Here follows the first of several guest posts by Judy Maynard, my mum, who grew up in Kenya and climbed both Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro in the 1960s, with nothing like the kit and facilities we have today! This account of her ascent of Mt Kenya in 1967 was published in “Africana Magazine”, an apparently now defunct magazine, although a new publication of the same name has been in existence since 2004. I leave her to tell the story of her trip!
It was one of those cold, crisp mornings with the Kenya sky unbelievably clear pale blue. A hard frost on the grass made a jewelled silver carpet as we motored up the escarpment from the floor of the Rift Valley; the first rays of the rapidly-awakening sun greeted us over the shoulder of THE mountain, 50 miles ahead. There it stood – the ultimate goal of our long-awaited journey – beckoning us onwards, its mighty peaks sharply etched against the ever-changing colour of the newly-painted sky.
Arriving at our rendezvous, the small village of Nanyuki at the foot of the mountain, we consigned the car to a week of rest at the friendly garage. With the rest of our party we squeezed into the waiting Land Rover which was to take us up to the base camp, towards which the ponies and pack animals were already making their way.
Our route lay along the main road to the north for a few miles, then a narrow rutted track branched off, leading us almost immediately up through thick forest. At times we were more than grateful for the wire tracks laid by the British Army for use in their training manoeuvres on the steeper gradients. Up and up, climbing steadily, the monotony of the endless forest being broken only by the occasional glade, or tiny stream. Colobus monkeys, clad in their long, thick, black and white pelts, barked at us as we passed, and bright green touracos with their flashing red wings flapped heavily across the track ahead.
Suddenly, without warning we emerged onto the open moorland and stopped for our first real view. It was magnificent. Three thousand feet below us the shimmering plain emerged from the base of the mountain and stretched out until it became lost in a heat haze. Above and behind us, the peaks were hidden by a thin veil of mist, lifting occasionally to give us tantalizing glimpses. Around us stretched a sea of tussocky grass and giant heather, broken here and there by splashes of gaily-coloured wild flowers interspersed with patches of duller, everlasting flowers. A couple of miles further on we rounded a corner to find our camp set up in the lee of a sheltering rocky outcrop. The ponies, and pack-animals were grazing hungrily in the afternoon sunshine, although the cold wind made us glad of our thick jackets.
At 10,000 feet we were warm enough in our double-thickness sleeping bags, but early next morning – ugh! Washing in an icy mountain stream at daybreak was hardly my idea of fun, however invigorating. After a leisurely breakfast, we helped to load the mules and zebroids, not without some difficulty owing to the latter’s strenuous objection to obeying the call of duty. The zebroids – bred locally by an enterprising farmer using a semi-tame zebra stallion and various pony mares – were amazingly good pack animals, being tough and extremely hardy, if a trifle wild. Apparently they had, on several occasions on their journey up, been spooked by mysterious noises in the forest on either side, and because they were herded loose ahead of the ponies there was nothing to stop them galloping flat out up the track with the inevitable spillage of some of their somewhat unstable cargo of camping gear.
Mounting our (by now) very fresh ponies, we set off, taking our time to examine the unusual plants and constantly stopping to take photographs. Soon we entered the Alpine zone with groups of the peculiar giant groundsel, looking like overgrown cabbage trees, and the beautiful silvery feathered lobelia acting as lone sentinels. At mid-day we stopped to picnic in the lovely Kazita valley, attracted by the gurgling of a cascade of delicious, cool water. We had time, while the animals grazed, to sketch or photograph the panoramic view now gradually being unfolded, but it was not until we later gained the summit of a col above the valley that the full impact of the massive range hit us. There at our feet lay the Hinde valley where we would make “Top Camp” that night. In a semi-circle above it towered Batian and Nelion, like twin turrets of a mighty fortress, surrounded by a host of lesser, but equally imposing peaks, with knife-like edges resembling battlements. Lenana (which we were to attempt next day), Point Thompson, The Pillar and the vast bulk of Sendeyo-Terreri stood like triumphant guardians. No wonder the local Masai people so revered the mountain that they had named the most impressive peaks after their chiefs.
That evening, contentedly munching their ration of easily-transportable cubes, the animals seemed little affected by the 14,000 ft altitude, and the only concession made being the thick blanket and sacking rug which the ponies wore overnight. The mules and zebroids seemed impervious to the bitter cold. The ponies had carried us remarkably well, taking their time and picking their way through the swampy stretches with ease. Dismounting, we led them down any really steep hills, but when one of our party sprained her ankle and had to ride for the rest of that day, her pony managed the rocky slopes with gay nonchalance.
Hyrax screeched incessantly from their citadels higher up the hillside, challenging this intrusion into their private territory. As if to make amends for that breach of etiquette, our first visitors were the ultra-friendly hill chats – perky little brown fellows who lost no time in welcoming us with open wings, as it were, and certainly with open beaks. Hopping to and fro, perching on the food boxes, they would disappear inside them to inspect our stores. Hungrily they accepted any tasty morsel of bread, cake or biscuit before retiring to their snug nests in old, decaying stems of the lobelias. At dusk the clockwork rats intermittently began to visit us, wearing their thick brown coats and looking like animated pom-poms so round and fluffy were their bodies. They, too, fully appreciated the temporary windfall, and after making quite certain that there was not a single edible crumb left, they trundled off into the night to their perpetual quest for food. As we huddled round the fire watching the the sun sink reluctantly behind the buttress above, the silver-white of the snow shone clearly against the stark blackness of the encircling rock, providing an air of magic, of mysticism. Surely this must be an altar of the Gods.
Waking early next morning we found the mossy turf frozen with rime, which crackled under our feet. To get water for cooking we had to break a thin film of ice on the little stream nearby. Soon we were on our way towards the most difficult and exciting part of our journey – the ascent of Lenana, the third highest peak (Batian and Nelion being unassailable for mere amateurs such as ourselves). Now we mounted the mules which were stronger and more sure-footed than the ponies. My mule, Margharita, seemed to think nothing of carrying me up the seemingly vertical slopes of loose shale, and each time we stopped for a breather it was as much for my sake as hers. The thin air at this altitude precluded any un-necessary expenditure of energy. The going was rough but we made slow, steady progress on and on, higher and higher, with each rise bringing us a little nearer to the summit.
The first snow slope gave us a few moments of anxiety as the mules plunged in up to their hocks, but when we dismounted we found that they were quite capable of making their own way, while we struggled behind. But at last even they could go no further. We had reached the foot of Lenana. So, after a short rest, they were escorted back down to the camp to await our return. They had more than proved their worth and we had nothing but the greatest praise and admiration for the way in which they had tackled a very tough assignment. Their display of courage and sheer “guts” was an inspiration to us all.
From then on we were under our own steam, and that was where our crampons and ice-axes came into their own. The first half mile was a relatively easy scramble along the top of a ridge and around two unbelievably-emerald tarns, but our experienced guide then insisted on roping us up together as the snow was dangerously soft, and to circumvent the concave wall to our left we would have to belay. All this was new territory for the three of us apprehensive novices. In the shadow of the rock it was freezing, and our fingers became so numb that to handle the rope was agony. Then halfway round – horror of horrors – everything seemed to be swimming in front of me. I blinked hard and shook my head, but soon realised that it was no good. One of my dreaded migraines was upon me. How I ever managed to reach the end of that wall I shall never know. I remember only an intense longing to stop, curl up and go to sleep then and there.
At last we did stop for a compulsory long rest to allow my vision to return to normal, then with the worst over, we tackled the last snow incline, and we were there – 16,355 ft above the world. An electric thrill of achievement surged through us as we realised that at last we had indeed reached our goal. Although it was not our highest record, we had all (including my fellow female companion who had been born with a hole in the heart) climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, it was one of the toughest and certainly the most rewarding experience of our lives. We felt that we had truly reached the Mecca of Meccas – the very summit of existence.