Mount Kilimanjaro is actually the product of three volcanoes--Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. These three volcanic cones create the legendary humpbacked silhouette with glacial fields interspersed with rock spaces. Kibo is the highest volcano and the only dormant one; in other words, it could erupt. Mawenzi and Shira volcanoes are both extinct.
Our small party of hikers reached the highest peak on Kibo's rim, Uhuru Peak (5,895 meters/19,340 feet) on January 12, 2012 at sunrise. The experience was extraordinary. The way to the top was immeasurably beautiful. We chose the Machame route because it was reportedly the most scenic and had the highest success rate. It was that and so much more--perhaps even a spiritual/psychic journey back to the earth, back to mother nature. A great crew (porters and cooks hailing from Chagga, Maasai, Zigula, and Gogo ethnic groups) supported our efforts; in particular, Thomas Mambali, Kili Guide (email: firstname.lastname@example.org) and Jimmy Silayo, Kili Assistant Guide (email: email@example.com) were invaluable leaders.
Through Tom's and Jimmy's expertise and skill the dream of reaching the top became a reality! The entire experience will forever be remembered and treasured, in addition to rendering new personal sources for reflections on the social, political, and environmental health of our planet. Our tour package was organized by the experienced staff of Dik Dik http://www.dikdik.ch/
Two friends accompanied me on the long slog more than three and a half vertical miles above sea level, each as excited and engaged in the entire expedition as anyone could be. It was great fun, challenging, and I'm reasonably sure it was an experience that will inhabit my whole being forever! A 39 mile hike to the summit and back with six camps (five up, one down), each filled with a cacophony of languages, cultures, laughter, and the scent of camping cuisine from across the world. It was a veritable transnational experience. Some there--no doubt--to experience the snowy heights before climate change melts them; others there to challenge themselves by reaching the dizzying heights fully sentient, healthy, and fit. Still others there to explore conversations with friends through the shifting environmental zones, deepening friendships while strengthening links to the extraordinarily scenic geographical and floral landscapes.
For me, and I suspect not unlike many, the trek was nothing less than the realization of a childhood dream come true. Indeed, I recall as a youth standing on a balustrade at the top of a winding staircase, behind and below me the foyer of our lovely Victorian home in Buffalo, NY and in front of me a tall bookcase where, among other treasures, sat Ernest Hemingway's collection The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Short Stories. Always one for inane detail, I recall that the anthology was between D.T. Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism and D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love. All three books heavily underlined by my dear Mom who was and still is a voracious reader. So it is that I first came across The Snows of Kilimanjaro and the celebrated quote describing Kili "as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun." Indeed it is that and so much more--part myth, part symbol, part the inescapable truths of environmental shifts and recent worrisome climate change.
Diary of a Journey to Kibo
6 January 2012
I arrive close to 1:00pm at terminal two of the Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO) in Tanzania. After purchasing a visa for $100.00 and clearing customs, I find the driver from the Dik Dik Hotel waiting to take me to my lodging approx. 45 minutes from the airport. When we arrive at Dik Dik, the staff is waiting with smiles and a glass of Champaign to welcome me. I check into a clean and attractive cottage, change into my swimsuit, and take a swim before having a late lunch on the exquisite porch overlooking the magnificent gardens surrounding the main lodge. Supper, later in the evening, is also taken on the lovely porch of the main lodge and a pianist plays a baby grand piano with quiet skill and excellent timing. After supper there is a meeting about the hike, itinerary, packing suggestions, and tipping practices. Before bed, I begin taking Acetazolamide, often sold as Diamox, to prevent high altitude illness (Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS) with occasional side-effects of tingling fingertips; prior to departure I began an antimalarial medication, Malaquin.
7 January 2012: Day one of our hike (8 miles; 13 Km)
I rise early, shower and dress in shorts and t-shirt in preparation for the first day of the hike. While eating breakfast, our bus is backed. The ride takes us approximately 1½ hours to reach the Machame Gate and the start of our hike (1,743 meters /5,718 feet). At the gate, an equatorial rain forest awaits us, the first of many ecological zones, each with awesome beauty, impressive biodiversity, and everywhere a reminder of the imperative to protect natural spaces. The first day’s ascent lasts approx. 5 hours and is accompanied by an occasional light rain lasting only a few minutes. Machame camp is our first night on the trail. From the camp there is an exquisite view of Kilimanjaro, a moonlit humpbacked presence, with its glorious glacial snowfields, ice, and rock in view. We are each brought a bucket of water for washing, a towel, and a small pillow. Supper is prepared and brought to a dinning tent, and we retired early.
8 January 2012: Day two of our hike (6 miles; 9 km)
Our kitchen staff wakes us early and brings us coffee to our tents; a bit later each of us has a bucket of water for washing up. After breakfast we make our way through the remaining equatorial rain forest with its sleepy hanging mosses in the trees into open uplands, heath, and moors as well as the spectacular views of the surrounding country from the Shira plateau, known for its huge heathers as well as its shiny black volcanic obsidian, nature’s jewels decorating the path. Instead of sitting down on rocks when rest is needed, two of us do a few yoga exercises: triangle poses, forward and backward bends, and modified sun salutations. The Yoga reinvigorates our minds and bodies, reenergizes us--and our strength and motivation return. After 5 hours of hiking, we camp at Shira camp (3,880 meters/12,730 feet). There are lovely scenes of Kilimanjaro and Mt. Mero from our camp. There are also many large black ravens, each with bands of white neck feathers like formal collars at odds with their impulsive and aggressive search for food.
9 January 2012: Day three of our hike. (7.5 miles; 12 km)
On our third day we hike approximately 5-6 hours to an elevation of 4,500 meters, but camp at a lower elevation, Barranco camp (3,900 meters/12,795 feet). As we leave the heathland areas, the trees leave us behind for the alpine desert, and the path eventually bifurcates for hikers wishing to make the journey to the Lava Tower, a dramatic volcanic plug (300 vertical feet above the plateau). We get close to the Lava Tower and enjoy a steep descent that while not requiring ropes, does require some basic mountaineering skill (e.g., a search and secure procedure to find firm hand and toe holds as well as care to avoid loose rock). We walk through the Garden of Senecias featuring tall senecio kilimanjaro that are the size of trees, huge groundsels as well as large lobelia plants. After supper, before retiring to our tents, the kitchen staff prepares hot water bottles and delivers them to us to warm us through the night.
10 January 2012: Day four of our hike (3 miles; 5 km)
Day four is a somewhat shorter walk requiring a bit of alpine scrambling as we ascend Barranco wall and then head into a rising and falling terrain with riverbeds, streams, and the Karanga river. After 4 or so hours, we camp at Karanga valley camp (3,963 meters).
11 January 2012: Day five of our hike (2.5 miles; 4 km)
The fifth day rises and falls as we ascend to Barafu camp (4,600 meters/15,092 feet). This is the last camp before ascending to the summit of Kibo/Uhuru. The hike takes 3-4 hours. When we arrive, like at each subsequent camp, we walk to the park ranger’s office to sign the log; on our way back to our tents, we see a small twister form near another camper’s tent, lifting it high into the sky until it looks like a small orange paper kite dancing here and there, until it plummets to the valley near Barafu. Later we learn that porters rescue the tent and return it to its owner. We sleep for a few hours, wake up at 11:00 pm, have a light meal, dress very warmly and begin the ascent to the summit. I wear ski pants, a down parka, gloves, gaiters, a ski hat, and several layers of underclothing.
12 January 2012: Day six of our hike (2.7 miles; 4.5 km ascent) (8.5 miles; 13.5 km descent)
The last ascent is steep and the oxygen is thin. With each slow steady step, I control my heavy breathing as best I can. The wind is strong and cold. By the time we reach the rim of the crater, our water bottles are partly frozen. Many suffer high altitude illness and begin their descent before reaching the summit; we are lucky that no one in our group has to turn back. We reach the rim of the crater, Stella Point (5,652 meters/18,652 feet) by sunrise; it takes us about 6 hours. As at camps along this journey, there are excited, congratulatory conversations and exchanges in many languages. We take photos and walk another 30-40 minutes to Uhuru summit (Uhuru means freedom in Swahili) and take more photos. The Furtwängler Glacier, a wall of snow, is visible in all its glory, though scientific reports have demonstrated that it is one of the fastest shrinking glacier of recent times. The view is indeed phenomenal! This is the roof of Africa. Clouds dance. Sun shines. Snow sparkles. Rock is everywhere—the symbol of the illusion of stasis, when we know everything and everyone is everywhere and always in flux. I think we should have selected the option of staying at the top, but it is too late for those plans, sadly, and we begin our descent by running and sliding in what reminds me of dry land slalom, a training technique used by alpine ski racers training without snow. It is lots of fun and invigorating and brings us to Barafu camp where we wash, eat, and rest for a few hours before continuing the descent another 3-4 hours to Mweka camp (2,835 meters; 9,302 feet) where we spend the night. We work out how to tip our excellent crew and begin that process.
13 January 2012: Day seven of our hike (6.5 miles; 10 km descent)
Morning begins with coffee at our tents, a pail for washing, breakfast, and hearty songs of thanks from our excellent crew of porters, cooks, and guides. It’s just a 4-5 hour walk to the Mweka gate. The gate is full of Tanzanians selling souvenirs. We sign in as we did at each camp, logging our accomplishments for posterity. We board our bus as the rain starts falling and feast on Kilimanjaro beers, cold cuts, salad, and fruit. Once back at the Dik Dik hotel, we shower, rest, and feast on a meat fondue celebration supper to lovely live tunes from the baby grand piano. Afterwards, we meet Dik Dik staff, write our thank you notes in the guest album. The trip is a great success—a dream come true.