Conquering Mt. Longonot
It‘s a chilly morning; an hour before sunrise. I have arrived at Kencom bus stage. According to the text message I received from Loita Safari Trekk team, we are supposed to gather here before departure. I am geared up. I’ve got with me a small back pack that houses my snacks, water, juice, fruit, glucose, scarf, a t-shirt and sunglasses. I am wearing three quarter trousers, sports shoes, socks, a t-shirt and a hoodie. My spirit is high and I am ready to roll. It will be my 3rd time to hike up Mt. Longonot.
The only difference this time is that I am so excited to go up and around the crater. I was here a little early. I see other people outside Bata shop on the Hilton building, but I can’t tell if they are supposed to come with us. So I cross over. If you’re not careful, you can join a group travelling to a very different location. My outgoing character makes me talk to several people here. They are also going hiking but to different places. Ngong Hills, Mt. Kenya, Kilimambogo, Elephant Hills and Kijabe were some of the hikes highlighted by the people I met. This movement of hikers is huge. People are more keen about keeping fit, although the agendas of hiking might be different from person to person.
I receive a call from Leonard (the founder and owner of Loita Trekk Safaris) and he informs me that the pickup location has changed due to lack of parking space at Kencom. The new location is City Market on the upper side of CBD. So I walked to where the vehicles ferrying us to Longonot were parked.
A 51 seater bus, an overland truck and a safari minivan were all heading to Longonot. This is a large crowd. At this point if anyone had thought they would be the only one not making it to the top, they were assured that from the entire crowd of 120 people, there must be someone Unfit. Its 7.00AM and the number of people here has now increased drastically. Leonard with the help of a guy they called Steve starts the formalities of checking us in. Surprisingly, only 4 people have not arrived. For such a large crown I was expecting more people to be late. They are informed via Whatsapp messenger that the convoy will be leaving in 10 min. Only 1 person is lucky to make it within the 10 min. The rest are lucky. We’re just going to have to leave without them. “This is cruel”, a lady sat next to me exclaimed. Steve heard this and he explained that, they could not keep 117 people who arrived on time and others (like me) earlier to wait for only 3 people whom they were not sure of their location.
A black, tight, fitting top showcasing the amazing works of God, white sports shoes, braided hair, a hat and sunglasses characterized the Lady I am seated with. She looks flawless and pretty. I kept asking myself why she needed to go hiking with a body in such good shape. I’m afraid to ask. So I let it go and concentrate on general topics that will build Kenya.
At 8.45AM we find ourselves at The Great Rift Valley view point. We will have a 15 min break to take pictures and experience the thrill of God’s creation. Everyone looks excited and energetic. It is at this point that I meet my good friend Maureen. She was in the 51-seater bus, while I boarded the overland truck. I invited her for this hike as a good friend would do. I want her to keep fit as well although she already looks fit. Looking at how she is dressed, you can tell she is ready to conquer the mountain. We have a few minutes to catch up before we proceed.
We drive past Maai Mahiu town and arrived at the Gate of Mt. Longonot National Park 20 min to 10.00Am. We alight and used the wash rooms to freshen up (It is amazing how the washrooms here are well maintained). As Leonard is paying park fees for all of us, Steve gathers everyone for team dynamics.
We introduce ourselves by name, where we work and an animal that we like. We stretch and play a few games and by the time we’re done, everyone is happy and free to mingle with anyone in the crowd. Leonard is back with receipts and he does a briefing about the mountain and gives us a plan on how we are going to hike. We are divided into groups so that we can keep an eye on each other and be accountable for each other..
Leonard is a friend of mine. We have gone hiking before to several destinations. He knows I am fit. He is confident that I can handle the mountain and come back in one piece. For this reason, he assigns me the responsibility of a sweeper (This is a term given to someone who remains behind and helps those who are struggling). Well, I take up the responsibility obligingly as this means that I can rest for a few minutes as the others start the hike. After chatting with the wardens at the gate for a while, I start the hike too. I want to start with speed and see how long it would take me to catch up with the last group.
Mt. Longonot has 3 levels of difficulty. The first level is a steep slope, 1 km from the gate, the second level is getting to the rim of the crater and the third level is going round the crater. I got to the first level. This is where the lazy people will give up. The ground here is slippery and if a person has shoes without a grip, then that would be the end. I help two ladies here to get over this hurdle. Right after this stage, there is a shade with seats where people can rest. We sit here for some minutes. I did not know I made a good motivational speaker :) I encourage them to go up and not to give up and they listen to me. We start on the other half of the mountain. The pace we use here is like that of a tortoise with so many rest breaks. It takes us an hour and a half after the first group to reach the rim on the crater. Everyone is happy to see the two ladies have finally made it to the top.
After an hour’s rest, it’s time wheat separated from Tares. Going round the crater is 7.2Km and this can take up to 3 hours. Leonard warns us that if one feels tired, or not confident enough to go round, then to rest for a while instead and then hike down to the gate. Only, 30% of the group is confident enough to go round. The journey commences. I still have the same role, but this time around it’s easy. Everyone going round looks fit, confident and highly motivated. I lag behind for some minutes to catch up with a few people. Going round the crater is fun at the beginning. It’s not steep and the views are amazing. I start motivating myself. I sing to myself. I assure myself that I can and will make it. After walking for a quarter of the rim, I can’t see the last person in our group. I panic a little. “These guys must be very fit” I think to myself. However, this is better for me because I will walk at my pace. I soldier on. Heading to the summit of the mountain is the major challenge of this hike. Due to erosion, the pathways have been reduced to thin and deep trenches. This means that to move ahead, one has to use hands for support. It is at this point that I meet four guys in our group resting. I join them and after a while, we proceed. The ultimate goal is to get to the summit. The struggle this tome is real. Thankfully, we pull through. The joy, happiness, feeling of achievement, and relief is written on everyone’s face. It’s now time to rest, take pictures and make fun at Kilele Ngamia.
Fun time’s over. It’s now time to proceed. We are halfway round the crater. This next half of the rim is a little downhill and flat. No more going up, after all we are at the highest point of the mountain. It’s a little slippery and we have to be careful lest we fall inside the crater. Slowly by slowly; step by step; supporting each other as we go downhill. No sooner had we completed the steep downhill than it started raining. It starts with showers and in my head I’m thinking it’s just a passing cloud. I encourage the team as I try to motivate them to soldier on. Deep down I am sure if the rain is heavy, we will have trouble completing the remaining distance down the crater. If the trenches become filled with rainwater and the path gets slippery, we will be doomed. We increase our pace. We are on flat level now and it’s easy to move faster. The showers are relentless. I left my hood in the vehicle; therefore, I have got nothing to cover myself with. Suddenly, the wind starts blowing. If I remember my Geography well, this is the wind that goes round and inside the crater. The cloud stops right above the crater and heavy downpour comes ruthlessly. The wind also gets fierce. This must be how hell is like.. My left side from head to toe is feeling the wrath of the rain and wind. We increase our speed, fearing that the floods would wash us away and into the crater. Everyone is pumped up with adrenaline. No one has the time to stop or pause to catch a breath. I start freezing. I can’t fold my fists firmly. My left ear is cursing me. I can’t look upright because the rain drops are hitting my head like they are on a mission to render me unconscious. Just how cruel can nature be? Thinking that I came to this hike to appreciate nature is tormenting. I am so jealous of a Lady who has her rain coat on. It’s covering her from head to toe including her back pack. Look at me, I am all exposed. The rain drops are really having fun and enjoying landing on a soft surface.
We thankfully arrive at the shade where we were resting before we had started going round the crater. Everybody else has gone downhill. We sit to catch breath while trying to keep warm. The rain reduces and now its light showers. The wind eases up too. By this point I can’t feel my left hand. The only option I have is to accelerate downhill and put my hood on. That’s the only way to bring my left side back to life. Everyone is ready to start the 1.5km journey. Going downhill is actually tasking. The shoes’ grip is really coming in handy but once in a while the grip would fail. And we would have to use our hands to crawl down a steep slope. The rain fads away and it’s bright again. You know the saying that “After the storm comes the calm”? This was in true revelation. We are trying to pace ourselves because we have seen the gate. You know that finishing power that athletes have that makes them complete a race like they have just started? Unfortunately, we have got no energy. Our bodies have reserved the little energy left to produce enough warmth. The lady with the rain coat turns back, looks at me and says “Thank you for not leaving us behind.” Through my torment I was able to feel a little pang of happiness. “1.5 km plus 7.2 km is done! We did! I am fit!” I tell myself. We join the rest down at the restaurant for lunch and a drink before boarding our respective vehicles back to Nairobi, having added Mt. Longonot to the things that we have conquered.
Eliud Ndungu, a part-time adventure travel blogger who’s been exploring his motherland-Kenya for over 3 years