A Mountain Climber’s Dream: Vivienne de Watteville’s Mount Kenya

by Helen Palmer

On Christmas Day 1928, a young British woman arrived to live in a hut on the slopes of Mount Kenya. She had marched for two days to get there, through dense, animal-packed forest.  After unpacking her books and her wind-up gramophone, she settled down to Christmas dinner: a tin of Heinz spaghetti in tomato sauce, and plum pudding. Later, the strains of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony drifted out into the forest night.

Vivienne de Watteville would spend two months roaming the wild highlands of Mount Kenya. She had come there to seek solace in nature after an early life marked by epic loss.  Five years earlier, she had buried her father in the eastern Congo after he was fatally mauled by a lion on a hunting trip.  Suffering from spirillum fever, the 24-year-old took over the expedition, determined to finish her father’s collection for a Swiss museum.

I stumbled upon de Watteville’s story earlier this year when a Kenyan friend mentioned her books.  I was instantly hooked by her courage, her passion for nature, and her sheer panache.   At the first opportunity, she returned to Kenya – this time armed with a camera rather than a gun. She would “make friends with the animals” instead of shooting them.  In her solitary mountain home she found a connection with nature that brought to mind St Francis of Assisi or one of her favourites – Thoreau.  She also served rare guests a perfectly mixed cocktail.

I was intrigued by this enigmatic character, whose story is relatively unknown compared with those of her contemporaries Karen Blixen and Beryl Markham. Having lived and worked as a journalist in Kenya in the 1990s, I had already climbed Mount Kenya, making the three-day slog up the western approach to Point Lenana, the highest walkable peak.  But I had never seen the – reputedly more beautiful – eastern slopes where de Watteville spent her days. With time off between jobs, I decided to return to Kenya. I wanted to explore Vivienne’s mountain and in so doing perhaps get to know her a little better.

One day in September, I bundled into a geriatric Landrover in the old mission town of Chogoria, with my friend and mountain guru Steve Wahome.  Steve was the guide on my first climb up the mountain 15 years ago.  A tall, athletic Kikuyu, his knowledge of the place is encyclopedic, his energy infectious.  He was as excited as I was to be getting away from well trodden paths.

“This will be a historic visit,” he declared as we bumped and jolted up a rutted red road, through ancient forests of cedar, podocarpus and bamboo.

At the entrance to the Mount Kenya National Park there was disappointing news. It was no longer safe to camp at Urumandi Hut where de Watteville lived, the rangers said; it was being used as a base by poachers.  We pitched our tents instead at the park gate, in a clearing scattered with buffalo dung. Cocooned in layers of fleece and a down sleeping bag, I re-opened de Watteville’s book, Speak to the Earth: Wanderings and Reflections Among Elephants and Mountains.  On my iPod I listened to Beethoven, the composer she felt most expressed the mountain’s moods – “his ruggedness and gloom and sudden tempestuous joy.”

After a breakfast of banana pancakes and several cups of sugary tea, Steve and I set out through the upper fringes of the forest. Within minutes we came upon fresh elephant dung. “They must be in the trees over there,” Steve whispered. “Keep a good look out.”

Soon afterwards, a sudden squawking sent me leaping into the air. Two Jackson’s francolins, fat partridge-like birds, skittered away in panic.

Leaving the trees, the path snaked along a ridge through rolling downland. By mid-morning, the equatorial sun was burning the top of my head. Pitching our tents among heather bushes at the road-head at 3,300 metres, we wandered down the valley to the Nithi Falls.  The place was as idyllic as de Watteville’s descriptions: butterflies danced among orchids and red hot pokers. Vivienne was prone to flinging off her clothes here and jumping in.

“One moment of icy spray and then the weight of white water dashed over my shoulders like ice or fire,” she wrote.

“Few things are more delicious than to feel the sun and wind on one’s body.”

I dipped my index finger in the water.  “You’ll catch hypothermia if you go in there,” muttered Steve.

So I sat, fully clothed, in the damp clover, imagining Vivienne frolicking. I wondered at her extreme hardiness which must have come from her upbringing.  Her mother died when she was nine and she was raised by her aristocratic Swiss father. Bernard (or “Brovie) was a handsome artist-adventurer.  He seems not have noticed that his only child was a girl. Summers were spent marching up mountainsides in Norway, climbing, shooting and fishing.  Their first, tragic, African expedition, recorded by Vivienne in her first book Out in the Blue, took them the length and breadth of Kenya, then into Uganda and Congo, all on foot. “It was a toughening kind of life,” she admitted.

In the morning, the grass outside my tent glistened with frost. The air was filled with the whirring duets of the Hunter’s cisticola.  A pair of malachite sunbirds chased and chattered around the camp. In Speak to the Earth, de Watteville describes long happy days spent exploring the mountain with just a compass and a slab of chocolate. We planned to follow one of her walks, to Lake Ellis and the conical Mugi Hill. These landmarks are described by the Mountain Club of Kenya as “some of the finest hiking country on Mount Kenya,” but are often overlooked in the rush to the peaks.

Hiking gently uphill for two hours, we turned off the main path and made our camp among the tussock grass on the shores of Lake Ellis, accompanied by a family of African Black ducks.  From the lake, the scramble up Mugi takes about an hour, along dust paths patterned with zebra hoof-prints.  On the way we disturbed a lone duiker antelope; overhead a fish eagle screamed.

From the crest of Mugi hill, the view is immense. To the north lies the Giant’s Billiards table, a huge, flat-topped volcanic platform. To the east, sunlight and shadows play across endless miles of forest.  It sent Vivienne into floods of poetry: “Hills and forest and plains dreamed under the sunlit clouds … the heavens laughed for joy.”

Scattered among the rocks where we sat were eland droppings. “They must like the view too,” Steve said.

That evening, after a fruitless but exciting hunt for leopard, we sat by the fire and watched the cloud peel back to reveal a sky unfeasibly packed with stars. A satellite tracked steadily across, then another.

“Helen, is it true that most scientists don’t believe in God?” Steve asked.

In Kikuyu tradition – like that of other tribes around Mount Kenya – the mountain is God’s home.  In de Watteville’s time, few Kenyans would venture near the peaks, partly because of the cold, but also because of the fear of invading God’s sanctuary.  Times have changed: on our trip, the only other hikers we met were locals.  Steve himself has been working on the mountain for 30 years. “Take nothing, leave nothing behind,” is his mantra – and his way of respecting the mountain’s sanctity.

From Lake Ellis to Lake Michaelson is a jaw-droppingly beautiful six hour walk, rejoining the main Chogoria trail then rising along the sweep of the Gorges, or Nithi, Valley.  Far away up to our right, the main peaks – Batian, Nelion and Lenana edged into view, each named after a Maasai leader.

At an altitude of some 4000 metres, Lake Michaelson sits in a giant amphitheatre, stretching to a sheer drop at its end like an infinity pool. We had decided to descend the 300 metre precipice to spend two nights there as it was another of Vivienne’s haunts.

We made camp on spongey ground among pale clumps of giant lobelia. In the afternoon chill, swallows dived and dipped the water.  We fished trout from the lake and cooked them over the fire.

De Watteville spent six hours in “one unending battle” with the tussock grass to get here from her hut. She came to gather flowers, but she also found the waterfall that spills from the lake’s edge and bears her name.  Her family have set a wooden cross nearby to commemorate her time on the mountain.

To reach the falls, Steve and I picked our way down the two steep drops from the lake to their base. Then, to avoid going back the same way, we climbed straight up the side of the falls, traversing a vertical rock face.  Half way up, we emerged scraped and breathless at a rock pool fringed with gladioli and protea flowers. My face was smeared black; bits of thorn bush stuck in my hair.

“Now you are a second Vivienne,” Steve grinned.

Leaving the lake shore early the next day, we began the inexorable climb into the brown wastelands of the higher elevations. Steve has perfected the art of walking in slow motion, for the benefit of lowlanders like me, but I began to feel the effects of the altitude nonetheless. At intervals, I stopped to sit on a rock, waiting for my heart to stop thumping, the ringing in my ears gradually subsiding into the vast silence. The Afro-Alpine landscape has a lunar quality: giant groundsel plants are taller than people; spires and stegosaurus spikes of rock fill every horizon.

After four hours of creeping upwards, we skirted around the side of the mountain, looking down over the Hobley Valley with its two green tarns. We then picked our way over a treacherous field of loose rocks, heading for Top Hut on the mountain’s upper saddle at an altitude of 4,790 metres.

De Watteville came up this way to greet the great mountaineer Eric Shipton who, on January 6th 1929, had just made the second known ascent of Batian – the mountain’s highest peak at 5,199 metres.  Hearing men’s voices high above, she scrambled through the snow and scree “diabolical stuff”- to bring them hot Bovril and cake.

After spending a day on the glaciers with the mountaineers, she confessed to feeling “very ill” from the altitude.  In the night, their tents were buffeted by blizzards. Vivienne woke to find an inconvenient snow drift inside hers. The group decided to descend without climbing Point Lenana.  Safely back at the hut, Vivienne rustled up dinner for the men, and, Shipton noted, “a very memorable rum punch.”

I was secretly gratified that this relentlessly stoical woman occasionally admitted to human frailty. I was also suffering from a swollen face and a hammering headache.  The wind was bitter and freezing mists were swirling around us. Below, lay the Teleki Valley, our westerly route home.

At breakneck speed, we ploughed down the scree slopes, arriving at Mackinder’s bunkhouse on the valley floor just before the skies opened. All afternoon, it hailed and thundered – in Kikuyu myth, the sound of the great God N’gai cracking his joints before coming down the mountain to check up on his subjects.  Overcome with nausea, I managed half a chapati for dinner and retired miserably to bed.

At sunrise on our last morning, fresh snow gleamed on the peaks and slid well down the higher slopes. Steve looked wistfully at the glaciers and said how nice it would be to do some ice climbing.  I thought about the hot shower that was only a six hour walk away.

We crunched down the Teleki Valley, breaking ice under foot, stopping from time to time to look back at the glittering slabs of rock. I had eaten a spoonful of dry cornflakes for breakfast, my head still hurt and my toes were mashing against the ends of my boots. Yet I felt utterly exhilarated. I may not have been able to match Vivienne’s powers of endurance, but I had shared in her mountain romance.

“I could not leave the mountain alone,” she wrote. “Like great music it spurred one to action. That was the reason you came to love it; you had to give it your best always, and a bit more… for the first time fully awake, you breathed in the sharp, salt tang of life.”


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