Reader's Africa: The secrets of Mount Elgon
Brigid Lawrence remembers the wonder of a hike on an extinct volcano and one of Kenya's toughest mountains
IN December 1960, after several months in Tanganyika, I visited relatives in Kenya. They were farming in the foothills of Mount Elgon, a massive volcano which straddles Kenya and Uganda.
The 1950s in Kenya had been dominated by the campaign the Mau Mau. Thankfully, this was now over and Jomo Kenyatta was soon to be released from prison. But the fear generated by the Mau Mau was still around, like a dark deposit in people's hearts. It also pervaded the countryside and there were places that seemed shadowed by darkness. This fear affected my family greatly. For instance, at dusk the homestead and the labourers' compound were locked down - no one was allowed out. Then, while I was there, an astronomer friend, Freddie Arbuthnot, arrived to stay. He insisted on setting up his telescope on the lawn and for the first time in years, windows and doors were opened, light spilled out and we spent hours taking turns at the telescope. In that high, sharp air, the heavens were magnificent and I watched Jupiter rising, studied the rings of Saturn, saw Uranus and Mars, and learnt that Venus, when it is the Morning Star, is visible in daylight - you just need to know where to look.
Now, partly due to Freddie's influence, my cousin John, his brother-in-law and a friend decided to climb Elgon. They allowed me to join them after some persuasion.
On Boxing Day, the four of us set off in an old farm vehicle, reaching the thickly forested base of the mountain by early afternoon. Passing through a small village, we asked if there was a guide available. A young Kikuyu fellow eagerly volunteered, assuring us he knew the mountain well.
Driving up the tortuous forest track was a bit unnerving but finally we broke out onto the moorland. We'd climbed about 1500m above the foothills. I jumped out of the vehicle, took a couple of steps and thought I was going to pass out. I gasped for breath and my heart raced crazily. After a few moments it settled down and I realised with shock that the episode had been caused by the sudden change of altitude. This process was to haunt me all the way to the top, which made my climb a stop-and-start process, delaying the others dreadfully. They were most long-suffering.
By the time we'd set up camp and had supper, night had fallen. We lay around the campfire absolutely awed by the grandeur and beauty of nature. Overhead the canopy of stars and constellations swept across the sky - countless trillions glimmering and sparkling, while above our high ridge the Milky Way arched luminously. Except for the odd animal noise emanating from the forest, the silence was so intense I swore it crackled.
At dawn we were on our way after an egg-and-bacon breakfast cooked over gas - quite a challenge as the pressure was so much lower up there (we were at about 2700m). As there was no egg-lifter, I used a "siemie" (double-bladed bush knife) to serve up the meal.
We began by cutting across the "backside" of the mountain, working our way towards Koitobos, the most accessible of Elgon's five peaks. The grassy slopes were picturesque and colourful. There were flowers everywhere - delicate blue and mauve and pink bells, with here and there bright yellow daisy-like blooms set in strawberry-red leaves. Mosses and lichens covered the rocks and giant groundsel and giant lobelia formed a mini forest. Tiny brooks cut their way through the vegetation and if a cloud obscured the sun for a moment ice would form on the surface of the water - deliciously refreshing to break off and crunch. Away on our right, the 600m crater dropped away.
Blocking our way up the escarpment were enormous lava boulders, which we had to scramble over painfully. It was nightmarish. But worse was to come: a precipitous climb to the top. I've always feared rock but there was no turning back. The struggle was worth it, though, when suddenly there we were, on top of the world, 4000m above sea level. I collapsed thankfully, wondering if I'd ever move again. However, recovery came quickly and I joined the others gazing in wonder at the wide panorama that stretched below us, far into the distance, across mountains and dusty plains, to the Northern Frontier. We were quiet for some time. Then our guide spoke.
"Please will you forgive me?"
"I'm not a guide, you see. I've always longed to climb this mountain and now, today, I have."
And he'd done a terrific job, regardless.
Going down was a piece of cake. The struggle was soon forgotten and, after all these years, I still remember that climb with joy. © Brigid Lawrence