Seeing Elephants - The Hard Way"Don’t you think it would be wonderful to see elephants in the wild?!". My wife Jude posed that question to me over 20 years ago. Periodically she would bring it up again, but for one reason or another it never progressed beyond that.
Recently she added, "You know, Kilimanjaro is near those parks that have elephants. I'll bet I could climb Kilimanjaro!" Now that was an interesting statement. She is not a climber, and her medical history stacked the odds against her:
- Pronounced dead in a car wreck when she was 16, then told she would never walk again. Crushed pelvis, shattered legs.
- Struck by lightning when she was 27. See trip report. This resulted in a weakened immune system and severe vertigo when anything moves around her. She is terrified of escalators, never mind 3,000 feet of scree.
- Hit by a grain semi when she was 35. Broken hands.
- Bone cancer in her left femur when she was 40. The leg is now held together with a grafted donor bone, lots of steel hardware, screws, and a big pin in her hip joint. The X-rays are impressive, but it doesn't work as well as most legs.
- Thyroid tumor when she was 50 (two years ago). Had that removed, now on medication.
She does not recommend any of those activities.
Jude's climbing resume includes Kala Pataar near Everest base camp in 1977, and Mount Elbert a couple of years ago, but not much else. She loves a long hike, but thinks getting to the top of a mountain is a pointless activity.
Kilimanjaro had never been high on my list, but if Jude wanted to climb it so that I’d agree to go see elephants in the wild, why not? (Eventually, I would have gone to see elephants even without the mountain, but that was added incentive!)
The Non-Climbing Spouse's Gear List
Packing for a climbing trip with a non-climbing spouse provides an education in what is considered necessary gear. Jude packed some items that don't normally make it to my list:
|1 sheet||Downy Fresh Fabric Softener||To be packed with thermal underwear to give them that fresh and clean smell for the duration of the climb. Negligible weight.|
|2 packs||Extra thick handi-wipes||To maintain that fresh and clean feeling after hiking all day when no shower is available.|
|5 pounds||Jolly Rancher or other good quality hard candy||To be used as gifts for the porters, which the poor buggers must carry, but they are happy since their loads are getting lighter each day.|
|4 bars||Lady Godiva Dark Chocolate||For consumption during the summit push. Best if brought from home, but may be purchased in Duty Free Shops en route. Remove outer wrapper to save weight. No other brand will do.|
|10 packs||Chemical hand warmers||To chemically warm your hands (and feet) during the summit push.|
|2 rolls||Double Thick Charmin Toilet Paper||For obvious use. Do not drop the entire roll on the floor of the infamous camp latrines! Instead, stuff required amount into pockets before use.|
|1 pair||Soft socks||To be used only for sleeping. The psychological comfort value of this is beyond measure. |
|1 outfit||Old style clothing and mountain gear||So your new gear does not get trashed during the trip, and more importantly, it can be donated to the crew at the end of the climb. Those guys really appreciate it.|
|1||Montbell Microfiber Neck Scarf, Red ||More than a fashion statement. Doubles as a dust mask, wind block, and sun block.|
|2 pair||Hanes Panty Hose||Excellent liner sock replacement. Offers protection against ticks and leeches.|
I looked askance at some of those items, like the fabric softener and hand warmers. (She has been trying to sell me on the panty hose concept for years, but without success).
For my part, the big decision was whether to bring only a heavyweight fleece as an insulation layer, or go with a windstopper and a down jacket combination. The latter proved to be the right choice.
|Day 1||Machame Forest - Red Hot Pokers|
| ||The trek starts by waiting in line to sign in at the Machame Gate office. The line moves slower than the slowest line at a Post Office. I don't understand why, but it is best not to understand everything in these situations. |
Once you do start walking its up through a stunningly beautiful cloud forest. Our guide, Maiko, pointed out the unusual flowers endemic to East Africa, such Impatiens Kilimanjari, and Kniphofia thomsonii. The common name for the latter is "Red Hot Poker". This is appropriate enough, even though some of them are yellow. The forest is inhabited by black and white colobus monkeys, tree hyrax, and striking birds such as the Hartlaub's Turaco. We were lucky and saw all three of those, or maybe not luck but because Jude walks slowly and is observant.
The Machame trail underwent major maintenance a few years ago, and the ankle deep mud we read about in earlier reports seems to be a thing of the past, at least for now. (Jude was able to keep her shoelaces clean, a measure of great pride to her).
That night at camp we thankfully learned that our cook was excellent. We hesitated eating some raw, uncooked vegetables in a wonderful looking salad - that's breaking all the rules of third world travel, isn't it? - but we stayed healthy, and everything he turned out was delicious.
We also learned that the horror stories about about the camp latrines were true.
|Day 4 ||Karanga Camp - Do Not Pass Go |
| ||For some reason that remains a mystery most groups do not stop at Karanga Camp. Instead they push on to Barafu for a summit attempt that same night. This involves 6-7 hours of hard hiking, and they arrive at Barafu in the late afternoon. They eat some dinner, try to get a few hours rest, then head for the summit around midnight, thus going from 13,000 to19,000 feet in less than 24 hours. Is it any wonder you hear all these stories of people being miserably sick on this mountain? |
Instead consider our option: we climbed 1000 feet out of the Barranco Valley before dropping that same distance into Karanga, for another built-in "climb high, sleep low" day. We arrived at camp early in the day with plenty of time to explore the unique surroundings, and just lounge around. The next day we have another leisurely hike arriving at Barafu around noon, where we have a full 12 hours to rest, eat, and drink before the summit push.
If you have spent all this time and money to get to East Africa to climb Kilimanjaro, then why not spend just one more day so you can actually enjoy it?
To reach Karanga you must ascend the Barranco Wall, nearly 1000 feet of class 2 and 3 scrambling. Jude had been worried about this section. She likes neither loose rock nor exposure, and the combination of the two was not a happy thought. But she breezed up it like a champ. For my part this was one of the more enjoyable sections of the ascent, since there actually was some climbing involved. Watching the porters negotiate the tricky sections with loads on their heads was humbling. Jude gave them extra candy that evening.
|Day 5 ||Barafu High Camp |
|Barafu is perched on a ridge with great views of both Mawenzi and Kibo peaks. There is no water here, it is carried up from Karanga by porters. Again you really appreciate these guys. Jude and I decided that the amount of tip money we were planning to leave them was too low. |
We spent the afternoon drinking as much of that water as we could, in the form of tea, hot chocolate, and soup. The downside of this of course, is the frequent need to use the latrine. The Park Service gives you a certificate if you make it to the top of Kili. The closest latrine to our tent was perched on the edge of a cliff, reached by descending a rocky trail for what seemed like a hundred feet. Jude decided that a certificate should be awarded to anyone who used that latrine and emerged unscathed.
The cook served us an early dinner and we were in our sleeping bags by 7:00 PM, resting for the midnight wakeup. I actually slept soundly for several hours, but Jude later confessed she was nervous and didn't sleep at all.
|Day 6 ||The Summit - Or There And Back Again |
| ||Against Maiko's advice Jude insisted on having coffee at midnight before starting for the top. She does nothing well in the morning until she has her coffee, and climbing Kilimanjaro was not going to be an exception. She stuffed some hand warmers into her mittens, loaded her pockets with more warmers and the Lady Godiva chocolate bars. I put an extra set of camera batteries into my inside pockets, but skipped on the hand warmers. I didn't need those silly things. We headed out into a moonless night at exactly 12:15 AM. Maiko led the way and an experienced porter followed. The four of us each of us had a headlamp or flashlight. |
Several hundred feet above we could see the lights of three other parties who started earlier. Surprisingly, we soon caught up with them, and before long they were hundreds of feet below us. From what I could see everyone in those groups looked young and fit. The only explanation for our remarkable performance is the extra night acclimatizing at Karanga. Jude and I both felt totally fine at the 17,000 foot altitude. We chugged along, pole pole to be certain, but strong and steady. Maiko said he was 100% sure we would reach the top. For the first time I thought so too.
At a rest stop I decided to reconsider Jude's gear list. A couple of those hand warmers would be mighty nice. She avoided editorial comments, but gave some to me, Maiko and our porter. I also stuffed one in the pocket that had the camera batteries. I didn't have a thermometer, but an educated guess is no warmer than minus 10 degrees F.
Jude pulled more of her gear out of her pockets. That Lady Godiva chocolate bar looked far better than my carrot cake Clif Bar. Once again without comment she shared some with the rest of us. Now there was absolutely no question we were headed for the top!
We continued at our steady pace, pausing every few minutes for some deep breaths of thin air, and gazing at the unbelievably star-studded sky. Almost unexpectedly we arrived at Stella Point on the rim of the crater just as the first hints of dawn were appearing in the east. The hard work was finished, and the traverse to Uhuru Peak was done in dreamlike pleasure. We reached the top at 6:15 AM, exactly 6 hours after leaving Barafu Camp. Maiko took the required summit photo of us just as sunlight began to wash over the mountain. A few people from the Marangu route were there already, but we were the first group from Machame. They departed and left us alone for several precious minutes.
The hour or so that we spent on the crater rim now seems like a faded but fantastic dream, something that took place only in our imagination. The change from darkness to light, the icefields glowing with blue light, the stark and vast expanse of the crater, the shadow of the mountain in the sky. I can play it back in my mind now, and looking at the photos helps, but it seems unreal.
Jude later commented that the ascent in the dark was one of her favorite parts of the climb. She enjoyed the zen-like focus that climbing can produce, how you are totally fixed on the present task, with no worries of the future and no concerns about the past. She has not turned into a mountaineer by any means, but she caught a glimpse of what people get from it.
From the experience of the past few days Maiko knew that Jude's descent times were about the same as her ascent, so he was anxious to start down. The guides in general try to herd people off the top quickly. Indeed, we saw someone with cerebral edema who could barely walk. We began our two days of descent.
For Jude this was the most difficult part of the trip. Her bone grafted left leg does not take to getting loaded or twisted, and the first 3,000 feet down to Barafu was a broad, loose scree field. A slip or fall for her could be more serious than for most people, so we took it easy. Other climbers ran down the scree past us, kicking up clouds of dust. This didn't bother Jude since her Red Montbell Microfibre Scarf was now worn as a dusk mask. We moved along at our own pace, and arrived at Barafu Camp shortly before noon to cheers of congratulations from our cook and porters.
Since we knew that Jude has trouble descending our original plan had been to spend an extra night at Barafu. The guides don't like this as there is no water at Barafu, and they like to get people down soon. The standard procedure is to drop yet another 5,000 feet to Mweka Camp, but that would be hard on Jude. Maiko had earlier told us there was a new camp, called Millennium at half the distance to Mweka. This descent was only 2,500' feet, it had water and we agreed that was a good compromise.
After a short rest and lunch at Barafu, we set out for Millennium around 2:00 PM. It was an easy walk for a few hours, but the sight of the camp was welcome.
|Day 7 ||Millennium Camp and Down, Down, Down |
|Millennium is located in the heath zone, surrounded by low scrubby trees, with great views of Kibo, Mawenzi, and Meru. This camp is an excellent option for those who don't want to push all the way down to Mweka from the summit. It is not shown on most maps and not often mentioned in trip reports we read. Discuss this option with your outfitter if it interests you. |
From here there is still a 6,000 foot drop to Mweka Gate. Jude's leg was bothering her from yesterday's descent and we progressed down pole pole. But that was fine, as we better appreciated the beautiful forest we had re-entered, with its unique flowers, birds, and colobus monkeys. You can enjoy these forests for days.
This section of trail has also been recently improved and the stories of sliding on roots and mud are mostly a thing of the past. Occasionally sections of the old trail were visible and it did look grim, but our walking was pleasant.
We arrived at Mweka Gate at 2:00 PM and were duly awarded the cherished certificates, stating that we have "successfully climbed Mount Kilimanjaro the highest peak in Africa, right to the Summit - Uhuru Peak - 5895 m." Jude was the 914th person to climb the mountain in 2005, and I was number 915.
The trek had ended and it was time to return to Arusha for the long awaited hot shower. This was supposed to be the best shower of our lives, but the valve in our hotel got stuck and dumped out all the hot water. Then we couldn't turn off the cold water. We ended up changing rooms and finally got our hot shower the following day, but now it was time for a celebratory cocktail.
Elephants at Last!Four days after standing on top of Kilimanjaro Jude saw elephants in Tarangire National Park, on the first day of our 2-week safari. She was so overwhelmed with emotion that she burst into tears. Our safari guide, William, unused to that behavior, promptly christened her "Mama Tembo", elephant mother. Jude was introduced and known as Mama Tembo for the remainder of the trip.
Safari PhotosOur safari covered the standard Tanzanian "Northern Circuit" route. We visited the Tarangire, Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro, and Serengeti National Parks or Conservation Areas, staying in a combination of camps and lodges. Here are some photos for those interested:
Elephants and baobab trees,
The elephant who charged us,
Lake Manyara NP
Grant's Gazelle and Marabou Stork,
Male Impala and Harem,
Rift Valley escarpment,
Lake Manyara NP
Northern Masked Weaver,
Young Male "Tommy"
OutfitterOur trip was arranged by Tanzania Adventure. I found them using a web search. I wrote to about 10 other outfitters but got great vibes from Ronny and Gibson during our E-mail exchanges. They worked hard to customize a fantastic trip for the two of us. Along with Kilimanjaro it included a 2-week safari and nearly a week on Zanzibar. Everything went perfectly from the time they picked us up at the airport to the time they dropped us off. A highly recommended outfitter. On the mountain they arranged for our guide Maiko (email@example.com), our cook Mishak, and the porters, who all were outstanding.
Daily Elevation and Distance ChartThis data from this table mostly comes from "New Map of the Kilimanjaro National Park", which you will see for sale at Mweka Gate and at many souvenir shops. The elevations on this map are different from those at various web locations, but they are close enough. I don't know which is the most accurate. Distances are also approximate. The summit is highlighted.
Interestingly, on this trip I carried neither an altimeter nor thermometer. Not even a map, very unusual for me. I just figured we'd get where we had to go in due time, the elevation and temperature would be what it was, and I'd just enjoy the journey.
|Day||Start||End||Start Alt.||End Alt.||High Alt.||Distance|
|1||Machame Gate||Machame Camp||6,200||1,890||9,776||2,980||9,776||2,980||11.25||18|
|2||Machame Camp||Shira Camp||9,834||2,980||12,598||3,840||12,598||3,840||5.6||9|
|3||Shira Camp||Barranco Camp||12,598||3,840||12,959||3,950||14,763||4,500||7.5||12|
|4||Barranco Camp||Karanga Camp||12,959||3,950||13,001||3,963||13,780||4,200||3.75||6|
|5||Karanga Camp||Barafu Camp||13,001||3,963||15,091||4,600||15,091||4,600||5||8|
|6||Barafu Camp||Millennium Camp||15,091||4,600||12,500||3,810||19,340||5,895||8.75||14|
|7||Millennium Camp||Mweka Gate||12,500||3,810||5,905||1,800||12,500||3,810||6.25||10|
Route Selection Thoughts In selecting an outfitter while researching our trip to Tanzania we received several recommendations for either the Western Breach or the Rongai routes. The argument was generally that these routes were less crowded than Machame (or Marangu) and that you didn't have to wake up at midnight for the summit day. One outfitter told us that the Western Breach was only slightly harder than Machame. However, I stuck with Machame and am happy for that decision. Coming down the Mweka trail we spoke with more than a dozen people who did the Western Breach. They all said it was miserable. Our guide told us that the rockfall danger was very high, and he didn't like leading it. (Note that I wrote this paragraph before SP member kilimanjaro1 posted his Western Breach route page, but I still offer the above).
As for Rongai, it probably is a lot less crowded than Machame, but from the photos I've seen it appears to be a lot less scenic. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but maybe not: check out the editorial comment on the SP Rongai page. If avoiding crowds is one of your priorities for going to the mountains, then you should just avoid Kilimanjaro.
Finally, Machame has the built-in "climb high, sleep low" acclimatization, provided that you sleep at Karanga. I'd chose that route again. Besides, says Jude, Machame is nicknamed the "whiskey route", and we wouldn't want to go up something called the "coca-cola route"!
SwahiliSwahili is the common language of East Africa. It is fun to learn a few words or phrases before you leave and along the way. The people that you meet really appreciate it, and there is no question that it enhances your trip. It is not too difficult. Heck, even I could do it! Here are some words and phrases that we found useful. I do not vouch for the complete accuracy of the translation and usage, but these all worked for us.
|Jambo / Habari / Mambo||Hello / How are you / What's up?||Mambo is a more familiar greeting, apparently used among friends.|
|Nzuri (sana) / Mambo poa||I'm (very) fine / Cool, man||Again, mambo poa is a more familiar response. People smiled when we used it.|
|Asante (sana) / Karibu||Thank you (very much) / Welcome|
|Tutaonana baadaye / kesho||See you later / tomorrow||This was a good one to know. You could also just say ba-a-daye and the point was made.|
|Tafadahli / Samahani||Please / Excuse me|
|Pole / Pole pole||Sorry / Slowly||Note that one pole means a sympathetic "sorry", but two is slowly. |
(So does pole pole pole mean "sorry that you are slow"?)
|Habari asubui||Good morning||It's easy, each vowel is a syllable: Ha-ba-ri a-su-bu-i|
|Lala salama||Sleep well||La-la sa-la-ma|
|Iko wapi choo?||Where is the toilet?|
|Imara kama simba||Strong like a lion||Jude used this often referring to the porters.|
|Imara kama pimbi||Strong like a rock hyrax||Jude used this referring to herself. A rock hyrax is a rabbit-sized, docile looking mammal that lives in the kopjes of the Serengeti. Surprisingly, it is related to elephants. |
|Twende||Let's go||Maiko would use this when we had been resting too long.|
|Ndio / Hapana||Yes / No||Since the yes word begins with 'N', this actually was easy to screw up.|
|Kahawa / Chai / Maziwa / Maji||Coffee / Tea / Milk / Water||Some of the basics.|
|Bir / Mvinyo||Beer / wine||More of the basics. Fortunately these are easy to remember.|
|Chacula nzuri sana||The food is very good||And so it was, in virtually all cases on our entire trip.|
|Baridi / Moto / Hatari||Cold / Hot / Danger||Moto is weather hot. There is another word for hot, spicy food.|
|Kidogo||Small or little||This worked in describing physical size as well as saying you just wanted a little bit of something.|
|Tembo / Twiga / Simba / Kiboko / Ngiri / Swala||Elephant / Giraffe / Lion / Hippo / Warthog / Impala||These (and others) were fun to use on safari.|
|Hakuna Matata||No problem||A state of mind achievable while on holiday.|
A good website can be found here: Swahili Language and Culture.
BibliographyJude and/or I read the following books prior to departure, or while we were sitting on the beach in Zanzibar. We both enjoy reading up on a place before we visit.
|Kilimanjaro||John Reader||An excellent read, covering all aspects of the mountain written by an old Africa hand. Nice photography. Recommended if you can find a copy. I got mine on Ebay. He has a companion Mount Kenya book . |
|Kilimanjaro - To The Roof of Africa||Audrey Salkeld||The National Geographic companion book to the IMAX movie. Photography by David Breashears. What you would expect from National Geo, a nice publication. |
|The Shadow of Kilimanjaro||Rick Ridgeway||Highly recommended account of a walk through Kenya from the summit of Kilimanjaro to the Indian Ocean, with an interesting cast of characters. Insightful observations on conservation and hunting. A great read, written by a first American to climb K2.|
|The Exploration of Africa ||Jean de la Gueriviere||Lavishly illustrated large-format introduction to the early explorers of the entire continent. I stumbled on it at a used book fair and picked up a copy at a cheap price. |
|Out of Africa||Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen)||The classic book of colonial East Africa. I read it on a long flight coming home from an overseas business trip, and was enchanted by it. A must read if you are going to Africa. Much better and different than the movie. |
|The Flame Trees of Thika ||Elspeth Huxley||Another classic of growing up in colonial Kenya. Jude read this one and enjoyed it immensely.|
|Snow on the Equator||H.W. Tilman||The great explorer's first book, written about his days in Kenya. During this time he began his long association with Eric Shipton. Tilman wrote about the frozen leopard near the summit, and there is speculation this was the inspiration for Hemingway's opening lines in The Snows of Kilimanjaro.|
|The Lunatic Express - An Entertainment in Imperialism||Charles Miller||History of the construction of the Mombasa - Kampala railroad at the turn of the 19th century. Jude got the book out of the library and fell in love with it, so I bought a copy off a used book site on the web. I have not read it yet, but will soon. Perhaps the best known story regarding this railroad are the man-eating lions of Tsavo, which the movie The Ghost and the Darkness recounts.|
|The End of The Game ||Peter Beard||A glimpse of Africa that was disappearing right out from under the author in the 1960's, and he knew it. His views on hunting and population are controversial and thought-provoking. Highly masterful and evocative photography throughout, though sometimes disturbing to look at. I scored a nice copy of the 1988 revised edition on Ebay. |
|The Africans ||David Lamb||A look at colonial and post-colonial Africa from a reporter who was there in the late '70s and early '80s. What went wrong, and on occasion, right. Slightly dated since it was written when the Cold War and apartheid were still on the world stage, but AIDS and Al-Qaeda had not yet appeared. Still, a valuable read if you don't know much about recent African history. Recommended. |
|Dark Star Safari ||Paul Theroux ||He can sometimes be annoyingly self-righteous and focuses on the negative (which there is a lot of in Africa, admittedly), but Theroux is an observant traveler and this is an impressive journey. His views on the failure of NGOs are interesting. Read the David Lamb book first if you don't know much about Africa. |
|The Tree Where Man Was Born||Peter Matthiessen||Jude is finishing this one now and says it is beautifully descriptive narrative of traveling across East Africa. There is a large format edition with photos by Eliot Porter. It can be picked up cheap on amazon. |
|The Safari Guide||Richard Estes||More than a field guide, possibly the best book for understanding the behavior of the animals you will see on safari. We debated bringing it (a bit heavy) but were glad we did. It made for great after game drive reading, and we wound up giving it as a gift to our guide who was delighted with it. We are buying another copy.|
|Common Birds of East Africa||Withers & Hosking||A small Collins field guide that does a good job covering most of the birds you will see on a typical safari. Since it is small and light you won't mind carrying it around. I also have the Princeton field guide Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania, (another Ebay deal), but decided it was too heavy to lug along.|