Tanzania was fantastic. Probably the best vacation I’ve ever taken. I met up with my friends, Chau and Chris, in Accra the night before we were to fly out. Chris had just finished closing his service (aka COSing) and this trip was his COS trip to celebrate before going home to America. None of us really prepared for this trip, and we were clearly all winging it, but all of us are really laid back people so it was fine. Chris was on a different flight than Chau and I, so we parted ways in Addis Ababa and Chau and I continued on to Kilimanjaro before Chris. We arrived at 3:00 am, and had to wait in the airport for six hours. We tried to sleep on benches at baggage claim, but we were kicked out by security around 6:00 am and had to sit on the sidewalk for the next three hours. Chris finally arrived, but his bags didn’t. Slightly frustrated and sleep deprived, we finally left and headed for Moshi. We went to the tour agency office, Gladys Adventures, to meet Gladys and our guide, to pay, and to rent equipment. Since we were coming from Ghana, we didn’t have very much for supplies. Chris actually had most of what he needed, but since he didn’t have his bag, he also had to rent a few things. Chau and I rented lots of warm clothes and rain gear. We had an early dinner and then tried to go to sleep because we were to start our trek the next day.
It was very surreal to finally start out on this adventure, after thinking about it for months and months. We chose to do the Lemosho route, which is a longer route (8 days) and it allows for more time to become acclimatized, therefore giving a higher likelihood of reaching the summit. It’s also said to be one of the most scenic routes up Kilimanjaro. As soon as we reached the gate to check in, it started pouring rain. Other climbers starting at the same time as us (mostly from Europe) were in t-shirts and shorts, but we were all in several layers and shivering. It was probably 60 degrees, but that’s much colder than we’ve experienced in years at this point! The rain let up a bit when we started walking, and the first day was beautiful. It was all through rainforest, but it was different than the rainforest I live in here in Ghana. Our guides, Caspar (head guide) and Cashenge (assistant) made us walk annoyingly slow. They kept saying “pole pole” which means slowly in Swahili. We would walk at a pace of 1 mile per hour the entire way up to conserve energy. It actually was helpful at higher altitudes, but I can’t count how many times I was told “pole pole” because I naturally wanted to walk faster.
After about three hours we reached our first camp. All in all, it was not a very strenuous day, though there were some steep parts. It was officially Chau’s first hike ever. Go big or go home, I guess. Our porters (we had 10) had already reached the camp and were setting up the tents by the time we got there. They set up the mess tent and invited us in for tea and popcorn. We couldn’t believe it. It felt very extravagant to us PCVs, especially when we met Joseph, our waiter for the trip. Shortly after tea we got dinner. There was a ton of food, and it was delicious. The meals were very well balanced, and we were encouraged to eat as much as possible because we would likely not eat very much at high altitudes (though we still ate plenty at high altitude). We devoured everything because we were all slightly malnourished from lack of options in Ghana. Afterwards, Caspar came to do the medical check. Every day, morning and night, he would take our blood oxygen level and pulse, temperature, ask a variety of questions, and listen to our lungs to make sure we were healthy enough to continue.
Day two was about six hours of hiking and the entire time it rained. The path was basically rocks covered with mud and running water, on a steep incline for hours at a time. It was slippery and slow going. By the time we reached the camp, my sweatshirt and t-shirt were completely drenched and it was about 40 degrees outside. None of our porters had arrived, which was strange. I was absolutely freezing, so when the first porter showed up with a duffel bag, I was so glad to see it was mine. It took forever to get my wet clothes off because my fingers didn’t want to work and everything was moving slow, but I was finally dry and warm again. It turns out one of the porters slipped and fell at the very beginning of the hike. All the other porters dropped what they were carrying and carried their friend back down to the first camp. He had a concussion and a broken leg, but all in all was very lucky.
The third day was shorter and pretty uneventful. When we reached the camp, I decided to take a nap. When I woke up, it was suddenly hot in the tent and Chau was calling my name. “Bring out your clothes to dry! The sun came out!” she called to me. I jumped out of the tent and hurried to lie out all my things on rocks. Within 10 minutes, some of our things had already dried. It was fortunate, too, because that’s only about how long the sun lasted. Shortly after, it clouded over again and began to rain.
Day 4 was another six-hour hike, and we climbed to 15,000 feet at one point. This place was called Lava Tower, and it is where we stopped for lunch. Because of the altitude, the rain had turned to snow. This was Chau’s first time seeing snow (she grew up in Vietnam and then California). After lunch, we started our descent to the camp at 13,500. We had to descend where a stream cuts through the rock. It was very steep, very slippery, and very cold. I went super slow because I was trying to find the driest path possible. At this point, Chau and Chris had super wet boots, even though they were told they were waterproof when they rented them. Mine were still dry at this point, and I was trying my best to keep them that way. There were many scenic moments on this hike, but the rain stopped us from taking any pictures. It was finally dampening our spirits.
When we got to camp, Chau was pretty sick. She picked up a cough on the flight over, and it was beginning to wear on her. When she didn’t come to dinner, Caspar went to check on her. He took her pulse and blood oxygen, and immediately sent a porter to bring the oxygen tank. Afterwards, he came out of our tent and told me her blood oxygen was 46% and her temperature was over 100 degrees. After giving her oxygen it went up to 98%, but he told me to keep an eye on her and call him during the night if anything happened. When we woke up the next morning, Chau took a while to get out of bed, but eventually she made it to breakfast and said she wanted to continue. Her blood oxygen was only 56% though, and Caspar told her she had no option but to descend to Moshi. We were sad to see her go, but Kilimanjaro is no place to gamble with your health, so we were also glad when she, Cashenge and one porter left.
Without Chau the hike was considerably quieter, and the weather again dampened our spirits. After three hours we reached what was supposed to be our next camp, but we opted to just have a hot lunch in the mess tent and continue to the next camp (another three hours away). When we reached Barafu Camp, we were at the base of the summit, and it was a blizzard. We gave the cook our gloves and boots to try to dry by the cook stove so we could have dry gear for our summit hike. The rest of the afternoon we just stayed in our sleeping bags, trying to rest. We would start our climb at 3:00 am the next morning.
Everyone else at Barafu camp started at midnight, but since we did two days of hiking in one day the previous day, Caspar let us sleep in. The summit climb was considerably steeper than anything we had previously done, and it was also harder due to the high altitude. We started at 15,500 ft and would climb to 19,350 ft. It took 7 hours and took a lot of determination. Chris and I were led by Caspar and joined by a porter, Gabriel, just in case we had to separate. The sun came out around 7:00, and I had to take off my parka and fleece and go down to my long underwear because it was so warm. Since I hadn’t seen the sun all week, I didn’t put on sunscreen, which ended up being a huge mistake. Near the top, we began to be passed by people who already summited and were on their way down. They thought we were really slow and kept saying encouraging things to us. We were kind of annoyed because we started three hours after all of them, and weren’t really that much behind. But we were nice and just said thank you. When we reached Stella Point (19,000), Gabriel broke out a thermos and offered us tea. We had a rest and drank our tea, then continued on for the last 45-minute walk up to Uhuru Peak. It was much less steep, but still trying because of the altitude and how tired we were. We summited at 9:45 am, took some photos, and were on our way down by 9:55. Our rush was partly due to the fact that it had started snowing again, and all around us the sky was turning ominous.
The way down to Stella Point was fast and easy, but once we started the steep descent, I was suddenly very uncomfortable. There was roughly 8 inches of snow on the ground, and that plus the steepness of the slope made me slip often and fall down. Not to mention, the steep hill killed my knees. After about 25 minutes of this, Caspar took my arm and told me to walk with him. He said, “Just walk as if we are walking on flat ground. Don’t think about the snow or the hill. Don’t fear, you won’t fall as long as I am here.” So I took a deep breath and started walking. It worked a lot better this way, and we started more or less running down the hill. We quickly passed Chris and Gabriel. But this way also really hurt my knee. After about 15 or 20 minutes of this, I asked to stop. I needed water and food desperately, since I hadn’t eaten since the previous night. It was amazing how I immediately felt warm and energized after eating a power bar. At this point, we were amidst a full on blizzard again, and I couldn’t see anything out of my glasses. I decided to pocket them, since I had Caspar to guide me, and to just trust him. The rest of the way I didn’t really see much, other than the occasional black volcanic rock sticking out from the snow. It took another hour of running down the mountain, but we made it to base camp. We were given glasses of fresh orange juice (I have no idea how they got that all the way up there, but it tasted amazing). At this point, I realized the pocket I put my glasses in was in fact not a pocket, and they were still up on the summit somewhere. Too tired to care, I went to our tent for a much-deserved nap. After two hours, Joseph woke us up and told us to come for lunch. We ate, and then grudgingly put our gear back on to face the blizzard once more and descend to a lower camp. Caspar was also tired (probably from having to support me all the way down) so we mutually agreed to stop at a higher camp than the one we were supposed to reach that day. It took another two hours, and by the end we were pretty exhausted. At this point, my knees were not only screaming, but my big toes as well. My boots were just slightly too small, or my toenails were slightly too long, and the nail would jam into the boot with every step, which caused a considerable amount of pain. That evening in the tent, it was obvious my right toenail was dead. My left one didn’t look too bad, but it also hurt a lot.
We chose to finish on the seventh day instead of the eighth. We could have taken our time descending and stayed on the mountain a full 8 days, but the weather was too terrible and I was not eager to stretch out the descent any longer than I had to, so we finished on December 14. Each step hurt a ton, but it only took 4.5 hours to make it to the gate. Then we signed out, collected our certificates, and headed back to Moshi to check in with Chau. She still looked pretty sick, but was very happy to see us. That night my right toenail was causing me a lot of pain, so Chris poured me several whiskey shots and held my hand while Chau pulled the nail off with pliers. As if climbing Kilimanjaro wasn’t enough of a bonding experience, we now also have this moment to bond us for life.
As we were supposed to descend on Sunday, we now had the full day to hang out in Moshi. We decided to try to find as many rooftop bars as possible. I quickly realized between my swollen knees and injured toes this was not the best plan, but after a few beers it was ok. The hard part was trying to get around without glasses. During the day it was okay because I had my prescription sunglasses I got while on med evac in Morocco, but during the night I was completely helpless. Sunday night we were eating dinner and a group of white people walked in. I overheard them say a few Peace Corps acronyms so we went over to introduce ourselves. They were volunteers from Tanzania and Senegal, and one girl was born and raised in Fort Collins. Small, small world!
The next day we parted ways—Chris to America, Chau and I to continue our adventures in Zanzibar. We figured after our accomplishment we deserved a few days on the beach. Zanzibar is an amazingly beautiful island with a strong Muslim influence. We had a great time wandering around, enjoying the sights and food. We were very poor at this point, and had to pool our money together to buy basic necessities like food and beer by the end. When we got to the airport to fly out, we found out there was an exit tax. We had literally spent every shilling we had, and we had to convert some English pounds Chau had in her wallet to shillings to be allowed to leave. We flew back to Kilimanjaro, had another night sleeping on benches at the airport, and flew back to Ghana the next morning.
I have so many beautiful memories from our many adventures in Tanzania, I didn’t want it to end. It was a fantastic trip spent with fantastic people, and even though I’m completely broke now, it was absolutely worth every penny.