Written by John Healy, Expedition Leader Kilimanjaro Expedition February 2016
On arrival at the Earth’s Edge Office in Dublin, there was a great sense of excitement and anticipation as the first Kilimanjaro climb of 2016 was about to begin. The first order of business was to load the Earth’s Edge kit into the car for the spin out to the airport. And here was the first surprise… all nine bags of it (equipment and clothing generously donated by Earth’s Edge clients to be passed on to The Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project) will it fit in the car? Will there be space left for Sarah, the expedition doctor, my second collection of the day? Where there’s a will there’s a way and with a bit of pushing and shoving all were aboard and we were headed for the airport.
Meeting the team
It was great to see so many of the team had already arrived at the airport well ahead of time. There was a happy buzz about the group! It wasn’t long before the remaining team members showed up and we were soon organising ourselves for checking in after a quick check of essential equipment, currency, tickets and we headed for the desks. Again the nine check-in bags were the star of the show but fortunately, the Ethiopian Airlines staff were super helpful getting it sorted and wished us success on our expedition.
Once we had moved on to the departure lounge the priorities became clear, it was time for food! The team represented the four provinces with those travelling from Mayo and Cork probably the furthest from home already. Or as Nicole (the expedition Dubliner in residence) put it, ‘loadsa us were from da country’ – the country is defined as anywhere outside the M50!
A quick bite and run around the shops and most of us were heading for the gate. While passengers began filing onto the plane we were still missing two team members! A quick phone call located them in the restaurants, unaware of the time. A quick tip for future trip members, if you need to borrow a watch for your trip and want to be kind to your expedition leader’s heart-rate, please check that it is set to the right time! All sorted and a group-selfie later we were all airborne and heading for Africa. Stage 1 complete!
Arriving in Tanzania
Unfortunately cloud cover means we won’t get an aerial view of our objective on the approach to landing. Having safely arrived it is time for the next surprise, exiting the aircraft the heat is the first thing we notice. After a miserable winter, leaving Dublin on a February afternoon, arriving to 30 degrees and sunshine can be a shock!
A little bit of African organised chaos later (it looks like it won’t work, but it does!) and we are on the bus and en-route to the hotel in Arusha. For most of the group, it was the first visit to Africa and the journey along the highway gives a view of a different life and culture as we pass through occasional towns and villages, glimpsing the busy market places and workers alone toiling in distant fields.
Then the outskirts of Arusha appear, a city of almost half a million people. The highway becomes busier, dusty and noisy, a little bit more chaos. But it is short-lived for us as the bus takes us to a quieter street and the calm of the hotel. Everyone checked in, room keys distributed and decision time for most – shower or bar? Stage 2 complete!
A short few hours later dinner time arrives and everyone gathers to eat. The menus offer a good selection but “sizzling chicken” appears to be the popular winner accompanied by some Kilimanjaro beer of course! Following dinner, there was the briefing for the first days trekking, a final gear check, and packing the day-sacs and duffel bags for porters, leaving most people beginning to notice a bit of travel fatigue and it isn’t long before everyone is heading for bed.
We wake to a spectacular display of thunder and lightning. For some, it is exhilarating, for others a little scary, but it soon passes and the breakfast buffet of omelettes, pancakes and fruit becomes the priority. Fully fuelled for the day, the bags packed onto the bus and we are soon on our way. It seems a different bus journey on this morning, the storm has brought the rains and the streets are quieter as we head for the mountain.
Starting at the Machame Gate
Machame Gate, the gate entrance to the national park is a busy spot. A hive of activity as a few expeditions are there sorting gear, porter’s registration and loads distributed. We have lunch at the gate while all of this is organised, allowing the porters to get ahead of us to prepare camp for our arrival. The large shelter at the gate becomes the temporary home to several groups as unfortunately, the rain continues to fall..is this why they call it a rainforest? And then we are underway, the wide vehicle track soon leads to a narrow trail that winds up through the forest, the gradient is mostly gentle and the going not too difficult as an easy pace is set.
The forest is quiet as the wildlife is sheltering from the weather but the conversations are lively as we get a chance to chat with each other and our local guides. Towards the end of the day the trail steepens a little and maybe a little bit of fatigue eases the chat and we all start to focus on camp, dinner, and a night’s rest. It’s dusk as we arrive and the rain turns to mist adding an interesting eerie atmosphere to our surroundings.
The tents are up, the bags are sorted and soon it is time for dinner. Some of the first time trekkers and campers are in for a pleasant surprise as three courses of delicious food are served in the mess tent – soup to start, beef and veg, and a fruity dessert – but the star of the show was the spuds. Oh they know how to keep the Irish happy! Another day complete.
Continuing the climb
The third day of trekking dawns bright and clear, a great start to what will be a demanding day. Fortunately, everyone is now in tune with the rhythm of the days and operations around. Soon breakfast is eaten, bags are ready and we are underway. Today the trail is not so steep, but our objective is a demanding trek to Lava Tower at 4600m.
As we leave camp the vegetation diminishes and we enter a rocky, almost barren landscape. Kilimanjaro rises up above the trail, the glaciers and snow high on the mountain a vast spectacle. As we approach Lava Tower it is clear that the altitude is now being felt by the group, and Dr Sarah weaves amongst us all checking on how we are feeling, keeping us on the move.
Lava Tower and the mess tent are a welcome sight! After the sojourn at Lava Tower, the trail heads downhill into the Barranco Valley, again the sunshine warms and welcomes us and thoughts turn to a different challenge as the sun lights up tomorrows test – Barranco Wall. But that is for another day, time to rest and enjoy finishing day 3 first!
Reaching Lava Tower
If the climb to Lava Tower was a physical test, then Barranco is a mental challenge. Everyone has heard tales of its steepness and the climbing involved, but really what is required is a cool head and an adventurous spirit. The crux is a single step, where trekkers must press close against the rocks, the guides call it “the Kissing Rock” as one leans in towards the mountain – luckily for us, it is Valentine’s day and this proves no problem!
Barranco Wall is soon overcome and the rest of the day’s trek is an enjoyable stroll to the next camp – Karanga. Here we get our first true view of the whole mountain as the high clouds part and the crater rim is fully visible! What a fabulous, inspiring sight to end the day!
The next day opens with good weather and the short but steep trek to Barafu camp is eased by the stunning vista all around us. The group is in great form as the previous day at 4000m have acclimatised us well and we quickly find ourselves at the highest camp. We settle in as soon as we can, today is all about eating and resting for summit night. After lunch everyone is sitting back and taking in the surroundings eagerly looking towards the summit, dreaming of the night and day to come. Dinner follows quickly and we head for the tents and sleeping bags soon after, rest is the most important thing now.
We rise at midnight, the night is cold and windy! A cup of tea and biscuits in the mess tent, a quick rallying speech and we are underway! The team moves well, at a steady pace through the lower sections of the summit cone, the cold seems the only difficulty and thoughts of success are strong. Onwards and upwards we go!
We stop a few times for food and drink but everyone is of one mind, it is preferable to keep moving to combat the cold wind. As we approach the steepest section beneath Stella Point the cold is at its most intense but the glow of the rising sun buoys the spirit and warms the hearts as well as the body, we are going to make it! Dr Sarah tends to those who are feeling poorly, dispensing as much positivity and encouragement as medical know-how.
Stella Point and beyond
Everyone makes it to Stella Point, the warm sunshine and the closeness of the summit dispelling any doubts that the altitude brought. Within an hour the team has arrived at Uhuru Peak, the roof of Africa. 100% success. A few minutes of celebration, photos, handshakes, tears, and hugs and we must descend.
Spirits are high and the descent passes quickly, the night’s wind has abated and the sunshine brings the temperature up. We regroup at Barafu Camp for a rest and lunch. Some are very tired, but all are elated. Happiness is all around, the trekkers, guides, and porters are all delighted that everyone has succeeded, but the day’s work isn’t quite over.
Bags must be packed, we have a bit more trekking to do today! Shortly after lunch, we are underway again, beginning the descent to Millennium camp. Limbs are tired but the trail is good, the gradient gently downhill as head down to lower altitudes and a well-deserved full nights rest.
Our final day on the mountain
For our final day on the mountain, we again arise to perfect weather. There is again an air of anticipation amongst the group as everyone is looking forward to the guides and porters performance of song and dance. The celebration of thanks for a safe passage to and from the summit.
After some brief speeches of thanks, the performance begins and everyone is thrilled to experience the rhythms and happiness of the celebration. The warmth and friendliness among the group of porters, trekkers, and guides is tangible. We shake hands and say both thanks and goodbyes. Final packing of bags and we are underway for our final descent.
This time the rain forest has a different greeting for us, the rains we began with a week before are a distant memory. The forest is bathed in sunshine and alive with the sounds of birds and monkeys. Now and then we catch a glimpse of them as they scurry about in the canopy of trees high above us.
Soon we are back to the edge of the forest at Mweka Gate, a picnic lunch awaiting our arrival. We complete the registration formalities with the National Park and we are back on the bus. The heat of the day combined with a little bit of tiredness and we have a few people nodding off as we head for the hotel however they seem to perk up when the bar comes into sight, however!
Leaving the mountain behind
This evening in the hotel will be for celebrating, remembering the highs and dispelling the difficult moments of this mountain trek. We enjoy our celebratory dinner with new found friendships, forged in the forests, slopes and challenges of this wonderful mountain, Kilimanjaro.
Well done to Mark, Martin, Louise, David, William, Niall, Simon, Deirdre, Patricia, Martina, Elliot, Kathryn, Paul, Liz, Neil, Eamonn, Nicole, Finbarr, Ellen, James and Dr Sarah!