Conquering The Scenic Taita Hills

Voi sunset view

Taita Hills sunset view

Those people who normally pass by Voi town on their way to Mombasa or to the rest of the coast know a few things about this town. The town is small but very busy and is way ahead of Nairobi and other towns in their quest to become 24-hour economies. The town is also surrounded by towering and scenic hills that wink and make seductive calls to hikers and runners alike. A number of Swaras known to me had in the past confessed to me about an insatiable lust for an affair with those hills whenever they passed by Voi, and if and when an opportunity would arise, they would consummate this desire.

It was this lust and love for running that saw scores of Urban Swaras troop to the coastal town on 29th April, 2017 for a weekend of running carousal to gratify their cravings. All of us had safe trips to the town after dodging speed traps on the way. Many people started their journeys early and were in Voi from noon onwards.

Runners were hospitably welcomed to Afrika Lodges which was to be our home between 29th April and 1st May, 2017. As we booked our rooms and checked into the facility, we were served a refreshingly cool glass of cocktail juice. The lodges are built in a compound with trees that help create a cool environment in this normally hot town.

As runners slowly and sporadically checked into the facility, they had lunch and as others engaged in some lazy banter outside, some had some rest in their rooms as they waited for the welcome run which was slated for latter that evening.

The weatherman had predicted, and quite accurately, that it would be raining in most parts of the country, including Voi and the surrounding Taita Hills, during that weekend. This was a relief to us as the heat in Voi can easily dehydrate someone even with little or no physical activity.

Day 1: The Welcome Run 

From about 1700hrs, people started gathering at the hotel’s common area for pre-run stretches. We took photos as we awaited the chairman to flag off the welcome run. At 1730hrs, having given instructions on the course which had been marked that afternoon, the chairman blew his whistle and off we went.

voi-early birds

The ‘early birds’ ready for the welcome run!

This turned out to be a leisurely, pleasurable, easy evening run. With the sun staring at our faces, we ran in the bushy thickets that pave the area opposite Voi town but towards Mwatate general area. The run was a gentle climb towards the Taita Taveta University, with the Mbololo Hills to the right and Sagala Hills to the left. It was one of those gentle inclines which every Swara would love: not punishing and you feel like going on and on.

The run was meant to be 15km but the band of runners that I accompanied decided they wanted to do just about 12km so after about 6km we turned and ran back.

With our backs now to the sun, we enjoyed scenic views as the sun painted an orange canvas on the Sagala Hills. Due to the hills behind us, the view in front of us was a variegated panorama, some partly illuminated by the orange setting sun and some areas of green due to the shade falling on them, as the town welcomed the night.

There was this pleasant breeze that stroked and caressed one’s skin, wafting the sweat away. The colour of the sun on the bushes painted this peaceful orange hue that had a calming effect: a milieu and atmosphere that could make one run many kilometres.

A dik dik sprung from somewhere behind the bushes as we neared the hotel. It had been smoked out of it’s hiding by Cheruiyot and Masika, whom we met going in the opposite direction and seemingly loving the moment from the sprightliness in their steps. I hope they were able to see their paths as it was almost getting dark.

As we ran in the thickets back to the hotel, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat dejected knowing that we were unlikely to have another sunset run: we probably would be too tired the following day-Sunday- after the main run and Monday evening would find most of us in the big bad city!

voi-stretching after welcome run

Stretching session after the welcome run

We arrived at the hotel and did some crazy stretches before proceeding for much needed coffee and tea with some refreshments before dinner and other activities of the night.

Day 2: the Real Affair with the Taita Hills 

The day to indulge in our hankering for the hills finally came. Available at the hotel were three or four cars to ferry people to the beginning point. The route this time was different from that of the previous year.

The chairman gave the usual briefing and instructions on how runners were to be ferried to the starting points, with those doing the long runs (being 45, 40 and 35km) getting into the first two vehicles, whilst the mere mortals, as he called the rest of us poor souls, remaining behind to board the other vehicles, since they would be flagged off later. Yours truly had the privilege of riding with the stars as I was the paparazzo of the day. When you photograph stars who run long races, your profile and status changes from a mere photographer to a paparazzo!

And off we went. The starting point was 18kms towards Nairobi on the Mombasa-Nairobi highway at a shopping centre called Ndi.

At 0802hrs, the chairman blew his whistle and flagged off the ‘’club 45’’ made up of Benjamin Chikani, Cheruiyot and Mwasaru. These guys are crazy! I can run 45 kilometres on the normal terrains but I need a dose of insanity to do the same distance in a course that is a continuous climb, gaining an altitude of 2000 metres in the process! What?

The next stop for us would be at the 40km mark where we released the next bunch of super humans. But these were not just super humans. This was a trio of beauties being the two Susans with confusing and near-similar names, and the steely Nyawira. These three together with Wahome have taught me a lesson: for the long runs, go slowly, steadily but surely!

voi-club40 flagoff

Flagging off of the Club 40!

At the 35km mark we would release more victims to go and torture themselves.

As I prepared to capture this group, a beautiful and colourful sight was forming at the background: a rainbow! When is the last time you saw a rainbow? This group could not resist taking photos with the beautiful phenomenon that had just decided to lift the mood in that chilly and cold morning. After the photo moment, off they went!

We went on to drop more runners at 30km before we were passed by the vehicles carrying the ‘mere mortals’ who were doing 25 and 20km. I understand only one person did less than 20km distance.

The Route

As I travelled to Voi, my shins were acting up and I was resigned to the fate of just enjoying the sceneries as I took photos. I also had decided I would be part of the support team this time. If I was going to run, it was not to be more than 10km. The previous night, I had taken time to ice my shins and I seemed to get some relief.

voi-Club35 the rainbow party

Club 35 a.ka. The Rainbow Party!

As we waited in the car at the 30km mark, I was resting in the car waiting for 3 people that were at the tail end of the run. I was almost falling asleep when Otora came by us and at that moment a thought came over me. Why not give Otora the camera and start my run anyway! I could always jump onto one of the support cars after doing my 10km.

And so I started running at a snail’s speed. Soon, I got into the part where the road was climbing up and winding at every turn. This reminded me of Fluorspar run where the road dances eternally. I remember seeing a snake the colour of the rocks peeping at me from the roadside and I thought not to disturb it as it would definitely have ‘’chewed’’ me if it caught up with me at the pace that I was moving.

voi-chariman

Chairman of the Rainbow Party, oops, of the Urban Swaras!

The road rose steadily until at my 6.5km point, the road somehow levelled. This was at Ngombenyi/Nyache where also there was some elephant dung on the road. This would have created fear for us but seeing as this was on a road in a relatively densely populated area, the elephant would have to chase many of us if it ever showed up!

After Nyache, the landscape was simply beautiful. The land is covered by a carpet of vegetation and trees of all kinds. It looks like a place where rain lives. The higher one climbed, the more scenic it got.

As predicted by the weatherman, the weather was gloomy and it was threatening to rain the whole day. It actually rained but not heavily. During the entire run, we were refreshed by a continuous, natural spray of fine cool mist.

At my 10th kilometre where I was supposed to have stopped, I realized my legs were no longer paining. I had got some energy and my pace had improved even as the gradient on the higher altitudes became relatively flat compared to sections earlier in the course. I was running under some lovely boulevard paved with tall trees.

The higher one went, the mistier it became. I could hardly see beyond 300 metres at Mghambonyi but whatever I could see, it was beautiful. I was admiring the leafy, green kale and was telling myself I would buy some on my way back. There were fruits in the shambas and in the calm of the highlands were birds chirping melodious tunes. As I ran, I intermittently found myself daydreaming and thinking this was a place I would not only mind retiring to, but actually live in all my life! The serenity and the natural beauty was therapeutic!

From Mghambonyi, the road climbed to Mchonyi. More of unpolluted natural environment. Occasionally, one would come across pipes that were tapping water from natural springs, with the water flowing down to the homesteads through gravitational pull. I thought to myself, ‘’this is the real spring water, not the bottled stuff we buy in the supermarket which is claimed to be from some God-knows-which springs.’’

The altitude was getting really high and it was getting cold. The only thing that kept one warm was running. To get an idea of how high the place is,Vuria Hill, our finishing point and the highest point of not only the Taita Hills but the entire coast region, stands at 2,228 metres above sea level, dwarfing Nairobi which stands at 1,795 metres above sea level.

At Maghimbinyi, the mist was too much and visibility was like 50 metres. The greenery in this area is just to-die-for! Even if it meant just walking all the way to the top, I would walk just to soak in all the beauty of the place. At Ngombenyi, there was some relief as one ran downhill into Werugha town. Actually, one would think that finally the run was coming to an end but a tougher climb was to follow!

At 22.5km, just a few kilometres from Werugha town, I came upon this sharp v-turn to the right and to my left was this sparkling clean water dripping from some rocks up the mountain on my left. It was cleaner than rain water! It looked sweet and very inviting to the eyes. It had collected in a clean pool. It was cold like a chilled drink! I could not resist washing my face and drinking from the pool. I also filled my two bottles for the rest of the journey. Oh, such sweet offerings of nature!

After Werugha was a centre called Mghange Nyika after which there was a tarmac road rising steadily to the foot of Vuria Hill where the support cars were parked. This was at the 29th kilometre for me and I thought, ‘’finally!’’

Shock on me when I was told there was a small distance to the top of the hill! I presumed that the distance to the top would be the final kilometre to make 30km, which I was running. I had no idea the torture that awaited me! The distance to the top turned out to be about 3 kms more or less. But that was not the worst thing. The gradient suddenly turned steep and the run morphed into a hike. Memories of both point Lenana on Mt. Kenya and Gilman’s point on Mt. Kilimanjaro came flooding.

The Punishing, Tortuous Finish

For those familiar with hiking and mountaineering, there are some points towards the top of a hill when you are too exhausted that you don’t care a thing about summiting. This is where the legs have ‘refused’ and only a strong will can save someone. This is where people get cranky and they can easily beat you up or even throw you down a cliff without caring. The best thing in such times and places, to avoid the repercussions of antagonizing others, is to shut up and let the legs do the walking.

Halfway up, I met with the chairman and two other ladies who are normally ‘’all tough!’’ I did not however see the toughness this time, only the meekness of doves! I remember trying to talk to the chairman but he gave me a jaded look. I remembered that the best thing to do was to shut up! But not before I begged him to give me a piece of a ndazi that he was holding and chewing as if it was a very rare gem. He gave me a corner of the ndazi and boy wasn’t I grateful. He told me Otora had more of those at the peak, which was motivation on it’s own. I had to sit down and chew the morsel for about five minutes. It was too sweet I did not want to swallow it.

I got some energy and continued trudging up before a talkative young boy that I had left behind caught up with me and we started chatting. We finally made it to the top of the hill.

I was too famished by the time I got to the top. Otora started taking photos of me and I told him to give me the mandazi I had been told he had, only to be disappointed when he told me he had none. How now? One of the guys manning the telecommunication masts at the top looked upon me with mercy and shared with me his steaming cup of strong tea which is just what I needed with all that exhaustion, thirst and hunger.

The place looked like the Mount of Transfiguration with Otora being Jesus and the rest of the guys the disciples! Dense mist and wetness all around. I had been told that the view from the roof of the coast of Kenya was very beautiful but with all the mist there was nothing to see!

The journey down was a bit of a relief but we had to rest a couple of times due to the exhaustion. We finally got to the bottom of the hill and everyone was waiting for us as if this was the second coming of Christ!

We finally drove down in a convoy of vehicles as those of us that had not eaten feasted on their packed lunch on the journey down. One of our cars would get stuck on a muddy section of the road but we pushed it and in no time we were hurtling down the Wundanyi-Mwatate road. Shortly, we were in Voi town.

We arrived at the hotel after 1700hrs and it was time to freshen up and have dinner.

It had been a well organized but tough run. The support was superb, at least for those of us in the tail end. I understand some at the front may not have had it as good.

voi-descending vuria hill

Going down Vuria Hill in the rainy weather

 

voi-exhausted swara

A picture speaks a thousand words. An ‘unidentified’ thoroughly beaten Swara climbing down Vuria Hill

I was not boarding at the Afrika Safari Lodges but I am informed that after dinner there was a mbuzi party and an after-party that went all the way to the wee hours of Monday.

On 1st May, 2017, it was finally time to leave this lovely town and return to the city.

Unlike Fluorspar where I was not sure whether I would return, the answer to the question whether I will have another go at the Taita Hills is in the affirmative!

I would recommend this run for those that have not done it.

Another sunset view

Another sunset view

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