THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES IN AFRICA.
There are no guarantees that your flight will leave on time, there are no guarantees that your luggage will be there when you arrive. There are no guarantees that you will reach the peak of that mountain you’ve been planning on climbing for years. There are no guarantees that you’ll come back healthy, or come back at all. There are no guarantees that you’ll see the animals you’ve hoped for and seen on the tourist brochures. The fact this there are no guarantees in Africa.
So why do I and many millions of people from around the world make the journey year after year to this huge, vast and wonderful continent.
For me, the thing that has drawn me to this place is that there are no guarantees, it’s the thrill of the chase, the unknown, the unpredictability and the rawness. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but this is my idea of travel. You take the good with the bad and the rewards can be great. Africa is the kind of place you cannot visit only once. A part of you remains in Africa every time you visit. This was my second visit. It won’t be my last. I’ll go back for a 3rd, 4th, 5th time, I’ll try to go for as long as I’m able.
I had originally planned to make 1 single blog post about this particular trip but I decided not to because A – it would be too long and B – I feel that each entry is worthy of a story of its own. I’ll be making a post about my Mt.Kilimanjaro Climb. The time I spent camping in the Okavango Delta, navigating through it’s waterways in dugout canoes. The amazing game drives in the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park, Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls & my walking with Lions experience. I’ll do my best to provide a commentary on each of these posts referencing a diary I kept for each day of the trip.
Part 1 of my Africa 2014 series is titled Mt.Kilimanjaro – The Climb, The Experience. For a number of years I had spoken about climbing Kilimanjaro with my wife’s cousin Jason. I remember having a beer with him at a family wedding in Hawaii in April 2013, when we decided that we’d do it in 2014. A few family members thought it was all talk, but we were both serious and we made it happen. Jason was living in Columbia at the time so the logistics weren’t easy to organise it but we got it done and met each other at the Kilimanjaro International Airport on the 28th June. Jason flew in from a few days in Zanzibar and previous to that had come from Iceland, so the change in climate and warmth was a welcome one. I had arrived after 40 hours of continuous transit, a combination of trains, planes, airport lounges and the odd bus. An obvious highlight of my time in transit was the aerial view of Kilimanjaro as we flew over the Great Rift Valley towards Nairobi.
We arrived at the Springlands Hotel in Moshi (the gateway for Kili climbers) and was happy to sleep on a real bed. I almost forgot what it was like. Day 1 of the climb was technically an acclimatisation day so with a local guide named Moses we ventured into Moshi Town. I kind of knew what to expect based on a previous trip but the sights, sounds and smells of a bustling town in a third world country still grab your attention. Later that evening, whilst reading over some trip notes over dinner flu symptoms began to come down hard. Within an hour my sinuses were fully blocked, my back started to ache. In the back of my mind I started to get a little concerned. 40 hours of transit, more than half of that on planes was undoubtedly the cause.
The Climb – Day 1
Our entry to the Kilimanjaro National Park is via the Marangu Gate. This particular route we are taking is called the Marungu Route or the Coca-Cola route. It is the most common route, the shortest route and the only route that you stay in wooden cabins. Sounds like the easiest route but given we were on the mountain for a shorter period of time, our bodies were working harder to acclimatise. For the record, only 40% of climbers successfully summit the 5 Day Marungu route.
We commence at 1800mts and hike for approx. 3 hours through lush rainforest/jungle. Arriving at Mandara Hut, the temperature is much cooler. We are just below the cloud line at an altitude of 2700mts. As the sun sets, the temperature plummets and after dinner and a few hot Milo’s we went to our cabin to be at about 7:30pm. There wasn’t really a lot to do and with a big day ahead, rest was the best medicine.
The Climb – Day 2
The theme of Day 2 was Polle Polle, Swahili for Slowly Slowly. Our guides Gilbert and Faustin had told us that we had been hiking too quickly on Day 1 and that we needed to slow down. My flu symptoms were still there, albeit masked by some pretty good cold and flu tablets. I wasn’t getting any better though but I wasn’t going to stop. As we ascended another 1000mts higher the landscape changed to scrub and much shorter wind shaped trees. We also got our first glimpses of the sun as well as Kilimanjaro’s peak Kibo. For periods the hiking flattens out and we arrive at Horombo Hut after 5hrs. The view here is spectacular, we’re above the clouds, something that I’ve never seen before, except for a plane but that doesn’t count. At 3700mts we’re considered to be at High Altitude, the air is thin and cold. My chest is burning and I’m in bed at 6:30pm.
The Climb – Day 3
The toughest day so far – Horombo to Kibo Hut. It is a 10km hike but it feels as though its 50km. The terrain changes from scrub to a barren, wind blown rocky desert. With no protection from vegetation of any kind we are hiking into a very strong headwind. The only thing to do is to look down and keep walking. With such short strides and a lack of oxygen my hips, and hamstrings and lower back were working extra hard and doing it tough. We tick over 4000mts by lunch and with no appetite lunch was an arduous experience. I didn’t want to get up. The last 1.45km was torture. We both were exhausted and sore. We could see Kibo Hut but it was like walking towards a mirage. It took over an hour to walk that last 1km and at times felt like we’d never get there.
When we did reach it, it wasn’t long before we took refuge in our sleeping bags with some warm soup and a big plate of spaghetti. We met and had a good chat with 2 Australian, Swedish and Japanese volunteers who had been doing some work in a nearby town. We also met a British Mountaineer named Chris. He was an experienced man of the mountains. His advice and words would have a significant impact on our summit attempt.
Trying to get to sleep wasn’t easy. It was freezing cold even in the cabin and sleeping bag, we were woken at 11pm to commence getting ready to leave for the summit at 12 midnight. The temperature outside was -10c, I wore 6 layers on top and 3 on the bottom.
Thankfully there was no wind so that -10c was a bearable, any wind would have made it a lot tougher. I started out feeling pretty good. The altitude was not my problem, I had taken Diamox which helped to prevent any altitude related problems. My flu had by now developed into a chest infection and I was coughing up all kinds of nasty stuff, it wasn’t pleasant. The going was really tough, Chris the mountaineer had told us that the summit attempt was 90% mental and 10% the rest. He was right, it was definitely a mental test. It was by no means easy on a physical level, but a person can convince their body to keep pushing and it was that mental side of things I was battling. I’d go through periods of say 10-20 seconds where I felt strong, good and happy about climbing, but following that I’d have periods of 30 seconds to 2 minutes of self doubt, questioning my ability to summit. It was quite a strange battle and it was a battle I was losing. There would be periods where my rests would be longer than what I would walk. My hips, hamstrings and lower back were aching, screaming for more oxygen that simply wasn’t there. It was at that point that I decided that I probably wouldn’t summit, but I wanted to get to at least 5000mts.
Sometime between 2am-2:30am we reached Indian Cave Pt at 5100mts and decided to call it off. Prior to our summit climb when talking with Chris the Mountaineer I mentioned to him that I had been sick with the flu and more than likely it had developed into a chest infection given the awful things I was coughing up. Chris advised that I was at a much higher risk of developing a High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) (Fluid on the Lungs). It is life threatening and certainly not something to be taken lightly, especially considering those who have one require hospitalisation immediately. Chris told me to listen to my body and I’d know the right time to turn back if it came to that. Well it did come to that, I simply wasn’t prepared to risk anything serious. I’d gone as far as I could and in the forefront of my thoughts was coming home safely to my 2 children. Jason also began to exhibit signs of altitude sickness so the decision was relatively easy. We weren’t happy about having to turn back but it was in our best interests to do so. The walk back down the mountain was about an hour and in that time we saw a few climbers being carried down by their guides. The mountain had got the better of them. 1 climber in particular was in a very bad way.
I woke in my bed just before sunrise, the colour in the sky was a blazing orange and I couldn’t help but think of all the climbers that made it enjoying the sunrise at the summit, being treated to something truly special. I’d be lying if I wasn’t jealous, I’d be lying if I wasn’t annoyed and frustrated. I think that is just human nature. I was happy though to be in a position to leave Kilimanjaro under my own steam. Some of our fellow climbers who we had been sharing the cabin with came back from the summit. They were weary and sore but stoked to have made it and I was happy for them.
What goes up, must come down and about 6hours after deciding to turn back we were on foot again hiking back down to Horombo Hut. For every metre we descended our lungs were singing with joy and our bodies felt stronger. It was quite a strange feeling. From Horombo Hut we made the journey the rest of the way down back to Moshi to our hotel. Our crew were amazing. 2 guides, a Cook, a Waiter and 2 Porters. These guys really worked hard for us, making our experience on Kili as easy as possible. A bunch of great guys.
So overall my Kilimanjaro experience was awesome. It’s an extremely physical adventure, it takes its toll and it pushes your limits right to the edge. Would I do it again, yes. Sooner rather than later I hope.