Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 1: Machame Camp)

Elevation: 2,835 m
Distance: 11 km
Date: Jan. 28, 2018

Tonight, I sit in our two-man tent, hands numb from the frigid temperatures of the mountain. I never anticipated it being so cold at night. My sleeping bag works hard to steal the heat from the hot water bottle that I stuffed at the bottom, as the bright light from my headlamp shines on the empty pages of my journal. I stare at them the same way that a painter stares at a blank canvas before making his first brush stroke, imaging how I will paint the picture of my first day with words.

* * *

I awake early, trying to soak in the last comforts of civilization before departing on our weeklong journey. I note how the bed feels warm and the sheets feel particularly soft today. I fell asleep last night thinking about my gear and strategizing how I could eliminate any items in order to stay within the 15 kg allowance. Those same thoughts remain with me now as I stare pensively up at the ceiling. I felt so confident when packing my bag before, but now that it’s the final hours, I feel so unsure and question everything. Do I really need three pairs of pants? Do I have enough t-shirts? Will it be hot? Will it be cold? I roll out of bed and sit on the floor in front of my bag. I stare at it in silence while my husband, Sieu, tries to squeeze in a little more sleep. Normally he would be forced awake by an explosion of my energy, but today I am much too preoccupied to harass him. I previously found pleasure in the challenge of packing my bag; however, this time I am left with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I give myself a quick pep talk: You got this, Amanda! And if you do forget anything, you are capable of going without it. Plus, you already went through your gear a dozen times back home so there’s really not much that you can change at this point anyway. I take a deep breath and begin:  summiting clothes in the blue compression bag. Daily hiking clothes in the black compression bag. Rain gear in my day bag. Headlight tucked into the side pocket. Instant coffee for instant morale boosting. My purple 1L Nalgene water bottle stuffed full of ginger candies, Jolly Ranchers, and Werther’s Original. I reassure myself that everything is going to be okay.

After breakfast, we bring our bags downstairs and meet with our CEO, Albert. He is a tall, slim man, with deep dimples that accent his smile. He greets us but I can’t stop staring at his t-shirt – it’s royal blue with two tiny eyes in the center and a big mouth that is eating the G-Adventure’s logo. “I really like your shirt!” is the first words that I finally say to him. Albert instructs us to bring our bags to the weigh-in station so that they can be verified and then loaded onto our tan-colored expedition van. I hand my orange North Face duffel bag to the porter so that he can hook the strap onto the scale. The arm quickly shoots up over 10 kg as he partially supports the weight of my bag. I hold my breath and watch as the arm continues to climb up the scale: 12 kg … 13 kg … as he fully releases the weight of my bag the arm rests on 14.8 kg. I let out a loud sign of relief: PHEW! I’m JUST within my 15 kg weight limit! We then take a seat near the parking lot and quietly watch the remainder of our group fumble over their gear one last time while the porters begin to line the roof of the van with all of our colorful expedition bags.

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Our transportation
to the Machame gate

          Once all of our gear is secured, it is our turn to board the van; however, before doing so, we line up, shoulder-to-shoulder, for our first group picture. I hand my camera to one of the porters and then squeeze into the line beside my husband. Although I often seem like the brave and adventurous one in our relationship, little does he know that I often seek comfort in having him close by. Two of our guides, Brunno and Albert, stand on either side of our group, like bookends, for the picture. There is an odd silence of uncertainty in the air as we all pose quietly before boarding the bus. I retrieve my camera and say, “Asante sana” (ah-SAWN-tay SAW-na) – which means thank you very much in Swahili.

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Our G-Adventures Team

          I climb into the van and choose a double-seat near the back. I curiously look around at all of the new faces. I couldn’t help but wonder, will we all get along? Will we have anything to talk about during these long hours together? We are a group of 11, accompanied by five guides. On the bus, we are seated in front of a tall couple from Vancouver named Mark and Larenda. They chose to sit on the back bench so that Mark could stretch out his long legs, that accompany his 6’5” body, up the middle aisle. When eyeing their gear earlier, I noticed that it looked worn and broken in. This was obviously not their first hiking trip! They greet us with such comfort and ease, that it feels just like we are childhood friends merely catching up on our lost years. Larenda speaks with passion and intelligence about their skydiving adventures while Mark chimes in every now and again with a witty comment. His mannerisms are very similar to Will Ferrell so you can’t help but be entertained by him. To the left of us is a young girl named Fabie from Switzerland. She is so sweet that she could be a lead character in a Disney movie. She also reminds me a lot of an adventurous cousin of mine, so I quickly feel at ease with her too. In front of us is Sieu’s two nephews – San and Hoan. A very dynamic duo, those two are! I always enjoy my time with them when we go visit Sieu’s family in Ottawa because their conversations are always light, full of life, and fun. I often find myself joining in on their contagious giggling until my cheeks ache. This trip is actually San’s impulsive idea. He lobbed it out there a year ago and we all went along with it, waiting for someone to call his bluff. No one ever did. Sitting in front of them is San’s good friend, Nhung. She lives in Toronto and is basically a female version of him: she is adventurous, inquisitive, and easy to get along with. Upon our first meeting, she skipped the handshake and greeted us with a hug – I like that! She has such warmth in her smile that it radiates to her eyes. She is sitting beside her friend, Nicole, who recently moved back to Germany. Nicole has short blond hair with bright blue eyes and appears to be a perfect balance of free spirit and badass. The last two in our group is an attractive couple from Switzerland named Miguel and Berite. Miguel has a playful boyish smile and Berite has big, brown doe-eyes. They speak limited English, so they seem to keep to themselves a bit more than the remainder of our group.

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Total distances to Uhuru peak (summit) via the Machame Trail

          The hour-long drive to the Kilimanjaro National Park feels like only minutes as we all become better  acquainted. As we approach the Machame gate, our conversations soften as we all gaze out the window at the park entrance; it is so grandiose and clean that it feels as though we are driving into the Animal Kingdom at Disney World. We pass under the massive triangular gate and into a hectic parking lot filled with busy porters, wandering tourists, and expedition vans similar to ours. Our guides lead us to the communal waiting area filled with even more tourists waiting for their paperwork to be approved for entrance into the park. There is approximately 80 people of different colors, speaking different languages, with different tour companies, yet sharing the same universal body language of apprehension mixed with excitement. One group at a time slowly departed this waiting area as their final logistics are completed.

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          Alas, it is our turn! Our guides lead us to the entrance of the Machame trail, which is located on the other side of the parking lot. As we file through the green metallic gate, one-by-one, I briefly pause before taking my first step onto the loose gravel of the well-groomed trail. Here we go. We are finally doing this. As I proceed forward, I suddenly feel overcome with relief. The only way to see if I will succeed in this climb is to begin it! And now … it officially begins! We walk at a slow pace on a wide trail that gradually narrows into the mouth of the rainforest. Our guide reminds us, “Polepole.” (POE-lay, POE-lay), which means slowly-slowly. This slow pace will allow our bodies to acclimatize to the increase in altitude each day.  

          As we enter the belly of the rainforest, I gaze up in awe at the tall, slender trees that stretch overhead. The canopy above us appears to have cracks in it as the trees refuse to touch each other. I admire the lush greenery of the rainforest and how the spongy moss smothers the trees, while playful vines swing down from high above. The air feels humid and offers a combined scent of vegetation, moisture, and soil – similar to that of a greenhouse. Porters carrying large bags on their heads speed past us with such agility and grace. This image makes me chuckle: our group sports top of the line hiking gear, carbon fiber walking poles, and are only responsible for carrying our puny day bags, while these tall, slim porters, wearing ripped jeans and work boots, transport 20 kg of cargo to our campsite without even breaking a sweat!

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          Due to the traffic on the trail and our frequent pee-breaks from over-hydrating in an effort to ward off altitude sickness, our group slowly becomes spread out. Sieu is behind me speaking in French with Miguel and Berite. I take advantage of this alone time to thoroughly soak in the beauty of my surroundings. As I look ahead, the sight of San’s penguin pillow swinging from the back of his day bag makes me laugh. I foresee that as this trip becomes mentally exhausting, we will be able to rely on San and his goofy mannerisms for comic relief.

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San & his penguin

          My thoughts are interrupted by trickles of rain breaking through the openings in the canopy of the forest. Rain in the rainforest – how cliché! I stop on the side of the trail to retrieve my poncho, which is hidden deep within my day bag. While I am doing so, a green and white striped umbrella offers me shelter. Attached to the end of that umbrella is a short and broad man with a more serious demeanor. As I settle into my poncho, he introduces himself as William. He appears quite shy and is very soft-spoken. With his broken English, we chat quickly before he falls back to offer shelter to the other members of our team who are adjusting their rain gear.

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Sieu soaking up some rain in the rainforest 

As we continue to walk, the rain continues to pour. The trail becomes muddy as it accumulates water. I decide to put on my gaiters since these are my only pair of hiking shoes so it’s important to keep them dry. I fumble to hook and Velcro them while being engulfed by my baby-poop colored poncho. As I get myself straightened out and continue to walk, I find myself next to this younger man, probably in his 20’s, with a gentle face and a big, bright smile. I notice the kindness and sincerity in his eyes. He introduces himself as Lukie but some people call him Lucky. He is another one of our guides.

          As the density of the forest begins to let up, so does the rain. Sieu and I rejoin and remove our matching ponchos. We arrive at a sign which reads “Machame Camp” – this sight makes me feel very satisfied. Today’s walk wasn’t difficult; we walked for approximately four and a half hours and my legs feel strong and there is no sign of any altitude sickness yet. I hate to admit it, but there is great relief in knowing that we have successfully completed one day and that there is only six more to go.

 

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Arriving at Machame Camp

          Our group rejoins and staggers through the chaos of the tent city until we reach a small community of green tents. This must be ours, since each tour company has their own colored tents. As we get closer, I spot our duffel bags lined up on the ground with a person standing behind each one. I walk over to my bright orange duffle bag and make eye contact with a short man who appears eager to meet me. We shake hands. His name is Willie and he will be carrying my bag for our trek. Despite his limited English, I feel a bond with him, as though we have a shared ownership of each other. I point to myself and say “Rafiki” (rah-FEE-kee), which means “friend”. I try to pick up my bag but he is quicker. He scoops it up and guides me to my tent. I peer inside: there are two matching sleeping pads with plaid covers over them. Unsure of the routine, I stand there staring at him for what seems like a few minutes. Finally, with a smile on his face, he motions me to go into the tent. As I crawl inside, I notice that each side of the tent has its own door and vestibule area. While I am settling in, Willie returns with a bowl of hot water for me to freshen up with; Sieu’s porter does the same for him.     

          As Sieu and I make our way to the mess tent, we notice how the air quickly cools as the sun drops behind the mountaintops. I unzip the door and see two long tables, placed end-to-end, which are lined with a row of chairs on either side. There are a few members of our group who are already sitting in the back so we squeeze past the empty chairs to sit next to them. As the remainder of our group arrives, we talk and laugh over tea and popcorn. 

          I am amazed at how vibrant and charismatic each member of our group is! Although very different, we all share a passion for life and adventure. As I look around at everyone sharing their stories, I can feel a camaraderie already being formed. Our team leader, Albert, enters the tent along with our four other guides. He struggles to steal the attention away from our lively conversations and friendly bantering. Although he looks amused by how close our group has become in such a short while, it is time to start our nightly debriefing. We start by discussing our day, how we feel, and any concerns that we may have. In general, all members of our group are feeling well and enjoyed today’s journey. Concurrently, one of the other guides measure our saturation levels, to verify the level of oxygen in our blood, and our heart rate with a small finger probe. My SpO2 is 91% and my heart rate is 84. At a regular altitude, a saturation of 95% and above is considered normal. 

          Albert then begins to discuss the plan for tomorrow: timings, altitude, distance, clothing, and so on. In my brief interactions with Albert, I can see that he is a very professional leader and takes his job to heart. Once our debriefing is finished, our two cooks enter the tent with supper. We begin with an appetizer of asparagus soup, which really hits the spot as the cold evening air penetrates through the canvas walls of our tent. After our soup, the cooks then present our main course. From the back of the tent, I can’t see what it is but a mouth-watering aroma warms the air. As they pass the plates down, I can see that it is an avocado salad with fish, french fries, and stew. I truly feel Hakuna Matata (hah-KOO-nah mah-TAH-tah) as my worries melt away. After supper, I pour hot water into my water bottle before I head to bed. I am so eager to go to bed so that I can start my next day! 

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 Machame Camp at Night

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 2: Shira Cave Camp)