A Mighty Wind

Trip Start Jun 25, 2003
Trip End Sep 2004

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Flag of Tanzania  ,
Friday, June 11, 2004

Greetings from once again from Tanzania!

After relaxing for more than a week on the beautiful white sand beaches of Zanzibar we headed off for northern Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Flying in I looked outside the window of the airplane and saw the mountain top and excitedly snapped a photo. It was only after I realized that I was aiming the camera up at the looming mountain top that I was flying below the level of the mountain peak. For some reason I never thought the mountain would be so tall. Which of course made me question my rigorous training schedule of lying on the beach and eating and drinking to my hearts content.

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa, and is one of the seven summits; putting it in the same club as Mt. Everest. The peak is at 5,986 meters (just shy of 20,000 feet) so the air gets pretty thin. But the numbers didn't bother me, after all I had been to the mountains in Colorado several times to go skiing. Plus, our planned route was not a technical one (e.g., no ropes, no climbing), so all we would have to do to get to the top is put one foot in front of the other. No problem.

As we met our guide at the airport I tried to forget the formidable peak I had seen from the plane's window which was now fortunately shrouded in clouds. Our guide took us back to his village on the slopes of the mountain where we met Jordan's good friend Paul, who had flown all the way from L.A. to join us for the climb. That night our guide laid out the eight day game plan which would hopefully get us to the top of the mountain. The most important thing he said was to go "poli, poli," Swahili for slowly, slowly. This would be the best way to get to the top as it would allow plenty of time for acclimatization. Something like 60% of climbers attempting to summit do not make it, most because of altitude. By going poli, poli we should avoid this pitfall. He said the two biggest problems we would face would be the cold and the thin air. I was thinking the two biggest problems would be the lack of a shower and a proper toilet. Little did I know what the altitude would do to Jordan and Paul.

Hiking up the mountain we traversed several different vegetation zones, progressing from tropical rainforest, to temperate forest, to moor land, all the way up until there was nothing but small scrub and volcanic boulders strewn about the Shira Plateau on which we made our camp, at an altitude around 10,000 feet. This is where I had my introduction to what would be my two biggest problems during the climb. Away from the shelter of the forests, the wind howled down the icy slopes of the mountain making for freezing conditions at night. Wearing all the clothes I brought with me and bundled in my three-season sleeping bag, I still was not able to stay warm. I spent the night unable to sleep, shivering in my tent, making it impossible to ignore my other problem - altitude induced massive gas problems for Jordan and Paul who kept blaming the noise on imaginary wild ducks caught in their tents.

Needless to say when morning arrived I was happy for the warmth of the sun and the freshness of the air outside the tent. Each day of hiking was great as we climbed over ridges as barren and rocky as the moon, down through sheltered valleys covered with strange looking cacti and plants that grow only on the mountain. All the while looking down upon the clouds below us as if from an airplane and looking up at the glacier-covered peak looming beautifully above us. However, as soon as the sun went down each night, we were greeted by the extreme cold that accompanied such a high altitude. The one highlight of each night was dinner. We would sit huddled around a small table in a freezing cold tent by candlelight eating wonderful hot food that our cook would prepare for us. The one benefit to hiking up the mountain was for once I had servants. In addition to our own cook, we had several porters to carry our heavy bags and set up the tents every night. But the pampering should not come at such a price, anytime I would start to enjoy things either a cold wind would blow down from the mountain or a rancid wind would blow over from the boys.

Over the next several days we continued to hike up to increasingly higher altitudes, making for increasingly cold and duck-filled nights. The worst of which was the night before our summit attempt. We were camped out on an inhospitable rocky ridge with no protection from the freezing cold winds at an altitude of 4,600 meters (approximately 15,000 feet). I lay awake in my tent, unable to sleep from the cold and the altitude, listening to Jordan and Paul perform their own rendition of dueling banjos. It was a pleasure when at 12:30AM our guide came to rouse us for a hot drink and our summit attempt. The idea was to climb during the night so we could reach the summit just before sunrise. The problem with climbing at night was that I could not see the scenery to take my mind off the steady uphill, plus with the sun down it was so cold my water bottle actually froze and burst. We made our way progressively up the mountain into thinner and thinner air making it harder and harder to push uphill. Just when I thought we were close we hit the hardest terrain yet - loose rock scree seemingly going straight up bordered on either side by shining glaciers. As the sky started to lighten I found myself arduously pushing one slow step at a time until finally and exhaustedly we reached the summit just after sunrise. The view from the top was amazing, but due to cold and altitude we didn't want to stick around too long. So after taking some quick triumphant photos we began our long 2 day descent down the mountain to our first shower in eight days.

Not wanting to move again, I was glad the next nine days would be spent sitting on my butt touring Tanzania's famous safari parks. Leaving the mountain behind, we headed into the flatness of the Serengeti plains and straight into the African version of Woodstock - the wildebeest migration. Everywhere we looked we saw tens of thousands of wildebeests and zebra spread across the vast endless horizon interrupted only by scrub and flat topped acacia trees. I felt like we were dropped right into the center of an issue of National Geographic. Of course where there is prey, there are predators. Lots of predators. We actually spent one morning game drive surrounded by a pride of no less than 14 lions as they positioned themselves around one of the roaming herds of wildebeests. I don't think of myself as bloodthirsty, but even I was hoping for a kill. After all, there are thousands of wildebeests, who is going to miss just one? But as Jordan was humming the "Circle of Life" and Paul polished his enormous camera lens (I think he's compensating for something), the lions seemed content to just laze around in the tall yellow grass.

The wildlife activity was not limited to the day. We camped out in opened unfenced areas within the game parks. Each night we were awoken by different animal noises. The roar of lion here, the munching of a zebra there. We even heard a story of a warthog tusking his way into a tent to steal Doritos forgotten deep inside a backpack. Needless to say, I made no latrine trips in the middle of the night.

After the Serengeti, we went on to the who's who of the Tanzanian game parks including stunningly beautiful Ngorongoro Crater, Arusha National Park renowned for its herds of giraffes, Lake Manyara with its flocks of flamingoes and pods of hippos, and Tarangire with its massive elephant herds. No animal escaped us. Jordan said if we were shooting bullets instead of pictures we would have had a wall full of heads.

Tanzania has been great, but now it is time to continue north into Kenya for more game drives and a visit to the famous mountain gorillas. And unless Jordan's gas problem gets better, it really will be "Gorillas in the Mist."
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