Friday, October 3, 2014

Tales from Tanzania - Day 8 (Kilimanjaro summit)

So here we are - summit day.  Or more precisely, summit night.  Because this is a long, looooooooong day that basically carries on through the night and into the following day.  We left the Karanga camp (13,106 ft) in the morning and carried on up to the Barafu camp (15,331 ft) and it only took us about three or four hours at a gentle pace, so in spite of the serious altitude, I felt great at this point.  I don't know why, but I was feeling so much better than I had for about three days, I was really pumped to get this thing done.  We were supposed to have lunch, sleep, then have dinner, and sleep again until they woke us at 22:30 to get ready to head for the summit, but really, who could sleep???  I hadn't slept since we left Moshi, it wasn't likely I was going to nod off before summit night - far too exciting!

But 23:30 finally arrived and the nightmare began.  They tell you that you have to go up at night so that you can arrive for sunrise at the summit, but I have another theory: they take you at night so that you can't see the ridiculous impossibility of what you're about to attempt, because if you could actually see it, you'd run away screaming into the night.  Even the first five minutes were insane - suddenly we were scrambling up this sheer rock face (sparkling with frost, I might add, just to make it extra slippery) with nothing to hold onto.  I had to stop at the top of that section for a minute just to catch my breath - partly from the lack of oxygen, partly from sheer terror.  And then it settled into a bit of a routine: scramble up, slide back, try to breathe the extremely limited oxygen, pray that you won't take that one false step that will send you off the edge to a painful, broken death.  People seem to think that just because you can get to the top of Kilimanjaro without specialized mountain-climbing equipment that it's some sort of easy stroll, complete with rainbows and unicorns.  Well, it's not.  It was the most terrifying, most difficult ordeal of my entire life and there were moments when I was utterly convinced that I was going to slip and fall to that aforementioned painful, broken death.  And having one ignorant, selfish person in my group who kept stopping because she basically wanted the guides to baby her up the mountain while the rest of us were risking exposure and frostbite made it all the more exhausting and difficult.

I wish I could describe it better for you, but basically, your whole world shinks down to the small circle of light from your headlamp, the pain of your fingers and toes freezing (and they will freeze, no matter how many layers you bury them in), trying to follow your  guides up the "path", the agony of trying to suck in air that just isn't there (I hyperventilated three times on the way up and that was not a pleasant experience), the sheer exhaustion of carrying on upwards and then more steeply upwards and then even more steeply upwards.  The cruelest trick of the whole ascent is that the very hardest, steepest, slipperiest part of the trail is the last slope up to Stella Point, when you are already on the very last molecule of energy and willpower that you've ever possessed in your entire life.  Everyone goes on about Uhuru Peak - yeah, yeah, it's the tallest point, whatever.  If you survive the revolting ordeal of getting to Stella Point, then spending another 45 minutes wandering over to Uhuru Peak is nothing.  That's the easy stroll.  Of course, at that altitude it's too dangerous to stay there for long and of course there's still next-to-no-oxygen, so even the easy stroll is no picnic, but I can't imagine not doing it.  My personal reserves of everything (energy, willpower, guts, whatever) were completely gone, but I still dragged my sorry arse over to Uhuru Peak and applied lipstick before my photo at the sign.  Yes, that's right - I was filthy, smelly, and exhausted.  I had eyes nearly swollen shut and a nose that was constantly oozing blood-streaked, khaki-coloured mucus that was the consistency of wet cement.  I had hair that was so tangled and dirty that it was basically one big dreadlock.  But goddamn it, I still had standards - there was no way that I was getting that once-in-a-lifetime photo at Uhuru Peak without hiding my cracked, chapped lips underneath a layer of Revlon's finest.  And the fact that my pink lipstick happened to match my pink jacket?  Well, that was coincidence, but certainly a happy one... 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tales from Tanzania - Day 7 (Kilimanjaro)

 This morning dawned bright and sunny and I was able to see what I hadn't been able to see through the mists of the night before:  the Barranco Wall.  Any of you watch Game of Thrones?  You remember the Wall from there?  Well, other than the fact that it's not made of ice, there's a striking resemblance. And it was not fun  to try and scramble up this thing, especially with three litres of water on my back, which threw me considerably off-balance.  It was a nightmare to climb, particularly one jutting section of rock which you basically have to try to contort yourself around like a spider monkey because there is nothing below you if you fall.  Cripes!  The guides all shout at you "Kiss the wall, kiss the wall" - are you kidding?  I was so close to that damn wall that I think we might be married now in some cultures.  Anyway, an amazing thing happened once I eventually made it to the top and turned around - I was above the clouds.  Behind me was the mountain (terrifyingly close at this point) and in front of ocean of white, fluffy clouds.  I've only ever seen that from an airplane window before, so it's pretty spectacular to be standing above them.

The rest of the day was a long slog along fairly decent trails until we got to the Karanga Valley, which is just a cruel, cruel sight.  Because you can see the camp just there in front of you, but in order to actually get there, you have to descend an impossibly steep, very slippery downhill trail and then drag your exhausted self all the way back uphill on the other side (equally steep and slippery).  It's torture.  But the best thing about it is that once you arrive, you are now done for the day and enjoying your pre-dinner tea and popcorn, while the people who are on shorter treks are forced to carry on up the trail...

Tales from Tanzania - Day 5 and 6 (Kilimanjaro)

The third day of the trek was supposed to be easy.  Well, not so much.  It was a bit easier than the previous day, but there's really no such thing as "easy" on Kilimanjaro.  We crossed a plateau (and you'd think a plateau would be flat, but nope, uphill all the way!), and made our way along some rocky trails and although this was a long day of walking, it wasn't too horribly strenuous.  The thing you hear most on Kilimanjaro is to walk pole pole (pronounced polay polay), meaning slowly.  Yeah, not a problem, because slowly was always going to be the only way I was going to drag my arse up that damn mountain!  But today was the day where I really found my pole pole pace and stuck with it, which was helpful in conserving energy.  Which I needed because this was the first day when we hadn't really had a descent built into our hike, so in the interests of acclimatizing to the altitude, after we reached the Moir Hut camp, we had to hike up higher and stay there for about thirty minutes before coming back down.  I cannot begin to tell you how much I didn't want to go on that hike, but in the interests of giving myself the best chance of making it to the summit, I dragged myself along.  And in so doing, discovered something very interesting - descending is more difficult than ascending.  Seriously, there wasn't one downhill surface on Kilimanjaro that wasn't horribly slippery, and the very real possibility of breaking an ankle or twisting a knee after already doing all that work was just unbearable.  So although I hauled myself uphill like a sack of potatoes, I picked my way downhill like the daintiest of  ballerinas.  It's hell on your knees (and your wrists, if you're using trekking poles, which I was), but falling would have been a lot worse...

The fourth day took us from the Moir Hut camp (13,580 ft) to the Barranco camp (13,044 ft) via the Lava Tower (15,190 ft).  Yes, you read that right - we basically spent the first half of the day climbing up, up, up to a very high point and then climbing down, down, down to a point lower than we'd been the day before.  Seems crazy, but again, it's all about the acclimatizing.  And when you are at the Lava Tower, eating your lunch, you are way closer to the summit than you have ever been and the sheer size of that damn mountain looming overhead is quite daunting.  But nonetheless, after lunch you slither your way downhill (again, verrrrrry slippery) through the spectacular and otherworldly Barranco Valley until you reach the camp.  By the time I got there, the mist had rolled in, and there was a slight drizzle, but that was really the only time we got even a little bit damp, we had spectacular sunshine all throughout the trek.  But that was the night where Altitude decided I wasn't really suffering enough and decided to fill my sinuses with revolting sludge.  And constantly re-fill them with more revolting sludge, no matter how many times I blew my nose, which was a lot.  A. Lot.  So, to recap at this point:  I'm filthy, I'm exhausted, I haven't slept in five nights, my eyes are nearly swollen shut, and I'm constantly blowing my nose.  I swear to god, I cannot imagine why couples climb Kilimanjaro together, because I promise you, you will never be less attractive in your entire life!!!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tales from Tanzania - Day 4 (Kilimanjaro)

So I started the second day of the Kilimanjaro trek exhausted from not having slept the night before, but at least I had one thing in my favour:  I'm used to it.  I've been an insomniac for years, I've tried everything to fix the problem and nothing (aside from strong pharmaceuticals) works.  And since it's not a good idea to take sleeping pills at altitude, for the very good reason that you might not wake up again, I just had to suffer through it.  C'est la vie - tired is not the same thing as sick, so you have to keep on going.

And this was a tough day - our hike kept us in the beautiful rainforest for about an hour or so, then we got into the moorland.  Still beautiful, but in a slightly austere way, with heather shrubs taller than your head and steep, steeeeeeeeep slopes.  In fact, I think I can sum up the second day quite quickly: up the rocks, down the rocks, up the rocks, down the rocks, up and up and up and up and up and up and up the rocks, slight flattening of the path, and then down and down and down and down.  We stayed that night at Shira 1 Camp, which is at 11,500 ft, so we were already at a substantial altitude.

Speaking of altitude (and I am going to capitalize it from now on, as if it's a person, because Altitude is a bit like the Norse god Loki - capricious and sometimes malicious, and you never know what it's going to do to you), my personal experience with it was not at all what I had expected.  I had expected terrible headaches (which I never got - a couple of small twinges, but nothing bad) and major nausea (nope, not once).  But what I got instead?  Difficulty catching my breath after exertion (and since you're exerting yourself the entire damn way, that was no picnic) and swelling up like a boiled bratwurst.  Seriously, I couldn't believe it.  I thought my feet might swell a bit, like on a plane, but they weren't the problem.  My fingers swelled, my bosoms swelled (all right, you cheeky monkeys, that would normally be a good thing, but not in this case), my face swelled and worst of all, my eyes!!!  Are you kidding me?  I was prepared to be cold, I was prepared to be filthy and I was prepared to be exhausted, but I wasn't prepared to be ugly -  jeezus, not the face!!!  But sadly, this turned out to be the case - from the second night onward, my eyes were swollen so badly that I looked like a Shar-Pei and it was an effort just to keep my eyelids open against the ocean of fluid pressing down on them.  Thanks, Altitude - thanks a lot...

Tales from Tanzania - Day 3 (Kilimanjaro)

This is how not to begin your Kilimanjaro adventure.  The night before you go, do not meet a group of ex-Marines who have just arrived back from their own successful trek and do not celebrate by drinking with them.  Because if you do, you will begin your own trek with a hangover that will make you want to throw yourself off the nearest mountain, never mind go and climb one.

We started off around 9am on the first day and we spent a few hours on the road, picking up the rest of the group and driving out to the Londorossi Gate where they sorted out the permits and so forth, finally arriving at the Lemosho Gate, where we were starting the trek.  It was a reasonably easy and short hike (about two and a half hours), there were a few steep sections but really not too bad.  And the stunning ancient rainforest scenery was definitely my favourite section of the whole trek - I'm talking serious Tarzan territory here and thinking about buff men in loincloths swinging through the trees certainly helped me pass the time on that particular hike...

Plus:  monkeys!!!  And not just any monkeys either - Colobus monkeys, which I had never even heard of before, never mind seen.  They're gorgeous!  If I had to be a monkey (boy, if I had a dollar for every time I'd said that...), I would totally be a Colobus monkey.  They're black with big fluffy white tails, which they swish around like they have their very own built-in boa. And they just sort of drape themselves over the trees in a languid and rather glamorous way.  So fabulous.

Anyway, as we were hiking, our porters went scampering past us on the trail, not only carrying our luggage - on their heads, no less - but all of the supplies for our camp (Mti Mkubwa at 9,498 ft).  So by the time we arrived, our tents were set up and they brought us a basin of hot water for washing, after which we went to the mess tent for hot chocolate and popcorn, then a short break before an extremely delicious hot dinner.  No complaints here - I was very happy with that start to the trek and I went to bed looking forward to a good night's sleep as I was extremely tired (and have I mentioned the hangover?), but nope, my ugly friend insomnia came to visit and I didn't sleep at all that night. 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Tales from Tanzania - Day 2

So yesterday, after I got back to the hotel (and slathering myself in insect repellant so toxic that it could strip the paint off a Buick), I wandered down to reception to see what there might be to do.  Well, there was a bar.  Problem solved.  I had actually brought along my kindle to catch up on a bit of reading, but instead I got chatting to the only other person there, who, as it turns out, will also be on the same trek with me.

I haven't met any of the others yet, but so far, its me and Perrrrr (it's actually Per, but I got it wrong the first time I said it and was so firmly corrected that I now buzz that "r" for about a minute, just to make sure).  He's a Swedish engineer who was raised in Zimbabwe, so not only does he speak English and Swedish, but three African languages as well, which is all kinds of useful around here so he promptly became my new BFF.  Speaking the local lingo makes the waiters much nicer to you (which is true everywhere but Paris), so we pretty much just stayed put and drank the bar dry.  As you do.

Tonight I meet the rest of our group - I think there are about six of us altogether and I'm hoping for an interesting group.  Perrrrr is good company and of course I'm awesome, so if we get a nice mix, that will make this thing much more fun.  Gentle readers, I hate to love you and leave you, but this will be my last chance to post on here for about a week.  But stay tuned - I'll update as soon as I can, and if the most un-outdoorsy person in the world doesn't end up with about a million stories after climbing freakin' Kilimanjaro?  Well, I'll eat my hat (and my balaclava, because yes, I now own one of those as well)...

Friday, September 19, 2014

Tales from Tanzania - Day 1

Last night I changed planes at Doha airport, and as I approached the gate, I saw them:  a herd of sweetly earnest, crunchy-granola types swathed in fleeces, wearing their hiking boots, and carrying their daypacks as their carry-on luggage.  Ladies and gentlemen: the Kilimanjaro trekker.  Quite frankly, I almost changed my mind about the whole thing right then and there.  I mean it, there was a final call for the flight to Paris and I had a serious moment of "I wanna flee back to the land of rude (but chic) city people, I don't know how to do this outdoorsy thing with these outdoorsy folk."  But I went. And here I am.

And so far, so good.  If you're going to do this whole crazy thing, I recommend flying into Kilimanjaro Airport - it's pretty much idiot-proof, which is exactly what I needed.  You go in, the visa forms are on the counter, you get in the line with the huge, bright yellow, hard-to-miss sign saying "I NEED A VISA" (as opposed to the other line, which says "I HAVE A VISA" - you'd really think that would make it idiot-proof, but no, people still somehow manage to get into the wrong line.  I despair sometimes.).  Anyway, you fork over your cash to the nice man at the window and then he sends you to another nice man at another window and you get your completely unflattering and unrecognizable photo taken and the visa slapped into your passport.  One belt for luggage retrieval and you're outta there.  I had booked an airport pick-up and bless him, there he was with the sign AND my eleven-letter last name spelled correctly. 

This isn't my first trip to Africa - I took a pretty good trip around Cape Town and surrounding area a few years ago, and I've been to both Morocco and Egypt (although they're both so much more like the Middle East that it's hard to think of them as African).  But this is my first time in AFRICA Africa and even the drive from the airport had me mesmerized.  It starts off pretty much as you'd expect - beige and dry and pancake-flat, but the closer you get to Moshi, the greener and hillier it gets.  One of the many (many) things I dislike about living in Saudi Arabia is the lack of colour.  Beige dust, beige sand, beige buildings, white thobes on the men, black abayas on the women.  Here?  Colour EVERYWHERE.  We passed the Masai market, which was swarming in long, lean men mostly wearing their traditional crimson, but I saw a few of them sporting my favourite shade of purple and there was one dapper gentleman swathed in a jazzy little patterned number which I deeply coveted for my own wardrobe.  Sadly, it seems as though they were only selling goats and sheep (I considered a sheep, but it would be quite hard to pack), so we moved right along.  Did I mention the greenery?  Green is a big deal when you live in a desert, and Moshi is very green.  Trees and lush plant life everywhere, along with patches of scarlet and magenta flowers and the smell of woodsmoke in the air.  I wasn't expecting it to be so pretty.

And the signs.  The signs might be my favourite thing.  I saw one for "Medium School".  So is this the school between Large and Small?  Or a training academy for psychics?  Sign on a gasoline truck:  In God We Trust.  Well, I'd personally like to trust in your driving skill, sir, since you're transporting about a bajillion gallons of flammable liquid, but that's just me.

Anyway - I'm staying at the Keys Hotel just outside of town, which of course necessitated Adventures in Taxi Procurement in order to get into town to buy some snacks and internet time (yes, people, I did this for you - the bottle of wine in my bag is just a bonus.).  The hotel is...well...let's just call it rustic and leave it at that.  I have the occasional success with wifi out there for messaging, but I think a blog post from my phone would have been beyond both my patience and the wifi.  But it's clean and the bed is comfortable and I'm pretty sure it's going to look like heaven when I come down from the mountain (wow, it's all so biblical - maybe I'll find some stone tablets up there while I'm at it.) after sleeping on the ground for a week. 

Well, I'd better go - I have a delightful evening ahead of me: unpacking my suitcase and re-packing my Kilimanjaro stuff into my North Face duffel bag.  Yes, that's right - I am now a person who owns North Face things.  I am now a person who owns polar fleece.  I am now a person who owns a headlamp.  Oh god - am I actually becoming one of those crunchy-granola types?  I am now a person who needs a drink!  And if you've read this far and enjoyed any of it, please consider donating a few dollars/pounds/euros/whatever to Doctors Without Borders (my Just Giving button at top right).  Come on, if I'm going to go all sweetly earnest, I might as well be all good-deed-doing, too.  Ugh.