Looking back

Four little words – ‘this time last year’. I make no apologies. This time last year I was on the way to completing a big challenge and I think I earned the right to use those words.

This time last year I was climbing up to Shira Plateau on the Western slopes of Kilimanjaro. It was the first full day of the trek and a hot and tough one as we climbed through the rain and cloud forest out on to the heathland the forms the crater of Shira. We ended up at 3500m and while the day was hot, the night was cold.

Today Rufus and I did not set out to recreate the event. Instead, we took advantage of the beautiful weather on the Brecon Beacons to get onto the hills again. Our goal – Fan Brecheiniog. It has featured on this blog many times and I hope it will many more times. I drove this way yesterday but the road was clearer today. There were several moments when i though the car might slide off the road on a thin coating of frost and ice, but a bit of care and forward thinking meant I was able to get to the start point for the long walk to Llyn y Fan Fawr. We set off from the car in brilliant sunshine and snow. The wind was cold but before long my hat and gloves came off as the temperature rose. Rufus bounded through the snow, stopping to greet a fellow canine walker as we made our way along the river. By the time we got to the first steep part of the day, the snow was several inches thick.

Rufus followed the tracks of previous passers by, as it was easier than battling through snow which, in places, was up to his belly. I followed Rufus; he has a good nose for the best path and I’ve learnt to trust his judgement. This time last year I was probably as fit as I have every been. Today was very different. I felt every square of chocolate eaten over Christmas, every mince pie and every roast potato. My backpack was lighter than the 8kg one I took with me on the trek but I felt it’s influence as I stopped several times ‘to take photographs’.

Then, after several false summits, there was the lake. And above it, Fan Brecheiniog shone in the morning sun. We stopped for a few minutes for me to get my breath back. Normally I would throw stones into the water for Rufus, but it was too cold for that today and instead I threw snowballs for him to chase. After yesterday’s fun, he’d learnt not to expect too much and it was enough for him to race to the snowball and break it apart with his nose.

Then we made our way over to the start of the short but knee-achingly steep climb to the bwlch. One of the great things about very cold weather is that all the marsh and bog freezes over. But for some reason I managed to step on the only bit of unfrozen bog in the whole place, and it was deep. I felt myself falling forward before I knew what was going on and I managed to stop myself from going flat on my face. But my left leg disappeared into the water and mud up to the knee.

Undaunted, I headed up the steep path. I thought I heard Rufus snigger, but he was so far ahead it may just have been the wind. It was hard going, even taking into account my lack of fitness. The snow was thick and slippery where it had been trodden down and then frozen overnight. At one point, I was conscious that the view ahead looked a bit like photos in a magazine accompanying an article on how to perform an ice axe arrest! After several ‘photo stops’, I made it to the little valley between Fan Hir and Fan Brecheiniog. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go on and I was looking at Rufus to see if he was coping. Apart from a few tiny snowballs on his feet, which I cleared quickly, he was fine. He was watching me to see if we were going on and every now and then he’d race a few steps up the hill as if to encourage me.

I set off again, adopting a slow plod as my tactic for making the ascent. The snow was deeper again and in places it was like walking up a sand dune – my feet would slip back as I pushed forward. The usual path on to Fan Brecheinog was completely covered in snow; I’ve never see than before. One set of foot prints led off tot he south and up in a curving climb and I decided to follow them as walking on the compacted snow would be easier. Rufus was now reduced to a plod as well as he battled through the snow but he kept going every time I took a breather. But eventually I decided that I was struggling to go further and it would be silly to exhaust myself and risk slipping on the way down. I called Rufus, who was a few paces in front of me.

I swear a big grin appeared on his face. Before I’d finished saying the phrase ‘lets go back to the car’ he had raced past me and was standing on the bwlch again, about 20m away. I love watching him run in the snow. He bounds like a big cat and the snow flies everywhere from his back paws. He usually races down from here and meets me at the lake. I was a little worried that he might slip on the snow going down, but I needn’t have been concerned. He is sure footed. We passed several walkers descending gingerly but I was using my walking pole now and I found it much easier than I had feared. One of the walkers had just put on a set of mini crampons but I knew from experience these wouldn’t work well in the deep snow. Sure enough, both Rufus and I sailed past him.

At the lake, I threw more snowballs for Rufus and we posed for a couple of buddy selfies. Then we set off back down the slope and the car. I don’t like the last mile or so; it tends to be boring. But snow changes everything and I was able to get some nice photos of the Brecon Beacons stretching off to the East. By now the snow was melting from the lower part of the hill. I had to avoid a few boggy patches I’d walked over with ease on the way up. The last bit of this walk is a short, steep climb of no more than 10 metres, and I found this really tiring. Slumping down into the car, I decided I needed to work at getting fit again.

As I drove off, around 12.50, I remembered that this time last year, I’d made it to Shira campsite, at 3500m after climbing 719m and I felt good. Today I’d climbed around 400m and felt shattered. More work required!

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Climbing Kilimanjaro 6: The bits between the bits

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a serious business. There are months of preparation to be made. Training for physical fitness take as along as you like; the more you do the better the experience when you’re trekking. Mental preparation is harder to plan and do but is equally important to get you through the tough days when it’s raining, or when the slope is never ending.

For some, the gathering of kit is enjoyable. Testing each item and making the final decision about what to take and what to leave behind. I admit to secretly enjoying choosing which cameras to take as it’s where my interests lie.

But however serious and hard it is, ultimately I trek because I enjoy it. So amidst all the serious stuff, there have to be moments of humour, laughter and hysterics, otherwise what is the point? For every “…the ascent was long and hard and the rains lashed down…” there has to be a “…how we laughed…”. The problem with trying to write them down is that often they depend on the moment and knowing the people and places. So while I will try and convey the humour, I apologise if these stories occasionally come over as a bit insular and cliquey. And, of course, if none of them work, I won’t publish this.

Travelling is always stressful. My journey from Home to Heathrow by train and coach was marked by annoying people. On the train, it was the nasally-voiced gentleman two seats over from me. For three hours he talked to his travelling companion and at no time did I understand a word he spoke, but neither was I able to miss a single syllable of his piercing tones.  On the coach, it was the serial complainer who annoyed. But I left both of them behind.

At Nairobi airport, we had two litre bottles of water bought in the transfer lounge, but we weren’t allowed to take them on the plane unless they were sealed in a plastic bag. So we went back to the shop from which they’d been bought and asked them to seal them up. we were then allowed through the check in. Security at it’s tightest.

Our encounter with an Australian trekker on day one was the beginning of a running joke, She turned up while we were having lunch and decided we were her group. She’d missed a flight and arrived late. It eventually dawned on her that we weren’t her group  and she walked on. Her loud voice faded slowly as she went. We met her several more times and each time she was louder, more shrill and a little more annoying. At the next camp one of our guides convinced her he was from Brisbane, although he spoke very little English. Every time we  bumped into her over the next few day, we reminded her that our guide was from Brisbane. We even told him some place names that one of our trekkers knew from the Brisbane area.

Our campsites were pretty good on the whole. On a few occasions, we found that there was a distinct slope; after all we were climbing a mountain. Often there was a ‘low end’ to the mess tent table. After walking through the cold and miserable rain one afternoon, we retired to the mess tent and as I sat down, I all but disappeared. I found the whole thing funny and started to laugh, but it was laughter that you can’t help, that comes from a mix of tiredness and despair and it quickly turned hysterical! In no time, everyone in the tent was laughing. It was a welcome release from the misery of the day.

Early in the trek, we shared a campsite with another group of trekkers with a different company. Every night, their guides and porters would sing. We watched and listened, fascinated, and were even asked to join in. But after about an hour, it was getting a little jaded and during the second hour it began to grate on the nerves. Especially as the songs were chart hits, not traditional tunes. Our guide promised not to put our tents anywhere near them again, and he was true to his word.

The following night we camped on a tiny site where there was barely enough room for our four tents. As a result, they were cramped together and in my tent, a large part of Kilimanjaro formed a pillow under my head when I lay down. With a combination of careful positioning of my kit bag and a slight bend of the knee, I was able to lie reasonably comfortably. But at this site, the tents were placed on a sloping bit of ground and right outside the entrances was a small but significant vertical drop. At night, this would test us if we needed to go to the toilet tent, which was several metres away up the slope. We joked that we’d have to rope up to climb to use the toilet!

On summit night, our tent was invaded by a little four striped mouse. It was looking for morsels to eat, which we had loaded up the back packs with prior to the climb. When we went to the mess tent for dinner, it had scurried out from the rocks and gone all the way in to the tent. When I opened the flap, it rushed deeper in to the tent and only came out again when it realised there was no escape. I have a blurry photo of a seed eater bird perched on my back pack at Moir Hut camp.

At the park gate where we started, the gigantic sign warned of all the hazards that lay ahead, and the precautions to take. Most of the advice was sound and wise, but one point made us worry. “Do not push yourself to go if you have extreme.” We kept a close eye out for signs of extreme in all of us and although we all came close and some point, none of us suffered complete extreme.

Our card games, mainly ‘UNO’ were played in the evenings after food and invariably when we were tired. What shoudl have been a fast, snappy game was played at a sedate pace with slow reactions, missed opportunities and a lot of laughing. In the end, though, everyone won at least one game! The less said about the games of Pontoon, using miniscule portions of popcorn as betting chips, the better.

There were few laughs on the climb to Uhuru Peak, but at one point I offered to roll rocks down the slope to try and silence a bunch of very loud trekkers who seemed to think making a noise – any noise – was cool. At the Uhuru Peak signpost, we were constantly thwarted while trying to get the photo by a bunch of Americans. In the end, we dashed in between their high fiving and managed to get three individual photos without anyone else encroaching.

On the descent, there was little time for humour as I desperately tried to keep my balance. But on the second day, there was a slightly more leisurely pace and there was time to look around and enjoy again. We kept passing and being passed by a group of Canadians, with a friendly ‘hello again, fancy meeting you here’. They were friendly and it became a running joke to break up some of the longer and more demanding sections. Stopping at Mweki camp for a toilet break, I peed down a chute only to find some kind of flying insect down there. it wouldn’t leave and as I tried not to hit it, it flew around to avoid the stream. had I sat down, I expect I would have got a lovely bite.

As we passed through the lower slopes by the park gate, we found what could only be described as ‘The Kilimanjaro Experience’. It seemed like a theme park/visitor centre compete with elephant and buffalo noises (but no elephants or buffaloes), empty farm huts and large palms. It was an odd end to the trek.

It’s impossible to do a trek like this without a sense of humour.  I hope I’ve managed to convey a some of it in this blog entry.

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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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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