A Travellerspoint blog


To the Top of Africa

November 1-6, 2011

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My first ever high altitude hike happens to be to the top of Africa at 5895m. Climbing Kilimanjaro was a bit of an ambitious plan considered that I had no high altitude walking experience (the highest I have ever been prior to Kili was up at ~3500m in the Swiss alps) and I did minimal physical activities the few months prior to the big climb. Two weeks before the climb, I was still not sure if I could do it. I was considering trekking up Mt Meru, the “sister mountain” at 4565m instead. In the end, through some encouragements from friends and the fact that I am already here in Tanzania (don’t know when I’ll be back again), I didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity, so I decided to do it. And I am so glad that I did.
I took the 6-day Machame route up to the summit. It is also known as the “whiskey” route since it is known to be somewhat more challenging than the other popular route, Marangu, aka the “Coca Cola” route. I picked the Machame route simply because the available trip date fit with my travel schedule best and it allows one extra day for acclimatization. This route is also known to be the most scenic one.

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I did the climb during the first week of November, which has traditionally been the start of the short rainy season. Luckily the weather was on my side. We had good weather up to the afternoon when we started our descent from our base camp on day 5. By then, since we have already reached the summit that morning and we have only one more day until we get back to our hotel with dry clothes and showers(!!), we didn’t mind the rain. Yes, it takes four and a half days to reach the summit but only one and a half day to come back down. “Slow” is the key to acclimatization and it works. We hear the term “pole pole” repeatedly from our guide from day 1 and no, he wasn’t reminding us to use our hiking poles. The Swahili word “pole” (pronounced ‘po-lay’) means “slowly”. Walking slowly and allowing your body to acclimatize to the thin air (less oxygen) is really the key to successfully summiting any high mountain. I never thought I would be walking ‘that’ slowly. It was like I was walking in slow motion! But at that pace, my leg muscles were not overworked and my body was not stress (keeping heart rate and breathing rate low). Most importantly, this set the pace for the slow walk up to the summit.
On summit morning, we woke up at 11pm (it’s not a typo! We were woken up at 11 in the evening!) and was ready to tackle the summit by midnight! It was a clear morning with stars overhead and we could see the city lights from the town below (Moshi). The air was cool. I’m not sure what the temperature was but I was bundled with multiple layers of clothes (five layers on top and three on the bottom). Other people have already started ahead of us as I could see lines of headlamps up ahead on the trail. We moved at a very slow and steady pace, and taking small steps, which felt like big steps at that altitude! For me, I just concentrated on following the steps of the person ahead of me as we zigzag up the mountain. It was hard not to want to stop and take a little break but I knew it was not going to get any easier. It was hard to get the body going again once I have stopped because you get cold (it was definitely below 0C since water freeze in water bottle placed on the outside of the pack). The trek up just kept on going and we were at it for about 5 hours before we started getting some day light. The sun was rising behind us and we made it up to Stellar Point (5730m) to enjoy the sun rise just before 6 am.


On reaching this point, I already felt like it was a big accomplishment. We have already climbed about 1200m from base camp, but there was still another 160m of climbing to reach the summit. The sky was clear, clouds were below us, what a beautiful morning! Seeing clouds below me is one of the most amazing view and feeling that I will always cherish. What was going through my mind at the time? I can’t remember…… probably just wishing the summit was closer! Because of the fatigue, I don’t think I appreciated the scenery as much at the time, but looking back at the photos, the scenery looked stunning! There were glaciers nearby!!
The steep hard part of the climb was actually behind us but for some reason, my legs just couldn’t move at a faster pace. It was a strange feeling because the terrain to the summit appeared relatively “flat” and mentally I was very excited to reach the summit, but physically, my legs just couldn’t move very fast even when I could see the big summit sign ahead of me. It was as if my body was telling me to take my time and enjoy the moment. After an hour (at ~7am), I reached the summit!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I was standing at 5895m, Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest point and on the top of the world’s tallest free standing mountain! Very cool! :-)

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Going back down to base camp where we started more than 7 hours ago was no easy task. The steep hill that we climbed up to reach Stella Point was mostly loose rocks (scree) and I basically used my downhill skiing techniques (slalom style!) to help me “slide” down the slope. It was incredible looking at the terrain now in day light and seeing what we had climbed up in the early morning. Wow, we did THAT!! If I had “seen” the hill that we had to climb up, I think it would have been very discouraging. I am so glad we did it in the dark! After a break back at base camp and enjoyed a well deserved ‘lunch’ (by that point, we have already been up for more than thirteen hours!), we still had four hours of downhill walking ahead of us to reach the next camp and it has started to rain. But by that point, I think the sense of joy and triumph was what was driving our legs forward down the mountain. What a really LONG day that was! That was definitely one of the most challenging days I’ve ever had mentally and physically.

Would I climb Kili again? Ummm I don’t know. May be on another route and with the right company, I might consider it. But for now, there are other mountains to conquer………..

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Posted by RobertaS 18:44 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

All Good Things Unfortunately Must Come to an End

Goodbye and Thank You

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Time flies! I know I seem to say this a lot, but I guess when you are having a good time, time just seems to slip away more quickly than you wish. It has been 9 weeks since I’ve arrived in Tanzania and started volunteering with Wildlife Connection and sadly it’s time to say ‘goodbye’. My experience here has been amazingly positive largely because of all the wonderful people that I have met in the villages, in the schools and on the project, which is why it was difficult to say ‘goodbye’. Appropriately my last night was spent celebrating with a group of youth at our camp in Pawaga. I danced and enjoyed the beautiful night sky until early in the morning (in fact, I didn’t sleep at all since I had to catch an early bus into town. It was great!)


The celebration was to celebrate the accomplishments of this special group of youth from the village of Mbuyuni whom I have started meeting once a week since the middle of September. We made this to be a celebration of them graduating from being “students” to “teachers” on wildlife and conservation matters. There are 11 of them ranging in age from 14 to 19, plus the leader of the group, Richard, who is the only one who has attended secondary school. Yes, going to secondary school here is not mandatory, it is a privilege. In fact, I was surprised when I found out that a lot of students have to move away from their home to attend secondary school because there is not one in their village. I don’t know what the percentage of Tanzanians with at least a Form 4 education (equivalent to Grade 11 in North America) is, but in the villages, the percentage seems quite small, most would simply just have completed primary school (standard 7). In Mbuyuni, there is actually a secondary school, so why are these youth that I have been teaching not attending…. I have never asked them this question but my guess is it is because their family cannot afford to pay the school fees. To board at the school, including tuition, food and accommodation, it costs about $200-300US per year, which is a lot of money for families here and imagine if you have three or more children (not uncommon here).
At our very first meeting back in the middle of September when we invited all youth who are not in school to come join us, about thirty came out. The number slowly decreased as we met every Sunday afternoon, but that did not deter us from our goal of educating them more about wildlife protection and conservation issues. The twelve that remained have shown strong interest and willingness to learn and to share the information with others. They brought paper and pen to take notes without us even asking and there is always a wide range of questions waiting to be answered. The big moment for me was when I asked them one week whether they would like to do a small presentation on what they have learned so far to primary level students. Not only was the idea responded with great enthusiasm from the youth, but they surprised me by their readiness and wanting to do the presentation in two days time!


So on October 11, the twelve youth became teachers to a combined standard 5 and 6 class (~70 students in total). They took control of the class by sharing with the students interesting facts about different wild animals, including elephants, giraffes, lions, buffalos, zebras, kudus, warthogs, crocodiles, cheetahs and leopards. What I thought was only going to be a morning presentation turned into a full day event! The head teacher had to ask us to stop at 4pm because the school day was over. It was wonderful for me to observe them that day as I sat in the back of the class. They went above and beyond, and took charge of teaching kids that were just several years younger than them. To reward them and to further their education on wildlife and conservation, there was no better way than to actually take them to the park to witness the animals in real life! I was thrilled that we were able to arrange the trip prior to my departure. So on October 23, we packed the car, the twelve youth plus Rowland and myself, and headed to Ruaha National Park. The youth were ecstatic and happily greeted us at 6 am (they were all on time!) The day in the park was highlighted by close encounters with all their favorite animals and three separate sightings of lions (all within a few meters away!). The youth all took notes diligently and absorbed everything that Rowland shared with them from the park history to the sounds that elephants make. They were thrilled to use the cameras supplied by the project and took countless photos of wildlife and of each other (and quite a few with me too :) Overall, they enjoyed very much the opportunity to go to the park to see the habitat of the different animals and to observe their behavior (e.x. seeing how giraffes walk and elephants flapping their ears to cool themselves). That was the first park trip our project has taken youth on (the park visitation program focuses on adult education). I hope with more funding in the future, we will be able to take more kids to the park!



Here are some of the things they told me when I asked what their highlights were and what are some of the things that they have learned from the park trip:
-seeing giraffe, the way they walk is attractive and they have nice colour
-seeing hippos and crocodiles for the first time
-elephant is one of the animals that can keep memory for a long time
-seeing lions resting under the tree
-hearing the sound that hippo makes and it is similar to sounds made by cows, and learning that hippos eat grass not meat
-learning how big the park is and that it is the second largest park in Africa
-seeing wild animals live by depending on each other
-without conserving the environment, we will chase the animals away because we destroy their habitat

Asante sana (thank you very much) to everyone who has made my experience here so memorable: Sarah, Julius, Felisto, Rowland, Nesta, Almina, Asha, Evance, Damas, Godfrie, Terezo, Erin, Nick, Jack, Chelsea, Jerry and Jackie!

Now I’m off to conquer the top of Africa, Kilimanjaro………….

Posted by RobertaS 22:08 Archived in Tanzania Comments (0)

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