Among Africa's peaks, Kilamanjaro may get the glory, but Mt Kenya offers more wildlife, less people and better odds of making it to the top.
Size isn't everything. But it's quite a lot.
Take Africa's peaks: at 5,895m Kilimanjaro - the continent's highest point, the world's highest hiking peak, a visually satisfying snow-topped monolith - steals the show. It doesn't matter that it isn't the best walk in the world because it is so damn big.
However, just 320km to the north, practically on the equator, sits another great lump of Rift Valley volcanicity - Mount Kenya, Africa's second-highest mountain. From a distance it doesn't look as grand as Kili; it's a ragged selection of sharp shards rather than one hulking beast. And it gives away 700m - at 'only' 5,199m it's a comparative tiddler.
But what Kenya lacks in physical bulk it makes up for in other areas - or so I'd heard: more creatures, fewer people, a less mind-monkeying summit night. I'd climbed Kili a few years ago and George Clooney couldn't tempt me to repeat that final haul to the top. But the idea of an alternative African summit - still a challenge, but a less fearsome one - was rather appealing. We selected the northerly Sirimon Route, a four-and-a-half-day hike up and down, and set off to see if size really mattered.
Day 1: A bonza walk, mate
Size wasn't an issue as we entered Mount Kenya National Park - the sky, heavy with impending rain, had sagged earthwards, rendering the mountain (regardless of its proportions) invisible in the gloom. The zebra didn't seem to mind the weather much - or mind us, for that matter, four stripy backs bent in contented grazing as we set off from the gate up the wide track.
It was a gentle three-hour stroll to Old Moses Hut (3,300m) and the going was good. The path, mulchy in places from recent rain, was an ideal showcase for the local fauna; an African Hollywood Boulevard. Our guide Francis - who, I learned over the next few days, knew everything - pointed out the 'stars': That print? Buffalo. That one's antelope - I think bushbuck. And that one: leopard - very fresh.
I gazed from the ground into the deep-green forest. It was all happening in there. A flock of turacos shrieked just to prove it, joined by a vociferous baboon, whose exposed bottom jiggled away through the trees. I was desperate to pursue him: what lay amid that jungle of beardy trunks and dangling vines? However, after striding into a fat pile of still-moist elephant poo I soon realised that offroading was not a great idea.
The wildlife watching didn't stop there, though. Flits of yellow and red were quickly identified by Francis as white-eyes or variable sunbirds; a noisy mob of hoopoes cheered us from the treetops; two bushbuck scampered off into the undergrowth; and an orderly line of army ants trooped across the track. I didn't remember any of this from Kilimanjaro.
All this activity had temporarily distracted us from the state of the sky. But not for long: it started to drizzle.
Then it rained.
And then it gave up being nice and dumped its reservoirs with relentless fury, churning the ochre earth to chocolate milkshake while thunder echoed round the mountain in orchestral booms. Water sneaked down my sleeves, dripping from my trousers into my socks.
Just when it couldn't get any worse, it did. A volley of hailstones beat onto my exposed hands, an icy agony. I turned to my fellow trudger, Paul, and was about to ask him if we could do without walking poles, so I could put my pelted hands in my pockets - at which point he slipped on a greasy stone, landing bottom first in the sludge. That'd be a no, then.
And then the sky stopped. Birds resumed their singing and our porters, who we'd seen sensibly waiting it out under juniper trees, overtook us just as the hut came into view.
I'd never been so happy to see basic bunk beds and indoor (Western) toilets. No sooner had we peeled off our wet clothes than hot chocolate and popcorn were produced from the dim kitchen and we started to feel human again.
There were only 14 other trekkers at the hut; two Australians (and, as it turned out, rather flatulent ones) were sharing our dorm. As darkness - and the temperature - fell we devoured our enormous trek rations and talked about why we were on this mountain. We heard it was a bonza walk, mate, they explained, though possibly not in those exact words.
I looked down the communal dining table at my few woolly-hatted co-walkers and felt like we'd all found a secret, albeit a pretty well-known one.
Day 2: A lotta lava
Ah, there's nothing like pulling on damp boots in the morning! But at least the day was dry and sunny. Red-winged starlings scrounged around the hut as we loaded up and headed off. We'd left the lush montane zone and pretty much bypassed the bamboo; now we were striding out through the last of the hagenia zone and into the giant heathers. Red-hot poker flowers thrust out among the grasses while Hunter's cisticolas sang their shrill duets above.
Today was a big day. Shipton's Hut, our goal, was a good seven hours and 900 vertical metres away: 4,200m is lofty by anyone's reckoning - so, commanded Francis, we needed to go polé polé (slowly, slowly).
He was a cunning leader, surreptitiously slowing us down by pausing to point out the avian antics of the mountain chat or explain the complex naming traditions of the Kikuyu tribe. I was grateful to catch my breath as he attempted to explain the fact he was called after his grandfather's mother's cousin twice removed (I think); there were some stiff ups and the thin air was as hard to grasp as the intricacies of Kikuyu genealogy.
But it was a dramatic walk. As a damp mist rolled in it helped water an oddball selection of plants: spongy wigs of tussock grass, cabbagey senecio and ostrich-plume lobelia. Then, as we topped a ridge, we glimpsed the mountain's summits, jagged rocks flecked with an acne of snow, the viciously sharp peaks of Batian and Nelion rearing up highest. They were too forbidding for us trekkers - only accessible to top-notch technical climbers. Our aim instead was Point Lenana, a none-too-shabby 4,985m, the mountain's third-highest notch.
It was both daunting and impressive to have the summits in our sights. When we stopped for lunch, and with chats eating crumbs off our shoes, Francis filled us in on the mountain. Mount Kenya, he told us, erupted over three million years ago; the volcanic shell has since eroded, leaving behind the spewed lava we see today, now worn into a selection of fearsome shards. It's also home to the god Ngai, according to the Kikuyu. As I looked up towards the clouds swirling around the summit, I hoped he was in a good mood.
It was a steady walk from lunch onwards, with plenty of time for admiring the mauve frills of the Lobelia telekii, the palm-like forests of Senecio keniodendron and the resplendent flashes of the scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird (see Francis, I was listening). It was almost a shame to arrive at Shipton's, but what a spot: its turquoise tin roof sits slap bang at the base of Batian and Nelion's looming north faces.
It was chilly, though chef David's fresh-cooked doughnuts helped. As we ate them all (well, calories are extremely important at altitude...) we talked to our hutmates, most of whom would be summitting that night.
We were not; our plan was to walk around the mountain for an extra day's acclimatisation. And after Francis's story of the Frenchman who died trying to get up and down in three days, I was glad of this precaution. But I felt a bit like Cinders not going to the ball; there was a nervous anticipation among them as they scampered off to bed at 6pm, ready for their 2.30am alarm call. Tomorrow, that would be us.
Day 3: Feeling fearless
As we ate breakfast the next morning, some of the summiteers returned.
It was awesome! announced a young American, in that way only Americans can. Other, less encouraging, adjectives included steep and freezing.
Temperature was certainly a factor; there was a chill wind whipping around the hut that morning, and clouds scudding around the peaks. So Francis suggested a change of plan: instead of walking south-west to the more exposed Mackinder's Hut (named after the mountain's first conqueror, back in 1899) as proposed, we'd do an acclimatisation walk and spend another night at Shipton's. I was initially disappointed not to be moving on, but I trusted Francis, and it seemed pointless to slog through wind and rain - and make the porters do likewise - for no real reason.
We wrapped up and headed off. We were climbing to near 4,500m now, battling a vicious wind, and I could feel the doughnuts melting away with every effortful step. From a ridge top we could see for miles, down into valleys of green, up to those fearful peaks. Glaciers nestled in high-altitude grooves but petered out quickly - 15 years ago, Francis said gravely, these would have stretched far down the mountain.
He led us below Batian, dipping behind rocks to get out of the wind - and I found my favourite spot on Mount Kenya. Kami Tarn, a small, reflective pool edged by lobelias, belonged to the hyraxes. These rat-wombat creatures were everywhere, snuffling around the senecios, hopping between moss mounds, sneezing, grazing, blinking the strange membrane covering their eyes. We sat for a while, just listening to them chomping. Occasionally one would let out a piercing cry to warn its mates of a buzzard circling menacingly overhead.
It was so peaceful, yet intimidating - the snow-flecked inhospitability of Batian and Nelion a dangerous backdrop to this magical dell; looking up I couldn't imagine how rock climbers ascended them. It takes around eight to 12 hours to get up both, Francis explained. Sometimes climbers have to sleep in hammocks on the rock face. I shuddered, unable to comprehend the desire to do such a thing.
But trekking to near 5,000m was quite alright, obviously. As Francis gave us our pep talk before bedtime that evening, I listened intently - well, you would: the man had done this more than 160 times before - nervous but excited. The dread that I'd felt in the same situation on Kilimanjaro wasn't there. This would be tough but I felt ready: bunged up but well-fed, as acclimatised as possible and confident that if I wore every item in my kit bag I could ward off the chill. (Paul felt the same until discovering a mouse-sized hole chewed into his thermals - tip: don't leave your kit bag on the hut floor.) It was a good place to be - a wonderful walk with a challenging goal, minus the blood-curdling fear.
Day 4: Go safely friend, for here is high
Stepping out of the hut at 3am I was braced for the worst - but faced with the best. The rain I'd thought I'd heard hammering the hut roof was non-existent; instead an almost-full moon illuminated a night of breath-whisking clarity, spotlighting the snow streaks on the mountain tops. We switched off our headtorches - no need for them - and by the glow of the moon and incalculable stars, began our upwards plod.
We soon left the familiarity of the Afro-alpine zone and entered a barren netherworld. Up here, we were alone - no friendly senecios for company and, having left the hut first, no other hikers: we could just make out a few shadows bobbing far behind us. Were we, at that moment, the highest souls in the country?
As we inched upwards, new kinks and folds of the mountain were revealed: a lake, another glacier, a fresh set of peaks. And all the while Batian and Nelion loomed, eerie in the darkness.
We'd been walking on frozen scree and dust paths for most of the way but as we reached the mountain's upper reaches, the going turned to rock and we had to scramble over uneven stone just when the air was at its thinnest.
My many, many layers had done a good job of insulating me most of the way but were starting to lose the battle. However, I felt OK, and every time I felt my spirits droop, I looked up from my plodding boots to the view, its scope growing with every minute closer to sunrise.
Paul was faring less well. With only 100 vertical metres to go, the altitude was doing a boisterous dance inside his head, and tugging at the contents of his stomach. But we were so close!
We pushed on as the sky reddened and the oxygen became scarcer. The summit required one last steep scramble and, as we rested in preparation, another group of trekkers overtook us at the last. It didn't matter (much) - when we crested the ridge we saw the same metal flag and the same sunrise, a dreamy orange-pink inflammation kicking off the peaks and clouds far below. Kilimanjaro, visible on a clear day, was hidden; to all intents and purposes, this was the roof of Africa.
Me and my layers waddled over to Paul; giddy with achievement and the sheer scale of what I was looking at, I was smiling as widely as my frozen cheeks would allow. His expression was more grimace than grinning.
A plaque next to us read: 'Go safely friend, for here is high'. Wise words; it was time to go down.
With every metre descended more colour flashed into Paul's cheeks. After 20 minutes he was actually smiling; after 40 he was cracking hyrax jokes. Had enough time passed for me to be smug about my high-altitude hardiness? I was just about to gloat when I hit a particularly loose patch of scree and slid inelegantly onto my bottom. Lesson learned.
Before long we were back at Shipton's, eating the bits of breakfast that the kitchen-sneaking hyrax had left behind and feeling weary but good. We still had a long slog down, back to Old Moses today, then out of the park tomorrow. But although we were retracing our steps, I didn't mind - walking in the opposite direction gave a new perspective, looking down into the bountiful valley below rather than to the harsh heights above. Walking past an especially bizarre lobelia or lone flower that we remembered from the way up was like greeting old friends with good news: we made it!
At the hut that evening, the starlings and I watched the sun set over the forests below. A few eland were grazing on a distant slope while a band of techie climbers were checking their equipment, readying for an assault on Batian itself.
Personally, I was with the eland: the beauty of this mountain resides in its lush valleys, abundant fauna and views up to giddy heights. Getting to the top was great (that view!) but the real joy was in the journey there.