‘Jambo!’ This is Swahili for ‘hello’ – and also ‘excuse me’ and ‘how’s it going?’ and ‘Hi there – anything I can do for you?’ An excellent all-purpose word we heard first from our airport welcome committee and were to hear and use many, many times more in the next few weeks. In September 2007 twenty IP-Trekkers gathered in Arusha, in Tanzania, Africa, to attempt a climb of Mt Kilimanjaro, at 5895 metres the highest mountain in Africa. Fortunately for me, Kilimanjaro is a ‘trekking peak’ – no actual mountain climbing with ropes and pitons is required, just sufficient fitness and ability to cope with the altitude – and a dash of luck.
I whiled away the fourteen hour flight from Sydney to Johannesburg, South Africa, reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Snows Of Kilimanjaro, which I discovered is not so much about the mountain, but is rather about big game hunting, of which Ernest was apparently rather fond. In the famous story, the hunter Harry is dying of a gangrenous leg, remembering episodes from his wildly-lived life, with his Memsahib ministering to him. As he dies, he dreams he is taken up in a small plane and flown over Kilimanjaro.
… and there, ahead, all he could see, as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And he knew that there was where he was going.
And there was where I was going too, although hopefully I’d survive the experience, unlike poor Harry.
Our experienced mountain guide, Wally Berg, met us in Arusha with twelve hand-picked local guides, and about 130 (yes really) other Africans who would help us get up the mountain: porters, cooks, the tent detail, waiter boys, and many many others. We elected to take one of the longer routes on Kilimanjaro, the Lemosho Route, which would see us spend nine days and eight nights on the mountain. Taking the longer route around the Western flank of the mountain before ascending would help with acclimatisation, and allow us to see the most of the mountain, including the Shira Plateau.
Kilimanjaro is in fact a three-peaked volcano. The highest cone, in the centre, is called Kibo (5895m) and is the focus of climbers. To the east is Mawenzi (5149m), still a high and challenging peak. The highest point on Mawenzi cannot be reached by mere trekkers and is only rarely visited by mountain climbers. To the west is the third cone, that of Shira, long since collapsed and eroded away, leaving the extensive Shira Plateau, a fine trekking area. Apart from being the highest cone, Kibo has an extra attraction – the glaciers, the famous ‘snows of Kilimanjaro’. Many people have heard that Kilimanjaro’s glaciers are disappearing. Records show that in the mid 1800s, when someone first climbed to the snow line, it was encountered at around 4000 metres. Today the snows begin at around 5000 metres.
As everyone was assembling, we had a chance to look around Arusha, and take a hike in the Mt Meru foothills. Then we set out in 4WD vehicles for a two-hour drive to the Londorossi Gate over roads that were close to impassable at times. But the real miracle of this journey was not our five or six 4WDs getting there, but entire busloads of porters and equipment arriving safely. I still find it hard to believe that they got buses over that ‘road’. There before us was a long table set for twenty, platters of food, even small vases of artificial flowers decorating the red-checked cloth. There was washing water, purified drinking water, and – this left us speechless with delight – chemical sit-down loos in little tents! Groups of hikers clustered around the toilet tents in admiration. We hadn’t been expecting such luxury. In fact, these are required for trekkers intending to camp in the Kibo crater.
But all these home comforts were nothing compared to the colourful throng of over one hundred Africans who rose to greet us and immediately burst into song. Loud thumping, happy, excited chants and dancing with rising clouds of dust and cheers. Both the singing and the artificial flowers were to follow us all the way to the top.
The first day of hiking was short, through the cloud forest, spotting the black and white Colobus monkeys. Our tents were pitched at Big Tree Camp, still within the forest zone.
The next day’s trekking was a marvellous day of opening vistas across the Shira Plateau, and that evening at Shira Camp we caught our first glimpse of the snows of Kilimanjaro, our goal. We climbed higher on day three, reaching Moir Hut Camp, at 4200 metres, in a golden sunset glow, excited if breathless.
The night spent at Moir Hut was enlivened by an incident at 2 am. Quite suddenly, the quiet of camp was broken with the loud sound of ‘105 Luuuve! This is 105 Nairobi bringing you all the best hits…’ And then – fittingly – the strains of the pop ballad ‘Wake me Up Before You Go’. I knew immediately who was responsible. I groaned a little and waited for Ken to turn off his radio. But he didn’t. The pop songs blared out for about ten minutes. Then I heard a hoarse but very polite male voice, affecting a low tone so as not to add to the din.
‘I say – could you turn that off please?’
Whoever it was had to repeat himself a number of times and I lay in my sleeping bag idly trying to decide who it was. Then, as nothing was changing, whoever it was had to raise his voice. The increase in volume, along with a now rather annoyed tone, caught Ken’s attention and the music stopped. It was Marius who had saved us from a night of 105 Luuuve. It was a puzzle as to why Ken himself hadn’t heard the noise. Surely he wasn’t sleeping through it? An embarrassed and (for him) chastened Ken explained the next day. The earphone he was using had come unplugged from the radio, causing it to blare forth. He continued to lie there listening, earphone in place, marvelling at the quality of sound he was receiving through the earpiece. Except that it was free to air by that time.
The next day took us higher still, to Lava Tower at 4600 metres, and most people were feeling the altitude by this stage. We hiked only half a day, and then chilled out – literally as well as figuratively – in our tents for the afternoon. Ken redeemed himself by amusing us all in the cold dining tent by filming a promotional endorsement for Neutrogena® Wet Wipes – a product which had become dear to us after several days on the mountain, accomplishing our daily ablutions in an inch of warm water in an orange plastic bowl.
The following day we descended into the marvels of the Barranco Valley, where grow the weird candelabra of the giant senecio plants and the unusual round giant lobelias which open and close with day and night. It also brought an intensive rock scramble known as the Great Barranco Wall, which we scaled prettily attired in pale blue crash helmets. The end of this long day brought us to Karanga Camp and a night sleeping slightly lower, to help acclimatisation.
The next day we trekked through the crowded Barafu Camp, where we met climbers going up and coming down. Our High Camp (also called Kosovo) was at 4830 metres and gave us some stunningly beautiful views. After High Camp it was – crater day! Our ascent to the crater rim took four or five hours and was tough, especially as we climbed over the 5000 metre mark. Trekkers from other groups were also on the trail, some coming down, having done the ascent at night, others moving slowly upwards like us. At one point a woman walking just in front of me stopped, leant her head on her poles, and vomited. It was that kind of place.
Finally I managed to reach Stella Point, the rim of the crater of Kibo. The vista that opened as the trail finally stopped going upwards was other-worldly. As ‘up’ ceased, finally, the ridge crested and the full wide panorama of Kilimanjaro’s ice-topped crater spread to the horizon ahead. To the right and left, the edge of the ridge snaked out, forming the great crater wall, an unbroken caldera, with the ice of the glaciers lacing the edge. The enormous ice field ahead was broken by stretches of the dull, pale brown that was the colour of Kilimanjaro’s volcanic rock, dusty and dry, despite its coat of ice. To my right, the brown, barren landscape rose out of the ice fields to form a central cone, the Ash Pit of Kibo, inside which brooded the dormant volcano. To my left – the team with the lunch table set up! And beyond them the snaking trail to the summit, the highest point on the high crater rim, the highest point on the African continent.
There was food. I recall slices of fruit and potato crisps. There was more but I can’t remember it. And there were drinks, including hot-ish tea. Getting water to a full boil up here would take ages. I sank into one of our trusty folding chairs – also carried all the way up here – and sipped some tea gratefully. I looked long and hard at the fruit. But I couldn’t find the appetite, the energy or the motivation to eat anything. I hoped for at least half an hour in that chair. Possibly if Wally hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have moved from it at all.
But he urged me on, and with my trusty guide Francis, we straggled along the crater rim to Uhuru Peak, the tip-top of Africa at 5895 metres. Our party all made the summit that day, albeit some quite a bit further behind than others. From Uhuru – after lots of summit photos – we glissaded down a slope of loose scree to Crater Camp. We were one of very few groups of climbers to camp in the crater, at 5790 metres. The full moon glinted off the ghostly glaciers and the amazing camp team chipped some of Kilimanjaro’s ice for our water.
After a cold night in very thin air we started down, swiftly reaching the tree line. Our final camp, Mweki, was amongst dense forest and thick air and much conviviality. And beer. The final day’s walk took us back down through the cloud forest to the Mweki Gate and a huge party thrown by Berg Adventures, featuring a rather remarkable whole roasted goat, which I did not sample.
Was the bus trip back to Arusha spent discussing the extraordinary sight of the glaciers of Kilimanjaro? The intense effort it had taken to climb so high? No, the topic was the much more serious one of how exactly to make the most of the bathrooms we would soon all see. Shower first, followed by a bath, followed by another shower was the most popular scheme, and one I followed blissfully upon reaching the hotel.
A number of the trekkers kicked on the next day to the wonderful sights on an African Safari. Three extraordinary Tanzanian national parks were on the itinerary. In Tarangiri, which is known for its elephants and baobab trees, we photographed zebra butts and slept in the treetops. We drove to Lake Manyara and looked out at the lake birds; and visited a Masaai boma (village) on the way to Ngorongoro Crater. The Crater proved to be a veritable Noah’s Ark of African animals, and we marvelled at the lion king sitting above the waterhole full of hippo and water birds, while the zebras and wildebeest roamed across the plain. We spotted a rare black rhinoceros and a pair of cheetah brothers who had just finished lunch (judging by their bloody jowls).
Those of us who took the long dusty drive to the Serengeti stopped on the way at Olduvai Gorge. This is the area of the world where the oldest fossilised remains of humanoid species have been found, including the fossilised human-like footprints of Australopithecus afarensis, found in the Olduvai Valley – along with a preserved full skeleton, named ‘Lucy’ by her discoverers, all preserved in volcanic ash. When you hear that mankind came ‘out of Africa’, this is the place.
In the Serengeti we sipped G&Ts at sunset in the luxe tent camp, and drove out to find giraffe and elephant and a pride of lion and their cubs sitting in the long grass. To avoid the long drive back we took a (very) small plane to Arusha, watching the smoke plume from an erupting volcano, one of many in the chain of mountains along the Great Rift Valley.
Annette Freeman, February 2010
For more stories and pictures, visit the following members' sites/galleries:
Annette Freeman's Gallery