More of the magical Isle of Skye, Scotland and the weather drops in a little bit of drama. The Black Cuillins are incredibly dramatic igneous mountains, and the stretch of empty road surrounded on both sides by fields of purple heather gives a nice perspective. The truth is, there isn’t a single image that can capture how magnificent the landscape on the Isle of Skye is, and what dynamic views it offers. Magical. Am I gushing too much? Probably.
Morning, Isle of Skye, the bus rolls on and stops at Kilt Rock/Mealt Falls, but busdriver Dave leads us up to the edge and points the other way, down to the rocks below, where we see this epic view. “An episode of Game of Thrones was filmed here,” he says, pointing the opposite way of the falls. Several folks on the bus start freaking out and peppering him with questions, but not me. “I’ve read the books,” I say to one lady. “But never seen the series.” As soon as her voice rises “OMG, OMG, you have to see it!!”, I immediately phase out into my happy place and put my eye up to the viewfinder and see if I can capture the epic view.
But I can’t, or not with something as simple as an image. The views on Isle of Skye feel expansive, stunning land and seascapes built for movies that go beyond the farthest edge of your peripheral vision, and degrees of contrast no HDR can truly represent. With the sun out in force, purple carpets of heather are everywhere. Another day in Scotland, blowing through time like it doesn’t exist. 2.5 hours pass and it feels like we just got here, then we’re back on the bus and off down the road again.
REMINDER: I strongly encourage you to click on the panos to see the full enchilada images. Seriously, the views on Kili were almost too epic to capture in a straight 4:3 photo frame, even with wide angle lens (See FAQ at post bottom for camera deets).
DAY 3 HIGHLIGHTS
Rained and hailed nearly all night, but the hard patter on the tent ends up serving as white noise here at 11,000 feet. Not that I’ve ever had issues sleeping, but I manage about 4-6 hrs a night, not withstanding the fact that altitude induces an incessant need to pee… hydrating the full day morning to night means popping outside the tent 3-4 times a night to hit the Internet Cafe…or occasionally nearby rocks, as sleepy laziness overtakes any mountain modesty. Speaking of which, this is not a trip for those who have an aversion to dirt, insects, or need daily creature comforts like baths or showers (we get a pair of washtubs of warm water each morning brought to the tent with the happy proclamation “time for washy washy” but that’s really hands, face, other reachable bits…otherwise, Baby Wipes rule most days.
7am sharp it’s breakfast, and as we look across the camp, we see multiple summiting groups here at Shira One, maybe 20-30 tents…not bad, but they’ll dwindle in coming days as we go higher and higher on the rarely used Northern Circuit route.
The sun is shining brightly, framing the western side of Kilimanjaro. 8am and we’re pole pole once again, marching on the relatively flat Shira Plateau through scrub. The line of porters starts passing us about a half hour later, and while they beeline directly up to The foothills of Kili to the Shira Hut camp, we’re taking a detour to the Shira Cathedral formation about 3-4 miles dead ahead, for our first direct acclimatization effort.
One striking plant we keep seeing dotting the plains of the steppe resembles a 5 foot giant pineapple in cactuslike form. Our guide today is Said, with Viviano bringing up the rear, and Said tells us this plant is the giant lobelia (officially lobelia deckenii), one of many species of everlasting flowering plants found on Kilimanjaro. Unfortunately, we’ve missed its flowering phase by weeks.
The steppe starts to angle upwards and the Flora change is almost immediate, walking out of high desert scrub and into higher green spike bushes.
In about an hour, we climb a hundred feet up to a saddle leading up to Shira Cathedral. JT has magically appeared again, and points up to what looks like a heavy misted Boulder scramble. “Today is your first peak!”
It’s starts to rain a little off and on, so I, still without my missing gear, make the assault with an unwieldy and flapping full length rain poncho. It’s a half hour of steep scramble complete with loose scree, handholds on wet rock, and hoisting yourself up on loam dirt and gravel, but we all make it, and it’s pretty damn cool.
Looking to the East we see the miles of plateau we just traversed spread before us, while mist floats so heavy up top, we can’t see just how far and deep the other side of the Cathedral is (all the way down to the plains below, we see later from Shira Hut). First group photo, and we head back down to the saddle.
Halid takes over in getting us up to Shira camp, an undulating pathway that ascends to 13,000 feet. The cruel teaser here is that we can see our destination camp two hours before we get there. Here then, is where Halid takes on his “Speedy Gonzales” moniker, pole pole pace becomes haraka haraka (fast), and when Alex announces he’s burned through 3 liters of water, The guides don’t have backup (though Irina has some), and Halid picks up the pace even faster to get us into camp. We tell Halid about Speedy “Riba Riba!” But without the cartoon, the reference may be lost on him a bit. We scramble through the scrub and come into camp just as the rain picks up intensity. We sign in, and hide in our tents. Lunch is another stomach warming soul lifting soup–potato, cucumber, whatever, it’s warm–and we enjoy it to the fullest.
After lunch, JT indicates we’re making an afternoon acclimatization run up about 500 feet above the camp. Rhys stays down and keeps warm in his tent, sure it will rain, but the rest of us follow Viviano up – it’s about an hour round trip and not too bad, and the sun is in and out of the clouds the whole way. When we get back down, it’s full sunny before dinner, so I pull out the solar charger and charge up my GPS, JT does the same for his guide’s cellphones..I guess local service is available here and there at points on the mountain. We’re enjoying this respite from rain, and Irina sketches Viviano…with her iPhone battery gone, she draws and sketches the whole way up the mountain when we have the time.
At sunset, Kili presents herself in all her glory, a red top with a white crown of snow, the way we’d all seen it in photos. Rhys, Paul (who is doing much better on Diamox), Cort, Alex and I are snapping away. Keep this picture in mind, and wait til you see what we wake up to the next morning…..Another fairly epic, active day, and we’re definitely spent. Alex is having the worst of it, being dehydrated, and eventually, in the middle of the night, JT puts him on the Diamox as well. Rain hammers the tents most of the night…at this point, we’ve presumed it will be that way the whole way up, though we dread it. JT, for his part, simply states the obvious: “The mountain is unpredictable.” So it is.
RANDOM FAQ: I’ll add to this as the blog posts continue… How did you book this epic journey?
Through Peak Planet, the best reviewed agency we found. Researching the Kili guiding is an exercise is due diligence – but something to consider is the treatment of porters and guides helping you up the mountain. The cheaper operators have a reputation for porters and guides with tattered clothing, substandard shoes, and not getting paid for the many days away from their families. From all testimonials and references, Peak Planet is the opposite of that, working with the African Walking Company to ensure good treatment while keeping the prices reasonable. I have zero stake in Peak Planet, but the blog should speak for itself – the guides and porters were excellent, friendly, helpful, courteous, etc. all you could ask for on such a comprehensive undertaking. What camera did you use?
The Fuji XT-1 mirrorless APS-C with an 18-135mm lens. All of it heavily weather resistant, unstopped by rain, freezing cold, sleet, or altitude. I did bring 4 extra batteries, kept warm in a wool sock…which proved to be good for the whole 9 day mountain journey.