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Monday, October 31, 2011

The Expedition: The Kilimanjaro Diary


“Did you just come back from South Sudan?”

That’s how Protus, the guard at the company cafeteria, greeted me when I stepped in for a bite last Tuesday. I looked at the serious stare on his face and knew that he simply didn’t mean that he hadn’t seen me for a while. There was clearly something wrong with my ‘tan’.

“Why?” I asked.

He said that I had turned too black, eve navy blue! That I had taken on the shiny black colour of the Sudanese. The black Sudanese, not the arab ones. I told him that I had gone to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and that it was too cold up there and that was why my complexion had changed to that of charcoal from Narok.

“If it was cold, you ought to be light. Not this dark! " he said. I gave up the fight.

I had suffered a frost nip and I had just gotten better. My nose, cheeks, face and lips had all decided to shed their outer layer…yet I am not a reptile.

Yes, that explains why I didn’t blog much in October. I was busy running, jogging, walking, stretching just to keep fit for the climb up Africa’s tallest mountain. And I can confess that it wasn’t a joke. I can describe it as fun because I didn’t sweat at all and with God’s help, I did manage to get to Uhuru Peak at 5,895 metres above sea level.

The whole trip to Kilimanjaro was eye-opening for me. I didn’t know I had it in me to be generously good and patient and quiet when tempers were rising all over me. And if you want to enjoy this blog entry, you better have loads of time on your hands, because I am condensing ten days of expedition into one entry. My bad. It is 4,500 word long.

Nairobi

As we awaited the flagging off to go climb the mountain, I met these editors. They insisted that I had to write blogs from the top of the mountain, and they told me that I should carry my laptop.

I knew there wasn’t going to be any electricity, so the battery would ‘die’ within the first two hours. I didn’t think their plot was nice, but then, when you deal with editors, as Oduor Ouma says in his book, Jot it Down, “you have to keep your mouth shut and your mind open.”

Someone even suggested that we should get the solar laptop. But you don’t say that at ‘boarding time’, do you? I didn’t argue with them. They even ordered spare batteries from IT for me.

I have been atop many mountain ranges and valleys, on similar expeditions, but I can’t imagine, walking the whole day and then in the evening, sitting down to file a story. But there’s a first time for everything.

Nairobi to Namanga

As we left the city, there was a downpour. So, I curled up in the seat next to the door and dozed off. We made one-stop just after Ilbisil for the folks to empty their bladders , then we went on with our journey. We reached Namanga, where I met Clay Muganda, who was on a Road Trip to Tanzania. We had a tittle-tattle in which he made a pithy observation, in his nastily wise way, about Akamba Bus and late departures.

I went to change money and guess what, I held TSh50,000, yes, that is circa Ksh2,500 in my hands. As we transacted at the bureau, Ronnie came over and I realized that the first and last digits of our identity card numbers were, yes, identical. Sadfa tu! Yeye mganda nusu, mimi mkenya kamili.

After that we checked out of Kenya and entered Tanzania. Right there at immigration, we saw this guy who loathed conversation. He never responded to any enthusiastic greeting from us, but he did smile at a young American who told one of us that she works with an NGO on Thika Road. Gikambi and her hit it off and they spoke Kiswahili for the longest time. She was fluent. I liked her. You just could not not like her. Even that silent, unfriendly and aloof immigration officer did like her.

The fingerprints and photos were taken and shortly thereafter we began the journey to Arusha.

Namanga to Arusha

The journey was quiet. The bus was coasting nicely, with rhumba music blaring from the speakers. It was a good moment which was interrupted when we were stopped at some road block right outside some police station. I didn’t get to write down the name of the station and shortly, you’ll know why.

As the driver was busy leading a police officer up the carrier and in the boot to inspect our luggage, we took in the scene. Actually, the police officers, some in plainclothes and others in khaki uniform were sitting on chairs and benches eating groundnuts. In Kenya, they are always on their feet, except in places like Gamba, down in Tana Delta, where they hide from the sun under an acacia tree on the side of the road.

But this was Tanzania. Life was easy. As we spoke, I saw one walk right to the side of the bus and ask why we had taken their pictures. I opened the door and said, I didn’t see anyone snap away. But there was a policewoman. She walked and, wait for it, accused me.

“Naomba kukuuliza, kwa nini unapiga picha kituoni? Kwani waona sisi kazi yetu ni kuzembea, wewe utoke huko, utupige picha?” she said. Now clearly, that vibe about Tanzanians being polite and a police officer saying ‘naomba’—may I? or please—turned out to be true.

As I protested my innocence, she persisted. She told me to alight. I did. Her boss came round and asked for my camera, I gave it to them. Problem is, I had forgotten the memory stick in Nairobi and had asked someone to send it over that evening by plane. They said I had hidden it.

I stood outside and heard colleagues inside the bus say I hadn’t taken any picture. When the policemen turned to me, I just laughed at the ridiculous accusation. That made them angry, because they took it that I was being condescending and arrogantly Kenyan. But in truth, I was getting pissed off.

I heard Ronnie telling them that I didn’t take the picture. How would he know, when he was seated far back?

Anyway, they agreed with him and we were on our way. It is then that Ronnie said he had taken the picture. That he saw the policewoman pointing at him through the viewfinder, he snapped away, got the batteries out, threw it them in his bag; got the memory card out and hid it elsewhere and tucked the camera in the side pocket of his back-pack. Darn!

The folks at the back of the bus had seen him but they decided to keep quiet. The ride was smooth from then on.

Arusha

We checked in at Impala Hotel. We met Mzee Arusha, our liaison who organized porters, cooks, waiters and guides to take us up the mountain. He gave us the ski-poles, which we’d pay KSh750 for the whole time. I didn’t test them and they didn’t work up the mountain. Suffice to say, I didn’t get value for the money. I made a mental note to check my gear well in advance the next time I am going up any mountain.

The guides walked room to room telling us what to carry. Don’t believe what they tell you. Carry all they tell you to, plus, everything else your naïve mind tells you to carry. It is better to be safe than sorry.

The following morning, I picked my laptop from Annie and yes, there was a memory stick from my camera. I was a bit apprehensive when I saw someone else with a laptop leaving it at the hotel, but then, I got to make Mayoyo promise to carry the laptop. Of course, he got a guide to carry it safely up the mountain. Thanks Munuhe for taking care of that machine that well.

Arusha to Machame Gate

That trip was just a quiet one. If you’d assessed the faces, you’d see people ‘meditating’ about the journey. Hell, we looked like cattle headed for the abattoir. Two hours later, we were at our destination.

Machame Gate

It was raining when we got at this gate of the Kilimanjaro National Park. And it was cold. The moment I stepped out of the bus, I rushed to the shed to layer-up. I then handed the laptop to Mayoyo and Mwaura to file a story to Nairobi. Thank God to the good-natured Tanzanians. We were able to file the copy and use their internet connection now that our post-paid modem was misbehaving.

The moment the story hit the Newsroom, a call came through that I should send pictures. The connection was just awful; time was limited; suffice to say the pictures never made it.

I then bought a hood for Tsh10,000 at the gate. There were hawkers there with anything and everything you need for the trip up. Sun-glasses; rain coats; water proof covers for the back-packs; sleeping bags; bandanas; shawls; blankets; gaiters; fleece jackets; just name it, they have it. But the prices! It’s amazing I didn’t feel robbed at all.

After a hot lunch of cucumber soup, bread and beef-stew –cooked right there under the giant-sized banda as we filled in our forms by Mzee Arusha’s crew, the trek began.

I promised myself to keep my pace constant. ‘Baby steps’ and‘rest steps’—short steps while swinging from side to side like the Kikuyu women with water jericans or firewood on their back. Same pace. All the way.

Jaymoh was my companion and I can tell you that by the time I reached Machame Hut, five and a half hours later, I wasn’t feeling tired.

On the way, I picked her. She had pain in her groin and it was dark. I have been a ‘sweeper’ (the person who makes sure everyone else left behind by the leading pack makes it to camp), so I took her as my responsibility. Muhia and Wallace joined us later and step by step we went all the way to Machame Hut at 3,100 m asl.

The fellows had already set up the tents and the sleeping pads had some mattress in them; plus we had pillows! That was a surprise for me. Basillioh, my tent-mate from Mt Kenya days, had already arrived and was already in a tent.

An hour later we went to a large tent with camping stools and tables set out for dinner. Soup was there. The stew too. Bread. Then a variety of beverages from Milo, to tea, to chocolate, to coffee and cocoa. The cutlery was there too. I didn’t use my fingers. I served folks their drinks and I loved it. Some thought I was being nice, but then I just like order. If everyone was serving himself, there would have been chaos. No? Hehehe…

After that, we retired for the evening. I slept for three hours and yes, there was a lot of tractor-like snoring, which kept me awake for the remainder of the night. I was among the first to wake up the following day.

The breakfast too was a surprise. Bread with blue-band, honey, peanut butter, and just as we thought we had had it all, they brought in smokies and fried eggs. How about that for five-star treatment?

MACHAME HUT TO SHIRA

We refilled our water bottles and the trek to Shira began. It rained the whole day. It was annoying. That rain was cold. We met some Britons, who unable to keep up with the climbing over steep cliffs, walking on slippery mud and having to shield their bodies from the icy-rain, decided to turn back.

We’d overhear porters complaining about how cold wherever we were headed was. They sang their version of the classic song ‘Jambo Bwana’.

“Jambo, jambo bwana, habari gani, mzuri sana

Wageni mwakaribishwa, Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata

Ulikuja mwenyewe, hakuna matata

Bila ya kusukumwa, hakuna matata”

Some smoked weed under the rocks; others drunk Konyagi (a distilled brew), others just drank water, while others smoked cigarette.

We reminded ourselves that we were doing it for the hunger-stricken Kenyans and kept on walking. Sometimes, thoughts would escape from our mouths and yes, actually, one of us asked (no names here), “Kama wana njaa, wanatuhusu nini?” But because we had to convince our sponsors that we were punishing our bodies so that someone somewhere gets to eat or even drink water, there was no turning back.

We got to Shira after six hours completely soaked. Yes, we had the raincoats on, but they were not as water proof as the manufacturers had advertised. They let in a little water. We were drenched. The tents too had water; the sleeping pads and bags too were wet. It was a bad moment. And still it was cold. That was about 3,900 m asl.

We got to take soup, hot lunch and lots of hot drinks. Then as Muhia had advised us, we dropped to warm our clothes. The polyester and fleece dried quickly from the body heat. We put the socks between the sleeping pad and the sleeping bag. These two dried. The pair of dry socks in my bag kept my feet a little warm. I didn’t have a second pair of shoes –I ignored that piece of advice—and I paid for it.

Folks played poker and wow, Kwach and Mayoyo, turned out as the pros. Herbling got fined for touching cards before his turn to play. Mwaura, what did you say on this day?

I could overhear conversations in the neighbouring tents about Muigai and his dreams; Njuguna and his interpretations; Annie and Hannah with their prayers for the sun; it was just interesting. God heard their prayers and the sun came up the following day.

SHIRA TO BARRANCO

This was the stretch where we experienced the ‘climb high, sleep low’ mountain mantra. We went all the way to Lava Tower, with Muhia, Steve and Timo reminding us that we should do it ‘polepole’ –slowly by slowly. At some point called the ‘junction’, we got served tea. And because I don’t take tea, I had to continue sipping my water.

Basillioh had a headache that had Muhia worried (Hahaha…when another colleague in the office told me that he had a headache, I told him ‘kunywa maji’, only to remember that I was not on top of Kilimanjaro. Pole Ngirachu, it is the mountain hangover). Cromwell shared his biscuits with the ‘first couple’ (hehe…thanks Crom). Musembi, who had led us in some Kamba song, along the lines of ‘a luta continua’, took pictures. Lawrence also snapped away. Maingi was a bit quiet, but he did snap some more pictures. Ken ‘impunity’ was also there and so was Kwach. They were unusually quiet. Mbuthia, the man who ‘talks a lot in his mind’ was also in the house.

After the break, we went on to Lava Tower (4,600m), where we had hot lunch. On the way we fetched water from some rivulets. It tasted pure and fresh. I’ve never tasted anything so refreshing in my life. We had lunch.

Lawrence complained of a headache. He got some painkillers. Musembi also forced Mogaka to take some painkillers. It worked. Mogaka was rejuvenated again, like a reggae artist after a back-stage splif.

Annie was the only lady to make it to Lava Tower. We didn’t clap, but we did notice. Big up girl! The rest could not take the ascent especially after altitude sickness grabbed Ronnie’s respiratory system, twisted it and forced him to take a quick descent or die, on the mountain. Ronnie, uliungama sio? They took another route that’s less steep.

On the way to Barranco, we took many pictures. The views were nice. When they say the Machame Route is scenic, this is what they mean. Gichira, with his camera, grabbed loads of shots and you could see him smile as he rolled the tape. Emmanuel too in his quiet way walked on.

At some point, Gilbert assisted ‘the lady’ down the cliff and I think I also heard someone shouting expletives after spraining the ankle. Edward (let me not say your surname), should I say how you swore and cursed?

We reached Barranco, we found Mzee Arusha’s crew had whipped up some popcorn. There was mobile phone reception and the citiots whipped up their phones to inform their girlfriends, wives, parents, siblings and friends that they were on Mt Kilimanjaro.

We saw Moshi far away, and Mzee Arusha joked that he’d like to take us to a night club. He lied that it takes 15 minutes from Barranco, but then, we had already asked and knew that it took a minimum of eight hours to cover that distance. But you can’t blame him. Such small-talk in the mountain means a lot.

Mayoyo and Mwaura carried out their interviews with some lady porters –as in ladies who carry over 20 kilos of luggage and run with it up the mountain, reach the campsite, set up before the mountaineer tourists arrive. There was also a man from Nyamira doing that work. Lawrence took the pictures.

At dinner, there was a game of cards, which after momentarily refereeing, I had to leave. I heard someone got 16 cards? Was that Alvin? Or was it Pete? Leah, this is the day, you were really angry with the mountain.

The camp was full, circa 500 people. The following morning Wallace and Jaymoh said bye. Timo took them down.

The mountain was just right above us; teasing us; looking cute. You’d think that we had all of a sudden turned into cockerels going round a hen seducing it. That’s what we had done, just gone round the peak, looking at the glaciers, the snow-capped peak, taking in the beauty; while at the same time, being reminded of our goal. Exciting and scary.

We filed copy that morning and the modem we’d bought in Tanzania refused to work. So, we had to use our sim cards. Don’t even think about the data cost.

Hey, and I could load airtime using M-PESA. Thanks Safaricom, only that your roaming charges are expensive. Sh150 per minute to make a call; Sh25 to receive and Sh15 for a text message. Darn! Or is it Zantel?

BARRANCO TO KARANGA

From Barranco, you have to go up a steep cliff that has been named ‘the breakfast cliff’. Muhia, Munuhe and Steve kept on reminding us that by the time we reach the peak, we’d have no breakfast left in our stomachs. They were right.

But there was a jam of people on the cliff going up. “Mwamba lazima utaukumbatia!” Some porter kept on reminding us. “Hata kama huna ndoa, lazima utaubusu” Yes, we kissed and hugged the rocks and the cliffs on our way out. We had no option. It was the only way up.

The climb up was paced nicely with Alloys the guide infront, followed by Leah, then Annie and then Hannah. Now, it reached a place where Leah rallied folks to keep walking. At some point folks complained that she was walking too fast. I tell you, with all her years, she has the strength to rival men in their late twenties and early thirties.

We reached the peak; er, the breakfast cliff peak 4,650m asl; danced, took pictures and just as we saw the remaining route was a descent. Musembi was not amused. “Kwa nini tunapanda, tunashuka; tunapanda na tunashuka? Si twende tu!” He almost yelled at Alloys. Tempers in the mountain flare up quickly.

“Si uwaulize wachora ramani? Sio mimi niliyechora ramani!” Alloys retorted as he sat on a rock with fellow guides to catch a smoke.

The descent began. We walked for two and a half hours, crossed a river, ascended again and then went to Karanga. That river, was the last on our way to the summit, we were told. We filled our water bottles before going on. To appreciate the porters, you have to give it to them, because they reached Karanga then came down to fetch water.

They served us chicken, chips and vegetable salad. It was the highest moment that day. Incredible. As we devoured the fried chicken, Alvin took out his phone and showed us a picture of the hotel bed, all white, clean and cosy. Everyone cursed. Every one of us. Alvin don’t ever try that again! Not after sleeping in the wilderness in a tent for that long.

Lawrence was coughing badly and he too had to descend to beat the altitude sickness. He did descend with Sammy. We all told him our goodbyes. It was an emotional moment. But Muhia told us that altitude sickness was indiscriminate and that it could pick on anyone. When it struck Mzee Arusha, who literally lives on the mountain, it got scary. It did scare me. Nonetheless, we slept looking at the mountain and Moshi farther down looked cosy.

The poker players played. Someone got 27 cards. That’s half the deck. Wow! Pete? Why do I suspect you?

KARANGA TO BARAFU

Mogaka was sick when we woke up in the morning. He worried us. But then the journey to Barafu was slow, one foot after the other. We went on and on and in that tranquil pace, we made to the camp with slightly over two hours. Here Mzee Arusha and Mogaka took the descent. The rest of us had to chill out and wait for darkness.

We had soup and bread for lunch; had spaghetti and beef stew for dinner at six then went to the tent to sleep a bit as we waited for the final eight-hour trek to the peak. When they said it will take eight hours, we thought Alloys was joking. But he was dead serious.

Truth be told, I didn’t sleep. I just lay on the sleeping pad, tucked in my sleeping bag to keep warm and to rest my back. At ten sharp, I was up, hitting rocks on each other, to wake people from their tents. I called out names. They woke up. How did they manage to sleep.

We went to the ‘mess’ tent to eat and for the first time, they had served tea, already mixed with sugar and water. There were biscuits, which we took with the tea to add sugar to our system. I took a lot of water with the biscuits. That was a tiring moment.

Apparently, the rations went down, because people lose appetite as they ascend. But in our team, the appetite was still intact. There was no sugar, so that’s why the had to mix the little that was left. Plus, they gave us sweets.

BARAFU TO UHURU PEAK

After the breakfast at almost midnight, we began the final push to Uhuru Point, the peak on the side of the Kibo Crater of Mt Kilimanjaro. We went up and up quietly. I had the massive torch for Gichira as he took his shots. We kept on walking in a long long line.

Looking up, we could see torches. Looking down, we also could see torches zigzagging up. We walked on. The peak was just a huge shadow. The moon came out from the horizon. First there was light, reddish light against the clouds; then it lit up with orange and yellow; and finally the moon peered out. Then it ran over the skies, through the stars and in no time, it was standing over us, watching us, smiling, as we took on Africa’s tallest mountain.

We walked on. Took breaks, sipped water and walked some more. People puked; others returned to the camp, defeated. Others now revealed that they were on medication for meningitis and here they were walking in the cold. That chilled me to my spines. Others trudged on, and dropped out. Walking with Steve as the last guide, we issued threats and asked people to choose. ‘From this point, you either descend or go up. We’ll take you up, not down!” That worked, right Basillioh?

By the time the sun came out, I was almost at Stella Point and I must admit, I have never seen anything as beautiful in my life. Oh my, oh my, there’s a picture somewhere.

I had taken one of my colleagues as my responsibility and I promised myself that come what may, she had to at least reach Stella Point 5,730m asl. Suffice to say, she did me proud when she made it. I felt like an apprentice guide, although Steve insists that I am a fraud. That I am in the wrong profession. That I should be climbing mountains. She started coughing and Steve had to take her down to Barafu. The oxygen up there was just too little. They say it is less than half that found at sea level. No wonder some tourists had oxygen masks on.

I reached the peak and I can tell you folks were elated when they saw me. I was, as usual, a sweeper and I came in with Hannah and Basillioh. 24 of us made it. I was elated. We hoisted the Kenyan flag; the company flag and celebrated mashujaa day right up there.

Then it was downhill through and through. You’d look back and know why the final hike is done at night. If you see the way to Kibo, there’s no way you’re going to take that hike. It is steep and even cruel. It’s like looking at Mawenzi Peak from Barafu. So uninviting.

We slid on the pebbles, sand and balanced on the sharp rocks on our way down. We reached and were welcomed with a cup of juice. It tasted ethereal. Then lunch was Macarroni and cabbage. I hate cabbage, so I didn’t touch it. I drank water instead.

The trek to Mweka then got on. We did two hours to Millenium Camp; then two more to Mweka. There was popcorn and the hot drinks when we arrived. Then dinner was just as we were used to. It was back to normal. We had done it. It didn’t matter.

I picked my laptop from Munuhe. Kept it in my bag and carried it down the descent, walking with him, chatting about his upcoming assignment two days later to take tourists to Mt Kenya’s Lenana Peak. We walked with him and Leah to Mweka Gate. I bought a t-shirt written ‘just done it’. The feeling is nice. I am now in Nairobi, two weeks later, re-living the experience. I will post later the lessons from the mountain as I see and heard them.

I learnt a lot.

Bottomline: My sponsors and the editorial team of Mayoyo, Nick, Mwaura and I made it. That’s amazing. I hope the few coins I raised can buy a spade to help the Kenya Red Cross dig a borehole or a water pan in the dry areas. Inch by inch makes a cinch!

PS: Thanks for your time! But I keep wondering, why can't the government feed every Kenyan. What do they do with the billions of taxes we pay? Or now that there's Kenyans for Kenya and Kiliclimb, our taxes should just be eaten? That right there is one of the troubles with this country.



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