The final continent finale – Kilimanjaro

29 Nov

Hey folks,

So how was Kilimanjaro? This is a question I have been asked a lot. My standard response is, “that it was bloody hard, but exceeded my expectations”. Let me explain.

Day 1 Machame Gate (1800m) to Machame Camp (3000m)

I was doing the 7 day Machame route which is one of six routes on Kilimanjaro. It is commonly known as the whisky route as it is harder than the more commonly used Marungu route that is nicknamed the Coca Cola route where you have the luxury of sleeping in huts.

Day 1 we started at the Machame gate where due to my appearance I was offered marijuana. It’s rather funny, in Tanzania even though I don’t have my dreadlocks I was still called a rasta. Anyhow I suggested to the dealer that he rethinks his marketing strategy and sets up shop at the gate where you end the trip. Although maybe the dealer had been right as Day 1 was pretty chilled out, you probably could have shot up heroin and been fine ( does not condone the use of heroin, just an unusual figure of speech to go with the marijuana theme of this paragraph) and been fine. The path was basically a flat footpath slowly meandering through the beautiful rain forest. It felt like I could have been at home in New Zealand.

Although the Machame route is meant to be one of the harder routes, don’t be thinking we were roughing it. This was 5 star camping –although the tents could do with central heating-, you arrive at camp and your tent has been magically set-up. A porter who has no goretex in sight but more likely odd shoes and ripped jeans has carried your duffel bag up for you and deposited it in your tent. On arrival you are welcomed with hot drinks and pop corn, and of course all your meals are cooked for you. Majority of parties have porters carry up a mess tent with tables and chairs for eating, which I didn’t bother with since it was just me in my party, plus I’m a bit of cheap barstard. The more 5 star camping parties even hire a porter to carry up a portable toilet and shelter so they don’t have to use the toilets that us commoners use. In general the toilets were pretty good and you usually had the choice of a pretty modern one. After my unsupported cycle trip from Namibia to Malawi I certainly appreciated all the pampering.

One of the reasons I enjoyed my Kili trip so much was because my expectations were so low. I was expecting really busy trails with a lot of rubbish due to the fact that over 35,000 people a year climb the mountain. The advantage of doing it in November which is the low season/rainy season is that less people are climbing. For example on the Machame route there were probably about 80 people leaving the same day as our party, but in the busy season my guide said it would usually be around 300-400 just on the Machame route. You can imagine all the routes converging on the summit in high season. The obvious down side to doing it in the rainy season is the rain! Everyday except summit day it rained on our hike, but was usually only in the afternoon.

Camp on the first night was good times as the altitude wasn’t a factor and although I was the only one in my group I spent the first four days hiking with another group consisting of Rob an Ozzie pilot living in Hong Kong, Tim a Western Australian fire fighter and Carlos a Norwegian/Filipino nurse. There were plenty of laughs had, and I always believe it’s the people that make the trip, so it started off well.

Day 2 Up to Shira Camp (3800m)

Day 2 I can’t really remember. Just hiking up, nothing too strenuous, no longer the flat foot path but rather more bush tracks, rocky styles, climbing up into the fog and eventual rain. Beautiful mountainous alpine scenery. This was one thing really stood out for me, as I wasn’t really expecting it. As I said I wasn’t really expecting too much as I hadn’t done any research, I just booked it four weeks before the beginning of the trip as it seemed fitting to celebrate my 30th on the highest point in Africa.

Day 3 To Barranco camp (3900m) via Lava Tower (4600m)

As was to become the norm, this day started out with glorious sunshine and ended with cold rain. This was the first day that I felt the altitude as you hike up to 4600m and then go back down to camp at 3900m. It was pouring rain, my headaches and nausea had started and I was cold due to the fact I’m usually skinny and had put on as much weight the past 5 months as you would expect from someone who cycles and eats rice. So the fact that there were some plants (pictured below) that only grow on that part of the mountain didn’t really interest me too much. I just couldn’t wait to get to camp, peel off my wet clothes, force some food down, flop into bed and focus on not throwing up.

Day 4 Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp (3900m)

This was one of my favourite days. By this time Peter who was one of 2 Danish sheep shearers in the world had joined our group of ANZACs and Norwegian. This day had the usual rain and my afternoon of headaches and nausea from the altitude was becoming part of the routine. Whilst I was lying in my tent at Karanga only 3900m in altitude I was wondering how I was ever going to make the summit (5,895m). The Ozzies and the Norwegian were pushing up to the next camp. This was because they were doing a Machame 6 day trek. As I laid there feeling like a bucket of Kilimanjaro long-drop excrement I was very glad I was doing it in 7 days as when those boys made it to the next camp they would have 6 hours rest before making the midnight push to the summit (they all made it, although poor Carlos the Norwegian was looking rather worse for wear when he eventually made it down – great effort!).

By evening my nausea had stopped along with the rain and the headache was just the normal dull thump that was going to accompany me for the rest of the trip and is pretty common place. This evening was going to be one of the highlights of my trip, it was SPECTACULAR! There were bugger all people at the camp, the curtain of rain had been opened and let in a beautiful vista from the roof of Africa with soundtrack of silence to accompany it. The peak of neighbouring Mt Meru turtle headed its way through the blanket of clouds that separated us from the world below giving you the feeling that you were on top of the world.

There was no wind and a near full moon so Peter and I had a romantic dinner taking in the splendour that was Mt Kilimanjaro and shared sheep stories.

Day 5 Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp (4,600m)

This was a leisurely day, 4 hours and we managed to make it to Barafu Camp and be in our tent before the afternoon rain came, which by the way gets rather old constantly having wet clothes in the cold environment. But in saying that, I would rather have wet clothes and have the mountain more to myself than packed with people. Luckily I had an Osama beard and plenty of warm clothes that I had rented, including my boots which miraculously didn’t give me blisters.

We arrived at Barafu camp after midday then had the afternoon to relax in the tent before getting up at 11pm to start the 7 hour hike to the summit. The name of the game was to do nothing and rest up, and get the old head in the right frame of mind as Kilimanjaro is definitely a mind game. I have to say it is rather intimidating. A lot of people were there for the “journey”, but for me I was there for the “destination”. This may sound like a bit of a cop out, obviously I enjoyed it, but I was focused and determined on being on that summit come 11/11/11. I couldn’t imagine having to say the rest of my life that I celebrated my 30th and completion of my working the world goal 200 metres below the top of Kili, although that is a lot better than getting acute mountain sickness and spending my birthday in a coma.

Day 6 Barafu camp up to summit (5,895m) then down to Mweka camp (3000m)

I didn’t get much sleep, I was excited, nervous but mainly my bowels thought they would throw a bit of a send off party which saw me frequenting the squatter – perfect timing! At 11pm I got up and pulled on every single layer of dry clothing I had including 4 pairs of socks, popped some Imodium that Peter the sheep shearer had prescribed me. It had been raining, but half an hour before departing it stopped and we were left with a glorious full moon that lit the way.

As with the whole trip the theme of the night was “Pole Pole”, which basically means “go slow or you will end up in an altitude affected pile of headaches and vomit”. So Pole Pole it was, although I didn’t really have much choice. Anyone that has experienced altitude knows that the higher you go, the less oxygen there is, therefore everything is harder. Walking becomes slower to eventually you can only walk a couple of wayward metres before having to suck in lungfuls of air. Some people get it worse than others.

Apart from a couple of path side squirt stops I made it to Stellar point (Photo above I’ve taken from xmingf on flicker – I wasn’t in much of state on top and didn’t take bugger all photos. Sorry if I’ve broken copyright laws, but bloody nice photo xming mate. Also other random photos throughout are from Tim and Rob). Stellar point is the edge of the crater rim a couple of hundred metres below the summit. This was another highlight for me…….umm so maybe it’s not all about the destination. For some reason I had expected the top of Kili to be just a peak. But it was like I was stepping onto another planet, and with my altitude induced stupor it felt like I was on another planet. From Stellar point, the walk to the summit was a gradual incline compared to the steep goat like track we had spent the last 6 hours hiking up. As I walked up from Stellar point I was a little overwhelmed, I didn’t know if it was the altitude, the surreal environment that I found myself in, the fact that the sun was rising signalling the beginning of 11/11/11 and my 30th, therefore the moment I had spent the past 9 years working towards. You know how there are a lot of times when in reflection the moment seemed amazing, but this was a moment when I was totally caught up in it all by myself. I was totally taken aback, I had just been expecting the top of a mountain but got so much more, the beauty of the ice fields, the sun rising above the clouds, magic.

But my euphoria slowly subsided, my head started to feel like a prison with inmates banging on the wall wanting out. My coordination went downhill as I kept pushing uphill, and every step was a wayward step in the general direction of the summit. Check out the video below (if it doesn’t come up go to this link). I would have liked to say something inspirational and life changing that would make you jump up in your office, clap your hands and scream hallelujah, but instead I make references to horse tranquilisers, swear and throw in some very average camera work. But one thing it does show is where I saw the sunrise on the 11/11/11, even if I wasn’t totally with it. I took it whilst resting with my guide about 30 minutes before the summit.

I would like to say I enjoyed my time at the summit, but I didn’t – umm once again maybe I should rethink the whole Kilimanjaro destination vs the journey discussion. The summit is 5,895m high, which to put that in perspective, Everest base camp which is another high altitude climb for non technical climbers is situated at 5,364m – although you go up 5,545m enroute. I was feeling pretty shit to put it mildly, but I knew I had made it, this was the point I had been aiming for the whole Kili trip, my goal. The whole night since leaving Barafu camp I had been saying the mantra of “summit” with every breath and every slow step as I consumed thoughts of standing at that point. I forced a smile for the photo I had been wanting, a photo that for the rest of my life would represent the end of my working the world journey.

Then as my guide and I started our descent my state also declined, and pretty rapidly. I was disoriented, more confused than usual, headache out of control, going fuzzy, and I knew I was in a bad way. Although I can’t remember my guide told me later that he was super worried when I didn’t know my name. Ahhhhh Hap, is it just me or does there seem to be a bit of reoccurring theme to my Africa chapter? Long story short my guide literally ran with me – run as much as you can when you have a disoriented bag of bones leaning on you- from Stella Point back to to Barafu camp, over 1000m vertical metres. Even though I spent most of the descent on another planet, I knew that it was paramount to get down before my brain started squeezing itself out my ears. As tired as I was, I just kept stumbling down as fast my legs and my guide would carry me with a stop every now and then to check my pupils and take on liquid. It wasn’t much fun. Man, you must all be getting tired of reading about these bloody “mishap” moments in Africa, don’t worry only one left to go about getting Robbed.

Back at camp there was talk of cerebal oedema and getting me back to Moshi , but Peter was there and was the voice of reason. I was fed some pills and given half an hour to see if the lower altitude would cure me before reassessing if I needed to be taken lower.

All I know is that I woke up still fully clothed, my head booming, but thinking clearly, thinking get me the f**k off this mountain! It was a GREAT relief to have my thoughts back. The funny thing is that altitude sickness of which they call acute mountain sickness is a part of most people’s Kili experience in some way shape or form, whether it being a headache or more serious. But that is why it is such a challenge. That is why I have nothing but respect for people that have climbed Kili or other high altitude mountains. Personally after Kili I have had my fix of high altitude, I’m glad I experienced it, and as stupid as it sounds that is the reason I wanted to climb so I could experience high altitude. But I’m definitely not one of these high altitude junkies that thrive off it, give me beautiful gruelling low altitude hike any day.

OK I want to warp this up. After munching a whole bunch of headache pills and having some lunch we started the descent down to Mweke camp at 3000m. This was where I spent my birthday night drinking cups of tea with Peter. And when it turned 7pm I could think of nothing better than going to bed!

Day 7 Mweka Gate

I woke up feeling enthusiastic as we only had a 3 hour easy stroll to Mweka Gate. At the gate a mini bus was awaiting our arrival to take us back to our hotel in Moshi. Ohhhh and how sweet it was to get back to the hotel where after 7 days we got our first shower (I had a cold one as never knew about turning the hot water switch on) and a cold beer which like most things in Tanzania is appropriately named “Kilimanjaro” –they have a saying in Tanzania that if you can’t climb it, drink it.

I really enjoyed this time back in Moshi with my fellow summiteers as I had time to reflect on the trip and truly appreciate what I had experienced and achieved. And you definitely achieve Kilimanjaro, there is nothing easy about it, but totally worth it! It’s a once in a lifetime experience and if you have it on your bucket list I say DO IT!

And I want to take this moment to thank Zara Tours and Abelly my guide who helped me reach my summit and make my 11/11/11 dream a reality. They are Tanzanian owned, professional, well organised and each evening at camp went the extra mile with acclimatisation climbs. But the one thing that I really appreciated about Zara was that the company treated their staff with respect. I knew this because they all spoke highly of working for Zara which employs 80 guides! In this industry and in Africa it is pretty easy to take advantage of the local labour and cut corners so It’s pretty cool when you have the workers telling you that when even the porters have a problem the big boss will take the time to speak with them and they all get paid on time. This showed through on the hike by having a chirpy jovial bunch of porters and guides which added to the experience. Thank you Zara Tours.


8 Responses to “The final continent finale – Kilimanjaro”

  1. stephen November 29, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    Hey hap buddy, I’m happy you enjoyed your trip and was nice to meet you, I read your blog and its really good, enjoy it and hopefully we will meet again

    • Hap November 29, 2011 at 6:23 pm #

      Hey Stephen mate,
      Yeah all went pretty well on the bike. I hope all good and things are greening up.

  2. Geoff November 29, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

    Another chapter, another achievement…the Hap resilience and “can-do” attitude.
    Just one chapter left, about a particular breed of African animal… the Mongrels of DaresSalam….aka robbers! So glad your here to write about it!
    Meantime dont do anything stupid??? and we will see you in NZ for Xmas.
    We looking forward to our family reunion.
    G & Mum

    • Jennifer Wilson November 29, 2011 at 4:45 pm #


      Well what a journey, the flower would be so proud of you as are all your Aunties (only two of us left now). What a wonderful thing for your Mum Lynn) to finally have you back in NZ. Take care Mark and enjoy Xmas, I should possibly catch up with you next year sometim.e Lots of love and no silly stuff just get back to us all now


      • Hap November 29, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

        G’day Aunty Jen,
        thanks for the message. No need to worry, I’ve had enough of the silly business and pretty sure the silly business won’t be able to find me on this side of the world.
        I hope all is well for you. I’m looking forward to getting home and spending summer in beautiful NZ.
        Take Care, Hap (Mark)

    • Hap November 29, 2011 at 6:10 pm #

      As I just wrote to Aunty Jen, I’m over all the funny business. Looking forward to a safe, no excess luggage, no theives, no animals, no mountain sickness return to NZ. Make sure the beer fridge is full Geoffrey!
      NBL Hap

  3. Lesa December 2, 2011 at 10:46 am #

    Have Loved Reading about your journey!!!Awesome and what a way to finish!!!!! apart from the sickness and forgetting who you were lol!!!

  4. kiwijobloggs December 3, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    Reading this made me both proud and gave me some insight…looking at doing Base Camp this year at the end of my Big Adventure. Always an inspiration in all your eloquence. Safe travels on the home stretch my friend
    Big Love

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