I have been inspired by Sahayak's recent blog entries describing the tranquility, peace and vastness he encountered in the Australian desert, and it got me thinking of places I have visited that took my breath away.
About six years ago I was in Kenya for four months; a week of that was spent hinking up and down the 5000m high Mt Kenya, the second tallest mountain in Africa. The plan was simple, if a little foolhardy: my self and Gideon, my Kenyan flatmate, would start off and hopefully pick up a guide along the way. At break of dawn, we left Nairobi on a matatu (minibus) racing along at well over eighty miles an hour.
The slopes of Mount Kenya contain an extraordinary array of landscapes and biomes. Tea and banana plantations on the lower slopes soon give way to a swathe of camphor rain forest, host to huge monoliths of trees and birds with the most dazzling colours. I looked down and saw tiny two-lane dual carriageways full of marching ants, complete with interchanges that would confound the best of our 'spaghetti junctions'.
At about 3000m the rainforest suddenly breaks onto grassy plain; as we left the forest, to my right I could see a startled water buffalo break out of the forest onto the plain. The entrance to the national park was here, and it was here we camped for our first night, after a guelling 32k uphill hike. Luck was with us; there was an English couple scaling the more technical climbs on Mt. Kenya and we could travel along with them and their guide. Mount Kenya has three main peaks, two of them require technical mountain skills, but the third highest, Point Lenana, was hikeable, so that was the one we were going up.
From then on we made our way more slowly, acclimatising ourselves to the altitude. The landscape changed briefly again to idyllic woodland and meadow, mosst hills and tress of old-mans-beard, before changing to something like the bogland we would be more used to at home! At this stage, we were making our way along the ridge between two glaciated valleys, with stunning views on either side.
The landscape slowly changed again, to stony chaparral more suited to flilms like 'the Good, the Bad and the Ugly', dotted with ingenious plants like these.
Things got a bit steeper from here on in, but always manageable. Any remaining vegetation slowly receded as we walked and scrambled our way up.
Our next resting place was the Austrian Hut at 4800m right beside the Lewis Glacier. I remember everything was covered in snow and the glacier seemed a lot bigger than in the photo; perhaps this is the sad effect of global warming.
It was snowing heavily when we arrived. I remember we settled in and needed some water to heat up, so I got my saucepan and travelled down to the little lake at the bottom of the glacier. And I sat down, hit the icy surface of the lake with my saucepan, and got my water. And I remember being overwhelmed with the possibility that life could actually be that simple.
The next morning we woke up at 3.30am to make it to our goal before sunrise. Cup of coffee in hand, I stood outside in the porch. The stars. It is so sad how most of us city-dwellers will never know the stars as anything other than ten or twelve isolated points in a reddish night sky. Here, closer to the heavens, it was as if someone had run their fingers through a paintbrush and speckled the sky; big dots, little dots, of all hues, there wasnt enough space for them all. Later that year, in my final college exam, I would receive a question which suggested a certain physical line of reasoning and then said "it would then follow that the entire sky would be filled with light at nighttime. Explain the flaw behind this proposition." No, sir, there is no flaw, not from where I'm standing.
So up we went the slippy slopes, with only our headlights to guide us. And after a couple of hours, I clambered awkwardly over this big rock to find myself standing at the peak. And the sun was just about to rise. We were having meditation classes the other day, which I was giving with my brother Colm; one of the things Colm suggested to them was to bring to memory the most beautiful scene they ever saw, and recall how they felt looking at it, recall where that feeling came from deep inside them. I recalled here, at sunrise, standing on the peak of Point Lenana. To the north, I realised that that was Ethiopia I was looking at, Tanzania to the south. Looking down at the mountain slopes, tracing my own journey up, all I had been through in the last few days. And the sun, this golden orb setting the clouds aflame, illumining what seemed like a stairway to heaven....
The above photo was taken by another person at another time, so it obviously doesnt compare with the scene stored for posterity in my own heart. In fact, these photos have been obtained primarily from the sites listed below, I hope they don't mind, and I'm very grateful to them for awakening some very pleasant memories.