Friday, March 2, 2012

Mount Kenya


I can only take so much of Nairobi’s smog and noise, so it was with more than a little relief that I packed my bag and prepared for a trip to Mount Kenya.  Saturday morning I met David, who with Martin and Joseph who we met in Nanyuki, would do everything short of bodily carry me to get this out-of-shape mzungu to the summit.  I knew David from a trip to the Aberdares a couple of years back, so it was good to catch up. 

The perfect spot for reading Norwegian crime fiction...
I was expecting to board a matatu to Nanyuki, but instead we were in a hired jeep of some kind which only carried six people and wasn’t encumbered by the speed limits that were slapped on matatus to keep them from becoming death traps on wheels. Nairobi dissipates with surprising suddenness as you move out of town, thanks in part to the new Thika superhighway, which makes the journey as far as the Thika (of flame trees and Kenyatta University) an incredibly quick one. 

The country is dry for this time of year, the last rainy spell having been all too brief.  Crop production is consequently dramatically down, and those farmers who have access to irrigation are charging cutthroat prices for food, making life in this and other parts of Kenya difficult.  Nanyuki is a few hour journey north of Nairobi, and the road winds between ridges much like those made famous in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between.  The soil is devastatingly dry, but there are still plenty of green crops and trees, large farms interspersed by small homesteads, some of them consisting of no more than a wood lean-to, others looking like the sort of thatched home you could find in the Cotswolds. 

The guy sitting next to me, returning home to Nanyuki for the week-end, struck up a conversation.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t really up to this, thanks to the swaying, occasionally lurching motions of the car, and after making a half-hearted effort for a while, at the risk of being sick, I dropped off to sleep and woke up just as we were pulling into Nanyuki.  I’d been to this part of Kenya once before and spent a night in Nanyuki after coming down from the cloud-engulfed, misty Aberdare Range.  Then there hadn’t been a hint of the mountain.  But today, as we drove through town, I caught my first glimpse of Mount Kenya, out over the hot, dusty country.  It was little more than a distant silhouette, but as silhouettes go, it was a pretty intimidating one.  Mount Kilimanjaro, the continent’s highest, slopes gently and gradually up, rising modestly to its nearly 20,000-foot summit.  Mount Kenya is less demure, and spurts up, formidably jagged.

I was sleeping at the Simba Lodge, which was arranged like many a similar institution in Kenya (and not unlike the motels that dot small American downs for that matter)—a series of rooms around a drab central court.  A restaurant, bar, and cavernous central lobby rising four storeys adjoins the separate rooms.  This one had less character than the one at which I’d stayed once in Nanyuki, which with its countrified clientele, rowdy atmosphere, wood-panelled dining rooms and open interior court, was a cross between the colonial days and the wild American west.  Simba Lodge was quiet (being just out of town) and welcoming...to the cockroaches as much as the paying guests.

I’m sorry to say that I reflexively stomped on the first one that crawled across the floor in front of me, and then watched with horrified fascination as its fellows converged on it from all corners of the room (including from under the pillows!) and hauled it through the bathroom and down the shower to do goodness knows what with it.

I tore my eyes from the unnerving spectacle and decided that the bright, cheery sunlight made it the perfect day to read my Jo Nesbo novel.  Experience has taught me that Scandinavian crime fiction and dark, cold, lonely nights do not go well together.  So I parked myself in the alcove that each room had outside the front door, and passed a quiet afternoon.

In the evening I met David and Peter.  Peter also works as a guide, had driven us to the Aberdares before, and would take us to the park gate the next morning.  He is known as mwalimu by all and sundry, being a veteran of the mountain circuit.  Both he and David work through tour agencies as well as taking people via word of mouth.  As we caught up, Peter described how once a client who he’d guided through a company had called up the company some years later, hoping to make use of Peter’s services on his return to Kenya, only to be told that Peter had sadly died and was therefore unavailable.  Peter had saved the text message from the client who had been very much relieved when he discovered from a more reliable source that Peter was very much alive.

When I went to dinner it was to the melodious sounds of a violent church sermon which drifted in over the roofs of the buildings opposite.  I ate a lovely meal of pork and roast potatoes whilst dodging the cockroaches that careened across the dining room, sometimes of their own free will, but more often propelled by giggling members of the restaurant staff, who also gleefully stuffed the hapless creatures down each other’s shirts.

I had my usual pre-trip jitters as I checked my bag before going to bed to ensure that I had the boots, warm clothing, etc.  But I eventually put myself to bed, and feel slowly to sleep, the demented preaching having been replaced by the contented if somewhat ominous chirruping of the cockroaches.

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