Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro had been one of my goals for some time. It helped lure me to Tanzania which was very fortunate as it’s an amazing country.
*I have combined the Kilimanjaro with part of my entry on the logistics of East Africa – to skip the tales of drudgery scroll down where the mountain photos start.
I flew into Dar es Salaam from Addis Ababa and took some time to get organized. I ended up at a business person’s hotel by accident. With the lack of internet in Addis I ended up reluctantly borrowing my driver Yosi’s iPhone to book somewhere (anywhere) in Dar Es Salaam before getting on the plane. I had a hunch that data would be expensive so it was a hack job done quickly. I needed somewhere near that airport. It ended up OK but was mosre expense and not at all suited for a disheveled man like me. All the business people continually asked about my 9-5 job. Or lack thereof. But on the plus side they had reasonable internet, books and even a gym with a punching bag. So much residual air rage… Actually, not really — the flights have been amazing so far.
A day and half later I took a really long and breakdown-prone bus to Arusha. It’s about 650 km.
I was happy to be out of Dar. I took a cab 7 km at 3:30 pm to a bookstore to try and get a Lonely Planet. It took 70 minutes each way and the store didn’t have the book. It was about $12 Cdn which was a good deal for such a long ride in miserable traffic – the worst I have ever seen actually. I re-did the traffic again at 6am my final morning to the dreaded Ubungo bus station: the big hub where the buses upcountry leave from. It was a bit of a mess but not quite as bad as some of the things I had read in advance. Arriving early, coffee-less and forewarned meant people generally left me alone but even then I was not the most polite Canadian to grace that mess of a bus terminal. I got lost, as expected, and then bought a ticket for the “luxury” bus from the esteemed Dar Express. The women there sold me a ticket for a bus leaving in 10m minutes. It was the economy one and she just pocketed the difference but it was already time to go so I just went with it. Plus, it would have been longer to wait for the departure for the nice one in another hour.
This poor woman had a horrendous experience there! This is an excerpt from her blog that I found while doing some research:
Arriving at Ubungo after 7 AM, the taxi driver betrayed us straight away. As soon as a taxi approaches the line of ticket offices, ticket hustlers swoop down on the windows like some horror movie zombie attack and start shouting ‘where to, sister!!!’ Our taxi driver told them. All was lost. At this stage it’s important to keep your thoughts focused as you pay the taxi driver and collect your luggage and get out of the car, because each window of the taxi will be blocked by a few hustlers (mapapasi) screaming ‘Arusha Dar Express this way this way sister!!!!’ They’ll crowd in on you, they’ll walk in front of you so you stumble on them, after a while they’ll start grabbing your hands or clothes.
The bus trip was slated to be nine hours. About halfway through we broke down but it was not too bad as it was daytime and outside of a little village.
About three hours later a replacement bus arrived. The only issue was that somehow the key to half the storage lockers must have gotten lost. We sat there for another 30 minutes while the guys found a way to pick the lock or break in.
It was getting to be a long day living off a box of mushy ginger snaps. I don’t know how they were the consistency of play dough but it’ll be the last ones I eat this trip. I didn’t want to brave the street meat at the stop so I went with the cookies in the box – being sick on a bus is not fun.
We arrived in Arusha 5 hours late, just shy of midnight. I don’t know where the extra time went because we were flying at the end. I was stuck at the back of the bus and got, at the most, probably 24” of lift-off when the driver careened into a huge speed bump at probably 90 km/h. It was a 14 hour trip in total.
I had booked a hostel out of town called the Arusha Hostel Lodge and Adventures.. There were not too many options on HostelBookers and this one seemed OK. The drill was that it was impossible to get there via cab – it was a minibus out of town then call the manager who would trudge down a hill to retrieve me from the bus station. I got off the bus and was mobbed by cabbies. I sort of got them into an orderly line (English is widespread and excellent) and picked a guy willing to call the phone number. No luck. I borrowed his phone and tried a few times. No luck as well. So I hopped into buddy’s ramshackle cab with the jet black tinted windows and went off to find a new place at midnight. It makes for a bit of stress but it worked out well ending up at a cheap hotel a few blocks away. I paid the guy what I’d agreed to pay for the 10km trip out of town as I was very pleased that the hotel finding mission went off without any problems.
In Arusha I explored the city for a day with a couple from Vancouver and Edmonton who I met in a tour office. I had met a tour operator named Alexander earlier at breakfast who mistook me for a very traditional Muslim man who was sitting nearby. He insisted that he had my tour package prepared. I gather he was given the description “dude with beard” and then he just flipped a coin between the two of us. I ran into Alexander later and he let me use his assistant’s computer. I really needed to do some emails and banking, both of which were tough going with non-existent Wi-Fi where I was staying, so I appreciated the gesture. The only issue was that it might have been perhaps the most spyware-infested machine I have ever seen. There was a triple-header of those awful invasive toolbars. So I was stuck researching Kilimanjaro tours for quality and price points and it turns out Alexander’s company, Africa Spoonbill, checked out very well on the budget side of things. Nothing is cheap per se as the government charges a $100 USD park fee per person per day so there is a base cost of $500 or $600. It’s a good move: Tanzania is the 201st richest country in the world with a GDP per head of $1600 (PPP). That is to say: very poor. For some reason I had always thought of the East African countries as a lot more prosperous. As such if (comparatively) wealthy foreigners want to hang out on their natural resources they ought to pony up some extra cash.
Anyway, there were apparently a few other folks leaving on a trek in 36 hours time so I signed up. Paying by Visa was brutal as they (randomly?) put in 105% of the price to cover fees. I know the credit card companies charge a lot, but 5% seemed too steep so I debated this for a while. It was really a no-win: the ATMs kick out a maximum of a few hundred for each transaction – with their own $5 ATM fee. It was going to be a small haircut either way so the moral of the story is consider having a pre-existing wad of cash or some clever financial engineering before any big ticket items. The interesting thing for me is how in North America merchants generally put up with losing a significant cut of the sale to the credit card companies. I’m amazed they don’t offer discounts for cash.
The next day I was off. I took a minibus (Dala) from Arusha to Moshi where the trip left from. The bus was like a slightly bigger Ford Areostar. It had a seating capacity of 12 or perhaps 14 but I counted a maximum load of 48 people. Granted maybe a quarter were small kids but it was insane how many people can fit in these things. It could have been comfortable with perhaps 20, but it was like the opposite of clowns coming out of a the clown car. Bad analogy – but more on that later. There is a fine art of the “loader” or “scooper who mans the doors and pulls people in. This is consensual thankfully. The van does not stop but merely slows down. I could have sworn it was beyond full at maybe 40 people but they just kept coming.
I had no idea how that many people could be lugged. The suspension must have to be reinforced after-market. There were about 5 tons of people on that minibus and while a North American “half-ton” truck can carry a bit more… it’s still an interesting contrast.
The only thing that these seemingly indestructible Nissans are not good for is getting work done. Scott Adams seemed to call this a few days before I left:
Not that I’d pull out my dreadful Samsung in public in East Africa. It’s a first generation Ultrabook, a 900x1b, that is useless for pretty much everything – except of course for looking expensive. It’s only 20 months old too which is brutal. I’ve been bailed out for basic computing all the time by my stoic HTC phone. The Samsung, specifically, has a power cord that falls out to make charging fun, a terrible ability to connect to Wi-Fi (if at all – the network card seems to be hugely malfunctioning), dull performance, a keyboard that’s peeling off, no VGA or ethernet (my fault for picking a small thing) and the case is broken in a bunch of places. And the screen is about 10% dead pixels just from random wear and tear. It’s easily the worst PC I’ve had.
Anyway, we were in Moshi. I had my pile of rental gear. It was a good deal for the bigger things – $3 per item per day. So, enter a jacket, ski gloves and heavy pants. I got overly enthusiastic the day before and checked a few too many boxes. One was “socks”. One pair: $18 US. I bought a few more identical pairs on the street for $1 US each. I’m not sure who was the one sanctioning that rip off, asides it being my fault the end of the day more big-picture focused given the last-minute nature of things, but I gave them and my rental toque away rather than returning them. It was either Spoonbill or a third party – a very small issue but annoying.
Bright and early the next day it was up to the departure point. I picked the Machami (“Whiskey”) route which is the slightly harder than the Marangu (“Cola-Cola”) route. The only major difference is ascents, scenery and Whisky uses tents rather than the huts. It takes 6 days rather than the basic 5 days, but that seemed smart for acclimation. I snapped a photo at the departure point hoping it didn’t come back to haunt me that I was not exactly checking all the boxes, especially #1 and #2.
The trek starts very well. There is a ranger but the supervisor seems to be this guy.
The first day is an ascent from 1800 m to 3000 m. This goes through an amazing forest and ends just at the first transition to low shrubbery.
I snagged a great sunset photo the first night. It was sort of like an inverted Voice of Fire, the ever-so-expensive Canadian art pickup lounging in Ottawa. Well, not quite, but I struggle with analogies (more to come.)
The first camp was very nice. It got surprisingly cold – it was only 3000 m up and the summit is 5895 m. I ended up wearing all my gear except for the big 80’s Ski Jacket I’d rented. There was a good layer of frost in the morning.
The next day was very easy, just gaining 900 m . My tour of a “few others” was actually a lovely group of 40 and 50 year olds from Singapore. They were very kind and well prepared – they definitely had the gear to do it. They were also smart in the slow and stready approach. But this slow and steady approach, maybe an average of 1km/h, ended up just giving me one heck of a sunburn on day two. I hadn’t banked on that much time in the sun. That was the last group hiking day – I branched off to do it at a faster pace as I’d somehow, magically, gone from a sluggish desk jockey to… less sluggish in the past two months. Spoonbill had booked me a solo trip and just lumped me in with a group for company apparently. Communication is not their strong suit.
Day three was up to 4600 then back to 3900 to camp. It was a nice camp but was very windy. It’s when I noticed that my tent was just mesh with a tent fly to keep the water out. The wind picked up and suddenly everything was filthy. The dust storm was passing through my tent. I was lucky it didn’t blow down, like a few did, but battening the hatches to try and keep the dust out was a big challenge. I first tried duct tape but eventually settled for small boulders.
Day four was a 39 to 43 to 39 to 43 then finally to 4600 m to camp. Day four was a tough one. Upon getting to camp (fast – I raced and even beat some porters) it’s a quick rest then a trip to the summit starting at midnight. Next thing I knew the nap was over and my porter buddy Machate showed up with some midnight tea. Ready to go. The porters carry the big bags per the rules of the mountain. I just had to carry my day bag which was getting big as I was carrying some rocks (long story) and my stellar laptop as I had nowhere to stash it safely in the hostel as I just left spare gear in plastic bags.
The summit was just me and my guide Emmanuel for the final 1285 m. We did it in just over five hours which wasn’t bad as there is not a lot of oxygen that height and the Whiskey route trail is brutal – it’s like shuffling though a gravel pit. Yet we made it up with no issues which was great.
Arriving at 5:21 was not ideal as it was well in advance of the sunrise and it is actually too cold to wait around in the -20 C. There was some delay as a fellow I’d chatted previously was attempting to pull his clothes off. He recruited his guide to help which was sort of awkward. His fingers were too cold, evidently. He dropped everything, including shoes, which probably makes a polar bear swim look good by comparison. I finally got in front of the sign and Emmanuel snapped a photo. I actually had to crop the naked man out of the corner. Then my camera froze and died. I had even wrapped it up in a sock and t-shirt to keep it warm. It was probably good as I was loosely contemplating at least a shirtless photo which would have likely been a very bad idea, but no camera no hypothermia.
Emmanuel: “That naked guy is an idiot. He will get hypothermia.”
Me: “He’s apparently a med student… but that would be ironic.”
With no camera I was out of luck for the sunrise shot and we started to head back down. I borrowed a shot instead because it’s pretty amazing. I did forget a small bottle of Jack Daniels I packed as I was on the whiskey route. I gave it to Emmanual and he gave it to the crew… who got it the morning of day five. They drank it all, straight, at about 6:00 am. So the take home here is maybe bringing whiskey on the whiskey route isn’t the best idea ever.
With freezing electronics my my only surviving gadget was actually my old iPod. It was invincible with 80% charge remaining after nearly a full audiobook in consistently below-freezing nights. I was impressed.
The iPod really helped for the nights as they were quiet. I forgot to bring a book and but there was not much light at night anyways. I ended up listening to Hawkins’s On Intelligence on audiobook. It was really interesting (and accessible even for a biologically-illiterate guy like me) and I’d definitely recommend it.
I finished the book on night 5. There was a part about the creativity to think of insightful and original analogies. I tried to think of one but drew a blank and got stuck on a Zoolander quote — which was deliberately bad.
Moisture is the essence of wetness, wetness is the essence of beauty
Uh huh. But it was not a coincidence. My last dry layer, due to sweating and whatnot, was the stinky rental ski jacket. As I was getting warmer things were getting more and more humid. It too was wet but cold enough so I didn’t notice at first. I just gave up on the seemingly unwearable layers and dumped my hot water thermos into a plastic bottle, tossed it in the sleeping bag, and went to bed at about 7pm. The clothes were still gross and damp the next morning but it was fine as the day was just hiking from 3900 m to 1800 m and that was t-shirt weather in the sun. Going down was tough on the knees but I the ski poles saved me (my arms were absolutely worn out from taking so much of the work.)
One downside was that Spoonbill booked me for the the solo shot. I would not have selected it knowingly (a break-away from the nice Singaporean group was happening regardless as they booked a longer hike up than I did so they were tasked with tipping a seperate crew.) The staff for most/all companies don’t get paid a living wage and rely on tips for their livelihood. This meant I was basically responsible for four people’s economic well-being, rather than a proportionally lower number (approx. 2) if I had a small group (with the same one cook and guide and a few more porters.) It wasn’t my teams’ fault that there weren’t more people along to shoulder the load. The best advice I read beforehand was “tip with your conscience.” Going well over the minimum suggested rate was worthwhile given what a phenomenal group who have a very tough job. I was worn out without having to carry loads of gear on my head.
And, per the economics of it all are related to being able to afford the opportunity. Sort of a noblesse oblige (just as someone/anyone from a more prosperous country) dictates making sure people are paid properly. The result was the standard 10% of base cost went up substantially but it seemed like the right thing to do in the situation.
On the whole it was a great experience. The team I had was tremendous. One guide, two porters and one cook. I’d highly recommend it.