Sunday, September 02, 2007

A Busy Week

I can't start this post without mentioning what happened after the last time I blogged. I was a bit fed up with being bothered on the street, and as I got back to the Holiday Hotel, some bloke sat just outside with a blanket full of jewellery on the ground said hello to me.

I gave him a cursory reply and continued towards the hotel gate. He shouted after me that we don't rush in Africa, so I stopped to chat with him. I can't remember off-hand what his name was, so I'll call him Nelson for the time being, and he was absolutely lovely.

He didn't pester me to buy anything, he just asked me what I was doing in Tanzania, where I learnt Swahili and all the usual questions. He told me about how he was a singer, and showed me a folder full of photocopies of articles in which he'd featured, in both English and Swahili. He gave me a listen of his CD and I bought one off him for 10,000/- (about 4 quid).

I did end up buying something off him, but he'd just shown me what he had to offer, and didn't try and pressure me into it. It was really nice to meet someone pretending to be nice but clearly with a hidden agenda. I'll go and look up what his name was on his CD, which isn't half-bad.

Other than that, this post will be largely about Kilimanjaro - the bus journey up to Moshi the next morning with Royal Coach was fairly uneventful, unless you count the Jean-Claude Van Damme video and compilation of Michael Jackson videos as "an event".

So I'll start with a picture. Of me. On the third day of climbing the mountain.

Kilimanjaro Day 3

I arrived at the Ameg Lodge near Moshi to find I was in a group of 14 trekkers, plus the leader, Jim, and the doctor, Raj, from Discover Adventure. We had three guides, Alex and his assistants Zach and Bruno, 28 porters and 2 cooks from Ahsante Tours, whom I'd highly recommend, if anyone's considering going up themselves. I was sharing a room in the hotel and a tent on the mountain with a sharp-witted RAF pilot called Simon.

I won't go into huge long details about each day. We took the Machame route up the mountain, a trek of 6 days, reaching the top on the fifth. The first day started at Machame Gate at 1800m, and finished at Machame Camp at 3000m, passing mostly through rainforest. It was a bit misty and cloudy, nice conditions for a walk and pretty straight forward.

At the camp we ate dinner (the food throughout was excellent) at a long table inside a bright yellow football shaped tent. We were in bed pretty early, as it gets dark at 6pm every day here, and the more sleep we could get at lower altitude the better.

When we woke up in the morning we were greeted by clear skies above and a thick blanket of cloud which stretched out from the lower slopes, Mount Meru in the distance poking out above the cloud in the distance.

This was the first day I'd seen the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in the other direction too. On the bus and the previous day it had been obscured by cloud, but now I could see the icy and rocky rim around its crater.

The second day we climbed to Shira Camp at 3860m, and got well and truly fried in the process. It was mostly the sides of my neck, my hands, and the inside of my forearms that suffered, where I'd missed out the suncream a bit. By the end of the day my face felt hot from the sun and wind, and at altitude the air is very dry, which only adds to the effect.

The third day involved a climb to the base of a huge lava tower at 4600m to help with acclimatisation to altitude, and then a descent back down to 3950m at Barranco Camp. By this point we were already heading into the dusty volcanic terrain in which we'd spend most of the rest of the trek

One of our group, Mel, didn't carry on to day 3, as she was quite sick already and at any further point if she wanted to drop out, she would have to go up before she could go down the mountain.

We stopped for lunch below the lava tower, at 4200m, and again we had an excellent lunch at the long table, with the usual soup, pasta, chicken and vegetables in a sauce. Like I said, I'd highly recommend Ahsante Tours:

Kilimanjaro Day 3

Days 3 and 4 were both quite tough, and involved what seemed like an awful lot of climbing, only to find you were still at the same altitude as a couple of hours before. We were mostly making our way around the mountain to get to the point from which we'd make the final ascent.

Day 4 finished at Barafu Camp, at 4700m, and I have some great pictures of the camp, which unfortunately you'll have to wait for, as I haven't uploaded them yet. Wehad made pretty good time, so could get to bed early for an 11pm wake-up call. At 11.30pm we had porridge, and then set off the summit at midnight, in temperatures that dropped as low as -15C. The idea is to reach the summit at sunrise, and not be exposed too much to the sun at such high altitude.

It was really hard going early on - hands and feet became numb with the cold repeatedly, and just as I'd gone through the pain of warming them up so I could feel them again, we'd stop and rest for some reason or other. It was nobody's fault, Sam and Michelle both struggled and dropped out, and stops happened for various other reasons, but it made things inevitably difficult in a fairly big group.

It was clear we were struggling on time, and Jim suggested that the group might have to split in two, one group stopping at Stella Point, where we would reach the crater rim, and one group continue round to Uhuru Peak, which was a further hour and a half's walk.

Most of us at this point seemed to feel they probably wouldn't make it past Stella Point - it was cold, dark, and we were walking up steep volcanic ash, like the world's most ridiculously unpleasant sand dune. Every step forward was accompanied by a backslide almost as long, and I was intermittently suffering from headaches, though thankfully I didn't get any sustained effects from the altitude.

It didn't help that I started to need the toilet, and it's a lot of effort to go through the thought processes involved in such a task, and then to do it, when you're over 5000m and there's not much oxygen going begging.

I eventually succumbed, and when I re-emerged from behind my rock the group was a bit fragmented, and I couldn't tell whether it was all our group or included people from another. I had to stop for some water - we'd all been getting dehydrated - our water was freezing and no one particularly wanted to stop to drink (or pee) when we were cold enough.

I felt a bit better with the water and climbed a bit faster now - it was getting lighter, and I found myself encouraging someone who seemed to be struggling. It turned out to be Jim, and getting slightly delirious, I rattled off and nonsensical account of my toilet stop to him. I passed Vicky and Simon and and held Jean's hand to help up the last bit as a glacier started to appear on the left and the sun on the right.

A few yards further and we reached Stella Point - suddenly it was daylight and there were beautiful icy views all around. Immediately we all felt much better, and decided to carry on to Uhuru. I only have a couple of minutes, so I'll stop there, and pick up in the morning.

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