On Friday we pack raincoats into old shopping bags, popcorn and cereal boxes into our camping trunk, and drive to the Aberdares, leading a caravan of silver cars along the Rift Valley, through grey skies, past donkeys and wobbly matatus. The pavement disappears and we rattle over washboard dirt, through villages lined with roadside stalls and trees that reach above the walking school children, long rows of wild calla lilies. As we climb higher into the mountains, the vegetation turns greener, denser, crowds onto the road. At the gate to the park we talk to two rangers in a bare stall of an office, old binders piled in the corner, a map on the wall smudged to white by decades of searching fingers. One man sits at a desk and writes out piles of receipts by hand, hands us each a thick stack of tickets.
The land is mountains and moorland, low brush and tall trees, waterfalls slicing the distant landscape with thick silver blades. We drive slowly, waterbucks with long curved antlers stand in the road and watch us watching them. Duikers leap into the brush, bushbucks watch wide-eyed from the shade. There is a hill with wide horizontal stripes in different shades of green and brown. Later, when we are home, the girls will reveal that the striped hill was the most beautiful thing they saw.
When we arrive at the cabins perched in an open space of green at the end of a muddy road, the kids tumble out of cars, run through the rooms, claim beds. After the rooms have been sorted and luggage piled behind doors, we slide down narrow paths made by antelope to the river winding through the forest. The water is icy, rushes over rocks into small rapids. The kids kick off their shoes, wade into the cold river, feel the thrill of the current tugging at their legs. It starts to rain, but no one minds. We’ll worry about drying socks and runners later, about warming up in a cold mountain cabin. For now we help the little ones jump to rocks, warn the big ones not to venture too far.
The next day the river is higher after a night of rain, the current stronger. It is only later that I hear the stories of how little Y. slipped into the water, how M. tried to grab on to her but fell too, how fast the river carried them downstream. When M describes how scared she was, she adds that it was also fun, is grinning as she tells me that she cried after they found their footing, were drenched and shivering.
In the evening we light a fire, huddle over warm pasta, red wine. Some of us eat outside and watch shapes of small antelope, long mongoose, slip past us in the shadows as the sky turns darker shades of grey.
Phil gets out of bed early to watch the world wake up, and soon I follow him to the porch, unwilling to miss his show. We wrap red Masai blankets around our shoulders, drink bitter coffee. The sky grows lighter behind the clouds, rain falls on the trees, the valley. The birds sing over the sound of the river and the rain.
Later when the sky clears, I walk into the brush and startle a wild hare, its tail preposterous and white in that muddy place. It hops a few metres away, then freezes, stares at me with suspicion. There are too many birds to count, to name, they are like the crowds of people in a foreign city, scurrying by, ignoring the tourists.
We climb back into our cars in search of waterfalls. The roads are rocky, muddy, steep, not roads at all. Janey and I walk in front of the cars, throw rocks to the side and try to make a path level enough for passing. In our car the girls have figured out how to lay the back seat down flat and are lying on their backs, then stomachs, laughing and bouncing to the sound of Canadian punk bands. Finally we park the cars, hike down a narrow trail. A small river appears beside us, innocuous and unnoteworthy. Then without warning, the earth in front of us falls away and we are standing at the top of a thundering waterfall. We stand on a precarious lookout- a few two by fours nailed into a railing, which the children promptly climb and lean over, causing us to shriek and grab their shirt collars. The valley stretches out below us, the waterfall roars in our ears, sends huge clouds of mist into the air, filled with rainbows. In the distance there are more waterfalls, the highest in Kenya, and in the middle of it all, huge birds swoop and circle over a million shades of green. We spread a blanket out on one of the rickety lookout platforms- beside the sign that says Watch Your Children, Do Not Lean On the Rail, You Will Fall- pass out trail mix, take selfies.
At night the older kids tell ghost stories by the fireplace. My girls are tense, jittery, addicted to the taste of new fears, the reflection of the fire in the wide eyes of the storytellers. When we finally convince them to climb into bed, they are asleep within minutes, buried beneath layers of wool blankets, thick comforters. The adults stay awake in the dark, watch the fire grow small, talk about books, traveling, parents growing older.
Our last morning we drive to a different waterfall, one hidden in its own rounded jungle cathedral. We stand on the rocks beside the pool carved out by a thousand years of falling water, shout at each other over the fall’s roar. One by one, we walk along the slippery edge till we’re beside, almost behind the thundering downpour. The wind created by the falling water blows so hard we cling to the rocks, are drenched through our raincoats, our jeans. The smaller girls splash in the algae at the edge of the pool, M reads a book. Eventually we climb back out of that tropical hideaway, change behind car doors, lay our wet clothes to dry on the hood. We spread blankets and pull out olives, peanut butter, homemade hummus and melting chocolate. The kids play hide and seek in a field of brown grass, dropping to their stomachs and disappearing like small animals. Later their hands will be covered in cuts from the sharp edges of the grass, but they don’t complain as they play, their cheeks turning pink in the equatorial sun.
(If you’re interested: Aberdare National Park)