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.
The clouds dissipated and opened up to the clear blue dry sky and finally revealed the challenge before us as we drove to the Machame Gate and start of the trek.
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.
After traveling by bus for approximately an hour we finally reached the gate. It was here that we first had to register and wait for the porters to be selected and our gear to be distributed. The gate area was a bustling place with a couple hundred trekkers waiting within to begin their ascent. 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 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. Since I don’t function very well in the heat, the day was not expected to be 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.
Around 1.30p , we stopped for lunch off trail. 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.
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.
We arrived around 4.30p and 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.
After a quick wash we all gathered in the mess tent for a hot drink (tea, coffee, or hot chocolate) and popcorn snack. 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. 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.