12 April, 1999 (2,010 km)
Kilimanjaro Day Five - tea and digestible cookies
are delivered to the hut at midnight - time for the final ascent in
the black hours of the morning. We've had no real sleep for two days,
almost everything is wet, we are bone tired - everyone in the bunkhouse
quietly frightened of the mountain.
They say that the mind cannot remember
pain. When memories are re-played in the imagination only images and
emotions resurface, not the actual sensations of the moment. They say
that's why women can approach childbirth again - because they can't remember
the actual pain. They say that's why people climb mountains again. But
I'm getting ahead of the story...
I convinced two friends to join me
for a couple weeks in Kenya and Tanzania. John
and Alex stepped off the plane into the blanket of humid heat in Dar
at 11:30pm the heat was liquid. Night clothed the city's squalor and
had swept the streets clean of traffic for our arrival - so it was not
too jarring. I had booked rooms at the Lutheran guesthouse for the night
and we were settled in quickly. My ceiling fan ratcheted violently on
its mooring delivering more racket than relief. Three cold showers through
the night could do little to relieve the heat. The next morning we toured
the city in the sun's glare and they were catapulted into the Third World.
After a few hours of subjecting them to downtown Dar, we headed
through the teeming hawkers to the dock. Thirty five dollars bought
air conditioned reclining seats with complimentary beverages on
the jet boat ferry to Zanzibar. From squalor to the byzantine wonder
of historic Stone Town in two hours.
Day 1 - Kilimanjaro's lower slopes
Climbing in the perpetual rain
Wet and miserable at dinner
Acclimatization - up to 4,300m and back to adjust to the
Our hut at Horombo - mid-point camp
Kilimanjaro at 5000m
Finally at Gillman's Peak - no view and out of energy
Alex - hosing around
The sweeping green hills of Arusha
Back to Zanzibar
We plowed through the dock gates leaving a bow wave of taxi drivers and hustlers.
The Dhow Palace hotel is a converted Arab house in the heart of Stone Town,
and boasts 20' ceilings with four poster beds in expansive rooms - with
A/C. John and Alex were impressed. Zanzibar was a great antidote to Dar,
and my scouting trips the previous week allowed us to go from delight to
delight. Freshly caught seafood grilled on the pier by vendors bathed in
spheres of paraffin light. Schools of fish huddled by pier pilings circled
by sleek predators. Beach bungalows on the breathtaking north shore town
of Nungwi. Snorkelling on the reefs. Sunset over the warm liquid ocean.
One of the highlights of the trip
was our spice tour. Our guide Juma gave a perfunctory tour of ruined
palaces. But he came into his own as we
walked through the plantations. Cloves, ginger, curry, coconut, coffee,
lychee, mango, guava, lime, lemon, cardumon, papaya, cinnamon, nutmeg,
iodine, cocoa, avocado... each tree or plant was identified, fruit was
plucked and Juma carefully cut slices for us to taste with his battered
Swiss Army knife. He pointed out several plants used for local cures
- this one for cuts, the leaves of that one for high blood pressure in
pregnant women, and the roots of this one for impotence. "You boil
these roots with two goat testicles and drink the juice. Then for three
days you will look for women all the time because you are ready to kill".
We left Zanzibar on Sunday, bumping down the rutted road from
Nungwi to the Zanzibar port. A German adventurer sat beside me on the mini-bus
and dispensed advice about our upcoming Kili ascent. Evidently he had climbed
the mountain a few times - and was the first one to paraglide off the top!
Kilimanjaro loomed in our consciousness in sharp contrast to the Zanzibar's
languid pace. The jet boat back to Dar, lunch at the Sheraton, hit the
It's almost 1000km to Moshi, the
jumping off point for Kili, and by nightfall we were still several hours
out of town. Seeking to get into the "real" Africa, we stopped
for petrol and wandered through the blaring storefronts and crackling
braziers of a typical African truck stop. The crowd followed our progress
in the dark air, John and Alex were a bit wide-eyed. We got something
to drink and wound back to a tea stall for chai, mandazis, and samosas.
Nice people, tasty food - back in the truck the guys were psyched. Finally,
at midnight we reached Moshi and the bare cots of the YMCA.
On the advice of the German adventurer
we decided to visit game parks in the Moshi/Arusha area for a few days
in order to give our bodies additional time to acclimatize. It took three
hours of haggling in dusty offices and wading through mobs of touts before
we settled on a Kili guide agency. Intending to head to Ngorongoro, I
made a wrong turn and we drove almost to the Kenya border (imagine our
surprise). So a day wasted we went back to Arusha. The next day we managed
to find the Arusha game park and hiked down a stream for a few hours
(there is a peculiar feeling hiking in a game park, when you look around
and realize that there are a lot of animals out there – some with bad
intentions!) The last evening was spent throwing up in an unfinished
plastic walled room at a dingy hotel in Arusha. Not an auspicious prequel
to the mountain, and the stomach bug would stay with me.
Wednesday dawned, our ordeal was
before us. We gave a dozen tapes and CDs to a young missionary couple
from upcountry Tanzania who were spending a weekend in the "big
city" of Arusha. Off to Equatorial to pick up our guide, an hour
drive to Moshi for supplies, and then 40min up the winding, speed bump
riddled road to Marangu - the entry gate for Kili. Our $530 fee included
an experienced guide and six porters (for the three of us) to lug the
food, supplies, and firewood up the mountain. We set off at 1pm with
light day packs on the three hour hike to Mandara, taking care to climb
Our greatest fear was altitude sickness. As you ascend the body
begins to retain water, the face gets puffy, headaches, and at it's worst
the lungs flood or the brain is pressed to death. Altitude sickness is
serious business at Kilimanjaro's altitude - almost 20,000 feet – and more
people die on the mountain every year than in the entire Swiss Alps. To
combat the altitude we had stayed in Arusha and Moshi for two days (altitude
2,000m) and had extended our climb to six days to allow an extra day of
acclimatization. The second great hurdle would be the thinning atmosphere.
If a person living a sea level were flown to the top of Kili - they would
be unconscious within minutes. As the atmosphere thins, the blood compensates
by doubling the number of platelets to carry oxygen to the muscles. This
process takes some time, so as a precaution we determined to climb very
slowly. By staying "within ourselves" and never becoming tired,
we would hoard our reserve energy for the final climb.
We climbed for three hours through
a misty tunnel of moss covered trees to reach first camp at Mandara.
The A-frame huts were a charming surprise, complete with thick mattress
bunks and solar powered lights. Supper was hot, and there was lots of
it. My stomach was still in turmoil and I was taking Pepto Bismol tablets
to keep things under control. We seemed reasonably situated, but mountain's
bulk continued to loom over us and our sleep was anxious.
Day two dawned and the challenge
of climbing in the rainy season became apparent. Clouds gave way to rain
and my rented rain gear proved hopelessly inadequate (my Kili ascent
gear and backpack had been stolen in Cape Town). The forest canopy gave
way to chest-high scrub, and finally to scattered shrubs and lichen.
We pressed on deliberately, heads down with the cold stealing into our
joints, and ended the five hour hike at Horombo hut (3,700m). My pulse
has climbed to 90-100, even at rest. Despite the cold there was no fire
in the large A-frame dining room, so we huddled in our gear and played
solitaire. Mice ruled the dining room, roving under the two rows of plank
tables in search of crumbs, leaving a trail of yelps and cries from newly
arrived climbers. I'd washed most of my climbing clothes just prior to
setting off - intending to dry them on the mountain... instead they mildewed
in the relentless drizzle and rain. Only two days into the trip and my
stock of dry clothes was down to socks and underwear. I call Mom and
Dad on the Iridium satellite phone to assure them I was ok.
Day Three - acclimatization. The morning dawned sunny and we
soaked up 20min of heat before the clouds rolled back in. Joshua, our guide,
led us up to Zebra point (4,000m) and on to Mawenzie junction (4,300m).
We rested briefly and then hoofed it back to Horombo and lunch. Alex developed
a headache and picked at some rice during dinner. My stomach continued
to bother me and only Pepto was keeping the food down (I was to find out
later that I had dysentery!) John remained healthy as a horse and plowed
through several plates of food. Feeling desperate for solid sleep on the
last night before the summit attempt I made an incredibly stupid mistake
- I took a Nyquil caplet. Any medication is ill-advised at altitude, and
the effect of the Nyquil was completely opposite of what I'd hoped. Although
desperately tired I was completely charged with energy - jerking and fidgeting
uncontrollably in my sleeping bag. I tried doing push-ups to drain some
of the energy a pounding pulse in my ears, wondering vaguely if I would
blow-out my heart. My thrashings kept John up all night - fantasizing (as
he told me later) about beating me with a Louisville Slugger. Unbeknownst
to John and I, Alex was in the grip of a relentless headache and took about
a dozen Advil trying to find relief. Finally around 3am I pulled on my
wet boots and jacket and wandered through the moonlit campsite. Kili's
frozen peak twinkled in the crisp full moon and I wondered dazedly if this
mountain wass worth the effort.
Day Four - We straggle out of the
hut. Alex's appearance is shocking. His whole face has puffed out - his
eyes almost swollen shut. He has lost the altitude lottery - physically
fit (in better condition than John or I) and highly motivated - but uncontrollably
susceptible to altitude. His disappointment is palpable but the ordeal
of the previous night is raw in his mind and deters him from pushing
his luck higher on the mountain. He must go down. I wonder if I would
suffer the disappointment or push ahead recklessly if I was in his position.
We part soberly and push on with our guide. Another brief glimpse of
morning sun propels us up the steep hike to the Kibo lava field, but
then the clouds roll in again. I have the last of my dry clothes on (we'd
given some of our damp clothes to the porters to dry by the fire but
they'd come back hopelessly smoke damaged) and have doubled up on the
windbreakers but the rain seeps inside insidiously. The lava field is
a Martian landscape of red rocks and gravel that seems to stretch on
endlessly. Lunch is a cold boiled egg peeled with wet shaking fingers
and a soggy sandwich in the pouring rain. The last pitch to Kibo hut
is relentlessly steep. Six inch steps, bent forward, swing leg/straighten,
swing leg/straighten - still taking care not to go too fast and get winded.
Kibo hut (4,700m) is higher than
the Everest base camp and too high to sleep. We trail Joshua into a barren
cement block bunkhouse crammed with twelve bunks and two tables. There
is barely enough room to squeeze through. We are the last in, the other
bunks support comatose climbers in sleeping bags or wet dripping outerwear.
There are no lights, a bare tin roof, and the water drains off the cement
floor directly out a hole in the wall. I'm so cold I cannot bring myself
to strip completely before climbing into my bag - a mistake - the wet
shirt slowly saps my remaining heat. Dinner. John lends me his last dry
shirt. My stomach forces me to the outhouse stalls - scrap wood walls,
a cement slab floor with a hole in middle. I cannot stomach any food
and I know this will be a problem on the climb. Seeking heat I go to
the cooking shack but the fire is an economical stack of twigs - enough
to warm one boot. Back to the bunkhouse and a fitful few hours till midnight.
Day Five - tea and digestible cookies arrive at midnight - time
to go. We've had no real sleep for two days, almost everything is wet,
we are bone tired - everyone in the bunkhouse is quietly frightened of
the mountain. I force down eight cookies and sweet tea hoping for climbing
energy. The full moon glints off the pelting ice and my outer shell freezes
solid. This is a blessing because it insulates the layers and I warm up
rapidly. Joshua sets a very slow pace. One hour into the ascent we pass
the older Dutch dad - he is going back, his wife decided to stay at Kibo.
Halfway still strong. The brain locks into one line of a song lyric and
plays is maddeningly over and over again. We reach the scree - a thousand
vertical feet of loose lava gravel that looks like Oreo cookie crumbs.
The cold helps us by freezing the top layer and we are able to zigzag slowly
up, occasionally breaking through the crust and slipping back. Each step
is only inches apart, step/breathe, step/breathe - you consciously tell
the brain to accept several more hours of this low grade pain. The Dutch
son, our age, passes us going back down. He's vomited a few times and there's
just too much mountain left. Zigzag back and forth, outer shell pants keep
falling down - too much ice on the legs. My water is inside my shirt to
keep from freezing solid in the -10C cold. Moustache and beard are frozen
solid with ice. BUT, no headache, no vomit - everything is looking good!
Then 1/2 hour from the top I run
out of energy. Climbing with dysentery led to smaller and smaller meals,
and in the end there is simply nothing to burn. I try to keep climbing
but I have no strength. Stopping in the snow I bend double over my hiking
pole taking whooping breaths. John and Joshua are puzzled because we
had been making good progress. He tells me we are almost there and I
determine to keep going. Now I am climbing only on determination, two
breaths for every step, straining to squeeze oxygen out of the thin air.
I budget my strength for the crest now visible and arrive with nothing
left – and Joshua begins climbing vertically another 20m - we are not
yet at the top! I almost sob, I cannot move but I cannot turn away 20m
from the summit. Gasping at the effort I painfully crawl to the top of
Kilimanjaro - Gillman's Peak (5,700m) - to nothing! After six hours of
climbing the clouds have rolled in and there is no sunrise, no view.
from the Summit
The German chap arrives laboriously, his buddy threw up five
times and finally went back to Kibo. We take some snaps and rest for 10
min - but there is no rest at this altitude and we must go right down.
Adrenaline takes me down the vertical but the scree saps me again. We descent
by digging each heel into the loose gravel and sliding/stepping in giant
strides down the face. It is an exhausting process. John's knees which
have been plaguing him occasionally now flare up. He made an excellent
ascent but the descent is hammering his joints. We make a feeble couple,
staggering down the mountain after our patient guide. Several times I fall
into the snow and fall asleep instantly. Finally about 1km from Kibo I
sit on a boulder and dream of Italian countryside. John is 500m ahead and
becomes alarmed, yelling at me to wake up. I wave him off twice and finally
lurch up and stiff-leg stagger to the huts, falling into my bag to sleep.
We had to go down to Mandara to meet
Alex - but I couldn't move. Said, the head porter, came in twice and
finally told us we had to go. I poured tablespoons of glucose into my
tea and managed to hold down some soup. Finally at 10:30am we got going.
John's knees set the pace through the Kibo lava field, but we managed
to make good time until the boulder ridden lower half. John hobbled like
an arthritic. My glucose and soup digested and gone - I staggered after
him - leaning on my pole to take huge whooping breaths. Said, worried
at our progress, told us that we would overnight at Horombo only half
way down the mountain (the site of the infamous Nyquil night). The rain
pelted us again and our feet began paying the price of three days in
wet boots. An hour out of camp I peeled back one big toe nail. Weak and
miserable we stumbled into Horombo to be met by our smiling guide Joshua.
At 41 he is an icon of fitness. He had led us up to Kibo the day before,
then with no sleep led us to the summit and back to Kibo, then instructing
Said to look after us had descended almost to the bottom of the mountain
to Mandara to inform Alex of our progress - and then re-ascended to Horombo
in time to meet us. It was a remarkable achievement – almost the equivalent
of a full ascent/descent in 1 1/2 days!
We sip soup at camp and climb into
our bags at 3pm. No more Pepto forces me into wet clothes to the outhouse.
Reluctantly to dinner. I choked down a few mouthfuls to keep Joshua happy
- two more trips to the outhouse. Bed again at 8pm. Serial dreams spin
out in the thin air.
Day Six - Up at 6am for more glucose
and a beautiful clear dawn. I can't help but be envious of the group
on the summit and the view they must have. We start down to Mandara with
loosening muscles and a bright sun marvelling at the change in the mountain.
This could be an enjoyable climb in the dry season. Alex met us 20min
out of the camp and we swapped stories. He was disappointed at being
denied the summit, but vowed to try again. A quick tea and we continue
to the lower gate. The mountain punished me to the end - one hour from
the bottom I peeled back the other big toe nail - so I hobbled off the
trail in pain wondering at the desire that pushes me to such adventures.
I have a video clip of our porters
and guide proudly rattling off their names on the bottom. We received
our summit certificates and gave the gang a generous tip. Smiles and
handshakes all around. We left for a nice hotel and a gentle denouement
- the guys went home for a night of rest and another group to lead up
the mountain. What a fabulous bunch. Dinner that night at the Hotel Impala
- $75 worth of steak, CNN, hot showers, and laundered clothes.
Kenya's Game Parks
We left Kilimanjaro and Tanzania for the warmer climes of Kenya.
Talked the truck across the border
with no Carnet de Passage and plunged into Nairobi traffic. I immediately
relaxed in the swirling bedlam of automotive confusion. Finding out that
I'd learned to drive in this confusion John shook his head, "Ahh,
that explains your driving in Canada". We checked into a campsite,
read accumulated e-mail, and soaked up Nairobi's version of civilization.
I'd promised lots of animals to the
guys, so we headed out to sample two of Kenya's dozens of game parks.
Driving from Nairobi on Upper Rd. to Kijabe was a blast from the past.
I made a slight detour through the campus of my high school and felt
the hollow jolt as reality impacted sentiment. You can go back, but you
can't really go back. Our dirt road short-cut was a true off-road experience
and we arrived on Lower Rd. shaken but cheerful.
Hell's Gate park is named for it's
narrow cleft valley bordered by steep cliffs leading to an active thermal
vent. Giraffe, warthog, Thomson's gazelle, and a dozen nameless birds
dodged the truck as we ambled through. I curled up on a cement slab in
the sun to ease my stomach cramps while John and Alex tramped down the
path to the vent.
They were concerned when they returned
and we finally diagnosed my dysentery. Fortunately medication was at
hand and relief a few hours away. Zigzagging up a sharp hill we made
camp on a bluff overlooking the grass carpeted valley floor. Supper,
sunset, an extended campfire, the starry sky, and great conversation
marked a memorable evening.
We rescued a tourist van stuck in the mud in the middle
of this pride
We watched breathlessly while the herd grazed slowly past the truck
These crocs can go months between kills
Six vehicles waited until this pair sauntered off the road
A few of the hundreds of elephants we saw in the park
John and Alex taking breakfast on the river in Masai Mara
Finally Kenya's top game attraction
- Masai Mara. Most of the drive was on a "superb sealed road" but
the last 36km deteriorated into a rutted dirt lane. I've always thought
my driving was excellent - if a little fast - but Alex's death grip is
still embedded in the front dash and John emitted tiny noises of terror
from time to time. By common consent I slowed down in the park. It would
seem almost impossible that there would be animals near the meager roads
that thread through the vast plains of the park, but almost immediately
after entering we drove through a herd of about 30 elephants. The animals
seem inured to the vans bouncing back and forth - which allowed several
close encounters. A huge bull elephant munched contentedly a few meters
away from the truck. Water buffalo, zebra, hippo, numerous antelope,
cheetah, and lots of "nameless birds". Rounding a corner we
stopped abruptly for a lion and lioness sunning themselves on the road.
After about 10 minutes they lazily rose, enjoyed some "afternoon
delight", and plopped down on the road's verge to eye us from close
range as we passed.
Another night under the African sky
and we set out across the park.
Tourists from Lions
Almost immediately we came across three vans parked about 3m
from a pride of 16 lions. Cubs rolled around in the grass playing with
leafy twigs while the mothers arrogantly eyed the interloping tourists.
The lion surveyed the scene regally about 20m away. One of the vans attempted
a wide turn back onto the road and suddenly bogged down in mud - spinning
his wheels till he was properly mired. Imagine the tableau; a van full
of agitated English senior citizens, an embarrassed driver, and two other
vans totally ill-equipped to assist, passengers busily videoing this new
predicament... all watched with amusement by 16 lions. There seemed nothing
for it but to help out so we drove into the mud and I got out to hook up
a tow line - needless to say it was a nervous exercise and I waited for
the African driver to pace around for awhile before I got out. Alex bravely
ventured out for a photo. John decided to video the extrication from within
Stanley. With low gear and differential lock we were still stymied. So
the senior citizens were unloaded! What a sight. They huddled together
with the other drivers for support while we wrested the van out of the
muck. Alex assisted a few as they tottered back to the extricated van.
We'd decided that John's last night
would be in style, so we checked into the Serena lodge. A huge buffet,
pool, personal huts, table linens and service. Luxury in the wild. A
sleep-in breakfast, check-out, and a final game drive. Down at the river
we came across some monster crocodiles and a river side breakfast buffet
complete with chef and linen draped tables. We enjoyed some juice, cheese
Following a faint road we angled into a less travelled part
of the park - and came across a lone bull elephant. Earlier the previous
day I had parked the truck as a whole herd of elephant grazed past us only
a few meters away. But a lone bull is a different story, and sure enough
he started moving at us, flapping his ears, stamping and writhing his trunk.
Not good. I cut off the road and we bounced across the plain about 100m...
and right into a swamp. Low gear and diff lock couldn't compensate for
our highway tires, the viscous mud packed the tread and we spun helplessly.
The elephant was a short distance
away screened by a tiny grove of trees. With no alternative I climbed
out and unwound the winch cable - listening and looking intently for
the rogue bull. The cable was 10m short of the closest tree! I untied
the rope holding down the 2nd spare to lengthen the winch cable - started
the winch - and snapped the cable off!! Suddenly the trees in the thicket
cracked and swished like the scene in Jurassic Park - I whipped around
anxiously but whatever it was decided not to leave the cover of the thicket.
Plan 2 - we got out the shovel and dug the wheels out. After an hour
of effort we managed to pop out - only to get stuck again. Finally with
John and Alex pushing in the mucky filth and spinning wheels we made
it to solid ground. Returning to the lodge we managed to clean off and
questioned the game drivers about the elephant. Evidently he is well
known and avoided!
We made the long drive back to Nairobi
with plenty to think about; Zanzibar spices, Kilimanjaro deprivation,
and Masai Mara exploits. A brief dinner at the Carnivore in Nairobi and
it was time for John to climb on his plane. As always, time seemed to
have stretched out – a week is like a month - packed with a kaleidoscope
of memories. Alex stays on for another ten days as we head into Uganda.
Bombs in Kampala and rampaging rebels in the countryside... who knows
what stories the weeks will yield.