DAY 1 – Friday, Jan 18, 2013
DISTANCE: 4.5 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 4 hours (including the washed out road)
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 758 ft (7,742 ft – 9,500 ft)
Once we committed to climb, the offices of African Zoom erupted into a frenzy. Crew and staff showed up out of nowhere and began organizing and checking equipment. I would have loved to help, but they all knew what they were doing. It was a well oiled machine.
We set out at 8:30am, and took a three-hour ride to the Londorossi Gate to sign in and get started. Of the six common routes, we chose the Lemosho route. It is one of the longest route at eight days, and has a high success rate since more time is allocated for acclimatization. It is also regarded as one of the least-crowded and the most beautiful. Bonus!
The porters and guides need to sign in just like the clients, so it took a bit of time to get all the paperwork straightened out. We found it interesting that the crews stood practically on top of each other as they waited to sign in – even more so than we have found in Europe and the Middle East, there is no concept of elbow-room. As we set off to the trailhead, we found that heavy rains a few weeks prior had washed out the road, and the cars couldn’t pass, so our trek began with an extra hour of hiking up the dirt road to the trailhead. Along the way, we passed several Masai, one of the local tribes, who were cultivating potatoes and carrots on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro (“Kili,” as we would come to know it).
We set off on the actual trail with our guide, Tom and our assistant guide, Goodluck. The first day was lots of uphill hiking through deep, red mud (again a holdover of the recent rains). Stephanie didn’t really like the feeling that her boots could get sucked right off, but it was more than made up for by watching Blue Monkeys and Colobus Monkeys (with their huge, bushy tails) playing in the trees above us.
After about three and a half hours, we reached our first camp. The appropriately named Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree) camp was nicely wooded and pleasantly cool after the heat of the African day. It was here that we met our full crew for the first time, and got a sense of just how we – the clients – would be treated for this trek.
There were ten total in our crew: our guide and assistant guide, a cook, an assistant cook, a dedicated waiter/valet, and five other porters – all for just the two of us. No porters are allowed to carry more than 20 kilos (44 pounds). They carried our packs; we only carried day-packs. It made sense that it took a large crew to carry all he gear and food we’d all need, but we found out right away that we would not live quite like the crew. We had a private tent, but there were only two tents for everyone else. Six people slept in the kitchen tent (including the cooks, of course), and four in one other. There was also a mess tent for us, and at every meal, we were joined by either Tom or Goodluck.
When we got to Mti Mkubwa, our tent was set up for us with our packs, sleeping bags and two sleeping pads inside. They set up a couple of camp chairs for us to rest, but I felt a bit weird lounging around while everyone else worked. Instead, Stephanie and I strolled over to an adjacent group to meet some new people. While we were chatting, our waiter Exaud arrived to tell us that our afternoon snack of tea and popcorn was ready. This would become an almost daily ritual (as would many other things), but we were blown away that they had prepared snacks for us and were already hard at work on dinner. After a full meal, we headed off to bed.
DAY 2 – Saturday, Jan 19, 2013
DISTANCE: 5 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 6 hours
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 2000 ft (9,500 ft – 11,500 ft)
Each day began with the same ritual: Exaud would bring us hot tea in our tent at 6:30am. (Tea is supposed to be a good preventative for altitude sickness, so we drank it pretty much whenever it was offered.) At 7:00am, he would bring us two bowls of hot water for washing. At 7:30am, we would have a full, hot breakfast consisting of porridge, eggs, toast, sometimes sausages, fruit and tea or hot chocolate – which Stephanie thoroughly enjoyed. After breakfast we would pack up our belongings, and set off with one or both of our guides.
Our head guide Tom was a confident guy who was definitely aware that he was in charge of this expedition. He was very sociable and extremely knowledgeable about all the plants and animals around us as well as the climate zones. He also knew the altitude for *everything* in both meters and feet off the top of his head.
Goodluck, our assistant guide, was a very helpful and sweet guy. He was also knowledgeable, but his English skills were very basic which made him a bit shy. No worries – this is us we’re talking about. We were able to draw him out.
Today, we started hiking with Tom. The motto of climbing Kili is “pole pole” (po’-lay po’-lay) which means: “slowly, slowly.” It is as much to prevent burning yourself out too quickly as it is to acclimatize to the changing altitude. We hiked from forest to the heather moorlands where the trees became bushes and the sun became hot.
All day long we were passed by porters from other groups carrying their heavy burdens on their heads or balanced on the back of their necks on top of their personal packs. During Day 2, we met Mandy, Emma and Anthony from the U.K. They were taking the same route as us, and we would happen to see them every day going forward.
For this long day of hiking, our cook, Hussein, had packed us a lunch, and we stopped mid-day to eat it on a beautiful plateau where Goodluck caught up with us. Our crew had long since passed us – racing up the mountain like it ain’t no thang. Goodluck had an umbrella in case the sun was too much for us (I told you he was a sweet guy), but we didn’t really need it. Instead, I balanced the folded umbrella on my head, pretending I was a porter, and carried it – hands free – for over half an hour, much to the amusement of all the porters we passed.
As we neared our camp – Shira 1 on the edge of the Shira Plateau – we met a group from Scotland, one of whom was attempting the climb in his kilt. It sounded like a good idea, but I had been forewarned about the temperatures at the summit, so I knew better. At Shira 1, we found ourselves camped right next to Mandy, Emma and Anthony, so we made small talk until it was time for our Evening Ritual™ consisting of washing water, tea and popcorn, and dinner a little while later. It was also here at Shira 1 that we got our first good look at the summit to which we were headed! It had been covered by clouds since we had arrived in Tanzania four days prior.
The next morning, we found there was also an expedition of 31 people at camp. They had a whopping 110 porters and crew with them. As we passed their giant mess tents, we noted that there were plastic flowers on each table. That means some poor porter had to lug fake flowers up and down the mountain just to try and give these people a taste of luxury! (At least they don’t weigh much.) We laughed and decided we were just fine without the fake flowers, and already felt our porters had carried up way more than we needed.
This group (and others) also had private chemical toilets with them. Stephanie and I had decided to “rough it,” which meant that the bathrooms at each camp were tiny wooden shacks with a small square hole in the floor leading down into a not-so-sweet-smelling pit. It was all just another part of the adventure!