Climbing Kili- how I spent my summer vacation)
Flight was uneventful (and reasonably comfortable in KLM’s business class). Usual problem sleeping on planes (seats don’t recline) so I napped maybe 2 hours in the last 24. Waiting for luggage in fairly open-air baggage claim…am trying to stand next to people that seem like more of a mosquito magnet than I tend to be. Meet my driver who is booked to take me to Kigongoni Lodge. We lug my suitcase past all the rugged land rovers and to a small celica-like Toyota that is showing its age. I now fully understand the argument for age-based, mandatory retirement. This kid driving speaks no English, I no Swahili (yet) and he apparently likes his American disco on the am radio. Loud. Car seems to be holding up on reasonable roads, until the turn and final 2 km to the hotel. There we find a lesson in what not to do with an automobile. With disco blaring out tinny speakers, we bounce from rut to pothole doubtless leaving a trail of Toyota parts in our wake.
At the hotel. After a day of sitting on a plane and a rather bouncy arrival (also sitting), I decide to stand for a bit and look around. Try to send a quick email without luck. I have GSM coverage for my mobile phone, but not data. Drat. Unpack and take inventory. The only casualty is the container of baby wipes. I think the cargo hold of the plane lacked much air pressure, as the package of wipes clearly exploded. I had taken the precaution of placing the package in a ziplock bag, but it ruptured as well. The result is that parts of my clothes are now fully saturated with what we’ll call “wipe juice”.
A quick shower feels great. This is a nice enough place, but cement floors really can’t be kept clean in Africa. I suspect they stopped trying…turns out they sweep off the dust but gave up on mopping long ago (note to self: that means a layer of baked-on silt that instantly dissolves when one walks across the floor in damp feet after showering. Every footstep is marked as it dries and is preserved on the floor for future archeological analysis). Also turns out that they refill the individual soap and shampoo bottles in the shower. Mine are covered in layers of residue that mimic rings in a tree…each layer marks the passage of a decade’s use.
Kigongoni Lodge is supposed to be the second best hotel in Arusha and I’m here to share my stay with my climb partners Ewan and Ruth. May didn’t join me on this trip because of the need to sleep in a tent and not bathe for a week. I suspect that the hotel would meet her definition of “roughing it”, though the hotel itself is really quite beautiful.
Tried to sleep but kept waking up. The bed is reasonable, and the temperature is nice at around 55 F, but the air is incredibly humid. Africa is damp, which means the mattress is cold and damp. I put down the mosquito netting before I got into the bed. Not really sure that it was needed (this is nothing like the airport). The one thing that the netting did manage was to trap a very annoying beetle in the bed with me. By 2am it became a question of losing his life or my sanity, possibly both. The jury is still out on the latter.
17 July…Count down
I woke up! That means I slept a little! I think I slept from 5-7am and again from 7-9am. Cleaned up and had a lovely English breakfast at 10, then read from 11am until the noon pre-climb briefing. Ewan and Ruth arrive just as it’s about to start. First impression: really nice but really young, which is the only way I can avoid saying that I suddenly feel really old. With age comes either experience or a fear that one must prepare for all contingencies. That means I have brought every bit of supplies I could think of, with the exception of a sleeping mat that I pre-arranged to rent from ATR. I am doubtless over the 20kg weight limit for my large sack. Ruth and Ewan counter with the confidence of youth. They need walking sticks, diamox (altitude sickness drugs) and sleeping mats, but pre-arranged nothing. Where I have 3 types of layerable climbing gloves, they have their snowboarding gloves and mittens. This is going to be interesting.
To get loosened up, I hire a guide from the hotel to take me on a hike. I meet Victor the guide at 12:45 and we chat about a route. I go to get changed into shorts and he runs to grab a quick lunch. The walk is set for 1pm, which I learn must be adjusted for Africa time (that is, it will actually start at 1:45, and with a different guide). Victor is also the daytime driver for the hotel, and is called upon to do a pickup. No worries, they get me Philip.
Philip likes walking “the bush”, not on roads. Looks like changing to shorts was a dumb idea. Philip walks fast, almost at a trot. He could give any New Yorker a run for his money. The route that Victor said would take 1:45 takes us 1 hour flat. Along the way we pass goats and a herder, lots of corn, and coffee. I snapped 1-2 photos of Mount Meru with the top obscured by clouds (it looks awfully big). We walk to the local spring fed lake and are charged a parking fee even though we don’t have a vehicle. Swahili is a language that’s almost lyrical, and I try not to laugh as Philip and the parking attendant argue and barter, almost shouting at each other in whimsical melodies. Once I see “the lake”, I feel like we’ve been swindled. It’s a small pond, maybe half the size of Watson Pond, and is bright green with algae. Philip tells me that the locals like to fish here. For some reason a line from the movie airplane keeps playing through my head: “Not only do we need to find someone to fly this plane, it has to be someone who didn’t have the fish for dinner”. I resolve to not eat fish for dinner.
18 July…we have liftoff
Check out of hotel (I leave the big suitcase in storage and take my large, heavy duffel). A 2 hour drive to the base to register as climbers…something we do at every campsite. One thing they ask for each time is occupation…mine will change with each writing as I currently have none. Or several. It’s rather unclear. Once registered, we drive to the Lemosho trail head. Here we meet our climb team for the first time. The porters, especially, are a bit rag-tag in their shorts and sneakers. We suspect that they immediately start placing side bets as to which of us drops out first. We question the ability of this team to keep us alive, but here we are. Three climbers, a guide (Makeke), an assistant guide (Musa), a cook (Odinga), and 12 porters. Our quick box lunch is a bit odd as it has two sandwiches…one cheese and one jelly. Can’t help but wonder as to what the menu will be like this week, but it’s far to late to arrange for pizza deliveries. Packs on and off we go.
We begin a slow walk through the rainforest, watching our steps to avoid the elephant dung and the masses of ants (Musa says the ants “pinch”, and they appear to have lots of friends). The porters apparently slept at the trail head last night and had to chase off the elephants (I’d have liked to see that. Seems like the elephants could chase off the porters if it came to a contest.) We see monkeys in the trees, but they are fairly far off. The porters run past us carrying tents, food, and equipment on their heads. They call greetings of “jambo”, partly to be friendly but partly to warn us that they are coming up fast and we should step aside. They must look at us and think we are wimps as we trudge with our small day packs.
It’s hot and humid and I’m already sweating. We burn off time chatting. Takes a bit to get to know each other. Still at the “being polite” phase with Ewan and Ruth, but that will quickly change as we get comfortable. Ewan switches rapid fire between singing bits of songs, practicing words in Swahili, and parts of what must be a stand-up comedy routine. It’s a very slow pace, held back by the guides saying “polay, polay”. After three hours, we arrive at Lemosho Forest Camp (aka Mount Mkubwa camp). We started at 7200 feet and only gained about 1300, roughly equal to one of my practice climbs up Breakneck Ridge. I have a watch with an altimeter, and begin a ritual of calling out elevation periodically. Little do I know that this practice will later crush me.
At the camp we meet Nina, who is attempting this climb alone. Alone means without friends, she still has her climb team of a guide and 7 porters. Apparently, her friends changed their minds at the last minute and she decided to do it anyway…good for her. I chat with Nina to give Ruth and Ewan some alone time; this is their honeymoon after all (a rather unique way to spend it!) Any chance I had of feeling like one of the kids quickly fades as I learn that I’m exactly twice Nina’s age. I start to wonder, at the ripe age of 42, if I’ll be the first to make a summit attempt using a walker.
At dinner, any concerns about the food quickly vanish. Odinga is a real cook, and I am humbled. Leek soup, fried tilapia with an incredible fresh vegetable sauce (ok, so I did eat fish), pan cooked potatoes, spinach, and fruit. Musa keeps checking to make sure that we had eaten enough. Turns out, they not only keep the calorie count high but also track food intake to gauge altitude sickness.
The stars are amazing at night (“poa kichizi, kama ndizi”, which translates to “very cool, like a banana”). Not surprising given zero light pollution and an already thinning atmosphere at 8700 feet. It’s also getting cold, so I decide to wait until breakfast to start taking my diamox. I’d prefer to not have to get up too many times at night to use the outhouse. I’m told that diamox, the altitude drug, has an annoying side effect of making one pee…a lot (or “short drop” as our guides call it). Combine that with an incredible amount of fluids daily: 2-3 liters of water while walking, coffee in the am, tea at dinner and mid day, and soup at both lunch and dinner. Getting up to short drop wouldn’t be terrible, but that means going out in the cold…and the destination is a fairly disgusting pit toilet consisting of a hole in the floor. Bad enough, but it seems that previous users have had substantial problems getting the hang of aiming for the small opening, so one ends up standing in others waste while trying to think of something else.
Am starting a night time bed ritual. I brush my teeth with the last of the day’s drinking water, then strip down and crawl into my sleeping bag. My boots, a jacket, a book, and flashlight are set nearby. A couple of baby wipes remove the day’s dirt, and then I change into my wool long johns (which stay rolled up on my sleeping bag during the day). Should I need to use the outhouse, it’s simply a matter of finding the light, getting up, and putting on my boots.
Ewan and Ruth have started to think of me as the supply kit guy. I have playing cards for after dinner, a filtration system to clean the drinking water they bring us each morning, and waterless hand sanitizer for use after the outhouse and before meals. I also have an abundance of toilet paper and baby wipes, which turn out to be invaluable.
19 July…Shira or Shiva?
Today’s hike to the Shira One camp is serious. It takes just under 6 hours to make the trek, and we cover more than just distance. We begin in the rain forest but end up in a dusty desert. Dust! I had no idea that dust could get into literally everything. First photos (and view) were of Mount Shira.
As we climb higher, we walk through a period of giant heather. This minor plant is hard to miss when it stands taller than me. Strange satisfaction creeps up as we keep climbing and I pass it in height, eventually it can only grow up to my knees.
We continue on to 10,000 feet. I’ve been above tree line before, but this is different. Rather than snowy, it’s 80 degrees and sunny. We cross over the Shira Ridge and descend into the plateau towards camp, sitting at the lofty height of 11,650 feet. At this height pilots are required by law to have oxygen.
Toilets in camp are a bit better here…good thing because the diamox is working its magic. Constantly. I had a slight headache and a bit more labored breathing as we passed the 10k foot line. Not sure how much of that is from the hike, how much is altitude, and how much is from the lack of sleep…only 3 hours last night. I have never been a morning person, but am not a sound sleeper, so I’m generally up at the first light. Musa, who has the unhappy task of waking climbers with tea and “washy washy” for our face and hands, is surprised to find me up and dressed before them each day.
The food continues to be great, but I think dinner may be the last of the meat. They have to carry it without much refrigeration, and the order seems to have been well thought through (I am so glad the fish was first). I’m eating well…a good sign…and drinking more fluids than I thought I could.
From Shira One we have our first good view, and photos, of Kili (or kill-me as Ewan called it. I didn’t mention how close the name Shira sounds to the name of Hindi God Shiva, the destroyer). At our after-dinner briefing, Makeke tells us to get to sleep early. Tomorrow’s hike will take us to Barranco Valley camp. While only 1,150 feet higher, we must first cross through the Shira Camp and up to the lava tower at 15,000 feet. It’s going to be a full day.
20 July…Shrieked the raven- Nevermore!
It took 9 hours today to get to Barranco camp. I was sure I took a celebrex in the am to counteract the expected pain…I even remember fighting to get through the foil backing . By day’s end I wasn’t so sure. Celebrex seemed to be untouched and my left knee and hip were quite sore. But I’m jumping ahead a bit.
I slept ok last night, but spent a couple of hours cranking the hand charger for my cell phone. Turns out that the treo just draws too much power for this little charger. Works great to top off a charge, but once the battery is below 40% it’s hopeless. I actually cranked hard enough to melt the charger! I have an emergency recharge kit with a 9 volt battery, but only one 9 volt battery. Will wait until I’m desperate to use it.
I cracked my plastic sunglasses while trying to remove them from my pack. The frame snapped above a lens. It might hold, but I really need superglue (how did I fail to bring that?) Borrowed some clear plastic tape from Ruth…actually clear band-aids that I cut into strips of tape. Am afraid for my reputation of having prepared for any eventuality.
We make it to the lava tube by lunch. Terrain has changed from dust to include large volcanic rock. Stop to eat, though none of us feel hungry. As I lean against a large rock, we watch the ravens arrive.
Ravens are large birds, worthy of a Hitchcock movie. They are essentially vultures…big scavengers. My first thought was that they were simply waiting for one of us to drop (what do they know that I don’t?) I now suspect that they were simply used to humans discarding food and were waiting to be fed. One raven lost his patience and decides to encourage us a bit. It swoops down with wings spread wide. Clearing my head by about a foot, it lands on the rock directly behind me. Ewan and Ruth are shocked by the fact that it took such an aggressive stance and ask if I am ok. I reply that, being from New York, there was only one response possible. I seize a walking stick (similar to a ski pole) and charge the raven. I suspect that, from the raven’s perspective, this was not in the plan. An insane yank was running towards it, wildly swinging a metal pole, and shrieking that if it wanted a fight I’d eat its carcass for dinner. For the rest of the trip, each time we saw ravens, Ewan and Ruth commented that they were probably doing reconnaissance to track my movements.
We descend slightly to a camp area, at which point I catch up on text messages (which I usually do at night). We have good coverage and I’m taking full advantage of it. Unfortunately, I left the thread to Bob active when I typed a message for May. Gave a quick update on progress and closed with “Love ya”. Bob replied instantly that he valued my friendship, but perhaps this was misdirected. Took some explaining. I can see that it will take a long time to live this one down.
Make it to Barranco Camp. As I said, not sure if I took Celebrex this am, but I certainly did at night! Am a little concerned that I’ve stopped the frequent “short drops”. I continue to take diamox and had well over 4 liters of water today. At least I will sleep well tonight.
21 July…How can there be more dust?
The day’s climb from Barranco starts with the Barranco Wall. It’s a reasonably steep rock face, with ledges to walk on and plenty of finger and toe holds. All of the practice climbs at Breakneck and New Hampshire have more than prepared me for this. One narrow path is called the “kissing wall” as climbers tend to get close and personal with the rock face. I laugh quietly as it occurs to me that the rock probably doesn’t kiss back. Still, the path is slow both due to traffic and the fact that our guides can’t believe that we are comfortable (though I’d hate to be a porter and try this while carrying a tent on my head). I’m breathing hard, but Kili is certainly getting close.
After clearing the wall, we press on for Karanga camp. We have great views of the Southern ice fields above us as we go.
Karanga is the last camp with ground water from a nearby stream. Porters will have to carry our limited water supply from here, which means that luxuries like the morning washing of our faces are right out. Am very thankful for the baby wipes.
Dust is everywhere, both in and out of the tent. Every small movement brings up billowing clouds. The trick will clearly be to keep the tent zipped up tight and to minimize movement. Might be a challenge as the diamox has again worked it’s magic and I’m sure to get up a number of times tonight. Will limit the trips mostly because it’s 8pm and the temperatures are freezing with a howling wind. I actually feel cold, but good. Knee and hip are better and the altitude isn’t so bad now that we have backed off to 13,000 feet.
As for the rest of my kit, the sunglasses survived. Thanks go to Ruth’s tape, though the crack is clearly getting worse and has stressed the bottom of the lens. I really need these $10 glasses to hang in as it’s far too bright and dusty to climb without them. My cell phone battery reached critical, so I used my only 9 volt emergency charger. Worked great. Will need to conserve power at this point.
Today’s hike wasn’t terribly long…maybe 5 hours. Tomorrow will be even shorter. Probably a four hour hike to Barafu camp, which will be the staging site for our summit attempt. Am fairly excited.
22 July…Damn diamox
Karanga to Barafu is uneventful. Covered in dust, none of us feel quite right, but we are close enough to keep focused. Today includes no descent…only gains in altitude. One of the challenges of the western routes like Lemosho is that you travel up and down a lot. Each day we climb up high and then descend a bit to sleep, which adds almost 4000 feet to the mountain. As we enter Barafu at mid-day, we see what appear to be refugees from a war zone stagger in from the opposite direction. These are the climbers who went up last night and are only now returning to camp. An older gentleman, probably in his 60s, looks fit enough. What really spooks me is a woman. She’s in her early thirties and also seems fit, but looks terrible. She’s barely alert, being supported and dragged by a friend as she stumbles past. Her face is pale, and eyes closed. I can’t help but wonder just how many others the mountain claims victory over.
The trek to Barafu Hut was mercifully short, as I’m fighting my own battles on multiple fronts. Barafu is at 15,000 feet. My knees are certainly making their displeasure known after 5 days of walking. Sunglasses are failing and I’ve resorted to a combination of Ruth’s clear bad aids and blister tape to keep them intact. I have a fairly upset stomach, which I hope is related to the altitude and not the bug that Musa has clearly fallen ill to. He’s sweating a lot and unable to stay focused at times. I decide that the best defense is a strong offense, so take a dose of Zithromax and Pepto Bismol. I share the latter with Ruth who is also queasy, and she returns the favor with some Ammodium D.
We eat lunch at 1pm, but none of us is hungry. Musa and Makeke keep trying to push the food, but we feel like we just ate and really aren’t interested. To make matters worse, we have the first and only truly awful meal. Imagine feeling sick and having someone bring you a large plate of lukewarm “tuna pasta”.
Dinner will come shortly, at 5:30pm. Even though it’s light, we need to try and rest from 6:30pm on. Why? They intend to wake us at 11:30pm to start climbing at midnight. We will climb the 5000 feet to the summit in the dark. I suspect that there are two reasons for the early start. First, being at the summit for sunrise is a part of the experience not to be missed. Second, we have an extremely long day of hiking ahead, and unless we start the descent early we simply won’t make it.
Barafu is a fairly crowded camp located on a plateau. Outhouses are more than heavily used, and are all fairly gross (you would think by this point that people’s ability to aim would have improved). To add to the fun, the outhouses are perched at the very edge of the plateau. We are warned that we must be careful at night, as walking past them in the dark will result in a fall of a couple of hundred feet. They aren’t kidding. I’d like to think that I will simply stay in my warm sleeping bag for this short night, but am sure that the damn diamox will have other plans.
The sun is bright and the camp noisy with porters (who stay back while we summit). I’m glad I brought the sleep mask and ear plugs from my KLM flight. We clean up and crawl into our sleeping bags at 7:30pm, a bit behind schedule, with a promise from Makeke that we will be woken at around 11pm.
We had lunch yesterday at 1pm, dinner at 5:30pm, and they woke us at 11:30pm to force feed us breakfast. At 12:30am we are suited up and as ready to go as possible.
Things start well enough. It’s cold and dark, and there are lots of others making the attempt, but Makeke has proclaimed us to be in good shape and his confidence becomes ours. The path is dimly lit by the LEDs mounted on our heads. We begin with our usual chatter, moving slowly up the steep path. The dust is so loose that each step forward results in sliding backwards a half step. I try to not do the math, but start estimating the number of steps to the top. I stop when I realize that I’ll need to account for the backwards sliding, which adds another 2500 feet of height to the already daunting number.
Ewan has become our morale officer and is now leading a series of movie trivia questions. I’m the milestone marker, shouting out every 100 meters in gained elevation as my watch keeps score. As we pass the midway point, things take a turn for the worse. My brain is thinking slowly and chatter gives way to long stretches of silence. I blurt out the answer to a trivia question that was asked 30 minutes earlier. It actually took 20 minutes to process the question and another 10 to get the answer from my brain to my mouth. Ruth begins vomiting, clearly sick from the altitude (or was that the tuna pasta?) At 18000 feet, I’m freezing cold, nauseas, and have a splitting headache. The wind is picking up. My breathing is short and labored, but it calms quickly when we stop for a break. Our breaks, however, are few and short. Makeke and Musa have clearly decided that if we stop for long we won’t want to start again. On we press, slowly passing clusters of those who began ahead of us but that choose to take a much-envied rest.
I begin to wonder if this is worth it, and now understand why this climb is as much mental as physical. Quitting would be easy unless one was completely committed to the goal. Not sure if I will make this, but resolve to not quit. If Makeke calls me out, then I’m done. If not, I’m going to get to the top. My brain keeps repeating the phrase “get warm, get out of the wind”. My eyes do their best to oblige, by filling in images that my brain wants them to see. In the darkness and shadows, I am sure that I see a concrete bunker that could serve as a shelter. Only it wasn’t there. I wonder if this is what it’s like to go mad, and decide to drown out the voices by making my brain repeat the lyrics to a song over and over. No idea why, but the song that came to mind was “There she was just walking down the street, singing do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do…”
One final bit of thinking before I leave my sanity. I keep checking my watch altimeter and calling out the 100 meter gains. The responses from Ewan and Ruth have been enthusiastic, but as every breath is being conserved I now hear only a faint “woo-hoo”. I decide to move my watch from my wrist to outside of my jacket so that checking does not require me to expose skin to cold air. Big mistake. This altimeter measures temperature and air pressure. It has been warmed by direct contact with my body. Moving the watch away from my body heat requires recalibration, a fact that my frozen, hurting, do wah diddy diddy singing brain simply neglects. My watch is now giving us bad information.
At one point I shout “only 43 meters to Stella!” Stella point is a massive milestone, the lower point of the summit. Making it there means one officially summitted. As we all take heart at the nearness of our goal, Makeke breaks the celebration by announcing that we aren’t even close…we have at least 3 more hours to go. Ruth, standing behind me, says I visibly slumped as my joy turned to despair. I now hate my watch and decide to give it to Makeke as a gift at the end of our trek.
We press on in the dark, stopping occasionally to catch our breath. Ewan and Ruth have no water as their platypus bladders have frozen. My insulated camelbak fared better, but the water in the tube eventually freezes and I have no way to drink it. Musa decides to carry my pack, for which I am eternally grateful.
As we near the real Stella Point, the temperature drops sharply to single digits Fahrenheit. The wind becomes intense and now blows so strongly that we turn sideways to reduce our profile. I miss the actual marker, and humbly ask “how far to Stella” (as I no longer trust or even look at my altimeter)? Makeke says it’s behind us and that we are on our way to Uhuru. Uhuru Point is the absolute peak of Kili. We made it! The climb took 6 hours, which turns out to be one of the quickest Makeke has done. It wasn’t our speed, so much as the fact that we didn’t take many breaks.
The wind calms a bit as sunlight begins to creep over the horizon. Ruth continues to vomit periodically, but presses on. We reach the sign proclaiming victory just as the sun appears, and Ruth leaves her mark behind it.
The first thing we see is the crater. Not enough light for a picture, but it’s spectacular. By the time the sunlight improves, the crater is filled in with fog and we can only photograph the sunrise over the cloud-filled rim.
Next I notice the ice. As we climbed, the ground became frozen. At the peak, we see that we aren’t walking on a flat sheet of ice, but instead there are channels of ice crystals that have literally grown up from the ground like stalagmites. Carved by the wind, they form into straight, thin lines, like walking on the tips of a billion paring knives
Looking over we see the ice shelf. It’s a massive wall at least 100 feet high and seems to stretch on for miles. I wonder if that’s part of the glacier, which is a large “m” shape. We have circled to the eastern side of the mountain and so approach it from the back. Makeke tells me that the glacier has actually grown in thickness this year, helped by heavy rains, but that its size is still much smaller than it used to be. The points no longer descend far enough for glacier climbing, so those trails are now closed.
For all the excitement, it’s still very cold. At one point, Ruth realizes that Makeke isn’t wearing gloves. He simply stands or walks with his hands in his pants. In a voice loud enough to reach Kenya, she yells, “Makeke, you freak!” We, the wimpy climbers, are using gloves plus hand warmers that I brought, though the hand warmers are fairly useless high up…they are oxygen activated and there just isn’t enough air!
It’s time to start a long and painful descent. Getting down to Barafu means leaving the frozen tundra and heading back to lunar dust and scree (loose rock). This moon-dust like substance hides toe-breaking rocks. It’s slippery to climb up, and even worse to come down. The best technique appears to be a combination of jogging and skiing, in which we use our walking sticks for balance and slide down on the soles of our boots.
Ewan is downhill ahead of us, when Ruth accidentally kicks free a large rock that tumbles down. She watches as it rolls towards her husband of just a few days, and yells for him to move out of the way (a fairly sporting thing to do when playing “bowling for Ewans”). Ewan scrambles left, just as the rock turns to readjust its trajectory. The result is a direct hit that knocks Ewan off his feet. He stands up, assures us through our laughter that he’s ok, and I ask if the missile defense folks know about this tracking system.
It takes three hours to get back to Barafu Camp, at which point we are given a ninety minute rest before brunch at 11:30. At noon we pack and walk to the Millenium Hut Camp, another 3 hours of trekking. We are exhausted after what Makeke says was a 33km (20 mile) hike today, but feel great as we have descended to a now reasonable 12,000 feet.
Millenium is the first camp that has vendors. We pass the trinkets and opt to buy beer. Our first beer in a week with dinner and we are out.
24 July…The triumphant return
I woke up after a 9 hour sleep. This is the first time that Musa actually has to wake me, and we are both unclear on the protocol. A rather odd sensation to awaken with someone literally pulling your leg, but there we were. A cold night and chilly morning, it’s only 40 degrees in my tent, but I managed to say in my warm sleeping bag and only get up once. We are up and out quickly as we all really want to get back to the hotel for a massage and shower.
But first, we say our thanks and tip the team. This is a well-defined ritual. The amounts are publicly announced so that there is no suspicion that anyone is being cheated. We collect cash at the high end of the range specified by Africa Travel Resource and make the presentations. I give Makeke my watch as a gift, and the water filtering pump plus a camelbak and nageline bottle to Musa.
We set out in the dusty rock, but that quickly turns to small pockets of vegetation. After an hour, we pass back into the area of giant heather. Next comes the mud. The eastern side of the rain forest is much wetter than our western ascent, and we are moving through deep mud that covers the toes of our boots. Attempts to navigate through less muddy patches invariably result in slipping and falling. I go down twice. We make a pact that if any of us falls prone in the goo, that we will embrace the experience and make mud angels (based on the snow angels we made as kids). Happily, no falls are spectacular enough to qualify.
After 3.5 hours of walking, we reach the trailhead. We sign out, get our certificates, and head back to the hotel. I take several showers…and only stop because the power fails for a bit and the water is getting cold.
I’ve booked relaxing massages before our dinner, though mine is interrupted not less than 3 times; the electrician needed to get in my room twice, and once by Ruth announcing that she had brought me a masseuse (turns out that our group had a spare masseuse). Dinner is fantastic. The cook uses an outdoor clay oven to make an amazing feast. Our team then retires to the bar and proceeds to celebrate until sunrise. It’s finally time to stumble to bed, but the signs directing us to our huts are missing a couple of rooms numbers…it seems that my room is off the map. Takes a bit of looking, but I find the way and sleep soundly.
All in all, an intense adventure made even better by the humor of my climb-mates, great guides, and outstanding logistics by ATR and Africa Walking. Poa kichizi. Very cool.
25 July…Another Africa
My flight isn’t until tonight, so I hire Musa to show me around Arusha for the day. He shuns the idea of taking a taxi and instead suggests a public bus. They are cheap and it’s how the people of Arusha really travel.
A public bus is simply a licensed vehicle that drives around packed with people and cargo. Think of a Volkswagen Microbus with 30 or so occupants crammed inside, holding everything from eggs to chickens (for the record, the egg came first, then the chicken). I suspect I’m the first white person they have seen riding one of these, but try my best to blend in as if I’m a native. Rather tricky, as my color changes to green…most of the folks on this bus clearly haven’t bathed in some time and we are literally pressed up tight against each other.
Arusha itself is a small city. Lots of storefronts made of stone and painted white, some at the edge of town are little more than shacks. It reminds me a lot of India, particularly near Mysore. There is one very modern building with lots of guards. It’s the UN tribunal for Rawanda.
Musa lives here and seems to be a local celebrity. Lots of folks in the street know him and shout regards. One, a large stocky man dressed well, turns out to be his “little brother”. We walk around as I look at the many small stores and shops. Like many of the roadside stands, this town seems to be sponsored by Coca Cola. Signs are everywhere. Musa takes me to a packed set of market stalls to buy gifts for the family. An African drum and flute for May, and wooden giraffe masks for the kids. Time to head back to the hotel, and I’m trying to tactfully suggest a taxi. Musa will have none of it. Part of the African experience he says. Who am I to argue?
At the hotel it’s one final shower before the long trip home. I warn May that it’s been a while since I last shaved and that I’m a bit scruffy. Will see if the kids recognize me. Business class flights home are a pampered luxury after the trek, but I figure I’ve earned it.
I mentioned earlier that while signing in at each camp I listed a different occupation. I was an executive, an engineer, an software architect, an entrepreneur, and an CEO. My final occupation as we signed out at Mweka Gate: “Lou Steinberg, mountain climber”