A walk on Mount Kenya – mystical, magical

Published Saturday Magazine, Nation newspaper 1 July 2017

Above Castle Forest Lodge built in 1910 – the original house Copyright Rupi Mangat

The tarmac road comes to an abrupt end at the gate of Kenya Forest Service – Castle Forest Lodge. The contrast between the flat green carpet of tea fields and the miasma of natural forest on Mount Kenya’s eastern slopes is sudden.

Tall trees compete for sunlight. Vines climb the sturdy branches while shrubs fill the gaps. Twenty minutes up the murrum road with heaving clouds close to the emerald green lawns of the epic Castle Forest Lodge, we step into the cold mountain air of God’s mountain or Kirinyaga as the Kikuyu call it.

It’s where the British queen now 91 is said to have spent some days as a young woman. The timber lodge is quaint – simple but in the most beautiful surroundings overlooking the forest valley and the canopy of trees.

Lounging on the verandah of my cottage, a guide passing by whispers to alert me of a herd of six elephant metres away lick the salt silently in the valley and then silently vanish into the forest. For the world’s largest land animal, the elephant can be as silent as a mouse.

It’s the cold that gets us walking after a hearty breakfast the following morning into the forest along Kamweti route that goes all the way up to point Lenana on Kenya’s tallest mountain.

We’re shrouded in mist.

Joseph Munene th guide cum chef at Castle Forest Lodge Copyright Rupi Mangat
Joseph Munene th guide cum chef at Castle Forest Lodge Copyright Rupi Mangat

As the morning warms the mist lifts, Joseph Munene, our jovial guide cum chef at Castle Forest Lodge accompanies us.  Guests on horseback trot past and Munene points to a hyena’s spoor on a muddy patch – it’s the Spotted, the most numerous of the three species in Kenya.

A few metres on a high slope against the white clouded sky the twin granite peaks of Batian and Nelion on God’s mountain appear. “I climbed twice to the Lenana from here,” tells jovial Munene. “And that’s enough.” It took five days to track up and down.

Munene keeps up the banter, pointing to the eucalyptus and pine plantations that are being harvested. Our man is also a great birder and imitates more than 20 species of birds that we hear in the forest – a fantastic duet between man and bird. There are 140 species recorded on this side of the mountain.

A Great sparrow hawk flies across the path, a raptor on the hunt. A furry little mole minus its head has been a snack for some other predator. Stopping on the wooden-plank bridge over River Karote to look out for any Rainbow trout that were introduced into the mountain streams in the early 1900s by the eccentric Grogan of the Cape to Cairo fame for the love of a woman, Munene remarks, “It’s a very tasty fish, you only need to cook it lightly.”

Waterfall at Castle Forest Lodge Copyright Rupi Mangat
Waterfall at Castle Forest Lodge Copyright Rupi Mangat

The water is crystal clear. A man harvests the mountain grass for his cattle and another group check on the beehives hanging in the trees. Wispy lichens dangle from branches full of moss. The mountain air is heady – fresh and pure.

In the silence of the upper vales, a troop of Colobus monkeys feed high in the trees and leap through the jungle with their white-tufted tails giving them away.

On the next mountain stream that’s Kathiva, it’s the African crowned eagle soaring. “It will hunt the Colobus monkeys,” observes Munene. “And when it’s around, the monkeys begin to hide in the lower branches.” This old-world monkey rarely comes to ground, perfectly adapted to living high in the trees eating leaves.

Four hours later we’re back to the quaint old lodge and served with hot lunch and coffee on the verandah.

A middle aged man touches the stone wall of the lodge. “My grandmother carried the stones from the river that were used to build this lodge in 1910,” he says. Before l can badger him with more questions, he’s left with his family.

Strolling after lunch, a steep path leads to the two waterfalls along Karote River. They thunder down weaving their way through the valley filled with towering tree ferns and massive old trees to reach the Tana, Kenya’s longest river that drains into the Indian Ocean.

Great ways to Castle Forest Lodge –Kirinyaga County

Rustic and simple – Choose to stay in self-catering cottages, one-roomed bandas or the two-roomed cottages (all ensuite) on spacious grounds – ideal for kids to run around. Good home-cooked meals served in the 1910 building where the Queen’s simple room is.

You must carry warm clothes and good shoes to ward off the cold. The hot season is December to March.

Five walking trails and a secret hut in the forest if you really want to be alone.

Two routes to Castle Lodge from Nairobi both along Thika-Karatina road.

Via Makutano past Mwea’s rice fields. Turn left at the junction for Castle Lodge. If you don’t turn but continue straight Embu is 13kms away.

Karatina is 25km from Castle Lodge.

Via Sagana off the Kutus-Kianyaga road and to Kimunye. Visit the tea factory. Rich farming area with coffee and other crops.