April 26, 2013

To do anything

If I've learned anything from living in Kenya, I'd venture to say that I've learned more about living than about Kenya.  I'm still woefully ignorant of the policies of Uhuruto (though with the oblique explanations I maintain that's not 100% my fault), but I finally know the utility of 4x4 vehicles in this world.

And I know how it feels to maximize time: to experience each day as an adventure and each weekend as a vacation.  Saturday and Sunday never used to feel like enough time to do everything; now there's enough time to do anything.

(Then again, I'm no longer a student.)

After hiking the Ngong Hills the other week, we continued up the Rift to spend a night at a house on Champagne Ridge.  It was a funky-looking place... deep rust stucco and stained glass windows, perched high on the cliffs above the valley.  Not terribly unlike the Flintstone House that I used to pass daily on my high-school commute.

Hippy Home

No one else for miles (ahem... kilometers)

The drive was supposed to take just about an hour, which is probably close to accurate in the dry season.  But in April, with a flat tire, a loose exhaust tank, and several bouts of getting stuck in the mud, it was closer to 4 hours.  

Which might have generally put a damper on a one-night get-away, but what it really meant was that we arrived just in time for sundowners on the porch.

Room with a view

Feet up

And after kicking up our socked feet for a while, we decided to do some dusky exploring on the cliffs, finding a hidden waterfall and watching the sun drop into the valley.  

And when it became dark, we returned to the house to cook dinner, light a fire, and do a bit of star-gazing.  

In the morning, before we packed up for the multi-hour drive back to Nairobi, we breakfasted on the porch.  Even without liking bacon, I'm in love with this scene: 

Dog watches bacon being cooked on porch overlooking Rift Valley.  

Of course, like with the road up, one never really knows exactly what you'll get when renting houses off of a website like this.  The place was absolutely lovely- windows overlooking the valley in every room, including the bathrooms.  But the owners did have some unorthodox decorating schemes.  Beyond the Dali-esque dripping stained glass and tabletop lizard mosaics, they also had several large boulders placed around the house.  And not in corners, but right in the middle of high-traffic rooms.   

Walk walk walk Rock

But if stubbed toes and flat tires are the price of admission, the ride seems well worth the ticket.

April 22, 2013

The devilish details

The devil's in the details, they say.  And those details aren't always well-suited to being captured on film.

The Ngong Hills, just outside Nairobi, mark the imprint of where a giant god grabbed the earth to stabilize himself after tripping over Mt. Kilimanjaro, according to one version of Masai legend.  That's why the top four peaks form the shape of knuckles ("ngong").

The hills have long lived in Masai legend but grew in international recognition after Karen Blixen praised them in Out of Africa.  Today, they are popular with day-trip hikers from Nairobi and the bandits that try to mug them.  (Incidentally, hire a guide from the park gates when you go).

View of the Ngong Hills from Karen Blixen's house

The hike is deceptively challenging from what one might expect of these gently rolling hills.  But that's really the issue- hills, plural.  There may be only four peaks that constitute the knuckles, but there are somewhere around nine hills in total, of varying lengths and grades.

Traversing the knuckles

Hills beyond hills

One of the highlights of the hike, if undertaken on a less foggy day, is the great views of both the Rift Valley and Nairobi.  The juxtaposition of the natural and the urban.  

Background: the buildings of Nairobi

So what's the rest of the story?  The devilish details, if you will?


Safari ants combine the colony-style workmanship of regular ants with the savage blood-sucking lust of vampires.  And they were all up in my pants.  And socks, and shoes.  And you don't really notice until it's too late and they're swarming all over.  There may be some kind of strategy for ridding yourself of them, but in the absence of removing my pants completely and jumping into a large body of water, I had to hop on one leg while two French and Ethiopian girls fearlessly plucked them off.  And then completed the hike with paranoia threshold set to RED, periodically slapping myself at every twitch or prick that could potentially be a critter.  

And what was the reason I ended up standing on this ant-hill of death and destruction?  

Because our path was blocked by a dead cow (also not pictured) and we had to re-orient.

All in another fun-filled day in Kenya.

April 19, 2013

Tucked away

As with any large cosmopolitan city, some of the best spots in Nairobi are tucked away in un-advertised corners.  

Kuona ("To see" in Kiswahili)

Kuona Trust is a spot I've been meaning to visit for quite some time, but had been operating under the mis-impression that it was closed on weekends (it is not).  Kuona is something of an artists' cooperative, where painters and sculptors convert used shipping containers of corrugated tin into brightly lit studios, lining the perimeter of a grassy courtyard.  

Shipping containers

There are 2 somethings inverted here...

Larger than life

When the artists are at work in their studio, they leave the door open for visitors to wander in and out, to view or purchase finished pieces, and to admire works in progress.  An everlasting open house.  

Discordant couple


The trust was quiet last Saturday morning, when I finally arranged the time to wander over with a friend.  We loitered around the courtyard for a while, watching the sculptures loiter in turn.  I asked a man sitting in a plastic chair amongst some of the installations if he was the artist, but he loitering as well- relaxing on a cool sunny morning in the presence of art.  

We finally rounded on a studio where the artist was inside, contemplating his work for the day.  He lit up when we came, happy to discuss his paintings, and invited us to make a print with him.  No charge for the wood, the ink, the paper, or his time.  

And thereby, about 5 hours later when the sunny morning had grown into a late-afternoon with threatening clouds, the three of us gazed upon our authentic prints, hanging in an artists' studio.  

Sketching the first draft

Inking some giraffes

My final prints

Kindly note that none of the pictures of artwork posted here are permitted for copy or resale (including my own!  But more importantly those of the professional artists).

April 12, 2013

Mount Kenya: Days 4 & 5 (something rather special)

Day 4

I would have expected that the day after our sunrise summit we'd be able to sleep in a bit, but we're up at 5:30am, in the dark, to get on the trail by 6:30am and avoid the afternoon rain.  But given that we had spent the entire previous afternoon ensconced in sleeping bags, it's not that bad.  

Moreover, the view from the breakfast table is something rather special.


The sun is up by the time we pack up and leave the lodge.  Still impressed with our previous day's achievement  we take loads of pictures before leaving the mountain, probably for good.  

Hyrax in motion (foreground)

There are a bunch (a herd? a pride? a flock) of hyrax (hyraxen?) eating our breakfast scraps outside the lodge.  Oh, that's right- I may not have properly introduced you to the hyrax yet.  The hyrax is an animal about the size of a small rabbit and looks like a cross between a gopher and a bear.  Their interests include running around, yipping, sitting on tall rocks, and eating scraps.  We decided that their community most likely follows a kingdom format with a royal family: King Harry the Hyrax.  It's not widely known, but all human-folk passing through their lands actually need the permission of King Harry, who sends messengers (or henchmen or servants or something) out to give the formal OK.  It's kind of like Downton Abbey.  With hyraxen.

The birth of this story took the better part of an hour and is looking forward to adaption as an illustrated children's book one of these days. 

As a completely unrelated comment- You really notice how few important things you have to say when you're away from external stimulation for multiple days.  

King Harry's henchman

But we eventually manage to say goodbye and we're off again.

Walking is so easy!  I'm hardly sore and I feel like I could do this forever!  I finally understand the Forrest Gump types that walk/run coast-to-coast for no apparent reason.  Maybe I should do that- just walk forever.  Then it occurs to me that I'm probably benefiting from the consistent downhill grade and the fact that a porter is carrying my pack.  I probably wouldn't want to do this forever... but in the moment it's delightful!
Summits behind us

Going down

With the climax behind us and several days of walking still before us, our minds and conversation wander.  Allison explains the plot of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village to me.  She refreshes me on the plot of the Labyrinth  and comments that David Bowie's obsession with a very young girl is somewhat disturbing.  I see her creepy-factor and raise her by the Twilight werewolf-in-love-with-an-infant scenario.  

Oh no.  I have inadvertently admitted to watching the Twilight movies.

I give a proper explanation for why I have watched the Twilight movies (stuck in the Kenyan desert without power, internet, or clean clothes, but a laptop full of borrowed movies).  

I give a full summary of the Twilight movies.  

We move on to summarizing plots and discussing the merits of good Young Adult fiction books, such as The Giver.  

We're quiet for a while, and I notice that this is probably the longest I've ever gone without wearing earrings since I was 16.  I think that I probably shouldn't blog that thought because it will raze any outdoorsy mountaineering credibility I've built with the previous 3 days.  Then I think that it's the 21st century and I can have it all... Earings and mountains... Lean in!  Or something!  I try to remember the criticisms of Sheryl Sandburg and thing that it has something to do with her being very rich.  If I were very rich I'd write a book about it too.  And put some secret passages in my custom-built house.  Wait, what was the question again?  I was a little bit dreaming...

Walking consecutive days sure gives you plenty of time to listen to your unrelenting mental chatter.

"Why did all Receivers in The Giver have to have blue eyes?"

By now we've reached the "Vertical Bog."  Which is a name I didn't make up for a stretch of the Naro Maru trail, where "trail" really means "bigmudswamp on an incline."  Necessitating the use of Very Fashionable gaters to protect pants and shoes.  Ok, perhaps they're not completely necessary, but I paid to rent them for 5 days, so...

Gaters in the vertical bog, which looks a bit horizontal right now but is probably at a good 25 degree angle in real life.  So... still not vertical but more diagonal.

We exit the vertical bog and enter a rainforest.  Of the comparisons I've heard between hiking Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro, it's almost universally (anecdotally) accepted that the Mt. Kenya hike is more beautiful because of its oft-changing terrain.  

Dwarfed by rainforest giants


The air is fresh, clean, and cool.  We're small among the giant trees, snug in moss.  Flowers are springing up around us, purple, white, pink and yellow.  They're unassuming, not gaudy displays, just enjoying the shade like everyone else.

And we reach our next cabin minutes, nay- moments, before the buckets of rain started falling down.  Which was a combination of good luck and good planning, but the luck was tempered by the fact that the latrines were, again, outdoors.

Then it was inside for another afternoon of tea, food, more food, more tea, wait-I-shouldn't-drink-more-tea-because-the-latrines-are-outside-and-its-pouring-rain, OK... more tea, fun-sized snickers bars, reading, sleeping bags, sweatpants, and sleep.

Cabin in the Mt. Kenya rainforest

Day 5

Up early... surprise!  

It's going to be a short walk back to the park gates.  Maybe just three hours or so.  We spend extra time in the morning taking pictures.  

The rafiki monkeys outside the cabin door

The team

Then, as usual, we pack up, head off, hike for some hours, and arrive at the destination.  This time, the end. 

April 8, 2013

Mount Kenya: Day 3 (stars, stars, and)

It's 3am, and I'm standing in the middle of nowhere, on a mountain, bundled in a hat, ski gloves, waterproof pants, and general snow gear.  

It's time to start hiking the summit of Mt. Kenya.  

We've already been awake for an hour, packing, dressing, and taking tea with breakfast biscuits.  I'm navigating a slight headache from my one single hour of sleep (drinking cup after cup of black tea to stay warm the night before a 2am wake-up was probably a mistake).  One of our hiking companions is feeling an irregular heartbeat and will be unable to join us.  I ask our guide what will happen if we begin the hike but are unable to reach the summit (the Plan B, if you will).  And he says, in what I assume is meant to be a re-assuring tone, "You must reach it."

This is not shaping up to be a good day.

We head outside into the night, expecting chilly gloom and threatening rain-fog like the day before, but find the sky to be crystal clear.  Stars, stars, and a nearly-full moon light our way, and we start the night climb without any help from the headlamps.  

Away we go

It is exhilarating.   My headache is gone, and I feel like skipping up the mountain.  We can see everything.  I see the big dipper.  I see spectacular snowy peaks surrounding us.  As we climb, I look down and see lights of Shipton's camp from whence we came.  It is getting very, very far away.  

In the midst of the greatest great-wide-open I can imagine, as counter-intuitive as it seems, I begin to feel claustrophobic.  It occurs to me the guide is right- we must make it up and over the mountain.  There is no plan B.  We are now several days hike away from any kind of civilization, in all directions. It also occurs to me that the air keeps getting thinner.  No escape and a lack of oxygen = claustrophobia in the world's least confined space.  Now I really feel like we're hiking up Mount Doom.  

We move very slowly, stopping often to catch our breaths.  During longer breaks of 5-10 minutes, our guide lays down on a rock in the freezing cold and takes a cat-nap, complete with contented snoring.  He is more comfortable on this mountain than I will ever understand.  

We reach the snow before long, and eventually we pass a few mirror-like mountain lakes, reflecting the moon.  We keep summiting peaks, only to be told that our destination is just over the next hill.

And, finally, the sun begins to rise.

First golden glimpse

Sunrise over snow

We climb, and the sun climbs with us, and then we all climb some more.

Up and up

And up and up farther

Rosy morning Rift Valley

In front of us, rocks are turning molten red from the morning light, even thought the moon refuses to sleep.

Good morning, Moon.

And eventually, pole pole, we reach Lenana Peak!  At 4,985 meters (16,355 feet), the highest peak you can hike to in Kenya, second highest in Africa (after Kilimanjaro).

Nearly there...

At last!

We eat pre-breakfast on top of the word!  We can see Tanzania!  We are victorious!  We are... nowhere near finished with the hike.  Next comes a two day descent, starting with a scramble down the rocky cliffs using ropes and all four limbs to get down to the next camp.

Step by step

We slip and slide and sort-of-ski all the way down, finished with the day by 11am, just in time for second breakfast.  And back into our sleeping bags by 2:00pm, a mere 12 hours from when we left them.

And just like that, the journey becomes a dream.

April 4, 2013

Mount Kenya: Days 1 & 2 (led by chickens)

In Seattle, I was always careful not to tell anyone that I liked "camping," lest they strap a pack to my back and make me walk for days.  Rather, I was always very specific in my enthusiasm for "car camping."  The kind of camping where you drive into the woods, pop the trunk and pull out your full-sized pillow and the smore's materials.  Which I suppose is to say that I'm not much of a mountaineer.  I'm very fond of the outdoors... tempered with comforts of home.  

Yet somehow my proclivity to say Yes to adventures without a comprehensive evaluation of the situation has somehow landed me here, a triumphant veteran of a 5-day trek up and over Mt. Kenya.  


Due to what could easily be referred to as the clusterfrick of Nairobi traffic, we don't get to the mountain until late afternoon.  The drive up is foreboding, rainy, and makes me question my judgement in agreeing to this trip.  

Driving to the gate, behind stoic porters

No bribes?

But the rain stops and the air is cool and crisp as we start the trek up up and up the mountain.

Within the first hour, it becomes very clear that we will not be able to sustain any kind of quality conversational material for 5 days straight.  We discuss the most desirable method of transportation a la Harry Potter.  The winners are portkey or broom, depending on your distance and hurry.  Everybody hates flu powder.  

Our trusty guide, Paul, leading the way

The sky begins to clear, and the scenery takes on the feeling of Irish or Scottish highlands.  Only day 1, and we are already above the tree line.  A couple of wild mountain game hens (chickens) cross our path and lead the way for about 1/4 mile.  Yes, we are going slow enough to be led by chickens.  

Kenyan highlands

It's a leisurely walk (what was I so worried about?), and before I know it we are at the camp, which is a basic hostel on the mountain with bunk beds and a long string of glorified picnic tables.  It reminds me both of an army mess hall and an old English drinking pub below ground during winter, neither of which I've experienced, but either of which could be easily populated by the Brits and military men that share our quarters.   The camp is cold!  As it's going to be every night for the next four.  We eat in puffy jackets and hats, and we sleep in them too.

Mountain mess hall


Up at 6am, and we're still the last group to leave camp.  Someone clearly knew something we don't.

Our longest day of hiking, we go up and over several steep hills, the completion of each begetting the beginning of the next (mountains beyond mountains).  In our semi-single-file line I feel a bit like we're the fellowship of the ring, embarking the long journey to Mount Doom.  I am very, very cool.  But there are babbling brooks, funky flora, and wildflowers.  Hiking is a delight!  

Paul the guide: "This is the plant that looks like ostrich feathers."  Because, clearly, that's a common frame of reference.

Blooms of the valley

I realize before long that, trapped without any internet connection, my stories tend to taper off unverified.  "Giraffes can't put their head down for more than 10-15 minutes, otherwise.... um... they'll explode!"  Or "Stephen Colbert's sister just won the democratic primary for... um... senator or governor or something.  In... um... one of the Carolinas... or maybe Georgia?"  I should really start reading more than the first half of news articles.

And I'm so distracted with my lack of story endings that I hardly notice the sheet of rain we're walking towards.


And these rains down in Africa are rains.  We try hiding under a leaning cliff, but it's too late- I'm soaked through my waterproof pants, my waterproof jacket, and my waterproof shoes.  

Hiding from weather

This is definitely one of the more miserable experiences I've had in a while, and it's only day 2.  I don't think I can stand three more days of this.  Thinking about the money I spent on this trip makes me feel worse.  Why oh why do people pay good money to torture themselves in this way.  Now it really feels like the trek into Mordor and I can't wait for this to be over.  

That's rain obscuring those peaks, folks

Actually, it looked like Mordor 20 years after Sauron was banished... new buds growing up through the charred branches.

And finally, just in time for the rain to end, we arrive at Shipmans Camp, nestled at the foot of the peaks.  With just enough time to change into dry clothes, drink a few rounds of tea, play Pass the Pigs, eat dinner, and head for an early bedtime to prepare for the 2am wake-up on summit day tomorrow.