A Terrifying Walk In The Mountains

A Terrifying Walk In The Mountains

Many years ago, I attempted to travel from the top of Africa to the bottom. Never got there, for various reasons. Ran out of money, I had my pack stolen in Sudan and lost everything except my money belt with my passport and traveller’s cheques, mosquito net, sleeping bag, camera and the clothes I slept in. And the big one- I got bilharzia in Central African Republique which nearly killed me.

I gave up my quest to travel the length of Africa in Kenya, where I spent some months recuperating. I was staying in a youth hostel in Nairobi, just down from the American Embassy (which was blown up by Al Qaeda some years later). I became friendly with an English back-packer called Nick who was thinking of climbing Mt Kenya. He invited me to join him on a short walk in the mountains. Most people who get to the top of a mountain in Africa climb Mt Kilimanjaro which is just over the border in Tanzania. The thing is, even then, more than 30 years ago, it was ridiculously expensive. Mt Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa at 5,895 metres, (19,340 feet if you are old like me) and Mt Kenya is the 2nd highest Mountain at 5,199 metres (17,058 feet) and was completely free to climb, which was the clincher. Mt Kenya it was.

We headed off the next morning. My equipment? A sleeping bag, some food, a string bag with my clothes and a pair of dilapidated runners. We took local buses to the small town of Naro Moru, just to the west of the mountain and stayed at a basic lodge. Much to my surprise, I ran into an old acquaintance by the name of Richard, an Australian whom I spent a few days with on top of a truck travelling across a Sudanese desert many months before. He was also attempting the summit, his companion was another Australian called Simon.

In the morning Nick and I started to walk/hitch-hike the 17kms to the ranger station at the park entrance, at 2,400 metres, leaving Richard and Simon behind having breakfast. We were in luck and got a lift almost immediately with an English lady who lived locally. Our intention was to camp there in Nick’s tent outside the ranger station in order to acclimate and avoid altitude sickness. Arriving early would have meant an 8 hour wait until dark, so we decided to walk up to Mackinder’s Camp at 4,200 metres. This was the base camp for attempting the summit. On the way up we passed trekkers descending, they had crampons and ropes attached to their backpacks, which didn’t bode well for us. The walk was breathtaking, crisp mountain air with views across the Kenyan plains, we passed through forests before hitting alpine moorlands with absolutely unique vegetation. I could of taken some amazing photos, but I had recently sold my camera to pay for an air ticket out of Kenya to Pakistan. We knew there were lions and leopards in the area, but we were on a well worn trail with clear vision around us. 

It was a tough walk, nearly 2000 metres elevation and quite a lot of up and down. We arrived just on dusk, absolutely exhausted. The hut was very rudimentary, a wooden rectangular building with a basic kitchen and lots of draughts. We had a very ordinary but expensive meal, understandable considering everything had to be walked in. The bed was a corner of the floor, shared with 3 other trekkers. What followed was a sleepless night, as the altitude and cold prevented any meaningful sleep. In the morning I had a terrible headache from altitude sickness and I knew I had to descend quickly or risk pulmonary oedema. Nick felt fine and decided to attempt the summit with the other 3 trekkers. So, I left very early and headed down by myself- descending in a thick blanket of fog and cold, clammy conditions.

I made good time going down and started to feel better but the fog persisted, thickening and magnifying sounds, and I frequently lost the trail and had to backtrack. After 2 hours of descending, my vision had receded to a paltry 10 metres, and I started to feel really scared. I would hear rustling behind me, and started to fantasise that a leopard was stalking me. I walked with my knife in one hand, a puny 5 centimetre blade, and a thick walking stick in the other, frequently spinning around to face an imagined attack from behind. I stopped frequently, ears straining to hear any movement around me. My world had receded to a 10 metre circle and a frantically beating heart.

The walk seemed endless, after 4 hours descending the fog finally started to lift and I started to breathe a little easier. I made it to the ranger station as they were closing for the day, and managed to get a lift down the mountain. I stayed the night at the same lodge and in the morning caught buses back to Nairobi.

I checked into my usual hostel in Nairobi and went to the roof to relax in the sun and bumped into Richard and Simon, who were showing some other travellers the remains of their tent. I asked what had happened, and they told me their tale. They left Naro Moru only 30 minutes after us, and were unable to get a lift, they ended up walking the full 17 kms to the ranger station. Arriving late, they set up camp outside the deserted ranger station and settled in for the night, sleeping head to toe in their small tent. Richard awoke some time later to feel his toes being nuzzled through his sleeping bag. Thinking Simon was playing silly buggers, he kicked out and received an almighty roar! He had connected with a lion’s face outside his tent, and the lion, reacting to a kick to the face, had savaged the collapsing tent! I cannot imagine the terror felt to have a tent collapse on top of you and an angry lion outside. Luckily, the lion ran off and they spent a sleepless night huddled against the ranger hut. When the rangers came up in the morning, they were told an old male lion had been frequenting the area.

Richard showed me his tent pole, it was bitten in half, the back of the nylon tent was shredded. I thought I had an interesting tale, but it paled in comparison to Richard’s!

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