Kilimanjaro (CONTAINS VIDEO)
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
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Here is the video from our Kilimanjaro adventure:
One of the anticipated highlights of our journey was always our attempt at climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. Even just the name is so exotic and other-worldly. Africa's largest mountain, the world's largest free-standing mountain. Early colonial explorers went back to Europe with stories of a mountain on the equator that has snow on top all year round and were laughed at. Climbing it is a great challenge and accomplishment, an attraction as much for its difficulty as its beauty.
As soon as our Pangani assignment comes to an end, we are on the first bus to Arusha to book our Kili trip. The lucky company turns out to be the one located in our hotel. They match the best price we've been able to find and also throw in our gear rental. Although we are looking forward to this as much as anything on our trip, we are also anxious. We hear so many stories of people getting really sick or even dying from altitude sickness that we have begun to question our own ability to reach the top. One's ability to counter altitude sickness has nothing to do with physical fitness, rather just your physiological makeup and there is no way to tell if you are likely to be affected until you try. But we are very determined and maybe that is half the battle won.
The start is a little inauspicious. Our rental gear isn't ready and we waste 45 minutes going to pick it up. Then we fart around at the park gate for two and a half hours dealing with permits and whatnot. It is after midday, more than four hours after we left the hotel, before we actually start climbing.
Jane and I are the only two clients in our group. Two others has signed up but decided at the last minute that they would rather climb via another route. There are two main ways to get up Kilimanjaro, the Marangu route and the Machame route. Marangu is much more popular, attracting around eighty percent of climbers because it is easier for the first four days, and you get to stay in huts. However, only about one-third of Marangu climbers actually reach the summit, largely because the last day's climb is so demanding. Machame is more physically demanding throughout and can be especially cold because you stay in tents but it has a much higher success rate. For us the choice was a no-brainer - bugger the cold, give us the best chance of making it to the top.
Our guide is Stanley, a young and athletic guy who we like straight away. He is humble and not at all annoying like some of the other guides who crap on about anything and everything. He speaks reasonable English although he has a tendency to say "what?" instead of "pardon" or "sorry". This is quickly corrected and we get on really well.
All the hiking groups camp in the same area, a series of makeshift clearings on either side of the path. Our tent is simple and small but just what we were expecting. The crew all share a bigger tent next door where Mbongo cooks and the others laugh and chat. As the sun lowers, the clouds dissipate and we have a clear view of Kili's snowy peaks, closer now than when we started but still a long, long way off. The temperature drops with the sun and by 7:00 pm it is dark and cold. In the clear night sky we can see the astonishing array of stars that spans from the treeline in one direction, right across to the silhouette of Kibo, Kilimanjaro's highest section. Being so close to the equator here we see both the northern and southern hemisphere stars, a huge mass of bright dots that light up the sky like a bird's eye view of so many candle-waving concert-goers. The food is surprisingly plentiful and delicious. A big bowl of soup is followed by seasoned potatoes and beef stew, with fruit and a hot drink to follow, all served with fine restaurant style and care by Elias.
Our tent has an inside flap, then a tiny little covered alcove for shoes, then another flap to get outside. The tent is pitched on such an angle that this last flap is right next to a big prickly bush. At about 10 o'clock I wake up with the unavoidable realisation that I have to pee. Bleary-eyed and disoriented, I extricate myself awkwardly from the warmth of the sleeping bag, crawl to the first flap and fumble around for the zip like a mime trying to escape from an invisible box. The flap opens just enough for me to squeeze through - imagine Shaquille O'Neal exiting an igloo and you get the idea. More fumbling is required to find my shoes and slip them on while balancing on my haunches because the alcove is far to small to stand up in.
I waddle like an elderly duck to the front flap and unzip it, causing a burst of cold air to invade the tent. Still half asleep, unsteady on my feet and unable to see anything in the dark, I try to push through the tiny gap. My foot trips on some invisible part of the tent, disturbing my fragile centre of gravity and causing me to lose balance. With one foot already outside I have no option but to keep going. I burst out of the tent's tiny hole like a circus performer being shot out of a cannon. The side of my foot lands on an inconveniently placed rock that sends me careering off sideways. My demented tailspin finally ends when I land on my back on the abovementioned big prickly bush. I pause for a moment to praise my own dumb luck that landed me on my back on a bush instead of on my head on a sharp rock, then stand up to complete the task I came here to perform.
In the morning, unrefreshed from our sleep but enthusiastic for more climbing, we head out at around 8 o'clock. Today's walk is the shortest of the six days, only six kilometres, but it takes us up to an altitude of 3840 metres, the level at which you can start to feel the first symptoms of altitude sickness. It is a cold and crisp morning but the walking and the rising sun heat us up nicely. The walk is much steeper today, involving a fair bit of what climbers call 'scrambling' - pulling yourself up by your hands and saying thinks like "gosh, I wouldn't want to fall down that bit." About half way through the day, we hear an American accent behind us.
"Hey, you guys have no backpacks - that is, like, so cool!"
The voice belongs to Mike, a 25 year-old from Washington D.C. He wears a cowboy hat, has an All-American smile and says "that's really funny" without smiling. Mike has climbed plenty of mountains - none as high as Kili though - and has all the gear, trekking poles and what have you. He has a similar camera to us, which he finds extremely interesting.
"I am actually something of an amateur photographer," he informs us as he takes a photo of us with the mountain in the background. "I sold some photos last year." Then he scrambles off ahead with his fancy poles.
It's only a shortish walk today but we ascend 840 metres until we reach Shira Camp, our home for the night. It is on a small plateau with the jagged, spooky peaks of Shira mountain peering over us, and the wispy clouds wafting across the camp give it an eerie feel. Because it is only a short walk, we have the whole afternoon at the camp. We sit around on some rocks chatting to the porters. Elias speaks the best English of the lot so he represents the Tanzanian viewpoint on a number of issues, including marriage.
"Yes, nearly two years now."
"And how much dowry did your family pay for her?" he asks me, raising his eyebrows in Jane's direction.
I try not to smile. "Well, we don't really still use dowries much in our culture. I think that died out over a hundred years ago in most places."
"Not here," Elias counters defensively. "My family had to pay many cows for my wife."
"Why is that?"
"Wife's family spends much time and money raising a girl. They must be compensated for this trouble."
"I see. I don't think my family would have any room for cows in their house."
"That is okay. Wife's family can pay money. Dowry is good thing. Without dowry, family has no use for girl. Women can only raise children, man can work for his family."
Jane and I look at each other as if deciding who will handle this one. Jane offers, "You know, in many countries, men sometimes stay home with the children while the woman goes to work."
Elias' jaw drops, as do the others' when he translates. "You must be joking!"
"It's true," I confirm.
"That is wrong. Men know nothing about children. They hear baby cry and they don't know if he wants to eat or go to toilet." The other porters understand and nod supportively.
"They would know if they ever spent time with their kids," says Jane.
We have dinner early, around five, and we are asleep by 7.15, bundled up in our sleeping bags from the sub-zero temperatures outside.
Day three is one of the longer days, requiring about seven to eight hours of walking. The cumulative ascent is only 110 metres but we climb right up to 4700 metres before dropping back down to 3950. Above 4000 metres the trees largely disappear and the terrain is very rocky, with large boulders and pumice-type volcanic rocks lining the gravely trail. The mountainside is bleak and exposed, Kili's snowy section still dwarfing us and seemingly no closer than it was two days ago. We can see the peak but it looks impossibly protected by sheer cliffs. Stanley explains that we must circle around to the other side of the mountain to get to the climbable path.
It is a long uphill plod and we walk slowly, like POWs up the steep slope. Our immediate target is the Lava Tower, a huge volcanic rock that serves as the high point of our day's climb as well as our lunch spot. Jane is feeling the first effects of altitude sickness as we approach the Tower. She is extremely lethargic, barely able to place on exhausted foot in front of the other. I place a sympathetic hand lightly on her shoulder.
"Are you okay?"
Jane can only murmer "oh, that's too heavy. Take it off."
The final two hundred metres to the crest of the hill takes about forty-five minutes as Jane stumbles and forces herself slowly to the top. The Lava Tower marks the top of this particular hill so we rest behind some large rocks that shelter us from the cold wind and enjoy our boxed lunch. The path that takes us down the other side of the hill leads us down
Like Frodo and Samwise, with an upright and well-intentioned Stanley playing Gollum's guide role, we slowly work our way across the rocky and pebbly path featuring all manner of large boulders spewed up by Kili's volcanic regurgitation centuries before. The destination tonight is Barranco Camp, a small plateau at the bottom of another steep descent. The descent is particularly attractive due to the appearance of the senecio trees. These large and weird-looking things have thick stumps and a flowery head, like a big green and red sponge. Some of them have two heads and they dot the mountainside as we get closer to camp. The wispy afternoon clouds that waft across us combine with the senecio trees and the first patches of snow in the distance to give the place a very eerie feel.
Our camp is all set up when we arrive by our high speed porters who had come bounding past us earlier in the day, and a plate of popcorn is delivered promptly to us as we collapse, exhausted in our tent. Jane and I are both starting to feel the first effects of altitude sickness. Our heads are pounding, we don't even have enough energy to roll over and we have no appetite to eat the food we need for energy. After an hour or so of this I force myself out of the tent, wincing like a mole in the dusk light as if it were a blinding flash. I try to find American Mike who, as luck would have it, is situated on completely the other side of the camp site. I stagger past the luxury tents with their middle-aged clients sitting in their top-of-the-line mountain jackets at their comfortable tables eating their gourmet meals or lounging on their reclinable deck chairs or crapping in their padded portable toilets. At every camp you have to sign a registration book that records your age, nationality and the amount you paid solely for park fees, among other things. From this book we learn that the African Environment clients, a doctor, a hotelier and the doctor's son, spent $25,000 on park fees. If that is just park fees we wonder what their total cost would have been - those portable toilets don't come cheap. We have been keeping a close eye on these guys, seeing what their huge price tag gets them. We note that they still have to carry their own daypacks while
I find Mike and he kindly comes over and gives us some of his spare Diamox, the altitude sickness medication. The pills work pretty well, reducing our headaches and improving our appetites a bit.
Everything is almost back to normal when we are roused at 7:00am for Day Four. Today is supposed to be the hardest day apart from the summit day, and it starts with the Barranco Wall. We caught a glimpse of it last night, as it is right next to the camp, but it was hidden by the evening cloud. The cloud thins out in the early morning, revealing a 200 metres high sheer cliff - just like a wall - blocking our progress. The first thing that comes to my mind is the climbing scene at the start of the movie The Princess Bride, where Carey Elwes climbs after Andre the Giant and the other baddies. Unfortunately Jane doesn't remember the movie and Mike says he's never seen it. Inconceivable! However, as we get closer to the foot of the wall, a kind of path becomes visible, although it is very steep. Now it seems more like the hobbits scaling Mount Doom (or whatever it is), the bit where Gollum throws the bread off the edge and blames Sam. In terms of actual climbing it is the trickiest part of the mountain, with a lot of hoisting yourself up and some precarious ledges. How the porters, with their enormous sacks or portable toilets on their heads manage to clamber up and even overtake us, I'll never know. Some of our previous blog entries had criticised the laziness of some Tanzanians but these porters are the complete opposite of that stereotype, with unbelievable strength and energy.
Because we are well rested and at the beginning of our day's hike, the Wall is more fun than exhausting. At the top we are seemingly only one step away from Kibo, the business end of the mountain, the snowy section that always seemed so distant and unassailable. Today we still have a lot of walking in order to circle around Kibo to get to the path that will take us to the top tomorrow morning.
The rest of the day is simply a long slog to Barrafu Hut, our last resting point. All signs of life are long gone up here apart from the ant-like trail of porters and climbers that disappears into the distance, and some large evil-looking raven-type birds. We imagine they feed on the flesh of the climbers who fall off the side of the path, unnoticed by their guides. American Mike's guide is always complaining that Mike keeps charging off ahead. "He's going way too fast, he will get altitude sick", the guide will tell us. When we meet up with Mike in the evenings at camp he turns the tables, "my guide is so slow, I'm always stopping and waiting for him".
The last and hardest part of the day is a three hour grind up Barrafu hill, 4700 metres above sea level. We can see the camp in the far distance, which helps us work out how far we have to go but it is frustrating because it never seems to get any closer. Our feet and legs are exhausted, breathing is getting more difficult, our heads are throbbing and it is icy cold when the wind whips through the gorge.
The camp is just a relatively flat area dotted with gigantic volcanic boulders and tents pitched
Dinner is served at five and we have to try to go to sleep straight after in order to wake up at 11:30 tonight for our summit attempt. You start so early in order to catch the sunrise at the top and to avoid the slippery snow that comes with the sunlight. We are so exhausted that the early night isn't much of a problem in terms of tiredness.
Jane is anxious about reaching the top. "What if we don't make it? I really want to make it." A combination of this anxiety, the thin air and the bumpy rocks under our thin mattresses means that she doesn't get much sleep.
The start of Day Five, summit day, is technically still Day Four, as we are woken before midnight with a cup of tea and some words of motivation from Elias. "You are strong. You are powerful. You will climb to top." We are excited - this is what it's all about, after all - but the bitter cold outside and our fragile physical states makes it a struggle to peel ourselves out of our sleeping bags. Today we ascend from 4700 metres to 5895 metres, to Africa's highest point.
Stanley, the guide, is coming with us, along with Elias. We need two people with us in case one of us needs to come down. Our tent is located at the far end of the camp from the peak so we have a fifteen minute hike to the other end of camp before we really even start. Our torch is a feeble little job that Jane was given five years ago and we've never changed the batteries. We twist it on as we start walking, it casts a tiny little ray of light for one second then peters out sadly. This means that the four of us only have the glow of Stanley's head torch to lead us up the difficult seven kilometre climb in total darkness.
Other groups are heading out too and we fall in step with a bunch of English climbers. The next few hours are possibly the slowest of our lives. Like a convoy of snails, we crawl in super slow motion along and up the invisible trail. It's steep and the group we've latched on to only stops every half hour or so. When we do, one English guy announces the reading on his altitude meter. I thought this would be a source of motivation but it is actually the opposite. After three hours we have only ascended about 400 metres, still almost 800 to go. With each step it becomes harder for me to catch my breath and I double over or kneel down on the rocky trail each time we pause, even for a second. Jane is light-headed and keeps losing her balance, nearly toppling over a number of times. The cold is persistent and harsh, the wind slices through our layers and bites into any exposed skin.
Neither of us consider turning back at any point but I do wonder where this bloody summit is. The only thing we can see in the dark, apart from the arse of the person in front of us, are the stars and the jiggling flashlights of the people higher up than us. Every time we look up, a major effort in these conditions, the lights seem more distant and their location more unassailable.
For Jane the turning point comes around 5:30am, as the first faint glimpse of light appears from behind the eastern horizon. Until this point she was in worse shape than me, dragging her feet and swaying weakly in the wind. Now the only wind she feels is her second wind,
The view to the west is not so pleasing. Stanley points to a snowy ridge that rises off to the left and ends in a faraway peak.
"That is Uhuru Peak!" he shouts above the wind, "This is only Stella Point. Let's go!"
My sense of relief and achievement gets whisked away with the freezing wind, my shoulders slump and I wearily trudge off again. The path is thick snow now, just like a ski field, and the sun reflects brightly off the ice forcing me to shield my eyes. The views are even more spectacular but I am hardly interested. I just put my head down and place one foot in front of the other. This technique seems to work and, in time, Uhuru Peak comes into view. Through the snowy haze I see someone waving in my direction. It's Jane, standing at the top and it gives me the extra bit of a boost I need.
Stanley tells us that he used to work as a guide for a company that brought South Korean tourists here. In Korea, Kilimanjaro has almost mythical status. The story goes that a Korean man had been diagnosed with cancer. Before he died he vowed to climb Kilimanjaro, which he succeeded in doing. When he returned to Korea, doctors were amazed to find that his body was cancer-free. His recovery was attributed to the refreshing climatic conditions of Kili. Since then Koreans have believed that climbing it will cure them of whatever ailments they might have, and many of Stanley's clients were in their sixties or seventies. One such man didn't make it to the top on his first attempt so he returned a year later. He failed again but vowed to keep coming back until he succeeded. On his third attempt he was having a very hard time on the final day but refused to give up. It took him ten hours to reach the top, the last two spent crawling on his hands and knees and he burst into tears upon reaching the summit.
Stanley tells the story very simply but the emotion is clear. Then, by way of conclusion, he says "but Koreans are bad tippers."
Despite that, we are kept going by the thrill of having made it to the top, a thrill that will not go away for quite a while.