Sunday, October 21, 2012

Mt. Kenya (Part I)

It all started a few months back when the dorm duty schedule came out. The schedule laid out all the days for the whole year that each individual staff member would be require to be on campus and available for the students. It also includes all of the school breaks. The moment the calendar came out discussion began over what to do for our fantastically long October break. Ideas were tossed around about game parks (Masai Mara, Tsavo East, Tsavo West, Amboseli), cities and even other countries (Tanzania, Rwanda). But when an ascent of Mt. Kenya was proposed, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: to climb the tallest mountain in Kenya and the second tallest mountain in all of Africa.
Fast-forward a few months. Amal has taken charge of the entire trip and has planned it down to the finest detail: transport, accommodation, guides and porters, gear, food. You name it, Amal had it covered. Seven people made up our hearty team. I’ll run through a quick introduction for each in alphabetical order.

Amal: Hailing from the UK, he organized the whole trip, is a math teacher at the academy, is an avid and able rugby player, and an overall gregarious and energetic guy.

George: A good old Boston boy from Southie, has been on the international school circuit for many a year and has been lived everywhere from Basel to Cairo to Mombasa, our oldest member and arguably most steady member.

Jacob: Also hailing from the UK, Jacob graduated from St. Andrews in Scotland. He is a maestro on the violin and a remarkably thoughtful and insightful person. Even after a leg injury on the way down, Jacob trucked without complaint.

Kristine: Mt. Kenya was the first mountain she has ever climbed and she did it with remarkable poise and energy. Kristine is a year 2 teacher at AKA,M and is originally from the Philippines. It was great having her constant smile on the trip.

Lindsey (in the middle): Lindsey is a fellow Bowdoin grad, class of 2010, and arguably the most outgoing and friendly person there is. She is always ready with an uplifting comment or a cheerful song. We talk and reminisce about Bowdoin… a lot.

Nicole: An academy veteran who calls Canada home. I work with Nicole on Student Representative Council. In the two weeks before this trip, Nicole was battling Malaria and some bacterial sickness. She overcame both and ground her way up the mountain. Impressive stuff.

Chase: Well, you all know me, the charming young gentleman from Nashville, Tennessee… right?

0 ft to 7,000 ft

We left Mombasa at 5:30 am on the morning of Friday, October 12th. We all piled into a Safari Car driven by Salim, our reliable and experienced driver, and began the long journey to the base of Mt. Kenya. Immediately after leaving the city we were caught in a massive truck jam that left us swerving off the road and riding the rapidly eroding shoulder in order to make any progress past the log-jammed big rigs. It took almost two hours but we eventually hit the open tarmac and our speed picked up considerably.
The Mombasa highway that connects Nairobi to Mombasa is a beautiful road that makes its way though the beautiful and diverse landscape of Kenya. It is not uncommon to see wild animals from the road and on our journey there and back we saw giraffes, an elephant, dik-diks, zebras, baboons and a wide range of birds. The road serves also as the divide between Tsavo East and Tsavo West, two of the most frequently visited national parks in the country. On the way up I glimpsed a family of baboons hanging around an electrical pole, the young ones scampering up the wires and sliding down while the older ones supervised.
            The ride itself was nerve-wracking. The Mombasa highway is only two lanes wide yet serves as a major transport road for goods coming in and out of the country so traffic is heavy. With the large number of trucks on the road, the going is slow, but to speed progress up, Salim made frequent high speed passes. He would edge slowly towards the center of the road to peek around the large truck ahead, gauge the speed and distance of the oncoming vehicles and then gun the engine and roar around the truck, ducking quickly back into the left lane right as the oncoming traffic flashed their lights, honked and quickly whipped by. Although I had the utmost confidence in Salim and his abilities, I found it too terrifying to look out the front of the car during each increasingly bold pass and buried my head in the bulging folder of crosswords I had brought for the ride.
            Halfway though our journey we stopped at a Sikh Temple for lunch. The temple had been established decades ago when the British colonial powers demanded the construction of a railroad from Mombasa to Kampala. Because the Kenyan laborers knew the landscape well and had the support of the local population, they were able to easily flee from their servitude and return with relative ease to their homes. To complete the line, the British had to import labor from their other large colony, India. These new laborers had no support network were much more suitable to the purposes of the colonialists. Many thousands of Indians died during the construction of the rail. The temple was established to provide room and board for the laborers to ease their suffering somewhat. In the main dining room hangs a banner in memoriam to the many Indians who died in the construction of the “Lunatic Line.”
            The Sikh Temple sits in the middle of a non-descript roadside town that, besides the temple and a nearby mosque, is entirely unremarkable. We drove in, hopped out and wandered over to the dining hall. In order to enter the temple or the dining area, we needed to cover our heads so they had provided brightly colored head coverings for visitors. The food itself is free. And delicious. It is all vegetarian as the Sikh faith does not permit them to kill animals which means they make a fantastic veggie meal. We wolfed down the food, thanked the kitchen staff profusely, and dropped a hefty donation off at the front office to cover the cost of the meal, we hoped. It really was an amazing place; we made note to make a stop on our return journey.
            After about ten hours of driving we made it to Nairobi to pick up Mecongola, our guide. Aside from his fantastic name, Mecongola is a big, outdoors guide with a self-proclaimed ability to be able to befriend anyone. He helps out the Academy frequently with outdoor excursions for the kids and he offered us a great deal for this trip.

Mkongola: large and in charge

              After snagging him, we headed farther north to the foothills of Mt. Kenya. As we drove along, the sky flickered with flashes of heat lightning that erratically lit up the mountain that lay before us. The clouds hovered in the sky with billowing tops but undersides as flat and heavy and anvils. Aside from a brief breakdown on a hill and a little fumbling in the dark in our search for our lodging, we arrived without a hitch at Batian’s View, our home for the night. Batian is the highest peak on Mt. Kenya and we had a beautiful view of it in the morning so the camp’s name is well deserved. After a 14 hour journey in the car, we all retired to our respective cabins and passed out. I had the best sleep I have had in my time in Kenya with the crisp mountain air creating the ideal sleeping environment, something I had come accustomed to in Maine. I went to sleep knowing that tomorrow we take on Mt. Kenya.

7,000 ft to 10,000 ft

            In the morning we woke to a spectacular view of Mt. Kenya perched between the dark branches of our camp and floating on a sea of clouds. We all felt very well rested and ready to take on the day. Over a breakfast of sausage, pancakes and bananas, we met our other two guides, Gioko and Kimau. Gioko is a soft spoken man with a wealth of outdoors experience having been a guide for NOLS when they were still active in Kenya. Kimau was also actively involved with NOLS and radiates confidence and cool especially when on the mountain. He also guides on Kilimanjaro.

Mkongola, Kimau, Gioko

            We headed out of camp early to rent gear for the folks in our group who needed boots and layers. We drove along a bumpy dirt road until we hit a nondescript collection of buildings and a wooden roadside stall. Mecongola hopped out and we assumed he was just stopping to chat or grab some more food. He then beckoned us to come out of the van too. Confused, we piled out and suddenly the place came alive. We looked a little closer and realized the roadside stall actually had hiking gear arranged on it: bright yellow pants, ancient boots, ponchos, etc. What seems to happen is that many foreigners come to Kenya to climb the mountain and, to do so, they buy a lot of fancy gear and boots that they know they will never use again. After completing their trip, they leave their barely used equipment with their porters and guides and fly back home a few pounds lighter. The donations quickly become part of the local economy as the porters can then rent out the gear to anyone who needs it for a few dollars a day. The gear everyone rented was not in the best of shape, but it certainly did the job. After sorting out the gear we also picked up seven men who would be our porters. They hopped in a separate matatu and would meet us at the mountain.

Amal checking out the waterproof pant

            After a brief pit stop in town from more gear and some supplementary food (I made GORP!), we headed to the Sirimon Gate entrance to Mt. Kenya national park. The park has a varying set of fees for entrants. You get charged more for longer stays, as one might expect, vehicles, etc. They also have a different fee for East African Residents and non-residents (tourists). The fee for residents is 3,500 ksh for four days, about $40. For non-residents, the rate skyrockets to 20,000 ksh, about $220. My predicament was that I am currently still technically a tourist. I do not have my East Africa Resident Card yet. But I came prepared with letters from the Ministry of Education, the Academy and the Aga Khan Development Network. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is notorious for being extremely stingy about allowing reduced priced entry for those who do not have the exact right documents, so my hopes of getting the reduced price were slim at best. But I had no desire (or funds for that matter) to pay for the non-resident entry. I presented my documents in a fancy looking folder to the KWS guard. Kristine is also waiting for her residency card so she stood steadfastly beside me and started talking up a storm. She pelted them with information and subtly but forcefully laid out our case for reduced price entry. One of the guards showed signs of caving in so we pressed the issue. Two minutes later we paid out 3,500 ksh and walked into Mt. Kenya national park as Residents of Kenya. Our biggest hurdle so far was cleared.

            Our hike started in the rain and we would soon realize that heavy rain would be a near constant companion on our trip. We climbed up a long dirt road that wended its way through thick forest and heavy undergrowth. We saw roving troops of baboon, small gerbil-like creatures, and bushbuck off in the distance. The mountain was teeming with wildlife. Elephants apparently often come out on the road at night, but we were not fortunate enough to see any. The farther up we climbed, the thinner the vegetation became. Tall, mighty trees gave way to scraggly, tough shrubs and bushes. By the time we reached Old Moses campsite, our stop for the night, we had gained about 2,500 ft of elevation over the course of three hours. Camp itself was swampy from all the rain we had just trudged through. But the clouds above us were frequently pierced by beautiful rays of sunlight that played on the fields below us at the foot of the mountain.

            When night fell, we all jammed into the camp dinning hall, about 6 ft wide and 50 ft long for dinner. We were joined by a two Danish girls, a group of about twelve high school students from Mombasa, a German man who had just climbed Kilimanjaro and a British student on his gap year. Each group had their own porters that cooked for them so we all enjoyed different meals. After a hearty meal of tomato soup, rice, beef, chapatti, and veggies, we retired to our bunk room (slept all seven of us) and crashed at about 8:30 pm. Our guides had told us we had at least and eight hour day ahead of us so we wanted to be prepared. Conversation was light and soon enough everyone dozed off.

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