Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part II)

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The sun rising over Mount Kilimanjaro

Distance: 12 km
(from the summit to Mweka Camp)
Date: Feb. 2, 2018

I read the yellow words carved out of its wooden planks: “CONGRATULATIONS, you are now at Uhuru Peak… Africa’s highest point …” I am speechless and, surprisingly, emotionless. Time slows down and everything but the sign becomes a blur as I stare at it in disbelief. The sounds from my group begin to muffle, as if being underwater, as I become lost in my thoughts. Wow … we did it … we actually did it. This all seems so surreal. I slowly turn to Sieu, who I can easily spot by his bright orange Arc’teryx parka. He is hugging Paul, one of the guides who had kept a close eye on him during the hike. I look around in the dim light of the early morning to see the silhouettes of my group celebrating this tremendous accomplishment. Time suddenly warps back to a normal speed as these thoughts are interrupted by Albert telling our group to move quickly so that we can get a picture in front of the sign. We cannot spend much time lingering at the summit, as the available oxygen is approximately half of what it is at sea level and there are already a few people suffering the affects of the extreme altitude.

Sieu and I sit together on the boulders that are used to secure the Kilimanjaro sign. As the remainder of the group squeezes in, someone hands us a G-Adventures flag to hold. Our guides surround us like the paparazzi while juggling all the cameras that we have given them. As I take a quick look around, I am astonished that all eleven members of our group are here and standing around this sign. Even those two members who were severely nauseated were able to persevere forward to the top. Although still looking rather ill, they did it! We all did it! Six days ago, the eleven of us started this journey as strangers from different corners of the world but today, we stand united with a newfound sense of comradery.

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Our G-Adventures group standing, breathlessly, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

As we are rushed to begin our descent, the horizon suddenly lights up in a blaze of fire as the sun begins to peer over it. This gives shape to the jagged mountain peaks that we have recently ventured across. Leading my eyes to the sunrise is a thin dirt path that is worn through the snow by the hundreds of footsteps before us. We file along this path, one by one. To the right of us is a giant glacier, as if placed to challenge the mountain for the title of the highest point on the continent. It stands alone, off into the distance, like a single bookend with nothing to support. Beyond that, lays a blanket of clouds, which hug the mountain and stretch far into the distance; the bright morning sun causes these clouds to glow with various hues of yellow and orange. As I stare at the horizon, I am amazed that I can actually see the curvature of the earth – proving that we are actually standing on top of the world!

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Beginning our descent from the summit

As we pass Stella Point once again, we take a different route to descend. As opposed to the meandering trail that led us to the summit, this trail seems to have no apparent route – just down. I stand there calculating my approach to this. I study the ground. It’s approximately a 45 degree slope covered in scree. I take a step to test the terrain. My foot slides under the loose stones, searching for some traction. I am alarmed at how physically demanding it is to descend; ascending to the summit was not a physical challenge, but merely a battle of your lungs against the altitude. William shows us the proper technique to descend without causing injury to our ankles or knees but this method causes my quadriceps muscles to ache and burn. I develop my own technique that I use when William is not looking. I skip sideways down the hill – step, step … step, step … step, step … Every hop I make, I can feel loose rocks sliding underneath my feet, causing them to sink deeper into the scree like quicksand. As I descend, alternating between sideways hops and forward steps (when William is looking), I can feel the oxygen becoming richer. Although the air is dusty, it’s very quenching.

Our group has gradually broken off into smaller clumps and there are currently four of us following Paul and William. They pull us off to the side to find a place to sit and give our legs a quick break. As I sit on the loose scree, I stretch out my legs and watch as the pebbles race down the steep slope. It feels so good to sit! I lean back and embrace the warm sun burning through the thin atmosphere. The thought of putting on some sunscreen occurs to me, but it is quickly dismissed as I am too tired to really care. Turning my attention to Paul and William, I notice that they have no snacks or water; then it dawns on me – none of the guides carry personal gear so that they are able to carry our gear if needed. I share my water, which is flavoured with Lime Gatorade, and hand them some Clif bars – I always bring way too much food in fear of starvation.

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After approximately two hours of descending, we reach basecamp and take a quick nap. When it is time to continue our journey, our guides wake us up to pack our gear and move onward to Mweka Camp, where we will be spending our final night. I am not sure if it’s having more circulating oxygen going to my brain, or just the exhilaration of conquering this mountain, but I feel incredible! I have an extra bounce in my step, despite my shaky legs from the brutal descent. I spend most of our walk chatting with Lukie. We share stories about our personal life, our family, our ambitions, and so on. He speaks with such warmth and enthusiasm as he tells me about his first time seeing snow.

Upon arriving to Mweka Camp, our porters are waiting to celebrate our success with us. We sing, dance, laugh, and cry as we say our final goodbyes to these amazing individuals who have devoted themselves entirely to us for the past week. I am amazed at the bond that can be formed in such little time with complete strangers who cannot even speak the same language. Willie, my porter, has shown me such genuine kindness and care. Although this is his job, his actions were never fake or forced and he never asked for anything in return. He just came into my life for one week with the purpose of helping me achieve my goal of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.

After supper, we sit around the table in our mess tent for one last time. I reflect upon how this trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro was so much more than I could have ever expected. Like childbirth, you need to really live through it in order to truly appreciate the experience. I had read some books and blogs about Kilimanjaro but nothing is able to fully capture the beauty and essences of this experiences. As I look around the table and see our group laughing and sharing stories with our guides, I am reminded of a saying that I had once heard: It’s the friends that we meet along the way that help us appreciate the journey. It is astounding to think that such an adventure can create and strengthen such bonds between strangers. I have formed such a strong attachment and will truly miss these people who were merely strangers that I was sitting on a bus with seven days ago. Albert, Brunno, Lukie, Paul, and William, our guides, will always have a place in my heart. While we were in our most vulnerable states, they protected and cared for us. They shared their personal stories and culture with us as they took us on an adventure of a lifetime. Each of them will play such a critical role in the stories that I tell my children about the time that I climbed to the rooftop of Africa. 

The next day, we pull into the parking lot of the Stella Maris Lodge. As I step off of the bus, I see a group that is nervously waiting. They are frantically adjusting and weighing their bags, ensuring that they are within their 15 kg allotment before they depart for their journey. This makes me reflect upon when this was us. I remember sitting there with seven new strangers and nervously making ideal chitchat. We all watched in desperation as a G-Adventures bus pulled into the parking lot and offloaded its dirty passengers who had just finished their trek. They were all surprisingly smiling – which I assumed was because their dreadful hike was finally over with and that they were back to civilization. One by one, they disembarked the van laughing and sharing stories among each other. One taller man was limping but other than that, they all seemed okay. As I watched them, I remembered feeling so jealous that they were done. All of their pain and suffering was over, while ours was just about to begin. I wanted so badly to be them and for all of this apprehensive nausea to be gone.

Today, I step off that very same G-Adventures bus, as a dirty passenger just finishing my trek. I look over to that group, who is staring at us with envious eyes. I smile at them, as I collect my orange North Face duffel bag that I have been living out of for the past week. I smile at them because what they don’t realize now is how badly that I wish I was them. As I am about to part ways with my new friends, they are about to begin their journey with theirs. A pang of sorrow overcomes me as I realize that it is all over. I want so badly to trade places with them as they are about to embark upon the greatest adventure of their life.

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 3: Lava Tower, part I)

Distance: 7 km
Altitude: 4,600 m
Date: Jan. 30, 2018

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A porter carrying 20 kg of gear to Barranco Camp

I poke Sieu to see what time it is, “Ugh, it’s 5:30am!” … I bet he is really starting to regret bringing a watch on this trip. Once again, I am too excited to sleep and feel quite rested after a warmer night’s sleep. The night was not warm but I had finally figured out how to tighten the hood on my sleeping bag so that only my mouth was exposed to the frigid temperatures. 

 As I lie here and think about the day to come, I can’t help but wonder: Will today be the day that I succumb to the altitude? Today is our acclimatization day. We will be hiking up to Lava Tower for lunch (4,600 m) and then descending down to Baranco Camp for the night (3,900 m). The purpose of this is to expose our bodies to a higher altitude in order to give it a chance to adapt. By hiking high and sleeping low, we are hoping to decrease our risk of altitude sickness and, in return, increase our success of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.

I have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that today is going to be a hard day. Lying here, I decide to take a few deep cleansing breaths, in an attempt to re-oxygenate my blood. Deep breath in … long exhale out. I then take a few sips of water from the bottle that I had put in my sleeping bag the night before. The water is still warm and tastes like chlorine. I assess my body: my legs feels strong, my back feels ready, my body feels rested, but my mind feels slightly battered from the cold of the past two nights. The cold. My kryptonite. My weakness. Last night, as I crawled into my sleeping bag, my bones ached and my vocal cords whimpered as I spoke to Sieu. I shudder at that thought and remind myself to stay strong.

My thoughts are interrupted by a tapping on the tent. “Good morning!!!!” I quickly respond. I poke Sieu for the official wake-up call. As he removes his ear plugs and lifts up his eye mask, he is greeted by my bright and excited eyes, “Coffee time!!!” As I take my first sip, the hot coffee kisses my lips and soothes my soul. I stay nestled in the depths of my warm sleeping bag, which is always the last thing that I pack before starting my day.

After my coffee, I follow the advice from our guides and dress in layers. They had recommended this because today’s hike will leave us exposed to the elements. While packing my day bag, I rub against the side of our tent and notice how there is no condensation on it this morning, but rather frozen droplets of ice that had gathered on the outside. This surprises me because the well-illuminated tent gives off the illusion of it being warmer outside. 

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Shira Cave Camp

As we begin our hike, the frozen ground crunches beneath our feet. The crystals of ice look like clear snowflakes resting on the frozen mud. The heavy clouds from yesterday have dissipated, leaving a brilliant blue sky. We can clearly see Kilimanjaro in front of us, which is getting closer with each passing day. Although this hike seems endless, I enjoy that we are visibly walking towards this magnificent mountain. With every step I take, I am one step closer! Nicole is hiking behind me this morning. It has truly been a pleasure getting to know her during this trip. Her personality reminds me of the Japanese tradition of wabi sabi – she truly accepts and embraces the beauty of people’s imperfections, which I find very admirable. We chat about motorcycles for a bit, as this is an interest that we both share. 

A few hours into the hike, the landscape gradually changes to drab and grey. The clouds, which were initially below us, have now risen to cloak our blue skies and we can no longer see Kilimanjaro in front of us. I notice how the air is also becoming drier; my lips and nose feel parched and my eyes feel gritty. I retrieve my lip balm from the front pocket of my bag and find a piece of gum to keep my mouth moist. We continue along a dry and dusty path, which passes through the middle of an inhabitable looking environment. As I look around, I notice sparse amounts of vegetation scattered throughout mounds of charcoal colored lava rocks. I feel as though I am exploring a new planet, since there are very little signs of life, even amongst our tired group.

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The Path to Lava Tower

My breath becomes more laboured as we gain altitude, despite our slow and steady pace. The air is crisp yet it does not satisfy the hunger of my lungs. I am not alone in feeling like this. Our group, which is normally very chatty, seems particularly quiet today. The overall morale seems to be taking a bit of a dip today. I observe how especially Nhung doesn’t seem like herself. She has her earphones in and is listening to music; she appears to be very concentrated on moving forward but lacks her usual zest. I think it is safe to assume that the altitude is starting to tighten its cold and cruel grip around our group. 

As we continue to hike, Mother Nature tortures us with her indecisiveness. The weather fluctuates between hot and cold, forcing us to breathlessly remove and replace our layers of clothing. As we hike higher and become engulfed in the cool mist of the clouds, the dry and desolate land becomes muddy and wet. We step carefully through certain parts of the trail in an effort to keep our feet dry and shoes clean.

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I notice San balancing from one rock to another and decide to give him a playful shove, in an attempt to brighten this somber atmosphere. Oh and did it ever! As I do this, San loses his balance, steps into the mud, slips, and heads face first into the muck. Luckily, he catches himself with his hands before taking a complete nose dive. This one playful shove quickly turns into a massive (and dirty!) guilt trip. I am in complete shock of this situation! San stands up slowly and regains his balance. He pauses for a second and looks at me with mud dripping from his fingers. He then bursts out laughing. We both laugh as I retrieve baby wipes from my day bag to help him get cleaned up. It wasn’t long, however, before our laughter was cut as short as our breath was. All of this excitement and commotion leaves us both feeling very winded. San takes a seat on a rock in an attempt to catch his breath. One of the guides notices this and quickly comes over to check on us; he tells me to continue forward to catch up with our group and that he will stay back with San.

As I walk by myself, I am feeling overwhelmed with guilt. I look up ahead at our group and then behind me at San. What a dumb move! I am so relieved that San had not fallen in the mud face first, leaving him not only dirty and wet for the remainder of the day, but also with one less set of clothes for this trek. As I cross a small creek and climb up a small, steep hill, I notice a massive mountain of lava rocks resting on the top. This must be Lava Tower! As I summit this hill, I see our group standing next to our green mess tent with some of our G-Fighters.

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Our entire team with our five G-Adventure guides at Lava Tower Camp

It’s our first day feeling any effects from the altitude. It is such a strange feeling to be so easily short of breath from such little exertion. A slow walk, a good laugh, a short story – all leaves us breathless! Other than this, I am feeling really well. I have no nausea, no headache, and I still have a good appetite. Speaking of which, it is lunchtime! I pull back the door on the mess tent and what do I see?

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 3: Baranco Camp, part II)

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 2: Shira Cave Camp)

Altitude: 3,750 m
Distance: 5 km
Date: Jan. 29, 2018

          There are birds chirping, pots clanging together, and people laughing. I awake to the sound of our porters preparing for day two of our trek. As I remain cocooned in my warm sleeping bag, I try to figure out the time. Is it too early to wake up? Should I try to sleep some more? I glance over at Sieu to see if I could sneak a peek at his watch but his arms are tucked deep within his sleeping bag. I pause for a second to look at him in the dim light of the early morning. His earplugs are still in place and he is wearing an eye mask, which he had poorly drawn two googly eyes on. 

          Sieu and I began dating nearly seven years ago. We always joked that he was the brains and that I was the brawn in our relationship since he had spent most of his life avoiding any kind of physical exertion. I thought about one of the first trips that we took as a new couple: we drove four-hours to stay in a hotel within the Chic-Choc Mountains in Quebec. He suggested this trip because he had heard that they served magnificent fois gras; however, I suggested climbing Mount Albert because I had heard that the views from the top are comparable to the Rockies in western Canada. “Go big or go home” is how I sold the idea of this ten-hour hike to him. Being newly in love, he agreed and equipped himself with brand-new leather hiking boots, a day bag, and hiking poles. At the time, this 1,151 meter climb was the biggest hike that either one of us had ever done. Sieu suffered through that entire hike with a smile on his face just for me; however, it was during that trip that he realized that if he wanted to enjoy life, then he had to get into better shape. Looking at him this morning, I am amazed that we are sharing this adventure to 5,895 meters together! He truly is the most incredible person that I have ever met.  

          Too excited to fall back asleep, I decide to sit up in my sleeping bag and retrieve the clothes that I had stuffed in the bottom the night before. As I get dressed, I notice how our tent had gathered condensation throughout the night, leaving anything that touched its walls moist. It was a cruel night. I had expected a warm and friendly welcome from Africa’s highest mountain, but instead its hospitality was rather cold and uncordial. I spent the night clinging to my hot water bottle, for what felt like dear life.

          We receive our official wake up call at 6:30am with a porter tapping on our tent and greeting us with a cup of hot water. “Tea, coffee, or hot cocoa?” he asks. “Just two cups of hot water please!” I reply. As we empty our Nescafe sachets into the cups, he continues to inquire, “Sugar? Whitener?” “No need! It’s all included!” He seems puzzled at what we are mixing so I offer him one to try. “Asante sana!” he says happily, “Karibou!” I reply.

          After enjoying our morning cup of coffee, we pack the remainder of our gear back into our duffel bags. Once finished, I place each bag neatly at the end of our sleeping mats and leave some Jolly Ranchers on the top for our porters. As I roll out of our tent, I am blindsided by Mark’s knees! He appears to be immune to the cool temperatures of the morning by wearing shorts and gaiters, leaving only his pale knees peeking out. “Sexy knees, Mark!” I yell over to his tent, which earns me a wink.

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Leaving Machame Camp

          Today, we are hiking through the climatic zone referred to as the moorlands. This trek begins on a rocky trail that is naturally carved through the low-growing vegetation. The trees do not look as lush as they did yesterday in the rainforest; instead they look dry and brittle. The rocks that we are climbing on look antiqued with stains of green and white lichen, a composition of fungi and algae. The sun is shining in the bright blue sky with not a cloud in sight. As we hike higher, I appreciate the warmth of the day after such a cold night. I notice that Nhung is taking advantage of this weather by hanging yesterday’s socks from her daypack to dry. I also observe how the trail seems unaffected by the high volumes of traffic; there is no destruction of any kind and very minimal garbage left behind. 

          Our first break is near some large boulders, which other hikers are climbing on top of in order to get a panoramic view of Mount Meru, the fifth highest mountain in Africa, and Mount Kilimanjaro. I gaze out into the distance at Kilimanjaro, which is tucked behind miles of rolling hills. Although the view is breathtaking, the idea of reaching that mountain in just a few short days flabbergasts me. As I hop to another boulder to get a better view, Hoan cautions me about the ghastly drop that I am roaming near. Hoan’s cautious and calculated personality, similar to Sieu’s, compensates nicely for the carelessness of mine. The more I get to know Hoan, the more I appreciate that, despite being more temperate and reserved in nature, he has a clever sense of humor, which is very subtle and unassuming. 

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Mount Kilimanjaro far into the distance
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Brunno & HIS penguin

          As we continue our journey, I find myself near Brunno, one of our guides. I struggle to figure him out, as his personality seems a bit more complex. He appears calm and composed, yet sports a distinctive style that shows an attention to detail. When I initially met Brunno, the first thing that I noticed was his hair; it’s about shoulder-length and styled similar to cornrows – it’s very cool! I vaguely remember them referring to him as “DJ B”, which is because he DJs in his spare time. Brunno appears confident and seems experienced in guiding, but I am unsure, just yet, if he is friendly. I decide to engage in conversation with him. “Hey, San’s penguin!” I say as I point towards a penguin hanging off the front strap of his backpack. He looks at me seriously and says, “No, this is my penguin.” “What are the odds of that?” I say, “It looks so much like San’s!” As I say this, my head quickly shoots forward to look up at San. I can see that he no longer has a penguin hanging off the back of his bag. I feel mortified at my own gullibility. Argh!! Why do I always do that?! I can’t BELIEVE that I fell for that!!!! I distance myself from that embarrassing conversation in hopes that this first impression does not last forever.

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The Haunted Forest of the Machame Trail

          The vegetation is gradually becoming shorter and less dense as we hike. Looking ahead, it appears that our path leads directly into a cloud. As we approach this gateway to heaven, the sun disappears and the air changes from delightfully warm to damp and bitter. The scenery suddenly becomes cold and eerie. The trees look more bare and skeleton-like with pieces of Spanish moss hanging from them, similar to cobwebs in an abandoned house. As the clouds creep between these spooky trees, it feels as though we are hiking through a haunted forest. 

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“Miguel Plant”

          Curious about the vegetation, I bend over to touch one of the plants. Brunno stops and explains how these plants close during the night; they also have an antifreeze protein that permits them to survive in subzero temperatures. I wish I had that protein! While showing me the antifreeze liquid, Paul takes Miguel’s hat and sunglasses and places it on the plant and says, “Hey look! It’s a Miguel plant!”. Paul, or Mr. Polepole as they call him, is our guide with the most experience. He often hikes quietly by himself and appears to truly enjoy the beauty of the trail, despite doing the same one for the past eighteen years. He has such a genuine warmth and certain charisma, which makes me feel happy to be around. That, and his remarkable resemblance to Morgan Freeman … who doesn’t love Morgan Freeman?!

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Lobelia Dechenii

          As we approach the desolate grounds of the Shira Cave Camp, there are huge ravens hanging around our campsite. As if this scenery didn’t look creepy enough, adding a few hateful looking ravens certainly did the trick! Through the chaos of our group trying to match up with our porters, I spot Willie by his short stature and big smile. As he leads me to my tent, there is not much visible scenery to enjoy – the clouds surround the camp, preventing us from being able to reap any benefit of our four-hour climb. As Willie takes my daypack to put in the tent, I feel a few drops of rain hit my shoulders. We got here JUST in time to avoid the rain!

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Our Team Arriving at Shira Cave Camp

          After getting cleaned up, we all gather in the mess tent for lunch. As the rain trickles down, we drink tea and strengthen our new friendships. We reflect upon what brings us here to the mountain. “This is so huge!” someone exclaims, “That’s what she said!” Mark replies. And with these four short words began an afternoon of laughs and “that’s what she said” jokes. Mark tries to teach Sieu how to use this punch line but he fails to seize the right opportunities. “Anyone want some more tea?” someone asks. “Thats what she said!!!” Sieu eagerly blurts out. Nope. It’s a good job we have all week to work on this. 

Before long, the rain stops and Albert is able to take us for a quick trip to the caves before supper. As we are walking, I notice stacks of rocks piled on top of one another. I walk, with my eyes to the ground, until I spot a large, flat rock. I pick it up and try to balance it on top of one of these piles. “Find your inner peace”, Nhung says slow and calmly as she walks by. After a few tries, my rock finally remains balanced. Inner peace achieved!  

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Shira Caves

          As we reach the cave, we all crawl inside and Paul begins to tell us about how, years ago, people trying to summit would sleep in these caves. I am a bit distracted from his story though, as I can’t stop laughing at the sight of Mark crammed into this tiny cave. It reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite Christmas movies, Elf, when Buddy was working in the toy shop. 

          Upon returning to our campsite, all of our porters are waiting outside and wearing their purple “G-Adventures” vest and toque. They are ready to start our introductory ceremony, which allows us to individually meet all 35 members of our team. During this time, we learn that they are referred to as “G-Fighters” instead of porters. I am surprised to learn that each G-Fighter plays a greater role beyond carrying equipment. These individual tasks allows the team to operate like a well-oiled machine; every member has a specific responsibility, such as water sterilization or tent security, which ensures a smooth and comfortable trek.

         Albert then begins to orchestrate an incredible celebration with songs in Swahili and dance. The bond and devotion of this team is very apparent and being a part of this celebration makes me feel like I am a part of their family. As I find my hands clapping and my feet moving, I am surprised that my comfort and joy overpowers my discontent for dancing. When it is our turn to be introduced, Albert points at me, and says my name followed by something in Swahili. He later explains that this song translates to, “Tell Amanda to tie her shoes tight, and she’ll get to the top! Tell Sieu to drink lots of water, and he’ll get to the top…” 

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Albert & his team of G-Fighters introducing themselves through song in Swahili

          After supper, Brunno teaches us about the different tribes in Tanzania and answers any questions that we have. It is incredible to learn about our guides and their family history. Watching our five guides interact and discuss their cultural backgrounds was like watching five brothers playfully tease each other. In all of my travels, I have never been to a country where the people are so kind and willing to share their beautiful culture with me. Everyone that I encounter is so gentle in teaching me their language and so open to answering my questions. I feel beyond grateful for this opportunity.

Before retreating to our tents, Albert gives us our debriefing for tomorrow’s adventure and measures our saturation: my SpO2 is 93% and my heart rate is 75. I fill my water bottle with hot water and prepare myself for the crippling cold that awaits me back in our tent. When leaving the mess, I notice in the dark a G-Fighter sitting out in the cold, watching our tents. We really are in good hands. Before crawling into my tent, I take one last look at how the full moon illuminates the snow on the top of Kilimanjaro – it is truly magnificent. Despite the cold temperatures of the evenings starting to have an impact on my morale, I am  thankful to belong to this group and acknowledge that there is no place that I would rather be. 

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Shira Cave Camp

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 3: Lava Tower, part 1)