Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mount Kenya Continued


I awoke and re-packed, and we set off for Mount Kenya.  Rather ominously, Peter’s car (a different one from the Toyota Corolla which stalled in the middle of a grumpy buffalo herd in the Aberdares) got a flat tyre a mile or two out of town.  It was changed in a jiffy, and 15 minutes later, having turned up the dirt road towards the park gate, it overheated rather badly and we stopped at a small village to cool it down.  School must have been out, because a group of children converged on the car and peppered me with questions in Meru, interspersed with the occasional “How are you, sir?”  One of them felt my arm, aghast at my pallor. 

The forest on Mount Kenya's lower slopes
I did my best to make conversation in Swahili, but we didn’t get far.  Now this might have been partly because the kids were young enough that if their parents hadn’t been teaching them, they’d only just be getting their first lessons in school.  But I should explain that my Swahili is sufficiently broken, mangled and indecipherable that people insistently revert to English rather than hear their national language put through the wringer by a doddery mzungu.  But on this occasion, my linguistic butchery was cut short and, the car having been cooled, we were on our way.  Another couple of miles, that is, before the car ran out of gas.  I wondered whether some mountain deity was trying to send me a message.

Fortunately, we were not far from the gate, so we turned the car around and pushed it down the road a ways before going up to the entrance, where KWS relieved me of my cash and we had a lunch before setting out up the lower slopes of the mountain.  We were going up by the Sirimon Route (approaching the mountain from the north) and coming down the Naro Moru (to the south and west), so as to see more of the mountain.  There is an actual dirt road that runs up to Old Moses, the first hut, because KWS does maintenance on this section, and there is a meteorological station not far from the hut.  This section of the mountain consists of a band of forest, cedar and other trees occasionally giving way to great swathes of bamboo forest.  This is the part of the mountain that guides like least, because along with the hornbills and sunbirds there are elephants and buffalo. 

We could see their tracks and their droppings on the road.  Buffalo are less of a worry during the day—they’re said to be skittish and hide away deep in the forest until after dark (everyone must be off this stretch of road by six o’clock).  Elephants on the other hand, are less shy.  A mile or two into the hike we heard one on our left.  The steep bank would have kept it from coming immediately up to the road should it have been feeling truculent, but it just heaved its way through the bamboo, which swayed and snapped.  Nervously we hurried on. 

The moor
Gradually, the noisy forest gave way to the quiet moorland.  It was windswept, though not bare, and sloped steadily upwards.  There was no sound save the whistle of a comparatively gentle breeze, which stirred the dust around out feet.  The vegetation was low, and up here there was no danger from animals.  The moor smelled wonderful too, and reminded me of the scent that coastal plants and flowers give off.  If I’d closed my eyes I could have been on the Point Reyes Seashore, the Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing, or in the Audubon Sanctuary between Irvine and Upper Newport Bay. 

But as I kept them open, there was no mistaking the landscape.  Higher up on the moor, craggy peaks reared up, large enough in their own right, but puny when you considered that they were little more than carbuncles on the side of Mount Kenya.  A mesa soared over the moor, and once, just once and so briefly it might almost have been an illusion, the clouds and mist shifted such that I caught a shiver-inducing glimpse of a snow-covered flank and a jagged chunk of rock that marked the spot where the mountain’s many peaks began jutting up away from the moor.

Before long we were at the huts.  On Mount Kenya, most people use the huts rather than tents—if you use tents you must carry them, bear the cold, and are not permitted to use the cooking facilities.  Ever-averse to taking the considerable risk of consuming my own cooking, I was here depending on Joseph, who did a splendid job throughout, particularly considering that we were operating in the middle of nowhere thousands and thousands of feet above sea level.

Old Moses hut
It is possible that some of you might associate popcorn with the cinema, but for me it will forever conjure up memories of stumbling into camp, footsore and weary, and finding a batch of it on the communal tables.  Why popcorn on high mountains, I do not know, but it was as omnipresent on Mount Kenya as on Kilimanjaro.  What with all the car troubles, we had got a late start, and so I was one of the last to arrive at the huts, which were a series of turquoise bunk houses, each ‘bedroom’ consisting of four to six bunk beds.  Lo and behold, this one even had a flush toilet.  Or more precisely, a toilet that was designed to flush but, judging by the smell that occasionally leaked into the ‘dining room’, wasn’t always up to the job.

The hut didn’t look to be full, but the three or four picnic tables were full as we all had our dinners in shifts.  After dinner I struck up a conversation with a group of high schoolers and their chaperones (two young Texans).  They were from one of the better-known schools in Nairobi, and looked to be the kids of expats, white and Asian.  One of them, having learned why I was in Kenya, plied me with questions about my research.  This had the effect of unshackling the starved and ill-used grad student lurking in some mental recess, and I’m sure that everyone within hearing distance (except a couple of the students who actually seemed interested—in general they were a very sharp bunch) was sorry they’d asked. 

 Everyone went to bed early, and I slept surprisingly well and warmly, only occasionally woken by the somewhat garbled sleep-talking of the Canadian woman sharing the room, who appeared to be suffering from a mild case of altitude sickness.

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