Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Magnificent 7...Stroll

OK, here we go: Mount Kilimanjaro, highest peak in Africa, Day 1, 11km, 6hours, walking from the start at 1800m up to the first camp site at 3000m.

I was collected at the hotel about 20 minutes after they'd told me to be ready (African time, you see? Like Islander time in the South pacific, or South American time, only with rhythm) and taken to the tour shop to deposit all the gear I wouldn't be taking. Safe as houses, they promised me. We'll see in 7 days, I guess. We had a 40 minute or so drive to the Machame gate, start of the Machame trail up Mt Kili, where I had to sign in and wait about an hour while the porters got their loads sorted out and weighed - each porter is allowed to carry a maximum of 20kg, according to the Kili park rules, and the loads are weighed at start and end of each days hike to ensure no cheating. Because of this limit, the more luxury companies (who take things like toilet tents and porta-loos) have to use more porters. My crew consisted of a guide, a trainee guide/waiter, a cook/porter and 3 "just" porters. And me. So, the Magnificent 7 of the title, then. Still with me? Not tricky, eh?

My guide was held up at the start due to a power failure that prevented the rangers at the gate from entering important info, so my first day was to be led by the trainee guide, and he set a nice gentle pace up the hard packed, mud track through the lush forest. The mantra for the hike is "Pole Pole" (pronounced pole-ay pole-ay), which means "slowly slowly, and that is exactly how fast we went. In the end, as it was only to 3000m, I got a bit impatient (especially as my guide's English was a bit ropey and conversation a bit slow) so I went off a bit quicker and stopped now and again to rest and let him catch up. Now, I was going at a fairly easy pace, not knowing just how far we had to go or what the track ahead was going to be like, and I remembered a lesson learned a number of years ago on the Cotswold Way Relay in the UK. I was to run the 12 mile long, steep leg and was keen to get in under 2 hours, so was advised to "stick with Liz, she always comes in under 2 hours". Liz was in her late 50's I think, and I was about 30, so figured it would be easy. But she went so slowly! In the end, I went on at my own pace, only to be passed by about 2 miles from the end. She came in at about 1 hour 56 mins, I staggered over the line at about 2 hours 6mins. Shoulda stuck with Liz! Anyhow, far be it from me to tell a Kili guide how fast to walk, so I did my best not to go to much faster than he was. Just a little faster...

Camp the first night was at 3000m, lower than Cusco by quite a bit, so I wasn't bothered about altitude at this point. The camp site was actually fairly discreet, given the hoards of people arriving - there were 7 in my group for example, just to get one person up the hill. Apparently, if there'd been two of me, it would have taken 10 or 11 porters, so I guess for 3 in a group, you're looking at about 15 etc. There were several groups of up to 4, and some for the tour companies were far flasher than mine, with porters having to bring collapsible picnic tables, folding chairs, even the aforementioned porta-loos, so I think my guys were getting off light!

I tried to help set the camp, but was told quite firmly to sit down and rest. All part of the earning of the tips, I guess (at the end of the trek, each member of the party is tipped x amount per day depending on their duties: $5 for porters, $8 for a cook, $10 for a guide - and these are minimum amounts. Please feel free to tip more! For a party of one, I was looking at an extra US$300!).

There were 2 tents: mine, a small typical modern tent with flexi-poles and Mountain Hardware on the side, and theirs, a hexagonal spider-shaped frame with inner and fly combo, about 6feet tall at the apex. This was both sleeping, eating and food prep space all in one. It really was quite funny to watch the dinner being made. Think of all the things you were told never to do in tents by your dad when he was teaching you camping craft. Top of the list was probably "cooking or using naked flames of any description inside the tent". Imagine, then my surprise when the cooking was done on a 9kg calor gas cylinder with stove top attachment, and lighting was via 2 candles, precariously stuck to a small tin of puree balanced on a wobbly camping table and the plastic screw top of a 3l bottle of cooking oil. Yes, later we were going to be deep frying stuff!

Despite these obvious safety hazards, the whole procedure went off without a hitch - well practiced actions allowing Juma the cook to rotate about 4 different metal bowls across the heat and get everything ready pretty much at the same time. Skills! And it wasn't just Juma - the whole crew seemed to work together pretty seamlessly too, although there may have been any number of terse instructions being given under the disguise of cheerful sounding Swahili. How would I ever know? But that's beside the point. The end result was heaps of tasty food, including some deep fried spuds that had moments before been boiling merrily. The hot oil was carefully left on the floor in the middle of the tent until it had cooled just enough to return to the plastic container. Safe.

It was a relaxed atmosphere in the crew's tent - if they weren't helping they were huddling under their ludicrously inadequate looking sleeping bags (they have to buy their own gear and carry it on top of the customers stuff, so most of the porters seem to try and do without), chatting, snoozing or laughing, bright white smiles emerging from the deepening gloom like so many Cheshire Cats disappearing over and over.

By the time I took myself off to my tent, the cloud that had shrouded the camp site had lifted, adn the night sky was remarkable. I couldn't wait to see the view in daylight.

Day 2: 7km, 4-5 hours, 3000m up to 3800m. I got up at about 6am, earlier than necessary but no big deal as I'd slept pretty well in the cooler climate - better than I had in hot ans sultry Dar, anyway. Quick wash in cold water (it would have been warm, but I was up before the porters), and it was off for what I suspected would be the biggest daily challenge of the hike: the daily constitutional, as they say, making use of the squat toilets in the camp site. Not wanting to dwell on things too much, but imagine a large keyhole shaped target being inexpertly used by dozens of inexperienced tourists, many of whom it seems may have been cross-eyed. Not pretty, and not comfortable either - I was dreading the extra effort it would all take once I got to a decent altitude!

Breakfast made up for it though, with "porridge" (more like semolina), fresh fruit (on various days: papaya, pineapple, watermelon), milo, toast and fried eggs, frankfurters. The eggs were transported in a small box full of sawdust, kind of like a lucky dip, and they pretty much all survived the whole trip - at least until they were selected for a meal, that is. It semed like there was to be no shortage of food on this trip.

The camp was being overlooked by the might Mt Kili, as I'd hoped, as the cloud was still gone. It was the first real look at it I'd had, as the cloud had moved in to hide it by the time we started yesterday. This was to be a pattern - clear in the morning, shrouded by 2pm at the latest. We got under way by about 8am for what was a shortish distance, but pretty steep compared to yesterday - more like what I was expecting to be honest. Some rock scrambling was called for on occasion, and and a bit of judicious tippy toe-ing to get by the craggiest bits, and once again all done at a very sedate pace. I started to wonder if the "pole pole" was for the complexity of the path or because the guide was texting as he walked (for a poor country, cell phone coverage is pretty thorough in TZ!).

Once again, the feeling of conquering a mountain was diluted somewhat by the huge number of people on the track. The guides made a mockery of us tourists and our sluggish pace, overtaking at speed with their outsized, precariously balanced loads. It was quite hard not to try and match them for pace, but egos need to be controlled if peaks are to be reached, so I just about managed to restrain myself. Not that I'd have been competitive in the least, you understand, but I'd've tried! Again I was astounded by the mismatched gear the porters used. Some were in trainers, others in walking boots falling apart. Some had shredded thermal tops, others football jerseys. All had to be bought and paid for themselves, so it was understandable why they didn't go for the good stuff. Anything brand-named would have been a gift from a grateful tourist trying to shed baggage after the hike. I kind of wished I'd brought throw away stuff, but I was traveling pretty light myself, so didn't have much to pass on. Every now and then one would pass with a transistor radio strapped to his pack, blasting out hip hop, reggae or whatever trashy pop the local radio station was broadcasting that day. It broke the day up.

Camp was much the same as before. A more scattered, open venue, this, reached by about 1pm. From a short distance away, it looked like a low budget pop festival was being held. tent village and all, just not sign of the performers. A few white-necked ravens lurked on the fringes, keeping an eye out for scraps and carelessly unguarded shiny things. Once again, I wasn't allowed to help so went for a wander to try and find some of the other trekkers I'd met earlier. I was finding it a slightly lonely experience, having been hoping to have people to chat to in my group, but it was hard to pin folks down at the camps. You got a brief chat, maybe, then we were called to our various tents for meals, which is where anyone in a group tended to stay, shooting the breeze with their compadres. I was left on my own somewhat, as it didn't seem right to go house calling a crowded tent. I'd hang with my gang in their tent, but 99% of the conversation was in Swahili, so I just sat and looked pretty in the corner until I got bored enough to go to bed. Every now and then I'd ask something of them, or they of me, but most of them had very little English and of course I have virtually no Swahili, so there was not much to go on .

Day 3: 11km, 6 hours, 3800m up to 4600m for lunch and back to 3900m for the night. Today was to be an acclimatisation day, going up to 4600m but not staying there. the extra strain on the body is supposed to get it prepared for the longer time at altitude still to come. The last time I went anywhere near this high was crossing a border between Argentina and Chile with food poisoning, and had gone from low down to up high in about 3 hours, thus not getting any adjustment time at all. It didn't go well (check the back issues if you care). This time I hoped for better.

Kili was in front of us the whole day today - no cloud, just a looming rock, challenging, taunting, sneering, but finally looking a bit closer than it had done before. We were gaining on it! The main part of the day - about 4 hours worth - took us to Lava Rock, the high spot of the day. It was pretty steep going, and the "pole pole" was definitely needed this time, I think. Once or twice I felt my puff starting to go, so I backed off a bit, as experience has taught me that if you loose your wind, it is very hard to get back. Better to hold on to it at all costs! Still, the 6 hour target for 11km was a b it much, surely? I could run that in under an hour...

We reached the Lava rock, and I was in good shape - surprisingly good actually, no problems at all, which was more than could be said for some of the others, wheezing their way to a lunch break. The lsat 2 hours of the day were downhill, pretty steeply down, and I had a couple of slips on the way, but nothing serious. I was undecided whether to blame altitude, old boots or daydreaming. Probably a combination of the three.

We rolled into camp at around 2.45, with Kili now hiding behind her usual cloak of mist and cloud. Intermittently, it would clear enough for Mahamoud my guide to point out tomorrow's path. It looked steep. Really steep. And what's worse is that its another false peak to acclimatise us - we have to drop back down again after, so don't even get to keep the height gain! Better get a good feed and a good rest. I'll continue the climb in another entry, just to break it up a bit. See you later :-)

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