They call it the Elephant Hill, part of the 70km Aberdare Ranges, but I could not see the elephant in the shape of the mountain. That’s just how my mind works – abstract art is not my thing.
The sky was clear – blue, the sun smiling at mother earth. The mountain sat calmly, waiting and unmoved by the anxieties of hikers who make an effort to conquer it. There were a lot of hikers as we arrived at Njabini Forest Station, one of the many climbing routes for the Aberdare Ranges.
I am in the company of two elite hikers (Jim and Herdsgirl) who wanted to do the hike under 6 hours as a warm-up for a climb to Mt Kenya next week (they will do it in 24 hours instead of the usual four days). I did not fancy their chitchat while on our drive from Nairobi (90km) – about how “normal” humans crumple once they hit 3000m above sea level blah blah blah! I am a rookie hiker, a child of the desert and dry country with little knowledge about altitude, forests, and high mountains but they kept on rubbing it.
Njabini Forest Station is not an organized place – hikers and vehicles were everywhere. No reception area but a small mabati office at the back of some house. We found a guide, Jackson – short, calm and with an interesting accent and I had to keenly listen and figure out whether he was saying “air or hair.”
The first 5kms were easy – wide path and excited hikers who still had the energy to chat and greet fellow travelers. Our guide met one of his TV stars and excitedly greeted her – big eyes, very pretty face. He later explained that she comes on TV screens twice a week. I have not watched TV in three years, so I zoned out and led us through the forest. It is a mix of forest plantation with controlled farming.
We reached the bamboo forest – it was cool and the path became narrow, leaves scratching rucksacks. We met a big group of hikers and briskly walked past them and someone commented: “Team Subaru is passing.” The path suddenly turned to the left and we found another group seated, resting, some were having breakfast.
This is the beginning of a very sharp climb. It is treacherous – dry leaves on the ground made it slippery. We were under the canopy of the bamboo trees with filtered light coming through as we trudged on the steep path. It is dry – our lucky day, Jim and the guide seem to agree. The path would have been terrible if it was raining. Tough, tough walk and we found several hikers, sitting by the trail, almost giving up, some were already on their way back – given up!
I kept on plodding up – sweating buckets – heavily breathing but the cool of the forests brings relief whenever the body wants to overheat. Jim followed – the calmly placing his feet on the ground, moderate but consistent speed of an experienced man. Herdsgirl fell back, walking rather slowly while chatting with the guide. Every hiker knows how to take care of their vehicle/body.
I got to know a few things about Jim – he is more of a runner of marathons but one day he decided to climb Mt. Meru (Tanzania) after meeting hikers in a pub. He bought gear and by morning he was on the trail. He conquered Mt. Ruwenzori after that and got lost in the glacier for three hours. We would late joke about the irony of him nearly getting killed by ice on the first day he encountered real ice apart from the one he has been seeing on his fridge.
The steep climb suddenly leveled up as the bamboo forest thinned out, getting us to the alpine zone, a new kind of vegetation. It is beautiful, a stunning array of outlandish flora, a real feast for botany enthusiasts. I yelled with excitement!
We were at the first peak, the elephant ramp (I rolled my eyes), also known as The Point of Despair.
Why has God stopped making more of such stuff? Below are amazing views of the countryside – Sasumua dam to the right and Ndakaine dams at a distance on the left. Aberdare Ranges is the source of 95% of the water that is consumed in Nairobi. It is also the source of Athi and Tana Rivers.
It is at this peak where most hikers give up. And trust me, you will despair! I do not recommend this hike for citizens of the Woyie Republic! It is also the place you will find out that you can do more, push past your limits knowing very well that you will have to come down the route, same distance.
Jim looked at his watch – we have done 1hour 40 minutes. Very good time, he said. In less than two minutes, Herdsgirl and the guide caught up with us and we continued with the climb.
The next climb is rocky but very steep – I looked up and saw several hikers ahead of us – literally at close to 45 degrees elevation. Goodness, how on earth am I going to get there? We trudged on, Jim and I leading interchangeably. Storytelling helped – our families, passions, things of men in their 40s. The trail meandered past gnarled giant Heather trees covered in Spanish moss. I had my first slip, a light fall.
It seemed like an endless walk and I started to wonder about this mountain size-elephant back, but, it mercifully leveled off, giving us the first view of the summit! There are two peaks ahead of us. The sky is still blue, fighting off clouds, emphatically gifting us a beautiful day. We hoped to get a glimpse of Mt. Kenya but it was hidden by clouds.
Then, the wind, strong wind and it is biting cold too. I looked ahead and saw two Caucasian hikers on sleeveless shirts trudging on as if the wind did not matter. Well, maybe they are made of something else.
We walked on, fighting off the wind and approached the summit, the elephant head. It is a beautiful place, the world under our feet at 3625m above sea level!
Jim glanced at his watch – we have done it in three hours, excellent time. We opened our lunch packs as I listened to the elite hikers’ exploits of great mountains but my mind was constantly on the densely populated countryside below that stretched all the way to Lake Naivasha. Mt. Longonot (Oloonongót) stood blue and misty from afar. This was once the land of my ancestors, the land the British stole, then changed hands after independence. Kinopop and Mt. Satima is what we called you, but, now they call you Kinangop and Aberdare.
It is time to descend and we must do it under three hours. It is cold and the wind is brutal, beating our faces, freezing my fingers. Herdsgirl led the descend, walking fast and strong. Half the journey was done and the morale is high.
Going down the rocky area is a true test of one’s knees – drop, drop and drop! It will wear down your springs and shock absorbers. It will test the all the grease in your joints from the neck to your feet.
I slipped and went down. Fall # 2 and was quickly followed by Herdsgirl. No injuries. The ever-cautious Jim stayed intact – careful, slow and consistent on the trail.
We reached the bamboo forest and just like the insane steep climb, going down is just as challenging. I slipped again and went flat down on my back. Lying on my back kind of felt nice, a relief for my feet and was tempted to just stay there and refuse to get up.
We met many of the hikers that we passed in the morning, some still trying to make their way up but most were on their way down having given up at the Point of Despair.
I walked ahead of the group, praying and talking to God – marveling at what he has created, praying for grace and healing for my family as they bury a loved one. Funerals of family members kill my spirit. Grief breaks my inner core and I don’t know how to handle it and that is the reason I am far away from home this Saturday.
We arrived at the end, rather where we began at 1600hrs. We have done the 20Km trail in 5hrs 21 minutes. I think they are ready for Mt. Kenya.
As I walked towards the office for payment, Jim called me.
“Let’s take a few minutes to stretch,” he said as they put their rucksacks on the grass.
I was a little confused. I was tired too.
“Stretch what?” I asked as I put my bag down, my sore body on the grass. “I am doing no stretching. I have been stretched enough in the last five hours.” It felt nice to just lay down and ignore them.