9.0 Hakuna Matata
For us, it was a choice that we wanted the experience: we wanted to feel the adrenaline rush 6000 meters off the ground, to collect Facebook likes, to run wild on the boundless savannah and to bask on the pristine beach. For the people who lay lifelessly on the side of the dirt road, they had no choice. Follow me to my superficial accounts of this faraway place.
It was a long journey from London to Tanzania, and it was expensive. We first landed in Kilimanjaro Airport which was packed with tourists from all over the world. A restive sea of colorful oversized backpacks filled the otherwise warehouse like airport with over brimming enthusiasm. As we moved away from the teeming airport, the color quickly gave way to a monotone desert. The road from the airport was wide and flat, lines of trees planted on each side of the road welcomed curious visitors. But the trees were long scorched away of any vivid color; the skeletal branches shriveled in heat waves. Sand storm swept the plain, coating everything with a glaring yet under-saturated yellowish filter. Air gusted in through the half-opened window – smelt heavy. Then we saw the first Masai of our journey. Masai are tribesmen who are renowned for their symbiotic living with nature. The Masai’s dark chocolate complexion and crimson red robe stood starkly against the dusty backdrop. He (or she) was herding a dozen of cows – the ribbed animals ploughed their heads into the sand, sifting through the mud to find what little nutrients lay beneath.
This is a small town near the starting point of our route – the 6 day whisky or Machame route. We stayed in a local, small hotel. Although electricity and hot water supply was patchy, mosquito net and ceiling fan helped give us a good night sleep:
There were many restaurants catering to tourists with a European price tag. Be careful of the open sewers besides the streets at night and Google map may be a bit off sync. After the sunset, there were hordes of mosquitos hovering over our heads. Apply mosquito repellent generously!
The highest mountain in Africa, it stands gracefully above the cloud:
Four of us had two local tour guides, one cook and 10 porters. I felt like being part of a small expedition team exploring unchartered territories. The porters carried our luggage, food, water and tent, we just have to walk up the mountain. In comparison, it sounded pretty easy, but for us who spend most of our time on office chairs, it was still a daunting challenge.
First day, we walked through a rich, dense rainforest. Shades of green vegetation over-laced our path: colossal trees, bushes, mosses, mushrooms and flowers. Monkeys and birds flourished in this warm and moist environment.
As we slowly ascended, the canopy gave way to the spotless, blue sky:
By the end of second day, we reached far above the cotton cloud, it felt sublime!
Infrastructure along the trekking path was poor. Toilets were mere holes in the ground, and conversing over the wall between men and women’s toilets somehow became socially acceptable. You are in luck if you can find a complete toilet door:
Behind every big trees and rocks, you will find plenty of toilet paper. People pee just a couple meters away from the trail path. As the air got thinner, it also became harder to justify walking up 100 meters to use a toilet. The agreeable distance to pee from our sleeping tent was…well, I am not proud to share that. We all slept in makeshift tents which were often pitched on a slanting or rugged surface. At night, wind howling from all directions at the tent, violently beating on the thin nylon canopy. It was hard to fall asleep and easy to wake up with a stiff neck. During the day, sun mercilessly pierced through the thin atmosphere onto any patch of skin missed sunscreen; At night, we tugged tight in our sleeping bags and covered ourselves with everything we could find. In the morning, we normally found white frost formed inside the tent. And we will get a small bucket of warm water to freshen up. Bath was complete out of question. Wet wipes were our best friends. By the end of the journey, I must be carrying an extra two kilograms of dust.
Even with luggage, the porters were moving at an incredible speed. It is like the Kilimanjaro equivalent of a sweat shop. Villagers around this area make their living on this torturous journey every day. Most of them will never find out that they may be able to earn a decent living running endurance races around the world.
We, the weak ones, struggled. Exotic landscape might have fueled our morale during the first couple of days. Gradually, vegetation faded away with the receding cloud, so did the oxygen level. The higher the altitude, the easier I was out of breath. Simple tasks like tying shoes laces, I needed to take a break between the two shoes. Eating and talking at the same time was a sure way to send my heart racing. The altitude also killed my appetites. I almost washed down food with water so the misery was shorter. We hiked just a few kilometers everyday. But don’t get fooled by the distance. It is one thing to walk for 5 kilometers along the Thames; it is completely another to hike at 4000 meters above see level. We had one day moving horizontally just for our body to get used to the low oxygen environment.
On day four, we reached the Barranco Wall.
It was an almost vertical hill with 270 meters in height. For the most part of the journey until then, we were just walking up. This hill we have to use all fours. A missed step was enough to break a bone if you were lucky. The hill looked intimidating at first. But it really helped to be part of a bigger group. I didn’t feel as dreadful as I were to do it alone. It was challenging, but for everyone who made the trip to conquer Kilimanjaro, it was just expected.
When I reached the end of the Barranco Wall, I felt I was at the top of the world already!
The fifth day was the summit day. We dragged ourselves out of the warm sleeping bag before midnight. After some quick cereal like soup, and wrapping ourselves with layers of clothes, we embarked on the longest and the most excruciating day of our lives. We were not the earliest. Under the full moon lit night, I could see lines of head torches zigzagging on the pitch-dark mountain far ahead of us. In a way, the darkness really helped that we couldn’t tell how much we have to climb. We were cold, hungry, sleep deprived, tired and grasping for air. Many climbers who could not do it anymore were escorted by a guide to return to base. One of us also felt chest pain, and she had to give up and return to the base at around 5300 meters. It soon reached a point that we had to take rest for almost every 100 meters. According to the plan, we were supposed to reach the summit by 6am to see the sunrise. So we would be able to come back before the sun reached over the sky, which is dangerous because of high radiation. We did see the sunrise, though well below the summit:
(notice another line of people below us, this is a much steeper slope than what appears on the photo)
When we finally reached the Stellar point – 5756m, it was already 8am. Everything is so bright it hurts to look around. It was about another 100 meter below the summit, but it was another 800 meters walk. Many climbers gave up at this point. I thought it would be the biggest regret in my life if I let go something so close. All the efforts I made so far would have been wasted. Another friend and I decided to give a final push for the last journey. It was the last 800 meters, we saw the tall glaciers on the other side of the mountain. Kilimanjaro wore it like a seasoned warrior with a gleaming light blue shoulder armor. What a sight to see glaciers on top of a 6000 meter mountain! The climb was not too bad, but perhaps because of the sun, I started to feel the buzzing in my head. I must have started wobbling a bit too. Then finally we saw it. The reward we were looking for: Uhuru Peak – 5895m.
I was too tired to relish the victory. The local guide’s warning not to stay too long on the top lingered in my head. After the photo, we hastily made the return. When we reached back to the Stellar point about 9:30am, we were completely exhausted, far beyond what we thought our bodies were able to bear.
That was not the end of it.
Now we have to descend all the way to below 4000 altitude. Climbing was hard, but coming down was definitely not easy too. A missed step would dangerously send you rolling down on the sandy, rocky slope. Our local guide taught us a way to go down. If we could manage the weight transfer properly, we could slide down the sandy slope, which was less strenuous. The only down side was that we would load our hiking shoes with sand. By then I was slowly turning into ashes myself anyway, a pinch more sand in the shoes? Sure! On the sandy slope downwards, big rocks with flat surface were treasured trophies. If we lost balance while taking a power nap, we wouldn’t fall to the ground. It was unimaginable then who would have complaints about mattresses! I felt like I was a mind numbing walking zombie; anything could have been that last feather on the camel. Fortunately, we reached back to the Barafu Camp – 4673m around early afternoon, way behind schedule. We had our first proper meal of the day and we collapsed in the tent. After a short break, we need to travel down to a camp at 3000m. It was a rocky path. But as the greenery came back to the surroundings and new found fuller oxygen, it didn’t feel as excruciating as the morning journey.
When we reached our destination that evening, no one had food. We all slept like babies.
Last day of the hike in comparison was quite a breeze. The abundant of oxygen and the thought of returning back to civilization made us quickly forget how sore our thighs were.
I would say it is my most treasured experience so far in life. It was physically challenging, but we all had very good support. It was not even as dangerous as the ski slope. The personal hygiene was a bigger challenge for me. However, all the discomfort were quickly forgotten as soon as I reached back to the Kilimanjaro gate. I need to find wifi and a good hot meal! Those were the only things in my mind!
“Hakuna Matata” – no problem