Sun. 14th July 2013

 This is the lifeAfter all the exertions of climbing Kili for some and game spotting for others, it was good to know we were here for five nights with nothing planned. We spent the morning just chilling on the beach with a bit of blog writing to try and catch up. However we have been very delinquent as I am now back home on a cold November evening dreaming of the summer sun and fun we had in Zanzibar. It was just the best way to end our world trip spending time with Steve, Chris and Lucy catching up on their less adventurous but still interesting year. The only one of us in paid employment is Chris – if you can classify studying for a PhD as employment!

Untouristy coastlineTo say life on the east coast of Zanzibar is slow would be an understatement! We have learnt the service will in the hotel is slow but the food is excellent and it is all cooked to order. We know to time our food requests accordingly! After two good meals in the hotel we decided some exercise was in order so headed down the beach to check out Paje town.

Could watch for hoursWell it is hardly a town as there are a couple of small shops and a few restaurants. We did splash out on four bottles of water and shared the hard work of carrying it back to our hotel as it was quite heavy. We reckoned it was worth the money we saved as we were in town anyway but not worth a special journey.

Incredible kite surfingAs we got closer to town we saw many kite surfers reminding Dave & I of Christmas Day in New Caledonia. The shallow waters, breeze and large expanse makes it ideal conditions for the surfers. We loitered a while as the photographers amongst us tried to achieve some action shots. Also the blue sea and sky were amazing and the photos are typical of the beaches everyone dreams of.

Fully equipped beach!The walk into town and back took longer than expected and it was happy hour when we returned to the hotel. The bar man did not seem to know what the Happy Hour deal was but we did get a small discount on our cocktails and beers. We share the beach with the local animals and watch a group of cows wander by. More cards games helped while (or is that wile) away the time to supper and beyond. This is so relaxed we could stay forever.



Sat. 13th July 2013

Happy to be co-pilot!Today we transfer to Zanzibar. Dave booked the flights over the internet a few months ago with Air Viva (I hope it is more modern than my first car, a faithful red Vauxhall Viva which my dad procured for me). The first panic was when we read the small print and found that our baggage allowance was 15kg each and that was to include our hand bag interesting…………. Well that will cost us in excess baggage as there is no way any of us will attain that! We all have a rummage in our luggage to see what we can ditch and my faithful two tone zipped trousers and boring practical walking sandals are first to go. We gave them to the African Walking Company (who provided the guides for Dave’s Kili trek) as they are asking for any spare clothes. We muse how our friend Sue would cope with this, husband Steve’s baggage allowance would be reduced to his swimming shorts all week!

High tech departure board in Arusha airportNext panic was when we tried to check on Skyscanner to see if the flight was on time – it did not exist. Frantic phoning of various phone numbers assured us the flight did exist and it was shown as on time. The final panic was the hotel insisted they had not been paid by Agoda for our booking, so we paid again. (After much persistence and emailing Agoda, the hotel and HSBC from the UK I have finally got my refund. The hotel was very helpful but I cannot say the same for Agoda who were very quick to spray inaccurate emails around. It took two weeks from the time the hotel in Tanzania processed my refund to HSBC crediting my credit card account – a lot longer than the debit. End of rant).

Ready plus luggage mountainSo finally we were checked out a bit after ten and in the taxi to Arusha Airport. Chris, Lucy and I had passed the airport on the way to Serengeti, so we knew it was not very big. The road to it was not tarmacked and the terminal was no more than a shack with a hand written uninformative departure list on a white board. The small check in desk was manned by a member of staff from each of the airlines and our guy did not turn up for over an hour. Each airline had their own staff who only dealt with their flights so once we identified our guy we kept an eye on him. Dave, Chris and Steve took our bags and balanced them precariously on the scales and sure enough we had excess to pay.

View from departure loungeIt was a busy little airfield used by a number of airlines and we waved at Ali and Liz who were the other side of a wire mesh divider in the “departure lounge” whist we were waiting to check in. As there were no announcements we just had to keep our eyes open and watch our guy with the clipboard. Eventually we were allowed “airside” and were told the flight was running late.

Our plane for the flight to ZanzibarWe found that our plane was a ten seater and the other passengers were a couple and a family of four where the mother was also called Janet Rosemary! Yes that does make eleven, so Chris being the last on got to sit next to the pilot. The bags were squeezed into the small hold but worryingly Dave’s and Steve’s were left on the tarmac. We were assured they would be on the next flight due to leave within the next fifteen minutes. I found the flight quite bumpy and tried not to think about how high we were and in such a small flimsy object.

Tightly packed houses in Stone TownFinally we arrived in Zanzibar where the airport was bigger than Arusha but still on the small side. As soon as we passed security we waited for our bags to appear and were persuaded a tip was required before being allowed to collect our bags. It was the same when we emerged outside but we held firmly to our bags looking for our driver. Apparently the message that we were going to be late had not been passed on so the driver was not happy to hear we had to wait for the next flight for the final two bags. As we have arrived during Ramadan he would have to wait even longer before he could eat.

Its tough at Crazy MzungosOur hotel called Crazy Mzungo’s (meaning crazy white man) was quirky and luckily it was not busy so we were able to have an extra room as there was some confusion over what we had booked. However the location right on the beach was just what we wanted, and had hoped for, so we were soon sat enjoying cocktails in the bar cum restaurant. A covered area with a sandy floor and comfy seats as well as tables to eat at along with a bar serving cold beers and local cocktails.

This looks to be just what we hoped for for the last few days of our trip.


Fri. 12th July 2013

Jambo! Nina itua David.
Kutoka rahoni asantini sana.
Kwakazi nzuri mliofania.

51 porters and guides needed to get 12 of us to the topI did the first part of my speech thanking the porters in Swahili – thanks to David (the guide) for a crash course in some appropriate phrases. I wrote down the Swahili phrases in my notebook, but stupidly didn’t write down the translations. The first line is “Hello! My name is David” after that I’m not so sure (not even about the spelling). It doesn’t help that my priority when writing it down was to make it easy to pronounce rather than on the correct spelling. So, if anyone can translate, please let me know.

With David - our "brother from another mother"As with the Inca Trail (so long) before, I tried to convey some of the sights and the beauty we had seen – the Wall, the Cathedral, the Lava Tower, the summit – the views and the achievement. Trying to get over what it meant to me to have fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition and to have done it with Steve and with a great group of people who will always be friends. How without the porters and guides it would have been impossible.

Nearly back at the cloudsThe Swahili was unexpected and appreciated by the porters. The money was expected but even more appreciated. After the speechifying, there was time for some songs from the porters (Zaina, yet again) and a rendition of the Hokey Cokey from us. Then it was final goodbyes and personal thank yous to the porters who will be heading straight off when we get to the bottom. And then, we’re off. Our final bit of walking. We have 2.2 (vertical) kilometres to head down to Mweka Gate at 1,650m.

Walking down through the forestThe descent takes us from our fantasy world above the clouds, down through them to the real world below. All the while, the scenery is beautiful and ever-changing. We pass through moorland and rain-forest and the colour pallet changes from blue sky and grey rocks to greens and browns of the forest. The path is clear and well defined and when level the walking is easy. Unfortunately, there isn’t much that is level as it heads down the mountain. Worse, once in the clouds the path is muddy and strewn with slippery stones and wet branches. My legs and knees start to feel the strain and this is aggravated by the need to be careful.

Much needed and well deserved beerAre we nearly there yet? The last piece is a real slog. I’m tired, I’ve done the summit, I just want to get down and meet up with Janet, Chris and Lucy (and a shower and a beer). Surely, it can’t be much further? Pole pole is all forgotten and the group has split up and there is an hour or more between the first group arriving at the bottom and Mark and myself at the end. Eventually however, we do get down and there is a final registration form to complete – this one is important though as it has the details for our certificate which I definitely want. Better yet, there is an enterprising soul selling bottles of cool beer out of a cardboard box. Kilimanjaro, of course – and beer has never  tasted so good! Now we really feel like celebrating – there are hugs and congratulations all round.

Bedlam at the restaurant - just say No!Then there is a final short walk from the gate down to the nearby village where our packed lunch and then the bus will be waiting for us. Once past the gates, the locals come out to try and sell us stuff – mostly t-shirts or carvings – and when we get to the café where we get our packed lunch (its complicated – just remember, we’re in Africa!) we are truly mobbed. The guides try (mostly unsuccessfully) to impose some order but it is just pandemonium with voices calling out and t-shirts and trinkets being thrust at us from all directions. I do want to get a Kili t-shirt but don’t want anything else and so just blot it all out.

At last, the bus arrives to take us back and we all troop on board slump into seats brains firmly switched off and legs feeling the exertion of the walk down the mountain. It’s going to be a couple of hours and the bus is hot and packed as the A/C isn’t working, the heat from the engine comes up through the floor and we need to drop some of the porters off in Moshi before heading on to Arusha, the Moivaro Coffee Lodge and the rest of the family. I’m impatient (no, surely not) but there is nothing to do but sit back, stare out of the window and contemplate what we’ve achieved.

Our arrival back at Moivaro is like a homecoming. Janet, Chris and Lucy are there already and so there are big hugs all round – despite a week and more of stubble, inadequate washing and lack of shower. It’s been a year since I last saw Chris and Lucy and, of course, they have had their adventure in the last week too. There’s a lot to catch up on and we start sharing some of the stories.

Having had a beer earlier, my priority is now very clearly a shower. It takes a lot of scrubbing to get me clean, and I don’t think that some of my clothes will ever be clean again but, eventually, I’m feeling a lot more human (and probably smelling a whole lot better).

Conquerors of KilimanjaroFor one last time, we’re all together as a group and Janet, Chris and Lucy are made honorary members of the Kilimanjaro Conquerors and, just as we have been for the last week or so, we are all sat at one long table. More stories are swapped around the table as we relive some of the highlights of our trek (there were just so many) and start to make plans for a reunion. I’m very happy to be back with family and to hear about Serengeti and Ngorongoro. Whilst, I would have loved to have been with Janet, Chris and Lucy, I think that they are happy with their choice. (I know I am happy with my choice going on safari, and having read this just confirms that. The scenery sounds stunning but the walking would have been a step or two too far! Janet)

Me, I wouldn’t have missed Kilimanjaro for the world. It was every bit the challenge I thought it would be but I never thought it would be so stunningly beautiful. Thanks to Steve for being there with me; thanks to the guides and porters (African Walking Company) for making it so possible and so enjoyable; and thanks to the Kilimanjaro Conquerors for being such a great, inspirational, fun bunch of people. I won’t ever forget you or our time on the mountain.

Thur. 11th July 2013

Start altitude: 4,600m
Max. altitude: 5,895m
Camp altitude: 3,800m

The best (and hardest) thing we've ever doneActually, it isn’t tomorrow – we’re woken at 11pm so it is still yesterday. Forget about washy-washy, get dressed (pull on yet more layers), get your pack together and head to the mess tent for some breakfast. We’re ready to start walking by midnight and with the mix of altitude, nerves and sleepiness there isn’t much chat going on. This is what we all came to do – be careful what you wish for.

Dawn near the summit - what a welcome sight!Looking back, what do I remember about the walk?

  • It’s the slowest walking I’ve ever done. You feel ridiculous taking little baby steps at a funereal walking pace but that is all I could manage. Anything faster and you soon start gasping for breath. How the guides can sing (endless repetitions of ‘Zaina’) I don’t know but it does help to keep our spirits up;
  • It’s dark. Well duh! There are two sets of things that you can see – the heels of the person in front of you and the path for your feet ahead of you illuminated by a circle of light from your head torch. Then if you look up or down, you can see a string of lights snaking their way up. Steve describes the experience akin to being in a strange cult performing a rite where each person is carrying their dot of light to the summit, I think that is the hypoxia talking though. There is nothing else in between. No scenery to look at. No stunning vistas. Just your feet constantly following a puddle of light up the mountain;
  • It’s cold. Well double duh! My worries centre around my hands and my water. Even with a double layer of gloves my fingers quickly get cold. Fortunately, Cheryl had some spare activated charcoal hand warmer packs and they helped a lot. Our water bottles were filled with warm water before setting out which helps but I (like most of us) have been using water pouches in my day pack with a tube that runs out of the pack, over my shoulder and with a mouthpiece that clips onto one of the straps. Very handy but we are told several times that after having a drink to blow the surplus water out of the tube and back into the pouch – otherwise the tube will freeze and block and then there’ll be no more water to drink. I manage to keep my tube clear for a few hours;
  • It goes on forever. It just seems never ending. I used my MP3 player as I had been saving up Kermode & Mayo ‘wittertainment’ podcasts just for this climb. They each last about an hour and three quarters and I got through three podcasts (and remember almost nothing of any of them). Every hour or so, we’d stop for a short break – a brief rest and a bite to eat (anything for more energy);
  • It is mind over matter. You just keep going. Keep putting one foot in front of another. There were times when I could have stopped but everyone else was still walking – so I kept on walking. Later I found out that each of us felt exactly the same way. I just tried to switch my brain off, listen to my podcasts and keep my feet moving.

At last we can see where we are walkingAll of the above mean that it is hard, really hard. It is the only thing that reduced me to the same mental state as running the London marathon – forget about everything else, just keep moving your feet. “We’re all going to make it” says Steve and I try to hang on to that motivating thought. (It’s only after that I find that he said that to convince himself rather than anyone else).

Eventually, I lose the battle to keep my water tube clear of ice and so opportunities to take a drink are more limited. (Fortunately, I had a small bottle of warm water well wrapped up in my day pack).

It was scree like this all the way to the summitAnd then, just when we are at our lowest, dawn breaks and the first slivers of light creep across the sky and we can start to see the mountain and the clouds way below us. The fire of the sun warms our spirits and suddenly we all feel better. We are still all together as a group and at last we really believe that we are all going to make it. Even better, one of the guides points up to the ridge up above us and says “that’s the [first] summit”. I’ve been bitten too often by false summits to put too much faith in statements of ‘you can see the top’. Still, I can do this, I will do this, I’m going to do this.

Steve with tea (and guide) at Stella Point. Uhuru Peak in the background.We practically collapse by the sign once we arrive – gasping for breath, feeling the altitude and just glad to get the weight of our feet. Amazingly, astonishingly, the guides have brought flasks of hot tea up with them – never, ever has a cup of tea been so welcome. As we revive we start to consider the situation. We are at a peak (Stella Point @ 5,739m) but we are not at THE peak (Uhuru @ 5,895m). We can see Uhuru (Freedom) Peak about an hour’s walk away and 150m higher. I haven’t come all this way not to get there – I’m bloody well going to make it now!

Looking inside the crater at Stella PointIt really isn’t that far from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak – you can see it maybe half a mile away. I ought to be embarrassed that it took so long to do that little walking – but I don’t care. It is right up there with my lifetime achievements. I’m so proud of Steve too. That we did it together just makes it even more special – something we’ll always have as a shared experience. Even better, everyone from our group makes it to Uhuru peak and at around about the same time (8:30am – eight and a half hours after setting out).

Oh my! What a view!Kilimanjaro ConquerorsWe later learn from the guides that the entire group getting to the summit only happens once per year and that everyone being there at the same time is very rare indeed. It just goes to show what a great group we were. At the summit though the elation is quite muted – we are too tired and feeling the effects of the altitude too much. I’m finding it hard to think straight; a couple of others have been sick; Tony, after throwing up the whole way, now can’t remember getting to the summit; we’re all feeling pretty rough. I just know I want the photo of Steve and I by The Sign – its only going to happen once and I want the proof and the aide memoire.

View from the topIt is beautiful though. An amazing, being on top of the world, view. Kibo crater is on one side and the big wall of the glacier on the other. You don’t get long at the top, the guides help us get our photos and then shoo us on down. By 9:15 we are back at Stella Point and ready to head back to base camp. Here the group splits up and heads down at their own pace. I stick with Steve and we set off together.

Now we can really see what we climbed up. Would we really have done it if we could have seen the terrain – the gradient, the slope going on forever and just covered in scree with a narrow path snaking through it. Whilst on the way up it was by far the easiest to stick to the path, on the way down, it is time for some scree skiing – a controlled skid straight down the mountain. It takes a little practice to be confident about it.

Heading downWhere the scree is a couple of inches deep it is an odd walking / sliding motion – thank goodness for my walking poles which help with balance. Where the rock is bare then it is back to walking or stepping down – again without the poles to take a bit of the strain off my knees it would be so much harder. The tricky bit is where there is just a thin layer of scree over rock. This is treacherous as the grip is unpredictable. Carefully and slowly is the only way to do this.

Again, it just seems to be never ending. We can see our camp as little dots away (and down) in the distance – but the dots don’t seem to come any closer. Eventually, we are met by a couple of our porters who have been dispatched from camp to help us down. This is the first sign that we must be getting close (or at least close-ish). I have carried my own daypack all of the way from the entrance gate right up to the top of the mountain – but I wasn’t too proud to hand it over and let one of the porters carry it back to camp.

View out of the tent at base campExhausted, we arrive back at Barafu at 11:30 – so, that is 8.5 hours to go up and 3 hours to come back down. Its time for a rest and then lunch / brunch / whatever. I’m still too tired to be elated. We are also all a little worried about Liz who is really suffering and needs the emergency oxygen supply. She gets sent on down, ahead of us, to the next camp. At least she made it to the summit.

We’re not finished walking for the day yet though. Tonight we are at the Millennium Camp at 3,800m. Whilst my legs were not looking forward to yet more walking, it turns out to be a good thing. The walking is fairly easy and only takes a couple of hours. We are now 2 vertical kilometres lower than the summit and feeling quite a lot better for it. I feel more invigorated at the end of the walk than I did at the start.

Looking down on the world - heading to Millenium CampAs we get lower we start to see some vegetation again – hello, old friends – and the camp itself is perhaps our most scenic, set amongst the trees. Our final night of camping, our final night on the mountain. We’re all looking forward to a proper bed tomorrow night, but actually the camping has been fine and I feel I had enough sleep.

Sleep! What a prospect. Before, that though, I have one final task for my slow and befuddled brain to do. Right back on the very first night, before we headed off, I was ‘volunteered’ to collect and manage the tips for the guides and porters. It is the ‘farewell ceremony’ first thing tomorrow morning and so it needs to be sorted tonight. Makeke did provide a sheet of paper providing guidance as to the recommended tipping rates for each of the porters, ‘helping porters, cook, assistant guides, and head guide. With each of us putting $200 into the pot, it’s a lot of money and it needs to be divided up equitably. This is what Douglas Adams had in mind when he coined the term Bistromathics. Fortunately, with help from the others sat around the table in the mess tent we get it done together.

Now I only need to work out what I’m going to say – but that is a job for tomorrow. My brain, like my legs have had enough for one day and it is off for (another) early night.


Wed. 10th July 2013

Start altitude: 4,000m
Max. altitude: 4,600m
Camp altitude: 4,600m

Getting closer now!As we wake up today, the clouds beneath us have cleared to reveal the valley below – a long, long way below. It’s a reminder of how high we’ve climbed but turning round and looking up we can see how much further we have still to go. I know how Frodo felt about Mount Doom now as Kilimanjaro’s Kibo Peak towers above us.

Today is all about preparation for summit day tomorrow. It is only a short walk today, perhaps as little as 3 hours as we climb 600m up to Barafu Camp which is our base for the summit attempt (yes, after all this time, tomorrow is summit day). Once we get to Barafu, the routine will be very straightforward – lunch, sleep, dinner, sleep. Its only after that that things get a bit harder.

Heading higher againOnce we leave camp and climb over the first ridge, we can see the ridge we’ll be following tomorrow all of the way up to the summit. When I first caught sight of the mountain back in Amboseli, I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew. I’m now feeling quite a bit more confident. It’s partly that I’m feeling well – my legs are still strong; energy levels are high (thanks to diet of soup and porridge!); and the altitude effects are not too bad. Makeke and the guides have also played a big part – the mantra of pole pole really works and the way they have organised and encouraged us. Always smiling and always working to build confidence.

We're all still smiling!And then there is the group. What a great group of people from very diverse backgrounds with a 33 year gap between oldest (me) and youngest (Steve) and from very different walks of life. Yet, we have bonded so well. There are no cliques or outsiders. There is no gumby or big ego. Just a bunch of folk who have come together and formed really strong bonds and who all support each other. If any of the Kilimanjaro Conquerors read this – thank you, so much. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Looks better than it smells!The camp at 4,600m is as high as we have been. The last time we were this high was back at Lava Tower and then I felt pretty rough. The acclimatisation must be working as I feel significantly better today. There is, however, a sting in the tail for today’s walk. Once we climb up on to the last ridge we find that we are still below the level of the camp and there are a few more hundred metres of (slow) uphill walk to get to it. Once we get there, there is the usual warm welcome from the porters and lunch is ready and waiting for us.

Base camp! Very rocky!I don’t know what I expected to find at base camp but it is probably something like this. It’s just rocks with the tents pitched on any available flat ground. Its barren hillside with a view all the way down and over in the distance we can see Mwanzi peak (the third of Kili’s summits). Mwanzi looks much more jagged than Kibo peak where we are heading and apparently climbing there is prohibited (too dangerous). It may be desolate up here, but the views continue to be stunning. And we’re supposed to be getting some rest this afternoon. There is even a little bit of 2.5G phone signal here so I’m able to update Janet and get a ‘good luck’ text back.

We came from over there!I’m never very good at siestas and no matter how much I tell myself that I’ll be grateful for all the sleep that I can get come tomorrow morning, I don’t do much more than lie in the tent and read my book and perhaps doze a little. It’s a relief when we’re called together for an early dinner and then our final briefing. Normally, it is just Makeke who does the briefings but tonight all the guides are there to say their piece, give some advice and to build our confidence. After all the build-up; all the will I, won’t I; all the ‘July is a long way away’; all of the days spent walking; our moment of truth is just one more sleep away – and only half a night at that.

Sunset at base campA final check of kit and clothes (and food) for tomorrow. There are fresh batteries in the head torch and my camera is fully charged (thanks to portable power brick), so I must be all ready. We’re in bed by 6:30. Gotta get some sleep; gotta get some sleep… don’t think about tomorrow.

Tue. 9th July 2013

Start altitude: 3,900m
Max. altitude: 4,200m
Camp altitude: 4,000m

Climbing Baranco Wall!I must be getting the hang of this camping malarkey. It’s not the greatest night’s sleep ever – waking every couple of hours with one side all stiff and sore from the thin mattress and hard ground, roll over and get another hour or so lying on the other side – but it is enough to keep me going and I’m still feeling fresh and ready to go in the morning. Strangely, I remember more dreams than I’m used to – these tend to be full of non-sequiturs (as dreams usually are) but at least I didn’t have Steve’s dream that we were now heading down the mountain, without having reached the top!

The porters make it look easyIt’s my perfect breakfast this morning – fresh fruit, porridge and then French toast and bacon. No wonder I’m feeling really well today – strong, rested and no particular altitude effects. Just as well as Baranco Wall hasn’t gone away overnight. It seems to tower over us and as we look closely, we can see the path we’ll be taking looking like a scratch on the rock. From below, it looks narrow and steep and we’re all feeling a little intimidated by it. Makeke and the guides constantly say positive things and assure us that we can do it. After all, if Chris Moyles can do it…

Life above the clouds!In practice, it is one of the most enjoyable sections of the whole trek – neither as narrow (mostly) nor as steep (usually) as it seemed from below. There are places where we have to scramble up and over rocks though and in the case of the ‘Kissing Rock’ we have to shuffle round a narrow ledge whilst (firmly) embracing a large boulder and determinedly not looking at the vertiginous drop below. Whilst Tony is trying to master his nerves and not look down, Steve gets bored and scrambles, like a mountain goat, straight up the side of the boulder and round the top. How did he do that?

Falling?All the while, the views keep getting better and better as we get higher up and further around the wall. We can see wispy clouds creeping in along the valley below and we’ve still got Mount Meru in the distance peeking up above its cotton wool blanket. ‘Only’ a couple of hours later, we’re at the top of the wall and the view is like looking out over the edge of the world. The cliff ends and all that can be seen are the clouds below. Cue more silly photos.

Fantastic views from high up on the WallThere's that mountain again!From the top, we still have another couple of hours walk to get to Karanga, tonight’s camp site. Three times we head down into a valley and up the ridge on the other side. We’re walking around the side of Kibo peak now – it is always looming over us. The downhill sections prove to be as much of a challenge as the up, it’s just a different set of leg muscles that get tired. Still, we make it to camp in time for lunch and it is a good feeling to know that our walking is done for the day. Even better, it is chips again for lunch and so everyone is in high spirits.

Like the surface of the moonWe can now see the ridge that we will be following on our climb to the summit. I don’t want to underestimate it but my confidence is growing that I can do this. And I’m not alone in feeling like this but there is a shared optimism around the group. Surely we can all do this. After all, summit day is now just 2 days away. In 48hours we’ll either have done it or not.

Camping in the shadow of Kibo peakAfter a little downtime, there is a final acclimatisation walk to do. We head up the trail we’ll be following tomorrow so that we are 150m or so above the altitude of the camp – just to ensure that our camp is lower than the highest point of today’s walk. We now really could be on the surface of Mars. There is no plant life and all around are boulders and rocks. As we head back, the clouds start coming down the mountain and gradually creep down to the camp. It looks like it’s going to be cold tonight and so I break out my super warm (hired) padded jacket. Toasty!

Our camp above the cloudsIts not just during the day that the views are spectacular here. When the sun sets the stars come out and with the thin air and being above the clouds the the number of stars is again astounding. Through all the stars the Milky Way winds its way across the sky. I’ve had views like this in two or three places on our trip (e.g. Lake Titicaca, Namibia) but I don’t think you can get tired of this view. For Steve, this is the first time that he’s had the chance to see this spectacle. It is just amazing.


Mon. 8th July 2013

Start altitude: 3,840m
Max. altitude: 4,600m
Camp altitude: 3,900m

Steve is still looking confident!It’s obvious from my notes for today that it was a hard day’s walking. I’ve barely managed two sides of my little A6 notebook in sparse bullet points. No energy (mental or physical) for adjectives lots of verbs and just sticking to the facts. We have a long day’s walking ahead of us and it is uphill all morning.

The Lava Tower - not very dramatic but very high up!We’re heading for the Lava Tower – a lava plug from an old eruption. At 4,600m it is as high as we are going to get before we head out from Base Camp on summit day, so we are climbing, climbing right from the off. Initially, it is just up the path we took yesterday afternoon but instead of stopping we just keep on going. The terrain is now rocky, dusty and very dry there are very few plants to be seen. It’s not just the plants that are struggling either – we are still all in good spirits but walking is hard work and we are all breathing hard. There is a real chill in the wind and it is too cold for just shorts and t-shirt now. By the time we make it to the Lava Tower we are all feeling the altitude – an ache at the back of my head, a little bit woozy and concentrating is just hard.

Chillin' with the guides!This is where we have our lunch. Just a packed lunch today but, once again, a flask of soup appears and there is a mug of steaming soup for each of us. Some people are starting to get tired of soup but I don’t understand how that could ever happen. I’m surprised to see that there are some tents pitched on the rocky ground near the tower. Apparently other routes to the summit (Shira?) stay overnight here (and have an acclimatisation walk even higher up the mountain).

The initial descent from Lava Tower is quite steepNeedless to say, we’re all very happy that we’re heading down again for camp tonight. The summit is nearly 1,300m higher than we’ve just been. What is that going to be like? We try not to think about that too much as we head down to Baranco camp for the night. The terrain helps with that as the initial part of the descent has some steep steps with twists and turns and so whatever part of my brain is working has to concentrate on that (and ignore the growing protests from my knees).

Strange plants!Once again there is another set of views to take our breath away (well, whatever is left after the effect of the altitude). Ahead of us is Baranco Wall and tomorrow’s challenge (and it looks like a substantial challenge). Beside us is a stream running down into the valley with patches of snow and ice lurking in the shadow and all around us are some unique stubby Lobelia and giant Celesia(??) plants, both indigenous to this valley – and both really striking and alien.

Looking at Baranco WallBy the time we get to Baranco camp we are really feeling the strain. My legs and body are tired and I think that I have caught the sun on my face and hands (at least arms and legs were covered up). The good news though is that the symptoms of altitude sickness have died down. The bad news is that there seems to be a 300m tall vertical wall right in front of us for tomorrow!

Sun. 7th July 2013

Start altitude: 3,550m
Max. altitude: 4,000m
Camp altitude: 3,840m

At Shira CathedralIt was a cold night on the mountain. Despite being in a 4 season sleeping bag (though not the 4/5 season that I thought we had booked) and wearing thermal long johns, thermal top and a fleece) I woke up cold a few times. It wasn’t helped by needing to get up to go to the loo twice in the night either. Some lessons to be learned for tonight!

Getting closer!Otherwise, I feel very good. My legs feel strong still and last night’s headache and brain mush has gone and I wake up ready to walk. Of course, it helps that the start of the walk today is over the flat ground of Shira crater where the caldera was filled in by the later eruption of Kibo. The slow pace also helps a lot – it’s surprising how quickly you get used to it. It also gives you more time to appreciate the scenery which is constantly changing but always stunning. Even more so once we reach the crater rim and climb up the wall. Once on top of the rim the views just take our breath away. Looking back along the path we walked across to the other side of the crater but the view the other way is very special – looking out at Kibo peak with the valley below all shrouded in cloud. Gosh!

Mt Meru floating above the cloudsIn the ‘it’s a bit of a detour, but it has to be done’ category is a hike up to the high point of the crater rim – Shira Cathedral. This piece is quite steep but it is good for acclimatisation and also the gradient will be good practice for summit day. At the top you really do get a sensation of the volcano crater – a narrow path along the rim with a very long drop down to the valley below on the outside. Below us, the clouds seem to be flowing up the side of the hill and in the distance, in the other direction from Kibo, is Mount Meru seemingly floating in a sea of cloud. I really hadn’t expected to have this diversity and sheer beauty of the landscape – this stunning, spectacular, ever-changing scenery. Even if I don’t make it to the summit, I’m so glad I did this trek.

The plain is strewn with rocksThen it’s back down and up the other side of the saddle ridge. Even with the slow pace, I’m breathing heavily on the uphill sections. Once over the ridge, the ground is flat, completely arid and scattered with round boulders and short, stumpy plants. We can see our camp for the night above us now – an hour or so more to walk, albeit up hill. The bad news, though, it that it has gone 2pm and we’ve still not had lunch yet and won’t get lunch until we make it to camp.

We’re fantasising about food for the last section of the walk. What would we most like to eat right now? Chips is very high up most people’s list – and sure enough when we get to camp and arrive at the mess tent, its chips! How do they do that? So high up the mountain and with everything having to be carried up. As with the Inca Trail, the quality (and quantity) of food has been amazing.

A surreal view, looking out to Mt MeruOne of the pieces of advice I had before embarking on this trek (before booking even) was to always sleep at a lower than your maximum altitude for the day. Apparently, it helps with acclimatisation and particularly helps you to get a good night’s sleep. As camp (at 3,840m) is our high point for today (Shira Cathedral is lower) then we are not yet finished with walking for the day. After a short rest, we head off again, following the track we’ll be following tomorrow up to around 4,000m where we sit and admire the view and take yet more photos. The layered ridges of Shira crater and Meru in the background are monochrome in the haze and late afternoon sunshine. I’ve seen paintings like this but never seen it in real life before – I think the photo really captures what we saw.

Washy washy! Note the two tone leg!Its always quicker walking down hill (though we still won’t set any speed records). There’s just time for washy washy whilst the day and the water are both warm. One little bowl of water which I’m now good at stretching out to do hands, face, armpits, feet, bits and legs. It has to be that order as my legs are caked in a layer of the very fine volcanic dust that just clings to everything. The combination of bare legs coated in sun cream is like a magnet for it. We’re still 5 days away from a shower too!

Sunset over Mt MeruWe’ve been up above the clouds all day and the strong equatorial sun has kept us warm all day. Even at 4,000m it is plenty warm enough in t-shirt and shorts (but lots of sun cream). When the sun sets though it gets cold quickly and we need to put a few layers on. As the sun sets, through an orange-red glow spreads over the clouds below and lights up Mt Meru in the distance.

Steve contemplating what we've achieved - and what we've still to doEven more astonishing than the views is the availability of mobile phone signal – a couple of bars of 2G. Not enough to load a web-page, but enough to exchange texts with Janet, to catch up with email and my Twitter feed which reveals that Andy Murray has won the first set of his Wimbledon final. C’mon Andy!

Toilet with a long drop! (and an amazing view)It was a shorter, easier walk today than yesterday and as a group we’re clearly less tired and better acclimatised than last night – fewer headaches and other altitude symptoms. We’re in high spirits and there is lots of joking and chatter in the mess tent. Plenty of banter evenly spread around. I’m amazed we’ve got this far and this high and we are all still in good shape – hopefully this is a good omen for the next few days. We even managed to make it to the late hour of 9pm before turning in for the night.

Sat. 6th July 2013

Start altitude: 2,750m
Max. altitude: 3,700m
Camp altitude: 3,550m

Its big and its beautifulI’m starting to think I could get used to this life. We’re woken this morning by the guides coming round and distributing cups of tea and then 15 minutes later they are back again with bowls of warm water for ‘washy washy’. I’m also feeling pretty good with my legs still feeling fresh (no stiffness or tiredness) and even last night’s slight (altitude) headache has gone. I even slept quite well tucked right down into my sleeping bag with the hood pulled up and over my head. I will need to add more layers to keep the cold out as we go higher. Still, one night down and six more to go. However, the Designer Monkeys are not as popular now after shrilling and screeching late into the night.

Our 'internet kiosk'!Breakfast is an even bigger treat. There’s porridge! Strangely, not everyone is as enthusiastic about porridge as me – but as there is also fruit, bread, bacon and eggs everyone is quite happy and well fed. While we’re having breakfast, the porters are taking down our tents, filling our water bottles and generally getting the campsite packed away. Of course, the ‘internet kiosk’ is amongst the last to be taken down for those in need of a quick ‘email’.

Lichen beards on the treesToday’s walk starts as a continuation of yesterday’s – climbing up through the forest. The path now though is just a (dry) mud track and the lichen (moss?) on the trees is now longer and stragglier and more beard-like than ever. Then we walk up and over a ridge and descend onto a plateau where the terrain changes markedly. It’s now much more like moorland – a Scottish moor, but on steroids. There is heather here but it is waist or shoulder high which along with the large boulders make for a rugged, spectacular landscape.

The only way is upIt is, however, just a beautiful warm cloudless day and I’m glad I stuck to t-shirt and shorts. As we stop for a break we can see our path for today stretch out ahead of us up to the ridge on the other side of the plateau. The pace (thankfully) continues to be pole pole as we are climbing up to 3,700m. Half way up, we stop again for lunch – there is soup to go with our packed lunch boxes that were issued to us this morning. Porridge for breakfast and soup for lunch and dinner. How good is that!! Nearly as good as the views that we have. Looking along the ridge we can see the corrugations along the irregular peak and the rainforest on the slope. Turning through 90o, we can see the path we followed to get down onto the plateau.

Nah! No problemWe’re climbing up Shira Ridge the rim of the old Shira volcano which is the lowest of the three peaks of Kilimanjaro. The picture that everyone thinks of as Kilimanjaro is actually Kibo peak and this has been hidden from us as we have been walking. But now as we crest the ridge, we can see across across a vast plain (caldera?) to what appears to be the base of the mountain, causing us to wonder what we have spent the last two days climbing. We now see the challenge we have set ourselves. It still looks like a big chunk of rock towering in the sky. We can also see tonight’s campsite in the distance in front of the mountain. It’s good to know that we’ve done our climbing for the day and the rest of today’s walk is quite flat.

Team photo - we made it to the end of Day 2!Down on the plain of Shira crater, the heather is much shorter and sparser and the path meanders between the clumps. We’re now over 3,500m and so in some ways it is surprising that anything grows at all. There is the odd patch of marshy, wet ground but otherwise it is all very dry and dusty. My legs are caked with a layer of dust and my shorts aren’t much better. This is only Day 2 – there are 6 more days to go until we get to a shower!

Camp overlooked by the mountainThe campsite is at the crossroads of the Shira and Lemosho trails and so there are two sets of climbers here which makes it much bigger and busier than last night – and we’re even more glad of our own private internet kiosk. Just like yesterday, our tent is ready for us by the time we arrive and water for washy washy appears shortly afterwards. It’s good to get at least some of the dirt off as well as giving feet a wash to help keep blisters away.

If only it was that easyWe try to rest and enjoy the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine. Our gaze is constantly drawn to the mountain in the background. It is going to be a constant companion for the next week and so the only thing to do is to take some silly trick-perspective photos. Anything to stay positive. (Positive mental attitude is another of Makeke’s rules to get us to the summit)

Steve can't concentrate on his bookAs the sun sets, it quickly gets cold and I need to add layers. I’m reluctant to get the down jacket out just yet though – I want to save it for when it gets really cold. We can also feel the altitude now. I have a niggly, incipient headache nagging away at the back of my head. As I try to write notes for the blog, my brain seems to be mush and I struggle to remember the details of scenery that we just saw an hour or two ago.

The food provided for us is delicious, and almost of a hotel quality, we understand now why so many porters have been employed, as we have our own mess tent fully equipped with tables and chairs. In a vain attempt to keep us going after dinner, Steve produces a pack of Brain Teaser cards that Santa left in his Christmas stocking a couple of years ago (what a clever Santa). However, whilst the spirit might be willing, through a mix of the altitude, the exertion of a full day’s walking and (for some) a poor night’s sleep everyone is tired and nobody’s brain seems to be working very well. By 8pm we’re all ready to turn in for the night – perhaps tomorrow we’ll manage more of an evening.

Fri. 5th July 2013

Start altitude: 2,250m
Max. altitude: 2,750m
Camp altitude: 2,750m

Ready for the offMemories of the Inca Trail come flooding back as we make our final preparations to get off. Firstly our kit needs to be sorted out into stuff that will stay in backpacks at the hotel; that which is going to be carried by the porters; and that which is going in day packs. We’re expecting the temperature to vary from around +20C to -20C so there is an emphasis on layers. Do I have sufficient? I am encouraged by the down jacket that I’ve hired for the trek – really soft thick and warm. We’re only allowed to give the porters 15kg to carry (on the Inca Trail it was only 6) and there is a man with scales to check you aren’t handing too much over. Steve has to jettison a long sleeved top but otherwise we’re OK and our bags are loaded up on top of the Land Cruiser.

We're climbing that??Everyone is nervous as we stand around outside the hotel waiting to load up. Will we make it? Will the altitude be too much? Or the slope? Or the cold? I keep reminding myself that I’ve risen to other challenges I’ve set myself. Have faith in that and in the itinerary – not every day is a full day of walking and yet every day we do a bit of acclimatisation, climbing higher but camping below the high point of the day.

'Designer' Colobus monkeysThen we’re off – a quick kiss goodbye from Janet and we load up. There’s about 100km to drive to get to the starting point and it’s mostly on decent road. Just after we turn off the tarmac for a dirt road we pause as we get our first glimpse of the mountain. It still looks pretty big to me. Just to distract us, on the other side of the road some shaggy, black and white Colobus monkeys (which Liz immediately started calling ‘Designer Monkeys’ due to their fluff) are scampering up and down trees.

Points to rememberOnce we get to the Londrossi Gate and the registration hut to sign in, we try not to think too hard about the warning signs that are on prominent display. The shorter, Shira, route starts from here but for us it is not about distance walked, it’s all about acclimatisation so we have another drive in the Land Cruisers to our start point. Although we are in the National Park, the forest is sustainably farmed with patches of trees at different heights and ages. Where the trees are small, the ground below is also planted with potatoes and carrots. With the temperature like an English summer, we could nearly be at home.

Eventually, all good things must come to an end and we have to get out and get ourselves ready to start walking. We also get to meet the guides and the porters who will be helping us up the mountain and doing all of the hard work – there are 51 of them to get just 12 of us up to the summit, a bigger ratio even than the Inca Trail.

Are we nearly there yet?The walk today is through rain forest on a dirt path that is marked out – often orangey brown gravel bordered with logs. It’s no surprise that we are generally heading up hill but the walking is pretty gentle and we are all in good spirits, happy to be underway at last. The forest is beautiful and not really like any I have seen before. It’s definitely not jungle but equally not like a forest in the UK either – perhaps it is due to the long straggly lichen beards on the trees.

Unlike on the Inca Trail, we are in single file and Makeke (the lead guide) has one of the other 5 guides at the front keeping the pace down. We keep being told ‘pole pole’ (slowly, slowly) and there is no overtaking the guide at the front which eager Steve needs to be repeatedly reminded of. At first, the pace feels very slow – much slower than I would normally walk – but, after a while, you get into a rhythm and it just feels comfortable. There is a bit of chat as we all get to know each other but often I’m just lost in my own thoughts and admiring the beautiful scenery.

Our camp for the nightThe walk to our camp through Lemosho Forest takes us about 4 hours and so it is late afternoon by the time we arrive. We have to sign in again – a good sign that they have a record as to where we have been but as it is all on paper it will be the devil’s own job to reconcile it in case of problems. Anyway, our tents are all set up for us and we get a big warm welcome from the porters as we arrive and, even better, a bowl of warm water to wash in. Steve and I meet Julius and Ferringe (?) who are the porters assigned to carry our kit and set up our tents.

Afternoon tea is servedTo round the day off, there are two very pleasant surprises for us. Rather than having to use the smelly ‘long drop’ toilets in the camp, we have our own portable camping toilet that has been set up in its own little tent. This is immediately christened the ‘internet kiosk’ as people troop off to do some ‘email’. Also, whilst we were worried when we were introduced to our cook that he was tiny and very skinny – we needn’t have worried. The food is excellent and plentiful as we tuck into our three course meal.

There is plenty of chatter around the meal table and everyone is happy to have got the first day under our belt.