Tag Archives: Africa

Kili Day 2: More Rain, More Climbing

Hello again, and welcome to the wet, wild African adventures of ActiveSteve and Cantrailia! The blog post title pretty much sums up the entirety of what this post will be about, but when have you ever known me to keep things short and sweet? Of course I have a few more things to share with you about the day, so you’ll just have to read the whole thing anyway. To get you started, I of course once again urge you to check out the map that I made of the day’s trek, as well as the set of pictures posted over on flickr. When you are satisfied that you have an idea of what we as a group were up against for this particular leg of the journey come on back here and read the rest of the post.

Now that we’d gotten the first day of hiking on Kili under our belts, we were really starting to get into the swing of things. As alluded to in the last post, the camp routines were pretty much the same every day. We’d first get woken up by a helper porter, and would then get a bit of warm water to wash up if we’d like (ok, I’ll be honest now… I seldom did :-). After that, it was the stuffing game while we packed up our sleeping bags and mattresses and all our gear into the duffel bags for the porters. Once packed, we’d head over to the mess tent for breakfast, dropping off our bags on the way, so that they could be picked up by the porters who would take off early for the next camp. Breakfast was a pretty quick meal, with a variety of things like porridge (I got tired of that pretty early, but Deborah seemed more than willing to eat my share, and Sarah seemed to like it as well… I don’t know about these Aussie’s and their runny porridge). We’d also sometimes get treats like eggs, bacon, then of course toast and plenty of warm drinks. I took to drinking mainly tea all day when we had warm drinks. Then, we’d be given some trail snacks (pack of cookies and a little bit of chocolate).

Once the meal was consumed, we’d do any last minute gearing up, put on our daypacks, and basically get in line to start the trek for the day. Naiman would give us a short briefing about how we’d spend our day, then it was time to start the Kili march. On this particular day, we left camp somewhere between 8 and 8:30 in the morning. Yup, since we went to bed early, it was no problem getting up before 7am each day, even for me 🙂

Today’s hike looked like it would be a fun one. We were continuing our gradual journey up the mountain, starting out at Simba Camp at about 2,600m, and wrapping up at Kikelewa Camp (where Kikelewa Cave, aka 3rd cave, is located) at 3,700m. Along the way we’d be passing by a few caves (inspirationally known as 1st and 2nd caves), and also climb out of the forested area into the higher alpine with more modest undergrowth. In theory, this meant we might be able to see more of the mountain today. Of course, that would require the sky to not be full of clouds. Umm. Yeah. So, we had clouds. More time to just enjoy the walking, right? Well, I loved it for sure, but it’s always more interesting to have good views. My main view would consist of watching the heels of the guide in front to make sure I didn’t walk on them 🙂

Although things were cloudy, the walk was quite enjoyable, and we took our time moving along, stopping once or twice on our way to 2nd cave, which is where we’d stop for lunch. Some groups stop for the day at 2nd cave, in order to acclimatize. However, as a result of our advanced hike on Meru, we merely stopped there for lunch then kept going. Hopefully that would mean a more thinned out camp this night. We got to 2nd cave in about 3 hours. Pretty quick in comparison to the other groups, and as it turns out, that would be a good thing. Our awesome porters had set up the mess tent and cooking tent (along with our ‘toilet tent’) and were busy preparing our lunch. We took off our packs and moved into the tent.

That was of course pretty much the precise moment it started to rain. We felt lucky that we could eat lunch dry and comfortable, but realized many other groups wouldn’t have that good fortune. We hoped it would be quickly over, but the rain continued throughout our meal. Even though it was almost 2 hours before we left again, the rain hadn’t abated. Of course, we’d all donned our wet weather gear in the tent before heading out, so once again, we were fairly comfortable. We had about another 2.5 hours of hiking in the afternoon ahead of us, and were optimistic that the rain would break before camp.

Oh dear, how wrong we were. The rain seemed to intensify with every meter of elevation we gained. I truly could not believe just how hard it was raining at one point. In fact, this was the one part of the trip where I [only momentarily] lost it with respect to the weather. We were trudging along the river, err, I mean path, and the rain seemed to hit me with all it was worth. Well, I unleashed a stream of invectives generally aimed at mother nature in my head. Finally, I screamed “Bring it on!” as my last act of defiance for what I thought was unfair treatment of us. However, at the end of the day, this was all great character building. I knew the peak would be that much sweeter after the suffering we had to endure to get there. Reminds me of the latin slogan we had in my high school. “Palma non Sine Pulvere” which we translated to “No Success without Struggle”. Full description of this Latin proverb found here.

All this rain had other consequences as well. Normally, on this trek, we’d cross over a few little mountain streams. You know, the kind you just step over. Well, due to the heavy rains, and the fact that it all flows down from the top, we were faced on a couple occasions with very swollen rivers. Had the water risen much more, we’d have almost no chance of crossing. As it was, on one of these dicey rivers (almost at the camp), one of our dear party (Mike), managed to actually in and get totally soaked. He was lucky it wasn’t worse. He also witnessed a poor porter struggling to cross, and ending up dropping the load he was carrying into the fast-moving water. Completely soaked, he couldn’t even lift if out alone, so Mike helped him. I would imagine that some poor weary hiker received a rather wet surprise when they got their gear at camp!

Once over these rivers, we finally made it into camp, and rain finally seemed to let up just a little bit. Of course, our dear porters had done the unenviable job of needing to choose a camping area which wasn’t flooded, then proceed to get the tents up without getting them totally soaked on the inside. They were [mainly] successful, and for that I am grateful. We chucked the goods into the tent and crawled in, soggy, to try and relax for a little bit. It was then that we finally received just the slightest concession from the mountain goods. As we were in the tent, feeling miserable about the weather, and wondering if we could endure it for another several days, the rain stopped completely. What’s more, the sun came out! I’m talking about full-on sun! The kind that had me racing out of the tent, and proceeding to spread gear all over available rocks and shrubs in an attempt to dry it. My boots were priority one, as they were 100% non-waterproof 🙂

We were also treated to a splendid view of both Mount Kilimanjaro, as well as Mount Mawenzi (the secondary peak to Kili). It was a truly spiritually uplifting time, and made me feel much better about the hiking. All was quickly forgotten as we warmed up and dried out. The tea and snacks tasted that much better, and were enjoyed while wandering around camp a bit snapping shots. Mike was particularly happy for this change as a result of his recent unwanted swim. Although clouds and fog did roll in intermittently for the remainder of the day, the rain stayed away. We had our supper, and discussed the next day’s itinerary. Things were so nice that Deb, Jody and I even pulled out the Battleship again and played a bit of that venerable navy strategy game for a while. If memory serves me correctly, this would have been the only game that I lost on the entire trip, although we never actually completed it!

Eventually, it was time to crawl into our bags and sleep. After all, at 3,700m, the air gets a little brisk at night, so it made sense to just go to bed. Especially after the porters bring you your drinking water for the next day. Since they boil all the water, we got nice hot bottles to stick in our sleeping bags to keep our feet warm. Nice little fringe benefit. Before actually going to bed, I waited for the really bright, near-full moon to pop up in the sky. I took a few interesting shots of Kili and Marwenzi using the special ‘night sky’ feature on my camera. They turned out pretty cool.

All in all, the ups and downs of that day make it a pretty memorable one. I was already looking forward to what the next day might bring us (although I’d be really glad if they brought me relief to the GI issues I’d been having all day…). My thought of the is probably fairly easy to guess. Rain will always pass. So too will suffering and misery. You just have to stick it out. Pretty similar to what I thought on Meru, but crystallized even further on this day. See you all tomorrow, another bang-up day on the mountain!

Once More into the Belly of the Moist Beast

Good evening friends. For those of you who maybe checked in yesterday for the next blog post. My apologies. I took the day off 🙂 It was pretty full day for me, and I just didn’t have the time to write a post. I started my day with a 21.1k run, then quickly had some soup and crackers before heading out for the afternoon to do snowshoeing. Once home from that, I had only an hour to get sorted and ready to head out with friends for supper and to watch a band. I was in no shape to write when I got home 🙂 At any rate, I’m back, and you all deserve to hear about the start of the next phase of our African Adventures. Day 1 on Mount Kilimanjaro taking the Rongai Route. My next week’s worth of posts will be all about that, as it is how we finished our trip. Of course, you are invited now to check out the map of day 1 that I made, as well as the set of pictures to accompany that. Then, read on and let me tell you all how that day unfolded.

The day started, as always, with a frenzy of last-minute preparations at the hotel. I had put some stuff our early once again hoping to dry it out a bit more, and now had to stuff the rest of my gear into the bags for the porters. We also had to sort and pack all the other stuff which wasn’t coming with us. We were able to leave that bag at the hotel, and would be picking it up after we came off the mountain. So, off to the lobby to meet the rest of the crew and meet our transport to the trail head. The route we were taking actually started on the other side of the mountain, so we first had to drive a way to get there on back roads. I think the trip was supposed to take around 2 hours. I was expecting a regular shuttle bus to pick us up, but soon saw there were two safari-type vehicles instead. Hmm, wonder why that is?

The reason became abundantly clear quite early in the drive. For starters, we were taking dirt roads, which were twisty and hilly. However, the clincher is the fact that we’d seen so much rain in the past few days. The road? Well, it was a mess to put it mildly. Massive mud holes, washouts, and just general nastiness. We saw more than one car that wasn’t able to make it up some hills on account of spinning out. Our 4-wheel drive vehicles luckily were up for the task Thank goodness. Along the drive, it was Sunday, and we saw the humanity that is Africa once again. Bad roads or not, everyone had donned their Sunday best and were doing their Christian best to get to the churches. When cars couldn’t make it, I think people just decided to hoof it. I tell you what, they are nothing if not dedicated.

So while the actual drive to the trail start could have taken up to 4 or 5 hours (we were warned), we still managed to make it in about 2.5 hours. Can you hazard a guess what sort of weather we had there? Does the word ‘rain’ mean anything to you? Yup, amazingly, even though during most of the drive there we had blazing sun (I’d even gone so far as to totally cover myself in sunscreen in anticipation of the hike. Well, in the last 20 or so minutes of the ride, the skies clouded over, and we had a distinct feeling there might be rain. By the time we got out of the trucks, the heavens opened up once more.

Now, we were safe and sound under a ‘tourist shelter’, but unfortunately, all the porters (and incidentally our gear) had no such luck, and had to get themselves organized, weighed in, and all that good stuff in an absolute downpour. Once again we all pulled out our trusty rain gear and covered ourselves from head to toe. We’d obviously be waiting a little bit, as there were quite a few groups starting out, so the paperwork and gear checks would take time. We passed the time by eating our boxed lunches (it was after noon by now), and discussing, what else, the weather. We’d been semi-assured that although it would rain all day on Mount Meru, on Kili, it would usually only rain for about an hour. Reassuring words, but I wasn’t about to bet the farm on it given the last hiking we’d done!

Time continued to march on, and the rain seemed to actually intensify just to make sure we knew who was the real boss of the mountain. Point taken. However, by this point, we just wanted to get going, and no one in our group seemed terribly concerned about the prospect of rain any longer. The only twist this time is that we’d be in tents for the next 5 nights, so there are a whole range of other ‘challenges’ associated with this rain issue. Eventually, Naiman and Richard wandered over, introducing us to the two other assistant guides who’d be with us the rest of trip: Eli and Julius. These two would hike up with us today, while the others dealt with the porters and got our camp sorted out for when we arrived.

With that, the journey commenced. For this day, we’d be hiking from the trailhead up to Simba camp. This hike would bring us from 2000m to 2775m. So in the grand scheme, we weren’t climbing that much nor climbing too high. It was basically an introductory day to the mountain for us. Most other people taking the route would not have hiked Meru in preparation, so we felt a little smug as we departed, as we felt we had some good ‘experience’ already. In truth, it certainly did help us, as everyone felt fine and had no troubles with a nice steady hike. Now, we certainly weren’t burning our way up the slopes of course, but we just felt ‘good’. Once again, the temptation existed to try and step up the pace, but knowledge helped here, and I decided to just be content with our guide setting a languid pace.

Our terrain for the day? Well apart from the fact that it was rather muddy, it was a nice forest stroll for the most part. Of course we were steadily climbing, but it was a very gentle slope which made it easy. We only stopped briefly a couple times on the way up, and those were just for snacks and nature breaks. We were also fortunate in that about a half hour after we set out from the gate, the rain abated, and we were able to peel off our warm rain gear layer, which was a good thing, given how warm it gets. We also got to walk right through a really large community farming area on our way. Basically, the locals hike up the trails to get to the large clear cut are which they have developed into extensive crops of corn, potatoes, and beans. We walked past several of these farmers on their way down from the fields. It looked like a hell of a job to keep it producing, with all the growth around the area. I would imagine clearing it in the first place with only hand tools was a pretty painful process. However, it produces good food for the people.

All told, the first day of hiking really only took us about 3.5 hours. We were extremely happy to still have dry weather at the camp, so we were at least able to get our gear and put it in the tent before the rains started up again. Oh, and yes, they basically did start up again right away. As we were getting set to have our snacks in the mess tent, we could already feel some drops coming down. By the time we had our supper, we knew the rains would be pelting our tents in the evening. Well, at least we’d know sooner rather than later if these tents would be ‘kili worthy’. The only other thing we did that day was an extra little ‘acclimatization hike’ up the mountain a little further. Basically, it was just climbing an extra 300m or so, then coming back to camp. I’m not sure what the thinking is behind that, but I was willing to do basically anything to ensure the best chances at success on summit day.

We also quickly found out up here that camp life is a pretty simple existence. You might as well hike up the mountain slowly, because arriving at camp generally leaves you with very little to do. Basically, you spend your time getting settled in your tent, and eating. Once those basic things are done, you turn in. We were in bed that night by 9pm I think. After all, there is no light really, it’s a touch chilly, and the mess tent needs to be cleared out for the cook and other staff to deal with. You all know I’d much rather be the nighthawk, but the truth is, I had little choice but to try and sleep. After all, we’d be up early the next morning anyway.

One of the annoyances, at least at camp 1, was the fact that all evening, new groups seemed to be filing in. While we had chosen a spot supposedly off by itself, later on, there were at least 2 or 3 other groups in our vicinity. Naiman wasn’t very happy about that as he said you can’t trust any other groups. He advised us to keep our money / valuables on our person, and even posted a couple porters in the area of our tents to keep an eye on things. In his view, it was too many people However, the Tanzanian gov’t doesn’t limit the numbers on the mountain, as it is an excellent source of revenue. So they all just cram in there where they can. I guess a lot of other people also wanted to start the new year on the roof of Africa!

As your narrator is no curled up in a sleeping bag in his tent in this story, I’ll close off the post here. The coming days hold more drama, so keep checking back for the rest of the climb up (and down) the mountain. My thought of the day: None. I’m drawing a blank. It was a completely normal day for the first one on Kili. So I won’t make up anything just to sound philosophical! Later, alligators.

Moving Mountains in One Day

Well hello there loyal readers. Thanks for stopping on by. I realize that yesterday’s blog post must have been a bit of a slog, but you have to understand that for me, it was as much a slog getting through that day, and then having to write all about it, so you’ll just have to deal with it 🙂 On the plus side, I think I should be able to keep today’s post to a manageable length, on account that it was more of a transition day for us. Yup, although we were still on Mount Meru, we had a relatively short hike out followed by a night in a new hotel to re-pack and prepare for the penultimate part of the trip: our climb up Kilimanjaro! That’s right, no rest days in between, off one mountain, and onto the next one the following morning. Hence my post title. Clever, non? At any rate, to start the post off as I usually do, I invite you all to check out the map that I made of the days’ hike, as well as the set of pictures posted over on flickr. Once done, head back here and read my narrative for the day.

After a really nice restful night (nothing quite like about 15 hours of hiking at altitude and a bit of wine to make you sleepy!), we awoke to a fairly reasonable day. And when I say reasonable, I mean that it looked like we’d get rain, but that it wouldn’t be too severe. Time would tell. As per usual, we got up and quickly packed all our possessions into our pack in order to hand them off to the porters, who tend to get a start before we do on the hike. From there, off to the mess hall to get our morning grub and hike briefing.

Emotions at breakfast were a bit of a mixed bag. After reflecting on the relative failure we experienced at the summit the day before, the group had some fairly strong opinions of the quality of our trekking experience so far. There was no shortage of talking amongst ourselves about everything from the food, the pacing, as well as the quality of ‘guiding’ we’d experienced on Mount Meru. The general consensus appeared to be that we weren’t all that impressed, and that we needed to press for some changes before taking on Kilimanjaro. Our decision was to raise it with our tour rep once we got off the mountain, so that he might be able to address some of the problems. With that slight issue out of the way, we focused on eating our breakfast, and gearing up for the final hike out. The night before I’d also collected tips from everyone in order to carry out the porter tipping ceremony that would be expected of us at the end of the trail today.

By the time we started out from Mariakamba hut, most people had once again donned their rain gear to ward off the wet and and chills. As expected, the rain was pretty light, and I actually felt pretty good in spite of it, already looking forward to the next challenge. I really didn’t want to dwell too much on the Meru Peak, as there is no past, and no future, only the present, right? I wish I had some great stories to share on this final hike out, but it truly was uneventful. We were all sort of in our own headspaces I think, and focused on just hiking down. As per usual, a few of us made our way a bit further in front of the rest, and just kept putting one foot in front of the other to get to the same gate that we started out on 3 days previous to this.

In a pretty short time, we all found ourselves back at the start of the trail. As we waited to be told what to do, we hung out in the ‘tourist shelter’. Near us were a group of Germans (actually, our nemesis in some respects, but that story remains unposted :-), who were enjoying a celebratory bottle of sparkling wine on account of having summitted. That’s okay, we had learned they weren’t even going to Kili, so we’d still have the last laugh when we beat that mountain. After a little wait, our ranger came back with the official log book for us to sign back out, and proceeded to also bring out certificates for our failure, err, I mean near-success. Normally, you get a certificate for Little Meru (which we didn’t climb) and for Socialist Peak (which 6/7 of us failed to reach). As a consolation prize, the ranger saw it fit to give us all the Little Meru certificates, as we’d all climbed higher than that on summit day.

Only robo-Deb got the full certificate treatment. It felt like having lemon juice poured in a paper cut to me! No one had mentioned there was a certificate on the line 🙂 I got fairly vocal about how sad I was that I didn’t get one, and was soon branded a whiner for it. Ha ha. That’s okay. I was sad, but it really wasn’t the end of the day, I just felt like being a little brat for a moment. There wasn’t a big difference between the certificates or anything, it was just the fact that there was a memento that I wouldn’t get to take home with me to commemorate a Christmas Day summit. However, I had my wooden rhino, which was good enough! We tipped our ranger and thanked him for his services, and were then led over to the parking lot to present all the porters with their tips. They were all appreciative, and we held off on tipping the guide, assistant guide, cook and waiter, as we knew for sure they’d be with us on Kili, and would just pay them a lump sum after that. After all, we also wanted to see if there would be any improvement on the trekking for the next mountain.

Soon after, we were piled back in a shuttle bus and whisked off to the Kili Mountain Resort. When I use the phrase ‘oasis’ I really mean it. The heavy rains had done a number on all the dirt roads, and just getting there we saw a lot of mud and ruts that had formed. We drove what seemed far up a dirt road, only to turn into a driveway and pop out at a really gorgeous hotel (the best of our trip). This was exactly what we needed, and we were all pretty excited to unwind for a few hours. However, first, we raised the issues with our tour rep, who then arranged for a 6pm meeting to discuss it further, after giving us time to unpack, unwind, clean up, etc. Probably a good idea not to chat with irate adventure tourists that were fresh off the mountain!

The rooms were impeccable and just plain gorgeous. So what did we do right after arriving? Well, I filled the tub with hot water and ‘camp suds’ to do some laundry 🙂 The hope was that in a few hours, we’d be able to dry our clean laundry on the big balcony we had. Let’s just say it was partially successful (thank goodness for the hair dryer as well). Also, Mike and I took advantage of the beautiful pool and went for a dip. Deb for her part was most excited about there being a gym. She decided to get up early the next morning for a workout. Crazy Aussie! Admirable though 🙂

Oh and did I mention we’d stopped at a grocery store on the way? I had picked up couple large cold beers to enjoy while doing laundry and packing. After that and the pool, we met with the rep who told us he’d had some discussions with the guides, and that things would improve. I’ll leave it at that, since the rest is irrelevant. He also gave us a nice map of the route we’d be taking on Kili and went through every day in detail so that we’d know what to expect. It was a great briefing and we couldn’t understand why no one had done that with us for the other mountain. Seemed like it would have made things much better for everyone.

Post-briefing, we basically agreed to all just meet at the bar for a drink before supper. Once again Cantrailia were left to their own devices, but rather than hang out in our rooms, we chose to spend the time together again. Just another testament to how well we all got along. I was even lucky enough to have a beer bought for me by the lovely Deborah, on account of me ‘fixing’ her gloves on the mountain. Sweet. Thanks again Deb :-). Actually, as memory serves me, I bought my own beer that time, but later in the evening, she got me another one, which the next day I was accused of not having paid for by the bar staff. Me: “Don’t you remember, the lady paid for it with Kenyan shillings. One glass of red wine, one Kilimanjaro beer??” Ahhh, memories….

Supper was a touch disappointing, as it was ‘buffet’, but with limited selection. I’d had a hankering for pizza all day and was sure this place would have an a-la-carte menu for supper. However, all was not lost, as it turns out the supper was included, which we hadn’t expected. This of course left me flush with cash for more drinks. Most people opted to disperse after supper and either do Internet or ‘retire’, but luckily Deb graciously offered to join me for drinks. Why is it that when I travel, the Aussies are always willing to match me drink for drink? One of life’s mysteries, and one which I don’t care to ever solve. So with that we settled into some comfy chairs and enjoyed our drinks and some good conversations.

While talking, we were entertained by a most intriguing local performer which had obviously been brought in for some special occasion. As it turns out, it was the first day of Kwanzaa, so we guessed it must have been that. The musical stylings are hard to categorize, but he had quite a repertoire. It was just him, and his keyboard, which he used to play the beats, backing chords, and even the main melody. He was a regular one-man-band. He also would intersperse whistling into some of his ‘hits’. It was strangely satisfying to hear live music in Africa, but not what I had expected. Jody came down from ‘the Internet’ and sit with us for a bit, but also decided to head off to bed before too late. We finished another drink, and decided to also hit the hay. After all, Deb had a workout planned for the morning!

With that came the end of our Mount Meru portion of the trip, and it was a fitting ending. Comfortable and in a nice hotel. We all sort of wished we’d end Kili there as well, as the other lodge wasn’t quite as nice, but such is life. So, I’m left now with my thought of the day. The thought? Hmmm. New friends are good, and never under-estimate the value of good travel companions and conversations. Yup, that’s probably the right thought for that day. Till tomorrow friends, remember to enjoy the world around you!

Peak Time on Christmas Day

I just realized that this post coincides with Christmas Day for all of us in Africa! As you might guess, we actually didn’t really have a good sense of the dates while we were hiking. However, this was a day that we had to at least be aware of, right? After all, there was the small matter of a Secret Santa to take care of later that day. However, before that, we had to carry out our full assault on Socialist Peak, the highest point on Mount Meru, sitting at 4,562m. As per usual, before you get to the hard work of slogging through all of my banal thoughts of the day, head on over to the map that I made, as well as the folder of pictures up on Flickr. Once you’ve satisfied yourself that I actually made the trek that day, come on back and read the rest of my recollections.

As you would have already pieced together from my previous post, the term ‘summit day’ is almost a bit of a misnomer, as we got up around midnight and started our slow trek at about 1am. So it’s more like ‘summit morning’ 🙂 In order to help us fight the sandman, the porters were ready to give us some hot beverages, porridge, and biscuits as a bit of a breakfast before we left the comfort of camp. We were also given our atypical snack pack of cookies and a chocolate bar (Dairy Milk in case you’re wondering). I didn’t really find it too hard to get up and be ready. I guess that comes as a result of needing to be awake at various odd hours when getting ready for certain races (who doesn’t like a midnight start in an adventure race, right?).

We had all brought our bags to the mess hall, only to find out that we could just keep them locked in our rooms till we got back for lunch. Yup, the day would be long indeed. We were to start at Saddle Hut, hike to the summit, then come back for lunch. After a brief rest, we were going to grab our things and continue down to Mariakamba Hut for our last night on the mountain (and for Christmas dinner of sorts). We quickly got sorted, and our happy little crew lined up diligently to begin our dark shuffle into the night. We were a thin stream of hikers making our way by headlamp. The last couple evenings, it had seemed that the sky would clear at night, so we were looking forward to easy hiking.

Well, no such luck, my comfortable, dry friends. We had no sooner gotten about 100 paces from the camp that we felt the first raindrops. ‘Here we go again’ I thought. This time, we didn’t hesitate to stop and put on full rain gear. On a long day like this, you want to be as comfortable as possible. Once suited up, the shuffle gathered steam again. As per usual, the pace was quite slow, and once again, I found myself wanting to climb faster than the ranger wanted us to go. I should note that this time, we had the ranger at the lead, but also had both our lead guide Naiman, and assistant guide Richard with us as well. This way, if the group ever split, they could stay with the sub-groups. This is a smart and well-used mountain climbing method. However, it may also have cost me my summit 🙁 Keep reading to learn why.

As we kept pressing on, the lead group (Deb, myself and Jody) still seemed to be a bit too fast for others in the group, and we found ourselves needing to stop fairly frequently to wait. At one point I asked the ranger about our pace and ability to summit by sunrise at this speed. He said there was no way we’d get there by sunrise. I then [foolishly] asked if we’d be able to split the group so that the fast hikers could summit by sunrise, and just wait for the others up there. Two things were mis-guided in my question. Firstly, the idea of a sunrise was apparently not the way to go, given that it was raining. Secondly, I think the ranger really wanted to go faster anyway, even if it was the ‘wrong’ strategy. We only found out later that this was actually a bone of contention happening in the background between our actual guide and the ranger. Apparently it became a bit of a power struggle, with the guide trying to tell the ranger to reduce the pace so that we’d all summit, and the guide being stubborn and saying this was his group to lead. We also only later realized that Naiman hadn’t actually guided up Meru for the past 5 or 6 years, so he didn’t press the issue all that hard.

Okay, low-level drama aside, at the next pause, Marwa the ranger, and the two guides talked back and forth briefly, and then Jody, Deb, and I set back off at our quicker pace. In a very short time, it was clear we were putting serious distance between ourselves and the rest of the group. We’d already made it past Rhino Point, which is at just over 3,800m. The next part of the hike was where things got a lot trickier (although we wouldn’t find that out till the descent due to the darkness). Luckily, the rain had now let up, so the rocks were not slick with rain. Looking back as we scrambled we could see the other headlamps, but they seemed very far off in the distance. We steadily made progress, easily climbing past 4,000m.

By now, it was clear to me that Deb was indeed a robot. She could just push on as hard and fast as the ranger wanted. I was sticking pretty close to them, with Jody only a short distance from us as well. A few times we did slow down though, as the drop-offs (that we couldn’t see) were quite dramatic if you made a bad step, so we wanted to make sure our little group was together. Also, shortly after this, I started feeling the definite signs of altitude sickness. I developed a headache, but pressed on, as this is fairly common. Also, it was noted that I was starting to weave a little bit, also not a good sign. However, mentally, I felt sharp, and as long as I felt my head was clear, I pressed hard. However, I did pause long enough to pop a Diamox (which aids in AMS, but takes 4 hours to kick in… damn!). Deb also took the opportunity to pop some headache pills, but really was still super-strong.

As we climbed higher and higher, the sky started to lighten up just a little bit, and we were told it wasn’t far till the top. However, by the top, the ranger actually meant Cobra Point, which is at an altitude of 4,350m, still 200m lower than the true summit. Upon getting to Cobra Point, the day was starting to break, and I was quite happy to stop here for a bit longer and see ‘sunrise’ from this point (that, and I really needed to go for a ‘real’ nature break). I was definitely feeling the altitude, and didn’t want to press on right away. Unfortunately, the ranger had other ideas, he wanted to keep moving fast. I had to make a decision that wasn’t easy. I decided to stop here, and wait for the next ‘group’, with the plan that once they got there, I’d have rested enough that I could go on to the peak. Jody also opted to stay at Cobra Point.

Deb ‘the Robot’, wisely opted to go on alone with the guide. I’m really glad for her that she did, because as it turned out, she would be the only one to summit. Later, we would learn it was a bit awkward being alone with the ranger (don’t worry Deb, I won’t pick on you or share all the details of that experience ;-). I was now going to learn another lesson of climbing mountains. Sticking together as one big group is always preferable. You never know what is happening behind you. We soon learned the fate of the rest of our hikers. After about 20minutes, Dylan and John came into view, with the assistant guide Richard. They seemed okay, but as they got to us, it was clear that Dylan was hurting quite bad. He’d come down with a bad cold earlier, and it had taken all his energy to get up here. John was faring better, but obviously would stay with his son. We also learned that Sarah had gotten quite ill just after 4,000m, and that Naiman, Mike and her had turned back some time ago.

So there we were, 4 of us with one assistant guide. The guide wanted to continue (as companies always pride themselves on a high summit rate, and 1 out of 7 was NOT stellar), and I was now willing to press on. Jody was not convinced that either of us should keep going, and for his part, John seemed like he wanted to keep going, but I think paternal instincts being what they were, decided against it. This posed a brief dilemma, as the guide couldn’t just leave everyone there and go with me, and waiting for Deb and Marwa to get back first would have taken too long. So in the end, the sad reality was that I’d have to turn and start descending back down without having taken a shot at Socialist Peak.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wasn’t disappointed. By the same token, I had made the right call earlier, and had to live with that. Just keep in mind that most serious mountain accidents are on descent, not ascent, because people push too hard / fast and don’t stop when they should. At least I’d live to fight another day, and had become just a bit more ‘mountain wise’. With heavy heart, we started the long descent back to Saddle Hut. Once underway, we made the best of it, taking extra time to soak in the sights and marvel at the route we’d taken to get there. In the light of day, it became abundantly clear that this was in fact no cake-walk. Plenty of goat-like rock scrambles along sheer rock faces, and even a nice knife-edge rim with a drop-off on either side. Crazy. However, there were also some great views of the ash cone and crater itself before clouds started rolling back in.

We took a fairly leisurely pace down, as Dylan was wiped out. Richard had taken his pack for him so that he would not be over-burdened. I say leisurely because happily, when you are descending, you can pretty much go as fast as you want. In case you were wondering, I wanted to go fast 🙂 I was surprised at just how far we’d come to get to Cobra Point, but eventually we popped back out at Saddle Hut and poked our heads in to see how Sarah was doing. She was sleeping, but apparently not in too bad a shape. We hadn’t been there for more than 10 or 15 minutes when Deb returned from the summit as well. Apparently they were really flying back down the mountain, as even Deb remarked that it was really quick, and she had to focus to keep up with Marwa. I also learned of another thing that made me glum. Apparently at the true peak, there was an ammo box with a register that you got to sign indicating that you’d made it. Curses, I could have made my mark at the summit, and signed for ActiveSteve! Boo! Deb could tell I was pretty sad about, but still managed to poke a little fun at my expense. Good on her. She was clearly the better man that day 🙂 Luckily, I was able to counter by making fun of her new ‘special friend’ in the ranger. Ha ha!

With that, lunch was served. We had a nice warm lunch of soup and other things I can’t recall. We were then anxious to keep heading down, as we knew it was Christmas and wanted to relax. To mark the day, Jody donned her Santa hat for the rest of our descent down so many stairs to Mariakamba Hut. We passed a constant parade of porters and hikers that would form the next day’s summit attempt. There were many smiles and season’s greetings from all that we passed by, which kept the mood light and happy, in spite of the long day we were on. The remainder of the hike passed by with no incident, giving us more chances to chat amongst ourselves and learn more about each other.

Upon arrival at our hut, it was already time for snacks. Once again, Deb bunked down with Jody and I, so we spread our things out, and cleaned up quickly before heading to the mess hall. Upon arrival, we were greeted with fresh popcorn and hot peanuts, along with a spread of Christmas crackers and two bottles of wine to celebrate! It was awesome. However, at snack time we were too tired to partake, so we told David (our ‘waiter’) to hold on to it until dinner time, where we’d have our proper celebration, including the Secret Santa gift exchange. So we snacked, then went back to rest for an hour or so.

Finally! Christmas dinner. I used a big dry bag to collect all the secret Santa gifts in anonymity, which were labeled courtesy of hand-labeled surgical tape tags that Jody had put together. I took that, along with a candle lantern, and my iPod touch to the dining hall. I’d also been dragging around a bottle of Tanzanian hooch that Deb and I had bought together prior to the start of the hike, but which we’d never actually gotten the nerve to sample on the hike. Sadly, that also stayed with me, and to this day, it has never been opened, and sits on a shelf beside me as I write this (called Konyagi in case you are curious). Dinner was our typical African spread, but this time complemented with our wines, as well as some chocolate that Jody and John had brought along for all to enjoy.

I dutifully cracked open the two wines (one hi-test, the other ‘light’), and we shared the joy amongst each other and I proposed a toast to our group. In spite of a long day, everyone was in fine spirits. Especially Sarah, who was very anxious to get Secret Santa underway. However, first we popped the Christmas crackers and donned our paper crowns and read bad jokes to each other while my little iPod blared tinny Christmas tunes. What could be better, right? Well how about John (who has a white beard) donning the Santa hat and acting as our very own Santa Claus? Yup, it was that special up there for us. Felt just like a family Christmas to me 🙂 I loved every second. To show my appreciation, I tried my best to polish off all the wine (and coaxed Deb to assist). The light stuff wasn’t all that great though, so we ended up leaving a bit for the porters. The gifts were all fabulous and well received. I ended up getting a nice wooden rhino necklace from my secret Santa (which has been around my neck every day since I got it). Just ask if you want to see it.

Whoa! I should probably finally end my post, eh? What, were you expecting a short post for one of the longest, and most special days of our entire trip? No dice for you. If you’ve hung in there for the whole story, thanks! I appreciate it. After all, I’m writing these stories for you, dear readers. Quickly now, for my thought of the day. Experience counts. Trust in your guides (be they on mountains, or in real life), for they know the true keys to success. And if you don’t follow the right advice, at learn from your mistakes. It’ll make you stronger. Until tomorrow, here’s hoping you all have an action-packed, ActiveLife! Do what you love. Love what you do.

Many Stairs and Many Raindrops Later…

Good evening my friends. It’s that time once again. Gather round the glowing LCD and let ole ActiveSteve share another travel tale with you to while away some time. My post today takes us back up to Mount Meru, where Team Cantrailia was about to tackle our second day of climbing towards the peak. On the menu for today would be climbing from Mariakamba Hut at 2,500m up to Saddle Hut, located at 3,576m, and nestled at the foot of the Little Meru peak (smaller peak in the region). Once again, you can start out by checking out the custom map that I’ve put together, as well as the set of photos that have been uploaded to Flickr. I’ll try to keep things light and breezy for this post, as the heavy work is all about tomorrow… summit day! 🙂 Read on fans.

After the relatively nice ending to day 1, we were eager to set off on the trails, and hoped for good weather. Today’s hike was going to be much steeper and shorter. We were basically following a trail up the crater rim, which you can clearly see on the terrain map. Due to the short, steep, nature, we quickly found out that once again, we’d be ‘crawling’ up the mountain at a tired snail’s pace. The pacing was made even more difficult as there were quite a few stairs at the beginning of the trek. There were several times when I truly thought I’d fall over, and that I’d bump into the backpack of the guide ahead of me. Very difficult. I felt great physically, and the altitude certainly didn’t seem to be having any effect on me, but the idea was that the slow pace was to help in the long run.

In starting our day off, the sun seemed to want to come out and say hello, and we even caught a couple nice views of the mountain in the early morning sunlight. On the trail early on, the sun was shining bright and keeping us warm. However, the ranger was pretty certain we’d see more rain further up the road. Well, as long as it stayed warm, right? Well, for at least the first hour and a half, mother nature was fairly accommodating. Although it started getting a bit foggy, it was still not raining. On the plus side, the trail we were climbing up today had no real stopping points or viewing areas. It was simply a straight hike to our next hut. The real plan was to get to the hut, have lunch, then attempt a climb up Little Meru, which is a peak at about 3,765m, and easy to get to from the hut. I was excited for that, since I love getting to a peak. It’s always a sweet feeling.

Unfortunately, the weather did change, and we suddenly found ourselves donning out rain gear to keep hiking. I resisted doing so, but the rain just got progressively heavier and heavier, so getting cold was now starting to be a concern. I hadn’t put on many layers, wearing only shorts and a long sleeve tech shirt. So, I threw on my thin gore-tex jacket and hoped for the best. I hadn’t realized it yet, but this jacket, which I often use for adventure racing, was full of little holes, so this wasn’t even very waterproof. D’oh! Most of us chose not to put on rain paints, as the hike was only supposed to last till lunch.

True to our pace and predictions, we had only another 2 hours of hiking that morning. Sadly, the rain was so heavy that by the time we arrived at Saddle Hut, every square millimeter of my was soaked. I learned a valuable lesson that day. Always throw on the rain pants as well. Having really we underwear and continuing to hike is a recipe for coldness and ultimately discomfort. Even after arriving at the hut, and getting out of the rain, I felt even colder, as we were no longer moving. While we’d each had our own rooms at the first hut (with 2 per room), we were told that this time, we’d have to double. As Jody, Deb and I were all there at the same time, we agreed to bunk together, which left Dylan, John, Sarah and Mike to share another room. These were not very roomy spaces, and the fact that Sarah and Mike had an extra bag between them made their lives even more complicated.

We all tried our best to get comfortable in the short term. We all basically stripped down and crawled into our sleeping bags to try and warm up and dry off for a bit. We also tried (very unsuccessfully I’ll add) to string our clothes up where we could to dry. However, with no circulating air or heat, it just made our room feel like the inside of a locker. The one high point during this brief period was the fact that the porters had come room to room to deliver us hot beverages of our choice, as well as deliver us our warm ‘washing’ water. I had a nice cup of hot chocolate while we waited for word that lunch was ready.

Outside, the rain continued to come down relentlessly. Not fun. No one had any desire to attempt to tackle Little Meru at this point. During lunch we talked about options, including trying to figure out a cut-off time for trying Little Meru. I was still keen to go, but honestly, with nothing by soaked clothes and soaked boots, I knew it would suck in the absence of sun. The plan was further complicated by the fact that we’d be leaving this camp around midnight in order to make our way to the summit. That meant that we’d have an early supper (5pm), then all try to sleep a few hours before being awoken again in the dead of the night. So Little Meru would HAVE to be tackled before supper, and we needed about an hour and a half to do it.

We played the waiting game with the weather. Happily, we had brought some games to kill time. Being lugged up the mountain by our trusty porters was a set of Mille Bornes cards and a travel Battleship set that Jody and I had brought. As well, Mike and Sarah had brought along a game of travel scrabble. So while the rain fell, Mike and Sarah played scrabble, while Deb, Jody and I raced cars in Mille Bornes. John and Dylan opted to rest, as Dylan wasn’t feeling 100% to start with, and wanted all his energy for the summit bid.

Somewhere just before 4pm, a mini miracle unfolded. The sun peeked it’s head out from the rain clouds. For the first while, the rain continued even though there was sun, which was frustrating, but eventually we had a reprieve. In a very small period of time, all hands were on deck, and all the groups flocked outside to try and drape clothes all over the surrounding branches in an effort to dry some clothes out. Unfortunately, the effort was rendered mostly moot, as no sooner had clothes been spread out that fog rolled up from below our location. Although it wasn’t raining, there was no more sun :-(. All we really would have needed is about 20 minutes of direct sun, but no dice for us.

And so endeth my tale of Day 2. There are no more interesting parts to the day. Just more rain, more food, and then an attempt at sleep before the summit. But that will have to wait until my next post 🙂 So, my thought of the day? Hmmm, that’s a tough one. Rather than a thought, I’ll make it a lesson learned: Always put on the rain pants when the rain starts on a long hike. You may ‘lose’ some time, but there is always a long-term gain. In this case, it would have made the arrival a bit more pleasant. That’s it, that’s all. Stay tuned for the Meru Summit Bid!

Getting Down to Business on Mount Meru

Okay friends and well-wishers, enough messing around with safaris and red bananas and lounging by a pool. It’s high time we got down the business of scaling some of the bigger peaks in Africa. This post will serve as the kick off for the first of our true hiking experiences during out African adventure. On tap first? Mount Meru, which at 4,566m high is Africa’s fifth highest peak. The purpose of us scaling this lesser peak first was primarily to assist us with acclimatization, as well as giving our lead guide for Mount Kilimanjaro a chance to see how we might perform when it came time to the big show. This climb would take us 4 days and 3 nights, although the only real climbing day would come starting at day 2 starting at midnight. On that day, we’d be going for the summit. However, before we get to that day, I’ll write a post for each of the days we spent on the mountain, but try not to make them too long ;-). Also, since we’re on a mountain now, I’ve got a map to share with you, as well as a set of pictures from the first day itself. Enjoy those, then click on back and read the rest of the story.

Before starting the actual hike, we first had to make our way from our lodge to the start of the trail. We also had the task of deciding what gear we’d need on this part of the hike vs. Mount Kilimanjaro. Both sets of equipment had to be sorted, as we’d be sleeping at a different hotel before the two mountain climbs (but with very little time to get prepared between the two). My strategy basically consisted of choosing enough clothes for each hike so that if something went wrong, I’d at least not have to worry about laundry or anything. Of course, that meant wearing pretty much the same thing for lots of the trek, but seeing as showers weren’t in the cards anyway, I could care less. After all, it wasn’t like the company we’d be keeping would be fashionistas or in any better shape than us 🙂

So of course that leads to the question of exactly what company would we be keeping? Well, primarily, we’d just be by ourselves, our Team Cantrailia slowly making our way up the peak. Along with us at every step would be another ranger, which we’d pick up at the gates, as well as one lead guide and one assistant guide. Also along for the trip would be our normal porters (numbering 12), as well as our cook and the ‘helper porter’ who’d be with us on both peaks helping at meal times. Some of the porters would actually be in our shuttle bus with us for the ride out as well, but we didn’t really get to talk to them much, as the porters themselves generally don’t speak English.

So once the gear was all sorted and packed in the right bags, we all made our way to the lobby to board the shuttle bus. The weather was fairly agreeable, but had definite signs that we might get rained on. I was generally of the thought that it wouldn’t rain much, if at all, as we were supposed to be at the end of the rainy season, and so far the weather had been spectacular. How wrong I would actually turn out to be wouldn’t be apparent for many more days, but let’s just let that develop as we work our way through the posts, shall we 😉 ?

Okay, back on the buses, and an approximately 2 hour (?) drive to the part entrance. Although technically it turned out to be one of two entrances. First gate was some of the paperwork, but the main entrance and prep area would be further up the road. At both gates were some interpretive panels, as well as some nice dioramas of the mountain hike ahead of us. I love these real models. I basically committed to memory the route we’d be taking, where the stops and sights would be, as well as what altitude we’d be at for various points in the hike. Isn’t learning fun? I just like to be aware of my surroundings I guess. The porters also just hung around outside waiting at the first gate. However, once we hit the second gate, it was time for them to get to business. Each porter was only allowed to carry 12kg of our gear up the trail, so there was a strict weigh-in. We also had to do some of our own paperwork, listing things like name, address, passport number, occupation. What? Who cares about occupation. To reflect that thought, I decided to put in ‘musician’ for this first log. Why not, right?

Finally, we were ready to start out trek. It was pretty anticlimactic, as the trail for this day was actually more of a 4×4 track that we got to hike along. No great inclines, no tricky footing, just a leisurely walk while we gained over 1,000m in elevation, climbing from 1570m to 2610m. For this part of the hike, we were lead by our ranger (whose name I think was Marwa), and the rear was being pulled up by our assistant guide. I was already shocked at how slow the pace seemed to be, but which was assured this was the speed we’d have to walk. At the front, there were some rumblings between Deb and I about how if we had to go any slower, we’d be falling over. It just didn’t seem natural. Don’t worry, there was still a lot to learn about pacing on big mountains, and I assure you I may have learned some valuable lessons.

Also, little did I know it, but in that formative day, a very familiar order started to emerge in our group. Although I’d love to say I was able to relax and just go with the flow, I seemed to always find myself on the leader’s heels throughout all our days. Behind me always seemed to be Deb ‘the robot’. She would have gladly lead over me, but seemed to prefer yielding it to me instead of tripping on the guide’s heels. After Deb was usually Jody, who as we know could fight her way up any mountain with her determination. After that was usually father and son John and Dylan, happy to pick their own pace, but never too far from the lead. towards the back would be John and Sarah (although John sometimes joined us at the front for variety). Sarah was happy taking pictures of various flora and fauna, and quite often messing around with umbrellas and other assorted rain and/or sun defending devices. Honestly, a couple times I tried to let others lead, but it never seemed to last very long. The moment someone stopped to fix something or take a nature break, I’d scamper around to the front. I couldn’t help it. Years of competition have sort of ingrained the need / desire to be near the front. I wouldn’t say it’s that I wasn’t able to relax, I just prefer the view from the front. I think Deb shared that general view, in fact in several cases, I dare say she may have been even worse than me in that aspect 🙂 Don’t worry, it came back to bite me in the ass a little later. Just stay tuned.

For this first day, there were really only a few highlights in the scenery, which consisted primarily of cloudy skies, obscured peaks, and a forest all around. The first such attraction was a place called ‘Fig Tree Arch‘, which as the name implies was a huge fig tree which at its base formed an arch large enough to allow vehicles to pass under it. We paused there for a few minutes to snap some photos, then carried on our way to our lunch stop at Maio Falls picnic area. Wouldn’t you know it, as soon as I took my seat on a relatively comfy looking log looking over at the waterfall, it started raining. At first, not too heavily, but it picked up steam as I struggled through my boxed lunch. Luckily, rain gear was on in a flash (top at least), and it was still warm. Deb had taken a log opposite me, as we were the first ones to arrive. As other got there, they took up station at various overhanging branches seeking some shelter, but eventually, we all got wet, and had to face facts. The rain would be with us for a bit 🙂

After lunch, we picked back up and walked back to our 4×4 trail, making our way further upwards to our ultimate destination for the day, Miriakamba Hut. To get there, we eventually passed by a place called Kitoto Viewpoint, which unfortunately due to the clouds offered little in the way of views. On a good day from here, I suspect we may have seen over to Kilimanjaro, as well as seeing upwards to Meru itself. Regardless, it seemed like a nice enough spot, plus the rain had stopped, so we were walking comfortably again.

The final section of the day took us along the actual crater base, where we at least had a pretty good view of some of the crater wall. The hike for the day finished pretty flat, and even a bit on a decline. When we arrived at Miriakamba Hut, it again looked like it might rain, but luckily for us on Meru, we’d be sleeping in the huts themselves instead of a tent, so staying dry should be easy, right? Well, that might be the case, but it didn’t prevent some of our gear being handed over in a rather soggy state. Apparently the bags the porters used to carry our stuff wasn’t necessarily water-tight. Lucky for me, I had packed all of my things into dry bags, so I was pretty dry (apart from the bag with holes in it!). Unfortunately for Jody, her down sleeping bag was pulled out of the stuff sack showing definite wetness. Oops. Hopefully that wouldn’t persist in the coming days, as wet down sleeping bags are the inverse of fun!

However, all of this was forgotten during tea (and POPCORN!!!) time. Now, you all know how much I love popcorn, but that’s not the only reason all was forgotten. We also managed to get a slight reprieve in the clouds as we sipped warm beverages. Enough so that heading out to the front deck of the mess hall yielded us with our first true glimpse of Mount Kilimanjaro of the entire trip! Yup, prior to that, even while sunny during our other travels, Kili had stubbornly decided to keep wearing her cloud hat! Well, she took it off, albeit briefly, for us to marvel at and take some photos (and the accompanying blog post video). That certainly made my day and got me motivated to keep on keepin’ on (awesome Joe Dirt reference there, right?).

So there you have it. Day 1, and nearly 1,100m of vertical gained on Mount Meru. Thought of the day for this leg? Hey, it’s gonna rain sometimes, that’s why we carry rain gear. It you’re ready for the rough stuff, when the clouds go packin’, life seems that much sweeter! Oh yeah, that and popcorn (even those small semi-popped kernels) makes everything better 🙂 Stay tuned for day 2, hopefully flying off my fingertips tomorrow night.