On my recent trip to Kenya I decided it would be fun to hike up Mt. Kenya. At just under 5000 meters high, Mt. Kenya is almost as high as Kilimanjaro, far less popular, much cheaper to climb, and according to some friends who had done it, more beautiful. Those were all great selling points to me. So I started looking for trek companies that could guide me up the mountain. As with Kilimanjaro, for Mt. Kenya you really need a guide, and guides come with cooks and porters, so while it’s a hard hike, most people do it with services that make for a pleasant journey.
There are a lot of companies out there that offer Mt. Kenya guides. I found plenty of glowing recommendations on Trip Advisor and other similar websites. But although the prices were quite a bit less than Kilimanjaro treks, the companies I found online were far from cheap. On Trip Advisor I found one mention of an independent guide another woman had used who she really liked; she claimed he was much cheaper than the tour companies and offered his phone number for whatsapp messages. I was a bit wary of going off this random review with no other information but I sent him a message to see what he had to offer.
Loy, the guide, responded very quickly to my message, quoting me some options and assuring me that he could guide me up the mountain. After a few back and forth clarifying points (dates, routes, etc) he offered a price that was about 35% less than the tour companies. And I was quite impressed with his communication skills. Later I learned that he does all his communication on a tiny phone via text messages. While we were together on the way to the mountain he showed me the many requests he had recently received from both tour companies and individuals. I have no idea how he keeps all the itineraries straight in his head, but everything was very well organized and I got the impression no details get lost with him.
Overall my trek up Mt. Kenya was excellent. The weather was good, the guide and his staff were very nice, the food was tasty and plentiful, and I ended up going up with a group of 3 people from Mombasa who happened to want to do the trek on my same dates. (Loy did offer to take me up separately from them if I didn’t want to join a group, but I like meeting other folks and this turned out to be fun). Also, the summit isn’t easy! This is the highest I’ve ever hiked, and the last bit was very hard.
All this leads me to thinking about the value of peer-to-peer activity booking sites. I got lucky finding my guide in a mention buried under 10 pages of Trip Advisor reviews of trek companies. But if he was listing the trip on a sharing economy platform not only could I have found it more easily but also there would be reviews from other users, and some greater sense of confidence that his service is legit since it’s been vetted by others and possibly also by the people running the platform.
To secure this booking Loy asked me for a deposit, certainly a fair request considering that he had to pay for the food and park entrance fees in advance, and he was going to make a separate trip to Nairobi to pick me up. But as an independent guide he had no way of accepting money except cash. So I had to take a leap of faith and assume he wouldn’t just make off with my money. It felt sketchy, handing over $150 in cash, when Loy showed up outside the place I was staying at an agreed upon time. At my request he wrote out a paper receipt but I knew there was no recourse if it turned out he just wanted to cheat me out of the deposit.
I hope to see more peer-to-peer activities companies in Africa in the future. They’re good for the locals who don’t have to work for a big company and only get paid a fraction of the price, and they’re good for tourists who can book directly with local guides with the security of reviews and an online payment system.