Day 1 – Kilimanjaro: Machame Gate to Machame Camp
For the first couple of days I couldn’t even tell I was so close to such a behemoth mass. The cloud cover had obscured any aerial or ground view of the mountain, which was probably just as well since I didn’t have time to crap myself thinking “Oh shit! I’m climbing that?!?”
That is until the actual first day of our climb.
Catching a first glimpse of Kilimanjaro in person is a bit surreal. I’ve seen many pictures of it but none of them can fully capture the incredible aura and presence that emanates from its being. It commands you to look and be humbled, but there is also a peaceful serenity that invites you to it. From afar it is a mystery, yet we were soon to get to know it up close and personal.
There were 12 trekkers in our group with a nice diversity about us. 2 were a couple from Canada who also ran marathons. There was a father and daughter from Canada on another adventure after climbing Machu Picchu together, a single guy from Philly, a single chap from Ireland who works in a pub, a singe woman from England who works in corporate law, a single woman from New Zealand who manages a fitness gym, an ex-US military guy, an American woman based in South Africa working on local development projects, myself, and my hiking/travel buddy Andy. There was also a good range in age with half of the group between 25-30 years old and the rest between 40-60 years.
The gate area was a bustling place. Inside, there seemed to be close to a couple hundred trekkers waiting to begin their ascent just like us. Outside, several porters lined up vying to be selected for work. We had already met our chief guide and 3 assistant guides, but still needed to gather our cook and around 2 porters per person to carry our bags, tents, and food. The items also had to be fairly distributed as the regulations limit porters to carrying a maximum of 20kg (44lbs).
At around 11am our Chief Guide (Dickson) announced that we were ready and we set off. I admit that I was a little nervous to begin, not knowing what was before me. I also wasn’t at all chuffed that the very first part was straight up hill in approximately 26o C (80o F) heat. For I am a Pitta. Many may think that I am a pain in the ass (p.i.t.a), but what I am referring to is my body type. According to Ayurveda being a Pitta body type means (among other things) that I am very warm and emanate a lot of heat (which earned me the nickname ‘charcoal’). This also means that I don’t function very well in the heat. So today did not bode well for being particularly easy on me.
The other thing that worried me was my breathing. I am asthmatic and although I have a slow acting inhaler that I dose with every 12 hours, my lungs have never been particularly strong. Much of my nervousness stemmed from how well I would be able to breathe at higher altitude and keep pace with the group. So I was glad when I heard that the phrase of the week was “pole pole”, which in Swahili means slowly slowly.
After the initial hill out of the gate, we entered the rainforest and things leveled off for a while. So I stayed in the middle of the pack and kept pace with the rest. I was enjoying the nice flat packed trail (compared to the rocky terrain I had been hiking back home) and was also enjoying the beauty of the forest – so green and lush with twisting moss covered trees. I later learned that the locals refer to these trees as ‘grandfather’ trees, since the hanging moss looks a bit like a soft wispy beard. The birds were also very active and noisy with their songs, but the monkeys eluded me, much to my disappointment. Even though I had a good slathering of sunscreen on I was also grateful to be in the shade as any amount of reduction in the heat was more than welcome.
I remained very conscientious to drink water regularly, both due to the heat and as a recommendation to help with acclimatization. All in all the start was going well, but after a couple of hours I was starving. It was now around 1.30p and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast at 7a. So our lunch break could not have come too soon and was right on queue. As expected, we lunched off trail on whatever available seating we could find. A lunch box was provided for us each day and usually consisted of a vegetable samosa, fried chicken leg, 1/2 carrot and butter sandwich, (super) hard boiled egg, tropical fruit drink, and cookies. I couldn’t have been happier in that moment, eating and relaxing in the exotic outdoors.
Also as expected there was no long drop in the vacinity, but there was a well worn trail leading further into the forest pointing the way to the natural loo. Several in our group needed a bio break and apparently so did many others judging by looks of things. Elmer made his debut and performed like a star, but although I carefully navigated the terrain I apparently wasn’t careful enough and brought back a souvenir on my boot. From that point on I NEVER stopped for another bio break until we reached camp.
The next few hours of the trek were tiring. I made my first mistake of scoffing down everything in the lunch box at once, which made me heavier and more tired than usual and my stomach a little upset. I also made the second mistake of still trying to keep pace with the rest. The pace was actually being set by a lead guide at the front (whereas another couple of guides stayed at the back to keep a check on any stragglers). Apparently my ideal level of pole was slightly slower than the rest of the group but I just didn’t know it yet, and as with every mountain, the level terrain never lasts long and we had 1490 m (4888 ft) to climb today. So between the steep trail, heat, faster pace, and heavy lunch I was ready to roll into camp.
Again, camp could not have come too soon and the timing was right on queue. It must have been around 4.30p when we strolled into Machame Camp and I was looking forward to my bowl of warm water to wash with. Although I was able to cope with the heat, I was now covered in several layers of sweat and dust. Even my hat and headband were drenched (and unusable for the rest of the trip!). But first we had to sign in and register at camp (as we would have to do at every camp) and get our designated tents. Since there were no other single females in the group to share with, I was fortunate to have a tent to myself.
Since the weather was still fair and the sun still shining I was able to have a proper sponge bath to refresh myself. Afterwards, and what would become the usual routine, we all gathered in the mess tent for a hot drink (tea, coffee, or hot chocolate) and popcorn snack. I used the time in between and waiting for supper to organize my tent and to check out the bathroom situation. I saw a few people coming back from the nearest long drop with sour faces and new immediately it was not a desirable option, and was very pleased to discover that our outfitter’s were transporting a ‘private loo’ for our group which consisted of a bucket retro-fit with seat and cover and a tall narrow tent covering for privacy. I was elated! I no longer need fear the dreaded long drop and all the potential mess and misery that might accompany it!
Yet I would soon discover that the private loo was not any better than the long drop and possibly even worse since some poor porter had to clean it out and transport it from camp to camp each day.
Supper that evening (and every evening) was amazing. Typically we would begin with a soup (usually cucumber or vegetable) with a main course of either rice or pasta with a meat sauce, chapatis, and fruit for dessert. After supper our guide, Remi, would take measurements of our heart rate and oxygen levels to make sure we were coping alright. Although my oxygen level was good 91 (should be no lower than 90 at our altitude), my heart rate was way high at 105 at resting. I knew that my resting heart rate was normally a bit high but this seemed a little ridiculous to me, especially when most others were in the 70′s. I didn’t feel my heart pounding, but this could explain why I occasionally feel palpitations and have difficulty breathing and getting overheated. I may have been concerned but Remi was not and put it down to everyone being a little different. So I guess if they don’t think I should worry… I won’t.
Next, Dickson came in to review our stats and prepare us for the trek the next day. This included the expected hiking time, elevation gain, and suggestions for what to wear with the changing eco-zone and temperatures.
By 9p we were all beat and ready for bed. As I tucked myself into my sleeping bag and finished a bit of journaling I discovered an unwanted visitor crawling beside me along the tent wall. There was no chance of me sleeping w/ a spider so I took the nearest available tool (my journal) and tried to smash it. It immediately fell into a crumbled heap on the floor, so I felt more relaxed and began putting things away to get ready to sleep. When I turned around, the spider was gone! Apparently it was only faking death in a sneaky scam to escape. But it was not stealthy enough and I caught a glimpse of it scampering across the main floor, picked up my water bottle, and this time made sure it was not able to fake it.
Ordinarily I might have felt bad for killing a spider. But in this case… on the mountain… I just needed some comfort and some sleep.