It was mid-July. I’d spent a month volunteering in the coastal town of Bagamoyo, former capital and once very important trading hub throughout 19th century due to its close proximity with Zanzibar.
In a couple of days I would be climbing Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.
Having travelled in quite a few dala-dala mini buses since I arrived in Tanzania, I decided agaist making the 10-hour trip to up to Moshi, a town that lies directly south of the mountain, and instead took a very comfortable coach ride.
After a very pleasant but long journey, sharing biscuits with the new friends I’d made on the bus I finally arrived. But I was confused. I couldn’t see Kilimanjaro! Where was it?
Kilimanjaro is one of the most iconic images of Africa. Animals grazing peacefully with snow-capped Kilimanjaro, ever watchful and looming ominously in the background is the image most of us will think of when we think of Kilimanjaro, or maybe even Africa. That image is taken from Amboseli National Park in Kenya, rather than the Serengeti in Tanzania as many people believe due to the Toto song ‘Africa’, which has the famous line “Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti”.
There are many companies that organise treks up the mountain, and you can book once you get to Tanzania, but just to be sure I’d booked mine with Absolute Africa, with whom I was starting an overland trip with a week and a half later. They arranged my accommodation at Shira Place Bed & Breakfast for the two nights prior to and one night after my trip. Shira Place was a lovely home from home and a great place to spend a couple of comfortable days before heading into the unknown. I met some lovely fellow travellers there and owner Michael made us feel very welcome.
I met my guide Samson at the Tanzanian Coffee Lounge in the afternoon before I began my climb. He talked me through everything, and I told him the bits and pieces I needed to hire. In hindsight, I should have bought less and hired more instead of lugging two great big bags halfway around the continent! I was most curious to meet my fellow trekkers, the people I was sure would motivate me up the mountain!
That’s when I found out.
I was the only one booked onto this trip. I would have a guide and porters, but no fellow trekkers! This was going to be interesting!
I caught my first glimpse of Kilimanjaro from the balcony of my guest house later that evening. WOW is all I can say, WOW! Pictures will never prepare you for what you see. It didn’t seem real. I sat there quietly staring at the mountain for the best part of an hour, contemplating the enormity of what I was attempting to do over the next week and I felt a little scared. But tomorrow was another day and I was ready for my challenge…
I’d woken up much earlier than I needed to, anxious about the next few days. I took my last shower, packed, unpacked and re-packed my bag and then ate as much breakfast as I could stomach. I left my backpack at the b&b and took my 70 litre holdall which the porters would carry and a 35 litre daypack which I would carry. Packing for Africa, including a Kilimanjaro trip as well, need not be as epic as I did it, but I’ll come back to that another time.
I’d spent some of the previous day in Moshi town sending my last emails back home (this took a few attempts due to power failures – save as you go people, save as you go) and most importantly picking up some chocolate for my trip. In hindsight I wish I’d bought more! At least 2 or 3 chocolate/glucose bars just in case and a few cans of coke. They sell them on the mountain, but they cost around $5 each!
Samson picked me up bright and early to take me to the Machame Gate at the base of Kilimanjaro. We drove out of the hustle and bustle of Moshi town, past people going about their daily business and up into the forest. We picked up the rest of my ‘crew’ en route – Rami, our chef extraordinaire and the porters Chalice, Albert and Henry. All these people just to support me??? It’s a strange feeling!
There was a real buzz at the Machame Gate. Porters hung about hoping for a job, groups of nervous and excited climbers stand waiting to get their permits, doing last minute prep, adding plasters (Band-Aids to you America folk) and getting in that last decent toilet stop. Seeing the other groups taking pictures together and having a laugh together I felt a little sad that I was on my own. My crew were lovely, but as they all chatted away together in Kiswahili, I realised that whilst we were a team, their experience would be a totally different one to mine.
I had chosen the 7-day Machame Route aka as the ‘Whiskey Route’. Kilimanjaro is usually climbed over 6 or 7 days but the longer you have to acclimatise, the more chance yu will have of reaching the summit. There are plenty of companies to choose from, and the costs vary so it’s best to shop around. This route with Absolute Africa currently costs around £1100, and includes your Guides/Porters camping equipment, I nights pre and post b&b accommodation, transfers, food, drinking water, park fees and emergency rescue. It doesn’t include flights, insurance, tips or your own personal equipment.
We set off through the lush green rainforest. At the starting point you are already 1,738m above sea level so the air is already thinner than most people are used to so you walk pole pole (Swahili for slowly, slowly – pretty much like everything else in Africa). The rest of the team hurried off ahead, carrying all the equipment on their backs and their heads, whilst I carried my small daypack. Still to this day I am still amazed by how they do this. Porters constantly ran past me whilst I struggled at a snail’s pace, feeling incredibly unfit.
I was in high spirits. As we walked, Samson pointed out the different types of flowers and trees and told me of his family, his village and Tanzania. All the while the weather was drizzly, the pace frustratingly slow and my feet were beginning to blister. I was wearing trainers rather than boots for the first day as the ascent is fairly easy and boots not necessary. But I was enjoying the walk, feeling alive in the crisp but thin mountain air.
We reached the Machame Camp at around 4.30pm and signed in. The Porters had already set up our little camp in a secluded area! First stop – the loo! I’m famous for having a bladder like a camel and managed to go the entire day without a toilet break (please don’t try this at home kids). In almost all of the places I’d stayed in Africa prior to this I’d been pretty lucky with the toilets. They’d been western style toilets, some were pretty disgusting but they’d been flushable ones at least.
Not on Kili though, the loos are generally long drops. You can hire your own toilet (one of the Porters then carries it up for you), but unless you really have a phobia of long drops I wouldn’t bother. Sometimes you’re lucky and you’ll have a newly dug long drop – bliss! Not this time. I was in the place poo comes to die. I was desperate though, so I held my breath and went for it! If you have a particularly sensitive sense of smell, I’d recommend putting a bit of Vick’s Vapour Rub under your nose, a scarf/buff over your face and Bob’s your uncle, smell disguised. Works a treat!
Whilst I waited for dinner, the guys brought me a bowl of hot water and soap and some treats – hot chocolate, popcorn and biscuits. It was starting to get quite cool so I threw my sleeping bag around my shoulders and watched a film on my iPod. After a little rest I spent some time chatting to the rest of the team as they prepared dinner and I felt like I should be doing something to help.
After resting I went for a walk to take a few pictures of the top of the mountain that how now come into view with the setting sun.
I was served dinner I ate in in my tent by myself. I asked to eat with the others but they said it would be better for me to eat in my tent, which I completely understood. I’m sure the last thing they want after a hard days carrying all my stuff up the mountain is having to entertain me and as they didn’t all speak good English, it was much easier for them to speak to each other in their own language. They were also eating different meals to me – usually the staple Tanzanian foods of rice or ugali (maize porridge which has many names as you travel throughout Africa) with beans, which I had been eating pretty much every day for the previous month. My dinner was a feast of courgette soup, bread and butter, fried fish, aubergine, cabbage and potatoes in a vegetable sauce with mango for pudding! I really wasn’t expecting this! I ate as much as I could but I wasn’t overly hungry! Might have been something to do with the earlier snacks!
I went to bed full and feeling fine, if a little tired and achy with sore feet (do not scrimp on the blister plasters and make sure those boots/trainers are well worn in) and ready for day 2.
It was day two. Henry woke me up at 6.30am with a nice cup of hot chocolate. I’d had a good night, despite needing to pee at 1am. Squatting behind my tent with my pants down in the cold night air, whilst beautifully liberating is COLD!
Not long after began our walk, we were out of the forest and the landscape changed to shrubby moorland. The walk was steeper and more difficult than the previous day and I was now wearing my boots. We were above the clouds now. The sun beat down on us and despite the height we were at, it was pleasantly warm. I was glad I had my sun cream with me!
We arrived at Shira Camp at around 1.30pm. Shira Camp feels like a mirage, a campsite appearing to float above the clouds at 3,800m. Mount Meru can be seen in the distance. Once again I was presented with a massive four course lunch which I struggled to eat.
After lunch it was time for relaxing. Samson and I left our things at camp and took a little walk up the mountain, to help with the acclimatisation process. As we walked I spotted some luxury toilets. I resolved that I would come back later and make use of those bad boys! On the way back I stopped to talk to a young Canadian couple who asked me to take a photograph of the two of them together. We took photos of each other and chatted for a while. It was lovely.
I went to bed at around 9pm feeling a little bit headachy and with tingling fingers and toes from the Diamox I was taking.
I woke with a start at around 1am (this was becoming an annoying pattern). My tent shook as the wind howled around me. Despite my four season sleeping bag I was feeling pretty cold. I put on an extra layer of clothing, snuggled back in and waited for sleep. It never came.
My headache was getting worse, but I was reluctant to drink too much water in fear I might need to wee again. This can only have aggravated any symptoms I had, so once again I would not recommend this. I tossed and turned for what felt like hours. I was nauseous and my stomach was churning. I sat up to look for some Pepto-Bismol and promptly vomited all over myself, my kit and my tent. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. To be honest, as I sat there using my precious stash of wet wipes to clean up the mess, I was kind of glad that I was on my own. As strange as that sounds. Had I been with a friend, I may well have cried. But by myself, I just dealt with it.
It turns out I was suffering from early signs of Altitude Sickness (aka Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS) which usually affects people over 2,400 m due to the lower percentage of oxygen in the air. It is crucial that on Kilimanjaro (or anywhere else at altitude) that you make sure that you drink tons of water. Altitude Sickness can prove fatal if left ignored.
I still wasn’t feeling much better as I began to see light filtering over the horizon. My stomach was still making noises I can’t even describe and I knew I needed to get to a toilet quick. But the nearest toilet was a good 20 metres away and down some rocks. It wasn’t light yet, and I was scared. I waited. And waited. Until I couldn’t wait anymore. It was getting lighter but still pretty dark, so I grabbed my head torch and stumbled out of my tent. The cold air hit me and I began to stagger around, I couldn’t walk straight. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d spent the night making my way through a few bottles of wine. I felt hammered.
After what felt like an eternity I made it to the wooden shack toilet. It wasn’t pleasant. But right there and then I made my peace with the long drops and I never did get to use the posh toilets.
I went back to my tent feeling a tiny bit better, but with a little bit of my dignity missing. I tried to get in a bit of sleep, but it was almost time to rise.
A bit of AMS wasn’t going to stop me. I was determined to carry on…
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