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Conquering Tanzania's Mt. Kilimanjaro
[Travelogue] Gard Karlsen strikes off from Norway in pursuit of Uhuru peak, Africa's highest point
Gard Karlsen (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-10-01 16:22 (KST)   
A porter on Mt. Kilimanjaro
©2004 G. Karlsen


Like most people, I knew about Kilimanjaro but I had never given much thought to climbing it. When Gayle (a friend of my wife Nikki) came to visit us in Norway in early May 2003, she mentioned that she was planning on climbing Kilimanjaro together with her sister Avril and her boyfriend Matt. I became interested because it sounded like a great challenge and it stuck in my mind.

When Gayle left I told her to keep me updated on when the climbing would take place so that I could maybe join them. In the beginning of July I got a letter from Gayle saying that the climb would take place at the end of September. The only problem at this point was that my wife Nikki is not really into trekking.

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So in early July 2003, I decided that this was something that I wanted to do and from there I moved on to the planning phase.

My motto was "bad equipment will not stop me from reaching the top." I started focusing on what I needed to bring and the first thing I bought was a pair of good trekking boots. I started taking long walks to break in the boots and at the same time I gave much thought about what I would wear on the mountain.

I was a bit worried about nights on the summit because some Internet sites said that it could be as low as minus 20 Celsius. One would think that since I live in Norway I would be prepared for low temperatures. But I live in Stavanger, on the south west coast of Norway, and this is a place that has a coastal climate with mild winters and cool summers.

We were a group of four people attempting the summit. It was quite a multinational expedition, by the way. Gayle and Avril were both brought up in South Africa but they moved to New Zealand in their late teens. In the last few years they have been living and working in the UK. Matt is from the UK and I'm from Norway.

Gard (left), a porter, Matt, Avril and Gayle on the trail
©2004 G. Karlsen
A lot of emails were sent back and forth as we started to plan the trip itself. The main topic to start with was of course which tour company we should use. Everyone that wants to climb Kilimanjaro must bring along a licensed guide and there are a number of companies to choose from. We started out with quite a few names on the list but in the end we chose the Marangu Hotel based on what we read on the Net and recommendations from people that Gayle and Avril knew.

The company was a bit more expensive than other tour companies, but it turned out that we made the right decision because they were very serious about their business.

Another topic was which route we should take to get to Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa at an altitude of 5,895 meters. The most popular route is the Marangu route where you stay in little huts on the way to the top. We went for the Machame route, which is a longer, more scenic and you stay in tents. This route is also supposed to be less crowded.

Another question that we asked ourselves was "How fit do you have to be do get to the top?" Well, I tried to prepare the best I could and I walked quite a lot over the summer. I also tried to bike a bit and towards the end of the season I played a bit of squash.

Even with all this preparation, I still had a bit of a panic attack when I was packing my duffel bag before leaving home. All of a sudden I wasn't sure how much I was going to bring and I had a problem getting the walking poles in my bag. In the end I did get everything packed and I think the bag weighed about 17 kg. On the September 26, 2003 I was ready to fly off to Tanzania to meet the challenge.

Friday, Sept. 26, 2003 - Norway to Tanzania

After a normal working day I got a ride to the airport by my wife Nikki. It was strange to leave Nikki at home this time. I have become so used to having the pleasure of traveling with her and it felt like something was missing when I was walking around alone at the airport.

Precision Air on the tarmac at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi
©2004 G. Karlsen
I was using KLM/Kenya Airways this time and at 5 p.m. I lifted off from Stavanger Airport and after a short stop at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam I was on my way to Nairobi at about 8 p.m. I was lucky enough to fly in business class so I was in pretty good shape when I landed in Nairobi at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport the next morning after an 8-hour flight.

When we were planning we found out that there were two options of getting from Nairobi to Marangu at Kilimanjaro: bus or plane. I didn't really want to go for the bus option. First of all it would add extra stress to the trip and I would also have to pay US$50 to get a visa to get into Kenya.

A Masai shepard
©2004 G. Karlsen
Instead I went for the plane option and took Precision Air to get from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International Airport. When I came out to board the plane I knew that it would be small but I was surprised when I saw it was a twin engine prop plane. But then all of a sudden I was told that I was going on another smaller plane, so I ended up in a small Cessna Caravan with room for only 12 people. I squeezed into the seat and soon we were on our way. The flight from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro is only one hour and on the way we got a great view of Kilimanjaro sticking out above the clouds.

Kilimanjaro International airport is a pretty tiny airport but it sure saved me a lot of time. I'm sure that if I had gone for the bus alternative it would have taken me hours to get there. When I came to the airport I had to fill out an entry card (since I didn't have a visa already) and get in line to get a visa. It took a bit of time getting this because the guy behind the counter was working on "African time" and took his time collecting the US$20 it cost, stamping the passport and handing out receipts. But soon I was done with immigration and I picked up my duffel bag. At the airport a guy from the Marangu Hotel picked me up and the drive from the airport to the hotel took about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

A Saturday market
©2004 G. Karlsen
During the drive we came across things that you might expect to find in this part of Africa: goats grazing along the road together with a Masai shepard, pickups with way too much in the back (either people or transporting other stuff), trucks with more or less no exhaust system which leads to lots of smoke and lots of noise. One thing I didn't expect to find here were speed bumps.

At the hotel I met up with Gayle and Avril. They had arrived a couple of days before me and they were busy relaxing in the beautiful garden at the hotel. Later in the afternoon we were also joined by Matt. The Marangu Hotel seemed to be quite serious about their business and that evening we got a long briefing from one of the managers called Desmond.

The view from the hotel
©2004 G. Karlsen
He informed us that that we would have one main guide called Nelson, two assistant guides and 10 porters! Yes, it does seem like a lot of people...after all we were only four trekkers. But there is a lot of food and equipment that needs to be carried. The hotel itself had been keeping track of trekkers' success rates and according to Desmond 87 percent get to Stella Point at the crater rim and about 70 percent make it to Uhuru peak.

But the main part of the briefing was spent talking about the dangers of the mountain. We were told that we had to protect ourselves from the sun (both skin and eyes), we would have to take care to stay warm on the summit at night and we had to know about altitude sickness (AMS). We were informed that the best ways to prevent AMS is to take it easy (to walk at a pace where you can still breathe through your nose), eat well, drink lots of water (our slogan should be "copious and clear" when peeing) and to generally stay warm.

The whole briefing was a bit surreal to be honest because there was a bunch of turkeys making lots of noise right outside the window.

We also discussed the use of Diamox. This is a medicine that can help prevent AMS by helping the body metabolize more oxygen. I had brought with me 100 pills and we decided that we wanted to try it out the next morning to see if it would have any side effects. You don't want to start taking it on the mountain for the first time and then discover that your body can't handle it.

Sunday, Sept. 28, 2003 - Relaxing at the hotel / gear check

Today was "inspection" day. The hotel wanted to make sure that we had all the gear that we needed for the trekking on the mountain. In the morning a lady came over to our cottage to check out our stuff. We put all our gear on our individual beds and showed the lady want we were planning to wear, what kind of temperature our sleeping bags could take and so on. I got through this check without any problems. But Matt, Gayle and Avril all ended up borrowing some stuff from the hotel (everything from blankets, gaiters, day packs, water bottles and so on). It felt a bit like an exam.

Gear check at the hotel felt a bit like an exam.
©2004 G. Karlsen
We also carried out our little Diamox experiment and took a 250 mg pill each to check out which effect it would have on us. Matt and I didn't have any side effects apart from the fact that we went to the toilet more (it is a diuretic) but it could also have something to do with the fact that we had already started drinking lots of water. I also noticed that it influenced my taste buds and Coca Cola just didn't taste right anymore. The girls experienced a tingling feeling in their fingers and around the mouth and nose. In other words: we didn't experience any bad side effects.

During the briefing the day before we had been informed about tipping the guides and porters after the hike. So we handed in about US$100 each and we tried to work out how much we would give to everyone. We wanted to do this just to get an idea of how much it would be but we also agreed that we would review this when we came back, hence rewarding people if they had done a very good job.

At the hotel we would see new people heading off to start their climb on the mountain and it was a bit like torture. So, to get our minds off things we decided to go for a guided walk in the area. For US$5 you can get one of the people associated with the hotel to take you.

©2004 G. Karlsen
Our destination was a cave that used to house a Chagga family (the local tribe is Chagga) when they were at war with the Masai people. We were expecting a mountain type of cave but it turned out to be a cave dug out of the soil. My trip to Kilimanjaro could have ended right there by the way because when I climbed down the wooden ladder to get into the cave, one of the steps gave in and I almost fell. But I was lucky and didn't get hurt.

The cave itself was pretty narrow and dark and in some places we had to crawl on hands and knees to get through the passages. The girls were not happy of course when we came across lots of bats. I'm not sure that the cave was interesting enough to justify the US$5 we had to pay to enter. But at least we got our minds off the upcoming trek. We had a nice walk back to the hotel and we met lots of children who were smiling and looking at the gang of pale foreigners who were walking through their territory.

That night the atmosphere was a bit tense and nervous. We were all excited by the fact that we would be off to trek on Africa's highest mountain the following day.
Gard Karlsen is a Norwegian petroleum engineer who now works as a support manager in a small software company in the town of Stavanger. A diehard traveler, he has visited South Africa, Mexico, China and Singapore, among other countries.

This travelogue was first published on Karlsen's personal Web site. It has been edited for length and content. -- Ed.
©2004 OhmyNews

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