Monday, April 28, 2008

From the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro to the Beaches of Zanzibar

I was hoping to write this while it was all a little fresher in my mind, but life kind of got the better of me. Anyway, without further ado... the conclusion of our Tanzanian adventure...

Some fast facts about our Kilimanjaro trek:

Length of trek: 7 days
Route: Machame Route (the "whiskey" route)
Trek company: Paul Shayo's company (which goes by several names)
Altitude reached: 5,895 m (19,340 feet)
# of crew for 2 of us: 8
Random Trivia: highest peak in the world with GSM service
Local catch phrase: Pole pole (= go slowly)
Most heard phrase in our tent: Dammit, I have to pee again

Day 0:

Moshi was, as promised, a much nicer town than Arusha, though still no place to spend a lot of time sitting around. We were picked up by Paul, an ex-Kilimanjaro guide who now runs his own company and who claims to still take hikers up when he has time (though our guide seemed to think Paul was now "too fat" for this to possibly be true). The tourist business has obviously served him well. He recommended a hotel for us, where we were extremely happy to finally take a shower after a week of camping, only to find out that every time we turned the water off, the electricity on the whole floor would go out. So, flashlights in hand, we repacked our things for the hike and I filled my new Camelbak for the first time, but my technique was not developed yet and most of the water ended up in a giant puddle under the bed and all over my clothes. Not the most auspicious start to the trek...

Day 1:

Both of us felt sick this morning, probably a combination of nerves and all the fatty food from the safari. In the morning we drove to Machame gate, picking up porters and crew on the way there. We sat around for a while waiting to deal with formalities, and we were amused by the quantity of vendors selling everything from ponchos to hiking poles, in case you forgot anything. The first day's hike is through the rainforest at the base of the mountain and wasn't so bad. We had beautiful weather and when we arrived after 4.5 hours, our camp was set up and there was warm popcorn and tea waiting for us. Not too bad so far...

Day 2:

We finally met our guide, Aaron, who had not accompanied us the day before because of a problem with one of the porters. Aaron wasn't particularly friendly but seemed professional. This day's hike took about 4 hours (there is a lot of resting time to acclimatize), and we were feeling rushed by Aaron, who doesn't believe in taking breaks. On the bright side, he walked really slowly, so we didn't push ourselves too hard. We ended at Shira Camp, around 3840m. The terrain had definitely changed and now looked more barren and windswept, though we were not above the treeline quite yet. We were following instructions and drinking a ton of water so we weren't having too much trouble with the altitude, though by now we were out of breath much more quickly than normal and my resting heart rate was up to 100.

Day 3:

This was acclimatization day. We went up to the Lava Tower at 4600m and then back down again to 3950m for camp at Baranco. We ate lunch at the top, where little mice and birds were boldly attempting to steal our food. It was really cold and I couldn't sit still, so we left quickly, and there was a bit of a storm on the way down so we were pretty wet by the time we arrived at camp. The terrain was mostly jagged rocks and some cactus at this point, but there were still small animals and birds around. Our highlight was watching the cook make ugali for the crew and turn it by taking the boiling mass out of the pot with his bare hands. By now the altitude was starting to catch up with us in the form of frequent urination. We were told we had to drink at least 3 liters of water a day, so every 20 minutes or so we'd put on all our layers and boots and make a run from the tent. This was amusing at first.

Day 4:

By now it was really cold and we were wearing a few layers. We had pretty much lost our appetites so we didn't eat much for breakfast. I was lucky if I only had to get up once during the night to go pee and I was getting a little sick of it. In the morning we ascended the Great Baranco Wall, which looks like a giant, sheer rock wall, but in reality you can climb it with some scrambling and no special equipment is needed. More impressive, though, were the porters, who climbed up and down the wall with giant packs on their heads, barely even looking down or holding on. It put us to shame. The wall was followed by some relatively flat parts and then another huge wall. As we were climbing, it started to rain. Although our guide was generally very slow, whenever it would start to rain he would always speed up. However, with the altitude, I couldn't go any faster. So when he urged me on, I told him "I'm trying." Ever supportive, he told me "well, try harder". No fond memories of our guide from this trip!

We were very relieved to be at camp and put on dry clothes. However, at 4100 meters I was now out of breath if I walked too fast up the hill to the bathroom. We spent the afternoon running back and forth from the tent to the bathroom to pee and trying to stay warm and dry. By now I was getting boiling water in my nalgene bottles every night to warm my sleeping bag up because I wasn't able to warm it myself. Another effect of the altitude is that it keeps you from sleeping... the nerves about tomorrow's summit didn't help either. So I was up most of the night reading.

Day 5:

We made good time up to base camp at 4600 meters, and as we signed in we saw a few people looking extremely dazed and being more or less carried past us. Ok, we'd come this far, so we decided to try not to be nervous. It was so foggy that there was no view at all, and it was drizzling, so we retreated into the tent until lunch time. My fingernails were a slight shade of blue and my resting heart rate was up to about 104, but otherwise we were doing ok. As I frantically put on my boots and hat and ran to the bathroom for the hundredth time, I realized I probably spent more calories doing the pee-pee dance on this hike than I did actually hiking. I was not going to miss that aspect of the altitude AT ALL. After an early dinner, Aaron stopped by the mess tent to give us a pep talk and make sure we had everything prepared for the summit attempt, and then he told us to try to get some sleep. Yeah right.

So sometime around 6pm we repacked all our things and got our bags prepared for the coming hike. We snuggled into our sleeping bags and I think we slept a little bit, but a major thunderstorm hit, so mostly we lay in the dark wondering what we were getting ourselves into.

Day 6:

At 11:30pm we got up, and outside everything was covered in snow. There was quite a bit of it coming down, but tonight was our only chance, so we had to try. We packed up, put all our waterproof stuff and every layer we had brought on and were ready to go. They had made us tea and cookies but both of us were so nauseated that we didn't eat anything. At midnight, headlamps on, we started up the mountain. It was quite the sight, really - ahead of us tiny lights shined in the darkness and behind us as we ascended, more lines of little lights showed us we weren't the last ones up. The first bit was up rather steep, slippery rocks, which in the dark and the snow were a bit scary. Aaron went first, followed by me and then D. and then our assistant guide, Peter, who came along in case one of us had to turn back (it's standard policy). After an hour or so I started to get really hungry, but since Aaron didn't believe in breaks, I took a bite of my protein bar and kept walking. Of course, this made me acutely nauseated, which slowed me down for about an hour until I threw up all over the trail and felt much better. In any case, I didn't get sick from the altitude, and although I didn't realize it, D. pointed out that Aaron was checking our pupils every so often and paying much more attention to us than usual, and I think he was keeping good tabs on our health status, even if he pretended not to care. The snowstorm turned into a full-fledged blizzard, and we trudged up and up and up and up in the snow for the next 6 hours till we reached Stella Point. The snow must have been 6 inches thick on the ground, and I felt like I was taking one step back for every two steps forward. I was beginning to think we would never arrive, when finally we got to the crater rim.

We stopped for a moment and I took stock of the situation. My gloves were soaked through and I couldn't feel my fingers, so I decided I was going to give up my poles and put my hands in my jacket before the situation became permanent. I felt a bit like Mary Katherine Gallagher from SNL but I didn't care. The sun had started to rise and we had about another hour and a half from here to Uhuru Point, which is technically the tallest point on the mountain. We couldn't see anything except the snow in front of us, and I had almost lost interest in reaching the top of the mountain, but Aaron was not letting me give up yet. I thought it was never going to end, but finally we reached the sign signaling we had made it. We took some triumphant pictures and then started the walk back.

The sun had come out by now and the snow was literally blinding. Peter had my sunglasses, but by the time I reached him, even with my eyes mostly closed, I had managed to get a nice case of snow-blindness (which in less severe cases just gives you blurry vision, rather than making you totally blind). On the bright side, no pun intended, the sky had finally cleared and we had an absolutely amazing view of the top of the mountain and the valley beyond. I can say with certainty that the glacier on top of Kilimanjaro is not melted yet! Our timing turned out to be perfect in that respect, as had we been any faster we would have missed the stunning views at the top. D. had to take all the pictures, though, as my hands were still frozen solid.

The way down was considerably less tough. I held up my poles and slid a good portion of it the old-fashioned way, and the sun and the warmth of the day helped my mood considerably. We passed a few people still on their way up, probably the ones who would be carried back to camp later that day. Some guides are definitely less responsible than ours was. We got a bit sunburned on the way down and towards the end there wasn't enough snow to slide anymore so the careful climb down the rocks started to seem truly interminable. We had been hiking for almost twelve hours on basically no sleep or food and everything hurt. When we arrived in camp, everyone came over to congratulate us and give us some juice and then we had a little time to rest. I lay down in the tent and closed my eyes because they were burning as though I had gotten hot peppers in them. I found out later this is a symptom of snow-blindness. No matter what I did, I couldn't stop the burning, so I just tried to keep my eyes closed and my sunglasses on at all times.

After we had lunch, we had another 4 hour hike down to the next camp. As we left base camp, we saw a stretcher heading up the mountain, a final reminder to appreciate what we had accomplished and that we came out of it more or less in one piece. I was totally exhausted and my vision was blurry, so I managed to slip and get a nice, big bruise on my backside, which added to the general soreness that was now getting to the point of making it hard to move. I was extremely relieved to arrive, put on dry clothes and lie down. Already I wasn't peeing anywhere near as much, which was also a big relief.

Day 7:

A few more hours hike down to the gate and I was ready to be done with hiking up mountains for a while. Two of my toenails were on their way to falling off and everything hurt. My vision was still blurry, and I couldn't wait to take a shower and put on the one set of clean clothes I had set aside for this day. We signed the book to show we were leaving the park and felt strange to be back in a car again. We were dropped at our hotel, where we received certificates and said our goodbyes. The rest of the day was spent repacking, showering and generally enjoying not being in a tent for essentially the first time in 2 weeks.

And for the record, no, I am not typing this with my nose - my fingers are fine and my eyes recovered after about 5 worried days.

Well... the next day we flew Precision Air to Zanzibar, and since you are probably tired of reading already, I'll be brief. Zanzibar is a small archipelago off the coast of Tanzania. It used to be its own country, but then about 40 years ago it joined with Tanganyika to form Tanzania. It's an island that has some of the largest influx of tourist money in Africa and it's also one of the poorest areas in the region. Historically Zanzibar was important as a center of spice trade, being the source of cloves, cinnamon, vanilla, and many other seasonings and dyes for the rest of the world, and now I think its main industry is tourism.

Anyway, we spent two days on the gorgeous Pongwe beach relaxing in a banda that was about 50 feet from the ocean. It was just what we needed after the mountain climb. Since it was low season, we had the beach pretty much to ourselves for a few kilometers, and it was just about exactly what you would imagine a tropical paradise to be. We collected tons of sea shells, walked on the beach, and let our bodies heal.

Then we went to Stonetown, which is the biggest city on the island. It's a very Arab maze of tiny streets with a lot of character. We took a spice tour to go see the plantations where they still grow spices for export, and we took a morning to visit Jozani Forest, the last remaining home of the rare Red Colobus monkey. We were happy to find out that the monkeys are not too shy, so we got to see them playing and hanging around in the trees. We had delicious local food, which is largely Indian-influenced, and we generally relaxed.

So you can imagine it was quite a shock coming back to Belgium after that! Fortunately the days are starting to get warmer and sunnier here, so it's not been too bad, but I would still rather be back on the beach in Zanzibar, which I highly recommend to anyone considering a visit.

That's all for now. The only vacation I currently have planned is considerably more tame - a long weekend in France to visit the Mont Saint Michel and the cheese makers of Normandy. I'm looking forward to hearing everyone's summer plans and getting inspired for a future trip!

Enjoy your summer and happy travels!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Lions and cheetahs and elephants! Oh my!

Being an animal lover and an amateur photographer, it's been something of a lifelong dream for me to go on safari in Africa and see the big animals in their natural habitat. I always felt silly about the term "safari," although really it just means "journey" in Swahili, and it does not necessarily mean that you carry a rifle and wear a goofy hat. Unfortunately, when we arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, to be greeted by hordes of locals calling out "hakuna matata" as they jockeyed for our attention and dollars, I started to feel I might as well have had the goofy hat. Thankfully we only spent one day in Arusha before departing on our 7-day camping safari.

We saw so many wonderful things that I can't fit them all here, so I'm just going to have to give you the highlights. I'll leave out the pictures, so you'll have to check them out here:

Day 1: Lake Manyara National Park

We were picked up at our hotel by our crew from Sunny Safaris: Severini, our super-friendly guide, and Felix, a cook, who arrived in an overloaded jeep and drove us to Lake Manyara National Park, famous for its flamingo-filled lake and lions that - unlike anywhere else in the world - sleep in trees. Lions like to be able to roll around and sleep on their backs, but there are so many elephants in the park that the lions have taken to sleeping where they can't be accidentally trampled. Luckily for us, we actually saw one of the lions in a tree, although we woke her up and she took off. We also saw many giraffes, who seemed more interested in us than we were in them and would stare and stare at us, lots of elephants, and tons of baboons and impalas. To finish off the day, we went to the lake, which surprisingly made the sound of the ocean - would you believe that thousands upon thousands of flamingos squawking in unison sounds like the tide coming in? We camped inside the park, and because it was the beginning of the rainy season, we were the only people there, so we went to bed listening to the sounds of birds in the trees, bushbabies rustling in the camp, and hyenas whooping in the distance.

Day 2: Lake Manyara to Ndutu Area (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)

Today we spent the morning in Lake Manyara NP and then drove to Ndutu. Notable funny animals of the morning were mongooses mating on the road and vervet monkeys, whose balls (forgive me) are so fluorescent blue you could see them a mile away. Seems like it would attract predators to a sensitive spot, but maybe I'm missing something. On the way to Ndutu we got our first view over the famous Ngorongoro Crater and some very close views of zebras and gazelles.

Day 3: Ndutu (Ngorongoro Conservation Area)

We had come to this area on the recommendation of someone who thought the wildebeest migration would be here at this time of year, but an added bonus is that, because it's not a national park, you can drive off the road for better views. In the morning we picked up a park ranger to help us locate the wildebeest, and not long after we set off, we came across four cheetahs hanging out just at the side of the road. It was a mom and 3 juveniles, who were playing around, practising their hunting skills, our guide said. Later we went to the riverbank, which was dotted with carcasses being picked apart by vultures - quite the dramatic sight. After lunch we came across a pride of lions lying in the grass. First we saw 5 females sprawled out and digesting, and then a little ways away, the male, relaxing and guarding what was left of a zebra. As luck would have it, the females (who do all the hunting) spotted a wildebeest, so we got to watch them hunt. They eventually gave up on it, but one of them did have a go at a jackal, who narrowly escaped. And finally we did find the "great herd" of wildebeest - over 2 million of them gathered on the plain. They are not migrating at this time of year, but they run around and chase each other to keep fit, and well, seeing 2 million wildebeest, even if they are just standing around, is still pretty impressive.

Day 4: Ndutu to Serengeti National Park

In the morning, the first animals we came across were two hyenas feasting on a dead wildebeest, surrounded by vultures and storks waiting their turn. Later on, we saw an abandoned baby wildebeest waiting for its (presumably killed by a lion) mom to come back and get it, and it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. The babies are totally helpless on their own - no other wildebeest adopts an abandoned baby, so they just stand around and wait till a lion comes to eat them. I wanted to bring him home, but we decided the quarantine process in Belgium was probably too complicated. Anyway, we arrived at the famed Serengeti and it looked a lot like you would imagine - the twisted acacia trees and impossibly flat landscape ("serengeti" means "endless plain" in the local language) - but unfortunately it rained all afternoon, so we hung out at the campsite.

Day 5: Serengeti National Park

We saw a lot of animals, but we were a bit spoiled by our luck at Ndutu, plus the fact that we could no longer drive off the road and that there were 10 times as many people here made it less impressive. We saw more lions, 2 leopards far away and sleeping in the shade, lots of birds, a big group of hippos (including one baby nursing under water), a horny elephant trying unsuccessfully to mate, an endless herd of buffaloes running past us, accompanied by a flock of egrets, some of whom were getting a free ride on the buffaloes' backs, ostriches, warthogs (who run with their little tails straight up in the air), zebras (who really do roll around on their backs like they show on the Tanzanian postage stamps), and more. There must have been 30 jeeps clustered around the leopards and lions, though - we were lucky it was the low season. We heard in summer the jeeps are so thick you can barely even see the animals.

Day 6: Serengeti and Olduvai Gorge

Today we went to the "cradle of humanity," which they asked us to tell everyone was misnamed by a German guy with poor attention to detail, and the real name of it is the "Oldupai" Gorge. Anyway, the oldest known footprint in the world is there, but it's been covered up for conservation, so you can only see a cast of it in the museum.

Day 7: Ngorongoro Crater

For many people, this is either the highlight of their safari or the only thing they do if they have only 1 day free in Tanzania. Essentially it's a big natural zoo - it's a caldera: a giant plain surrounded on all sides by steep walls. So there are many animals in a small area with very little to hide behind. The same could be said of the tourists. Still, it's one of the only places in the world you can see rhinos in the wild, and we did, complete with baby rhinos. Not just that, but a lake full of flamingos, various members of the antelope family, jackals, many kinds of birds, zebras (lots and lots of zebras - did you know baby zebras are brown?), wildebeest, buffaloes, ostriches... We also got a nice show from a hyena nursing her baby about 20 feet away from us. We learned that hyenas are really good moms - they take good care of their babies and most of the babies survive to adulthood. This was pretty clear to see, as the mom let the baby nurse as long as he wanted, and she put her arm over him to protect him. It was touching.

The highlight of the day - of the trip, even - came when we followed the trail of jeeps to a pride of lions lounging around on the grass. There were two adult males, several adult females, 4 adorable 1-month old cubs, and a young (maybe 1 year old) one too. The lions were all panting in the heat, and so when cars would come up, the lions would lie down next to them to get some shade. Now, male lions have two jobs in life: 1) mark their territory by peeing on everything, and 2) mate once every 15 minutes for a week when a female is in heat. Not a bad life. Anyway, one of them decided he liked the shade provided by our car, so he made sure nobody else was going to take it by, er, marking it. A lot. And then he and a female lay down half under our car.

Our guide did not like this very much, so he very carefully and slowly moved the car until we were able to get away from the lions. At this point we went a little further to check out the wildebeest they had just killed. A young male was still eating, and there must have been 30 hyenas waiting nearby for him to finish before they descended on the carcass. The lion left the carcass and came towards us with a whole leg in his mouth and settled in the grass to eat in peace, and the hyenas and vultures had a major party on what was left.

We eventually went back to the group of lions, where the cubs were now jockeying for a place underneath the mom for shade, but the mom was having none of it. We learned now that lions are terrible mothers, and that most of their cubs do not make it to adulthood, simply because they get neglected. We saw the contrast with the hyenas - one of the babies tried to nurse, and the mom let him for about 30 seconds before rolling over, taking the baby, still clinging desperately to the nipple, with her.

Well this was quite the grand finale for our safari. It was something really unique - and we know this because our guide, who has been doing this for over 8 years, took out his camera for the first time and started taking pictures. You know it's special when that happens!

Day 8: Return to civilization

Today was our drive back, and we visited the human zoo that is Mto wa mbu, a village put together by Dutch people in which all the tribes of Tanzania live together and let tourists come see them. Highly not recommended. And then we went to the snake park, where we saw many of East Africa's venomous (and non-venomous) snakes, thankfully behind glass. After we returned to Arusha, we were whisked off to Moshi to shower (finally!!) and begin the next phase of our trip, which I'll write about later on, since most people probably already stopped reading several paragraphs ago.

Anyway, for anyone considering going, I highly recommend our company Sunny Safaris and going in the low season - it really didn't rain that much, and it was totally worth it for the relative peace and quiet.

Stay tuned for tales of Kilimanjaro...


Adventure map for 2009...