Two days shy of his 77th birthday, Elijah Kimani stood on top of the world, arguably the oldest Kenyan to do so.
Mzee Kimani fulfilled a journey he’d desired to take for many decades, conquering Mt. Kenya and the famous Lenana peak.
Aged 30 and a civil servant in the Ministry of Labour, a ballot was held for candidates who wished to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.
He put his name forward but someone said he was “too old”, a fact which confounds him to this day.
He forgot about it then, and went on to a career inspecting factories for safety, a stint at Kenya Meat Commission and Firestone Tyres before retiring into a life of ministry, on the way putting on a bit too much weight.
“I told a congregation in Narok that I wouldn’t be coming back if they didn’t have a road,” Mzee Kimani recalls of his battles to get around.
His doctor said his weight was putting pressure on his back hence the hip pain he was undergoing.
He resolved to cut back on eating ‘garbage’ as he calls unhealthy food and reverted to fruit and vegetables. And walking.
One of his daughters – he has five – saw the struggles her father was going through trying to manage his weight.
An accomplished hiker and climber in her own right, Njambi Kimani challenged her father to test the Ngong Hills.
Mzee Kimani did better than everyone thought he would, getting to the top and picking up some of his family who’d fallen by the wayside on his descent.
A fire was lit under him and like days of old, his passion for the highest peaks was reignited.
“I told Njambi I would like to climb Mt. Kenya for my 77th birthday,” Mzee Kimani says.
The clock was then ticking on preparation for this mountain of an undertaking.
The first test would be the Ol Donyo le Satima peak on the Aberdares. With that came some rookie mistakes, Mzee Kimani wore gumboots to the marshy slopes. He did again make it to the top.
One of his other daughters who was with him then asked, “Dad, where is the helicopter to get us down?” The chopper would be their legs.
They got back down after dark. Mzee Kimani was however well on the way to his goal.
Then came a test of endurance. Rurimeria Hill, still on the Aberdares is a better judge of how one would do on the beast that is Mt. Kenya.
It has three false peaks, meaning that three times you’ll think you’ve reached the summit. Three times you’ll be wrong.
Mzee Kimani reckons the slopes here average 80 degrees in gradient but he did it, one foot in front of the other.
Asked why he ‘punishes’ his body so, Mzee Kimani says, “I do it for the challenge, to prove to myself and to my body that I can do it.”
Hiking is also a metaphor for life, Mzee Kimani advises. “Life is not all enjoyable.”
Having passed the endurance test with Rurimeria, the last test leading up to the big exam would be speed.
A brisk destruction of Ngong Hills followed and he jokingly says everyone was trying to catch up to him.
His daughter, Njambi, had prepared him well.
The Thursday before the ascent would be spent in Nanyuki. On Friday morning, Mzee Kimani, his daughter and mentor on the slopes joined up with others for the drive to Old Moses Hut where motorized machines give way to foot traffic – the end of the (tarmac) road.
Ever the preacher, Mzee Kimani was all talk on the 14-kilometre journey to Shipton’s Camp where they would spend the night.
His daughter pointed out that no one wants to talk as much as he does, especially with thinning oxygen.
From the base camp, the beauty of Batian and Nelion peaks graced the upbeat debutant.
Saturday is the sabbath day in Mzee Kimani’s house. That meant there would be no attempt on Lenana that day. They spent the day resting and acclimatising.
Under the sun’s rays and the beauty of his surroundings, he couldn’t resist giving a sermon.
After a brief rest, Mzee Kimani was shaken awake at 1am Sunday. It was time. A meal later, they set off into the night, headlights on foreheads.
His daughter and other guides kept whispering mantras of encouragement, even when he could see the headlights of those he’d left asleep at camp now ahead of him.
“You can do it, you will make it!” Mzee Kimani says they said. One step at a time.
At 7:52am – he asked someone what time it was – Mzee Kimani took the last steps onto Lenana.
He sat down for a drink and looked up at the words “You’ve Made It” on a framed piece up there. He indeed had.
Can God talk to me like he talked to Moses on the mountain? Those were his thoughts at the time. There was however a Bible up there. That would have to do.
He read from the book of Isaiah. After taking it all in, it was time for the descent arriving at a different camp at 4 pm. There he would cool his heels for the night before a further trek down.
He was picked up by a Land Rover on Monday at 1pm having completed what he’d set out to achieve.
He would still like to summit Mt Kilimanjaro and drown out those words that were said to him 47 years before. Time, his body and his daughter Njambi will tell him when.