Sat. July 29th South-West Kenya
I landed in Kenya quite a bit behind schedule which made it a hassle to get to Wilson Airport on time. I was the last on board. I got a ride with Cyrus, the taxi driver, and we talked about coffee, Kenya, and Indians. It was refreshing to get his perspective …. he was a working man who owned a couple of acres of coffee trees. I arrived at the small airport as the last people were boarding a twin propeller bush plane for the flight to Masai Mara. In but 45 minutes, I was transported to a kind of a Jurassic Park fairyland. My first impression of the North Serengeti was of a dry grassland void of life …. wrong!
After being picked up in Land Rovers, I was brought into a lush wooded camp with an open dining room overlooking the plains. As I was shown to my tent by the porter, we kept passing these 55 gallon barrels imbedded in hot smoldering coals. I asked him what they were and he said they were for providing hot water. All this was in such contrast to what I experienced in Ethiopia … from witnessing a more simple, hand to mouth existence to a relatively decadent safari adventure. That evening, I went for an game run which simply means to go out and view the animals of the Serengeti in their natural habitat.
Sun., July 30th Serengeti
I woke up at 5 am to coffee being served in my tent. A half hour later, we were off in the Land Rovers for a 45 minute drive into the Africa darkness with a promise of color in the eastern sky. the faint morning light revealed two huge balloons being inflated with hot air. Within minutes, we were rising into the sky as the sun rose over Africa! Words fall short …. all is silent but for the occasional burst of hot air that kept us afloat. I was later told that these are the largest balloons fabricated. Ten people fit into the basket. On one side is this striking woman named Stephany from the Kitchwa Tembo on the other side is Ian, the pilot. We float just 10 feet off the ground and brush the tree tops …. over baboons in a tree by the river, over hippo, elephants, zebra, lions, gazelles, warthog, water buffalo, impala, hyena, jackal and on and on. It was hard to believe that these austere grasslands support so much wildlife. After two hours and about 15 kilometers, we hit the ground and fall sideways …. all is well.
Champagne was poured and people talked but I just wandered off by myself and stared at the Acacia trees breaking up the vastness of the Serengeti plains. The entire scene was too surreal …. before me lay waist high grasslands like the kind i ride my mountain bike through in the Wasatch foothills. Yet instead of deer & elk, there are lion & elephant.
I wandered over to where the Masai workers were preparing breakfast. They are good people. We tore mushrooms in half and talked about Coffee and life in Kenya. With lions only 200 meters away we had an incredible feast, complete with wild bees sticking to our toast. One lady, no doubt caught up in her conversation, swallowed one and was not a happy camper!
The landing site was far away from Kitchwa Tembo so as we returned, there was much to see. I saw a lion drag a zebra carcass and then proceed to rip the remains apart for a light mid-morning snack; I viewed all this from a distance of about 30 feet. We also saw several crocadile, motionless on the river bank, 3 to 4 meters in length …. massive! Mon., July 31st Serengeti
We went out again into the grasslands and watched a jackal and eagle fighting over a small carcass. Then up ahead we saw a herd of elephants moving slowly our way; we pulled over and about 15 of them passed by. The head of the clan walked very near to me, came to a halt and stared. Some kind of unspoken communication was going on …. “there’s something happening here; what it is, ain’t exactly clear ….” Then he continued in his deliberate path.
The problem for me with game reserves is that you can’t get any exercise because of all the animals that might want to run along with you! My only alternative for fresh air was to go for a walk with a Masai guide around the periphery of the camp to observe nature. His name was Daniel …. we had a good walk together observing many species of birds and small unusual animals; not to mention countless varieties of flora and fauna. He also pointed out several trees and plants that the Masai use for healing and nutrition. One of my favorites though was a branch of a particular tree that became an effective toothbrush after you chewed on it for a while!
Tues. August 1st Nairobi Coffee
Now it’s time for business. After an evening flight back to Nairobi on Monday night, I needed to rise early for a trip to the coffee auction in the heart of downtown. At the auction over 180 different coffee options ranging from 2000 to 9000 kilos were up for bidding. This was the slow time of the year, so the quality and quantity of coffee available were lower than normal.
Afterwards I was taken on a tour of the Kenyan coffee board facilities. The mill was very impressive, especially the color, light, and ultra violet sorting equipment which sized and graded the coffee.
Also I had a meeting with Charles Gatere, the chief taster ‘cupper’ or ‘liquorer’. He was examining about 150 coffees and putting them into 7 categories and then rating each group from grade 9 to 1. This task demanded acute concentration and definitive decision making. After stopping to say hello, he turned back to examine more samples but I could tell something was wrong. He turned back to me and asked if i could step back because I was obstructing his light. This man took his job seriously …. refreshing.
It seemed that every person I ran into in the street had a small parcel of land outside of the city on which they grew coffee. These people were generally not happy because they said there was not any incentive to pick their trees since it took so long to get paid.
On the Kenyan Coffee board side …. They maintained that payments were often held up by the cooperative. These groups locally represent the growers and take their coffee into Nairobi to be processed. The ‘board’ also believes that many growers have low yield because they insist on multiple use of their land for corn, banana and other crops as well as coffee. The research station at Ruiru also believes this to be true. As with most disagreements, probably somewhere in the middle lies the truth.
Later that night I went out with a young P.R. man for the coffee board named Evans. We walked home from the coffee center to the hotel and then took a taxi out into the suburbs to a popular restaurant named ‘Carnivore’. When you talk Kenya food, you talk Nyama Choma (roasted meat) and this restaurant is the epitome of it! A lazy susan is placed on the table with 6 sauces and 8 condiments (salsa, corn, beans, salad ect…) As you walk in there is a big round barbeque pit with many levels of roasted meats on the spits, including sausage, chicken, pork leg, lamb leg, chicken livers, beef, zebra, hard beast, crocadile, and unu (small antelope). The meat on the spit is brought out to the table and carved on to your sizzling plate. It is your choice as to which meats to eat with an unlimited quantity . The zebra was like beef tenderloin and the unu was very moist and delicious. Evans talked about coffee and tea growing. I found out that he was from a village 30 miles east of Lake Victoria and his wife is from Chogoria, which is situated at the base of Mt. Kenya. The mountain I had hopes of climbing.
Kenyans are a very proud people. There is a high degree of hierarchy in job status and social status. Whenever at work they seem quite serious and formal. This is reflected in their clothing … no California style offices seen around here!
Wed., Aug. 2nd Nairobi & Ruiru
Today I went down to Coffee Plaza and met with John and his boss of the Kenya Coffee Board. They were very polite and had their P.R. hats on, providing me with copious amounts of information about Kenya coffee and growing regions. This was kind of a weird day. I tried to make arrangements to go North but it was hard to telephone other parts of the country. Actually, it just takes time to learn how, as in most places around the world.
In the afternoon we went to the research station at Ruiru …. a pretty amazing place with very detailed studies in progress. I learned a lot about germinating coffee. You only use sand, keep it humid, and water only once a week. After germinating the coffee, you plant it into a mixture of: 1 part manure, 2 parts sand, and 3 parts soil. The chief researcher’s name was Nyaga M. Kainga. At this facility, they have over 300 acres of coffee planted. In one area they have several examples of just about every varietal of coffee grown around the world. Mr. Kainga spent a couple of hours showing me all the research being conducted on coffee in Kenya and patiently answered all my questions. he was also kind enough to provide me with some SL 34 seed that I brought back to the U.S.
From here, I headed up North with Steve from Avis. That night we stayed at Muchi River Lodge on the east side of Mt. Kenya. It was a funky little spot off the beaten path.
Thurs. – Sat. Mt. Kenya
My awakening on Thursday was probably the low point of the trip. At 5 am it was raining. We were about an hour away from the Chegoria entrance to Mt. Kenya and I was going to get up early and ‘try’ to start climbing. But I was so depressed …. it was so difficult to arrange things at the last moment and the rain dampened my spirits. M y hopes of climbing the mountain were fading.
Coffee grows all around the 80 mile diameter of Mt. Kenya. and it is some of the world’s best. All the small towns I passed through were names I was familiar with over the last 15 years of purchasing ‘estate’ coffees: Nyeri, Embu, Thuchi, Kiganjo, Chuka, Kerugoya, Kianyaga and so many more. We stopped many times and looked at trees, and at the green coffee cherry, still a 1/2 month away from picking. They have a disease called ‘leaf rust’ in Kenya but, in general, everything here was very lush and healthy.
What was new to me was the tea. Coffee grew up as high as 7000 feet and then gave way to the tea. Tea is best grown on 30 degree slopes down to the stream that usually runs in the bottom of these very dramatic and lush canyons. We stopped and walked through the tea gardens. Upon receiving instruction, I began picking the top two new growth leaves from each bush. In favored growing regions, a bush can be picked every 4 or 5 days. Once a year the bush is cut way back in order to regenerate. After five minutes of picking leaves, it was easy for me to appreciate just how much labor was involved in this process.
Inspecting coffee and tea took up a lot of the rainy morning, Then I went up to Chogoria which was the route that I desired to take up to Mt Kenya from it’s eastern flank . Well, to sum it up, I couldn’t go. The people who guide up that route insisted I take a guide and be driven up 10 kilometers to the trailhead. They also believed I needed 3 or 4 days to complete the journey. Since I was leaving in 2 1/2 days my heart sank.
As a last hope I traveled North around to a different route called Siramon. In Nanyuki it was easy to find a guide but hard to find one with which I could get along. They all seemed to have that ‘gouge the foreigner’ mentality. I finally hired Laurence who knew the mountain but I never really trusted him. He was too wise in the ways of the world. After much haggling and buying of food, we were off. This was a good example of Laurence’s shrewdness. He said he would go get the food and needed 5000 shillings for the both of us. I told him I wanted to keep it simple. We went shopping together and spent only 650 shillings.
Well by the time we got out of Nanyuki and to the Park Gate and paid our fees ( $65.00!) it was 4:30 pm. The hike to the first camp usually begins about 10 am to noontime and takes 3 to 4 hours. We arrived at the first camp after 2 hours and 15 minutes of hiking, just about dusk.
During the climb, we were going from 2500 meters (7800ft) to 5000 meters (>16,000ft) at the equator. Plant types go through so many changes from the top of the mountain to bottom. At the bottom above the coffee and tea there were many different kinds of sage with blue tops and a minty smell, and lush big towering trees that created a hushing sound, kind of sacred. There were also these brilliant wild flowers that grew about 1 meter high with the top foot a florescent red. It rained a lot up above 3000 meters (9000 feet), but there wasn’t the carpet of wild flowers I’d expected. Maybe because it got so cold at night or it was just the wrong time of year….. at the equator? That night I must have gone outside to pee about 8 times (I was drinking lots of water). There was a 1/3 waxing moon; but the stars!! The stars!! They formed a plush carpet in the sky. It was like a sandbox of black lava sand from Kona with white Burmuda sand sprinkled all over it. But there were new patterns above …… the sky at the equator is different from the one seen in northern hemisphere! There’s the Southern Cross and the Pliedes in August! I felt like I was on Saturn looking at one of it’s rings but it was the Milky Way!! …….. under African Skies. What a change a day makes! In the morning, I was full of depression, rain, hassles, and unfulfilled desires ……. and by night time, I’m at 10,000 ft, with this sky, a full belly, an opaque black silhouette of a magic mountain far off and an eclectic group of people from all over the world who share the same goal as me.
Friday, August 4th
I heard somewhere that it should be required to see the sun rise at least once a year. I never see the sun rise unless it’s when I go to bed. But since I have been in Africa, there have been four block busters I’ve witnessed in all their glory (And one to come).
I got up after a fitful sleep and after breakfast we set out for Shiptons Camp. It was like trying to walk in a rice paddy. You didn’t want to get your feet wet because you knew they would never be dry for the next day. The first few hours, we had the advantage of last night’s freezing and the mud and water almost gave you support.
Today we hiked for 6 hours, 15 kilometers, and about 4500 vertical feet (1300 meters). About 3 hours into the trek we came over the ridge into the Mackinder’s valley, a beautiful huge glaciated valley with 2,500 to 4,000 foot walls (800-1,200 meters). From ridge to ridge was 2 to 3 miles wide with the upper headwall 8 kilometers away and Mt. Kenya rising above it. The valley continued down the other way off around the bend for at least 4 or 5 kilometers, and it bore clouds that were churning our way. The flora gave way to these amazing soft cactus, tree-like growths that studded the valley all the way up to where vegetation ceased, at about 14,500 feet.
We hit camp just as the rain started falling …. no make that gropple (ball bearing snow)! Shipman’s Camp is in the middle of an incredible cirque culminating in the high point of the Mt. Kenya mastiff. I should probably not attempt to describe the beauty of this place. The gropple gave way to sunshine and it was time for frisbee at 14,000 feet. And then came the rain again. I ate well ….a lot of soup, but I had the preclimb nerves. I tried to go to bed at 8 pm …. actually I slept better at 13,800 feet than I did the previous night at 10,000 feet. I woke up at 2:15 am and ate two pieces of white bread and made two trips to the outhouse (a 6 inch by 4 inch hole in the floor). It was cold but not terrible as I brought some ski clothes with me. We began the climb at 3:30 am. The first half was tough, mostly due to not knowing how I would feel and how long it would take.
About an hour into the trek I knew I would make it. Before, when hiking in Colorado, I would get bad headaches at 13,500 feet; now, I was above 15,000 feet and feeling tired but good. My guess is that 20 or so people would attempt to climb Lenana, Mt Kenya today. Most started around 3 am. We had already passed about 15 people. First they would be a little flicker far up into the blackness. Soon they would be breathing heavy and sitting on a rock. There would be a nod of recognition to the shadowy figure …. I learned not to say ‘hello’ because they probably did not speak English anyhow. After another hour Laurence said we were pretty close and we might as well rest out of the wind instead of on top.
Hiking in the night is so bizarre….your head lamps illuminates this 1/2 meter diameter piece of earth where your next step will fall. When one is hiking vigorously, normally things like talking or looking around take a back seat to the business at hand ….that next step, that next breath. Night trekking only magnifies this. But now, sitting against a rock ban that is my shelter I can really look around and appreciate this special situation. Against the backdrop of the heavens, I could see the upper cirque with it’s peaks jutting out above me. Below the flicker of light here and there of the others making this pilgrimage. The problem with being still and taking in this amazing scene was that it reminded you how cold it was outside. Another 1/2 hour of hiking and we rest again. I can see over the ridges now and lights flickering from distant towns 30 to 50 kilometers away. Looking to the east, it appears the horizon is becoming more visible, but maybe I’m just imagining it. There are so many meteors that burn across the void then die …. it is getting lighter! The wind and cold soon capture all my attention. It’s time to continue …. the last 100 meters of vertical …. perhaps 1/3 of a mile more to go. We reached the saddle between Bation and Lenana. There were some big chunks of rocks to scramble up which reminded me of the last pitch to the top of Salt Lake Twins. I could see the cross on the peak and the widening morning horizon behind it. To stand on top is almost not necessary, but I did it anyway. A mile away, the twin peaks of Bation and Nelion take in this flourish of activity with indifference. They’ve seen it all before. Behind the ridges is a sea of clouds 2,000 meters below. I see another group of climbers approaching from the saddle a few hundred meters away. It’s time to leave.
A little ways below, hopping from rock to rock trying to avoid black ice, sensation comes back to my fingers and the sun rises. The blackness was hiding some beautiful alpine terrain below including lakes, or ‘tarns’, as the natives would call them. What an invigorating wonderful life! I show my guide Laurence what it is like to ski in the skree field of rocks. As we’re taking this ‘short cut’ through the small rocks, a cliff ban looms before us; he then turns to me and asks how much technical climbing I have done. It’s really only a small pitch of 5.7 or 5.8 and were ‘skiing’ again down the loose rock. Back at camp, breakfast tastes good.
Saturday, August 5th Mt. Kenya
Then begins the long force march down to the park entrance, typically taking about 6 hours; we do it in 3 1/2 hours and I’m feeling pretty rubbery. The wise hiker would do this entire trek in 4 or 5 days in order to get used to the higher altitude and to relax a little in this amazing environment. But early tomorrow I’ll have to be on a plane home, and it takes 4 hours to drive back back to Nairobi.
So we do the entire climb in less than 48 hours ….. fools rush in. The price I paid was a doozy of a head cold, and an ear infection which plagued me on my long journey home.
Just as an aside, everyone I met would ask, “where are you from?”. I was surprised at how many guessed other countries before the U.S.A. But after I thought about it ….. when I was in Ethiopia with Bereket, we would meet someone and he would tell me where he was from very accurately. (This is quite a challenge because there are about 200 tribes in Ethiopia.) He knew by their accent and mannerisms. Since I was from a totally different background and culture, I didn’t have a clue. They all looked similar to me. So why should I be surprised that to Africans I would look and sound the same as every other white honky! By the way, when they found out I was from U.S.A. they would say knowingly:
“yes, it’s near California”.
It was a great privilege for me to come to Africa. My time on Mt, Kenya was the icing on the cake. This was no major accomplishment by mountaineering standards. But for me, Mt. Kenya offered mystery, challenge and a chance to satisfy my insatiable hunger for being in the mountains. It was my dream to climb this peak since I first laid eyes on it in a book about trekking in east Africa many moons ago. This desire was only magnified when I realized that at the base of this massive geological formation was one of the great coffee growing regions of the world.
– John Bolton …… Salt Lake Roasting Co.