breathless by wilfred noyce
the dry air
and why at all?
prod the snow
its easiest way
a flat step
is a holiday.
the far stone
is many miles
far and alone.
grind the breath
once more and on
don't look up
glasses are dim.
wrench of hand
is breathless limb.
pause one step
breath swings back
dry throat is slack.
to the far stone
don't look up
count the steps done.
stone no nearer
the dry air
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro made me live through this poem.
It had all started off placidly enough, at the Nalemaru Gate. We were given lunch at our dining table - hot soup and bread, and a platter of fresh vegetables. The sun was dazzling, and I could see a man washing clothes at a tap near the hut we were sitting in. When we started to walk, the path was quite gentle. We went through fields of maize, pine tree plantations, and then through a forest. There were wooden shacks along the way, belonging to the farmers. After a few hours, we reached our hill-side camp, the Simba camp, where it was still warm enough to spend a minute or two admiring the stars before turning in at night.
The next day's hike was also very pleasant. Walking leisurely, we came to the heather and moorland zone. It reminded me of walking in Scotland, with lots of little hills and streams. We had lunch at the Second Cave, and one of the porters found a chameleon, which he put on a branch and held up for us to photograph. It was so hot that I had to keep my hat and sunglasses on when we ate lunch. Afterwards we went into the cave for some shade. It was quiet, dark and cool, and I wished I could have slept there for the afternoon.
After that, we hiked to the Kikelelwa campsite. It was a hilly area, full of stones. There were so many stars it felt as if the night sky was made up of a thousand singing crickets. The next morning, I saw the sun rise, and cause the sky over the horizon to blush in peach and apricot. It was very beautiful, with the mountain peaks framing the light in purple and velvet black. So far, the climb was a real holiday.
We walked for a few hours that morning in the golden heat, before arriving at our campsite at Mawenzi Tarn Hut. Along the way we had magnificent views of the snow-streaked Kibo peak, like a rich dark chocolate cake swirled with vanilla ice-cream and double cream.
But later that afternoon I felt very ill. We were now at 4300 metres, and my body was in shock at the lack of oxygen in the air.
When I was preparing for the trip, I assumed that a daily dose of Diamox would keep altitude sickness at bay. Certainly I didn't get pulmonary oedema or disorientation or any of the other fearsome symptoms that would have required me to abandon the summit attempt. James called my symptoms "altitude adjustment" rather than altitude sickness. I suppose it's bit of a lottery whether one gets altitude symptoms or not. Anyway, I drew the short straw on this one, and now know that I will start to feel bad after 4000 metres.
I had eaten a hearty lunch, scoffing down fresh pineapple and peppers and tomatoes with buttered bread and soup. I even had cocoa and cake for dessert. But by the time we got to our campsite my head was pounding as if it would explode. Soon after, I felt nauseous. Then the throwing up started. James said later, when he presented me with my climb certificate, that I was like a "Bureau de Change". "Everything that went in, went out again. She changed Tanzanian shillings and US dollars."
3 bouts of vomiting left me as weak as a kitten, with nothing left inside. I lay in my sleeping bag, hugging a hot water bottle and moaning softly. Su gave me an injection to stop the vomiting, and I fell into a sort of stupor, still in my climbing clothes, unwashed and very dusty. I only remember the sound of hail and rain, and seeing little white pellets bouncing on the ground through a crack underneath the tent. At around midnight the headache cleared and I ate a couple of muesli bars and a chocolate bar. (Ugh, the thought of chocolate and cereal bars makes me nauseous now.) Anyway, after eating and drinking a bit, I felt better, and in the morning, managed to eat some instant noodles that Su had packed, with a fairly good appetite.
That day's climb was across fairly flat terrain, but the altitude we ended up at was 4800 metres. That was our campsite at School Hut. The route to the School Hut crossed alpine desert - it was desolate and dusty, and there was hardly a green leaf to be seen, or even a large rock to hide behind. Towards the end, every step was a struggle as my head started pounding again. At School Hut I collapsed into the sleeping bag on my tent, and the vomiting started again. I retched until I was just throwing up air and some bitter spit. I remember lying helplessly and watching a mouse scamper in, sniff at our bags, and then scamper out again. There was a hail storm and the tent roof sagged with ice. One of the porters came in and banged on the roof to dislodge all the hail-stones. The afternoon was filled with the sounds of porters banging on tent roofs, like the bursting of many bags of pop-corn, and then of ice-chips falling onto stone, like showers of broken glass.
Su gave me an injection to ease my headache, which felt like someone had stuck a pulsing probe into my brain. After some hours, once again around midnight, my headache eased, and I could eat a cereal bar or two. I told Su that I was worried that I might not be able to attempt the summit, and that I was going to feel really ill once we climbed a further 1000 metres to the peak. Su said, which I felt was very comforting: "Even if you go up, retching every step of the way, and with a headache, you can still make it to the top."
Having the knowledge that I could still make it to the top even if I felt ill calmed me, and by the time we set off at half-past four, I felt all right - no headache and no nausea - at least for a few hours.
We started off at about half-past four in the morning from our campsite. There was a sprinkling of fresh snow on the ground, which crunched under our feet as we walked. My headlamp made a circle of silver in front of me. Looking below, that was all I could see. Looking above, I observed that the sky was thick with stars, but I was too pre-occupied to admire them. I was bundled up in a base layer, furry inner fleece, puffy down jacket, and water-proof shell, with thin gloves, thermal trousers, hiking pants and water-proof bottom covers. The numerous layers and opaque air made me feel a bit like I was moving underwater in a wet suit.
We walked on scree for quite a way. The snow and hail of the previous day had frozen the scree into cauliflower patterns, and it was reasonably firm to walk on. When I poked my walking sticks into it, it was like hearing biscuits splintering. James set a very slow pace, so I was not out of breath, though I was breathing hard from the cold and the thin air. I focused on the sound of my boots and my walking poles, and this sustained me for a few hours, until the outlines of objects sharpened, and the stars started to disappear, like burnt-out candles. The sky became a pale water-colour wash of midnight blue, before warming up to champagne pink and gold. Orange fire started to bleed into the horizon, and the sun rose above our heads, like a hot coin.
Orange fire turned to a magnesium flare. The stones sang in tones of glaring white and ochre, and the sky was pure blue fire. I plastered my dark glasses to my face, and put my hat on. This, plus the buff wrapped across my mouth and part of my nose left hardly any skin exposed. But I could feel the sunlight battering at my glasses and beating down through my hat. My head started to throb. Although the sun burned, the air was freezing, and my fingers were like little icicles.
The tediousness of our journey began to eat into my consciousness. Thinking was too much effort, so I repeated a mantra to keep myself going. The phrase was "One more step." I imagined this phrase being sung by a big choir, and then by a lone singer, and then whispered by a child. I would take a micro-rest after each step, so my stream of consciousness ran something like this:
After a while, this got too boring, so I switched to singing "Jerusalem" in my head, timing my steps to fit every second or third word. "Give me my bow of burning gold, give me my arrows of desire. Give me my spear. Oh clouds unfold. Give me my chariot of fire." After a thousand steps I got too tired to think of the whole song, and then I just kept singing one line in my head from the hymn "Abide with me": "Death, where's thy sting? Grave, where's thy victory? In life, in death oh lord, abide with me."
Sing in my head, step, pause, sing in my head, step, pause. Once in a while, I would suck from my platypus tube, feeling the icy salty-sweet lemon liquid chill my stomach. I had laced my water with electrolytes, to make it taste better, and also to replace any salt I was losing through sweat. Yuck - even the memory of that taste makes me feel rather nauseous now. Occasionally I would pop a Gu Chew into my mouth - this was a sweet which kept me from being hungry, and which I could eat even without any appetite. It tasted like a gummy bear on steroids.
The hours passed. Tramp, shuffle, tramp, shuffle. Crunch. Crunch. Wriggle shoulders, hoist up backpack. (After about 7 hours, I gave my backpack to the porter to carry.) Every time I looked up I would despair, since the end was never in sight. So I stopped looking up. The path was often rocky and steep, so I just looked at my feet and my walking poles as I inched my way up.
Finally, we reached a little clearing in the rock that had a sign saying "Gillman's Point". When I read up on Kilimanjaro, the blogs and other accounts said that many people gave up at around this point, rather than pushing on to the summit, which is a mere 200 metres higher and only about an hour and a half away. This always puzzled me, until I myself reached Gillman's, feeling my body almost weeping with fatigue. I sat down and felt like I did not want to get up again. The guides gave us hot ginger tea and Red Bull to drink. The smell of the Red Bull made me feel sick, so I just sipped the tea cautiously, willing it to stay down. The guides also distributed chocolate covered toffee bars. I took a couple of bites, but it felt like sweet wax in my mouth, and I had to stop eating, for fear of throwing up.
After about 20 minutes of rest, we were on our way again. Now getting to the summit seemed like a real possibility. The path became less steep and rocky. Snow started to appear beside the path, at first in honeycomb patterns around the rocks, then in rows of tiny pillars and miniature cathedrals, and then later in smooth piles of foam and shaving cream. Nearer the peak we saw glaciers, large wedding cakes in translucent layers of ice-blue and sea-green. The sun was out and the mountains looked like they were draped in white silk sheets. We were ankle deep in snow at some parts, and I was grateful for my gaiters over my water-proof boots, and the little skirts I had over the tips of my walking poles, so that they wouldn't sink too far when I dug them into the snow.
I had perked up at the beauty of the snowy mountains, but as the path continued, in the same maddening neverending way as it had for the past 10 hours, I chanted a new mantra in my head, as I was too tired now even to think about that one line from "Abide with me". The mantra was: "Mental, it's mental." The inspiration for this was from James, who kept telling us that getting to the summit was not about fitness. It was about mental strength. So my thought stream was:
...all the way to the top. I promised myself that once I reached the top I would treat myself by throwing up.
As we walked, the sky filled with clouds, and the mist rolled in. I finally took the last few steps to the place where the wooden sign was.
It's funny how you can create a moment in your head, dream about it, think about it, until it seems more real than the experience itself. In our weekly stair climbs, when we got to the 6th round of the Pinnacle, I would always say "Okay guys, let's imagine that we are making the final push to Uhuru Peak." As I walked up the steps, I had this image of myself exhausted but triumphant at Africa's highest point, whooping and grandly posing for photographs.
The reality is that I felt cold, exhausted and extremely nauseous when I finally tottered up there. My head throbbed. The mist had rolled thickly around us, softening the edges of the mountain peaks, and sending damp curling fingers up my sleeves and down the back of my neck. There was a rickety looking wooden sign announcing that I had reached the summit of Kilimanjaro. I was given a bear-hug by each of the guides, and then I hurriedly veered off to the side to empty the contents of my stomach onto the pristine snow. Not much came out, since I hadn't eaten anything except Gu Chews all day, and a couple of bites of toffee covered in chocolate.
I stumbled to the front of the sign, and sat down in a haze of exhaustion, dully watching our guide, James, who began dancing for us. The man was incredible. I could barely stand up, and there he was, clapping and shuffling his feet, and singing exuberantly. One of the guides gave me a quick massage of my neck and shoulders, which were sore from hours of clenching walking poles in my fists.
Cheryl, Su and I had arrived at the summit first, and we were waiting for Bhaskaran and Carrie to join us. I gave a weak cheer when I saw first Carrie and then Bhaskaran appear on the horizon, behind their porters. I felt happier seeing them walk up, than when I myself first reached the summit. I wanted everyone in our group to make it up. We were a team.
It had taken us about 12 hours to get up to the top from where we started, with hardly any rest along the way.
After about 15 to 20 minutes at the summit, we had to walk down again. That was an epic and excruciating 3 hour journey. My guide Simon was carrying my pack, and he took me at a rocket pace down to Gillman's point, and still walked quite briskly after that. I was panting and foot-sore and all my limbs felt like lead. By the time we got onto the scree, the sun had melted the ice holding all the little pebbles together, and it was soft and yielding. The guides slid down it like they were surfing. I tried to "ski"down, using my walking poles, but it really hurt my toes and left me out of breath. Simon took my arm and practically frog-marched me down. He was anxious to get back before it got dark. Using his arm for support I slithered and slid down, raising great clouds of dust along the way. I was gasping with the effort, and felt caked with dirt.
Then the path became very rocky, and I had to use my sticks, like a crippled insect, to pick my way down. The sun set, and I was still hobbling along. This continued for what seemed to be like eternity.
Finally before darkness fell, I was back at the camp, after about 15 hours of activity in thin air. I lay insensible on my sleeping bag. Thomas the porter brought us plates of food but I could not eat anything except a few mouthfuls of soup. I woke at around midnight to wet wipe myself before tucking myself into the sleeping bag.
We started on the journey back the next day. I was headache-free and able to look around me with more interest. I caught a glimpse of a sea of clouds boiling over a ridge at the edge of our campsite. It was like looking at a great heaving ocean in the sky.
We walked down to the Mandara campsite that day, via the Marangu route, with a break for lunch. Walking down was so much more pleasurable than walking up. I didn't pant, and the increasing oxygen in the air let me travel at a normal speed rather than the pole-pole geriatric pace of the past few days. I now had the time and inclination to take a closer look at the vegetation. There were giant lobelias - tall pillars coated with leaves, like green fish scales, bursting into fireworks of long leaves at the base. And tree groundsel - trunks covered with layers of dead brown leaves, sprouting little bushes on top. There were bunches of sage and yellow and red flowers like little candle flames among the green. There were mounds of heather with little purple flowers and lots of birds chirping away in the shrubs. It showered lightly, which cleaned the dust off my water-proof shells, softened the harsh air, and caused a rainbow to glow in a perfect arc across the horizon. This, and the fresh green hills in the distance, topped by tall trees, made the land feel like Eden. It was also particularly pleasurable to meet hikers coming the other way, and to answer their question of "Did you make the summit?" with an emphatic "Yes!", and to be able to whole-heartedly wish them "Good luck!".
The guides were listening to a football game being commentated by a Kenyan commentator as we walked, and I heard crows of delight from one of the porters as Liverpool scored first one goal and then another. It was an enjoyable walk - at least for the first couple of hours. Then the sun began to fade, and I began to long for food and bed. The hills and open space gave way to thick forest, and I stubbed my boots on stones and pebbles and tree roots, as it got darker and darker. We put on our headlights, and walked as fast as we could to the campsite. Monkeys chattered and howled invisibly among the branches. Leaves brushed my face and shoulders.
After what seemed like hours (we covered about 20 kilometres in total that day), we finally reached our campsite and had dinner. Before we retired for the night we heard a gun-shot fired off by the park rangers - apparently to scare away any leopards and other wild animals from the campsite. The temperature was a lot warmer than the previous nights, and I didn't need to sleep with my fleece, down jacket and buff on, which was quite liberating. It was still a restless night for me, though, as I kept hearing monkeys chattering in the bush throughout the night.
The next day we were in a fever of impatience to be gone, to get to hot showers and beds with bedsheets and blankets. We more or less stormed through the forest en route to the Marangu gate, which was the end point. Our hurry was exacerbated by the number of tse-tse flies there seemed to be in the forest, which can cause sleeping sickness if they bite. Our guide Simon killed one off each of us, by swatting it off our arms and backs.
After reaching the Marangu gate we drank some celebratory cokes and signed our names in the register, proudly putting "Summit" under the column stating how high we climbed to. Then it was a long hot bus ride to Arusha, dropping off porters along the way. My feet swelled from so many hours of being in boots, and I couldn't see my veins and tendons any more.
It had been a magnificent experience, but a rigorous one. The camping conditions were harder than what I was used to, because there was no running water or flush toilet, and because of the extreme cold. Wet wipes came in very handy. It was dismaying to see how brown they turned after a few swipes across my skin. I would use up more than half a pack each time, starting from my feet. Because of the cold, I would undress in parts, wiping down and covering up, body part by body part, teeth chattering all the while. The porters would bring us basins of hot water (gathered from streams along the way) to wash in at the end of the day and in the morning, but it was only enough to wash the face and get rid of some grime on the hands.
The mountain dust got under finger nails and toe-nails, so all of us had dirt-rimmed digits. My hair grew stiff, and the cold and constant chafing made my fingers swell around the nails, and look red and puffy. Soon, opening packets and doing fine work with the fingers hurt. My lips were chapped from the wind and the sun and required many applications of lip balm each day. As the weather grew drier and colder and dustier, the capillaries in my nose started to bleed, and I blew out dirty, bloody snot a few times a day, and often had to resort to breathing through my mouth because of the congestion. I panted all the time, because of the thin air and the diamox, and started to cough because of all the dust I ingested. The Diamox also made me want to urinate frequently. When our toilet tent was not available, we fertilised many a shrub and rock in Kilimanjaro. At night, the idea of trekking in the cold to the toilet tent was too intimidating, so I used this invention called Pee-mate, which is a piece of cardboard that you fold into a sort of aeroplane shape. It lets girls pee like a boy, - but positioning is crucial to avoid spillage. The pee went into a bottle that served as a chamber pot and had to be emptied surreptitiously some steps away from the tent in the wee hours of the morning, when it got full. I was grateful to be able to pee in the tent, rather than have to trudge through the icy air to the toilet tent, since the ground was usually full of rocks and bumps, but I never got used to peeing standing up, and always approached the act with great apprehension.
Our tents were a generous size, because we ordered 3 man tents to sleep 2 people. Looking at the tiny tents put up by the other campers, I congratulated myself on that decision each time I crawled into my tent. With a 3-man tent, there was a "verandah" to put dirty boots and pee-mate bottles, and there were two compartments, so people could take a compartment each to sleep, or use one as a luggage compartment and one as a sleeping area. The toilet tent, Su's idea, was also a luxury, which I now think of as a necessity. It was just a narrow tent, tall enough to stand up in, with a wooden box with a hole on top shaped like a toilet bowl hole. The "toilet porter" would put some water and harpic into the box, and then clean out all the stuff that accumulated in it, about 3 times a day or more. There was also a holder for toilet paper. Somehow, it's psychologically more comforting if you know whose pee and excrement goes into the hole than if it belongs to strangers. I shuddered whenever I passed the official campsite toilets - dark wooden structures that the guidebooks said were so smelly you needed to put a bandanna across your nose and mouth if you used them.
Our crew was huge - 22 people. Of these, there was James, the head guide, and then 2 assistant guides, Simon and Felix. There was one cook, and the rest were porters. Some of the porters were just "ordinary" porters. Their task was just to act as beasts of burden. I say "just", but the physical feats they performed were extraordinary. Balancing about 30 kg of weight on their heads (including their own packs), they would storm up the mountain at a pace that was 6 times faster than us holiday-makers. The "special" porters had to do this, plus extra duties - there was a man that helped in the kitchen, someone who did washing up (so his hands were always in freezing water), security guards that stayed out in the cold and watched our tents to make sure no one stole into them when we were in the mess tent, someone who brought us hot drinks in the morning, while we were still in our sleeping bags, and who filled our nalgene bottles with boiling water at night, and topped up our drinking water (purified and boiled) in the morning. There was Ali, who did toilet duty - to my mind, an unspeakably difficult job. There was Elya, built like a marathon runner, who would carry all our tents on his head after they were taken down in the morning. He would out-run all the porters from the other groups and stake out the best spots for our tents and put up all the tents by himself, even before the other porters in our group arrived.
This is why, for instance, when we camped by the lake, we got a view of both the lake and the mountain, and the spot which was closest to the exit and entrance to the camp, while the other groups had to walk over stones to camp in the shadow of the mountain. And on the night when we were in School Hut, my tent was neatly ensconsed between two enormous rocks, which cut it off from the fierce wind.
At night, the porters slept 12 men to a tent, in their own tent and in our mess tent. I am not sure how much sleep they got, because there always seemed to be a hubbub and commotion around the camp late into the night and early in the morning. There would be laughter and arguments, and my ears would catch the words "Liverpool", "Chelsea" and "Manchester United". It was a festive atmosphere and given the general exuberance of the group, not a place to be a shrinking violet. We found out that James had picked the boys he grew up with to be on his crew, so they were all childhood friends, and had worked together on many expeditions. It was good to feel the camaraderie among the crew, and sometimes it almost felt like we had sponsored a big party up the mountain.
James promised us 5-star service on the mountain, and I have to say that we were positively coddled. In the morning, Thomas the porter would give us a wake-up call and the hot drink of our choice, and a basin of hot water and soap. Our breakfast would be ready in the mess tent, and the waiters would serve us one by one, with as much ceremony as if we were in a restaurant. We ate off a bright red checked table cloth with proper metal cutlery. If it was a fine day, we would eat outside, with our dining table and waiter service, drinking hot soup while other groups ate packed lunches they stored in their day packs. The food was decent - pasta with meat sauce, vegetable soups, tomato and cheese toasties, sausages, scrambled eggs, french toast, beef stews, fried rice, fresh mango and pineapple and tomatoes. Everything tasted healthy and nutritious. I just didn't usually have the appetite to do proper justice to it. I poured chilli flakes on all the savoury things, to stimulate my tastebuds.
The porters even sieved the drinking water they collected from the streams for us, so that it was sediment-free. On the summit assault morning, a porter put on my gaiters for me, lifting my boot onto his lap as if I was a child. When I was ill, Thomas would come and feel my forehead, and try to persuade me to eat something. He would give my head a few rough strokes, like the way I would pat a dog, to comfort me.
Of all the jobs though, I guess being the head guide is the toughest. James had to manage a crew of strong and boisterous men, and keep their morale up and make sure they were performing all their duties well, like an army officer. He had to plan our route each day and who would do what. He had to joke and chat with us tourists and make sure we were happy. He had to climb with us, particularly on that excruciating and tedious summit push. He also doubled up as a mountain doctor, checking us for symptoms of altitude sickness, and prescribing doses of Diamox for each day. Apparently to get a guide licence you have to go to guide school, and attend a first responder mountain first aid course, and then pass a test conducted by the national park. The test is a theory test, and also a practical test. The practical part involves carrying 30 kg and walking up the mountain in just 2-3 days until the place to start the summit push. You don't have to carry a weight for the summit push, but you are expected to be up to the top of the mountain in three hours - 4 times our group's speed. The test is conducted every 5 years, so if you miss it, you'll have to wait another 5 years. So although James was ill with malaria, he went ahead and took the test anyway, and was even among the top ten finishers. A man of iron indeed.
On the last day, before collecting their tips, James gathered the whole crew in front of us and led them in a song. They sang in that call and response style that epitomises African singing for me. They put our names into their song, and clapped in rhythm and cheered. I think they hailed us as conquerors of the mountain.
But I did not feel like a conquerer of the mountain. Just a survivor.
I had gone beyond exhaustion and fatigue to get to the top and back, and was left with a feeling of great respect for the mountain, and the crew that brought us there and back in one piece.
Arriving at our luxury hotel in Onsea was a surreal experience after the privations of the past week. We clomped up to the dining room in our muddy boots, bringing the musty odour of the mountain with us. A waitress proferred some snowy hot towels and a welcome glass of cold fruit juice. I suddenly felt very grubby indeed. We sat down to eat spaghetti bolognaise cooked by a Belgian Michelin-star chef, with a view of the Arusha hills before us.
The 4 of us girls shared a villa with two rooms, a kitchen, dining room and living room. Each room had a four-poster bed and a single bed. The whole place was filled with African artefacts made of wood and clay. There was a swimming pool just outside our villa. The shower was powerful and hot. I was like a cat with a bowl of cream that night and the next day.
So many pleasurable experiences - seeing the brown water drain away when I showered, seeing my dirt-rimmed fingernails turn white, getting an afternoon massage from Carrie, while beside me, an African therapist massaged Su. Sitting in a jacuzzi, sipping Amarula with ice, while seeing the sun set over the Arusha hills. Alternating between napping and painting and birdwatching as I lounged for the whole day on the soft chairs in the hotel verandah. Being the only person swimming in the hotel pool, enjoying the sensation of burning sun above, while stroking through the ice-cold water. Eating a 6 course fine-dine meal at the hotel - sweet breads and cabbage, lamb meatballs, poached quail's eggs on toast, potato roulade and lamb shanks, all washed down with red wine. Coconut ice-cream for dessert. The air was chill but the staff lit brass bowls filled with coals to keep us warm. Breakfast was just as decadent, with more than 6 kinds of jam to choose from, platters of cold meat and cheese, home-made buns and corn-bread, creamy butter, and fruit salad.
On the night of our return we treated James and the other two guides to a meal of chicken and chips at this open air restaurant called Nick's Pub. The food was barbecued on spits behind us, and the air was thick with cooking smoke. The chicken was flavourful and the hot chips crisp to the bite. I ate like a wolf.
James presented each of us with our certificates and made a little speech as he did so. We then hugged each of the guides in turn and were applauded by our team-mates. According to James, the record of Asians summitting was quite dismal - only about one in two succeeding - so we could be proud of our achievements. We asked why the record was so poor. "The Indians eat too much chilli, they say." he replied, in all seriousness. "And Singaporeans and Malaysians come from sea-level." He did not have a theory for the Taiwanese, Japanese and Koreans, whose countries have lots of mountains. But I guess it doesn't matter. The point is that we five had summitted, mostly thanks to perfect weather conditions and our excellent guides. James had apparently left orders with all the guides that not one of us would be allowed not to summit, unless we actually got mountain sickness.
I suppose the conditions being so perfect and all of us being in relatively good health and shape, it would have been a shame for all of us not to get to the top. It was so fatiguing, though, that I wonder if I would have made it up if the weather conditions had been less than optimal - if I had to walk through hail and snow, for example, or heavy wind. Under the original plan, we were supposed to have gone from Mawenzi Tarn Hut to the Third Caves Campsite (descending about 8 k), spend the night at the latter place, and then climb to School Hut the next day. The idea was to "climb high and sleep low", and better acclimatise us for the summit push. And then after reaching School Hut, we would have a few hours' rest before making the summit push at midnight. But James suggested a different option to us, after seeing the (turtle-like) speed at which we walked, and assessing the physical state of myself and Bhaskaran, who were both suffering from altitude sickness. On his suggested route, we skipped going to the Third Caves Campsite altogether, saving ourselves an additional tiring journey. We went straight to School Hut from Mawenzi Tarn Hut, and rested for a longer time - until 3 am - before making our summit push. Thus, while the midnight summitters had to battle with snow and heavy winds, we walked up when it was relatively calm, but on frozen, stable ground. The extra time allowed me to recover from my altitude sickness, and spending two nights at the same place meant that we did not have to repack our things before making the summit push. So that was a good suggestion by James, without which we would probably not have been able to summit. The whole point of a midnight assault is to get to the peak by sunrise, I believe. But since we were moving so slowly, it's unlikely that we would have done it in time even if we had left at midnight. The day summit also let us have some nice sunrise views from somewhere up the mountain, so all things considered, I think it was the far superior option.
Anyway, all this was discussed at length among the group after the climb. We did a thorough post-mortem of the whole trip and kept recounting the different steps of the journey - totally boring for any outsider, I think. That's when I realised again how important it was that all of us managed to make it to the summit. We might have felt constrained in talking about our achievements if one of our number had not made it all the way to the top.
Anyway, I did not leave the Onsea from the time we got there to the time we had to leave. I had no desire to plunge into the dust and heat of Arusha.
On our first day there we had already had a long tramp through town, in the company of a guide named Juma. He was a L'Oasis hotel employee who showed us around for a fee of twenty US dollars. He didn't speak much English and it was hard to understand what he said. At intervals he would say to us "No problem!" and "Okay?" but we didn't communicate very meaningfully beyond that. He was quite protective of us - cautioning me to put my neck wallet under my shirt, telling us when we should not take photographs, and always watching to make sure we were together. Once, a passerby got talking to Bhaskaran, asking him to buy some paintings. Juma shouted at him to leave Bhaskaran alone, and they almost had a quarrel in the street. "Your guide is drunk!" said the passerby to Bhaskaran in indignation. Whether drunk or just eccentric I am not sure, but he certainly took us at a great pace through the city, and spoke at double the normal human volume. The city seemed fairly bustling and prosperous. I did not see any beggars or feel too tense, walking around, though I would have been completely lost without Juma, and intimidated without the presence of the rest of the group. We went to a large supermarket called Shoprite and bought some supplies. I suggested to Su that we buy Juma some biscuits for his children. That was a bit naive, perhaps. When we made the suggestion to Juma, he said instead that he would like to get something for the whole family - and he picked out a packet of washing powder and a bottle of cooking oil. We were happy to get that for him - and I reflected on how I took necessities for granted.
Juma also took us through the village in which L'Oasis was situated. The paths were all mud tracks and many of the houses were made of wooden sticks with hardened mud and cattle dung filling in the framework. There were chickens and ducks running about, and small cultivated plots in front of some of the houses. Juma brought us to a house where the lady of the house was making some alcohol from some sort of tuber. There was a strong smell of yeast. We were invited to look inside her house, which was just a tiny dark room, bare of anything except some pots and a bed. The floor was a mud floor. I think there wasn't room to stand up properly. Outside the houses women washed clothes and did other chores, the muscles in their arms rippling as they worked. Many Africans look so strong, and move so gracefully, especially the women. I like watching them walk, balancing large bundles on their heads. I like watching the men perform feats of strength - pulling huge carts, carrying heavy loads - so matter of factly. The Masai in particular look very striking - tall and lean, with bright red cloaks and sheathed daggers at their waists. And the children are delightful, with their chubby cheeks and independent spirits. As soon as they can walk, it seems like they stop being carried, and even very tiny children can be seen trotting up and down the streets, without anyone fussing about whether they will fall over or be run down by a truck, the way a Singapore child would be constantly watched and worried over.
It's from these tough and wiry people that our porters come from. Simon said that from a young age the children are already used to carrying firewood and pails of water on their heads, for long distances. So no one really trains to be a porter. You are born into physical hardship, become strong, and the strongest apply for jobs as porters.
Anyway, a world away from the hardships of the porters, our group lived it up for two nights in Onsea, and it was with some reluctance that we left the hotel for our 3 day safari and contemplated having to sleep in tents again.
First, we were taken to the company office to dump some of our luggage. There, the office boys came to sort out our bags. But we also noticed two short dark men wandering around the compound with bows and arrows in their hands, not helping with the luggage, but just watching the whole proceedings unsmilingly. The bows were more than half the height of the men themselves, and the whole effect looked almost comic, except that the men had such menacing expressions on their faces. We were wondering whether it was some sort of tourist thing - were we expected to pose with these men? Were the bows and arrows for us to take along with us for a cultural demonstration of some kind? Bianca, the office manager, told us that they were actually the office security guards, in charge of the compound. If anyone caused trouble, they would shoot him - at least, in theory. But she said that if a Bushman tells you that you can't enter, no one will in fact enter. I have never seen a security guard armed with bow and arrows before. Bianca said they came from Lake Eyasi, where we were going to spend a day with the Bushmen, and my curiosity was piqued.
Our remaining luggage was piled into one vehicle, together with our second driver guide, Martin, our cook Michael and our liaison officer (and presumably general help) Patrick. Our first driver guide Earnest took us in another vehicle. While the luggage vehicle went ahead to the campsite to set up our tents, Earnest took us on a game drive to Lake Manyara. There we saw elephants and giraffes, buffalo and babboons. We also saw a pool with hippos and plenty of birds. But the heat was searing, and after a while, it was time to drive to our campsite at Lake Eyasi.
The drive to our campsite was very, very long and bone-jarring. We only reached it in the late afternoon. The campsite seemed to be in the middle of nowhere - there were just vast fields, mud tracks, and the occasional collection of huts and cattle flocks in a clearing. The campsite itself was just a grassy area with lots of palm trees. There was no electricity, so although there were toilets, there were no lights. Our tents were ready for us. Somewhat wearily, we unpacked our bags and rolled out our sleeping bags.
We were introduced to Gaspar, who was going to take us to see the Bushmen the next day. Gaspar and Patrick took us for a walk to see the lake. The lake used to be huge, but the lack of rain has caused it to shrink terribly, and it is now miles smaller than it used to be. Where fishermen used to row their boats are now fields of maize and red onions. There was a small stream or two, but Gaspar said the area was very dry, and they were hoping for rain soon. A knot of children followed us as we walked, fascinated by the cameras wielded by Carrie and Cheryl. Quite a few of them held large palm nuts in their hands, which they chewed on at intervals. I was told that it was slightly sweet, so the children ate them like a biscuit. My guess, looking at the tiny marks made by children's teeth on the unyielding fruit, was that it would probably be more like gnawing on wood. A number of the children had been sent to do the family's laundry, and we saw them beating and pounding the clothes by the little streams and drains. There was a herd of donkeys which Gaspar said were used to ferry water in large containers from the streams. We walked through the maize fields, which was a somewhat claustrophobic exercise, involving much twisting and turning to avoid getting snagged in the leaves. The corn-cobs were bright yellow and looked good to eat. After leaping across a large ditch, we came to some onion fields, and admired heaps of red onions, which were covered in green stalks to keep them from getting dry. The edges of the lake were visible in the distance, but too far to walk to. The sun was setting, and hundreds of swifts wheeled about, their wings glinting in the wine-coloured evening light. We walked back to the campsite and had dinner by the light of some kerosene lamps.
One of the crew invited us to enjoy the campfire which they had made in a clearing away from the tents. The night was breezy but quite warm. For the first time in the whole trip it was possible to sit outside comfortably and admire the stars. We sat by the campfire - which consisted of an enormous log that they had rolled into the clearing and set alight. It glowed orange and every now and again would spew out a shower of sparks which the wind would whip away into the darkness. We sang, with varying degrees of competence, all the songs that we knew, from musicals and 80s pop and even jazz standards. It probably sounded terrible to an outsider but we enjoyed ourselves. The crew brought us a thermos of hot water and some glasses, so we could make cocoa and coffee. It was fun, yowling away, like some alley cats on a fence, while the stars glowed, the cups steamed, and the fire crackled.
The next morning we rose early for our walk with the Bushmen. It was a bumpy drive to their village. There were apparently 3 tribes in the area - the hunters, the "blacksmiths", who specialised in making arrow heads for the hunters, and the agriculturalists who had fields and flocks of cattle. We would be visiting the first two groups.
The hunters lived in an area with some enormous rocks and a baobab tree on which was pegged some animal skins. Animal hides - zebra and kudu - were also stretched out on the ground to dry. A bunch of women and children were gathered around a cooking pot and gnawing large meat bones for breakfast. A few dogs hung around and were rewarded by being thrown a bone or two after the human had picked it clean. The women and children and men spend their time in separate places. A few men were gathered around a wood fire, away from the women. They were warming themselves, as the morning was quite chilly. Everyone was dressed in brightly coloured (though very dusty) shawls, even the men. The men also wore threadbare shorts and sandals. We shook hands with everyone that we saw, and murmured a greeting that our guide taught us.
One of the men by the fire was using a knife to trim some feathers to stick onto an arrow shaft. We stared, fascinated, as he skilfully shaped the feathers and then tied them on to the thin wooden stick. The men then each took a bow and walked towards an open area where there was some sort of target on the ground. Each of them took turns to shoot at the target. They then let each of us try shooting. I pulled hard at the bowstring, but only managed a feeble twang, and my arrow skidded in the dirt, a good way before the target. The bow was very light, but the string, made of a kudu tendon, felt as tough as a wire. Even boys that looked like they were only 6 years old were shooting their bows, and doing so very creditably. Their arrows flew respectably far.
Apparently boys start shooting with a bow from the age of 5 or 6, and then go out hunting with the men from the age of 12. One of the men was covered in keloids, and I asked Gaspar what had happened to him. Gaspar said that he had been attacked by a leopard when he was out hunting. He shot the leopard with his poison arrow, but before the leopard died, it mauled him. After this he was on his back for months, but eventually recovered, though with these horrific scars, and a slight limp because he fell out of a tree (which he tried to climb when trying to escape the leopard).
3 of the Bushmen took Gaspar and our group on a hunting trip after the shooting practice. They walked with utter confidence across a landscape full of low trees and shrubs, with absolutely no landmarks that I could see. Us city dwellers got pricked by acacia thorns as we crashed through the bush, probably scaring off all the prey in the vicinity. The Bushmen moved quietly ahead, constantly scanning the trees and shrubs for signs of life. They seemed to step very lightly on the earth when they walked, avoiding low-hanging branches and leaves and thorns and the treacherous stones that tripped us foreigners up.
They spotted a tree that was used by the stingless bee as a hive. Apparently you can tell such a tree because the bees will make a little pipe or nozzle which pokes out from the tree bark - some sort of air vent, I suppose. One of the Bushmen then took out a home-made axe and started hacking at the tree. The bark splintered, and he took a sliver of it and sucked it and nodded. A little more hacking and he extracted a gob of thick amber honey, which he handed to Gaspar, who gave each of us a bit to try. The piece of honey contained a few tiny bees which had drowned in the sweetness that they themselves created. I licked the stickiness on my fingers and was surprised by what a strong floral fragrance it had. It was delicious.
The hunt continued. The Bushmen spotted and shot 3 birds with their bows. I didn't see the first two kills, but witnessed the third. It was amazing to see the speed with which the hunter took out his bow and shot the bird sitting in the shrub. The bird was not much bigger than my palm, and to aim so accurately, so swiftly - if you think about how quickly a bird can fly away when startled, what he did was a real feat. After killing a bird, the hunter would hook it to his trousers.
With birds at their hips, two of the Bushmen led us to a grassy patch near a large tree. One of them broke off a few dry sticks from the tree, and gathered some dried donkey dung. The other shook some tobacco onto a piece of paper and rolled a cigarette. Casually, the first man took the firestick (a special stick for making fire) and rubbed it against a piece of wood. The friction caused the wood to smoke, and soon there was a little pile of ash and a tiny piece of glowing, smoking wood, which they buried under the donkey dung and dry sticks. The man with the cigarette blew into the pile, and I could see little flames leap up as they sucked in oxygen. He lit his cigarette and took a blissful drag, before passing it to his companion. They put a few more sticks on the fire. Then one of them pulled out the bird strapped to his waist and started plucking the feathers off. He took some of the longer feathers and stuck it to his wiry hair, as a decoration. He gave a few of the feathers to his companion, who also stuck them in his hair. The fine feathers littered the ground like snow-flakes. The denuded bird was then placed directly onto the fire, where it quickly turned black. Using his bare hand, the Bushman reached into the fire and turned the bird. Later, he picked it up out of the flames and separated it into 3 pieces, and scraped some of the charred feathers off. He must have hands of steel, because I swear I saw the flames licking up his skin, but he didn't wince, and his movements were deliberate and unhurried. When the meat turned from bloody to brown, he took the bits out of the fire and chewed some bones. He dug out bits of the bird and gave it to Gaspar, who let the carnivores among us try it. It tasted good, actually, considering it was unsalted and unseasoned. A rich gamey smell with a hint of blood.
It was fascinating stuff, and I half-wished that we had taken the option of spending 3 days with the Bushmen, even though that would have meant missing out on the game-watching.
After we left the hunters, we drove to the blacksmith village. This consisted of a family of about 12 people, living in a compound of mud-huts. One of the women there showed us how to grind maize to make flour, using a stone mortar and pestle. Her hut was small but very cool after the bright sunshine outside. The next thing we saw was two of the men making arrow-heads. They each sat on the floor. One of them had a set of bellows - like bladders attached to sticks. He pumped them vigorously and the air blew onto a glowing heap of coals. The first man buried a piece of scrap metal under the coals and waited for it to become molten. He drew it out with a pair of tongs. It glowed orange. The blacksmith hammered it on an anvil. After a few swift blows, the shapeless piece of metal started to look like a sharp arrow-head. At intervals he put it back among the coals, to soften up, and then took it out to hammer again. It finally emerged, gleaming, and splendidly sharp. The smith then knocked it a few more times to create bristles on the sides of the arrow head. These would hold the poison that the hunters liked to use on their prey.
Impressive work. I bought a few arrow-heads to bring back as souvenirs. The only use I could think of for them was as letter-openers. But oh...what fearsome letter openers they would be!
We returned to the campsite for lunch and cold showers. The water was soft and cool. It had been pumped in from a nearby stream. It was lovely to be able to have a shower in the afternoon heat.
We then had a long drive to a place called Keratu. This was the kind of campsite that was more familiar to me - it had a lodge, a bar, a souvenir shop, flush toilets and semi-hot showers. We camped in the bar for a few hours, drinking ginger ale and beer and feeling quite cheerful. One last night in the tent (warm enough and bright enough for me not to have to use Pee-mate), and then it was off to the Ngorongoro crater the next day.
The crater was created by a volcanic explosion more than a million years ago. Today, animals (and some humans) live inside its 22 square kilometres, in a sort of Lost World, fenced off from the outside world by the sides of the mountain. There are lakes inside the crater, and vast plains, full of giraffe, impala, zebra, wildebeest, buffalo and other grazers and browsers, including white rhinos. There were lots of big birds too, like bustards, eagles, the secretary bird, and the ground hornbill.
We drove slowly along with the sun-roof up, admiring the animals, and getting extra excited when we spotted carnivores like hyenas and lions. We also saw a pool full of hippos, splashing about. Earnest drove us to a lake for lunch. He advised us to eat our packed lunches inside the vehicle, or the black kites in the area would steal our food. Indeed, I saw about 20 black kites circling some tourists eating their lunches outside. They had to duck and quickly cover their food whenever a bird swooped down on them.
The highlight of the day for me was when a lioness suddenly popped up a metre from our vehicle, and yawned and stretched and licked herself, before disappearing into what looked like a drain or an underpass - presumably to lie in wait for her prey. Other vehicles rolled by, oblivious to the fact that a lioness lurked beneath. Su had taken a pee break earlier, outside the vehicle, and wondered what might have happened if a lion had been lurking unseen in the vicinity while she was at it!
We had to leave the crater about an hour after lunch, and made the usual long and bone-jolting drive back to our hotel L'Oasis.
It is not in the same league of luxury as the Onsea, but L'Oasis is a very pleasant place, nonetheless. Each room is actually a small cottage with stone steps and creepers on the walls, and a pointed thatch roof. All the cottages are set in a big garden with tall trees and bushes full of birds, and have tables and chairs outdoors. The dining area consists of very big cushioned couches - great for dosing off in between meals. Skippy, one of the L'Oasis pet dogs, would sleep underneath one's chair or table. He seemed to like the company alone, as he never begged for food. The hotel also had another memorable pet - Henry the crested crane. A spectacular bird, he had blue and white tail and neck feathers, a golden crown, a scarlet dewlap, and a kabuki-white face edged with jet-black. He moved silently and deliberately between the dining room, the pool and the garden - an arresting and peculiar but very beautiful sight. Crested cranes mate for life, but Henry's mate had died, so he is apparently spending the rest of his life alone.
Our flight was not until the next evening. Between drinking and eating, snoozing and spurts of reading, the hours at the L'Oasis glided past gently, like a punt in the river on a summer's day.
When it was time to go, we put on our black t-shirts which said "www.teamkilimanjaro.com" in front, and had a map of Mount Kilimanjaro on the back. It tickled us to be wearing the same t-shirt, like a sort of uniform. A reminder of our achievement together, as a team.
Teamwork wasn't just about climbing the mountain in a determined fashion - it was about keeping in good spirits through injury and altitude sickness, and being enthusiastic about everything, from meals to buying souvenirs to taking photographs. It was about being cheerful, taking part in the conversations, being pleasant to the crew, and having that attitude of enjoyment which makes for a successful holiday.
Even before the trip, it was about turning up for stairs training, preparing for the trip properly, getting all the right gear, and sharing it unselfishly, when necessary.
Carrie was our massage therapist and the photographer among us with the fiercest camera. Su was the team doctor who treated all our stuffed noses and nausea (and most definitely saved my summit attempt). Cheryl was the banker who organised all the payments and navigated the complicated world of staff tipping. Bhaskaran was our security guard - a large and reassuring male presence for us girls, especially when surrounded by so many strong and tough men.
This is one of the first e-mails I wrote to the group when planning for the trip:
"Hello all, climbing Kilimanjaro is an absolutely crazy enterprise for people with no experience at altitudes above 4000m and no experience climbing serious mountains.
But at least 3 of us are crazy enough to want to try next March, and 2 of us are teetering on the brink of madness. : )
I think we all think this is a wonderful thing to do at some point in our lives.
Why so soon? My personal answer is because I'm not getting any younger, because life is unpredictable and in another year's time I may not be in a position to do it because of work or other reasons - so while there is the momentum (after KK) and some people to go, I just want to seize the moment, strike while the iron's hot, and take the plunge..."
I count myself very fortunate to have found 4 people crazy enough to come on this holiday with me.
The Kilimanjaro Crazies - you were outstanding travel companions. Take a bow!
14 March 2011