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