We camped at the nearby Kamakea Campsite, getting some food and an early night. We set off for the foot of the mountain at 11:30 pm – in the distance was a chain of lights – other vehicles with more wazungu attempting to climb the mountain. I felt slightly dismayed that there were five groups that we could see trying to negotiate the treacherous lava flows on the way. We reached the foot of the mountain at about 12:15 am, met our Masaai guide, who smelt quite a lot like Konyagi, and had such a weak handshake I found myself checking to see if he had more than two fingers on his hand, which he did. He presented us with some recently hewn branches for climbing sticks and we set off on the moonlit path which headed more or less directly straight up to the top of the mountain. Masaai tend to walk in single file, and the path was designed thus. We rapidly found ourselves bunched up with one of the other groups – this may have been a sign that we had set off too quickly, but the first stretch of the walk was not steep.
The setting was fantastic – dark mountain silhoutted against the sky lit by a just rising moon that lit up the steep rift valley walls behind us. There was no sound but the wind, not even insects, as we proceeded along the gravelly path. Either side of us were deep gulleys that had formed from lava flows. A step to each side of the narrow path were numerous opportunities to break an ankle or neck. I surveyed the mountain profile to each side and watched as our path took us to a steeper and steeper incline. The path never desisted from its direct route, not winding at all, just heading boldly on to the top. After the first section, which was like a walk in the Lake District we got to a section where the path was heavily eroded or formed mainly from loose ash and gravel. Each step forward included a slide backwards half the distance progressed, and we slowed down significantly. Looking across to the escarpment at one point I saw that we appeared to be about level with the edge – surely we must be near the top now – it didn’t look far. But our guide shattered my enthusiasm – not even half way he giggled. We slipped and slid our way further up the mountain path, cursing at each fall. The path changed from the slippery gravel to larger rocks and eventually rock face, with a thin coating of small stones which skittered away under foot. Looking down and around I was amazed not to see a single source of light other than the starts. I felt truly priveliged to find myself in such a wild and remote location.
As we inched our way up we ended up on all fours, trying to decide whether to discard our sticks so as to free a hand, or try and walk upright like our guide. We would stop briefly every ten minutes. Stella started to worry about altitude sickness. Mtui started speculating about how long it would take to reach the top. It was four in the morning and none of us where really in the mood anymore. But we were definitely gaining on the summit now. We reached a level where the ground was coated by a layer of white powder – sulphur, ash? In the dark we couldn’t tell, but it was coating our hands, and getting in our mouths – I could smell and taste the mountain, both sulfurous fumes and this fine dust filling my nose and mouth. As we really did approach the top, the first glow of the sun rise began – it was 6 am. It took us 5 and a half hours to climb up, and we were knackered.