Social media: a reality of our age that is to be celebrated and reviled all in the same breath. So while Facebook can sometimes have all the appeal of a soiled diaper and Twitter is the turd that done the soiling, Instagram is the lavender air freshener that makes it all bearable. IG is how I meet Brian and after months of liking and commenting on each others photos and 16 emails later a camping trip is planned by two total strangers, one of who has never camped a day in his life…this should be interesting.
We’re heading for Ol Donyo Sabuk (large mountain in Maasai) National Park in Machakos County also known as Kilimambogo (buffalo mountain in Kikuyu). It’s close enough from Nairobi for an over night trip and the plan is camp at the top and get some astrophoptography in the bag. This will not go as planned but more on that later.
It’s always a bit of a worry travelling with someone you don’t know. Are they interesting? Are they too talkative? Will you have anything to even talk about? Do they sleep/murder walk in the dark of night? I pick up Brian at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning and we’re soon on the highway, shooting the shit about all things photography and exchanging our travel tales. My fears are unfounded, dude is one cool cat.
This park is easy enough to get to (80km from / 2hrs drive from Nairobi) and no wonder it’s a popular hiking destination with residents of both Nairobi and Thika. From Thika town proceed along the main Garissa road 18km to Makutano junction where you’ll turn right. 1km down this earth road, turn left and drive till Ol Donyo Sabuk Town, where you take another right turn and proceed a further 2 km to the main gate. Or make your life easier and just Google Maps it.
After paying our park fees we drive up for a look at views. The track to the peak is motorable in a 4WD although most people just hike it, but KC don’t hike no mo’ so driving it is (takes about 25min).
We get to the first viewpoint about halfway up and commit a photographic crime by shooting in the harsh light of day, we’re both amateurs so it doesn’t matter. We’re here to have fun not make a calendar.
Further up we come across where Lord Macmillan and his mboch were laid to rest in 19-no one-cares-anymore. She was quite the tough old bird if LM still had her scrubbing floors until she was 88.
Further up we get to the Look Out campsite about 75% of the way up. Really bizarre that we have been refused to camp here as was the plan. Why? Because.
At the top of the mountain is another thing strange thing about this park, there is no view from the top; quite unrewarding for hikers. I’m obviously against the cutting down of trees but a bit of clearing here wouldn’t hurt to expose a viewpoint, maybe build a viewing platform? But they have put up a small shelter and some toilets so thats a plus.We head back down to the campsite at the park entrance. We really didn’t want to camp here but since the Warden who could have hooked us up is away, bureaucracy and red tape has won the day.
The campsite at the bottom is nice there’s lots of space for large groups, obviously we choose the most photogenic tree to set up under. I show Brian some of the camping basics such as setting up the tents and give tips on some of the gear I use.
The campsite is set – up to the nines, showers, benches, fire-pits toilets, running water and they even have a little food prep area with a sink grill and electricity. I really have to give props to KWS for this, it is quite well done. I should also mention there is also some nice self-catering accommodation at the nearby Sabuk Guest House.
After much begging and pleading with the Asst. Warden we have been given permission to head up the mountain in the evening with a curfew of 9pm.We spend the afternoon just hanging out, reading and napping in the shade.
At 530pm we head back up the mountain to do what we came to do, get some sweet shots!
Our ranger escort Kibet regales us with tales of his time as bodyguard to Richard Leakey during his first tenure at KWS (before he came back and decided that Nairobi National Park is not worth saving). From his stories he’s had an interesting career but now close to retirement, he’s looking forward to going back home to get his farming on. Maybe Leakey should follow suit.
Due to the new timetable we have to contend with the moon not having set coupled with the fact I have tripod who’s legs have the consistency of wet spaghetti in the wind and this means the star shots might have to wait another day. I am happy enough to get this rare perspective of Thika town and the superhighway heading off to the left.
We head back to camp for an early night, we’ve been told we can wake up as early as we want to get some shots in the morning so there’s that to look forward to. Goodnight all and see you in the morning.
The Next Morning
…..aaand that was quick. We start to stir at 5am, keen to head back up.
Morning is when this tiny park really shows its true colours. There is mostly silence, just the whirr of and clicking of our cameras.
One of our cameras dies due to low battery (guess who’s?) and it’s a wrap.
This park is very popular with day hikers and does a good job of it, as with many KWS parks and reserves there’s the feeling of ‘it could be more’. Due to it’s proximity and marketed in the right way Ol Donyo Sabuk could be one of the hottest parks for landscape/astro-photographers and just guys who want to star gaze. I can just see it now…..’The Park Of The Stars’. But as long as product development does not move with the times and the different experiences the modern traveller wants, we’re stuck with the same old offering.
That being said this trip is a real eye-opener for me, seeing a camping trip camping through first-timer Brian’s eyes reminds me why I love it in the first place, the peace and freedom of it all. Sharing our common passion for photography born out Instagram also reminds just how powerful a tool social media can be when used for one it’s strongest purposes; connecting people. Hmmm, in that way its much like travel isn’t it?
Postscript: Brian emailed me not long after this and told me had just come back from his first solo camping trip and he continues to camp to this day. Check out some of his adventures at awesome photos on his Instagram handle @bwangila. Mine of course is @thekenyancamper.
***A very big thank you to Catherine of KWS for her un-tiring patience in making this trip a success. Next time I’m camping at the top!***