By Munyaka Njiru
On 17th December, 2010, I was scrambling up the last 150 metres leading up from Stella Point (m) to Uhuru peak (19000ft) Africa’s highest peak at around 0640hrs. The familiar mantra of mind over matter was slowly loosing meaning as I dragged my feet on the thin snow that covered Africa’s highest mountain.
From a distance, you could see the familiar board which men and women labored from far and wide to stand next to and be acknowledged for being on top of Africa and this time not from the comfort of a 777 Boeing liner. I leaned on my single walking pole – a student’s budget meant we shared the walking poles and decided that this was it for me.
Leaning on that pole, the memories of the long journey to this treacherous land flew back to my mind. We had nearly six months of preparing the team of 58 students and 2 lecturers from the University of Nairobi plagued with consistent fundraising, fitness training and a blind search for mountain gear in a country where few dared to go up the high peaks. Lost in the moment for a few minutes I felt a hand on my back. I looked back to see Perps a junior actuarial science student staring at me.
“Are you alright?” was all that escaped her now dried lips. I told her I was done and she weakly held my hand and with a little tug started walking ahead. I could not believe the tables had been turned, the fit led on by the presumed weak. 20 minutes later I came on to the roof of Africa, led by a far less experienced friend.
My first Kilimanjaro experience back in 2010 was on top of my mind when a few days to the Oloroka hill climb, I got a number of calls from first time hikers worried about how long or bad the hike was to be. There has been a practice to declare some hiking trips not fit for first timers due to the difficulty level attributed to them. The likes of Elephant Hill, Kijabe Hill and Olorokahill come to mind when you think of this fact.
There is the worry that bringing on the rookies will delay the group and if worse lead to emergency medical and evacuation cases that we all want to steer clear off. With time we have come to accept that with some sort of mental preparation, the right gear and the right pace, then first time hikers can do anything a veteran would though with sweat and tears. The trick lies is in good mental preparation and getting properly geared. A know a good friend of mine by the name of Kimiti Dorns Bata DH rubbers even for the most treacherous of terrains and will pass you with your $300 boots struggling over little ponds on the terrain.
In hiking, an attempt to monkey see monkey do can lead to disastrous results, know your limits and work within them. Taking a friend out on a hike without proper gear is akin to throwing a non-swimmer to the deep end without a floater.
Back to the story, with the subscription hitting about 40 we did a round of the location to confirm the feasibility of the road for our town buses to get us there without 4X4 support. On the recce day, we got stuck for an hour on a black cotton patch with our small car.
Now the last thing you want to do is get stuck in any Maasai land road. The fellows there have no zeal for pushing cars out of mud but will be busy pointing at what you should do with their long sticks from the side. Annie my colleague joined them busy snapping away photos of the scene for Instagram I bet.
I could see the hashtags in mind already – #matopetings #myjobisawesome #Adventure #Stuckwithlions #stuckinbush #wegonnadie . With this experience, I knew that if the rain gods woke up angry on the material day, we would be up for a start on the road, an additional 10km to the already long trail.
Fast forward to Saturday morning and I woke up to find my front door completely covered with a pool of rain water. I knew my goose was cooked, my attempts to call the guide for confirmation were greeted by the familiar tone of “subscriber cannot be reached.”
Later that morning, we rounded the Magadi road corner to find Rongai town completely dry to much relief. With little trouble apart from some rocky session where the buses could not navigate we walked the last 100 metres to our designated starting point, JM Memorial site- where the body of the late JM Kariuki was found after his assassination in 1975.
We had a brief from the local guide Paul. Someone asked how far it was, his response “We ni mbali sana “– if a Maasai tells you it’s far then you have all reasons to get worried. After a skilled warm up by my good friend Kayuney we were off for the hike.
The first stretch involved a 6km road walk on the flat plains passing through the Gusero Sambu centre and ending up at a school built right at the base of the hill where other hikers usually start. When doing steep hill climbs, it is advisable to have a 1 hour to two hours walk on the approach as this warms up your muscles before the strain of the steep climb; this advised our decision to start 6km away from the usual start point.
All this time, the weather was on our side with a cloud hanging over our heads. The fresh country air blended with the faint smell of cow dung was totally refreshing. Once in a while, you would pass through herds of cattle and goats on their way to the grazing lands already greening thanks to the recent rains. The road to the school cuts though the Ole Sayeti Mountain, a beautiful sight if you are not too engrossed with the sweaty climb up.
We had a brief stop at the base of the hill and that is when mother nature decided we were having too much fun and brought forth the sun god to torment us. It is hard enough to climb up any hill, the sun takes things from worse to worst. Climbing up our guide John plucked some leaves of a native plant which when used on the face brings a cooling effect. A bunch of the same on the armpits also serves as a natural deodorant while hiking; I understand it’s a species of sage.
The first hill presented rock terrain with small bushes and trees providing much needed shelter. At this time I was walking behind the team of sweepers already asking if we were there yet. The thing with sweepers is that they have the best stories but blended with whines and curses along the way.
Clearing from the first hill the higher peaks opened up in beautiful formation. In under an hour we were going up what we thought was the summit. I tend to rush up the last few steps of any hilltop and this was no different. I hurriedly took the last few steps and as I pushed up the last rocks, what came into sight no words can describe. The range splits into these small hills divided with gullies rushing down the mountainside to the far side of Magadi. I will let the photos speak for the hills.
10 minutes later the last person pulled up to the Oloroka Hill “summit” which appears as the highest point on the range. I was proud to see all the team had made up .It is advisable to join a hike in which veteran hikers are present as they really work on your little excuses to give up – they know that with a little push you will always get there. There is a common tag that goes #whyIclimb.
The reason why I personally climb is the renewed feeling when you push yourself up the last step and look over the other side. The view sprawling on the other side comes rushing in. The view of far and wide places mostly unfamiliar forms this panorama in your brain that no camera can take in perspective. Just why are hills beautiful on the side you only see when you summit? The reason is simple. Most hiking trails are selected on the softer approach which means its gradual by all right. When you push to the top you mostly have a steeper ridge on the other side opening to sweeping remote places with little human habitation.
If you have no reason why you climb then the view from the top is enough reason- at that time you forget your landlord, you forget you have WhatsApp, you almost forget you have a camera, you forget you have a job, you forget you have a sick parent back home, you forget what you left undone. Your brain locks on the view and cleans all the frustrations from your earlier week. The view open your mind to endless possibilities, you feel like you have got there and nothing else matters. The budgets people are spending on shrinks in these hard times can be cut down if all those people just walked it off every weekend. On that crest, nature heals you and sets you up for the next challenge with more confidence.
Back to the Oloroka hill summit overlooking the left ridge are a series of soft green hills rolling up to the higher Ole Sekut summit right at the edge. With the good weather, beyond that is the drop to the plains of Magadi and the drier bad sister of a mountain by the name of Mt. Olorgessaile.
To the north, Ngong Hills looks like the Aberdares since it is visible from start to end. The need to reach the highest point wells up and soon we are off again complete with those already in the sea of burning sulphur that is feet on fire. At this time, the brain hungrily wants to eat all those hills and the logical part that wants you to stop and rest is given a red card on the 90th minute. For you who does not hike there is something about peaks.
They look well-rounded, green and a walk in the park from a vantage point. The story on the ground is totally different. It is like when you are fresh in love, you see all the nice curves, the blue eyes. I never get how someone sees color in eyes, the sweet voice all before that same voice is used to call you a looser and those curves walk away from you and at that point you won’t even see the blue eyes, just some flashing circles that want to eat you alive. It’s like when you start off a new business and you can see the customers in your mind and you can see the figures on the P&L, only for you to hit the road and find that the green hills is just long grass wielding savage hard rocks that rip the sole off your shoes.
What looked like a half hour affair turned to a one hour walk up and down the ridges with beautiful cliff drops on the side until we finally pushed up the summit. Past the summit standing tall at 2048AMSL is a lone green tree where the pacesetters were already wolfing down snacks and resting like they got there by the cable car. Behold the view drops to the Magadi plains with a feeling that you can almost touch Mt Olorgessaile almost 50km away!
Here with my veteran hikers Mits, Kayuney, Amy, Alice, Sheshy, Lawi and the all new starring first timer Brian Mbunde we decided to bonus a climb down to some rock outcrops right at the cliff for some photo moment. The photos will explain the bonus!
The walk down came after the long rest and snack break at the top. The descent was via a separate gradual route and not long we found ourselves back at the base of the hills and finally walking the road back to a nearby shopping centre. The thing with hikes is that they are not complete without a hot meal to revenge done specially by our bush chef. The energies become renewed knowing at the end there is something to look forward to. We came down the road and took a back road to our guides boma built next to green lush plains with a ridge ahead and amazing views of Ngong Hills. We settled down for the lunch and later on a surprise drink of the local traditional brews crowned the day. Most amazing was that the bus drivers had braved the sharp rocks to bring the buses to the lunch point and after a final toast to greatness we were back to the buses and snaked out to Nairobi as the sun set down.