The air in Njabini, a little town at the foot of the Aberdare Ranges in central Kenya, is breezy and a little cold.
At 9am, the sun shines brightly, but has no warmth. Many of the residents are dressed to keep warm, and nearly every person wears gumboots, everywhere and every time. Even the little children have little gumboots, in some micro-fashion style.
For a domestic tourist arriving here, life appears unhurried and routine, not entirely dissimilar to life in the villages in Kenya’s vast countryside.
But the Aberdares neighbourhood oozes an especially crisp freshness that an urban dweller, seeking to escape from the hubbub of city life, would find appealing.
You can literally see the foggy air blowing through the mountain ranges that rise and fall across the horizon.
The mountain range is the perfect place for a fun seeker, an adventurer and a health and fitness buff . For the outdoorsy person like me, Aberdares presents the alluring challenge, the quest to scale it to the top.
I have climbed it before and the challenge does not come easy; but I know the thrill of making it to the highest point. You feel at the top of the world.
This time, I have come along with a workout group—a mix of professionals seeking to keep fit and/or lose weight. We all set out, from the Kinangop South gate, to conquer a section known as Elephant Hill, which is on the southern end of the mountain.
You will need to be relatively fit to manage the ascent to the peak, at about 3,700m above sea level. The forest entrance is 2500m.
Julius, the Kenya Forest Service (KFS) ranger who will accompany us, tells us the journey to peak is about 11 kilometres. In Nairobi, we often do 10 to 15-kilometre runs in Karura Forest in about an hour, and less than two for the slowest. So, we reckon, it should be easy walking.
From the starting point, the ground elevation rises gradually and the trail traverses through planted rows of young and old pine and cypress trees. Some of the young trees appear to have been transplanted just this season.
On the rows between the young trees, farmers have grown potatoes, green peas and cabbages. The mountainside cabbages, some of which are being harvested today, are humongous. The lush green peas are supported on bamboo pegs, in neat rows.
The forest shambas gives way to natural vegetation cover at the Bamboo Gate, (which is not a gate—but an opening into a thick canopy of bamboo forest.)
There are signs of elephants here: fresh dung and bogs disturbed by elephant trampling, leaving a number of jumbo footprint-shaped ponds.
A fellow hiker got his shoes stuck in the mud. You need good hiking boots with a firm grip. One that won’t stick in the mud and won’t slide on the rocky alpine ground at the end of the bamboo trail.
The trail then ascends abruptly, rising like a staircase, all the way to the peak. The mountain has a way of sapping your energy and taking away your breath. Halfway up the mountain and hours after we started, the prejudgment of an “easy walk” evaporates.
I imagine the 11 kilometres that our KFS ranger mentioned must be the aerial distance. The energy levels now are almost measurable by the breaths that hikers take—loud and laboured for those who are struggling, and quiet and normal for the fittest among us.
One of our group members, a hefty man whose gait and height appears to affect his stability, is breathless, grunting and cursing as we trudge up the mountain.
The Despair Point follows. It is the aptly named place where you can see your destination but it seems so far away, belittling the effort you have already made to reach this point.
A little later, Lena, one of the two ladies in our group of 10, is being held by the hand, encouraged to continue, the mountain having taken toll on her energy.
Slowly she moves on, because the alternative of going back is unpalatable and equally strenuous, and besides, she has in her mind that this mountain belongs to the elephant.
The mountain tests your endurance. Altitude sickness is common due to the low oxygen levels in high elevations.
While perhaps Elephant Hill is not a serious problem for many people to acclimatise, mountains have many treacheries, as I learnt in my trek to the roof of Africa, the Mt. Kilimanjaro, nearly six years ago. This includes the unpredictable weather.
At the peak of Elephant Hill, the temperature has significantly dropped to a point of numbing the fingers.
Our KFS guide says we are lucky it has not rained and the weather is indeed very pleasant. In the foreground, the fog hovers over the peaks and the depressions below. People are tired but exhilarated at the sense of achievement.
Soon, the fog clears, if only momentarily and we take photos to record the accomplishment. The view is breathtaking.
We cannot stay here long as we still got to descend back to the starting point, for the same distance already covered, but it doesn’t matter. We have already made it.