Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Run Down, in Case You're Curious

My little Tanzanian adventure starts on September 14th when I depart Chicago for Kilimanjaro by way of Amsterdam. The flight to Holland takes about 8 hours, and then I have a solid 3 hour layover at Amsterdam-Schiphol. From there, it's another 8.5 hours south to the airport near Kilimanjaro. I land around 8 PM local time (GMT+3) on Saturday, September 15th. Assuming my luggage arrives intact and on time, I board a shuttle to my hotel in Moshi, a smaller city near the mountain.

DAY 1 (Sunday, September 16th): The first day is mostly clear for chillin' and exploring Moshi. I'll probably hit up the sights, mosques, and whatever markets they have in store. Later in the evening, I have a pre-climb orientation session to meet the other climbers. A bit to my chagrin, my group ballooned to 15 climbers (I was expecting 12), exclusive of guides and porters. Bigger groups can get a bit unwieldy at 19,000 feet once you add the support staff. I'm guessing around 40 porters (2.5 to 3 per climber) will help haul us and our gear up the mountain. Add in roughly three guides, and suddenly the "small group" hits nearly 60 people. The more climbers, the more potential problems. On the other hand, the more cool people I get to meet. My entire group (unfortunately) is from the States.

DAY 2 (Monday): Properly settled and oriented from the day before, we grab a quick breakfast before driving out to the remote Rongai route trailhead.

ASIDE: Kilimanjaro is by far the easiest of the Seven Summits to climb. In fact, over 20,000 people climbed it in 2000 alone. There are six ascent routes up the mountain, each with its relative merits. The Rongai route (also called Loitokitok or Nalemuru route) is by far the least traveled. Compared to the others, it’s harder to reach (the trailhead is on the north side of Kilimanjaro, furthest from the towns of Moshi and Arusha) and more expensive (as it’s further away). Since potable water is more scarce, porters must carry all that’s necessary (again adding cost and complexity). Also, given the trailhead’s close proximity to Tanzania’s northern border, the area is prone to occasional forays by opportunist bandits from Kenya who enjoy a little light larceny before slipping back into their homeland and out of Tanzania’s jurisdiction. To prevent such thievery, the Tanzanian government requires that armed guards accompany all groups starting up the Rongai route. By all accounts, however, neither guards nor bandits are ever seen on the mountain. And further decreasing the trail’s appeal, farmers have mostly denuded the bottom of Kilimanjaro around the trailhead, thus destroying any semblance of native flora and fauna.

The appeal of this route, however, is also rooted in its remoteness. Of the 20,000 Kili climbers in 2000, only 130 took the Rongai route. We’ll basically have the entire side of the mountain to ourselves. It’s a better adventure. And just in case you aren’t convinced, we descend the other side of Kilimanjaro, so we won’t miss anything on the other side. It’s the best of both worlds.

Back to Day 2. Depending on road conditions, the drive to the trailhead can take anywhere from two to four hours. After lunch, we start climbing. Day 2 takes us from the trailhead at 6,400 feet to Simba Camp at 8,500 feet. We start in cultivated farmland, pass through an alpine forest, and end up in a transitional heather zone. Climb: 2-4 hours, 2,100 foot gain.

DAY 3 (Tuesday): With enough altitude beneath us, the morning should hopefully bring a spectacular sunrise over the Kenyan savannah. I’m not sure what time we hit the trail, but the morning portion of the climb is long and hard. We gain 2,600 feet over a four hour trek through heather and moorland (boring) before stopping for lunch. In the afternoon, the trail flattens out up to Kikelewa Camp at 11,500 feet. Climb: 6-8 hours, 3,000 foot gain.

DAY 4 (Wednesday): Thankfully, Day 4 is much easier than Day 3. By morning’s end, we reach the base of Mawenzi Peak, one of two peaks on Kilimanjaro. Mawenzi is more jagged, more technical, and lower than Kili’s summit at Kibo Peak (our destination), and therefore we don’t bother with it. We break for lunch at Mawenzi Tarn (14,000 feet), and then we take an acclimatization hike to work through the side effects of altitude sickness. In addition to the hike, I’ll be on Diamox to help get acclimatized, and I’ll be forcing fluids, too (6 liters a day). Climb: 3-4 hours, 2,500 foot gain.

DAY 5 (Thursday): At this point, there are no easy days. The air is seriously thin. In the morning, we leave camp a little earlier to trek toward the saddle between Mawenzi and Kibo peaks. At one point along hike, we can look out over Kenya to the north and Tanzania to the south. With Kili’s summit in the background, the trail to the high camp will stretch out before us. Our destination for the day, Kibo Hut, sits at 15,500 feet, and we reach it early afternoon. The rest of the day and evening is spent conserving strength and eating. I go to bed super early. Day 6, summit day, is looooong. Climb: 4-6 hours, 1,500 foot gain.

DAY 6 (Friday, September 21st): SUMMIT DAY! But before you get too excited, listen to this. We wake up at 11 PM on Day 5 to prepare for our summit bid. At midnight, we leave camp, slowly climbing for the first time under our headlamps. In the early morning hours, we hit Gilman’s Point on the Crater Rim at 18,600 feet. The route will take us through a scree field laced with 37(!) switchbacks. With luck, we catch the sunrise from Gilman’s Point before trekking another 90 minutes along the rim to Uhuru, the roof of Africa, at 19,340 feet. I’ll dance and sing or maybe just collapse, but regardless we have only 20 or 30 minutes at the peak before we have to head back down. Our initial descent to Kibo Hut takes about 4 hours. By then, it’ll be early afternoon, so we have a light lunch and then catch the Marangu route to Horombo Camp at 12,200 feet. Basically, we fall down the mountain. My knees will want to kill me. Climb: 13-16 hours, 3,800 foot gain followed by a 7,100 foot descent.

DAY 7 (Saturday): We sleep in. A long time. And then we eat a giant breakfast. No longer dead, we fall another mile or so to the Marangu route trailhead at 6,400 feet. This day should be relatively easy, all things considered, and filled with expansive, stunning vistas of the Tanzanian savannah. Once at the trailhead, we drive 90 minutes back to Moshi, our hotel, and my first hot shower in a week. I may or may not snag a quick nap before cracking my first beer at the celebration dinner during which I’m bound to forget my name, where I am, and how to walk. Climb: 4-5 hours, 5,800 foot descent.

DAY 8 (Sunday, September 23rd): PARTY! I finally get to chill in Moshi. Not sure what the day will entail, but I’m sure I’ll spend some money in overpriced tourist traps, drink piss for beer, and meet at least six crazy Aussies, three Kiwis, and two creepy Germans.

DAYS 9 and 10 (Monday and Tuesday): My safari begins! Our first destination is Tarangire National Park. We’ll take a few game drives and then a walk to get away from the vehicles. I’m liable to snap more pictures than a Chinaman with a brand new 12 megapixel Minolta. No, I’m not racist. I ROVE Asian tourists!

DAYS 11 and 12 (Wednesday and Thursday): We’re off to Serengeti National Park! It won’t be migration season, so I’ll miss all the sucker wildebeests getting munched by every living creature in Africa, but we’ll hopefully catch zebras, gazelles, lions, cheetahs, hyenas, elephants, baboons, hippos, crocs, and all sorts of hoofed mammals and crazy birds. It’s raw, unbridled, and unmitigated life all around us in one of the last truly wild places on Earth. Gnarly.

DAYS 13 and 14 (Friday and Saturday): On the way out of the Serengeti, we’ll stop at Olduvai Gorge in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley. This area is often called the ‘Cradle of Mankind’ (if not the ‘Cradle of Life’), because the earliest remains of Homo Habilis, among other hominid species, were discovered here in the 1950’s by Louis and Mary Leakey. Homo Habilis lived between 2.6 million and 1.5 million years ago, in case you were wondering. I think that’s awesome.

After Olduvai, we’ll head to Ngorongoro Conservation Area. More hikes and game drives follow, as the crater is home to perhaps the highest concentration of big game in the world. We’ll see huge herds of buffalo, zebra, and gazelle along with more lions, rhinos, elephants, and leopards. Groovy. My safari ends with a final game drive along the crater on Day 14.

DAY 15 (Sunday, September 30th): This is the final day of my trip. In the morning, I’ll take a morning cultural tour of traditional Masaai Boma where I can meet and interact with members of the Masaai tribe. Afterward, I’ll catch a ride back to a hotel for a quick shower and repack, and then I’m off to Kilimanjaro Airport. My flight departs at 8:55 PM local time. The plane will make a quick stop in Dar es Salaam before heading north to Amsterdam-Schiphol. Another layover, another flight, and I arrive back in Chicago at noon, one more country and one more adventure securely notched in my passport and belt. The End.