Kenya: Planning the Mt Kenya Trek
9th February - 1st March 2002
I planned to leave the Forest Rest house at Kagamega early in the morning to begin my journey to Mt Kenya. Unfortunately I forgot to settle my bill the previous night and had to wait for one of the caretakers to arrive to take my money. By then Roy was up and had brewed another pot of coffee so I stayed even longer having an unplanned breakfast. I had a long journey today, which I knew would be difficult to complete by nightfall, especially now that I was leaving the Rest house later than I had originally intended. I said goodbye to Roy and once again left him in peace in the forest to look for his ants and began walking along the track, past the tea plantation and back to the main road. As I walked past the tea plantation a boda boda pulled up and offered me a ride to Shinyalu. After my experience on a boda boda coming to the forest I wondered if he knew what he had let himself in for; my luggage weighed an extra 19 kilos plus myself. It was still early morning and the temperature cool, so the going was not quite so bad. Even though, we still had to walk up the steeper hills, if that is what you could call these slight gradients.
My plan today was to try and reach Naro Moru, a small village by the western slopes of Mt Kenya by travelling via Eldoret, Nakuru and Nyahururu, thus avoiding an unnecessary trip through Nairobi. From Shinyalu I took a rather battered looking pick up truck back along the dirt road to Kagamega from where I took a matatu onwards to Eldoret. Another change of vehicles and an hour or so of waiting around at the taxi park and I was again in another matatu heading east along the main Kampala to Nairobi road to Nakuru. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived and I began to doubt that it was possible to reach my intended destination today. There was still traffic going to Nyahururu, which I reached just as the sun began to set. The journey from Nakuru was very scenic as the road went up the steep escarpment of the Great Rift Valley with stunning views from the top looking south across the valley floor. I checked into the Good Shepherds Lodge on Nyeri Road for the night and planned to finish my journey to Mt Kenya the following morning.
Nyahururu is one of the highest towns in Kenya at an altitude of 2,360m and the climate is very pleasant, cool at night and warm, without being too hot during the day. The gently undulating plateau, which surrounds the town, is heavily cultivated although when I visited it was the middle of the dry season and everything looked very dry and brown, scorched by the sun. A short walk out of town is Thomson's Falls, where the Ewaso Narok River plummets 72m into a ravine. The falls are named after the explorer Joseph Thomson who was the first European to walk from the coast at Mombasa to Lake Victoria in 1882.
I had plenty of time to reach Naro Moru today, about 120km further along the road, so I decided to spend the morning at the falls. I walked along the road out of town for about a kilometre to reach the falls. As I approached I saw the row of souvenir shops lining the track leading off the road to the falls. Before I could take evasive action Peggy, as she introduced herself, came running down the road to greet me. She wanted me to visit her shop, which had only opened two days ago (allegedly), to look around and maybe buy something to help get her business underway. I had a feeling that Peggy's shop had always been open for just two days over the last few years and that this was her ploy to get customers through the door. She was very friendly and stuck to me like glue as I walked to the trail leading down into the ravine, as though she owned me and that I was her customer and no-one else's.
I hiked down the steep trail leading to the base of the waterfall where a troop of baboons were crossing the river. The ravine had it's own microclimate and the bottom was a thick jungle with trees and other shrubs clinging to the steep sides of the ravine. I was the only person down at the bottom of the ravine as it was still early in the morning. It was very relaxing with the sound of the water crashing down into the plunge pool, the cool spray from the falls gently drifted down the ravine where the baboons sat on the opposite side of the river watching me. The thought of Peggy waiting at the top of the falls to drag me off to her shop made me stay a little longer enjoying the peace.
Later that morning I took a matatu to Naro Moru and arrived just before 14.00. As I squeezed out of the matatu touts swamped me, even in this small village, which was no more than a string of shacks along the main road. My first impressions were that everyone was a tout trying to sell me a tour up Mt Kenya. I was not interested and just wanted to go to the Mt Kenya Hostel along the road to the mountain to sit down and rest before deciding how I would trek over the mountain. I walked north along the main road to the turning for the mountain from where it was an 8km walk to the hostel. It took me two hours to walk carrying my pack; I thought this would be an ideal warm up for tackling the mountain.
I arrived and met Patrick in the garden who was busy clipping a hedge. The place was very quiet, only Patrick seemed to be about; there were no other guests staying. The hostel was in a wonderfully peaceful location, a couple of hundred metres from the road, which had very little traffic on it as it only went as far as the park gates. At the top of the garden was a small mud hut with a thatched roof, a sign read, 'The Summits View Pub'. I thought to myself that this was fantastic, the hostel even had a pub set out in these beautiful gardens. The garden was dominated by a large jacaranda tree, still in bloom with its purple flowers and some smaller bottlebrush trees, their red flowers attracting tiny sunbirds that fed on the nectar. Small farms surrounded the hostel and the peaks of Mt Kenya dominated the view to the east. I was exhausted from my hike from the village in the afternoon sun and the first thing Patrick did while I was checking in was to make a large pot of tea. Later that evening he cooked me dinner, which was different, a bowl of rice, potatoes and cabbage, enough to feed at least six people. By 20.00 Patrick went home and I was left alone sitting in the lounge reading a book with a kerosene lamp and a warm bottle of beer. Someone had forgotten to buy fuel for the generator so I was left in the dark for the night.
A few hours later someone arrived in the dark, it was Joseph, the manager, just returned from Nairobi. Patrick had filled me in on what was going on and where and who Joseph was. He was a bit surprised when he saw me sitting there and I said, 'Oh, you must be Joseph.' I explained about my afternoon chat with Patrick and what a great job he was doing, especially in the garden, which was a beautiful, relaxing place. Joseph replied saying that Patrick is only the caretaker and doesn't have anything else to do except gardening.
Unfortunately that night I became sick and woke up the following morning with a stomach bug. It wasn't serious, more annoying than anything else and only lasted 48 hours, but it was enough to postpone my trek up the mountain until I felt 100% fit again. The last thing I wanted to do was trek for two days to the peaks and then not be able to reach the summit because I was not fit enough. So the next five days I fell in to a routine, mostly sitting around the garden moving from shady tree to shady tree as the sun tracked across the sky above me, coming up over the peaks of Mt Kenya and setting behind the Aberdare range of mountains in the west. Patrick kept me supplied with tea through out the day. I also gave him some money each evening to buy some eggs and bread for breakfast the next morning when he walked to work. I took a couple of trips to the nearest main town Nanyuki, mostly to stock up on supplies of food, as well as for a change of scenery. I decided to go self-catering at the hostel; it was definitely easier than trying to arrange for someone to cook each evening.
Patrick had worked as the caretaker at the hostel for a number of years. The hostel was owned by Joseph's brother James who lived on a plot next door; his two cattle kept wandering into the garden and tramping over Patrick's carefully manicured flower beds, usually closely followed by Patrick chasing them back to James' plot, shouting in Swahili and waving his arms frantically. Patrick was the lynch pin of the hostel; without him the place would probably fall apart. The only name you heard shouted all day was his and he always came running dropping whatever he was doing to help out someone else, whether it was to walk to the road to help carry some shopping, sort out some administration in the office or chase the chickens out of the kitchen. Whenever the phone rang you would hear the shout of Patrick's name. Patrick lived a couple of kilometres from the hostel on an acre of land with his family of four children. He only had enough grazing space on his land for one cow, which supplied enough milk for his families needs, but no extra to sell at the market. The rest of the land was given over to growing maize and vegetables. Patrick always seemed to miss hiking on the mountain and often talked to me about his adventures climbing the mountain many times over the years. It was only Joseph who told me that he used to be a mountain guide and spent his life leading groups on treks across the mountain. Unfortunately one day the government ran out of money and the first casualties of this budgetary squeeze was the mass redundancies of the mountain guides; Patrick never got his old job back and spent some time working as a porter before finally landing the job of caretaker at the hostel.
By the Monday I was feeling fairly fit again and ready to tackle the mountain. During my days sitting around the garden I had discussed with Joseph my plans for trekking over the mountain. I wanted to go up one route, the Naro Moru route, which started at the park gate just a few kilometres up the road, and come down the Sirimon Route. This would give me a 50km traverse of the mountain to hike, ascending the western flank of the mountain and descending the northern flank. Joseph disappeared to Nairobi on Monday so I couldn't make arrangements to climb the mountain until Wednesday. He gave me a price of US$300 for this trip through his tour company KG Expeditions, which had its offices based in the village of Naro Moru. This was an all inclusive price that included; park fees, bunkhouse fees, food, a guide who could cook, a porter to help carry the supplies and transport to and from the park gates.
We planned to leave the hostel early on Wednesday morning, but by the time we managed to get organised it was a lot later. Finally by 11.00 Peter, my guide and James, my porter and myself were ready for our five-day expedition across the mountain. We left the hostel and began walking to the park gates as Joseph had driven to the village to pick up another couple of trekkers from Denmark who planned to traverse the mountain, west to east along the Naro Moru and Chogoria routes. Over the last couple of days the weather had improved and today was no exception; the peaks of Mt Kenya were clearly visible with the glaciers reflecting the bright sun. A few clouds hugged the sides of the mountain. The dirt road to the Naro Moru park gate passed by farmland, mostly smallholdings growing maize, cabbage and other vegetables. Small wooden buildings with either tin or thatched roofs stood in these plots.
After walking about fifteen minutes, Joseph drove past taking the couple of Danish lads to the park gate, plus their guide and porters and returned shortly afterwards to give us a lift. The nearer we reached the gate the clearer you could see that the farmland had been clear-cut from the forest. The forest suddenly started abruptly at the edge of the farmland as though someone had cut it away like a slice of cake. The forest at this altitude is known as the Lower Montane Forest and is usually dense containing large trees, the most common being the buttressed dark-red East African camphor. The lower forest is much thicker on the wetter eastern and southern slopes of the mountain; hence most routes up the mountain are on the northern and western flanks. Unfortunately it appeared that a large majority of this forest had been cleared for agricultural use.
Continue reading this journey: Naro Moru route to the summit