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Mt. Kenya National Park– The Divine Mountain Fortress
At 5,199 m, Mount Kenya stands as the second-highest peak in Africa, boasting almost 2800 km²of pristine wilderness, azure tarns, bleached glaciers and peaks of great beauty. It is a mixture of geological variety, unique montane vegetation, fresh mineral springs and home to some rare and endangered species of animals including high altitude plains game.
From the glacier covered summits to its afro-alpine moorlands and diverse forestry, Mount Kenya is definitely one of the most impressive landscapes in Eastern Africa. This ancient stratovolcano was probably over 6,000 m high in its beginning before being eroded to its present height, making it higher and much older than its rival Mt. Kilimanjaro.
It is highly regarded as a holy mountain by all the communities, especially the Kikuyu and Meru living in its vicinity, who believe that their God Ngai and his wife Mumbi live on the peak of the mountain. Ngai is also addressed by the Kikuyu as Mwene Nyaga which means the Possessor of Brightness from Kirinyaga, the Kikuyu name for Mount Kenya meaning Mountain of Brightness. Kikuyus used to build their houses with the doors facing Mt. Kenya; Ngai’s customary home.
It’s easy to understand why they deified it in their traditional rituals, prayers and sacrifices. To them, Mount Kenya is divine but to many regular travelers, this mountain fortress is just another marvelous sight to behold.
Mt. Kenya National Park is located to the East of the Great Rift Valley, about 175 km North-East of Nairobi, with its Northern flanks reaching far across the Equator. It was established in 1949 to protect the region surrounding the mountain that covers about 715km² and the forest reserve at its base which stretches a further 705km².
The park was initially a forest reserve before being declared a national park which is currently within the guarded forest that encloses it.
In April 1978 the area was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve before it was made a World Heritage Site in 1997. This recognition however only applies to the higher elevations of the Mount Kenya Ecosystem which are above the tree line at 2,400 m. This area has consequently been bulwarked from the intensively cultivated lower slopes of the mountain by a wide belt of protected forest. The Kenyan Government created the national park on and around Mount Kenya not only to boost tourism for the local and national economies. But to also safeguard its ample scenic beauty while conserving the biodiversity within the park and preserve the crucial water catchment area.
This area serves as a vital watershed with the Tana River, Kenya’s largest and longest river and the Northern Ewaso Ngiro systems. The Mount Kenya ecosystem provides water directly for over 2 million people and is also as a major source of electricity supply. It currently provides water for about 50% of the country’s population and produces 70% of Kenya’s hydroelectric power.
The most significant threats to its scenic value and ongoing ecological processes at this moment are mostly the adverse effects of climate change.
The entire mountain is deeply dissected by valleys which diverge from its peaks. The highest peaks are Batian at 5,199 m and Nelion at 5,188 m with its base stretching approximately 96 km wide. There are about twenty glacial tarns of varying sizes and numerous glacial moraine features between 3,950 m and 4,800 m. There are four secondary peaks and about a dozen other remnant glaciers on the mountain that are all receding rapidly.
The climate in Mount Kenya though wet at present, is actually much drier than it has been in the past. It continues to play a critical role in the development of the mountain, influencing the topography and ecology amongst other factors. Temperatures always vary considerably with the altitude and time of day. At 3000m frosts can be encountered at night while day temperatures range from 5 to 15°C. Night time temperatures on the summit are well below the freezing point.
The side that faces the south of Mount Kenya receives considerably more sunshine in the December to March period. With the highest rainfall occurring between late March and the middle of May with slightly less showers between late October and mid December. Maximum rainfall occurs in the forest belt and at 3000m on the South-East side of the mountain where it reaches about 2500 mm annually.
Its lush alpine flora and botanical diversity also vary with altitude and rainfall except for the lower altitude zones outside the reserve that are now used for farming wheat. The African Juniper (Juniperus procera) and Conifers ( Podocarpus) cover the drier parts of the lower zone below 2,500 m. Whereas Pillarwood (Cassipourea malosana) envelop the wetter areas to the South-West and North-East. Higher altitudes around 2,500-3,000 m are blanketed at intermediate elevations by a mosaic of bamboo and a species of Conifer (Podocarpus milanjianus) on the South-Eastern slopes between 2,600-3000 m. The bamboo gradually becomes progressively smaller and less dominant towards the West and North of the mountain.
Tree stature declines due to the cold above 3,000 m and Conifers (Podocarpus) are replaced by the St. John’s wort ( Hypericum) species in the grassy glades which are common especially on ridges. Tussock grasses and sedges predominate the lower alpine or moorland zone between 3,400-3,800 m. The upper alpine zone which is from 3,800-4,500 m is more topographically diverse and contains a myriad of flora including some giant rosette plants. There are a variety of other grasses on well-drained ground and along the streams and river banks.
The greenery also includes orange flowered Gladioli, Romulea keniensis which is a crocus-like flower and two terrestrial orchids; the Disa and the Habenaria or bog orchid.
There are two species of giant lobelias one being the narrow, feathery leaved lobelia telekii; a species of the bellflower family and the broad-leafed lobelia keniensis. The latter are a favoured by sunbirds for their half hidden blossoms or the thin shelled snails that live in them. Giant lobelia grow in clusters up to about 4700 m and collect rainwater in their rosettes while producing their special anti-frost agent to avoid damages from the cold. Continuous vegetation ceases at about 4,500 m although some isolated vascular plants have been found at over 5,000 m.
The parks moorland animals include the localized Mount Kenya mouse shrew, rock hyrax and common duiker. The endemic mole-rat is common throughout the northern slopes and the Hinder Valley at elevations up to 4,000 m.
The lower forest and bamboo zone hosts tree hyrax, giant forest hog, white-tailed mongoose, suni and black-fronted duiker. Larger mammals include the African elephant and black rhinoceros. Even the leopard has also been spotted in the alpine zone and there have also been reported sightings of the golden cat.
Mount Kenya is additionally another Important Bird Area though birds here are not abundant in the forest since only about 130 bird species have been recorded here. The region nonetheless hosts fifty-three of Kenya’s sixty-seven African Highland biome species including the rare and threatened Abbott’s Starling. It is also home to six of the eight bird species that are native to the Kenyan Mountains Endemic Bird Area. Forest birds include the green ibis of the local Mount Kenya race, Ayer’s hawk eagle, Abyssinian long-eared owl, scaly francolin, Rappel’s robin-chat and numerous sunbirds. Other rare birds in the park include the Mackinder’s eagle owl and the locally threatened scarce swift.
Explore Mt. Kenya
It’s not often that you get to enjoy such ‘literally’ breathtaking scenery but the Kikuyu tribesmen are blessed to see it every day of their lives. Your opportunities within the choice of season however still depend on two factors, which are your preferred scheduling and your desired route. The weather can be unpredictable, harsh, cold, wet and windy or completely contrary. All considered, the best time to trek is mostly from mid-January to late February or from late August to September.
Mount Kenya offers nature lovers easy or challenging ascents with superb scenic beauty. A major attraction of the park is the brilliant scenery; starting with the snow-capped peaks which is a rare sight in an equatorial region. A popular activity of course is climbing the mountain itself which offers enthusiasts a wealth of excellent and diverse climbing opportunities on rock, snow and ice. Fewer people climb here than Kilimanjaro but those who do often rank it as a more exciting climb.
The Burguret trail, Sirimon trail, Chogoria and Naro Moru trails are the four major routes of ascent from the main gates.
Even for climbers with experience in mountaineering, summiting Mount Kenya still presents a challenge and natural beauty that is difficult to surpass. Point Lenana being the lowest of the three main peaks at 4985 m and can be accessed by any reasonably fit trekker. On the other hand, Nelion the second highest at 5189 m and Batian at 5199 m, both require skilled mountaineers with technical skills to accomplish.
Since the mountain is so extensive and grants such a diversity of trekking and climbing routes, there may be a need for a special itinerary that you may require which most travel agents will be obliged to assist you with. The Mountain Club of Kenya is one organization you can always contact for more information.
A minimum of five days is recommended for the climb, three days for the ascent and two for the descent. This activity is a very memorable one and thus a must-do for the any adventure seeker. Apart from the superb climbing potential on Mount Kenya, its tarns and alpine meadows, exotic vegetation, adorable hyrax, lovely sunbirds and soaring eagles make the hike one of the most beautiful expeditions in the African mountains.
The Chogoria route is truly the most scenic and interesting of the three main routes on the mountain. Its trail passes the enchanting Hall Tarns looking down sheer cliffs into the spectacular Gorges Valley and onto the beautiful Lake Michaelson. Climbing Mount Kenya through the Naro Moru route is the fastest way to point Lenana but it is not as striking as the other two. It is often overcrowded with many climbers since it’s the most popular route compared to the Chogoria and Sirimon routes.
Sirimon route is the least used of the three main routes although it has the most gradual ascent profile, the best acclimatisation options and more appeal since it’s on the drier side on the mountain. The route passes through impressive Yellowwood forests in the lower reaches which features abundant wildlife and beautiful alpine scenery higher up.
There are four other routes up to Point Lenana which are hardly known or used. These are the Burguret Route, Timau Route, Meru Route and Kamweti Route. The last stretch from the nearest town to the various trailheads is over 20 km of dirt road which can be in poor condition especially in wet weather hence necessitating the use of a 4WD vehicle or an approach on foot.
Many of the icy cold and clear ‘blue tarns’ are fed by melting glaciers at over 11,000 feet. These lakes were stocked ages ago and some of the trout there are now humongous indeed. The tarns are mostly ideal for keen fishermen who are eager to try fishing the huge trout in the high-altitude lakes of Mount Kenya. Lake Rutundu and Lake Alice are privately stocked with rainbow trout which gives an exceptional chance for fishing. Though Lake Rutundu’s waters are not as clear Lake Alice has crystal clear water, its trout catch is peerless with some weighing up to 6 lbs!
Next to Lake Rutundu is the Kizita River Gorge which is a crystal clear river with small brown trout. There is a small boat provided to take you around the lake and previous experience in fly-fishing is not really necessary. Excursions on horse-back to these lakes can be arranged from the surrounding lodges and campsites.
The most comfortable way to get to this area either way is by helicopter if this is within your convenience.
Another subtle but curious feature not far from Shipton’s Hut is the Shipton’s cave. It was named after Eric Earle Shipton who used the cave as a base camp when exploring the northern side of the mountain with another renowned mountaineer, Bill Tilman, in 1930. Amongst the other attractions worth exploring in the park are the legendary Mau Mau caves which used to be the hideout for the freedom fighters during the 1952-1960 uprising. These caves are a historic site that are located near Nanyuki, 18km south of the equator, inside the thick Mt. Kenya Forest Reserve.
Other attractions near Mount Kenya
The difference between the Mt. Kenya National Park and the other parks in the country is that it is relatively cold compared to other situations making it quite unusual considering its location. The park also lies in close proximity to the Meru National park and the Aberadare mountain ranges plus other privately owned reserves.
At about 766km², the Aberdare National Park is situated at the west of Mount Kenya. It is much smaller compared to other national parks though still offers more challenging terrain due to its location in Kenya’s central highlands. This isolated volcanic mountain range is relative to Mount Kenya and is still revered as God’s abode when He was not on Mount Kenya. Throughout the history of the Kikuyu people it has also been a holy mountain and till today people from the land below take the effort to climb to its peak to seek God. Now known as the ‘Aberadares’ by many, the once upon a time Sattima Range is the third highest mountain range in the country and the second highest ground in Central Kenya which forms the eastern wall of the Rift Valley where the former ‘White Highlands’ were situated.
(Kindly see our previous post on the Aberadare Range for more highlights)
Meru National Park
This solitary piece of wilderness lies 80 kms from Meru town northeast of Nairobi along the equator covering approximately 87km². It is located near Mount Kenya National Park on the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya above the Chogoria township. This is the least known and less visited park in Kenya that is made of an interesting group of protected areas along the river Tana. The Mwingi, Bisandi, Kora and Rahole reserves together form the Meru national park. The wealth of the park in ecosystems and beautiful sceneries are unmatched. The forested swamp and savannah area networked by fifteen perennial rivers are what make this park unique. All rivers empty into the Tana River, marking the southern border of the park as the Nyambene Mountain supplies the areas with plenty of water through the copious streams flowing into the park. The hilly Northwestern side with its rich volcanic soil also gets a generous amount of rainfall from the neighboring Mount Kenya Forest.
The creation and further establishment of Meru museum as one of the regional museums of the National Museums of Kenya was prompted by a need to conserve the culture and traditional practices of the Meru speaking people. Meru museum which originated in 1974 in an old historic building that was vacated by the District Commissioner, whose office it had been since the colonial days. The building housing the Meru museum dates back to 1916. In the colonial era it served as an administrative node in the Mount Kenya region. The museum was a joint effort by the Meru Municipal and County Councils, together with the National Museums of Kenya in creating an attractive and formative center useful to the local people and to visitors.
Mwea National Reserve
On clear days Mt. Kenya can be seen to its North as the land slopes to the foothills of the park about 82 km from Mwea Area where the Mwea National Reserve is situated. It is an essentially undiscovered, undeveloped and undisturbed oasis of calm and tranquility in a populous landscape. Boldly painted on a parchment canvas of dust-dry bush and feathered acacia, this diverse pocket of wilderness is traversed by torrential seasonal rivers and stubbed with bulbous baobab trees. Open grasslands are dominant along the main rivers, with occasional thick undergrowth.
Mwea Reserve rewards those in search of peace, serenity and the undisturbed appreciation of wildlife since it is still basic and rarely visited.
Practical Travel information
There are different options of climbing Mt. Kenya ranging from a quick one day excursion to an intensive five to six day hike. The park is served by two 22km roads starting from Naro Moru and Sirimon gates. Both roads are navigable but still require a 4WD vehicle to get to the 3350m contour. Access above this contour is all on foot. The road from Chogoria is slightly over 22 km to the Park Gate at 2,850m. Dependent on road conditions, these distance has been known a whole afternoon to do and in really wet conditions it is likely that the top four or five kilometres may be impassable. At present the park does not operate under the Safari Card system and entry is by cash only.
Park entries for a day trip ranges from shs 500 residents and around $55 for non resisdents.
Carry plenty of drinking water even though you will always get opportunities to refresh your supply from the crisp mountain streams. You should also pack adequate picnic items and camping equipment if you intend to stay overnight along with suitable walking boots, warm clothing, training shoes, socks, sandals and gaiters. Also useful are the usual binoculars, camera, hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and guidebooks that are always recommended on trips.
Careful attention should be given to how the accessibility and technical ease with which Point Lenana is reached create their own problems for enthusiastic trekkers. The trek to Point Lenana isn’t as easy as people think for the mountain has suffered many casualties over the past years due to this ignorance. Most people tend to ascend much too quickly and end up suffering from altitude sickness or related complications. So you’ll enjoy yourself much more by spending at least three nights on the ascent as you get acclimatized successively in between the designated stops. In addition to proper clothes and equipment, you will stand a much better chance of making it back down in good condition.
You’ll again be tempting fate by not taking a proper guide or qualified companion. Even those with ample experience should take a guide when attempting the Summit Circuit. Drink at least three litres of fluids per day and carry rehydration sachets to avoid severe headaches caused by dehydration or altitude sickness. A prior check-up from your physician is always worth considering before you make any serious attempts.
It’s safest to climb Mt. Kenya during the dry seasons around January – February and August-September for the most dependable weather. The main routes are most likely to be more crowded at this time of the year. If you favor complete solitude over the sunny skies, try going slightly off the peak season. It’s best to avoid the two rainy seasons from mid March until June and from late October to the end of December. Rain and snow higher up can however be encountered at any time of year even in the driest periods. Normally the drier seasons are associated with clear, dry weather which can last for many days on end. The best weather is generally in the mornings and convectional rainfall, if any, tends to come in the mid-afternoon.
How to get there
By Road: Mt. Kenya is approx. 175 Kms from Nairobi and can be reached through the Nanyuki-Isiolo road via the Sirimon road or Nyeri-Nanyuki road near Naro Moru. The park is also reachable via Chogoria on the Embu – Meru road, about 150km north of Nairobi.
By Air: The closest commercial airstrip to the park is at Nanyuki.
WHERE TO STAY
There is only one lodge, seven climbers huts and three self-help banda sites that are available inside the park. Just outside the park there are three lodges and another self-help banda site. Hotel accommodation can be found in Nanyuki about 198 km North of Nairobi or in Nyeri which is 257 km North of Nairobi.
Serena Mountain Lodge
It is situated within Mount Kenya National Park, about 193 kilometres from Nairobi, anchored like an ark amid the primeval forests of Mount Kenya. Located at 2,134 metres above sea level, on the lower slopes of the mountain, the lodge is cool, tranquil and hushed for optimum game-sightings. This timbered tree hotel offers champagne-clear mountain air, sweeping views across the tree-canopy, sparkling trout streams and gentle forest walks.
Rutundu Log Cabins
The cabins are placed on the slopes of Mount Kenya just above the forest line at 3000 meters above sea level. They are positioned overlooking Lake Rutundu and surrounded by alpine moorland, a home for unique bird life and vegetation.You can get here by air on the only available airstrip which is 1.5kms from the cabins or the helipad 100m from the cabins. From the Kisima Farm you can ride also trained polo horses through the moorland and up to Rutundu. Another option is to take the fifteen minute challenging walk through the gorge to the cabins.
Naro Moru River Lodge
This Lodge is located at 2,155 m, tucked into the side of Mount Kenya, 16 km south of the Equator. It is a 20-acre, stream-fed enclave of peace and serenity at the base for Mt. Kenya. It is set in beautiful tropical gardens along the banks of the Naro Moru River where it is fed by the melting snows of Mount Kenya and is well stocked with brown & rainbow trout. This location is one of the finest ornithological sites in Kenya with an exceptional variety of bird life.
Timau River Lodge
It is a wonderfully offbeat place situated on the forested slopes of Mt Kenya, consisting of several lovely thatched cottages of varying sizes and a well-equipped campsite with a large covered cooking area. The lodge is in an idyllic setting with a whole range of animals roaming free throughout due to its proximity to Mount Kenya so guests are able to enjoy good views. The Timau River Lodge has camping sites as well as bandas for rent.
KWS Self – Catering Accommodation:
It is set in the alpine pastures on the edge of the forested ravine where the cottage was built in 1972 by former warden Bill Woodley and until 1998 was home to the park’s wardens. It offers four bedrooms; two bedrooms with double beds, one bedroom with a double decker and one bedroom with two single beds. You can get there by road from Nairobi by heading North-East from Nairobi towards Thika, Karatina and Nyeri. About 13 km before Nyeri turn right towards Kiganjo and Naro Moru which is approx. 25 km. From Naro Moru it is 17 km to the Naro Moru Gate where the cottage is situated half a kilometre beyond the gate on the left.
It is also pleasantly situated in open grassland immediately adjacent to Sirimon Gate, the accommodation comprises two semi-detached bandas housed in one attractive stone-built cottage. Each banda has two bedrooms, one with a double bed, and one with two single beds. Travel 16 km northwards to get there directly from the town of Nanyuki, after 9 km you will see the bandas on your right at the entrance of the Park gates. You can also opt to use the Sirimon KWS airstrip next to the bandas if you are travelling by air.
There are numerous camping facilities available within the park for you to choose from according to your specifications if you are one of those who prefer camping. These campsites include, Austrian Hut, Kinondoni, Road Head, Mintos Hut & Campsite, Narumoru Gate, Solo and Major public campsites, Met Station, Mackinders Campsite, Mackinders, Sirimon, Judmaier, Shipton, Liki North Hut 7 amongst other recommendable public campsites.
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