Saturday, July 9, 2011

The life and climbs of the daydreaming blogger. . .

When somebody asks what the most amazing experience of your life has been, what do you say?
Some people answer with the basics like 'my first kiss' or 'my holiday in Mauritius', but my answer would be a bit different. My answer would go back three months ago on the 7th of April when I summited Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa.
This is my story.

For three long, gruelling months I had trained for my climb and finally on the first of April the day came that I would leave for Tanzania. Kilimanjaro is along the border of Kenya and Tanzania so on the way we had to stop in Nairobi Airport in Kenya, we being a team of 11 people who were going up Kilimanjaro.
In our wait for our flight to Tanzania, the team sat in a very small cafeteria, enjoying a beer or a two in the time, and we all got the chance to get to know each other. Did I mention my father decided to come along as well? Well, my father and I sat in that cafeteria and we met some of the most interesting people. Something I realised that day in Nairobi was that people had a million reasons for being in the middle of an African airport, Kilimanjaro was ours.

The people in our team were very different indeed. There was a chartered accountant, Ian and his brother, Kevin who came especially from Australia. There was a medical company executive, Mark Warran and his daughter Jade and Mark's best friend Cecil, a taxidermist. We then had two sisters and one of the sister’s husbands, and lastly we had Sibusiso Vilane.
Sibusiso Vilane is the first black man in the world to climb Mount Everest, twice. He has also climbed all seven summits of each continent and this trip to Kili was his tenth time.
Oh yeah. . .

Four hours later we were on a night flight to Kilimanjaro Airport. It was pitch black outside through the window and at one point in the flight the captain announced that we were now flying past Kili and if we looked very hard we could possibly see her slopes.
I think he was being a bit optimistic, but anyway, a while later we arrived in one of the smallest airports I have ever seen. As we sat in airport chairs there was suddenly a very unexpected noise, a low "NIIIIOOOOOOooooo" and the whole airport went dark. 30 second later, "niiiIOOOOOIIII" and the lights came back on. This continued for the next hour as we filled in form after form. This was definitely an African airport, no offence to African airports.

We arrived at our small hotel at 12:30 am and a very kind manager had kept food for us, so at 1 am we had a full dinner complete with dessert.

The next morning we met the chief guide, Rajab - or Raj, for short. He has been chief guide for 25 years and he and his team of forty-seven other people were going to guide us up Kilimanjaro. He briefed us on basics and then it was time to embark on the 3 hour drive to the Kilimanjaro National Park gate, where we would be starting our ascend.
As we drove through town after town, there was something so special about seeing what a rural African country looked like. It was rainy season so the land was lush and green and there were more banana trees than I care to describe. We could see woman and men plowing fields in the backdrop of the scenery.
Forget office blocks and skyscrapers, this was not a first world country.

While driving through the towns there was so much beauty, but there was also some incredible poverty. Small things you took for granted before, well, not after that trip.

 We eventually reached the gate and started to get ready. Ready as in put on gaiters - special rain guards for your legs - , hats, sun block and other things of the sort. Before I knew it the team and our newly appointed guide for the first day, Mathew began hiking very slowly up a small path into a thick pine forest. "very slowly" is in bold because that exactly what I mean, because you see that there in the mountain there is this very unfortunate thing called altitude sickness. The higher one goes up, the less oxygen there is and the slower one has to walk. If you move too quickly, the unacclimatised body can't take it and you will begin to feel nauseous and sick. Not a great feeling.

But anyway, along the path there were many different things to see but as we hiked upward the phenomenon of Kilimanjaro walked past us. The porters.
On Kilimanjaro there are many different jobs, you have the guides, the cooks, the waiters and then you have the porters.
Being completely acclimatised - meaning their bodies were used to less oxygen - and very fit they sped past us carrying up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds) on their heads or backs.

It took us 4 hours to get to the first camp and we were pleasantly surprised to find a whole camp complete with small tents for two, a very small cooking tent and a mess tent for eating. We were soon called for dinner.
Out of some of the many expectations I had, the brilliant food was not one of them. We were fed cucumber soup for starters and at first I will admit, I was more than a little reluctant to have a taste but after my first mouthful I couldn't get enough. The food that followed was also very good and I went to sleep with a happy stomach.

The phenomenon of Kilimanjaro - The porters
The next day was long and far, 18km far, 7 hours long. At first the weather was quite hot, this was Africa after all, but soon the rain began to pour down. We all quickly got into our rain jackets and continued for the next three hours through hard, pelting rain, but eventually we reached the next camp.

The guides had told us that our third day would be short, steep and grueling. They weren't lying, but out of all the days the third was one of my favourite. That's because on the third day we went through the clouds.
They were thick and moist and you could barely see your hand in front of your face, but once we were through, the most spectacular view was visible.
Going through the clouds
It was like seeing the whole word right in front of you, it was totally amazing.
Soon after, we arrived at the third camp, my favourite of them all. Not that the camps before weren't great, but this one had a little something special about it. This camp was right below Kilimanjaro's sister mountain, Mawenzi.

Camp at the base of Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro's sister mountain.
We planned on staying in the third camp for two nights, which was our extra day, so we had plenty of time to enjoy a few recreational activities. One of them being a good card game of Rummy. I won, to some of my team mates annoyance, but we had some good times.
One of the funniest times of the trip, voted by team, was that night in the mess tent. Unfortunately, I was very part of that funny moment. Let’s just say that you should never trust an unopened tin of milk powder. That specific night I had felt like a cup of Milo, it had gotten much colder now we were higher up, so I had spooned in all my Milo powder and sugar into my cup and then as I pulled back the seal of the milk powder tin the powder explode upwards, covering me from head to toe in a yellow ash. I had only opened up about 5 mm of the opening, and then the next thing I know, my whole team bursts out laughing.
Apparently the look on my face had been priceless and they were never, ever going to forget this. Oh goody. . .

That night it was bitterly cold and the wind blew our tents back and forth the whole night. That morning we found out why is was so cold. In the night it had began to snow over Mawenzi and her jagged peaks and all around us everything was covered in snow. Did I mention that it hadn't stopped snowing when we realised this?
This was the final day before summit night, a day where we would hike across a large open plane called The Saddle. I have no clue why it's called that, but apparently it was a very dusty and dry area. That day, it was not dry.

Hiking to the base of Kilimanjaro
To say we hiked through a snow storm would be a bit of an exaggeration, but the snow was definitely coming down.
Face first.

"Snow Storm"
It was also raining and after a bleak hour or two travelling through The Saddle, we came across something very unexpected.
A plane crash.
At first we didn't know what we were looking at, but then our guide explained to us what happened. 
Last year a small plane carrying three passengers and a pilot crashed into Mawenzi and then hit the area around The Saddle. Unfortunately, only the pilot survived but the crash was definitely a sight to see.

Plane crash
5 hours later - yes, that long - the team and I arrived at Kibo Hut, the last camp at the base of Kilimanjaro. We were given 5 hours to sleep that night, because at 12 o'clock midnight we would start our ascend.

11:30, we'd just had some tea and biscuits for energy and it was time to start leaving. I was introduced to my assistant guide, Bana Juma who was to help me along the way. Since I'm a young person - and a woman - I was assigned a helper. Apparently the Kilimanjaro Park wants more women and younger people to summit the mountain, so they give us assistant guides for summit night to better our chance of reaching the top.
12:00, we started to climb.
It was pitch dark and the only light you could see was from your small headlamp and those of the team. We were all dressed in thick summit jackets and many layers, but we still couldn't feel our fingers.
All through the 5 days the guides, and Sibusiso, had warned us that the hardest part of the climb was a two hour slot before we would reach the 1st of Kilimanjaro's three summit points, Gilman's Point. They were right.
About four hours into the climb, I began to feel the lack of oxygen. At first I thought it was all the layers, but I began to feel incredibly claustrophobic and I could only take shallow breaths. This scared the hell out of me.
I was in a bit of a panic at one point, but I eventually came to my senses and I knew that if I kept on going I would get used to it. I did.
For 6 long hours we climbed up the extremely steep zig-zag path leading to Gilman's point.
At one point though, about an hour from the stop, I felt like I was suffocating. I had my buff over my nose and mouth and it was hiked up in my beanie over my head. It was as close to a panic attack I've ever had. I began frantically clawing at the buff to get it off my face. Of course, I couldn't do this while climbing so my momentary lack of air caused a bit of alarm among the others who were wondering what was going on and why I'd stopped. My dad did mention how he noticed that the last 2 hours or so before Gilmans had thinner air than lower on the mountain. Well, he's right.
I thought the zig-zags would never end. We climbed hour after hour and it all seemed endless, but when I reached Gilman's Point, I knew I was there. I will admit, I got a little teary when I reached that snowy sign. 6 hours is a long time, enough said.
One hour past and we arrived at Stella Point, the second point. There is no sign for Stella Point so when we "got there" the guides kind of just jumped up and said "You've arrived at Stella Point!". Talk about improvising. . .
It then took us half an hour to get to Ukhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa. 5895 meters high. The top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Reaching the summit
Do you want to know what the view was like? It was white. The snow was everywhere and even if we didn't get to see that "I'm on top of the world" view, the beauty of it all was overwhelming. As great as being in a winter wonderland was, the top of Kili was also very cold. -13, to be exact. Could I feel my fingers? No, but everything else was nice and warm thanks to seven different layers of fleece, thermal vests and a trusty summit jacket.
Of course, we took and few pictures and then we realised we needed to get down. The cold and high altitude were beginning to take their toll. Even I was starting to get a head ache from the lack of oxygen.

We descended the mountain in 4 hours, but the last part from Guilman's Point to Kibo Hut was some of the most fun I've ever had. The ground along the slope leading to Guilman's Point is very lose and sandy, so when Bana Juma told me to take hold of his arm, I knew what was coming, so Juma and I literally skied down the slope of Kilimanjaro.

Skiing down the slope of Kilimanjaro
When I get to the bottom it didn't hit me that I actually just climbed Kilimanjaro, but on the flight back home we were told to look out the window, and there Kili was. Then you realise, oh my word, I was there.
Out of the plane

Anthea (P.S. If anyone would like to know more, I'd be so happy to elaborate a little further into my incredible experience)