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
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
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
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
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.
Thursday, 6 September 2007
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.
Sunday, 26 August 2007
I've had to join the British Mountaineering Council to get myself insured – it was a cheaper option than Snowcard, the only other high altitude insurer I could find. At £80 for the two weeks, it's an expensive business, but does seem to cover every possible eventuality and any sport I might conceivably try, including riding and hot air ballooning (both of which are attractive, though I think ballooning would mean too much travelling for the time available).
Tomorrow, I'll book my Nairobi hotel and the shuttle bus ticket to Marangu. All this from the comfort of my own home. I just love the internet.
I had my last immunisation yesterday, when I paid out £45 to a Hereford doctor to inject me against yellow fever. Interestingly, the certified yellow form I was given is almost identical to the two childhood ones I still have in my 'box of important papers'. So, my time as a human pin-cushion has ended at last.
Yesterday, I also stocked up with snacks and treats for the climb. Food is essential fuel and apparently very important in the fight against AMS. I'm not really accustomed to snacking on the kind of processed sweet bars that will stand up to days of tropical heat and rough and ready transport, so it hasn't been easy to find some that aren't disgusting and sickly-sweet. I've finally decided on a pack of soft but solid, cake-like bars of Nutrigrain Raisin Bakes and Sainsbury's Organic Hazelnut Bars, as well as some Sesame Snaps and loose raisins. I really prefer savoury snacks, so I've also added a pack of lunchbox sized Peperami. Oh, and my secret vices are combined in one bar of coffee flavoured dark Swiss chocolate. If this all seems a bit excessive for six days on the mountain, I should point out I'm expecting to share some of my supplies with guides and porters. I've also been experimenting with fruit-flavoured electrolyte powders (mostly even more disgusting than the over-sweet snacks), and worst of all, the ultimate horror – energy gels. They are foul; horrible tasting and even worse consistency. Research has indicated they're both vital for success on summit-night, but I'm not convinced I'll be able to stomach them if I'm feeling nauseous. I'll pack both with the intention of using them, but suspect they'll end up as part of my final gifts to the guides.
Friday, 17 August 2007
It's now been ten days since the last confirmed case, and I'm allowing myself to be cautiously optimistic enough to book another date for my Yellow Fever vaccination (I cancelled last week because of a heavy cold). If all goes according to plan, I'll be in Tanzania four weeks from tonight.
I've decided to stay overnight with a friend in London, then take the daytime British Airways flight from Heathrow to Nairobi; get a decent night's sleep in a hotel there before taking a shuttle bus to Marangu the following day. The return flight home will be overnight, but that's OK – I need as much rest and sleep as possible before the climb, but it's not so important for the return journey. I considered flying from Nairobi to Kilimajaro airport, but I'd like to travel through Kenya by road again; see how much it's changed since my teenage years. I've never been to Tanzania before, so that part of the journey will be completely new to me. Travelling by road also means no flight transfers, so less excuse for the airlines to lose my precious luggage. I've read too many horror stories of lost trekking kit to risk having to make the climb in borrowed gear. I have no faith in BA's ability to deliver my luggage at the end of the flight, but minimising the risk loads the dice in my favour.
Tuesday, 24 July 2007
The terrible weather we've been having since early June has made training a very wet business, but at least it's tested my waterproof gear. Everything, including boots seems to work well.
I'm narrowing down my flight options and hope to book by the end of the week, although I am concerned about the numerous hazards -- huge security queues at Heathrow can mean missed flights, some airlines are particularly prone to losing luggage and industrial action is now threatened in September by the staff of Virgin Atlantic, one of my preffered options.
Sunday, 1 July 2007
I've been looking at some cheap flight sites for the trip but haven't yet made a concerted effort to finalise a booking. I have to say I'm confused by the choices offered – can't even decide which airport to leave from, let alone whether to fly direct to Kilimanjaro airport or via Nairobi then on by plane or minibus. The choice of airlines seems to go on and on. Kenya Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines, KLM, Virgin Atlantic, Air Emirates, Air Quatr – the list seems endless, though strangely doesn't include British Airways unless I'm willing to pay double the economy fare to travel business class, which, of course, I'm not. That's an irritation because I'm entitled to a 10% discount as a BA shareholder. I've owned the shares for more than 20 years and this is the first time I've had the opportunity to take advantage of the discount.
It looks as if my latest Ebay purchase is going to be a godsend. I'd been thinking of buying a lightweight folding luggage trolley for a while, to make carrying my extra-large holdall easier (sleeping bag, down jacket, sleeping pad etc. take up a lot of space in luggage). Last week, I finally bought one, though it hasn't arrived yet. The Glasgow airport bomb fiasco will no doubt mean vehicles will be banned from dropping off or collecting people from the terminals, so a trolley is presumably now an essential piece of travel kit. I know a lot of modern luggage has built-in wheels (my own suitcase has them), but wheels are a no-no for Kilimanjaro. Kit needs to be packed in soft-sided bags or rucksacks without hard projections so the porters can carry them on their heads.
This week will be the second anniversary since I dislocated my shoulder and it's still not 100% recovered. Lifting even moderate weights at arm's length is difficult – silly things like pouring water from a jug aren't easy, and I recently discovered it hasn't regained as much strength as I'd thought; when I stayed with a friend whose bath is the opposite way around from mine, I had difficulty getting out of the tub. The upper arm muscles that were paralysed by nerve damage have regained feeling and movement, but not full strength despite two years of exercise. It shouldn't affect my climb, but I am really afraid of another dislocation. I've had some success with training myself to fall on my side or shoulder when I slip on steep slopes (a regular occurrence in my muddy fields), rather than the normal reflex of putting out an arm to save myself. It was this reflex that caused the original injury. The possibility of this kind of fall on Kilimanjaro does bother me, and is another hazard to add to altitude sickness and evil bugs from recycled aircraft air. Any one of these could put an end to a year of preparation. I have contingency plans to deal with the last two, and intend to be very careful to avoid falls of any kind.
Tuesday, 19 June 2007
So, bad news first. Last week I sheared my sheep, during which one particularly large and obstreperous ewe kicked my feet from under me. I fell heavily (on top of her, so there is some justice), twisting my least reliable knee in the process. Despite ice and regular applications of 'Deep Heat', it's still stiff and painful if I try anything more strenuous than a gentle stroll. I went back to my regular walks up the farm with my daypack this morning, but it's obviously too soon for the extra weight and I'll have to rest the knee from strenuous exercise for at least a few more days yet. It also means I won't be able to resume my longer distance walks this weekend at a time when I should be increasing, not decreasing my exercise. I may try swimming as a rather unsatisfactory substitute later this week.
The next bad news is that my joy at discovering I'd only need three injections for the trip was short-lived and mistaken. I arrived at the travel clinic today, expecting to be given the single Hepatitis A/Typhoid jab, only to be told by the nurse that she'd just received news that Hepatitis B is now also a serious risk and I'd need three more jabs for that as well, plus a booster next year. So, Typhoid and Yellow Fever are now on hold until the Hepatitis course is complete in a month's time. Seems it's fortunate I started the medical preparations in good time. It's a nuisance because the clinic is held mid-afternoon, which really takes up a full half-day every time I have to attend. I could combine some of the jabs on the same day, but I'm wary of giving my immune system too much to deal with at one time. I think two or three different vaccines are enough at one sitting.
And now for the good news: I HAVE BOOTS! Yes, a pair of Meindl Borneo Pros, complete with new Sorbothane insoles. I just love Ebay. The boots have been used, but not mistreated. and are very comfortable. The insoles are a real bonus, as I've tried many different compounds but never found anything with enough cushioning under the balls of my feet – I suffer from friction and heat build-up after a few miles with most insoles. The Sorbothane seems to provide enough cushioning to prevent the movement that causes friction, so I'm hoping this is the answer to my prayers. The boots were ridiculously cheap at £33 including postage – the insoles alone cost £15 to buy new. I've saved myself around £100 on this deal and got the best boots available at any price.
So, I now have all the clothing and equipment I need for the trip. The only things left to buy are last minute oddments of medication and toiletries. Oh, and the air fare, of course, but that's another story.
Tuesday, 5 June 2007
Today, I went to my doctor's travel clinic to learn just how much of a pincushion I will need to become in the course of the next few weeks. I was pleasantly surprised to learn I will be punctured less than expected. I had one jab today to bring my tetanus, diptheria and polio immunity up to date and have another appointment in two weeks for a combined Hepatitis A and Typhoid jab. The administering nurse assured me Typhoid vaccine no longer causes the painful swelling and illness I still vividly remember from my childhood. I'll need to go to a larger health centre in Hereford for my Yellow Fever injection, which is easier than I'd hoped. I remember having to travel all the way to a Birmingham hospital with a department of infectious and tropical medicine for my first Yellow Fever jab when I was nine years old. I suppose people travel a lot more now, so vaccines for tropical diseases are more readily available. The jab will apparently cost me about £50.
While I was in London recently, I hit the Covent Garden area, trying on numerous different brands of boots in four of the big outdoors stores. After several more hours going through numerous Salomon, Raichle, Asolo, Brasher, Zamberlan, Scarpa and Berghaus models, I knew without any doubt I had to go back to one of the first boots I'd tried in my local shops, months ago. The only brand that is light and supportive enough for the Kilimanjaro summit that fits me comfortably is Meindl, specifically the Women's Borneo Pro MFS and the Women's Air Revolution 2.0. I'm going to go for the Borneo – both boots are similarly priced (i.e. expensive, of course), but the leather model will presumably last longer than the more hi-tech fabric one. The Borneo isn't Goretx-lined, so will be a lot more comfortable for my hot-running feet, and almost as waterproof thanks to the near seamless construction and oiled leather. I expect my feet to be drier than my fellow-climbers' encased in steamy waterproof membrane. With extra thermal sock liners for summit night my feet should be warm enough, but I intend to take a pair of chemical footwarmers be sure of remaining frostbite free in the glacier zone.
Tuesday, 15 May 2007
The hotel is also attractive to me because it's old-fashioned and familiar from my youthful days in East Africa – I spent many happy weekends and holidays in very similar surroundings. It may lack the luxuries of the big modern hotels in Arusha, but it's a family run business with a good reputation as a base for climbing Kilimanjaro. Yes, I'm going back to my childhood for this trip. I've booked in for two nights before and two nights after the six-day climb up the Rongai route, which will begin on 16th September. A day spent lazing by the pool and exploring the village area before starting the climb should get rid of any lingering travel fatigue, and has the added advantage of some mild altitude acclimatisation (apparently the key to a successful summit attempt), as Marangu is situated at nearly 6000 feet on the lower slopes of the mountain.
Many climbing operators pay off their porters and guides on the morning of the final day's trekking, then bus the trekkers back in the afternoon to a nearby hotel for a quick wash and brush up before transferring them straight to the airport for their return flight home. I much prefer the idea of the Marangu Hotel's way of ending the climb – everyone returns to the hotel for an informal party, where the trekkers can thank the staff in the traditional way by buying them drinks and giving tips and gifts to those who've been particularly helpful. There's apparently a singsong involved as well – it all sounds a lot of fun and a good way to end a hard few days of trekking. Another day of lounging by the pool or playing croquet should help to dispel some aches and pains before the enforced discomfort of a long flight home, although I'm working on the idea of adding a day or two's safari onto the end of my trip. It seems a waste to travel so far and not take advantage of all the locality has to offer.
Now the big decision has been made, I have to start researching flights, either to Nairobi or Kilimanjaro airport. I think it will probably be a straight choice between convenience and cost.
Friday, 27 April 2007
Training has suffered, along with blogging and searching for a trekking group, during lambing. Lack of time and energy meant several missed swimming sessions and only one or two climbs up the farm each week with my weighted daypack. However, I think the numerous daily walks up the lambing field, often carrying twenty pounds of sheep feed or a couple of new-born lambs was mostly adequate replacement for my regular training regime.
I'm now in the process of buying a bicycle, which should increase my range of exercise. I gave up cycling years ago when I first moved up here into the hills; my old three-speed bike just wasn't capable of getting me up our precipitous Welsh slopes. Now, I've decided to invest in a mountain bike after borrowing one from a friend and discovering the joys of multiple low gears and suspension forks. Cycling has come a long way since I last sat on my trusty old three-speed. I've been bewildered by the choice of styles available – do I need a pure mountain bike, a trekking model or a hybrid? I've finally whittled down the choices to two models of 'comfort' mountain bikes, and will buy whichever I can get for the best price. Cycling should help build up leg muscle and give a good cardio-vascular workout without putting strain on my knees. I really need to save those knees for Kilimanjaro. Last week, I finally found another neoprene knee brace at reasonable cost, so I now have braces for both knees ready for the Kilimanjaro descent.
My new biometric passport arrived this week, complete with computer chip and dire warnings against damaging the chip. As letting it get too hot, too cold, bent or scratched will all cause potential damage, I can't see how it's going to last the lifetime of the little cardboard booklet. I do like the birds as passport wallpaper, though. Especially the red kite and the godwit, both a lot more recognisable than my own photo, so distorted by bad scanning (the passport office's work, not mine) and superimposed holographs that even my family and best friends wouldn't recognise me.
Tuesday, 3 April 2007
Lambing has begun in earnest this week. I got little sleep last night, having slept on the sofa with my alarm clock set to go off every hour. Several freezing trips to the sheep shed eventually only resulted in one lamb being born at 5am. More sleepless nights are likely over the next three weeks, which will make it much harder to keep up the exercise regime. I'm still undecided about swimming tomorrow even if I feel able to leave the sheep for a couple of hours.
My equipment-buying spree is almost finished, as I now have everything I'll need for the trip other than small last minute purchases of medicines and snacks for the trek. Everything, that is, except the most important item of all – a good pair of boots. I've tried on the entire footwear section of three outdoor shops, including all the top brands and most popular lines with very limited success. They're all too loose, too tight, too narrow, too wide or just plain uncomfortable. The only pair that felt good on my feet were Meindl Borneo Pros – eye-wateringly expensive, of course – but I'm concerned they might be too heavy for my knees. I'm not convinced my knees are up to the task of dragging three pounds of leather up Kilimanjaro, especially on summit day. Lightweight fabric boots won't give the strength and support necessary for the summit descent, so I'm still hoping to find a suitable pair of leather boots. Time is not on my side, though, as they'll need a breaking in period of at least a few weeks before I leave for Tanzania.
I'm also having passport problems. My old one is due for renewal in August, so I sent it off together with the appropriate form, already filled in online and posted back to me by the passport office for signing. I've now received a letter from them saying my photograph has been rejected for being too light. As I paid £4 to have it taken in a booth in my local post office, I'm not pleased. I'm even less pleased with the replacement I had taken on Monday in the same booth (now fitted with proper blackout curtains, presumably in response to complaints from rejected customers). The original wasn't exactly flattering, but the most recent version makes me look like an extra in a horror film. At least they can't claim it's too light, even if it bears no resemblance to me.
And finally, I'm having no success in finding a trek operator that can give me the Kilimanjaro itinerary I want unless I'm willing to go alone rather than as part of a group. More on that subject later this week.
Tuesday, 20 March 2007
I'm thinking of entering the Black Mountain Roundabout in April; 6 peaks and 25 miles of mountain walking with a vertical ascent of 6500ft during the course of a ten-hour day. If I do enter, it will be with the aim of completing the course. I'm still uncertain of my stamina and ability – I know I can reach the half-way point without difficulty, and I'm fairly certain I could push myself to the 20 mile checkpoint. I don't know if I could keep up the pace, though. The walk begins between 8 am and 9 am, and anyone who hasn't reached the 20-mile point by 4 pm will be retired by the organisers. 2.5 mph may be slow on level ground but over rough, steep terrain for eight hours it's quite a pace.
The final five miles will be a killer – straight up 1800ft before descending back down to the start/finishing point. I'm not at all confident of being able to do that at the end of a long, tiring day's walking. I have another month of training to prepare, although entries need to be in by the end of March. I'll take as many longer walks as I can fit in before the deadline. I'll try for at least one 12 mile timed walk in the Black Mountains in the next month to see how I might cope with the pace, although that might be difficult once lambing starts.
Monday, 19 March 2007
Yesterday, I attempted to climb Pen y Fan, 2906 ft, the highest peak of the Brecon Beacons. I hadn't been up there before, and decided to take advantage of the good weather before lambing starts and I become confined to the farm for the next three or four weeks. It was further than I remember, driving to the main footpath at the Storey Arms near Libanus, so it was later than I intended when I finally set off up the long trail across the mountainside. I soon discovered it's really not my sort of walk – the path is wide and paved with rocks or gravel for most of the route to the summit, and very popular with walkers even on a sunny winter afternoon; definitely not a wilderness experience. I think it is probably a good miniature simulation of what I can expect on Kilimanjaro, however; the rocky terrain -- so different from the mud and bogs I've become used to -- the long, slow haul up the slope and of course, the very fickle weather. It was the weather that beat me, for just like Kilimanjaro, the Beacons form their own microclimate. They may be tiny in comparison with Africa's tallest mountain, but they are still frequently shrouded in cloud while the rest of South Wales basks in bright sunshine.
Yesterday, there was only a hint of cloud around the peaks when I set off, but by the time I reached the ridge about an hour after setting out, visibility was reduced to a few yards and a vicious wind blew hard across the stunted vegetation. There was an intersection of several paths on the crest of the ridge, and without any landmarks showing through the cloud, I had no way of knowing which one led to Pen y Fan. Trying to read my map was hopeless in the gale force wind – it would have shredded if I'd even tried to open it. The right hand path looked as though it was rising more than the two alternatives, so I decided to keep heading uphill in the hope it would lead to the highest point. I persevered for about half an hour, during which time the wind became fiercer and the cliff top path became rougher underfoot before I decided it was simply too dangerous to continue. Both the dog and I were in real danger of being blown over the edge. I have no idea how far down the cliffs reached; the drop was a bottomless void lost in swirling cloud. So, we headed back to the path leading down to the Storey Arms, passing other hooded figures that loomed out of the mist, heads down, with a grunt of acknowledgement as they struggled past us against the wind.
D the dog hated it. He hated the wind, the rocky path underfoot, and most of all, he hated the numerous other dogs we met on the paths. Only the ludicrous sight of a pug in a billowing Goretex jacket cheered him up for a few moments – he jeered, but I suspect his reaction was partly fuelled by envy. That wind was bitterly cold. A few hundred feet down from the ridge, we emerged into sunshine again and we both cheered up until some hill runners in T-shirts and trainers went down past us at high speed. Now that is demoralising when you're muffled up in a hooded jacket and carefully placing your feet amongst the rocks.
I used my walking poles for the first time during the descent. I must admit I've always thought of them as an affectation and been rather scathing in the past, but research has convinced me they're essential for Kilimanjaro. I was given a pair as a Christmas present, and thought Pen y Fan might be a suitable testing ground. It felt strange at first, but they're very similar to ski poles, so I quickly became used to them, and have to admit they were very effective. My knees didn't suffer at all during the hour-long descent. But I think a wrist brace might be a good idea in future when I'm using the poles – another old minor injury began to nag during the descent. At this rate, my rucksack will be overflowing with supports for all my damaged joints when I head for Africa. And on the subject of rucksacks – I received some very strange looks from other walkers who weren't impressed by my bulging daysack. They obviously thought I had everything but the kitchen sink in there, and they weren't far wrong; am I a complete idiot to be hauling 15lbs of ballast up a mountain?
The really annoying thing about yesterday's walk is that when I later looked at my map, I discovered I'd been within half a mile and only 150 vertical feet from the summit of Pen y Fan when I took that wrong path on the ridge. I'd actually walked further than if I'd climbed to the top of the Beacons, but had seen nothing of the usually spectacular views across the country and had no real sense of achievement. I also forgot to take my pedometer, so can only make a rough guess at how far I walked. Oh well, the exercise was useful, I suppose
Tuesday, 13 March 2007
Saturday, 10 March 2007
Friday, 9 March 2007
Went for an eight mile walk last weekend up Aberedw rocks and over Llandeilo Hill , which is a good simulation of the kind of terrain I can expect on Kilimanjaro – some steep sections and a long, slow climb of about three miles.
Discovered I'd made a bad mistake by only buying one knee brace when I was in London last November. Lilywhite's were selling off Lonsdale neoprene braces at half price, but I had no way of knowing if they would be effective for me at the time. So, I gave in to my mean streak and didn't risk getting one for each knee. Big mistake. I used the brace for last week's walk, putting it on my 'bad' knee (i.e. the one that's given trouble all my adult life and had surgery some years ago), and had no pain at all – the knee was fine both during and after the walk. My 'good' knee (which hasn't been all that good since it was hit by a charging ram fifteen months ago) hurt during the descent and then stiffened up horribly during the evening and following morning. The pain wore off in the afternoon, but it's obvious I need another brace before tackling any more long descents. The Neoprene works really well, giving plenty of support without rucking behind the knee. It's warm and comfortable to wear, and wicks moisture away from the skin to the surface. Highly recommended. I'll admit I was biased against it since having to wear a neoprene sling 24/7 for three very hot weeks in July two years ago, but this brace has converted me.
Thursday, 22 February 2007
Boots were selling off strong winter sunscreen with a 'two for the price of one' offer in Brecon, so I bought a tube of factor 25 cream and a stick of white factor 50 which should protect me from the high altitude glacier/sun combination. I tend to go in for the boiled lobster look in even moderate sun, so I'm used to keeping well covered during the summer. It will be long sleeved shirts with turned up collars and a wide brimmed hat on Kilimanjaro for me whenever the sun appears. I thought it might be difficult to find skiing sunscreen later in the year, so grabbed it while there was still some available. It was a bit of a gamble, as my skin can react badly to some brands – I once bought an expensive cream that was supposedly for 'sensitive skins' and was forced to race for the nearest tap to wash it off before my face fried. It felt as though I'd rubbed on battery acid. A small test area has shown, this evening, that I'm not sensitive to Soltan Extreme Sports sunscreen, so that's good news. I also began stocking up my travelling first aid kit with a few bits and pieces – gel blister plasters and some silver dressings, which are supposed to be good at preventing infection in minor wounds. As hygiene standards are necessarily lowered during the trek (no bath or shower for at least a week, and wet wipes the trekker's best friends), infection must be a danger from cuts and scrapes.
I was hoping to set a time of year for my trip last weekend, but things didn't work out. My sister has volunteered to cover for me on the farm while I'm away, and will need to organise her time off work. We're hoping to get together in a couple of weeks to work out the optimum timing for both of us. My windows of opportunity are quite small. It isn't possible to leave the farm during January and February, supposedly the best time of year for climbing Kilimanjaro. The area's two rainy seasons can make for miserable climbing conditions (and I see enough rain here, thank you very much), so it will have to be either during June/early July (which isn't ideal because that's shearing time), or late Septenber/early October, which also has associated problems. I think we'll just have to pick a date and work around it.
Sunday, 18 February 2007
I'm also hoping to do a temporary swap with someone within the family to get hold of a pair of lightweight pocket binoculars. My own pair of 10x25 so-called pocket Tascos weigh eleven ounces, which may not sound heavy, but is a lot when every ounce counts and has to be carried up 19000 feet. And for my final optical acquisition, I've already bought a pair of Cebe snow glasses with side shades for sun protection – last year's model at a quarter the original price (£15) from TKMaxx a few weeks ago. Very snazzy, even if they are considered outdated by the fashion scene. It was about time I bought a new pair of decent sunglasses anyway – I've been using a really cheap and ineffective pair for several years after losing two pairs of quality ones in quick succession. Funny how it's never the cheap ones that go missing.
I'm working on transferring my equipment list to spreadsheet form I can upload for access via this blog. There are general lists on the websites of most trekking outfits and plenty of personal lists posted on blogs by people who've already climbed the mountain, but one more may still be useful for anyone thinking of making the trip. Although the basic essentials are universal, there are differences in emphasis between individual preferences. Despite the weight limits for portering climbers' equipment (15kg per trekker for most companies) and daypack (limited only by the individual climber's ability to carry it), the list of essentials is surprisingly long. Having to prepare for temperatures ranging from equatorial African to below 20 degrees F means an awful lot of kit. I'm particularly fortunate to have been lent the two most expensive items by friends. An arctic grade sleeping bag and Thermarest mattress would have added considerable cost to my preparations. The sleeping bag has already been up Kilimanjaro once and proved to be well up to the task, so will be on familiar territory. The cold weather gear I've been buying -- Ebay is my best friend -- is already paying for itself by keeping me warm around the farm. Wish I'd discovered technical thermal underwear long ago.
Thursday, 15 February 2007
Once I hit the Buff's homepage I was hooked. Seeing all the possible ways of wearing that flimsy bit of tubing, I just knew it would be perfect for my Kilimanjaro trip. Scarf, balaclava, hat, sunshade – it's so much more versatile than any silk square and even more comfortable, if that's possible. The vast selection of colours and designs means there's something to suit all tastes and there's even a fleecy option for the really cold weather. I did some more research (i.e. overtime for Google and Ebay) and discovered there are much cheaper alternatives available, although in disappointingly limited and rather dreary designs. The the Oxford Comfy comes in packs of three for less than the cost of one Buff. The cheapest original Buffs I could find via Google are at Sporting Trianglewhich just happens to be in Hereford where I had to go yesterday to buy tractor spares. So, I am now £10.99 poorer and the proud owner of one Indu Mango Buff, a tasteful little number with a vaguely oriental design in rusty red on a beige background. I've worn it all day today, except for my swimming session, and have to admit it's the most comfortable and practical neckwear I've ever worn. I suspect it will be almost worn out by the time I leave for Africa, although they are claimed to be just about indestructible. It's an indulgence at a time when I'm trying to eliminate frivolous spending, but it will get a lot of use. No, I'm not convinced, either, but I love it just the same.
Thursday, 8 February 2007
I've been for longer walks in the hills some weekends and plan to do this at least once every two weeks. Last Saturday, a beautiful crisp sunny day, I climbed Lord Hereford's Knob and Rhos Dhurion, two minor peaks in the Black Mountains, a distance of about six miles. The views were stupendous across three counties of England and Wales, with the Brecon Beacons and minor hills rising like blue islands from the white haze of mist that covered the lower lying ground. The scene reminded me of a chinese painting, with the silver ribbon of the river Wye winding between the hills. The ground remained hard all day, thawing only where the sun's rays had fallen since early morning. It was slippery going downhill whether the ground was soft or frozen, ice and mud being almost equally treacherous underfoot. When I looked at the map on my return home, I was slightly disappointed to discover I'd only climbed a total of 1000 vertical feet during the course of the day.
The plan is to increase both mileage and height of climb each time I take a weekend walk. I also intend to go swimming once a week, although it is rather time-consuming to make the 24 mile round trip to the nearest swimming pool. I may join a gym for some upper body strength training, but that's another 24 miles to consider.
Today's news that British Airways is introducing a one piece luggage limit next week is a blow to my plan to take warm clothing to Tanzania for the porters who carry the climber's gear up Kilimanjaro. I'd more or less decided not to fly direct to Kilimanjaro with KLM via Amsterdam because of the history of lost luggage on this route. Climbing without all my laboriously gathered expensive kit would definitely not enhance the experience, so my preferred route would be to fly directly to Nairobi with BA and then take a shuttle bus to Moshi. Being limited to one bag means I won't have much room for extra fleece jackets and trousers. Luckily, I'd chosen a frameless daypack which fits within BA's cabin baggage limits -- a deliberate decision to sacrifice a little comfort on the climb for the certainty of having the real essentials safely with me at all times.
I haven't yet decided upon a date for the Big Climb, but will have to work out my itinerary quite soon. And my progress towards the goal of climbing to the roof of Africa will be regularly posted on this blog from now on.