Getting Down to Business on Mount Meru

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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.

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