It does look as if God could dwell here. (Photo: George Rush)
Every year, about 35,000 people try to climb Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro. So many, in fact, that the trails of Africa’s highest mountain have come to look like rush-hour lanes of the San Diego Freeway. But 300 miles north, on Mount Kenya, there is much lighter traffic. In August, my 16-year-old son, Eamon, and I had the path all to ourselves.
But that wasn’t the only reason we chose the continent’s second-tallest peak. We’d also heard that this UNESCO World Heritage site had a more intriguing landscape – lakes and gorges, freaky flora and fauna, over 130 species of birds. To the people of Kenya (the country took its name from the mountain), it is like Mount Olympus. The Kikuyu, the Embu, and the Kamba believed God dwelled here.
The author and his son, Eamon, on Mount Kenya. (Photo: Zachary Maina)
The mountain is an extinct volcano that has several peaks named after Maasai chieftains. The highest, Batian (17,057 feet) and Nelion (17,021 feet), require technical climbing experience. But anyone who’s “reasonably fit,” we were told, can make it to Point Lenana (16,355 feet). The Naro Moru route — one of the four main walking trails — can be completed in three days. Still, a quarter of those who try the journey to Lenana fail because their lungs aren’t up to the high-altitude hike. I wanted to increase my odds, especially since I was trying to keep up with Eamon, my usual traveling companion, who was climbing to raise money for the wildlife conversation group Big Life.
Having a support team on the climb helps! (Photo: George Rush)
So we settled on a more manageable five-day trek on the Chogoria-Sirimon route, one of the most scenic. We met our team from Go To Mount Kenya (a company that organizes treks) in Chogoria, on the southeastern slopes of the mountain. Ready to take us into the ether were our guide, Zachary Maina; our cook, David Kabue; our porters, Desmond Mbugua, Anthony Mwoka, and Paul Ng`ang`a; and our driver, Douglas Mutegi. Having all these people “supporting” our adventure made me feel a bit like dainty Grace Kelly in “Mogambo.” But, honestly, even you hardcore outdoorsy types stand to get lost and develop acute mountain sickness without people who’ve done this before around to help.
A vintage Land Rover is the perfect transport for tackling a mountain in Africa. (Photo: George Rush)
We jumped into a 37-year-old Land Rover and headed upward, passing emerald rice paddies and tea and coffee plantations before entering a damp forest of cedar and camphor trees. Blue-hued Sykes’ monkeys stared as our vintage 4x4 slalomed through deep, red mud. Around dusk, the Land Rover disgorged us in the mountain’s bamboo zone.
We started hiking. It was cold enough that I could see my breath, but I was dripping sweat. The porters soon passed us. When we caught up with them, it was night and they were sitting by the trail’s edge, looking at some suspicious movement in the darkness. Suddenly, we heard the unmistakable trumpet of an elephant, which sounded as if it was headed our way. We all ran. Something about a charging tusker helps you overcome the altitude.
We spent the first night at 9,500 feet in wooden huts at the Mount Kenya Bandas. Chef David somehow whipped up a delicious meal of butternut squash soup, tilapia, and ratatouille on a camp stove. In the morning, we set off into the timberline forest. Leafy lichen plants dripped from sage-scented African redwood trees. Yellow buttercups and Red Hot Poker flowers lined a brook. Even at 10,000 feet, we saw elephant dung — suggesting how it was possible for Hannibal to get his pachyderms over the Alps.
This is what a Protea kilimanjaro flower looks like. (Photo: George Rush)
Rush and his son, Eamon, at Nithi Falls. (Photo: Zachary Maina)
Gradually, the trees dropped away and we entered a vast area thick with shrubs. We made our camp in a rocky niche shielded by tall heather. After sharing some lunch on a plaid Maasai shuka (a local cottony fabric), Eamon and I set off with Zachary to explore the “Afro-Alpine” terrain, decorated with exotic gold-blossomed Protea kilimanjaro flowers, pink thistle, and a trio of eland (African antelopes). We climbed down to the pool beneath the Nithi Falls, where the naturalist Vivienne de Watteville bathed in the buff during her two-month sojourn here in 1929.
Lobelia telekii plants were everywhere. (Photo: George Rush)
After sleeping at a chillier 11,000 feet, it was harder to get out of our tent. But the picture of a snow-capped mountain on the can of Kenya Highlands Coffee we drank that morning reminded us of our goal. We followed the ridge, reaching a point that overlooked Vivienne Falls, named for de Watteville. Sleet lashed us as we worked our way around Gorges Valley. The terrain was at once brutal and delicate: White everlastings flowered among ancient boulders that teetered on eroding plinths.
The vegetation grew weirder. Giant groundsel plants — a common sight at high altitudes in East Africa, took on the shape of candelabras. Skinny, hairy lobelia telekii plants always seemed to be sneaking up on us, stopping in their tracks whenever I turned around. (I wasn’t crazy to think that these bizarre specimens were subspecies of Dr. Seuss’s Truffula trees — Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, dreamt up “The Lorax” while visiting William Holden’s Mount Kenya Safari Club in 1970.)
Five straight hours of high-altitude hiking can play tricks on your mind. Conversation with other people takes too much oxygen. So you’re forced into internal dialogues. More than once, I asked, “Why are you climbing this mountain again?” I received no good answer.
Gazing on Hall Tarns, a network of glacial ponds (and more unusual vegetation). (Photo: George Rush)
Rock hyraxes saying hello. (Photo: George Rush)
Thankfully, we finally arrived at our campsite, at 15,000 feet. After warming up in our tent, we took a short walk to the Temple, a majestic spot from which you can (cautiously) gaze on Lake Michaelson 660 feet below. Unfortunately, the Temple was filled with fog. But the mist made the glacial mountain lakes that much more mystical. Our welcoming committee included birds like the chubby Alpine chat, pushy red-winged starlings, and the rock hyrax, an inquisitive mammal whose tiny tusks make it a distant relative of the elephant (and another possible inspiration for “The Lorax”). With the thin air shrinking our appetite, we called it a day at 7 p.m.
Six hours later, we woke to begin our final ascent. Strapping on headlamps and donning six layers of clothing, Eamon and I followed Zachary across a half-frozen bog and up a mass of small, loose stones. I took fast, deep breaths. Not once did I look up at the faraway peak. My single ambition was stepping into the footprint in the snow ahead of me. We took a breather.
Lightning flashed without thunder. Far in the distance, people were lighting lanterns in the village of Timau. Whatever your concept of creation, it was hard not to be awed by the view as the three of us stared silently at the constellations. Their beauty and our fatigue could easily have kept us here. But a few snowflakes reminded us that we’d end up like Ötzi the Iceman if we didn’t keep climbing.
At every turn, the scenery was breathtaking. (George Rush)
“This section will require some scrambling,” said Zachary. I watched his handholds as we inched our way across a rock face — grateful that the dark kept me from seeing the drop below. We reached a steel cable that helped us along a snowy ledge.
Triumph! (Photo: George Rush)
Finally, four hours after setting out, we climbed onto the plateau of Point Lenana. We were just in time to see the pomegranate sun spill across the horizon. The clouds were below us, as if we were standing on a plane wing. We slapped high-fives and snapped panoramic photos. We looked toward Kilimanjaro, where no doubt hundreds of climbers were looking toward Mount Kenya. The only difference: There were only three of us here.
It was a much faster and giddier slide down the thawing gravel. After a hot breakfast (attended by a bold Lorax, I mean, hyrax), we still had to hike another five hours on the Sirimon trail to our final camp. It felt like a black-hooded executioner was flaying my thigh muscles. Rain soaked us to the bone as we slogged through muddy moorlands. But I felt strangely invincible.
With apologies to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I’d been to the mountaintop. I may not have seen the Promised Land, but I did meet a stronger, less tiresome version of myself. Now, if I need to climb 16,355 feet, or the work/marriage equivalent, I know I have it in me. Of course, if you happen to have a few porters…
WHEN TO GO: January, February, and September are the warmest and driest months on Mount Kenya. July, August, and the end of June will also work, though it’s colder then. The Mountain Club of Kenya offers more detailed advice.
OUTFITTERS: The Kenya Wildlife Service states that you must climb with at least one other person. You don’t have to have a guide, but I’d advise mere mortals to get one. The Mt. Kenya Guides and Porters Safari Club can connect you with licensed members. We were delighted with Go To Mount Kenya, founded by 25-year veteran Evans Mwangi. Its rates are reasonable — about $700 per person, depending on your group size — and your money goes directly to the community. The price includes round-trip transport from Nairobi. A great way to break up that 90-mile trip is to make a stop in Sagana at Savage Wilderness, an experienced operation that offers three-hour whitewater rafting trips, as well as rock climbing, mountain biking, and bungee jumping. If you want to chill before or after your adventure, try the Naro Moru River Lodge, a venerable resort whose staff organizes climbing and other activities.