Monday, January 30, 2012

Are you Local?

So, I seem to be getting into the swing of Arusha now. I think, for me, I tend to feel a little nervous in these crazy places until I have been somewhere long enough to become more familiar with my immediate area, then I can move around and feel a little more relaxed. Having wandered into the markets and come out again unscathed, and having walked up to the bus station and back and gone and done some shopping etc, I am now definitely not so nervous about my surroundings, and starting to enjoy them. Shame I'm leaving tomorrow - I'll have to go through it all again at the next place! But it has been something of reminder to me that this is the process I have to go through. Some people don't need that - they just slot right in from the word go, but for me, it takes a few days before I feel comfortable. It has certainly helped making a few new friends who live locally and showed me around and took me out to a few bars etc. I think I am looking forward more than ever to getting to Zanzibar, where I will be staying for at least a week, which will be plenty of time to settle in once again. But that is jumping the gun a bit, as I haven't left Arusha yet!

Speaking of which, yesterday I went on a local cultural tour up to a village called Ilkiding'a. It was only about 7km out of town, heading up on to the foot hills of Mt Meru, but it really seemed like the city was left miles behind.

I'd been interested in going on one of the cultural village tours since before I arrived in TZ, and while I maybe had in mind something even more traditional (maybe staying in mud hut, going on a hike with a Maasai guide etc), what I got was very enjoyable and pretty interesting too - just not quite as traditional as I'd hoped.

My guide, Salim, was in fact a Maasai, but was one of the 'modern' Maasai, so wore western clothes. His village was pretty large -about 21,000 people - and was split into 6 smaller sub-villages, which they were trying to split further so they could encourage slightly smaller, more intimate communities within the larger village.

A very slow, bumpy drive took me up to the start point, the house of the man who had set up this particular cultural tour, Eliakimu. He explained a bit about traditional Maasai life (for example the men can marry as many wives as they can afford, but have to build each their own house and one for himself, so it gets a bit expensive. There is a man on the way to Lake Manyara, for example, with something like 30 wives, 84 children and 300 odd grandchildren!) and how it has changed (the adoption of Christianity and the understanding that lots of wives is too expensive, resulting in most modern Maasai only marrying once). One of the reason there are so many orphans over here is that if a man with many wives/kids dies, the kids are effectively orphaned, as the mother's struggle to support the family. Many of the locals still live in traditional mud bomas with roofs made of leaves although, as soon as they can afford it, they are building more modern brick houses with sheet metal roofs. If the money runs out, the building stops, so there are many partially finished houses about the place.

There is still the belief among some of the older people that photos steal part of your soul, so many locals don't like to be photographed, although this attitude is changing slowly as the number of visiting tourists increases, and as those who do allow photos seem to stay healthy! I was impressed that Eliakimu discouraged us from offering money for photos, as he said it taught the wrong attitude to both adults and children alike. All the money paid for the tours was handed to a treasurer and used to fund the primary and secondary schools that served the village.

Although I was once again on my own, another group was also doing the tour, so we combined forces and walked out through the fields between the crops. Maasai were originally nomadic cattle drivers, but the village of Ilkiding'a came into being about 200 years ago when a tribe was encouraged to build more permanent houses, clear some forest and start farming. Now they grow all sorts of things from rice, to potatoes, to maize, to coffee and much more. They keep what they need for themselves and the rest goes down the road to be sold in markets. There is also a women's group who make traditional Maasai necklaces and bracelets, carvings and other niknaks for the markets - not all of which is bought by tourists, as the Maasai do genuinely wear the items themselves.

We passed a huge fig tree, which was the traditional place of worship for the Maasi before Christianity introduced churches. When times are tough livestock would be sacrificed under the tree to encourage rain or good harvests. It was unclear if this still happened, but I got the feeling that it might well do.

As we walked the paths through the fields and crops, the local kids would come and watch, calling out greetings in English that they'd learned in shcool. They were pretty shy, but their curiosity often got the better of them, and they follow along at a safe distance for a while, before passing the baton on to the kids from the next boma. If we stopped, some might run away, giggling and screaming, others would cautiously come over and smile shyly. The rest of my group were French, and we'd try our rudimentary Swahili on the kids, and they their equally rudimentary English on us. This generally got shy smiles too (from the tourists this time!), but as soon as the cameras were brought up, they'd run away. Occasionally one would be brave enough to pose for a shot, and then the others would be falling over themselves to see the picture on the tiny screen on the back of the camera. I resorted to sneakily shooting from the hip, resulting in one of my favourite shots of the trip, but also a lot of blurry grass and headless children. The guide said a lot of their nervousness was because they didn't often see - and certainly not interact with - white people, but I guess with the increase of these tours, that will soon change.

Eventually we got to a boma where we were to stop and be invited inside, and where the family were used to tourists and cameras, allowing us to get lots of pictures of the cheeky, giggling children. The round bomas have a kind of square middle section separated off by make-shift walls. The middle section is where the cooking is done, and behind the walls is where the family would sleep or house the livestock, which lived in the same house as the family. Traditionally the women folk do just about everything, from gathering wood, fetching water, grazing cattle, preparing food, sewing and harvesting crops, getting kids ready for school, you name it, they probably did it. The man of the house apparently does very little, although in some of the more modern families - our guides, for example - they will either help with these chores or go out and earn money too. I was impressed that the mother scolded her kids for trying to beg snacks or gifts from us.

Eventually we got back to the starting place, where I was served a delicious lunch of typical local food - a chickpea and kidney bean mash, boiled spinach-like greens, rice and a kind of curried potato stew, all washed down with peppermint tea. It was very filling and very tasty.

So, not quite the back to basics traditional visit I'd imagined having, but a thoroughly interesting one nonetheless. I will be looking out for others as I go, I think.

The evening saw me being adopted by the ex-pat crew again, and being taken to a fantastic Indian restaurant called Big Bites, that specialised in Tandoori and Punjabi food. It was so good, and the company was entertaining too. I think, when I move on tomorrow, I will miss Arusha, and the friends I was beginning to make. Still, there is a good chance many of them will pass through NZ at some point in the future, so we may yet meet again, and I will be able to return the hospitality. For now, though, I will get on with some packing for tomorrow's 10 hour bus trip, followed by lounging in the bar enjoying cold beer. Life's good.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

And now, the six o'clock Gnus....

I was excited about today - I was going into the Ngorongoro Crater, aka The Cradle of Life. This is the place where they found fossil evidence of the earliest ancestors of modern Homo Sapiens, where permanent populations of all manner of endangered wildlife live thanks to the reliable water/food supplies found here. It is the crater left by a collapsed extinct volcano, and is about 19km across and almost circular, giving an approximate floor area of about 400km sq. There is a lake or two in the bottom, and rivers, woodland and grass plains. At this time of year, not long after the rainy season, it is as lush and green as the Lake Manyara Nat Park was, though not quite as lush as Tarangire Nat Park would prove to be tomorrow.

Our first stop was at a look-out point on the crater rim, affording a spectacular view across the whole crater. From 600m up, it was hard to make out any wildlfe per se, although on the lake in the distance there was a definite pink sheen suggesting lots of flamingoes, if nothing else. We followed the rim around to the track that led down to the crater floor, from where the standard operating procedure is to just follow the tracks wherever you please and try and spot wildlife. The various tour groups kept in touch with CB radio, so if one vehicle found something special, it was not long before every other vehicle homed in on their location.

As soon as we got to the floor we were in amongst the zebra and wildebeest, and they kept us company petty much wherever we went all day. There were thousnds of them, totally used to vehicles passing by, and they had right of way when crossing roads too (well, they are zebras crossing, what did you expect?). Once again, the camera was firing off, and once again, as with the elephants at Lake Manyara, I reached saturation point for shots of zebras from the side pretty quickly. One skill they perhaps ought to teach the guides is how to park for best photo ops. Jackson was of the school of thought that a good picture would be taken parked right alongside the animal, so even when I asked him to stop so I had an interesting perspective, he'd eventually pull over as close as possible to the beast, and my angle would be lost. In the end, I tried to limit my self to interesting backgrounds or spot a group fighting/dust bathing/acting up in some way to keep the shots vaguely original. There were lots of buffalo too, and a surprising number of fairly active (they were always wandering about, anyway) hyenas, as well as many storks and cranes. We saw Marabou storks (not to be confused with Malibu storks, that live in expensive coastal houses and drink coconut flavoured liquers), crowned cranes, white and Abdim's storks, as well as various buzzards and eagles, most of which were not easy to identify accurately. The lake, as I'd guessed, was fairly densly populated with flamingoes, but sadly, as I was not part of a TV documentary crew, I was not able to get as close to them as I'd have liked. They made a good back drop though.

We followed the radio messages to a group of 3 female lions, who were more interested in finding some shade under the various safari vehicles than behaving like lions. It was cool, however, being close enough to have been able to open the door and pet one of them, if I'd had a deathwish. The lion's highlighted the commercial nature of the safari business to me. Within minutes of us arriving (maybe 5th on the scene), there were 16 vehicles surrounding the cats, and more heading our way. The lions were very tolerant of us, using, as I've said, the cars for shade, although the occupants of the car they sat under couldn't see the cats, so the driver would carefully move a bit away, forcing the cats to move to find a different car, and so on. They got fed up in the end and went off to some trees to shelter in peace, and the plethora of vehicles dispersed to torment the next unfortunate star of the park. While this harassment of the animals was inevitable and bothered me to some extent, I guess it is inevitable. I was chatting to another visitor to the park who hated it, felt it was making the Crater into little more than a zoo, and would inevitably lead to even greater commercialisation. I agree to some extent, but also feel that maybe the attention given to the crater draws attention away from other areas, leaving them freer of tourists and maybe having this wealth of wildlife pretty much on tap ensures the continued existence of the park and safety of the animals - it is a hell of a golden goose, after all. We both agreed that some kind of more effective regulation of the vehicle numbers would be an improvement - maybe limiting the number in the park at a time, or how long they are allowed to stay, perhaps, but this would be where the golden goose has shot itself in the foot - I suspect the powers that be see little more than dollar signs where the tourists are seeing wildlife. The other issue with Ngorongoro is that, because of the crater, it has a very enclosed feel - probably because it is very enclosed (all 400km sq of it) - while places like the Serengeti and Tarangire are far larger and have no obvious boundaries, so the vehicles stay further away from each other, and there is less of a zoo-like feel to them.

During the course of the day we also encoutered a couple of black rhino, a bunch of elephants, some hippos and a cheetah, just about discernable in the photos, but not being very active. We spent a good 6 hours driving in circles, and it was, all things considered, pretty amazing. I'd grown up watching Sir David on the BBC wildlife docos, and to actually be visiting the kinds of places in which he filmed was a childhood dream come true.

Tarangire National Park, the next day, was a bit of a let down after the crater. There was so much tall grass and so many dense bushes that spottng anything smaller than an elephant was near impossible - and there were no shortages of elephants! I was definitely suffering from Dumbo Fatigue by midday. The park is also famous for its giant Baobob trees, which were truly huge, and often pretty shabby thanks to the roughing up they get from elepahnts in the dry season. There was precious little of anything else for most of the day, apart from a small pride of lions, including a big, maned male, which was nice to see. Try as we might, though, we couldn't find a leopard, no matter how closely we scrutinised the branches of the trees we passed. There were no zebra or wildebeest, very few impalas, and only a couple of bush bucks, and that was about it. There were many, many birds of all sizes, flashing through the trees and across the road like so many feathered jewels, but I had by now pretty much given up trying to identify any of them. They were gone so fast, and if you found a possible page in the book that might include the one you think you just saw, there would be half a dozen others on the page that it could also have been! Very frustrating for me, I have to say.

I have to say that the safari experience was, overall, an excellent one, and I am so glad to have done it. What concerns me about it, and about the Kili treks too, however, is how much income these attractions generate, and how little seems to make it to where it is needed. For example, each safari vehicle pays US$200 to get into the park, plus an extra US$50 per tourist. Using very conservative numbers, this could easily equate, for Ngorongoro alone, to around US$14,000 per day, US$98,000 a week, US$392,000 a month, US$4,000,000 a year. There are many parks, the trails up Kili generate far more (perhaps US$24,000,000 a year for the Machame track alone (which I did), and there are about 5 routes up the mountain). This is a vast amount of money, but most of it seems to get lost in the beaurocracy and red tape that is put in place by the goverment. It is a shame that, while TZ has so much potential for generating income to help improve the infrastructure or education or medical care, corruption seems to get in the way of any of this actually happening. It is the same with the wealth of mining industries that TZ has as well. I guess it's not just TZ that has this problem - and maybe TZ is better off than a lot of African countries, as there is no war here - it is a problem that afflicts many South American countries too. It seems to be the nature of governments in a lot of developing countries to feather their own nests while they are in power, at the expense of the needs of the population. I have no idea what the solution is, but I am glad I am more aware of the problem now, at least. Wow, that bordered on the deep and meaningful for a minute there.

The last couple of days I've been tentatively making myself familiar with Arusha. It's my first time in a bustling town by myelf, so I'm sorry to say I'm slightly nervous about wandering about amongst the locals, especially in a town that is a tourist trap for starters. I can't help feeling that, however hard I try to look like I know what I'm doing and where I'm going, I may as well be stepping out with a large sandwich board sign with the message: "Fresh tourist, ripe for the picking!" I girded my lions this morning and went for a wander in the busy central market and the old colonial part of town too. I think the heat created enough of a disguise that my nervous sweating could be atributed to the ambient temerature, but I'm not sure. To my credit, a couple of times local folk struck up a converstaion with me as I walked (this is quite common and genuinely friendly), and I didn't scream and run off, I actually chatted back. Must be getting into the swing of it at last. Still not totally comfortable though. I think it is the language barrier mostly - it would be nice to be able to do more than just greet people in Swahili. If I come back here, I think I'll have more time to learn it.

Last night I met up with a friend of Kara's who works up here, and got taken to a couple of bars used mostly by ex-pats. I may have scored an invite to a birthday thing tonight as well, so that will be good. It's nice to be getting out and being a bit more sociable at last. Tomorrow I'm going to a Maasai village, so will get a taste of "real culture", or at least what passes for that for the tourists. Incidentally, I've already dropped the kids clothes I brought along into a tiny orphanage we passed on the way back from the safari. I gave them to a woman who had 6 orphans along with her own 4 or 5 kids, and not much else. I figured a tiny place like that might find the clothes more useful than a bigger place. Thanks to the Ruckus whanau who contributed the clothes :-)

And, on that note, I'll sign off for a bit. It's been a mammoth effort to catch everything up, and if you've kept up with the reading, it's been a mammoth effort from you too, so go get yourself a well earned drink. More next week, I dare say.

A Tiger? In Africa?

So, where was I? About to set off on Safari, I believe. The evening before, I'd had a chat with the MEM Tours rep, Jackson, about what to expect, and deilcately asked advice with regard to how much to tip a safari driver/guide. At this stage, he said he thought the guide would be one of his colleagues, and he suggested US$25 a day. I wasn't sure if this was fair or not, but it didn't see excessive. However, when Jackson showed up in the morning and announced he'd be my driver/guide, I wondered if he'd been totally objective in his suggestion. I think maybe he already knew he would be in the driving seat and set himself up for a generous tip. Still, I didn't have to pay what he said, and could wait and see how it all went and make a decision at the end.

We set off for Arusha by 9am and the trip along what has a reputation of being one of the most dangerous roads in Tanzania went very smoothly. The lunatic overtaking was once again in evidence, but Jackson kept to a very sedate and sensible 80km/h in his huge, twin fuel tank, 7 seater Toyota Landcruiser, complete with fridge and a pop top for all your wild animal viewing needs. Along the road side were the by now familiar village scenes of local folk hawking foreign tat, as well as fruit and veg, some of which was in its prime, some which was well over due. Between the villages were large empty tracts of land, some of which was cultivated in a more professional looking manner than what I'd seen between Dar and Moshi, and some of which was used for grazing. Herds of goats (usually tended by children) and cows (usually tended by adults), all interspersed with donkeys (and even, in one area, camels - the Maasai's new livestock of chioce), seemed to wander pretty much where they liked to find grass. Both children and adults were, more often than not, Maasai people, dressed in traditional Maasai robes, carrying a stick/spear/knife to chivy their wards along. It was slightly incongruous actually, passing through the villages - and even, it turned out, the towns - and seeing locals wearing 'regular' western clothing mixing with Maasai wearing their traditional garb of a wrap-around-the-waist-and-over-one-shoulder robe with extra shawl type robe on top, complete with six foot long stick - probably traditionally this would have been a spear -looking as though they had just arrived from some remote boma (family settlement). It was only when I saw them take out a cell phone, for example, that it became clear that, although their clothing was traditional, many of the Maasai had adapted quite well to modern living. Jackson told me that in the more remote areas, there was still a lot of resistance to modern styles, and these remote Maasai frowned on their city living cousins.

Amusingly, from time to time, we passed traffic police. What I found so funny was that here, in a country where just standing in one place and doing nothing all day can leave you coated in a layer of dust and grime, they choose to give their traffic police a uniform of sparkling white. It seemed to me that no matter what time of day it was, they were immaculately, spotlessly dressed. They clearly took pride in their uniform, but I have no idea how they avoided the dirt that seemed to gravitate to me the moment I stepped outside - and them working by a busy dusty road all day to boot! It was much the same for the school kids that we passed along the road, lots of whom waved excitedly as the tourist passing by in his chauffer driven cruiser. All of them were beautifully turned out in their school uniforms, somehow keeping clean, while those children not dressed for school were definitely struggling to avoid the dirt as much as I was!

The other sight that became all to familiar was that of dangerously overloaded trucks/cars/ motorbikes/bicycles/wheel barrows/heads, all interweaving across the footpaths and roads, almost indescriminately. It was a masterclass in the physics of balance, and a lesson in the correct use of the car horn. In most western countries with road rules and highway codes, the "audible warning" has been highjacked as a form of wordless abuse, employed to let someone know that you think they're a git and a useless driver. In TZ (and most of South America too, in fact) it is still used to alert people to your presence in a friendly way, with no animosity attached. With so little apparent order on the streets, there áre surprisingly few fender benders thanks to correct hornage and people being alert to anything, rather than switching off their attention and relying on the "rules" to keep them safe.

We made it to the lodge at which I'd be staying by around 1pm. I was fairly sure I'd booked a basic, camping safari, but even though there were tents in the grounds, I was shown to a small room with an ensuite, which was a nice surprise. I suspect that, as the 3 others who were supposed to be on my trip had cancelled and paid, I got a free upgrade. I didn't enquire too closely, I just accepted it gratefully. A quick check-in later, and we were straight off to our first destination - Lake Manyara National Park. This was a place I'd not really heard of before, but within minutes of passing through the gates we had encountered a troupe of baboons criss-crossing the road at will, and a family of elephants trashing some acacia trees and enjoying a mid-afternoon wallow, also right by the road. I could almost have reached out and touched some of them as they walked past the vehicle. It was an eerie experience - half a dozen of some of the largest land mammals on the planet and it was as though I was in a sound proofed room. I could hear birds and vehicle engines (before they were shut off) but the elephants themselves were almost silent - perhaps the rustle of a tree branch or clump of grass as it was torn from its natural home and shoved down an impressively large throat, sometimes a barely detectable sub-sonic rumble that sounded like it came from the depths of the earth, but when they moved from place to place, barely a whisper. Spooky.

I'm sorry to say that, suprisingly quickly, I got a little blasee about the elephants. There are only so many photos you can take of an elephant from the side or the front before they all look the same, after all, so while it was very calming to watch them - and I could have happily stopped and watched each family we passed for ages - there were so many of them that it became unnecessry to stop for them all, unless they seemed to be doing something unusual and photo-worthy. It was far more interesting for me to see the far fewer zebra, wildebeest hippos, giraffe and even a lioness and 2 cubs sleeping on a branch of a tree. There was a lot of bird life, too, but my self proclaimed "expert" guide struggled to identify many of them. Fair dos, even with a half good photo and a bird book I didn't have much more luck, but then I never claimed to know what I was on about (not in Africa, anyway). Even the more brightly coloured (and therefore more memorable, maybe?) ones were a challenge to him, and when he named a blatent black kite as an eagle, I began to have serious doubts. He certainly knew some, but I suspect his guiding skills were more focused on the animals rather than the birds. Which is fair enough I guess.

I enjoyed our route through the park from the back of the landcruiser, standing up and holding on and peering out of the pop top. It provided both shade from the sun and a nice breeze, but also left me exposed to the dust that blew in - a particularly bad problem when Jackson was following other vehicles, which he tended to do up close. There was an element of everyone going to the same palces as that is where animals had been sighted, so perhaps there was not always a choice, but I felt he could have hung back a bit or driven on the less dusty, up wind side of the road. I stuck it out though, as the view was far better from up there.

After a very enjoyable afternoon where I saw most of the animals I'd hoped to see, albeit at a distance (apart from the elephants and baboons), we made it back to the lodge, where I was delighted to find a swimming pool! I'd not expected to be staying anywhere so flash, or have access to swimming while I was oop narf in TZ, so this was a fantastic surprise. Togless, I had to rely on the old faithful of swimming in my pants, but I think it was more of a thrill than a fright for the other guests. It was sheer bliss being able to submerge myself in cold clear water and rinse off the dust of the first safari. Also, I found that some of the people I'd met on Kili were also staying at the lodge, so after a brief chat we arranged to meet for a beer later. They got sidetracked with their group though, and in the end I had yet another solo evening. I went looking for them at one point, but couldn't find them. Maybe it was a hint...Ah well, I'll leave this entry hear and finish the other 2 safari days in the next entry - which might be very soon. Pip pip.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Softly Softly Catchee Mountain

Day 4: 5km, 3 hours, 3900m up to 4200 and back to 3930m. One point of interest from yesterday, by the way, was as we were coming down from the 4600m lunch spot. We (the hoards of porters and trekkers) found a woman who said she had been lost on the mountain for 7 days. She was clearly hungry and thirsty, so various people, myself included, offered water and snacks to give her a boost. She was to be shown back down the mountain by a spare porter, but that night when they stopped in a local hut, she vanished again. My waiter (did I not mention that I had a waiter? he was a porter too, and a trainee guide...) was talking about it on the last night and said she was a wizard (I think he meant witch), as she was clearly lying about having been lost for 7 days (she was not dirty enough apparently) and his theory was that she had been shot out of the air by someone (witches are, of course, bad!) It also explained why she disappeared on the way down the mountain. Abdul the porter was quite superstitious about it, and I think he believed what he was saying. He was a smart guy, a Muslim too, but obviously still held on to some traditional beliefs. Still, it gave us something unusual to talk about.

But I digress. The walking was getting interesting now, with some proper, two hands needed to climb, scaling of the path. The landscape was more barren and rugged, and took us to within just 2 hours of base camp. The 6-day trekkers would be going on to Base camp today as well, then summiting at midnight tonight, but we were keeping all that for tomorrow. At the time, I was feeling pretty good, like I could have done it in 6 days, but when it actually happened, I was glad I had gone for the extra day - it will become clear why later.

After we crossed the 4200m ridge line we had to drop down to the bottom of the Karanga Valley, then climb back out the other side. It was steep in every direction, and the stream at the bottom of the valley was the last water supply before we started the walk off the mountain. This meant that, firstly, all water for tonight would have to be fetched by some poor bugger (not me again) going back down the valley to bring up a 20l bucket of water. It also meant that tomorrow, when we had walked the 2 hours to base camp, someone (not me!) would have to walk back, go down the valley and bring water all the way back to base camp. On the up side (and its only a tiny upside), the porters could do the trail in about an hour, versus my slow 2 hours, but that's small consolation. Incidentally, I asked my guide how long it would take him to do the Machame trail if he didn't have to look after me. He said 3 days, there and back. I tried not to look too impressed.

The problem with such a short day was that once we got to camp, it was a long time until bedtime, and there was not too much to do in camp. I went a-wandering to try and find some of the more familiar faces I'd met on the way up so far, but it was that cold and windy most folks were hiding from the cold and clouds in their anonymous tents, and house calls still seemed a bit 'not on' to me. I mooched about taking some photos, making blog notes and snoozing, breaking all this up with as much food as the crew could provide. The food had been good all the way up, but by now we were off the meat and on to the vegetarian diet - for me anyway. The crew still seemed to have some increasingly smelly meat to tuck into. while the food had been generally excellent, Juma the cook did tend to be a bit heavy handed with the amount of salt he used in the cooking. I found it rather over powering, and was forced to reduce my intake to about half of what he made (this was still a lot, mind you), and he shared out what I left between the other guides. I don't think I offended anyone, and it seemed easier than complaining about the food or giving cooking advice. That wouldn't have been very British of me.

Day 5: 2 1/4 hours, 4km, 3930m up to 4600m. I had to get up in the night at about 3am for a pee. Not an old man pee, you understand (how very dare you!), a diamox induced diuretic pee, and I was glad to see the pattern of the cloud lifting and leaving a crystal clear night once again evident. It was also totally calm and still, so fingers crossed we'd get the same treatment tomorrow night.

Day broke just as still and clear, and we began another short day, this one deliberately so. The plan was to get to camp in time to have an afternoon nap, as we would be up at midnight to tackle the summit. Also, even though I was feeling good with the altitude, I was finding that if I did get out of puff, it was very hard to get it back, so the slow pace was finally paying its dues. We got to camp at about 11am, leaving plenty of time to kick back. This camp site was really a desperate affair this time, with tents being shoved in to any vaguely flat piece of ground. There were so many rocks and boulders it was very hard to find anywhere actually level, so I found myself trying to nap on an incline, which left me sliding down the roll mat into a heap at the bottom of the tent.

I considered my feet for a while - so far so good. No blisters, probably due to the slow pace - they never had a chance to rub up. This was good, because the last big push was to be 11km in the dark to the summit, then 11km back down for a breakfast, then anther 6km to a lower altitude for the last night. I hoped they would hold up for all of that.

As luck would have it, my tent was pitched near the tent of a loud American group. Now, you now how I hate to stereotype and generalise (ha!) but it's a well known fact that Americans like to talk loudly and not listen to what anyone else is saying. These ones also seemed unaware that everybody outside their tent could hear them, as the walls are only made of thin material. It was hardly my fault, then, that I was able to accidentally hear what they were saying (OK, it's a fair cop, I began to deliberately eavesdrop). The first part of the conversation was along the lines of "the wurst leg injury Ah ever had", the winner being the one whose leg was"torn to shreds" and "woodna made it outta there if I hadna had some painkillers". I missed the segue, but the next bit I heard was about "my mammy who came from Alabammy (sic)". I almost had to call out and ask the obvious - did she have a banjo, and was it on her knee? I resisted. The next part of the conversation almost proved too much for my self control, however. They got on to the topic of the poison that is Coca-Cola. Each man had some half remembered stats, and it was, for a moment, quite the stat-off! The first asked "D'you know how many T-spoons of sugar there are in a can?" His friend new it was lots, and was keen to impress. "20?" he hazarded. He'd aimed too high, and burst his friends shock bubble. "Na, it ain't that merch, its, like, 11 or sumpthin". Then we got on to acidity: "If batt'ry acid is, like, a 1 on the pH scale, and water's, like, 7, then coke is, like, 2 or sumpthin. Its pretty acid." I was so tempted to join in with my own stat: "Y'all know what I heard? I heard they use babies' souls to make the bubbles. They put the babies in a press and squeeze that soul right outta there, then they crush it up and chuck it in, and that's the fizzy bit. I dunno how many babies it takes for a can, but I do know they crush the souls right up. That's what I heard. Yup." It was tempting. Maybe it was the altitude playing tricks on my brain...Bloody rednecks.

Day 6: 29km, 4600m up to 5895m and back down to 3100m. So, midnight came, I got up and had popcorn, tea and shortbread biscuits. Breakfast snack of champions, that. We had 11km in the dark to reach the summit, then 11m back down, and a further 6km to the lower camp that night. Best get too it.

When we set off at 1.15am, we were behind most of the other groups, some of whom had set off as early as 11pm. My guide was confident in my ability and speed though, and I had to trust him. He knew I wanted to be at the top for sunrise, and I left it up to him to chose how soon we should go.

I'd not got much sleep before we left - just an hour or so in the afternoon, and not much before midnight, but felt pretty ood. Perhaps the excitement was giving me strength. I focused on my breathing to begin with, as we shuffled our way through the rocks by the light of our head torches. I found, however, that if I thought about my breathing, I soon got out of breath, but if I thought about anything else, my body breathed as much as it needed and I was fine. We plodded on, and it was gratifying to catch and pass most of the people on the way up. My competitive side was kicking in again, and every time we overtook a wheezing, puffing group, I felt a little more pleased with myself. No wussy struggling for me! I had to take a bit of care though, as the overtaking was often slightly off track and required a quick burst of speed to get by, which could easily have left me struggling for air. It was all good though.

It's strange the places your mind goes when all that your eyes have to occupy themselves is a small area of illuminated rock and sand that never seems to change, and your guides legs from the knees down - all that was visible in the cone of light cast by my headtorch. Old demons and new came to visit in turn, as did some great memories of crazy days in South America and Canada. Not all were welcome guests for what they were, but all played a part in distracting me from the monotonous trudging in the dark. The sky had once again cleared for us and was diplaying a stunning array of astral bodies but the wind had decide to howl through with a vengeance, and it was slightly unstable going from time to time, not to mention far colder than it might otherwise have been.

Finally, at 6.15am on the dot (Mahamoud knew his business and my speed, that was for sure), we reached the summit in a slow speed foot race against sun as it just began to crest the horizon. We won, just, and I had enough time to snap a few shots, including the obligatory one beside the summit sign, before the bitter, freezing cold proved too much for my camera battery, and I lost power. It was so frustrating watching the sky lighten and reveal more and more of the amazing vista that was the highest place in Africa, and not having a means to capture it other than my memory. Of course, my photos would have totally failed to do it justice, but the option would have been nice. I was blown away by the ice, glaciers, rock formations, a feeling I get all too infrequently since I overloaded on spectacular in South America. It was nice to be wowed once again. Also impressive was the way everything changed over and over as the light grew stronger, shadows shifting, colours going from purples to oranges to regular, genuine brown. Too soon, it was time to begin the descent. I think I managed 20 minutes on the top before my fingers went numb and my face began to freeze.

The way down was a wonderful surprise - instead of a slow, 11km uphill trudge, we had a crazy-fast downhill scree run! Now, I'm usually pretty sensitive to my environment and not harming it, and scree running isn't the kindest of activities to inflict on the sid of a mountain but, on this occasion, I felt like I'd earned a bit of fun. They say you go up Kili like an old man (I did, every shuffly step of it) and come down like a teenager. Well I was up for some of that. I suspect we cut some corners and shortened the actual distance covered - a few less zigs and not so many zags, perhaps, so it took just an hour to make it down and my legs were burning by the time we got there. It was tiring but heaps of fun and the lure of breakfast at the bottom was certainly encouraging our haste. Of course, one false step and I could easily have stuffed an ankle, but you try not to think of these things at the time. that would be the old man agian, and his job was done. Stand aside, and let the teenager out - if only to prove there was still a bit of that attitude left in me!

Unfortunately, when we got back to camp we found the strong winds we'd suffered on the way up had been far worse in camp, and many of the tents had been blown over, including ours - to the point of total destruction! Instead of a rest and a feed, we did a quick pack up and set off straight away to the more sheltered lower levels. With sore, aching knees and feeling the exhaustion and lack of sleep creeping up with every step, we finally made it to the calmer, warmer levels further down, and had a picnic breakfast for half an hour, before continuing down the last bit to the final camp. A long, satisfying day, and it seemed strange to look back and see Kili looming over us once again, so distant and yet, just that morning I'd been standing on the top of her.

Day 7: 2 1/2 hours, 7km, 3100m to about 1800m. The final stretch down to the bottom was to be quick, but jarring to my knees. The descent route was far more direct than the ascent, and after a night spent sleeping soundly (my tent was fine, but my porters had to do a botch job on their tent as it had been so badly broken in the winds - at least they'll get a new one for the next trip...I hope) we set off bright and early. We made it to the exit gate by 10.30am, thanks to the fairly straight forward path. It wound its way through the forest once more, some of the porters were literally running down the hill with their lightened loads, and we saw a family of Colobus monkeys as we neared the end of the trail. What a nice way to end the trek. I was back in Moshi by noon and in the shower about 5 minutes later. I had time in the afternoon to reflect on what my summit trek to the top of Kili had cost me - apart from the financial of course - and figured it was a camera lens cover, and a possible dose of Giardia (false alarm) which provided me with the temporary amusement of attempting various tunes and farmyard animal impressions. My niece would be proud of my efforts, although I only really perfected the "angry duck".

That evening, Mahamoud and Abdul joined me for a celebratory beer or two, and I was flattered when they both said how impressed they'd been with the speed I'd been able to hike the trail, especially the last summit push. I guess they could have been full of it, but as I'd already paid their tip (and it would have been a smaller tip than they'd have been hoping for or would have got if they'd had a larger party to lead) I figured they meant it. Which was nice.not sure whether to credit the altitude simulation or the half-a-diamox-twice-daily-with-food. I suspect they both played their part.

Next up is the safari trip to Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire, starting in the morning at half 8. This is all being written retrospectively though, so I know how it all ends. You'll have to tune in later to find out. Sorry this one has been a bit of a monster. Well done if you stuck with it. See you later, I guess, for the next installment.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Magnificent 7...Stroll

OK, here we go: Mount Kilimanjaro, highest peak in Africa, Day 1, 11km, 6hours, walking from the start at 1800m up to the first camp site at 3000m.

I was collected at the hotel about 20 minutes after they'd told me to be ready (African time, you see? Like Islander time in the South pacific, or South American time, only with rhythm) and taken to the tour shop to deposit all the gear I wouldn't be taking. Safe as houses, they promised me. We'll see in 7 days, I guess. We had a 40 minute or so drive to the Machame gate, start of the Machame trail up Mt Kili, where I had to sign in and wait about an hour while the porters got their loads sorted out and weighed - each porter is allowed to carry a maximum of 20kg, according to the Kili park rules, and the loads are weighed at start and end of each days hike to ensure no cheating. Because of this limit, the more luxury companies (who take things like toilet tents and porta-loos) have to use more porters. My crew consisted of a guide, a trainee guide/waiter, a cook/porter and 3 "just" porters. And me. So, the Magnificent 7 of the title, then. Still with me? Not tricky, eh?

My guide was held up at the start due to a power failure that prevented the rangers at the gate from entering important info, so my first day was to be led by the trainee guide, and he set a nice gentle pace up the hard packed, mud track through the lush forest. The mantra for the hike is "Pole Pole" (pronounced pole-ay pole-ay), which means "slowly slowly, and that is exactly how fast we went. In the end, as it was only to 3000m, I got a bit impatient (especially as my guide's English was a bit ropey and conversation a bit slow) so I went off a bit quicker and stopped now and again to rest and let him catch up. Now, I was going at a fairly easy pace, not knowing just how far we had to go or what the track ahead was going to be like, and I remembered a lesson learned a number of years ago on the Cotswold Way Relay in the UK. I was to run the 12 mile long, steep leg and was keen to get in under 2 hours, so was advised to "stick with Liz, she always comes in under 2 hours". Liz was in her late 50's I think, and I was about 30, so figured it would be easy. But she went so slowly! In the end, I went on at my own pace, only to be passed by about 2 miles from the end. She came in at about 1 hour 56 mins, I staggered over the line at about 2 hours 6mins. Shoulda stuck with Liz! Anyhow, far be it from me to tell a Kili guide how fast to walk, so I did my best not to go to much faster than he was. Just a little faster...

Camp the first night was at 3000m, lower than Cusco by quite a bit, so I wasn't bothered about altitude at this point. The camp site was actually fairly discreet, given the hoards of people arriving - there were 7 in my group for example, just to get one person up the hill. Apparently, if there'd been two of me, it would have taken 10 or 11 porters, so I guess for 3 in a group, you're looking at about 15 etc. There were several groups of up to 4, and some for the tour companies were far flasher than mine, with porters having to bring collapsible picnic tables, folding chairs, even the aforementioned porta-loos, so I think my guys were getting off light!

I tried to help set the camp, but was told quite firmly to sit down and rest. All part of the earning of the tips, I guess (at the end of the trek, each member of the party is tipped x amount per day depending on their duties: $5 for porters, $8 for a cook, $10 for a guide - and these are minimum amounts. Please feel free to tip more! For a party of one, I was looking at an extra US$300!).

There were 2 tents: mine, a small typical modern tent with flexi-poles and Mountain Hardware on the side, and theirs, a hexagonal spider-shaped frame with inner and fly combo, about 6feet tall at the apex. This was both sleeping, eating and food prep space all in one. It really was quite funny to watch the dinner being made. Think of all the things you were told never to do in tents by your dad when he was teaching you camping craft. Top of the list was probably "cooking or using naked flames of any description inside the tent". Imagine, then my surprise when the cooking was done on a 9kg calor gas cylinder with stove top attachment, and lighting was via 2 candles, precariously stuck to a small tin of puree balanced on a wobbly camping table and the plastic screw top of a 3l bottle of cooking oil. Yes, later we were going to be deep frying stuff!

Despite these obvious safety hazards, the whole procedure went off without a hitch - well practiced actions allowing Juma the cook to rotate about 4 different metal bowls across the heat and get everything ready pretty much at the same time. Skills! And it wasn't just Juma - the whole crew seemed to work together pretty seamlessly too, although there may have been any number of terse instructions being given under the disguise of cheerful sounding Swahili. How would I ever know? But that's beside the point. The end result was heaps of tasty food, including some deep fried spuds that had moments before been boiling merrily. The hot oil was carefully left on the floor in the middle of the tent until it had cooled just enough to return to the plastic container. Safe.

It was a relaxed atmosphere in the crew's tent - if they weren't helping they were huddling under their ludicrously inadequate looking sleeping bags (they have to buy their own gear and carry it on top of the customers stuff, so most of the porters seem to try and do without), chatting, snoozing or laughing, bright white smiles emerging from the deepening gloom like so many Cheshire Cats disappearing over and over.

By the time I took myself off to my tent, the cloud that had shrouded the camp site had lifted, adn the night sky was remarkable. I couldn't wait to see the view in daylight.

Day 2: 7km, 4-5 hours, 3000m up to 3800m. I got up at about 6am, earlier than necessary but no big deal as I'd slept pretty well in the cooler climate - better than I had in hot ans sultry Dar, anyway. Quick wash in cold water (it would have been warm, but I was up before the porters), and it was off for what I suspected would be the biggest daily challenge of the hike: the daily constitutional, as they say, making use of the squat toilets in the camp site. Not wanting to dwell on things too much, but imagine a large keyhole shaped target being inexpertly used by dozens of inexperienced tourists, many of whom it seems may have been cross-eyed. Not pretty, and not comfortable either - I was dreading the extra effort it would all take once I got to a decent altitude!

Breakfast made up for it though, with "porridge" (more like semolina), fresh fruit (on various days: papaya, pineapple, watermelon), milo, toast and fried eggs, frankfurters. The eggs were transported in a small box full of sawdust, kind of like a lucky dip, and they pretty much all survived the whole trip - at least until they were selected for a meal, that is. It semed like there was to be no shortage of food on this trip.

The camp was being overlooked by the might Mt Kili, as I'd hoped, as the cloud was still gone. It was the first real look at it I'd had, as the cloud had moved in to hide it by the time we started yesterday. This was to be a pattern - clear in the morning, shrouded by 2pm at the latest. We got under way by about 8am for what was a shortish distance, but pretty steep compared to yesterday - more like what I was expecting to be honest. Some rock scrambling was called for on occasion, and and a bit of judicious tippy toe-ing to get by the craggiest bits, and once again all done at a very sedate pace. I started to wonder if the "pole pole" was for the complexity of the path or because the guide was texting as he walked (for a poor country, cell phone coverage is pretty thorough in TZ!).

Once again, the feeling of conquering a mountain was diluted somewhat by the huge number of people on the track. The guides made a mockery of us tourists and our sluggish pace, overtaking at speed with their outsized, precariously balanced loads. It was quite hard not to try and match them for pace, but egos need to be controlled if peaks are to be reached, so I just about managed to restrain myself. Not that I'd have been competitive in the least, you understand, but I'd've tried! Again I was astounded by the mismatched gear the porters used. Some were in trainers, others in walking boots falling apart. Some had shredded thermal tops, others football jerseys. All had to be bought and paid for themselves, so it was understandable why they didn't go for the good stuff. Anything brand-named would have been a gift from a grateful tourist trying to shed baggage after the hike. I kind of wished I'd brought throw away stuff, but I was traveling pretty light myself, so didn't have much to pass on. Every now and then one would pass with a transistor radio strapped to his pack, blasting out hip hop, reggae or whatever trashy pop the local radio station was broadcasting that day. It broke the day up.

Camp was much the same as before. A more scattered, open venue, this, reached by about 1pm. From a short distance away, it looked like a low budget pop festival was being held. tent village and all, just not sign of the performers. A few white-necked ravens lurked on the fringes, keeping an eye out for scraps and carelessly unguarded shiny things. Once again, I wasn't allowed to help so went for a wander to try and find some of the other trekkers I'd met earlier. I was finding it a slightly lonely experience, having been hoping to have people to chat to in my group, but it was hard to pin folks down at the camps. You got a brief chat, maybe, then we were called to our various tents for meals, which is where anyone in a group tended to stay, shooting the breeze with their compadres. I was left on my own somewhat, as it didn't seem right to go house calling a crowded tent. I'd hang with my gang in their tent, but 99% of the conversation was in Swahili, so I just sat and looked pretty in the corner until I got bored enough to go to bed. Every now and then I'd ask something of them, or they of me, but most of them had very little English and of course I have virtually no Swahili, so there was not much to go on .

Day 3: 11km, 6 hours, 3800m up to 4600m for lunch and back to 3900m for the night. Today was to be an acclimatisation day, going up to 4600m but not staying there. the extra strain on the body is supposed to get it prepared for the longer time at altitude still to come. The last time I went anywhere near this high was crossing a border between Argentina and Chile with food poisoning, and had gone from low down to up high in about 3 hours, thus not getting any adjustment time at all. It didn't go well (check the back issues if you care). This time I hoped for better.

Kili was in front of us the whole day today - no cloud, just a looming rock, challenging, taunting, sneering, but finally looking a bit closer than it had done before. We were gaining on it! The main part of the day - about 4 hours worth - took us to Lava Rock, the high spot of the day. It was pretty steep going, and the "pole pole" was definitely needed this time, I think. Once or twice I felt my puff starting to go, so I backed off a bit, as experience has taught me that if you loose your wind, it is very hard to get back. Better to hold on to it at all costs! Still, the 6 hour target for 11km was a b it much, surely? I could run that in under an hour...

We reached the Lava rock, and I was in good shape - surprisingly good actually, no problems at all, which was more than could be said for some of the others, wheezing their way to a lunch break. The lsat 2 hours of the day were downhill, pretty steeply down, and I had a couple of slips on the way, but nothing serious. I was undecided whether to blame altitude, old boots or daydreaming. Probably a combination of the three.

We rolled into camp at around 2.45, with Kili now hiding behind her usual cloak of mist and cloud. Intermittently, it would clear enough for Mahamoud my guide to point out tomorrow's path. It looked steep. Really steep. And what's worse is that its another false peak to acclimatise us - we have to drop back down again after, so don't even get to keep the height gain! Better get a good feed and a good rest. I'll continue the climb in another entry, just to break it up a bit. See you later :-)

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The same only different

Willie Nelson sang it best. Or was it Donkey? "On the road again....". Ring any bells, Smitch? Smitch? Hey Smitch, I'm talking to you! Pay attention! That's better. I mean, really....

Not the smooth, seamless transition I'd been hoping for, thanks to a cock up in the aerial transportation department, courtesy of Emirates breaking their aeroplane and delaying my departure from NZ by 48 hours. Not the kind of stress you need, let me tell you. Still, I got a couple of days to drink beer and be sent off by Rich and Oddette, so thanks for stepping up, guys.

On the down side, I missed out on a day or two acclimatisation in Dar es Salaam, finally arriving on Saturday pm to be met by Kara (thanks so much for that) who also looked after me and showed me around a bit, taking me to a Korean restaurant (?!) one night and a fish restaurant the other, where I met a whole bunch of great people. My jet lag slowed me down a bit unfortunately, so I'm hoping I'll get a chance to give a second first impression when I get back. I eventually jumped a bus to Moshi and Mt kilimanjaro on the Monday morning - a 4am arousal followed by an hour waiting in the dark at a busy bus depot feeling slightly nervous and not entirely sure I was in the right place, until the bus finally arrived and loaded my bag. I figured even if it wasn't the right bus, if I got on it, as least I wouldn't lose my stuff! As it 'appens, it was the right one, and also the wrong one....

First, I had paid a bloke a whole dollar to carry my bag form the taxi to the bus stop. He wanted Tsh 10,000 (about US$7.50), I laughed at his very good joke and offered 500, he looked cross and asked for 5000, we settled on 1500. I knew I'd been had, but i was running the scene from Life of Brian through my head as I haggled, and couldn't keep a straight face any longer ("Hey, Bert, this bloke won't haggle!" "Won't haggle?"). Settled on the bus, I was next approached by a man with a clip[board (always a sign of officiality). who said I had to pay Tsh 10,000 for bag security. Look, he said. I'll even write it on your ticket. Must be fair. To be honest, I thought this might be a ruse too, albeit a very bold one, but paid up nonetheless, as it crossed my mind that it would be easy to "lose" my bag while we waited to leave, and I'd be none the wiser.

Finally, we were off, at least about 200 yards, before we joined the log jam of buses trying to leave the depot all at the same time. Once again, we got moving and, after about half an hour, I got my first look at rural TZ. The similarities with parts of South America were instantly there, and I hope I don't just travel around making those sorts of comparisons, but I guess its unavoidable at times, especially when adjusting to a bit of culture shock. Many of the houses were of a similar mud brick construction, although sturdier looking bricks - must be a better quality mud over here - people lined the roads selling all sorts of stuff from wheelbarrows (if they were lucky), scraping a living any way they can, harvesting meagre looking crops from half-arsed looking plots of vaguely farmed land.

It was to be an 8 - 10 hour jouney to Moshi (depending on oh so many things!). Things went smoothly enough up to lunch time - a truck stop type of place to stretch legs and buy street meat if you dared - but about an hour after setting off again, the bus pulled over and the passenger next to me explained we wouldnt be going any further in this bus as it was broken. Luckily wee were by a string of small houses/stores, so most of the passengers tucked in to fizzy pop. I watched helplessly as a group of locals tried helping the driver fill the engine with first with oil (it leaked out only slightly slower than the tipped it in from the cola bottles they were using), and then the radiator with buckets of water (which fair flooded out the bottom). At last, as a bus from the same company came by and was flagged down, people were shoe-honed in to seats that weren't really there, and the crowd of waiting passengers began to thin out. The funniest thing was that everyone stood about very calmly, making no fuss about the delay, but when a bus arrived, there was a scrum for the empty seats and the last place you wanted to be was the middle of it! I stood out the way a bit, with my bags, until a bloke pointed at me, shoved someone out the way and pushed me onto the bus, stowing my pack in the luggage bins underneath. The only seat left was the ticket collector's, so I got that one, right at the front with all the extra leg room, and she got to stand up. seemed fair to me....

On we went, Dodging scarily large potholes, overtaking in ways that were familiar, although the last time I'd seem them, I'd been outside the bus, heading towards it on a motorbike and fearing form my life. I know where I'd rather be...It rained at one point, and the wipers were duly employed. One of them anyway, and it only wiped in one direction. I have to say there are time when I'd rather not be in the front seat with the best view.

Finally, at about 5 pm, 11 hours after starting, we arrived in Moshi, and i was met by a rep from my tour company, who got me to my hotel safe and sound.

It was nice to get a kind of intro to Tanzania through the window of a bus. So much seemed familiar (with regards to the chaos, the bodge it and scarper stylings of the villages/roads/traffic rules etc) to what I"d seen in South America, although in TZ they seem to be working at the next level up in the world rankings of "Making Do". Comforting, though, in its own funny way.

About an hour after the half way break (the whole trip was due to be 8 hours...or 10...or however many it takes, don't fret it) we stopped for what i took to be another pee stop/ buy some fruit stop, only to be told the bus was knackered and we'd all be getting off to wait for a replacement. No idea how long that would take, but as the oil and water various people were shoving into the poor bus were dripping out the bottom in a kind of perpetual motion, it was clear I had little choice but to wait.

Luckily, there were several buses on a staggered departure time leaving Dar, so each one that came past stopped and took a few passengers from my bus. Its a funny thing. All the locals were behaving so calmly and relaxed about the whole thing, it was totally normal, no aggro at all, until a bus arrived when things dissolved into a scrum of silent shoving and pushing to try and get a place. I was somewhat bemused by the whole thing and starting to worry that I'd end up being the last one left, when a guy pushed me forward and got me on the 3 rd bus. Front row seat too, with the extra leg room, so the hour or so delay was almost worth it!

Things were going well, potholes like craters were being dodged, and then the rain started. So did the wipers, but only one of them, and it only wiped in one direction, so obviously the driver didn't slow down to meet the conditions. Sometimes the front seat with the best view is not the best place to be!

Finally, at about 5pm, 11 hours after we started, I arrived in Moshi. I was met, as promised and despite being either 1 hour or 3 hours late, at the bus depot by my Kili tour company, and dropped to my hotel, for what I'd hoped would be a quick air conditioned rest. No such luck, I had to unpack everything and show them what I intended to take up the mountain. My choices were approved, arrangements for the morning were made, and I was directed to a great wee place across the street to get some dinner. I was also told that the other 3 people that had been booked on my trip had pulled out at the last minute, so I'd be the only one in my group. Good and bad that - I'll get individual treatment I guess, and get to go at my pace, but also I'll have to work harder to find anyone to talk to I expect. Anyhow, we'll see how that all works out when we see how all that works out. Time to relax with a beer and a curry at last! Off up a mountain tomorrow (Obviously, I'm already down but I'm cleverly writing this retrospectively! You're gonna get a 7 day hike shortly. Aren't you lucky?)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Countdown T minus 4 days....

There is a pile of things on the floor in my bedroom. Correction, there are many piles of most of my things taking up all the floor space in my bedroom, but only one of the piles is ear-marked to get shoved into a back pack and taken to East Africa for a 5 week trip around Tanzania and Zanzibar, departing on 11th January. I am, once again, starting to get a bit nervous while simultaneously the excitement is building about my latest adventure. I have no idea what to expect when I get there.

OK, that's not 100% true. I have read several guide books and talked at length with a friend who is working out there at the moment and who has been giving me lots of advice, tips and reassurance, not to mention a promise of meeting me at the airport to ease my transition into this most mysterious of continents, so I have a theoretical idea at least. There have been lots of warnings (from the guide books) to keep a watchful eye over my belongings, warnings about not going here or there after dark/alone/carrying anything of value in case of muggings, warnings about bugs and parasites that will be queuing up to infest me if I give them even half a chance. But there have also been lots of positive things to look forward to, courtesy of my friend Kara, who can't stop raving about the friendly people, the amazing scenery, the food, the culture. I think she is more excited about my introduction to Africa than I am! I know which camp I am pitching my tent in.

Preparation for the trip has been on several levels. I got all my inoculations from South America updated (only about 4 extra jabs this time), collected my malaria pills and re-stocked my medical kit. I read a book (The Zanzibar Chest by Aiden Hartley) which, though fascinating and inspirational, was also horrifying and disturbing as it was both a biography of his father's life pioneering irrigation and agriculture in remote parts of Tanzania, as well as an autobiography of his own experiences as a front line reporter in the midst of the atrocities that were carried out in Uganda, Rwanda and Somalia. Eye opening might be more accurate. Read it.

Despite packing for the hottest time of the year, I have also had to plan for the extreme cold that will be at the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 5895m, and the first big challenge of the trip (after getting out of the airport with all my belongings, obviously). Reading a couple of aid project websites the other day also gave me the idea of packing as much spare children's clothing as I can fit in, which I will be able to donate to any projects I encounter on the way. Once the Kilii trek is done (by no means a guaranteed success by the way - only 40-50% of people manage to get to the top) and the subsequent 3 day safari in the Ngorongoro Crater and Tarangire National Park is in the bag, I will spend a few days in Arusha where I hope to stay in local villages with local people, to get a taste of local life. It's here that I have contacted an organisation that runs volunteer projects throughout the country, and where I hope to deliver the clothes.

I have also prepared by trying to learn a little Kiswahili. Knowing the basic pleases and thank yous goes without saying, but I felt I got so much more from my time in South America because I made an effort to speak Spanish, which the locals clearly appreciated, so I wanted to try and get beyond the stock tourist phrases in Tanzania. I'm not sure how well I'm doing - there are virtually no familiar lingual references so everything has to be committed to memory - but I tried taking some Skype lessons with a chap in Kenya (the connection proved too unreliable to make this successful) and have taken out a "teach yourself Kiswahili" kit from the library (yeah, I know, who'd of thought they'd have one of those, right?) which is not as easy to use as I'd hoped. Still, we shall see, and it'll give me an ice breaker with the locals on the buses anyway.

The final, questionable preparation I have done is to try and acclimatize myself to the altitude of Kili by paying through the nose to take a 3 week course which consists of sitting with a breathing apparatus providing a nitrogen rich (and therefore oxygen poor) mix of air that is the equivalent of being at 7000m. The idea is that 4 x 7 minute cylces over 40 minutes , 5 days a week for 3 weeks will stimulate my body to produce extra red blood cells that will allow me to transport the thin air at the top of Kili more efficiently through my muscles. Could all be a lot of hokum, but if I'm going all that way, why not give myself the best chance? What I haven't been doing as much as I intended, and probably should have (and might have been more useful than some dodgy scientific theories), is exercising and improving my fitness. Oops. Too late now. I haven't been totally sedentary, I've just not been out hiking as much as I'd intended. Still, the mantra is apparently "go up like an old man, come down like a teenager", so I should be able to manage at least one of those....

So now, in the last few days before I leave, I'm dashing about trying to make sure I haven't forgotten some vital bit of kit/clothing/doobydad, trying to decide if I should take my diving fins or not, and making sure all the various rechargeable batteries are recharged. This entry has been your starter for 10. I hope to find reliable enough internet cafes about the place or, failing that, kind enough fellow travelers with laptops who will let me throw some thoughts, impressions and stories up as I move about. Photos will be added to the flickr link (I hope!). Once again, you're welcome to come along for the ride, just no fighting in the back seat, or I'll smack your knees. Tally ho.