SI Vault
Gary Smith
May 27, 1985
It is Africa's most mystical mountain, and its denizens include forest children, a zealot and an ancient mother and son. Here is a tick of time in its fascinating history
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 27, 1985

A Day In The Life Of Mount Kenya

It is Africa's most mystical mountain, and its denizens include forest children, a zealot and an ancient mother and son. Here is a tick of time in its fascinating history

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6

It is 6:45 p.m. Darkness is falling. The runner's warning about buffalo proves to be no joke. Two American women from the Peace Corps, Mei Castor of Atlanta and Kirsten Johnson of Whitefish Bay, Wis. are burrowing into their sleeping bags at 11,500 feet. Suddenly they hear a violent splash and a fearsome bellow and one side of their little tent caves in. Castor howls in pain.

A moment later, when the world stops shaking, the women comprehend what has happened. A Cape buffalo has crashed across the stream near their campsite, lost its footing on the bank, fallen into their tent and landed on Castor's right ankle. It hurts, but she can walk on it. She does not even need the rescue squad, but she is fortunate to be alive. In 1966, a couple descending the mountain after dark was crushed to death by elephants. In the early 1970s, a construction supervisor was trampled to death by a Cape buffalo. In 1975, an American girl edged too close to an old female elephant that was escorting its offspring. The elephant drove its tusk through the girl's chest, miraculously missing her heart and lungs. The beast dropped her when a friend hurled a camera at its head. The girl lived. So does Hodnett, but he is growing weaker, more dazed by the minute.

Omira and his team have left the tractor and passed on foot through every zone on the mountain now, each more bizarre than the one before. They have negotiated the lower mountain, with its steaming heaps of elephant dung and dense forest of great bamboo stalks as tall as 45 feet, and the giant heath zone and the moorland where one must hop from one fat tuft of tussock grass to the next or sink in calf-deep black mud. They have gone past plants found in just a few other places in the world, for example 6-foot tall lobelia stalks, so soft and furry green you want to pet them, and giant groundsels that are three times the height of a man and yet a pushover for a little boy. They have thick brown cactuslike trunks and huge pineapplelike plumes at the top that bloom a tall spike of golden flowers once every 20 years.

Rock hyraxes, furry little creatures with squeaky cries, scamper along both sides of the trail like couriers spreading news of the rescuers' arrival in this strange domain. The hyraxes are harmless, but who knows when, out of the twilight mists, a hunting leopard or a buffalo that has wandered too high might appear. A man can blink, look again and the beast might be gone.

The party has at last reached the base of the peaks. Every connection with the world they know below has been snipped now. On Pikes Peak, Mount Everest or the Matterhorn, a man can at least gaze across a purpling skyline at dusk and be assured by the sweep of other mountains around him that he is still linked to his earth. On Mount Kenya, a man is alone.

Omira shakes a little from the terrible beauty that still touches his marrow after 13 years. "This mountain, she is a very cruel lover," he says. "She calls you to her and then she is waiting to kill you, waiting to throw rocks on you, waiting to make you slip, to make you suffocate, to send wild animals at you." Every time he passes the rock-pile gravesite of three British Royal Air Force members buried by an avalanche in 1966, he adds another rock to keep them warm.

It is 7:30 p.m. The rescue team gathers up Hodnett's limp form. He is dazed with fatigue and pain from his ordeal, but he is all right. The porters huddle together around the stretcher, then lift him and begin to make their way back down in darkness. The scream of a tree hyrax chills them. Some swear they have seen and heard the ghosts of dead climbers up here. Others have awaked on Mount Kenya after a night of fitful dreams to discover that each member of their party has shared precisely the same dream. Sometimes, even the rangers, spooked by things they cannot explain, mutter "Damu mbaya" (bad blood) and refuse to go up at all. They know the fate of Ali Mucemi, the first black guide and climber on the mountain. He died mysteriously on the peaks in 1949 and many believe he was murdered.

Omira's party chatters loudly and sings to frighten the wild beasts away. Hodnett moans from time to time. Far below, a soft light glitters at the base of the mountain. In the restaurant of the Mount Kenya Safari Club, where the cottages cost $288 per night, the diners are touching napkins to their lips and ordering coffee and cognac. They look through the windows and say pleasant things about Mount Kenya.

It is 9 p.m. Jacob Kamau, a 46-year-old subsistence farmer who was ordered by his mother to live on Mount Kenya so he would be near Ngai, lies in bed wondering if he will hear the voice again tonight. On eight different nights of his life, the first in 1953 and the most recent just six weeks ago, he has heard this voice tell him to get out of his bed and go climb the mountain. In his dirty black shoes, decrepit sports coat and a stringy yarn hat that looks like dreadlocks of blue hair, he has carried his Bible and his white gown all the way up to the base of the peaks and passed those eight subfreezing nights in prayer. Ngai and the white man's God have become one in Kamau's crossbreeding of Christianity and animism.

He speaks in Swahili of these nighttime pilgrimages: "I move up the mountain as if I am being carried, like lightning. I cannot feel the altitude. Everything Ngai tells me up on the mountain, happens below. I take the messages to the government of Kenya, but they ignore me. Something very big will happen soon and everyone will understand what has been revealed to me."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6
Related Topics
Tim Hodnett 1 0 0
Mike Margeson 1 0 0
John Omira 1 0 0
Kenya 111 0 2
Moses Muchugo 1 0 0