Sunday, 29 January 2012

from mountain to Maasi

Well we're just about over the mountain blues - it's exactly two weeks (unbelievably) since we started out on our trek and this time two weeks ago, I was sitting in the mess tent at the end of day one, chilling after a three course meal with my new mountain mates and marvelling at the clarity of the star flooded sky.

It's taken about this long for the soreness to abate - both physical and mental and I'm just about ready to look at the photos of our mountain again, which is just as well, seeing as I apparently toook over 1000 of them! Not all were of the same peak, thankfully and plenty were from the Serengeti and safari, so it won't all be rocks and snow.

The Kilimanjaro climb ended with a few beers back at our hotel with our mountain guides - at our invitation, where we intended to show our appreciation by buying them a few drinks, expressing our gratitude and saying our gooodbyes. Many hours later, after drinking until they fell asleep and asking us for taxi money home - four times more than the actual cost of the taxi (which they were told to poke), they left and we dropped into bed, chastising ourselves for being taken in and realising how very poor and desperate for money these guys really are.

We packed again, ready for the off and had a whole day being driven around by our new safari guide, heading closer to the safari location via every available market and craft shop and picking up a few crates of beer on his advice for the hotel that night. I'd also bought the girls and I matching 'safari' tops - short sleeved black t-shirts, with leopard print hearts emblazoned on the breast and we each wore them with respective slacks, shorts or cut offs. I'm describing the outfits, because it sets the scene for when we later arrived at our unexpectedly posh hotel for the evening, which looked like a scene from, 'Out of Africa', with a colonial style feel to the perfectly polished wood balconies and immaculately manicured lawns. We rock up in our cut off denim shorts, hiking boots and matching tops, me with my tattoos on show and clutching a crate of beer while desperately trying to hide both behind my oversized bag. To our horror, the way to our rooms meant being paraded in front of the more refined, linen clad residents taking G&T on the terrace, watching the sunset and as they stared aghast at the intrusion, frankly we felt like the Sex Pistols invading an old people's home. The only thing I could think to say in defence was, 'We climbed Kilimanjaro', at which they all seemed suitably impressed, made lots of gasping and congratulatory comments and told us to enjoy our showers  - we just left out the bit that we'd been back for 24 hours and this was just us - as we come.

The safari started the next day in the Ngorongoro Crater, which is a vast and dormant volcano, who's crater long ago collapsed and formed the natural conservation area for the wildlife that now roam freely and plentifully. As soon as we came around the rim you could see for miles across the plain of the sunken crater, with the huge lake in the middle and pink tinge to the surface - created by thousands of flamingo, too far away to make out, save for their collective colour. We dropped into the crater and immediately came face to face with buffalo, wilderbeast, warthogs, Thompson Gazelle and zebra and it's all you can do not to break out into a rendition of, 'The Lion King' while gawping like a gobsmacked child! I still, to this day can't get my head around the fact that we weren't in a zoo, because the animals are all around and so so many and it's like no matter how many times you've seen them before on TV or in a zoo or safari park, to see them in the wild is like seeing them through new eyes. It took me a while to accept that the zebra really were real and not just painted donkeys - seriously, I was like some simpleton seeing animals for the first time ever!

The most amazing encounter though has to be the lions - three in a tree, just staring at us and lazing in the sunshine, while one of the males decided to amble over to the trucks, parked nearby and lollopped down onto the ground, using the wheel of our truck as a prop. It's quite amazing to be so up close to such a huge beast and because a lot of the animals in the crater get used to seeing trucks and people, they don't seem too scared, so you almost get lulled into a false sense of security and forget they could kill you with one swipe and probably would given half the chance, because they're still wild animals - not something we were paying too much heed to when we urged Sam to stick her head out of the window of the truck, two feet above said lion, while we took a picture from the roof... and she did! Lunatic!

We left the crater and as we headed to the camp, our guide mentioned we were headed into giraffe country and quite literally, around the next turn, we came face to face with about ten of them. The whole lion thing was amazing, but seeing the giraffe, wandering across the open plains, crossing the road in front of us and grazing only a matter of feet away was mind blowing. It genuinely felt like the scene from Jurassic Park, where they see the dinosaur for the first time. For such awkward and almost clumsy looking animals, they are so graceful and amazing to watch.

I think it's fair to say that I'm pretty exciteable at the best of times, so trying not to sqeal at every new sighting and send the animals running, was no mean feat and to be honest I'm still reeling now! The next day was equally amazing, seeing more zebra, giraffe, wilderbeast, wart hog and a visit to the Maasi village was incredibly enlightening. The Maasi are inherently nomadic people and seek out land to best support their cattle, depending on the rainy seasons. They literally have nothing but the cattle they keep and the materials and water they can buy, from trading meat and animal goods and more recently, raising money from tourists where they can, to buy water for the dry seasons. They live in the most basic of huts made from twigs and branches and mud and the children spend most of their times dirty and covered in flies. It's heartbreaking, but a way of life that has served them for centuries.

The grim highlight of our Serengeti safari though had to be the gruesome, up close and graphic display of post kill devouring of a zebra carcus by a cackle of ravenous vulture and hyena. We came accross the kill about 20 minutes after the zebra was set upon by the others and they masacred it before our eyes, from about 15 feet away - the vultures pecking out the eyes and underbelly and the hyena literally climbing inside the gut and tearing out the inards and whatever flesh they could - amazing and there are just a couple of tatser photos below - though not for animal lovers or the faint hearted!

Sadly after the safari, we had to say gooodbye to Heidi and Kristin, which was so much harder than I ever expected. We've genuinely cemented two true friendships there and already have our eyes firmly set on the next adventure...

As for Sam and I, well there's really only one thing to do after climbing a mountain, camping for a week and then spending two dusty, bone jittering days in the Serengeti... chill out in paradise! Zanzibar is a fantastic place for anyone who wants some good, proper Tanzanian culture, food and shopping and the coastline is nothing short of idyllic. The white powdery sands of the beaches, the warm bathlike water of the turquoise sea and the infinity pools were amazing and just what you need to sooth those aches and pains away and relax before coming home - oh and the mahoosive cocktails didn't hurt either!

So, until the next plans begin...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Kilimanjaro DONE!

OMG! Well, after a long wait, a huge build up and many MANY photographs along the way - we finally did it - 5895m conquered and the way I feel right now - NEVER again!

I am currently in (what I firmly believe to be) paradise and can't believe it's been a whole week since I hobbled down that mountain. This time one week ago, I was walking 9km to the next camp, having already hiked/climbed for the previous 12 hours to the highest peak and was absolutely exhausted.

Day 1. Sunday 15th January
We met our team of 10 climbers the night before and fortunately, with no egos and a lot of similar personalities, we all got on well. The bags were packed in a state of excitement and nerves and having got to bed at 1am (not the best preparation for the biggest undertaking of my life), I'd clearly worked myself up into a frenzy and made myself thoroughly sick the following morning, unable to eat breakfast and feeling more than a little fragile - great start, as ever.

We had to drive for two hours to the registration gate, where we met all the other teams, ready to start the trek and on the way there saw the most fabulous display of African culture - the Sunday tradition is obviously to attend church in all the finery you can muster and people who ordinarily run the dusty streets in rags and hand-me-downs, were dressed in inconceivably bright and colourful posh gowns, that looked too over the top for a ball, never mind the local church. The men dressed in suits and bright shirts and everyone flocked to the nearest church, in the scorching heat, making you wonder how on earth they didn't pass out, or at least get their impossibly white whites, the slightest bit dusty - honestly, I can't get my whites that impeccable and I have a top of the range washing machine and don't live in one of the dustiest communities I've ever seen.

We met the porters who's be carrying our big bags - you can't climb Kilimanjaro unless you use the porters, as there are strict licences and regulations governing Kilimanjaro and to be a porter in Tanzania, is actually quite a sought after job. Though I can't think why, when their daily role is to wake up at about 5am, carry a personal load of approximately 20 - 24 kg on their poorly clad backs, ascending about 800m per day and having to then pitch camp and get everything ready for the eventual arrival of a bunch of lightweight trekkers, whinging because their feet hurt from carrying their pitiful backpacks and wearing the best mountain gear money can buy.

The first trek was supposed to be 3 - 4 hours and only ascending to 2,700m from about 1,900, so it wasn't too bad. We met a few of our mountain guides and got to know a bit more about each other, chatting on the way and inhaling the pungent smell of marijuana from the guides, which may have been part of the reason we got to camp in less than 3 hours...

When we arrived the camp was already laid out for us, they brought a bowl of warm water per person (for 'washy washy') and then we had tea and popcorn!! Seriously, at this point I was kind of thinking the whole thing might not be as bad as everyone makes out!

Monday 16th January
It's quite funny with altitude, that it affects people so differently. The significant effects usually start at about 3,600m, but to be fair, some people were already suffering a little by the time we got halfway to our next camp and most of us could feel the onset of either slight nausea, or a light head. The journey from camp one was stunning, looking back as we went down the mountain at the view of Tanzania spread out beneath us. Our route was through gorse, forest and then moorland, so we could see the outline of the mountain beneath lush vegetation and then the plains beyond, stretching out towards the Kenyan mountains in the distance.The pace had also slowed right down, not necessarily due to fitness levels, but because as the air gets thinner, it is more difficult to inhale a full lungful of oxygen and the guides insist on making you walk, 'pole pole' or 'slowly slowly', which I guess is also to do with getting us used to the final summit pace.

The altitude also has an effect on many other bodily functions and within a few hours it became quite clear that we'd be stopping regularly to... as the guides put it, 'send emails' - with or without attachments!! At each lunch stop the porters would have a hot, usually three course lunch prepared, which we ate in the mess tent and still to this day, I can't quite believe how they managed to carry, prepare and present such fantastic three course spreads on a mountain side - I don't eat that well at home!

The second day seemed to go on forever and we walked for about 8 hours that day, very slowly in places as the altitude increased and the temperature decreased. By the time we'd got to camp at 3,600m I was feeling a little sick, my ass was aching and we were more than ready to fall into bed. It's quite odd how you get to know one another very well, very quickly when you're walking in a long line, talking about life and all your experiences and inevitably 'sending emails together'. I think the level of inhibition between a group of people is directly proportional to how many hours you've shared with a common purpose and experience and by the end of that second day, we were lined up in a row of mooning females, all synchronised in our exposure, quite happily emailing away and sharing... well, there's no euphemism equivalent for toilet paper.

Tuesday 17th January  
Day three started with us all feeling quite exhilarated and invigorated by the prospect of a shorter trek of only 3 - 4 hours. We'd be climbing to 4,330m and camping at Mawenzi Tarn, which is a meltwater at the base of Mawenzi peak - the second peak on Mount Kilimanjaro and I'd better stress at this point that it really is stunning... as my MANY photographs show. The sun had just risen over the peak when we awoke on day three and Mawenzi is as jagged and uneven as Kilimanjaro is flat and table like. Anyway, I have a lot of photos of both peaks in what I like to think are different angles and aspects... to most though, they probably look exactly the same, but I don't care - I climbed it and I want to make sure I can reflect back on exactly how tough that bitch is - from every view point.

One of the two American girls Sam and I arranged the trip with was Heidi and she wasn't feeling too good at this point. As I said, the altitude can get to some people no matter how fit they are and whilst Heidi runs marathons in the States and has done a half iron man, she was sick from the end of day two and there's no way of knowing that until your body reacts. Still, she stoically powered through it, tactically throwing up where she could and we rallied around, trying to keep her spirits up. The length of time we walked was shorter, but the ascent was the steepest yet and we literally plodded like the walking dead up some slopes. The view was still stunning and we literally had Kilimanjaro peak to our right, Mawenzi in front, to the left and the African plains of Tanzania, leading to Kenya behind us... you can never have enough photographs of the same view, but five minutes later... and so on.

The camp was gorgeous, set in the small crater below Mawenzi peak and the tarn was a turquoise blue colour and strictly, we were told, for drinking only. Though why the hell anyone would want to strip down and swim in freezing cold water at 4,330m anyway, I have no idea. It's deceptive at altitude, that the temperature is actually really cold, because the sun shining and constant plodding, makes you feel quite hot and it's only when you stop that you realise. We did another acclimatisation trek about an hour after we arrived at camp, to 4,500m and then back down again and a couple of us actually felt better when we were higher. You sort of get used to this constant dull thud in your head, which is kind of like a lingering hangover (and yes, oddly enough, I could handle that), but it's the nausea that gets to you coupled with the feeling of being sapped of all energy. I felt the worst I felt on the mountain that night, I could hardly keep my eyes open by 7pm and couldn't stomach the thought of food. The guides are brilliant though and they are trained to watch and keep an eagle eye out for any symptoms and try to get you to eat and drink as much and as often as possible. Heidi wasn't fairing too well by that point either and a few other members of the group felt quite rough, which is really unnerving, because you're constantly wondering whether your body is going to succumb to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) at any point and fearful of whether you'll be able to climb. We were also starting to stink a bit by now - no matter how many wet wipes you use, or what a good job of 'washy washy' you do with the meager bowl of lukewarm water you  have to make do with, nothing compares to a good soak in a hot shower or bath. Still, at least we all stank together.

Wednesday 18th January
The penultimate day... our plan for today was to walk the relatively flat 300m ascent to base camp, at 4,700m and then rest and go to bed at about 6pm/7pm. What we didn't account for was the searing heat from the relentless sun beating down, on what felt like a desert crossing. I have pictures of us in a long line, dressed bizarrely in long sleeves, long trousers, gaitors, woolly hats and face scarves, all to protect ourselves from the burning sun and wind whipping across our faces. There's no way of describing the landscape to do it justice, because whilst you are in reality on the side of the world's highest freestanding mountain, you feel like you're crossing the Sahara desert or similar. The land either side and all around is perfectly flat, interspersed now and then by the odd boulder or rock outcrop and occasional cactus. The only landmarks are the winding faint path, created by previous trekkers all using the same route across the dusty plain and the two different peaks of Kilimanjaro in front and Mawenzi, by now behind. It is really surreal and rather like travelling across snowscapes, for trying to judge distance and time. Our long, dry and dusty trek took us over 8 hours, plodding and shuffling at the almost comically slow race, set by the guide and dictated by our inability to take a full breath.

'Emailing' was an interesting concept by then too - with such a barren landscape and us being one of several teams on that side of the mountain, you kind of had to use one side of any available rock, to shield from the rest of the team close by and then expose everything in the general direction of the streams of people crossing the desert towards you, hoping they were far enough away not to care and that none of them had binoculars!

We could see base camp in the distance at all times and it rarely seemed to get any closer. The only other landmark, was a small light aircraft that crashed on the mountain some 2 - 3 years ago and the remains of which, are strewn across that part of the 'desert' as a reminder of the harsh landscape and hostile weather conditions, that can change on Kilimanrajo, within minutes.

By the time we arrived at camp, we were shattered and exhilarated at the same time. Some of us felt nervous and some of us, just wanted to get going and go for the summit. I think I felt more apprehensive than nervous, wondering whether my body was going to suddenly reject the altitude and stop me from summitting, but mostly, I just wanted to get going. We had a few hours to get our kit ready for the summit attempt and to pack what we didn't need, because the guide assured us we wouldn't have the energy to do much when we got back down and frankly, I believed them.

So, after dinner at 6pm and bed by 7, we had to be wearing/have ready everything that we'd need for the summit attempt and await our wake up call at 11pm!

Thursday 19th January 2012
Summit Day.
Up until this night, I'd spent each evening sleeping - starkly, because although it's very cold, the kit we had, including the sleeping bags works best using the heat from your body to warm the air between the bag and you, so if you wear too many layers, you can get quite cold and not warm up. I pretty much based my summit gear on that principle and even took off some of the layers I put on at the last minute, 'just incase'. We woke up at 11pm and got dressed, 5 layers on top, plus a scarf and hat, two pairs of gloves and two pairs of warm bottoms. We had to carry boiling water in a thermos, because it's so cold, that your water freezes and you have to do everything by head torch. Apparently there are two reasons you summit at midnight, 1. so that the weather conditions are at their best and there is no cloud cover and 2. so that you can't see the top and realise how far you still have to go! Positive Mental Attitude, is apparently equal to fitness after your body's ability to deal with altitude. I can honestly say, that at 12.20am, as we started that climb, I had no idea how much PMA would come into it.

I can't describe the pace we walked to do it justice, but suffice to say, imagine when you were a kid and you tried to do the, 'slowest walk in the world' and that's somewhere close. We literally shuffled at a race that didn't even feel like a pace at times and in the early part of the climb, the gradient isn't too steep, so the hardest part is actually the anticipation of what's to come and the biting cold. We climbed in a line, with the guides sandwiching us front and back and a few spread either side, watching for signs of fatigue or AMS. The porters sang, which was a fabulous tonic and we tried not to look up and make out the summit against the moonlit sky. The whole way up, you can see a string of head torches in the distance, snaking all the way up the mountain, from those who have already started ahead and everyone goes at the same pace.

Quite early on we lost Heidi, who had to slow right down and keep stopping to throw up, or get her breath, Frankly I'm amazed that she even attempted the summit, given the extent she'd been suffering and it's purely testament to her determination that she got herself even half way up that bitch of a hill. The remaining 9 of us slogged on and between uncovering and covering my face against the whipping wind one moment and then overheating the next, there seemed plenty to do! I actually felt fine, with no headache to speak of, no nausea and a sense of inevitability that I was getting to the top, come what may, so I might as well get on with it. If I'm honest, for the first 4 hours, I remember wondering what all the fuss was about and thinking that maybe the guide books and other people who've described the, 'nightmare' might have been over egging it, when in actual fact, it was going to be a bit of a breeze... (pride before a fall and all that?!)

An hour later I hit the wall. The gradient changed at about 4.30am and we started to really climb and the ground wasn't rock, or stable soil, but volcanic ash and scree and it was something like scrambling up a loose, ever moving treadmill, just very very slowly. The wind was slicing into our faces, the top seemed to be getting farther and farther away and I can tell you that it's a pretty miserable experience to have to send an email in those conditions...

I'm not ashamed to say I found myself sobbing a few times, with shear exhaustion and each time we stopped for even a second, the chill would go through you and your hands and feet would start to freeze. I managed to get water right up until an hour before we reached Gillman's Point, the first summit, at 5.696m, but by then, I barely had the energy to drink it anyway. The last hour before the first summit was tough and it took a hell of a lot of PMA to keep moving and get us over the rocks that lead to the top. The scree gives way to boulders and rock and when you're physically exhausted, it's quite hard to haul yourself up onto the rocks, without toppling backwards. Kristin, was really struggling by then and was in so much pain and suffering with headaches, that she knew she couldn't go further and we agreed, reluctantly and sadly to see her at the base. You can't stop for long at the first summit, because the cold sets in and your body's already trying to sieze up, but the views are breathtaking and I have to say, worth it.

We reached the summit at sunrise and the pink and orange breaking over the silhouetted Mawenzi Peak, with the creamy clouds, like a blanket below us, was one of the most stunning and indescribably beautiful sights I've ever seen. The volcanic crater of the mountain was behind us and covered in pure, untouched snow, with the most incredible glacier, looming over the ridge in the distance and if it hadn't been so cold, I could have sat there for hours just taking it all in.

But, you have to keep going - if nothing else, before you change your mind and if I thought the previous 6 hours were tough, the next two made them seem like a walk in the park. To reach Uhuru Peak at 5,895m, you have to scramble around icy boulders, tentatively step along sheet ice ridges and shuffle slower than ever, up even more endless scree slopes. It feels like you're never going to get there and at one point, I had to ask the porter behind me to put my second pair of gloves on for me, because I literally couldn't move my fingers. I worked out how to take pictures wearing my thickest gloves and stopped as often as I could to capture everything around me, partly because no one else in our group could bring themselves to get their cameras out either and there was no way I was going to miss out on getting our photos after all this effort.

Eventually, after what seemed like a lifetime, we arrived at Uhuru Peak at 08.24am. It was stunning and surreal all at the same time and if I'm brutally honest, while I can remember everything, I know I was functioning completely on auto pilot by then. The air is so thin, you feel like you can't get a proper breath and just bending to put down your bag is an effort. We literally had 10 minutes to take photographs and then the guides wanted us down and off the mountain as fast as possible, to prevent AMS setting in. I can remember hugging Sam and I can remember asking the guide to take my photo, standing by the Uhuru Peak sign, punching the air and pulling some cheesy victorious face, that is completely out of character for me, which basically means the photo I have of me on Africa's highest peak, is totally not me and not helped by the fact the guide taking it cut the top of the sign off and took the whole picture on a slant!! Brilliant.

Then, before we knew it, we were ushered to gather our kit again and whisked back down the way we'd come to get off the mountain and undo all the effort of getting up in less than 2 hours flat! The going down, was almost as hard as the coming up - more so mentally, because it's day light, so you can see how far you have to go and you are exhausted, in every sense of the word. My knees kept buckling from under me and I could hardly breath and felt like throwing down my kit, falling to the floor and sobbing like a petulant child. The only problem with that being, that with 8 other people to get off the mountain, our guides have little tolerance for drama and you have no option but to get on with it. Everything ached, I had zero energy and my nose kept running. I was not a pretty sight.

The most part of the down section of the mountain can be done 'scree skiing', which if you didn't feel like the walking dead, would probably be quite fun. As it is, it involves a skiing motion, using the scree as snow and kicking up the most choking dust cloud as you go. By the time we got to the bottom, every orifice was full of ash and dust and I couldn't cry if I wanted to, because I had no spare body fluid. It seemed to take forever to reach the camp and by the time I got there, my feet were in so much pain, I had to down whatever tablets I could just to stop the throbbing.

I'd like to say I was elated and proud of myself and high on the fact we'd reached the top of Kilimanjaro, but I wasn't and all I could do was flake out and let the girls who'd already reached the bottom, remove my boots and socks for me. Kristin, Sam and I were proud - of us and of Heidi, for getting to the halfway point, when most of us would have stayed in bed and of us, for reaching the summits. At that point though all I could think about was the pain and the fact the guides informed us we had an hour before lunch and then we had to start the 9km walk to the next camp, before we'd be able to really relax!

We climbed and walked for 16 hours that day and then after a heavy night's sleep, we had another 7 hours walk the following day to the end of the trail and to exit the mountain National Park. I am incredibly proud of myself and the girls, Sam, Kristin and Heidi, as well as the other girls Rhiannon, Seniz, Dominique and Judith and the boys James and Doug, also in our group. I'm sure, in about a week, I'll be able to look back over my photos and re-live the experience all over again and I'll have loads of stories to tell and be full of pride and excitement about the whole trip.

For now though, we have agreed to refer to our Mountain as, 'She who shall not be named' and as I sit here typing, still catching up on sleep and getting back to normal, I don't ever want to set eyes on that bitch of a mountain again!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Great start!

Well we're finally here in Kilimanjaro! The hotel is basic, but has a rustic charm that makes it almost quaint, with palms and thick trees surrounding the building, wooden carvings and brightly coloured rugs adorning all the walls and a stunning view of the famous mountain - they assure us - if you look hard enough through the thick tree canopy, stands on one leg and lean as far over the neighbouring balcony as you dare...

Who cares, I'll be sick of the sight of it in two days, so I'll cope for another couple. We had a stunning view of the mountain as we came in to land, which I would have taken a photo of, if I hadn't buried my camera deep within my bag, having frantically emptied it on the previous plane whilst the air hostess ripped the seat covers off looking for my passport. I knew I'd put it in the zip compartment of my new rucksack when I put the bag in the overhead compartment, so when I went to look for it as we got off the first plane and it wasn't anywhere to be found I was convinced someone must have stolen it. Hence a full scale air steward search before we raised any alarm for theft, me near to tears envisaging the next 24 hours stuck at Nairobi airport as I was refused onward travel to Tanzania and the whole dream holiday rapidly falling around my ears... imagine my relief (and embarassment) when Sam found the 'stolen'passport in the hidden zip compartment at the bottom of the new and therefore unfamiliar rucksack, exactly where I'd unwittingly put it. So, with no more dramas we got into the awaiting landrover, to transfer us to the hotel where the driver chatted away and we both fell dead asleep.

Seeing the girls Kristin and Heidi at the hotel - in the room next door was fantastic and before long we drowned out any other noise, chatting and giggling, comparing stories and catching up. Sam and I were shattered and the girls still jet laggged, but we decided that if we wanted to make the most of the time, we might as well get into the swing of it, stay awake and then get an early night later. In Tanzania, it appears that anyone will show you anything, take you anywhere, or help you at any cost, as long as you throw some cash at it. So we did the Chagga museum and learned a little about the local tribe, (there are 120 in Tanzania, all speaking different languages, with Swahili being the common means of communication since they were decleared independent in teh sixties) in Kilimanjaro town. The only other attraction in Marangu - where we are - unless you get a ride into town, is the nearby waterfalls, which we decided to do tomorrow and settled on a lazy stroll into the nearby market for our first day, to ease ourselves in.

So after much protesting, a few dollars and the promise of guiding us to the waterfall tomorrow we ditched our 'guide' - let's call him John - and strolled into town. 'John' had tried to talk us into letting him take us through the bush, because the roads were 'too dusty' for our flimsy flip flops and bare legs, but what would he know, he just lives here. So we set off in our flimsy flip flops and Heidi and Sam promptly slip down the dusty road, with Heidi barely saving herself before the camera hit the deck first. For some reason, the locals seemed to think that four milky pale, inadequately dressed and clumsy white girls was amusing and so our little procession gathered at every corner.

So, having reached the market and discovered we had no need for a tree's worth of bananas or any form of tomato, we decided to 'off road' for a bit, becasue we'd see a bit more and we wouldn't go that far anyway...
The rest of the day pretty much then consisted of 50/50 guessing which way at any given juncture, creeping warily through several small 'village type settlement's trying to avoid barking dogs, begging children or twisted ankles and we got thoroughly lost. In one 'villgae type settlement' two teeny little grubby children grabbed Heidi and Sam's hands (I didn't have my hand sanitiser on me, so I wasn't going there!) and followed us alarmingly far, asking for pens we hadn't brought out with us, before the youngest burst into tears very loudly and we had to shake them off and make a hasty retreat, in case the parents heard and thought we'd done something bad!

I wouldn't say we were bothered about being lost, because it was a lush day and we happened accross the waterfall, which was lush... until we had to cross the river and Sam and Heidi stupidly chose to follow me, instead of Kristin and I got us all stuck, knee deep in the middle of the river and one of the Tanzanian guys who gathered to gaup at the spectacle, had to wade in, in his underpants and come to our rescue! Not one of my best moments and more of a highlight for Kristin, than Sam, Heidi and I for sure.

So, now I sit typing having made it back to the hotel after not one, or two, or even three, but four seperate rescue attempts by passing locals, all at some nominal financial outlay on our part, three hours of solid walkingfeet sore and blistered and legs aching - not the ideal preparation for climbing a mountain in - ooh, about 36 hours... excellent work, as ever.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

D-day (D for departure!)


I think that pretty much sums up how I'm feeling right now! It's nearly 0900 and I've been awake for two hours reading all the finer points of this trip - something that may have been wise to do weeks, or even months ago, but fortunately, it appears that the tips such as, 'Get proof from your travel insurer that you are covered for high altitude, or you can't climb.' 'Get a yellow fever jab, or you can't enter the country' and 'only get US dollars printed post 2004, or you can't use them in Tanzania' have all fortuitously worked out - the insurer told me what I needed, I had YF anyway and the notes are all new post 2009. Simples (and phew!).

I have also discovered that the accomodation in Zanzibar is top end luxury and although it appears we paid a little more than I would have agreed, had I read the breakdown more thoroughly (!), I am now glad because I actually think we are going to be very glad of a few luxuries after this...

Kristin keeps posting footage of previous summit successes and You Tube videos of previous climbs, all of which vary from fun and lighthearted, through to near horrific and I'm trying to pitch my expectations somewhere in the middle.

The girls are on their way and should be mid flight right now and I have a few last minute packing bits to do and am ready to meet Sam at Heathrow at 1500 for a few pre-flight beers.

For anyone who's interested, the itinerary is below, in full with a blow by blow account of our trip, which if I'm honest, sounds pretty damned fantastic I think!

Sunday 15/01/12
Depart from the lodge at 07.00hrs. From the hotel, head first to Marangu Gate for registration formalities and then head off around the mountain to Rongai, which is a 2 to 3 hour drive on rough track through the villages. After a short walk through the attractive banana and coffee farms of Rongai village, the trail enters an attractive pine forest. This can be a beautiful walk in good weather, with plenty of interesting flora and fauna. Most notable are the black & white colobus monkeys and some excellent bird-life. The path underfoot is generally wide and clear, but there are a lot of tree roots, so sturdy ankle-supporting boots are required from the start. This side of the mountain does not receive anywhere near us much rain as the western flank and the underfoot conditions do not deteriorate into the thick boggy mud that is not uncommon on the Machame route. That's not to say it won't rain though.

The path continues climbing steadily through the forest until gradually it emerges out of the forest and into the next climate zone, The moorland. Soon after this, around mid-afternoon you will arrive at the first campsite, where your camp should be already in position and a nice cup of tea waiting. It may well be misty at this altitude during this latter part of the day.

Monday 16/01/12
Early morning is normally clear at camp and as you make your way up across the moorland you should get increasingly good views of Kibo, the Eastern Icefields and to the left the jagged peak of Mawenzi, especially after the Second Rongai Cave at 3450m. After lunch, leave the main trail and head left out towards Mawenzi. This is the start of the extra day acclimatisation trek. The campsite is in a sheltered valley near the Kikelewa Caves.

Tuesday 17/01/12
A short but steep climb up grassy slopes is rewarded by superb all round views and a feeling of real remoteness. Shortly afterwards the vegetation is left behind and the immensity of the mountain begins to loom. The next camp is at the glass-like Mawenzi Tarn, spectacularly situated in a sheltered cirque directly beneath the towering spires of Mawenzi. This is good terrain for the famous giant senecios to grow into impressive specimens and the afternoon will be free to rest or explore the surrounding area as an aid to acclimatisation.
You are now at 4330m and may well be starting to feel the effects of altitude. Don't worry too much as it is a necessary part of the acclimatisation to come up a little bit too high and then descend. It is not impossible for the effects of Acute Mountain Sickness to occur even at this altitude, in which case your climb-leader will call for an immediate evacuation down the mountain. Under these circumstances, do not let any other thought of the summit cross your mind, but just get down as fast as reasonably and safely as possible. AMS is quite rare on these more considered routes, but plenty of climbers experience headaches, slight dizziness, loss of appetite and irregular digestion.

Wednesday 18/01/12
Today the trek leads directly across The Saddle between the two volcanoes of Mawenzi and the towering Kibo. As you come out from the Mawenzi massif it feels like you are walking out onto centre stage. Keep an eye out for the elusive eland, the largest antelope in the world - horselike in proportions - which inhabits this high altitude zone. As you cross the alpine desert, the open landscape affords all round views and right the way through the day Kibo looms every closer up ahead. Eventually you can make out the winding summit path high above on the flanks of the mountain, wherein lies tomorrow's nightmare.
Throughout the day you should try to eat as much as possible in preparation for the summit attempt very early tomorrow morning. Keep snacking through the afternoon if you can, although your appetite will probably be diminished by now due to the altitude. You should get into camp early afternoon. The remainder of the day is spent resting in preparation for the final ascent. You should pack your day-sacks for the morning and change your clothes in advance so that you are wearing the correct underlayers for the summit day. Again, try to eat in the late afternoon, before having a very early night, going to bed around 18.00hrs and hopefully getting to sleep soon after.

Thursday 19/01/12
Summit 1 : Gillmans : 5681m
Summit 2 : Uhuru : 5896m
Your climb-leader will by now have assessed your levels of fitness and will have decided how early you need to set out. You will thank yourself if that extra fitness training earns you another half an hour of sleep tonight. On his decision, you will be woken with tea some time between 12.00hrs and 01.00hrs and set out shortly afterwards. Your porters are not coming with you, so it is just a case of getting yourself out of your sleeping bags, boots on and off you go.

The ascent is by torchlight and the plan is to get to Gillman's Point on the crater rim in time to watch the sun rise over the jagged peaks of Mawenzi. This is the nightmare. Five to six hours of trudging up generally well-graded zigzags, this way and that, backwards and forwards in the dark, uphill all the way. On some stretches the ground is stable, whilst in others the loose volcanic scree scrunches and slides underfoot. Head up past Williams Point (5000m) and keep going to Hans Meyer Cave (5182m). All the way your climb-leader is keeping you going - not too fast, not too slow, taking regular rest stops to drink and catch your breath.

But the air is now incredibly thin and nausea can easily set in. If at any point your climb-leader says that it is time to stop, then that is final. His decision is not to be disputed. If he counts you out, then you are out. We have had a couple of instances with climbers whose commitment to get to the top is so strong that under these extreme conditions they have lost it completely, refusing to turn back. In both cases the climb-leader had to physically force them into submission. Both climbers were grateful when they descended and the thicker air brought them back to their senses.

Anyway, after about 5 or 6 hours you should reach Gillman's Point at 5735m. Actually, after all the endless false ridges it can come as quite a surprise to some people. If you reach this point, then the park authorities will grant you a certificate, but unless you really are dead-beat, you should rest for a short time before pushing on to the summit. This two hour round trip is the highlight of the climb, around the crater rim, passing close to the spectacular glaciers and ice cliffs that still occupy much of the summit area and finally on to Uhuru Peak at 5896m. It is this summit experience that climbers talk most enthusiastically about when they get off the mountain. That might seem like and obvious thing to say, but there is something strangely surreal about the summit in the early light of the day. The light plays tricks on the ice and the thin air plays tricks on your mind. Many people talk of perculiarly uplifting experience. Some people even forget to get their camera out and have to rely on Photoshop to graft their faces onto other people's pictures when they get home. Another rather surreal thing is that there is a good chance your mobile phone will work on the summit, if it doesn't freeze to death. Chances are you won't be up there for long, as with the wind-chill it could be forty below zero, strangely enough in both Celsius and Farenheit. As if that were not enough for one day already, it is still only about 07.00hrs and now you are faced with the descent.

Coming down may not be as tough as going up, but it does present its own set of difficulties. The main problems are usually knee and toe related. Knee problems can be alleviated by proper use of two walking poles. Toe problems should be alleviated by tightening your boots up before the descent in order to prevent your feet from crushing your toes inside your boots. You can easily lose a toe-nail if your boots are too loose or too small. The descent between Gillman's Point and Kibo is the steepest and most challenging, with some long scree slopes. If you have the confidence and energy to scree-run, then this can be quite fun. If not, then it is a long and tiring slide. Either way you will really need your walking poles on this section.

Your camp will still be at the base of this descent and if you have made good time you will have the chance of a lie down, some tea and maybe something to eat if you can manage it. It is here that you will find yourself waiting or being waited for, as members of the same climb often separate off into groups of different paces. Of course some of your group may not even have attempted the summit, in which case they might even still be asleep. The descent from Kibo to Horombo is a long and generally gradual descent that is generally underaken in a kind of post-summit daze, the fact that you are now on the busy Marangu Trail is neither here nor there, your aesthetic appreciation having been replaced almost completely with a simple desire to get back down. Arrival in camp comes as an enormous relief.

Friday 20/01/12
By now you have probably lost all interest in your surroundings and are thinking only of a shower, a massage, a good meal, a drink and above all a comfortable bed. The descent returns back through the forest to the park gate at Marangu at 1650m. Sometimes alternative descent routes are used at the instruction of the park authorities, but they are all pretty similar. A vehicle will be waiting for you at the bottom of the hill. Usually you will part from the climb-team at this point. Over the days you will have created a real bond with them on the mountain, so this will usually be quite a sad moment. The drive back to the hotel takes only a few minutes.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Monday night 09/01/12. Three nights before I fly...

... six nights before we climb.

I haven't slept well for a few days, what with thinking about the climb, thinking about packing, getting up and re-packing and emailing Kristin - one of the two girls from USA who we are meeting out there - to discuss packing. I'm not sure I've mentioned much about the details of the trip so far - probably because for some inexplicable reason, I've had my head buried in the sand about the whole thing since booking the trip in February last year. Other than buying the odd few bits here and there and chatting to plenty of people for advice and tips, I seem to have been in denial and it's only really hitting home now that we're actually doing this.

Kristin is the girl who has been dominating my facebook page for the past month or so, policing my posts for the merest hint of alcohol consumption, so she can chastise me and keep me hydrated -  from the States! She's also one of the many reasons I'm so excited about this trip having met on the Inca trail in May 2009, we spent an enlightening 4 whole days and one post Inca meal together, hit it off, kept in touch through email and facebook and for some bizarre reason, she has now trusted me with thousands of dollars worth of her hard earned cash to organise every fine detail of two precious weeks of her leave, for possibly the most gruelling challenge she's ever embarked upon. As she said recently, sometimes you meet soul mates at school when you're young, sometimes you meet them on a four day trek in Peru...

So, Kristin also posted our itinerary, which I'll copy in for anyone who wants to read the finer detail. For those that don't, there'll be the odd last minute panic update (possibly at 4am, which I seem to see a lot of at the moment) and hopefully, some pretty cool photos very soon.

Kristin and her friend Heidi arrive at the Kilimanjaro Mountain Resort on Thursday night 12th January and Sam and I join them Friday morning (oh bugger! that'll be 13th then?!!!)... not a GREAT omen.

There are supposed to be some nice walks in the area which Kristin will undoubtedly have me exploring - because we won't be doing enough walking over the following six days...

Sunday (15/01/12) we go up the mountain for five nights and six days on the Rongai Route. We attempt the summit on Thursday morning (19/01/12) and we should be at the top, all going reasonably well, at around 6:30/7am. Tanzania is GMT+3, so at around 1am Wednesday morning, start saying some prayers that we are able to summit, without vomittting or having to be dragged up. We start the summit attempt at around midnight/1am local time, it takes 5-6 hours to reach Gillman's Point then another 1-2 hours to Uhuru Peak.

We start the descent after we catch our breath, take pictures at the top (hopefullly) and before we start to freeze again and spend one more night on the mountain  before going back to the hotel on Friday Jan 20th for a beer or two...?! I'm going to guess this is the only place there will be internet for the entire trip, so I'll do my best to let everyone know I have arrived safely initially and again on Friday when we come down from the mountain, hopefully without Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and with a summit tale or two.

On Saturday (21/01/12) we go to Arusha for safari - our itinerary says to "ask your driverguide if you would prefer to take the 'scenic route' through the center, perhaps stopping off to pick up some supplies (Tanzanian gin, chocolate...)" - I'll take both in vast quantities I say!

Lake Manyara National Park: where we can possibly get a glimpse of the "rarely seen tree-climbing lion."

That night we stay at Ngorongoro Karatu: Gibbs Farm

Sunday (22/01/12) we go to the Ngorongoro Crater where we will see "one of the greatest views on the planet" and they "almost guarentee seeing lion, elephant, buffalo and rhino" - cue at least 1000 photos.

Then we'll head to the Serengeti and Olduvai (southcentral Serengeti) where we'll come across some Maasai, maybe a few hundred thousand wildebeast and incidentally "the birthplace of humankind", though I'm not sure what the Bible says about that one.

We stay at the Olduvai Tented Camp where we can go on a walk with the Maasai guides, once we have befriended them appparently.

Monday (23/01/12) we do a game drive in Ndutu and Gol and return to the Tented Camp and Tuesday Sam and I say a sad farewell to the girls and get on a ridiculously small plane to Zanzibar, for some well earned beach rest and more beer... in a word... LUSH!!!

This is the tour group we are using:

Sunday, 1 January 2012

T minus two weeks...

This time in exactly two weeks I will be on the mountain! I can hardly believe it's nearly here and am getting ridiculously excited now. I have all my kit laid out on the kitchen table, with only a couple of last minute things to buy and have just learned that I'll have to cull half of it, having read that my baggage allowance for the plane between the Serengeti and Zanzibar is only 15kg INCLUDING hand luggage?!!

I mean I'm in Zanzibar for four days, so that's at least 6 pairs of shoes and what about all the unecessary and excessive handicrafts I will undoubtedly buy from every pitiful looking local I encounter, to add to the countless boxes of unused wall hangings, paintings, cooking pots and bangles I already have and can't find a use for?

Off to read about the Serengeti now and work on my new 40 a day smoking habit. They say that heavy smokers suffer less from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), so I figure that seeing as I haven't quite committed to the amount of training I had planned to do by this stage, I may as well try it out!! (not really!). This trip will be even more special now, as I've had to postpone my Mexico voluntary work because I haven't yet rented my place out to pay for it... so I'm resorting to plan B about that. Just as soon as I've figured one out.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The countdown to Kilimanjaro

So, it turns out that buying my first home wasn't the end to my extensive travels after all and there is life after mortgage! Limited development options at work and no prospects of promotion provided the opportunity to spread my wings again and I'm planning a trip to Kilimanjaro in January followed by two months in Mexico, volunteering with orphans... yes, orphans!

Potentially seven days per week, with young children, entertaining, cleaning, washing and doing all the other child related tasks that I have actively chosen to avoid for my entire adult life. I can't pin point why I chose Mexican orphans, over Costa Rican turtles, but it boils down to wanting to give something back after years of selfish travelling and I just felt something of a 'calling' of sorts - maybe it's my way of feeling better about not wanting my own? (kids - not turtles!)

Anyway, Mexico is pending renting my flat out, but Kilimanjaro is booked and all I need to do now, is start seriously training... (though may have left that a little late). Vaccinations are up to date, visa obtained and I think all I need to do now is worry about getting the few last bits I need - like extra wet wipes and the small matter of a new camera.

Really excited and I can't wait now, as it is like nothing I've ever done before and there's been SO much planning. I've never had such a complicated kit list and as we'll also be doing a safari and beach holiday, there's everything to pack. We'll be meeting up with a girl from the USA who we met on the Inca trail in 2010 and haven't seen since and we'll meet the friend she is bringing with her, so there's so much to look forward to.

All I want to do now is get to the top - still breathing - and preferably down again in the same state!