MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Close Encounters

Although to this day, I have no idea where exactly our camp was within the great expanse of the Serengeti National Park, I knew that we had a long drive out of the park ahead of us. So although we were leaving this incredible spot behind, we would still effectively be on safari for another morning. The campsite had been in an area rich with acacia trees and with a backdrop of a mountain range, so animals aside, there was plenty to see as we sat in our jeep watching the world go by. We didn’t need to travel far to see antelope, including a dikdik, one of the smallest antelopes in the World. Our driver was great at spotting things that were well hidden, and he pointed out a mound just visible beyond some grass where a clan of mongoose sat astride. At first I thought they were meerkat, not realising at the time that they don’t exist that far north, so had got exceptionally excited only to be a little disappointed on realising that they weren’t.

 

We took a convoluted route through the nearby grasslands, finding ourselves at a muddy quagmire that we drove over before skirting around a nearby pool of water. Huddled at one end was a large congregation of hippos. The rest of my group had come here the day before when I was up in the hot air balloon, so I was grateful that the driver made the effort to take me there too. My companions didn’t seem to mind the second chance to watch them, as the melee of hippos farted and jostled for space, occasionally shoving another hippo out the way. Every now and again one would yawn or groan, displaying some impressively long and discoloured teeth, and this was the only evidence of their immense power, the bulk of their gargantuan bodies hidden by the murky waters below the surface.

 

When we came across a large troupe of mongoose nearby, I was more excited because not only were there some adorable babies running around, but they were just as fun to watch as meerkats. There were those on sentinel duty, standing up on their hindlegs and looking around, those digging around in the dirt, and those berating or herding the juveniles around. Whilst not as eye-catching as meerkats, there was just as much activity to watch as they ran around in groups.

As we continued, the landscape began to open up again, the trees thinning out and the land flattening somewhat off into the distance. A few mounds in the ground offered a platform for topi to stand tall on, and we passed them by, a few buffalo off in the distance. These were the first buffalo we’d seen since Lake Manyara National Park and even from far away, they looked chunky and formidable. At some point, the call came out that elephant were afoot and suddenly there they were, a family unit just milling around in the grassland. Among them we spotted a very small baby elephant that was just visible through the long grass. It was well protected by the adults, rarely being in full sight as the adults shielded it and herded it between them. It is hard to think about how much these creatures have been decimated by poaching, and I guess that made it all the more special to see them. At one point as they moved, a flock of birds stirred and flew through the herd, and it reminded me of nature documentaries I’d watched as a girl. It was one of those unbelievable ‘pinch-me’ moments.

 

Some distance away, we came across a parked jeep and stopped to see what they were looking at. There were a few patches of bare ground in between long grass and it took a moment to spot the object of their attention. The camouflage out here was incredible at times, and in the end, it was a muddy face that gave it away. Once we’d spotted one muddy lioness, we realised there was a whole pride of females and cubs here, most of them covered in mud. Barely visible there was a mud patch, which I’m not sure if they’d been playing in, scent-marking in or trying to drink out of. The cubs especially were brown from head to foot, and a pair of them chased each other joyfully through the undergrowth. They were completely unfazed by us, the adults rolling onto their backs and rubbing themselves down, younger cubs staying close to mum and the older cubs chasing each other. We sat in hushed glee watching them for a long time.

After a bit more driving we seemed to turn down what looked like it would be a dead end. We had been summoned here over the radio and on arrival we found ourselves to be one of about 10 jeep jostling for prime position under an acacia tree. We ended up hemmed in towards the back of the group, the odd jeep occasionally shuffling its position to try and regain the optimum viewing spot. These were the moments that irked me about the safari, the overcrowding and unwillingness to give some of the wildlife space. The object of everyone’s attention had vertical space though, as it lounged on a branch high up in the large acacia tree. I’m not sure if the presence of the vehicles was a noise nuisance or unwanted attention, but not long after we arrived the gorgeous leopard we’d been watching stood up on the branch. She turned and stretched, contemplating her surroundings as she moved down the branches, continuing to stretch as she lowered herself. Once on the fork of the trunk, she paused briefly, almost level with our eye line now, licking her lips as she looked beyond our vehicles. She was simply stunning, and as she turned to leap out of the tree, she flashed her beautiful spotted coat before she was swallowed up by the long grass. Immediately the jeeps leapt into action, those that were in a position to move tried to follow her, whilst those of us that couldn’t had to wait for the other jeeps to shift. She was quick to disappear from view though, and before long, the jeeps were backtracking onto the main road and gradually drifting off on their separate routes.

 

With the hills and mountains directly behind us, I knew we were heading out of the park now. In the distance a group of giraffes wandered among the tall trees that we were leaving behind. Out of nowhere we arrived at a large expanse of water. Judging by the colour of the ground at the water’s edge, I suspect it was a salt marsh rather than freshwater, and as such it was almost deserted. A few wading birds wandered along the shoreline, and a little way into the water, a buffalo skull poked above the water line. With little to see we pushed on, returning to open grassland where we spotted a group of hyena. They were trotting through the undergrowth, looking initially like they were concentrating hard, but once we were passed them, they stopped and stared at us. There were no other animals visible, so whatever they were hunting was out of sight to us.

 

There was a long drive back to the entrance gate and offices of the park where there was a picnic site for us to enjoy another delicious meal on. There were a few birds flitting around, including the gloriously colourful superb starling that were hopping around the place. I even spotted a rat, which probably shouldn’t have been surprising with the amount of people eating here. The glorious blue of the starling though was the main distraction, the sunlight breaking through the foliage and causing it to shimmer. I spent most of my time there trying to capture it in a photograph.

 

Our campsite for the night was high on the ridge of the Ngorongoro crater, and even from here there was still a large expanse of African Plains to cross before the road was to cut back up. The wildlife grew sparser as we travelled and there was no point in stopping until suddenly a serval cat appeared. I’d briefly glimpsed one in the headlights on the drive to the hot air balloon the day before but it was great to see it in the daytime, even if it was brief. When the flat Plains gave way to a rise in altitude, we found ourselves back among the giraffes, these seemingly gentle giants roaming peacefully among the taller foliage. This time round we didn’t stay with them for long, pushing on towards Ngorongoro.

 

The road pushed higher, skirting round the Maasai village as it climbed eventually onto the crater rim. We stopped at a lookout where we could see not just the road that we’d be taking the next day, but almost all of the crater floor. About a third of it looked to be made up of a large lake and it didn’t seem possible that there was much wildlife down there. It didn’t feel like we were that high up, but the whole thing was an optical illusion as we would discover when we headed down on to the crater floor the next morning. Along the ridge we arrived at our campsite just before 4pm. We were the only ones there to begin with but as the hours went by more people arrived. This was one of a few campsites dotted along the crater rim, and being so high up, I didn’t really think we had much to worry about in terms of wildlife. With a few hours of daylight left, I took a walk around the margins of the camp, studying the flowers and berries, repetitively coming across signs stating ‘Danger, do not go beyond this point’. Behind them, the bush was thick, and I imagined that it could hide all sorts of creatures, not to mention that the slope of the crater lay hidden among it also.

 

The skull and leg bone propped outside of the food hall was the clue to what we had to contend with in the night. As we ate our dinner, we were given a briefing on camp safety. It was similar to the nights before in the Serengeti: go to the toilet in twos, remain in your tent, and do not engage the wildlife. As darkness fell there was again a nervous excitement as we wondered what the night would bring. It started off quiet enough and we got to sleep fine, but both myself and my tent companion woke at some point to the sound of munching and grass ripping, not far from us. Occasionally there were footsteps, and the munching sounds would grow quieter or louder. Our tents were set up in 3 rows, and we tried to guess how close they were as they moved around. At one point, the noise was directly behind me, just through the fabric of the tent, the loud ripping of grass followed by chewing the cud. There was just a mere piece of tent fabric between me and one of Africa’s Big 5, the large and powerful, Cape Buffalo.

 

The two of us in our tent stayed hushed, occasionally whispering in stifled panic as it walked around us. We were immensely grateful when it moved on and after a period of near silence, we decided to make a group trip to the toilet block. We didn’t see anything on the way there, but as we headed back to the tent, a brief outline of a dark hulk of an animal was picked up at the back of the tents as we hot-footed it back to ours. We lay there with a flourish of adrenalin before sleep took over once more. I don’t know how long I slept for before once again the sound of ripping and munching of grass woke me up. There were two of them now, one walking past our tent, another a little further away. Even in the darkness, there was an impression of a shadow as its hulk past us by. It was close to us, then further away, then suddenly behind us, again just separated by the tent fabric. The adrenalin was flowing as the pair of us whispered once more, and as the tent suddenly shook, we both bolted upright. The beast clearly had a bit of an itch, and despite its large curved horns, it decided that the support pole of our tent made a good scratching post, rubbing the bulk of its head up and down as our tent shimmied and shook at the force of it all. We had no idea how many buffalo were in the campsite, and we had no idea what the others were experiencing in their own tents, but this was as close an encounter as either of us wanted to have with the wildlife of Tanzania.

We were given a brief reprieve as it walked off to munch more grass, but it wasn’t long before the itch returned and our tent pole seemed to be the only one that was good enough. In the darkness we remained glued to the vision of our tent shaking as the vague shadow danced in front of us. The ripping of the grass and the munching was so loud through the fabric and the sound of the head against the rope was no quieter. After a good bit of rubbing, something finally gave way at the front of the tent, the sound changing and the sensation of the shimmying changing also. I’m not ashamed to say I was a little scared at this point, worried that it would proceed to bowl our tent over. Thankfully though, the main tent structure held true, and after what seemed like forever, the sound of the ripping and munching grew fainter and we were able to get back to sleep. We had an early alarm for a sunrise safari, and as we tentatively stepped out into the ongoing darkness around 5am, there was not a buffalo in sight. The one side of our tent porch had collapsed where the buffalo had pushed the support post over, the only sign of the night’s excitement. Incredulously we discovered that others in the campsite had slept right through undisturbed. For three nights running, our campsites had offered an incredible and unique African experience, and there was still another day of safari to come.

Serengeti Safari

There’s no shortage of animals in the Serengeti. In fact in no time at all of me rejoining the rest of my group after a delightful hot air balloon ride were we in the company of giraffes. I enjoyed seeing so many of the animals roaming around Africa, but for me, the giraffes were something special. They don’t particularly do much, but their gait and their stature is just marvelous. Had I been left to my own devices, I would have hung around with them longer, but the rest of my group had already had a close encounter with them without me, and the park was huge, and we had so much to explore. It was really difficult for me to get my bearings, and I had no idea where we were, or where we were headed, or how it all related to where we camped at night. Our driver guide obviously knew where some of the wildlife hot spots were, and we just sat back and let him take us there. We passed zebra and spotted a well camouflaged leopard up an acacia tree next to a rocky outcrop, pausing briefly below it waiting to see if it would move. It just stared right back at us, an occasional flick of the tail its only movement.

 

In what might as well have been the middle of nowhere, we found a lioness hidden among some long grass. When it came to spotting lions, it was often the presence of a parked jeep that caught our attention. If you were a lion in the Serengeti, it was very difficult to be left alone, and sadly they would often be surrounded by multiple safari jeeps which regularly irked me. On this occasion, it was just us, and frankly she just looked hot, showing us little interest as she flapped away the ever present flies from her face. Two more lionesses were making the most of some shade under a tree. Even in that cooler spot they looked like they were struggling and one of them was fully lain out whilst the other sat up as if on guard. I spotted a tracking collar on one of them as we moved to the side before leaving. The vegetation grew sparser as we drove deeper and deeper into the park, so it was unsurprising to find yet more lions in the shade of a solitary bush, resting in the intense heat of the African day.

 

After a while we found ourselves on the true plains and this is where the herbivore herds seemed to be hanging out. In fact, the zebra herds stretched for miles into the distance, as the individuals spread out in smaller groups to feed. Visiting in February of last year, we were just a little early for the great herd migrations, but there was a ridiculously large number of them there already, and among them we could spot the odd juvenile. In the midst of them all, we pulled up on the track and sat listening to them bickering and barking, whilst watching them milling around, occasionally jostling with each other, and just generally meandering about. They walked in front of us and behind us, and the odd oxpecker bird flitted among them looking for a feed of flies. The odd zebra looked our way from time to time, but most of them didn’t care that we were there.

 

We drove for some time across the plains, a mix of deserted sections and those with zebra dotted around. On the horizon there were no landmarks visible, and it felt like we could drive on forever. Occasionally we would be aware of the odd other safari jeep but for the most part we felt like we were out here on our own. Serengeti National Park is a very popular place for safaris, and it has led to crowd problems at times. On a few occasions I hadn’t liked how many jeeps were parked up by some of the animals, especially the big cats, and wasn’t comfortable being part of the problem. Out here though, it was great to get away from the crowds, and our guide explained that they weren’t allowed to drive off the established tracks, meaning there was plenty of undisturbed land for the wildlife to wander. This all changed though when a flurry of chatter came over the radio. The conversation was in Swahili, but we’d learned the odd word to know what animal was being talked about. This time though we had no idea, and our car suddenly took off, meaning it was potentially something good. As we got nearer we could see a line of other jeeps, and we quickly turned off the track, taking a wide arc over the land to join the other jeeps. I was silently annoyed that we’d broken the rule about off-road driving, but immediately conflicted as I spotted what we had driven so hurriedly to see: a cheetah. I had been hoping to see one whilst in Tanzania, and this was to be the one and only cheetah sighting that we had out there. It strolled past us all, fresh blood smeared across its face: it had killed recently. Shortly finding a small rise in the land to stand up on, it surveyed its surroundings as the multitude of jeeps formed an arc behind it, complete silence falling on us as it stood there. Within minutes of its arrival, it slunk off into the tall grass, and we left it there, cutting back onto the road as if nothing had happened.

 

After the excitement of the morning, we pulled up in the shade of a large tree and bundled out to stretch our legs. Then, in a surreal moment, a picnic was presented to us, and we tucked into a feast of cold but delicious foods as we surveyed our surroundings for any wildlife. You never knew what could be sneaking through the long grass, but all we could see was the odd topi and gazelle in the distance. Thankfully there was some shade, because the heat outside the jeep was oppressive. With no toilet in sight, it felt like we were all marking our territory as the only spot to get some privacy from the rest of the group was behind the back wheel of the jeep, and one by one everyone took their turn to relieve themselves, thanks to all the water we’d been drinking in the heat. Not a single bit of litter was left behind by us, but just like hiking up Mt Kilimanjaro the week before, it was another eye-opener to the effect of tourism in nature.

Initially we took a similar route back, passing once more through a large herd of zebra. This time we could see more juveniles, and we could spot the odd pregnant female. At some point we cut off on a different road and this took us to a rudimentary water hole where a number of zebra were congregating at one end. Amusingly, a hyena slept in the muddy margin in full view of the herbivores, and even though it didn’t flinch, it was given a wide berth and many eyes remained on it whilst they drank. As we sat and watched, a warthog and piglet came running to get a drink as well, simply fitting in among the many legs of the zebra. When we eventually left here we spotted a large eland wandering through the herd of zebra, and a topi beyond that.

 

After some time of driving we spotted a well camouflaged lioness in the long grass. She was barely visible so we left her behind, eventually finding a solitary male lion. He wasn’t in great shape, his spine poking up dramatically behind him as he lay in the shade of a tree. His face and ears were marked, and as he opened his eyes to pant, a broken canine became visible. As he rose to his haunches, he looked pained and it became clear as he struggled to walk, his back left leg weak and almost dragging behind. This was the great circle of life in action. As a vet, I’m acutely tuned in to the suffering of animals, recognising it and feeling it more than the average person, my entire career being built around being an advocate for the welfare of pets and a voice for the creatures that can’t talk. But whilst the rest of my group struggled to see the sight in front of them, pleading with our driver to contact someone to get a wildlife vet out to treat it, I stayed silent, much more accepting of the fact that nature was doing its thing. At their prime, the lion kills other animals, and in its decline, it will feed other animals. I have a very different opinion when a human has caused the animal’s suffering, and am very opinionated about the myriad of animal cruelty that goes on in this world, but playing out in front of us was nature. A snapshot in the great circle of life on the Plains of Africa.

 

Only a short distance away, we found a trio of much healthier males, and our guide informed us that the four were brothers. It was likely they would keep the injured male fed where they could, but as he was unlikely to be able to keep up with them, I suspected he would eventually be left behind to starve. I’ve seen enough wildlife documentaries to know that a hunt can go wrong, and it is possible the injured male was kicked by his prey, or thrown off during an attack. These other three males were beautiful, the typical colour and mane of every lion you ever see on tv, and they had no cares in the world right then, one of them completely rolled on its back to expose its belly as it slept. We stayed with them for a while, watching them do nothing, before eventually we pushed onwards. As we gradually worked our way back to our campsite, the acacia trees began to pop up more and more. A couple of vultures were spotted on the top of one, and at some point we spotted a dikdik in the long grass. They are one of the smallest antelope and would be easy to overlook were it not for the keen eyes of our guide.

 

As the sun was on its downward arc, and as the acacia trees grew taller, I was excited to see some elephants wandering through the long grass. The herd was a little spread out, but there was a mix of size of elephants, including a couple of youngsters who were only just visible above the grass. We’d seen some in Lake Manyara a couple of days prior, but seeing them here in the much more open landscape was just a little bit more magical. The landscape evolved constantly after leaving them behind, and as we returned to familiar looking surroundings, we circled round a small pond which had a hippo in it. It eyed us up with an evil-looking glare before we left it too behind, passing warthogs and lots of antelope before eventually finding ourselves at the office block with the bar that we’d stopped at the night before. Like last time, the rock hyraxes were running around everywhere, and as this was to be our last night in the Serengeti, we all got some booze to take back to our campsite.

The sunset was just as spectacular the second night. This time round we were getting prime spot by the fire pit and we gradually congregated in the lowering sunlight to soak up the alcohol in an incredibly stunning location. Some little birds bathed in the dust by our feet, and in the rocks behind camp I spotted more hyraxes jumping about. We ate as the light lowered, but while no hyenas rushed in to steal our food, we could occasionally spot the eyes in our headlamps just beyond the nearest bush. There was a nervous excitement knowing they were there, and I for one wished that we’d get the thrill of one coming in to camp, but they remained just out beyond the boundary while we sat there. Again in our tents with no security or fencing to protect us, we slept in bursts, intermittently disturbed by the calls of the hyenas, and the sounds of things we couldn’t recognise. It had been a thrill to camp wild in Africa, but even though we were moving locations the next day, we didn’t yet know that the next campsite would provide an even closer wildlife encounter.

Above the Serengeti

In the darkness of the early morning we drove across the Serengeti. I had no idea where we were in the park or where we were going, but after rounding up people from various accommodations that popped up out of the darkness, we took off at great speed along a road to nowhere obvious. Knowing that animals are often more active at night, I furtively scanned the outside world looking for the glimmer of eyes reflecting in the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. As we drove further and further away from our starting point, suddenly an unusual cat appeared in the headlights for such a brief moment as to almost be forgetful, but long enough to know I’d seen something special: a serval cat, one of Africa’s lesser known cats. It was the only wildlife we spotted on the drive that eventually took us to our destination just as a hint of dawn filled the air.

It was freezing cold when we got out next to a multitude of other jeeps, and next to us were the shadows of a multitude of hot air balloons. As we stood waiting for them to be readied, the horizon turned blue, then lightened gradually before a hint of red and then yellow arrived. These balloons were huge and took a lot of preparation to get them ready for boarding. We had to climb into the basket whilst it was lying on its side, meaning we had to lie down on the side of the basket staring up at the sky until everyone was loaded and ready to go. I was one of the first people to get on, and it felt cramped by the time we were fully loaded. As more and more hot air was pumped into the balloon, we were assisted to upright and among such a large group of balloons, I was excited to be on one of the first to take off. I’d never had much desire to go ballooning beforehand, but when the option had landed at my feet to balloon across the Serengeti, I jumped at the chance despite the added expense. I decided it would be one of those once in a lifetime experiences, and it certainly proved itself to be just that.

 

The sun broached the horizon just after we took off, quickly gaining momentum as we left the other balloons behind. The sky was by now a mix of orange and purple and as we silently lifted high above the ground, I no longer felt cramped in the basket. I couldn’t move much, but I was able to turn around, look up and over and absorb the expanse opening up right in front of my face. We’d taken off in an open area of the park, but we drifted towards hills, flying over a grazing topi and a large expanse of vague greenery. We spotted the odd safari jeep that was out early for a sunrise safari, including one that was parked up under a large acacia tree where no doubt a leopard was probably resting in its branches. Behind us the other balloons had finally taken off also and so began the balloon dance across the Serengeti National Park.

 

Initially flying low, we gained a bit of height in preparation for the hills that we would traverse over. Aside from the loud bursts of flame blasting into the balloon, the flight itself was incredibly quiet and it felt utterly peaceful to just drift over the land below. When we reached the first hillside, we flew tantalisingly close to the tops of the foliage, and I scoured the land for signs of life. For a while there wasn’t any animals, but eventually we spotted some giraffes among the trees, one of which looked up at us as we floated by. A little further was a small herd of cape buffalo who paid us no attention whatsoever.

 

After another rise we floated over a beautiful green stretch covered in trees, framed by small peaks and hills that rolled off into the distance. I presumed we were heading in the direction of where I’d camped for the night but really couldn’t be sure. We got quite close to a large herd of antelope, although they seemed unsure how to respond to the noise of the balloon flames, some of them scarpering, and others pausing to look up at us. In groups, their stripey bottoms stood out from a distance, with large groups of females being patrolled by an antlered male. Some of them looked positively inquisitive, others just plain confused.

 

For a long time we just drifted over an acacia-filled landscape. Occasionally we floated over a stream, some buildings, or another hill. We spotted a couple of zebra, and later a warthog took off at full speed. Behind us the other balloons continued to dance. I didn’t want the experience to end but sadly it had to. It was still so early in the morning, and there was so much of the day still to come, but after what did not seem like enough time, our landing spot grew closer. We were given instructions on how to brace for the landing, and we watched the first balloon come in to land ahead of us, a group of helpers ready immediately to assist everyone off and pack up the balloon. Then sadly it was our turn to return to Earth, and we had the smoothest landing possible and disembarked with ease.

 

The ground crew were incredible at herding the various groups over to some tables laden with flutes, and there in the early hours of the morning, I found myself drinking champagne in Africa. Standing somewhere unknown in the Serengeti, I watched as the other balloons lowered and landed nearby. All of them touched down gently apart from the last one which bounced before landing, a scream coming from one of the passengers within the basket. A little away some giraffes wandered by and I spotted a few antelope too. Once we’d had our fill of bubbles, we were whisked away to another spot that also felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, where a set of large tables had been set up for a banquet breakfast in the shade of a large tree. In the centre was more champagne, and across courses of fruit and bread and meats and coffee, all of us at the table were in heaven, and I myself felt warm and merry as the champagne continued to flow. A short walk away an open-sided tent had been set up so that you could look out at the open space of the national park whilst sat on the toilet seat.

 

From the sunrise to the peaceful flight over the plains, and from the champagne welcome to the gorgeous banquet in the shade of an acacia tree, the experience was one of my highlights of my time in Tanzania. I had missed out on a morning safari with the rest of my group, but I returned to them mid-morning with a lot of excitement for the day ahead. I’d missed out on a couple of close encounters, but with the day still young, we had a full day safari ahead of us and a lot more wildlife spotting to come.

Serengeti National Park

I was raised on David Attenborough documentaries, with Sunday nights spent watching the television, ogling over creatures I never imagined I’d see in the flesh. I didn’t spend my childhood thinking I’d ever travel or see some of the things I’ve seen, but as an adult I’ve had the privilege and excitement of some incredible wildlife exposure. The African Plains in the Serengeti National Park has always been a regular backdrop to these BBC programmes, and last February at the age of 35, I found myself bouncing up and down in the back of a safari jeep, sending a cloud of dust behind us as we went in search of Africa’s animals in that exact location.

Initially there was a dearth of vegetation but it wasn’t long before we came across a male lion who was just chilling out next to some abandoned man-made structure. He seemed a million miles from anywhere, but in the late afternoon, he just sat there, ignoring the presence of the couple of jeeps that had stopped to look at him. He had a few scars on his face and his mane was pale, and he barely moved. When we pressed on deeper into the park, we found a lioness asleep on top of a rock. Clearly hunting was not on any of their minds at this time of the day. As we continued, small pockets of acacia trees appeared and dotted in random places were rocky outcrops which broke up the otherwise vast expanse of the plains. In the far distance, hills were on the horizon, and they grew closer as we continued on the road in search of wildlife.

 

These rocky outcrops with their trees were potential wildlife hot spots, but with the coverage of the vegetation, spotting anything there was difficult. Luckily our driver guide was an expert at spotting things that our naive eyes couldn’t see. It also helped that we’d occasionally come across another jeep that was parked up which would allude to an animal’s presence, so when the word went out that there was a leopard in a tree on top of one of the rock piles, I was beside myself, straining my eyes to see it through the vegetation. I was grateful that my camera had a decent zoom on it, as this was pretty much the only way to spot it aside from binoculars. If I hadn’t been told it was there to know where to look, I’d have never spotted it on my own. The camouflage was incredible.

As we continued on our safari, the acacia trees grew taller. At one large singular tree we found a few jeeps parked up near its base, and we were quick to learn there was a lioness up in the branches. As we once more strained to see it through the foliage, we became suddenly aware of another couple of lions approaching from the other side of the jeep. As we watched, the numbers of jeeps grew and as the lioness in the tree climbed down to join her pride, I experienced my first annoyance about the management of safaris in this popular park. As the lioness walked on our right, and her pride walked on our left, the drivers of the jeeps ahead of us were so intent on their clients getting the ultimate view that they actively moved and blocked the path that the lioness was taking. She stopped to re-evaluate, her chosen path suddenly gone and the pride found themselves divided by several jeeps that kept jostling among themselves for a better view. We hung back where we were and I was grateful our driver was more respectful. Eventually, the lioness walked in front of the melee and joined the others.

 

The bulk of the jeeps drove off shortly after, leaving just our two jeeps behind. We stayed where we were, watching the social interactions from a distance. Suddenly my attention was drawn to a figure moving through the long grass towards us and I realised it was another lioness. She stood on a little mound right by my window and as I shamelessly took a selfie through the window, a juvenile appeared behind her, shortly followed by another one. Although the lioness left, these two older cubs hung around by us for quite some time, before the pride gradually joined together and began to move away. For a first safari in the Serengeti, it had been a magical start.

 

The cloud looked a little ominous as we headed towards our accommodation for the night. We had to pop into one of the local offices for me to pick up my ticket for an add-on that I’d booked onto the following morning. The office building had a bar and small shop attached to it, but wandering around the site were lots of little rock hyraxes, a peculiar looking creature that live in large groups. They ran fast making them difficult to photograph as they popped up and around rocks and logs. We didn’t have far to drive from here to where we’d be spending the night, and as we watched the sky grow dark and rain move across in the distance, we pulled up and unloaded our stuff. As someone who usually travels independently, I’m used to being responsible for the choices of where I stay, but probably because it was an organised tour, I either hadn’t bothered to read the itinerary or hadn’t really understood it if I had, but we found ourselves at an open campsite, our tents already pitched and waiting for us. I have no idea where this campsite was in the grand scheme of things, but here we were completely unfenced in the Serengeti, and at our briefing we were informed that there was no guard and nobody would be patrolling for wildlife through the night. For all intents and purposes, we were wild camping in Africa.

Another group had bagged the campfire, so we had a quieter dinner before watching the most stunning sunset that faded to a gorgeous purple sky as the rain clouds sweeped past us a little way off. We’d passed some kudu not too far away so knew at least that there were herbivores near by but what we found out was that hyenas patrolled the campsite at night, and as such there was a no-food-in-the-tent policy, and all food had to be securely locked in the jeeps. As darkness fell, we were given strict instructions not to wander further than the toilet block on the edge of camp, to always walk with another person and to have a head torch on at all times. In pitch black, as we readied for bed by visiting the toilet block, our headlamps picked up the sparkle of animals’ eyes not far away. On our walk back to the tents we discovered that a hyena had just run into the group by the campfire and stolen some of their dinner.

 

There was a nervous excitement as we nestled into our sleeping bags within our tents. In the darkness as we tried to sleep, the cries of hyenas reached our ears. I wouldn’t have knowingly chosen to camp in such a manner in Africa, but this was an experience like no other. I would sleep for a bit then get woken up by the sounds of something outside. Occasionally a hyena’s cackling laugh would pierce the air, and I would lie there still before eventually dropping back to sleep again. When my alarm woke me the next morning it was still pitch black outside. I had paid extra for an add-on activity, but I was the only one in my group doing so, meaning against advice, I had to walk to the toilet block on my own to ready myself for the day ahead. The toilet block had a security gate meaning it was possible to lock yourself in the building should an errant animal follow you there, and I had to hover nearby with just my head torch for company, waiting for my ride to pick me up. I was joined by another person who was part of the other group and before long, the two of us were collected and driven off into the darkness for an activity I’d never done before.

Maasai and the Serengeti

As someone who usually travels independently, it can be hard to know that the money is going to the right place when using an organised tour company. This was my second G Adventures trip, having toured the Galapagos Islands with them a few years prior, and I had so far been impressed with them from the Kilimanjaro portion of the trip, having spoken to the local guides and porters who seemed happy to work for them. The company is linked with Planeterra, a not-for-profit organisation that funds social enterprise projects and supports healthcare and conservation projects around the World. One of those projects was the Clean Cooking Stove Project which was helping families reduce the air pollution in their homes created by the fireplace that would be traditionally used. This particular project was also empowering women by teaching them the skills to install the new chimneys and stoves, and our first stop of the day was to a small Maasai village to see the project in action. As a portion of G Adventures profits goes directly to Planeterra, it was effectively a show and tell of where some of our money was going in to the local communities.

I’m incredibly introverted, so always find these kind of things awkward, especially when some of the women and girls seemed very overwhelmed with the group of strangers that came into their small homes. That being said, it was interesting to see how they lived, and the huge difference between the homes that didn’t have the clean stove, and those that did. We met the ladies who were currently installing a chimney and they showed us how they did it all by hand. The village chief was lovely, and he spoke a little English, with our guide aiding with translations where required. Those of us who had climbed Mt Kilimanjaro the week before, had already picked up a few key phrases of Swahili, and although the Maasai language had some key differences, the chief seemed genuinely excited when we spoke what little we knew. Maasai men are polygamous so each house we visited was inhabited by a wife and the children that he’d fathered to that wife. The age range was incredible, and the youngest wife looked to be in her teens, and frankly looked like a deer in headlights when we went into her home.

 

A few of our Kilimanjaro porters were of Maasai descent so we had learned a little about their culture from them during our climb up the peak. It had made a few of my companions indignant to hear about the forced marriage of women and the adult circumcision of the boys (without anaesthetic) upon coming of age. What we’d also learned though, was that the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Maasai was gradually losing its traditions, and this was evident on the village tour, not just because of the houses that they lived in but also by the motorbike that the chief drove about on. As we wandered around, the children were either fascinated by us or scared of us: the younger ones hiding behind mum, the bolder ones following us and laughing at us. A few of us played games with them, and surrounding us all, a large herd of goats milled around the place, tearing up what little vegetation there was to eat.

 

Returning to Mto Wa Mbu where we’d spent the night in our large tents, the road heading west climbed almost immediately upon leaving the settlement behind. The altitude gain brought us to a lookout overlooking Lake Manyara and the National Park that we had visited the day before. It was hazy, so we could only just make out the lake margins, and we tried to work out where exactly the different features we’d driven past were. After stopping at a large tourist trap near the top of the ridge, the landscape opened out again and for a long time we drove through a red landscape, past towns and villages: open, empty lands merging into urbanised hustle and bustle. After what seemed like forever, we reached the gate for Ngorongoro Conservation Area, beyond which lay the large expanse of the Serengeti.

There was a lot of paperwork involved in entering these more western parks, so this was to be the first of many stops hanging around waiting for permits to be okayed. After finally getting cleared to proceed, we were immediately into thick bush and from here onwards, the road climbed high up the edge of Ngorongoro Crater. It was such a contrast to the arid landscape we’d been through in the last couple of days. The bush was unbelievably thick and green and as we climbed higher, we got sneak peaks of the view far below, although it wasn’t until we reached the crater rim, that we got our first sight of Ngorongoro Crater floor itself. From a lookout at the top, the crater looked green below us, but it seemed difficult to imagine that it was teeming with life. We knew we would be doing a safari here in a few days, but from so far away we couldn’t make out herds or much in the way of animal life at all. With the amazing zoom on my camera, I did spot a rhino which was an exciting find, and my mind wandered to thoughts of the safaris ahead.

 

We’d been warned that the picnic site we were stopping at for lunch was patrolled by birds of prey that liked to harass people for their food, so we were given the option of eating outside or eating on the jeep. It was stuffy inside though, and I, like most of us, opted to eat outside. Sat on some well placed logs, we started to tuck into our chicken drumsticks, sandwiches and snacks, all the while watching as 3 tawny eagles circled above us. Every now and again they dropped down suddenly, and we watched as they swooped on some other people that were there. I thought we were doing a good job of looking out for them when all of a sudden I was whacked on the back of the head, and as I realised what was happening, I saw out of the corner of my eye, the hawk that had just hit me with its wing, grabbing the chicken drumstick out of the man’s hand that was sitting opposite me. Amongst the hilarity, several of my companions retreated to the jeep, but I remained steadfast, eating the rest of my food al fresco. What appeared next was one of the weirdest looking birds I’ve ever seen, a maribou stork. Large birds, they looked both reptilian and jurassic, and reminded me of pterodactyls. Their size was almost intimidating, and the look they gave you uncomfortable, but although they were there to scavenge, they didn’t try to steal, instead just wandering around the site looking for scraps. I spent the rest of our time there just staring at them in awe.

 

As we descended down the far side of the crater wall, we passed by another Maasai village where incredibly, wandering among the villagers and their goat herds were zebra, antelope and wildebeest. We’d left the lush vegetation of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area behind and were back to open, deserted landscapes again. The odd animal was spotted as we drove, but when we reached a ridge where the road dropped down, there were some trees again, and to our delight, this area was rife with giraffes. I adore giraffes, and they were one of the species I was most excited to spot. At first, they were far from the road, and again surprisingly mingled with some nomadic Maasai walking their goat herds. As we continued along this stretch of road however, we came across some that were close by, and I was grateful to spend some time here and watch them.

 

Once on the valley floor, it was full speed to the Serengeti National Park. It was a long drive to reach the sign that marked our entry into the park. There were a few herd animals visible in the distance, but from this point onwards we were officially on an afternoon safari, so as we headed west deeper into the park, we stopped to see some ostriches and kudu, and even spotted our first lions. The females were just sleeping on the rocks, and knowing that there would be much more to see, we didn’t stay with them for long. Eventually we reached Naabi Hill Gate, the official entrance to the park where once more, we had to bundle off the jeeps to wait for our permits to be sorted. A colourful bird entertained me in the picnic area, and behind the office, a short trail climbed up a small hill to a rocky outcrop where we got a bit of a view over the complex and the African Plains beyond. There were lizards everywhere, different sizes and colours lounging on the rocks to warm up. They were entertaining to watch, and filled up what seemed like an endless time to get the paperwork sorted at the gate. I’m as interested in reptiles as I am in birds and mammals, so although my companions weren’t fussed, I was happy to be entertained by these little creatures. Finally though we were allowed access into the national park properly and now we were officially on safari. The initial sightings had been a great start, but boy was there so much incredible things to follow.

Lake Manyara National Park

There was no rest for the wicked, despite returning from the Roof of Africa, Mt Kilimanjaro, the day before. There was one last chance to see the Kibo Massif from the hotel before leaving it behind to start the cultural part of the tour. I had combined two of G Adventures tours together to allow me to experience some Tanzania highlights. With the physical part of the trip behind me, things were going to get a lot more sedate, but no less exciting. There were five of us that headed into Moshi to visit a local co-operative known as the Moshi Mammas, an enterprise giving local women the chance to earn a living through selling their crafts. They showed us how to make the bracelets that they sell in their store and we were able to make our own too, which we wore with pride alongside the bracelets that we’d received as part of our summit celebrations, having made it to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro just two days prior. Then we had the nearly 2hr drive west to Arusha where we’d be meeting the rest of our group. Of the five of us, four of us had been together hiking up the mountain, and the fifth, whilst also tackling the mountain, had summited on a different route. We were a combo of North Americans and Europeans, although two of us were expats now living abroad.

Our hotel in Arusha was down a back street, low key and nestled amongst tall trees which made it feel like we were on the edge of a jungle. There was a swimming pool and a bar and it had a very different vibe to the lodge near Moshi. After the lengthy process to get into our room, three of us headed into Arusha for a wander around. Like in Moshi on the first day, we were approached often by locals, but unlike in Moshi, I didn’t feel so overwhelmed or uncomfortable, and in fact, feeling much more relaxed post-hike, I was more willing to reciprocate the interaction, and briefly chatted with one gentleman who walked with us for a bit. Rather than feeling like he was trying to sell us something, he did instead just seem genuinely interested in talking to us, and although the city itself didn’t really stand out as offering much for a visitor, I preferred its vibe. Perhaps if I’d visited here first it might have been different, but who knows.

Back at the hotel we met our new guide and the rest of the group that would be travelling with us: a mixture of nationalities that had come down from Kenya and were pursuing safaris in different national parks. After dinner and the meet and greet, it was time to sort out our belongings, ditching the no longer-needed hiking gear in favour of safari clothing. As myself and my roommate spread our stuff around, out the corner of my eye I saw something dart across the floor. This was of course Africa, so my immediate response was to cry out. This startled the creature, which turned out to be a rat, and what ensued was the two of us giggling and running around whilst filming the performance as we failed miserably to shoo the thing out of our room. I sought out a member of staff, but he was no better, and in one of those surreal moments that will stick with me for some time, we found ourselves as a trio, failing to get rid of the poor creature who was terrified. Great woops came out when at last it headed to the open door and happy that we could sleep without fear of rodents in our beds, we said goodnight to the porter, closed the door and went to bed.

 

It hadn’t quite been the African wildlife encounter I’d envisaged, but it was a funny story to regale at breakfast the next morning. However we had bigger creatures in sight, and before long we were off, heading west towards the national parks. As we drove, we left suburbia behind, and the land opened up before us. We saw Maasai people wandering with their cattle herds at the side of the road, we saw belongings balanced precariously on bikes, women carrying baskets on their heads, and small houses and the occasional business were dotted about the landscape. After about 2hrs of driving we pulled into a walled campsite in Mto Wa Mbu, a settlement who’s name translates as ‘River of Mosquitos’. It is an area rife with farming and cultivation and we were taken out with a local guide to show us around.

Down the road from our campsite was large rice paddies, something I’d seen on television but never seen for real. It’s a staple food source that I’ve always taken for granted, so it was interesting to me to see it in situ. We visited some carvers who sell their wares, and I was given the chance to do a bit of carving myself, being presented with some wood that was being fashioned into a giraffe. I was so worried about ruining the man’s hard work, that I didn’t try for very long. Out the back of the village on the far side, we were led past a beautiful white temple building, across a stream and through more grain fields to a banana plantation. The guide was a local woman, and I’m always pleased to see women being given the opportunity to become independent and earn their own wage. I’ve taken my childhood privileges for granted but as an adult, I’ve realised how lucky I am to have been born into a progressive society where I can work, and be independent and have choices. I’ve seen how women can be suppressed and held back in so many countries and I’ve witnessed first hand the attitude differences between myself and male companions when I’ve been abroad at times. Even in 2020, in my home country of New Zealand, I still get people surprised that I travel alone, a surprise that I never hear exclaimed to a solo male.

 

After wandering through the cultivation sites, we were lead into a local art gallery, effectively a walled area among some palm trees where local artists displayed their incredible work. It was absolutely stunning, and I would have loved to have bought something. I’d already bought a painting of a giraffe in Moshi, and neither have the wall space at home, nor the desire to own too many possessions, to entice me to purchase something, but that didn’t stop me being jealous of the stunning lion painting that my companion bought. When we were eventually dragged away, we were led to someone’s garden to be fed a banquet of local foods which were utterly delicious. Several of us went for seconds, including myself. I’m really prone to gut problems when travelling, having had several bouts of poisoning whilst abroad, so can at times be over-cautious, but despite knowing I’d be on a jeep for the rest of the day, I couldn’t deny how good the food was. Thankfully, it did not come back to haunt me.

 

Lake Manyara National Park was only a little out of the village, so it was a relatively short drive that led us to our first safari. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, having never heard of this park before booking the trip. The road headed into tall trees initially, and we spied some warthogs through the foliage. After a short while, the road cut down to a small river and suddenly there were monkeys everywhere: males, females, and youngsters. A large troupe lounged around, occasionally looking our way or casually walking around, displaying their colourful butts. These fully grown olive baboons were a decent size and ended up being the most plentiful monkey that we spotted. A little further along the road were a small number of blue monkeys, well hidden within the foliage. I had missed out on seeing them on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro so was ecstatic to see them here. A little further still we found a small group of vervet monkeys, including a small number of adorable babies that looked stunned among the foliage, watching us fascinated as we watched them.

 

The deeper into the park we drove, the more the sightings came. Antelope, warthogs, and wildebeest started to pop up everywhere, and the closer to the lake we got the more the birds began to appear, including large hornbills and storks. We reached a wetland area, which aside from the bird activity, was surrounded by many large cape buffalos, a hefty-looking, and potentially dangerous herbivore. Their reputation precedes them, and they are notorious for charging, and using their bulk to cause great injury and damage. But here they were so busy munching on grass, that they barely batted an eyelid in our direction. The occasional one lifted its head to stare as it chewed the cud, but they seemed more bothered by the flies buzzing around them than of us, so we were able to watch them for a good bit without upsetting them.

 

When I spotted the zebra beyond them, it was hard not to get a bit excited. For me, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and zebra are what I think of when I think of Africa, so to see a small herd in the wild for the first time gave me a thrill. Little did I know how spoiled I’d be over the next few days, but among the gazelles wandering about in between the zebra, I spotted a baby zebra through the crowd. We had to move on though, passing more blue monkeys, more antelope, and more birds I didn’t recognise, until a raised area overlooking Lake Manyara gave us the opportunity to spot flamingos, and then suddenly, some giraffes. They were so far away, I needed all the zoom of my camera to appreciate them, but it was enough to make me happy, until we turned a corner and were greeted with a couple of giraffes right by the road. Their heads bobbed up and down, watching us initially, then deciding they wanted left alone, they wandered off and left us behind.

We saw more monkeys, more warthogs, more cape buffalo and more birds as we retraced our steps back towards the entrance of the park. As we reached the waterway where we’d seen the baboons earlier on, we got stuck behind a stationary car that was looking at something to our left. I couldn’t see what it was, so started looking around, when all of a sudden I spotted something grey moving to my right, and quickly exclaimed ‘ELEPHANTS!’ to attract the attention of those in the jeep with me. Everybody whipped round to where I was looking and we all watched in silent awe as a herd of elephants came out of the trees and down to the water’s edge right next to us. They kept closely bunched together, at least eight of them, but every now and again we got a glimpse of a very small baby that was being shepherded and protected by the adults as they moved. After having a good drink, they moved on, disappearing back into the trees as silently as they had arrived.

 

The safari was supposed to be over, but round the corner as we headed back to the entrance gate, we were quickly met by two full-grown elephants. They seemed unfazed by the audience as they ate, swaying gently on their feet, their large ears flapping away the incessant flies. The driver graciously gave us a bit of time with them, and even stopped once more when we came across more baboons as we drove out the park. It had been a successful first safari, and after dinner back at the campsite, we were able to enjoy some beer under the cooling sky. Little did I know how much our tents would mean to us the next few nights, as we went to sleep ahead of another push west the next day. After a lifetime of being glued to every David Attenborough programme as a child, I couldn’t quite believe that I was actually heading to the Serengeti.

The Highs and Lows of the Lemosho Route

There are some mental images from my time hiking Africa’s highest mountain that will stick in my mind forever. Coming out of my tent at 11pm to ready ourselves for our midnight departure, I looked across the campsite to see an incredible trail of lights bobbing uphill in the darkness. The peak itself and the path that led up it were invisible but the headlamps that adorned every hiker who was already on route resembled a trail of ants in procession. The numbers were astounding and the excitement and tension among our group as we prepared to join them was tangible. After all the planning, and the training, and the days of hiking to get there, summit day was about to begin.

We were warmed up with hot chocolate and cookies as we listened to the plan for the day ahead. We were given snack boxes to take with us and after bundling all our layers into our backpacks, and kitting up, we gathered together to set off. This was it: the biggest hike of my life. Our campsite had been below the majority of people at Barafu Camp, and so we had to hike a little just to reach the start of the summit trail at the far end of the camp. It was so busy that there was a queue of people to set off, but before long it was time to put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. The only stimulation was the light cast by the many headlamps and the sounds of foot steps on the rock. There was no awareness of the greater landscape we were walking through and more importantly there was absolutely no idea of altitude, either literal, or relative to the summit. On top of this, there was no perception of time. I had no ready access to any form of time device due to the layers I was wearing but with a predicted 7hr hike to reach the summit, it was a difficult concept to get my head around the progress, or lack thereof, that we were making as we trudged.

And trudge it was. The pace was slow, partly due to our own ability at that altitude, and partly due to the traffic on the trail. Periodically it would get bunched up or have to stop completely if people struggled up a steep bit or stopped to take a break. The steepness and altitude gain felt constant, and the higher we climbed, the more I felt it. The pace actually suited me as I could catch my breath whenever a stop was forced, but at times I had to focus hard on maintaining a regular breathing pattern to keep my momentum going. My arms and legs screamed for oxygen, fatiguing easily and tiring me further. As we climbed in absolute darkness, up and up and up, the temperature dropped and my hands and toes became cold, and then numb, and then painful. I was only aware of the people immediately in front of me and behind me. It was only when we stopped for a break that I realised how differently people were coping. We’d set off from camp three people short of our original group: one of them had sadly had to descend before Lava Tower on day 4, and two of the group had set off an hour ahead of everyone else as they had up to now been slower than the group’s average speed. Of those of us there on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, I could see that the fittest of the group was feeling a little held back, whereas the rest of us needed every single break, and a few of the group were starting to look sorry for themselves.

We stopped often, and probably regularly, at least once an hour. I made guestimations of the time as we progressed, but I didn’t actually want to know the reality in case it deflated me or gave me false hope. The first couple of breaks had been enough to recover my limbs and even out my breathing, but by the time we were probably three or four hours into the hike, I was really struggling with the pain of my cold hands. I was hiking with poles, so I couldn’t retract my hands too far into my jacket, but it had become clear to me that my gloves weren’t enough, and I had been naive to think that my hands didn’t need layers like the rest of my body. Even with the exertion of the walk, my body was barely warm enough, and that was with the duffel jacket on that I had rented in Moshi on arriving in Tanzania. When we took another break, I was able to borrow a spare pair of gloves and some hot hands from people that had been more prepared than myself. I had another layer of trousers to put on but with my cold hands, I was slow. What prevailed was another of those vivid images that I will never forget: out of nowhere, all of the guides descended on me, took my trousers out of my bag and proceeded to dress me, standing me up and manipulating my limbs to get them into the extra clothes. They took my hands and as one hand was rubbed vigorously to stimulate some blood flow, the other hand was ungloved, and layered back up with the hot hands and the extra layers. That gloved hand was then rubbed vigorously while the other hand was covered back up. I just sat there and let them do it – grateful but a little stunned. We were given a hot drink to warm us up, and with concerned looks from the guides as I shivered, we set off again.

Even with the extra layers, I struggled to keep warm. My hands and toes remained cold and uncomfortable, and as the altitude continued to increase, my breathing became more laboured, my energy drained further and I shifted into a pattern of 2 steps forward, then a pause, then 2 steps forward, then a pause. I have no idea at what point I noticed it, but at some stage on the hike, a brief change in the density of the darkness around us made me realise that the peak of the night was over and sunrise was approaching. It wasn’t enough to make out the mountain yet, but as we continued our push up the never ending slope, the sky above us gradually changed from black to dark blue, and then through an increasingly lightening array of colours. As the landscape began to become discernible around us, we could make out the amazing stream of people that were below us, and frost became visible on the stony ground at our feet. Eventually we could make out the top of the ridge above us, and off to the side was Mt Kilimanjaro’s third cone, Mawenzi, the second tallest of the three. The horizon line turned red then yellow, and as the sun peaked above the horizon on the 7th of February 2019, we stopped to take it all in. Finally there was something to photograph but my hands were clumsy in the multiple gloves and it was still bitterly cold.

There was still a steep section to negotiate although the ridgeline was in sight. I had just 3 things in my backpack: water, a first aid kit and the snack box I’d been given, but my backpack felt like it weighed a ton and I was clearly struggling now as one of the guides insisted on taking it off me and carrying it for me. It was a little gesture but it made all the difference to me. My breathing felt inefficient, the air felt so utterly thin as it entered my lungs. I was struggling even with the 2 steps forward and pause cycle that I’d been following, but all of a sudden, as the light continued to creep up the side of the mountain, I was surprised to see the fittest member of our group, my fellow Christchurch resident, goat-hopping down the mountain from the summit. When he reached us, it turned out that in the darkness he had headed off ahead of us with a guide, and had summited before the sun had even risen, and was on his way back to camp. I hadn’t even noticed his absence at the last couple of rest stops. He left us to it as we continued on our opposite paths, and although I was exhausted, I felt spurred on to finish.

I guess social media has had a lot of effects on a lot of people. I’d enjoyed the digital detox over the week of hiking, but as the energy drained from my muscles, and catching my breath became increasingly difficult, and as I felt a little zoned out, I focused on one thing only: getting a photo of me at the summit to post on Instagram. We’d spent a large part of the previous days singing songs from the Lion King in a joking ode to Tanzania, and in the first few hours of the summit trek in darkness, those same songs had entertained me until our voices had petered out with the increasing exertion. Now we all hiked in silence, and as I grappled with my inner dialogue, I told myself repeatedly that I had to get a photograph for Instagram. Failing to summit was not an option because I had to get a photo for Instagram. Two steps forward then pause, then two steps forward then pause. Now coated in brilliant sunshine, we rounded the last corner and crowned the last slope to be confronted with the crater floor. We’d reached the crater rim and Stella Point at 5756m (18885ft).

Although not the highest point of the mountain, reaching Stella Point was still classed as summiting, so no matter what happened next, we’d made it. There were a lot of people recovering here, and there were people clearly in a bit of distress. With the benefit of daylight, I’d seen some people who were really in a bad way. Some of them were being dragged up the mountain by guides (something we were told happened with some independent operators who were purportedly just interested in boosting their summit success numbers) and some of them were being physically run down the mountain by guides in an effort to get them out of danger. There are definitely some people that have summited Africa’s highest peak that will probably have little to no memory of it at all due to being so spaced out or sick. I was exhausted and breathless as were my companions, but we were all lucid. We had to queue to get our photo taken at the sign, but it allowed us to rest before the final summit push. After ten minutes I actually felt better and retrieved my backpack from my guide. The summit was visible and we’d be there in no time at all. We met one of the two who had left an hour ahead of us as he was heading back down to camp. He had summited but his mother had had to turn back, struggling greatly around the point of sunrise.

 

Within ten minutes of walking I was as bad as I’d been before and I realised that despite appearances, there was still a long trek to the true summit. My backpack again felt like a burden so again one of the guides relieved me of it. I felt weak and pathetic but these guys were adapted to the altitude, doing a couple of summits a month in the peak season, so I just had to accept their help. We passed by giant glaciers that hung on to the edge of the crater a little to the side, and after trudging at a snail’s pace for the final distance, we found ourselves on the roof of Africa, Uhuru Point, the highest peak of the African continent at an altitude of 5895m (19341ft). We effectively staggered there and jolted to a stop. Any urge to rush to the sign was blocked by the queue of people waiting to get their photo taken at it. It was a busy place but not oppressively so. We spread out a bit, and I found myself dropping into a sitting position on a group of rocks, and as I sat there oblivious to anything else in the World but the view in front of me, silent tears started rolling down my face. Against the negative inner dialogue that I had been battling for the last couple of days, and after two years of planning and training, I’d only blooming gone and summited Mt Kilimanjaro.

I looked around and realised I wasn’t the only one crying. It was so overwhelming, a release of a lot of emotion in the face of utter exhaustion. Our guides came round and hugged and congratulated us. They seemed so cool and unfazed by it all while the rest of us looked beaten up and drained. Between the resting and the photography and the meandering around absorbing the view, we spent a half hour at the summit. Even with the sun up, it was still really cold. I discovered later that we’d summited at 8.20am, taking over 8hrs from leaving camp behind. As we started the trek back to Stella Point, I saw the clouds had appeared and engulfed the side of the mountain, and there we were above it all. Aside from the crater, there was no other visible landmark above this grey sea of cloud. At Stella Point, we were quick to move onwards, heading back to near where we’d stopped at sunrise. To prevent congestion, the descent route separates off from the ascent route and effectively cuts down a giant scree field. Although a path was marked, there were times where we were effectively skiing down the loose rock. We continued to see people being run down this scree path being held upright by their guides and one of our group had started to feel unwell at the summit and was sped down the mountainside back to camp. We found ourselves back at Barafu camp a little after 11am, just a few hours after summiting. Over 8hrs up, and just over 2hrs down.

 

We remained at camp till 1pm, resting and having lunch, but the hike was not over yet. We had to get down the mountain now and we’d collectively decided to walk to the lower of the two descent camps in order to make a short hike out for the following day. It hadn’t been a unanimous vote and there were clearly some people who wished the vote had gone the other way. From Barafu camp we were soon at the track junction from the day before, and this time we headed straight ahead and immediately started losing altitude. We were amidst the cloud and the landscape that was visible was barren and volcanic. Everyone was quiet and tired, and it was as much by autopilot that my legs continued to move one after the other. As the low vegetation returned, it started to rain, becoming quite heavy by the time we reached the higher of the two descent camps. It would have been a bit miserable to get into the tents here, but at the same time, a few of the group were really flagging. This trail that we were descending was a supply route, and so we regularly passed porters that were laiden down with supplies to take to Barafu Camp. It was incredible to see the poor state of some of the shoes on their feet and incredibly some of them were hiking in just jandals (flip-flops). We’d learned a lot about the variable state of pay and care that was received by the porter teams, depending on which company or guide they worked for. All of our team spoke highly of G Adventures and they all seemed appropriately kitted out for the terrain so I felt satisfied that I’d picked a good company to hike with. It can be so hard to know at times how ethical your travel is, and whether people are being taken advantage of or not.

The rain turned the track into a river as we squelched our way down the mountainside. Eventually we found ourselves among tall trees again, a novelty after the days of exposed and arid volcanic landscapes. It felt like an age before we finally popped out at Mweka Camp at 3100m (10171ft), over 2500m (8202ft) below where we’d summited in the early morning. It was amazing how good I felt after a rest: breathing was suddenly so much easier and I even felt my energy return. My appetite was back also and we tucked into our dinner full of elation and chatter. My oxygen saturation on the final reading was back at 98%, just how it had started a week before. The next morning we had a group debrief with our guides and porters. Each and every one of them had played a role in getting us up the mountain, and I was particularly grateful to the guides who’d supported me in those final hours of the summit push, the chef who’d continued to fill us with the most amazing meals, and my personal porter who’d set up my tent and greeted me with the biggest grin and ‘Jambo!’ every time he saw me. It was emotional to think it was all over and we sang the song of the mountain to each other in thanks for the time of our lives.

The descent from camp was similar to the hike on day 1: walking through thick forest, listening out for monkeys and tropical birds. The pace was relatively quick, and we were quite spread out, chatting away with whoever was nearest, and passing the final hours on the mountain in no time at all. Bursting out of the forest at the end of it all, we just had to sign out at the office, and then wait for everyone else to come down. Bundling back onto the bus, we stopped some way down the road for lunch at a roadside rest stop. It already felt surreal that we’d just come off the mountain, and removed from the exertion of breathing, there was only my sore knees to remind me what I’d just done. Our porter team had been either from Moshi or Arusha, so we dropped them off either at the main road to catch a ride home, or in Moshi. We returned to the gear rental store so I could drop off my duffel jacket, and finally we returned to the same hotel just outside of Moshi where we were greeted with open arms by the bubbly team that worked there. It was fantastic to see the American who’d had to be taken down on day 4 looking rested and in good spirits. He’d gone on safari for a few days to wait our return and although a little sad, he vowed to come back and summit another time. He definitely deserves his chance to get there.

After resting and a much-needed shower, we had a small celebration to receive our certificates and say goodbye to our guides. We had a communal dinner together ahead of us going our separate ways the next day. A couple of people were heading on to Zanzibar for a bit of R&R, but most people were going home to return to their normal lives. It was strange to say goodbye the next morning to these people that I’d shared such an experience with but whilst the majority were set to head to the airport, I wasn’t done with Tanzania yet. Myself and one of my hiking companions had a new set of people to become acquainted with as my great African adventure continued.

Lemosho Route – Baranco to Barafu

Stepping out of the tent as light returned to the sky, I was feeling better than the night before, but I still wasn’t feeling great. I had cut my diamox down to once a day, skipping the evening dose which had alleviated the nighttime shortness of breath, but I still felt tired and lethargic, and my stomach still felt uncomfortable. Thankfully the headache had gone, but my appetite was low, and I again had to force feed myself breakfast. Our camp spot had been down in a dip, so it was only once we’d packed up and headed up to the ridge beside us that I suddenly realised what the big deal about the Baranco Wall was. Off to the side of the camp was a tall and wide cliff face. I had seen it the day before as we’d descended, but never for a minute had I fathomed that we actually had to scale it. I’d assumed the track skirted round the bottom of it, but in the early morning light, all I could see was a stream of people dotted up the sheer cliff face and my heart sunk a little. It looked tough, and physical and I just didn’t feel like I had the energy for it. Our head guide G Daddy checked in with me and after I assured him that my headache had gone and I was vaguely better, we set off.

 

Everybody from Baranco Camp was heading in the same direction, and soon after leaving the campsite, the trail narrowed and started to climb onto the cliff face. The pace slowed right down and immediately we joined a queue of people at the first climbing point. My breathing was ok, but it was my tiredness and sore stomach that I had to suppress and block out. The pace was so slow with regular pauses to let the people in front get out the way, that it never felt exhausting and it was only when we were about half way up the cliff that I realised that not only was I feeling better, but I was actually enjoying the Baranco Wall, and it wasn’t anything to stress about at all. There were places that involved using your hands to haul yourself up or across narrow ledges, and I can imagine if you had vertigo that this would have been a frightening section of the hike, but for me it was a welcome change to the style of hiking that had been the previous 4 days on the trail, and the higher we got, and the better I felt, the happier I became and the more I enjoyed it. In fact it felt like we reached the top in no time at all and I was almost sad to have finished it.

 

The valley which we’d ascended from had been in shadow the whole way up, but by the time we’d summited the wall, sunshine lit up the campsite and the far ridge as well as Kibo Massif which now sat to our left. To our right, there was a staged drop-off towards the Plains which lay shrouded in clouds. There was a second section to the Baranco Wall, which we made light work of, and finally at the true top, we took a breather and some group photos to celebrate. The cloud which had been below us began to lift as we were there and soon after leaving we found ourselves within it. The gradient of the next section was mild and what we could see among the cloud looked barren, but the overall perspective of where we were heading was lost, with only the sight of people disappearing ahead of us and appearing behind us to see. The cloud lifted and dropped as we walked, giving us brief glimpses of a wider landscape.

 

As we continued across this vague plateau, the usual conundrum of where to find privacy to go to the toilet arose. There generally was none. Any boulder cluster would be quickly commandeered, but nothing ever offered 360 degree privacy, and there was always the likelihood of someone behind spotting you with your pants down. Not to mention that it was clear where the popular spots were, as often there was a pile of paper or wet wipes to negotiate just to find a spot to balance on. It was definitely the gross side of the mountain, as even without the litter that had been left, the amount of urine and human faeces that were present was pronounced. As is often the case, the negative impact of tourism and adventure travel is a hard pill to swallow and I could see first hand why hiking Mt Kilimanjaro in the current manner is becoming contentious.

After a while, we found ourselves at the top of a ridge with a valley below us. Across the valley and up an equally tall ridge lay our next campsite. There was a lot of loose scree on the trail, meaning I had to focus on my feet for most of the way down, but I was able to notice the pocket of vegetation that was thriving in this valley where shelter and water allowed life to flourish. Only when I was looking back from the valley floor did I appreciate how steep the descent had been, but on the flip side, there was now a similar gradient to negotiate to get up the other side. Again, there was a bit of loose scree to negotiate, and it meant there was a vague queue to get started up the slope, and we watched as a steady stream of people worked their way up. I was slow on the ascent, using my hiking poles to my advantage to get purchase and optimise my energy output. When we reached Karanga Camp on the top, it was surrounded by cloud, limiting our view. The site was broad and exposed but it meant the campsite didn’t feel too crowded despite the numbers of people staying there.

At 3995m (13107ft), we were less than 100m (328ft) higher than Baranco Camp but these gains and losses were essential to give my body the best chance of adapting. We hung out as a group together as the hours passed, and only as the sun was setting did the cloud level drop back below us to expose the campsite a little. My oxygen saturation remained stable at 92% and I was glad that the headaches were keeping away. I was still tired though and now the cold was really starting to hit. Even wrapped up in layers whilst we ate dinner, it was hard to stay warm, and at night in my thick sleeping bag, I struggled to get warm, waking up often and having to pile clothes into the bag to insulate me further. The more layers I wore and the more insulation I put in the bag, the more restricted and claustrophobic I felt, and on several occasions I woke up feeling trapped and having to stifle a panic.

 

On paper, day 6 on the Lemosho trail didn’t look too bad. And in terms of distance it wasn’t, but not only would we end up camping at our highest point yet on the hike, we’d have only a few hours rest and sleep before setting off at midnight to push for the summit. As always, there was just a vague hint of light in the air as we rose, but with the cloud off the mountain, we got to watch the sky brighten up as the sun rose, and although it was cold, it became a beautiful day. It became clear that we had camped right next to the Kibo Massif, and our plan for the day was to continue our circumnavigation of it round to the eastern flank where the ascent trail lay. Immediately the trail headed uphill but despite the rocky terrain and lack of vegetation, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Kibo. Ignoring the effects of the altitude, it looked so achievable, and less of a hardship than some of the mountains I’d summited in New Zealand. Right then I could have been in Tongariro National Park; it reminded me of that volcanic landscape so much. At one point there was another collection of stone cairns laid by those who’d hiked before us, and we paused here to rest and take photographs.

 

A ridge of rock swept down from the summit to the trail as we continued our climb, and looking back from here, Mt Meru, a nearby peak in the neighbouring national park looked both close and far away at the same time as it stood tall amidst the haze. We crossed a plateau under the rocky ridge before climbing up a neighbouring ridge. Here we reached a track junction: turning left would take us to our campsite and, all being well, the summit of Africa’s highest mountain; turning right was the descent route. We turned north to follow this ridgeline to the Barafu camp, our second-to-last camp site before leaving the mountain behind. At 4673m (15331ft), this was the highest point I’d hiked to both on the trail and in my entire life. The campsite was very spread out and balanced on a ridge with some people on the ridge top, and others like ourselves, having to descend into rocky crevices to squeeze into small flat areas where only 1 or 2 tents could fit. After signing in at the cabin, we spent the rest of the day down in our little pocket of Barafu. The rest of the campsite was visible above us, but Kibo had once again been swallowed by cloud, and for the rest of the daylight hours, it remained out of sight.

Just negotiating the space between our tents and the portaloos or the food tent was a threat to the ankles with large boulders and small loose rocks everywhere. Even the guylines of the tents were a trip hazard here and I had to make a mental note of what was around me in order to be safe once darkness fell. As we ate our dinner, the oxygen saturation monitor was passed around and despite the jump in altitude I was surprised to see that my oxygen saturation had increased to 94%, a sign that my body was responding to the increased stress I was putting it under. It had become obvious that our food offerings had changed as we’d ascended. Several of us were struggling to eat everything that we were given, but in the lower camps we’d had red meat, and then it turned to white meat meals, and now we were on a vegetarian diet. It wasn’t just due to the freshness of the meat that could be provided, but also a well thought out plan by the chefs to acknowledge how our digestive system would be coping at altitude. I’d made the decision before Karanga Camp that I was going to stop the diamox tablets. I was sure they were giving me some undesired symptoms, and I wasn’t convinced they were doing much to help with the effects of the altitude. I had by now missed several doses and I wasn’t the only one. Several of us hadn’t liked the effect that it had on us, so whilst a few of the group continued with their prescriptions, a couple of us had stopped, and a few of the group had never even started to take it in the first place.

Nerves and excitement built as dinner came to an end. Where on the previous nights we had sat up chatting until the coldness or tiredness had sent us to bed, this night we had only a few hours to rest before our 11pm wake-up call, so as soon as our debrief was done, we retreated to our tents in anticipation. The moment of truth was not far from us, and I for one was excited and nervous all rolled into one. It was hard to relax enough to sleep, and I actually didn’t think I would sleep but both myself and my tent companion managed to drop off for a bit. I’d needed every single layer I had to be just warm enough to fall asleep, something which should have raised alarm bells for me for the summit attempt. But in that moment, there was just me and my emotions, drifting off into a brief lull ahead of one of the biggest days of my life.

Lemosho Route – Shira Peak to Baranco

There was always a niggling doubt in my mind that perhaps I wouldn’t make it. That perhaps the altitude would get to me, and that I’d have to accept failure. The aim of each day was to climb high but camp low, so that we graduated our altitude gain, exposed our body to higher altitudes, but slept a little lower than the day’s highest point, to allow it to recover and limit the stress that the altitude brings. Shira Peak had been day three’s highest point, so after we’d gotten our fill of the view, we followed the trail back to Cathedral Junction and after another break here, we cut back down to the Shira Plateau to continue across to join the rest of our hiking group at the next campsite.

Back on the plateau, there was again a dearth of vegetation, and after a while we came out at a smooth area where a plethora of hikers before us had erected a multitude of miniature stone cairns. We still had a bit of a walk to the campsite but it was time to answer the call of nature, and so began the search for somewhere private. Between my fellow hikers, the guides that were with us, and the lack of vegetation, there wasn’t much in the way of privacy. Being a guy definitely has its advantages in this respect, but when at last a group of large bushes lay off the track, I was quick to separate myself from the group. Although G Adventures is a Canadian company, they always make use of local guides and porters, abide by fair employment rights, promote ethical travel, and partner with the charity Planeterra to give back to the community. Our guides, who were utterly incredible, amazing at their job, funny, and selfless, had instilled in us the importance of taking our rubbish with us and not dumping or polluting the environment. I wouldn’t do this anyway, but our guide had explained that they had targets to meet with their rubbish – if they didn’t take an expected amount of rubbish off the mountain relative to the weights of what they had carried up, they would get fined. In other words, there was an incentive to bring rubbish out, and some of the guides or porters would seek out rubbish to pick up and carry, to ensure they were well above the expected minimum, as well as tidying up the mountain.

We shortly came upon a roughly marked helicopter landing spot as our track met one of the evacuation routes off the mountain. From here, the track started to climb once more and shrubbery returned again before we finally reached Shira II camp at 3850m (12631ft). The sun had by now gone, and the sky was grey and cloudy, but the campsite was full of life. By this stage, the Lemosho Route had joined with the Shira Route, and so now there were hikers gathering from two different ascent routes. Although it was spread out, there were tents everywhere and surprisingly considering the altitude, there were quite a lot of birds hanging around also. Behind our campsite were large volcanic boulders that gave an elevated view point on the campsite itself but also to the increasingly large Kibo Massif which was tantalisingly close, but as always happened in the afternoon, veiled behind a swirl of cloud. Whilst taking a wander around the campsite, I got chatting with a hiker who was ascending with another company. We shared experiences of our hike so far, as well as general chit-chat before parting ways to rejoin our groups. As time went on, more and more people arrived at the campsite.

 

When I’d hiked the Inca Trail through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu, I’d been so grateful for the work of the porters who’d carried our stuff and the chefs who’d created delicious meals that had fueled us to our destination. Our entire team on Mt Kilimanjaro, the G Fighters as we called them, led by G Daddy as we called our head guide, were incredible human beings. They greeted us with smiles and enthusiasm, they seemed genuinely interested in our lives, they seemed genuinely happy when we spoke in what little Swahili we knew, and among each other they had an incredible camaraderie, functioning like a family unit of loving brothers, and they all spoke highly of each other as well as how they were treated as employees. We all loved them for it, and really couldn’t have done the hike with a better bunch of human beings. After we’d had some time to ourselves, G Daddy called us all together and we stood by our incredible team as they sang and danced for us in Swahili, welcoming us to Tanzania, blessing us for our hike ahead and singing the song of the mountain. It drew a crowd and as it continued, they enticed us in to dance with them, which we did with great embarrassment. With my terrible memory I have forgotten most of their names, but I can still picture several of their faces, and even recalling the interactions that I had with them as I write this blog, I can feel the emotions that I felt on that trip rush back to the surface.

 

I’m not sure whether it was the singing and dancing, or the incredible views as the clouds parted to expose Kibo, the tallest of the three cones that make up Mt Kilimanjaro, but this campsite holds a special place in my heart. I felt like I could just reach out and touch Kibo, but from this perspective it was now obvious that we had to skirt round a good chunk of the massif to reach the trail that would lead us to the summit. There was a lot more snow visible now that we were up close and I could see some steep, striated cliffs in various places. As the sun set behind us, the clouds turned red as the peak faded into the background. At our evening debrief, my oxygen saturation had reduced to 94%, still an acceptable level for the altitude, and I deliberated what to do with the diamox. As a diuretic, I was having to pee a lot, and the previous night’s shortness of breath had been really off-putting. As we listened to G Daddy tell us about the day ahead, it became clear that day 4 would likely be a bit of a challenge for at least some, if not all of the group.

 

Coming out of the tent the next morning, there was just a line of red on the horizon before the sun broke through and lit up the sky. We were provided with our large breakfast, as every meal had been, and I struggled a little to finish it. I was tired. As much as I have camped in my life, it doesn’t tend to allow a good night’s sleep, so there was a developing background level of tiredness after 3 nights of disturbed sleep. The altitude wouldn’t have helped either. By the time we were ready to head off, the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was again ready to beat down on us, having risen above the Kibo Massif. There was a definite feeling of leaving the plant life behind as we climbed over the rocky wall that had been the background for our campsite. From then onward, rock and dust became the landscape of the day, with only the hardiest of low plants dotted around the place. As a group we were really spread out this day as we set our own pace. G Daddy and the other guides really instilled the slow and steady ideology into us, and whilst at the lower altitudes it had frustrated a little, it was really starting to make sense.

Initially the climb was gradual but I was feeling the gain in altitude, the character of my breath noticeably different and a hint of a headache threatening to form. We stopped often to regroup before once more we would spread out. In any other scenario, the bleak landscape could have become monotonous, but there was a constant activity of clouds swirling above us, the rock patterns changed often, and towering above us was the increasingly close Kibo Massif. In fact as we approached the steeper part of the day’s hike, we were practically underneath it, finally reaching the base of the Massif as we reached a brief steep push to reach our lunch stop at the Lava Tower camp at 4600m (15091ft). This was several hundred metres higher than the highest point of the Inca Trail, my only previous experience of hiking at altitude, and boy was I feeling it. Every breath I took felt dissatisfying. It felt like my lungs weren’t inflating properly, and I could just never inhale enough oxygen. I could actually feel the thinness of the air every time I inhaled. Although we were only stopping for lunch, this campsite is used by hikers on other trails, and by this stage we had actually joined up with those on the Machame Route. Having previously joined those on the Shira Route, there were now three route’s worth of people conjoined on the trail. This campsite is also the launching off point for the Western Breach trail, the most dangerous ascent route of Kibo, scaling the steeper, rougher and less stable western side.

 

We were briefly entertained by a couple of mice running around our tent. Despite the lack of air, the regularity of humans had obviously allowed life to continue here. I wasn’t hungry but managed to eat some lunch. Our guides insisted we continue to force food in, even if we didn’t want it, to maintain energy for the hike ahead. Aside from the breathing, the headache that had been threatening was getting a little more pronounced. It was still tolerable, but it was there, and at this point, still with over 1000m of gain to achieve the summit, the doubts started to creep in. News came to us that one of our group was being led down the mountain. One of the Americans, in an act of brave defiance, had decided to hike Mt Kilimanjaro less than 6 weeks after having major surgery, to honour his daughter who he’d recently lost. Whilst we’d all thought he was crazy for attempting it, we all had immense respect for him, and he had been good company on the hike. It was sad to hear he wasn’t going to make it, but as the evacuation route was easier from before the Lava Tower than anywhere afterwards, and as our incredible guides had the knowledge to know what was to come on the hike, as well as to recognise who wasn’t fit enough to do it, they had made the right decision for him, and taken him down before it was too risky. It again brought it home the immensity of this hike.

I was happy to leave Lava Tower camp behind, eager to lose a bit of altitude and give my body a break. The initial descent was steep and quick, crossing loose scree on the slope of Kibo as we skirted the western flank heading south. There was a constant procession of people and from here onward, the trail was packed with porters pushing ahead and hikers spread out across the trail. As with the previous afternoons, the familiar sight of the cloud enveloping and retreating over the Kibo Massif repeatedly played out as we made the long and gradual descent to our next campsite. This section was one of the worst for litter on the mountain. With no toilets away from camp, every person that relieved themselves on the mountain left their mark, and unbelievably, the amount of abandoned toilet paper, wet wipes and even sanitary pads and tampons was astounding. I always, and have always, carried out everything from a hike that I carry in, and I had a special bag to seal up anything I used for sanitation purposes. I just couldn’t believe that all these people had not cared about the environment they were walking through and had just left behind all these things, which not only was a contaminant for the soil and the local water supplies, but at this elevated altitude where the oxygen is reduced and the temperature is colder, they just won’t decompose at any great speed, if at all.

 

The trail eventually met and followed a stream, besides which life was teeming with some trees and shrubbery appearing once more. Kibo sparkled in the sun next to us until a thick bank of cloud enveloped it and us and we descended into the Baranco campsite with little visibility. At 3900m (12795ft) we weren’t much higher than the previous night’s camp, but this was important for our bodies after the jump to Lava Tower. The cloud meant I had no idea where the next day’s hike would take us and even when it lifted to reveal the surroundings of where we were, I still was naive to the next day’s task. Between the drama of the cloud and the sheer scale of the mountain around us, this was probably my favourite campsite in terms of aesthetics, but although I felt better here than I had at Lava Tower, I wasn’t really feeling great. My appetite was noticeably reduced and to top it off, I felt bloated and sore in my guts, a problem I can get even at home in normal altitude, but an issue that was accentuated by the symptoms of altitude sickness that I was experiencing. For the first time, I’d had to take pain killers to help the headache, and I had to lie down for spells to help my stomach settle. G Daddy noticed I wasn’t myself, and took me aside to check on me. I assured him I just needed rest, but I felt his attention on me from then onwards.

 

Baranco Camp is the only place on the mountain where there is cellphone service, and even then, it is only in one little spot on a bit of rock. It was amusing to watch people congregate there to rejoin the outside world. Several of those I was hiking with had children or close family in need of updating, but I had loved being off the Internet and in the moment. In fact I hadn’t had this degree of digital detox since the days of smart phones arrived, and I was so happy without it. Living in the moment had been too easy – I was after all in Africa, in Tanzania, living a dream, and focusing on surviving and putting one foot ahead of the other. My only thoughts of communication were whether I was going to be able to get a summit photo to show the World, or whether I’d have to send a sheepish and deflated message home to say I’d failed. Those thoughts remained with me from this point onwards, but I did my best to just to take in my surroundings and push those feelings aside.

 

That night at debrief, my oxygen saturation was down to 92% and I was actually surprised to still be in the 90s given how I’d felt at Lava Tower. A few of the group had dropped into the 80s but no-one was deemed as a danger to continue, and so we listened to our debrief for the following day. Day 5 was all about the Baranco Wall, the great ascent that was to take us out of our current campsite and onto the southern flank of Kibo. I’d read about it in my guidebook, I’d heard about it from other people, and now the guides were regaling the immensity of the challenge that was to face us the next day. I’d failed to work out where the trail was going in the daylight hours, so I would just have to wait till morning to see what all the fuss was about. I retired to my tent, less worried about the infamous Baranco Wall, and more worried about how my health would hold up.

Lemosho Route – Londorosi to Shira Peak

Deciding to climb Mount Kilimanjaro is probably the easiest of the decisions to make with regards to hiking this behemoth of a mountain. With 6 ascent routes to choose from, there is a lot weighing on the choice of route up, and then there is the choice of who or where to hire your guide and porters, or what company to hike with, not to mention which month to go for. I had the relative luxury of time and after doing some research, I opted to hike via the Lemosho Route which is the longest route, allowing for decent acclimitisation, and therefore having one of the highest summit success rates. I’ve hiked at altitude before in the Andes mountain range in Peru, but this was the first time I would be paying a lot of money to hike a mountain that I wasn’t really guaranteed to summit. For all it’s popularity, the success rate of reaching Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro’s Kibo Massif is only 66% (give or take, depending on the source), so the best I could do to improve my chances, was to pick the route with the best chance of leading me there. For me, choosing the route was nearly as easy as deciding to hike the mountain in the first place, and in the end, I didn’t deliberate too long about the company I went with either. Having had an incredible trip to the Galapagos with G Adventures a few years prior, I decided that they would be the people to lead me up Africa’s highest mountain.

After picking up our guides and porters outside of Moshi, we left the dry, red landscape behind and headed into the forests that grew on the fertile slope of what is a dormant volcano. I missed out on spotting the monkeys that some of my fellow passengers noticed, but I was content just watching the landscape go by, spotting people farming and workers upgrading the road under the blistering African sun. It was over an hour and a half before we pulled up at Londorosi Gate (2250m/7382ft) and all piled out. Here, everyone and everything had to come off the bus. This was the weigh-in station where all our bags and the equipment that the porters would carry for us, had to be weighed to make sure they were within the limits set out for carrying. Meanwhile, we had to check in for the hike, signing in at the office before there was a lot of hanging around waiting for the logistical side of things to get wrapped up. Even when at last we all bundled back on to our bus and everything was loaded back on to the roof, we still had a half hour drive to reach Lemosho Gate (2100m/6890ft), and from here, our hike was finally to begin.

 

With a summit altitude of 5,895 metres (19,341 ft), I felt initially dismayed that the bus climbed up and up as it drove us there, somehow thinking that we were cheating by skipping the lower slopes of the mountain. Having left Moshi at 950m (3117ft), we’d already gained over 1000m (3281ft) on the drive, but over the coming days, I’d put those feelings aside. We gathered for a group photo at the start of the hike as loud birds crowed above our heads, and finally, after over 2 years of planning, I was finally on my way to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Our first campsite was listed as 4hrs away and the trail took us through dense forest, with swathes of green below our feet as well as above our heads. This was to be the best chance of spotting monkeys and some of the rich bird life that lives on the volcano’s slopes, but alas I didn’t see much wildlife at all. The steady climb and ease of this day’s hike was a good chance to start to get to know those that were hiking with me, and for the most part we all hiked at a relatively similar pace. In part, this was at the request of our guide who wanted to keep us together and take our time. It was his mantra for the coming days too: to take our time, maintain a steady but slow pace, and prevent over-exertion.

Our porters had left us behind in order to get camp set up and ready for our arrival. Mti Mkubwa Camp was amidst the forest at 2650m (8694ft) with no view to speak of. Although this route isn’t one of the busiest, this camp site was well used and there were plenty of people packed into the gaps between the trees. The campsite ritual was to become very familiar over the coming week: sign in at the cabin, meet with our personal porter who had set up our tent and mattress, get cleaned up, have a wander round the campsite then retire to the meal tent for hot coffee and snacks before dinner and a debrief, including a run-down of the next day’s hike. There wasn’t too much to explore here as the campsite was compact, so the time spent in the tent was another chance to get to know each other. The dinner that was served to us was filling and delicious and it reminded me of the amazing meals I’d received whilst hiking to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail.

As part of our debrief each night, we had to get our oxygen saturation levels read via a finger monitor. Altitude sickness can hit anyone of any fitness level, and it is important to catch it early. Our guide was explicit from the beginning that if he wasn’t happy with how any of us were doing, he’d send us down. It was hard for people not to become competitive with this test. We were generally a bunch of fit people, used to hiking in our respective countries. The aim was to stay above 90%, but our guide said it was common for some people to drop into the 80s at higher altitudes. That first night I was sitting at 98%, a fairly normal reading for a healthy adult, and this was fairly consistent around the table. The temperature was cool but manageable in my sleeping bag, and I was able to get some rest to prepare for the next day’s hike.

I’d stocked up on diamox, a drug to reduce the effects of altitude, ahead of this trip, and my doctor had told me to start taking it once I was above 2500m (8202ft), so that second morning I took my first one, committing myself to the twice a day tablets in conjunction with the malaria tablets that I’d been taking for the past week. We still had some forest to walk through on leaving the camp behind and it remained thick for a good chunk of the morning before the height of the vegetation noticeably dropped and the canopy opened up. The tree tops were just above head height and looking behind us, we could see back down to the flat land surrounding the mountain and across to the neighbouring peak of Mt Meru in Arusha National Park. Although the plants here were distinct, the hiking reminded me a little of New Zealand, with rolling green false summits disappearing in front of me. On one of these ridges we stopped for lunch, coming out of the bush to find a large tent had been erected to accommodate us. The sun was strong and it was a pleasant temperature although some wind whipped across the exposed area.

 

We climbed higher up a rocky terrain with the vegetation continuing to get shorter as we gained altitude. It felt like the climb was never ending when all of a sudden, the track turned a corner, and there right in front of us was the Kibo Massif, the highest of the three cones that make up Mount Kilimanjaro. In comparison to the view from our hotel, it suddenly looked close and I marvelled that it was still several days hiking away. Little did I know what was to be in store over the coming days of hiking. We took a break on a prominence at the side of the track where we could look down on the expanse of the Shira Plateau and our campsite not too far ahead. We watched the cloud roll in and tease Kibo, threatening to engulf it then retreating over and over again. The snow on the side looked like icing sugar and the summit had large chunks of snow visible. It was hard to leave this vantage point behind but after walking the rest of the way to the campsite, I discovered that Shira I camp had just as cracking a view as our rest stop had had, and I was in awe.

 

By now we were at 3610m (11844ft) and the vegetation had shrunk down to low shrubs that didn’t even reach waist height. Unlike the previous night’s campsite, this one was exposed and a bit more spread out. After signing in on arrival, there was plenty of time to wander around and ogle at the view. As the night drew in, the clouds came with it, and Uhuru Peak disappeared into a veil of cloud. It felt noticeably cooler here and we were all rugged up in our layers as we ate our dinner and had our debrief. My oxygen saturation had dropped to 96% which was still a reasonable level to be at considering the altitude and I felt fine. However, among the group, the numbers were already starting to vary, and as we discussed the next day’s hike, it became clear the group was going to split up. I took another diamox before going to bed and woke up in the night with palpitations and shortness of breath. It was a wholly unpleasant sensation that took me a bit of time to get under control. Having been bundled up in my layers inside my sleeping bag, the shortness of breath had almost sent me into a panic. Thankfully I was eventually able to get back to sleep.

 

I took another diamox in the morning but after speaking to my companions, I realised that it had been the cause of my shortness of breath in the night. It was cold again as the sun was yet to rise above the Kibo Massif. The mornings were just as ritualised as the evening: a morning wake up call, hot chocolate to warm us up, pack-up, breakfast then meet up to head off. After being kept close together on day 1, we had spread out a bit on day 2 and on this 3rd day there were two options to proceed: the more direct route to Shira II camp, or the detour to Cathedral Point on Shira Peak, the lower of the 3 cones that make up Mt Kilimanjaro. This detour allowed a bit of acclimitisation which was recommended, but a few of the group chose to head straight to the next camp. It was a short walk to reach the track junction and after a brief pause there, we set off across the flatness of the Shira Plateau. The vegetation here was sparse and it was an exposed march across the unsheltered flatness. In the distance we could see the ridge of Shira Peak grow closer and closer until finally we were at its base.

There was an initial climb to Cathedral Junction where large volcanic rocks were interspersed with some taller vegetation again and from here, there was a large rock face to frame the view across to the Kibo Massif. It looked unbelievably close and I again marvelled that there was still several days hike ahead of us. I was yet to feel much effect of the altitude, even at 3806m (12486ft), so at that stage it looked so achievable. We paused here to allow us to take some photos, as well as due to a bit of a queue to negotiate the narrow track that led to the cone’s summit. When at last there was a chance to move on, we picked our way up the rough and wandering track to Cathedral Point at 3872m (12703ft) where there was a spectacular view. To our right was the large flat expanse of the Shira Plateau which made it look like we weren’t that high at all. However to our left, the ground dropped away in a steep and dramatic fashion, disappearing in the distance to the bottom of the volcano. The sun shone above us, and some clouds whisped around the nearby jagged rocks. I felt alive and it felt good, and we celebrated our achievement of summiting one of the mountain’s 3 peaks. I was feeling positive and pumped for what lay ahead.

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