Kilimanjaro Update 1 of 2: Up to High Camp

In 3. Kilimanjaro, Africa, Project 7in4by Steve

The Travel Is Harder Than The Climbing

For Climb No.3, Kilimanjaro, we had to make our way from Mendoza, Argentina to Moshi, Tanzania. Just a quick hop across the Atlantic Ocean….. Right?….. Wrong!

To say I had been dreading this leg is an understatement.

Our itinerary read:

  • Mendoza to Buenos Aires – Flight time 1hr 35min; Layover 5hr 35min
  • Buenos Aires to New York – Flight time 10hrs 53min; Layover 2hrs 42min
  • New York to London – Flight time 6hrs 55min; Layover 9hrs 40min
  • London to Istanbul – Flight time 3hrs 50min; Layover 4hrs 15 min
  • Istanbul to Kilimanjaro – Flight time 7hrs 0min. Final destination

I’ll save you all the math. That’s a total flight time of 30hrs 13mins, total transit time of 22hrs 12mins and total travel time of 52hrs 25mins!!! Had I had the luxury of flying up the pointy end it would have been tolerable, but two and a half days in cattle class was not enjoyable.

By the time I was boarding our fifth and final flight in Istanbul I was well and truly over it. And I still had a 7hr flight ahead of me. I struggle to sleep on planes so for two and a half days I had dozed on and off but hadn’t got any proper sleep. All I wanted to do was get horizontal.

We arrived in Kilimanjaro International Airport (yes that is the name of the airport) at 02:00 on Saturday morning. We got our visa on arrival with limited fuss then continued through to baggage claim. We’d checked our bags all the way through and hadn’t seen them since New York. We started placing bets on how many bags would turn up at this end.  I was quietly optimistic, but not optimistic enough to put my hard earned cash on seeing all 4 bags again. With the number of transits we were bound to lose a few. Waiting, waiting, waiting…. It took until the last load that we saw our first bag, then second, the third, then fourth. Miracles do happen!

We piled our gear into a waiting Land Cruiser Troopy which had been kitted out for safaris and drove the ~40km to our Hotel. The driver was incredibly friendly and wanted to tell us all about his beautiful country but I really wasn’t in any mood to engage in small talk. I had my eyes set on the hotel bed and that was all I was interested in but still did try to chat with the driver the best I could in my zombie state.

Arriving at the Hotel the guy behind the desk started pouring through their reservation system then sheepishly looked up and admitted, “Sorry sir, we don’t have any spare rooms for you tonight. You can check in tomorrow morning”. It was already tomorrow! And I wanted a bed!! I went and had a night cap at the bar while they ran around and figured out what they could do. They eventually gave us a couple of thin foam mattresses on the ground in a small open room on a mezzanine level above reception. It was about 04:00 by the time I eventually did get horizontal. Then promptly got woken at 06:00 by a tour group getting up and checking out for an early start. Welcome to Tanzania. We managed to check into an actual room mid-morning and slept straight through to mid-afternoon.

The Hotel manager was incredibly apologetic and even shouted us a 1hr massage in the local town, but we never did find out what went wrong with our pre-arranged booking.

Sunday we went into town for our massage, lounged by the pool and basically did a whole lot of nothing. I did try doing some exercises in our room, but gave that away after tearing my hands up attempting to do pull-ups on the wooden beam above the doorway.

Day 1:  Umbwe Gate to Barranco Camp

Yesterday (Monday 12th) morning I got up early to do a quick work out. I’d managed to find an old soccer goal welded up out of steel pipe tucked away in a small ground behind the Hotel. There is a lot you can do with an over-head bar and piece of flat ground. We then had a quick breakfast and met our guide at 07:30.

Kilimanjaro is quite strict with park permits and regulations. As part of the regulations every team must have a local guide plus utilise local porters, cooks, etc. I find it a little over the top and would prefer to do it more minimalistic and self-sufficient, but it is great for the local economy and the guys we had were fantastic.

We drove about 30min to the Kilimanjaro National Park Umbwe Gate. There we signed in and met the rest of the guys coming with us.

Day 1 took us to Barranco Camp, 17km walk with 2100m of ascent from 1800m to 3900m. I was feeling pretty good and covered the distance in just under 4hrs. The track primarily followed a ridge line up but with low cloud there were no views to be seen.

The most fascinating part of the walk was the vegetation change. Kilimanjaro has 5 distinct vegetation zones:

  • Zone 1: Cultivated Zone, up to 1800m.
  • Zone 2: Rainforest, 1800m to 3000m.
  • Zone 3: Moorland, 3000m to 4000m.
  • Zone 4: Alpine Desert, 4000m to 5000m.
  • Zone 5: Eternal Ice, 5000m to summit (although with global warming sadly the ice is no longer eternal)

Driving up to the park gate we went through Zone 1 “Cultivated Zone” which was a mix of civilization, local villages, coffee plantations and banana plantations.

Entering the park gate and starting the walk we entered Zone 2 “Rainforest”. It was warm and humid walking through the dense tall jungle forest. As we progress higher the vegetation thinned out and lower wispy shrubs replaced the tall trees. It was quite eerie at one point walking through thinning grey forest covered in dangling moss with mist drifting through.

Pushing above 3000m we entered Zone 3 “Moorland”. Here the trees gave way to lower ground vegetation. I’d have no idea what all the plants were called (botany is not my forte) but there were some really intriguing varieties and unique species.

Pushing at a solid pace uphill, by the time I arrived at Barranco Camp I was covered in sweat, to the point I had to wring my top out. But being at 3900m when I stopped I quickly cooled down and had to put layers on. Our porters had gone ahead the day before, going up in two days and arriving at Barranco Camp before us. While I prefer being self-sufficient it was quite pleasant arriving to a tent already set up and a warm drink.

Coming up the Umbwe route we had not seen anyone all day. It is steeper and more direct hence most teams opt to take other routes which allow for more gradual altitude gain and acclimatisation over a few days. Being semi acclimatised from previous climbs we were happy taking the more direct option.

At Barranco Camp the solitude we had experienced during the day was shattered. Here three routes converge with everyone camping at the one spot. I do not know how many people were there but it would have had to be a few hundred.

Soup is a staple with meals in the hills. You may recall my commentary on the tasteless dishwater we were served up at Aconcagua base camp. Here was the complete opposite. The cook served up the most incredible pumpkin soup; think, creamy and delicious. It would have to rank as one of the best soups I’ve ever had (sorry Mum).

Day 2: Barranco Camp to Kosovo Camp

This morning I woke at around 07:00 and started out with a set of push-ups in my tent. I try to do what I can each day to minimize the inevitable muscle wastage that occurs throughout trips like this. My friend says it sounds like I do have a female companion in there with me. I blame the altitude which forces me to breathe harder!

We set off after breakfast at around 08:30 and continued on up the hill. The first part of the route is straight up a steep rocky section known as the Barranco Wall. Unlike yesterday, today there were several other groups on the trail and this steep trail brought most of them to a crawl. We were just going slow and steady but still overtook most of the groups that had set out before us within the first 30min.

Climbing the Barranco Wall we had progress above 4000m and entered Zone 4 “Alpine Desert”. The vegetation change noticeably again to low, shrubby bushes and dry, tufty grasses interspersed with gravel and rock. From the top of the Wall the path levelled out and undulated as it traversed around the mountain before continuing up another ridge initially to Barafu Camp and then to Kosovo Camp (~4900m) where we stopped for the day. It took about 5hrs at a pretty steady pace with Julio, my local guide, telling me to go “polepole” (translation: slowly) all day. I don’t like polepole but it did provide an opportunity to, lie down, take a few breaks and enjoy the sunshine.

At Kosovo Camp the wind built steadily throughout the afternoon. Hoping it eases of so we can have a still, warm summit day tomorrow.

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