Why did we go?
Night of the strange noises.After a couple of nights in swanky hotels we were collected from the Nakara Hotel, which is situated near the Marangu gate of the Kilimanjaro National Park. It was 09:20 and had just stopped raining, as it had obviously been doing since before 08:00 when I had opened the bedroom curtains.
Our Land Rover took us on the long drive to the North side of the mountain, through small and obviously poor villages on an unmade road. It hadn’t rained over here as the dust rose in huge billowing clouds behind anything that moved. We stopped for lunch at the exotically named “Kanakarla Resort Inn” which proudly proclaimed itself a “VIP member of the Coca Cola Club” and had a sign to prove it. This was more like the sort of East African eatery I was used to on previous trips.
We carried on over dustier and dustier roads until we started to climb toward the Rongai gate. There we met Deus our guide who introduced us to Moses, Good Luck, Juffrei and Loucerre, our various members of staff. Walter and Wilson were to join us later. We were staggered to find we had seven people to carry and cook for us, but others had even more.
About 12:50 we set off with Moses leading us into the Promised Land. The first hour saw us going “pole pole” (Swahili for slowly slowly)up a logging road. The dust was as fine as flour and several inches thick. Occasionally logging lorries would pass us sending huge clouds of red dust into the sky.
One side of the track was thick dusty forest whilst the other had been recently cleared. Some of the bigger tree stumps had been set alight to burn them out and often the view resembled a Vietnam War film after a B52 strike.
Small huts made of rough planks were sparsely dotted around and sometimes abutted the road. The chickens, sometimes a pig or a goat, would be foraging outside. The children looked healthy but poor, with ill-fitting and ragged clothes. Sometimes they looked at us with obvious interest, sometimes they politely called out “Jambo” and sometimes they just plain came out with it and asked us for chocolate. They were out of luck with us as I had given my spare fruit to the children at the park gate.
The second hour saw us leave the loggers and subsistence farmers behind and enter the forest. A narrow path wound through the trees, slowly but surely climbing upwards. A slight misty rain began to fall as we got higher. The forest didn’t look particularly African and could quite easily have been in Britain were it not for the porters walking past us with huge loads balanced on their heads.
Eventually we reached the giant heather zone and our campsite. The Rongai route is billed as the scenic and little used way up the mountain. Everybody else must have liked the sound of that solitude because with the two other couples and two large groups, together with their numerous porters, cooks and guides, there must have been about a hundred people within 200 metres. The camp was laid out in numerous small clearings separated by huge clumps of giant heather, so even though we could occasionally hear other people we didn’t often see many of them.
The porters pitched our tents and laid out a small (but heavy looking!) steel table in one of them, with hot drinks and snacks for us. Later, a large bowl of hot water was put out for us to wash, and later still a three-course meal that would have fed five was served up.
By 19:00 we retired to our tent to read and await the new day. We dubbed that night “The night of the strange noises” (Mostly outside the tent.)
Night of the windsDAY TWO We awoke at 06:30 and began to pack our kit away. Our hot water for washing was delivered and we were ushered into our breakfast tent for bread and jam, fresh fruit, porridge and eggs.
As we prepared for the day’s walk ahead of us, the clouds rolled back revealing the high glacier capped dome of Kibo, followed by the craggy peaks of Mawenzi, a climber’s goal similar to the central peaks of Mount Kenya.
Just after 08:00 we set off with Deus. The mist had returned but this made for nice cool walking conditions. After 2 hours, Lisa was politely asked if she intended to go for the summit that day, a nice way of saying “Slow down!”
Our first stop was at “Second Cave” a big volcanic bulge that was obviously used for overnight stops. We continued up, with occasional glimpses up the flanks of Kibo through the alternating patches of mist and sun.
The path was often very dusty and crossed a number of rock steps and dried watercourses. Not once did I see any running water. A quick stop for lunch at mid-day preceded our arrival at our campsite just before 13:00.
A set of caves formed the head of a large col. Volcanic moraines flanked either side of the large bowl forming a natural amphitheatre. Banks of cloud beneath us prevented us looking down onto the plain which was now far below us.
Almost immediately we were ushered through the washing routine into our tea tent for freshly roasted nuts, still hot to the touch and a mound of popcorn. Compared to previous mountain trips I was in serious danger of putting on a lot of weight!
This campsite was a lot quieter with only one couple and one of the large groups near us. This night has been dubbed “Night of the winds” (Barely a breeze outside).
The night nobody sleptDAY THREE Both Lisa and I had a poor nights sleep. We breakfasted as usual and then had an uneventful three hour walk to the next campsite. We climbed steadily up a further 700 metres, winding through Alpine desert and rock steps. A sea of clouds surrounded us, hanging below our last campsite, and fantastic views of Mawenzi opened up, with nothing between the peak and us.
We could make out the small specks of people descending from Gilman’s point, high above us on the slopes of Kibo.
As we neared Kibo hut we could see parties approaching from all directions. Dozens of porters and guides lounged over and amongst the rocks, calling to their friends as new parties arrived.
I had felt fine as we had walked along, but now that we reached our campsite a thudding headache began to make it’s presence felt. Lisa had also slowed right down in the last ¾ hour of the walk as the altitude leaps started to tell on us.
A single wheeled stretcher was being pushed into the campsite as we arrived. We settled into our tent after the washing and popcorn routine, hoping to catch up on some much needed sleep. However, after ten minutes or so I was summoned to go and sign in at the Ranger’s desk. I spotted a signature two above mine, “Joan” from Sabadell. A friend of mine helps to run a Mountain Library in Sabadell and it was just possible they knew each other, so I decided to seek out Joan and ask him if we had a mutual acquaintance.
I entered Kibo hut and was greeted with a scene from Dante’s “Inferno.” People lay sprawled over the beds in the first room, some of them apparently comatose. I asked if there were any people there from Sabadell and was greeted by a quite sharp, almost hostile, “No! Why do you ask?” from some English guy. Whatever had happened, he didn’t sound like he was having a good day. I told him I was looking for a friend of a friend, which seemed to placate him a little, but he couldn’t help me.
I went deeper into the building and heard two men speaking Spanish. It wasn’t Catalan, but the next best thing. After speaking to them they took me to another room and called out to Joan. The middle aged man looked at me with a puzzled expression. I explained I had a mountaineering friend from Sabadell and gave Xavi’s name. He looked at me like a crazy man. “I’ve only been here 5 minutes. I don’t know anyone.” He spoke very good English so I was sure he had understood what I had said to him, but he seemed bewildered by me. I felt it was time to call the conversation to a halt so I thanked him and left. God knows what he wrote in his journal about me!
A good 1½ hours of sleep later, I sat in the sun revelling in the view to Mawenzi. Deus came to speak to me and pointed out tomorrow’s route to Horombo Hut. I told him about the wasted people I had seen in the hut and he explained that the stretcher I had seen was for two of them. They had been to the summit and upon their return to Kibo hut had refused to descend any further. They were urged by their guides to do so but insisted they felt fine and would go down after a few hours sleep. To their horror, both woke with symptoms of acute mountain sickness and were barely able to move, necessitating their rescue by stretcher.
This night was known as “The night nobody slept.”
Lisa and I had tried to sleep until 23:30, when we knew we would be getting up to start our walk. After some hot drinks and hard biscuits, we left the tent to join Deus and Moses for our trip to the summit.
As we rounded Kibo hut we were disappointed to see a long line of Spanish climbers snaking onto the path toward the scree approach. Deus immediately put his head down and shifted up a gear so that we passed them in single file before the path became too narrow to do so. Deus, Lisa, me then Moses. I was glad Deus had pushed us ahead of the large group, but the effort of doing so at that altitude was telling.
Ahead of us the bright lines of head torches wormed their way up the mountain. Most were small clusters, but two groups were obviously large parties (or soldier ants!).
We gained altitude, slowly but surely, squeezing past people ahead of us. Deus set a slow but measured pace, and we didn’t stop at all at first. Zigzagging paths up ever steepening screes led us upward; absolute purgatory, slipping and sliding in the thin air, with a pounding altitude headache.
We reached 5,000 metres and Lisa gave a “Homer Simpson” style whoop as she reached her new highest ever altitude. At some stage we passed a large party of French who politely stayed smack bang in the middle of the tiny steep path while they took off their jackets or sat down to rest. It seemed an absolute age until we reached Hans Meyer Cave, at 5,200 metres. I couldn’t believe how long 200 meters of ascent had taken. I felt awful with a queasy stomach now joining with my bad head.
Lisa had been going really well, but I noticed she was slowing noticeably above 5,000 metres. I was quite happy to take rests whenever she needed them and can remember thinking, “We’ve got five hours of this to do. Do I really want to be here?” I consciously stopped looking at my watch as time seemed to move so slowly. I couldn’t believe the mind sapping effect the altitude gain had upon us.
Time gets a bit mixed up here, as I certainly wasn’t making notes as we travelled upward! I can remember getting too hot and taking off my jacket and gloves. Then at some later stage I can remember the water tube on my pouch freezing and my fingertips feeling wooden. At some stage we stopped for a rest and Lisa immediately threw up a few times. In fairness, she was at least the third person I had seen doing so. If she had said at that point that she was calling it a day, I would probably have gone back down with her, I felt so unwell. To my eternal gratefulness, she soldiered on.
We reached a point called “Jamaica Rocks” where the scree fell over and through steep slabs of bedrock. I felt far more comfortable on this ground and can remember remarking how we would now make much better progress. However, Lisa had slowed right down and I think she was losing heart a bit. Thankfully I could no longer see the head-torches of people above us, which meant they were now off the slope. Deus had obviously picked up on Lisa’s condition as he quickly pointed out to her that we were very close to Gilman’s Point and would soon be at the top of the wall we were scrambling up.
We topped out and were immediately hit by a freezing blast of air coming over the glaciers on the other side of the mountain. It was still pitch black and Lisa tucked into the rocks for some shelter and a hot drink. I knew at that point that I was going to go on to the summit. The route follows the crater rim up and down, gradually climbing a further 300 metres, which the guidebook bills at 1½ to 2½ hours walking. Lisa wanted to go on, but was a little concerned about her current performance. A quick word with the guides and we were soon all on our way.
This was much better, moving at speed along a high mountain rocky path. On my right the ground dropped off into the ash cone area, and on my left the caldera wall rose above me, occasionally pierced by glimpses of the far horizon getting lighter. I was carrying my big camera with some filters and a small tripod, intending to get some shots of the sun as it rose over Mawenzi. As we hurried on toward Uhuru peak I began to look for a spot for my shots. Lisa and I quickly ate some broken biscuits she had in her pack. With Lisa in front of me, and my camera in my hand, I let out a loud belch. It certainly hadn’t been the first during the night, but to my horror, I sprayed a jet of vomit all over Lisa’s back. A further two heaves landed onto the path and I felt so much better. When the fourth and fifth chucks finally finished, the sun was up, the night was gone and so was my desire to use the camera!
Other parties were now joining the ridge from the Baranco route. With the climbers already ahead of us, together with their guides, there were probably between thirty and forty of us converging on Uhuru at the same time. At 07:00 we reached our goal in beautiful sunshine and everybody was euphoric. I tearfully unfurled the flag and rattled off a few pictures. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but remember we weren’t yet half way through the day. We had to retrace our steps to our camp, pack up and walk a further three hours down to Horombo Hut.
A happy walk saw us back to the top of the screes at Gilman’s Point and then whooping scree runs took us back to our tent. Seven hours up, less than two and a half hours back, we were both really tired. An hour’s sleep, then another of packing. As we did so, one of the rangers came over and checked our pitch for litter, making our porters pick up the tiniest scrap of anything whether we had dropped it or not. In fact, we learned, our litter would be examined on the way out of the park to ensure we had brought enough out with us. Woe betides any trekking company that didn’t bring out their fair share.
A pleasant but frankly unwanted walk brought us to our last campsite where we spent a few hours dozing and then chatting to other nearby campers who we had met over the preceding days.
In one direction there were fantastic views back to Uhuru and Mawenzi over ridges of African flora. In the other direction the path led over another ridge that fell away to reveal huge banks of fluffy clouds like an ocean. It had been a long day and we were both tired and ready to call the safari to an end as we settled down for the night. “The night of the heaviest sleep!!”
Walk outDAY FIVE As ever, the walk out was an anticlimax, more “put up with” than enjoyed. We set off in warm sunshine after a great sleep. Just below us we could see the bank of cloud lapping over our intended route.
As we descended, the air got wetter and wetter, first coating us in a fine dewy mist, and then eventually raining on us. As we got deeper into the Heather zone, the dusty path became an inch thick mudslide, but that was nothing!
As we reached the forest we were slipping down steep root clogged steps into thick pools of mud. Not wanting to stop, we passed straight through Mandara camp, punishing our legs with the steep downhill slip and slide.
About three hours after we started, we began to reach drier ground below the rain cloud. People coming the other way smelled clean as they approached and we must have looked a hell of a sight to them, covered in mud to the knees as we pounded resolutely down.
Eventually, at the Marangu Park Gate, we were issued with our certificates for reaching the summit as we signed out of the park. From the register I could see that we were the first to leave the park that day, testimony to our 22-kilometre speed descent.
Kilimanjaro, a huge bit of the world set in a place of beauty. If I were honest, I probably would have preferred to have climbed something. But as walks go, it was a pretty good one. As honeymoons go, it was the best I’ve had yet!