The Aberdares in central Kenya are a 160km long mountain range north of Kenya’s capital Nairobi with an average elevation of 3,500 metres above sea level.
The scenic summits, valleys and hills are a hikers’ paradise. Hikers have a choice of trails based on the elevation and terrain. The range’s highest summit, Oldonyo Lesatima, is just above 4,000m above sea level and is on the north of the range.
The most famous and hiked trails are Mt Kinangop, Mount Kipipiri, Elephant Hill and Rurimeria Hill in the southern Aberdare range, which are also the hardest and most treacherous with bogs marshes, dense bamboo forests and teeming with wildlife.
All of them fall under the jurisdiction of the Aberdare National Park and hikers have to pay entry fees to the park or forest service, depending on the jurisdiction of the gate one will use to get to the trail.
My group left Nairobi at 5am for the three-hour drive to the North Aberdare National Park gate just past Mweiga in Nyeri County, to pay park fees and get an armed guard who was also our guide for the 6-8 hour hike to Mt Satima.
The Satima trail is the most scenic and gentle of all the Aberdare trails, with the route hugging the escarpments above undulating valleys and hills of rich alpine and sub-alpine flora, including species of lobelia, erica, giant helichrysum and tussock grasses.
The contrast of the deep valleys and the rising escarpments is breathtaking. However, the drive from the main park gate to the gate into the trail takes about 40 minutes and from the gate to the base camp is another 40-minute drive. Only four-wheel vehicles can make this winding trip to the base camp.
We were in two groups in two Land Cruisers and one broke down 20 minutes to base camp. The group had to walk the rest of the way, leaving their backpacks and all hiking gear in the hope that the vehicle would make it to the base before we set off.
It did not. It was now noon. A decision was made to go on with the hike and that we shall share snacks and water with the team members who had left them behind.
The hike was incident free and we made it to the summit a few minutes to 3pm. As we rested for lunch before the descent and to hike back to base camp, the guide warned us that most afternoons at Satima are marked by “snowfall.” We laughed and told him to banish such thoughts.
After just about five minutes of descending, there were not so distant rumbling of thunder. It was suddenly very still. The guide told us to brace ourselves for a cold afternoon shower. But even before ponchos and other waterproof gear was out of backpacks it grew dark and the most violent hailstorm was upon us.
We quickly shared the extra warm clothes we had but they offered little protection against the hailstones. They felt like a thousand lashes on the body. The hailstorm lasted only 20 minutes but by then the landscape was snow white. Then the guides’ words made sense.
We walked back to base camp soaked to the bone and two hours into the trek I could not feel my hands or face. My quick-dry hiking pants were almost useless since my hiking boots were soaked and my toes were squinching and hurting from the cold. We made the walk back in a record three hours to avoid being caught in another downpour in the dark far from base camp.
Just as the sun was sinking behind the southern range, we arrived at camp, only to find the second Land Cruiser never made it up. After a quick change into dry warm clothes most of us packed into the one vehicle and a few people opted to walk to the stalled vehicle. Thank God it was out of the drift and ready to get us to the gate and out of the park before nightfall.