It was not quite what I expected when I reached Ngong Hills in Kajiado County.
At the foot of the hills, tens of cars are parked. It is 7am on a Saturday and two men are already running downhill, dust knee-high, perhaps finishing their morning run. Hikers in small groups are walking through the mist, aiming to climb the seven hills and back before the sun shines bright.
A Chinese family of three navigates through a loose-soil terrain deep in the hills, a group of teenagers blast music from speakers placed on one shoulder like it is in Harlem in the 80s.
Together with my friends, we kept walking as the terrain changes; we pass a conglomerate of stones, trees that resemble those found in the magical Land of Oz, then acacias, then more hills and hills.
The hunt for fresh air, solitude, escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life and anything adventurous is drawing hundreds to Ngong Hills.
Every weekend, those who want to be surrounded by nature are organising hikes or picnics on the hills.
Before the government ordered closure of outdoor spaces, Ngong Hills had turned to be the new hang-out place.
According to Kenya Forest Service (KFS), before Covid-19, they received about 36,000 people a year, mostly hikers, tourists, sportspeople looking to train in high altitudes, and picnickers.
This number has now doubled to about 60,000 a year since the first lockdown in March last year. Restricted travel, a renewed desire to be fit and the fear of seeking fun in closed spaces pushed more families to nature trails, mountains and hills.
An average of 700 people visits on a day during a busy weekend.
“Ngong Hills has been a popular destination mostly for hikers. Now people hold marriage ceremonies here, families visit to pass time in the afternoons, some come to worship, and companies and schools used to come for team building,” says Francis Kariuki, the head of Nairobi Forest Conservancy, KFS.
A relatively strenuous hill to hike, with the highest point being 2,460 metres (8,071ft) above sea level, most amateur mountain climbers also use it as a preparation hike for Mount Kenya.
“We also have tourists coming to see the wind power turbines and the high communication masts. Some people just come to enjoy the cool misty weather,” says Mr Kariuki of the massive turbines operated by KenGen.
Relatively safe, wild animals in the hills covering 4,312.2 hectares are mainly buffaloes, wild pigs, porcupines, and dik-diks.
The entrance fee is Sh232.
“The whole area and activities are regulated and therefore, there is some order. One can come here to enjoy a book with the tranquility,” said Mr Kariuki.
There is also another group that visits; partygoers.
Last year’s closure of bars and restaurants for over six months saw Ngong Hills become a spot for weekend parties. Nairobi residents started organising parties on the hills, due to the short distance from the city centre, about 40 minutes’ drive.
“The number of visitors increased after Covid-19 due to closure of entertainment joints and worship places, leaving forests as the only place people can venture out with the minimal risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19. Ngong Hills is an expansive area hence easy to enforce the Health ministry protocols,” Mr Kariuki adds. Others come to sit and stare at the panoramic view of Nairobi and the Great Rift Valley.
People visit to see the scenic beauty of Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), Ewaso Nyiro, Mt Longonot, Magadi Hills, Narok to the north from KenGen offices.
At the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority (KCAA) masts viewpoint, one can see Nairobi City, Ngong Town, SGR, Kiserian, Aberdare Ranges, and at times Mount Kenya to the East.
To the west is Olepolos, while at the last hiking peak, you see Kona Baridi, Kisamis, Tonga Hills, Birika, Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the south.
The recent restrictive movement within Nairobi, Kajiado, Kiambu, Machakos, and Nakuru counties, means city residents have few outdoor places to spend extra time over the weekends.
The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) recently closed picnics sites in all national parks, reserves, and sanctuaries in the five counties to curb a spike in coronavirus infections. However, visitors can go for game drives from 6am to 5pm.
Ngong Hills has also stopped welcoming big groups.
“We are open but we don’t allow people to congregate in one place, party, or picnicking in one spot. You can come alone or not be in a group of more than five people,” Mr Kariuki says, adding that in the vast space, it is easier to maintain social distancing.
Before Covid-19 restrictions, the hills were already facing a likely overcrowding problem, especially along the hiking paths. Some sections had queues. On one part of the hills, we had to hold onto tree branches to let other hikers pass.
Depending on your fitness, the hike from the starting point to the end of the seven hills called Kona Baridi takes three to four hours. Fitness enthusiasts hike to and from to test their endurance.
Most people have vehicles waiting at the other end of the seven hills peaks.
A return on the same route means the easy descend will ascend making the trip even tougher and double the hours. After seven hours, we started climbing down towards the wind turbines that had spewed cold mist on us in the early morning and now cooling us.
Hiking at Ngong Hills is rated as moderate by most groups that have been traversing the country to climb different hills and mountains, with the climax being the Mount Kenya or Mount Kilimanjaro.
With everything revolving around being indoors, the hills, forests, and the mountains seem more charming. Some of the mountains that have recorded high numbers of people this year include Ragia Falls in Aberdare Ranges, Mount Longonot, Sleeping Warrior and Ugali Hills, and Mount Kilimambago.
“After Covid-19, areas such as Karura and Arboretum have also seen an increase in the number of visitors,” Mr Kariuki said.
I could not take my eyes away from the hilly scenery- it is rugged, remote yet not so far from the city, and spectacularly beautiful from the top. At one point, we sat at the hilltop to enjoy views and catch the sunset. We see a man pushing a pram with a baby in it down the first hill for a picnic with his wife.
At another section, picnickers are unwrapping their sandwiches.
Sweaty, with sore legs, we tick Ngong Hill off our bucketlists.