I did a little bit of journalling, with good old-fashioned pen and paper, during our eight days and seven nights on Mount Kilimanjaro. Here are the highlights, day by day.
We leave Springlands Hotel at 9 a.m. Tanzanian time (or about 20 after). Our ramshackle jeep is full — nine of us, including our guide, Sylvester, two other hikers (who we later come to know as Caroline and Sarah, two funny and friendly young women from the U.K.), their guide and Zara staff to check us in at Kilimanjaro National Park. Our gear is lashed to the roof. We learn later that the porters have taken tents, cooking equipment, etc. to the base of the hill the day before and camped there overnight.
Our driver sets the tone for the ride when he narrowly avoids the last of a herd of goats crossing the road mere minutes from the hotel: “Holy shit!” he exclaims, interrupting his own pontifications (or so they seem to me) in Swahili. He continues a constant and enthusiastic stream of largely one-sided conversation throughout the drive, mostly Swahili with the odd English expression thrown in: “We stop. African toilet.” (Long-drop, squat outhouse infested with wasps.) “African road…bumpity, bumpity.” (An understatement.) “Yesssss!” (When he finally finds the gear he wants after several tries.) “Bump, bump, bump ieeya!” (Over a particularly rough section of road.)
Our first day of hiking is in stark contrast to the drive: relaxing and peaceful. Sylvester lets the other hikers, guides and porters go ahead and sets such a gentle pace David thinks at first he might be playing a joke on us.
It’s a new way of hiking for us: polepole, following our guide’s short, sure steps. At first it seems we are stumbling in our efforts to slow down and match his pace.
We walk up and down slippery red mud slopes through dense lush bush. We spot brightly coloured flowers and colobus monkeys, which bear stripes similar to skunks and enormous fluffy furry white tails.
When we arrive at Big Tree Camp, our tent is up, we have warm water for washing and a table is set for two with a snack of sweetened popcorn and tea. Nice.
We will hike today in two parts: four hours, then lunch, followed by an additional three hours.
The terrain is much the same: trees, plants, flowers, dirt path. Our pace is slow and steady. The porters, who have cleaned up the camp after we set out, pass us along the way, with greetings of “Jambo!”
We reach our lunch destination with not too much effort. On a rocky outcropping, our table is set (!) and Joseph (our “waiter” and assistant guide) serves us a hot lunch of chicken and fries, as well as fresh vegetables and fruit and tea. (Although wonderful coffee is grown in Tanzania, few people here drink it.)
After lunch, we encounter several light rain showers and some hail. One heavy downpour takes us by surprise and though we put on jackets and pull out rain covers for our day packs, by the time we think of our rain pants, we are already wet.
But the rain doesn’t last long and the quick-dry pants are nearly dry by the time we reach 3,500 metres and our camp.
It is warm and sunny when we arrive, but darkness and cold come quickly. There is frost on our tent before we go to sleep. I would guess the temperature to be about -5 Celsius.
A harder day than we anticipated.
The early morning is a joy. We are getting used to walking at the pace Sylvester has set for us. At times, are quiet steps are completely in sync as we walk single file through grasslands.
Later, we take a side hike (helpful for acclimatization and a fantastic view we are told if the mountain was not blanketed in thick fog). We climb the highest point on the Shira Plateau. Sylvester explains to us that the Shira peak was once higher than Uhuru but collapsed during a volcanic eruption.
We also walk past one of about five helicopter landing pads on the mountain, as well as a crazy one-wheeled stretcher and a road. There are many options for people with altitude sickness to leave the park and seek medical attention.
The hike takes its toll. We arrive at camp for a very late lunch tired, hungry and headachy. David, in particular, has this back of the neck/head pain that Sylvester confirms is due to the altitude.
Following lunch, I meet our guide on a quick stroll around the camp. “No more walking today, Lee Ann,” he admonishes gently. “Only rest.” Good advice.
The sky clears, as Sylvester predicts, around 6 p.m., affording a fantastic view of the mountain.
Another long day, but one that boosts our confidence.
We take a scenic route, with lots of stops for photos of the wondrously enormous senecio kilimanjari flowers and roberia that grow only on Kili, a waterfall and picturesque valley as well as lunch.
A misunderstanding the night before on my part means David and I have not brought enough layers for the very cold acclimatization hike planned for the afternoon. Sylvester hunts through his pack (unlike us, he carries everything he needs for the trip himself) and finds shirts and sweaters to loan us both.
We also learn to “walk like a Tanzanian” and stow our poles to ascend with our hands in pockets to keep warm. We reach the peak of the Lava Tower (4,600 metres) surprisingly quickly. Sylvester lets out a whoop to mark our achievement and we are a little shocked to have found ourselves there so easily.
Little to no problems with the altitude today. The acclimatization seems to be working.
When Sylvester stops by during dinner to tell us of tomorrow’s plans, we offer him some of our meal (which are tasty, generous and usually more than we can eat). While we eat and drink tea, we tell him a bit about life in Canada. Our description of ice fishing, in particular, has him laughing and shaking his head. He is positive he is the first Tanzanian to learn about this crazy activity!
We are at a busier camp tonight as Machame (possibly the most popular route on the mountain), Shira and our route, Lemosho, converge here.
Our day begins with a hands-and-feet scramble up the Baranco Wall. Despite the crowds, we really enjoy this 1-1/2-hour part of our day. It is a change of pace from the gentler inclines we have experienced so far.
The traffic on the trail is thick (total gridlock on occasion) and we pause many times for porters and faster climbers.
A few times we find ourselves annoyed by the other groups. We have become so accustomed to Sylvester’s pace, we three fall into a natural rhythm at times that is slow, steady and quiet, like a meditation. It can be disrupted by someone following too close, banging poles or huffing and puffing.
As we near the campsite, we pass a ledge that is naturally protected from the rain by a large overhang of rock. Sylvester explains to us that before 2000 (when the Tanzanian government stepped in) porters used to sleep there and, if you were late cleaning up after the hikers’ evening meal, you wouldn’t get a spot. Near other camps, porters (including Sylvester himself) slept in dank caves, without sleeping bags, only sheets or thin blankets. Only tourists, he explains, had tents. Although the government has forced tour companies to provide tents to porters, they must still supply their own sleeping bags and other items such as rain gear and footwear. We see porters wearing everything on their feet from holey high-top runners to workboots to dress shoes, although many do have hiking boots.
We arrive at camp (3,900 metres) at about 2 p.m. and after a late lunch set out for a short acclimatization hike to 4,200 metres.
Sylvester is confident the pace we’ve established over the past five days — slow, steady walking for seven to 10 hours with few short breaks, easy breathing and easy on the body — will carry us to the summit.
His words and a lack of altitude sickness symptoms have us feeling good.
At dinner, we learn that Joseph will be accompanying us to the summit in case one of us must turn back. (He will descend with that person while Sylvester accompanies the other to the summit.) He is a friendly man who pays careful attention to his work and we are happy to have him with us for the final haul.
Sylvester teaches us some Swahili slang. There is no direct translation for most of the words, they are largely interchangeable but friends will toss them back and forth in a lengthy greeting that really comes down to: Hey. Hey. I’m cool. Yeah, me too. Mambo. Mambo vipi. Shwari. Poa. Babkubwa. We also learn Nico vishuri comma simba: “I’m feeling good — like a lion.”
A short five-hour hike takes us to Barafu, our base camp.
Five of the mountains seven trails converge here to summit and the scene is barely organized chaos. The sights (hundreds of people, dozens of tents), sounds (porters moving rocks and banging in tent pegs, suffering hikers retching, excited ones talking loudly about their chances of the summit, cooks and guides calling to their staffs) and smells (not-so-fresh outhouses, rotting garbage and cooking) are overwhelming.
I am unable to sleep through any of this during the afternoon and go to dinner a little frustrated.
Sylvester lays out the plan for the summit. Joseph will wake us at 11 p.m. We will have tea and biscuits, put on our layers and pack the bare essentials in our day packs. At 11:30, we will start our hike.
We return to our tent around 7:30 p.m. to rest. More disruptions, including a woman mistaking our tent for hers and opening the door, prohibit me from getting any actual sleep. When 11 p.m. arrives, I am, for the first time, really worried about my chances for reaching to top.
Day 7 really begins at the close Day 6, when we nervously gulp down a cup of tea, pass out handwarmers and start our ascent.
It is dark and the path is steep, but we maintain a pace in keeping with what we’ve done over the past five days. Sylvester leads, David follows, then me and Joseph. We are not far along when David starts to feel the affects of the altitude. He complains of a headache and fatigue and wants to rest frequently. My only complaints are a sore neck (from looking down to mark my steps in the dark on rocky terrain while carrying a pack) and the cold. Sylvester pushes us on after short breaks. Several times, David makes weaving, unsure steps ahead of me. My worry causes me to reach out to steady him. During one break, Sylvester looks at him and says, “No sleeping, David.” Another time, Joseph, who has witnessed the stumbling where Sylvester has not, bends down before a seated David and looks him in the eyes. “David,” he says, in voice much more serious than his usual tones, “how are you doing?”
He pushes through it and by the time we reach Stella Point, a milestone of about 5,700 metres, at 6 a.m. he seems much more alert. After hugs and photos, we push on to Uhuru point, the summit at 5,895 metres.
We see the sun rise as we hike.
We pass glaciers in shades of white, green, blue and pink. They look close enough to run to, but when Sylvester puts their height at about 30 metres, we know the scale of the mountain has skewed our perspective.
We meet our friend Caroline who is on her way down. She is with her assistant guide, Bongo, as guide Jacob remained with Sarah who was feeling very ill and in the end did not summit. Bongo is practically jumping up and down when he greets us and offers congratulations. Caroline admits to feeling really awful (probably because Bongo’s enthusiasm resulted in too fast of a pace) but is pleased to have reached the top.
When the summit comes within view, I feel a rush of emotion. If there wasn’t a group gathered around the sign, I would probably run the last few metres. Instead, I keep in line with the others at our slow, steady pace and together we reach the top. More hugs, more photos and many words of thanks and congratulations, then we turn around.
The descent takes just over three hours, compared to the seven-plus hours to ascend. At times we descend dozens of metres in seconds, sliding through scree, hoping not to catch a larger rock on the way. By the time we reach base camp, we are covered in a layer of brown dust.
We rest for an hour, eat lunch and then pack up for another four hours of hiking to our final campsite, Mweka. Fatigue keeps us quiet for the early part of the journey, but a simple question from Sylvester about the number of political parties in Canada, launches a long conversation that touches on everything from fat-cat Tanzanian politicians to education, to health care to the Bloc Quebecois.
We arrive at camp in good spirits despite a very long two days and the man in charge of registration seems to sense our mood. “Tea?” he asks David, offering his own cup and looking for a reaction. He gets a stammering, “Hapana asante (no thanks).” and Sylvester begins to laugh. He explains in Tanzania people share plates, cups, bowls, meals with one another without discretion. Although the man would have been happy to give David a sip of his tea, his offer was really in fun.
A few words in Swahili from the man get Sylvester laughing again. Spotting the whistle on David’s backpack, he wonders if maybe he is a football (soccer) coach. We had already told Sylvester our whistles were to summon help or scare away bears while hiking. “Tell him about the bears,” I tell Sylvester. He speaks in Swahili with the word bear thrown in. “Oh, run away,” the man motions. “Ndio,” I say and we laugh again.
We sleep early and well that night in preparation for an early start on our 3-1/2 hour final hike.
We are tired but cheerful for the final stage of our descent and spend much of the morning with Jacob, Sarah and Caroline.
We reach the end of the trail around 10 a.m. and Springlands Hotel shortly after 11 a.m. We buy Sylvester (and Joseph who shows up later after returning some equipment to the office) a Coke, give him the used boots and clothing we had brought for the porters as well as tips. He fills out and signs our official summit certificates. We exchange addresses, as I have promised to send Sylvester some maple syrup (another bit of Canadiana we told him about) as well as photos. We bid our goodbyes.
We spend much of the rest of the day with Sarah and Caroline (and then Jacob as well) relaxing, eating (altitude suppresses the appetite so we are all ravenous) drinking beer and chatting. When we realize we have only five hours before we must be up to catch the airport shuttle, we hug goodbye and head to bed.