So here i am, at the Machame Gate ready for a 7 day 6 night trek up to the Kilimanjaro, the Roof of Africa. The last time I had scaled anything higher than 18,ooo ft was about 20 years when i had hiked up the Thronglar Pass in Nepal. So here i was 20 years older in age and in fitness with a bad back and knees that would prefer to be sipping a cold beverage on the beaches of Bali instead of scrambling up volcanic scree on a -15 degree pre-dawn jaunt up a 19,000 foot mountain.
My strategy when i confirmed this trip was to train like Rocky, build up the physical strength to take on the extended outdoor hike and prep with the best possible gear my meagre budget could afford. 2 weeks before my flight to Kilimanjaro via Bangkok and Nairobi i realized my ACTUAL training consisted of once a fortnight frolic in Gasing hills and once a month futsal with regular bouts of physical arm wrestling with jugs of beer in smoky dimly lit bars.
In other words - physically I WAS FUCKED LIKE A LAME FROG ON A HIGHWAY.
Strategy 2 was simple enough - just take it one fucking step at a time and enjoy myself as much as i could. I wasnt going to push myself too much if i had a choice.
So we land in Kilimanjaro and head to Moshi town where we spent a day getting to know our chief guide Jushua (more on this in another post) where we visited his home in the village fo Himo.
We sleep early but i get woken up by my travel mates The Tree Hugger, Astroboy, The Princess, Choe and Steph with a midnight birthday celebration. Yes, I turned 42 in Africa thorough a groggy haze of interrupted sleep and a birthday cake that made me to be 24. Thank you Princess!
Get early to the park to register folks. Thems long queues awaitin'!
We head off the Macahme gate at about 930am and there's already a long queue forming to register to the begining of the trek. The porter/guide ratio to one climber is 3:1. Our group of 7 had a support crew of 25 which included Chief Guide, Guide, 2 Assistant Guides (who doubled as porters), a chef and his assistant, 2 waiters (yes we were spoilt a little) and porters.
In front of us, Lloyds Bank from England showed that they were not suffering so much financially when they sent a group of 35 climbers on a charity event with a support crew of 100! It wouldnt do to get caught behind this group during the few stops with actual working toilets...
A White Necked Raven at Machame Gate and a regular sight on the mountain as they seemed to hang about the trails and camps along the way, probably from the food brought up the mountain by the climbing teams. One of these guys was seen pecking on my then crusty Nike Pro tights on Day 3 at Barranco. Somewhere out there lies a dead raven amidst the rocks of the great mountain....
The Machame trail is lovely with a wide wide well prepared path that winds you through a lush tropical forest over about 7 hours to Machame Camp. This is an easy climb that you can take your time to enjoy. I had forgotten to keep my point and shoot Canon close to my body heat and some of the focus mechanisms starting jamming up as i reached the halfway point up the trail as the tempreture started dropping in the shade of the jungle.
Tree trunk looking like an elegant African babe
A sample of the toilets found at the camp sites along the trail. Aim well my young Padawans. Imagine the worse case scenario of this wooden structure, at 4am in the pitch icy coldness when you have to expose your bare ass to the universe while struggling with a toilet roll in your heavily gloved hands as the howling winds outside shake this fragile structure on its foundations. A curiously intimate bond is formed between your exposed fragility and the elements as your soul soars and connects with Mother Nature in an attempt to counter check bitter cold with a mental connection between man and the world... Damn, i am so full of shit. Either that or i need coffee...
DAY 2 - Machame to Shira Camp (3837m)
The next morning is a bright beautiful day as the morning brings with a sunshine and blue skies. We gear up after a quick breakfast for the 3-5 hour hike to Shira Camp which is at . The terrain starts to change from the think forests to a sort of moorish terrain with rocks and low shrubs.
Its today that the unpredictable weather up in the mountains rears its head. Along with the winds comes the rains. We're lucky that it starts to lightly drizzle and i am not sure what it is with rain in colder climates, the light rain doesnt soak you to your bone as it does in Malaysia after a few minutes, here they bounce off even cotton fabrics. As we hit more rocks this does make the going a little tricky with the slippery surfaces.
After a while it starts to lightly snow with the rain. We make our way the balance of the way in the sleet to Shira Camp.
Even among the dreary landscape there was some surprises of color
Shira camp with the helicopter landing site
By the time we hit Shira Camp its bright and sun shiny again. We hit Shira just around 4pm and the Tree Hugger, Astro Boy and myself decide to take the 30 minute walk to the nieghboring Shira Hut camp that sits closer to the Shira Plateu.These pictures dont do it justice but it was a stunning site, especially after climbing for two days we see a plateau spreading out before us along the walk betwenn both camps. Even the clouds seem to keep within an invisible barrier between the slightly cloudy section of the valley from Machame and the point where the Plateu began. Its a very pleasant walk watching the sun set between an explosion of white clouds and startling blue skies. The Shira Hut Camp is smaller then the Shira Camp. Many of these hikers had started on the plateu using the Route.
Day 3 - On To Barraco (3976m)
Today is the longest day almost 8 hours to Barraco Camp. We're taking slightly longer as we're making a detour to the Lava Tower at about 4,600meters to get acclimatized after which we would decend through Mordor-esque terrain to the Barraco Camp crossing a few small rivers and streams.
Here the thin air starts to make its presence felt. Breathing is a bitch even after sucking water from my Camelbak made me breathless. Its hours on hours of a low methodical pace through the a terrain that was losing its greenery and giving way to a deserting feel. Again the weather alternated between chilly and hot depending on the clouds and winds.
At this point i just kept my head down and kept to a slow pace, occasionally stopping to take some pictures but gave up quickly as i realised that it pushed me further away from the steady pace the advance group was keeping. Trying to catch up with them as a slightly faster pace was pointless as it left me breathing like a fish out of water having an orgasm.
The imposing Barraco Wall that we had to scramble up. Can you spot the tiny Tree Hugger in teh picture?
We hit Barraco late around 5pm. We realise that we cant really trust some of the guides timing. With what looks like endless winding trails around steep rock covered mountainsides and a weaving path that goes on endlessly your internal sense of timing gets screwed up a little. It doesn't help when a guide's "only 45 minutes" can end up to be 2 hours. Here Jedi-like patience is key and it helps that the only Sith around to fuck with is at this point is a weak bladder and a sense of extreme modesty along a very very busy trail.
Day 4 - Beyond the Barraco Wall and on to Karanga (4033m)
We wake up the next morning to snow on the ground at Barraco. It had rained heavily the night before which had left my balls in a bitter mood. The snow however was more ice than snow ball friendly which made hiking extremely tricky for the scramble up the imposing Barraco Wall.
There is only one path going up the wall and with a slightly later start we're stuck as the human traffic is backed up all the way. With about 200 plus trekkers on our route with almost 600 guides, porters, cooks and waiters, its a lot of bodies on on the very tight, narrow rock path up the steep cliff. We spend more than an hour on the first part of the wall.
The weather gets chilly at the top with mist moving in. From here on we're not stopping for long lunches anymore. We want to start moving on just to keep the pace steady and not get caught in any cold misty fronts moving in.
Looks easy but the ice covered ground made even
crossing a small stream a really tricky business
View from halfway up the Barraco Wall. Respect to the porters yo!
DAY 5 - Karanga to Barafu (4673m)
We wake to a glorious morning at Karanga Camp. We're above most clouds now at 4033 meters. We see Mount Meru in a distance with its peak peeking above soft conforting clouds. We're at the step of the houses of the gods now.
Kilimanjaro in the background
Quiet contemplation above the clouds
Our trusty fragile tent that kept away the freeing cold and rains (and that scamppering jungle rat)
This was definitely not a lonely trek. The long trails and open terrain was spotted by people as far as the eye could see. Sure it was not Disneyland but you would not feel left alone (unless you left the trail to take a shit of to indulge in some high altitude snookimoochies)
The trek is now almost routine for us. The steep hills and deep valleys are of dramatic consequence. We just take things by the numbers and head for Barafu Camp about 3-4 hours away. We're arriving at about 230pm. We just chill in our mess tent. The plans are to have a early dinner at 6pm, get a coupla of hours of sleep before making the ascent at midnight. We anticipate reaching the Stella's Point in 7 hours and Uhuru Peak in another hour or so.
At Barafu with a hot tea in my hands is where i discovered the magic and wonder of Kilimanjaro. As i sat there, below me lay an ocean of whispy clouds. We were above the world now, sipping tea above almost all the population of this Earth. And yet, life went on. Porters scurried down the paths coming and going. Climbers who had peaked a few hours before now making their truiphant journeys home. A porter rushes by quickly home to his family, after a gruelling week of herculean efforts, to see his week old baby boy, European climbers in their expensive gear, grin from ear to ear, waiting to get back to their civilazation to execute full boasting rights. They walk past me, and the long winding rock path winds down into the valley below until they become specks in the distance, stories, people, dreams and just another pay day all walking, hurrying, toiling before disappearing into the mists and clouds.
I've run out of tea, but I still sit on. How often can you look down on clouds and breath the fresh clean air of immortals?
Our crew taking a breather before the ascent. Only 4 guides would be escorting us
to the Peak
The Tree Hugger getting one with the world
Barafu sunset before ascent
Day 6 - Barafu to Kilimanjaro Peak Ascent (5895m)
Above the skies, above the pollution and above whispy, rolling fields of clouds the heavens above a truly magic. The incredibly bright moon, unencumbered by man's airborne pollutants shines down like an astral streetlight, lighting up the mountain trail before us as we scrable up loose rocks and volcanic scree. The stars, are bright lights, often being mistaken for the head lamps of climbers much, much further up the steep scree slope leading up to Stella's Point at 18,ooo plus ft.
I take the luxury of a short stop, hoping my body wont cool down too much to leaden my muscles, I look away from the path eastward. The morning sun is waking up. Above, up in the thin air, literally on the roof af Africa, a fierce blood red and golden yellow band stretches across the entire horizon in front of me, curving slightly across the horizon. The first signs of day break after an icy cold 6 hours in minus 15 degrees.
Up here, above the kingdoms of men and clouds, we are not welcome as guests by the god peaks of Uhuru or Mawezi. We are instead tolerated as slightly amusing pests, seeking visions of grandeur by attempting to scale the shoulders of immortals. The stars as always chirp their support but its the moon, with paternal warmth that today bathes our path with clear illumination.
Above and below me, hundreds of head lamps, form a human string of moving stars, all slowly in synchronized steps moving ever closer to the night sky above.
I grip my hiking poles harder, the biting cold is getting through my gloves and try to catch up with the rest. Behind the the golden band is slowly bringing light to the cold night. The cold wind swirls around my unprotected nose. My feet are still steady, the peak is close. Nice. Just a few more steps.
Not a bad way to spend a morning...
The tougher Kilimajaro peak of Mawenzi (5491m) silhoutted by the morning sun
The receding glaciers on Kilimanjaro
Day 7 - Barafu to Mweka Camp (3068m)
The descent from the Peak is quick. I cant remember much of it, just me and Astro Boy 'skiing' down the loose volcanic skree which was awesomely cool but a vicious bitch on my knees. It may have taken about 4-hours down back to Barafu Camp. We're greeted by our waiter who serve us ice cold mango juice which is heavenly. A quick lunch later and we're off to head downwards to Mweka Camp which is at 3068 meters. We will spend the night here and then head down to the park where we will check out with the rangers and head back to our accomodations at Moshi Town.
Tree Hugger lacing the problematic shoes with Mawezi in the background
The trails start off at a gentle descent before getting steeper and rockier at the heather and forest sections. Once we make camp at Mweka we realize that we have to sort out our tips for the guides. Little did we know that our tips would make up quite a substantial part of their fees, something most travel agents just tell you pay what you feel. Head guide Jushua came in and gave us the standard rates. we realized that we had to meet them half way. It was way above my budget as initially we were told it was a USD90 tip for all our guides. Now with over 25 crew it was no way that our 7 combined tips would make much difference so we topped up at USD235 each. This excluded the extras we woulld give to the individual guides who helped us (carrying our gear, etc) I topped up another USD100 for Jushua and that old scheemer Francis (my grandfather always said respect the elders)
After breakfast on Day 7 all the guides, porters, cooks and waiters perform the 'Tipping Dance' where in a way they're literally singing for their meals. However this bunch of great guys really seemed to get into it and on that cold rainy morning, with a hot meal in our tum tums it was a perfect happy ending to our last day on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.
So what do you take out of it? It the altitude that's the problem. Fitness is important but as you can see from my own bad state of working out it worked for me. Getting used to sleeping in a tent in very cold conditions and taking a predawn shit outdoors is key. Rushing through the moutain didnt give me much time to take it all in but the Barafu break did wonders. Would I do it again? its not a no but c'mon this world still has so much to see. Sleeping on the steppes of Mongolia? Play tennis on Galapagos, arm wrestle an armadillo in Texas?
Why not eh? where to start...