Picnic on Mount Kenya


During the Second World War, an Italian named Felice Benuzzi decided to escape from a British POW camp in Nanyuki, Kenya. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, but Benuzzi was no ordinary prisoner. He was a keen climber, and he planned to break out of the camp in January 1943, climb Mount Kenya and break back in again two weeks later – he even left a note for the guards! He spent months planning his escape, recruiting a couple of companions to help in the preparations and join him on the climb. He successfully reached Point Lenana and after the war wrote an account of it called No Picnic on Mount Kenya. The trip I booked with Hooley Time in January 2013 marked the 70th anniversary of Benuzzi’s escape, and I bought his book to read on the plane to Nairobi. I also had to invest in one or two other items. This is the kit list we were sent:

Sleeping

  • A decent sleeping bag rated at least ‘three seasons’. four seasons is better or a -5 Celsius rating.
  • Sleeping bag inner sheet made of silk or cotton.
  • Thermal underwear for sleeping.

Clothing

  • To give you more flexibility, it is better to take several lighter layers than a couple of thick, heavy ones.
  • Good quality rain jacket and pants. Make sure it is breathable.
  • Fleece or down jacket.
  • Comfortable trekking pants and shorts preferably made from a modern fabric that ‘wicks’ away the moisture and is breathable.
  • Warm head wear.
  • Gloves.
  • Good quality shock absorbing socks.
  • Sun hat.

Footwear

  • Good walking shoes or boots – mountaineering boots are not required, cross hiking shoes and boots are perfectly adequate. If purchasing new footwear for the trip please ‘break in’ your new purchase by wearing them in for a month before setting. Badly fitting or unused boots can ruin your trip.
  • Spare pair of light shoes/trainers for night time.

Personal Equipment

  • Water bottle at least 1.5 litre capacity.
  • 15+ sunscreen.”

Fully equipped with a rucksack and a borrowed day pack to hold all my gear, I flew to Nairobi on 5 January 2013 with three other Hooley Time members: Caspar, Lucy and Jo. The plan was for us to spend a few days canyoning, climbing, mountain biking and going on ‘game drives’ at Ol Pejeta, then spend a week climbing Mount Kenya and finally check in for a couple of nights at a luxurious ‘eco lodge’ called El Karama. It was an not an auspicious start. First of all, we had to take a Rail Replacement Bus service to the airport, and then I discovered that Terminal 5 didn’t have a champagne and seafood bar for me to visit as I usually do before any flight. I also found out from the others that I’d booked my flight home a day late! No matter. I was soon keenly watching out for the coast of Africa. I’d never been there before, so I couldn’t stop smiling when we finally went ‘feet dry’. Sadly, the first time it happened, it was actually Crete and the second time it was just a large cloud! Third time lucky, we finally emerged over the beautiful deserts of Egypt in the glorious orange light of dawn…

There were no problems on the flight, although we were a little confused about who would be meeting us at the airport. Caspar thought it would be Jomo Kenyatta, but I told him that was unlikely. When we finally arrived, we were whisked away to the Aero Club for the night, where we sank a couple of Tuskers, and then driven to the camp where we would be staying near Mount Kenya. The camp was run by Nick Miller of Rift Valley Adventures, an ex-pat Australian we met for lunch at Barney’s Café next to Nanyuki Airfield.

Ol Pejeta

After a brief orientation, we continued on our journey to the camp at Ol Pejeta, pausing only for the zebra crossings and sleeping policemen the Kenyans like to put on their motorways. Once there, we spent the next few days being waited on hand and foot by most of the Kenyan national mountain biking team. Ochen (pronounced ‘Ocean’), Maina (pronounced ‘Miner’) and Joyce (pronounced ‘Joyce’) were our friendly and helpful companions who taught us how to rock climb and abseil, led us around an outdoor mountain bike obstacle course and gave us a seminar on ‘bush skills’, including how to take down an impala with an assegai and a bow and arrow. Lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together next to a pile of dried elephant dung was a bit trickier, so we had to leave that to Ochen. We also had time to visit a sign marking the equator, and I stood for the first time with one foot in both hemispheres.

By the end of the first day, we still hadn’t seen the mountain because of a bank of low cloud, so I was determined to get up early to see the sunrise and perhaps shoot an elephant. I had always wanted to be a photographer, so I was keen to take as many photographs as possible with my new ‘bridge’ camera, a Sony HX200V. The 30x optical zoom came in very handy at 0545 the next morning, when the sun rose behind the mountain and turned the whole sky salmon pink. The silhouette of Mount Kenya looks rather like the cross-section of one of the Alpine stages of the Tour de France, and it triggered plenty of nervous conversations about our chances on the climb.

Sunrise over Mount Kenya from Ol Pejeta

Sunrise over Mount Kenya from Ol Pejeta

I was also able to take a few shots of the local wildlife as a herd of impala grazed in the paddock just outside the compound, which was protected by an electrified fence. That was quite reassuring until I saw a baboon hop over it as nonchalantly as you like!

The ‘Big Five’ are the most valuable heads the old big game hunters could put up on the wall – the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo – but you have to be on your toes if you want to spot them. Later that day, Caspar saw a black rhino on his way to the shower and spent the next ten minutes eagerly taking pictures of it wearing only flip-flops and a towel! The best time to see the animals is in the early morning or late afternoon, when it’s not so hot, so we went on ‘game drives’ for three or four hours at 0630 and 1630 each day. Our driver Ndiritu (pronounced ‘William’) took us to the Ol Pejeta conservancy, and the first time we went we saw 16 different mammals including a few chimpanzees at the local sanctuary. We only saw prey animals, such as the impala, the Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, the eland and the hartebeest, and, although we learned a lot about antelope recognition, we were slightly disappointed we didn’t see any predators. We did get charged by an elephant at one point, which was a little unnerving, but Nick told us it was only a ‘fake’ charge! The closest we came to a kill was seeing a hyaena chase a herd of impala and a warthog, but, once the warthog turned his tusks on him, the hyaena lost his nerve and wandered off. The warthog is a comic creation. It holds its tail upright like the aerial on a remote-controlled car, eats with its ‘elbows’ on the table and has the memory of a goldfish. When startled, it will trot away 20 yards and then forget what it was worried about and carry on eating!

After one drive, a Kenyan member of staff asked me whether we had lions in England. No. Leopard? No. Rhinoceros? No. Elephants? No. Buffalo? No…Donkeys? Yes.

Thomson's gazelles

Thomson’s gazelles

Rift Valley Adventures is not really a safari company but an adventure training outfit, so the next day we drove to the Ngare Ndare forest to go canyoning. We had to stop twice on the way to the river, once for a cow standing in the middle of the road and again for six geese. Hours later on the way home, we had to stop for the same six geese!

Canyoning is a modern ‘sport’ that involves dressing up in a wetsuit and helmet and descending a river by ‘tombstoning’ off cliffs and abseiling down waterfalls. We started off in the equivalent of the paddling pool by jumping from three and then four metres under Nick’s guidance. Once we had managed that, we moved on to jumps from nine and then 11 and eight metres. The 11-metre jump was too much for Lucy, who sported a great big bruise on her leg after falling too far forward, so she walked the rest of the way, but we were all determined to do the abseiling. Abseiling down a waterfall is like taking a shower under Niagara Falls. I tried to look up once but just got blinded by what seemed like a fire hose gushing water in my face. Fortunately, someone had taken a few pictures down at the bottom to record my moment of glory.

Abseiling down the waterfall

Abseiling down the waterfall

Mount Kenya

After the game drives, we set off to climb Mount Kenya. Having been briefed the night before by our chief guide Bernard, who told us amongst other things about the ABCs of packing a rucksack (Access, Balance and Compactability), we drove to the gates of the park to meet our porters and begin the walk. In total, there were 18 in the party, including 10 porters, three guides, our chef Paul and the four of us. The idea was that we would carry a day pack for essential items such as water, snacks, rain gear and extra layers while the porters would take our rucksacks up with whatever we needed in the evening, including sleeping bags, roll mats and toiletries. They were also responsible for carrying up all our tents, cooking utensils and provisions, and I spotted one porter with a frying pan in his hand and another with a cardboard slab of 64 fresh eggs! Their fitness was astonishing. We would leave them to strike camp in the morning, but they would pass us on the mountain and still have time to put up our tents before we arrived in the evening. At one point on the descent, they ran down the steep scree slope from Simba Tarn (4600m) to Shipton’s Camp (4200m) in 20 minutes – each carrying a 25kg pack on his back!

We took  the ‘tourist route’ up via Timau in order to acclimatise gradually. Bernard constantly reminded us to breathe deeply, drink plenty of water and take it easy. “Pole, pole,” as he would always say, or “Slowly, slowly” in Swahili. There wasn’t much wildlife to see on the slopes, and I was slightly disappointed we didn’t spot a rhino dozing in the giant heather as Benuzzi thought he might. Having said that, the vegetation was extraordinary, with an almost Jurassic selection of giant groundsel, cabbage groundsel, giant lobelia and water-filled lobelia to keep Lucy – our resident plant expert – constantly on her toes. Everything seemed to be a variation on a British theme – usually a ‘giant’ one.

This is what the guidebook said about the mountain:

“The commanding topographic feature of the Kenya highlands east of the Rift Valley is Mount Kenya; a large central type volcano whose summit stands at 5199 metres above sea level. It was built by intermittent volcanic eruptions, mainly in the period 3.1 to 2.6 million years ago. The base of Mount Kenya is a little over 100 kilometres in diameter and originally the summit must have reached over 7000 metres. Since then, about 35% of the volume has been removed, mainly by glacial erosion on the upper part of the mountain. The highest trekking point, Point Lenana (4985m) involves passing through a dense forest belt, followed by a narrow bamboo belt, before passing into heath and moor lands and finally the alpine zone. The summits of Batian and Nelion are surrounded by glaciers and often covered in snow where the night-time temperature can drop to below -10 degrees Celsius. At any time of the year harsh, cold, wet and windy weather can come from anywhere.”

Batian is the highest peak, but it can only be scaled by experienced climbers, so the plan was to climb the neighbouring Point Lenana, 4985 metres above sea level but ‘only’ 1985 metres above our starting point, which was itself on a plateau. It’s an odd tension between altitude and latitude that produces lush, tropical vegetation where I’d usually be just getting off the cable car to go skiing!

My biggest fear was bad weather, but we were lucky enough to have sunshine every day. None of us suffered from altitude sickness, but we all had problems with diarrhoea at one stage or another, and the combination of frequent toilet breaks – “You drink, you pee,” as Bernard would say – and my snoring made for some uncomfortably sleepless nights, particularly for my tent-mate Caspar! The first night on the mountain, I thought I heard the sound of impala getting frisky with each other, but it was only the girls snoring in the next-door tent…

The other piece of luck we had came when Bernard changing the itinerary. The Sirimon route is the usual way to climb Mount Kenya. It’s shorter, but it involves a significant climb from Shipton’s Camp (4200m) up a long, slippery, scree slope to the summit and back down again. Given our general good health and fitness, he decided to lead us up to Simba Tarn (4600m), which considerably shortened the ascent we’d have to make on the final morning. Two days of climbing up and down a 40-45º scree slope was not easy by any means, and I was lucky to be able to borrow a walking pole to help prevent me slipping and falling, but the payoff was spectacular.

Dawn from the summit of Mount Kenya

Dawn from the summit of Mount Kenya

As we left camp at 0400 by the light of our head torches, I saw a shooting star, and it must have been a good omen, as we reached Point Lenana at 0615, a few minutes before sunrise. We didn’t see anyone else on the mountain until just before the summit, where we met a Swiss climber called Andreas, and it was a good job we did. First of all, he was able to take a picture of all of us, but, more importantly, we were able to tell him he didn’t need ropes and climbing gear to go up to the summit. Bizarrely, that was what his local guide had told him – obviously fresh off the boat from Nairobi…!

We reach the summit of Mount Kenya

We reach the summit of Mount Kenya

The descent was a lot easier, especially now the sun was up, although I did manage to slip and fall once, taking our guide with me! We managed to reach Shipton’s by 1000 with the whole day ahead of us. As it turned out, my stomach was tying itself in knots, and my legs had become a bit wobbly on the final approach to camp, so I took the opportunity in between meals to sleep for about 17 hours! I guess I needed it. Everyone took care of me, giving me Imodium for my diarrhoea, Paracetamol for my headache and even an extra sleeping bag to keep me warm. There were a lot of other groups there, and I pitied one guy who was planning to climb the peak from Shipton’s Camp the following morning and another girl who had done it in the afternoon, thereby missing out on the sunrise. Once she’d seen my photos, she quickly realised her mistake!

The following day, we were due to walk down to Old Moses (3300m) and stay there overnight, but, as the park gate was only a couple of hours further on, we managed to get permission from Nick to ‘walk out’ a day early. That left us with another rest day, which was no bad thing. A proper bed in my own tent was better than a sleeping bag on the ground! Caspar was also in a pretty bad way with heat rash, but a visit to the local doctor at Nanyuki Cottage Hospital and a bottle of calamine lotion sorted him out eventually. There was a conference at the camp, so we kept ourselves to ourselves. It was only later I found out that one of the groups had gone on a game drive and spotted four lions ripping apart an impala 20 metres away while we were having scones for tea!

El Karama

Guy Grant bought El Karama ranch in 1963 when Kenya gained independence, and Guy’s son Murray still runs it with his wife Sophie, who gave us a brief orientation and later invited us up to the family home so that we could use her internet connection to check in. El Karama literally means ‘the prayer’ in Arabic, but a better translation would be ‘the dream’! We had just spent a week walking up and down a mountain without being able to ‘shit, shower and shave’, and we felt ‘like Dorothy when everything just turned to colour’. The girls shared one ‘banda’, or hut, and Caspar and I the other. He even let me have the double bed – luxury! It was the first decent night’s sleep any of us had had in Kenya.

After we’d unpacked, we had an excellent lunch of meatballs, home-baked rosemary bread and fresh salads from the vegetable garden. Our waiter Lovii was training to be a guide, so he also managed to identify a few unusual birds we had seen, including the blue-eared starling, lilac-breasted roller and spotted thick-knee! We were also hoping we might see some hippos at the watering hole nearby, but the Head Man Joseph didn’t find any there, so, armed with his .548 Remington bolt-action rifle, he took us on a day/night game drive. Joseph and Ndiritu both certainly knew their wildlife and made excellent spotters, and the highlight was seeing a herd of eight elephants go down to drink at the water hole. By now, we had seen most of the animals we expected to see, but the big cats remained elusive.

When we came home, we polished off a bottle of Prosecco that Nick had given us to celebrate our successful ascent of Mount Kenya and enjoyed another gorgeous dinner of vegetable soup, chicken and fruit crumble. We rounded off the evening with a game of Chase the Lady, accompanied by a few gin and tonics and a bottle of white wine.

The next day, Lucy was the first to drop out of one of the drives as the enthusiasm of the others began to wane, but I was still keen to make the most of the opportunity. On the final drive, I had the truck to myself and took my 3,000th photo of the holiday!

On our final morning, we packed up our gear and went up to the main house to use the wi-fi connection, which I noticed was still password-protected even though the ranch was surrounded by 15,000 acres! Sophie also gave me a tour of her husband’s studio. He’s a sculptor, and she gave me the background to his bronze studies of elephants, buffalo, warthogs and other animals. Each is a recognisable individual that takes six or 12 months to create, and he goes to great lengths to make sure all the historical and physiological details are right. Local tribesmen even came to him when they found the carcass of a lion to see whether he wanted to make a sculpture out of it!

Finally, we drove back to Nanyuki, and only then were we granted the sight we’d all been waiting for: simba! He was lying under a tree beside a water hole, and we were able to spend a good 15 minutes taking photos and filming him.

Simba

Simba

Elated with our success, we met Nick for a nice coffee at Dormans and had a lazy lunch again at Barney’s Café. The plan was for me to do some rafting with my ‘extra’ day, but that fell through at the last moment. Instead, we all said our goodbyes, and I drove back to Ol Pejeta for dinner with Ochen. We shared a bottle of wine and had a relaxed meal that Paul had again rustled up for us. The food at Ol Pejeta reminded me rather too much of school dinners, but it were perfectly adequate and plentiful. We started each day with muesli, fruit, toast and an English breakfast, followed by a typical packed lunch consisting of two enormous ham and cheese rolls, a bag of Krackles Tingly Cheese & Onion Potato Crisps, a packet of dry biscuits and – if we were lucky – a bar of milk chocolate. We had ‘chai’ around 1600, and dinner consisted of soup, meat and two veg and fresh fruit for dessert. The fruit was deliciously exotic, including oranges, papaya, mango, pineapple and tree tomato. To top it all off, all our meals were served on a nice red check picnic cloth – very Glyndebourne…

Missing out on the rafting trip turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I went out for an early game drive with Ndiritu that ended up lasting seven hours with only a short break for breakfast, which we had back at camp after parking the truck and hopping over the 60,000-volt electric fence! We arrived at the gates of the conservancy just as they opened at 0600, which was early enough to see  the most magnificent sunrise over Mount Kenya. After that, we saw a constant stream of animals in glorious sunshine and two fights: one between a pair of Thomson’s gazelle and another between a warthog and a rhinoceros! You can guess who won that one. The highlight of the morning, though, came when Ndiritu spotted a cheetah ‘timing’ – or stalking – an impala. “Oh, my God!” That’s the only thing you could say…

Cheetah 'timing' an impala

Cheetah ‘timing’ an impala

The journey home was a mirror image of the one to Nairobi – even down to the Rail Replacement Bus service! All I can say is that I don’t know of a better way of losing nine pounds, giving yourself Bradley Wiggins’s thighs and coming home with thousands of images that will last a lifetime.

Asante sana, Kenya…

Here is a list of all the major species of animals (35) and birds (52) that we saw.

Animals

  • African buffalo
  • African bush elephant
  • Agama lizard
  • Beisa oryx
  • Black rhinoceros
  • Burchell’s (plains) zebra
  • Camel
  • Cape (rock) hyrax
  • Caterpillar
  • Chameleon
  • Chimpanzees
  • Common eland
  • Common warthog
  • Crickets
  • Gerenuk
  • Grant’s gazelle
  • Grevy’s zebra
  • Ground squirrel
  • Hare
  • Hippopotamus
  • Impala
  • Jackson’s hartebeest
  • Leopard tortoise
  • Maasai giraffe
  • Olive baboon
  • Reticulated giraffe
  • Salt’s dikdik
  • Silver-backed jackal
  • Spitting cobra
  • Spotted hyaena
  • Thomson’s gazelle
  • Vervet monkey
  • Waterbuck
  • White rhinoceros
  • White-tailed mongoose

Birds

  • African crowned eagle
  • African spoonbill
  • Alpine chat
  • Banded kestrel
  • Black cuckoo
  • Black-bellied bustard
  • Black-shouldered kite
  • Brown parrot
  • Buzzard
  • Common ostrich
  • Corey bustard
  • Crane
  • Crowned crane
  • Crowned plover
  • Drongo
  • Egyptian goose
  • Fish eagle
  • Franklin fowl
  • Greater blue-eared starling
  • Grey heron
  • Hadada ibis
  • Hawk eagle
  • Helmeted bush shrike
  • Helmeted guinea fowl
  • Laughing dove
  • Lilac-breasted roller
  • Malachite sunbird
  • Oxpecker
  • Pied wagtail
  • Red saddlebill
  • Red-billed hornbill
  • Red-eyed eagle
  • Ring-necked doves
  • Sacred ibis
  • Secretary bird
  • Slender-billed starling
  • Snipe
  • Speckled pigeon
  • Speke’s weaver
  • Spotted thick-knee
  • Stork
  • Superb starling
  • Swift
  • Tawny eagle
  • Von der Decken’s hornbill
  • Vulture
  • Vulturine guinea fowl
  • White pelican
  • White stork
  • White-bellied bustard
  • White-necked raven
  • Yellow wagtail
  • Yellow-necked sparrowhawk
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