There are some great rewards to travelling through the Central Highlands, Kenya’s political and economic heartland. Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak, gave the colonial nation its name and offers visitors numerous hiking opportunities. And, while hikes lower down and in the Aberdare range are easier, they are still dramatic, with the added bonus that you might see some wildlife. Travel itself is never dull here, and the range of scenery is a spectacular draw in its own right: primary-coloured jungle and shambas, pale, windswept moors and dense conifer plantations, all with a mountain backdrop. People everywhere are friendly and quick to strike up a conversation, the towns are animated and the markets colourfully chaotic. Most roads are in good shape and bus and matatu journeys invariably packed with interest and amusement.
After the main game-viewing areas and the coast, the circuit provided by the Mount Kenya ring road is one of the most travelled in Kenya, and there are always a few tourist vehicles to be seen. Apart from the high forests, moors and peaks, little of this remains wild country, with shambas steadily encroaching the ridges. The Kikuyu, Meru and Embu peoples have created an extraordinary spectacle of cultivation on the steep slopes, gashed by the road to reveal brilliant red earth.
As you travel, the mountain is a constant, looming presence, even if you can’t often see much of it. With a base 80km across, Mount Kenya is one of the largest free-standing volcanic cones in the world. The twin peaks are normally obscured by clouds, but early in the morning and just before sunset the shroud can vanish suddenly, leaving them magically exposed for a few minutes. To the east and south, the mountain drops steeply away to the broad expanse of Ukambani (Kamba-land) and the Tana River basin. Westwards, and to the north, it slopes away more gently to the rolling uplands of Laikipia.
The Aberdare range, which peaks at 4001m, is less well known than Mount Kenya. The lower, eastern slopes have long been farmed by the Kikuyu (and more recently by European tea and coffee planters), and the dense mountain forests covering the middle reaches are the habitat of leopard, buffalo, some six thousand elephants and a few small herds of critically endangered bongo antelope. Above about 3500m, lions and other open-country animals roam the cloudy moorlands. Melanistic forms, especially of leopard, but also of serval cat and even bushbuck, are also present.
The park stretches 60km along the length of the peaks, with the Salient on the lower slopes reaching out east. Like Mount Kenya National Park, it attracts the worst of the weather: rainfall up here is high, often closing the park to vehicles in the wet season, although in the Salient the “tree-hotel” game lodges – The Ark and Treetops – stay open all year. The towns of Naivasha and Nyeri are the usual bases. Nyahururu, the other important town in the region, has Thomson’s Falls as a postcard attraction, and is also the setting-off point for a wild cross-country journey to Lake Bogoria, 1500m below, in the Rift Valley. Also from Nyahururu begins the main route to Maralal and Loiyangalani on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana.
The Central Highlands are utterly central to Kenyan history. The majority of British and European settlers carved their farms from the countryside around Mount Kenya. Later, and as a direct consequence, this was the region that saw the development of organized anti-colonial resistance culminating in Mau Mau.
Until independence, the fertile highland soils (“A more charming region is not to be found in all Africa,” thought Joseph Thomson, exploring in the 1880s) were reserved largely for Europeans and considered, in Governor Eliot’s breathtaking phrase, “White Man’s Country”. The Kikuyu peoples, skilled farmers and herders, had held the land for several centuries before the Europeans arrived. They were at first mystified to find themselves “squatters” on land whose ownership, in the sense of exclusive right, had never been an issue in traditional society. They were certainly not alone in losing land, but, by supplying most of the “Mau Mau” fighters for the Land and Freedom Army, they were placed squarely in the political limelight. In return, they received a large proportion of what used to be known as the “Fruits of Independence”. Today, most of the land is in African hands again, and it supports the country’s largest rural population. There’s intensive farming on almost all the lower slopes and much of the higher ground as well, beneath the national parks of Mount Kenya and the Aberdare.Read More
Kenya’s highland forests and moors
Kenya’s highland forests and moors
Kenya’s main highland forests are on Mounts Kenya, Elgon and Marsabit, on the Aberdare range and on the Mau Escarpment. The characteristic natural landscape in the highlands is patches of evergreen trees separated by vast meadows of grasses – often wire grass and Kikuyu grass. The true highland forest, typically found only above 1500m, contains different species of trees from lowland forest, and does not normally grow as tall or dense. Typical species include camphor, Juniperus procera (the East African “cedar”) and Podocarpus. The better-developed forests are found on the wetter, western slopes of the highlands. Above the forest line, at altitudes of 2500m and higher, you get stands of giant bamboo, while along the lower, drier edges of the highlands, the stands of trees tend to be interspersed with fields of tall grass, where you commonly also find various species of olive.
The ancestors of the Kikuyu migrated to the Central Highlands between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, from northeast of Mount Kenya. Stories describe how they found various hunter-gatherer peoples already in the region (the Gumba on the plains and the Athi in the forests), and a great deal of intermarriage, trade and adoption took place. The newcomers cleared the forests and planted crops, giving the hunters gifts of livestock, honey or wives in return for using the land.
Likewise, there was trade and intermarriage between the Kikuyu and the Maasai, both peoples placing high value on cattle ownership, with the Maasai depending entirely on livestock. During bad droughts, Maasai would raid Kikuyu herds, with retaliation at a later date being almost inevitable. But such intertribal warfare often had long-term benefits, as ancient debts were forever being renegotiated and paid off by both sides, thus sustaining the relationship. Married Kikuyu women enjoyed a special immunity that enabled them to organize trading expeditions deep into Maasai-land, often with the help of a hinga, a middleman, to oil the wheels.
Like the Maasai, the Kikuyu advanced in status as they grew older, through named age-sets and rituals still important today. For Kikuyu boys, circumcision marks the important transition into adulthood (female circumcision, or clitoridectomy, is illegal and rarely performed today). In the past, boys would grow their hair and dye it with ochre in the style of Maasai warriors (in fact, the Maasai got their ochre from the Kikuyu, so it may really have been the other way around). They also wore glass beads around their necks, metal rings on their legs and arms, and pulled their ear lobes out with ear plugs. Women wore a similar collection of ornaments and, between initiation and marriage, a headband of beads and discs, still worn today by most Maasai women.
Traditionally, the Kikuyu had no centralized authority. The elders of a district would meet as a council and disputes or important decisions would be dealt with in public, with a party to follow. After their deaths, elders – now known as ancestors – continued to be respected and consulted. Christianity has altered beliefs in the last few decades, though many church-goers still believe strongly in an ancestor world where the dead have powers over their living descendants. The Kikuyu traditionally believed that the most likely abode of God (Ngai), or at least his frequent resting place, was Mount Kenya, which they called Kirinyaga (Place of Brightness). Accordingly, they used to build their houses with the door always looking out towards the mountain, hence the title of Jomo Kenyatta’s book, Facing Mount Kenya.
Today, the Kikuyu are at the forefront of Kenyan development and, despite entrenched nepotism, are accorded grudging respect as successful business people, skilled media operators and formidable politicians. There is considerable political rivalry between the Kiambu Kikuyu of the tea- and coffee-growing district north of Nairobi and the Nyeri Kikuyu (one of whose number is President Mwai Kibaki), based in the fertile area of Othaya who rely on a more mixed economy.
The GEMA (Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association), created in 1971 to further Kikuyu interests, at first concerned itself primarily with countering Daniel Arap Moi’s ascent to the presidency, and although it was banned in 1980, it is believed to continue to operate clandestinely throughout Kenya.
The emergence in Kikuyuland in the early 2000s of the secret and violent Mungiki cult, somewhat modelled after the colonial era’s Mau Mau independence movement but based primarily around extortion and gangster operations rather than emancipation, brought terror to slum districts in parts of Central Kenya. In a recent twist of jaw-dropping chutzpah, its leader escaped justice, declaring himself a born-again Christian. He is now wooed by mainstream politicians, while Mungiki has become a deeply corrupting force within the political process.
Throughout Kenya, and especially in the Central Highlands and on the coast, you’ll often see people selling and chewing what looks like a bunch of twigs wrapped in a banana leaf. This is miraa, more commonly known abroad by its Somali name qat, a natural stimulant that is particularly popular among Somalians, Somali Kenyans and Yemenis. The shrub (Catha edulis) grows in the hills around Meru (the world centre for its production), and the red-green young bark from the shrub’s new shoots is washed, stripped with the teeth and chewed, with the bitter result being something of an acquired taste (it’s usually taken with bubble gum to sweeten it). Miraa contains an alkaloid called cathinone, a distant relative of amphetamine, with similar effects, though you have to chew it for some time before you’ll feel them. When they do kick in, they include a feeling of alertness, ease of conversation and loss of appetite. Long-term daily use can lead to addiction. It’s not always looked upon favourably, with signs prohibiting the chewing of it in many hotels and bars.
Miraa comes in bundles of a hundred sticks called “kilos” (not a reference to their weight) and various qualities, from long, twiggy kangeta, which is the ordinary, bog-standard version, to short, fat gisa kolombo, which is the strongest. As it loses its potency within 48 hours of picking, it’s wrapped in banana leaves and transported at speed. Street stalls selling it often display the banana leaves to show that they have it, and the best place to buy miraa in many towns is where the express matatus arrive from Meru. The use of miraa by bus, truck and matatu drivers goes a long way towards explaining why they have so many accidents. There are no legal restrictions on the use of miraa in Kenya, although imams have issued a fatwa (legal judgement) condemning it as an intoxicant, like alcohol, which means that it is forbidden to true believers. In fact, in most countries (but not the UK), miraa is a controlled narcotic, the possession of which is a criminal offence.