Friday, March 24, 2006

Kilimanjaro, part four

Day Four - We get a great view of Kilimanjaro

Please read part one, two, and three if you haven't already.

The next morning we awoke to our first clear view of Kilimanjaro. For such a massive mountain, it's very difficult to get a clear view of it. This picture was taken in the morning. In the afternoon, clouds cover the peak.

In this photo, the path we took is up and towards the right of the mountain.

Andy liked my picture idea so much that he asked me to take one of him, further discrediting his theory that I take lousy photos.

One thing which surprised me on this trip was the amount of downtime. Before we set out, I brought a book along at the last moment. I'm glad I did, I actually finished it before the trip was over.

We started hiking to the Shira Two campsite and paused to take a picture of me with the shrubs. In the background, you can see how Kilimanjaro has again been covered in clouds.

It's difficult to dress for this kind of weather. If you go, wear layers. When the sun is out, it's hot. When clouds roll in, it gets cold quickly. I was constantly taking my shell off and then putting it back on again.

Although you can barely see them, there are wild buffalo in the background of this picture. There really are. This was also the first time I had ever seen my brother with beard stubble.

Another photo in a distinctive ecosystem.

Our assistant guide told us there used to be a camp around here, called "Simba Camp", named for the lions that used to stalk in the area. They closed it when they realized tourists liked viewing lions at a distance, not camping in their hunting grounds.

Seeing these trees made me feel like I was in an episode of Star Trek. I don't know the species name but they were very weird. They looked like evil palm trees.

We briefly stopped in our Shira Two campsite to drop off our equipment and then continued onward. The rule when hiking Kilimanjaro is "Climb high, sleep low" which means, gain elevation when you can, then return to camp to sleep. I credit this additional acclimitization time to our success in reaching the summit.

These photos were taken at around 15,000 feet elevation, higher than I had ever been before. My previous high was when Andy and I climbed Mt Rainier, which is 14,400 feet.

This ecosystem, alpine desert, was the fourth of the five we would pass through. There was very little life up here. The area was made up almost entirely of volcanic rock. I found this very foreboding, like how I envisioned Mordor in Lord of the Rings.

Next Installment: Andy and Tom climb the lava tower.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Kilimanjaro, part three

Please read part one and two if you have not already.

Day Three - The day we get really, really dirty

The next morning we hit the trail and steadily gained elevation. As we went up, the underbrush was less lush and the trees got progressively smaller. We were no longer in the rainforest and had entered the second ecosystem - "heather." The air was noticeably cooler and drier. It felt like fall.

Andy didn't trust my photography skills and insisted that only Tom or himself take all photos. I'm happy to say that this photo of Andy and Tom was my idea and was taken by me.

Here Andy is standing in a grove of trees covered in bearded lichen. This was one of the best parts of the trip for me, the air reminded me of a cool New England fall.

Along the way we had our second photo-brush with wildlife, a chameleon on the trail. Mark Lotterhand, I included this photo for your benefit. Enjoy.

We stopped for lunch just as we came to a lookout on the Shira plateau. In this photo, the plateau is in the background and I am doing my best to strike a heroic pose.

While we relaxed and ate our lunch, the porters came bounding by carrying all our equipment. Here's one climbing ahead of us while balancing my backpack on his head. While we sat, ate, and joked around, the porters raced ahead of us to set up our camp in advance of our arrival.

The porters never used the backpacks as they were designed. They preferred to stuff them in plastic sacks and balance them on their heads. Given that they soundly kicked our ass by starting out behind us and racing past us on the trail every single day of the trip, I cannot argue with their methods.

Here's a photo of me and our assistant guide Tumaine. For a country that is generally lacking medical services and dentistry, Tanzanians are blessed with very nice smiles. Tumaine's name translated to "Hope" and our head guide Amani's name meant "Peace." Yes, we really did travel with Hope and Peace.

This picture was taken as we got our first glimpse of Kilimanjaro. It stands obscured by clouds in the upper right corner of this photo. For such a massive mountain, Kilimanjaro is very difficult to sight. This might help explain why its existence wasn't confirmed by Europeans until 1861.

Reading the history of the explorers in this area is a case study in extremes in human suffering. I cite the case of Johann Rebmann, looking for Kilimanjaro in 1848:
"The party (Rebmann's) lost their way in thorn thickets, slept where tribal wars had been fought years before, heard the growling of lions and were detained for some days in the company of Maina, a regional chief of the Taita. The people Rebmann encountered were surprised that he carried only an umbrella where before caravans were obliged to retain the protection of 500 armed men."

And on his follow-up expedition:
"The expedition was not a success. The rainy season had just begun and, as Rebmann recounts, his solitary umbrella was not enough to protect the party from the downpours that engulfed it each night. Rivers were flooded, rhinoceroses were troublesome and when Rebman reached Machame he found King Mamkinga far less helpful than he had anticipated.

Afflicted by despair, fever, dysentery and the constant rain, Rebmann abandoned hope of proceeding to Uniamesi and returned to Rabbai. On leaving Machame the party was afforded the custom of being spat upon by their hosts to the accompaniment of the words 'Go in peace', but they were required to pay for this courtesy with their few remaining beads."

Both of these stories are from Kilimanjaro by John Reader.

Here's Tom and Andy at our second campsite, Shira One, and it is here that we got really, really dirty. The Shira plateau is a giant wind-swept plain and the ground is a fine volcanic ash. The slightest gust of wind covers your clothes, face, and hands in dirt. I gave up changing my clothes for the rest of the trip.

When we were wandering around the camp, I was so tired from insomnia that I said to Andy and Tom " you what was I saying again?" Tom and Andy still joke about this line.

Another campsite, another bathroom for Andy to visit. You can see the landscape had changed from hilly forest to cold desert plain ringed by mountains. Everything was rockier and the plants were bristly. The best word I can use to describe this land is tough. We had entered the "moorland" zone and were at around 11,000 feet.

We didn't realize how powerful the sun was at this elevation. I got a slight sunburn on my hand, the one place where I didn't think to put sunblock. Andy got a fairly bad burn on his face and head because he didn't bring a sunhat.

For the longest time I thought English people in Africa wore big sunhats just to look adventurous, like Indiana Jones. I didn't realize they actually have a purpose. I was grateful I brought one, even though it was originally just for the fashion.

While we waited for dinner, Andy and Tom both took naps and I wandered around the campsite alone. Walking around on an African plain while wearing a parka and sunhat at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, with the guides talking amongst themselves in Swahili, made me feel like Ernest Hemingway.

This was the realization of a fantasy I've had since I wrote a paper on "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" in college. I didn't enjoy writing the paper very much. But I fell in love with the idea of Hemingway - the crazy adventurer/writer who seemed to tell stories through gritted teeth. He was my hero, along with Eugene O'Neil, Jack London, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Charles Bukowski. In college, I had a thing for hyper-masculine alcoholic writers.

After dinner and before nightfall, Andy contemplated another solitary night in the bivy sack. The temperature dropped quickly as soon as the sun went down. Andy gave up on the bivy after this night and shared a tent with me the rest of the way.

That night was very dark, without any moon whatsoever. When I went outside to go to the bathroom, with the wind and the stars and the big black sky all around me, I finally felt like I was really in Africa and not just watching myself on TV.

Next Installation: The clouds break and we get a great view of Kilimanjaro

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Kilimanjaro, part two

Please read part one if you haven't already.

Day Two - We set out for the mountain

The next morning we got up early for the four hour drive to the trail. Take a moment to click on this image to get an enlarged view of our van. Check out the amount of equipment in the back.

We fit 15 people into this van.

Here's another view of the miracle, clown car van. Andy, Tom, and I were quite comfortable, we got a whole row all to ourselves. I have no idea how they fit so many people in back of us, they were so quiet I had no idea they were even there.

Something worthy to note, every vehicle in Africa is a Toyota and there is no place on earth where vehicles get more use than Africa. This van had 168,000 miles on it and it carried us over some of the most beaten roads I've ever been on.

After a drive through the scorching dry and dusty plains, we started to ascend and drove through a mountain logging town, which featured row upon row of dilapidated shacks. Everyone in the village stopped to stare at us, which made me extremely self-conscious.

The children were adorable though. All through the town, they ran out with beaming faces waving and smiling at us while wearing tattered rags. They broke my heart. I wish I had taken a picture of them.

In the photos above, we are posing at the Londorosi Gate, a gate few tourists pass. The vast majority of climbers take the Marangu route up, which is so popular it is nicknamed the "Coca-Cola" route by the natives. If there is one American brand the Tanzanians have an awareness of, it is Coca-Cola. Coke sponsors just about every street and town sign in this country. I found it quite gross.

The Marangu route is a much quicker ascent than the Lemosho trail, the route we took to the summit. It is only four nights while Lemosho is six. Consequently it features the highest dropout rate of all the trails. Our head guide Amani, who had climbed Kilimanjaro over 200 times, said only two out of ten climbers on Marangu make it to the top.

The amount of oxygen at the summit of Kilimanjaro is less than half the amount at sea level. Giving yourself more time to acclimatize to the altitude is not just a good idea, it can save your life. According to Tom's book a man once jogged up to the summit of Kilimanjaro. This would have been a big accomplishment if he hadn't had to spend the next four weeks in the hospital.

One word the guides kept repeating as we climbed was "Po-le, Po-le", which is their version of "Take it easy." If you are climbing Kilimanjaro, my advice is go slowly, eat, and drink plenty of water.

In the photo above, I am pointing out the warning to stop hiking "if you have extreme."

We were at the Londorosi gate for an unexpectedly long time as our guide negotiated with the park ranger. Nothing bureaucratic happens in a hurry in Tanzania. If you find yourself dealing with a government official, prepare to be there for a long time. I've never seen so many ambulatory people gathered in one place doing so little.

Here's a Colobus monkey hiding in the trees, our first photo-brush with wildlife. Previous to this sighting, we saw a troop of baboons in a field, which was fascinating but we missed photographing it.

Colobus monkeys get their name from their lack of thumbs, the word "colobus" means "mutilated one." I thought a much better name was "skunk monkey" because they are black and white and have a giant poofy tail. I called them this for the rest of the trip. Let's see if it catches on.

Meet Joseph, our driver. Joseph drove us successfully over treacherous, rutted, dirt roads to the trail head. One thing I learned from this 4x4 off-roading, it is not half as glamorous as the SUV ads make it look. Off-roading is slow going and there is not a moment of freewheeling excitement to be had. A lot of the time you wonder if you are going to roll off the side of the mountain or get stuck in mud.

Here's Andy in the subtropical rainforest, the first of the five ecosystems we passed through on the way to the summit. For you science junkies, they were, in order - subtropical rainforest, heather, moorland, alpine desert, and polar.

Along the trail we saw more skunk monkeys in the trees and came across elephant dung and tracks, no elephant though. I tried to convince the guys to take a photo of the dung but they said it wasn't photogenic enough. The Swahili word for elephant is "Tembo" which I thought sounded cool.

Here's Tom and I at our first campsite, Mkubwa. The green shelter is for the park ranger who lives in that structure for weeks at a time.

We started at 5,000 feet in Arusha and at this campsite we were at 9,000. Sleeping at altitude is more difficult the higher you go. By the end of this trip I had racked up such a sleep deficit I was delirious.

On arrival, Andy checked out the facilities which he pronounced "adequate, actually not too terrible."

Despite being an avid hiker, this trip was the first time I have ever used a pit toilet. When I canoed down the Allagash in Maine, I had such an aversion to outhouses that I didn't go to the bathroom for four days.

When my stomach eventually forced me to go, we were in the middle of the river and we had to quickly paddle to shore, where I jumped out and went up to my thighs in mud, slogged to shore and ran to a private area where I battled mosquitos while trying to do my business. It was one of the top ten most unpleasant experiences in my life.

Back at the Jacaranda hotel, we had met a friendly Ukrainian who gave us a folding toilet seat we could prop over the pit. It made things a lot more pleasant than gripping the walls for balance. Even so it didn't make it a bathroom you wanted to hang out in and read the paper. On our last day, we kept up the good karma and passed the seat on to a friendly couple from Oregon.

Sorry to go into such detail about the toilets.

The guides and porters got a big kick out of Andy's insistence on sleeping in his bivy sack. Andy paid $300 for this claustrophobic coffin/tent and because he paid so much for it, he insisted on using it even though there was room in my tent for him. In this photo, Andy is demonstrating the virtues of sleeping in a bivy for our guides, who are all laughing and joking in Swahili.

Here Andy enjoys the comfort of his bivy sack. It took two nights before Andy abandoned the use of the bivy forever and joined me in the tent.

I'm almost embarrassed to show you the luxury the guides provided for us. Every night the porters set up our sleeping tents and a mess tent, boiled our water, and cooked us dinner. In the morning, they cooked us breakfast, gave us a bag lunch to carry on the hike, and broke camp.

The food was fantastic and plentiful even by American standards. They even accomodated my vegetarian diet, a concept our guide confessed to me later that he did not understand.

Andy and I relaxing in the mess tent after a day hiking in the rainforest. Andy approves. At this point we were all taken aback by how nice the accomodations were. I got the impression that if you asked the porters to carry you on their backs, they would do it without complaint.

Night fell quickly in the rainforest. It was almost impossibly dark and, of course, I woke up early and lay in my sleeping bag for two hours, listening to the animals in the night. One of them made a piercing screech which made me shiver. Insomnia plagued me throughout this trip.

Next Installation: The Shira Plateau - the day we get really, really dirty

Kilimanjaro, part one

Day One - We Arrive

We arrived in Tanzania tired and confused after crossing eight time zones. None of us had ever been to Africa before. When we left the States, we wore parkas. In Tanzania, when we landed, it was 75 degrees at night.

In this photo my brother Andy is standing looking stunned. The shirt he is wearing he would later lend to me and I would wear it for seven days straight. I am in the background, applying mosquito repellant and worrying about malaria.

Among the crowd, we saw a friendly face, our driver.

We were so happy Tom and Andy posed for a picture with him. Never before have I been surrounded by so many black people. I grew up in New Hampshire, not exactly a hotbed of African-American culture. At UNH the African-American literature class is taught by a white guy.

Our driver wore a shirt that read "Endangered Feces" and had cartoons of feces on it. If you click on the photo, you can see some of them more clearly. At the time I thought this was an unusual shirt to wear while greeting American tourists, a shirt I couldn't imagine even the tackiest of Americans wearing.

I didn't realize until later how Tanzanians mostly wear the discarded clothes of America. Goodwill operates a huge pipeline to Africa - when you donate your clothes, this is its final destination. It's a strange thing to see a Tanzanian goat shepherd wearing an Oakland A's hat and an Arusha street kid wearing a Georgia Tech t-shirt but we saw this more often than traditional African clothing.

On the drive to Arusha, our driver acted as if the road were a two-lane highway, which it wasn't. Traffic laws are optional in Tanzania and drivers push their rickety vehicles as if they were sports cars. I read a stat that said there were 66 fatalities for every 10,000 motor vehicles in Tanzania. In comparison, the UK had 1.4. The most dangerous moments of this trip were the times we were being driven somewhere.

We went to our hotel rooms in the Jacaranda hotel. In the photo you can see the mosquito nets which are essential in a continent plagued by malaria and yellow fever. I got five shots and two prescriptions before coming here. The nurse at the travel clinic gave me so many health pamphlets it made me think this trip was the equivalent of parachuting into a war zone.

I screwed up the netting on the first night and fought mosquitos all night long. Terrified, I hid under the sheets convinced every mosquito carried a deadly virus. The next morning, we relaxed and laughed at my cowardice.

In this photo, I am reading a tourist guidebook of Kilimanjaro. Previous to this, I had read nothing about the mountain outside of glancing at the "Kilimanjaro" entry in Wikipedia on my way to the airport. That night before we left for the mountain, I thought to myself, "Good Lord, what have I got myself into?"

A photo of Tom and I relaxing in the Jacaranda hotel waiting to meet our tour organizer Menghe, a terrific and funny man, of Good Earth Tours.

I would recommend Good Earth Tours to anyone climbing Kilimanjaro. This tour costs around $3,000 when you go with a big American group like KE Travel. In comparison, Good Earth cost around $1,400. It's also part Tanzanian-owned, so your dollars go more directly into the local economy.

The average Tanzanian makes $264 a year. Try to imagine what it would be like if a pair of Nikes cost half your annual salary. I tipped everyone along the way as much as I could afford.

After lunch we left the hotel to check out the local city, Arusha. In the photo above, you can get an idea of the chaos of these streets, this picture doesn't do it proper justice though.

The roads of Tanzania support anything that has two wheels, whether it is a bike, ox-pulled wagon, tractor trailer, or a Land Rover. There are two lanes operating here but, with optional traffic laws, that can be expanded to a full three at any time.

Just to add to the hilarity, traffic travels in the left-hand lane. I didn't realize how deeply ingrained my habits of crossing the street were until I almost got hit by a car coming from my right, after I had checked on my left.

If you click on the photo above you can see a man hauling a cart loaded to full capacity. He's hauling it in 90 degree heat. Tools are lacking in this country and just about everything is done manually, which means everyone is fit, strong, and tremendously resourceful. Any kind of tool or vehicle is at a premium so everyone makes the most of everything they have.

Being white and walking on the streets of downtown Arusha is the equivalent of standing up and screaming "HELLO, I AM A RICH TOURIST LOOKING TO BUY CHEAP KNICK-KNACKS AND T-SHIRTS." We were swarmed by new "friends" downtown, all of them striking up conversation and offering to sell us t-shirts, posters, flags, and books. It was similar to the scene in Night of the Living Dead where the heroes are mobbed by zombies. Everywhere we turned, we had zombie salesmen in our faces. You think I'm exaggerating.

Being a minority for once in my life demonstrated one point - it sucks to be so conspicuous. Even though I desperately wanted to, I couldn't blend in with the crowd. Getting constant stares and feeling instant assumptions being made about you on the basis of the color of your skin is tiring and annoying.

Nothing encapsulates the chaos of Arusha streets quite as perfectly as the taxi service. The way it works - a group gathers at a taxi stand and when the van pulls up, everyone piles in to the point that people are spilling out of the windows. Here we can see the process in action.

I originally scoffed at the idea of going to an internet cafe, so I stayed in the hotel while Andy and Tom went. I later realized internet cafes were the best way to keep in touch with people back home, the cost is a dollar per half hour. Andy sent an email to my wife on my behalf on our last day there while I was suffering from food poisoning. I'll write more about that later.

Read the next installment - we set out for the mounatain

Friday, March 03, 2006

Kilimanjaro Photos

I posted photos from our climb up Mount Kilimanjaro on Flickr. These photos will have to due until I can finish the writeup. This project seems to be one where the end gets further away the more you work on it.

Part one - landing, driving, camping in the rainforest
Part two - hiking, camping, hiking, camping
Part three - summit day(!), descending, monkeys