Mount Kilimanjaro/Sarafi Trip Report

February - March, 2006
By Marcy Beard

Hello everyone!

We had quite a time this past month, and we are now decompressing in Grenoble. Our friends here have generously let us stay for a week, longer than originally expected, and we're using the time to look at maps, read travel books, plan our next couple of months, do laundry, and watch movies :)

Since the last time we bothered you with a bulk email, we have traveled to another continent, climbed higher than we ever have, seen wild animals, and found possibly the highest concentration of Coca Cola signs in the universe (although I wouldn't bet on that). But first, we spent a couple days at the Torino Olympics. It seems like a long time ago, but with the help of our photos I can recall a couple details.

We stayed with a super-nice Italian family, and it was fun to talk with them about that area of the country and learn about the people. Some highlights while traveling around: The Olympic flame, the beautiful snow-covered mountains - especially the area around Sestriere, and the pizza/pasta. Favorite events: Freestyle aerials, women's bobsled, and short-track speed skating. Most inspiring athlete: Clyde from Argentina, a freestyle aerialist who could barely complete the (relatively!) easy moves he chose. On his second qualifying run he landed on his head, slid down the slope, and then stood up with arms raised and face to the sky - yeah!! We were stationed at the fence where the athletes came through after their jumps, and we joined the crown chanting "Clyde, Clyde, Clyde" as he came through smiling and crying. Very cool.

Back to Paris to start our Africa trip. We flew to Amsterdam where we met my brother Kip and our friend Scott, and immediately the level of fun and humor increased 10-fold in our travel group. The flight to Kilimanjaro was uneventful except for 3 failed landing attempts, an unexpected detour to dar es Salaam, and joyous celebration upon arrival at Kilimanjaro at 2 a.m. Our hotel in Marangu was ... interesting, and we started our malaria meds immediately upon arrival. Then we slept until noon, or at least John and I did.

We met the other 8 people in our climbing group in the pre-climb briefing that evening, and they seemed very quiet and reserved. Shows what good first impressions are. During 6 days on the mountain we laughed so hard I sometimes had to choose between breathing, swallowing that bite of food, and giggling, not always with pretty results. We had a lot of fun on our climb, and much of it was due to the wonderful people with us. The guides and porters supplied the rest of the singing and good cheer, and we really had a wonderful time.

We climbed up the Rongai route on the north "dry" side of the mountain. Apparently there was no Short Wet Season around Christmas like normal, so to make up for it the Long Wet Season started early this year. The natives were very happy because they had been dealing with drought conditions for several months. Initially we were happy too because we had wonderful hiking conditions - cool, cloudy, light sprinkles during the day and rain at night. Normally it is much hotter and dustier on the lower slopes. And based on the lightning I saw on the south side of Kibo, I think we were spared worse weather in the first few days of the trek.

But summit morning turned into a blizzard, and yes Scott, even a Vermonter would consider that to be a blizzard. We actually started walking in a quiet fog (mentally and meteorologically) at midnight, slowly slowly, sweating and wondering why we were wearing tons of layers of clothes. Then the sky cleared and briefly we had a view of the Southern Cross. Sweet. More walking, then the wind and snow started - how was it snowing when we could still see the stars, Sam wanted to know? We had a rest stop under a rock shelf (Hans Meyer Cave) where I should have put on every single piece of clothing I had, but only managed to eat some chocolate instead.

After that, hours and hours of driving snow and ice, cold fingers and toes, nothing visible except headlamps on the switchbacks above us, snow, rocks to climb over, baby steps, slowly slowly, stopping every 10 feet, huddling together to block the wind, trying to drink and not able to eat, steep trail always going upward. It was crazy. I wondered what conditions would cause our guides to tell us to turn around. But we settled into a equilibrium, and when it never got better or worse there was no particular reason to quit so we just kept going. Kip bonked a bit partway up, but he got it together and was fine the rest of the ascent. Scott had dizziness and nausea problems starting at the cave but somehow the guides took care of him and he made it back to our group. Eventually Scott looked around and said "why is it getting light around us?" - uh, it's morning, Scott.

Near the top of the steep part, the guides were singing, possibly the song "Hakuna Matata" - not the warthog version, but the African melody. I remember John and I singing and shuffle-dancing in the snow, rather surreal. With the slow ascent and constant stops, we were feeling good although a bit cold. At Gillman's point on the crater rim we tried to get some warm liquids into Scott, but that didn't work and the guides told him he was going down from there with Obote, the head guide. Jane, Frantz, and Amanda also got their "Gillman's certificate" for making it to that point. Ulli, Kip, John, and I were jumping to continue around to Uhuru peak, the high point on the rim. I started yelling "Twendai" - let's go! as Sam and Clint debating and then decided to come with us.

Three guides came with us as we took off along the much-less-steep trail. Initially we had to clamber around some rocks but then it leveled out to an even, snowy, somewhat uphill walk. Oh-so-briefly the crater appeared on our right and I got a photo of it (ha! - it's the all-white one in the montage). I wanted to take more pictures of everyone's iced-over packs, jackets, hair, and faces, but couldn't bring myself to leave my hand outside my ski glove any longer.

We had wind and snow in our faces for the next hour+, but I was warmer now because we were no longer stopping to rest. Or maybe it was because I was glowing. I was so happy to be there, to have "conquered" the crazy weather, like jumping for joy in every puddle when I run in the pouring rain, and I smiled the whole way. I grinned at each person who was coming back from the summit and said "good job!". Only a couple looked at me and coherently answered. One guy even made me take his ski goggles when I commented how that was a good idea! Well, it was. The only lasting effect of the climb was a wind-burnt and sore lower lip because my neck fleece was frozen solid by the time I decided to quit smiling broadly and cover my face up.

Each dark shape ahead of us turned out to be a descending person instead of the big sign we were looking for. Each person said "almost there" - not! Even the guides started singing too early. Ulli muttered something about getting rather impatient. Finally there it was - we were at the very top. I would have kissed the sign except I couldn't guarantee my lips wouldn't get stuck to it, so we hugged it instead. We threw cameras at the guides who quickly snapped our pictures (our disposable camera pics will be posted on the website soon), then Ulli was immediately on her way back. We paused just a second to glance around and then it was off to the races.

John called me to a stop in time to see the edge of a glacier come into view on our right - wow! It was huge and seemed so close. By the time I had the camera out, the fog closed back in. Just a tease, just a peek. Such was our trip!

We ran/jumped/slid/hobbled our way down to Gillman's and then down the steep slopes back to camp. This was probably the most difficult part, even for people used to running downhill. It's a LONG WAYS. After Kibo Huts (where we rested for several hours), the trail was much easier and we enjoyed our day and a half hike down the Marangu route through the moorland and jungle. It was nice to be breathing easily, moving fast, savoring the chances to see interesting plants and a couple monkeys, and done with the high altitude.

Final thoughts on the climb - incredible group of hikers, guides, and porters, amazing cooking by our chef January, beautiful scenery when we could see it, and an awesome experience. I highly recommend the African Walking Company (booked through Africa Travel Resources in the UK) and we enjoyed the Rongai route.

After the climb, our group split up for traveling home or to the Zanzibar beaches. John and I chose to go on a short safari to see some African animals. After being in a group of 50 people, it was actually rather lonely with just me and John and our guide Roland, but we enjoyed our quiet time in the bush looking for wildlife.

A bunch of animal photos from the safari

We spent a couple days on the Ngorongoro plains with the wildebeest/zebra/gazelle migration, and that was really neat. People are allowed to drive off-road across the plains and we were mostly the only jeep around when we did that. It was amazing - wildebeest as far as we could see. And baby animals learning how to run. We saw quite a few giraffe and many types of deer and birds. Each time Roland stopped the jeep we wondered what he had seen, and it was always something new and interesting that we never would have noticed by ourselves.

We spent one day/night in the Serengeti, which was pretty quiet because the migration had mostly passed through already. That was where we saw a couple leopards, lions, and cheetahs. We had to stay on the roads there, and when someone found something interesting the jeeps tended to congregate so everyone could have a look.

Our last morning on safari was spent in the Ngorongoro Crater where we finally saw some black rhino - but very far away. The numerous hyenas, baboons, and monkeys were interesting to watch. There were tons of colorful birds, especially around the lake. We stared at a cheetah for a while waiting for her to stalk a gazelle but it would take more time than we had to actually see something happen, so we moved on. All in all, an amazing safari experience.

We made our way back to Paris without too much excitement, except an extra day spent in Arusha when they couldn't get a cargo door to stay closed on the plane - another late-night hotel arrival. It was a very nice hotel, so we slept and watched TV and ate all day. That evening we got on the plane later than scheduled, but this time it took off, yay! One missing backpack later, we were in Grenoble (where they eventually delivered the missing item) and sleeping really well.

So that's it for now, phew! We're working on plans to briefly visit the south coast of France before heading to Cinque Terre and other parts of Italy. No more tour guides or plane rides for a while, just us on our feet and on trains. Hopefully it will be warmer in the south :)

See y'all!
Marcy et John

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