Peak perfection

HR-AWL_KEN6161Kenya’s award-winning writer Kiprop Kimutai guides us through some of his favourite climbs and treks in Kenya

Care to climb? Have a taste for trekking? Kenya’s opportunities are boundless and many of the country’s peaks are easy to scale by non-technical climbers. What’s more, they all offer different experiences and give new perspectives on the beauty of the varied landscapes in this East African nation. There is the high-peaked Mount Kenya that offers snow at the summit, and the bare, flat rock of Mount Ololokwe, from which there are unrivalled views of starlit nights if you care to camp. There are valleys and rifts such as Hell’s Gate and Kamariny; hills such as Kamweti, Chyulu and Iveti; craters and volcanic mountains such as Marsabit, Suswa and Menengai. All these climbs promise sensory delights. Some reveal remnants of ancient forests, others are just rolling grass plains. There are threats of dust, heat or colossal rain, but the effort is worth it. The best way to view Kenya’s immense landscape is from a place of height. It gives you the distance necessary to witness atmospheric hues change over the land, revealing plains shimmering with heat, wide horizons that are constantly blue, and inclines covered by shadow. Take your pick from one of the following climbs.

ELEPHANT HILL, ABERDARE RANGE
This hill stands at 3530 metres above sea level and is named for its resemblance to an elephant’s head.  The climb to the top begins with a walk through a flat stretch of cultivated forest. There is evidence of human activity, with tilled fields appearing here and there. But the forest becomes natural as the incline begins. This forest is sparse, though, offering nothing more than withered-looking trees with thin, white stems. Keep climbing and the thick bamboo forest begins; as you walk, you are completely surrounded by clusters of their long, yellow stems. The path turns muddier and an unwary leg can find itself sinking in a puddle of water, all the way up to the knee. The canopy also seals off the sun, trapping light inside. This light turns thick, almost liquid, and blends bizarrely with the sounds of the forest. Stick close to your group here, ensuring that the armed guide is always in sight, for there are elephant droppings and leopard spoor around.

After the bamboo forest, step out to the heather forest. The climb becomes steeper, each turn revealing more intimidating inclines. Push through and you will be rewarded by finding yourself at the Elephant Rump, referred to by many as the ‘Point of Despair’. This is a narrow, flat ledge that stands at magnificent height. You can walk to the edge to see how the hill drops sharply down, to reveal ground below that is an unrecognisable grey (though the fog is usually as thick as cream and limits vision). The summit is not far from the Elephant Rump, and the path is generally flat, the only discomfort being the immense boulders sealing it, as well as the thin oxygen. From here it won’t take you long to reach the top, and to yodel in celebration.

Want to try?
Location: The climb begins at Njabini Forest Centre, which is 4km from Njabini Town. Njabini Town is in Nyandarua County and can be reached by turning at the flyover in Naivasha, along the Nairobi–Nakuru Highway, and driving on for approximately 40km.
Fees Park fees are Ksh300 for citizens, Ksh1000 for residents and US$50 for non-residents. The cost of hiring an armed, KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) ranger is between Ksh2500 and Ksh3000 per group.
Equipment You need comfortable hiking boots, gaiters, waterproof ponchos, hiking poles, fleece, thermal underpants, trail trousers, and a rucksack bearing snacks and water bottles.
Difficulty 4 out of 5 stars

MOUNT LONGONOT
The true joy of trekking Mount Longonot is being at the summit, which stands at a height of 2776 metres above sea level, then walking round the 7.2km rim. Here, the path tunnels through chalky rock, and at times you can only move forward by holding onto firm rocks. It is impossible not to end up covered by the fine, white dust. However, at the summit, you get a pleasant view of the crater, which drops sharply at the centre. The bottom is too far down to be decipherable, though you will be told that it is inhabited by buffaloes. The most adventurous hikers go down the crater to camp at times, but this is not advised.

Mount Longonot’s flora is one of its most striking features. The unusual shades and hues are not seen elsewhere – from a distance, the tussock grass looks pink and purple and luxuriantly paints whole sides of the crater.

This remarkable mountain’s summit has a lot of footfall – it’s always full of hikers to make friends and trade jokes with. You are bound to meet runners too, preparing for marathons. They don’t walk, but keep on running. They have to be extra careful, though, for sharp drops can randomly appear.

The path to the summit is flat at the beginning, then the land begins to rise, revealing the wide Naivasha landscape. If you are lucky, you might see a train snaking through it. For a while, the mountain seems separated from this first climb, rising sharply ahead, with its sides raked deeply with ravines. But soon enough, you get to this steeper climb to find most of the vegetation stripped off. You are left with a sunken trail that is smothered with dust and lots of white rock. This incline keeps getting steeper and your persistence has to kick in, for it will not be too long before you are at the rim.

Want to try?
Location Mount Longonot is about 60km from Nairobi. It can be reached by driving down the Maai Mahiu road. After passing Maai Mahiu town, turn left at the Longonot Station, and drive for 4km to find Longonot Gate.
Fees Park fees are Ksh350 for citizens, Ksh700 for residents and US$30 for non-residents.
Equipment  You will need strong hiking boots, sunglasses, fleece, a jacket (just in case it turns cold), and a waterproof rucksack bearing snacks and water.
Difficulty  3 out of 5 stars

MENENGAI CRATER
This caldera is near Nakuru town and has always been associated with the supernatural. It is rumoured that, in the nineteenth century, Maasai clans clashed near the caldera and warriors from one clan were hurled down its cliffs. The ghosts of these warriors then inhabited the caldera’s floor, singing songs at night and tilling their fields of millet and sorghum.

There are reports of people getting lost for days in the caldera. When they are finally found, they talk about being invited and hosted in spirit worlds. Even in modern times, pilgrimages are made to the caves at the top of the caldera by people of different faiths. They believe that the serenity of the place brings them closer to God.

The walk up to the top is about 5km, though you can be driven up. The road is flanked by farmlands, which grow maize, beans and potatoes. There are also herds of cattle, being driven up or down the road, imbuing a charming, rustic feel to the landscape. The real hiking challenge is going down the caldera, which drops 500 metres. There is no defined path, and you have to follow narrow trails that meander down the sides of the caldera. Most of the trees have been cut down to make charcoal but the grass is still persistent and stretches on, lending a vivid, green colour to the landscape. Large sections of the caldera floor are restricted, since geothermal energy-harnessing activities are taking place. This floor is hardly flat but is as rugged as the summit. The path out is even steeper, requiring you to pull yourself up by grasping onto rocks and even tufts of grass.

Once back at the summit, you can visit the caves, which means walking another treacherous path. A huge mugumo tree (considered holy by the Kikuyu community) marks the entrance. You will find many people praying and fasting at this place. Some collect the water that trickles down sections of the cave. They take the water home to drink, believing that it is holy.

Want to try?
Location Menengai is 2300 metres above sea level, and 10km from Nakuru town.
Fees Charges are Ksh200 for citizens, Ksh400 for residents and Ksh600 for non-residents. There is an additional Ksh5000 fee for a group for guide and conservation charges. You will then be taken down the caldera by an appointed community guide.
Equipment  The place is very hot and one should carry lots of water, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, as well as wear light clothing and good hiking boots.
Difficulty 3 out of 5 stars

MOUNT KENYA
When using the Sirimon route to climb Mount Kenya you enter a forest first. It is difficult then to know that you are actually climbing a mountain, for all around are trees that are dripping wet. The path snakes up, revealing more trees, and the only distraction that comes is from the plentiful, colourful birds that flit about in dashes of yellow, blue and red. The mammalian lives are shyer, and you should consider yourself lucky to spot a dik-dik darting between trees.

As the trek goes on, the forest peters out to reveal the moorland. Here, vision is liberated and you can see the mountain. Tufts of tussock grass lie all about, looking as comfortable as pillows. Even the puddles of water seem serene, as if they are not accidental, but were rightfully placed there, to make the place ethereal. There is always fog spreading about, adding the sense of mystery that is essential to every mountain. Lobelias and red-tipped flowers abound, and as you go further up, there are plenty of rock hyraxes, the closest living relatives of elephants.

Old Moses is the first camp – a collection of corrugated iron cabins painted green. It is a porters’ village and they walk about with proprietary ease, trading jokes and having easy conversations. If engaged, they will tell you a lot about the mountain, and anecdotes of trekkers collected over the years – the couple that got so distraught that the lady threw her engagement ring down a cliff; the terrified, shy young man who hid behind a rock and refused to come out.

The next camp after Old Moses is Shipton’s and is around six hours’ walk away. The hike takes you through fields rolling with fog and scattered with scraggy trees. The walk turns weary as one nears the camp, but the relief on finally arriving and placing your luggage down feels good. This is the base camp from which the ascent to the top of Lenana Peak, which stands at 4895 metres, is made.

It’s an early start to climb the peak, with a waking time of 2am. It is immensely cold and dark, but the guides and porters are familiar with the path and will instruct you on where to walk and assist you as you take necessary breaks for water. Concentration levels remain high as you negotiate the scree-strewn path, icy patches hamper progress and care must be taken so as not to slip. The last 200 metres has an even sharper gradient and is full of boulders, forcing you to clamber on all fours. As you stand at the summit and wait for the sun to appear there is an immense sense of achievement.

When the sun appears it looks like a choice orange morsel – almost as if you could reach out and grab it with your hand, then smear its glow over your skin. You cannot stay long, though, because of the thin oxygen. The best way to go down is through the Chogoria route. This offers different scenery from Sirimon, including a bamboo forest.

Want to try?
Fees Park fees are Ksh2350 for citizens, Ksh4100 for residents and US$255 for non-residents. Porter and guide services can be negotiated by providers, and the prices vary depending on how long you want to take to summit, and the extra services that you might require.
Equipment You’ll need a tent, sleeping bag, hiking boots, thick socks for warmth and thin, polypropylene socks to wear underneath. Bring long, thermal underpants, fleece shirts, hiking trousers, mountain jackets, sunglasses, sunscreen and head torch.
Duration The Sirimon-Chogoria route takes four days, with three nights spent at Old Moses, Shipton’s, and the KWS Bandas on your way down. It is safer to climb during the drier months, January to February, and August to September.
Difficulty 5 out of 5 stars

Prefer a walk?

Kiprop Kimutai chooses his favourite hikes

Ngong Hills, Nairobi
This was made famous by Karen Blixen. The lions she wrote about are long gone, but there are a few buffaloes left. It offers a perfect view of Nairobi City and Nairobi National Park. The best time to hike is between January and March, when there is less rainfall.
Iveti Hills, Machakos
This hike has a gradual gradient. You walk first through dry scrubland, and then finish by going through the remnants of an ancient rainforest. You can hike this hill all year round.
Kamnarok, Kerio Valley
This is a tough challenge. You walk through the hot, Rimoi Conservancy, aiming to reach Lake Kamnarok. It involves crossing the Kerio River, which periodically floods, so it is better to take the walk in the drier months of November to February.
Mount Suswa
This is another crater mountain, which stands as high as 2356 metres. It abounds with wildlife, such as zebra and giraffe, and just like Menengai is associated with the supernatural. It can be trekked all year round.