3 Brits, 3 Brazilians, 1 Canadian, & 5 Americans and one Tanzanian meet in a beer garden ………..
Nope – it’s not the start of a joke – it’s the briefing session for an epic 8 day trek up Mount Kilimanjaro along the Lemosho route. The briefing session took place in the pub like garden on the Springlands Hotel in Moshi which was the base hotel for our trip. We had arrived at different times, some of us as complete strangers, others as small family groups, but we were all to be bonded together over the next eight days as we worked our way towards the roof of Africa, to the top of the 3rd highest mountain in the world, the highest in Africa and towards realising a dream – to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
This motley crew, or team Di Moja as we got to call ourselves that evening (One Team, One World) in Swahili- assembled in the garden and listened intently to our guide Bruce, as he started to tell us about the trip, the logistics, he checked our dietary requirements, checked that we had appropriate kit and medicines etc and gave us the necessary comfort we needed about emergency arrangements etc.
All of this was great stuff, but the thing that stood out from all of this for me – was Bruce himself – this was his 362nd summit of Mount Kilimanjaro and his words of advice and encouragement were just what I needed to hear at that moment. You see, I’d spent the previous two nights at the hotel having dinner, lunch or breakfast with other trekkers who had completed their Kilimanjaro trek and I was becoming a little disheartened, because as of then, I’d not met anyone who had made it to the summit – not one single person. They all talked about great trips up the mountain, about great scenery, great people in their group – but all of them had been struck with either illness or altitude sickness or a combination of the above and had not reached the summit. Sure they spoke passionately about their trip and their experiences – but hey, I hadn’t come all this way to walk part way up the mountain ! (and I’m sure they hadn’t either) – I was here to reach the summit. So Bruce’s words were exactly what I wanted to hear – he explained that he had great success rates on his trips and particularly on the Lemosho route and that a lot of our trip would be about our Attitude and not the Altitude.
Attitude not Altitude – struck a chord with me, I had done lots of research and read lots of people’s blogs about the trip and was fairly determined, that come what may, unless something serious happened to me – I was going to nail Kilimanjaro and make it to the summit. I was prepared for the affects of altitude sickness – I was expecting to have terrible headaches, to feel sick and to be throwing up, I was expecting to be exhausted, to hurt and to ache and to be challenged both physically and mentally – but I was not expecting not to summit and was fairly determined that come what may I was going to get to the top – you see – for me too – it was all about Attitude and not Altitude – I just didn’t have the right words at the time to capture this – and Bruce did it so eloquently and in three little words 🙂 He’s a clever dude !
With the briefing over, some of the group retreated to their rooms for a final repack of bags and check of kit whilst a few of us – the single lady travelers in the group I might add and all Brits too ! headed to the bar, to get a beer and to contemplate our trip. This was it, the very next morning we were leaving the relative comfort of our hotel and the coffee shops of Moshi (OK that was my favourite haunt) and were heading to Londorosi Gate, the start of our trip.
Day 1 – The bright sunshine of the next day woke me early, which was just as well as I had to do a final repack of my kit bag, put some beach wear and my trusty laptop and beloved hair straighteners into storage and to hire some additional kit – mainly a decent sleeping bag (down to minus 20), hiking poles, big fluffy windproof mittons and a big plastic bag to keep my kit bag dry.
The majority of ‘mod cons’ and luxury items were removed from my bag – no makeup, hair products, beauty products or such trivia were coming with me – my wash bag was now a pack of baby wipes which also doubled us a my cleanser and daily shower ! – this was a trip for compromising and necessity, a trip where a hat would be my new hairstyle and where dirt would be my new nail polish and bruises and dirt would replace my body lotion routine !
Having packed up I managed to wrestle my bag down to reception, it weighed a perfect 15kgs which was the weight limit, we loaded up two 4×4 vehicles and started our drive towards the gate. The trip was fairly uneventful, we drove around the base of Kilimanjaro to the first gate of the trip where we dutifully signed into the Park guest book and ate lunch – whilst Bruce and his team frantically arranged everything else for us. Here we found out was where the hiring of the porters took place and where all of our luggage and kit was weighed and distributed amongst the team. It was all rather frantic and looked quite chaotic but Bruce and the team had done this before so we wandered around the area taking pictures of the warning signs each warning us of the dangers of our trip) and trading bits of our packed lunchbox with others – meat samosas were traded with hard boiled eggs for the vegetarians, hard boiled eggs for bags of nuts for the vegetarians who didn’t eat eggs and oranges were donated to the queues of porters who were lining up eager to get work.
After what seemed like ages we were off again in the 4 x 4’s this time they were driving us to the start of our walk and we chugged, slipped and lurched our way up a single track mud path until the vehicles got stuck and we were forced to leave the luxury of our vehicles and to start our trek proper – on foot. Yalla Let the trek begin 🙂 I have to say at this point, we were so excited to start our walk – we kind of just left our drivers to it and walked on – I do hope they are not still there ……….
The first day of trekking is quite easy -we had a four hour hike which meandered up through the lush rainforest. There was a bit of clambering up some steep parts of the track and over broken tree stumps etc, but so far all was good and easy going. The peacefulness of our walk was only be disturbed by the call of wild monkeys and shouts from our porters to step aside and let them pass. Each one passing with our kitbags, food, tents and other kit balanced somewhat precariously on their head and shoulders – making us look quite feeble as we ambled through the forest with our small day sacs.
Day 1 was the first day that I really got to understand just how slowly Pole, Pole pace is. Pole Pole means slowly, slowly in Swahili and I had read about it a lot during my research. The basic pace was slow and was set by our guide, Babu who was always in front of us. His job was that of both guide and pace setter. From my research I had read that the art of walking pole pole is one of the best way to get your body acclimatised, and although its really hard to walk really slowly at lower altitude because you really want to and can walk quicker, it certainly pays off when you get used to walking at pole pole speed as you get higher and the air starts to thin – in fact, if you try and walk fast at altitude frankly you can’t sustain the pace as you just can’t get enough oxygen into your lungs and you are forced to slow down.
Our first afternoon of walking was great, we all started to gel, to get to know each other and to start to really get excited about the next 7 days of walking, after all – every time we looked up Mount Kilimanjaro was looming there above us in all it’s glory – taunting us and beguiling us to climb higher 🙂
Our first campsite kind of appeared out of nowhere, for a while we were walking, then we turned a corner and there it was – a host of Zara 2 person tents, a kitchen tent, our mess tent complete with table and chairs and a host of porters and cooks sorting out the camp for us.
And so we started to learn our camp routine :
- Firstly find the tent with your kitbag inside – claim it as yours despite the odd angle that it’s pitched at, or the fact that there is a bloody large rock underneath your sleeping mat !
- unzip the doors and fling yourself into your tent making sure to leave your boots outside, lean out of the tent in a sort of doubled up figure of eight move and remove said boots and plonk them outside the tent
- collapse in a small heap until you energy to do something with your kit bag or until you are forced to move to go find the loo tent (yes we had the luxury of portable loo tents being carried up with us)
- unpack the necessary items that you need for the evening (this usually gets less as the trip goes on as
- a) you can’t be arsed to keep packing and unpacking everything and the novelty of figuring out how little you can get by with diminishes
- b) you’re wearing everything so there’s nothing to pack or
- c) your name is Kevin and your bag got lost by the airline and has not arrived at all – so you’ve had to beg, borrow, rent or steal everything you have in your kit bag ! (poor Kevin this really did happen to him!)
- Have a full body wash (or just your hands and face) in the 3 inches of hot water which is delivered to your tent in a small wash bowl
- Assess if you need to change your socks, clothes etc – or if they are still flexible and don’t smell too badly – decide you can wear them again 🙂
- Finally crash in your tent snoozing until someone calls you for dinner at which point it’s usually dark and you discover that you really should have unpacked your head torch which is somewhere in the depths of your massive kit bag with everything else thrown on top in which case unceremoniously tip everything out of your kit bag to find your head torch which usually ends up being found on top of your head !!
- Vow that tomorrow will be better than today and you’ll figure out how to unpack and pack better 🙂
Having ‘mastered’ the art of the evening tent routine, oh I forget to say you do all this on your knees as the tents are not that high ! (oh good even more bruises !) as a group we started the process of forming, storming, norming and performing our dining routine and the etiquette of camp dining which goes something like this :
- Walk to mess tent (hopefully without tripping over tent guide rope or a rock or frankly your own feet !)
- Unzip tent and take a seat on a somewhat fragile folding camp stool and wriggle it into the ground until you are sitting relatively comfortably and on the level
- wait for others to come into the tent – if it’s cold shout at them to zip the door up, if not, welcome them in (or if it’s sunny get them to roll up the sides of the tent and enjoy the sun)
- Realise that your stool is not in the right place, and shuffle it into a new position (repeat this until all 6 people on your side of the table are sat comfortably – eg knees touching, elbows touching and no space between you at all) NOTE : this is the best position to stop someone toppling onto their arse as the chair gives way – but know that despite your best locked joint positioning – this may still happen – usually when someone has a full bowl of steaming hot soup or mug of coffee 🙂
- Wait, like dogs in the Pavlov dog experiment – for the guys to deliver food and/or drink
- Accept the food with a smile followed by a few questions eg – what is it, does it have meat in it, what type of stock did you use ? It smells like chicken are you sure there’s no chicken in it ?? (for the vegetarians sake) etc We still have no idea who the plate of food was for each night – when the guys presented us a dish for the person who doesn’t eat white flour …….
- Start the routine of passing bowls, plates and/or cups along the table from person to person – whilst someone (usually the last person into the tent) gets to play ‘mother’ and dishes out the food in the ‘1 scoop or 2’ fashion – repeat this until all the food is gone, or we realise there is a another course of food
- Start to eat, in the full knowledge that someone further along the table will interrupt you soon to pass their plate/bowl/cup down for seconds (and know that this will happen a few times during each meal) and that sometimes it will be you interrupting your neighbour because you want seconds too !
- Repeat the above process with hot water for drinks – breaking the process down into at least 5 steps – find empty cup, find spoon (don’t care if it’s used or not), find tea or coffee, add milk powder or sugar or both, find out there’s not hot water in the flask & go hunt for kitchen guy for hot water 🙂
- Finally hand all of the leftover food back to the guys (feeling guilty that we didn’t eat it all) and pass down the dirty cups, plates etc
- Sounds easy ? Took us days to get this routine to work properly for us and by Day 8 having practiced it 3 times each day we had it cracked !!
Post Dinner activities were broken down as follows :
- Bruce’s Briefs – Guide Bruce and the other guides would tell us what was planned for the next day and we would discuss any changes to route etc
- Those of us who had prepared in advance, got hot water bottles filled (heaven in a bottle !)
- Quick dash (well pole pole shuffle at higher altitude) back to the tent via the loo tent (again trying not to trip)
- Tent Bedtime routine – I have no idea what the others did, but I usually tried to take off at least 1 layer of outer clothes (if at all possible – bearing in mind that sometimes I was wearing 4-5 layers of clothes) and then wriggled into in fleece liner, then my sleeping bag – snuggled into my hot water bottle, tried to position myself so that a) I didn’t suffocate in my own sleeping bag which was tied tightly around my head and b) didn’t roll out of my tent or off of my sleeping liner during the night or that I didn’t sleep on a rock – not always easy when you are camped on a slope !
- During the night – massage numb fingers and toes back to life as a result of taking Diamox for altitude sickness
- Hope that I didn’t need to pee in the night – because frankly it was too cold to leave the tent (use your imagination here if you need to !)
All too soon it would be morning and the morning routine would start :
- Wake up and massage life back into limbs, check for swelling of said limbs and/or face (yes my face swelled up at high altitude and I found I hard to open my eyes one day !)
- Assess if tent was frozen by knocking on the walls to see how flexible they were
- Lie in tent and wait for the best bit of the day – aka Ambrose or Babu bringing around a cup of hot water for coffee in the tent (pure bliss)
- Once caffeine had kicked in, unzip tent and take in view and take photos (whilst still in sleeping bag – I called this the art of ‘tent cam’)
- Start packing kit bag still from within comfort of sleeping bag (and often whilst wearing gloves) – at the very last minute get out of sleeping bag and wiggle into cold hiking boots from a seated position from inside the tent (not glamorous – but warmest position)
- Hobble to loo tent
- Return to tent and have daily struggle with my sleeping bag to get it to fit in compression sac and kit bag (always made harder with swollen hands which refused to co-operate !)
- Play my daily game of jump on kit bag and try to get it to zip closed – until about day 4 when the ever so lovely Kevin said I could put stuff in his virtually empty kit bag – yes ! result !! (you remember Kevin? – the guy with no kit !)
- By about day 4 I had gotten wise to my little trick called – ‘What is Bruce wearing’ – you see I finally figured out that if I copied what Bruce was wearing I would be good for the day – if he was wearing waterproof trouser then so did I, if he had on padded trousers and two jackets then so did I (of course – to allow for the variances in my Dubai acclimatisation I always added a layer or two below that – so I often had the form of a padded Mitchelin woman – but who cares – this was in no way a place for fashion !)
- Swagger over to mess tent and start slurping down bowls of millet porridge like it was going out of fashion – pure liquid energy
- Make a peanut butter sandwich to be eaten on the route later (squash said sandwich in pocket and kinda wish I hadn’t when I came to eat it later !)
- Collect drinking water and play the game of ‘how much flavouring do I need to add’ to disguise the taste of the chlorine/purifying tablets
- Assemble kit – daysac, poles, gloves, spare jacket, rain gear, drinking water, camera, tissues, medical supplies, snacks ready for the day ahead
- By Day 6 I was good at this game, by day 8 a fully fledged professional !
And so each day began and finished – with similar routines – which obviously I’ve described with a level of humour and wit for the sake of my blog. In truth – the team worked really hard to make our trip successful and hassle free. The cooks produced some fabulous food on little more than a couple of gas bottles, the porters carried immense volumes of luggage and equipment each day, they packed up after us, overtook us as we walked and arranged camp before we got there – all with a smile and many a word of Jambo or Jambo Mambo throughout the day.
Bruce and his team of guides worked super hard to make it look easy, to co-ordinate a large team of porters, cooks and us so that we started and ended each day as best we could, so we were fully fuelled and hydrated, we were dry and warm, well briefed and prepared for the day ahead and we had a smile on our faces as we went to our tents each night – though that could have been the lack of oxygen or delirium as the trip progressed 🙂
Read Part 2 when I describe more about the route and summit night and day 🙂
Until then – Hakuna Matata
- Mt Kilimanjaro – Dream, Research & Preparation (coffeecakesandrunning.me)
- I made it to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro !! Wohoo (coffeecakesandrunning.me)
- Ramadan and Mount Kilimanjaro Preparation (coffeecakesandrunning.me)
- Kilimanjaro Fun Facts & Figures (coffeecakesandrunning.me)