A funny thing happened on the way to Mount Kenya in August 1999
Don’t be fooled by the title, as this not another recount of some epic climb in a far off land. This is, rather, a funny story (now it’s funny) of my first day of traveling to Mount Kenya with two retired school teachers from Las Vegas.
On our seventeen day trip, we were planning to complete a circuit trek around Mount Kenya, including the trekkers’ summit of Point Lenana (4985 meters), before traveling into Tanzania and tackling the Western Breach on Kilimanjaro. This was my first trip to Africa and, after 20 years of travel in the Himalayas, I was excited to see some new landscapes and wildlife. I should have remembered to be careful what I wished for.
Our first day of travels started with a late morning departure from our hotel and a stop for lunch in the town of Chogoria. A short drive west from Chogoria led us to the gated entrance of the Mount Kenya Forest Reserve followed by a 12 mile drive on a dirt road to the Mount Kenya National Park and the Meru Bandas (cottages) which would be our home for the evening. It was apparent from the start that this area had seen a significant amount of rain in the weeks prior to our arrival. The forest was a brilliant, dark green and its depths seemed endless. Colobus Monkeys could be seen sitting in the trees watching as our Land Cruiser passed by with engine groaning and wheels sloshing in the muddy and rutted road. However, despite the slow going and ever-deteriorating road conditions, it was still only 1pm and we had all day to make the 12 mile drive.
At least that’s what we thought…
Five miles from the road’s end, the belly of our Land Cruiser was submerged in a thick, clay-like mud and all four tires elevated off the ground. We seemed hopelessly stuck. As our trekking crew continued their attempts to free the jeep, our guide Moses suggested that Roy, Mercy and I grab our packs and start walking up the road to the bandas. He was rather confident they would eventually dig out and pick us up en route. Moses being six-foot-two and muscles coming out of his ears chose to stay behind and help with the digging. Still it was early, only five miles and great to get out of the vehicle and walk.
The going was slow. The road transformed into a flowing river of mud. The kind of muck that sucks off your boots never to be seen again. We found ourselves picking our way along the “driest” and not so direct path, grabbing on to any shrubbery to aid forward progress. Hours past, the road worsened, dusk settled in and it started to rain. We had no idea how far we had walked and there was no sign of our staff or Land Cruiser. Finally, darkness settled in. Then, as I went to pull a headlamp from my pack, I remembered something Moses told me right before we left him. He pulled me aside out of earshot and said, “Andy, make sure you get to the bandas before dark. There are leopards in this forest.” Ah, the wildlife factor!.
I found out immediately that Roy and Mercy left their headlamps in duffle bags still back in the jeep. So I began walking ahead about 40 to 60 feet then turning around and shining a light on the path for Roy and Mercy. We repeated this painfully slow procedure for an hour or so and then I noticed something bordering on petrifying. As I turned around, the light from my headlamp reflected off of two eyes in the woods. I was hoping it was just my imagination or deliria from not eating since noon, but the eyes seemed to be following us as we made progress up the road. Then I saw that the eyes were part of a large, dark cat-like head. I was silently freaking out because I knew Roy and especially Mercy would be royally freaked, and I’m not sure how the leopard would react to all of our freaking out. This went on for what seemed like eternity before we finally reached the tikki torches that lit the small complex of bandas.
We made our way to the banda of the man in charge of the operation and knocked on his door. Jullian, a small, plump man, opened the door and immediately pulled us inside. “Didn’t Moses tell you there are leopards in these forests?” We never walk in the forest at night!” “Oh”, I said, “yeah he did mention it to me.” He made a pot of tea and offered us a small sandwich as we told him the story of getting stuck.
Now warm, somewhat dry and having had a bit of food to tide us over until morning, Jullian led us by torch to our banda. It was now well past midnight and we were exhausted. Then we all felt it. Not quite an earthquake, but certainly the ground was shaking. Jullian turned around and with a frightened look on his wide face yelled, “Run! The buffalo are charging!” What the? Roy, Mercy and I looked to where Jullian was pointing and then we saw them. A herd of Cape Buffalo, some as big as cars, where stampeding in our direction. I’m not sure what freaked them, but then I thought of the leopard that had been following us. Jullian was gone, Roy went running and I grabbed Mercy as we ran up a short incline and ducked behind a couple of trees just as the buffalo came charging by. It was an absolute freak show. Mercy was screaming her head off as the buffalo were so close we could see the wild in their eyes as they sped by. It lasted a minute and then total silence. Jullian and Roy came out from behind their trees and we made haste to our banda for the evening.
We didn’t see Moses and the crew until the next morning. At breakfast, as we watched the herd of Cape Buffalo grazing a safe distance away, Moses asked us how our walk was.