Monday, March 5, 2012

Mount Kenya: the End

The RAF BF team departed in the small hours of the morning, ready to do their duty by service, Queen, country and all that.  They must have left just before three, because at ten minutes past the hour when I bolted out of the hut for the outhouse (banking on the hyaenas being more interested in the hyraxes than in a sunburnt hiker) I could still see their headlights winding their way up the trail.  The dash into the dark wasn’t, to say the least, my last of the night, and I woke up in the grips of what I supposed was altitude sickness, although it didn’t feel like what I had imagined it would.
Descending Mount Kenya
I was spared the headaches, but when I tried to have some breakfast, I once again found myself sprinting (or staggering, I suspect) out to the bushes.  We decided that a quick descent was in order, and so, having eaten nothing since six o’clock the evening before, I made the 18-odd mile trip down.  The scenery was spectacular.  The vegetation was a bit sparser than on the other side of the mountain, but the cloudless sky drew out the colour, and the boulders strewn across the landscape added an element of ruggedness.  At our backs, the peaks stood stridently out against the blue sky, and I wondered how the Brits had fared in their ascent, and whether they had indeed provoked a diplomatic incident by unfurling the Union Jack on the flagpole that had lately flown the Kenyan flag.
Far down below we could see the forests, and across the valley, the Aberdare Range, looking predictably ominous.  Alas, I was unable to enjoy all this splendid scenery as much as I would have liked.  My bowels and bladder had evolved minds of their own, and I was perfecting the art of diving into the bushes with my shrinking roll of toilet tissue—acrobatics which grew more perilous and nerve-wracking as we descended into the forest and could hear buffalo or elephant moving around from time to time.
Just where the moor gave way to the forest, a fire had been burning.  There was still smoke rising from bits of the considerable portion of mountainside that had gone up in flames, and it didn’t do to stop in one place, because your feet grew uncomfortably hot.  There was no telling how the fire had started.  It could have been a careless trekking party, it might have been poachers (who burn out sections of forest or moor to create clearings that attract grazers), though it was probably too high up to have been started by the people who come into the forest to extract honey from the insides of trees where bees make their homes. 
The forest is where anti-colonial fighters during the Mau Mau war had hidden out.  They used it as a base from which to launch attacks on police posts, home guard bases, and in the early stages of the war, on settler farms and the homes of ‘loyalist’ chiefs.  The British defeated Mau Mau by resorting to a system of internment camps and the use of systematic torture to ‘break’ fighters.  Ultimately, however, they lost the fight for Kenya’s future.  Only six years after they had stopped the aerial bombardment of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, the man who they’d convicted of being the Mau Mau leader at a show trial that was outrageous even by colonial standards of what passed for justice, became the Prime Minister (and shortly thereafter President and dictator) of an independent Kenya. 
Mount Kenya's peaks
The forest was dense and not particularly quiet, although the only animals we could positively identify on the way down were the Sykes Monkeys that accosted us when we stopped for lunch.  Martin recounted a rescue operation, when a large group of porters had to carry an injured hiker down the mountain at night.  On this path, he said, there had been truculent herds of buffalo barring the way, and worse still, elephants.  He described how the porters beat jerry cans, shouted, and brandished torches, and I could almost picture the 20 or 30 people surrounding the stretcher on a dark, hostile night, and hear the screams of the elephants as they menaced the party, making mock charges, flapping their sail-like ears, before grudgingly giving way.
 Happily, we made it down to the KWS station, and thence to Nanyuki, uneventfully.  There were no cockroaches in the Comfort hotel (formerly the Riverside inn), although it is possible that this was simply because my stench was too much even for them.  A shower had never, ever felt so amazingly good!  I bid farewell to Martin and Joseph, and packed my bags for a morning departure back to Nairobi.  The trip wouldn’t have been complete without one of the restaurant staff telling me I looked like Obama.  Shamelessly angling for a better tip, I suppose.  It worked.
We found a matatu around 10 o’clock for the journey back to Nairobi, and the conductor nodded me towards the front seat.  I demurred, explaining that if we ran into anything, they’d have to scrape me off the road and send me home to my mother in liquid form, which she probably wouldn’t appreciate.  I sat a row back in the middle, hoping my amply-proportioned neighbours would absorb any shock from a crash, although this matatu even had seatbelts!  It was no more than half an hour before we were full and on our way back to Nairobi, listening to Classic 105, which appears to be the coolest station around.
As we drove south, I could see Mount Kenya on my left—it was another beautiful, clear day.  The rugged peaks seemed to rotate, although this was of course the effect of the gentle twist in the road.  In any case, it gave us a view of the spectacular peak from several angles.
The forests on the lower slopes of Mount Kenya
The trip ended much as it began.  I bid David farewell, and got into my taxi back to the YMCA.  We were barely around the corner from the matatu stage before it ran out of gas.  The driver valiantly coasted a block or two, and then we hopped out and pushed it up a little hill to a petrol station, to the everlasting amusement of the station attendants, who probably don’t often see wazungu in shorts, sandals and Cal t-shirts pushing cabs around Nairobi’s hectic streets.
As always, it was nice to be back at the YMCA, and they gave me Room 32, which is pretty darn nice.  No frills, no dirt, and most importantly, no cockroaches!  My only complaint is that everything is backwards from Room 33 where I was staying before, and so, simpleton that I am, I keep going into the closet to find the sink.  Alas, I’ll survive...

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