Places

Lukenya: Where You Share the Crag With Zebras and Giraffes

For generations of Kenyan climbers, Lukenya has been an important refuge and proving ground, connecting climbers from around the world with nature and with each other.

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Ask a climber residing in Nairobi where to climb over the weekend, and they’ll likely point you to Lukenya, a cluster of gneiss outcrops located on the Athi Plains of south-central Kenya, about an hour’s drive from Nairobi’s city center. Although Lukenya is home to more than 500 routes and boulder problems, from gear-protected slabs to overhanging sport lines, most of the attention goes to its two sport crags: Nemesis and Baboon Cliff.

The harder of these crags, Nemesis, offers 20 excellent routes between 5.7 and 5.13—classics include Leap of Faith (5.9+), Turbulence (5.10d), and As Good as it Gets (5.10a). Initially developed by local legends Ian Howell and Iain Allen in the 1980s, the routes are staples for residents and transient visitors alike. Baboon Cliff, just a short walk north, is popular with beginners and has a number of climbs between 5.6 and 5.8+. The crag is owned by the Mountain Club of Kenya (MCK); bolting is only allowed with the permission of the MCK committee that assesses the worthiness of the route by quality—whether it makes sense within Kenya’s trad-dominant tradition—and its anticipated contribution to the climbing community. Visitors must be dues-paying MCK members or pay a day-use fee, which costs 400KES ($3.55 USD) for Kenyan Citizens and 800KES ($7.11) for international visitors.

Sven Torfinn cruises up the crux of Nemesis (5.10d) with typical grace. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

The hardest route, Banana Cheeks (5.13a), was established in 2020 by Kris Fiore, a Vermonter who came to Kenya on an American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant to develop new sport routes. Kenya has a small climbing population with very basic training facilities and a limited number of experienced climbers, and as a result, grades that in Rumney, NH, or Rifle, CO, may be considered relatively moderate are rarely repeated in Lukenya, even when the routes themselves are high quality—as is the case with Banana Cheeks, which has only seen a few repeats so far. But Fiore bolted numerous moderates as well.

Unsurprisingly, the first documented route at Lukenya sits on the other side of the grade spectrum. Arthur’s Horror (5.6) was FA’d by East African photographer and mountaineer Arthur Firmin in 1936, who climbed it in clunky mountain boots and a swami belt. He was in the company of Evelyn Baring, a British colonial administrator who later, as the Governor of Kenya during the Mau Mau Uprising in the 1950s, oversaw a system of concentration camps throughout Kenya, one of which was at Lukenya. (A nationalist armed revolt against the British colonialist state in the 1950s, the Mau Mau movement was instrumental to Kenya’s eventual independence in 1963).

(The troubling fact that climbing was introduced to the region by white colonizers takes time, resources, and an active community to supplant—a mission fundamental to the drive behind a number of local organizations, including Climb BlueSky, Kenya’s only climbing gym, and the women-led Climbing Life Kenya, a non-profit founded in 2017 whose mission is to introduce Kenyans of African descent to rock climbing.)

Read More: How an Unlikely Nairobi Climbing Gym Brings World’s Together

Peter Naituli working the crimpy start to Jason’s Route (5.12a), a typically pumpy route on Nemesis (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

II. 

I knew that Lukenya was a special place the first time I went. The greenery and serenity provide welcome relief from Nairobi’s pollution and noise; between climbs you can watch zebras and giraffes casually stroll across the plain. When the MCK bought the Lukenya land parcel in the 1960s, it had the express goal of combining climbing access and environmental stewardship. Over the course of their six-decade ownership and heightened protection of native vegetation and animals, the land has thrived. Photos from the early 20th century show a land looking desiccated and stripped of plants, while today’s Lukenya is lush and vibrant.

Sam Mwangi anchor building on top of Archway Crag, overlooking Athi Plains. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

When trad climbing, we generally meet at ‘Picnic Tree’—a makeshift parking lot in the bush not far from crags like Edinburgh Castle, Cakewalk, and Fig Tree. Under a number of overhanging rocks along these crags, one can find “NVJM” painted on with corresponding numbers that indicate dig sites where excavations unearthed microlithic tools—arrows, spears, and bone tools that are the considered hallmark of hunter-gatherer behavioral ‘modernity’—and Later Stone Age archaeological deposits dating back 18,000 years.

Most climbers may not know that the caves they climb out of once served as protection from predators and weather or even venues for meat-feasting Paleolithic Homo sapiens. Ian Thorpe, the Librarian of MCK, is on a mission to create a map of all the rock art and archaeological sites for the club website. Thorpe became increasingly fascinated by the prevalence of rock art and similar archaeological sites after stumbling on sites in his explorations for good boulders in less-trodden areas of Lukenya. In 1989, a U.S. company filming a TV series Young Indiana Jones hired a local artist to paint rock images at Lukenya, sometimes on top or adjacent existing rock art. Unaware that these were indeed authentic sites of rock art, they created accidental forgeries. MCK has since adopted far stricter rules to prevent such mishaps in the future.

III.

The MCK was once the binding factor of Nairobi’s climbing community. “If you were serious about climbing in Kenya, you were part of MCK,” Nikunj Shah, former chair and a current trustee of the club says. “It was your best bet to meet the right people and pool together gear.” Social fragmentation and the declining prominence of MCK, started a few years back. Shah has a few ideas for why the club has become less central, ranging from the sport’s skyrocketing popularity and ever-worsening traffic to the fact that everyone just seems busier than before. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these social rifts. Resources like MCK’s Lukenya guidebook (now accessible on The Crag) also opened up accessibility, allowing newcomers to be more independent.

Caroline Gezon checking MCK’s official Lukenya Guidebook at the base of Cakewalk. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Nairobi’s climbing community seems—at least to those who’ve seen it change—less socially cohesive than it used to be. Tejash Joshi, a longtime climber, says that 10 years ago he and his climbing partner were some of the few regulars at Lukenya. They would be there every weekend. “We were both learning as we went, and left to our own devices,” Joshi says. “We’d just go at all the routes [on Nemesis], even the hard ones beyond our grade, and just climb and fall, climb and fall. That’s how we got strong.” Their obsessive phase has since passed, but Lukenya will always be there for them.

“It used to be way easier to integrate with climbers,” another local commented. “People would offer extra spaces in their car, and you could just hop in.” But now people tend to divvy up into their own subgroups for day trips. He continued about his perception of the lack of actual climbing that happens within the Kenyan Climbers WhatsApp group he had created years back, one that hovers around 240 members and is now more of a forum for selling gear or posting photos. “If the group isn’t actually geared toward going climbing, and people who don’t live in Nairobi are the most active members in the groups, what even is the point?”

“Is it just me, or does everything feel pumpier than usual today.” Kilian Blumenthal leading Peaches and Cream (5.10b) (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

While the role of MCK in Kenyan climbing has changed, the role of their property has not. Lukenya remains a special place for many. On a busy weekend, groups are happy to share ropes, snacks, and beta. It is where I learned how to climb after years of yearning, subverted by a semi-itinerant lifestyle. As I gradually made Nairobi my home, Lukenya offered a consistency I didn’t even know I wanted—a place to both have fun and work through mental barriers. (Just the other week, as I started up Peaches and Cream (5.10b)—tricky to start with sharp crimps followed by easier but highly runout climbing—my belayer, Kilian Blumenthal, reminded me—joking—that pushing past our comfort is part of the point, “If you fall, you fall. I don’t do that take-take thing.”)

Peter Naituli takes a break from working a new boulder problem in the Plains Area. The bouldering at Lukenya is special, Naituli says. “It’s mostly quite grippy and crimpy but there are plenty of boulders with great jugs.” The area’s hardest known problems are B Seat (V9) and Jaws (V8). The latter is also his personal favorite. (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

It never rains in Lukenya, the old-timers will tell you. Personally, and though the height of the mountain generally blocks the storm clouds that prevail in Nairobi during rainy seasons, I’ve been rained out of there on at least three separate occasions. I was once caught in a torrential downpour on the top of The Seventh Wave, on Main Wall, the rainclouds irresolutely encroaching against our most ardent wishes. We opted to simul-rappel down and threw our gear into the car, shivering in our wet clothes the whole way home—urban myth well debunked.

Janet Valverde doing some rope management at Nemesis.

IV.

James Farr (a recent contributor to Climbing) learned to climb in the crags around Nairobi as a teenager—his first experience at Lukenya was as a boy scout—and he points to the deficiency of a thriving youth scene as one of the gaps in Kenya’s developing climbing community. Over the phone, his descriptions of the climbs are evocative, almost dreamy. Nairobi harbors a complex social environment. Expatriates are constantly coming in and out, making it difficult to establish lasting partnerships since it’s common for people to stick around for two-or-three-year contracts before moving on. Nevertheless, Farr says that as someone born and raised in the country, he’s managed to always feel like he’s on the inside. “My first time climbing at Lukenya was with Sven Torfinn and Sam Mwangi, who make up a core group of people who are still around.”

John Schunkerman warming up for the day with Bliss of Nemesis (5.9) (Photo: Kang-Chun Cheng)

Farr adds that a place like Nemesis allows you to develop an intimate relationship with each of the routes. “I’ve climbed most routes dozens and dozens of times,” Farr says. “The repetition and sequences give you the chance to know how well you’re moving, how confidently you’re thinking about your climbing, and notice how your brain feels. Climbers from all over the world have commented on how Lukenya really is a special place.”

Kang-Chun “KC” Cheng (@takeme.north) is an environmental photojournalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. Her background in ecology, focusing on community-based natural resource management and land-use conflicts, informs and enhances her perspectives. When not chasing after stories, reading, or cooking with friends, she can be found climbing rocks.