An adventure in Africa was the final item on a bucket list of items I left my job at DreamWorks to pursue. After an IronMan triathlon in New Zealand, a road trip up through California to compete in my 3rd Wildflower half IronMan and visit my best friend in Humboldt, a barrage of training days preparing for a first attempt at a 100 mile trail run at the San Diego 100, a surfing trip to Nicaragua, the ultimately failed attempt at the 100 miler, a trip to Colorado for the Leadville marathon, which I ended up not running for fear of worsening the condition that plagued me at the SD100, hiking the John Muir trail from Yosemite to Whitney Portal, a road trip across the midwest from SoCal to Bishop, through lake Mono to Bridgeport, cycling up Tioga Pass to Toulomne meadows, driving across Nevada and Utah to Moab and Arches National Park, checking out Mesa and Vail, Colorado, Escalante and Bryce, Utah, to Lake Tahoe, CA to volunteer at the first IronMan there, finally a trip to Africa was the last item on my list of to-dos. The plan was to spend 1 month, flying into Nairobi, Kenya, busing to Kilimanjaro to climb the highest mountain in Africa, then relax in the warmth of Zanzibar island, and spend a week on safari in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro.
On Thursday September 29, 2 days before my best friend’s wedding and 3 days before my scheduled departure to Tanzania for an African mountain climbing and Safari adventure, a simple accident left me in the hospital with two lost teeth, a broken shoulder, a bloodied nose, two black eyes, and an upper body that was shocked into crippling tightness and pain. I was out on an overnight backpacking trip with the upcoming wedding’s groom-to-be and a mutual friend, and his dog. We were en-route to an old camping spot where there was a hot spring in the Sespe wilderness. A beautiful cool night with a nearly full moon, we were more than halfway to the camping sight when I broke into a run ahead of my friends and fell face first into the ground. I didn’t understand what happened to me until I woke up hours later in my sleeping bag right next to the sight of the accident. My friends had helped me get into my bag and we slept it out right there on the trail until sunrise.
At first I was, not without fear, committed to making the trip to Africa at the scheduled time. I had already invested at least $6,000 in the trip. I had purchased an insurance policy on the flight, but not for the mountain expedition or the safari. The latter were both non-refundable and could not be rescheduled (officially).
There were two of us going, myself and Cynthie Cuno. She had also suffered a crippling injury to her ligaments around her ankle at he beginning of the month, but was resolved to suffer through it and make the mountain expedition at the originally scheduled time. I was less willing to take risks with my injuries, so we submitted a claim for the insurance on our flight, bought new tickets, were graciously re-scheduled by G adventures free of charge to change the date of the Kilimanjaro climb to 3 weeks later, skipped going to Kenya, and flew instead right into Kilimanjaro to start the Safari on the originally scheduled date of October 14. I was a little bit relieved to be skipping the sight of the mall shooting in Nairobi only 1 week prior.
On October 12 we were off. A short walk to the subway and a train to Union Station, then a flyaway shuttle to LAX and we embarked on a 28 hour airplane Odyssey that ended with a ride into Kilimanjaro airport where I sat next to a local mountain guide who had been vacationing in the Alps in Germany. His name was Othuman and he said he had completed the Kilimanjaro trek in as few as 17 hours, at the request of two clients he had a while back. I decided that one day I would come back and hire him to get me up and down that mountain in a single day.
Othuman got us a reduced fare ride from the airport into Arusha, where we checked into our hotel. Along the way we noted the proliferation of vodacom and coca cola signs. It’s amazing how Coca Cola has influence everywhere I’ve been in the world. A little bit disheartening how the Western capitalism has infiltrated this place, to the point where it is more prolific than any kind of local business. The unemployment rate is high here at around 70%. There are tons of people walking the streets in the towns, going about their days and trying to make a living. Our guides say this is the way of life they are used to here. It’s not that the people are in famine. In fact, most of them are well dressed and healthy looking. Well fed. The crime rate is reportedly low, and while they will acost tourists with great gusto attempting to sell their goods and services, they don’t seem to pose a theft threat, or any other kind of threat.
The Outpost Lodge was a great hotel with a small pool and a nice restaurant that served delicious food at reasonable prices. The beds were draped in mosquito nets and monkeys could be seen outside.
If you haven’t been to the great plains, say Kansas (which I haven’t) then the Serengeti is striking in its expansiveness. It’s the first time I felt like I was in an ocean of land, reaching out as far as the eye could see in all directions. Driving through it, I felt a great sense of satisfaction that I had come to a place worth visiting, vastly different than anyplace I had been before, The land was populated by great herds of zebras and gazelles. Occasionally, families of elephants could be seen lumbering across the great plains far in the distance, like giant boulders crawling along. Giraffe’s stood gracefully and most serenely, chomping on thorny tree brush while birds plucked at their teeth. They are so zen.
The safari included a short stopover into a Masai village and into their homes. The Masai are the largest remaining tribes people in Tanzania, who still hold on to their old way of life, off the grid, living their nomadic, goat herding lifestyles. You can see their villages as you drive the roads between Arusha and the Serengeti. And the young men walking with their walking sticks, garbed in bright blue or red and walking in their sandals made from old car tires,shepherding their herds. They live in mud/straw huts which are built by the wives. They walk long distances to get water, and have very little in the way of possessions, though we did learn that cell phones are becoming popular to have, if for no other reason than the novelty of being able to call a friend.
After safari, we flew from Kilimanjaro to Zanzibar, a quick 1 hour plane ride into warm tropical paradise and one of the world’s greatest sources of spices. I was constantly delighted throughout the trip at how great the food was. I realized why so much of Western Europe’s history has to do with the import of spices from places like Africa. They make food so much more exciting, and in East Africa they have a great selection of spices which they use to delectable effect. We went on tour of one of the spice farms on Zanzibar island, and on the one farm, so no fewer than all of the following: nutmeg, cardamon, jackfruit, coconut, vanilla bean, lemongrass, cacao, ginger, cloves, lipstick, turmeric, iodine, saffron and others. We stayed in stone town, which is the commercial center and capital of the island nation. It was a bustling small town right on the water’s edge, with tons of shops and cafes. We stayed only three nights, but that felt like enough to take in the atmosphere in town, and take a 1-day sailing trip out to one of the smaller surrounding islands, for snorkeling (some of the best I’ve done) and swimming in very warm, clear water.
After 4 days on Zanzibar, we had a longer trip through Dar Es Salaam back to Kilimanjaro airport, and a 35km taxi drive to the town of Moshi, at the foot of Kilimanjaro. We stayed along a rough dirt road across from a German built railway which used to carry coffee from Moshi for export from Dar Es Salaam. The staff at the hotel seemed to outnumber guests and were incredibly friendly and helpful. They wanted us to learn to greet each other in Swahili, so were always greeting us in that way, with big smiles on their faces. We had 2 days to relax and prepare for the central purpose of our trip, which was to climb the highest mountain in Africa. We passed the time walking around town, and enjoying the chocolate covered coconut Bounty bars, and Stoney Tangawizi Coca Cola drink, a strong ginger soda which is delicious and only available in East Africa, and costs only 600 shillings at one location we identified (1600 shillings was $1 in US currency).
We did poorly to understand the trips we had booked before we came, because the safari and the mountain expedition each ended up being 1 day shorter than we expected, so our 8-day Machame route up and down Kilimanjaro ended up being a 7 day trip, but only 6 of those days are spent walking on the mountain. It was the 2nd hardest of several routes up the mountain, and included some climbing that required you to use your hands. The walking begins low underneath dense jungle inhabited by monkeys and ravens. The vegetation becomes alien as you ascend out from the jungle into the alpine forests. You ascend up to and then above cloud level, with the glacier capped peak always towering above you. We stayed behind our guides, who set what sometimes felt like an abysmally slow pace. For days the locals in Moshi had been telling us to Pole Pole (slowly slowly) up the mountain, so I resolved to adhere to their slow pace in hopes it would save me for the highest altitudes. It was my intention to complete the trip without taking any altitude medications.
At some point around 12,000 feet, two days before making the final push for the top, I felt the sense of awe and beauty and satisfaction at being on a high mountain always brings. This is the best time of the trip for me, when you are already there, looking up and seeing how much farther and how unfathomable it looks to get to the top, passed those imposing vertical cliffs on the front side. The air thins, the sunlight burns, and your breathing labors, and you have the excitement of the unknown ahead of you. We had it easy because the porters carried all of our supplies for us on their heads, walking up at 3 times our pace ahead of us to set up our tents and cook us dinner. The only thing I could really complain about was how incredibly dusty it is up there. The volvanic rock polverizes down to a very fine powder that permeates through everything on the mountain, and you can never keep clean while on the mountain.
The final push began after the 4th day of walking. Going to bed at around 6:30pm, at a base camp of around 16,000 feet, it was a fiercely windy night, violently flapping at the walls of your tent that you wake up in at 11pm. After a snack, hiking begins in a long congo line of mountaineers with headlamps on at 12 midnight. With temperatures at 0 F, and a wind chill down to perhaps -15 F, it is very cold while you ascend, ever so slowly, up a very steep mountain, under a blanket of outrageous stars, another ocean of lights in the towns below, and a dark ominous void blacking out the sky in front of you, that is the mountain. It became difficult around 17,000 ft, such that taking 5 steps would have me wanting to stop and take 3 or 4 deep breaths before taking another 5 steps. It was so cold and windy, water in our bottles froze and when we took periodic rest stops, I would begin to shiver even underneath my 3 layers of thermal underwear, polyester base layer and wind proof outer shells. A balaclava covered my mouth and nose. The hours ticked by ever so slowly, we seemed to climb forever in the dark, until the sky finally began to lighten after 5 hours of walking, and I knew the sun was coming. It did so about an hour before we made the summit. It was warmer and strikingly beautiful, but I was getting a slight headache and worrying about the descent. Making the summit itself was like finishing an ultramarathon. I ran the last 100 yards and we cried at the top. It was different from how I felt summiting other mountains like Whitney, but more intense. The descent was the most awesome thing - a loose lava rock covered, 45 degree slope which you could basically ski down with reckless abandon on your boots, kicking up dust, for 2,000 ft. What took 7 hours to go up, was undone in little over 90 minutes.
Due to rapid recovery and the delay in the trip, I pretty much was not bothered at all by my injuries during the climb. Even my gums were healed to the point where I could eat solid food comfortably without use of my false teeth. I was much more concerned for Cynthie, because she wasn’t even close to healed yet in her foot, and was shrieking in pain from time to time just walking short distances in the towns before we even started the mountain trek. The way that the ascent of the mountain is designed, we hike up to a high point during the course of a day, and then descend 1,000 ft or so to a lower camp, where we acclimatize. While Cynthie was handling the uphill very well and keeping up with the group, she was lagging behind on the descents and arriving at camp in great distress. It was incredible to me to think that she would have to descend from 19,300 ft down to less than 4,000 ft on foot. Even my knees and feet hurt making that descent. So, it is with awe and great relief that Cynthie made the summit at the same time I did, and descended the entire mountain with the group on her own 2 feet.
The safari and the mountain trek were group tours organized by G Adventures. I am so grateful for this company’s great work, and that both our groups were composed of such friendly people. The safari and the mountain were both about 12 person groups, with different people each time. We made friends with everybody and the experience in their company was fantastic, I couldn’t imagine doing it without them, they multiplied the enjoyment of it all, with their stories and observations and shared experience. They came from all over, in the UK, Canada, USA, Australia, mainland Europe and Asia, and it so delighted me to make these international friends.
|Fresh Nutmeg on Zanzibar|
Gendi, a trainee server at the Zara (Springlands) hotel, wrote down for me the lyrics of the Kilimanjaro song:
Jamo, Jambo Brana,
habari gani, nzuri sana
kilimanjaro, hakuna matata
ukiende Uhuru, hakuna matata
In the company of lions, and the top of Africa, Kilimanjaro summit at 19,300 feet, it was the journey of a lifetime.
|Sun setting on the Serengeti|