Kilimanjaro is Instagram-ready as Mount Kenya still cries for toilets
While Kenyans were glued to their television screens following the disputed presidential elections, our neighbors to the south were busy installing high-speed internet connections on Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest in Africa.
The news received some brief boosts in Kenya, but was picked up by almost every major global media outlet. The news that you can now livestream your ascent to the continent’s highest peak sounded too good to be true.
“Now you can tweet while you climb Mount Kilimanjaro,” NBC News said. “Climbers, hikers and adventure seekers now have one less thing to worry about when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro: Wi-Fi access,” CNBC reported.
Even Kenya’s dreaded keyboard warriors who like to pick up an online fight with their neighbors were silent on this one except for their usual line “Tanzania owns the mountain and Kenya owns the views”.
Perhaps their silence was golden. Experienced trekkers say there is not much to write home about the experience of climbing Mount Kenya on our own, the second highest in Africa as far as basic amenities go. Climbers have endured the lack of adequate sanitary facilities on one of the country’s most recognizable landmarks.
The Mount Kenya trek is listed as one of Magical Kenya’s Key Signature experiences, the exclusive routes designed to showcase Kenya as a tourism hotspot. Any climber of Lenana Peak, the only point that does not require technical climbing, can attest to the mountain’s contrasting landscape.
A survey of the mountain by conservationist Bongo Woodley lists 882 plant species, 81 of which are endemic to the mountain. Dense forest overlaps the base, rising nearly 10,000 feet.
Then there is the vegetation of the Afro-Alpine zone, some that only occur in high altitude areas in East and Central Africa such as giant ragworts and picturesque lobelias while the beauty around the peaks is enhanced by several tarns.
In 1932, Mount Kenya was classified as a forest reserve while the national park was created in 1949. Due to its natural resources, Mount Kenya was recognized as a biosphere reserve by the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program ) of UNESCO.
However, the highest recognition came in December 1997 when the World Heritage Committee sitting in Naples, Italy designated the mountain as a World Heritage Site for being “one of the most impressive landscapes in West Africa”. the East with its rugged, glacier-clad peaks, Afro-Alpine heaths and diverse forests that illustrate exceptional ecological processes.
Yet such value of the mountain as a premier tourist destination risks being marred by a lack of proper sanitation facilities.
The poor state of the sanitary facilities has been recognized by none other than the man who has been at the helm of the tourism file, Najib Balala. He had hiked the mountain in May 2022 to raise money for what he called “improving hiker experiences.”
His resolution was firm: “Through this excursion, we will also raise funds to ensure the improvement of tourist facilities, including the improvement of sanitary facilities at different stopping points of the route”.
Trekkers who have visited the highest mountains in East Africa say Uganda and Tanzania have an edge over Kenya when it comes to hiking experience. “Mount Kenya is a sad story,” quips Job Mugo, a keen hiker who has lost count of the peaks he has reached in the region.
“Listen, the Rwenzori guys in Uganda have flush toilets complete with pipes for running fresh water. In Kilimanjaro, pit latrines are cleaned twice a day by various groups, including tour guides, after using a specific campsite,” he adds. “At Mount Kenya? try the bush.
Tired of the embarrassment, hikers have filed an online petition to garner support for proper sanitation services on the mountain. The petition has so far been signed by nearly 3,000 people.
Part of the petition read: “Mount Kenya lacks decent sanitation facilities or they are non-existent on all camping routes. This means there is no proper disposal of human waste, which is disgusting and evident around the camps. The most affected are the popular spots (Lake Michaelson, Lake Ellis, Mintos Camp) all along the road to Chogoria. Others include Kamweti, Burgret and Timau Route.
One of the main supporters of the petition is Wandai Gitonga, founder of the outdoor experience outfit, Hikemaniak. Gitonga has climbed the mountain a record 43 times and counting. The beauty of the mountain, he says, is unmatched compared to other high mountains in East Africa, including Kilimanjaro.
The face of the online campaign is a photo depicting the peaks but also showing tissue paper strewn across the foreground not far from a body of water. Gitonga fears the health and ecological disaster not only for the climbers but also for the communities living around the mountain.
“There is so much human waste accumulating daily, but climbers and local communities have to fetch water downstream. We are witnessing a health disaster of enormous proportions as the waste is transported to the water system,” he says.
The situation is particularly serious for climbers with special needs such as women whose sanitary needs go beyond simply relieving themselves in the toilet. According to Gitonga, the dynamic of escalating such high attitudes sometimes changes a woman’s monthly cycle, with some having to deal with unexpected periods.
“To tell such a lady to find a ‘bush over there’ is very unfortunate,” he says.