Excitement as it gets higher

Above: Yogi Hikers with Gacheke Jennifer Simmons in middle founder of Yogi Hikers on the Aberdares. Courtesy Desire Wainaina

Published: Satmag Nation Newspaper 9 July 2022

It’s freezing on a cold June morning despite the sun and blue sky as we enter the Aberdare National Park through Wandare Gate. It’s the nearest gate from Mukuruwe-ini the home of Wajee Camp that’s an amazing story of ‘re-wilding’ a farm into a natural forest.

We’re in the company of the ‘Yogi Hikers’ who have invited their husbands and partners for a hike to Satima the highest peak of the long mountain range stretching 160 kilometres along the country’s spine.

“We do that once in a while,” tells Gacheke Jennifer Simons. “Invite the guys.”

A Ph.D. economist, she’s retired with her husband Scott (also a Ph.D economist) to the place of her birth in Hombe bordering the Mount Kenya National Park. She’s also a consummate yogi having studied in Rishikesh, India the centre of the ancient art of health.

Since her return, the tall, radiant woman has energised a whole community of people and this Saturday morning has a group of 24 from Nyeri enthusiastically waiting to scale the heights –some their first time. 

Before the hike, the yogi takes her troop through the stretches and deep breathing in the midst of the moors. It’s the perfect space – the air couldn’t be purer and the world so beautiful. Glades of hay-coloured grass, tough and course to withstand the extreme gales and heat, stretch to infinity where the mountain peaks meet the sky. The famous Satima shows eight kilometres away – tiny.

Scaling Aberdares to Satima he highest peak through windswept tussock grass and giant lobelias and giant groundsels. Copyright Rupi Mangat

And the yogi-hikers and partners are ready to conquer it.

I follow with my ranger Tom Mudavadi while the birders in the group scan the skies and earth for the ‘only found on the Aberdares’ bird. “It’s the Aberdare cisticola,” states Desire Wainaina in the company of his neighbours-cum-birders, Robert Muchunu of Wajee and Mwai Kiroma.

“It will be a lifer for us,” the lads enthuse. In bird lingo that means ‘seen for the first time’. They are also hoping to the other highland specialities like the increasingly rare Sharpe’s Longclaw and of course the raptors.

I watch everybody vanish into the girth of the undulating moors, the wind brushing the grasses like an ocean of waves. It’s crazy unlike the sunny hike earlier in the year from Rhino Gate in the northern part of the Aberdares that takes a route to Satima past the stunning peaks of Twin Towers and the Dragon’s Jaw.

Twin Peaks and Dragon’s Teeth on the moorlands Aberdares. Copyright Rupi Mangat

“Listen,” Mudavadi stops some 30 minutes into the leisurely, windswept hike. All I can hear is the wind howling.

“There!” he exclaims.

 

Mature Giant lobelia with Giant Groundsel in the background on the moors of the Aberdares. Copyright Rupi Mangat

I see a dot on the beautiful mountain plant, a variant of the giant lobelia that’s only found on the Aberdares. “It’s the Aberdare cisticola!”

I’m suitably impressed. Maybe on the last few hikes, I’ve seen it but when you’re not with a birder, it’s just a little bird.

Mudavadi manages to shoot a picture with the instamatic. In the big, wide world the Aberdare cisticola shows as a dot.

Meantime, the moors open to the giant groundsels and lobelias, the everlasting flowers and more mountain plants that have over eons learned to handle the extremes. Pops of bright yellow flowers stay close to the ground while the heads of century-plus lobelias and groundsels stand sentinel to the mountain.

Early afternoon, we reach the half-way point and after a relaxed picnic, it’s time to turn around before dark. The first of the ‘peakers’ arrive as white mist descends to cover the mountain in minutes.

“We saw the bongo,” says an elated Kiroma. “We reached the summit but realised that the true summit was another kilometre away. So a few of us continued and saw the three grazing at the peak. The photos are blurry but here they are.”

The Bongo with its ivory-tipped horns until five decades ago was a common antelope on Kenya’s mountains. Today they are on their last leg with serious efforts to ‘rewild’ them with the few that were taken to zoos in the USA in the 1970s. A handful of local Bongos survived but are so shy that to see any is a miracle.

Back at camp, the images are proudly produced again.

“These are elands,” states Muchunu. “Attention to detail – these have only four stripes by the hump. Count…one, two, three, four. Bongos have white stripes from the shoulders to the back and are a richer russet colour.”

One day, the Bongo may be back with a bang.

Fact File

Wajee Nature Park is 160km from Nairobi, an hour’s drive from Wandare gate. Camp or stay in the simple en suite rooms. It is a hotspot for the Hinde’s Babbler, a bird unique to Kenya. It’s very affordable. https://wajeenaturepark.co.ke/