Our seven day trek on Mt. Kilimanjaro was a success, though it never seemed possible, nor did I ever really consciously realize what we had done as it was happening. We had a terrific crew of apparently nine people working for us, including a guide, assistant guide, cook, waiter, and porters. We never would have made it to the top without them. We barely made it anyway. The question for me now as I sit down to type is how much detail to present.
The trip started with our guide and some other entourage members arrived at our hotel and checked our gear. Then we drove down the road in an ancient Land Cruiser to the park gate, over an hour away down mostly paved road. The driver was simply tearing down the road, even when it turned into a windy dirt road, pedestrians and goats scattering. Some of the porters jumped into the truck on the way up to the gate.
The scene at the Machame Gate of Kilimanjaro National Park was near chaos. What seemed like hundreds of porters were buzzing around, loading their bags. Bewildered visitors were being shepherded to the front desk, where we registered. As we waited for the porters to have their loads inspected (20kg maximum), we saw blue monkeys in the trees.
The first day's hike took us through rainforest with tangled, tall trees draped with moss and lichens. Sweating porters carrying amazingly large loads blazed up the trail right past us, an amazing and common sight throughout the hike. Birds could be heard overhead but were difficult to spot. We did see a Hartlaub's turaco among the weird noises in the trees. Flowers such as the impatiens kilimanjari were easy to find along the trail; they give an almost neon glow among the shade of the lowest level of the forest. There were enormous ferns that grow like trees. After about a 3,000 foot ascent over 5 hours, we arrived at Machame Camp, situated in a habitat zone of small trees reminiscent of junipers.
Over the course of the next four days, we continued to move a few miles each day to the next camp. "Pole pole," (pronounced PO-lay) is the motto for ascending the mountain, or "Slowly, slowly." Indeed, it is well to learn the pole pole pace, for it is all you will be able to do by the time you come to the final ascent.
All along the way, white-necked ravens harassed hikers stopped for lunch. There was plenty of garbage along the way for the ravens, four-striped grass mice, and stone chats to pick through in the lunch areas and along the trail. Other than those three animals, it was difficult to find other non-plant life but for a streaky canary (which hopped through our tent vestibule) at one campsite and some little swifts at the highest camp, Barafu.
We camped at 12,000' or above on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th nights, then at 15,000' for the fifth night. Temperature aside, the altitude begins to play interesting tricks on one's body. We noticed that our resting heart rate was between 90 and 105 beats per minute while we were laying in bed. Breathing isn't so bad most of the time, but while falling asleep, my body often would jolt itself into action to suck in a big breath. Usually, such a sigh is a good feeling, but when my body shook itself into taking a desperate gasp while I was mostly asleep was unsettling.
The journey to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro was an utterly surreal experience. In the midnight darkness, we set out up the slope, a long train of headlamps ahead and behind us following an invisible trail. It was impossible to see the mountain, not that being able to see it would have helped in any way. Eventually, the inky black peak became visible against the unfamiliar starry sky.
Lungs and heart working at their maximum, and body shivering in the below-freezing air, we walked on up the slope. Using my headlamp, I looked directly at the assistant guide's feet in front of me, focused on taking deep breaths, and walking pole pole up the trail. The assistant guide took my backpack from me and carried it, apparently concerned that I'd continue to struggle because of my problem the previous morning. The entire hike up, I was in a trance-like state, staring at Douglas's feet and breathing, unable to see anything outside the light created by my headlamp. As the altitude, or the lack of sleep, or the utter exhaustion took their toll, it was as if my mind were detached from my body; I could see my legs moving, but did not feel as though I were making them move. It was a strange sensation. We continued like this without stopping for six hours.
Suddenly, we were at the rim of the crater, about 19,000 feet. The sun was not yet up, but it was clear where we were standing. For the first time, I thought that reaching the summit might actually be possible. It was just a walk along the rim to Uhuru Peak. The walk was taxing; I was at the end of my body's limits and the final hill to the summit was excruciating. With the sun rising on the horizon, clouds laying down below, and enormous glaciers all around, the scene was something so impactful, I had to sit down. I felt little of pride or accomplishment, but mainly relief.
The descent was nearly equally awful. It took 2.5 hours to get back to camp, where we had merely an hour's rest before picking up and moving camp again, about 5 miles away and another 5,000 feet down. That meant our total hiking time on summit day was about 12 hours with about 4,000' of upslope and 10,000' of downslope. We hiked out this morning and parted ways with our team that had been with us the entire way.
Our team did everything for us, basically. All we had to do was get our bodies up the mountain. They took care of setting up and taking down camp, cooking, cleaning, and packing all the gear everywhere. So did everyone else's team, and it was amazing just how many people were on that mountain. We thought there might be a handful of other groups, but there was an army of porters and hikers from all around the world. Apparently not all of them are as good as one another at using the pitiful squat toilets in the camps, a disgusting affair that must be tolerated.
Approaching the summit, I asked Amber whose idea this was, anyway. While proud of the accomplishment, neither of us wanted to do it again.
With the hard part of our trip out of the way, we are now bound for a national park circuit including Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, Serengeti, Olduvai Gorge, Tarangiri, and then finishing with some relaxation in Zanzibar.