It is 2 am and I am lying awake, listening to the rain pouring down on our tiny two-man tent, supplied by the adventure company Wild Frontiers. The rain has not stopped since we started our walk up Mount Kenya this morning; in fact, I feel certain it is coming down even harder now. This is our first night on the mountain. The inside of the tent, originally yellow and green I guess, is stained with black and blue-green mould spots, and very wet. The musty smell is overwhelming. I’m cold.
We had arrived at the Mayfair Court hotel in Nairobi last night, 7th January 1998, where we were met by our guide Jackson Wainaina, a man with a friendly, open face and a wide smile. His slender, athletic build paid testimony to his frequent trips up and down the mountain.
After introductions and exchanging pleasantries Jackson announced: “I cannot take you up the mountain. It is too unstable and dangerous due to the unseasonal heavy rain”.
We were momentarily shocked into silence. We specifically chose to do this in January because December and January were supposed to be dry months. But this year was different; it was at the height of the 1997-1998 El Niño phenomenon, one of the strongest in recorded history.
“We acknowledge your concerns,” we told Jackson, “but we all had to take leave for this trip. Besides the weeks of training and the expense, we are all experienced hikers. We will accept responsibility for ourselves.” He eventually relented and agreed to be our guide as planned.
My thoughts go back to 1996, the year that Roger and I met. It was October and we were on a hike in the Magaliesberg. He was still in the air force and had just returned from a month’s leave which he spent contract flying in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The money he earned there enabled him to buy the equipment for that, his first non-air force related hike. I was a divorced software analyst/programmer, living in Pretoria, who spent many of my weekends hiking. We had much in common and have been together ever since.
Now I sense he is also awake. He tentatively reaches out to me and his hand ends up in a pool of water between our sodden mattresses. The roof of the tent is bulging under the weight of a dam of accumulated water.
“That’s it,” he says. “We are moving to the veranda.”
I protest “We can’t do that; our package was for camping. The huts are privately owned and have a different rate.”
He pays no attention, simply instructs me to grab my belongings while getting his own, and then we sprint, bent over against the rain, to the cover of the veranda. We leave our very sodden, mouldy tent lying in a collapsed pile in the darkness behind us.
Relieved to be out of the rain we crawl into our damp sleeping bags. I fleetingly wonder whether our hiking companions Jean and Aretha as well as Jackson and the porters are safe and dry. Sleep does not come immediately though, and my thoughts wander again.
We started Mount Kenya’s Sirimon Route this afternoon, hoping to summit Point Lenana, the 3rd highest peak of Mount Kenya. Lenana is for hikers; the other two higher peaks, Batian and Nelion, are for technical climbers. We will be spending five days on the mountain, summiting on the third or fourth day, depending on the conditions.
Our day started early. We took our last shower for the next five days, checked and rechecked our backpacks, and were ready for breakfast at 7. Jackson met us in the courtyard at 7:45 as agreed and introduced us to the team of porters who then loaded our luggage into a Land Rover. We were on the road at 8; eager, nervous and excited all at the same time.
Conversation during the drive was concerned mostly with El Niño, the rain and the resulting outbreak of Rift Valley Fever which made headlines in all the local newspapers.
Excerpt from the CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Publication: Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 8, Number 2:
In December 1997, 170 haemorrhagic fever-associated deaths were reported in Garissa District, Kenya. Laboratory testing identified evidence of acute Rift Valley fever virus (RVFV). […]. We estimate approximately 27,500 infections occurred in Garissa District, making this the largest recorded outbreak of RVFV in East Africa. […] between October 1997 (the onset of flooding) and February 8, 1998.
We stopped at the Naro Moru River Lodge for lunch. Now, don’t be fooled by the ‘River Lodge’ part of the name. We were shown to a large, cement-grey room which looked more like a small hall than a dining room, with long metal tables and hard benches where we were invited to make ourselves comfortable. While waiting I idly looked out the window and watched workers in blue overalls wearing long rubber gloves which reached above the elbows. They were pushing long rods into the drains in what seemed like an unblocking effort. Obviously due to the amount of rain, I mused.
Before long the food arrived: a picnic style lunch consisting of sandwiches, an orange and a small boxed fruit juice.
After lunch I asked for directions to the toilet. I walked along the cement path, looking up, counting the doors. According to the instructions the toilet would be the fourth unmarked door. The next moment I stepped on the corner of a large rectangular manhole cover which had not been securely replaced by the workers. It flipped up at the opposite corner, tipping me knee-deep into the slimy sewage-filled hole! I do not have words to describe my horror. I jumped out so fast that I was almost airborne. I tried to regain some dignity as I got up and continued to the designated door. My boots and socks were covered with greasy gunge and I literally ripped them off my feet once I was safely behind the closed door. I tried rinsing them but cold water with no soap had little effect.
When I emerged, shoes and socks in hand, I noticed that a small group of workers had gathered and were watching me, hands on hips, looking highly entertained. Keeping my head high I carefully tried to side-step the messy area around the man-hole which was now very slippery. Then, horror of horrors, being barefoot I lost traction and slipped back into the cesspit again! This time was worse; everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, with me being aware of every small detail: the sludge splashed up over my clothes, across my mouth, across the corner of my eye and into my hairline. I winced as my shin hit the metal frame of the manhole.
Roger, meanwhile, came looking for me because I stayed away so long. As he lifted his camera I hissed “Don’t you dare”. His amusement soon turned to concern when he realised what had actually happened. He helped me up, carefully I might add, in order to not get any of the mess on himself.
“Wait here while I find a place for you to wash,” he said.
The thought uppermost in both our minds: Rift Valley Fever is transmitted via body fluids!
We were taken to a motel room with a bathroom. It was a tiny room, sparsely furnished with a single bed, a bedside table and a chair. The tiny bathroom had a toilet, a small hand basin and a shower head in the centre, causing the entire bathroom to be flooded while you take a shower. There was a dividing wall between the two areas but no door; just an opening.
Roger stood in the opening, handing me items from my toiletry bag, while I scrubbed myself until I was pink. Fortunately, I had disinfectant Gill soap but getting cleaned up was not an easy task without hot water.
We continued our journey to the Sirimon Gate of the Mount Kenya National Park and eventually started walking in the mid-afternoon.
The path was wet and slippery. In fact, on the lower slopes of the mountain it was more like walking through a wetland than on a path. We did not even attempt to keep our shoes and socks dry; we simply squelched on through the mud. Within the forest the trees were draped in lime-green coloured lichen, known as ‘old man’s beard’, giving it an ancient, almost fairy-tale feeling. The other-worldly feeling was emphasized by the silence which results from the surrounding fog.
My last thought before drifting off was that perhaps Jackson was right.
Day 2: We awake at first light and move off the veranda before anyone notices. Or so we think. Needless to say, Jackson and the other guides are not happy with us. We plead ignorance and site the collapsed tent in our defence. They begrudgingly let us off the hook.
Our hiking companions clearly survived the night much better than we did. Jean, a dentist, and his mother Aretha, a pharmacist, both look bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when we get together for breakfast. But then again, Aretha always is, and looks, cool and collected; in all the years we have hiked together I have never seen her without make-up. And Jean never seems phased by anything either. He is fit, full of fun and always up for a challenge. Breakfast consists of tea, hot oats porridge, pancakes, scrambled eggs and baked beans. Neither Roger nor I have ever had a problem with appetite so we tuck in with appreciation.
Today’s scenery is again breath-taking. Everything is green and lush. No sun though. The sky is grey and overcast and from time to time visibility is reduced to a couple of metres due to low cloud and drizzle.
There are a number of river crossings to be negotiated. I don’t do river crossings well at the best of times and after all the rain they are scary indeed. At one particular crossing I just cannot get myself to leap over the raging torrent of water. Eventually Felix, one of the porters, a very tall man, comes to the rescue. He does an almost-split to position himself with one foot on the bank and another on a protruding boulder in mid-stream. Next, he takes my hand and steadies me for the leap. I make it, much to my relief and the amusement of the entire team.
The vegetation has changed from yesterday’s forest to more open grassland dotted with weird giant sisal-like lobelia plants and the cabbage tree-like senicio. As we gain altitude the giant species are replaced by a smaller species of both genera. The increase in altitude is now also starting to affect our breathing and progress becomes slower.
Shortly after lunch Roger tells me he needs to take a ‘nature’ break. So he moves off and I wait; and wait. When I eventually decide to investigate I find him squatting, his knees protruding past his ears. He has a stick in his hand and is listlessly spreading the faecal matter in a semi-circular manner on the ground. He is very pale. With a jolt I remember the doctor’s words when my father-in-law died on the toilet in my house a few years ago: “Anyone suffering heart failure normally has an urgent need to use the toilet before they die”. I suddenly feel really concerned.
When I ask “What are you doing?” he responds, “I am doing what the brochure says”. Then I remember. We read the brochure together:
[…] Ultra-violet radiation from the sun and organisms present in the soil are the best decomposers of human waste. At high altitudes those soil organisms are not very abundant. […] Leave faeces on the surface and if possible scatter and smear it around. This will maximise the exposure to sunlight and speed up decomposition.
“OK, but we have to get going.”
The rest of the group are gradually disappearing in the distance.
We eventually start moving again. Our progress is slow.
We are approaching 13 000 ft and I recall Roger saying when we first started our planning for this trip: “I shouldn’t have a problem with the altitude. I fly a non-pressurised Dak at 11 000 ft every night”. He had spent 10 years in the SAAF and was now flying DC-3 Dakotas for Speed Services, the courier company of the Post Office, so it was a fair assumption. However, I am thinking now, in a Dak you are not actually exerting yourself.
Kami Hut is situated just below the snow line and overlooks the MacKinder Valley. It is dusk when we get there and we are welcomed by John, our friendly cook. He offers us a very welcome treat of tea and Marie biscuits, followed by a salty soup to tide us over until supper time.
We all gather inside the hut for supper and to be briefed on the proceedings for the next day. Jackson and the porters would sleep in the hut. We would again sleep in our tents which had already been rigged by the porters. The rain had stopped.
Jackson says: “I will call you at 3 am. We will leave at 3:30 am in order to be at the summit at sunrise. Most of the walk will be in darkness so have your torches ready. It will not be easy. Go slowly, or as they say in Swahili ‘pole-pole’. Please be on time in order for us to reach the summit at sunrise. We must descend soon again, before the sun melts the ice.”
We are all strangely quiet when we retire to our tents. Once again sleep does not come easily. Breathing is difficult in the thin air. I am feeling anxious. Roger is quiet and listless. I eventually fall into restless sleep.
Summit day: Jackson wakes us at 3 am as scheduled. Roger’s only response is a grunt. I get ready and leave the tent in search of tea and biscuits. It is very cold. We’re all chatting, rubbing hands and involuntarily moving to keep the circulation going. I am feeling claustrophobic inside all my layers of clothing; or is it the lack of oxygen?
Only when Jackson announces that we should depart I realise that Roger has not yet surfaced. Going back to the tent I am greeted by a pair of boots (he is a tall man) sticking out of the tent’s entrance, toes pointing upward and slightly outward. O no, I think, now we are going to be late!
After much coaxing he eventually gets himself up and out of the tent.
It is very dark and very cold. We are now above the snow line and progress is slow. Without warning my head torch blinks and dies. I can’t find my spare batteries; my fingers are so clumsy. You cannot stand still for too long so we keep going, using one torch between us and keeping close. Not easy considering the steep, rocky terrain.
It is still dark but showing signs of dawn when we encounter a group of hikers that we had met the previous day. They are on their way down and advise “Best you turn back. We were at the summit but it was totally clouded over and we could barely see our own hands in front of our faces”.
Their disappointment is tangible. Imagine being right there and not being able to take the much desired ‘proof of having been there’ photos!
We decide to continue regardless.
It is becoming more and more difficult to keep going. With every step my legs disappear up to my knees into the soft snow. Breathing is really difficult and the condensation freezes on my balaclava, just below my nose. I start counting, setting a goal of ten steps before resting for a count of ten; then the next ten steps, and the next… And then, after four hours of laborious climbing, looming in front of us is the iconic cross, indicating the summit of Point Lenana (16 355 ft).
At that moment the sun breaks through and the cloud clears. We are treated to the most spectacular views all around. Below us is a sea of cloud and a kilometer to the west is the stark rock face of the highest peak, Batian, hiding Nelion from our view. Our spirits lift; it is like being on top of the world. We hug each other and take photos. There’s Jackson with his trademark ‘Father Christmas’ hat he uses for summit photos, Aretha looking cool as ever, Jean displaying an OUT THERE magazine, Roger looking very pleased with himself and me feeling strangely emotional and very thrilled with another goal achieved.
Without warning, the cloud starts moving in again and Jackson urges us to start the descent.
While descending the southern slope to Austrian Hut I realise that had it not been for Roger’s lethargy we would not have had our 15-minute window of opportunity. As always, things happen for a reason…
As we lose altitude Roger starts perking up again and I heave a silent sigh of relief. I am convinced he has a degree of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Thank heavens for the half tablet of Diamox Aretha gave him the previous night.
Halfway between the summit and Austrian Hut we decide to take a snack break so we select a flat rock on a narrow path, overlooking the Lewis glacier. Jean of course cannot sit still so he asks Jackson if he can use the ice pick. The next minute, much to Jackson’s dismay Jean scoots off along the glacier and disappears from view, leaving Jackson standing without an ice pick, an essential tool should a rescue be required. Aretha decides to continue walking. She is used to Jean’s antics and does not seem concerned at all. Jackson decides to accompany her while we stay behind, enjoying the tranquillity and the euphoria of ‘having done it’.
The sound of a rock breaking loose somewhere close by brings us back to reality. It starts a muffled, hopping roll down the mountain. There is an eerie silence while Roger and I look at each other, wide-eyed. Then, another tumbling rock; and another; and another. It picks up and soon becomes a full force rock-fall. The fog makes it impossible to see or hear where the fall is happening, but it feels close. All we know is that we are very vulnerable and there is nowhere to hide. We have no idea where Jean is. Jackson’s words flash through my mind: “The mountain is unstable and unsafe…”
Relief sweeps over me when I hear Jean’s voice behind us. We snap out of our frozen stupor and find him standing there, very pale and totally spent.
He stammers: “I fell into a crevasse and was hanging down with just my arms, head and shoulders sticking out. There was nothing below me, so my legs were dangling in space; I couldn’t get out. None of you responded to my calls!”
We say, almost simultaneously: “We heard nothing. It must be due to the fog. So, how did you get out?”
“I was exhausted and about to give up when the rock-fall happened. It sounded like it was right behind me. I have absolutely no idea how I got out.”
Shocked at the mere thought of what could have happened, the three of us start down the track to Austrian Hut at a sedate pace. It was a narrow escape! Jean’s energy is totally depleted and I find it very strange to see him like that.
My overwhelming thought is ‘thank heavens for our evolutionary development that is responsible for the fight or flight reaction in our bodies. That provided the adrenaline that Jean needed to make that final effort to get himself out of the crevasse, but it also resulted in him now being completely drained of energy because he had used up all his resources’.
Again we are reminded that the mountain is not to be taken lightly. I wonder what Jackson will say when he hears about this.
Austrian Hut, at an altitude of 15 715 ft, provides welcome relief from the elements, compared to the cold, wet and musty tent we had been sleeping in until now. It has bunk beds on one side and a long table on the opposite wall.
The hut was built with Austrian funding after the rescue of Austrian Gert Judmaier in 1970. He fell on Batian and broke his leg. His climbing companion Oelz was unable to move him so he descended Batian to look for help. Judmaier waited on the rock face for 9 days and nearly died before he was rescued. Eventually Judmaier’s father paid for the Austrian Mountain Rescue Rangers to fly to Kenya and get his son off the mountain.
After a well-deserved rest Roger and I decide to take a walk before dark. There is a long-drop toilet situated a hundred metres away, on an incline. This requires you to get fully dressed in all the layers, including gloves, when nature calls. Needless to say trips to the outhouse are not taken unnecessarily so we combine this with our walk.
We make our way to a tarn (a circular lake filled with glacial melt-water) close to the hut, taking our toiletry bags along, thinking we could have a wash while we are out there. The tarn is absolutely beautiful. The water is a clear, deep turquoise colour, surrounded by ice cliffs, with blocks of ice drifting on the surface. The water is so cold, however, that it is not possible to wash; one scoop with cupped hands splashed over my face is enough to convince me that another day without washing would not kill me. My fingers become numb and my face feels like I am about to suffer Bell’s paralysis. Trying to brush teeth resulted in brain-freeze worse than gobbling down ice cream as a child.
We soon make our way back to the hut where a hearty dinner and a dry bed awaits. As always, we are amazed at what the porters can cook up in such primitive conditions. Every meal is well-balanced with meat, starch, veggies and even dessert. Everything is carried up by the team, and all waste is carried off the mountain.
Day 4: I awake early and find myself doing the daily ‘body check’ that I’ve been doing since my mishap at the start of our walk: no rash, no fever, no pussy eyes, no bleeding, no swelling. That means no signs of Rift Valley Fever yet, I think thankfully. There is a long day ahead so I start getting ready for the day; slowly.
After our return home my seventy-two-year old mother would ask me “So what did it feel like up there?”
I would reply “You get off the bed and then you rest. Then you put an item of clothing on and rest again. And so it goes until eventually you are fully dressed. Then you rest before plucking up the courage to move”.
“Oh,” she would say with a big smile, “then I know exactly how it feels; I feel that way every day of my life”.
She suffers from a heart condition but that had not changed her great sense of humour. I found it very sad though, and for the first time had some insight into how she actually felt…
It is very quiet this morning. The hut is enveloped in fog. Or is it low cloud? We start walking soon after breakfast; eager to get to lower altitudes. We walk in relative silence, making sure to keep sight of each other. Visibility is very poor and the terrain is treacherous; strewn with boulders of all shapes and sizes with intermittent patches of mud and smaller rocks that makes for slow progress. We are now on the Chogoria route and reach Minto’s Hut after 5 km where we take a short break.
We leave the alpine zone behind just before we get to Bandas, a further 16 km away, in the mid-afternoon. After a good meal we all retire early. I am exhausted and sleep comes quickly.
Day 5: Today will be our last day on the mountain so we are up early and tuck into a hearty breakfast before starting our 22 km trek to Forest Camp.
The surrounding vegetation has now changed dramatically from forest to bamboo thickets, flanking the road on both sides. We are walking on a Jeep track which looks more like a river of mud than a road. It takes serious concentration to walk without slipping and falling. Aretha, usually so composed, falls down a number of times landing on her butt, feet in the air.
At one point, Jean says: “Enough of this, you must concentrate!” Then he picks his mother up by the collar and sets her back on her feet, much to her indignation and to the amusement of the rest of us.
Every so often I notice pathways into the bamboo. When I ask Jackson where they lead to he informs us, “These are buffalo highways so don’t stray onto one of them”.
The porters are constantly chatting in loud voices and it all makes sense when we pass a notice board on the side of the road which reads:
DANGER – WILD ANIMALS STAY ON THE TRACK BE AUDIBLE AND YIELD RIGHT OF WAY
Before long, Jean says: “You guys continue without me; I need to take a nature break. I’ll catch up.”
Two minutes later we hear running footsteps from behind and then Jean falls in beside us again. He is very pale and says breathlessly “I was happily having a pee, whistling away and facing into the bamboo when I saw movement. It took a moment to realise it was the twitching of a buffalo’s ear. When I saw the white of his eye at the same time that I heard branches breaking I did not hang around to see in which direction he was moving!”.
He looks rather embarrassed when we all burst into laughter, but I also notice that from that point onwards everyone is surreptitiously sneaking glances into the bamboo; walking just that little bit closer together and talking just a touch louder.
We spend a festive evening at Forest Camp where we will be collected by Land Rover in the morning.
Day 6: While having breakfast Jackson informs us: “Sorry guys, the vehicle cannot reach us, even with chains on the wheels. The road is too muddy. We will have to walk to the Chogoria Transit Motel. It is only another 5 km down the road.”
Oh well, after all the walking we had already done I am sure we can manage another 5 km, I think, feeling sorry for the porters. Their loads are so much heavier than ours.
We are all relieved to find the Land Rover waiting for us when we reach the motel. But the trip is a nightmare. The vehicle has very little traction and we are slipping and sliding all over the sodden road, like a giant snake slithering downhill in a zigzag pattern. The driver, a cheerful man sporting a cowboy outfit, is frantically turning the steering wheel with little or no effect; the vehicle just goes where it wants to. Whenever we seem to be heading straight for the edge of a drop-off all the porters, in a single movement, jump towards the opposite side of the vehicle with a yelp, supposedly in an effort to shift the weight; or is it in an effort to avoid seeing the moment when we slide over the edge, into the abyss? To make things worse, we pass an accident scene where a bus full of school children actually did go over the edge. It is a sobering and very sad sight.
The smell inside the vehicle is overwhelming, to say the least. None of us has had a decent wash for the past five days. Brushing teeth with a mug of lukewarm water and wiping down with a facecloth was the extent of our ablutions. Then, much to Roger and my amazement, when we get to a small village the porters all disembark, take off their dirty shoes and top layer of clothes and right there on the pavement change into their Sunday best. They wave goodbye, smiling happily, and go off to their homes where their wives and families await.
Back in Nairobi we wearily get out of our vehicle at the hotel just as a shiny black ‘London’ taxi pulls up behind us. We watch in amazement as an elegant, fifty-something woman disembarks with flair, wearing a summery white outfit, complete with a wide-brimmed white hat and scarf in true ‘Out of Africa’ style. With chin held high she proceeds along a red carpet up the steps and disappears into the hotel foyer. Her bearing says: I have arrived.
We ask the hotel doorman to direct us to a side entrance, considering how dirty we are and how muddy our boots are, but he firmly refuses. He insists, despite our protests, that we walk along the red carpet as well and use the front door into the foyer.
At the check-in counter we find ourselves side-by-side with the ‘Out-of-Africa’ lady. I watch her covertly, finding it hard to suppress my laughter. I attract Roger’s attention and whisper “watch her nose”. It is twitching like that of a rabbit but she maintains her concentration while filling out the register without looking left or right. Now he also is finding it difficult to keep a straight face.
We are soon shown to our rooms where we thankfully drop our packs. While I strip down my hiking clothes and take a long overdue shower Roger goes outside to clean our boots using the hosepipe in the garden before it is his turn to shower.
Refreshed, we all meet up for a celebratory dinner.
Returning to our room after dinner, where we had wonderful aromas of food and wine (and clean bodies), the smell hits us squarely between the eyes as we enter.
“Oh my word! No wonder the other guest’s nose twitched,” I exclaim. Neither of us realised just how smelly we actually were. We have a good giggle while flinging open all the windows before thankfully flopping down on a real bed.
A wonderful sense of achievement washes over me as I reflect on our adventure; the first of many high-altitude hikes, I hope. It was all so worth it despite foolishly going against Jackson’s advice.
As I drift off to sleep I wonder which item on my bucket list will present itself next…