfast down. By mid-morning we were trundling down the screes towards the Teleki Valley, passing beneath the glistening ice of the Diamond Glacier, before climbing rough slopes up to Two Tarn Hut. This was an impressive spot, on the shore of a dark, profoundly cold lake. The water reflected nothing, not even a hand dipped when I went to wash. It merely stirred ominously, evoking an atavistic fear of things dark and abyssal. We went exploring, climbing to Arthur’s Seat and watched, entranced, as alpine swifts swooped and soared between cliff and cloud. Green, filiform lichens drenched the larger boulders like sea wrack on a beach. We found a yellow butterfly lying, comatose, on a black rock. And would you believe me if I said we became immersed in a rainbow? At dusk we returned to the corrugated iron hut. I opened the door and took a sudden step backwards. On the shelf where we’d carelessly dumped our food I glimpsed bushy tails and little feet scurrying away to hide in dark corners. Ruefully I picked up a bag of cheese to examine the damage - and stared aghast at the twitching whiskers of a little African Dormouse which had been left behind in the rush: I was too astonished to do anything but drop the cheese and let the beast make good its escape. We had a night disturbed by much squeaking and rustling ....
Next day, we skirted the second of the Two Tarns, made our way along icy ramps and climbed steep talus to another group of tarns below the snout of the Joseph Glacier. A faint track led up the lateral moraine to the Haugsberg Col which lies under the precipitous North Ridge of Batian. The rock on this side of the mountain has a pale, scrubbed appearance, evidence of the recent retreat of the Equatorial glaciers. Under a broiling sun we hurried down to an inviting tarn where scarlet-tufted malachite sunbirds sucked nectar from towering lobelias. The water, sadly, was too cold and too shallow for a dip. We went on to the Kami Hut but found it in poor condition and surrounded by turds and litter. Seven hundred feet below, on the floor of the MacKinder Valley is Shipton’s Camp. It seemed to be recently established - a large wooden building containing alpine-style dormitories. The French party in residence were bounding down the hill, having just climbed Lenana, big smiles on their faces: they were as captivated as we were by the mountain. One of their porters was suffering from an altitude headache and asked for pills. We offered paracetamol and in return received enough kerosene to eke out our supply. Since our supplies were low and we no longer had an appetite for our dehydrated rations, we continued descending. For a time the way led down the broad MacKinder Valley. At Shipton’s Cave, where the explorer camped during his 1930 visit, we stopped and watched augur buzzards wheeling in the sky on sun-rimmed wings. Later we saw a jackal and, in the sunless gloom across the river, an eagle owl flapped low over the tussocks. As sunset approached, the trail climbed to the valley rim. We watched as the evening colour drained from the rocks of the central volcanic plug before stumbling down in the dark to the North Liki Hut.
In the morning we lounged in the sun watching rock hyraxes scavenging for scraps. Terri set about burning the rubbish that was strewn around the hut. Information on the Sirimon Route was sketchy and often contradictory. We thought it might take more than a day to reach the Park Gate and a further half-day to the main road if no transport was available. We left at noon and almost immediately lost the path where it crossed sparsely vegetated slopes of volcanic dust. Regaining it, we found ourselves in mist on a moor as desolate as any in the Pennines. The compass was dug out of a rucksack and guided us to the Judmeier Camp where the warden indicated it would take 4 more hours to the Park Gate. It was less than 3 hours to sunset but the place felt unwelcoming so we went on down and presently entered the forests of the lower slopes, accompanied by heavy rain. The vegetation was less dense on this, the drier side of the mountain so we hoped - and feared - to see elephant or buffalo, for there was ample evidence of their recent passage in the middle of the track. But the walk was uneventful and in 2 hours we came to a gate and a clearing containing the Park offices and a campsite. Since we had overstayed our permit we expected to be charged for the extra days spent in the Park. But the Warden couldn’t read the permit and never questioned our length of stay. Yet, just as we thought we’d got away with it, he charged us for one extra day: the official Gate was, it seemed, an hour down the road. We were still inside the Park!
On the eighth day of the trip we rose to find fresh elephant droppings on the grass and zebra grazing in the clearing. After a final look at the central spire of Mount Kenya we crossed the Park boundary, and the Equator, and emerged, hot, dusty and happy, at the tarmac road where we waved down a "matatu". This term for a taxi has been mistranslated by travellers as "room for two more". It really means "room for however many are waiting". At Nanyuki we unfolded our squashed limbs, booked a car back to Nairobi and then, over fried egg butties, began to talk about Kilimanjaro. But that’s another story ....