Kili Weather

Kilimanjaro Factfile

At 19,340 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the only one of the seven summits (highest mountain on each continent) that is accessible without mountaineering equipment and experience.

It's the highest freestanding mountain in the world and one of the largest volcanoes, dormant rather than extinct.

On the summit, the lungs can only absorb half the amount of oxygen compared to sea-level.

The summit at Uhuru Peak is more than 1,600 feet higher than Everest base camp.

Estimates vary, but around 20,000 people attempt to climb Kilimanjaro each year. Almost half fail to reach the summit.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Arrival in Kenya and Tanzania, pre-climb trip report

I'm not sure whether I felt like royalty or the object of a game of pass-the-parcel when I arrived in Africa. I flew into Nairobi airport where I'd booked a night at the Hotel Boulevard (as expected, noisy and overpriced with a decidedly uninspiring room; not recommended for an extended stay). I'd also booked a car to meet me at the airport, as I didn't want to face the hassle of taxi touts late at night, although with hindsight, this was unnecessary. There seems to be a fairly good system for ordering reliable taxis from within the security area of the airport, before reaching the public and tout-infested areas. I was met by a very pleasant driver who arrived in a black London cab, introduced himself as Steven and then locked me and my luggage in the cab from outside with a key. I'd heard of Nairobi's crime-ridden reputation, but somehow, the key was a bit unnerving. We then made the short, bone-shaking journey into the city centre – my first experience of modern African roads, which I was to learn consist of a series of gigantic potholes interspersed with seemingly random speed humps every few hundred yards. This novel form of road surface is apparently standard for all metalled roads throughout East Africa.

I arrived too late for dinner at the hotel, so had to make do with a Coca Cola bought with some Kenyan shillings my niece had left over from her African trip four years ago. British Airways' cardboard snack (I'm not just talking about the box, here) had been neither inspiring nor satisfying, but at least I got a decent breakfast the next morning before another man with a car arrived to pick me up at 7.30am to drive me to a bus collection area a couple of streets away, where I was handed over to the driver of a minibus to begin my ride to Marangu. I was under the impression the bus would deliver me to my hotel there, but in fact I was left at yet another hotel in Arusha for nearly three hours before being passed on to another minibus driver for the final stage of the journey.

The journey across Kenya and Tanzania wasn't fun. Nairobi has definitely not improved since my last visit in the 1960s – it wasn't inspiring then, and time has not been kind to it. The morning traffic was horrendous, the road lined with ramshackle shantytowns and mile after mile of wasteland dotted with a mixture of factories and warehouses, half-built shacks and garishly painted villas. It took us two hours to clear the urban sprawl, and a further two hours of driving at terrifying speed through arid bush country interspersed with occasional dusty tumbledown villages before we reached the Tanzanian border. Immigration formalities were prolonged by an obvious staff-shortage, but eventually we were allowed to continue on our way.

Almost immediately, there was a discernible difference in the villages we passed through. Although the land was still dry and dusty, and the houses still poor, there were no more ramshackle shantytowns. Everywhere seemed tidier, and it was obvious Tanzanians like their gardens – almost every hut, however mean, had some kind of decorative tree or flowering shrub nearby in spite of the lack of water. The townships and villages were just as I remember them in Uganda years ago – poor, but moderately tidy with some sense of civic order, unlike the chaotic squalor on the Kenyan side of the border where there seemed to be more money around but no sense of how to use it wisely.

I was shocked by the arid landscape in Tanzania. I suppose I'd expected it to be like Uganda's poorer cousin (Uganda was called 'the Pearl of Africa' with good reason; fertile, with a high rainfall and moderate climate, just about anything would grow there). But in the areas I passed through the land was desperately parched with erosion a visible problem in the deep gullies and dust-laden wind. How the herds of Masai cattle survive on the sparse brown vegetation, I can't understand. We saw a few zebra and Thomson's Gazelles mixed in with the cattle as we rounded the flank of Mount Meru, Tanzania's second highest mountain. Kilimanjaro should have been visible from this point, but a combination of low cloud and the dusty atmosphere kept it hidden. In fact, it remained out of sight for the next three days – the first time I saw the peak was at dawn after our first night's camp on the lower slopes.

My final minibus driver was even more frightening than his predecessor. Driving at maximum speed, his single ambition seemed to be to overtake every other vehicle on the road at any time, anywhere. I was his sole passenger and I sat beside him on the front seat, my feet pressed hard against the floor, thigh muscles aching from the effort of using imaginary clutch and brake pedals. As night began to fall, we passed the added hazard of herds of goats and cattle being driven home to their bomas in the dusk. Lightless, broken down lorries and wandering donkeys also littered the road. I prayed for my driver's fast reflexes. Eventually, he slowed and began to drive at a more reasonable speed. I assumed either common sense or a police presence was responsible for the change. Unfortunately, not. He finally pulled over and indicated his temperature gauge.

"Hot," he said, pointing at the needle that was attempting to burst out of its enclosing glass.

I refrained from saying the engine was probably about to explode from prolonged excessive revs. The driver told me to get out of the vehicle so he could investigate the radiator, which was apparently under my seat. Great. I'd just spent the last two hours sitting on top of a potential volcano. A large quantity of water pooled from under the vehicle and ran down the road in a steaming rivulet as the driver clucked and fussed over the exposed engine. He went to a nearby house and emerged carrying a bucket of water, which he poured over the hot engine, producing a cloud of steam that filled the minibus, before he unscrewed the radiator cap. Should have made it two buckets of water. A violent gush of rusty boiling water hit the roof and showered all my possessions in the back seat. The driver then went to fetch another bucket of water, but it was almost pitch dark and he didn't have a torch, so couldn't see where to pour the water. Luckily, I had my trusty head torch in my rust-spattered rucksack, so I held the light while he poured water in through the top of the radiator and listened to it run straight out onto the road from somewhere below. Amazingly, he seemed satisfied with this arrangement and resumed our journey. I'd just about resigned myself to another night without dinner, this time spent on the roadside in my sleeping bag, when we arrived at the Marangu Hotel – we'd broken down only a mile or so from our destination.

I loved the Marangu Hotel. Staying there was pure nostalgia for me. It's exactly the kind of old-fashioned colonial style hotel I used to stay in as a child. The bungalows containing either two or four en suite double rooms are widely scattered amongst flowering Jacaranda and flame trees interspersed with huge hibiscus and bottlebrush trees in the twelve-acre grounds of an old coffee plantation house. The garden is a large-scale version of my own childhood garden, with identical trees and shrubs. Colourful bougainvillea arbours and hedges give a sense of privacy to the individual white walled buildings with their red oxide painted corrugated iron roofs. The only thing missing during my stay, which would have completed my memory trip, was a rainstorm to drum on the metal roof.

There's no pretension to luxury at the Marangu Hotel. The rooms are clean and comfortable, furnished adequately with matching chintz curtains and bed covers, but no extras like armchairs with cushions or pictures on the walls. There are mosquito netting screens over the windows and a small bedside rug on the polished floor. This is a picturesque but purely functional base for the serious business of climbing Kilimanjaro. The numerous staff are all welcoming and helpful and they serve wonderful ice cold Kilimanjaro beer in the bar (well, I had to drink something to vary the constant supply of Coca Cola in proper large glass coke bottles). There is a swimming pool, but for various reasons, I never got a chance to test the rumour about its source of water being Kilimanjaro's glacial runoff. The one luxury I really appreciated at both Marangu Hotel and Ngare Sero Mountain Lodge where I stayed later, after my climb, was the complete absence of TV and radio. I really felt I was in a time warp – even the food at Marangu is solid old fashioned British cuisine from forty years ago; tasty and filling with no gourmet pretensions. I wouldn't want to live on it for an extended period, but it's perfect fare to build up strength for the big climb.

I had a spare day at the hotel before my climb, so accepted an invitation from a fellow guest to go with her to see some small scale irrigation projects she'd helped set up in three local areas. The idea is to help people learn to grow vegetables for their own use and to sell any surplus for extra cash income. Although the slopes of Kilimanjaro are fertile and quite lush compared to the rest of the country, even a short distance from the mountain there is a desperate shortage of water. The riverbeds are dry except for a few short weeks during the rainy seasons, and for most of the year people buy all their water from young boys who deliver it on bicycles. There's little enough water for the family members and their odd livestock, so using such a precious resource to grow vegetables had been unthinkable until Eija's scheme was introduced. The idea is simple enough – villagers get together and choose one household to build the first tank. Each tank holds ten cubic meters of water and is built by local craftsmen using easily available local products. Water is collected from the house roof by gutters and pipes made of corrugated iron by more craftsmen (again readily available) and channelled into the tank during the rainy season. Everyone in the village will have access to this first tank, but the hope is that more houses will gradually acquire tanks now the people have the knowledge to construct the system. The three tanks we visited had only recently been completed, and as yet, hadn't had enough rain to be in use. The villagers had already germinated small areas of heavily protected seedlings, which they were hoping would survive until the short rains in November.

We drove almost right up to the first two villages in Eija's Landrover, but the third one was more difficult to find. Stupidly, I'd gone out in three-quarter length pants and trainers with no socks – something I began to regret when we walked for two or three miles through the shambas and I felt a blister forming on my heel. It wasn't a clever thing to do the day before beginning a six-day trek. Fortunately, my walking boots didn't touch the blister at all, so I got away with what could have been a serious impediment.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

I left my lunch at Mawenzi Tarn

Not a catchy song title, just my first (but not last) encounter with Acute Mountain Sickness. I left dinner there, too, if a spoonful of soup, some water and a couple of anti-nausea ginger pills could be described as 'dinner'.

No, I didn't quite make it to the summit of Africa's highest mountain, but I did have a fantastic experience with a great bunch of people. Although it's a bit disappointing not to have reached the crater rim, I don't have a sense of failure – I gave it my best shot, walked all night from midnight to sunrise during the summit attempt and turned back only when I ran out of air and time. I climbed to about 17000 feet in the lowest temperatures I have ever encountered and saw some amazing views of Mawenzi and Kibo as well as looking down on the vast plains of Kenya and Tanzania when they weren't hidden beneath a blanket of cloud far below us. Each day of the climb was an adventure -- I enjoyed (almost) every minute of the trek. We narrowly missed meeting a herd of elephants on our trail and watched the gradually encroaching horror of a bush fire that followed us up the mountain for days, destroying vast areas of vegetation on the northern slopes of the mountain. We later learned our first two camps had been burnt out and the trail closed behind another group of trekkers who were just one day behind us. People who had booked our route after that were being sent up the Marangu or 'Coca Cola' route, which we later used for our descent. It's a pleasant enough trail to walk down, but can't compare with the spectacular drama of the Rongai route we took to the base of Kilimanjaro's second peak, Mawenzi.

Being incapacitated at Mawenzi was a big disappointment – having the opportunity to explore the base of the second, almost unclimbable peak was one of the reasons I chose the Rongai route. We arrived there in time for a late lunch, with the afternoon supposedly devoted to an acclimatisation hike up the lower slopes. Mawenzi Tarn is such a spectacular setting, with Kilimanjaro's only glacial tarn lying in a hollow below the towering jagged spires of the splintered volcanic cone. Its dramatic fissures are so utterly different from the more famous symmetrical dome of Kibo, Kilimanjaro's main summit. Kamili, our chief guide, told us he'd climbed Mawenzi three times during his life, but would never do so again as he considered it too dangerous even with ropes and modern climbing gear. Kibo just needs a good set of lungs and some reasonably fit leg muscles. Sadly, I was in no fit state to enjoy the scenery or a walk that afternoon, so I languished in my tent, convinced I was dying, while most other members of my group went off on the acclimatisation hike. The porters told me I would feel better the next day, but I didn't believe them, certain that if by some miracle I survived the night they'd have to drag me over the ridge between the two peaks to take me down to a lower altitude at Horombo camp – there are no real facilities to get casualties back down the Rongai route which is too steep and rugged for the single wheeled stretchers they use on the other side of the mountain. Of course, the porters were right – I not only survived the night, but felt fit enough to continue the trek to Kibo Hut the following day after eating (and keeping) a scoopful of disgustingly sweet porridge and some tea. I still couldn't quite face the bacon and eggs also on offer.

Surprisingly, my legs didn't let me down at all; no aching muscles, and the neoprene knee braces did their job so well I didn't have a twinge, even on the steepest descents. Even the shoulder gave no cause for concern when the guides became a bit too enthusiastic in their efforts to assist me up some rocks. Despite sleeping badly most nights due to sliding off my Thermarest mattress and then having to wriggle my way back up the incline like a caterpillar in my sleeping bag, I never felt tired except for the morning after summit night. It's ironic that my lungs let me down in the end – just couldn't extract enough oxygen from the thin air to keep me going.

I'll be posting a full trip report soon, once I am able to remain awake after 10pm. Spending two days and a night travelling home without sleep has left me unable to catch up even after four days. I recovered from climbing Kilimanjaro within twenty-four hours of descending, but sitting on planes, trains and mini-buses has left me completely exhausted. Or maybe it was just the horrible four hours spent at Nairobi airport – surely one of the most unpleasant places on earth.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Too late to back out, now

I leave for London tomorrow, then it's next stop Nairobi. I may have a chance to Blog while I'm away, but if not, the next post will be a success or failure report when I return.

Help! – I need a Tardis, not a duffle bag

Packing panic has set in today with the discovery that I have approximately 30% more luggage than my bags will hold. I'm also way over the 15 kilo limit of climbing gear to be carried by my Kilimanjaro porter. So, tough decisions have been made. Out goes my fleece sleeping bag liner (bulky and comparatively heavy), half my snacks (though I have reluctantly kept the disgusting – and heavy – energy gels), two pairs of hiking socks (one waterproof), one set of long thermal underwear (the remaining set will be *very* well-used both day and night), small travel-sized bottles of mouth wash, skin toner and face lotion (my feet are more important than my face on this trip, so the foot cooling lotion stays). For my hotel time, I'll be forgoing even the lightweight silky bathrobe and sleeping T-shirt (have to sleep in a 'wicking' base layer). No smart casual wear for the evenings, no loafers or sandals (though I am hoping to cram in a pair of Crocs, somehow), no crop pants for travelling on dusty busses. The fleece dilemma has been easily resolved with the discovery that the thicker Polartec is actually only two thirds the weight of the thinner version. No contest. There's also no possibility of cramming in the ski pants. I may be forced to ditch the down jacket tomorrow, though I'm fighting hard to keep it. Maybe it would be better to pile on the fleece layers and add some fleece long johns to keep the whole body warm rather than concentrating on snuggling for the top half. But I do love that jacket.

I don't know how anyone manages to pack all the kit recommended by the trekking outfitters into one duffle bag (British airports limit) and a small daysack as cabin luggage. My 'overnight' daysack will contain some essentials in case the main bag goes missing en route; fleece-lined goretex mitts, liner gloves, underwear, warm hat and polar Buff, lightweight travel/safari shirt, gaiters and camera, binoculars etc., as well as that base layer set of long underwear. And I'll be clomping around the aircraft like Herman Munster in my hiking boots, of course.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Getting closer

D minus three, and I'm in the calm before the final storm of packing.

Spent a horrific day queueing in financial institutions on Friday, discovering too late that it's not a good idea to move money around on a Friday afternoon. Some of the time was spent sorting out my mother's affairs, but finding the best deal for US$ and travellers' cheques was no fun, either. I ended up dealing with the Post Office which promises a 'no commission' transaction with a real sting in the tail if you have to return unspent travellers' cheques. After much deliberation, I'd decided to get two thirds of the money in travellers' cheques to cover national park fees, hotel and climbing costs, and the rest in an assortment of lower denomination US$ notes. It will probably turn out to be an expensive way of financing the trip, but gives peace of mind -- I don't need to carry a frightening amount of cash, nor am I dependent on finding a working ATM that will accept my bank cards.

This time next week, I'll be snug in my tent at Simba Camp.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Nearly there

Except – I'm behind schedule and last-minute panic is not far away.

Less than a week to go and I'm still trying to work out how much money to take with me, in what currencies, form and denominations. I'm heading for Hereford tomorrow to find the cheapest US $, which are apparently universally accepted throughout East Africa. Cash or travellers' cheques is the main dilemma; travellers' cheques aren't always easy to cash in small out of the way places, and ATM machines are sometimes unwilling to accept overseas cards, as well as being few and far between in Tanzania. Cash, though always acceptable, is risky and bulky to carry, especially in the small denominations I'll need for tips and drinks etc. I've heard it can be difficult to change $50 and $100 notes.

At least I think I now have all the clothing and equipment I'll need. Everything on my packing list has been ticked, except for the chemical handwarmers, which should arrive courtesy of ebay within the next day or so. I intended to buy them from a local outdoor shop, but they've all sold out of last winter's supply and haven't yet stocked up for next winter, so there's been some minor last minute panic buying on line. I've had to order ten for the same price I'd have paid for six in the shop, so I can afford to share them with a fellow frozen climber.

I'm booked into the Hotel Boulevard in Nairobi, which looks overpriced and not particularly enticing, but the shuttle to Marangu will pick me up at the door next morning and the hotel will send a car to meet me at the airport for only a couple of pounds more than the price of a taxi. As I'll be arriving quite late in the evening, I think it's worth the extra peace of mind to know I won't have to run the gauntlet of taxi touts and con artists that prey on unwary new arrivals. I'll only be spending a few hours in the hotel before grabbing an early breakfast, so I'm not too concerned about the facilities or service as long as the room is clean and comfortable.

So, I'm now fully booked, door to door and all the way to the top of Kilimanjaro and down again to the village. Things get a bit hazy after that, for my final three days in Tanzania, but I'll probably decide where to go after taking advice from other climbers and people I meet during the journey. I'm wary of tourist traps, and much as I would love to visit Ngorongoro crater, I have no desire to chase around in a convoy of minibuses, following harassed lions and cheetahs. I like my wilderness experiences to be wild and well away from hordes of chattering fellow tourists.