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“500 Shillings per finger.”

– Jason, trying to capitalize on his brush with the volcano.

There was volcano on our tent in the morning.

Like everything else that sits still around Ol Doinyo Lengai these days, our little shelter was covered by a thin layer of sooty ash. Combined with a light overnight rain it had stained our formerly grey tent a lovely shade of black.

This was one of those situations where you took full advantage of the fact that your safari package included camp attendents and left them the icky job of breaking camp. Besides, our Ngorongoro park permit was due to expire in a few hours and we had another hike to complete before we got kicked out of the park.

After a quick cup of tea, we descended into the Empaki crater with our ranger Abduel and our head cook and assistant guide, Deo. Deo is an easy going soul whose great joy in life is listening to his portable radio. I see him with it slung over his shoulder so much, I told him he should make Deo his last name and change his first to Ray. Ray-deo, radio – get it?

Deo had the same reaction you just did.

Anyway, down into the crater we went, a steep 600 meter descent in just over 2 km. The steep ground bordering our switchbacking trail crawled with vines and creeping plants, transitioning closer to the bottom into a canopied forest. The forest’s most impressive denzien was the giant ficus. Even more impressive than its heigth and width was the backwards way it grew – foot-thick twined ropes of vine snaked down to the forest floor from banches more than 25 feet above. When they reached the ground, the vines became roots, thickened into trunks and eventually merged with other trunks to increase the girth of the tree. They are beautiful, weird creatures and we weren’t surprised when Abduel told us that traditional maasai worship them.

Emerging from the forest, we squinted in the early morning light at Empaki lake. The shore teemed with greater and lesser flamingos, pecking peacefully at the algae that inhabit the brackish waters of the lake and, in the case of the lesser flamingo, turn them that famous shade of pink, made famous by birthday lawn displays everywhere,The flamingos didn’t have the place to themselves. A troop of olive baboons stolled along one side of a shallow bay. Three bushbucks grazed on the sedge grasses poking up from the sands. A set of hyena tracks ran down a long stretch of beach. But it was the flamingos that held our eye  – thousands and thousands of them walked, floated or flew over the waters. I could have watched them for hours, but we were on a schedule.It was already heading for 9 a.m. and we had a long drive to get out of the park before noon. If we didn’t make it in time, we faced a fine of 50,000 shillings and I didn’t want to find out whether that was included in my safari fees.

Our driver, Abdo, understood the situation well. As soon as we wolfed down our eggs and toast breakfast, he efficiently directed the loading of our jeep and soon had us bumping down the rough crater road towards the park exit at maximum speed. After a tooth rattling 2 and a half hours, we dropped off Abduel just shy of the main ranger station, where our ranger graciously agreed to bum a ride the rest of the way home with another vehicle so that we would have more time to make it to the gate befoe our permit expired. I had grown to really enjoy Abduel’s calm demeanour, knowledge and even his lack of appreciation for my jokes over the past day and was sad to see him leave. At one point the night before, I had offered to cut down a giant empaki tree with my swiss army knife so that we’d have a better view of Ol Doinyo Lengai. “If you do that,” he said to me earnestly, his bullshit detector on snooze, “we could not be friends. I would have to arrest you.”

I refolded my knife’s six centimetre saw.

***

Even with our driver’s best Paris to Dakhar Rally efforts, we got to the gate a little late and had to do a little sweet talking to avoid getting dinged for more money. At the gate, other tourists and safari drivers were impressed with our white jeep’s coat of black volcano soot. I told the pretty tourist girls that I’d been as close as humanly possible to the phenomenon and told everyone else that we were charging 500 shillings per finger wipe on the hood. C’mon people! This was genuine live volcano here!

After one last postcard shopping visit to the visitor centre (an extremely disappointing cabin with a hand made interpretive display that looked like it could have been put together by a grade 6 class – where the insanely high park fees go is a mystery to me), we were on the road again.

It only took an hour or so to reach our planned camp, just off the main highway near lake Manyara. But we were unimpressed with the site. Half a dozen local teen agers lounged around a caged television and a pool table beneath a large thatch roofed dining area. The view was limited to a few dusty acacia trees and the road noise from the highway was far from what we had in mind for an African safari.It was only 1 in the afternoon and this was a very expensive trip.We wanted to keep going.

Our crew, probably looking forward to an easy day of lounging at the campsite , was not happy with our request to push on for lake Natron.

But Janine had her “don’t f with me” face on and I had no qualms about backing her. The crew soon relented.

We refueled, re-stocked our groceries with fresh meat and, with peace offering sodas in all hands courtesy of yours truly, turned on to the 110 km dirt track for Lake Natron. The road, which runs through the rift valley alongside the highlands we had just spent two days in, was once infamous for its roughness. The trip used to take 6 hours in bad weather and was often completely impassable in rains. At these times, flood waters from the highlands would pour down onto the valley floor and completely cut off Natron from the rest of the world.

But our trip came on the heels of a re-grading of the dirt and was a lightning quick 2.5 hours. As remarkable as the speed were the views of Ol Doinyo Lengai, which now reared up close before us, black puffs of soot soaring into the blue afternoon sky. Around its slopes the land seem jarringly peaceful and green, covered by acacia trees and rolling towards the 1000 meter high rampart of the crater highlands. Maasai appeared frequently, as much a natural part of the landscape it seemed, as the zebras and gazelles that also roamed it.

Afternoon waned just as we pulled into the Riverside Campsite. We had just enough time to give our tents a thorough bath before darkness fell.

Even at night, Lengai was a sight. Rumbling and spewing jet black ash into the midnight blue horizon, it dominated everything. Guides will take you up the south side of the mountain, whose crater is far less active. But as we watch the toxic ash blot out the sky, we both agree that as cool as looking down into a live crater would be, it’s not “hey let’s risk death for that” cool. The volcano is close enough for appreciation and great photos. Why push it?

We settle into our tent soon after dinner. We’ve pitched it far from the cooking area, which usually becomes the social hub for the camp crews after dinner (Deo’s radio often serving as sound system). The night is filled with the sound of singing birds, chirping bats and a churning volcano. A real safari soundtrack.

We’re glad we pushed on.

Jason

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“Fubar…”

– Janine

It was a pretty good Tuesday.

It started with an elephant walking into our campsite this morning. Although, you’d think that we’d be getting used to visitors by now. During the night, a massive cape buffalo grazed outside our guide’s tent, keeping him awake with its noisy munching. Janine nearly walked into 2 zebras scratching themselves on a tree outside the girls bathroom and a beetle the size of a tennis ball was found in one lavatory stall, flat on its back and waving its thick hairy legs frantically after falling from the window sill that lies just above the toilet.

I don’t want to think about what unmasculine things would have happened if I’d been on the toilet at that time.

But the elephant took the cake. Or at least it would have if anyone had left a cake out. The tent city that is Ngorongoro’s Simba camp site was nearly packed up – just a few tourists left and the camp attendants cleaning up the morning breakfast dishes – when a large female appeared from out of the forest and sauntered silently towards the dining hall.

Completely unfussed by the snapping cameras and shouts of “tembo!”, the big lady first refreshed herself with a long drink from the open-topped thousand litre water tank outside the dining hall. Then, to the considerable dismay of the kitchen workers, she made a messy buffet out of the 3 large straw baskets of breakfast rubbish which had just been set outside by the safari vehicles for carting away. Delicately, she picked through the trash with her dexterous trunk to find the choicest morsels of discarded egg, fruits and bread with only the occassional plastic bag or piece of twine shoveled into her mouth for good measure.

From 10 feet away, we watched her chow down with some amusement as the kitchen workers became progressively more distressed with the mess they’d have to clean up.

When we finally left, 15 minutes later, she was still there, picking and munching peacefully. Most of the kitchen workers had given up trying to scare here away and were taking pictures with their cell phones.

***

It was an inspiring morning. The sky directly above us was clear and blue. But at Ngorongoro’s eastern edge, a large bank of smooth clouds rammed against the outward facing side of the great crater and poured like a collosal waterfall down towards the collapsed volcano floor. On the northern horizon, a dark column of ash rose 2000 ft into the morning sky. The crater highlands’ one active volcano was stirring.

Leaving Simba, we drove down a bumpy red clay road around the crater’s rim towards the day’s first destination, Olmoti Crater. With us traveled the newest member of our group, Abduel, a Ngorongoro park ranger.

Encounters with dangerous animals are not uncommon in the Crater Highlands and so Abduel was armed with a polished and obviously well-cared for Kalishnikov. He calls it, with only a small smile, his wife.

The road between the craters wound through brilliant green grasslands, grazed by herds of maasai cows, goats and donkeys. Their owners, clothed in their famous scarlet or purple robes, kept one eye on our jeep roaring by in a cloud of dust and the other on their charges, doling out the occasional wack on the furry rump with their stout herding sticks.

We reached Olmoti crater just past the small maasai village of Nainokanoka. Here, with Abduel and our cook, Deo, Janine and I left the car and started a hike up to and over the crater rim. As Abduel shouldered his wife, he told us that the rangers of Ngorongoro are also armed due to their running battle with the poachers that still haunt Tanzania’s game parks. The penalty for poaching can be up to 20 years in prison, so the poachers do not hesitate to take human life as well as animal, rather than face jail. Last year, Abduel says quietly, a cornered poacher killed himself rather than be taken alive.

The steep trail peters out from grassland to tall dry scrub before entering a shady forest dominated by large limbed luksia condeska trees.

The thick trunks and branches were draped in wispy clinging mosses that cooled and filtered the air to a subtle shade of green. As we rested, Abduel mentioned that the maasai use the wood of the condeska to make bee farms.

From the top of the crater, we look down into another timeless scene.

The crater bowl (literally, “Olmoti” is maasai for “bowl”) bottoms out into a shallow green oval a couple of hundred meters below us. Around its bottom edges are scattered a few mud and thatch maasai bomas. But most of the crater belongs to a few cattle herds, which look more like ants than beef from up here. Water in Olmoti is limited to a single, narrow spring-fed stream, so the big wild animals mostly graze elsewhere. We descend to the crater floor and follow the stream to where it tumbles down a fissure in the crater wall. At this pretty waterfall, we comment on the thin layer of dust that seems to be covering everything. It’s Ol Doinyo Lengai says Abduel. This rime of ash is only the beginning compared to the dousing the land will get if there is a major eruption. But it’s already enough to be causing serious damage. A number of herders have recently lost livestock that have grazed too heavily on sulphuric ash-coated grass.

***

We had passed on an earlier opportunity to visit an “official traditional Maasai village”. At these selected towns, tourists are permitted to roam about at will, take all the pictures they like and watch traditional maasai dancing. All for the low, low price of $50.

The village was situated right next to the Ngorongoro Crater and sounded like little more than a well-designed tourist trap. We hoped that by hiking in the less-visited highlands, we would have the chance to encounter a less staged version of maasai life.

Welcome to Bulati. A scenic collection of mostly traditional dwellings lying about 15 km from Olmoti, Bulati sits in the Embulbul Depression, a vast plain of green pasture that curves from one horizon to the other.

Besides the odd maasai herd, the grass is interrupted only occasionally by a zebra, wildebeast or gazelle.

When we pulled into Bulati, a market day was in progress. Although it wasn’t an official tourist village, our driver spoke with a local school teacher, Ernesto Moreri, who agreed to give us the tour. Cattle trading had already ended for the day, so most of the men sat around on the ground casually, sharing news or a pot of home brew. Some smiled, openly friendly. Others stared without expression and I got just the faintest sense of how intimidating these famous warriors might be in a fight.

Despite the inactivity of the men, the women were still hard at work. A vigorous negotiation was in progress over a harvest of small potatos, while other red-robed ladies hawked onions, candy, beaded jewelry and sandals made from recycled car tires, all arranged simply on blankets spread over the ground.

Earlier that week in Arusha, Janine had treated herself to the purchase of a traditional Swahili sarong called a “kanga”. She’d gotten so many compliments on it from African women that I felt I needed to respond. My chance came when I saw a blue and purple maasai robe, or shuka, for sale. After the spartan scarlet, I don’t think there’s a more famous warrior uniform in the world than the maasai’s. With minimal haggling, I made the purchase from a squat, gap toothed man who sported the same shuka style as I was interested in (though I thought he ruined his by accessorizing with a New York Yankees tuque in the 30 + degree heat).

My buy obviously made waves. By the time I handed over my cash, Mr.

Steinbrenner and I were surrounded by a medium sized crowd of onlookers; all sporting ornamental jewelry on their necks and ears, many sporting traditional spears.

All curious to see what the hell I was doing.

Obviously, a full explanation was in order. “Maasai!” I said lamely giving my most enthusiastic Top-Gun thumbs up as Steinbrenner busily finished tying the robe around me with a length of blue camp rope I produced from my pack.

They kept staring.

Obviously, the thumbs up was insufficient to demonstrate my appreciation for maasai culture. Time for the big guns.

Time to dance.

Maasai men dance by jumping up and down in one place, the main difference between them and me being that they seem to do it elegantly.

This didn’t stop me from thinking that I could pull it off. So I jumped and I jumped.

I believe that the roars of laughter which ensued from the assembled market-goers was appreciative in nature. In any event, I stayed in character and demanded that someone sell me some cattle and/or another wife until Janine and Mr. Moreri convinced me to continue with the tour.

Pleased with his sale, Mr. Steinbrenner allowed me to borrow his herding stick (“You are not maasai without this!”) for the remainder of my stroll through the village, the highlight of which was a visit to Ernesto’s school. Here we got a dose of realism to go with our fun. Nine teachers taught 640 kids in a small compound divided into 7 grade-classes. Grade 1 alone had 104 students, who welcomed Janine and I

to their simple classroom with songs (“ABCD” and something with a lot of allelujias) and applause. As the children leaned forward in their desks (four or five kids to each one), Ernesto explained to them in Shawhili who we were and where we were from. Then we left the classroom to the strains of another song and applause,the kids all reaching out to touch us as we left. It was Oprah-esque.

As we toured the construction sites for the new teachers’ residence and the dispensary (the town provides the building and then the government pays for the teachers and doctors), Ernesto explained just a few of the challenges the school faced. 5 kids to a book, poor water supply (each kid has to bring 3 litres of water from home to the school each day), insufficient teacher numbers, lack of supplies. And now, the volcano.

Many of the children are being moved by their parents to schools further south as the government forces villagers to flee from the Ol Doinyo Lengai’s rising fury.

We stand near the teacher’s lounge (3 desks and chairs in a ten foot square room) and chat with some of Ernesto’s colleagues, all of whom look cheerful but hard worked. They ask us questions about how school works in Canada and I struggle to find common ground with them, latching on to the fact that, like the children of Bulati, I too used to walk to school.

“Really?” one lady asks hopefully. “How far away was your school?”

I proudly state that it was at least 4 km. 4.5 in the snow.

The teachers laugh quietly but politely. Many kids walk 10-15 km to reach Bulati’s school.

When we finally leave Bulati 2 hours later, we’ve gotten more than we hoped for – a real snapshot of maasai life, with all its colour, clamour and challenges.

***

“Holy Shit.” I said.

“Fubar.” Janine agreed.

And with these eloquent words, I think we best captured the feeling one has looking at an erupting volcano.

Ol Doinyo Lengai, the reason we were here, the cause of so much suffering here, had finally come into view after our jeep climbed the steep outer rim wall of the Empaki Crater. Now, camped on the lip of a dead volcano, we looked across the highland floor at one that was very much alive. Lengai’s grey cone stretched more than a kilometer above the Rift Valley floor. A plume of black ash thousands of feet tall rose from its mouth, huge flashes of white, orange and red lightning arcing between the charged particles inside. Every few minutes a dull roar would be heard and another stream of soot was puffed into the evening sky.

All that was missing were the dinosaurs. It was that primordial a scene.

Obviously, something a little more locquacious was in order to mark such a once-in-a-lifetime sight.

“Wow.” I said.

“Yeah.” Janine said.

And then we went to have dinner.

***

Our camp on the Empaki crater rim was surrounded by trees just bushy enough to block our view of Ol Doinyo Lengai. The illusion was assisted by the beauty of the crater itself – a 600 meter deep, 8 km wide perfect circle. The crater sides are thickly forested, most notably with its namesake spiky leafed Empaki Tree. At its bottom, the crater is dominated by Empaki Lake, a highly alkaline pool of water that attracts thousands of pink and white flamingos, who feed on its nutritious algae.

Baboons, bushbuck, cape buffalo and the occassional hyena wander the crater floor, but for now, as we sipped on plastic mugs of South African red wine, it was the birds that drew the eye – countless specks of white and rose on the grey-green waters.

Greyer than normal, thanks to Lengai. In fact, this close to the volcano, very little is escaping its influence. The prevailing winds mean that grey ash coats everything here. The Empaki trees that shade our camp in the waning sunlight are dropping leaves by the minute, slowly suffocating from the soot. If Lengai’s toxic belching continues, the impact on Empaki’s flora and fauna will be devastating.

Still, there is something exhilerating about being this close to such a force of nature. A full scale eruption could commence any day. But eventhough Ol Doinyo Lengai is barely clearing its throat in geological terms, its power is impressive. The park has forbidden us to continue our journey past this point and Abduel tells us that a few days ago, the small village of Nayobi on the southern flank of the mountain was forcefully evacuated. Many traditional maasai, who believe that Ol Doinyo Lengai is the seat of god, were not happy.

“They say that white people angered the god of the mountain by climbing it wearing immodest clothes, and because the park brings the white people, they blame the park too. The traditional people have sacrificed to the mountain but it does not listen.”

I watch a vast cloud of ash move over our camp as Abduel speaks. I don’t know much about the role of tube tops and miniskirts in vulcanology, but I have to agree with the maasai that Ol Doinyo Lengai does not appear to be in a listening mood. He looks sullen, angry. Ready to explode.

Kind of a dramatic end to a Tuesday.

Jason

Tilapia? Are you kidding me?

– Janine

(Dear readers: I know, I know. I promised to fill you in on our adventures in the rainforest, which took place before our Kilimanjaro climb. I even wrote a pretty snazzy post on our hike in the Uluguru Mountains near Morogoro and had it all ready to post. But a server problem at our web cafe, foiled me last night. So that scintillating drama must wait for another week. Right now, we are trekking through the Ngorongoro Highlands and that promises to be more than enough to keep my fingers tapping for the next 5 days. Essentially, we’re back to live status for the time being. Apologies for those of you who were really looking forward to tales of monkeys and interesting new foot fungi.)

“Why do you think he’s so interested in the drainage pipe?” I whisper to Janine. I am referring of course, to the large male lion stretched out on his side 5 feet from our jeep. The big cat’s broad face is half shoved into a 3 foot wide drainage pipe that runs underneath the dirt road we’ve stopped on.

Janine shrugs ignorance and continues to snap pictures. So I’m in the dark for another minute or two before the male moves a half step backwards and the answer to my question pops its head out of the pipe in the form of a female lion.

It turns out we’re witnessing a honeymoon.

The female squirms out of the tunnel and the big male rises and follows her a short distance to a cool patch of grass. Here they lie together in the afternoon heat and idly survey the dozens of wildebeast, herds of zebra and hundreds of gazelle that wander past them in the vast grassy bowl that is the Ngorongoro Crater.

We’ve been here for less than 15 minutes.

The travel literature calls Ngorongoro’s ancient collapsed volcano floor the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.  It’s a bold claim. But it may not be reaching too high. The 20 km wide crater is rimmed round by great green slopes rising 6-700 metres from its floor. It’s spotted with a medium sized salt lake and several fresh water sources and is lushly carpeted with edible grasses. Altogether, Ngorongoro is a giant African petrie dish and just about every famous animal in the country congregates here.

We are in the crater for just one afternoon as part of a longer 5-day adventure across the Ngorongoro highlands. It’s an eye-popping wilderness full of wildlife, extinct and live volcanos and opportunities to interact with the famous Masaii people. Our plan is to hike and drive from Ngorongoro to the less visited craters of Olmoti and Empakai, past the fuming peak of Ol Doinyo Lengai Volcano and down to the giant salt lake Natron.

But first some cute and fuzzy animals.

After a 4-hour drive from Arusha, we arrive at the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The park is prohibitively expensive – $50 per person for a 24-hour entry permit, plus $100 per car for each 6-hour trip down into the crater. That effectively means we have one afternoon to soak in as much as we can. We drop off our camp attendants and cook at our campsite and, with our guide, descend to the crater floor via a steep and rugged switchbacking road. On the way down, we pass red-robed Masaii herders driving cattle down to the green pastures that they share with the wild denziens of Ngorongoro. Our driver, Abdou, tells us that Ngrongoro is a Masaii word that replicates the sound of Masaii cow bells. It’s this blend of living culture and wildness that’s drawn us here.

The crater immediately starts producing. In addition to the big cats (we’ll see another pair of amorous lions later), we watch ostriches, zebra, wildebeast and Thompson gazelle graze peacefully in the afternoon heat. A baby black rhino (one of the crater’s most prized citizens given its critically endangered status) munches beside its mother, using her massive bulk for shade when it grows tired. Dozens of hippos somehow manage to cram their enormous bulk into a single shallow pool, where they spend most of their time rolling, snorting, splashing water on themselves with their constantly twitching tails and, perhaps most pleasantly for a 2-3 ton animal, simply floating. Elephants move at a stately pace against the enormous green backdrop of the crater walls and a lone cheetah – a lithe, sinewy killer – stalks an unsuspecting gazelle. Warthogs roll in the grey muck near the salt lakeshore, while storks, egrets and cranes patrol the willows and marshes. It’s 360-degree discovery channel and we just keep reveIling and clicking the camera.

Ngorongoro’s fame means that we’re far from having these sights to ourselves. But the number of visitors to the park also means that the animals are completely used to, and therefore completely ignore, humans.

The amount of people only becomes oppressive at the public campsites on top of the crater. Here, at Simba A camp, a virtual tent city springs up at dusk. More than 50 nylon domes sit around ours, with campers from every walk of life – hippies to yuppies, seniors to cub scouts. It’s a noisy, chaotic jumble of humanity on the edge of a perfect wilderness, where armed rangers walk the camp perimeter and the grass is kept trimmed by a couple of docile zebras.

We’re hoping for more of a secluded feel once we get out of the crater area and into the highlands tomorrow. But for now we’ll happily put up with a little noise and chaos for a chance to spend time in this natural Noah’s ark.

Besides which, being amongst other campers gives us a chance to show off our cook, whom we think is one of the best in the business. Our dinner tonight? How about a cream of cucumber soup garnished with fresh cilantro to start; followed by fresh tilapia in a spicy tomato cream sauce, fresh baked potato wedges, vegetables and, for desert, a fruit and vegetable salad served inside a halved and scooped out perfectly ripe avocado.

Forget the two elephants that are supposed to enjoy hanging out next to the bathrooms at night. The main danger to our health on this trip may be overeating.

Jason

Birket Siwa 

Birket Siwa – I’m still washing the salt out of my mouth.

Jason, aren’t you supposed to be writing about the Uluguru Mountains?

– Janine 

With a few days to kill in Arusha, and true to the spirits of both recycling and procrastination, I’ve taken advantage of some open computer time to start consolidating some of our Egyptian travels into distinct pages.  The first is our stay in the wonderful oasis of Siwa – phenomenal desert, beautiful waters, special people and, of course, donkeys. Click here if you’d like to read the whole kit’n’kaboodle.

 kili-kiss.jpg

A little romance at the summit? Or is that just their faces frozen together? 

You are now just 30 minutes from Stella point (5752m), a painful, tear-inducing half-hour on sheer scree. The gradient up to now has been steep, but this last scree slope takes the biscuit; in fact, it takes the entire tin.

– Henry Stedman
“Kilimanjaro, The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain.”

I had a feeling that the hardest battle was going to be in my head.

At midnight on February 19, 2008 we set off from Barafu camp to begin our climb to Kilimanjaro’s summit. Barafu means “ice” in Swahili. The camp sits in the shadow of the glowing glaciers that fringe Kilimanjaro’s broad crater. Excitement, confidence and adrenalin made it difficult to moderate my pace. “Pole, pole,” murmured our guides. Sowly, slowly. It was going to be a long night.

We wore or carried in our packs every item of clothing that might give warmth. The night began comfortably with temperatures in the low single digits celsius. But by its end, we wore every stitch we had as the temperature dropped to minus 10C.

The most difficult day of trekking we have faced in our 10 years of hiking had begun. In the next 18 hours we would undertake a total of 1215m vertical elevation gain over an excruciatingly brief 5 km followed by a crushing descent of 2800m in 13 km.

Jason and I like to believe that we know a thing or two about hiking, but those numbers left us trembling. We were about to push our personal limits into the stratosphere. Literally.

As we made our final preparations before leaving camp, two thoughts competed in my mind. Over 35,000 people attempt the summit every year. If so many people attempt it, how difficult could it really be? However, barely a third of that number actually makes it to Uhuru peak. We were about to find out why.

Our group marched in single file through the darkness, following a long trail of hikers’ lights stretching up the slopes before us. A frosty halo circled the nearly full moon as the Southern Cross, an unfamiliar constellation, shone in the sky above us.

We had worked hard to earn this attempt at the summit of Kilimanjaro. We had chosen the Machame Route up Kili. The route is known for its difficulty (the trail has the most ascents and descents) which makes for better acclimatization than other easier routes. It is also one day longer. Machame therefore offers a marginally higher chance of a successful summit day. We had struggled through our share of altitude-induced discomforts but now we were here; strong, well-acclimatized to 4500m, and ready to reap the benefits of our hard work.

The scientist in me listened to my body with an objective curiosity as we pushed past the limits of our acclimatization. There was no question that scaling the mountain was going to be astronomically challenging. I also knew that the challenge I couldn’t estimate was my body’s reaction to 5800m. But I only had one shot at this. I had made up my mind that only medically significant altitude sickness would make me turn back. Everything short of that would need to be faced and overcome. Somehow.

The one thing you can bank on at high altitudes is a nasty headache. I downed my Advil early and often, but it wasn’t enough. Not long into the ascent a throbbing band tightened around my head that only descending would be able to dispel. Within another hour, I could no longer turn my head without a claw gripping the back of my skull. I gave up trying to take in the moonlit surroundings. My world shrunk to the circle of my headlamp illuminating the steep slope in front of my feet. Patience, I told myself. Seconds will become minutes. Minutes will become hours. Step…step…step…

Our chief guide, Jeremy, set a steady pace of about one step every two seconds. Even at this molasses-like speed, my breath came in urgent pants, as I pulled the thinning air into my lungs as deep and as fast as I could. My heart pounded against my chest, as if I was running the hardest sprint of my life. Two hours into the 6.5 hour ascent the steep trail tilted upwards at an impossible angle towards Stella Point on the crater rim. The scree trail was like fine loose gravel, mercilessly causing our feet to backslide on the steep slope, which we fought against with trekking poles and gritted teeth. Patience. Seconds will become minutes. Minutes will become hours. Step…step…step…

Exhaustion took hold, turned my limbs to lead and caused me to stumble drunkenly as I struggled upwards. Each time the line of trekkers ahead of me would pause to climb over an obstruction, I would rest gratefully on my trekking poles, sinking into an exhausted sleep for a few seconds until the crunch of boots on the trail or the gentle encouragement of our guides would force me into motion again. Waves of nausea would wash over me then mercifully disappear. My fingers became painfully cold. Patience. Seconds will become minutes. Minutes will become hours. Step…step…step…

Our plan, said Jeremy during our briefing the afternoon before, is to go very pole pole (slowly slowly), stopping as little as possible on the way up. Temperatures on the ascent are sub-zero, and drop steadily as you approach the top. Stopping would cause us to get too cold. We stopped only three times in the course of the 6.5 hour ascent, for less than five minutes each time. Jeremy and his assistants cared for us with patience and kindness, doing the things we couldn’t do for ourselves in our zombie-like state. They placed mugs of steaming ginger tea or hot water in our freezing hands. They monitored us closely for signs of altitude sickness, and offered encouraging words which our numb brains struggled to take in. The mugs were colleted. Time to stand up and begin again. Patience. Seconds will become minutes. Minutes will become hours. Step…step…step…

As we trudged upwards, the beams of our lights would occasionally illuminate small groups of climbers resting on the side of the trail. The telltale sounds of altitude sickness occasionally penetrated the gloom. Twice groups passed us going down, shoulders bent in defeat. Jason walked behind me through the night. Health status checks and encouragement were exchanged between us. As always, he was my shadow and my strength.

Time stretched out impossibly as we crept upwards, ever upwards. My body was wracked with the effects of high altitude, but from somewhere deep inside, I continued to make the rounds of self-check. Headache, breathing, heart rate, nausea, strength. Self assessment always yielded the same results. I felt utterly and completely wretched, but I was not getting worse. From within the bizarre fog of altitude effects, I knew that Uhuru Peak was mine for the taking if I could only find the patience to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I descended back into my now familiar trance in the never ending darkness, prayed for dawn and kept climbing. Step…step…step.

The lights of my group were stopped up ahead. Thank Merciful God. We were stopping for another break. But the ground up ahead was flat. I stumbled onto the plateau, confused. I saw Jeremy’s wide open arms and wider grin ahead of me.

“Congratulations!” he said. “You have done it!” As he wrapped me in a huge hug my trance broke at last and I burst into sobs of joy. In the east the horizon was turning a deep red.

Sunrise. The long night was over.

We had reached Stella Point on the rim of the Kibo crater. Uhuru Peak was only an hour’s easy walk away.

Jason and I collapsed into each other’s arms and sank to the ground, holding each other in the thin and freezing air, quietly celebrating and searching for the strength to finish it.

The darkness was broken. The first streaks of dawn traced red and pink tones along the gleaming ice of Kili’s glaciers on our left. The crater floor plunging down on our right side held snow turning a rainbow of colours. In the west, Mount Meru illuminated slowly in the rising sun, floating disembodied above the cotton-candy coloured clouds. Below us in the east, Kilimanjaro’s rugged Mwenzi peak, an older, smaller crater than Kibo, pierced the sky. Just yesterday we were taking pictures from Barafu looking up at this imposing rock face instead of down.

Awestruck, Jason and I walked hand-in-hand as the glory of the summit of Kilimanjaro was slowly revealed to us in the growing light. Our exhaustion lifted as adrenalin carried us forward towards Uhuru.

Ahead people were milling about, embracing, singing, laughing, crying. The sign familiar from so many photographs was just ahead.

Congratuations.
You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895m, AMSL.
Africa’s highest point.
World’s Highest Free-Standing Mountain.
One of World’s Largest Volcanoes.
Welcome.

The sun broke free of the horizon. New tears of joy traced their way down my face as Jason and I held each other and witnessed the birth of the day from the pinnacle of Africa.

Janine

“Happy Birthday dear Mom! Happy Birthday to you!”

– Us

Now we know why people climb mountains. Obviously it’s not for the midnight departure for the summit, no matter how brilliant the full moon may be over its snowy peak. It can’t be for the walk – slow, painful drudgery during which you play a myriad of mind games to distract yourself from the lack of oxygen getting to your tired muscles. And it’s certainly not for the sights – most of the night is spent staring at the small circle of light cast by your headlamp around your boots.

At 6:34 a.m. Tanzania time this morning, tired, dizzy and jaw-clenching headaches, Janine and I reached Uhuru peak, the top of Kilimanjaro. Upon seeing the famous summit sign, the red sun rising above the clouds far below the mountain, the glaciers, the crater, the ecstatic faces of the other climbers, all our aches and pains were instantaneously forgotten; replaced with a euphoria unlike anything we’ve experienced before.

We laughed, shouted and held hands as we took the final few steps to the peak, accompanied by the sounds of our porters and guides singing swahili songs of jubilation and praise to the great mountain. With frozen fingers, Janine determinedly punched in the numbers on the sat phone to call her mom and wish her a happy birthday from the roof of Africa.

The whole thing was surreal, beautiful and intense. And summiting was only the beginning. After that, we still had ahead of us a three hour descent back to base camp and a further 4 hour trek to our final campsite of the trip.

We did it, but we’re done like dinner. There’s so much more to be written about this adventure – the people we trekked with, our incredible guides and porters, the beautiful natural scenes we witnessed. But it must wait for another night. Right now, this sleepless and emotional night and day have caught up with us. And even the final night celebrations of our guides and porters, taking place so noisily just a few meters away from our tent in the cool Tanzanian night, will not keep us from a long and deep slumber.

Jason

We don’t stop till we hit the top.”

– Casey Casem

Greetings from Barafu camp – 4600 meters above sea level. The weather is optimistic with bouts of euphoria.

Today’s hike was a tough beauty. Our morning began in the shadow of Kibo – Kili’s tallest cone. We hopped around in touques and long underwear waiting for breakfast and for the sun to reach into the Baranco valley where we were camped. Once fed (fresh food’s getting a little more “inventive” on day 4 but chef is doing a good job), we started a rigorous ascent of the nearly-vertical Baranco wall. The cliff face was the major obstacle today and at times it posed an intimidating challenge, with hand over hand scrambling and guide assisted climbing a regular occurence.

While the morning was clear, we climbed the wall in the shade, the sun not yet high enough to reach over its summit. Once at the top, however, the equatorial sun had us shedding layers and slathering on sunscreen – Janine and another member of our group got bad sunburns yesterday after only brief exposure.

Kili’s high slopes were now mostly bare of vegetation; little growing on the sandy slopes amidst the volcanic debris. Occassionally, however, we would dip into a sheltered valley where a run-off creek flowed down towards the plains. These were miniature oases in the bare slopes where groundsel and shrubs still flourished and they provided welcome signs of life in an otherwise forbidding  environment.

We stopped for lunch at Karanga Valley, the last water source before the summit. Here again, our porters proved their incredible strength and endurance. 300 litres of water must be gathered here and carried to Barafu camp – 700 meters up, 5 km away and the last stop before the summit. Yet most of them will still race us to camp.

After lunch we made one more long climb to Barafu camp. Here, beneath the snows of Kibo, there is little life on the rocky ground besides what we bring to the campground ourselves. Still, the scene is inspiring – giant ridges of volcanic stone peaking out amidst the mist, deep valleys slicing towards the bottom of the mountain, Mweka peak glowing in the late day light – and the mood excited.

We will eat and sleep here for a few hours before starting a midnight climb to the top of Kibo at Uhuru’s peak. The next time we write to you, it will be from the peak.

Don’t expect much verbosity – we’ll be altitude sick and probably too cold to type.

Still, not bad for a Tuesday morning.

Jason

“No.”

– Gertrude, on whether she was having a good morning.

I am supposed to be drinking three litres of water a day on Kilimanjaro.

This is supposed to help me acclimatize to the altitude of Africa’s tallest mountain.

So far, it seems to be doing a great job of turning me into the mountain’s newest water feature.

I think I got up to pee about 6 times last night. I won’t bother you with how many times I stopped to answer the call of nature on the hike today. Our guide, Jeremy, tell us that good clear urine is a sign that things are going well.

I’m pretty confident I could be considered successful on any urinary criteria at this point – clarity (Swarnovsky crystal), distance (I think I’ve come close to hitting Machame village at the bottom of the mountain a couple of times), ability to write name on the ground (mine and everyone else in our group plus porters). You name the sport at the pee olympics and I’m on the podium.

***

Today dawned clear and beautiful again. Perfect views of Kili, Meru and the ancient volcanic debris fields through which we’d be hiking were our reward for getting up early. We also got a clearer view of the tent city that is Shira Plateau. All around us, fellow hikers were emerging from their nylon cocoons to get ready for the day’s trekking. Porters, guides and cooks scrambled to get their morning’s tasks done as soon as possible and to get their charges on the road. Dozens of languages are heard muttering, cursing and joking as tents are collapsed and bags packed. Swahili music echoes from dozens of hand-held radios – a favourite possession of many porters.

Our group’s mood is bright as we hit the trail towards Baranco camp.

We’ll gain and lose 800 meters today, including a steep ascent up one of Kili’s ancient lava towers, all in an effort to acclimatize for the big hike to the summit that starts at midnight tomorrow. With the hot equatorial sun glowing above us, everyone’s rubbing in sunscreen and hanging damp clothes on their packs as we start to climb.

Once again, the sunny weather isn’t bound to last. Huge banks of cloud press against Kili’s base, at first, far below us. But as the morning goes on, they bubble up towards the summit, eventually overtaking us as we enter a field of huge lava rocks, flecked with brown and green mosses. Soon, we are trekkers in the mist once more.

Jeremy and our assistant guide Oruki, set a slow but unyielding pace.

It’s designed to both get us to camp at a reasonable hour and maximize our bodies’ opportunities for acclimatization. The pinnacle of the day is an hour long lunch break at the Lava Tower. Here at more than 4600 meters, we’re already higher up than the summit of Mount Meru.

And we’ve got the headaches to prove it. Besides the obvious nicities of porter assisted camping, I can’t imagine asking my body to adjust to these heights and carry a full pack. It just wouldn’t fly. As I chug the last of our water, I once again think with admiration about our porters.

They’re probably at camp already by now. Jeremy tells me that they don’t even eat lunch – big breakfast at 5 a.m. and a big dinner before the hikers reach camp. That’s it.

I’m sure today’s hike was beautiful, but I can’t say that I saw so much of it to be certain. The fog grew thick enough that if Kili’s peak had decided to get up and walk away for a few hours, we’d never have known.

The descent from the lava tower was mostly an exercise in keeping one foot solidly in front of the other while listening to the sounds of dozens of glacial streams trickling down the mountain side between groves of giant groundsels silhouetted against the gloom.

When we arrive at Barranco, the porters are just finishing putting up our tent. It’s a welcome shelter from the damp and the pounding headaches Janine and I are both feeling. We gratefully collapse inside and take a nap before emerging for dinner an hour later.

We’ll need all the rest and food we can store in our bodies. If today’s

6 and a half hour walk was tough, it was only a warm up for tomorrow – a

9 hour walk to the Barafu base camp. From there it’s dinner and a few hours sleep before starting the midnight trek to the summit itself – Uhuru peak – the roof of Africa.

If I have the energy, maybe I’ll write my name in the snow.

Jason

“Oh my God, he has milk!”

– Jason

Day one of our Kilimanjaro trek was so busy, I didn’t have time to fall in love with Jeremy. That would have to wait until the morning of day 2.

Jeremy is our chief guide. He’s been climbing Kilimanjaro for 10 years now and he’s as adept at pep talking a group of whiny trekkers up the volcano as he is at commanding a group of 20 macho porters. He knows every bird, every plant on the Kili by its latin name and he could probably walk each of the 5 or so routes up the mountain in his sleep.

But this is not what made me fall in love with him.

I fell in love with Jeremy at 6:33 a.m. this morning when he crouched

down in front of our tent door and asked Janine and I whether we would

like a cup of tea in bed before starting our day.

Janine and I looked at each other for a moment, half-dumb with sleep, half dumb with incredulity. “Sure.” we said slowly, sitting up in our sleeping bags carefully, as if this were a dream that could end if we moved too quickly. Then, since if it were a dream it might as well be a good one, I asked if Jeremy might have some milk for the tea.

“Milk? Yes, no problem!” And sure enough, in came two hands through the tent door, each holding a steaming cup of tea with milk.

Ain’t love grand?

***

Stepping out of our tent, we were greeted with our first unobstructed views of Kili’s peak in the dawn light. It looked magnificent – its great inverted bowl splashed with snow and ice, glowing rose in the early morning sun.

It also looked far. And high.

The day’s walk took us on through Kili’s alpine heath and moorland zone

– an exotic wilderness completely different from anything we’ve seen before. The big trees of the cloud forest had disappeared. But the dampness of the area still supported an incredible diversity of flora.

Near the ground, giant heather, wild rosemary and numerous grass and sedge poke out from around volcanic rocks. The big plants are not yet completely left behind. The most impressive are the lobelia deckenii – which looks something like a young pineapple tree at its base, but then sprouts up a tall cone as much as 6 feet high – and the graceful and strange Senecio kilimanjari, or, giant groundsel. Mature groundsels can be more than 12 feet tall with a single stalk at their base often branching out into four or more flowering stalks near their top. They look undoubtedly tropical and make for a jarring foreground against the backdrop of Kili’s heights.

As we climb, we look back over our shoulders to see clouds chasing us rapidly uphill. Before our first break, tendrils of mist are snaking by our feet and soon we are enveloped in wet cloud. It’s another new sensation. Usually rain comes at you from above. Here, it attacks from below.

While our group stops to haul on rain gear, porters pass us by, their feet seeming to stick to the slickening rocks despite the huge loads on their heads and shoulders. No doubt, they’ll beat us to camp again today.

I’m from the Atlantic coast, so I’ve seen my share of fog. But the weather that rolled over us yesterday would have had any Newfoundland sea captain squinting to see 5 feet in front of him. I’d often look up from my feet and experience the momentary weird sensation of being completely alone, encapsulated in a grey haze, no other trekkers, only the outlines of a few large stones or groundsel sharing the mountain with me. The feeling was usually dispelled by Jeremy materializing out of the mist to round up the group and check us for any signs of altitude sickness.

Throughout the day, we hopscotched along the trail with Gertrude, a 72 year old dutch grandmother now residing in Manitoba. Sporting a t-shirt with a picture of her grandkids on it, she was making her way slowly but surely up the mountain. Not that she was overjoyed about it. “How are you doing Gertrude?” we’d ask. “Tired,” she say shortly.

“Maybe next time you’ll have the grandkids with you!” we’d say cheerfully.

“No next time for me.” she said.

Oh well. I guess if I’m climbing mountains when I’m 72 I’ll feel entitled to tell it like it is too.

***

“Welcome to Shira Plateau,” says Jeremy, turning around suddenly.

We look at the fog, not seeing anything different at first. But then, as the mist swirls and shifts, outlines of tents become visible and the sounds of voices begin to emerge from the nylon and grey.

Our mess tent is already set up and tea is on the table. Good thing too.

Climbing 800 meters in these wet conditions and at this altitude has been more draining then I would have guessed. We rest and sip hot drinks, chatting about the days challenges and sights.

While we do, the weather changes again. The mist evaporates and the clouds that have enveloped us all day seem to slide back down the mountain. We step out of the mess tent and are treated to a spectacular panoram. On one horizon, the perfect cone of Mount Meru, Tanzania’s second highest peak is outlined through the remaining clouds. On the other, Kili’s peak glows deep brown, gold and white in the setting sun.

Still majestic.

Still far.

Jason

“Hey! You’re peeing on Kilimanjaro!”

– Jason to Janine at the first rest stop

(First, a quick note to our regular readers – we will catch you up on our Uluguru and Udzungwa Mtn. adventures in a few days. But for now, we thought you’d like to follow along with us “live” as we try to climb Africa’s tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. Today is day one of the journey).

“That man has lawn chairs on his head.” I mutter to Janine through shallow breaths on Mount Kilimanjaro.

The porter strolls past us with 4 folded lawnchairs balanced on his noggin, to be precise. And a folding camp table. And a 20 pound rucksack

on his shoulders. His sneaker soles flip flop against the bottoms of his feet as he walks by in the driving rain.

I feel more than a twinge of guilt. Encased in my fortress of gore-tex and waterproofed leather boots, I carry only a light day pack containing my warm fleece and a lunch.

Another jeans and t-shirt wearing porter walks by me with a 30 litre propane tank.

That’s it. I start to walk a little faster. Ahead of me, before he even sees me move, Oruki, our assistant guide mutters a cautionary “pole, pole” (slowly slowly).

It’s the mantra of Kilimanjaro trekking guides and everybody else that attempts to climb up onto the roof of Africa.

We weren’t sure we’d end up doing this hike. First of all, it’s expensive. Budget hikes start around $1,000 a person. You can travel for a long time in a lot of places on $1000. Second, despite its mystique, Kili also has a certain “touristy” flavour to it. You’ll see more Muzungus here in a day than you will in a month in other parts of Tanzania. There are plenty of off the beaten path destinations where you can trek for a fraction of the price and not see another white face for the duration.

But flying over or driving past Kilimanjaro has a way of challenging

your ideas about whether you should pony up the cash. As we passed the mountain on the bus, its massive cone, even partially covered in cloud, exerted a strong pull on our imagination. When we finally stopped staring out the window and looked at each other, Janine and I hardly needed to speak.

We were going.

***

The early afternoon air at Kilimanjaro’s Machame gate is thick with mist and the sounds of porters arranging their loads and jockeying over who will take what. Our group of 8 trekkers – 4 Czechs, an Australian, an American and the two of us – makes for quite the trekking party. All together, 17 men are assembled to see us up the mountain – cooks, porters, guides and assistant guides. They lug everything from huge baskets of vegetables, large primus stoves, jerry cans of fuel and mess tents. Typically, each man carries something on his shoulders (such as one our 75 litre backpacks) and something on his head. Heavily muscled and definitely walking with a certain swagger, they can be a little intimidating. But quite frankly, they’ve earned it.

While our head guide Jeremy deals with last minute paper work, we set out with the assistant guide Oruki, up the mountain. Within seconds, the busy scene at the gate is left behind and we are strolling through Kili’s moss-encrusted cloud forest. Tall, thin trees stretch up until they are lost in the mist and I suddenly feel like I’m back on the West Coast Trail in Canada, minus the giant sitka spruce. Strange bird calls echo through the trees. It’s hard to believe we’re already at 1800 meters. By the end of the day, we’ll be camping at 3000. Back home, that would be glacier territory. But here, we’ll still be below tree line.

The path climbs gently but steadily. Kili’s summit at 5800 meters may be short compared to the monsters of the Himalayas, but the peak is still higher than Everest base camp. Therefore acclimatization is a must and Oruki sets a deliberately slow pace designed to give our bodies time to adjust to the high altitude.

Rests to drink water are frequent. We’re supposed to consume three litres each a day – an astronomical figure for me and my granny bladder.

But, again, we put our trust in the professionals and chug dutifully. As a result, soon the rest stops are being used for more than just drinking. At one bathroom break, clouds roiling below us and another heavy bank rolling in above us, I’m suddenly struck by the fact that we’re actually here and actually climbing the mountain.

“Hey!” I call to Janine, “You’re peeing on Kilimanjaro!”

“Yay!” I hear from behind a bush.

***

Our mood gets a little damper when the rain starts. Although this is supposed to be the dry season on Kili, the rains have come early (the guides tell us that seasons here have been noticeably off in the past several years). Mist soon transforms to patter and then a downpour that has the whole group reaching for ponchos and rain jackets. The porters barely break stride and are soon well ahead of us on the road to camp.

In the last hour or so of walking, we leave the cloud forest and enter a strange new zone of giant heather. I’ve never seen trees anything like it before and will frankly have to consult my field guide before I can give you a more detailed description. It’s an alien landscape that, emerging from the ongoing thick fog makes an unforgettable impression.

When we reach our stop for the night at 3000 meters, we get our first taste of the glory that is porter-assisted camping. Porters gather around to see how we set up our tents. From here on in, they tell us, they’ll have them set up before we reach camp. A large mess tent is set up in the middle of our site, containing tables, chairs and a heaping bowl of popcorn for us to snack on while dinner is being finished.

Carafes of tea and coffee steam. Large bowls of hot water are given to each camper for hand and face washing. I enjoy mine as much for the heat as the cleanliness.

Dinner is 3 course affair of soup, fresh beef, vegetables and a fruit dessert. “This is better than we’ve eaten in a lot of Tanzanian restaurants,” Janine says between mouthfuls. Heads nod around the table.

After the cooking crew has taken away the last bowls and plates, we all go our separate ways to bed. It’s a big group, and I sense that it will take a few days for the new friendships to form and the language barriers to be overcome. Right now, everyone’s too tired to make much of an effort beyond basic nicities.

The sky starts to clear as we duck into our tent. Brilliant stars peak out from behind the last few racing clouds. The porters are bedding down in the mess tent in a flurry of shouts, jokes and jockeying for position. Somewhere, more than 2 and a half kilometers further up and roughly 2 and half thousand bathroom breaks away, Uhuru peak waits.

Jason

This car is protected by the blood of Christ!

– Dar Es Salaam Bumpersticker

In case you’re in doubt that you’re finally about to arrive in East Africa after months of planning and years of dreaming, looking out your plane window and seeing the snowy peak of Mount Kilimanjaro below you is a wonderful alternative to pinching yourself.

There was some trepidation and even a little sadness about leaving Egypt. One last hair-raising cab ride through the streets of Cairo. One last bemusing walk through Egyptian security (I’m fairly confident I could have been carrying a cold-fusion device and King Tut’s mummy in my backpack and the bored-looking officials at the baggage scanner wouldn’t have noticed) and the all night flight to Tanzania can begin.

We settle into our Kenya Airways seats with the small bag of snacks we purchased at Cairo Airport in order to clear out our Egyptian currency supply (thanks to airport prices this was depressingly easy – I probably could have built a school in a rural Egyptian village for what I spent on Pringles). Somewhere out beyond that dark tarmac are the pyramids, temples, deserts, reefs and people who have dazzled us for the past two months. Egypt is about to become history for Janine and I. But with a little melancholy, we realize that it’s also become home.

***
One midnight dinner, three awkward naps in the middle seat and an abbreviated viewing of “Rush Hour 3” later, and we’re gawking at Kilimanjaro while munching on a delightful airline breakfast of something-omlettes and mystery-sausage. Another 45 minutes and we are touching down in Tanzania’s capital of Dar Es Salaam.

A whole new culture, language, people, food, customs and currency await us. Gripping our swahili phrasebook and Tanzanian travel guide like life preservers, we step out of our plane into the muggy morning sunlight. Though it’s only 8 a.m., the heat is already intense. Sweat beads positively jump out of every pore and orifice and I swear that I lose 4 pounds on the 2 minute bus ride from the bottom of the plane stairs to the terminal. Egypt was positively frigid compared to this.

Still, red-eyed, sweaty and exhausted, we’re grinning.

We’re in Tanzania

***

Dar is so hot that afternoon that it only permits my heat-addled brain two thoughts as I wander its streets in search of transportation to our first destination within Tanzania. The first thought is “Jesus, it’s hot here. ” The second thought is “Jesus, it’s different here.”

For one thing, women are everywhere – brightly coloured, talking freely to men, working. This in itself is a stunning change from Egypt, where in many towns it often felt like a giant retractable claw would descend from the sky to scoop up all the females just before we got there.

For another thing, there’s a whole new way to get killed crossing the street here. In contrast to Egypt’s nominal adherence to a “right hand side of the road” policy, Tanzania has adopted the British left hand side method. This doesn’t sound like a big adjustment, but after 30 years of looking left THEN right before strolling across the street training yourself to reverse the action is harder than you’d think. At the very least, the chances of me leaving the country with a bike tire mark decorating the centre of my forehead are pretty good.

We’re eager to start our travels and so are not spending much time in Dar – one day to recover from the overnight flight and then we move on. Our first destination with Tanzania is the southwestern town of Morogoro, nestled into the foothills of the Uluguru Mountains. Here, we hope to get in touch with the “real Tanzania” right off the bat by
hiking to and staying in some of the rural mountain villages where people still live traditional lifestyles.

Now the only thing to do is figure out how to get there. This means a choice between Tan’s notoriously slow and unpredictable train system and its notoriously reckless and unsafe bus system. Either way, I have to hit the streets of Dar to figure it all out.

Leaving Janine to catch some rest at the hotel, I hike 15 minutes across town in the blistering afternoon heat to the train station. Sure enough, there’s a train leaving tomorrow evening. But it takes 6 hours to cover the 190 km to Morogoro and is double the cost of a bus ticket. That makes my decision easy, but not my attitude – the bus station is 15 minutes walk in the opposite direction from our hotel. By the time I backtrack there I look like a reject from a wet t-shirt contest. I purchase 2 tickets for Morogoro and then stand in the lobby looking out at the heatwaves wafting up from the asphalt. Our bus company is supposed to be the safest in the country. But it’s name – Scandanavia Express – conjures torturing images of cool nordic fjords, beer and
curling rinks that only increase my perspiration levels. I crack and take a taxi back to the hotel.

Though I could swear that my mouth is sweating, at the fist red light, I conjure up the energy to ask my driver if this kind of heat is normal for Dar Es Salaam.

“Oh no!” he shouts over his shoulder and the din of the swahili hip hop blaring from the radio. “Today very hot! Even for Tanzanians!”

Thank God, I think, my mood instantly improved with the prospect of more sane temperatures in the days ahead. Employing my favourite conversation starter from Egypt, I tell him that it can get down to 15 below zero in my hometown at this time of year. He jumps in his seat as if its suddenly become full of tacks. “Ayeyee!” he laughs with a simultaneous shudder.

His interest caught, my driver looks back at me with a big grin that has me instantly reciprocating. “Where are you from?” he asks. The bumper sticker on the vehicle ahead of us proclaims “This car is protected by the blood of Christ!”

“Canada!” I shout back happily. A woman walks down the side walk with half a dozen 8 foot iron rebars balanced on her head.

“Karibuni! Welcome to Tanzania!” the driver says with genuine warmth extending his hand for a shake. Barefoot kids walk between the idling cars selling water and newspapers. “And where are you going next?”

He’s not trying to sell me anything or pump me for information. He’s just being friendly. I’ll soon come to know this as typical Tanzanian behavior. But for now, I just have a feeling that I’m going to like this place.

I lean forward to grip his hand, my back making a distinctive peeling sound as it leaves the seat’s apholstry. “Dar Es Salaam today,” I say, revelling in the new names, the new people, and hell, maybe, just for a second, even the new weather. “Morogoro tomorrow!”

 Mubarak Mosaic

And farewell to you Mr. Mural President. Thank you for watching over us constantly during our stay.

Shall we have another milkshake?

– Jason, flaked out on a lounge chair by the sea

The rhythm of life in Dahab gets into your bones. Everything seems to slow down and stretch out. Our two weeks here have recharged us; like a home away from home.

Each day we roll out of bed to another bright blue sky and a bluer ocean framed by red mountains. We spend long breakfasts propped up on large pillows at the Funny Mummy, next to the water. The cats provide entertainment, particularly our favorite, a scrappy tabby kitten we call PV (Piss and Vinegar) for the attitude he shows to older cats who would dare to share our affections and our breakfast. A squirt gun on the table keeps the possee out of our breakfast, a studied distance away.

 P&V

PV (Piss and Vinegar). Don’t be mislead by his size. This guy’s a phrasebook-eating killer.

It is often early afternoon before we gather our things and stroll along the beach to the other side of town to our favorite lounge chairs on the water, where we set up for the rest of the day, reading, jounalling, snorkelling and napping.

Yes, Dahab’s a great place to relax, savour our experiences in Egypt and prepare for the next adventure.

Over the last two months, we have filled our bellies with countless shwarmas and falafels, the staples of all budget travellers to the middle east. We have gorged on oranges and pomegranates that taste nothing like they did at home, and developed a teeth-rotting addiction to small glasses of very strong shai tea, saturated with sugar.

We’ve come to believe that blue skies every day are as constant as touts trying to part us from our money at every turn. And our limited by useful traveller’s arabic is as good as it’s going to get, with “la shokran” (no, thank you), still the most useful phrase by a landslide.

We have eagerly delved into the fascinating cultures of the Berber, Nubian and Beduin people, stewards of the desert, west south and east; and developed an admiration for the seething, functioning chaos of Egypt’s cities.

We came to Egypt with eagerness to experience the ancient wonders. But as is the way with travel, the unexpected discoveries were the best part. From our glimpses into real Egyptian life, to the ever-changing drama of the desert, to the coral reefs beneath the waves of the Red Sea.

We have loved Egypt.

But now it is time for us to go. Bending back the shiny covers of our guidebooks for Tanzania, Uganda and Madagascar (Kenya has been sadly shelved for now) has made us eager for new sights. The wish list of activities in East Africa is growing quickly and plans are forming for our first few weeks in Tanzania.

So farewell, beautiful, chaotic wonderful Egypt. Insh’allah, we will meet again.

Janine

Diving in the Red Sea 

 Jason and Janine, Guppy Level Divers

Oh, life is better, down where it’s wetter, under da sea!

– Sebastian the crab in “The Little Mermaid”

My camel is an asshole.

– Jason

 

“Ya man, you can start tomorrow”, our dive instructor Fikry assured us.  A day of profound laziness on the beach in Dahab had recharged our batteries after two weeks on the move through Israel and Jordan.  But after all, relaxation is a secondary goal to what prompted us to return to the Red Sea and delay our flight to Tanzania. 

 We are here to dive.

Perky and bristling with academic competitiveness, we arrived at Desert Divers diving school for the first day of our Open Water diving course.  The end of our first day of textbooks and videos left us blinking in the bright sunshine as we emerged from the classroom.  A 200m swim and 10 minutes of water-treading was the last test before the real water work could begin.  “Tomorrow morning we make our first dive”, Fikry informed us as he gave us a homework assignment. Grinning through chattering teeth, we trotted home to hot showers.  

***

“Okay guys, buddy check”, we were instructed as we stood sheathed in neoprene and hunched under the bulk of full scuba gear, with numerous hoses and guages dangling around our shoulders.  A 12 kg weight belt dug into our hips to control our buoyancy.  A heavy aluminum air tank attached to our life vest or “buoyancy control device” was topped with an “octopus”, the bewildering array of hoses that are all about the air…main air, backup air, BCD inflating air, and of course, an air guage to keep track of all that air.

For the next few days thanks to Fikry’s patience and confidence-inspiring calmness we learned all kinds of new underwater tricks.  Take regulator out of mouth, put it back in.  Take mask off, put it back on, clear out the water.  Take scuba tank and BCD off, put it back on.  We learned the freaky feeling when your tank runs out of air and we practiced breathing from our buddy’s backup.  We alternatively bobbed and sank as we learned to achieve optimum buoyancy, that magical place where you neither sink nor float, but hover motionless in the water. 

As I like to imagine it, we learned how to fly. 

That’s all I could think about as we began the third dive of our Advanced Open Water Course at the Blue Hole.  The Blue Hole is a world renowned dive spot, with reefs stretching along the shore, which you follow until you reach the “Hole”, a coral donut over 30 feet across.  The reef plummets for over 1 km into the depths, making it our first “bottomless dive”. 

Divers call this being in the “Blue”.  It means you get to fly. 

Holding my arms out to either side I kicked slowly as I flew gracefully over the Blue and alongside the stunning vertical reef, the coral’s infinite colours and shapes and pulsing schools of fish fading into the sapphire depths below me. 

Glancing over my shoulder into blue nothingness, the bulky shape of a 1.5 m long Napolean wrasse materialized.  He seemed to know share my feelings as he swam a graceful summersault in the water and vanished slowly back into the Blue.

 ***

“So what’s it like being narked?” I asked Fikry as we waded into the water at the Canyon Reef for our Deep Dive.  As an Advanced Open Water diver, you can achieve depths of 30m.  At this depth, the amount of nitrogen that dissolves in your blood increases to levels that can induce “nitrogen narcosis”.  It’s like being drunk, apparently.  A euphoric feeling and an inability to do simple math.  Cool.  Bring on the narcosis.

At a depth of 22m, you reach the top of the Canyon.  Already deep by guppy-diver standards, we hovered over the blue and one by one, descended slowly and vertically between the walls of coral to 30m.  The sound of my air bubbles became muffled and tinny as the water pressure increased with depth.  At the sandy bottom we played games to test our narcosis, which we passed with flying colours, I’m almost certain. 

 We swam along the bottom, then up through a tunnel in the reef, through swarms of bright orange soldier fish and silver glassfish and into the dappled sunlight under the waves.

***

The camel we call “Hockey” after it’s burden of hockey bags, launched into an akward sprint after getting yet another bite on the arse from Jason’s ornry camel.  

Ras Abu Galum is a spectacular reef set in a remote bay north of Dahab. The reef is reached by loading oxygen tanks and hockey bags full of scuba gear onto a caravan of camels.  After laughing at the absudity of a camel laden with hockey bags, you climb on a prone camel and hang on for dear life as with a herky-jerky motion you are thrust 8 feet in the air atop the spindly-legged beast.  For an hour we followed the craggy coast, as the sheer mountains rise from the sea.  I sympathize with Hockey.  My behind was tender at the end of the walk too. 

 A community of Beduin people live in huts in the spectacular bay of Ras Abu Galum.  They hosted us with kindness and an abundance of wonderful food.  We whiled away the day diving, eating and lounging in the bright sunshine. 

Beneath the waves, the reef of Ras Abu Galum slopes gently out to sea, and a stunning density and variety of coral carpets the sandy bottom.  Huge fan corals living atop columns complete the picture of a coral forest.  Fish of all kinds shelter beneath the spreading branches.  A broad vertical column of varied corals swarms with fish of all colours that envelop us as we approach for a closer look.

***

The most difficult thing about diving is knowing what to look for.  Trying to take in the large, the small, the bright and the hidden is dizzying.  As I marvel at the overall topography and colour of the reef, my eye is drawn to the large and bright fish swimming lazily around.  Closer looks at individual areas of the reef reveal a dazzling variety of corals, some larger than I am, many only tiny blossoms smaller than my palm.  In one tiny lavendar coral, a whole ecosystem undulates as little purple fish take shelter in their tiny like-coloured universe. 

If you can tear your eyes from the bright colours, you begin to uncover an entirely other world.  Sand-coloured moray eels curl up invisible on the bottom.  Small stingrays blend seamlessly with their environment.  And our most exciting discovery, a brown and white spotted octapus, tucked into a hole in the coral spies us and withdraws, instantly and simultaneously changing colour, shape and texture to match his hiding place with exquisite perfection. 

With a reluctance magnified by the oppressive weight of water-logged scuba gear, we emerge from the water and slowly trudge up the rocky beach, grateful that this magical world has been revealed to us at last. 

 

Janine

“Let’s go to Wadi Rum Cappuccino!”

– Jason and Janine

“So, let’s go to Wadi Rum!” I say to Janine, suddenly feeling decisive.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’ve watched the CNN International news cycle 4 times in a row and now know why the 24 hour news stations salivate for anything remotely ressembling something new to talk about – they only have 4 news cycles before their devoted viewers start punching themselves in the face to alleviate the boredom.

Janine is enthusiastic. “Sure!” she says sitting up on the bed. Like me, she loves this freedom of independent travel. Go where you want whenever you run out of t.v. to watch (or, in Janine’s case, whenever you come out of the delightful semi-coma that a luxurious turkish bath has placed you in).

So it’s off to the deserts of Wadi Rum for us tomorrow. Now, all we need to do is arrange a two hour drive to the national protected area gate and from there a 4×4 tour of gate and from there a 4×4 tour of the desert itself.

It’s 10:00 p.m.

The internet has truly changed travel. Within an hour, we’ve roused the dozing front desk boy, gotten him to boot up a terminal at the hotel’s web cafe and looked up references for a Wadi Rum guiding service. Still, it’s a rush job and while we’ve found a few seemingly reliable sources that speak well of Jordan Caravans, I’m a little nervous about calling them – this is a little less research than I’d like to do before going into the desert with someone. As you may know, dear reader, we’ve been burned on this before.

My anxiety is mixed with a nice dose of embarassment when it becomes I clear that I’ve woken the man on the other end of the line out of a comfortable night’s sleep. Still, he doesn’t sound too fussed about the intrusion and we quickly make arrangements for an overnight tour of Wadi Rum complete with hotel pick up the next morning and drop off at the Aqaba ferry to Egypt at trip’s end.

“Done!” I say to Janine with a smile, putting away the phone.

“Yay!” she says, grinning.

“I hope he shows up in the morning!” I say, still smiling..

“Yeah!” she says, still grinning.

***

His name is Ayman and he shows up right on time. It’s a telling sign.

Ayman is yet another friendly young Jordanian. His family runs Jordan Caravans, and as we meet more of them during the day, it becomes obvious that they are as warm and tight-knit as they are professional.

During our first tea break at a roadside cafe an hour into the trip, we cross paths with Ayman’s cousin Rayad, who I have to admit, is a good-looking 27 year old, sporting a battered Indian Jones hat that matches his overall cowboy air. Rayad is guiding a Dane named Morton, who works with an NGO in Gaza. Morton sighs when we ask him about the situation there, telling us about the lack of basic humanitarian supplies being allowed into the country and the suffering and anger it’s causing among the anger it’s causing among the ordinary people there.

I’m sure Morton could easily have predicted the crisis at the Egypt/Gaza border which erupted a couple of weeks after our talk. But it was clear to me that he was trying to leave behind some of the sadnesses of his job for at least a few days, so we turned the conversation over to Ryad, who couldn’t wait to explain the origin of Ayman’s nickname “Cappuccino”. Ayman obligingly rolled his eyes and smiled shyly while his cousin told of how a certain French expedition into Wadi Rum several years ago had mysteriously run out of cappuccino much earlier in the trip than anticipated. The mystery remained unsolved until a young and red-eyed Ayman (who had never been exposed to the wiles of the beverage before this trip) was discovered to have been staying up late every night to brew extra cups for himself. The family has never let him forget it.

“So! No more Ayman!” says Ryad, eyeing us with a serious tone that doesn’t match his big grin. “From now on – Cappuccino!”

We obligingly quaff the rest of our tea and stand up from the table.

“Let’s go to Wadi Rum Cappuccino!”

***

Some of the deserts we saw in Egypt would easily surpass what we saw of Wadi Rum in terms of their strangeness and overall otherworldly feel.

But what really impressed me about Wadi Rum was its brute size. Its red mountains erupt out the coarse sands to staggering heights. It’s not like the volcanic cones of the Black Desert or even the rugged ancient sea bed of the Western Desert, where you get some glimmer of understanding as to how the place came to be. To the layperson, there’s seemingly no reason why Wadi Rum should be so monumental in scale. It just is, and I feel like our Toyota is a little white beetle scurrying around a giant’s feet as Ayman pilots us through the giant massifs.

Its size does not mean Wadi Rum is ungraceful. Great natural arches soar over the desert floor, benevolently letting Janine and I crawl high up onto their bent backs to survey the land and take pictures. The sand shifts colours rom red to yellow, to grey and blue several times over the drive. And always there are more mountains on the horizon, shadowed and layered, one set behind the other in the setting sun.

After our drive, we are taken to the Jordan Caravan camp. where we sit around a roaring campfire with more members of Capuccino’s family (who are delighted that we already know our guide’s nickname) and two wonderful travellers from Norway – Eli and Stig. Eli goes a pretty good sell job on us on the beautfy of Norway (it may now get added to the list of travel destinations) and we are both awed by Stig’s catalogue of outdoor adventures, which include ascents of Aconcagua and unsupported ski trips across the Greenland icecap, all told in the understated, unassuming manner of anoutdoorsman who you just instantly respect. I make a pitch for him to come to Canada for his next trip (he’s looking to do some serious white wter and I figure Nahanni might suit him perfectly).

But I’m probably just sucking up in the hopes that he’ll take us with him.

Past our delicious Beduin supper an dnto the cold desert evening, we exchange our Thelon stories for Stig’s Mount McKinley stores, our descriptions of Canadian wilderness for Eli’s pictures of Norway, until it’s time for bed. If it weren’t for the early day tomorrow to catch the ferry. I think we’d have stayed up all night.

Beyond, the glow of the campfire and beneath an obscene amount of blankets, two twin beds await us in a thatch-roofed hut. We wriggle underneath the covers and turn out our headlamps.

“Stig is cool.” I say to Janine in the darkness.

“Yeah.” she says quietly. “And couldn’t you just eat Eli up?”

I could, and it drives home one of the little sad things about travel.

When you meet great people, it’s often for a short period of time, and you’re often saying goodbye just as you get to know them . I suppose the same is true for when you meet dorks. But we’ve met way more nice people than dorks, so the rule doesn’t work out fairly.

I watch my breath puff out white in the gloom of the hut and take some solace from the knowledge that another bunch of great people await us at our next destination.

“Hey Janine. Want to go back to Egypt tomorrow?”

“Sure!”

Jason

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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