On Kenya's Rooftop

AP Photo/Karen Prinsloo
By Njoki Wamai

Having lived near Mount Kenya for most of my life in the town of Nyeri in the Central Province of Kenya, I have grown so accustomed to the mountain that I almost ignore it despite its imposing beauty. The jagged snow capped peak was part of my childhood scenery. I revered it but kept my distance.

To my schoolmates and I, it had a mystic purpose. All we knew about it was that it was one of coldest places in the country and the only one that had snow. I had interacted with the mountain every now and then in my geography books under the topics of extinct volcanoes and afro-alpine vegetation. I also briefly flirted with the mountain during my travels to and from nearby towns. But that was it.

The Mount Kenya National Reserve is both a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. The country Kenya also derives its name from the mountain. The original Kikuyu name for the mountain was Kerenyanga meaning the mountain with snow. It is spiritually significant to the Kikuyu, the community that lives near the mountain, who believe that their God-Ngai resides there.

But, despite all these fleeting interactions, nothing quite prepared me for the mountain trail. Last Christmas, I saw an advertisement calling on interested hikers to scale Mount Kenya, Africa’s second largest mountain after the imposing Kilimanjaro on the South Western border with Tanzania. I took the opportunity with nine others. We met our guides at the Sirmon Gate, at the base of the mountain near Nanyuki. The Sirmon Route is one among several routes, and is considered an average trail in terms of difficulty. Our guides gave us a quick introduction to the mountain's flora & fauna, do’s and don’ts and soon we set off on an unforgettable adventure, one that would remain etched in my heart.

The jagged snow capped Mount Kenya situated in the Central Kenya Highlands is the oldest volcano in Africa (2,5 million years). The highest peaks Batian and Nelion can only be accessed by professional climbers, whereas the Lenana Peak can be accessed by trekking, while enjoying one of the most extra ordinary ecosystems in the world. Indeed, the Sirmon Route did not disappoint in terms of providing an astonishing ecological diversity: the rocky region, the afro-alpine moorland and the extensive mountain forest and bamboo that covers the lower slopes with plenty of buffaloes, elephants, bush backs, monkeys and birds which all combine to fascinate hikers, bird watchers and scientists alike. Researchers have identified 81 species of plants that are found nowhere else in the world.

We took five days to ascend and descend. We started by hiking through the rainforest to an overnight stay at the Old Moses Camp at 3300m followed by a six-hour hike across the moorland to Shipton’s Camp at 4,200m. This was after conquering the notorious Grandmother Hills, so christened because of their never-ending nature. We spent the night at Shipton’s Camp and woke up at 2AM to prepare for the early ascent to Lenana Peak. We layered up in preparation for the cold winter weather and started the steep ascent using climbing sticks and headlights illuminating our paths. After four hours of trudging on loose volcanic rocks and snow, which crunched under our boots, we overcame several steep rocks laced with snow to reach the top. Voila! There it was! Lenana Peak. The presence of the Kenyan flag, which replaced the Union Jack in 1963, signified that we had reached our destination. We pulled the remaining colleagues up the steep cliff and cried in jubilation. There we were on Kenya’s rooftop, literally.

We stood in the midst of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. Mount Kilimanjaro serenely towered above the clouds in the Southwest direction, the dawn sun in the East and the rocky Nelion and Batian peaks in the West. The dawn sun illuminated the white sheets of clouds, which passed us by to orange, yellow and brown balls of fire dancing among us. They seemed to be welcoming us to this serene place we had toiled to reach. The thick snowy glaciers below us, so white and expanse, despite the effects of climate change, contrasted the dancing fireballs recognising our deserved presence among them. Though the below freezing temperatures, the cold fresh air blew across us embracing us to this divine space.

I thought of my journey to this heavenly place since I left Nairobi, my new found hiking mates now friends, the tough terrain, the beautiful scenery, the laughter, the tears, the team spirit and I cried. This hike was not only a physical journey but also my personal journey and I felt at peace with the woman I had become. I took my life’s passions, dreams and frustrations to the mountain and at that point I understood that life’s seasons changed just like the different mountain zones we had trudged through. The snow started to fall again, acknowledging my thoughts and reminding me the words in The Desiderata that I was “a child of the universe, not less than the trees and the stars” and that, “despite all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it was still a beautiful world”.


16 November 2010


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Karen Prinsloo