An anticipated drive to the scenic Lake Ellis at 3,500m up Mt Kenya doesn’t exactly start out as planned, writes Wendy Watta.
PHOTOGRAPHS: BRIAN SIAMBI, PETER NDUNG’U
Growing up you are warned not to trust strangers, but no one ever thinks to warn you about a guide trying to keep you motivated to keep climbing a mountain. I think their ploy is to get you so far up that there is just no turning back.
“Lake Ellis is just around the next bend,” he says, yet again. When we get to the said bend, however, it’s like the lake packed her bags and stealthily left in the dead of the night like a slighted girlfriend. Ever so near, yet so far. I am panting heavily, which arguably has less to do with my physical fitness and more with me struggling to adjust to the altitude. Heck, I remember turning in my bed the previous night, and at about only 3,000m above sea level, that slight activity had me wheezing like I had just competed in some 100m dash at the Olympics.
In my defence, too, I had just walked for six hours the previous day, and when I woke up this morning, a hike was certainly not on the itinerary. Matter of fact, the plan had been to drive our Land Rover Defender up the scenic Chogoria Route on the eastern side of Mt Kenya, all the way to Lake Ellis. In hopes of catching the sunrise, we had gotten up at 5:00am and bundled into the car ready to make the 7km stretch which would ideally have taken us 30 minutes, but even with some forewarning, we had underestimated the state of the road.
It is that last bit of very rocky and relatively steep ascent up to the lake that gets us, and now, the Land Rover is left somewhere along this treacherous trail, and I trudge on as though I weigh 400 pounds. It is rainy season, too, so mercifully it hadn’t poured as there is just no way the car would have even made it through that first kilometre.
My hands are blocks of ice and I feel as though if I were to knock them on a rock, they might shatter all over the place into a myriad of bloody fragments. At this altitude, I am eyeball to eyeball with the clouds, and the rising sun plays peekaboo from behind a rocky outcrop. Despite my struggle, the scenery makes the climb all the more worthwhile. The lush green is emerging yet again from the charred remnants of the fire that swept through the mountains only recently. Reading about it is one thing, but seeing the destruction it caused first hand is a different matter altogether, and I am appalled at the loss of indigenous flora.
About 30 minutes later, I walk up to an elevated viewpoint from which I spot the lake shimmering from its base down below, and a little above my eye line, all three jugged peaks of Mt Kenya are visible. Rocky escarpments and green vegetation frame the setting. The pain of the climb is forgotten, and with renewed energy, I run down to the lake and touch its waters. Lake Ellis is a beauty.
We spot some happy campers who as it turns out, have been here for two days. One, Mathew, an avid sport-fishing enthusiast, is trying to snag some trout but has so far been unlucky all morning. His friends are whipping up breakfast, and I’m reminded that we left our picnic back in the car as the package was too heavy to haul up. I do not even like tea, but when we’re offered a cuppa, I happily oblige.
The rest of the morning is spent marvelling at the lake and taking photos and videos of the scenery, after which our new friends generously drive us back to the car and help us manoeuvre it out of the rut. When we learn that there is a 100ft high waterfall called Nithi around, we decide that it won’t hurt to make a short detour.
WHERE WE STAYED
MERU MT KENYA BANDAS
Commonly known as Chogoria Bandas, this spot is run by the Kenya Wildlife Service. We were unable to make a booking beforehand as the staff are hard to reach given the network situation, but we easily found some rooms on arrival. The cabins are all painted black with a coat of green around the shutters, and accommodation is Ksh 1,500 per person. The rooms are basic with three dorm-style beds inside, and we also had to pay Ksh 600 extra for the gas cooker. There is no electricity, but paraffin lamps are offered and I get my electronics charged at the Chogoria gate which is actually a walking distance away (I however get strict warning not to walk there alone at night as this is still the wilderness). Utensils can be offered on request at no extra cost, and there is a small shop with limited goods such as beer. It’s a lovely spot to stay particularly as there aren’t many options around, but expect only the very basic of necessities and service.
- KWS don’t accept cash at the gate. Luckily, they told us exactly where to stand to get network and we were therefore able to pay with MPESA, otherwise, we would have had to drive back down to be able to complete the transaction.
- It is ridiculously cold. Carry warm clothing, including gloves and a beanie. Jeans, as it turns out, don’t have good heat retention- I learnt that the hard way.
- If you love fishing, carry a rod as Lake Ellis is a haven for rainbow trout.
- Camping is available, so plan accordingly. You will have to be self-sufficient and carry everything you need including firewood.
- The drive up to Lake Ellis requires nothing short of a 4X4. You can however also walk there and we were told that this would take about 2 hours, but to me that seems only plausible if you’re actually sprinting.
- Carry water bottles; single use plastics are banned in Kenya’s national parks and game reserves.