Africa 2012: Uhuru peak, Mt Kilimanjaro (5895m)

(Continued from part II)

On to the mountain! The first contact to our guides in the hotel yard is somewhat discouraging. The lead guide, Babuu, seems distanced and just a bit too cool. His second, Mr. Mango, is very quiet so we cannot quite tell whether he actually understands a word we are saying. He’s got badly discolored teeth and a crippled hand. Both are young. We are a bit anxious and have lots of questions which only receive very superfluous answers. Fortunately initial perceptions were misleading and in the end both turned out to be exceedingly strong, competent and very friendly companions.

We are told to pack two packs, a daypack we’ll carry ourselves with no more than 10kg and a pack for the porters with no more than 15kg. Volker has a hard time staying within these limits and only calms down when he realizes that he cannot actually physically wear six jackets at the same time which he originally intended for summit day. He leaves some at the hotel ;-) Anita and I travel the most lightly with 14kg total each. I think it shows that we are the most outdoor experienced of the group and have a pretty good idea of what’s essential. The packs for the porters get stuffed into huge plastic bags which they’ll later carry on their heads. Even if you give them a perfectly fine backpack they’ll wrap it and put it on their head. Quite a funny sight to behold.

We have chosen the eight day Lemosho trek to the top. It’s the longest route, allowing for the best acclimatization and thus the best chances of success. It’s also the most scenically beautiful and less crowded route. Especially compared to the “Coca-Cola” route, which features huts for accommodation. There’s also a hard and fast “whiskey” route which is only recommended if you already arrive pre-acclimatized. We reach the trailhead at around 2000m in a special off-road military type truck with huge tires. The vehicle was sorely needed as the road up there is quite an adventure.

There’s big chaos at the official park entrance and registration point where the luggage gets weighted and distributed to the various porters. Babuu hires more freelance porters hanging around waiting for jobs. It’s a mystery to me how nothing gets lost in the shuffle, but it all turns out as it should. We end up with a support crew of 23 people: 18 porters, 3 guides, a chef and a waiter. Although we’ve been warned that we needed to hire this many and are not allowed to go without it’s still quite a crowd to behold.

We start out through rain-forest with lots of reminders to go “pole, pole”, which means slow slow. Aside from seeing some monkeys it’s beautiful but pretty uneventful. We hardly ever see our porters, a rhythm which should become the norm over the following days. We’d leave camp in the morning, the porters would deconstruct it in our absence, hurry past us during the day and set up camp again before we arrived. They must be some kind of superhuman species. Many of them clad in clothes barely a level above rags, t-shirts and shorts, naked feet in sandals but literally running up the mountain at altitudes above 4000m carrying a full 20l canister of water on their head and a backpack on their back. They also didn’t seem to eat, sleep or drink. Seriously. While we were constantly reminded to drink at least 4 litres of water every day to combat altitude sickness and stay in good health they hardly ever carried drinking bottles at all. While we slept in good expedition type tents they shared the single skinned kitchen tent made from cheap plastic canvas. Tough as nails and cheerful and friendly to boot. Unfortunately very few of them understood any English, so conversation was hard to impossible.

We do our first acclimatization detour to Shira Cathedral at 3895m. This is the first time it actually feels like mountain climbing. The trails up to this point were all gently sloped and the terrain so wide and open that it didn’t feel like being on a mountain at all. Ascending the Cathedral requires some mild scrambling and sure foot placements. We get rewarded with beautiful views to Mount Meru, the Moshi plains and the west face of Mount Kilimanjaro. We cross the last point accessible via road between Shira 1 and Shira 2 camps. The road is used exclusively for rescue missions and indeed we witness two cars in the distance transporting people down (as we assume/are told). Nights get cold with below freezing temperatures. It’s at this point that Alex discovers he’s bought a sleeping bag for summer ;-)

The next acclimatization tour leads us to the Lava Tower, a 4560m high needle of rock. It’s the first day the altitude is starting to have an effect and some of us suffer from head aches. It’s the first and only time on the mountain I take an aspirin against the pain. Our next camps will all hover around the 4000m line, which, believe it or not, in these degrees of latitude is also where vegetation stops. We are traversing around the mountain. Doing so we converge with several of the more popular routes and it starts getting crowded. There must be hundreds of tourists on the mountain at any given moment. This implies at least 3-4 support personnel per tourist and thus thousands of people. Leaving Barranco camp at 3950m climbing the “breakfast wall”, a steep section of rock that acts as a natural choke point, looks like an ant trail of porters and climbers.

We arrive at Barafu camp at 4600m. This is our final camp, we will wake up at 23:15 in the evening to start our summit attempt. Weather thus far has been perfect with a stable rhythm of clear nights with a full moon followed by a bright and cloudless sky until the afternoon when the moisture would rise and form some cloud cover. No rain, no high winds. At this altitude we aren’t really expected to sleep. Oxygen content is at about 60% sea level and you notice it in everything you do. Get up too fast, get a headache. Walk a couple of fast steps, become short of breadth. Lie down to sleep and relax and feel your heart racing and your lungs labouring much harder than usual. Four of us head out and up for another acclimatization climb of 200m before going to bed. We visit the deserted Kosovo camp (it’s not being used any more because of high winds).

Insane fact: For Barafu camp the last source of water is 800m lower. This means porters are constantly running up and down fetching water for cooking/washing/drinking. You just have to admire these guys (and two girls! from all the porters we saw we’ve met only two females).

Go! Everybody dons pretty much every layer of clothes available and we head out. First in the light of our headlamps, then, noticing that the full moon shines bright enough, only in the pale glow of the moon. A long line of fellow climbers snakes up the mountain like a line of fireflies. For every two of us there’s one guide, prepared to help anyone down on short notice. Failure is a very real possibility. We’ve witnessed a helicopter rescue the day before and seen four porters more or less carry down a client who was stumbling blindly and drunkenly with blood from his nose. Right from the start people are passing us going down. Walking with the help and support of their guides they have already succumbed to exhaustion and altitude sickness. Some are even climbing with supplemental oxygen.

When our lead guide turns around to me at 5500m and asks his regular check up “How are you doing?” my reply is “Never better”. It’s the truth. It’s a highly emotional moment for me, with tears in my eyes. I have just realized I’m likely gonna make it. Without much trouble too, up to this point I’m still breathing exclusively through my nose. A full moon hanging over the glaciers in front of me. A fantastically beautiful sunrise over a sea of clouds behind me. Icy strong winds ripping at my face. Body working at maximum efficiency, every step a minor victory. It’s beautiful. I’m absolutely loving every second of it. This is exactly where I want to be.

Unfortunately not everyone is doing great. Volker is suffering the worst. He’s by far the skinniest of the group and starting the day without a proper breakfast (some cookies) in the frosty wind chilled him quite a bit and sapped up his reserves. He’s also the only one taking Malaria prophylaxis with potentially strong side effects and unfortunate interactions with altitude. He starts falling asleep while walking (!), only to wake up when bumping into someone. He’s also getting weird dreams and hallucinations and is starting to lose control of his muscles.
We are the slowest group on the mountain and Barty and Alex are starting to get really cold waiting every couple of steps. They decide to separate from the rest of the group and charge ahead to get warm. Before long Barty will pass his daypack to the guide to ease his load on the final stretch.
I’m staying close behind Anita who has started to lose feeling in her legs and I carefully nudge her left or right to keep her on the trail when she’s swaying or stumbling too much.

No matter. Whatever one may say about our little hodge podge group of armchair mountaineers - we weren’t easily discouraged or lacking in determination. So it is that with extraordinary strength of will all six of us reach Uhuru peak, the highest point of Africa at 5895m!

Quite an impressive feat, especially if you consider that this was the first long hike or even mountain climb for some of us. I’m especially proud that Anita as the only girl in the group made it on her own power. During the trip she grew particularly fond of our second guide Mr Mango who cheered her on with: “Poa poa kichisi kama Anita!” which became a constant meme in our group and means something like “Cool cool like Anita!”.

From the summit we did a tour-de-force descent. We needed to get down 2800m in order to reach an altitude we were allowed and able to sleep. Babuu took Volker, who was pretty far gone by this point, under the arm and practically teleported him down the mountain, gravel running/sliding back to Barafu camp. We others followed much slower. Since we started our ascent in the middle of the night I didn’t put sun screen on in a timely enough manner and got burned quite a bit even before 10 in the morning. After a short rest in Barafu we started down a direct and very boring route to about 3100m altitude. It was a painfully long trek for Anita who had developed some nasty blisters.

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The only blemish for me is the expedition style. I’m well aware of the fact that we wouldn’t stand a chance in hell of climbing this without the tremendous help of our guides and porters. From a mountaineering point of view the climb is pretty ridiculous though. The porters carried a lunch table, chairs and a frickin’ toilet for crying out loud! I’d prefer a clean, alpine style. Next time! ;-)

At the park exit we were immediately besieged by merchants peddling their wares and people offering to clean our hiking boots. Back at the hotel we invited our guides to drinks. This was a bit of an awkward situation and delicate to handle as we basically drank away their salary for a week that night. We had arranged a wake up call for 3:30 in the morning to get us to the airport in time for our flight at 6:00. From prior experience with wake up calls we expected this not to work. We did good to do so, because it didn’t. Fortunately we had set our own alarms as backup and the taxi was already in the yard with the driver sleeping in the seat. Moshi -> Nairobi -> Amsterdam -> Düsseldorf -> Zürich. After close to 24 hours in transit (2 hours time difference) I arrived home at around midnight and was back at my desk at work in time the next morning. Quite a surreal transition and culture shock.

Awesome vacation! Awesome group! Thanks and cheers to the gang!

All photos here.


Africa 2012: Safari

(continued from part I)

Continuing our journey by plane to Kilimanjaro international airport in Moshi, Tanzania. An airport so big you can actually bypass security by accidentally choosing the wrong door from the airfield into the building ;-) We get picked up and driven to our hotel, the Springlands Hotel. We pass a bustling market and an abandoned railway line which now functions as some sort of pedestrian zone. The roads leading away from the airport are decent and paved. However, we turn off this in Moshi onto something we don’t even recognize as a road at first. It’s mud and dust, strewn with potholes and so wide it’s not clear where the “road” ends and the fields begin. Careful slalom. The drivers have learned to navigate such terrain and we seldom hit the ground with more than our tires... Which reminds me of pedestrian zebra crossings. The only way to enforce them are speed bumps and speed bumps they have! You have to almost come to a full stop and cross them diagonally in order not to wreck your car.

The hotel is a walled garden and guarded. Despite almost three meter high walls the dust of Africa is everywhere. The bottom of the pool gets wiped everyday or else it would turn into a mud bath. Climate is obviously very different from home as you can guess from the fact that the only place meals are served is outdoors. Only a roof for shelter and windows in the rooms that cannot be fully closed. Again, the clientele is exclusively white. There are tons of waiters and other employees swarming around. It seems every single open job position is occupied with at least three different people. One waiter for knifes, another for forks and a third for spoons or something.

We meet our driver for the next week of safari, Mohammed. He’ll take us on game drives through the national parks lake Manyara, Serengeti and the Ngorogoro crater and another one whose name I forgot. Each one more impressive than the last. Especially the crater makes you wonder why humankind ever developed agriculture if there was so much meat to choose from. Seriously, it’s kind of ridiculous. You’d try to shoot a zebra but can’t frame it without also getting giraffes, antilopes and water buffaloes into the picture. Our first elephant sighting caused lots of Ohs and Ahs but by the end of the week we’d be so spoiled we’d be mildly annoyed there was yet another herd of elephants blocking the road again.

Mohammed is a very experienced driver and knows the place like the back of his hand. The drivers are in active radio contact and give each other tips about the latest sightings. For rare animals or animals of “The Big Five” (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros) you haven’t seen yet that means a wild chase to the spot of the sighting. Drivers usually get an extra tip if they manage to show their clients all of the big five, hence the incentive to fly like the devil over the sand pistes. We were extraordinarily successful and had multiple sightings of each, including rarer or shy ones like cheetahs, warthogs and the hyena. The later one must be the most ugly creature ever and would sneak around our tented camp at night, making all kinds of strange wailing noises. Anita was particularly fond of all the young animals and we started mocking her by imitating overjoyed “Ohhh, baby elephant/giraffe/monkey/lion/zebra/x” exclamations whenever we saw one (or didn’t).

Mohammed has an impressively keen eye for spotting lions hiding and hunting in the tall grass or leopards chilling in the shade of the crown of a tree with their dead prey on a branch nearby. He taught us to tell the difference between a male and a female leopard in a tree: the female will lie flat on the branch with limps hanging down left and right of it while the male will have both legs to one side of the branch as not to hurt his balls ;-) He also warns us about some large birds in the trees at one of our rest spots. We acknowledge that and proceed to eat our lunch packs, thinking that if the birds wanted our food they’d beg and hop around like the birds we are used to from home would. Far off. One of them does a combat dive straight for Volker’s sandwich and we only realize what happened from Volker’s surprised scream, his missing sandwich and bleeding hand. Lesson learned.

It’s usually not allowed to leave the car in order to protect yourself and the park. While this is a perfectly reasonable limitation it does get annoying to drive around for so long a time. The drivers have developed various mocking games over the radio or when meeting to keep it entertaining. Mohammed seemed to occupy some sort of alpha male role amongst them and was usually the fastest, boldest and most aggressive. He’d intentionally bump into other cars to push them out of the way. All in good humour and mostly accompanied with lots of hearty laughs. Needless to say I enjoyed this kind of macho behaviour and rewarded him with a generous tip and my binoculars (which he often borrowed) after the trip ;-)

Tanzania has two official languages: Swahili and English. All billboard advertisements and signs are in English. This should make communication easy in theory. In practice we found that while our English wasn’t great the other party was usually even worse. This lead to an unfortunate misunderstanding where Alex tried to compliment Mohammed on his knowledge of the place and taking us the road less travelled into an area that looked like a grass desert. His choice of words contained a phrase like “big nothingness” which Mohammed interpreted as us complaining about being bored and him disappointing us. Exactly backwards. Caused him to turn around immediately and floor the gas pedal in order to make good. Took a while to soothe him and convince him we were more than happy with his services. Resulted in some laughs and a “Hakuna matata” (literally: There are no worries).

It seems everything here is out to get you. During the day you’ll have the Tsetse fly transmitting human sleeping sickness, during the night mosquitoes transmitting malaria. Lots of poisonous snakes and nasty parasites. Not to mention the big game, which, if you annoy it enough, will easily stomp you. Hyenas with rabies sneaking around your camp, bacteria flavouring your drinking water. All but one of us were suffering from more or less bad cases of diarrhea. We’d develop running gags about the texture and consistency of our shit and inform each other in great detail about our latest produce. This became even more pronounced later on the mountain. It’s astonishing how crucial and interesting the simplest body functions can become. It’s also astonishing how much the human body can absorb. In the space of a few days we had completely changed our diet; moved our sleeping schedule by a couple of hours time difference; teleported from winter to summer; from -15 degrees Celsius in Switzerland to 35 degrees in the shade in Africa, a difference of 50 degrees! And this was only the beginning, we fully intended to climb from sea level to almost 6000m and less than half the usual air pressure and thus oxygen.

We spent a night in the Highview Hotel in Karatu. Again a hotel with an outdoor pool. Completely perverse as the water for the whole village has to be pumped from a 900m deep (!) well and up the mountain to the hotel. The hotel is trying to do good and started lots of initiatives to involve the local population. Massai women are allowed to sell their craft on the property, farmers cultivate coffee and various other agricultural crops. Massai men are allowed to work as porters in a month long rotation to earn some money in tips. You end up passing your luggage to a Massai warrior in traditional dress complete with knife and huge ear piercings walking in sandals made from worn out car tires. We took a tour of the premises and were shown around. Climbing the hill behind the hotel, passing a big hole in the ground with smoldering garbage (the usual way to dispose of it here), you can visit a hut where the porter Massai live and keep some cattle. Although the hotel is by no means luxurious compared to European standards the contrast to the hut is stark. Primitively made from sticks and leafs, dark and smelly due to an open fire burning 24/7 to keep the insects out. Bedsteads made from naked pieces of foam. Most porters, Massai or not, seemed to be illiterate as we discovered with confused room numbers and baggage room slips. The hotel tries to encourage the Massai, especially the women, to go to school and to this end provides scholarships and sponsoring. Of course lessons are being taught in Swahili or English, not in their native tongue. Way to kill a culture. It’s moments like this that I hated myself in the role of a tourist. WTF are we doing here?

Continued in part III


Africa 2012: Nairobi, Kenya

Africa. What can I say? It’s big, it’s poor, it’s rich, impressive, different, strange, crowded, empty, beautiful. I know all that and I’ve only ever seen a tiny sliver of it and even that was confined to tourist places. Six of us (Anita, Sören, Barty, Alex, Michael, Volker) went on a two week trip to Tanzania with a short stop in Kenya. The first week on a safari to lake Manyara, the Serengeti and the Ngorogoro crater. Second week climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak on the continent. A very impressive vacation to put it mildly ;-)

Due to insane airline pricing policies and us starting from different cities in Germany or, in my case, Switzerland we ended up on a crazy flight itinerary. The plan had me starting from Switzerland to Düsseldorf, wait 6 hours, continue to Amsterdam, to Nairobi and then to Moshi. Since I’ve become somewhat of a frequent flier with Anita and me in a long distance relationship I took a very relaxed approach to planning my departure. Too relaxed as it turned out. Since I’m not used to travelling with checked baggage I showed up to the airport far too late. Oops. So I took the train from Zürich to Düsseldorf instead and arrived just in time for our connecting flight.

Our itinerary called for a 12.5 hour layover in Nairobi, the capital and biggest city of Kenya. We decided to make good use of that time by exploring the city. Unfortunately Barty, Michael and Alex didn’t have yellow fever inoculation which is required if you want to cross from Kenya to Tanzania. So they camped at the airport while Anita, Volker and me bought transit visas and acquired a guide and taxi driver for the day. He’d drive us from sight to sight, pay for everything and wait for us in the car. Best deal for the short amount of time available.

We started with a snake zoo. Continued with some scenic drive along the parliament building and palace and on to the market. That was quite an experience. Our driver didn’t want to park and cruised the block while we walked the market. Or rather tried to. The only white people around for miles we were instant prey. You just have to admire African sales tactics and persistence. I only brought a single pair of trousers for the whole two weeks and intended to buy another one. The first merchants that latched on to us were in the business of selling carved figures and other tourist souvenirs. That didn’t stop them at all trying to secure me as a customer. They’d ring us, and send someone to get pants for me while others were pitching their wares in the meantime. So I ended up trying on pairs of trousers in a shop selling figurines, just below an old, crooked man sitting in a tiny cave on the shelf above me carving the wooden figurines. All the clothes they brought were far too wide for me, so they finally escorted us through a maze of tiny alleys to their source, in order I could try some on without the courier delay in between.

After finally finding a pair I liked and was willing to buy haggling started. This was fun too. I’m sure I got ripped off pretty badly compared to what locals pay - but then again, a trade is successful if both parties are happy with the result and I am. They opened by feeling the fabric of my (very expensive, new and super cool Fjällräven) shirt, commending me for it and asking its price. I had my wits together enough to lie about its real value (or should I say price?) and proclaimed a much lower value. The argument then revolved around the number of pockets which almost made me giggle. He counted how many pockets my shirt has and proceeded to show how the pants had almost a dozen more and thus must be a dozen times as expensive. Logical no? Only after I already stepped out of the shop (a 2x2m windowless room, all walls completely stacked with pants, crowded with me, three merchants and two women sewing the pants) and away from the offer did we finally close the deal.

I’d encounter this kind of aggressive selling multiple times during the trip. While it does get annoying, you can’t help but admire the persistence, flexibility, willingness and ability to improvise on the spot and don’t give up before closing at least some sort of deal. A rather mean tactic was another one: our car stops with me carelessly leaving the window open. Immediately someone would come up and start talking to me. We’d joke, he’d ask where we were coming from and where we were going. Teach me some words of his language. Then he’d offer his wares. By that point we are almost friends and I’m already indebted to him for teaching me. Guilt trip me into buying. Very hard to resist.

Just driving through the city is instructive and impressive. Life happens on the street. There are people everywhere, walking huge distances along the roads. Standing in the middle of it, offering sun glasses, newspapers, accessories, fruits, drinks, everything. Traffic lights are very few and only a suggestion anyways. Nobody cares about a red light. If you want to stop cars you need to be a police officer and jump in front of cars in death defying bouts of heroism. Intersections somehow self regulate. Cars flow around each other in dynamic and chaotic ways, honking, flashing and swerving as it suits them. Most vehicles are in a desolate state and hopelessly overloaded or overcrowded. Bicycles carrying firewood, stacked high over the heads of their riders. Motorcycles carrying a whole family of six. Minibuses designed for twelve carrying twice that many plus their luggage piled meters high on the roof. Pick up trucks loaded high so their suspensions are almost fully compressed but you still have people riding even on top of the cargo.

Most anything of value is fenced in with high walls topped with razor wire and electric fence. ATMs are guarded 24/7 by guys wielding assault rifles. Another reason some of us stayed at the airport were recent threats of terrorist attacks. We continue to a famous tourist restaurant, the “Carnivore”. We pass two security checks. The first is a road block where a guard uses a special mirror to check the underside of our car for bombs. Second is a metal gate, again guarded by people with automatic weapons. The restaurant itself is completely and insanely decadent. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of exotic meat, containing such specialties like ox balls and crocodile. Every table is equipped with a tower of dips and sauces, crowned by a small flag. While the flag is up the waiters will come around with skewers of meat and cut it directly onto your plate. They do this at a ridiculously fast pace, so you will have to put down the flag from time to time to catch up.
Of course the clientele is exclusively white while the waiters are all black. I can understand the need for security. If I was a local I’d blow up exactly this place first.

Continued in part II