PPsychologist and curious world traveller Nandini Chakraborty took her 12-year-old daughter on a wild and challenging hike up Mount Kenya for some all-important bonding time, discovering sides of her daughter she didn’t know existed along the way…
All the team assembled – Image by Nandini Chakraborty
“It is only two to three hours of hiking per day and slightly steeper than Rutland water?” said my daughter Ishani, referring to a slightly sloping cycling trail she’d completed a few weeks before. The plane was just touching down in Nairobi and my 12-year old had chosen that exact moment to compare our planned epic hike to Point Lenana on Mount Kenya to her recent school trip.
I grimaced slightly. “Actually it will be six to seven hours hiking per day, and much steeper than Rutland water,” I explained. The plane had started taxying to the gate. She opened her mouth in a silent scream, goggle-eyed with horror, and blurted “Can I strangle you?”
“That might be a little inconvenient,” I retorted.
She leant back in her seat with resigned indignation. “You’re a doctor and this is what you call ‘informed consent’,” she huffed.
Six months ago, I looked at my daughter and instinctively felt that she had grown up exponentially in the last year. Suddenly, she appeared stronger, more confident, even tough. I had a brilliant idea: we needed a mother-daughter trip to bond, a few days not just away from the hustle and bustle of daily life but also away from civilization in the very lap of nature, doing something together. Hiking up to the third highest peak of Mount Kenya, Point Lenana, seemed to be just the thing. An off-the-beaten track hiking trail with hardly any crowds, the challenge was difficult enough to bring a sense of satisfaction, but wouldn’t require ‘superwoman’ fitness levels. It was perfect. I asked Ishani if she wanted to camp and hike up Mount Kenya with me. She shrugged her shoulders and said it sounded “cool”. But perhaps I had left out some minor details.
Mount Kenya – Image by Nandini Chakraborty
So, in July 2014, less than 24 hours after we’d landed in Nairobi, we met the team at Nayuki gate, the entry point into the Sirimon route, including Duncan and John (our guides), Edward (the cook) and six porters.
We set off, well-stocked with water, cereal and chocolate bars, hiking sticks and sturdy boots. The Sirimon route starts off in thick rainforest with tall trees, and baboons, white and black colobus monkeys and antelopes bounding across our dusty path. Somewhere, we crossed from the Northern Hemisphere into the Southern Hemisphere.
After two hours the forest thinned into an abundance of tall grass and hira bushes. Another three hours or so and we reached our first campsite, Old Moses camp. A bright yellow-orange tent fluttered in wait for us, set up by the porters, our home for the next five days.
Next day, we set off, the bushes soon giving way to flower-shaped cabbage lobelias, succulent water-holding lobelias and silky ostrich-feather lobelias, which dotted the undulating landscape for miles. We caught our first sight of the highest peaks, Bation and Nelion, both of which require some technical rock climbing. Lenana, which we took, is the highest point accessible by hiking.
Mount Kenya – Image by Nandini Chakraborty
John had a way of saying “10 minutes” or “15 minutes” every time we asked him how much longer we had left. After countless times of hearing “10 minutes”, we were standing on the edge of a rocky ledge, which overlooked a vast valley, surrounded by rugged mountains. We could see what looked like a campsite in a distance, hardly a dot. “Sure, there must be another route?”, I thought hopefully. “We are not going there, are we?” I pointed to John with a hopeful smile. Ishani was nonchalantly sucking on the tube of her water bottle. John made a non-committal sound and smiled, starting off on a downhill rocky trail that led exactly in the direction of the camp.
As the rock hit the grassy bottom, we discovered that the grassy valley was actually a squelchy marshland. We tried our best to avoid the worst dips, but our boots were covered with slime as we reached camp for a late lunch.
Liki North camp was the coldest of them all. It was like being in the bottom of a bowl with steep rock walls on all sides. The cold air settled in the bottom of the bowl, trapped with no escape for the weather and no respite for us. The team managed to clean and dry our boots, and filled our water bottles with hot water to take into our sleeping bags. Ishani and I brought our sleeping bags close to each other, sharing the heat. “Good night, mum. Toastie, toastie,” Ishani chuckled, looking like she was having the time of her life.
Mum and Daughter at their Tent – Nandini Chakraborty
As she drifted off to sleep, I watched her, listening to her gentle snores and wondering what I had done to deserve her. My job as a doctor was busy, but she never complained. Her friends go shopping with mums, or to luxurious hotels in Dubai. Her mum had decided that a five-day hike with no shower, shivering in her tent in a freezing valley was a great idea and all she said that night, with a smile, was “Toastie, toastie”.
The next day we reached Shipton camp, the last camp before the summit. Strategically placed, it gave us a clear view of the trail up to the peak, its zigzag route angling steeply to the craggy tip. Between lunch time and evening, until sunlight faded, we had ample time to swallow the scene nervously and prepare our palpitating hearts for the ultimate climb.
Shiptons Camp – Nandini Chakraborty
We began in the early hours of the morning, around 2:30am. Head torches lighting up the trail, within an hour we hit an area of volcanic scree. The path was smooth and layered with finely ground rock that made us slip and fall. John tried to teach us his technique. “Don’t be scared. It makes your steps weak. Use strong steps.” Ishani seemed to get the hang of it after a while. I did not. I lost count of the number of times I fell and finally John had to drag me through most of the scree path.
Ishani went ahead, turned back and called to me, “Come on mum, you can do it”. My daughter was the one encouraging me. How many times had I held her hand whilst she slipped as a toddler, watched her wobbly steps, and told her that she could do it? Who knew that the first time the tables would be turned would be on a slippery scramble up a craggy, extinct volcano?
Mount Kenya – Image by Nandini Chakraborty
Finally, the path levelled out and we reached a block of boulders that we had to carefully feel our way around, sticking our backs to the wall of rock behind us and taking tiny side steps. “It’s good that it’s dark,” said John, his smile permeating his tone in the dark. “You would not want to be looking at where you are.” We were on a narrow ledge that fell steeply to nowhere, lined by a wall of rock and boulders that we clung on to precariously.
As we got around the ledge, dawn was just breaking. A brown signboard proclaimed the world’s highest via ferrata. Six or seven iron ladder steps on the last bit of vertical rock and we were on Point Lenana. Ishani’s hair was white with crystal ice and her lips were blue but she managed to smile for a solo picture. We had our clichéd ‘V’ for victory picture on the summit.
After 20 minutes of freezing at the point, which was the centre of the entire trip, we descended to Minto’s hut. At one point, we took a minute to stand and look out from a vantage point, over our way up from Shipton’s camp and the valley that extended beyond it. We held hands to reassure each other that this was all real. Perhaps this was the most important aspect of the trip: we had done it together.
At the summit of Mount Kenya – Nandini Chakraborty
That night at camp, over slurpy noodles and hot chocolate, John described how brave and strong Ishani had been. He tactfully made no mention of me at all. Ishani seemed as nonchalant as ever. This was the girl who complained when we were taking too long in the supermarket because her legs were aching. This was the girl who wrinkled her nose at dinner if all was not to her taste. But within her, there was a core of something as ruggedly beautiful as the rock that surrounded us, something stoic beneath the fussing. I had climbed more than Point Lenana that day. I could see the path I had taken with my little girl and that there was more to explore in days to come.
Next day, we made our way to Chogoria gate and our last campsite. We headed from giant lobelias, back to bushes and grass, and were finally back to misty rainforest. As we reached our yellow-orange tent for the last night, Ishani turned back and we hugged, long and tight.
On the flight back, I asked Ashani what the best part of the trip was. “The shower in the hotel after five days,” she answered. The beauty of simple things we often take for granted had struck a chord with her. Even now on a cold day, there are times when a 16-year old Ishani snuggles close to me under the duvet and murmurs “Toastie, toastie.” She has not strangled me yet.-
Nandini is a psychiatrist who also loves to travel and write about her experiences. She is 45 years old and lives in Leicester with her husband and daughter. She loves volcanoes.