In 2007, I travelled to Africa to conquer the world's highest freestanding mountain, and one of the Seven Summits.
This had always been my # 1 bucket list item, since I was 17, before I had even heard of the bucket list. I knew I just had to do it.
Originally, to be honest, it was mostly about me....my dreams, and to fulfil one for a past but not forgotten friend, who told me about this beautiful mountain, and how altitude sickness forced him off it before he could summit. I took a part of him with me to the top.
As fate had it, I randomly came across a group of wonderful people who were raising money and awareness for AIDS and education in Africa,
(through Rotary), and climbing 'Kili' was their major fundraiser. So, agreeing to help raise money, I joined their team of 15 and we set out for an adventure of a lifetime.
It soon became so much more than about 'me'.
(* We ended up raising $160,000 for AIDS and education in Africa.)
I have created other posts about my experiences on this African adventure, such as an incredible camping safari on the Serengeti, where we were unbelievably fortunate to witness the Persaids Meteor Shower - whilst listening to lions and hyenas not far from our unfenced campsite...
Also a crazy overnight train trip from Nairobi to Mombasa, as well as snorkelling the 'not-so' tranquil, azure waters of Zanzibar, so you can read them first if you want to stay in order - or not, they could easily be stand alone trips in their right!
This is straight from my hand written journal;
a story of how it was, raw, and to the point.
So, grab a coffee, or a wine, and sit back and let me take you to the freezing slopes and high altitude of Africa's Queen...Mount Kilimanjaro.
Well, here I am! I'm sitting at the Machame Gate entrance to the
Mt Kilimanjaro National Park.
We have donned our gortex jackets, gators and waterproof pants; signed the climber log with our name, nationality and passport number and shortly we'll be on our way!
I've waited over 20 years for this, and it's hard to believe that I'm
actually sitting here.
I know it's going to be extremely hard; my backpack weighs around 8 kilos as well we have to carry 3 litres of water, along with our camera, sunscreen, munchies and warm and waterproof clothing.
It's the water that weighs so much. I will have my own porter who will carry my duffle bag that contains all the gear I don't need to have during the day. These bags are limited to 15 kilos, as the porters carry these on their heads!
Besides the 3 litres of water each day we need to drink to help avoid the effects of altitude sickness, we must further ingest another 2 or more litres of cups of tea/porridge/soup etc, just to keep the fluids up. Dehydration is your enemy, and you may succumb to altitude sickness
because of it.
Our guide Elias, is fantastic, and I'm confident that if I do what I'm told,
and go 'Pole-pole'... pronounced 'poley'...
(Swahili for slowly, slowly) I'm confident I'll give my best shot! OK, we're off!
We started out in glorious rainforest.
It wasn't long before the porters started overtaking us.
There are 16 in our team, plus 2 members of Albatross company; Kidana and Margaret, who are climbing alongside us.
We have Elias and Moses as our head mountain guides, 4 junior guides, 6 cooks, 2 assistant cooks, and 54 porters to carry all our equipment and supplies, AND US, if we need to be evacuated.
We trekked long and hard.
Uphill, uphill, uphill and through and into the clouds. Sharon (one of my safari buddies) and I were together for the most part,
which I like as we have a similiar pace and sense of humour.
Today was 18 kilometres, 7 hours or so, and we rose from 1800 metres to 2980 metres. Quite a big effort for our first day! The forest was dripping with moss, no monkeys though sadly, but extraordinarily beautiful all the same. We did however, have to give way to a column of African army ants on the march though - those guys aren't to be messed with.
The group broke up a bit just before we made camp, (which, for the record, is always "just two more hours", or "just over the next ridge"...) We had our head torches on by now as darkness had fallen, and suddenly Sharon and I felt ourselves having to walk fast to try to catch up, but that only increased our breathing and heart rate immediately due to the higher altitude, so we decided to slow back to the
'pole- pole' pace.
Just as we came across our first camp, Machame Hut, we felt lost because of the sheer number of tent sites amongst the trees,
and we didn't know which one was ours. Just as we were feeling a little panicky, one of our guides, Paul,
came to our rescue.
Phew! Lost on night 1, that's a good start! lol
We walked up to the Machame Hut where we had to sign in, then down to the site where our porters introduced themselves to us, (mine is named Stephen, not hard for me to remember as that's one of my brother's names.)
Anna and I checking our our lux accommodation for the next week. ;)
Anna, a girl from South Africa who we were sponsoring for the trip, was to be sharing my
two-man tent with me.
Unfortunately I had scored one of the skinny sleeping mats, (about 1/2 cm of foam thick-or 'thin' I should say...) and Anna had the slightly thicker air mattress.
This was going to have to change tomorrow, hopefully there is a spare air mattress, as this foam was equivalent to lying on bricks.
Hot water in tubs were brought to us to wash our face and hands,
and boy it felt sooooo nice!
Dinner was to be served at 9pm, so we had time to change into our thermals and ski pants etc. Nice comfy and warm camp clothing.
This is when my dramas unfolded.
After ALL the careful packing and endless repacking and reorganising last night - (to only bring exactly what I needed, nothing extra)...I couldn't find my thermal tops and bottoms! Oh no!!! What was I going to do? Shite! I had bought 3 sets of each and they weren't in my bag. BUGGER!!
I truly needed my thermals, I'd be in huge trouble without them as we ascend towards minus 15 degree temperatures towards the summit.
So Anna reluctantly returned the thermal top I had lent her as an extra, (as I knew at the time of repacking that I had extra), and I went down to the dinner tent in quite a cranky pants mood. I was so mad at myself.
All my careful planning and purchasing had gone to waste.
I had inadvertently packed them into my 'spare stuff' suitcase that was left in storage back at the Arusha hotel.
Anyway, the generosity of my fellow climbers came to the fore, and Linda and Kat lent me 2 pairs of long johns. Phew, and Albatross staff said they had extra if required.
Dinner, as per usual with this amazing company, was fantastic.
Two large tents with tables, chairs and Maasai tablecloths, three courses of food, and even candles. We were all fairly tired, yet thrilled to be here.
Kilimanjaro loomed in the distance; her glimmering snow cap shining under the 'nearly full moon', was beckoning us.
But for now, it's time to retire these weary bodies to our tents for some well earned sleep. 'Lala salama'. (Sleep safely.)
OK, don't want to sound like a negative Nellie, but that was the WORST SLEEP of my life.
I barely slept a wink. The sleeping pad was non-existent, and we had our bags in the tent, in-between us, (otherwise they'd freeze outside) - which made us feel like sardines. It was just woeful.
The ground was so hard and bumpy, I truly felt like the princess and the pea - less the mattress!
I got up and out of the tent and saw Sharon, and I just about cried. I was so very tired, and after such a big day yesterday, I was really hoping, and expecting, to crash exhausted and get some sleep.
Oh well, suck it up, buttercup!
I spoke to my porter Stephen, and begged him to see if he could find me an air mattress.
Breakfast was plentiful, and I made sure I had 2 servings of porridge, and skipped the toast. Gotta keep those fluids up!
I have seen photos online of Kilimanjaro climbers, standing, eating their piece of toast having picked it off a blue tarp on the ground.
They didn't even have camp chairs!
Our set up was pure luxury next to that!
Off we left about 9am, towards our next site, Shira Camp, which was to be only 9 kms today, raising high though, to 3840 metres, but the first section before lunch was apparently insanely steep - like about a 45 degree pitch for 3-4 hours. Thank goodness I trained as hard as I did over the last 18 months, as the legs copped an absolute pounding.
We made it through the Rainforest, to the Heath zone and onto the Moorlands. The vegetation keeps getting shorter and shorter the higher we climb. Plus, it's getting colder. No rain thankfully!
The lunch site was our two mess tents, all set up beautifully as usual, and 3 courses consisting of delicious soup, salad, tuna salad, and fruit.
We were all famished and always go for the double helping of soup, which the cooks are more than willing to oblige.
So imperative to keep up the fluids to try to avoid altitude sickness, which the symptoms are starting to appear, in the form of headaches.
Elias, our leader, always telling us "Sip, sip."
Michael, one of our two resident ambulance drivers back home,
(Peter is the other), tested our oxygen levels in our blood, and our pulse, as we sat and rested a little after lunch.
At sea level, the level of oxygen in your blood is usually between 95 and 100%.
90% would see you in an ambulance and 80% you'd be in big trouble.
Mine came through at 79%!
Holy high altitude Batman!
By resting, the second reading had crept up to 88. Still very low, but a typical reading for all of us. Elias came in at a whopping 94%.
This is what high altitude does to you, and shows how it's a silent killer,
if allowed to go unnoticed, or ignored.
Our guides are always asking us how we felt.
My resting heart rate was 89, again, fairly similar to most of the group, however one of our climber's resting pulse came in at 120, and she was feeling it.
Time to keep movin'.
After lunch was an easier walk, but it was still fairly late as we pulled into camp.
Today's climb was a ripper. It was basically 'pole, pole'- slowly ascending to a high point for lunch,
then we were to drop down in altitude a little, so we can use this day,
and tomorrow for acclimatisation purposes.
The idea is climb high and sleep low.
So in essence, we were climbing 1000 metres in altitude, then descending and sleeping only 100 metres higher than the night before. We will be getting closer in distance, but spending 2 days around a similar altitude.
You can climb Kilimanjaro much quicker than the way we are doing it, but this way gives us much more chance of summiting. Why would you risk not achieving the summit, or worse...even death, just to perhaps save a couple hundred bucks?
Today, by lunchtime I was suffering a screaming headache. I had already taken a headache pill at breakfast, so I took some more and hoped it helped.
Headaches are the first sign of altitude sickness, and as it was, I wasn't the only one suffering - a lot of our team had headaches.
Its crucial you don't take anything stronger than say Nurofen or Panadol, as a heavy painkiller may disguise serious symptoms - something you must not do. Cerebral oedema means your brain swells into your skull (hence the headaches) and you die. Pulmonary oedema - fluid goes into your lungs and you drown.
We all had our oxygen and pulses taken again - my oxygen level again was super low, pretty much dead at sea level, but hey, I'm still here! Pulse was 86.
We were very close to the slopes of Kilimanjaro now, and were dressed accordingly. Thermals underneath our hiking trousers and fleece jumpers with gortex jackets in our packs in case of rain - which I might add, still hasn't hindered our trip.
After lunch, we had two choices of direction to travel. The climbers feeling more energetic could take the more challenging route to the rocky outcrop called the "Lava Tower', and others could opt for the
2 & 1/2 hour downhill hike (ended up being 5 hours...they never told us how long things were - which kept us positive)... to our next overnight camp.
My head was literally pounding and I was feeling unwell due to the altitude - so after my second dose of Nurofen for the day, I chose the easier route.
Sharon headed towards the Lava Tower, (she's always up for a challenge) and as it happened, it stood as a good decision as she had to conquer her fear of heights by scaling the Tower. Tomorrow's hike is near vertical so our other head guide, Moses, wanted Sharon to get some height-climbing practise.
As we meandered our way down the slopes (wow, going downhill for a change), we enjoyed hugging the side of the Kili slopes and we had a lot of laughs as well.
'Going to the toilet' here on the mountain is translated to "going to the Internet cafe" or "sending an email", or worse still..."downloading!"
Needless to say we always had plenty of email stops everyday, due to the high altitude as well as the copious amounts of liquids we were consuming.
We learnt, however, this afternoon, that the best looking or largest rock or "internet site" wasn't always the wisest choice as it has been 'well-used' many, many times before us.
Young Kate; our vibrant, intelligent, lovely teenager of our group, managed to slip and slide all the way down the hill so I gave her the nickname 'Skid Marks' as she was leaving slide marks in the dirt in front of me. Anyway...to link the Internet cafe explanation to what I'm saying now : Kate, Kat and I decided we needed to send an email, so we found an enormous boulder to hide behind. Kate ('Skidders' now) went high, Kat went low and I bided my time with my back turned being the lookout.
Well, just as the girls finished, Kat said to Kate (who was coming down from higher ground) "You don't want to step heeeeere.........AT THAT EXACT MOMENT Kate did a long slide right into a pile of poop!!!
NOT any old dried up poop, but a wet, liquidy, orange poop that actually sprayed up and went all over the top of her shoes as well as filling every inch of tread in her soles.
Oh - and the smell!!!!
She was lucky she didn't lose her balance completely and end up
lying in it...EWWWWW!
Crikey, I though dog shit was the pits, but a loose stool of human faeces just had to be a new level of foulness.
I honestly had never laughed so much in my entire life. I was honking like a hyena!!
It was by far the most funny, most extraordinarily hilarious thing I have ever witnessed. And Kate, God bless her dirty hiking socks, laughed whole heartedly along with us - she's such a good sport and great fun. I think the rest of the group (who were waiting patiently for us by the creek) must have heard the ruckus of laughter and wondered what the hell we were on!
The rest of the afternoon's walk remained somewhat uneventful, although the fit of laughter wasn't much good for my headache, so I popped some more Nurofen.
It was a beautiful walk into camp, and we strolled through what looked like giant cycad type plants. Each one of these new branches of leaves only grows every 50 years!
Each camp now is getting wonderfully close to the shining mountain that looms over us. Cloud was coming rapidly up the valley and within half an hour of arriving in camp, it was a complete and eerie whiteout.
A quick stretch after the backpack comes off is always the go.
The other group hadn't arrived back yet, and we knew some of them didn't have their head torches, but not to worry, a welcome party of porters had walked up to meet them, armed with a hot water thermos along with tea and coffee.
The standard of care for us by this company, is without exception.
Dinner was a gastronomical feast as usual.
We talked about the plans for the next day, what to expect, how many layers to wear etc; then we retired to our tents.
It was absolutely freezing!
I had a very uncomfortable cold night sleep, and crowded, as we had to sleep with all our bags, and our hiking boats now or they'd freeze if left outside
We even had to start stuffing our spare batteries into woollen socks, same with the camera, as to stop them from freezing and having their battery life diminished.
My tent mate Anna kept getting up during the night (every night - at least 3-4 times) to 'send an email', and the constant zip-zip, zip-zip, plus her sitting on my legs as she struggled to put her boots on, - and take off, was really the pits, not to mention the intolerable slope our tent was pitched on. It took all my effort NOT to roll onto her during the night.
I thoroughly recommend SINGLE tent accomodation to anyone who wants to do this.
Even if it's colder, it'd be roomier, and no snoring and
zip-zip all the time.
We awoke this morning to see ice all over our little tents. IGLOOS!
It was bloody freezing.
(Thank goodness I was loaned those thermals!)
Michael made the mistake of leaving his boots outside his tent overnight, and woke to find a centimetre of ice neatly lying inside them. UGH!
This morning our walk out of the canyon was to be the Barranco Wall - or otherwise known as 'The Breakfast Wall' - as you need an extra hearty breakfast to be able to tackle it.
This was to be a particularly nasty cliff face that we had to negotiate. A few of our team had a fear of heights, so it'll be a big test.
This walk was supposed to be about 5 hours till lunch, or so they say...(around 2.30pm but we always take longer) ...which was to be our end of day camp. A short day, but a really hard start.
No guard rails on this mountain, and we were constantly having to jam ourselves against the rock wall to allow the porters safe passage passed us and yes, with our bags still on their heads! They put us to shame.
It took about 2 and 1/2 hours of climbing straight up before we made it to the top of the cliff. What a relief, especially for Sharon who reckons that having done The Lava Tower the day before, really enabled her to make it up such a
treacherous rock wall. Good on her!!
Ahead of us now were many hills, so we were constantly climbing then descending - I think I prefer climbing to be honest, as going down, especially with back packs, can be really tricky and quite slow.
The guides helped us a great deal and were very caring and patient with the slower climbers.
This part just seemed to take ages and ages, and was quite uneventful.
Just plodding along, one foot in front of the other kind of stuff.
You can tell by my attitude here, that it was getting hard. Our guides would get a sense of how we were faring, by singing loudly:
To which they would either get a big "AAAA-OH" back from the team - which meant everything was OK, however sometimes when they called it out, we kinda grumbled 'get stuffed' under our breaths... which was a clear indication we needed to stop for 5 minutes for a sip of water and maybe a cookie or sweet. We needed energy.
I was actually feeling a lot better today with finally a 'headache free' day.
Must be actually acclimatising.
We were rewarded for that breakfast wall, by a fabulous photo opportunity. One direction had Kili filling the background, the other had the cliff and the sea of clouds below us. Hard to tell, but right behind me was a cliff, and a valley before it went up again towards the mountain.
Once arriving into the next camp, waaaaaay later than the estimated 2.30pm, what a surprise, haha, we are always overdue somewhat, Sharon and I donned some warm clothes and found a nice rock to sit on and have some quality journaling time.
A beautiful sunset appeared for us with such vivid reds, pinks and gold that reflected off the clouds way below. I have to say how fantastically fortunate we have been with THE most outstanding weather/climbing conditions.
I can't imagine how hard this would have been in the rain, or even snow,
with little to no visibility. We always got to see Kili shining at night under the nearly full moon. SPECTACULAR.
A carbon copy evening events - Dinner, talk about the day ahead - then bed. EVERYONE was snoring a symphony on the mountain overnight.
I guess we are all really tired. Another night I wished I had my own tent...
Day five and still alive!
Lovely Linda, (Kate's mum) let me use her mobile to send Trev a brief text this morning, as I have been saving my phone as I only have 1 bar of battery left, and I was hoping to call him from the summit.
The mobile phone range here in Africa is infinitely more expansive than home in Australia, that's for sure.
This morning's walk was a very slow one, as Elias, our intrepid leader, wanted all of us to walk as a group today so he can observe us, and coach us in high altitude climbing.