Sunday 24 November 2013

o : Kilimanjaro, Day 1 (Weather)

Machame Hut
About 3000m above sea level
Kilimanjaro National Park

Dear o,

The rain has stopped and the sky has partially cleared, though it’s too dark now to take much solace (or much heat) in that.  Everything is wet.  My walking clothes are soaked through and lie in a heap under the tent’s vestibule.  The waterproof jacket I rented turned out to be not so waterproof – and even if it was, I figure the part of today’s downpour that hit my face would have sent enough water down my throat to drench the rest of me several times over.  That water found its way around my gaiters, too, and I spent half of this afternoon’s hike with my feet sloshing around in my boots.

The boots and dripping socks are under the vestibule, tucked into the corner.  Al’s boots, dripping socks, and wet walking clothes are crowded under as well (her waterproof jacket didn’t turn out to be waterproof either), but all of that, bunched together and sharing in dampness, only takes up half of the overall free space – the rest is covered by the long green duffle bag we gave to the porters to carry.  It is soaked through, soggy, dripping.  Yes, you guessed it: not actually waterproof.  Actually, “not waterproof” is not quite accurate.  It would be more correct to say that instead of a sack for personal belongings we picked up a drinking water catchment device, ideally suited to today’s weather: the water goes in, but it doesn’t come out.  Luckily before we left I did the macho I’ve-climbed-mountains-before thing and insisted I carry my own pack with my own gear.  The inside of that bag is dry; and because of that, for now, so is this letter.

Rolling, rumbling thunder accompanied today’s rain and made this first day seem exotic and exciting.  At least, it was exotic and exciting for about five minutes.  And then the thunder continued and continued and continued on up, not growing or diminishing but simply hovering above and thumping with its rain.  I was reminded of the cloud which follows Nicholas Cage’s character in the opening of Honeymoon in Vegas.  A little bit ominous, and a little bit comic.  Is there any doubt that the sun will shine again?  I don’t think so.  But to keep the analogy going, we had our comedian too.

There are about 25 people aiming for the summit on the Machame Route, and all of us were gathered by the starting point (Machame Gate) for about half an hour while the guides, cooks and porters organised themselves and their baggage to ensure a maximum carrying weight of 20kg per person.  Lunches were distributed in boxes, to be carried in our daypacks and eaten at the halfway point.  Most people were quick to stow theirs away, while a few others started to dig in.  Al left hers on the ledge of the wooden waiting area as we sat in the grass (it was still sunny at this point) and chatted politics with a couple climbers from the Swedish military.  There was a scream behind us, and as I looked back a monkey was running off with half of Al’s lunch.  Fortunately for Al, the monkey was a little overzealous in how much he tried to get away with, and he dropped most of it on the rush back up his tree.  Still, in less than a second he had ripped open and grabbed two handfuls of plastic-wrapped food.  He’d done this before.  And as he sat up there high above us, chewing with his mouth wide open, I couldn’t help but feel like he was laughing.  Morons, he could have thought.  Sure, he was laughing at our stupidity for leaving food out for him to steal, but maybe he was laughing at what we were about to do.  Climb Kilimanjaro?  Spend hundreds of boxed lunches worth of money to ascend 6000 metres above sea level for ten minutes in order to take a few photos?  No, really: morons.  Doesn’t the mother laugh an evil laugh at Nicholas Cage?

We giggled about the monkey and his greedy fingers as we took our first steps up the wide dirt trail.  We thought it was a funny way to commence our little endeavour.  A nice way to open my letter to you.  The thunder started about an hour later.

This mountain creates its own weather.  As the highest point in Africa, and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, Kilimanjaro could just as well be cut off of the planet and shoved into one of those Christmas globes that you shake to make snow.  It doesn’t really matter that the equator is just 330km away, or that the warm Indian Ocean is even closer, or that lions, zebra, hippos and wildebeest run around the savannah within sight of it.  At its wide, plateau-like top, Kilimanjaro is considered an Arctic environment, and to get there you must pass through rainforest, bushland, moorland, tundra and alpine desert.  Today we did the rainforest.

Don’t think that means the rains are over.  Now (November, December and January) is the time of the ‘short rains’, a tease of moisture before a miniature dry season (February and March) and then the day-long, grey torrents of the ‘long rains’ (April and May).  The early mornings are supposed to be clear, but clouds, mist, precipitation and squishing footwear should fill most of the rest of our hiking days.  Will it be clear on the summit?  Of course, the guide says, and grins a little bit like the thieving Machame monkey or Mr. Cage’s possessive mother – whichever image you prefer.

So, all doom and gloom in this letter of complaint?  Of course not.  Today in just four hours we marched 11km forward and 1200m upward.  The clouds parted for long enough to see the sun set to the side of Mt. Meru (while shorter, Meru is known to be a tougher climb).  Our feet are finally dry, our guides are smart and sturdy, and we are to do nothing but climb pole-pole (slowly) all the way up the mountain, in order to avoid altitude sickness.  Speaking of which, we have no headaches, dizziness or any other symptoms of high elevation (it is supposed to start at around 2500m).  We are in the middle of climbing the tallest peak in the world for which mountaineering is not required, an endeavour many say is the best thing they’ve ever done.  Did I mention that I like climbing mountains, as in, it’s one of my favourite things?  Yes, I write to you with a smile.

I’ll save the wince for the morning, when I get to thrust my toasty feet into frosty socks.  Or, for the middle of the night, when we discover that our tent fly belongs with the raincoats and duffle bag as not actually waterproof.  Oh, don’t fret: this letter gets a sealed plastic bag.  I wouldn’t want you to miss out on the wisdom which links Honeymoon in Vegas with Africa’s highest point.



Kilimanjaro, as seen from Moshi
Distances and times 
Points to Remember
Organising baggage 
Monkey, pre-theft
Monkey, post-theft
Assistant Guide Victor at the starting point
The rainforest trail, before the rain
Change in vegetation
View from Machame Camp 
Mt. Meru through the clouds