Travelling through the Central Highlands, Kenya’s political and economic heartland, offers some great rewards. Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest peak, gave the colonial nation its name and presents plenty of scope for hiking. Walks lower down and in the Aberdare range are easier but still dramatic, with better chances of seeing 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 are 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 upon 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.