Writing Portfolio


No picnic on Mount Kenya (part 1)

 Way back in 2005 I went travelling in Africa. Actually, that’s an understatement. Over the course of six months, I travelled from Cairo all the way down to Cape Town. When planning this trip, I’d made a list of things that I wanted to do there. Hiking up Mount Kenya came towards the top of this list. I could boast of some previous experience of trekking in the mountains, although in terms of high-altitude multi-day treks (in the Alps and the Pyrenees) I hadn’t done anything for several years.

By late August of 2005 I had made it down to a provincial Kenyan town called Nanyuki, which is located on the Equator. Nanyuki is also the nearest town to Mount Kenya, and it’s where a lot of the trekking companies are based. But where were they? I went looking, but I was looking on a Sunday and they were all closed. I resolved to go back the following day, but just when I was heading back to my hotel I was approached by a man in the street (near the bus station, as it happens) who asked if I was looking to trek up Mount Kenya. If you’re a mzungu in Nanyuki, that’s a fair assumption. His name was Moses and he worked as a guide for Montana Trekks (yes, that’s how it was spelt), based in the nearby Jambo House Hotel.

We got chatting, and after being taken to the company’s office (located on the ground floor of said hotel) I decided that there was no point in extending my search for other trekking companies. I’d found what I was looking for, and I’d even found the man who’d be taking me up the mountain – Moses, clearly a man who knew his stuff when it came to mountains in this part of the world, was to be my guide. It was a choice I would not regret; I wouldn’t usually recommend trusting a random local you meet on the street, but this time it paid off!

Anticipating some serious mountain trekking, I’d bought my hiking boots with me on the grounds that I hadn’t wanted to chance it by borrowing or hiring a pair once I got to wherever I would be starting my trek from. So far, said boots had been used for strolling around in the hills surrounding Aksum and on that day when I’d gone to the Blue Nile Falls. Now, I hoped, they would come into their own – as would the the waterproof jacket which had already seen African service in Gondar and the hitherto-unused fleece. I hadn’t packed everything I’d need for a proper mountain trek, though – for some reason I hadn’t thought to include such obvious essentials as gloves, a woolly hat and waterproof trousers when loading up my backpack in anticipation of going to Africa.

Luckily for me, though, Montana Trekks – like all good trekking companies – had taken this into account, and when I turned up at the office on Monday to book my trek and sort out payment Moses let me loose in their store-room, which was full of items that various backpackers had left behind over the years. I emerged with a pair of decent gloves, a pair of red, heavy-duty waterproof trousers (which he reckoned I’d only need for the summit walk anyway – and only then for protection from the wind) and a multi-coloured woollen ski-hat that I’d have liked to have kept. After arranging my trek for the following day, I went to a local general store to buy some snacks for the trek – to my delight, the place sold McVitie’s Chocolate Hob-Nobs, so I bought a packet of them along with some chocolate bars.

The following morning, I got to the Montana Trekks office early, and deposited my non-walking kit (which filled five plastic bags) in the store-room. Shortly after nine, Moses arrived and started sorting out his kit; he reckoned that my pack was too heavy but quite frankly I wasn’t sure what I could have left out of it. I’d decided to carry my own backpack, mainly because I hadn’t wanted to pay the extra money to have a porter to do it for me. For his part, Moses was carrying all of our food as well as his personal kit.

We would be trekking up to Point Lenana, which at 4,985 metres (16,355 feet) is the third-highest peak of Mount Kenya and the highest that can be reached without specialist climbing equipment.
Our transport to the Sirimon Park Gate was a Toyota saloon that had to be push-started. During the journey itself, our driver turned off the main road onto a dirt-track, which his car was patently unsuitable for. Was this the road to the Mount Kenya National Park gate? No. It turned out that Moses had decided that he needed to pick up an extra jumper from his home.

When we got to the Sirimon Gate after a journey that took over an hour, we completed the signing-in formalities with the rangers on duty. Moses had to show them his official guide certificate (complete with hand-print, as not all guides are literate) and sort out the park fees, while I had to show them my passport.
We got started at around eleven, and the walk itself lasted for about three hours. Using the Sirimon Route, which approaches Mount Kenya from the north-west, we walked through woodland for the most part along a very clearly-defined path. Moses pointed out several piles of elephant dung (apparently recent), and identified two types of birds for me – mountain chat and auger buzzard.
Old Moses Camp, our base for the first night was above the tree-line at around 3,300 metres (11,000 feet) above sea level; it consisted of several single-storey wooden huts. Once we got there, Moses made his way into the kitchen hut and got on with the business of preparing lunch while I claimed one of the bunk-beds for myself (us tourists were in a different bunkhouse to the guides, cooks and porters). I do not wish to sound ungrateful but I did not like the lunch at all – it was an avocado salad, and things probably weren’t helped by the fact that it looked disconcertingly like green vomit. The tea, made with sugar and condensed milk, was much appreciated, though.

As was expected, I wasn’t the only hiker at Old Moses – although I was the only one with Montana Trekks. Over the course of the afternoon, I was joined by a couple of Americans, some Irish girls and one other Englishman. He was called Laurie and he must’ve been in his sixties. In fact, he hadn’t been in England for years – he ran a commercial fishing company in Madagascar but had taken some time off to go mountaineering. He said he’d climbed Kilimanjaro the previous week.
Some time after lunch, Moses and I did an acclimatisation walk to help get me used to the altitude – we went up another 200 metres. The ground around Old Moses Camp seemed to be very boggy – although Moses assured me that it is not as bad as the eastern Naro Moro route, where ‘vertical bogs’ – I shuddered to think what those were – are a common feature.

I spent much of the afternoon chatting to one of the Americans, who was about my age. Jesse was from Colorado, although he’d been studying in Cape Town and after Kenya planned to visit Morocco and travel around Europe. Last week, he’d been down in the Maasai Mara, which I intended to visit after Mount Kenya – he’d had a great time there and showed me plenty of photos he’d taken of animal kills on his digital camera. Like everyone else apart from me, he’d arranged his trek from Nairobi.
After watching the sunset, we all sat down for dinner – prepared for us by our respective guides. My main course of meat-and-about-six-veg was immense, and the others were served with similar-sized portions.

It was a clear night, and the sky was full of stars. I felt a twinge of regret that I couldn’t identify any of the constellations.

To be continued...

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