Through the Thin Glass
I’ve always been a fan of African flying –the informality and closeness of small planes, the crisp early morning vistas or the scurry through the sunset as the pilots try to squeeze the most from their daytime hours, the typically weary airstrips over the jungles and through the hills, and the excited round of applause every time the plane alights on the red earth.
This week’s flight was no exception, with the early morning start opening a causeway through the usual congested sea of Nairobi’s matatus, Mercedes and motorbikes. Even Nairobi’s dreaded airport seems to smile in the early morning, although the general consensus is that operations are considerably improved since this summers’ fire burned down the main terminal. Our destination was Eldoret, Kenya’s fifth largest town town, sprawled like spilt wine over the blanket of Kenya’s western highland plateau, where a potent mix of altitude and aspiration (mixed with some desperation and a little EPO) produces many a wiry legend of distance running.
Through the traffic jams and past the morning runners, our next destination was Kapenguria, and a small museum paying homage to the Kapenguria Six. Led by Jomo Kenyatta, father of independent Kenya and of the current president, the Kapenguria Six were imprisoned for seven years by the colonial authorities for their part in the Mau Mau rebellions over land rights. The faded posters on the cell walls provided a powerful and emotionally charged account of the injustices they suffered at the hands of colonial authorities, along with a proud snapshot of Kenya’s political honeymoon. Facing the politician’s den was a small wooden shed that had no obvious context in a historical museum.
Behind the thin glass windows lay a gabon viper – lazy, replete, disproportionate in girth, and accompanied by a black mamba, dark tongue and quick eyes awakening the fear of its poisonous reputation. Maybe it is Kenya’s viper that lies quiet as Kibera’s landlords make 100% profit on their slum rentals (90% of dwellings in an area of nearly half a million residents); or the mamba that strikes when the political elite buy up swathes of land around Kenya’s newest transport corridor (Thika Highway). I knew the glass would not withstand an attack from either snake – but I suspected that both were comfortable enough, and was left contemplating the museum curator’s creative sense of humour.
Touch chicken and sweet tea bought our own comfort, peering out from the smoke-blackened kitchen at the steady stream of wellington boots on the muddy sidewalk, before jumping back in the Red Cross landcruisers for our onward journey in the highland rain. For six hours our small convoy wound through the hills, stopping only for the sweet bananas sold by the cheery and beaded womenfolk of Western Pokot, and for the raging torrent of the Kerio river, where a crash barrier hanging into the ravine below told a story of past tragedies.
Eventually, following the churning rapids downhill towards Sudan and the Nile, we were spat out into the wide scrublands and sandy ravines of the Great Rift Valley, before coming to an abrupt halt in the thorn bushes.
We had arrived at the edge of the Great Rift, looking up at a wall of dusty green as the hills rose from the plains, and where our road became two concrete rails, winding on and up to the sinuous ridge-top village of Marin. Reaching gradients of 30%, these foot-wide castings were the cheapest option for access to a mobile phone mast looking coastwards over Western Kenya, and provide the only route into the Sekker valley. After ten kilometres, the rails peter out, and the road, a treacherous rocky staircase, weaves along the ridge, before twisting downwards off the col as the last huts of the village cede to the steepening forest walls.
For two kilometres, the rain drove on, and we bounced onwards, sliding and spinning through the worst of the mud, tossed like rag dolls over the rocks and through the streams, until we finally came to a halt beside a knitted tangle of thorny fencing. A tentative hike up the road ahead revealed that, whilst the cars would slide down, they would be unable to return through the mire, and passengers would need to become packhorses. Laden with water, food and clothing, ever conscious of our status as princes and princesses of the town come to play at being country mice, we slipped and skidded down the slope, through the driving rain and the maize fields under the gaze of the watchful villagers.
Our destination was a small lodge on the outskirts of the village, enclosed by the steep valleys on all sides, where the eye is drawn upwards to the summit Mount Mtelo, sacred to the Pokot villagers, and at 3336m Kenya’s little known fifth highest mountain.
The lodge, boasting the only burned brick buildings in the settlement, is managed by a congenial and engaging young father named John. John was a bright spark at the village primary school – so much so that the village, all subsistence farmers with very limited financial means, clubbed together to send him to secondary school, one hundred kilometres away in Kitale town. Secondary school proved successful, and John, still with the financial and moral backing of his village council, won a coveted and unprecedented place at university in Nairobi.
Unfortunately, the villagers’ resources could not stretch to John’s third and final year at University, and, with his new wife in tow, he was forced to drop out, and return to Sekkerto contemplate his future. Clearly, John is inventive and resourceful, and in Nairobi he had added some business acumen and a network of student friends. Learning a little about the tourist industry, and the direct view to the summit of the mountain from the small patch of family land in the lap of Mtelo, he decided to build a lodge. After ten years of slow, incremental development, the lodge is now a collection of a brick living room, a few round huts, a palm-roofed terrace, and John’s humble living quarters. Business is slow for John – marketing is difficult from such a location, and not many tourists will brave the concrete rails into Pokot’s highlands.
John believes that he owes a debt to his villagers: any benefits from his business are pumped back into the village, eliciting a gasp of surprise from our vehicle-owning Nairobian companion, in the form of water projects, classrooms, employment and knowledge. And, if the cheerful greetings we received as we struck out through the village the next morning are any indication, they are grateful for his efforts.
Our mountain guide for the 11 hour ascent of Mount Mtelo is John’s younger brother, the aptly named Hillary. Our Everest man, sporting a timeworn National Geographic fleece and the brown smile of a sugar cane grower, tells me he is 24, educated to primary school level, and happily married for eight years.
On the slopes, whilst he is running to and fro to keep the troops on the right path, I discover that Hillary is a fell runner of unquestionable talent – sure-footed, rapid and experienced in the conservation of energy. Born and raised above two thousand metres, Hillary climbs Mtelo five times a month, can summit in under two hours, and also has a good tactical brain for racing and pacing – I naively began to suspect that I might have discovered the next Wilson Kipsang. However, there are two obstacles to Hillary’s athletic development: first, the standards are simply higher in Pokot – it emerges that Hillary used to race with reasonable success, at district and county championships – but he never won major races, and never captured the eye of a business-savvy backer. For every Kenyan highland talent, there are thousands who will train harder and run faster to work their way out of poverty, and very few who will succeed. Secondly, I sense that, working in a carpenter’s store, and winning an occasional 50-200Ksh per day in the gold lottery when he is not climbing Mtelo, Hillary has no reason to give up his life in the mountains.
Thus ably guided, the ascent of Mtelo first took us down, fighting the cattle herds for space and footing on the chewed mud down to the river crossing, then negotiating the submerged stepping stones barefoot or scampering after the children across a fallen tree trunk high above the water. Accompanied by two of the most persistent village children, we continued through the terraces of maize, over the gateways of tangled branches, and emerged onto a green shoulder of wind-stripped tree trunks overlooking Sekker to the south, the Rift Valley to the East, and Mtelo above. If it were a border in West Africa, I felt sure the goatherders would be exchanging the conflict diamonds of lowland gunmen, watched only by the free-riding birds and the children trying to stop their football running away.
Through the bamboo forest and past the blackened ashes of a campsite used only by Hillary, and pausing only to check on a tree he had symbolically planted for a friend, we continued into the thick jungle so characteristic of Africa’s misty mountains. Stopping to look at the footprint of an antelope, the jungle erupted into action as a family of Colobus monkeys, with their wise old beards forseeing the coming flight of arrows from the Sekker hunters, took great youthful leaps between the springing branches.
Above the tree line, and after a final breathless kilometre of beating up the stream beds and through the encroaching bushes, we emerged on the summit, and overlooking Uganda to the west and the Rift Valley to the east, joined hands in a traditional Pokot song: two Canadians, two Japanese, two village children on their first trip up the mountain, one Nairobian who had never climbed a mountain, one Kenyan agriculturalist from a distant county, one hopeful Pokot carpenter-cum-gold prospector, and a wandering Brit in desperate need of a sugary cup of tea.