Mount Kenya Region

Mount Kenya Region – Past and Present

When the resounding, throbbing rhythms of Chuka drums are heard in the Mount Kenya region these days, and the stamping of the bell-clad feet of the dancers with their choruses and wild ululating, they are not in the secret forest clearings of long ago when, not for Western eyes, uninhibited rituals followed. More likely now they will be for the entertainment of visiting tourists and, for the performers, a means of earning a living.

Tourism is an essential contributor to Kenya’s national economy and the incredible beauty of the Mount Kenya region with its grassy plateaux to the north and west, rivers, forests and wildlife reserves, private ranches and tourist-welcoming hotels is a valuable source. Some of the finest coffee in the world comes from the mountain’s north-eastern slopes, an enviable hard- currency-earning export

Astride the equator, piercing Africa’s wide sky sheer out of the surrounding lion-coloured plains, the snow-clad twin peaks of Batian 5,199 meters (17,058 feet) and Nelion 5,188 meters (17,017 feet) rise sharply out of the thick forest and moorlands of the lower slopes, Lenana only a slightly lesser peak at 4,985 meters (16,355 feet). Seamed with glaciers, Batian has been described geologically as ‘an old and deeply dissected volcano in a very advanced stage of decay’. Seen from the scorching plains below, the mountain is a heart stopping sight and, in clear weather and when not encircled by great banks of cloud, is visible from more than a l60 km (100 miles) away.

The mountainsides and for far around are of rich volcanic soil, the most fertile in the country, an enduring legacy of some forty thousand years ago when the mountain was forced upwards to a height in excess of 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) in a succession of violent earth movements which shook and reshaped the land. Porous lava which spewed out then, especially to the north, now allows melt waters from the eternal snows to travel underground to bubble up permanently in dry lands as far as eighty miles away.

Moving inland from the east some four hundred years ago, for the agriculturalist Kikuyu, Embu and Meru people (all of Bantu stock) the mountain became their heartland and, many believe, the home of their god Ngai.

Before attempts to climb Mount Kenya were made by ‘foreigners’ from abroad, there must have been those living there whose curiosity temped them to explore the snowfields, if only out of curiosity to discover what strange white substance blanketed the peaks year-round. Snow, to them, was a factor unknown. History does not record any such attempt, the only deterrent against which, apart from the effort required, would have been superstition and fear of retribution from the god or gods. Such legends are common to high mountains all over the world.

Determined climbers of all ages and nationalities now pit their strength against the heights and return to base within anything between three and five days. Some take longer, according to which of the six recognised routes up they take.

Leaving the peaks with their ice fields, craggy ridges and glaciers for serious mountaineers to conquer, most manage to reach Point Lenana. It is a strenuous rather than difficult climb, requiring no professional skills — a long, steep uphill walk though not without its physical discomforts. Not least of these are the swampy, tussocky moorlands which look easy to traverse but are not, and freezing cold nights in small tents or mountain huts, adequate but not exactly cosy.

Modern lightweight clothing, well-trod routes, experienced guides and foreknowledge of what to expect, give an advantage to climbers now over the attempts of a hundred or more years ago. These days, moreover, hundreds of miles do not first have to be covered on foot over uncompromising, unexplored and often hostile Africa to reach Kenya’s central plateau. Today’s climbers will have arrived by far less exhausting means, and have the further option of taking a sturdy 4-wheel-drive vehicle up to the 3,048-metre (l0,000-foot) level, providing heavy rain on the mountain has not reduced the track to a quagmire of impassable mud.

It was not always like that. Until the German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf, taking Christianity into the interior, sighted Mount Kenya in l849 from some ninety miles away, no-one in the New or Old Worlds even knew that it was there. His ‘discovery’ was received abroad with contempt and disbelief. Snow on the equator? Impossible! Yet he had clearly seen: ‘Two large horns, or pillars, as it were, rising over an enormous mountain to the north-east of Kilimanjaro, covered with a white substance.’ He was knowledgeable enough to know that at that height it could only be snow.

More than thirty years elapsed then before the young Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson’s commission from the Royal Geographic Society in 1883 was not just to seek the shortest route from the Indian Ocean to Lake Victoria — across the dreaded Masailand — but also ‘to make observations regarding the peoples, rocks, animals and plants’ on Mount Kenya, by which time the ‘outside world’ must at least have begun to accept that it was there.

From Austria in l887, Count Teleki von Tsek, on his foot safari to ‘discover’ Lakes Rudolf (now Turkana) and Stephanie (now Chew Bahir) reached 4,206 meters (13,800 feet). He named the mountain’s Teleki Valley for himself and the Hohnel Valley and Lake Hohnel for his companion, Lieut. Ludwig von Hohnel, by which names they are still known.

Dr John Walter Gregory, a geologist and officer in the Natural History department of the British Museum (Kenya’s Great Rift Valley was for many years known simply as ‘Gregory’s Rift’) was next into the field and spent five days on the mountain above the height of 3,962 meters (13,000 feet), several times ascended above 4,877 meters (16,000 feet) and twice, according to his record, above 5,18l meters (17,000 feet). He had carefully selected twelve of the best men from his Rift Valley expeditions, the majority of them Zanzibaris, accustomed to the leisurely, tropical coast. Shoeless, and in their thin clothes, it is not surprising that on some of the critical sections of their ascent, Gregory found that he had virtually to haul some of them up himself; and imagine their bewilderment when, at the higher altitudes, they found that water froze solid in their cooking pots. Gregory provided the first positive records of the mountain’s geology and high-level vegetation, but makes no claim to having reached higher than anyone before him. He was not a claim-making sort of man.

That same year (l893) Andrees Handatlas (size 16″ x 12″ x 3″ deep and almost too heavy to lift) showed ‘Kenia, 5,600 meters’ — 18,373 feet. Three years later, a three-man expedition failed to reach the top and in l897 Dr George Kolb (German) got only as far as the moorland and ‘the open Alp above the eastern forest’. Shortly after, in the game-rich country to the north, he was gored to death by a rhino at Samburu

One of the most curious claims about this time was not concerning conquering Mount Kenya’s heights, but of possession of it. The spunky little trader and adventurer John Boyes, who made a point of getting on well with the Kikuyu amongst whom he did much business, by way of endeavoring to help settle some inter-tribal land disputes, suggested purchasing the mountain himself. This he did ‘for some sheep and a few goats’ from the powerful and much-feared Kikuyu chief, Wangombe, who readily agreed to such an easy solution.

John Boyes lived in Kenya (but not on ‘his’ mountain) until he died in Nairobi in l951, although his activities did not always delight the government. His ‘possession of Mount Kenya’ claim was not taken very seriously, not even when the Carter Commission was set up to settle land rights countrywide.

The battle for the icy heights was finally won by Halford Mackinder, MA (later Sir) in l899 with his massive party of — his description — ‘six Europeans, sixty-six Swahilis, two Masai guides and the remainder naked Wakikuyu.’ It was he who named the topmost peaks for the legendary Masai laibons (chiefs) Batian and Nelion, and the lesser peak for the Masai chief Lenana, still alive at that time. A major glacier he named for Gregory.

These were the men to spearhead all later climbs, but it was not until thirty years later, in 1929, that the second successful assault was made by three East Africans, their leader Eric Shipton of Nyeri, later of Himalayan renowned.

Perhaps the most bizarre ascent of all was in World War II when, in l943 in an act of memorable defiance, three Italian prisoners-of-war from the Allies’ successful Abyssinian campaign, escaped from PoW Camp 354 at Nanyuki in the clothes they stood up in. With only a picture of the mountain on a tin of corned beef as their guide, they climbed up to Point Lenana on which they planted the Italian flag and then quietly returned to camp. Their audacious adventure makes good reading in Felice Benuzzi’s book No Picnic on Mount Kenya. Some were amused, but many were not. To save face, a 4-man team from Kenya was hurriedly dispatched to take down the Italian flag.

On his eightieth birthday, one of those four men, Allan Ker, climbed the mountain for the eighth time. A film was made of the Benuzzi story in l994, produced by Robert Halmi.

Development of the lands around Mount Kenya has continued steadily since the 1920s, by which time the country previously known as ‘British East Africa’ became better known as Kenya. ‘White’ settlement was encouraged and, from miles and miles of nothing, the mountain countryside was transformed into acres of coffee, wheat and maize. Saw-milling began and, to the despair of today’s ardent forest conservationists, continues. Then it was sheep-farming, milk herds and ranching. There was fine hunting for everyone who carried a gun. The four small towns around the mountain’s perimeter, Nyeri, Nanyuki, Meru and Embu began, and continue, to expand.

The White Rhino Hotel, the first in Nyeri when the European population numbered only nine (but there was already a golf course and clubhouse) was followed in l926 by the Outspan Hotel, intended to attract holidaymakers from Nairobi. Now, much extended, it welcomes visitors from all over the world. It was there that the founder of the Boy Scout and Girl Guide Movements, Lord Robert Baden-Powell — who had loved Kenya since his first visit in l906 — retired in l938 to the cottage Paxtu which had been specially built there for him, in which he lived until his death in l941. Scouts and Guides from all over the world make pilgrimage to his grave in Nyeri each February 22, their Founder’s Day. The ashes of his wife Lady Olave are also interred there. Jim Corbett is buried in the same churchyard, author of the thrilling classics, Maneaters of Kumaon and The Leopard of Rudaprayag. After India he made Kenya his home.

Hotels, lodges and tented camps have proliferated all around the mountain in the last fifty years, providing base accommodation for intending climbers and for the hundreds of thousands wanting to make scenic and photographic safaris and view wildlife in the game parks and reserves, where sighting lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo and a great variety of other fauna is the expectation. It is an area rich in flora, with the added bonus of marvelous birdlife in the forests and on the plains. Trout fishing is an attraction for others in the fern-banked, fast-flowing streams tumbling down from Mount Kenya and the Aberdares.

A scenic drive round the mountain (608 km — 38O miles) offers spectacular views. From Timau, at 2,134 meters (7,000 feet) above sea level, with icy winds off the mountain at one’s back, the scene changes dramatically as the land drops sharply away to the semi-deserts of the north, where camel trains trek slowly to the wells. Camel safaris are the in-thing in Kenya now, a chance to see wild, unspoiled country much as it always used to be, and sleep beneath the stars.

The glorious site in the foothills of Mount Kenya which Col. E S Percy ‘Bongo’ Smith purchased in l935 to make into his exquisite home, is now the luxury Mount Kenya Safari Club, playground of the rich and famous with its unparalleled views of the peaks. Its romantic history between times carried it through two subsequent purchasers when it was converted into the Mawingo Hotel. In such an idyllic position, Mawingo was the base for the l949 film version of King Solomon’s Mines inspired by the Henry Rider Haggard l885 book. Though he had never been there, Haggard had sited the legendary mines in Mount Kenya.

The next acquisition was by a trio of safari visitors with even stronger Hollywood connections. Millionaire Ray Ryan, film-actor William Holden and the Swiss banker Carl Hirschman stayed there, loved it, recognised its potential and made a bargain deal. The charming old Mawingo was remodeled at great expense and opened as the new Mount Kenya Safari Club in June l959, to become the popular venue of world personalities.

The Equator, which is crossed near Nanyuki when approaching the town by road from the Nyeri side, cuts through the Club grounds where the latitude is 00 degrees, longitude 37 degrees 7E, altitude 2,296 meters (7,000 feet).

Is Mount Kenya itself a national asset? Unquestionably, and not just tourist wise. In a country where the significance to pranksters of l April (April Fool’s Day) is incomprehensible to the vast majority, a national newspaper reaped its just reward only a few years ago, after publishing as a sensational front page story that the mountain was losing height, and that methods were in hand for remedying it. For days afterwards the editor’s desk — and all telephone lines — went down under an avalanche of agitated inquiries, almost eclipsing all other business.

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