Although this one happened a few months ago, it took me some time to come to terms with it. Here’s a short account of my climb up Nelion Peak on Mt Kenya with the awesome folks at African Ascents as published in Africa Geographic:
Posts Tagged With: African Ascents
A few months back, I headed up 4,985 meters on Mt Kenya’s Point Lenana, third highest peak in Africa. It was one of the toughest, physical and mental moments I have ever been through.
Thanks to Julian and Tom of African Ascents and to Stocky, Face and Turkish for the great company and Jacob the machine and Joffery the camp cook.
Click here to read about the experience.
“I found your sandals,” Sophie said stopping me in the carpark of her restaurant, Cape Chestnut.
I was packed and ready to go, lacking my sandals. I simply couldn’t remember where they were. Sophie had been kind enough to allow me to use her shower in her house for the time I spent in Nanyuki, working with African Ascents. And it was at her digs that I found them.
I whipped off my heavy hiking boots and slipped on my preferred foot attire and with a renewed skip in my step, hit the highway. My first ride was with Isaac, a business man who was also a chess master.
“My son is Kenya’s chess champion,” he said proudly. “He competes internationally. Do you play?”
“I used to,” I said, staring at Mt Kenya as we sped along the highway. I still couldn’t believe that I had reached its peak, free-climbing a 500-meter vertical face to reach the top. “I’m more of a backgammon kinda guy.”
Laughing, he dropped me off in Naru Maru where I began to hike through the town, waving off the pestering matatu conductors and the boda-bodas that raced up to me.
“I’m waiting for a friend,” I’d tell them so that they’d leave me be.
I trekked down the road and, leaving the town, looked back on occasion to see if a car was coming. I tried to flag down whatever came by that wasn’t an overloaded truck or taxi and found myself walking for almost five K’s before John stopped.
“I’m a clinical officer,” he said, inhaling deeply on his cigarette. He showed me a message on his phone. An order for prescription medicine, as though to prove himself. “I’m visiting my mother and I have to get her this medicine. I’m going to Karatina to place my order.”
John drove calmly, beeping at the drivers that overtook dangerously, explaining how driving should be done. I sat quietly, ‘Ah-huh-ing’ on occasion. I had other things on my mind. Like trying to reach Nairobi early enough to reach the immigration office to extend my second tourist visa.
We pulled into Karatina where, instead of letting me off on the highway, he drove into town and parked outside of a pharmacy.
“I’ll place the order and collect it and then I’ll take you to the road,” he said.
For fuck’s sake, how does this even make sense in anyone’s world? I could see from where I was sitting that the pharmacy was busy and crowded.
“Look, John,” I said, collecting my gear, “I appreciate the ride but I gotta keep moving. Gotta hit Nairobi in time.”
I walked back to the highway. Reaching the main road I again found myself in the middle of a town full of harassing matatus and boda-bodas.
I was well pissed off, ignoring the requests of the locals for me to stop and play a song. It was 11:00 and I’d done way too much hiking and not enough hitching. I didn’t want to linger in Nairobi as hitching out of the city could take a few hours. My outline was to get up early the next morning and hit the highway to Kilifi, about 500 K’s south.
It was time to summon the powers of The Universe. I asked for a direct ride to Nairobi and if it wasn’t too much, that the ride would reach either Westlands or Loresho, the neighbourhood where I’d be crashing at Julio’s at Atah’s property.
Finally, I saw a car among the motorbikes and dispersed as much positive energy as I could. It was coming fast but pulled over and stopped.
“Where ya headed?” I asked in Ki-Swahili.
“Nairobi,” answered Teddy.
“Me too!” I grinned.
“OK, let’s go,” he uttered the three magic words.
Teddy is a communications engineer and was on his way to do a job in Nairobi.
“Where in Nairobi are you headed?” I asked, hoping that it might even be the city centre.
“Westlands,” he said.
I stared, blinked and then erupted in laughter.
“Mate,” I chuckled, “that’s exactly where I need.” I looked out at The Universe. Looks like I’ll be in debt for a while.
Two-hours later I was dropped off at the Westgate Mall roundabout and managed to hitch a free ride on a taxi going up the hill as the baking sun had me rethink about walking. I rocked up at Atah’s, placed my gear and headed out to immigration in the city centre.
The website had informed me that it would only cost me 2,000 shillings (just under $20 AUD) to extend. Reaching the building, I walked over to the customer service desk where a soldierette sat chatting to a woman on the customer side.
As the chat went on I saw that the woman was the soldierette’s friend so I interrupted with, “’scuse me, hi, where do I extend my visa?”
The soldierette looked at me, then at her friend and then back at me. “This woman will help you. She works there.”
“Hi,” I smiled at the lady. “What’s your name?”
“Betty,” said Betty, leading me out of the building, ‘round the block and into another entrance, past the people waiting in line and directly to the office where I’d later be fingerprinted and get my extension stamped.
“Sit down,” she indicated towards the waiting area. “Give me your passport.”
Sweet. Skipping all these people. Must be my lucky day. Betty came out after a few minutes and indicated me to follow her, leading me back past the people and the counters to the outside where she leaned casually against the wall and said, “5,000 to extend.”
I cracked up laughing. “But your website says its only 2,000,” I grinned.
“Oh,” her face fell. She picked it up and said, “Are you sure?”
“Preeeetty sure. I can show you if you want.”
She thought for a second. “Do you have the money?”
“Give me,” she stretched out a greedy hand.
“Why don’t we do this properly?” I continued to grin. “Inside, where you can give me a receipt, sauwa?” I hate corruption, more so that because of my skin colour it’s presumed I’m rich and will just whip out a few thousand shillings on demand.
“OK,” she grumbled and led me back inside. “Sit.” I saw her talk to her superior who then called me in, handed me my passport and said, “Go to counter number 6.”
At counter number 6 I was instructed to go to counter number 4 where I was given an extension form and told to fill it out and present it with two passport photos and a copy of my current visa.
“Can I have a pen, please?” I asked politely.
“No,” the woman behind the counter said sharply and got up to walk out of her office.
“Wait!” I called after her, “I need a pen! And where do I go to get my visa photocopied?” But she had completely turned her back on me, leaving to go to her lunch break. “Fucking great customer service,” I said, loud enough for all the people in the building to hear.
I headed to the next counter where I was also denied a pen. At counter number 6 I was greeted with a smile and a pen from the woman who wanted me to sell her my curly hair.
“It’s so pretty,” she reached out to touch it.
I leaned back, laughing. “Thanks, I grew it myself.” I filled out the form, got the photocopy and returned to number 4. The angry woman had returned from her break and snatched the documents from my hand and told me to go to, “Counter number 6.”
At number 6 I filled out another form and was told politely to wait. I waited for ten minutes before being called back to go to counter number 8 where again I was told to wait. After fifteen minutes I was called upon.
“Are you Australian?” asked the man behind the counter, holding my passport.
I sighed. Did my nationality of Australian written in clear, bold capital letters on the form he was looking at not answer his question?
“Yes,” I said (but the above was stated in the subtext).
“OK,” he said. “Please, sit down.”
I waited a further ten minutes before being summoned again and directed to the same office where Betty worked. I grinned at her and her superior who displayed pissed off looks. I was told to sit and wait. Another ten minutes went by before I was summoned to give my fingerprints and sent back to counter number 8 who sent me to number 6 who sent me to number 4 where I finally collected my passport with the extension stamped in.
I made my way back to Atah’s where I hung out with Julio. “I’m gonna hit the gym,” he said, inviting me to partake in his jujitsu class. Not wanting to indulge in anything that involved headlocks (my hair had a potential sale) I waited for him in the lobby of his gym. Once done, we headed over to The Alchemist where I caught up with friends who retired home after a few hours while Julio and I continued onto Havana’s, a local hotspot down Electric Avenue.
At 03:00 I found myself in the driver’s seat driving us back home where Julio instantly crashed on the bed. I lay beside him on the edge and fell asleep, snoozing the alarm to go past seven when I finally made the effort to hit the road.
Julio was still sleeping as I headed out and hiked about 8 K’s before I caught a ride to a petrol station near the airport. The problem with trying to hitch on a road that leads to an international airport is that everyone that stops assumes you’re going to the airport.
Before long a few police officers showed up and stood beside me.
Shit. Who’s gonna stop with cops around?
One officer came to chat with me. I answered all of his questions and he laughed saying, “You’ll never get a ride.”
I laughed back and said, “Never say never.”
As the time passed and the cops continued to linger I asked, “What’s with all the police presence?”
“The president is going to the training facility for a graduation ceremony.”
Shit. That means they’ll be closing the road soon for his exaggerated entourage of what would probably be fifty vehicles screaming by at 180 K’s an hour.
“You think the president could give me a ride?” I joked.
The cop laughed but answered sincerely that, “The president stops for no one.”
It was just going past eleven and I was barely outside of Nairobi. I was desperate to reach the coast that same day to partake in the Musafir film festival that would be held on the beach in Kilifi. It was also my last weekend in Kilifi where I was parting ways from the world-changing boat-building project and Distant Relatives Eco Lodge as I needed to head to Ethiopia and further north, reaching the Middle East by at least June so that I could have a year of eternal summer.
If I could just reach Machakos I’d be fine.
After almost an hour of waiting a car finally pulled over that wasn’t going to the airport.
“Machakos,” said Joseph.
Fuck yeah. I hopped in and tried not to look at the ticking clock on his dashboard. 30 K’s later he dropped me in the familiar territory of the dusty town of Machakos. I walked past the buses and matatus, completely ignoring the drivers and conductors until I reached the familiar speed bump from where I’d hitched many times before to the coast where, after another half hour wait, a truck pulled over.
“Where are you headed?” I asked the driver.
“Mombasa,” he said.
I hopped on and asked that I’d be dropped at the Mariakani turnoff. It would save me the hassle of entering and then having to exit Mombasa. The port city is one of the hardest to hitch out from due to the traffic congestion and wide expansion of the city.
And also it’s on an island.
The truck took off at the earth-shattering speed of 40 K’s an hour. The diesel engine put me to sleep almost instantly having lack of sleep due to the previous night’s partying. I was jolted awake to find myself in Salama, a town located 50 K’s outside of Nairobi.
I looked at the clock and noted that two hours had passed.
Just had to grab a ride on the slowest truck in Africa – again.
I turned to the driver.“Can you drop me off in Voi? I gotta hit the coast tonight and at this pace, that’s not gonna happen.”
“No problem,” grinned the driver.
We continued to truck along at a such a frightful speed that even my hair stayed still. Voi was about 200 K’s away. At this rate, I’d reach the coast next year.
After another slow hour we pulled over as the driver needed water.
“I’m gonna get off here,” I said, grabbing my pack. “I need to move fast. I’m sorry but your truck is too slow.”
“But you will never get a ride here,” the driver looked surprised and a little hurt.
“I will,” I said, apologising and thanking him as I hit the road with my feet. He waved and blew his horn as he passed me. I waved back and farted (doubt that he heard it though) as I hiked down the Mombasa highway. A few vehicles passed until Tommy pulled over with his young daughter riding shotgun.
“If you don’t mind the smell, you can come with us to Mombasa,” he said.
A strong whiff of puppy came from the back of the station wagon as I noticed the two small South African Ridgebacks in a box, staring at me, contemplating if my beard were chewable.
“I breed dogs,” Tommy said.
After an hour and a sense of relief a stronger sense overcame the interior. What the… I thought and recognised the smell. It hit the front seat and Tommy said, “I think the puppies did something funny.”
“Mate,” I said, as my eyes watered, “whatever they did, I do not find it funny.”
Laughing he pulled over at the next roadside town where his daughter hopped out to buy some toilet paper and they began to clean up the mess while I borrowed his phone to call the Gypsy Queen who was already at the coast. He overheard me say that I’ll ask to be dropped at the Marikani turnoff.
“Why do you need there?” he asked as I hung up.
“Need to reach Kilifi,” I said.
“Actually, I’m from Kilifi but I live in Mtwapa.”
Mtwapa is on the outskirts of Mombasa and the beginning of Kilifi County.
“I can drop you where the matatus are and I will pay for you to reach Kilifi.”
“That’d be amazing Tommy. Thank you so much.” I just hoped that the puppies wouldn’t do anything funny again.
We took a break in Voi where Tommy shouted a late lunch before we continued on. We hit the Mariakani turnoff at sunset and ploughed on through to the Mtwapa turnoff. I got off the phone for the second time with the Gypsy Queen where I asked her to order for us a pizza at Distant Relatives. It was Friday – pizza night – when Tommy said,
“There are no more matatus.” Ali hopped into the car. “So I will take you to the highway,” my driver seemed to simply accept the new passenger. “Is that OK?”
I was taken aback. This guy had picked me up less than five hours ago and was willing to go 42 kilometres out of his way to help me, a complete stranger. I turned to his daughter. “Your father is a great man,” I said, and slapped Tommy on the back.
Ali was a fruit vendor also heading to Kilifi. “We’ll take a boda from the highway to Kilifi. I can pay for you.”
How was this generosity happening?
We bounced along the dirt, unpaved road and an hour later reached the highway in complete darkness.
“Call me so I know you reached safely,” Tommy bid me farewell while Ali secured us a boda. The two of us rode in the darkness behind the driver, a young inexperienced kid who didn’t realise that when passing a truck in the opposite direction, one should brace for the jetstream that follows.
I rode the 3 K’s clenching my hat in my teeth and holding on to the sides for dear life. I was dropped off at Tuskys (local supermarket) where, as it was late and I was too tired to walk down the dark dirt road to the backpackers, I ended up getting another boda to the awaiting Queen and pizza.
I rocked up at the bar at 20:00 where the Gypsy Queen sat quietly, our pizza still warm on the bar.
I couldn’t believe that I had made it from Nairobi to Kilifi in the time I did.
“How was the road?” she asked.
“Well,” I began, “lemme tell ya…”
“Found fresh leopard poo,” Julian announced at breakfast.
“What?” I jolted. “Thought I heard something stalking around our camp last night.”
“We’re stalking in the leopard’s camp,” he corrected me.
It was early, a touch on the freezing side of life in the Aberdares, a moorland covered national park about three hours north-east of Nairobi, bordering the Great Rift Valley.
The six of us – Tom, Daniel, myself, Jeremy and our well-trained climbing guides from African Ascents, Julian and Tom – were in the Dragon’s Teeth, a sporadically spread of jagged rocks that rise above the consistently wet moorlands.
“We had ice on the tent last week,” Tom had told me which prompted me to bring every layer of clothing I had.
I travelled with Jeremy, a Welsh-born-now-living-in-Kenya businessman to this remote, middle-of-nowhere location to train for our ascent of Mt Kenya’s second highest peak, Nelion – a technical climb that involved harnesses, helmets, chalk bags, ropes, nuts, camelots, slings, rock-climbing shoes, a lapse of sanity, physical and mental strength to endure not only the freezing weather on the equator but also the climb itself.
We arrived around lunchtime under a grey-covered day as we hiked through the moorlands, stepping around the giant groundsel plants which, unlike myself, are resistant to frostbite.
Having come directly from sea level to 3,800 feet in the space of 24 hours, time to acclimatize might have been a good idea. Climbing craggy rock faces with numb toes and finger tips wasn’t, as the first two climbs had me realise two things:
I hate the cold and perhaps I should have mentioned beforehand that I have an inverted fear of heights called, Anablephobia. The origin of the word, ‘ana’ is Greek for up, ble is Latin (meaning result of the act of) and phobia is Greek for fear. Basically, I can’t look up at anything over nine feet. It terrifies me for unknown reasons.
I blindly searched with my numb fingers for grips as my legs stretched out in yoga-like bends to hold onto anything remotely sticking out, relying heavily on the grip of my rock-climbing shoes.
Our third climb for the day was the toughest due to the challenge of not having many holds. Thoughts of, What the hell are you doing? You can’t even do this 20-meter climb and you expect to summit the second highest peak in Africa? tried to deter me.
I told my subconscious to shove off and resumed the climb, finally hi-fiving Tom and Jeremy at the top. We abseiled down the other side and made for camp where I rugged up in nine layers and put my boots and only pair of thin socks by the fire to dry.
During the night I was stirred awake by the sound of scratching around our tent – probably the leopard that had left a fresh pile of faeces.
After breakfast we tackled a 65-meter rock, a very enjoyable route named Alex’s Incisor. The view from the top had us spot a dik-dik (smallest species of antelope) galloping across the moorland. I watched behind it to see if perhaps a leopard was on its tail but it seemed to be out for its morning jog.
At the peak we could see the Rift Valley before we abseiled back down for lunch, a 7-K hike back to the car and warmer weather.
In two weeks I’m to ascend Mt Kenya.
Don’t know how, but I am.