by Andre Lalonde
In the Spring of 1989 I bought a house in Wakefield along the Gatineau river, but Before I could move in, I was offered a chance to work in Kenya for an NGO called IUCN. At 29 years old, I didn’t hesitate to leave my job at CIDA for an adventure I knew would not come around twice. The dream job as a conservation project officer turned sour when office politics got the best of me and I was unemployed a year later. Everyone expected me to return home with tail between my legs but I stayed to see as much of Africa as I could on a shoe string budget over the next 4 months. That was the best decision I ever made.
I met Linda on the island of Lamu when she walked up to me and asked if I was missing the snow in December. Without knowing anything about mountain climbing, Linda easily convinced me to join her to climb Mt. Kenya. I borrowed some old camping equipment from my housemate and we caught a matatu bus for Nauru Mauro. We arrived at the River Lodge hotel which was expensive for us so we split a delicious dinner at the swanky restaurant and got permission to pitch our pup tent behind the lodge for free. That night in the tent we were startled when we heard what sounded like dogs fighting. Turns out, they were mating and the male got his penis stuck and they were dragging each other around our tent. Not very mood enhancing but we had a good laugh and it broke the ice.
We were doing this trip on the cheap and taking our sweet time, unlike the Austrians and Germans we saw running along, completing the journey in 3-4 days to avoid getting altitude sickness. Loaded with provisions and equipment, we hitchhiked to the park gate and began our journey up the mountain. As if to tantalize me, I spotted some Colobus monkeys with long flowing white fur in some trees but before I could grab my camera, they were gone.
Our first stopover was the Met station at about 9,000 feet which made for a cool night. Sleep came easily after our long arduous walk. Next morning we continued our trek off the beaten track where we found scenic spots the runners were missing in their rush to conquer the mountain. At one point, I left my precious camera behind and had a dreadful time retracing my steps as the fog rolled in. I found the camera by tripping over it! The giant lobelia vegetation and Hyrax made it feel like another planet.
Linda began complaining of altitude sickness (AMS) symptoms. First a headache, then nausea and then tossing her cookies. I was worried for her but we had no food to spare! Aspirin and frequent rest stops didn’t help her despite a lighter pack load (a porter took one of her packs down the mountain). Soon after, a couple of entrepreneurial porters told us we were still about 3 hours from our destination (Mackinder’s hut). Linda was feeling even worse by then and talking about abandoning the trek altogether. I proposed we head for the lowest elevation (without serious backtracking) and set up camp for the night and see how she felt next morning. Thankfully she agreed and we began our scramble down the steep hill to the Teleki river about 1 km below. I saw a huge bird sitting on a giant lobelia tree and it refused to budge as we approached it. Like a beacon, the Mackinder eagle owl with huge orange eyes, never left us and seemed to guide us to the perfect spot.
I managed to make dinner on a camp fire with the little wood lying around (no trees here) and then Linda went off to bed. Later I saw the tent had collapsed and realized she had placed a lit candle by the entrance with a chocolate bar gift for me and the flame had melted the guy wire. Only then did I realize it was Christmas Eve. I felt fondness and compassion for Linda and grateful to this magical owl that guided us here. Although I felt sad to be missing Christmas with my family, I thought, “wow, look where we are!”
We woke up Christmas morning to see everything coated with white frost as if it was cut from a crisp blue sky. Linda was finally acclimatized to the altitude and in better spirits. We turned a corner last night and today was the Christmas miracle.
Back on the trail we found ourselves at the Mackinder’s hut about an hour later. As suspected, the porters had exaggerated the distance to obtain a small ransom to carry our bags. The hut was surprisingly crowded for Christmas day so we stayed at the Rangers hut a little further on with 5 or 6 British Army recruits. I spent the best Christmas day ever by myself exploring the nearby rock peaks, glaciers and turquoise glacial lakes.
Next morning our journey took us up a murderous scree that brought us to the base of the majestic twin peaks at 17,000 feet above sea level. I was pleasantly surprised to see some Peace Corps volunteers having a rousing game of hacky sack and immediately dropped my pack to join in. The Austrian hut nearby was beside a gorgeous alpine lake where everyone filled up on drinking water.
The majestic twin peaks of this extinct volcano were usually enshrouded in fog that moves in and out daily like giant lungs but today all was clear. Kilimanjaro doesn’t have the volcanic plugs like Mt. Kenya, we could see fearless climbers going up the vertical walls and camping in their little cocoon bags. We secured beds in the porter’s cabin in exchange for Linda’s boots that she didn’t need anymore. It was so cold that night we slept with every piece of clothing on.
Next morning we got up around 5:30 to climb Point Lenana (highest non-technical climbing point) to watch the sunrise. We almost ignored the alarm wakeup call, but this was something I had to do. I pushed myself to be the first to reach the summit at the top of the world. Our water bottles froze along the way as did our asses but it was worth it when we saw the sun emerge over the clouds below. It felt and looked like we were in heaven!
On return, most people slid down the slope which looked like a fun shortcut, but I was against it because this ritual left a large darkened smear on the snow that attracts sunlight and hastens the melting of this magnificent and important glacier. Sadly, the reflectivity of the ice is changing so fast the glaciers may soon be gone. I did my little part by collecting some gas canisters left by tourists but soon realized this was a drop in the polluted bucket. I later spoke to park officials as a “conservation officer” about the garbage problem and how it could be better managed and they agreed.
Before continuing our journey next morning, I went to fill our water bottles from the nearby glacial lake. Seems last night’s frigid temperatures froze the lake solid (most people fill up during the day). Like an idiot, I walked onto the ice and without warning, I promptly fell in. Luckily no one saw this happen as my Canadian pride was hurt. Guess I needed a bath anyway!
Our journey down the other side of the mountain along the Chogoria route had less wildlife but better scenery. The sun was out and it was getting warmer as we descended which thankfully allowed my clothes to dry.
I could not get over the “hoodoo” rock formations, canyons and sweeping vistas as we slowly descended. I wanted this decent to last forever.
It was starting to rain as we arrived at Minto hut at dusk. Being free made it an easy choice to stay for the night. We watched a perfect sunset with two small lakes silhouetting the mountain views in the distance. The experience was ethereal. We cooked supper on our small gas stove and played cards with the three porters we shared the hut with.
The next morning we visited the edge of the gorge called “the temple” at about 300 butt-clenching metres straight down.
When we reached the end of our journey we still had a 26 km dirt road to contend with. We managed to thumb a lift in a ridiculously over-crowded Toyota to the park gate. Here we picked up Linda’s bag that the porter had brought down. We then hitched another ride in the back of a delivery truck to Nairobi. We bounced around in the windowless cabin with parcels but we didn’t care, this had been the most memorable Christmas ever!