Climbing Kilimanjaro 2: Across the Caldera

By now we were well and truly on the mountain. Ahead, Kilimanjaro reared up out of the plain and when the clouds permitted, we could see the top, where we would be walking in only a few days. Our guides fostered a spirit of positive mental attitude which proved to be the right way to tackle this trek; physical preparation was only part of the challenge ahead.

We left camp ahead of our porters although they swiftly passed us on this flat stretch of plain. We were walking in the collapsed cone of the oldest of the three volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro, Shira. Where rivers and streams had cut through the rock we could see the strata of lava flow beneath. To the right, south, was the remains of the crater wall, Shira ridge, rising to just under 4000m. The morning was hot and the walking relatively easy. There were few landmarks to break up the landscape but as we passed the most prominent, a large and incongruous boulder, we turned right to head away from the mountain and off towards Shira Cathederal. The Cathederal was a large rock formation which was once part of the Shira cone. The rough volcanic rock had weathered less than it’s surroundings and we would be using it as a small acclimatisation walk .

The pat led over flood channels and dry river beds but remained easy going. We spotted giant lobelia growing off the path and as we had time to spare, we walked over to investigate. They were odd plants, seemingly out of place in this wilderness, but beautiful in their own way. Heading back tot he path, we spotted Malachite Firebirds flying around and watching us from the bushes. Their emerald green feathers stood out and flashed when caught in the sunlight.

It turned out that we were near their nest and we retreated to allow them to return. There were two chicks in the nest and one of our group had seen them, beaks wide open, waiting for food. Not wishing to disturb them any more, we set off towards the rocks, now getting closer.

The path started to ascend and as we were unused to the slope after our walk on the plains, we slowed and felt out of breath. But before long we reached the foot of the cliffs and took a short break before attempting the climb up to the view point. Here we shed packs and started on the scramble up the narrow, rocky path. There were plenty of hand and foot holds, but there was also exposure to quite a drop and I remembered the ‘three points of contact’ mantra I’d been taught when scrambling in Snowdonia. After a few minutes, we were on the narrow ridge that led to the summit.

We’d climbed around 80m in total and although we were at altitude, it wasn’t too taxing. There were magnificent views across the caldera to our camp of this morning, but looking south towards the lower slopes and the route of the Machame path, there were thick dark clouds and they seemed to be approaching.

Back down, after a precarious slippery scramble, we donned back packs and set off over the slightly lower hill that would take us to Shira Hut camp site, our goal for the day. Shortly after we set off, the first rain started to fall. There were the big raindrops of a thundery shower and a few hailstones. I didn’t allow my mind to recall my encounter with a thunder storm during training until I heard the first clap of thunder from the right.

Waterproofs were hastily put on and I noticed the guides weren’t too concerned by the thunder, so I chose not to be. Mind over matter – it seemed the positive mental attitude was working. But no amount of positivity stopped the rain from falling and it quickly became heavy and persistent. To the accompaniment of the odd peal of thunder, we walked in near silence in a world cocooned by our rain gear and the thick rain and mist. In all subsequent conversations, this was deemed to be the worst day of the trek, including the summit day. It was cold, wet and miserable and all we had to look forward to was the dubious shelter of a tent at the end of it.

We straggled into camp after about an hour. Everything was soaked. We were even given dispensation to go straight to the tents rather than registering at the Ranger post first. Wet kit was deposited in the porch of the tents, and we gathered, damp and downhearted, in the mess tent. Hot peanuts and hot drinks helped revive our spirits. The mention of an acclimatisation walk didn’t fill us full of enthusiasm.

After lunch, which was soup and toast, we had some time to gather our thoughts, change out of damp clothes and take a rest before we set off on the short acclimatisation walk. We took the route we’d be following the next day. The plan was to climb another 80m or so and stay for a few minutes, following the acclimatisation rule of climbing high and sleeping low. In the event, we were feeling good enough to ascend higher and we finally stopped at around 150m higher than camp. There we chatted with our guides, who explained the language and tribal system of Tanzania.

Before independence in 1964,  there were 120 tribes across East Africa and they all had their local languages and dialects. Julius Nyerere legislated that Swahili, already a common tongue, would be the national language. The main effect of this was to unify the various tribes and thus the country. All Tanzanians can speak Swahili and their own tribal tongue. Locals can identify the tribe from the accent of Swahili and while I can’t say I noticed too many differences, the way our porters said ‘jambo’ every time they passed us on the trail varied considerably from long, drawn out version, to short snappy ones. This to me seemed to be based on accent.

The walk also had the benefit of drying off our gear, as by now the rains had stopped and the sun was out. We descended with a wonderful view of the caldera, the path we’d taken this morning and the clouds clearing from the slopes of the Cathedral rocks.

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