The distance from the foot of Mount Longonot to the rim of its crater top is a mere three kilometres. But it appears daunting because much of it is steep terrain, though worn out by the elements and heavy trudging by the many hikers who come here every other day to conquer the mountain.
On the day I arrive, there are hundreds of visitors of all ages, including many schoolchildren who have come in buses. At 9am, the parking lot at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) entrance is full. Longonot, apparently, is for all.
The sun is fairly hot at this time and the footpath up the mountain provides little cover, except for the huts that have been built by KWS at strategic points.
The cone-shaped stratovolcanic mountain bares itself to the sun and even the scraggy vegetation appear subdued. The ground is sunbaked but the constant foot traffic has loosened it up so much that when you walk on it, fine ash dust rises up and clouds the air.
Concrete steps have been built on some sections of the route, offering firmer ground as you go up. But it is hardly any respite if you are already weary.
Hellena, one of our hiking group members, is already struggling. She lifts her legs up, one at a time. Sam and I nudge her on patiently, each of us pulling her hand and encouraging her on. It is still early in the ascent, just a little behind the halfway point. Suddenly, she heaves and stops.
“I’m not going any further,” she says. We no longer know what to say to offer encouragement.
Behind, a group of three young women, also struggling but moving, tell her that she must keep going on. They offer to trek at her pace. She is hardly convinced, but agrees when she is told that there is a hut where she can rest at the end of the steps — which Sam had already pointed out.
Climbing Mt Longonot is fairly easy. Yet for Hellena’s travails, she is blameless. Mountains do have their ways with people at different times. At the hut, she decides not to proceed and descends to the starting point, to wait for us to finish the climb.
We (Sam and I) run to catch up with the rest of the group. I realise just a little later that running was probably an imprudent move.
By the time we get to the group, I am out of breath, sweaty and the sun is literally in hot pursuit. I have to walk slowly to regain composure, besides drinking lots of water to rehydrate — which, as a rule, is recommended as one moves up a mountain, irrespective of the weather.
So the gap between us widens again, though I do catch up with some who can’t keep up with the fierce pace of the trailblazers. They wait for us at the top, at the crater rim.
The “real” journey begins from here, at the top, moving around the crater rim. It is a distance of about seven kilometres, at some point rising to the mountain summit at about 2,700 metres above sea level. The trail is narrow and forces you to walk in a single file.
For about half the distance, the trail moderately climbs through brush and denuded ground, before suddenly rising, dropping and then rising again sharply to the summit. The trajectory can seem spooky especially because there are specific places where there are very narrow passages that squeeze you into a gulley.
Your clothes, however you try to avoid it, will have to carry the white dust of the gulley walls, which appear to either have been carved or are the result of serious erosion.
The bottom surface of the gullies is lined with small black lava rocks that sound like breaking glass when stepped on. The lava stones cause shoes to lose traction and one can easily slip and fall if not careful. Where the lava rocks are absent, white ash takes over.
A gulley ascends all the way up, making one seem to appear as if emerging from a hole, and finally thrust into the mountaintop. There is some breeze at the top, not much though, but makes for a cool sigh of relief. We have made it.
The views from here are spectacular: the series of mountain ridges that stretch far in the Rift Valley, a large water body far in the distance, some dense settlements yonder, the vast expanse of countryside and the serrated sky touching the horizon.
The water body is Lake Naivasha and the dense settlements make Maai Mahiu town.
From the top, all these features appear like pin-drops on a map. And from here, Longonot’s entire caldera—the hole at the centre of the mount—is clearly visible. The devil’s lair — as I have heard it being referred to — is covered by a green forest.
Our descent is a quick one, first by completing the rim’s circumference, and then down the same way we came up. We raise massive clouds of dust as we tramp down, like cattle moving to a river.
By the time we reach the gate we look like construction-site workers, all covered in dust. But our journey’s done, finally.