Elephant Hill, Aberdares
The Elephant Hill on the southern end of the Aberdares Ranges, about 90km north of Nairobi, is an ideal location for a day hike especially if you’re preparing for the more challenging Mt Kenya or Mt Kilimanjaro climbs. The Aberdares Ranges are situated west of Mt Kenya in the central highlands between Nyeri and Naivasha, and stretch 70km long from North to South. They are the water catchment area feeding two of the largest dams supplying over 95% of Nairobi’s water needs, i.e. Ndakaini Dam in the Thika region and Sasumua Dam near Njabini town. The Aberdares slopes are also one of the major bread baskets for vegetables supplied to Nairobi groceries, and possibly the most significant source of the second most important staple food consumed in Nairobi, the irish potato
Although the hill can be ascended from various starting points, the best approach is the Njabini Forest Station (former Kinangop South Forest Station), about 4km from Njabini shopping centre. The hike up the hill takes 4 to 5 hours from an altitude of 2500m at the Forest Station. The first 5km kilometers are over relatively flat plantation forest covered terrain, with some controlled farming activity known as the Shamba system. The trail then turns sharply to the right and dives into the Bamboo zone. The narrow trail, punctuated every few steps by treacherous mud, at this point is covered by a canopy of towering bamboo with only filtered light getting through, as you continue trudging up the now steeper path. The occasional elephant footprint and droppings from various animal species are a constant reminder that you are in a game reserve teeming with wildlife, with the armed escort your only shield from possible danger.
After what seems like hours of plodding though the muck and fighting the urge to throw in the towel and turn around, the trail finally levels off and the Bamboo thins out as you get to the alpine zone, characterized by the stunning array of outlandish flora like Giant Lobelia, Senecio, Tussock Grass, and Giant Heather among others; a real feast for botany enthusiasts. Amazing views of the surrounding countryside including the nearby Sasumua Dam down below to your right, and the distant Ndakaini Dam to your left, awaits those who make it this far. You are now at the elephant’s rump, also known as the point of despair.
For those strong enough to continue, the rest of the hike goes over slightly rocky terrain at an altitude of over 3400m above sea level, with the temperature dropping significantly, as you pick you way across the elephant’s back. The trail first descents into a clamp of trees before turning back upwards out of the small valley. It then gets pretty steep as it meanders past gnarled giant heather trees adorned with spanish moss offering handholds when you need to pull yourself up the slope. After what seems like another endless climb, the trail mercifully levels off to give you your first view of the summit. You’ll recognize it by the saddle between two knolls. Once you traverse the Elephant’s back to reach this saddle, you can reach either of the two summits in 5minutes. Most hikers prefer the 3625m high summit to the right, although the left one is higher at 3630m above sea level.The distinctive Kinangop peak, the second highest point on the Aberdares can be seen to the north.
The KWS rangers may try to discourage you from reaching the summit when you are within 15-20 minutes of getting there. They’ll give you reasons like the weather might change for the worse, or that its dangerously rocky. If your heart is set on getting there, feel free to politely insist on forging ahead, and avoid regretting later for turning back after getting so close.
The descent is just as trying as the ascent, taking a big toll on the knees, and another 3 to 4 hours to the Forest station.
Caution: Beware that the weather at this altitude can change for the worse very fast. Carry warm clothes and rain gear, and unless you are navigating by GPS, stop hiking if a fog moves in. Be prepared for the worst.
KWS rangers are not trained as guides. if you wish to meet your target, go with someone who knows the area well, or use GPS to navigate.
If using public means, take Njabini Matatus from the Old Nation House roundabout. Once in Njabini, the forest gate is a short 4km further on.
If driving from Nairobi, take the new Nakuru Road on the upper escarpment for about 60km to a place known locally as a flyover. Go over the flyover across Nakuru Road. A few meters after crossing, turn left at the next junction and drive about 24km to Njabini town. The Njabini Forest Station is 4km further on.
Although most visitors ask for KWS armed escort from Njabini Forest Gate, if you know the trail or have a guide, you can forego this service by signing an indemnity form. The official Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) tariffs for Park entry and armed escort are applicable here. Call Cpl Wachira +254 725 655963, or the Senior Warden, Aberdare National Park +254 772 171 247, or send him an email on firstname.lastname@example.org, to make arrangements for your visit.
Njabini Gate falls under Kenya Forestry Services (KFS). You will be expected to pay KFS rates if you wish to camp there.