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Kilimanjaro diary

Day one  Day two  Day three  Day four  Day five  Day Six  Day seven

 Everyone knows what it looks like; it's one of the world's iconic places, like the Taj Mahal or Macchu Picchu. It's the tallest mountain in the world you can walk up without rock climbing or special equipment. Thanks to global warming, those famous snows will only be around for a few more decades.

And back in 1996, when I was very sick with AIDS I made a list of things I wanted to do if I survived. Climbing Kilmanjaro was one of them. So when my friend Roger had a drink with me on Christmas Eve 2002 and said he and Mark were thinking of climbing it the following summer, I knew I had to go too. Nothing would have stopped me.

* * *

Actually you rarely see that view. There's normally permanent cloud cover at 10,000 feet. The postcard views are taken from the northern, Kenya side, which is drier, during the short dry season (January-February).

So when we landed at the grandly-named Kilimajaro International Airport the first thing we asked was: "Where's the mountain?" Our driver pointed to what looked like a low range of forested hills disappearing into the clouds. "Up there," he said.

Only later, as we were driving to the hotel, did I look up and see that one white cloud, at an angle of about 45 in the sky, wasn't moving. I realised I was seeing a glacier through a gap in the clouds and, not for the last time, felt pretty daunted.

Day one

So here's me, the fat one in the silly hat, at the National Park gate the following morning. The others are Mark (right), Roger (behind me) and a New Zealander called Colin we'd met at the hotel the previous night and who seemed to spend his leisure time tramping all over the world's most arduous terrain - his favourite holiday destination was Antarctica.

We're standing here waiting while our two guides, Isaac and Fred, organised the porters and engaged a temporary one from the hordes hanging around the gate looking for work. You're supposed to have a guide and three porters per person; the porters basically hump a mobile campsite ahead of you and set it up in time for you to be there. It all felt very colonial.

  So here's the porters walking ahead of us through the lush rain forest. Our head guide Isaac had to stay behind to get all the equipment together and we were palmed off with this poor lad called Gilbert, who was the temporary one. He struggled along with a pack about the same size as him on his head.

You start off walking through what looks like a Surrey woodland but it soon turns into this; lush tropical forest full of magnificent tree-ferns and huge forest giants covered in moss. There are also lots of flowers; Victorian horticulturalists used Kilimanjaro as a collecting place and you'll see things familiar from suburban gardens growing wild, like red-hot pokers.

The trail gets steeper and muddier. We were lucky; it hadn't rained for a week so the going was relatively easy. Sometimes, apparently, it resembles a mud slide.

 We stopped for lunch in a clearing full of butterflies and Isaac caught up with us. That's him on the right. Fred you'll meet later.

I was hugely impressed with the guides. It's a highly sought-after and skilled job, they have to pass exams and do medical training - you never know when you might have to have the air ambulance called. They were both coffee farmers. They can't make a living farming, because Starbucks rip them off, and so they spend one week a month in the dry season escorting tourists to the summit. 

They were engagingly different characters. Isaac was short and brusque, like a Kiplingesque sergeant-major, and ruled the porters with a rod of iron; Fred was tall, laid-back and gorgeous and ambled around with a faint smile on his face, but was brilliant at pacing us and making sure we didn't get tired.

By the time we got to the 8,000-feet level we were walking through the cloud layer; everything was wrapped in a cold, clinging mist, and every inch of treebark was covered in moss and orchids. After this the sunshine came out and the forest gradually became drier. We ended up climbing step after step up the crest of a steep, narrow ridge, with breathtaking views into ravines on either side.

The rain forest gradually changed to dry forest dominated by 30-foot tall trees of giant heather (right). Then, about 5.30, the ground suddenly levelled off and we found ourselves on a small plateau with wide views westward to the oldest and lowest of Kilimanjaro's three volcanic summits, the Shira Ridge, which you can see in the background of these photos.

The campsites lower down on the mountain are well--organised and tidy (not so further up) and almost disconcertingly reminiscent of camping holidays as a kid. Mark and I wandered around in the spectacular evening light (we were just above the top of the main cloud layer, and pennants of mist kept rising up and turning gold in the evening sun).

There's Mark with his camera. The temperature was still quite bearable and we walked up the hill a bit for our acclimatisation walk - to avoid altitude sickness, you should 'walk high and sleep low', i.e. aim to walk up to a point a couple of hundred metres above where you sleep.

We were at about 10,000 feet here and I could just feel the first faint stirrings of altitude - a bounding pulse, slight breathlessness and a strange feeling in your head as if there's too much pressure inside and your brain might explode!

At this point Kilimanjaro performed its most spectacular trick - the nightly unveiling of Kibo. Kibo is the main summit - the one you actually think of as 'Kilimanjaro', but it's actually a 5,000-foot volcanic peak sitting on top of a much larger 14,000-foot mountain. On most days it's veiled with high cloud during the day but at dawn and at dusk the clouds clear and you can see it shining in the low sun. This first time it was totally unexpected - the clouds cleared and suddenly we were looking at this snow-capped, craggy mountain, seemingly impossibly high up and far away from us. How the fuck were we going to get up there, I thought.

Go to day two

 

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