Snows of Kilimanjaro – Tanzania

Snows of Kilimanjaro

I’m back from the Africa, having conquered its tallest peak, survived its beggars and thieves, been ripped off, and spent much more than I wanted to. I can definitely say I had the worst Christmas ever, with altitude sickness, food poisoning, unreliable porters, and a 6 day hike in temperatures from 35C and steamy to well below freezing, but it was worth it to get another mountain out of the way. Got to the top of Kilimanjaro. Have now done the tallest in Australia and Africa. Next up is the tallest in Europe – Mount Elbrus (Russia) – slightly shorter than Kilimanjaro – then South America (Aconcagua) and Antarctica (Vinson Massif). Mid next year I’ll try for Denali in Alaska, then start getting fit and saving for the big one.

Flew from Miami (30C and perfect sunshine) to an 18 hour stopover in London, (-3C and depressing drizzle), to Nairobi (30C and perfect sunshine). The poverty and crime in Nairobi is worse than I expected, with everyone warned to hide any valuables, beware of thieves, and not go out alone. This was obvious from the trip into the city, with trash everywhere, and beggars trying to sell you anything and everything at each intersection. One red light in the city was especially depressing, with a paraplegic dragging his near naked body from vehicle to vehicle across the hot tar, almost melted by the intense sun, begging to the driver of each vehicle for the equivalent of a few cents.

While waiting to change buses to head to Tanzania I was approached by a beggar with no hands. His name was Daniel, and he explained that he had been hit by a car while a student, and had had to give up on going to college. The broken ends of the bones were covered with skin, but on the right arm the bones had separated in healing, leaving a large gap between the two bones which I guess may have made it easier to hold implements to eat etc. He begged for money to go towards the $800 artificial limb he was saving for. I told him that I had none, knowing that I had that much in my pocket. I saw no future for him, even with an artificial limb, in a country with so many fit and healthy young men desperate to work for a dollar a day, or even food in many cases. I think that Tanzania has the highest population growth rate in the world, with one of the lowest average incomes, and I do not think that Kenya could be far behind.

I was warned to be very careful and avoid accidents as the hospitals in Kenya and Tanzania reuse needles, and AIDS is a huge risk. Many people in car accidents come out of hospital with AIDS. Local expats have started keeping their own blood plasma in the fridge in case of accident, and many of the tourists I met were carrying their own disposable needles in case, hoping that in an accident they were conscious enough to tell the attending nurse to use one of their clean needles.

The trip to Tanzania by bus was fun. I sat at the front next to the driver and got some great video of the hair-raising roads and traffic, as well as the Masaai villages and people along the way. Once the bus braked and swerved to miss a Grants Gazelle as it ran in front of the bus, and from behind me I heard in an African accent “Damn. The driver must be vegetarian”. It turned out that the guy was from South Africa, and drove a tourist bus on 2-month safaris from Kenya to South Africa and back, and was going home to his family in the foothills of Kilimanjaro after one of these trips. The boy next to me was a local from Moshi who was returning home from school in Nairobi. His father owned the Hospital in Moshi, and he was hoping that his grades were good enough to get into Medical school. He said he preferred Tanzania to Kenya because there was no animosity between the tribes there.

We only stopped at the border, and this in itself was a stressful experience, battling through beggars, Masaai selling bead bracelets, and large families of loud, fat Germans and Americans all in matching safari clothing. All this just to hand over hard currency in return for a passport stamp from the customs officer who was obviously skimming off a large amount of cash directly into his pocket. While standing in line at the border, the woman in front of me handed over an Australian passport, the customs officer assumed we were together, and we started talking. It turned out that she is associated with Taronga Park Zoo, and works on the Chimpanzee conservation program in Uganda and was returning there. She saw into my pack and asked if I was doing Kilimanjaro, and told me it would be cold. I mentioned I had been to Antarctica, and it turns out she knows all the seal biologists I used to work with. Small world. She invited me to Entebbe to help out with the Chimps and climb a few of the active volcanoes in Southern Uganda if I wanted.

I arrived in Arusha at 7pm at night, where the bus drives into a barbed wire enclosure protected by guards before letting out the passengers. I thought that this was a bit overdone, but was thankful of it when a crowd of taxi drivers surrounded the enclosure began reaching through the wire to hassle the fresh meat walking out of the bus. Luckily the hotel I stayed with had a driver waiting to drive me the 150km to Moshi and then Marangu, as I had not been sure they would, and had been talking to others on the bus to try to get a free lift to Marangu. This lift to Marangu cost US$90 and the locals all laughed at me, because if I took a jungle taxi (minivan/car/utility etc) and managed to avoid accidents and pickpockets it would only cost me about US$1.50.

The traffic is rather scary in Africa – not exactly scary like Manila, where you are constantly expecting collision, but scary because of the speed, the poor roads, and the seeming “don’t care” attitude of the drivers. Things are done a little differently there. No one would obey speed signs, so each town on the highway just builds speed bumps – with few warning signs. Don’t drive at night – you will be doing low speeds, dodging drunken locals, livestock, deep potholes, and hoping not to hit the invisible speed bumps.

Few vehicles slow down to pass other vehicles, and windscreen damage is a real possibility. So many drive on the wrong side of the road, and when the two drivers see each other through the dust they each slam on the brakes and swerve back to the correct side of the road. Not exactly the way we do things, but it seems to work. No one understands the concept of a roundabout – everyone just slows down (if you are lucky) and merges into the mess of horn blowing drivers going in every direction possible. Manila taxi drivers would feel right at home.

Everything in Africa works with cash, no one accepts AMEX, and if you are really lucky some will take Visa. I turned up at my hotel in the middle of nowhere, thinking I had booked a $400 climb, cooking for myself, with one guide and 2 porters. What I got was a $600 climb where everything was cooked for me, and there was one guide and 4 porters. This meant that I owed more than my Visa card could handle (plus cash tips for the guide and porters), so when the hotel tried to get a visa authorization, it failed. I told them that I would pay when I returned from the climb, hoping that my expenses or cash advance would come in while I was on the mountain.

Day 1: Machame Gate to Machame hut
A Landrover took me through lush coffee and banana plantations to the gate at 1800 meters at the entrance to the park. I paid US$380 in cash, park fees for 6 days, then began a 4-hour walk, ascending through the forest then onwards to the hut which was just clear of the forest at 3000 meters. Started in 35C steamy jungle wearing shorts. Made good time and arrived at the hut at 4pm, then had to stand around in the cold till 6:30 when my porters turned up with the tents and my sleeping bag and warm clothes. By this time everyone else had their tents setup, their meal cooked and eaten, and had fed a very hungry Robert on their leftovers. I never again made the mistake of letting the porters carry my warm clothes, and made sure my valuable chocolate supply was with me at all times.

Day 2: Machame hut to Shira Hut (3840m)
Walk up a steep ridge from Machame hut through moorland to about 3600 meters, heading straight towards the peak. It became obvious that the mountain has a daily cloud cycle. Each morning you wake up to a perfectly clear view of the icy peak, then by about 10am the clouds have obscured all but the forested base. There is often hail or snow in the afternoon on the plateau and peak, then the clouds clear at around sunset for a beautiful view of the glaciers in the dusk. There is a clear view by moonlight, seen regularly through the night when relieving the pressure caused by drinking large quantities of water to avoid altitude sickness. Next time I’ll take the piss bottle recommended on big mountains so I can stay in the warmth of my sleeping bag and have less yellow ice puddles around my tent.

Had jackals hanging around the camp at Machame hut and Shira hut (only heard them) and also lots of small striped mice. I had requested a guide and porters who did not smoke or light fires (to avoid possible asthma at altitude) but it seems I was naive in this, as it seems Africans purposely make smoky fires to keep away insects. The large number of guides and porters travelling with each paying climber means that huge amounts of wood are cleared from the forest each night, and already a few camps have had to be moved to areas where there is still enough wood to burn. It is sad that this is allowed in one of the few national parks.

Day 3: Shira hut to Baranco hut at 3900m
The worst Christmas ever. I woke up at 11.30pm Christmas Eve with nasty fluids issuing from every orifice – stomach problems. I still don’t know if it was from the water, or from the food, but in the morning I asked the porters to boil my water, and they looked surprised. I then realized that the chicken I ate the previous night was just kept in a box, no refrigeration, and had been carried for two days in the heat.

If you have seen an African butcher shop you will know that the meat was really dodgy even before it was bought. Their butcher shops are similar to China or Middle East, and animals are slaughtered very early morning, then hung on hooks, hopefully out of the sun, and gradually cut up and sold during the day, hopefully before too many flies lay their eggs on the meat. I avoided all meat and eggs for the rest of the trip (as did most other climbers) and basically lived on potato and pineapple for the next four days.

I lost lots of fluid when sick, which is very bad at altitude, and totally lost energy, and had the interesting task of trying to hike for about 7 hours on Christmas day at high altitude, and predict when to stop and drop my pants in time. Anyone climbing this route in the future can find their way by following the trail of little pieces of pink toilet paper – or by just following their nose.

Day 4: Baranco hut to Barafu hut (4600m)

A long hike up to the highest camp site – very cold at the hut, and all clothes worn for the 6 hours sleep till the summit attempt. An interesting hike through some alien shrubbery and high altitude succulent plants, with small birds including brightly colored honey-eaters making a good living in the cold damp environment on the lower slopes.

Day 5: Barafu hut to the summit (5895m)
Start at midnight, summit at sunrise, then descend to Mweka hut at 3000m. The climb is up 1300m of ash and scree, and is undertaken at night because it is much easier to climb when frozen, and during the day is loose, windy, and shrouded in clouds. It started as an easy climb, but by the top I was hyperventilating for 20 breaths to get the energy to stand up, take 15 steps up the slope, then collapsing to my knees. As sunrise approached, four others caught up with me, and it became a tragic race to the top, each of us spending long times on our stomachs breathing, then making a desperate run up the slope before collapsing again. Watching this I could not help laugh at the stupidity of it all.

Did not take any photos at the top – got there and collapsed – my legs just stopped working – altitude sickness. I think I had Cerebral Edema – fluid leakage into the brain cavity putting pressure on the brain and causing loss of brain function. I just sat there with a stupid grin on my face and tried to stand up, throw a rock, catch a rock etc, but no luck. I was worried, not knowing if it was permanent, and unfortunately because of the lessened brain function was unable to relate my condition to known symptoms of altitude sickness – loss of co-ordination as if intoxicated. My guide worked out what was wrong, and he asked another guide to help him support me on the trip down the mountain. I improved as I went lower, and then had a rest at 4600m where I recovered fully before continuing on down to Mweka hut. We had a very heavy hail storm on the way down and it ended with over 15cm of small ice balls covering everything in sight, then melting to form torrents of water cascading down the steep path.

Altitude sickness is a really strange thing, and not at all predictable. The next mountain I will use Diamox tablets and see if that helps. Many of the other climbers used them on Kilimanjaro, and offered me some, but I decided not to this time as I wanted to see if I was seriously affected by Altitude Sickness before moving on to bigger peaks. Before the climb I tried to get them in Australia and I was told that they were only for heart troubles. Next time I’ll get them in a country with less stringent drug controls and better-educated pharmacists. The good news is that I did not get any headaches like the one I had on Fuji – maybe because of acclimatization, and maybe because I drank a lot of water.

Day 6: Descend from Mweka hut to Mweka gate
Descended along a muddy track down through lush rainforest, and saw quite a few Yellow Collubus Monkeys. The track was very muddy from the storm the day before, and my guide and porters slipped over many times, but we all had a good sense of humor as we were all going home, and a good time was had by all.

Many of the guides and porters do one trek a week, making significantly more money than the local average of US$30 per month. Doing this though they spend long times at high altitude, and eventually degrades their health and mental faculties, especially their memory, from the low oxygen causing cell death. My guide’s name was Valerian. He was a local who grew coffee, bananas, cabbage, and had a few cows. He did just two climbs a year to earn a bit of cash, and mine was his 19th climb. One other guide I met were doing his 364th climb.

Australian Christmas holidays intervened, and so when I returned and asked if my Visa card was paid off, I was told not yet, but it would be in two days. So, I had to hang around at the hotel for two more days to be sure that all was OK, nervously waiting for a knock on the door asking for payment. When I tried to check out again, sure that all was OK, the payment was again rejected, and when I checked with Visa Australia, I found that even though my card was paid off in Australia, the computer transfer between my bank and Visa international had failed, and no payments had been registered. I had to talk my way through leaving a hotel in the middle of nowhere in Africa without paying my bill of US$1000, but promising to do so as soon as I could. The hotel even had to lend me some cash to pay tips for the guide and porters, and catch a bus out to Arusha. The next day the transaction was approved, so all was OK.

If you go to Africa – TAKE CASH – HUGE WADS OF IT. Yes there is crime, and I avoided taking too much cash to avoid this, but I was never assaulted and if you are careful and follow advice you will never be robbed.

In Arusha, Tanzania a 10 year old carrying a large stick walks up to me.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Milton.”
“That is a nice name.”
“You my friend, give me money.” (menaces me with the stick)
“I am sorry, but I have none.”
He walks away.

I have had many others of all ages asking for money and chocolate, and lots of children asking for pens (I wish I had brought boxes as I hope they would use them for school). People also wanted to trade for my belongings – water bag, shirt, and especially my army boots. Quite a few times, when I was looking admiringly at an ebony carving of a distorted spirit, I turned around to find that the stall owner had been doing the same at my boots, and then offered to trade. Unfortunately I only had one pair of boots, and was definitely not prepared to travel Africa barefoot.

Upon arriving at Arusha I again needed more cash to pay for the bus to Nairobi. My hotel did not give cash advances off Amex or Visa, but told me that the Hotel Impala did, so I headed over there. Hotel Impala was a usual hotel with one exception – lots of black guys in pseudo army green uniforms, all carrying Kalashnikovs and looking nervous. Going in to change money I found out why – the people inside who changed money ran out just as I got to the counter, and so they drag out another suitcase of cash from under the desk. It was Tanzanian Shillings, so a brick was probably only worth US$1000, but there had to be at least US$500,000 in that suitcase. The usual exchange rate is between 600 and 700 Tanzanian Shillings to the US$. Impala gave 500 to the US$. They must be making quite a bit, with their only outlay being the minor cost of having a small private army for protection – maybe US$20 per day, and whatever bribes to keep the government out of their business.

On the plane back from Nairobi I sat next to a girl from Texas who had grown up in Ethiopia and Kenya and was back to visit her parents for Christmas. We talked quite a while and she told me of one time there was an Ethiopian woman sitting next to her on a plane. When the in-flight meal was brought along, she refused it, then pulled out a bunch of firewood from her bag, placed it in a pile in the aisle between the seats, and proceeded to try to light it to cook food before some very scared passengers talked her out of it.

Read Into Thin Air on the plane on the way back – felt real sympathy for the people who suffered Everest in 1996. Kilimanjaro is about 5900m – Everest is 8850m – another 3km of misery – why do I want to do it?

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