Dhow boats fishing above seaweed gardens, somewhere off the East coast of Zanzibar.
The spice islands of the Zanzibar archipelago, our last stop in East Africa, promised a great chance to relax and with its heat and Muslim population, a perfect transitional base for our next move to the Middle East. Located a couple of hours off the coast of Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar is one of those words that just seems to command thoughts of the exotic and mysterious. It is a place steeped in a complicated history, trade here dates back several thousands years. At various times it has been a hub for Persian, Arabic, Indian, British, Portugese and Omani trade. Famed for its spices and as an epicentre for the African slave trade, the sultans of Oman used this as the location for their palaces and centre of government as recently as the turn of the 20th century.
Arriving early morning on the ferry from Dar the first place you encounter is Stonetown. A pretty warren of whitewashed stone houses, cobblestone streets, craft shops, forts and palaces, it is a magical setting. From the beach and waterfront Dhow boats sail in all directions, while the doors of many of the houses here are intricately carved works of art and hundreds of years old. Both provide tangible hints to the islands past, traditions and history. We have actually decided to spend a few days here right before our departure, so we jump a ‘dallah dallah’ (an open sided truck version of a mini-bus) and head across the island to the East Coast, Jambiani.
Jambiani is a quiet village that extends several kilometres along one of the best beaches in Zanzibar so we have read. Our first destination is a lodge that we had heard about from most Japanese long term travellers we had met that had stopped through here. Malaika is a small, cheap guesthouse that Japanese seem to love not just for the price (it is the cheapest place by a mile), but for the food. Somewhere along the way the villager who runs this place has not only learn’t Japanese but more importantly how to cater to the Japanese stomach and sure enough when we arrive there are 3 other Japanese solo travellers there. The rooms are simple, no electricity, extremely basic bathrooms but board comes with dinner and breakfast. We dump our bags and head off to explore the beach, only to find that the water was lapping on the edge of the houses that line the waterfront, a little surprised we retreat to the village instead and spend a few hours wandering the thin strip that is the town.
Everyone is friendly here, Swahili greetings of Jambo (hello), Habari (How are you?) and Karibu (Welcome) echo around us in all directions; old men, play board games in fenced, seated areas beneath tree’s in the afternoon shade, kids chase us down the street so that they can hold our hands and for the first time in as long as I can remember no-one is trying to sell us something! Paradise indeed! The biggest industry in this part of Zanzibar (apart from tourism) seems to be seaweed. Just about every house has a pegged square of the stuff drying. I had read that Japan was one of the huge export markets for this stuff, but it was fascinating to see. As the afternoon grew long, the water receded and a thin beach reassuringly began to appear, so we walked along it looking at the various waterfront options trying to find somewhere to stay longer term. As nice as the food at Malaika might be, no electricity was a bit of an issue and it simply didn’t have the appeal of a 4 day stay. It is low season at present, so most of the hotels and beach escapes are closed or hadn’t seen customers in weeks, making it easy enough to negotiate pretty decent rates. After a few exploratory enquiries, we stumbled upon a bright, funky place called “Starfish”, run by a community of young friendly rasta’s with a constant reggae flow. They had a standalone villa, beautifully appointed, cheap, with hammock and right on the beach just along from the restaurant / bar, all the furniture constructed out of old wooden boats. We struck a deal for tomorrow, got initiated into the ‘family’ and headed back for dinner. True to form, Malaika served up a Japanese fish style curry, accompanied by mountains of rice and tea. Megumi was well satisfied, even more so by the stack of Japanese books they had collected in the library. Post dinner we wandered down the beach to another rasta bar with the other Japanese travellers and received our biggest surprise. It seems we had arrived at high tide and during the dinner interval the water had receded almost 500 metres from shore, in the process stranding the hundreds of dhow boats on the sand and revealing large seaweed farms and a wide sandy beach – the white water of the waves now no more than a tiny spec in the distance.
Our plan was simply to relax and do nothing for 4 days here, catch up on some reading, some blogging & indulge ourselves in other such nothings. As we moved into Starfish the next day we realized we couldn’t have chosen a more apt setting. The oceans daily transformations became the most hypnotic backdrop imaginable. With the ebb and flow of the tide, the entire village appeared, tending their seaweed farms in the morning, going fishing and hauling seaweed back to the shore. You could literally wade out ankle deep for half a kilometre amongst the farms, boats and villagers. Then as the tide came in early afternoon everyone retreated, the ocean a clean, turquoise blanket discreetly hiding all evidence of the labour. The evenings waves washing in with them a huge assortment of seaweed and shells, pickings for the early morning villagers to clean up, sort through and farm out for valuables.
After a hectic several months, we hadn’t really had a chance to relax or reflect much on our travel to date. Kenya aside, Africa had been a constantly moving feast, with little respite for contemplations, as had our last days in India truth be told. Here, seemingly in a village devoid of tourists or agenda, the space finally revealed itself and in tune with the villagers magnetic daily routines, the thoughts flowed.
To be honest, I had little expectations in Africa. India / Nepal, the Middle East and South America were all my key destinations when we set out. Africa was kind of a Megumi indulgence, seduced by the animals she so loves and the chance to tick off another continent in our adventure. It was a surprise packet really, an unknown and after almost 3 months here I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Certainly there are a few places I would have loved to have gotten the chance to explore and allocated more time to – Uganda first and foremost, but also Botswana and some countries in the West Coast (Senegal, Ghana). Had we known more, we probably wouldn’t have flown to Egypt either, but rather tried overlanding through Ethopia and the Sudan. Yet everywhere we go, we have such compromises to make.
The endearing sense of the African continent is similar to my own feelings about Australia in many ways, though very different in others. Nature inspires here and is the dominant driving force of the land, everything subordinate; yet whereas the harshness of the Australian condition results in nature achieving numerous harmonious niches, Africa is different this way. It has a raw Darwinian feel to it – it’s all ‘survival of the fittest’, top of the food chain stuff here, something that extends to both its animals and its tribal conflicts among the people. Life is incredibly cheap here and only the strong survive.
With a few rare exceptions; civilization and the cities don’t really offer that much in the ways of an experience in Africa. There is little to learn from most of the continents epi-centres, tending simply to be a place for the masses to try their luck at escaping the cycle of poverty. Crime, violence and desperation seem to increase exponentially with the population, but perhaps that could be said of most places in the world outside Japan. It is only out in the countryside, the villages and stunning expanse of the natural environment that Africa impresses. My abiding memories will be those of the safari’s, hikes and bus rides – immersions amongst both people and animals, totally unique experiences in the context of our global adventures.
The other thing that stands out unfortunately is the expense. Africa is not cheap and tragically not suited to the budget traveller. All the good things here cost serious money and they are really the things you want to do. In many places prices are anchored in US dollars, manipulated by corrupt, self serving governments and feel extortionate relative to the poverty of the surrounding people and villages. There is rarely a middle ground. It would not be a problem if it felt like the money was going to the community but this is rarely the case. Asia and other great tourist destinations do not work this way, they tend to embrace their exchange differences as a key attraction, catering to all the market segments and opportunities. In the desperate grab for cash in this land, everyone has sold themselves short of the bigger picture and the chance to captivate more people with the African magic and bridge so many of the cultural and financial divides that simmer below the surface here. For this and other reasons, I am actually glad to be leaving. The time spent here has been magical, insightful and an experience that will live long in the memory – but it is comparative poor value for money. We are not constrained by student budgets as many of the travellers that we meet, but we also know we have other places where we would rather spend it. There are cheaper ways to see Africa though I think – buy a 4WD and camp or alternatively volunteer (though most people we have spoken to working this way, said they have not enjoyed the experience and likely would not come back). Perhaps we will revisit someday if I happen to trip and fall into a fat corporate salary; a limited travel window would tend to hide the sting a lot more effectively.
Until then, though, we have the Middle East to think about. And as I look out at the incoming tide, a whole new set of challenges seems to be washing in – burka’s, conservatism, ancient civilizations, no alcohol and insane heat, all balanced by a completely new raft of exotic delights. I can’t wait!
Ego bruised and body still numb from our Kilimanjaro adventures, stage two of our Tanzanian explorations involved a 5 day camping Safari taking in 4 of Tanzania’s national parks, with emphasis on the big 2 – the Serengeti & the Ngorongoro crater. We had chosen to do a combined climbing /safari package with Zara Adventures as this seemed to offer better value for money and was just plain easier really. While still exorbitant, it provided us with a quality budget camping safari scenario and we had also taken a liking to the hotel’s free wifi, hot shower, dining and laundry facilities that nicely bookended each stage of our journey. All up, this combined part of our travels though was far from cheap, eating close to 10% of our overall travel budget – but we were in Africa and somehow it seemed the right thing to do.
After being introduced to our driver / guide, Robert; our cook, Erasto and a superbly outfitted 4×4 LandCruiser, we were good to go. And after a few supply stops, we left Moshi, a peaceful town at the foothills of Kilimanjaro at about 10.30am and set off North towards our first stop – Manyana National Park.
The drive was a story in itself, perhaps acutely focused by the inability of my limbs to do anything at this point in time the eyes became transfixed by the changing landscape. Moshi is lush, green and verdant – the fields packed with coffee, banana’s and maize (corn). As we rolled past Arusha, the major town that serves as the launching part for Northern Tanzania and the Safari industry, maize became the predominant crop. As the plains appeared and the maize thinned, so too did small herds of goats and sheep, round thatched huts and red clad locals – the distinctive signs of the Masai. The Masai are very a traditional tribe and custodians of the plains and savannahs of these parts for millennia, attired in combinations of red & purple hued tunics (to ward off lions), each carries a traditional walking stick (even on a bike), a sheathed knife and in the wilds a spear. Slowly the singular huts became circular villages (or Bomvu’s) – hemmed by thorny fences to keep out predators and protect their herds at night. The countryside increasingly revealed finely, grazed pastures, the hills dotted with hundreds of small herds of goats, sheep and cattle attended by distant red robed figures. About 3 hours into the drive, we passed a way point where a thousand nomadic Masai had gathered at an impromptu market – trading all manner of vegetables, livestock and other essentials. It was infinitely colourful, blissfully free of cars or tech of any kind; a scene that seemed as though it could have taken place anytime in the last several hundred years. Further on we passed what looked like a council meeting – 30 or so men robed in red, all calmly seated under a large Acacia tree engaged in animated discussion. As the people changed, so too did the landscape and the flat plains began became inundated with the thorny Acacia tree that so dominates the savannah areas, so too the distinctive Boab tree began to emerge; its swollen trunk and twisted tangle of bare branches, ghosting the skylines in all its aged glory.
Around mid afternoon we reached our campsite, its large tree’s a pleasant haven for nesting storks. As our car pulled up, a team of locals stripped our vehicle, erected our tents and kitchens, freeing us for an afternoon game drive. Manyara National Park was not particularly notable, a lucky dip entrée as our guide elegantly put it. The park is a thin strip hemmed between a large lake and the steep hills of the Rift Valley. We saw the usual fare here – elephants, buffalo’s, zebra, giraffe, gazelles, baboons and a huge array of birds. Still sore, our expectations and energy were pleasantly low and the sight of a ‘blue balled’ monkey served nicely as the peak of our afternoons entertainment.
Udupai Gorge & a Masai village
The next morning, we departed early for the drive across to the Ngorongoro crater rim, which we skirted on our way through to the Serengeti. Descending down the crater on the other side, we stopped in at the Udupai Gorge – an archaeological marvel. In the distinctive bedrock layers of the gorge, exposed over time by the rivers erosion, Mary & Louis Leakey in the 60’s and 70’s first discovered signs of mans prehistoric ancestors, dating to some 1.7 million years ago. While earlier remains have since been found in both South Africa & Ethopia, footprints of man have been found here that date to more than 3 million years old – one of the true crucibles of our species and an apt setting for lunchtime contemplations.
Perhaps inspired, we stop at a local Masai Bomvu and bribed a chief’s son $40 for a tour of his village. They met us with a traditional greeting; in separate groups of men and women, they chanted their welcome and commenced dancing, a dance famous for the vertical jumping of their male members. As we watched, first myself and then Megumi (with the women) were dragged in to participate and work our incredibly tight calves into some vertical hangtime – it was a pretty pitiful display by comparison, but fun nonetheless. The chief’s son, Paul then explains the key principles of the Masai & clever design of their nomadic camps during a brief tour – the gist being that they are polygamous; they only herd goats, sheep & cattle – eating the meat of all and mixing a concoction of cows blood and milk for drink; these livestock are their total livelihood and invaluable to them, their wealth determined by their numbers; when boys turn 18, they are sent out to roam for 2 years and only become men / married upon return after killing a lion! There is much more of course and Robert our guide, gives us some other great insights on the more modern reality of their role in society & conservation, albeit somewhat cynically afterwards. The tour finishes with offers to buy some of their jewellery – for more traditional minded folk they also really know how to fleece tourists.
As we came down from the crater rim and onto the single, straight gateway road that provides access to the Serengeti, the skies clear and the perspective is radically transformed. Serengeti is Masai for ‘endless plain’ and it couldn’t be a more perfect description. Before us, the flat treeless, ankle high yellow grassed expanse, opens up as far as you can see, you can actually see the earth bend on the horizon – something I’ve only experienced ever before in the Australian outback. Hundreds of thousands of gazelle, zebra, ostrich and other game roam freely either side of the road on a scale that is hard to fathom. The wildebeast and other larger animals have already left this area though, moving deeper into the centre of the park now that the higher grass has gone and things are starting to dry out. This is the foundation of the ‘great migration’ that builds steam in later July / August to become one of the worlds greatest natural wonders, we hoped to catch its infant stages later on and had planned our trip here accordingly. After another 30 minutes or so driving in a straight line into the plain, we finally encounter some trees, a rocky outcrop and giraffes – the entrance to the park. We had only just arrived in the Serengeti and already we were wonderstruck by the sheer presence of the place.
We had planned to camp in the middle of the park, so after registration at the gate, we took a slow game drive for the afternoon, as a roundabout way of getting there. We had briefed Robert our guide that we were really here to see cats & the migration, particularly cheetah and the elusive leopard having already seen most other things. He rapidly tuned through the CB channels to find the rangers station and other drivers that he knew and within minutes had teamed up with another driver from Zara. We then sidetracked and headed North across a rough dirt track, this is prime cheetah country he said. Sure enough, after a while of seeing nothing but grass, we stumbled across a young cheetah with a fresh kill – impala. Particularly sensitive and freaking out about the car, it was ready to abandon the kill without eating, so we let it be – Robert had also intercepted another ranger call – there were leopard sightings, safari’s great rarity. He stepped on the gas and 30 rough minutes later we were facing 2 leopards in a tree, obliviously engaged in a courting ritual. The female jumping around the tree, shaking her bits in an enticing, seductive dance – the male simply lazing away, either already worn out or simply not interested. It was an absolute rare event of the highest calibre and captivating for all. Since it was getting dark, we tore ourselves away all too soon, as we still had to set-up camp for the night, but in so doing chanced on a lion, up a tree. We had been in the park 3 hours and had already ticked off most of our ‘safari wants’ – what a place!
That night, we camped in a small campsite; it featured basic toilets and dining areas caged off as protection from hungry animals. We were then warned to stay in our tents all night in spite of any emergency toiletry needs – there were no fences here and animals of all kinds liked to wander through. Sure enough, after eating a sumptuous camp feast prepared out of thin air by our chef Erasto, at about 9.00pm, a large male lion started roaring at the edge of the campsite, a few hundred metres from our tents at most. The loud call was him distinctly marking his territory, letting everyone know whose land this was. Captivated and not without a bit of trepidation, I stood in the middle of the campsite until quite late, chatting to an Aussie musician, Simon and a few other campers, while the lion slowly roared its way around our perimeter – there are no words to really describe the thrill and awe this experience inspired or for that mater the hyena cries later on, as they patrolled in the lions wake.
The next day we woke with the sunrise to head further into the centre – our goal was to catch the illusive migrating wildebeast as they started to chaotically form the groups and mass that would later tally in excess of a million as it stampeded its way into Kenya. For a few hours we were treated to little more than elephants, ostriches and vultures, so Robert stopped for a late breakfast at a hippo pool. There is nothing like seeing 300 hippo’s crowded all over each other, fighting and moaning to kickstart a days sightseeing, let me tell you. Shortly after this, we found our first wildebeast herd – a group numbering some 10 thousand or more charging through the undergrowth madly in one direction, getting tired, resting and then tearing off in another. They will do this for the next month, slowly building in number as the groups coalesce and fine tuning their direction based on water supply – even on this small scale though, the site is still exhilarating. We came across several other such groups that day, as well as herds of elephants, crocodiles and our big prize, a large pride of 20 or so lions that had just killed a buffalo. As we were pulling up to the site, a lioness emerges from the grass right in front of our vehicle to cross the road to the kill – to our amazement (and Megumi’s lifetime fantasy) a small procession of 5 tiny lion cubs then follow the lioness out of the bushes in single file – pure magic. We spent several hours simply watching this extended lion family feasting, sleeping and enjoying their afternoon spoils.
The next morning, we woke up to an elephant in the camp, a large herd was passing by and a big bull came to the campsite to investigate all the noise. (A large migrating herd of dutch football fans had arrived late in the night, driving orange cars of all description and making plenty of noise!) When Megumi tried to get close for a photo she was soundly trumpeted for her efforts.
The Ngorongoro Crater
As we drove back through the Serengeti and the fields of game to the Ngorongoro crater, I could not help feel a sense of complete awe at this place. I honestly doubted there is anything that can compare to this from a safari perspective, everything else we had seen felt like a zoo or controlled environment in comparison. Yet, as we climbed up to the crater rim away from the sunshine and through the rain and clouds, then descended back down to the sunny floor of the Ngorongoro crater national park, a new wonder was revealed.
Ngorongoro is a volcanic crater about 25 km in diameter, surrounded on all sides by walls that rise more than 500m upwards, to create one of natures most stunning natural amphitheatres. Creating its own set of unique microclimates, the crater forms dense, impenetrable jungle in a cloud layer at the top, combining with the sheer walls to provide perfect isolation from the outside world. The floor of the crater is largely a flat treeless plain, with a large lake forming the centre, a marshland in one corner and a forest in another and also consuming the surrounding walls. During rainy season the roads in and out (there are only 2) become impassable and even now it was too much for a few 4×4’s. Leaving we were forced to give a lift to a Finnish couple whose safari vehicle’s radiator had burned out on the ascent.
Once down on the floor, every form of African wildlife was in abundance and immediately accessible at close quarters. In our 6 hour drive around, we saw more than 20 lions, several different prides all resting uncaring in the sun or on roads – old males, lionesses, young cubs. Elephants roamed the marshlands, while hippo’s escaped the sun in the fresh water ponds. On the plain thousands of zebra, buffalo, wildebeest, rhino, antelope and gazelle graze side by side with ostrich, flamingos, storks and pelicans. We were treated to a cheetah resting under a tree, numerous hyena roaming and a rare sighting of a large civet cat. But perhaps the most stunning of all was the Ugandan, clown crane – simply the most beautiful bird I have ever beheld.
If the Serengeti was stunning for its raw scale; Ngorongoro is more than its equal, simply because it forms the world’s most perfect natural biosphere. The descent into (and out) of the crater feels like a descent into another world entirely. I would suggest that the inspiration for Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park stems largely from here.
Tarangire National Park
On a post crater high, we returned to the same campsite near Manyara National Park (together with our Finnish rescuee’s) and next day rose early again for our final game drive, the Tarangire. By now, we had seen everything we had really dreamed of and this represented simply a scenic route home. The Tarangire is a large national park that is very popular in the dry season, but during the wet tends to clear of animals. The wet marsh and riverbed becomes unpleasant to most of the wild animals underfoot (think footrot), so they migrate out of the park and return when it’s drier. Consequently our expectations where not particularly high here and our real interest was the stunning collection of great and ancient boab tree’s that pepper the parks landscape.
As we started the drive, the huge ancient boabs immediately stole attention and after a while thus absorbed, we stumbled across a 4×4 bogged axle deep in the mud, attempting to cross one of those roads that screams out for avoidance. We then spent the next hour watching 2 Irishman try every innovation imaginable to try and free the thing – apparently their first day on a self drive safari – it’s a pretty tough school!
True to form, there was little game here – we saw a few elephants, some giraffe’s and the odd waterbuck as we drove around, but Robert had heard that there were 2 cheetahs up ahead near a waterhole somewhere. As he pulled up approximately at the site, we assumed we had missed them, but cautioned otherwise we settled down to watch and wait, Robert convinced they were just resting in the grass somewhere and would stick their head up eventually if we were patient. After what seemed like half an hour of close attention (plus a bit of whistling and banging truth be told), Megumi spotted a cheetah head perhaps 70m from the road and we watched as it rose, walked across a few metres and lay down again under a tree. A bit more waiting, whistling and banging and suddenly 3 cheetah heads popped up – a whole family. In a park without animals, somehow we had hit the jackpot, likely the only one around as well.
In all, it capped off a remarkable 5 days. Megumi was in raptures – it was animal planet and more in the flesh and her absolute dream. As for me, it was everything I dreamed a safari and the magical African adventure should be. Worth every cent and as an experience something that will live long in the memory!
I will confess upfront, that I got roped in a bit on this one. Megumi perhaps inspired by Nepal was dead keen to do it before the glaciers disappeared! I was happy to go along and help her achieve it, although I was not all that inspired and for these reasons probably didn’t research or really take the whole thing seriously enough, but anyway…
For those that don’t know, Mt Kilimanjaro is on the border of Kenya / Tanzania and at 5,895m it is the tallest mountain in Africa and indeed taller than all the mountains in Europe and many other continents besides. The mountain is particularly stunning and its snow capped, glacier covered cone rises from the surrounding plains to dominate the African landscape, somewhat similar too if not more imposing than Mt Fuji in Japan. While we had passed “Kili” several times in our travels so far, we had yet to really see it. The mountain seemingly constantly enveloped in cloud. It’s a strange thing, climbing something you have never seen.
Climbing Kili is not cheap though no matter how you go about it. It costs at least $1,000 per person to do. Half of this is due to the national park fees, something like $100 per day, the rest covers the compulsory guides and porters necessary to transport all your food, cooking gear (you need to bring your own gas) and other supplies including a tent (if you are camping). Megumi had found a company Zara, that offered a pretty reliable package according to other Japanese bloggers she had read, all had had a great experience with them. So we signed up, rocked up to Moshi from Nairobi and set about preparing to climb.
Now anyone that has seen our facebook updates already knows how this story ends, so I will get a few excuses in early here. While climbing Kili is one off those big touristy things to do in Africa (about 12,000 people try it a year), it is also a pretty intense challenge. Altitude sickness (AMS) is a serious problem for everyone who attempts it and Kili kills (twice as many people as Everest apparently), it had already accounted for a young 30 year old guy as recently as 3 weeks ago. I had actually come down with a bit of a cold in Nairobi, but it was only a light sinus infection and thinking that in Nepal I had had no real trouble with AMS, (whereas Megumi had really struggled) I didn’t particularly take it seriously. I just bought a bagful of chems to stave things off, if it got any worse.
On arriving at Zara, we received a short briefing on the climb and along with the other member of our climbing posse, a Canadian woman named Joanne, got introduced to our guide (Felix) and his cousin and assistant guide (Wilson) for the trek. From conversations with other returning climbers we knew it was going to be very cold (and wet) so introductions done, we set about hiring essential gear – sleeping bags, rain gear, walking sticks and other such stuff and packed our bags. Simple really!
Next morning, we set off at about 9am. We had chosen to do the easy climb, the Marangu route which features convenient huts at the key stops along the way. We were attempting to do the climb in 5 days, without an acclimatization day, which is pretty aggressive but not that uncommon and didn’t seem to affect success rates either way. These days most people try to climb via the Machame route which is a little more scenic, takes 6 days so offers better acclimatization, though with no huts it requires tents and the additional ensemble of supporting porters and gear. With lots of rain about, this camping option hadn’t really appealed to us much. Even though we were staying in huts though, we still required 3 porters for my and Megumi’s gear and food, plus a cook, a waiter and the 2 guides all shared across the party. In total for ourselves and Joanne, it represented a support team of 9 people. In Nepal, we had had just one!
Arriving at the gate of the park before noon, we set about climbing. Day One was an easy, 3 hour gradual, gravel road climb through a scenic rainforest. Not particularly exerting it was quite enjoyable. We ambled along deeply in conversation with Joanne, trading backgrounds and stories; the tree’s all covered in moss and lichen, monkeys making noise in the tree-tops, all pretty pleasant stuff. When we stopped briefly for lunch, 2 Mongoose kept darting out from the bushes, rather sinisterly hunting for scraps. Arriving mid afternoon at the first set of huts and our stop for the first night, we found a family of black and white Colobus monkeys and 20 odd schoolkids on an excursion. After checking into our nice 4 bed hut, we had some afternoon tea & popcorn and then did a brief acclimatization walk up to a nearby crater. The thinking being walk higher and sleep lower to better help you adjust to the altitude. We were now at 2,800 metres – not much higher than Nairobi where we had been staying for the last 2 weeks, so everyone was feeling pretty good.
The next day, we set off about 9am with our guides; the porters and cooks had already taken off earlier up the trail, bags, cooking gear and baskets of food perched precariously atop their heads, African style. The second days climb was about 5-6 hours, rising about 1,000m – again nothing too steep or challenging, just a slow gradual climb into altitude. An hour into the walk, the tree’s started to drop away and the landscape transition into heather, moor and a fascinating local tree species that only grows above 3,000m not dissimilar to Australian “grass trees”. As we rose further, we started to ascend through the cloud layer experiencing a little rain and while we glimpsed some heavily veiled peaks in the distance, Kilimanjaro remained cloaked throughout.
The Horombo camp, was a pretty collection of huts, located on a river above a helipad, the view backward and beyond was that of an endless sea of clouds, quite stunning. At 3,700 m, we were starting to get into AMS territory, although all 3 of us were feeling fine. Again arriving mid-afternoon, we enjoyed our tea and popcorn (our last actually – it was giving us all gas!) and climbed up a few hundred metres in the late afternoon, just to gain some acclimatization before returning back to bed. After a solid meal, we slept soundly in our little hut, although the cold was starting to kick in more seriously now.
The next day was much like the 2nd only colder and we broke out the jackets and wet weather gear for another 6 hour gradual climb up a further 1,000m. Here the path climbed out of the heather and the ‘grass trees’ into an arid, alpine desert landscape inching closer to the craggy peaks. Winds howled across the empty, stoned landscapes adding a decided chill to events. Largely uneventful, we started passing a few other climbers coming down most looked exhausted, a few elated. As we got close to the Kibo Hut, our end destination for the afternoon, the path steepened and in the high altitude we experienced our first real climbing test. Nothing too challenging, but it left us short of breath, we could suddenly feel how high we were.
Arriving at Kibo Hut at around 4700m, we met several other climbers just recently descended, all were quite exhausted and they left little doubt at how hard the task was going to be from here. We got billeted into our dorm, a large room with 20 bunks and a table in a large cold hut; we promptly dumped our bags and crashed out. Now at this point, I had barely raised a sweat and was feeling really good, despite the dripping tap for a nose. However, when we awoke after a short nap, things were a little different. Joanne was feeling terrible, so we walked up the slope a few hundred metres to see if some that would help. Along the way she was overcome with nausea and threw up – not good signs. Not feeling that great either I postulated that maybe the sleep was the problem, the light breathing of sleep bringing on AMS as the body was starved of oxygen. Back at the hut, we had dinner around 5pm, Joanne and I had little appetite, though Megumi threw down enough pasta for both of us. As we did so, we watched another young male climber out our window throw up into the hillside, apparently everyone does it up here, says our guide, nothing to worry about.
The plan was to sleep until 11pm, get up, dress in everything we had and set off for the climb about 11.30pm. I promptly fell into a deep sleep and next thing I knew was being woken up. Suddenly though, I felt terrible – just getting dressed was an impossible effort and brought on waves of nausea. Jo-anne hadn’t slept much at all and though not great was feeling ok, Megumi was raring to go. The sleep thing had obviously affected my badly – I hate it when I am right. Grabbing a handful of cold and flu tablets, some panadol and diamox (for altitude) I struggled out the door. I knew I was in a lot of trouble.
The first hour of the climb or so, was a slow trudge uphill under a stunning starry sky. No-one was saying much and I tried to battle through the nausea and tiredness thinking I could just work it off. Suddenly though, I experienced a dizzy spell and almost fainted, throwing out a pole to catch me for support. Our guide, Felix was in front and his assistant guide (and cousin, Wilson) was behind me bringing up the rear. They kept up a steady conversation in Swahili throughout and I knew I was under close observation. After the first dizzy spill, things got worse, I struggled to breathe, my nose completely blocked, every move became a huge effort and I was unable to get enough air through my lungs. I was forced to stop several times, my heart thumping, desperately short of breath, on the verge of throwing up and dizzy. Each time, Felix pushed me to keep going, each time I did thinking I might improve and it got worse. After 2 or 3 attempts at this, I realized I was simply unable to keep it up, headaches were circulating ominously now as well. We were only 2 and 1/2 hours into the climb, just over 5,000m which meant we had 5 hours more of this (and another 800+ metres) still to go and we hadn’t even hit the steep bits yet. Megumi was full of beans at this stage and Joanne, while grateful to stop, seemed to be doing fine as well. Felix was talking with Wilson about perhaps splitting the teams, one moving slowly, me, and the other pushing on to reach the peak at sunrise. I decided to give it one more go, but only lasted a couple of minutes before coming to an exhausted, breathless stop amid another dizzy spell. A cold reality and truth settled in, I could not go on. Normally I ooze willpower and there are very few times in my life that I have not achieved anything I set my mind to. But I realized this was just becoming physically impossible, mind would not bend matter. My breathing apparatus may have only been down 10-15% because of my flu, but I simply couldn’t get enough oxygen at this altitude and the resulting nausea, weakness and dizziness was pushing me to unsafe limits with AMS. I decided to turn back.
After checking my pulse and heart, Felix decided to take me back down, as guide he was totally responsible and if my situation did not improve or got worse back at camp, he would have to take me down further or organize to sled / chopper me out. Wilson the assistant guide would push on with Megumi & Joanne. Megumi, god bless her, was happy to come back with me as well, but I urged her on telling her I would be fine – this was her dream after all! Immediately after we started down I began to feel better and knew I had made the right decision, I had been at the physical limit and my body simply could not support what would be needed of it over the next few hours. Back at camp, we could see the lights of the others high up on the side of the mountain and under Felix’s careful watch I collapsed, exhausted into my bunk – still suffering intense waves of nausea. It was just after 3am and I had no problems falling asleep, while I waited for the others to return.
As to the ascent, I can only narrate what Megumi and Joanne told me afterwards. Megumi apparently had little trouble at all (according to Joanne), though Joanne said she had herself really struggled. Apparently about an hour after I turned back they hit a really steep incline which left them both breathless and exhausted – they both agreed afterwards that I had made the best decision turning back when I did. In all they spent 6 hours ascending step by step, constantly short of breath in the high altitude, taking in large sweeping u-turns and a gruelling last hour up the sharp rocky incline to Gilmans Point; then traversing across the snow a further 2 hours to Uhuru, the highest peak, with clear commanding views above the clouds and of the glacier, arriving just after sunrise. They were on a high and at the roof of Africa, though suffering from too much altitude to really dwell on it much. Megumi was elated to see the glacier and realize it was still in such stunning condition. Though completely exhausted, somehow she still had enough energy left to take a stack of photo’s and document everything along the way. The trip down only took 3 or so hours, coming straight down the gravel inclines they had worked so hard to zig-zag up at night. Felix sent up our waiter Manuel, a real entertainer, to meet them and grab their day packs and ease their final hour or so of descent.
When they both walked into the hut a little later, they were clearly exhausted, though Megumi still seemed to be jumping around the room. Both claimed it was the hardest thing they had ever done and neither wished to ever do it again (but perhaps they were just being nice). Though still feeling nausea I was definitely significantly improved and though well short of an appetite, we forced a quick breakfast and rather than delay any further with rest, decided to keep going down the mountain back to the Horombo hut and lower altitude as soon as possible. While mostly downhill, it was still a long way (12 km) after the all night exhaustions especially of the others and we stumbled into camp mid afternoon with very little energy left. Everyone slept well that night!
The final day was basically walking back down the paths of day 1 and 2 combined. We left very early, all our legs really feeling it, but in the lower altitude we were in good spirits and able to make good time. We got back to the hotel sometime around 3pm and after sorting out tips for our large posse of helpers, settled back with a few civilizing beers, some wine, rewarding hot showers and clean clothes
And that was it, funny really. I was outdone by 2 girls. I had felt physically fine right up until the final ascent and then it was all over before I knew it. In the next few days, I wondered what I could have done differently. Strangely for once in my life, I don’t think the climb or the fitness was the problem. The simple truth was that I had underestimated what was required and should have waited to do the climb in better health. Under the microscope of high altitude I was simply found wanting. No shame in it really though, I have heard as many as 40% don’t actually make it to the top. And as solace, the local beer Kilimanjaro has a t-shirt that says, “if you can’t climb it, drink it.” I have seen people wearing it – all good advice, which I have been diligently following since. Now I just need to find out where to buy one.….
One of innumerable herds of elephants encountered on our Serengeti Safari (including our campsite)…
We came across a pride of more than 20 lions feeding on a buffalo. The cubs just kept appearing!
The endless plains of the Serengeti – where literally hundreds of thousands of animals roam!
Megumi participating in a welcome ceremony at a Masai village, just outside Ngorongoro crater!
Megumi at the highest peak of Kilimanjaro (5895m), Scott had to turn back on the final ascent with AMS.
When travelling, it seems no matter where you are, you still operate in a kind of bubble. You move in an almost semi-detached observer capacity to your surroundings, unable to see or experience things truly as the locals do. Insulated by your bank balance perhaps, the knowledge of alternative options or simply that you are merely ‘passing through’ and have a ticket out; there are a thousand subtle factors that differentiate you from ‘them’. Where you stay is always that little bit more accessed by other travellers, and catered, no matter how low budget, it is still tinged with western comforts. There are some exceptions to this of course – volunteering, actual homestays and hiking off-track all take you that much closer. Not that even a ‘totally realistic’ local experiences is even necessary either – its’ just difficult to achieve!
The one area I have found that this comes closest to the ‘real’ though is the simple act of sharing local transport, getting from A to B. We have found this most effectively in catching buses in Africa but it is equally true of trains in India & buses in Nepal. Here you are all thrown together – locals and travellers alike, there is no differentiation in class, the discomforts, delays, bumps, food and other circumstances are all shared equally by everybody. And for these moments the experience achieves a rare utopian equality, cherished by us perhaps, but in the most part quickly lost in the mundane by the locals – but such is life.
In the last few months, this contrast has been particularly evident as we traded the insulated backpacker environment of ‘BazBus’ in South Africa for ‘slow overland travel’ – distance coaches, local & mini-buses of all variety, trains and shared taxi’s. Winding our way from Capetown, at the southern most point of Africa, west to Namibia, and then swinging back across the continent north eastwards through Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania to Kenya. We have experienced all modes of transport combinations in between through simple necessity and in doing so watched cold coast become desert, desert unfold to savannah, dry forest give way to lakeside fisheries; and the more tropical rice fields, tea, coffee & banana plantations; lush mountain scapes transform back into savannah plains and then finally become tropical beaches.
Just like the landscape, along the way we have also watched Africa transform. As the villages roll by and new tribes reveal themselves – the people, culture and experience has itself evolved in interesting ways. On boarding the coach in Capetown, a pre-recorded version of the “Lords Prayer” was played over the intercom as a prelude to a safe trip. Departing Namibia, the manager of the bus got on and led a very heartfelt, personal prayer effort. Leaving Livingstone, Zambia a evangelical preacher got on and spent 50 minutes praizing Jeeezus, praying for our sinz and trying to “saaive our mortal soulzz” at a frantic pace. Then on a bus leaving Lilongwe, Milawi, a young preacher got on & started exorting ‘Halleluyahs’, ‘praise brothers’ and ‘Amens’ from the packed, responsive local bus, a woman behind me started chanting frenetically, hyperventilating and ‘speaking in tongues’, then broke down into tears that took about 20 minutes to dissipate, other people took it in turns to respond and share prayers while the buses speakers blared soulful, rhythmic spirituals – we had to double check whether we were actually on a public bus or perhaps mistakenly boarded a church tour. Later in Tanzania, we were even treated to an ‘in coach’ video of the “Life of Jesus” in Swahili. Either the transport got more and more dangerous as we progressed or things were definitely more religious in central / Eastern Africa. Our journey though was also paralleling a deeper exploration into more AIDS / HIV devastated country. Something like 30% of the population in Zambia is HIV positive, the average age there is late 30’s (stats similar for Malawi). One person, Polly we met in Lusaka had been researching Zambian modern artists – she had a list of 10 people to interview in the capital, but had only found 3 still alive. All had died from HIV related illness in the last few years. Most were sub 40 years old!
Quite often we were the only foreigners on the bus, sometimes there was just a single other traveller. We have been crammed into minibuses, designed to seat 12 with more than 20 other people. Every space, even the vertical, has a value in Africa it seems. I have been seated next to old ladies of all tribes and had large sacks of eggs, bananas, maize and chickens for travel companions on numerous occasions. (We found out subsequently that it is customary to bring a chicken along when you visit relatives in some parts of Africa). Babies have endured a full days cycle of smiles, fits, feeding and defecation all squashed up against my leg, sometimes roaming free but more often strapped snugly into position on mum, by a brightly patterned tablecloth in the African fashion. We have encountered several chickens thus intimately enshrined as well. It is often said of African women that they don’t just travel, they move and the aisles, racks and roofs of most bus are overflowing with large sacks of produce, food and suitcases that stand testament to this – jumping off the bus in a remote village for a quick toilet break, is frequently more akin to a game of tetris.
We have literally spent multiple days on buses – buying our food through the window at passing villages or stops as we go. Impoverished locals displaying their wares gallantly on baskets on their heads or trays as a bus pauses – quickly shouting their offerings through the windows to try and close a deal – fresh banana’s, apples, carrots, biscuits, bread rolls, coke or water, airtime, furniture, crafts or electronics. You rarely need to go looking for anything in Africa it seems, just catch a bus and it comes to you. Thus supplied, we have been constantly delayed – accidents, flat tires, police fines, derailments and everything else it seems bar a hijack (fingers crossed). Since we left South Africa, we have yet to be ontime anywhere and we have soaked it all up and loved it. As a result, we have spent intimidating nights at minibus stops in the middle of large cities, crossed dodgy border posts at the most ungodly hours and even been derailed in a national park in Tanzania, a 7 hour stop that became a travel highlight.
We have been learning ‘not to sweat the small stuff’, cultivating patience and a sense of relaxed resignation at our progress – ‘inshallah’ / ‘ce la vie’ / ‘shoganii’ / ‘whatever will be, will be’ – the joy of travel without time limits. And in all that, as ever we have met some amazing local people of all tribes and descriptions – friendly, smiling, accommodating and equanimous in the cramped, shared conditions. We have criss-crossed the African continent, spontaneously feeling our way as we go and in so doing have been gifted some amazing insights and experiences of the real Africa; we emerge perhaps better illuminated as to travel’s grand purpose along the way.