I loved everyday in East Africa and found each mountain wonderfully spectacular (in the case of Kilimanjaro far more so than I expected) but it is true that I enjoyed Mount Kenya the most. Both visually and physically it was more diverse and interesting with a far wider range of walking and camping options than the others and I would genuinely love to walk on Mount Kenya again, for days, even if I was not expecting to make an attempt on the summit. It just looks and feels like country that it would be great to explore and which would be rewarding to know better. It is hard to say the same for the parks of Tanzania that surround Meru or Kilimanjaro. Both of those draw you upwards but being volcanic craters don’t tempt you to dwell in their foothills for longer periods.
So for nearly 3 weeks I was sleeping under canvas in beautifully basic camps and genuinely spectacular surroundings. I arranged to climb Mount Meru, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, the latter two on their longer and therefore, less well travelled routes.
Mount Meru was scheduled to be a fairly light acclimatisation hike of 4 days (it is possible in 3 but I am glad to have chosen 4). Starting in the Arusha National Park gate at Usa River we would have 2 days up and 2 days down. Meru was dramatic and much more mountain than I imagined. The summit is 4,566m (15,000ft) and is a very good test of fitness and acclimatisation.
Meru was a very beautiful mountain in its own right and I am really pleased that I left time enough to add it to the list. We spotted buffalo, zebra, colobus and dik dik in the lower forests before we got a glimpse at the volcano crater. This has been blown away in an enormous and ancient explosion leaving only one section of ridge line. You walk this wonderfully majestic knife edge as it rises from the crater bowl shrouded in ferns, hanging lichen and giant rosewoods. Ultimately you rise above this lush section, riddled with buffalo tracks, and emerge onto the scree and steep shale slopes of the final ascent. This is grey and dusty but with a scattered yet remarkable amount of everlasting flowers and other hardier plants which still tempt klipspringer to make adventurous day trips to over 4000m. We heard hyena as we left Saddle Hut at 2am and saw 4 bush buck as we returned to camp 6 hours later.
Kilimanjaro (5895m, 19341 ft) is just a very serious piece of work. Higher than any mountain in Russia, Europe (20% taller than Mont Blanc), all of the contiguous United States of America and, of course, all of Africa. But it has the great attraction that it can be summitted without any need for technical mountaineering skills or experience and can be comfortably climbed in as little as 5 days. Fearing that it would have suffered from heavy traffic we agreed to climb via the Lemosho Route, the longest and quietest of the summit routes with a Northern Traverse which adds a day or two to the itinerary and therefore makes the paths even quieter on this extension. We were able to combine 2 days and so had a 7 day itinerary, 5 up and 2 down.
Kilimanjaro was much more striking than I expected and its slopes and plateaus offer so much more than I had given it credit for. We loved our hike, it was clean and quiet and although you move fairly quickly into the drier higher altitudes of rock and thin vegetation it still offers tremendous views and aspects and lots of variation. However, as surprising as Kili was, there is only one reason you’re there and you never really forget that. It is all about the summit and you become completely mentally consumed with observation of your body and its physiological state in your constant effort to climb and ensure efficient acclimatisation. It was tremendous but it felt more like a project than a holiday. We enjoyed the hike tremendously but you wouldn’t go back for any other reason but to attempt a summit again.
The day that we exited Kilimanjaro we flew to Nairobi, the next morning we flew to Lewa Downs and early the next morning we ran the Safaricom Lewa Marathon. That was wonderful but my legs were very fatigued from the mountains (perhaps the descent more than anything) and a little after half way I began to really struggle. I completed it almost 25% slower than I had hoped I would which was disappointing but I did have to dig deep which was going to be likely at some point. At least now I knew the hardest day was behind me.
I did expect Laikepia to be my highlight but perhaps only because I am lucky to have been before. I suspect its beauty and variety is a surprise for many first time visitors but it is a favourite of mine and it didn’t let me down. Mount Kenya was a wonderful walk. A really, really wonderful walk. From early on in my planning I had looked forward to this leg of the trip and not just because it was the final one. My imagination has always been more captured by the Hemingway-esque romance of Mount Kenya rather than the bold dominance of the Kilimanjaro massive and I hoped that I would not be disappointed. Not for a moment. Mount Kenya’s Battion Peak is 5200m (17000 ft) and as such a truly tremendous mountain in its own right. It is second to Kilimanjro by about 700m and offers a huge and splendid silhouette emerging from miles of rolling hills and escarpments. I think it’s this that offers so much conviction that it is in its rightful place. The perspective that the lower hills provide give it a wonderful sense of the giant forces that shaped this ancient land.
Despite planning to trek only as far as Point Lenana at 4985m (16355ft) you know that you are in for a real physical test and at some stages of the final night-time ascent I felt that the actual physical danger of our position and the technical requirements of our exhausted bodies were actually greater on Lenana than on Kilimanjaro. I didn’t ever feel in danger on Kili but I believe I did on some small sections of Kenya. It felt colder too and we were able to spend far less time on its tiny and exposed summit in celebration. Approaching from Alpine Huts the views on the morning of final ascent are incredible as you have the great fortune of climbing opposite the sheer towering cliffs and pinnacles of Bation and Nelion tearing from the glacier below (on your left) as they reflect the magical hues of the sunrise (to your right behind Lenana) against the lightening green and deep blue of the high-altitude equatorial sky. And we had a full moon to boot!
So which was my favourite?
Without any hesitation my answer is Mount Kenya. Followed by Mount Meru. Kilimanjaro was far more beautiful than I expected it to be but the joy of walking on the others remained, for me, a more special pleasure. They were both more about the journey than the destination. I think this is a weight that hangs around the neck of Kilimanjaro as you climb. Always intimidated and planning ahead, looking forward instead of “being here now”.
Mount Kenya is not “free standing” as the the other two are and I think this lends it a perspective and a sense of place which the towering volcano cones lack, perhaps especially now as they are surrounded by settlements and agriculture. Mount Kenya on the other hand provided me with a sense of far greater sense of wilderness and a comforting isolation. Its ascents are less severe in most cases but the climbs still long and hard. The land still feels to be that of great beasts and you are aware of a more wonderful privilege to be there. We saw no one, not a single other climber until we summitted the Peak after 5 days. And then again no one for the next 2 days, always camping alone at night. That is absolutely not the case in Tanzania.
Spending time in Mount Kenya National Park was more interesting at many altitudes and I thought the zones deeper but more defined so that you felt you had longer to enjoy the gifts of each but could easily recall the exact moment you left one and entered another. We walked on trails with fresh elephant, buffalo and leopard spoor and dipped in crystal streams alongside visible trout and lay beside incredible glacial-melt lakes reflecting colours I have never seen before. The scenes were breathtaking. I would return for a day or for a week or even for a month. I can imagine exploring Mount Kenya for ever. Its tributary hills and valleys. Finding endless thrills and pleasures, sharing them carefully and soaking deeply in them.
My favourite night of the whole trip was probably the bamboo forest on Burguret Route (Mt Kenya). My favourite day was the one we spent on Lake Michaelson a short detour on our descent from Lenana (Mt Kenya). The most striking moment may have been the view we had as we entered Lake Michaelson’s deep valley along the Nithi stream from the East (also Mt Kenya). Here we had an incredible view, stolen from another age, as the sun rose above Lenana behind us and we followed the snow melt as it tumbled into this impossibly beautiful valley. Possibly my most memorable day’s walk was the long, fast exit over the rounded knuckles of protea-clad ridges on the way to Chogoria gate on my 19th and final day (Mt Kenya). My favourite meal? The freshly caught trout of Nithi and the best camp might have been Highland Castle, the cave carved into soaring cliffs with first glimpses of Battion in the clouds above (both Mt Kenya).
It was an incredible journey and I would love to do any small piece of it again but the one I will revisit first, with the most enthusiasm, and which I know I could enjoy without physical preparation, with family and friends or without. Even with children or grandparents would be Mt Kenya. To Lenana or not would not be important, I would just love to spend more time there and I genuinely do hope that I can again soon.
Thank you for making it available to me and for sharing it with others.