Mt. Kenya: a fun, misty mudfest

[Here is Christi’s family report of our 15th anniversary adventures on Mt. Kenya.] It’s not often that the parents of three kids get to just take off as a couple,  but

Aunt Njeri agreed to be “mom” for the four days, Auntie Beth took the kids for a day and an overnight, and Jecinta and Igg came around frequently for moral support. We really appreciate these great friends and helpers.

Our friend Scott, who went to Wheaton with us and knew Ben through MK circles, invited us to join him in going up the Chogoria side of Mt. Kenya, where he has worked in Chogoria hospital. We went with Shermeen, his Singaporian-Canadian friend who is also a medical doctor. Matayo, a Kenyan university student who goes to Scott’s church, rounded out the party.

The first day, we drove in his Honda CR-V up to the hospital and took a look around. Then we moved our stuff over to an ancient Land Rover—a gigantic, welded-together, rattling, heavy hunk of metal. Our driver, Jeff, was accompanied by two guys who squeezed into the back with our stuff. Scott, Shermeen, Matayo, Ben and I all squeezed into the front seats with the driver. For the first kilometer or so up the mountain road, Ben was whispering “We could have just done this in our Corolla.” Then, the mucky, water-filled potholes and gullies began. We hung on to parts of the vehicle with all our might, feeling that we knew what rodeo-riding was like. The guys in the back jumped out and put chains on the tires and helped push us through the slog. After some hours, the tourist guys also jumped out to help push. We princesses stayed inside, keeping clean and admiring our men immensely.

Then we tourists decided to start hiking up to the cabins and let the vehicle follow. After a while, the vehicle hadn’t caught up and Scott, Shermeen and Matayo decided to go back and find out what was going on. We greeted a group of about 20 British and South African tourists who had decided to set up camp along the trail. I had asked if it would be best to continue hiking or all go back to the vehicle together. We were told, “It’s your vacation—if you want to keep hiking, go ahead. In any case, you can’t miss the camp! It’s in a huge clearing.” So Ben and I decided to keep walking.

We walked up the mountain for about 6 kilometers, all the while wondering when the vehicle was going to catch up and pick us up. Scott had said we would be at the camp in about an hour of hiking. After an hour or so, we saw an old, worn sign up in the trees announcing the camp. It was overgrown, and we didn’t see any camp; so we decided to continue walking. After about an hour and a half, it was starting to get dark. We were surrounded by a thick mist.

We couldn’t see much, but could hear a whole lot. I think most of the animals were scared of us. Then we passed a sign announcing, “Dangerous Animals. Do not step off the track. Keep audible and yield the right of way.” Wherever we walked, we were preceded by birds panicking in the trees and lots of bending and cracking tree branches in the tropical forest. There were a few growls and plenty of cat prints of various sizes, plus recent buffalo and elephant droppings (nice and steamy in the cool, misty air), and trails broken through the bamboo thickets.

We have done some dumb things in our marriage (like driving a tiny Fiat Puntu over a closed mountain pass in the Alps), and we were starting to wonder if this was going to be the one that finally ended it all. I had just read through our will recently and it was in order (written before Liam’s time, but still including him in all his potentiality), but wished I had said a better good-bye to the kids and that Liam hadn’t cried when we left. As dusk was falling, we came to a large clearing, but it was so shrouded in mist, we couldn’t see anything. Certainly no cabins or signs of human activity. At that point, we decided that, since we didn’t really have any idea where the cabins were (or if they were well behind us, or how much longer we would walk to get to them) and we did know that the vehicle had to still be on the road, no more than 7 kilometers back, or failing that, we could find the group of campers we had seen, we had better high-tail it out of there.

We turned back and walked as briskly as possible back down the slippery, muddy track (a lot faster going downhill, particularly on your butt, I found). I began a fabulous rendition of several well-known tunes, including the great hits “Tomorrow, tomorrow—I love you, tomorrow”, “Great is thy faithfulness”, “You say goodbye and I say hello” and other anthems I thought the leopards might appreciate, sticking to the “stay audible” advice on the signs. You can’t hear as many animal sounds when you’re making a lot of noise yourself. After some time, Ben advised his opera wanna-be wife that he thought the sound of our footsteps was audible enough.

Luckily Ben had his cell phone with him. We couldn’t get our phone and Scott’s phone to both have a signal at the same time, but the phone does have a nice little built-in flashlight, so we could see the few feet of track directly under our feet. We had recently played a little game where you have to list the 10 survival items you would like to have with you in an emergency. We had none of them. Ben did find a large, bent tree-branch. I carried his copy of Josephus’s Jewish War (not on our list of emergency items, but a comfort nonetheless), so that when adrenaline kicked in, he would be able to wield the unwieldy branch handily.

After about 2 kilometers back down the trail, we saw lights. What a relief! It was our vehicle. Scott, Shermeen and Matayo were all outside with the other two guys pushing the Land Rover through the slop. They were so surprised to see us. They thought we would have been relaxing before a roaring blaze in a cozy cabin for the previous couple of hours. When we related our tale, Scott could not stop shaking his head. He told us we were within 50 meters of the ranger station when we turned back. He felt so bad that he hadn’t given us any landmarks to know when we were getting close. We spent the next hour or so helping the vehicle up the hill. It’s a miracle we ever made it; the steep slope alternates between firm, wet mud (like ice) and feet-deep gooey sludge. The “porters” would cut down bamboo from the sides of the road and throw them under the chained tires for traction. Then Jeff would gun the engine, and all five guys would push with all their might until the engine died or the old land cruiser started slipping backwards (usually after about 10 meters of progress) – pull the handbrake, put a rock under the tire, and reset. Then, the guys would pop the hood and pour gas directly into the carburetor since the fuel line had run dry on the steep slope. Finally, when we arrived safely at camp, we recognized the scenery we had walked through. If we had walked even 50 more meters, we would have run right into the ranger barricade.

We were very pleased to have a gigantic pot of home-made chili ready to heat over the fire and devour. We all slept like logs that night. The next day, we cooked up a large breakfast of egg McMuffins on freshly-made whole grain English muffins. Then set off through the mist to see the sights. Scott had explored the area several times in the past, so we enjoyed having him guide us through well-established forests, where the tree trunks are enormous and there is no underbrush, over hills and valleys to a secret cave with a stream passing through it (first we walked over the stream on a natural bridge made of rock, then went along the stream underneath through the caves). We rediscovered an abandoned 1920s hut where a woman named Vivienne used to live, and paused to eat some apples and climb some trees.

Then Scott decided to lead us through the bush to some beautiful waterfalls. In the mist, we followed his compass in a variety of directions as we tried to see which animal track was leading us closest to the way we thought we wanted to go. By about 2:30, Scott was advised that his loyal followers were losing confidence. We stopped to eat some humus and sandwiches and regain our breath, after the many ups and downs we had taken in our rather zig-zagged route through the shoulder-high (wet) grasses and sage-brush. We had heard waterfalls on several occasions, but couldn’t get at them down the steep slopes in the mist, so some time later we decided it was time to go due north, where we were at least certain to hit the main track that headed for home. Near the point of despair, we hit the trail. At 5:30, it was pretty cold and wet and we were getting nervous about a repeat performance of the night before—enjoying the dark with the wildlife. Just then, the old hippy leader of the larger tour group we had seen the day before, came rumbling by in a 4-wheel vehicle and gave us an unexpected lift back to the cabin. (He was heading back to the old campsite to pick up the rest of his team’s equipment.)

We thought that the next day we might drive to the trail head and then do a 9-hour hike up to some glacial lakes. But our driver said he didn’t have enough gas for any extra excursions because of all the extra fuel he had burned coming up the hill the first day.

Again, we feasted on delicious, home-cooked food (thanks to Njeri!). This time, Ben and I slept in a tent just outside the door to the cabin, so we wouldn’t have to walk through the wet buffalo-populated grass to get to our own chilly cabin. The various snorts and grunts outside the tent kept things a little edgy. Ben managed fall asleep, only to dream about buffalo and other less realistic animals, like hippo/rhino combos, trying to trample the tent. Something was casting a shadow that looked a lot like a buffalo silhouette over the side of the tent in the moonlight; Ben verified the next night that this was just the corner of the cottage casting it’s shadow.

The following morning, the others decided to go back out there in the wet grass. We 15-year anniversary folk decided to stay in the cabin and reminisce and dream about the future. We had a lovely, relaxing time (here is where the camera fades off into ocean vistas). At the end of the day, our friends came back with fantastic shots of the many waterfalls we had been just next to the day before, but hadn’t been able to see in the mist. They had also seen distant peaks, valleys and other amazing sights that we could have seen the day before if we had had mist-proof vision.

We finished off our cabin experience that day with bona-fide Swiss cheese fondu and chocolate fondu for dessert. For our third night, we again changed sleeping arrangements, this time just putting a mattress down in front of the fire and zipping our two sleeping bags together (thanks to Billy and Elizabeth for the nice polar pod bags).

Friday, we made our way back home. Again, our gentlemen “lightened the load” considerably by stepping out of the vehicle each time we passed through a particularly treacherous stretch of muck and Jeff said, “Make it lighter!” But this time they didn’t have to spend hours chopping bamboo to throw in the road in front of the vehicle. Gravity helped quite a bit, and the steep embankments rising from the sides of the road kept the vehicle on track.  Back in Scott’s car, we drove through some beautiful areas of Kenya—the malaria infested rice paddies of Mwea, the HIV-infested areas of tea and coffee plantations (we got the play-by-play from the doctors among us). It was a bit of a downer getting back into the smog and pollution and heavy traffic of Nairobi. But also nice to get lots of cuddles with our darling angels back at home, and to have our traditional Friday night tacos with our friends.

We wrapped up the trip by looking at all our photos. Seeing all the photos of what we would have seen if it hadn’t been misty, and seeing Scott’s pictures of other excursions when the road was better and he went higher, has made us want to go back again and head for the summit. Maybe for our 16th wedding anniversary…

Thanks Scott for everything, Aunt Njeri for agreeing to be “mom” for the four days, Auntie Beth for taking the kids for a day and an overnight, and Jecinta and Igg for the moral support of your presence. We really appreciate these great friends and helpers.

5 thoughts on “Mt. Kenya: a fun, misty mudfest

  1. […] 11 Aug 2008 · No Comments A very good friend of mine, Scott Shannon, recently spearheaded a project to get some Cuban trained Sudanese doctors back to help rebuild […]

  2. […] For my own experiences with Mt. Kenya, see a fun, misty mudfest. […]

  3. Jeff says:

    It was great time. I remember…appreciate much from Jeff and his team. The road to Mt. Kenya is better now.

  4. Adrian says:

    Thats a Land ROVER (series 3 I think). A land Cruiser is a Jap thing made by Toyota. The Land Rover is British, completely different thing!

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