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!

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Adventure map for 2009...