Kilimanjaro diary - day three
This was the most amazing day of the expedition apart from the final ascent...
I woke in the middle of the night. It was absolutely freezing, but I had to crawl out of my sleeping bag for a pee. As I was aiming at a nearby bush I could see my blurred shadow against the bush and thought that's funny, I didn't see the moon. I turned round and realised my shadow was being cast by the vast arc of the Milky Way as it turned overhead - in August on the Equator the galactic centre in Sagittarius is almost overhead. I'd never been in starlight strong enough to cast a shadow before...
In the morning it was even colder, absolutely bitter, and we threw our clothes on and shivered gratefully round tin bugs of tea provided by the imperturbable Benson.
As you can see, despite being cold, there was a beautiful spring-like light around, and walking would be a pleasure, right?
Wrong. That's the view behind. The view ahead was more like thisê:
Directly above the campsite the trail disappeared into freezing mist, through which we trudged all morning up an endless ridge strewn with huge black boulders. These, Isaac told us, had been thrown out by Kibo during its last big eruption 100,000 years ago.
This was the kind of walking I'd feared: trudge, trudge, pant, pant, stopping for rests because you couldn't breathe and starting again because you were freezing, gradually further and further up into colder and thinner air, all the while the evil mist swirling past. The volcanic desolation around seemed appropriate: I felt we were like Frodo, Sam and Gollum stumbling through Mordor.
I was just tired and pissed off, but poor Mark was starting to suffer seriously from the altitude. He had turned quite green and started throwing up, and was taking rests more and more frequently. Isaac and Fred started looking at their watches. We broke for lunch (none of us wanting to eat a thing) on a high,windy col. Would we like to take a shortcut? They asked. The scheduled route ran up to Lava Tower Camp, situated directly under the cliffs of Kibo, but if we were feeling too tired we could take a shorter path, and it would all be downhill from then on.
Mark wanted to miss out Lava Tower, but I, liking the sound of it, did a mild paddy - and in the end got my way, feeling rather guilty. In the end it was the right decision. We walked a little further and suddenly the mists parted...to reveal the sheer western face of Kibo, previously seemingly unreachable, towering in front of us, its sides hung with frozen waterfalls of ice. The black lump in the picture is Lava Tower, a volcanic plug from a more recent eruption. there was a camp underneath it where the truly intrepid stopped for the night before climbing up the Western Breach, a near-vertical scramble that could take you to the summit on your third day if you were fit and acclimatised to altitude.
Mark perked up immediately but didn't want his photo taken so I took a pic of our guide Fred against the frozen skyline.
After a short teabreak we took a path that slanted sharply downhill. Lava Tower, at 16,000 feet plus, would be the highest we'd be till our final ascent. As we went down the air immediately started getting warmer and thicker. Suddenly we went over an escarpment and found ourselves walking down through an alien garden.
I'd heard of them before: these were çgiant Senecios, relatives of the common groundsel, a weed from English waste ground. The Sci-Fi trees were interspersed with the Dalek-likeè humps of giant Lobelias, a relative of another English garden plant. Tiny metallic-blue birds skittered over the lobelais: these were sunbirds, the nearest African equivalent to humming birds, feeding off their nectar.
We wandered down through this extraordinary botanic garden till we came to a flat-floored valley overlooked by a vast, beetling cliff. We could hear the sound of a rushing stream, echoing against the rock walls. It was the kind of place where you talked in whispers. This was the Great Barranco, a huge gash in the southern side of Kilimanjaro, where we were to have our third night's camp: and there they were, our little yellow pilbox tents minute in the vast landscape.
We gratefully emptied our bottles of stale, iodine-flavoured water and filled them with clear glacier-melt. I had my photo taken next to a Senecio (big weed and little weed). We could see our next day's path struggling apparently vertically up the opposite cliff face, But now was time for rest and relaxation in a magical echoing landscape, and we slept.