Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Roof of Africa

A few weeks ago, I celebrated my third straight Christmas and New Year’s Eve in Tanzania.  It’s funny: other volunteers tell me that I’ve been in country too long, and I generally tend to ignore them, but damn… when you put it in perspective, three Christmases seems like a long time.  That’s 12% of my total Christmases (including the ones I don’t even remember as a baby) spent without family or home friends.  Crazy.

This is not to say that my past two Christmases haven’t been awesome in their own right.  My first Christmas was spent in a safi expat’s countryside villa, followed up by a chill New Year’s in an Mbeya bar/club.  My second Christmas was at my sitemate’s house, where we cooked ridiculous amounts of Western food and watched all four Die Hard movies back-to-back-to-back-to-back; New Year’s was spent on Lake Nyasa and involved beach camping, hobnobbing with members of Tanzanian parliament, and a 14-mile death-hike from Liuli to Mbamba Bay.  Perhaps not your typical holiday seasons, but fun nonetheless, and, of course, full of treasured memories.

This year, however, I think I’ve done one better than my other two TZ holidays: I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.  And it was awesome.

Of course, I alluded to this in my last post, but I figured a quick recap for the record wouldn’t hurt.  Plus, this’ll give me a chance to throw up a few photos of the trip for the folks who don’t have access to the Facebook album. 

So yeah, an executive summary:


Trekking Kili was easily the safi-est, most expensive thing I’ve done in country.  If you’ve read any of my older blog posts, you know that the vast majority of my trips in TZ have been focused on my being, well, a dirty Peace Corps volunteer with no money… well, this was completely different.  Kilimanjaro, despite being one of the few Seven Summits that don’t require extensive technical experience, is still a really f-ing big mountain---5895 m above sea level---and unless you know what the hell you’re doing, you need to spring for the silver package and get the full entourage treatment to ensure that you do, in fact, make it to the top and back in one piece.  I was in a group of four people, which meant that we had a staff of---no joke---14 people at our beck and call, preparing food for us, setting up our tents, carrying our bags, disposing of our waste, you name it.  Coming from a village situation---where I have trouble ordering a beer, much less have someone actually bring it to me---this was a decided change of pace, and a bit of a shock, to say the least.  I am confident that I ate better during those six days on the mountain than I ever did at site, and having a bunch of on-call Tanzanians take care of all my crap for me 24 hours a day had me feeling like a colonial-era bwana.  In other words, climbing Kili took some getting used to.

But, in the end, I was very glad for the assistance.  Like I’ve said before, Kilimanjaro is freaking big, and if I had to hike ~6 hours a day for 6 days, then pitch my tent, then cook for myself, then clean up afterwards, then repack every morning, it would have been rough.  I know that the guides carry all their own gear and hike the summit ~3 times a month (and each attempt takes ~6 days… they don’t have a lot of free time, these guys), and that the porters lug ~20 kg of crap up and down the mountain in inadequate gear (and still go about 2x our speed), but I’m a soft white guy, and a frail physics nerd to boot, and I wasn’t going anywhere without a ton of help.  This was especially important since the entire trip is essentially a slow build-up for summit day (Day 5), which is a brutal no-sleep no-oxygen march straight up the mountain and then ¾ of the way back down.   Thus, if you’re already exhausted by day 4, it’s not terribly likely that you’ll make it to the top, and I know that if I had to take care of everything myself, I doubt I would have had the energy to finish the hike.

That being said, hiking the mountain was awesome.  The whole trip is like a nature walk on steroids, and we got to see some amazing flora and fauna (different groups of which belonged to different ecosystems up the mountain), as well as some amazing vistas of the surrounding area.  I gotta say: it was pretty cool to see how the environment changed drastically as we made our way up the mountain---from lush rainforest (replete with monkeys and---I’m not kidding---squirrels), to lichen-filled moorland, to barren volcanic ash cones, to glacier-capped summit.  Honestly, I never thought you could literally walk to such disparate ecosystems in such a short amount of time, but hey, apparently you can.

Day 1...
Day 3...
Day 5.

One of the fun little perks of our hike was that our Day 2 happened to be Christmas.  Granted, we didn’t do much different---we had a schedule to maintain and needed to conserve our energy, after all---but it was the small touches that made this Christmas special:

Plus, we got a few Christmas decorations in our mess tent, and we even got a Christmas card and two bottles of non-alcoholic champagne sent to us by the tour company (they were pretty awesome to us, so I’ll plug them here: Gladys Adventure).  Like I said before, we were traveling in style.


If I had to describe the overall climate of Kilimanjaro, I would use two words---cold and wet (with wetness eventually giving way to coldness higher up the mountain).  In truth, spending 2 ½ years in Songea has made me a complete cold wuss, and freezing my ass off so close to the equator was a bit surprising, to say the least.  Especially since we were using tents the whole time, there was literally zero refuge from the coldness and wetness of the mountain for 6 days straight, which meant that changing clothes became a deeply unpleasant experience (if you want a comparative feeling, try stripping down naked in a snow bank… it’s not fun).  There’s nothing like taking off your damp clothes to put on damp long underwear and get into a damp sleeping bag in 30°F weather.  Plus, on summit day, you literally put on everything: I wore six layers on my torso/head (plus a balaclava), four layers of pants, three pairs of wool socks, and two pairs of gloves… it gets cold up there.


One interesting quirk of our trip was our constant (and somewhat obsessive) battle against dehydration.  Apparently, there’s no quicker way to get altitude sickness than by being dehydrated, and, to avoid this outcome, we drank excessive quantities of fluids each day.  I’m not kidding: in an average day on the mountain, I drank ~9 cups of chai, one cup of hot chocolate, 3-4 liters of water, and maybe a half-cup of Gatorade.  On top of this, we’d usually have at least two bowls of soup for dinner, and sometimes lunch (although I think “soup” is a relative term… I think in most parts of the world it would qualify as “gravy,” if not simply “vegetable-flavored margarine emulsion”).  In other words, while I spent a lot of time on Kili admiring the sights and being one with nature, I spent the vast majority of my time up there sitting around and face-chugging fluids.

One unintentional (but entirely foreseeable) side effect of this constant imbibing was the fact that I needed to urinate.  A lot.  Here’s hoping that the Kilimanjaro Water bottling plant in Moshi has a good filter, because I marked my territory all over that mountain, and not always in the appropriate, designated spaces.  This became particularly troublesome at night: although I tried my best to invoke the no-fluids-after-7pm rule, I would inevitably have to repeatedly wrench myself from the warm comfort of my sleeping bag to scramble up a hill to the camp toilet to take a whiz---a profoundly uncomfortable experience, to say the least.  Plus, due to the high altitude, I would inevitably be out of breath and panting by the time I reached the toilet, meaning that I often found myself hyperventilating in the putrid miasma of a public pit latrine, all while exposing my genitals to the ever-present icy gusts of wind coming down from the summit.  All part of the experience, I suppose.

Although I will say one thing: it was really, really funny watching all the wazungu try to negotiate the Kilimanjaro toilets.  Two-and-a-half years’ experience of pooping in a hole has thoroughly honed my ability to eliminate in even the most extreme environments; the vast majority of the other trekkers, on the other hand, were fresh-off-the-plane, fancy-schmancy Western-style prima donnas who had never popped a squat in their life, and thus had incredible difficulty adjusting to the, ahem, more “rustic” nature of Kilimanjaro toilets.  Let me just say this: I never thought it was possible for someone to literally miss a choo hole---it’s about 5 inches from your butt, for chrissake---but Kili has proven me wrong… those toilets were a mess.  I seriously feel sorry for the guy who has to clean that up, especially since, every day, a whole new horde of Westerners comes in a obliterates the toilets anew.  Silly white people… they don’t know anything.

Either way, it definitely gives new credence to the old saying, “knowing your ass from a hole in the ground.”


In spite of all this---the coldness, the wetness, the filthy, filthy toilets---it’s absolutely stunning on top.  The rainforest and the bog areas are all well and good, but, to me, nothing beats that snow-covered, “outer space” vibe you get at the summit---giant, moonlit glaciers resting atop the walls of a massive crater, literally nothing alive around you (save for your fellow trekkers), and the dim lights of Moshi glimmering ~18000 ft below---it’s something else.  Yeah, you may be nauseated, exhausted, and out of breath, but you can’t help but take in the incredible natural splendor around you.  And that sunrise… holy crap.  Not to indulge in hyperbole, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything that beautiful in my life.  At the very least, it’s a top five moment, and that image will likely be seared into my retinas for the rest of my days.

The moment when everything becomes worthwhile.
Of course, you still have to walk another hour to the real summit, where you take your slightly-less-majestic celebration picture:

And then, it's only another 7.5 hours until you reach your next camp down the mountain.

So yeah, that’s Kili-in-brief.  Was it expensive, difficult, and uncomfortable?  Yes.  Did I spend most of my time cold, miserable, and exhausted?  Sure.  But, at the same time, did I also view breathtaking vistas, explore unique ecosystems, shuffle my way all the way up to the roof of Africa, and have an overall extraordinary, unforgettable experience?  Absolutely.  Hiking Kilimanjaro was utterly, unequivocally awesome, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

1 comment:

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