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, ┬áthere 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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Climbing Kilimanjaro 1: From Swansea to Swahili

The process of getting from my house to Heathrow was more traumatic than getting from Heathrow to Nairobi. A heavy kitbag (a gnat’s whisker under 15kg) plus a bulky back pack (the lead lined whiskers from a tribe of gnats over 5kg) was just hassle, particularly getting through the ticket barriers at Reading. On-line check-in only partially worked as the internal flight to Kilimanjaro International airport didn’t have a working website.

But these minor issues aside, I caught my first glimpse of Kilimanjaro as the internal flight flew between it and Mt Meru. The pilot announced that we were flying some 4000ft below the summit of Kilimanjaro as there were favourable winds at that altitude.

I managed to get through the airport Yellow Fever check (a big worry for me) and suddenly I was with the others in our group on the main highway running between Moshi and Arusha. About an hour later, we were checked in to the Ilboru Safari Lodge and I could relax.

After a briefing about equipment, altitude sickness and the formalities of insurance and passports, we were free to relax in the little round huts that were our rooms. That evening, we had a mix of traditional local foods including beef and fried chicken with vegetables and fresh fruit. After a good night’s sleep beneath a mosquito net (the realities of being in Africa started here), we were up early for a feast of a breakfast and then of in the minibus for the transfer to Kilimanjaro National Park and the registration process. Then, a quick and extremely bumpy bus ride (known locally as the African massage) took us to Lemosho gate and the start of the trekking. Here, we met our guides. Head guide was Passian with his two assistants ‘King’ James and Khalid. We learnt our first Swahili words here too; ‘Pole pole’ (slowly, slowly – the mantra for altitude acclimatisation), ‘twendai’ (let’s go), ‘mwzuri sana’ (I’m very well) and the well worn ‘jambo’ (the equivalent of ‘hi’ and ‘how are you’ tr

We walked through green forest along a rough 4×4 track (my Freelander wouldn’t have coped) before rising up and away from the track on a narrower path. After a lunch stop on the open, we entered the forest again for around 3 hours of gentle uphill walking until we spotted tents through the trees ahead. Big Tree Camp was our first camp site and the one that would introduce us to the routine of camp life.

Porters are only allowed by law to carry a maximum of 25kg and so at every camp site, a check is made on the loads to make sure none are being exploited. The guy in charge of the scales offered to weigh my pack and he laughed when it turned out to be 6.5kg. I was surprised, as I’d expected to carry no more than 5kg most days. I was more surprised when I realised that the weight didn’t include the water I’d been carrying, or my camera, which was still around my neck. I estimated I’d started off with an 9kg pack.

During the night, a troop of Colobus monkeys swept through the camp site, looking for food. In the morning, one large monkey remained on the outskirts of the clearing, watching and waiting for us intruders to leave. White necked ravens sat on rocks also waiting for their chance to scavenge. The reality is that despite the relatively few trekkers that visit every year, we have changed the way the local wildlife act.

Day two was about climbing out of the rain forest. The paths were narrow and deep in the forest to start with. We passed a tree full of Colobus monkeys, jumping from branch to branch just as we aligned cameras. The climbing was steeper today, and the humidity a bit more noticeable out of the breeze. We were led at a reasonable pace by our guide but this was the first proper day of trekking and we all felt it to a certain extent. By lunch time we were leaving the thick forest, with dense undergrowth and tall trees, behind and below. I noticed that the vegetation was getting shorter – now only head height and with far fewer trees to shelter us from the sun. We stopped for lunch at a small level piece of rocky ground half way up the side of Shira Ridge.

After lunch, we set off on the steep looking pathway we’d been eyeing up while eating. As usual, it wasn’t as bad as expected but in the heat and with our backpacks, it was no push over. Eventually, we got to the top and were rewarded with a much flatter path on the Shira Plateau. The Plateau is the remains of the Shira volcano, the oldest of the three volcanoes that make up Kilimanjaro. We were walking in the crater, very much weathered and worn away by millennia of floods, glaciers and wind blown dust.

Before long, Shira camp site came into view in the distance. We spotted the green roof of the Ranger hut first, but then the green tents popped in to view as well and finally, the tall blue toilet tent. It would be a beacon in the days to come. Once again, I was able to weigh my pack and found that it was 7.5kg. With the water I’d drunk, it would be closer to 9kg again.

Shira camp was busy with a number of groups having made it there. We watched as one large circle of porters began singing. It was fun and jolly and raised the spirits. When it was still going on an hour later, it was less fun and more annoying. After two hours, it finally stopped. Our guide promised to make sure our tents were as far away from that group as possible in future.

After dinner, we stood out in the darkness watching lightning light up the back of Kilimanjaro, throwing it in to silhouette. Over to the west, gigantic bolts lit up clouds over the plains down below. All this took place in surreal silence. After the day’s climb, retiring to the sleeping bag was most welcome.

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