Let me show you a discovery,” Patrick Ngari announced, stopping the trekking party in the middle of the walk. The 45-year-old with a backpack, a jungle-green safari hat and light sneakers, energetically leaped on top of the embankment and pulled a small branch from a shrub.
“This (plant) is called St John’s Wort... It relieves stress, and can help do away with any form of swelling,” he said, looking at each of us intently. We listened keenly as he faced the winding path uphill. He talked in a low tone but with authority. “We have tried it ourselves here and it actually works,” he said.
For the last 12 years, the mountain guide has gone up and down Mount Kenya “hundreds of times”. “300...400...500? I have lost count, but I have done it more than that,” he said, as we slowly climbed the graded road - a European Union-funded project - towards Old Moses Camp, nine kilometres away.
The shrub is part of the 284 vegetation species that form about 186,000 acres of Mt Kenya Forest, with its massive bamboo acreage (86,000) and grassland stretching kilometres. Besides the vegetation, there are 1,200 species of birds, 200 of which are migratory.
I was part of a media trip organised by Ahambi Tours and Travel Agents. Climbing the densely vegetated Mt Kenya, which usually takes five days and costing around Sh35,000 per couple, is one of the most requested in the company’s portfolio. In one day, we could only walk to Old Moses and back.
“Mt Kenya is beautiful and is always different every time a person climbs it,” said Ngari, one of the hundreds of mountain guides, cooks and porters that serve local and global clients.
“Unlike other mountains, one can access it through three other routes. The view and the challenge the mountain offers is different and picturesque from all those sides.”
Born and raised in Karatina, Ngari never imagined the snowy peaks and expansive mountain ridges he saw each morning would eventually become his source of livelihood. In fact, he used to “abuse” the ecosystem.
“As a young man, I used to raid parts of Mt Kenya Forest for firewood and small game. It was those things all young men used to do, with complete disregard for the environment,” he explained, as we neared Kona Mbaya, the halfway point between Sirimon Gate on Nanyuki’s side of the mountain and Old Moses Camp.
The point was so named after a female student was trampled and killed by a lone elephant. Being a movement corridor for elephants, the corner is so sharp, one cannot see what is on the other side.
“That is a big problem in these parts,” said Charles Kinyua, the 26-year old owner of Ahambi Tours.
“There are many people who live in Nanyuki and other areas surrounding Mt Kenya who have never hiked the mountain or even come close to understand its importance.”
Like Ngari, Kinyua is a “Son of the Mountain”, having been born and raised in Nanyuki.
“In the three years Ahambi has been operating, I have brought so many people to Mt Kenya and none of them is from Nanyuki. It is always a challenge when the locals do not appreciate or help in the conservation of such a beautiful and scenic tourist attraction,” said Kinyua, who started the company after a colleague asked him to organise a trip to Naivasha.
“It was after I lost my job at Kenya Tea Development Authority that the idea of becoming a guide crossed my mind. I was lucky to be trained by a cousin who is an expert climber,” said Kinyua, whose major highlight was guiding one of President George Bush’s cousins on a climb to Kilimanjaro.
“I have met so many tourists whose attitude and knowledge about the importance of the environment informed my decision to see this as more than a job. We have something unique here; we need to protect it with all we have,” said Ngari, who plans to start his own company of mountain guides, which will periodically educate the population about the environment.
A few metres to Old Moses, which only four of us from a party of seven managed to reach, four male tourists passed us on mountain bikes. At the camp, which is set on a hill, they took photos, had snacks, then raceed back downhill. “That seems nice,” said Brigitte Gittah, part of our group.
“That is about Sh24,000 to local tourism. Foreigners pay around $65 (Sh6,500) and locals pay Sh800,” said Ngari.
We took sips of the natural water that runs 24 hours in one of the green cabins, took photos, then headed straight back. All in a day’s work.