An impenetrable white mist blankets everything outside my window at day break and clears slowly to reveal the one-street town of Naro Moru that sits at the base of Mount Kenya.
The country’s tallest mountain stays hidden in the clouds during my entire stay there.
Still, we drive out of town to the mountain’s many forest blocks in the hope of seeing some of its rare denizens and little known secrets. Only a local can show you all that, and so we link up with Martin Njogu, Nature Kenya’s Mount Kenya project officer, who leads us off the road to a glade of forest edging a river flowing down the mountain. Hidden in its girth is a spring.
“When I was a kid, we drank water from here and all this was covered in indigenous forest,” says Njogu. Now the forest has been cleared and the spring is cordoned off by a fence, with water pipes channelling the water into a community tank.
Njogu tell us of a bird that he saw a few times in his youth, the Abbott’s starling, now found only higher on Mount Kenya as the forest has receded. we drive up the slope to Gathiuru forest block in the hope of seeing one, through fields of potatoes bursting in lilac flowers and trees planted by the Gathiuru community forest association.
It’s potato harvesting season and sacks full are transported on motorbikes heaving under their weight. Heavier lorries get stuck on the muddy road creating a traffic jam. Njogu tells of the various names of potatoes in Kikuyu, humba thuuti being the funniest. “It means ‘the potato wearing a suit’. This potato gives good harvest and farmers make a lot of money and can afford buy smart suits – so that’s the name for this potato.”
The Kenya Forest Service forester, Kinyua Oliver, invites us in for a hot cup of tea and chapattis as the rain pours and the cold bites. And then just as suddenly, the clouds clear and the sun shines bright. the office has been in operation since 1933, with Kinyua at the helm for the last 11 years.
“This is the largest continuous forest block,” he states proudly. “It’s 14,985 hectares, out of which 2,530 hectares are under forest plantation with exotic cypress and eucalyptus and the rest indigenous. We work closely with the Gathiuru CFA and you can watch the work on YouTube.”
Our passage further into the mountain is curtailed by more rain and the slippery road, with little chance of spotting the rare Abbott’s starling. “Next time, I’ll take you up there,” promises Kinyua. “This is the shortest route to the moorland – just a three-hour walk up.”
Back on the ground, we drop in at the Mount Kenya Resource Centre – but we can’t enter because of the boys’ circumcision ceremony - Irua ria Imwana – and no women are allowed. So we’re met by Gerald Mwangi, the cheerful chairman of Mount Kenya Biodiversity Conservation Group and a mountain guide.
The trail leads through moss-clad and orchid-full tall cedars, fat podos and dozens of other indigenous trees and shrubs. There’s elephant dung on the path. The scarlet wings of a Hartlaub’s turaco show through the forest leaves. We stop at the Italian dam built by the prisoners of war during the WW2, all covered in sedges now.?
Deeper in the forest, we hear the boys singing by the stream, waiting to enter the next stage of their lives. Suddenly Njogu is excited by a snail with its shell trailing up a tree. “I haven’t seen a live one in years,” he says. “We only see dead ones and empty shells now.”
There are more changes happening up the forest that are of concern. Mwangi tells of an ice cave that melted away in 2002 at 4,790 metres, and of now being able to summit Point Lenana without sunglasses to protect the eyes from the glare reflected off the ice. “For the first time, we’re seeing streams drying up and so we’re really keen on tree planting to manage the micro-climate,” he says.
Driving back into Naro Moru, there’s street food being roasted on a jiko – it’s mutura, the local sausage that, on the cold evening, is a welcome snack.