Father-son adventures in the mountains
In one of his hiking escapades, Gitonga Wandai tagged his two-and-a-half year old son along. Now aged nine years, the boy has climbed Mt Kenya, Mt Longindo and Mt Meru.
Harriet James @harriet86jim
When he first participated in President’s Awards Programme in 2004 while still a student at Kenyatta University, Gitonga wa Wandai, a hiking enthusiast didn’t know the hike to Ol Donyo Sabuk, Machakos county, would end up being his pursuit all his life.
“The programme is a youth development one meant to instil discipline, endurance and responsibility.
Previously, I had not encountered any sport that resonated with me. So when I went hiking for this first time, I discovered the beauty of travel . That love drives me to date,” he says.
So far, Gitonga has not only managed to summit various mountains such as Mt Kenya more than 20 times, Mt Kilimanjaro 13 times, as well as Mt Ruwenzori, but has also built a community of hikers.
He desires to pass on this passion to his nine-year-old son, Wandai Gitonga, who has climbed Mt Kenya.
“I was proud of what he was able to achieve at that age and that he was enjoying the mountains despite challenges. I am amazed that he is self-driven,” says Gitonga.
Failed first attempt
Wandai had attempted to climb this mountain in December 2018, but failed to summit because it snowed a lot, hence it was too cold for the then seven-year-old boy.
But with the encouragement from his father, he is glad that his second time was successful.
To prepare for this, they would go hiking every two weeks at the beginning of this year.
And on March 8, they hiked Mt Longido in Tanzania. They had intended to climb Mt Kenya on March 20 to concide with Wandai’s birthday.
All seemed well until Covid-19 hit the country and everything was cut short.
“He was a bit disappointed, but I told him once the lockdown and curfew were lifted, we would head out for Mt Kenya, and we did,” he recalls
On August 5, this year, the Gitongas began their journey. It took them four days to summit.
On the first day, they managed to hike five kilometres to the first camp at Chogoria Gate.
Gitonga was glad that his son enjoyed himself as his body was slowly adjusting to the mountain weather.
“He enjoyed himself as he had been in the mountain before and was excited to return for the second attempt with his eyes set on the summit,” he says.
However, on the second day, Wandai had altitude sickness- slight head ache- but his father fixed it by giving him a lot of water.
They saw Nithi waterfall and then camped on the shores of Lake Ellis. They covered 11 kilometres on day two.
On day three, Wandai got up before everyone after a good rest. That day, he walked nine kilometres and in good pace.
“Day four was the big day. The weather looked great early in the morning.
However, it started snowing and we were freezing,” he says. Gitonga recalls moments when his son felt that he couldn’t go an extra mile.
“In that moment, he got a glimpse of the peak and I told him, ‘just 45 minutes and you would be at the summit’.
He stood up and told me, ‘let us finish this thing’. I smiled. An hour later, we were at the peak.
He panicked a bit, when he felt breathless and I had to calm him down. He was worried he would never feel his fingers again because of the freezing cold, but I reassured him that all would be well,” Gitonga narrates
Wandai’s love for hiking had been evident since he was young. In 2014, just as Gitonga was preparing to hike Mt Kenya for the first time, he began preparing by going for shorter hikes.
He took young Wandai who was two and a half years old then to hike at Mt Kilimambogo and he realised that he loved it.
From then on, Gitonga ensured that his son at least hiked once every quarter up until when he was five to six years when he began doing more and longer hikes.
“The more we headed out, the more he got curious about other mountains. He would look at photos and inquire about every mountain he saw.
And that’s how we started with Mt Meru in Tanzania when he was seven years and he loved it,” he says.
His mother was a bit hesitant, especially because Wandai had allergic reactions to cold. But after seeing her son’s enthusiasm in hiking, she supported him.
Gitonga taught his son how to walk slow, but consistent and to keep himself hydrated.
Then he got him the required hiking gear and they went onto their first cross border hike to little Meru, a lower peak of Mt Meru in August 2018.
“It was fun. He was disappointed he could not be allowed to go to the highest peak due to park age limitation. Only children above 10 years were allowed. We did a lower peak Little Meru.”
Wandai has a younger sister who has also began hiking. The two-and-a-half-year old has participated in walks at Karura and Ololua forests and soon will join in the longer hikes.
“I would love them to pursue their passions. I can only assist them to do what they desire. This is what brings me great joy,” he says.
One of the greatest lessons that Gitonga has learnt is to be extra patient with children. “Kids are observers.
They ask question on every step. Curiosity is important in their learning,” he says.
Why hike? “Hiking is a good sport that allows us to appreciate the beauty around us.
It is a perfect way to travel and interact with landscapes. We also connect more as a family,” Gitonga says.