Friday, August 8, 2014


Monday, August 5, 2013

A View From the Top

We heard the knock at the door of our cabin just after 11 pm, but neither one of us wanted to get up to answer it. I hadn't been able to get any rest and was quite certain that the altitude had something to do with it. Our room was huge, with cinder block walls, a small table and enough bunks to sleep 12. But with just the two of us in it, it felt even colder than it already was. I wore every single article of clothing that I could fit on my body inside a sleeping bag good to -17 C and I was still freezing cold.

Despite taking Diamox each day since starting the climb, the altitude was definitely still messing with me a bit. Earlier that day, we had walked a good six hours across an alpine desert. It was windy, dusty, and exhausting, and I had the beginnings of a headache. By the time we arrived at our camp at the base of Kibo peak, I started to feel a bit worse. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how I felt but it was an uncomfortable mix of anxiety, exhaustion and nausea. I was tired but I couldn't sleep. I couldn't bear the thought of eating dinner (a sure sign something is wrong) and I was shivering from the cold. The three hour rest before our night ascent offered no peace as I couldn't sleep a wink.

We finally dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags around 11:45 PM, dressed in as many layers as we could and set out with only water, energy bars and a small camera. I was wearing wool long underwear, 2 pairs of cotton pants, thick fleece pants, wind pants, 2 cotton T-shirts, a thick fleece jacket, a down, micro puffer coat, 2 pairs of wool socks, 2 pairs of gloves, 1 pair of wool mittens and a balaclava. I brought some "hot shot" warmers but only the ones for my hands were working (and only slightly). I was also wearing a headlamp, gaiters and using a pair of trekking poles.
We were behind the other climbers by about an hour when we set off in the pitch dark at about 12:45 AM. It was freezing then (about -15 C) but our guides were quick to tell us that it would get even colder in a few short hours.

We could see the lights of those ahead of us snaking up the mountainside. This would become a source of comfort as we spent the next six hours climbing in the darkness. I started to feel defeated a mere fifteen minutes into our climb. I was so very tired that I was walking with my eyes closed, wondering if it would be possible to walk and sleep at the same time. I was a zombie. But I kept going.

As we made our way up the mountain, I soon realized that I was warm; that I had packed well and that felt like a small victory. But Tricia's hands were freezing so I passed along a pair of my gloves to help. My hands amazingly stayed warm without them...and hers improved vastly. But each step was a greater challenge, and frequent breaks were critical. My back ached from bending over to cast light on the footsteps in front of me. I literally threw myself onto the mountainside whenever I needed to rest; each time contemplating how much further I could actually go. At one point, the thought of quitting did cross my mind. There would be no shame in getting this far, right? I looked up and, in the moonlight, could make out the crest of the top of the mountain. I suddenly realized that we were over halfway there. Closer to the top than the bottom. It would be more work to quit than to keep going, I concluded. So, I kept going.

The trekking poles were a lifesaver; practically holding me up in my weakest moments. But so were our amazing guides - Raymond and Shawn. They fed us our water so we could keep our gloves on, massaged our sore backs when we needed to rest and reminded us often that we were doing great and were going to make it to the top. Without them we most certainly wouldn't have reached the summit.

The sun started to rise just before we reached the crest at Gilman's Point. We stopped to rest and take in what might be the most beautiful sunrise I will ever see. But we quickly moved on, clambering over larger boulders to finally reach Gilman's in the warmth of the early morning sun. It was a truly joyous feeling! Gilman's Point is located at the crest of Kibo Peak, at 5719 M / 18,763 feet - and although it is not the true highest point on Kilimanjaro, you can definitely feel like the hardest part is behind you here. We celebrated with some photos here, and our Guides assumed that this would be it for us. For a minute I did consider turning back having made this great accomplishment - but instead I blurted out "Let's keep going to Uhuru Peak - we didn't come all this way for second place". And so we kept going.


It was another 2 hours to Uhuru Peak this time trekking across some gentle hills, much of it cliff side with plenty climbing over rocks and boulders. Our water supply was mostly gone or frozen by then, and my one energy bar had fallen out of my pack and over the cliff. I hadn't eaten or slept in many long hours but the sun was warm and that felt good. You can only walk at an extremely slow pace at this altitude. When you finally see the sign for Uhuru Peak, it feels like eternity to walk the last 200 feet across to the snowy peak. But we made it. All the way to the top. I was extremely emotional about what I had just accomplished but there is not much time for reflection or celebration. At 5895 M  / 19,341 feet, altitude sickness kicks in fast and I started to feel some of the effects almost immediately. After a few quick photos, we made our way back down to Kibo Camp. It took about 4 hours to descend. Much easier than the climb but still difficult in it's own way.

I celebrated with a 1 L bottle of Coca Cola that I paid $5 US for. It was worth every penny. We rested for an hour at Kibo Camp before making the 5 hour trek back to Horombo Camp that afternoon. I still couldn't sleep. Or even eat. Our cook brought us delicious looking grilled cheese sandwiches but my stomach wasn't having it. Most of our walk back was in the dark - a challenge considering much of the trail is very rocky (like a dry riverbed). We arrived around 8:30 PM, checked in and hobbled over to the dining lodge for our dinner. I was so tired that I was resting my head on the dinner table and could barely eat. We promptly hit the sack and I think I had the deepest, most peaceful sleep of my life.

The next morning I felt amazing and energized; like I could do anything! We had a great breakfast, stretched our sore hamstrings and calves and took a photo with our amazing team before setting off on our 20 KM walk back down to the gate that day. Everything looks different on the way down. Seeing new climbers on their way up way truly made the experience real. When they asked if we made it - we got to say "YES! Right to the very top!".

After receiving our climbing certificates, it was back to the Springlands Hotel to drink the coldest, most delicious, most well-earned beer of my life! The little things started to feel special - like having a hot shower after six days on the mountain. We had a nice dinner with some friends at the hotel, slept great and braced for the next phase of our trip - luxuriating in beautiful Zanzibar!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pole, Pole

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost said it better than I can.

The human body is an amazing thing. I had never hiked a day in my life and yet there I was, walking long distances uphill in the blistering heat and, somehow, succeeding at it. During my six day trek up the Marangu Route to the summit of Kilimanjaro, my body never once failed me. Sure there was some achy muscles, sore knees, a mild headache, a sunburn, and even a bit of the dreaded altitude sickness at the top. But these were warnings, designed to help me succeed; to pace myself. To go "pole, pole", as they say in Swahili.  But your body is only part of the challenge - I truly believe it is the strength of your mind that will ultimately decide your outcome. I had no business reaching the top of that mountain. Yet I did it, when others who were younger and stronger could not.

"Pole, pole" (pronounced pole-y, pole-y), is truly the mantra of any successful climb and translates to "slowly, slowly". You will hear your guides repeat it often on the mountain, reminding you to move slowly, pace yourself and take short breaks often. For me, "pole, pole" was also a state of mind - a slow and steady pace with clarity and calm. A reminder to enjoy the journey up and down, to appreciate the views and the experience - and not only focus on reaching the top.

I have decided to split my posts about my Kilimanjaro Climb into two parts - The Climb and The Summit. Although it is indeed one mountain, the days leading up to Kibo are remarkably different than the ascent night. One like marching to war, the other a full-scale battle. Stay tuned for my Summit post.

Day one was full of excitement but the reality of the challenge ahead quickly set in. We started with an hour long drive from Moshi to Marangu with our support team. Tricia (my cousin, and fellow climber) and I would be climbing with the support of a Guide (Raymond), Assistant Guide (Shawn), 4 Porters, a Cook and a Waiter. Other teams were also traveling on our route and we were fortunate to get to know a few of them along the way, including a nice couple from Toronto. 

As soon as we arrived at the entrance gate, I realized one of the gaiters I rented was broken. Good thing I packed duct tape in my day-pack! A quick MacGuyver and it was as good as new. How smart was I for having duct tape in my pack? Actually, not very smart at all. In fact, it was a horrible decision as I quickly realized my day-pack was WAY too heavy. Our first day's walk was hard and hot - straight up hill through a meandering path of natural steps for six hours. My day-pack was at least 10 pounds and I had my SLR strapped around neck. What an idiot, I was. But it was a good, much needed, rude awakening of what was ahead of us. Fortunately, our frequent breaks allowed us to appreciate the incredible beauty of this portion of the climb, a rain forest filled with Colobus Monkeys, waterfalls, beautiful ferns and hanging moss. We made it to our first stop at Mandara Huts in time for a quick rest, wash-up and a delicious dinner of soup, steak and fried potatoes in the lodge.


The next day we seemed to find our groove. As the landscape started to change, so did our confidence. The rain forest became a moorland of long grasses and we walked a little taller. I suddenly felt like I could do it. Our 12.5 km walk to Horombo Huts was challenging and hot. Note to fellow climbers: do not forget to re-apply your sunscreen, like I did. You do not want to suffer a sunburn in a cabin on a below freezing night. We checked in at Horombo for a two night stay in another log-cabin-style, a-frame hut well above the clouds at 3721 metres / 12,208 feet. The following day involved a 5 hour acclimatization hike to nearby Zebra Rocks (elevation 4048 metres / 13,281 feet) where we had a beautiful view of what lay ahead of us at Kibo. Our time at Horombo was incredible with beautiful sunsets, a sky full of stars, great food from our cook and a chance to read the amazing, motivating messages we were receiving from our family and friends, as the mobile reception is very good there.

With the seemingly easy part behind us, we braced for an extraordinarily challenging day ahead that started with a wind-whipping 9.5 km trek across a seemingly endless alpine desert to Kibo huts. This walk took about 6 hours with some breaks along the way for lunch and water. We were now past the last water point where our team would have collected our water from the mountain stream to boil for us to drink. I started to experience a small but lingering headache, a reminder that at over 4714 metres / 15,466 feet, you must drink lots of water and "pole, pole" is the only way to go.

We arrived at Kibo Huts and were happy to find out that our Guide, Raymond, had secured us a private room to rest for a few short hours before our ascent that evening. But there was no rest for me with the shadow of Kibo looming above us. And though we were already beyond exhausted from our challenging day - we had no idea just how much more difficult things were about to get that very night. Please see my following post for the rest of this story...

Monday, July 29, 2013

Mount Kilimanjaro

Right before I left for Tanzania, I had a few moments of fear and doubt about the upcoming climb. There was definitely a "what was I thinking?" - when I started to worry about my health, my fears and the fact that I had pretty much told everyone I knew that I was going to do this.

For starters, I am an asthmatic. And while everything I had read told me that this was fine (and possibly an advantage at high altitudes), I still had a last minute worry that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had  been training both informally (taking 10 km walks whenever possible) and formally (with a personal trainer three times a week) but at almost 40 years old now, I am certainly not in the best physical shape I have ever been in. I mean, this is a real mountain, not some sorta-challenging, cutesy tourist trek. On top of that, I am afraid of heights. I don't like roller coasters or skiing or driving along cliff sides. So picking a mountain climb for vacation is a pretty stupid idea to begin with. And then I go and tell everybody - blogging, posting on Facebook etc. Yeah, great plan.

That said, by the time we had arrived in Tanzania and enjoyed our week long safari, my fears had left me and I was filled with a surge of excitement to just give it my best shot, and if the mountain should spit me back out (like the roughly 60% of those who attempt it), well so be it.

The following posts will detail my time spent on the Marangu Route. In addition, I will also post some details on practical information related to planning and packing for the trip. I did a ton a research before the trip and have insight as to what worked / didn't work for me, and would love to share it with someone else who might be considering the same journey.

Ngorongoro and Tarangire

It is extremely important to find a compatible travel buddy. You may think you know someone before you leave, but travel abroad together for three weeks and you could quickly realize those charming quirks are actually seriously annoying. I think the same can be said about a tour guide. Though, in that circumstance, you are often left to the luck of the draw. Spending long, hot days in close quarters with anyone you don't gel with can have disastrous results.

It's no surprise that one of the major reasons our Safari experience in Tanzania was so wonderful was our amazing guide, Issa. His passion for his work and for sharing the beauty of his country definitely shone through as he showed us the sights across the Northern Safari circuit. From teaching us useful phrases in Swahili to making us laugh - Issa was a shining star in an already incredible experience. 

So when Issa wasn't his usual jovial self on the morning we were scheduled to depart the Serengeti, we were naturally concerned. Issa was very ill and suspected that he had contracted malaria. Putting our needs first, he had already made arrangements with a fellow guide and colleague, Roy, for us to continue our day while he drove himself to the nearest hospital for treatment. In a world where most people call in sick with a minor case of the sniffles, this man continued his work when faced with life-threatening illness. And when it was confirmed by doctors that he did indeed have malaria, he continued to work, meeting us that evening and continuing our safari without interruption. He is a very special person who I will not forget anytime soon.

We spent our day at Ngorongoro with Roy and his two safari clients, a friendly couple from Spain named Maria and Javier. It was actually quite fun to spend time with new friends and Roy did a great job of tracking, resulting in 2 amazing Rhino sightings among other countless birds and animals. I did not know much about Ngorongoro before my trip and was completely overwhelmed by just how gorgeous it is. So very different from the Serengeti - yet equally stunning. Formed 2.5 million years ago when a volcano imploded, this park is the word's biggest, intact caldera, with a 600 metre climb in and back out of the crater where there is over 300 square kilometres of lush, green grasslands filled with all kinds of wildlife. Once again...I'm not quite sure my photos will do this place justice.

Issa picked us back up on the road in Karatu, while Roy, Javier and Maria moved on for a night of camping and hunting with a San tribe. I wish we had of thought of that...what an amazing experience! We had one more safari day ahead of us at Tarangire National Park and a long drive back to Moshi. Tarangire is famous for it's elephant sightings, and although it took a long while for us to spot anything, we hit the jackpot near the end of our visit with plenty of very active elephants including a few adorable babies. We also got to see the incredible ancient baobab trees that dot the land here; some of them thousands of years old.

Our long drive back was broken up with a stop for lunch and a chance to pick up some fresh (processed that day!) coffee from a local plantation. The coffee ($5 US) was packaged in a clear plastic bag which I reinforced with several ziploc baggies before it's journey back home to Canada in my duffel. Amazingly, it arrived home (and through immigration) without any issue and I have enjoyed this absolutely delicious coffee every morning since I have returned.

Our safari was over and now the challenging part was about to begin. A good night's sleep was in order before tomorrow's adventure on Mount Kilimanjaro.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Maasai

You can't help but be fascinated by what you see out the window of your vehicle as you make your way through safari country. And, if you are like me, you might feel a little worried that the real Tanzania is flashing by you at 80 kilometres per hour. It's a montage of an everyday life that's very different from home; so colourful; so honest. I treasure the moments where we stopped and interacted with locals - pulling over to pass out pencils or candy to children, buying fruits and vegetables from local women, sharing what was left of our lunches with hungry strangers passing by. And while I do know that the authenticity of these interactions is indeed tainted by the fact that we are a bunch of tourists in a safari vehicle, I still feel blessed to have had those experiences.

One of the most fascinating things to see were the Maasai tribesmen - regal, tall and easily spotted with their spears and tribal cloth. Though it wasn't on our itinerary, I asked if we could stop at a Maasai village and our tour guide, Issa, happily obliged. Again - I fully realize that this might not be the most authentic of encounters - but it was a welcome break from the air conditioned safety of our vehicle and a chance to learn about a way of life so different than our own.

We were warmly greeted by Paolo - one of the Chief's sons. Paolo - who was extremely well spoken and funny - let us know it would be $40 (for both of us) to visit, and that this money would be used to purchase water in the dry season and that the money is shared across multiple tribal villages, not just their own.  As we approached the village we were greeted by the entire tribe with singing and dancing - an unbelievable sight! We were even pulled in to dance with the women and adorned with beaded necklaces.

We were then escorted into the village, protected by a wall of acacia branches. Paolo introduced us to many of the tribes people and was sure to point out the single males who were trying to impress us with their jumping. Paolo also brought us into a home. Built from grass and cow dung the homes are small and contain two sleeping areas and a fire for cooking. (And no, the house surprisingly did not smell like cow dung). Paolo happily answered all of our stupid questions and told us much about the very traditional life he leads here. We gladly purchased some beautiful beaded jewelry made by the women in the tribe and then visited the nursery school, where only the youngest children are allowed to attend. The children were timid, polite, sweet...and seemed very excited to learn.

I know a lot of guidebooks might suggest skipping this in favour of a "real'" experience - but I am very glad I had the chance to do this and would recommend it to others. The money your pay (which, frankly, isn't much) goes to provide support for the most important of necessities in life, clean water. Just do keep in mind that you are not on safari - these are people who have welcomed you into their home. Show your respect with humility and an open mind. I carefully took photos - engaging with my subject and receiving their permission before shooting. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Serengeti

You cannot escape the circle of life in the Serengeti. Not only will Elton John play uncontrollably on repeat in your brain...but you quickly see, very vividly, the harsh reality of life and death on the beautiful savanna. Within five minutes of entering the Serengeti National Park we witnessed our first wildlife sighting - blood-soaked hyenas finishing off a kill along with hungry vultures patiently lined up to swoop in and steal whatever is left. This is not a zoo.

Over the course of our three days within the park, the same scenario played out in front of us over and over again - predators and prey looking to survive amidst a harsh but absolutely stunning landscape. But before I get too deep into the numerous animal sightings we experienced, I should really reiterate just how incredibly beautiful the landscape is here. Everything is tinged with gold and set against an impossibly blue sky. The savanna is grassy and flat with a sprinkling of acacia trees and oasis-like "kopjes" (unusual, tall rock formations). Creeks weave through the park providing watering holes (and lunch spots) for the animals who call the park home and also those who are passing through. It's almost as if the landscape is in some way another animal we are tracking - a true predator who gives with water and fresh grass but can take away just as fast, a beauty we hope to capture on film but somehow fails to resonate in the same way it does in real life.

We were extremely blessed to be traveling during the start of The Great Migration - one of the most amazing wonders of the natural world. Annually, over 2.5 million wildebeast travel 800 km's across East Africa to reach their final destination in Kenya's Maasai Mara. We witnessed thousands of wildebeast marching in herds across the Serengeti in long, organized lines just like soldiers going to war. Traveling in large packs, occasionally with zebra friends, keeps predators at bay and helps to protect their newborns (of which only a third survive the journey).

We were also enchanted by zebras who stand in the most amazing and romantic formation in order to protect each other from approaching predators. Resting their heads on each others shoulders, they "have each others backs". It is a very moving sight to see and I think we all could learn a little something from these zebras. 

The giraffe are plentiful and never fail to amaze with their elegance.

Lions are incredible beasts. Confident, powerful and beautiful. We had many sightings of males, females, baby cubs and even the extremely rare, tree-climbing lions. This included an amazing chase down of a zebra pack. Unfortunately the lion was not able to catch even a single zebra, as the zebra's stripes cause confusion for lions. But what a thrill to see the lion attack and the zebras scream and scatter.

We were lucky enough to see lots of incredible animals and birds including - gazelles, impala, dikdik, a leopard, hippos, an eagle, vultures and elephants while travelling on the dusty, bumpy roads in the park. We even got a flat tire at one point and left the car to change it, though we fortunately didn't encounter any animals while we did so. 

Our 2 night stay was just on the outskirts of the Ikoma entrance to the park at the Ikoma Wildcamp - an incredible Hemingway-esque experience as part of our safari package with Zara Tours. Our small tented room featured mosquito-netted twin beds, a full tented bathroom and (much welcomed) hot shower. We zipped down our tent panels at night to let the cool night breeze blow through. Hyenas could be heard just outside the tent in the early mornings and we were advised to stay close to the hotel paths as there were many predators - including lions - living in close proximity. After our evening dinners in the open air lodge perched up on a kopje, we were escorted back to our tent by a local tribesman who carried a spear to protect us from the unseen danger. Dinners were wonderful...but only almost as good as the stunning sunset view from the lodge. I was able to chill some white wine in the hotel fridge that we drank with our dinners while our cameras and phones charged at a make-shift charging station.

Our experience was truly amazing and I would highly recommend that a Serengeti component be included with any safari itinerary in Tanzania. It is truly like no other place I have visited.  It is a privilege to see such a wild and pure place still on this earth - a privilege that those in the future may not even have. Hopefully I can visit it again some day soon.