Nairobi. Evening. We have just gone out of the plane. We are welcomed by African summer heat, while still the same day,when driving to the Airport of Brussels, we were trembling of cold. Kenyan passport control carefully examines and takes a picture of each traveller, as well as takes their fingerprints. I had seen such a strict control only in the USA.
Agency driver meets us at the airport and few minutes later he already demonstrates us his skills. Mini-van, which waits for us, is imprisoned by other jeeps, and only through a joint support to each other, drivers manage to avoid a collision. Soon after, we are already rushing towards our hotel for a night. The next morning we are starting our trip to the country we dreamed about for so long: Tanzania.
Although Kenya has managed to enchant us, this time we wished only to „taste“ it a little bit. Journey by a local minibus from Nairobi to Arusha is an exciting introduction to Tanzania's heart. Peak of Africa, Serengeti call, seductive azure sea... - these are the main reasons of our trip.
About five hours lasting rumbling by minibus does not appear too long. We are surprised by everything. Starting from quality of road, which is something that Belgians should take an example. Driving is on the left side of the road, obviously an heritage of the Great Britain‘s colonial times. Cars are mainly Japanese, and, in particular, of Toyota production. Although we take a national road, it is open to everybody: jeeps, overluggaged buses, cyclists, pedestrians driving bogies, donkeys, cows, and of course ....Giraffes. Giant birds with red dewlap fly over our heads. Aren‘t we by any chance in Jurassic Park?
Leo and I can not leave our cameras out of hands. This visibly makes laughing other passengers for whom images surrounding us are of a daily life. Leo and myself are the only white people in this bus. And we are interested in everything! Hence, for example, a group of Masai warriors. These men dressed in red, armed with spears and sticks, are quietly chatting in the shade of trees, while a bit further, their children are herding animals. It looks like a picture of a postcard.
Then, suddenly from nowhere, Kilimanjaro mountain, our goal, pops out in front of our eyes. We can hardly believe that this „small mountain“ is the highest peak of Africa. By precaution, before expressing any joy, we hurry up to cross-check it on the map. Then large smiles appear on our faces, and our eyes begin to explore characteristics of this suddenly „enormous“ mountain.
When driving along Kili, and especially after having passed it, we can notice more and more villages longing the road until Arusha. The adventure begins.
Jambo, Africa! Jambo Tanzania!
JOURNEY TO THE TOP OF AFRICA
1. Holy mountain Meru
Mount Meru is a 4565 m high "dormant" volcano. Thousands of years ago, Meru was even taller than Mount Kilimanjaro (5895 m). However, time passing, and mountain Meru getting older and older, it can not anylonger compete with its brother Kilimanjaro, solemnly standing about seventy kilometres further.
Despite this, Mount Meru remains one of the ten highest and most impressive mountains of the African continent. Its exuberant nature calls those who want to touch the sky without being disturbed by an excessive influx of tourists, or see an opportunity to practice this mountain before climbing Kili. Thanks to less attention offered by tourists, Mount Meru still hosts some savage life. You can see buffalo, giraffes and zebras quietly grazing at its feet..., and if you climb up slightly higher, you may even find footprints of an elephant or a leopard. It looks like it‘s not with no reason that regulation of the park Meru requires hikers to be accompanied by an armed ranger. Though, porters travel without any security nor weapons.
Climbing up to the summit of Meru, including going it down, takes in total four days, even though, in theory, it is possible to do it in two days. For Leo and myself it was important to make sure that our bodies get used to the high altitude, therefore we were not in rush.
Momela Gate (1500 m) opens for us the start of the exploit. Although we arrive there relatively early, we start being impatient for good couple of hours, time that it takes for our guide to negotiate with administration of the park about necessary number of porters. It is not compulsory to have porters for the climbing of mount Meru, though it is pleasantly comfortable. Both Leo and myself entrusted only 5-6 kg of our goods to the porters; as for the rest (mainly clothes against rain and lunch appetizers), we carried it on our own. Despite all this, we were accompanied by a full equipage of nine people: ranger (compulsory, thought one had to share him with other groups), guide, cook, and six porters, out of which one was also serving us food. Somehow it made me think about colonial times, don‘t you think so? Well, personally for us it did not appear that there was a need to have so many people coming with us. The truth was revealed a bit later when our guide told that initially it was planned to have four porters, selected personally by him, to carry our belongings and food; only that the park administration obliged to take two additional porters. This type of situation is not such a rare case in this country, where due to high unemployment and corruption, one is always trying to employ their family and friends whenever possible. Finding a job for others may also be interesting if it is agreed that in exchange, the „lucky“one will give part of his received payment to the one who helped to get a job. In our case, it was our agency that paid the porters; however, in the culture of this country, it is normal to leave also per diem, which actually are representing almost half of a total payment.
The climbing during the first two days was not difficult. Only rain, that made a benediction of this walk, had created some troubles. Our clothes had no time to dry that the sky would pour us over again. Yet, there was plenty of enchantment for our eyes, with beautiful images of jungle, happy monkeys playing in the branches of the trees and from nowhere appearing giraffes on our road. Mysterious footprints were intriguing and stimulating our imagination: maybe our ranger has actually a reason to be here with us?
Once arrived to our huts for a night, we would receive some tea, popcorns and biscuits to regain forces. Afterwards, depending on the time of our arrival, the cook would prepare a lunch or a dinner. Absolutely delicious! None of us could believe such magic plates could be done in the mountains. All our doubts about necessity to have a cook had evaporated from the very first day. The cook became an integral part of the trip.
At lunch time of the second day we were already at 3570 m high, where we installed ourselves in the rooms of Saddle Hut. After lunch, once it finished raining, we went out for a prospection hiking: Little Mount Meru (3820 m). It was a very light and joyful walk, as we were carrying only a bottle of water and our cameras. From the top of Little Meru, we were observing the road to be challenged at the approaching night. The road was going on the very side of the Mount Meru. It was probably the only time when we could clearly see the crater of Mount Meru. The last time that the volcano erupted was about one hundred years ago. The locals are worried when Meru will wake up again. In the evening, we went to sleep early. The final climbing to the top started at 1 am. This time only Leo, our guide, ranger and myself were travelling. The ranger was not obliged to come, it was up to him to decide. Other groups went away slightly earlier or slightly later than us, depending on their personal judgement on their physical form.
Heaven vaults, pared by millions of stars, made a romantic effect on us. One wished to immortalise forever this moment, yet its true magic can survive only in our memories. We were climbing slooowly slooowly (pole pole). This is the only means on how to make your organism used to the changes of the atmospheric pressure, and offer to oneself more chances to reach the summit. Rather quickly I got warm, and had to remove some of my clothes. I kept only a light skiing underwear and a very light jacket. Ok, also two pans – but this was for protection against possible, yet unexpected, rain. And indeed, the rain, it wasn’t what we would have lacked. The evening before, we had noticed several regiments of clouds gathering all together. In view of this starry sky at the moment of climbing, we had totally forgotten about the seen clouds. Memory came back when after two hours of climbing, stars had suddenly disappeared and it started raining.
Up to then, we were used that after an hour or two, the rain would slow down, and eventually stop, allowing us to dry up a little bit. Unfortunately, this time the Sky prepared for us a surprise: it was raining without stop. In a hurry, I managed somehow to put all the clothes against rain that I was bringing with me (not so much, in reality,as we were expecting much “drier” days). In the meantime, the guide was helping me to protect also my bagpack. The stormy rain was hiding any possible view from our eyes. Hungry and wet like a chicken, I was feeling more and more in a difficulty to continue my climbing. Rather steep and slippery stones (and in some places ice and snow) didn’t help either. I was probably looking rather miserable that my ranger had a pity of me and took my bagpack. Getting rid of this additional weight, obviously, made me move faster, yet I also started freezing. Indeed, the bagpack, while uncomfortable at that particular moment, was having an advantage to provide me with an additional layer to protect my back from cold and rain. Now, I was keeping going wet like a chicken, and the summit was not getting closer at all. And the rain kept going, sometimes with a mixture of snow. “When it gets tough, the tough gets going” – this credo of Leo was providing some forces at this rather unpleasant moment.
After a while, as the suffering was persisting, one had to take a decision. Only 100-150 m of altitude climbing was remaining, an equivalent to one hour walk. All of us wet until the last piece of fibre, yet none of us daring to propose to turn and go back. Only Leo keeps asking me whether I am ok, whether I can continue the walk, and whenever he thinks I do not hear him, discretely he asks to the guide whether one should not send me down. No, it’s not yet time! – I retort to him. I know that I still have enough of forces, even if there is no longer pleasure. At the same time, with every step made, it gets colder and colder. I feel that an everlasting cold may seriously affect my health. Kili climbing is planned in three days; it’s really not a right time to get sick. Common sense prevails. The thought that « there are no limits for madness » crosses my mind and it is with a resentment that I call to Leo: « let’s go down ». I feel how suddenly everybody seems relieved: men had avoided an unpleasant situation “to give up”. Everybody starts climbing down, because it is a woman who wants to go back. I turn my eyes up for the last time, but through the fog and rain, one can see strictly nothing. Clearly, Mount Meru does not want to allow us until its top. Why so? Who is guilty? Is it Meru’s enchantment? (Locals have used to believe that Meru is a holy mountain) Or is it my own fault, since I am a bloody capitalist, who is struggling to reach the “Socialist Peak”? It is with resentment that I go down, because I know that we had enough strength to reach the summit. And yet, this was a right decision. Rain kept accompanying us almost a full road back.
Once down back to Saddle Hut, we have one small hour to change, have breakfast and prepare our bagpacks again. I notice I have only one dry t-shirt remaining, and not so clean anylonger. I take out all of my wet clothes, and quickly jump inside of a sleeping bag. Leo lends me the remaining dry pair of gloves. My teeth are knocking to each other because of cold. After a while, when feeling slightly better, I find some forces to pick up the hands’ and feet warmers out of my bag. In theory, these small “pillows” should react with oxygen and warm up. In practice, there was strictly no effect. Whatever I was trying to do with these warmers, they remained ‘unresponsive’ as before. Only one hour later, one could start feeling them warming up gently, but we were already on our road again.
The rain killed not only me and Leo. From all the hikers of our travel, only two men reached the top (and saw nothing from there): one did it because of his determination, while the second one – because his climbing fees (quite expensive) were offered by the first one. Once at the Saddle Hut, we were all united by the freezing air, totally wet clothes and a strong willingness to go down to the civilisation as quickly as possible. We knew that an extremely long way was ahead of us – additional 5 to 6 hours of walk; while we were feeling terribly tired. Yet, noone wished to spend a single night anylonger on Mount Meru, as this was planned initially. Our single desire was a warm shower and clean clothes.
The last couple of hours of that walk were exceptionally tiring. It was like through the fog that I could see an amazing landscape, which, like on purpose, has been kissed by Sun. It was with indifference that I was staring at playful monkeys or a team of unfriendly buffalos. My legs were not cooperative with each other, and were taking opposite directions. Once I would sit down to rest, it would be almost impossible to get up and keep going… However, after 12.5h of walk, we finally reached our target: Momela gates….and certainly a well merited two days’ rest ahead of a Great March.
2. Kilimanjaro: impossible journey
Kibo. Ah? It is impossible!
Long long time ago, when Europeans were only “discovering” Africa, one of them was thrown by destiny to the North of Tanganika. It happened in such way that this man was an honoured writer and explorer. At least this is how he thought. The writer – explorer liked veeeery much Tanganika and its beautiful landscape. Whenever he would notice something new, he would write it down with details into his notebook, so that later on, he could pass this relevant information to his country. And become even more famous.
Thus, within his travelling, the writer-explorer ended up at the feet of an ENOOOOOOURMUOUS MOOOOOUNTAIN, standing on a totally flat prairie, and climbing up higher above the clouds. Wow! – he thought. “This is absolutely MARVELUOUS. I have to inform about it my country.” The writer-explorer started to look for a local to tell him the name of the mountain. Previously he had already noticed some villages of tribes in the surroundings. It happens that the very first man he met was from a chagga tribe. “What is the name of this mountain?” – asked the writer-explorer, pointing out at the mountain. (In these times, gestural language was the most used tool of communication among the first Europeans and the locals of Tanganika). “This guy is totally crazy; does he really wishes to cross over this mountain? – thought the chagga man, and replied in chagga language: “This is an impossible journey!” Yet, what the writer-explorer had heard was : Kilimandjaro! And he noted the name in his notebook.
Smile in his face, the writer-explorer asked an additional question to his new friend: “and how is called the summit of this mountain?”, and once more pointed with his finger towards the top. „Kibo!“ replied chagga man and having shrugged his shoulders, went away.
After a while, the country of the writer-explorer published his article about the amazing mountain of Kilimandjaro and its even more amazing summit Kibo; and this information flied over the full World.
Whether it is a legend or a truth, only God knows; yet it was told to us by a true chagga person, and already this merits believing it. ;)
2.1.Preparation for the travel
Preparation to this travel has started long time ago – about few years ago, when having discovered the taste of mountains, I have started been interested in the summits of the World. At that time, some photos of Kilimandjaro had attracted my attention. Within my readings about that mountain, I learned that its climbing is not technically difficult. Therefore, I decided, I really MUST do it! ;)
While searching for possible travel partners, I tried to convince many of my friends and also people from various travelling fora – without results. Then, as a sign of desperation, I offered a map of Kilimadjaro mountain to Leo. This made the Sun shine and Hope to reappear ;)
We were preparing our hiking a full year. Whenever it was possible, we tried to spend our week-ends and holidays in an active way: treks, skiing, climbing trees…. Clearly, all this is also my hobby. Yet, Kili provided an additional motivation. For example, just to go out for a hiking when it rains, not sure I would have done it on my own, without having a more challenging objective in front of me. (This said, such exercises in the rain would not have harmed if we would have done them even more frequently –rain is not what Belgium is missing ;)
There was, however, one thing about which we were concerned: how our organisms are going to react to the high altitude. Both literature and doctors were telling the same: it does not matter whether a person is sportive or not, everybody can get sickness of mountains. It sounds a bit mystical, no? In the past, I was interpreting sickness of mountains as an invincible attraction to the mountains. As if you were crazy about it; or ‘sick’ in other words. I would have never thought to associate such sickness to the headache, nausea, disappearance of appetite, and even less with a death.
Mount Meru was a great experience to check out how solid we are, how do we react to the changes of atmospheric pressure. Already at that stage we understood that we can climb until at least 4500 m altitude without any doubt, and without any medicines that were prescribed to us.
We also understood how stupidly we behaved having left in Brussels some of essential clothes and equipments for our climbing: rain cloth, additional gloves and gaiters to protect our shoes from rain. We had, therefore, to make a travel to Moshi in order to buy or rent these few missing things.
Who wouldn’t like to be accompanied to the travel by Kisses? Or maybe somebody would like that Kisses show us the way? ;) During all the travelling time at Kili, I was convinced that our guide is named Bacci. It is probably my ignorance of his true name – Batchi – that inspired in me romantic efforts to seek for the summit of the mountain. And to seek also for kisses ;)
Apart Batchi, there were eight other guys accompanying us: assistant of guide, a fabulous cook (niam niam niam!), five porters and one special porter who would serve us also the meal.
Contrary to the Mount Meru, this time a high number of equipage was more justified: besides food for a full week, porters had to carry also a slightly more heavy staff of Leo and mine, but also tents and….small table and couple of chairs! I know, you are jealous for this comfort;) To say the truth, we were quite astonished about it. However, should you be interested, our comfort was a rather elementary one compared to what some other hikers had: just by paying few hundred euros more, they also ensured for themselves a transportable toilet! Probably they were not aware that the mountain is full of trees and rocks.
Freedom to wish, freedom to believe, freedom to act… Freedom of mountains.
In Lithuania, we well know that sometimes Freedom, Independence are not easily reachable. Sometimes, this requires mountains of time, faith and efforts.
Inhabitants of Tanzania also know and valuate it. 2011 marked a fifty years old Anniversary when Tanganyika gained its Independence from the Great Britain. In 1961, in order to immortalize it and remind to everybody how long and difficult road to the Freedom might be, the nation of Tanganyika renamed the summit of Kibo towards “Uhuru” name, which means Freedom. Maybe that’s why many people, having reached the summit, feel some kind of relief, and start crying from joy.
My path to the summit of Freedom was not an easy one either. From the very first day, because of an excessive airconditioner at the hotel, I got a flue. Rain, our faithful escort, didn’t allow me to recover. And besides this, there was this awful awful awful animal that scared me on the first day! Through the two pants I was wearing, I could feel how it is running through my leg and tries to bite. I was so much scared just even thinking about how this ferocious animal looks like, that despite it was raining cats and dogs, I had to ask our guide to help me taking out my pants and free…no, not me. To free this animal, which appeared to be just a small ant. Thanks God, there were no other adventurous animals through my pants for the rest of the travel.
From all the possible paths towards the Summit (there are about six), we were choosing our road by our preferences on drinks. Leo decided that he already grew up from the Coca-Cola age, and that whisky suits him better according to his age (this is actually true, as I have seen him rather regularly training himself with a glass of whisky before the trek). This is why we opted for a Whisky road, also called Machame road. However, Leo was a bit disappointed by this choice, as in no place within that road he could find anybody offering whisky.
Now more seriously: Machame is considered as one of two the most requiring and impressive roads. Only Umbwe road is overtaking it in terms of difficulty. The trek lasts six days. Four of them plus one night are devoted for climbing up, and two days – for descent. Like for the Mount Meru, the real difficulty depends on how fast and well each one’s organism is going to acclimatise. Solution for this: to go slowly slowly like little turtles (pole pole coma kobe). Also it is said that one needs to eat and to drink a lot. We had a bit of difficulties with drinking. While at the beginning, the cook would boil three litters of water for each of us, very quickly we passed to 1-1.5 l, as we were not managing to drink more than this, and were, therefore, carrying unnecessary weight. For the food, on the contrary, we didn’t have to force ourselves at all. Meals were so delightful, that we were always excited about arriving to the camp and wondering “what kind of great things our cook is going to prepare today?”.
Landscape of Kilimandjaro appeared to me more diverse than the one of Mount Meru. Most of the road we were exposed to green colour and even some flowers. Climbing up, trees were becoming more and more rare, until the moment when we were encircled only by bushes, and after a while – by stones and large empty landscapes. Probably one of the most impressive moment was a place with three “walls” of rocks, going one after another. In certain places, the path was becoming very narrow and exposed. Sometimes I felt slightly concerned, when looking down. However, as soon as my eyes would notice porters, I would get all my forces and courage back. Indeed, these brave men, lead by higher motivation than us (in the meaning of feeding their families, making possible to send their children to school…), were climbing these rocks with hands in pockets, while enormous heavy packs were put on their heads and backs. It’s them, the real heroes of Kilimandjaro.
(Between parentheses, I would like to point out that Leo and myself didn’t abuse of these people. We hired on purpose a costlier travel agency in order to make sure that it will provide them a proper salary and good trek conditions: food during the travel, good quality tents, not overcharged bags to be carried…. It may sound like elementary, yet we saw that porters of some other agencies were very poorly dressed and were carrying with tears in eyes so much overcharged bags. They also slept in tents which a wind could easily cross and without anything on the ground to keep them less cold. Batchi ensured us that our travel agency provides to him and to other people of the equipage very good work conditions.) Coming back to the trek itself, for me the most memorable moment was the last stage of climbing – closer to the Heavens. It was symbolic and holy at the same time: it took place during the Christmas night. We started climbing soon after midnight, from 24th to 25th December, starting at 4600 m Barafu (Ice) camping. Going out from the tent: freezing freezing. I had a pain in throat and problem with a flue. It was impossible to breath in any way. No medicines were helping, neither did menthol sweets for throat. We wearied only necessary clothes for the climbing, and this time we were carrying solely a bottle of hot water, few biscuits and a small piece of chocolate. Nothing else. The guide and his assistant did not take anything at all. It was dark everywhere and path was illuminated only by our mini-projectors. When looking up or down, we could see small lights lazily, phlegmatically jumping here and there. These were projectors of other climbers. Totally down in the valley, Moshi city was sparkling with its small stars. As we were slowly moving forward, I tried to croon to myself Christmas songs, however quickly I lacked forces. Because of a heavy flue, I had to stop frequently. I could see that this was bothering our guide who would have preferred to keep the rhythm when walking. Every stop takes out forces from men, and it makes more difficult to regain the rhythm. For me, on the contrary, these stops were a salvation. It was an opportunity to make my nose temporarily free, to drink (hot.warm…cool….cold……icy……) water, to throw a sweet in my mouth. However, it was also a moment when I got even colder, and had to put all three pairs of gloves that I had as well as the “warmers for hands” which we already unsuccessfully tried on Mount Meru. The only though that was crossing my mind is: “will I manage? Will I succeed?” Running nose was totally exhausting me, and at a certain moment, with tears in eyes, I told to the guide: “I don’t know if I will manage…” At that moment we were “only” at 5000 m altitude. “DON’T GIVE UP” Batchi replied to me staring sharp in my eyes. “Don’t give up” – like an echo, repeated Hadji, assistant of the guide. It was exactly these words that were pronounced at right moment, provided me supernatural forces to keep going up. Later, Batchi told me that I had totally changed and almost ran up the mountain, while in theory, higher you go, more difficult it should have been.
Just for the sake of truth, and in order that Leo does not point out at me with his finger, I must say that the last part of the hike, Batchi was carrying my bagpack containing water. It was a symbolic support from Batchi, yet changing nothing in the final result. It was his words, not his actions that made a miracle at that Christmas night.
The last 100-200 m until Stella stop (5700 m) were the most difficult ones. While we were approaching 6h of the morning, it was still very dark, while road became steep and gravelling. It was hard to move forward. It’s when we were almost at the Stella point, that from the sea of clouds, we saw rising the Sun, and a Kilimandjaro song has sounded at the mountain. Would you like to hear it? I don’t know how to put our team’s registered song, but I found also on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C3A0YI7_uj4
Once we reached Stella (Star) point,I couldn’t keep my tears in eyes. From that moment, the remaining hour of walk until Uguru top was (almost) a joke. My feet were simply carrying me. (Or was it my guide’s assistant carrying me? ;) Jokes apart, he was indeed walking besides, and supporting me by hand until we reached THE ROOF OF AFRICA. :) You will ask “what was the feeling?”. Nondescript. Everything was so much different from what I had imagined up to then. My brain was switched off; it was cold and difficult to orientate myself on what was happening. It was difficult to understand that YOU ARE ALREADY HERE. Eyes tried to catch and to memorise every single image, but everything was happening so quickly. Leo took several poses in front of camera at the Uhuru sign. Then he called me to join. After couple of photos together, I also wished to have a photo with ‘just me’, given the fact he likes to remain a mystery in my stories. However, Leo just pushed me away from the sign, telling “we need to leave the place also for others” (these “others” were just 6-8 people, happily waiting for their turn, and not in a hurry at all when taking pictures). In another situation, I would just have sent Leo to hell. Yet, Uhuru makes a mess in your reasoning; you feel totally another person. This said, I feel it important to note that during all this climbing, I was carrying flags of Lithuania and Tanzania towards the Freedom. And I reached this Freedom! :)
In my memory, I managed to immortalize glaciers of a fabulous beauty. Gigantic, glorious. Their beauty was making us blind. I am proud that I could see them myself. Scientists are forecasting that glaciers of Kilimandjaro may totally melt in the next ten years.
While going down the mountain, I was not walking anylonger, I was flying. Despite the 14h lasting travel on that day, I did not feel real tiredness. What I was feeling, it was called FREEDOM.
 Hello ! (swahili language)
 Slowly slowly (swahili language)
 Ah ? This is impossible !– in chagga language
 Bacci means Kisses in Italian language