A few weeks ago, I took a trip to Tanzania and climbed Kilimanjaro. As per normal, I kept a travel diary. If you don’t like words, you can just visit Flickr album.
Day 0 (Wed Jan 24, 2018)
After a busy day of work (from home), I pack up and step outside into the cool late afternoon. The sky grey, I finally feel that pre-trip anticipation and I walk towards Südstern, ungainly with my gear. An U-Bahn and a bus later, I resolve to stop thinking about work entirely until I return to Germany as I enter Tegel. Baggage drop off and a quiet security check leaves me sitting airside and facing 4 texts from Ethiopian Airlines, telling me that my final flight is moved, no, moved back, no, cancelled actually. Not much I can do now. Plenty of legroom (exit row) and free wine on the flight to Frankfurt as I remember what it’s like to travel on a non budget airline. In Frankfurt, my mood turns vaguely sour as the familiar wariness of wandering around a hub airport takes hold. Kill some time by sending an invoice and handling bank minutia. Board after being called by name. Earthy yellows and greens are a pleasant sight inside the plane and almost make me forget that Ethiopian Airlines has yet to update me on my cancelled flight. Pull into the night and watch Kingsmen 2 before stretching out (I have a whole row to myself!) and drifting off to a light sleep.
As I wake from a short sleep, I finally appreciate the value of a fully reclined sleep on a plane. Breakfast and the remainder of Kingsmen as we descend through darkness until Addis Ababa emerges, glittering below. Stepping outside, cool air and faint hint of spice on the air greets us. Short walk to the transfer desk where nobody has heard about the cancellation. Boards show everything fine. Oh well. Wander around the terminal as the dawn sun burns orange through the long windows and snack on some samosas before sitting down to read. By the time the sun is higher and whiter, we are called through to the gate. After some confusion, we board and ascend into a hazy sky. The horizon stretches out, flat and ochre as I almost immediately fall asleep. Woken for a quick meal and then descent. Humid outside, with ad-hoc checks of yellow fever certificates before a crowded immigration hall and an almost immediate pickup of backpack. Meet my pickup outside and hop in an air-conditioned minivan. Flora and fauna roll by. Juxtapositions of advertising (“Kilimanjaro: Home of Simba Cement”) and unfamiliar architecture. Trees and shade are key here. At the hotel, friendly staff check me in and I enjoy a much needed shower before heading downstairs where I meet the rest of the group. Canadian Ryan, Canadian Chinmayee and American Brandon, as well as the Arizonans, David, Azura and Sandy. After chatting for a bit, we decide to go for a walk. Past a schoolyard of kids kicking a bag-ball around a dusty yard, we follow the road and head down a side street until we find something resembling a market, where Chinmayee fails to acquire sunscreen. It is decided that she can barter her Nutella for sunscreen on the mountain. Further on, we examine sporadic walls and banana plantations before heading back. Briefing before heading upstairs to repack, then down again for food. Chat more with the Arizonans about work (pharmacist, trail angel) when soup and a Tanzanian tortilla arrives. Head upstairs to the bar and introduce myself to the Australian couple, Nathan and Kat, both paramedics. As the group gathers, the foundations of a week of injokes are laid (“they’ll getcha”, “take the wolf back with you”, “get your poop in a group”) before we touch on politics and lament the general state of things and America in particular. Finish up and head to bed.
Wake early after a comfortable sleep. Take my time and head downstairs for breakfast with Chinmayee, Sandy and David and Londoners Amir and Bee, who arrived late last night. Upstairs for final pack and weigh. Me and Brandon have our bags checked because they seem too light. Shortly after Ryan returns from his medical checkup, we head off through Moshi to a small supermarket for last minute supplies. Finally off on a long drive to the park, I break out the riddles. Brandon solves gold riddle 1, Ryan solves gold riddle 2 and the infinite murder train stumps everyone for a few hours. Ryan gets the solution first in private but the rest of the group circles round until a group effort by Nathan and Chinmayee cracks it. At Londorossi Gate, we have packed lunch and paperwork followed by a long wait as logistics are sorted. Finally hop in the bus for a short drive to our forested starting point. A long awaited stretch and bug spray before we set off through the jungle, muddy from the recent rain. Ryan and Nathan get into a leaf stabbing contest as me, Chinmayee and Brandon switch to Spanish. At camp, we sign in and head to our secluded tents. Orientation, health check and sit down for food. “I’ve smoked a lot more weed than you”. Conversation switches to our various cultural differences as we discuss how the Americans have bastardised our language. Briefing for tomorrow, then bed.
Wake early after a patchy sleep. Hear the porters quietly preparing outside before we are officially woken at 6:30. Quick repack then outside for breakfast and health check. GF porridge, yams, sausages and fruit set us up well for a final gear check (mark my sleeping bag G for gluten after the cooks announce my food with “for gluten”). Head off slowly into the jungle, monkeys leaping around us. Gradual ascent as the trees thin and we enter scrubland. A few rest stops later, we arrive at a ridge and traverse along a long hillside, finally seeing our destination, a green roofed building in the basin ahead. Spanish lessons begin on the final approach. Sign in and de-gear at camp before a lunch of stew. We sit down to play cards when the cook comes in to teach us the barely sensical rules of “last card”, “Jacks are 25, 2s are 20 and queens are 4”. Someway through the game, we realise Ryan’s deck has 55 cards and 4 jokers “hang the fuck on, there are 2 10 of hearts there”. Cards devolves into hysterical fits of laughter. Later, we are introduced to the full team (about 50% of whom are called Joseph) in a ceremony that ends with everyone dancing as Jeremy sings. Sit down for dinner of rice and chicken followed by banana crepes. Chinmayee calls everyone outside to see a cloudy Kilimanjaro “That’s the same shit we saw earlier”. We set the world to rites before heading outside to play with my magic telescope that frustrates as usual. As everyone turns in, me and Chinmayee walk to the edge of camp and discuss our approaches to life as Kilimanjaro looms ahead. We share similar fears and ways of thinking about our life plans. A long talk later we return to our tents where I pack and turn in.
Wake to pale light after an excellent sleep. Ryan gets up and crunches across the icy ground to the WC. Quick repack, then breakfast of cereal and fried banana. Singing lessons in Swahili with Vincent as we start the day’s hike, towards to looming Kilimanjaro, much clearer now. A few rest stops in, we climb a small boulder for a photo shoot. A new PB for Nate. Azura feels ill, so one of the porters takes her pack as she takes up the rear. Gradual climb up lava formations as mist pulls in. A final muddy approach to Moir Hut as rain starts. Me, Ryan and Chinmayee decide to triple up in a tent to the amusement of the guides. We sit down for a light lunch of fruit and chips and coleslaw as David tells us of his many brushes with death (plane crash, ski accident and being abandoned while scuba diving). On account of my resistance to cold, I gain the additional mountain name of The Human Torch, while we also start calling Brandon Steve (I remain Steve Prime, or more frequently, Gluten). Very slow climb up with a little scrambling and geology. We reach the top of the ridge where we are informed that we can get signal here. Nathan “I don’t get signal in parts of my house”. Group photo, then me and Ryan build a Canadian Cairn “Nook Shook”. On the way down, I apologise to Robert for colonialism before we ditch our gear and head in for health checks. Potato stew for dinner, while Ryan adds salt to his hot chocolate “Canadian hot chocolate” and accidentally throws a bottle of hand sanitiser into Brandon’s chocolate. After briefing and goodbyes, me, Chinmayee and Ryan head outside for night photography (lessons) but unfortunately, the fullish moon makes things difficult. Head into our 3 person tent, where we reorganise, journal and proceed to examine the ground under Ryan for roots and rocks until we eventually turn in.
Solid sleep, broken up with a doze at midnight. Early morning brings distant noise, close by pattering and someone falling into the side of the tent. Change underwear and add a base layer before we head to breakfast where Robert smiles at us “How was your spooning?”. Over millet porridge, we discuss sleeping mats with Nate and Kat “Mine is softer” “Well, we alternate” “No we don’t”. Head off into the crisp morning as with Jerome at the lead. Discuss drunken and generally embarrassing stories as we make the long approach to lava tower. Mount Meru looms high in the mist as we break. A porter passes us, singing “hakuna matata, there’s another fucking hill, hakuna matata, I don’t want to climb this fucking hill”. Lava tower towers impressively, but mist rolls in as we arrive. Lunch, then, as we leave, sleet begins. Slow descent into a musty, muddy valley. Despite 7 km taking us 4 hours in the morning, 3 km in the mud and rain takes 3 hours and feels longer. Eventually arrive at Barranco camp “campsterdam”. Unpack and sit down for lunch as fog rolls in, obscuring the Barranco Wall, our destination tomorrow. Dismus says he finally trusts me now, after seeing me handle the rain in minimal gear. Chill in the lunch tent until medical checks, followed by steak and fruit. After food, we get a briefing for tomorrow and Robert remarks that we did well for today, not suffering any of the altitude effects he expected “you are iron people”. Moonlit Kilimanjaro stuns outside and following some night photography, we turn in.
Wake early and can’t get back to sleep, but only need to doze for an hour until a hearty breakfast and gearing up with Toto playing in the background. Short descent until we reach the base of Barranco Wall. Icy rocks make for a slow start, but the scrambling is fun. Finally make it to the kissing rock and slip past to easier terrain. Looking down, we see a porter carrying a banner and squint to make it out “House Stark?”. Drug stories until we reach a rest stop near the top. A short walk further and we find a lunge spot. Crest a ridge and see the next camp not too far away, but then a valley opens up and the real distance becomes apparent. Lord of the Rings trivia for the remainder of the walk. “What was the eagle’s name and title?” “Barry the Majestic Eagle”. “What’s an Angmar?”. Cross our final river before summiting and ascend the final steps to camp. Lunch of stew and Tanzanian stiff porridge/spinach, then we play presidents and assholes with Robert. Kat wins 8 consecutive terms “the rich get richer” until Nate usurps her and she ends up the asshole. Nate then shows us card tricks until we decide to watch (most of) World’s End on Kat’s iPad. Pop out to pick up stuff from tent as Chinmayee is doing yoga, then back in for health check. Dinner of rice and beef before a few games of Lasty Card with the cooks, then outside for an unsuccessful attempt at photographing Moshi. Back in the tent, Chinmayee leads Ryan and me through some yoga and we end very relaxed.
Wake early after a very comfortable sleep. After breakfast, Vincent says his goodbyes and descends due to a chest infection. Robert leads as we start our slow ascent. Clouds quickly roll in and obscure our view of camp. Rest stop among cairns, surrounded by white cloud. Plod upwards until a short dip where star wars trivia begins. Final steep climb, then clouds roll in and we switch to rain gear for the short final push. We enter the lower sections of camp and walk through several bands of rock until we reach a radio mast/office. Photos at the sign and we learn that Sandy has become very ill. After a move to camp, the guides and a medic assist Sandy while the rest of our tents are set up. Ditch gear and head to lunch of chicken and chips. Summit briefing follows, accompanied by an ominous worsening of weather and by the time questions are finished, hail is torrential and thunder booms all around us. We do a first pass on tipping calculations and head back to our tents to re-pack for summit day. Short rest as the weather calms and warms. Ryan and Chinmayee have a Very Canadian Argument about who should use the sleeping bag, ending with everyone apologising to everyone else (including me “sorry shrapnel”). Head up to dinner and a final health check. Sadly, Sandy has to drop out due to fever. Rice mountain and vegetables before we grab our last water refill and retire. Dismus offers me another layer and I promise to let him know if I feel cold, from inside his tent, Nate yells, “Steve’s gonna freeze”. Final reorg and turn in at 19:00 as the camp continues to bustle around us. Drift off somewhere between holding hands and spooning.
Day 8 (Summit Day)
Woken suddenly by alarm at 22:00, which seems to imply I had sleep between 19:00 and 22:00. Dress and walk to a short breakfast of porridge and dried banana before we get ready outside. Jerome declares my clothes unfit for Kilimanjaro and lends me his jacket (he is staying behind to look after Sandy). The night is cool and clear, with a little wind and before we set off (a little late), Robert says a Swahili prayer for us and we start our ascent. Easy start and slow ascent through the rest of the camp and up to high camp before our first break under a rocky overhang. The moon is bright and we barely need headlamps as we ascend into the darkness, a trail of scattered headlamps marking out our trail above. By the second break, most people are still feeling great and singing among the guides has begun. As the switchbacks begin, we find ourselves lined up with Orion’s belt half the time as he hangs awkwardly on his side. After the 3rd break a distinct trail of torchlights is visible below and we are all becoming quiet as the symptoms of mild altitude sickness begin to settle in. I feel waves of nausea and dizziness while the guides diligently check up on everyone, asking about symptoms and seriousness “tiredness is not an illness”. While walking, Nathan spots piles of obsidian and Brandon opines, “You’d make a good archeologist”, Nate, “I miss oxygen”. At the next break, Nate looks rough. A hiker walks past us in a daze and after Brandon guides him away from walking off a ledge, he passes out and falls on his face. Nate leaps into action, laying him on his side and checking for responses to stimuli. Given his pallid face and lethargic behaviour, I assume hypo so gather mango juice for Nate to administer. Robert is shortly at his side, checking pulse/O2 (both low) and administering him O2, while the fallen man’s guide asks, “what’s O2?”. We leave them behind as Rob is calling in the details on his walkie talkie. Near the ridge, the sky behind us opens up a red slash as the sun begins to rise. As we finally mount the ridge, pale dawn light is all around us and the distant glaciers of the crater are lit with the red gradients of a reflected sunrise. Like Olympus above the Serengeti.
Quick photo op at Stella Point before Robert, returned from the emergency below directs us to our final destination, Uhuru peak. A long ridge walk with many false summits follows, culminating in us approaching a crowded sign proudly proclaiming that we have reached the roof of Africa as Evance plays Toto’s Africa on our final approach. Couples photos first, finishing with Amir proposing to Bee before we do the singles photos followed by groups. Short time to mill around the summit area before Nate is sent down with a guide (Joshua) and I gain the title of Moto Sana from Robert after he examines the layers that took me to the summit. A longer than ideal descent follows, much different to the dark ascent. We arrive back at camp by 11:00 and after a blood O² test, Robert directs me and some others down after lunch. At lunch Jerome tells us Bobby Company were responsible for the passed out Czech earlier and that he (obviously) wouldn’t recommend them. Quick pack, then set off on a descent that rapidly turns foggy. We pass one wheeled stretchers before the conversation turns to life plans and Brexit. “Yes or no, explain Brexit” “No”. At our final camp, we get some tea and Milo and discuss Trump, money and beards. Sandy gets fired up after discussing her opposition to Trump. “Nothing to do in Fiji but swimming, sleeping and drinking” “and fuckin’” Team B arrives some time later and we have a dinner of traditional Tanzanian banana stew and beef with rice, where I obtain my latest trail name: Big Spoon. After calculating and recalculating tips, we turn in relatively early as camp noise continue around us.
Woken early by singing and dancing in the camp. I guess some groups do their ceremony in the morning. Final pack, then off to breakfast. Robert and the cooks approach the tent singing and present a congratulations cake as dessert. Set off around 8:30, stomping downhill through thick jungle. Monkeys, spider webs and mud abound. Brandon is proud of his newest Swahili phrase “Powah k’cheezy kama deezy dana freezy” (roughly “Cool as a banana in the freezer”) and practices with every passing porter. The leaf game and associated corpus of rules escalates rapidly during the walk, with Nate and Ryan both ending up with heavily weighed down poles and an impressive collection of rubbish that is ultimately declared a draw. At the final stop, we take our photos at the lasty sign and sit down while paperwork is completed. a short bus ride later, we find ourselves at a souvenir stop, feeling out of place among the clean, kempt people selling Tanzanian handicrafts. Driving away from the souvenir stop, we see waving schoolchildren in very familiar school uniforms, and I find myself wondering what other subtle holdovers of colonialism could be found here. Nate describes his experiences with cruises, or as he calls them, “sea prisons”. After passing 100s of coca cola branded signs, we eventually pull into Stella Maris, where we hand over say our goodbyes to the Benson clan and pick up some left luggage. A short drive later, we find ourselves in Bristol Cottages, much closer to the centre of Moshi. Sign in, receive our summit certificates and finally retire for much needed showers. A long scrub later, we meet downstairs, nearly unrecognisable without hiking gear and layers of grime. As people filter back, we order food and drinks, like upstanding members of society until the alcohol and cards makes us less upstanding. Kat becomes rapidly drunk as Nate predicted, and they both turn in in a little early on account of their morning flight. Ryan, Chinmayee, Brandon and myself continue a little longer, drunkenly starting Instagram accounts and recounting tales of lost loves before we too succumb to sleep.
Wake early, fan spinning noisily overhead. Ryan washes and switches off the fan, only to turn it back on to drown out the political broadcasts outside. By the time we head downstairs for breakfast, it is agreed that the tents were better. Chat with Chinmayee and Ryan before heading back up to the room for Ryan’s final departure. A hug later and he is bouncing away in his safari jeep. Quick shower, repack, then downstairs for 2nd breakfast with Brando and Chinmayee before heading off for a walk around town. The first tout is amiable enough, trying to sell a Kili hike as we look at a mosque, but by the time we reach the market, a red shirted tout takes a shine to Brando, trying to convince him to climb Kili by repeatedly calling him scared. Despite ducking in and out of cafes and shops, we are pursued by red shirt, his tactics now switching to calling me and Chinmayee ‘bad people’ while identifying Brandon as a good person. Eventually we shake him around the mosque and decide to enter a nearby cafe, where a much more pleasant tout plys his wares to Brando before we disappear back to our hotel. Quick lunch and long chat as my airport taxi becomes progressively more late. After some ineffectual pacing, my ride arrives 40 mins late. I load my bag into the back and have a mercifully short goodbye before pulling away. As the taxi pulls out of the hotel, Chinmayee and Brandon fading through a dusty windshield, a numbness sets in. The same scenery I saw on my first day in Tanzania rolls by with a different meaning. The Coca-Cola branded signs, the mishmash of shops and cafes, the oppressive heat and ochre dust. All symbols of Tanzania and tied to my time here. I leave them behind with sadness. As we approach the airport, the road becomes cleaner and straighter, more like the Europe I’m returning to. 2 security checks, 1 immigration desk and 4 long queues later, I’m airside and sans my travel scissors. RIP little scissors. I quickly realise that there are no screens and audio is the only means of communicating gate numbers at JRO. Soon I am outside and pointed towards the back door of a 787, only to find it barred. Inside, a confused, older British couple are in the wrong seats, but I eventually find my place. Airports are tumble driers for people. Bounced between security and bureaucracy, we arrive shaken and battered. ADD is as ADD is and I manage to get some reading in before churned through another security check and onto a crowded plane. Barring 2 short meals and watching Poorna, I sleep for most of the flight to Frankfurt, despite a screaming child in front. More security and a brief wait before boarding a third plane and ascending into an unusually cool morning. As we descend into Berlin, dawn light floods the windows, hiding the city below. I know what’s there, but the details are hidden from me.