I'm a freelance writer living in Brisbane. I love bushwalking, kayaking, wildlife, history and travel.
Published December 22nd 2016
Climbing Mt Kenya
After a long hard six-hour climb, I could see Mackinder's camp hut 100 metres above me, but I couldn't take those last few steps. This was my first experience of altitude sickness and happened about 4270 metres up the 5199 metre Mt Kenya in Africa. I felt dizzy, nauseated and very breathless with a raging headache. I eventually reached the hut where we spent the night. I consoled myself with thinking about how much harder and colder it would have been for Halford Mackinder with no tracks to follow and no hut!
Sir Halford Mackinder, a British geographer was the first person to climb this beautiful snow capped mountain on the equator in East Africa. Mt Kenya is an extinct volcano and the second highest mountain in Africa. It attracts thousands of trekkers and climbers each year from around the world. The mountain has twin peaks Batian (5200m) and Nelian (5188m) and is the only mountain in the world to give its name to a whole country.
Mackinder climbed the mountain with two Italian guides, Cesar Ollier and Joseph Brocherel in 1899. Mackinder's party of six Europeans and 164 Africans took a month to reach the mountain from Nairobi. On the way, they were attacked by warring tribes and rhinos. Two Africans were killed. No one climbed the mountain again for thirty years.
Mt Kenya national park was established in 1949 and covers 588 square kilometres. It is one of the major peaks in East Africa, and is unusual because it rises straight up from the dry, flat, animal covered plains, unlike most other mountains, which form part of a mountain chain.
We had arrived in Africa two weeks earlier. We hired a Suzuki four wheel drive in Nairobi and after a few weeks travelling around the game parks of Kenya camping out with wildlife, we felt the need for exercise so headed to Mt Kenya. You can't walk around in the national parks with all the wild animals, and we had already had a close experience with a lion growling outside our small two-man Macpac Olympus tent. We found a dead Wilderbeeste nearby the next day.
There are eight walking routes to the main peaks, including Meru, Chogoria, Kamweti, Naro Moru, Burguret, Sirimon and Timau Routes. The Chogoria, Naro Moru and Sirimon routes are the most popular ones.
Climbers all over the world consider Mt Kenya a challenge, as there is no non-technical way to the top of the mountain. The normal route goes up the face by a series of chimneys and ledges, then over the top of Nelion and across the connecting ridge to Batian.
We chose the easier Naro Moru route. It is via a turnoff from the Nyeri-Nanyuki road near Naro Moru. We drove on a sealed road to the Meteorological station at 3050m.
We camped here and decided to walk ten kilometres up to Mackinder's camp hut the following day. We didn't plan to go to Point Lenana at 4985m because we wanted to head for Tsavo West and Amboseli Game Parks before having to return the hire car.
After arriving at the Met station, we started to pack for our overnight walk the next day. Suddenly a large male black and white monkey ran across the grass, leapt into the back of our car and grabbed a bunch of six bananas. He tucked them under his arm and ran up into the bamboo dropping one on the way. We followed and saw him sitting high in the trees eating the bananas with his mate waiting excitedly for her share.
Our thief was a Sykes monkey (Cercopithecus albogularis), named after English naturalist Colonel William Henry Sykes (1790-1872). Sykes monkeys are Old World monkeys found between Ethiopia and South Africa, including south and east Democratic Republic of Congo. They live just below the bamboo zone on the mountain.
Soon after leaving at 7.30am, we hit the famous "vertical bog" on the mountain. I've bushwalked in Tasmania and New Zealand, bashed my way through horizontal scrub, and walked in plenty of horizontal mud on the way to Frenchman's Cap and in the Central Reserve, but this was a new experience, trying to go straight up sinking in mud to my knees with each step. Walking poles would have been useful but they weren't around when we did this trip in 1985. The forest belt lies between 2135m and 3340m and the typical East African Savannah lies below the forest.
We had clear, fine conditions on the first day. The mountain was incredibly beautiful with magnificent scenery and colourful alpine flowers and unusual giant groundsels and lobelias, which have specially adapted to the freezing conditions.
The groundsels store reserves of water inside themselves and can feed from this supply when the ground is frozen. The lobelias have a rosette of leaves that close tightly at night to protect the growing buds from the bitter cold. These plants extend up to above 4270m. The permanent snowline is at 4575m.
As we climbed higher we saw some cute little furry mammals, which were just as interested in us as we were in them. They looked like big guinea pigs perched on large rocks. It was hard to believe their nearest relatives by dentition are elephants and Sirenia (dugongs and manatee). Rock hyraxes are extremely sociable animals and live in large colonies among rocky outcrops and boulders. They enjoy sunbathing and rolling in dust. Their faeces and urine is deposited in "latrines" and the urine forms a caked deposit on rocks that is sought after for folk medicine to cure bladder and kidney complaints. We took a photo of one perched above his/her latrine.
One climber we met was very frustrated. He said he chased a hyrax about 300 m down the mountain to get a photo of it, then when he climbed up a few more hundred metres, he saw them everywhere posing perfectly.
We reached Mackinder's hut after six hours. The temperature fell dramatically as we reached it and we needed our warm clothing and good sleeping bags. We had
excellent views of the twin peaks from the hut.
We met two English medical students who were part of a medical team doing research on altitude sickness. They were on their way back to Nairobi to get more dry ice for their blood specimens. They told us Mt Kenya produces a very high number of altitude sickness cases.
Serious high altitude sickness leads to acute pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs) or cerebral oedema (fluid in the brain) and can lead to death if the person does not descend immediately. Most trekkers and climbers experience the minor symptoms of altitude sickness, nausea, headache and breathlessness, which is normal as the oxygen level in the atmosphere, decreases. These days people use drugs to prevent altitude sickness and try to acclimatise slowly although people are still dying.
The best time to climb the mountain is from mid-January to late February and from August through September. You need a permit to climb African mountains. The peak receives a lot of snow in Kenya's rainy seasons from mid-March to late June and mid-October to late December. It is a very interesting mountain with changing habitats from high forest and bamboo zones to alpine moorlands, glaciers, tarns and glacial moraines.
We learnt the mountain often clouds over in the afternoon, though there is usually clear weather for three to four hours in the morning in the dry season. However we
discovered the weather could change rapidly in the morning too (like Tasmania). We started down the mountain in perfectly clear weather, but as we descended the mists came down and we could only see 100m ahead. Luckily there were marker posts about every 200m, so one of us stayed at a post and the other one walked ahead to find the next marker and called out. It could be very dangerous walking alone in these conditions.
The notorious bog was very slippery on the way down, and sliding bottom first was the quickest way in places. It was fun but tore the backside out of my favourite bushwalking trousers.
We arrived back at the Met station at 11am. An unsuspecting climber was making himself a sandwich, but before we had time to warn him, our friend the Sykes monkey struck again and took the food from his hand.
We became popular when climbers and trekkers realised we had a car. They had been waiting around for a lift to the youth hostel outside Naro Moru on the main road. We gave them all a lift. We had lunch with the medical students at the Naro Moru River Lodge Hotel. They had been on the mountain a couple of weeks and they ate ravenously. I've never seen anyone eat so much.
The mountains of East Africa have a special magic, and many legends and myths have been told about them. A few weeks later we climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. To spend some time on these two mountains was a wonderful experience.