The north of Iceland is a moody, stormy show of Mother Nature’s irritable side. We clambered out of the tour mini-bus greeted with a sheet of rain that smashed our faces, sprinted past the church and into Glaumbær farm historic turf house, which although dank and musty inside, was surprisingly warm, cozy,and insulated …or maybe it was just the contrast of the weather outside. Two dozen turistas and unsmall me shuffling down hallways meant for one individual at most was an exercise in mild claustrophobia, but the preserved history inside the rooms was so tangible–the pottery, the looms, the skates, the cookware, the beds, the wooden ladders and beams, all shockingly roomy for a fully enclosed warren; a time machine visit to what it might have been like for 3 or 4 families to live in such a place dating from the settlement of Iceland in 870 to the mid-20th century. We stepped outside chattering about it…faceful of rain in the teeth again. Some things are constant here.
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.
NOTE: I’ve got a lot of panoramas posting in coming days to capture the epic grandeur of some of our views, but the blog thumbnails them to look small; to see full size bigger versions, be sure and click on any photo at your leisure while reading the post.
DAY 2 HIGHLIGHTS: Big Tree Camp (9700 feet) to Shira One (11,500 feet)
- Lemosho Forest Camp’s Swahili Name is Mki Mtubwa, literally, “Big Tree”, and we wake around 6:30am to the staccato call and responses of colobus monkeys scampering in the trees, a variety of beautiful tropical birdsongs, the clanking of pots and pans in the cooking tent, with the low singsong Swahili conversation of chef Joseph and his assistant cooks. Breakfast is oatmeal, black tea or coffee, bananas and watermelon, eggs, toast and bacon, all designed to be easily digestible for alpine climbing. After we finish breakfast, we are formally introduced to all the porters. We can’t possibly remember all their names, but we certainly recognize faces we will grow to know over the coming days.
- Viviano is leading the hike segment today, a soft spoken, friendly fellow who lives in Mushi, in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. He tells us about the prestige and training Tanzania attaches to its natives who choose to the path to become Kilimanjaro guides. Pole Pole remains the operating word as we climb slowly up and out of the rainforest and into the heather and moorland zone. He indicates he and most of the guides go up Kili 2-3 times a month, time spent away from their young families..they see them maybe a week per month. Hard work, this.
- Halid brings up the rear guard, another soft spoken guide whom we will soon rename to Speedy Gonzales, after the legendary US cartoon character…but the story of why is yet to come in the blog. I tease him and ask if needs any help with his giant pack, since he’s the smallest of the guides, but he simply says, politely, he will let me know.
- As we climb pole pole out of the rainforest, the lush green of the forest melts away to shorter heather, still thick, but our visibility increases. We begin to be overtaken by a stream of porters with the camp on their heads, again headed out in front of us to setup camp by the time we get there. We rotate behind Viviano and pepper him with questions about various striking plants we see along the way indigenous to the region and altitude.
- Eventually we climb up over a ridge and see a great ravine/gully and a steep ridge ascending up the spine of the mountain. We look across and see a tiny line of porters traversing up the opposite side and up the ridge. This is our major ascent for the day climbing into an unseeable mist high above us. After resting at the base for 10 minutes for water and bathroom stop, we begin the ascent ourselves.
- After an hour of steep climbing, we’re about halfway up the ridge, and we stop for lunch. We’re around 10,500 feet, and visible from here are the plains far below, with looming clouds all around and the thick mist above us. Also visible is the edge of the Shira Plateau, a giant steppe on Kilimanjaro and the holder of Shira One camp, our target destination. In the middle of our lunch, we hear booming thunderclaps above us just around the corner of the mountain, accompanied by the occasional flash of lightning. JT has caught up with us and we nervously ask about the lightning and thunder. “No Worries,” he says, “Only one climber hit by lightning in past 10 years.” We note that in the US, this condition would have park rangers clearing off the mountain STAT. Instead, we finish our lunch, and JT and Viviano point us upward into the clouds where we can still see porters moving 500 feet above..away from the seeming source area of the lightning and thunder. We climb a bit quicker, maybe not quite pole pole.
- As we hit the ridge top at 11,500 feet, it starts to rain. At first we balk putting on rain gear, which traps in heat during our climb, but then it starts coming down hard and we throw on the ponchos, rain pants, and pack covers and move out. At least we’re now in a lateral and slightly downward traverse, but as Viviano steps up the pace, the rain starts pounding the path into mud puddles. As we descend the final quarter mile into camp, the rain turns to a mix of hail, sleet, and rain, hammering pellets off of us. We get into camp, and huddle under the sign in hut, watching the porters try and setup our tents. Unfortunately, just as we make a beeline for the tents and get in, the rain is washing under some of the tents, causing them to float. While we hide in the mess tent, the porters move all the gear out and move the tents to better ground, frantically digging shallow shovel ditches around each tent to channel the water. An hour later, the rain finally stops. Cort, Caryl and I go 200 paces back up the trail to see a cairn forest we’d run past while inbound.
- At dinner, our companion Paul looks pale, and JT checks on him (as he does with all of us before and after each hike). Paul’s been fighting stomach troubles during this hiking segment, and now he indicates he’s having breathing issues. JT puts him on Diamox, the miracle alpine medicine that tricks the body into forcing deeper and faster breathing, and ultimately more oxygen in the blood, relieving Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms. After dinner, JT says we have a big day ahead tomorrow, so we hit it early. The rain pounds the tent on and off, and we go to sleep with it pattering on our tents, but not before the skies clear on the open plateau, revealing a cloud plume drifting off the top of Mt Kilimanjaro, our first clear view of our destination. We again go to sleep to stars across the night sky, the band of the Milky Way clear and noting to our surprise that in this hemisphere of the globe, the Big Dipper has no North Star. Is this a foreboding sign? None of us knows, but stubborn determination tends to dismiss such nonsense, and we crash hard after a long day.
This is a photo blog series about my February 2015 trip to Tanzania, Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and go on Safari in western Tanzania. I’ll take you day by day through the trip, written after the fact because, after hauling a small army of electronics with me–a tablet, iPhone, GPS, PS Vita, everything short of an actual laptop–it turns out that Tanzanian internet is pretty feeble, still cable connected, and the country is largely all about cell service, dashing my dreams of any reliable real time WiFi blogging. Lesson 1 learned.
DAY 1 HIGHLIGHTS
- After having dealt with a last minute lost passport in San Francisco that delayed my flight by one day, I arrived the night of Feb 11 in Kilimanjaro Airport (JRO) to find my main and only bag of camping gear delayed or lost back in the US (thanks, Delta!), meaning I had only a pair of pants, the shirt on my back and a goofy grin–“I’m in Africa!” to start the hike. Guess we’ll figure it out, since this is unlikely to be the first time this has happened.
- An hour and half drive from the airport, then a quarter mile up a dirt road fully worthy of a four-wheeler, I enter a gated compound for Iboru Safari Lodge, an oasis of thatch roof huts and mosquito net beds. I crash, and in the morning, my friends Caryl, Alex and his wife Irina are waiting at breakfast.
- Our lead guide, Justin Thomas (JT), of the African Walking Company, briefs us on the 9 day climb up the mountain, and makes arrangements (paid for by me..but I’ll file insurance) to have a porter haul the missing bag up the mountain to wherever we happen to be and in the meantime, I’ll use rental gear to make up anything missing. JT is a sunny, articulate fellow who’s got great social skills and has guided clients up the mountain since 2004.
- There are four additional summiteers joining us on our journey: Kitt and her husband Rhys, US Marines currently posted in Senegal, Cort, a cybersecurity specialist from St Louis, and Paul, whom we call Buddha, an animator from the Carolinas.
- We drive 2.5 hrs ascending from dusty dry plains past an assortment of tin roof shack, half finished brick houses, vibrantly dressed locals and Maasai herding cattle, up into the lush green forested foothills to the Londorossi Gate, where we register for the trip. Then it’s another 30 minutes down twisting dirt roads to the Lemosho Gate, our starting point. We’re doing the newest route on the mountain, the Northern Circuit, which is a combination of routes from the wet side of the mountain–Lemosho, Shira, Rongai, plus its own stops.
- At Lemosho Gate, we first see the army assembled to help and guide us up the mountain: lead guide JT, Assistant Guides Said, Halid, Viviano, Chief Stomach Engineer (Chef) Joseph, 6 helping porters who carry our luggage, and a whopping 28 regular porters who carry mess tent, cooking tent, mobile toilet and tent, all food and water. The fellow with the AK-47 on his back is reassuring…wait, what?
- We start at last! It’s raining steadily and after donning rain gear, we first learn the meaning of the Swahili word “Pole Pole” – “Slowly”…as we take one achingly slow step after another behind lead guide Said with Viviano and JT following up the rear– enough so that it’s actually calf work to move that slow, ascending up through the plush green jungle to Tree Camp. One the way, the army of porters ascends past us, luggage precariously balanced on their heads, backpacks on, rock and rolling ahead to get the camp setup by the time we arrive
- Roughly 2 hrs and a 1000 feet later, we come into Lemosho Forest Camp, elevation 8700 feet, where we find our tents setup, along with the mess and cooking tents. JT then briefs us about the small blue tent he calls the Internet Cafe (pronounced with the long A), where we can send email, and do all manners of Internet activity. He’s referring to the mobile toilet, of course, but this will become our staple sense of humor for the duration of the trip, approaching the tent in the middle of the night and asking “Cafe in use?”
- Along the rim of the camp, we can see and hear the clatter of monkeys; with long 3 foot tails of flowing black and white, it’s the black and white colobus monkey; we rush into the trees to capture pictures. Later at night, we’ll hear the staccato chatter of an alpha, and the call and response all around us as well.
After dinner, JT briefs us on the hike next day Eventually, we drift off to sleep in the rainforest to a star filled night and the chirps of forest birds, a full and fulfilling day behind us, and more adventure to come.
As readers of my blog know, Saba has been in a drought condition for quite a while. The day I left the island, it was raining steadily on Easter Sunday, as it had the day before, some respite to the parched little Caribbean isle. I snapped my last shots from the balcony of Tricia and Michael Chammaa’s apartments in Lower Hell’s Gate, and managed to get this gorgeous and dramatic horizon.
Here’s to many more rainy days like this for my Saban friends. April showers and all that good stuff.