Kilimanjaro trek day six – Marangu Gate and back to Moshi

Kilimanjaro trek day six – Marangu Gate and back to Moshi

I woke at 5:53AM to Joshua bringing me a bucket of hot water. It was so luxurious. We wanted an early start, so the plan was to wake at 6AM, eat breakfast at 6:30AM, and hit the trail as quickly as possible. After breaky, the guys surprised me with singing the Kilimanjaro and Hakuna Matata songs.

“Jambo, jambo bwana. Habari gani? Nzuri sana.

Wegen mwakari bishwa Kilimanjaro. Hakuna matata.”

–>Hello, hello mister. How are you? I am fine. Guest, you are welcome to Kilimanjaro. No worries!

It was pretty adorable actually. And they sounded really beautiful in that talk-singing style. I gave them all thank you cards after that. And then we set off for Marangu Gate. We moved quickly. Urio let me pick my own pace today! It was great to be in the lead. When we reached the forest again, this side of the mountain is considerably wetter than the north side where I started, we saw blue monkeys and black and white colombos! They were not shy at all. We also passed along numerous parasitic cones on the mountain flank.

Marangu Gate
20 km from Horombo Camp

At Marangu Gate, Urio registered my summit. I received an official certificate of completion issued by the Tanzanian government! I also learned that Betos lives just below the gate. He took me to his restaurant for lunch instead of packing me a lunch. It was great! Betos and Godiliza stayed there and the rest of us headed back. Serafin happened to be at the gate, since the large Estonia group that went up the day before on the same route was coming down. They were weird and very antisocial. I was glad I had a separate ride back. In the office, I received a completion shirt, Kilimanjaro beer, and received my certificate. Urio talked to the business next door so I could get it laminated, and then he took me to an electronics store so I could buy a USB outlet plug. All my devices were long dead and I had a whole extra day in Moshi to catch up on life. Urio found out he was heading right back up Kili tomorrow. His fourth continuous trip up the mountain. What a hard life.

I returned to the same hotel as before. Very ready for a shower, repacking, and rest. What an awesome experience this has been. There are not many words to describe something at the end. Accomplished, finished, now we all go home. The journey is the part worth listing, I suppose.


Kilimanjaro trek day five – Uhuru summit and Horombo Camp

Kilimanjaro trek day five – Uhuru summit and Horombo Camp

My tent feels like a 5×5 ft prison cell. I have spent so much time in it that I have begun to recognize very specific details. One of the mesh doors is ripped open, they always set the tent up so I won’t use that door. From that orientation, the left wall has the number “97” stamped on it in black but horizontally flipped. The right wall near the front door has the “Kessy Brothers Tours LTD” info stamped on it in red, backwards from my perspective. The tent was folded when stamped, so there are two straight-edged offset gaps breaking up the label. It also bled through to the adjacent door wall. The tent fly is gray, a nice contrast to the tent’s yellow. The front left fly wall has a printed white brand or promotion: Kilimanjaro Outfitters The ceiling is a point where four triangles meet, the front triangle made of mesh, the rest nylon. The floor is black, the door zippers are black, all the mesh is black, and all the little fabric door ties are black. I stare out the front mesh door onto the world, deliriously happy but ready to be rid of this cell.

Nime fika! I made it to the top!

We left camp at 12:30AM, the last group to depart. We steadily caught up and passed every group as we made our way up the crater wall. Urio pointed out the various “stops” as we climbed. Pretty much every time there is a flat spot with any semblance of shelter, there is a resting stop. We stopped very little. For the most part, the trail climbs at a 45-degree angle between vertical and a true switch back. I liked the trail for the most part. It started as shallow, fine scree; super easy going. The segment segment just before Jamaica Point was soft, deep scree and at a steeper angle. I did not like it as much on the way up as I did on the way down, we we basically skied down the scree super fast. Starting at Jamaica Point, the trail stipends and becomes rocky. It was also long, in that there were not good resting places until Gilman’s Point, the top of the wall. At Gilman’s Point there was a little congratulatory sign. Urio and I had already passed everyone on our route by then. It was nice except for the magnitude of trash abandoned around this flat platform. It was disgusting! The whole trail up, actually, from Kibo to Gilman’s was disgusting. A lot of human waste, just right off the trail, and even more toilet paper. I feel confident that every rock I sat on must have been peed on at least once in the past month. It was filthy. LNT people!

Gilman’s Point
5685 meters/18652 feet

Anyway, we hurried past Gillman’s and quickly arrived at Stella Point. That segment was relatively flat, basically curving around the old crater wall rim that has blown out several times before going dormant. It was really lovely with snow all along it. We took one detour where last month a giant rock block collapsed and ruined the trail there. Though of course, we could see the footprints of people who still took that path, tracks pressed into former days’ melted snow. Stella Point is where the Rongai/Marangu Routes meet the Machame Route. Most people climb the Machame Route. We could see the lights of at least 100 people on their way up the Machame route. I couldn’t believe it!

Stella Point
5756 meters/18885 feet

We were still too early for sunrise but continued forward. Urio was very strict today about making me walk slowly and take lots of breaks. He wanted to arrive early to miss the masses, but also late enough that the sun was rising we I arrived. In a sheltered cove just before the summit, we took a long break to wait out the darkness. We had known since we reached Stella that I wouldn’t be the first to reach the summit, so there was no rush to get over to just wait out the sunrise at the exposed summit. When we finished walking over, there were still pretty few people. We didn’t stay long, but I try to capture heaps of photos, revel in the moment, and eat a victory snack. I can imagine the chaos in trying to get photographs once the masses arrive. People had total disregard for others. As we headed back down a large group arrived and a few just walked right up to the sign despite another group already in process of taking their victory shots. Humans are selfish creatures. At least the sunrise was spectacular! It lit up the sky with a myriad of colors on the lower-lying clouds. Beautiful!

Mount Kilimanjaro
Uhuru Peak, Tanzania
5895 meters/19341 feet

The return trip was exceptionally fun and fast! We quickly traversed back along the crater to Gilman’s Point. I took all the photos on the way down that it was too dark to take on the way up. I spent a lot of time staring out at the glacier, a dwindling ice mass that helped shape Kili’s face. Once we reached the crater wall we literally just went straight down the scree. I felt like I was running through jello, sinking up to my knees in scree, except every step I took brought me 6 feet down the mountain. It was exhilarating! The best controlled fall I have ever accomplished, and I love racing downhill. What an incredible feeling! We began at 12:30AM, reached the summit at 6:06AM, and returned to camp at 8:15AM. I pulled out my stash of Snicker bars when we arrived back at camp and had a quick celebration with my crew.

After our celebration, I stripped off my clothes and passed out for two hours. I woke to Joshua bringing me water and lunch. I was deliriously happy. And I still had no appetite. I think maybe my stomach biota don’t like Diamox. My mouth has also developed a few very painful sores over the week. So in addition to not feeling hungry, my mouth also burns when I drink hot fluid. It is a good thing tomorrow is the last day. Once I ate, camp was packed at an inextricable rate and we were off to continue hiking down to Horombo Camp. The standard practice to quickly descend after reaching high altitude to prevent the development of any altitude illnesses. It was a nice gradual downhill the whole way. Urio told me that the guides and porters from other groups think I am really strong. Jeff and Patty’s guide called me a machine when he saw me come down about 8:15AM that morning. I suppose I appreciate their praise, but it feels somewhat back-handed and unearned in the same breath. These guides and porters are climbing Kili as often as work allows and no one comments on how strong they are. They don’t even use Diamox or any other preventative medications. Urio even told me that sometimes the porters have illnesses like altitude sickness or typhoid and they can get really sick coming up the mountain, but they need work and so climb anyway. Second, I did not climb this mountain. A crew of 6 men brought me up this mountain. Don’t get me wrong, I feel accomplished. This is the highest altitude I have ever reached, no struggles, no altitude problems. But it is not a singular accomplishment, in many ways. Urio has summited Uhuru over 100 times, now that is an accomplishment.

Anyway, we made our way to Horombo Camp. It was a shock to my senses. It is on the Marangu trail, so has huts, but there are so many buildings! And a large number of people behind on their own paths down. Two new massive dorms are currently being built. It was total madness.

Horombo Hut (camp)
3720 meters amsl
11 km roundtrip to Uhuru Peak + 9.5 km down from Kibo Camp

I was till pretty tired and overwhelmed by the volume of bodies and noise, so I spent the afternoon repacking all my possessions and preparing for the final trek out tomorrow. I wanted to make rounds of the campsite, but was intimidated by the sheer volume of people. I did catch up with Graham, the British camp set up directly next to mine. I had seen him briefly on my way down Uhuru while Urio and I made a breakneck pace down the scree.



Kilimanjaro trek day four – Kibo Tarn Camp

Kilimanjaro trek day four – Kibo Tarn Camp

Today I woke at 6AM. I am not sure why, but I have woken before my alarm every day this week. I had a beautiful sunrise this morning. Mawenzi’s face brightly lit with the rising sun. Camp came alive early this morning too. We only had a very short distance to the base camp. We had great views over the vast alpine desert saddle to Kibo. Kilimanjaro also has Africa’s only glaciers. Those glaciers are responsible for forming the valleys and canyons, eroding and smoothing the mountain around Kibo into gentle undulations. As we hiked along, all the porters and groups in front looked like a long line of ants heading to Kibo Camp. The whole distance visible. I passed the British group to receive warm hello’s from Graham and Phoebe. I am glad I met another group I might share the summit with. Jeff and Patty will spend an extra acclimation day at Kibo Camp, so I will see them today and tomorrow before my group begins the journey down. We also saw buffalo tracks cutting across the trail! Very interesting to think those behemoths saunter up this mountain like no big deal. Urio says they only move around at night, when it is cooler.

Kibo Hut (Camp)
4720 meters amsl
8.5 km from Mawenzi Camp

Kibo Camp is where the Nalemuru/Rongai route meets the Marangu route. The Marangu route has shelters the whole way up, so it is pretty popular and heavily used. Our camp felt like it tripled. Since we arrived so early, I was able to watch most of that morning’s summiters as they returned to camp. There were heaps of porters waiting around the camp for their tourists to return so they could continue the day’s agenda down to Horombo Camp. Camp is nicely nestled at the base of the Kibo crater wall. The path tomorrow will go pretty straight up, then a traverse around to the true peak.

There were a bunch of cool rocks to climb on around camp and I took lots of photos. I also spent a nice time with Patty and Jeff. If I already did not think them badasses, I learned they are both in their 70’s and just starting their own Seven Summits ambitions. They already have Mont Blanc in queue for this summer and plans for Aconcagua. I wish I had more time to pursue these same ambitions.

I requested no lunch but to have a 3PM supper so I can sleep. I need to rest for the big day tomorrow/tonight! I have everything packed and ready to go. I will wake around 11PM for tea and cookies before we set off.


Kilimanjaro trek day three – Mawenzi Camp

Kilimanjaro trek day three – Mawenzi Camp

Same routine. Woke at 6:30AM, dressed, packed, ate breakfast, and we were off. I took some sunrise photos too! I couldn’t quite get a direct view of the sun rising, but is was still beautiful. And Kibo was all lit up while everything else remained dark awhile longer. Since we started, the Kenyan plains have been blurred by a hazy cloud layer. I think the guys were prepped for my morning punctuality. They were packed and off running very quickly. Though everything was also covered in a thin layer of frost, so maybe they were just cold and trying to get moving.

When I unzipped my tent door, it did not move at all, seemingly defying gravity, with the stiffness of frost. Everyone was wearing big, thick coats and hats this morning. The temperature wasn’t that uncomfortable to me, so I only added a hat and gloves to my regular hiking apparel. There is a quite large Russian group among our floating tourist village. They are very loud late into the night, and their head guy hikes with a huge flag and emblazoned YouTube channel where, I presume, he will feed the video footage from the GoPro attached to his chest. They do not interact with anyone outside their group.

We were the second group to hit the trail. The pattern more obvious now. The porters’s tents go down first, and the moment someone has their 20 kilos, they take off. Then in waves, off go tents, future supplies, and whatever else becomes packable, all filing out of camp. Literally reducing the present body count by 50%, since about 3/4 of our entire camp population are the porters. Urio told me that the guide to tourist ratio is 1:1, 2:2-4, 3:5-7, 4:8-11, and so on. That way if any one person has to turn around, there is still a guide remaining to keep trekking the team up. Reflecting back on Oldonyo Lengai, that practice seems very smart. But it sure creates a huge quantity of porters for each individual tourist.

As expected, even with ample “pole, pole,” we arrived at the next camp just after 10AM. Joshua had a bucket of hot water waiting for me. It was really nice! Then Urio and I went on an acclimation hike up on of Mawenzi’s ridges. Unbeknownst to me, hiking on Mawenzi did not mean hiking to its summit. That was outlawed back in 2009, or something. Urio did let me go up until we reached true outcrop so I could look at the rocks. Urio was very interested to talk about the geology with me.

Mount Kilimanjaro is pretty geologically interesting. It is one of the largest free-standing mountains in the world, formed by the culmination of three volcanoes merging together. Less than a million years ago, Shira volcano formed from massive amounts of pressure build-up in the East African rifting. Eventually it ceased erupting and collapsed, forming the main bulk of the Kilimanjaro mountain. Mawenzi volcano immediately began to form within the massive caldera left behind from Shira. About 460,000 years ago, Kibo peak began forming through a series of eruptions west of Mawenzi. Kibo continued to erupt and rise to its present height of 5900 meters. A later eruption ~100,000 years later produced all the black shiny obsidian-esqe lava rock that covers much of the mountain surface today. Continued activity led to the formation of several small cones on the mountain flanks, and about 200 years ago the formation of Reusch Crater inside the main Kibo summit. Kilimanjaro is considered formant today (I can verify that indicative sulfurous smell when I reached Kibo’s summit).

When we arrived at camp, there were already people there, taking an acclimation day. Urio and I passed one group from Britain on their own acclimation hike as we checked out the rocks. Many groups take two days here to acclimate. Even with the acclimation hike I was back at camp by 11:30AM. I will have ample time to rest, so we will continue to Kibo Camp tomorrow.

Mawenzi Tarn Hut (camp)
4315 meter amsl
4 km from Kikelelwa Camp
2.5 km acclimation hike on Mawenzi

Today I learned that Urio’s full name is actually Penieli Samuel Urio, but he goes by Urio because it is shorter. I am also growing quite restless. I have walked around the whole camp several times, climbed up a few rocks to see views and take photos, I talked with Jeff and Patty, and still I spent much time alone in my tent again. At least the sun came back out, my tent is warm and cozy now. I also met some of the people from the British group who arrived yesterday: Phoebe and Graham, plus Robinn, their British guide. They all seem quite nice. Robinn works in conjunction with a Tanzanian guide. He was very concerned at my pace up the mountain and my plan to skip an acclimation day. Almost all of our camp will move to Kibo tomorrow. I estimate it at 50 tourists and ~150 crew members. A crazy ratio. It makes me wonder how many porters are required per hiker to summit Mount Everest. Heck, just to hike to the first camp! This is a crazy ratio to me. I earnestly think I may try to return to Tanzania for a second summit, but without all the excess, and definitely much faster. Maybe via the Lemosho Route or something on the west side of the mountain.

Urio and I had our nightly recap and talked strategy for tomorrow. I also showed him many of my safari photos. We also talked logistics for me ending a day early, since I would have to stay an extra night in Moshi.


Kilimanjaro trek day two – Kikelelwa Camp

Kilimanjaro trek day two – Kikelelwa Camp

I slept so well last night! Nine whole hours! I put in my ear plugs and never woke once. My sleep deficit is finally evening out. I think I will have ample sleep time this week. Sadly, I finished my book last night, so I have already ran out of my own amusements.

I woke at 6:30AM, dressed, packed, and then was presented with a MASSIVE breakfast. I tried to stuff as much of it into my stomach as possible, but it was just so much food. My thru-hiker stomach would have been delighted, but I felt plumped up and a bit miserable. If I am getting five courses at every meal (supper was also quite large), I can see why tourist struggle to reach the summit. They likely gain 20 pounds as they hike along. Betos is a great cook, the food is delicious, but jeez is it a lot of food. I hope Betos does not think I do not like his food, I just do not think my body can fit more inside it. I also found out that my porters are Godiliza, Daniel, and Jofray. The fourth porter is Joshua, who is also my personal attendant. He brings me all my food and drinks, sets up my tent, and who knows what else. He does not speak a lot of English, but he is incredibly friendly and happy. I like him already.

My crew took off as soon as they could pack up, then Urio and I set off after them. We climbed all morning for some great views of Mwenzi and Kibo, the name of the two peaks this route will take me to. Very quickly we reached the First Cave, a small lava tube that is open along its flank. Then we quickly reached Second Cave Camp. This is where my itinerary was scheduled to stop, but we decided to skip it and continue to Kikelelwa Camp, so I can spend two days at Mawenzi Camp and hike around there. Urio had me stop at both caves for photos and a break. I did not actually feel tired. I did see a blue and green sunbird! Though it was not the scarlet-tufted malachite sunbird I hoped I would see. I looked up several birds common to KNP in advance, but without Daudi’s bird book, I am useless for identification.

While poking around Second Cave Camp, I met Patty and Jeff Baird, a couple from Tahoe! They run the Cedar House Sport Hotel ( They know several of the more notorious thru hikers, like Trauma and Pepper, Snorkel, and Bink. Pretty incredible! I am excited to talk more with them.

Urio and I played leap frog with several porters and mostly passed any tourist groups in front of us. I have already had the Swahili phrase, “pole pole” said to me many times. It means ‘slowly, slowly.’ We aren’t even on difficult trail, and the incline from this morning was not really a challenge. We are still the the moorland zone, and this part of the mountain is mostly a gradual up. So far, my exposure to mountaineering appears to be a sport of patience, a major weakness of mine. When we stopped at 11:30AM for lunch, I was still way too stuffed from breakfast to eat anything. My stomach felt like I was digesting a giant food baby. I did manage to drink the juice box and eat a couple cookies. Practically right after our lunch stop we reached camp already. I was the first tourist to arrive. We arrived before 1PM.

Kikelelwa Camp
3600 meters amsl
12 km from Simba Camp

When we left this morning, I thought most of the groups had left already. But actually, we were ahead of almost everyone, except the porters. A second component of their job seems to be to carry camp supplies as fast as they can so they can have camp set up before their tourists arrive. There are about 3 porters per tourist for big groups, more for the smaller tourist groups. As I sat at the camp, I watched as maybe a hundred porters filed into camp, busily building up our tent city. It is quite baffling. I wonder how the porters feel about this life. Whether they appreciate the novelty of such a system. For me, one tourist, to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, six men will have also gone almost to the top with me. And all but Urio will stop at the base camp, just below Kibo’s summit, waiting on me to reach that peak, and then we will just climb back down. It is crazy. I already want to start over, negotiate more primitive standards. Am I really accomplishing a great feat when so many are required to get me there? Or maybe the team of people helping me accomplish all my life’s feats are just not as obvious on other endeavors. I do not know.

I did have good conversation with Urio today. He is originally from Arusha, but moved to Moshi to guide for Kilimanjaro. His family is from the Meru tribe. His father has two wives, ten sons, and seven daughters. Urio is the youngest. To be a Kilimanjaro guide, Urio had to go to mountaineering college. And Urio was just married in January. I got to talk to his wife on the phone when we had a brief moment of service. He has also taught me many words: ndoto njema = nice dreams, sama hani = sorry, haraka, haraka = faster, faster. To name a few.

Each evening Urio plans to have a recap session with me, to make sure I am feeling ok, talk about the next day’s plan, and, now, my having him repeat all the words he taught me while hiking so I can write them down. Despite my early arrival, it was cold and shrouded in a thick wet fog, so no one was wandering around the camp. Even posting up outside and taking purposely long walks through the camp, I did not get to interact with any other humans. I put in my ear plugs to drown out the clattering of a camp busy with chores and companionship.

IMG_5259Part of my massive breakfast. Yes, they hauled all those condiments and containers up for me. I could have done without most of it.

IMG_5260Kibo Peak! The peak of my ambition. My porter, Jofray in front of us on the trail.

IMG_5261Standing on top of First Cave, a lava tube with its side collapsed out.

IMG_5262Standing on top of Second Cave.

IMG_5263     My arrival to Kikelelwa Camp just before 1PM.IMG_5073 View from my 5×5 ft isolation box.

Kilimanjaro trek day one – Simba Camp

Kilimanjaro trek day one – Simba Camp

I woke early today, 6:30AM. I did not want to wake up. After the past two nights of little sleep, my body was screaming at me with exhaustion. I got up anyway, showered, and made sure my bags were completely packed up. One trash bag to stay behind at the hotel, my duffle with gear, and my small pack to hike with. Then I went to breakfast.

It is strange how easily my mind wanders through big dreams, like climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, and I never consider the limitations. But simple actions in life, like walking through a breakfast buffet line, remind me how much I crave trail life. The simplicity, the anonymity, the freedom. I want to explore more of this vast continent; take advantage of the few connections I have in other countries and visit before those connections dwindle. And I am reaffirmed in my desires to purge my life of superfluous things I seem to constantly acquire. There is so much waste in the world, and few places more than the U.S. Tanzania has been a whole new experience to me. Granted I have seen very little even of this one place, but what I have seen are generous and friendly people who respect and care for their land, and an environment where much of nature is adapted to versus reshaped for the conveniences of humans.

After breakfast I waited for my ride back to the Kessy Brothers office. When we arrived there was a huge group of bodies milling around and moving bags. I briefly wondered if they were all coming with me, but was assured they belonged to another group. After the chaos subsided, I was told it was time to go. I hopped back in the same vehicle and we took. There were eight people (including myself) in the vehicle, I only knew that the driver was not coming with us, and I wondered why we needed so many people.

On drive up, we passed through many villages, and whatever was happening today, it seemed like every single church we passed was spilling forth with children. My view of this country is so shallow by design, I will not even see the majority of Tanzania before departing. How masked a view a tourist receives. We stopped at Marangu Gate to settle permits and then we continued on to Nale Muru Village (6398ft/1950m) before reaching Rongai Gate. When we arrived at Rongai gate and I was left in a gazebo to eat lunch while my crew packed up and headed out. I have four porters, one cook, and my guide. How humbling the efforts of people like me to carry a day pack up a giant mountain while four people will actually carry all the things to keep me comfortable for the next six days… I already hate this plan. I am not good at feeling useless.

Eventually Urio came to get me and we set off. Urio told me we started at Rongai Gate, but we are walking on the Natemuru Route. My crew had already left. The beginning of the trail is extremely flat and along the edge of shady jungle and agricultural plots of maize and potatoes in a mountain rainforest zone. Before we entered Mount Kilimanjaro National Park, we saw many people on their farms and some with little stands to sell drinks and snacks to trekking teams. There is a noticeable difference between the inhabited forest and protected forest. The protected forest is densely vegetated, every plant fighting for its small niche of sunlight. KNP is about 720 square miles of protected land around Mount Kilimanjaro. The other side has farms, rows of planted pines for timber, less variety, and less plants in total. It was a stark transition as we entered the park and suddenly the sounds of birds, insects, monkeys, and a gurgling river overtook me. I saw lemonwood trees (Xymalos monospora) with big veiny leaves, East African yellow wood (Podocarpus falcatus) with a long empty trunk on the tallest trees, red mahogany (Khaya anthotheca) with a curving trunk twisting around toward the sky’s sunny rays, and transvaal olinia. I also could hear baboons and saw both a playful blue monkey chasing a black and white colobus monkey around some branches. There were maybe eight blue monkeys. They seemed completely unfazed by my presence. Pretty quickly we had a gradual climb passing through scrub to moorland. And then we were at Simba Camp, with great views out over the Kenyan plains.

Simba Camp:
2671 meters amsl
7 km from Rongai Gate

I suspect this route will become more challenging, but was a breeze of a first day. Sit in a vehicle for 4 hours, hike up a short 7 km, then arrive to my tent set up and hot wash water waiting for me. Of course, I am only carrying a day pack, whereas each person on my crew is carrying 20 kilos a piece. Maybe that is why today is so short? Get everyone on the mountain then quickly drop weight from eating and having ready water sources.

I will admit that I was beginning to look forward to sharing a camp with the ten or so other tourists whose names I saw on the register. With only Urio and Betos (my cook) speaking English, I was already feeling a lonely silence. Every time we caught up to my crew, they would all chat excitedly in Swahili. They also are sharing a tent, where they all retreated to immediately upon my arrival. This 5×5 foot tent already feels like a mini prison. When we arrived at camp though, there were at least six different groups and many many more arrived as the day wore on. I liked the idea of a few people sharing the trail, but it seems that I am getting significantly more. It also appears that my setup is not anomalous to have so many crew members. These four German guys I met at the gate had a crew of 18 porters, 2 guides, and 2 cooks. Phenomenal! I don’t yet know what to make of this industry.

IMG_5252It’s official! I am trekking up Mount Kilimanjaro!

IMG_5253Nalemuru Route from the Rongai Gate

IMG_5255Blue monkey!

IMG_5257Home sweet home – or – my cell for the next week.

IMG_5258Happy to reach my first camp!


This road has been safari, but now I am headed up a mountain

This road has been safari, but now I am headed up a mountain

We woke early and made sure our bags were completely packed. Kimambo always outdoing himself, we ate breakfast and packed up sack lunches. We needed an early start from Lake Natron to return to Arusha and to the Airport Planet Lodge so Melissa could make her flight home. We actually made it in plenty of time. The washed out, pit holed, rough roads were no match for Daudi’s skilled hands at the wheel. We said our goodbyes and were left at the lodge for showers before our transfers.

I cannot say enough about how awesome Dorobo Safaris was in planning this trip. This company was recommended to Melissa and I by our professor, Dr. Rudnick, who used them during her own field work in Tanzania. We are ever grateful for that recommendation. Mike was a wealth of knowledge and insight. We did not work with the other brothers, but I suspect they are all cut from the same quality cloth. He helped plan a flawless trip to combine geology, anthropology, and tourism. His wife, Lisa, was the coordinator behind our meals. She has great taste! Kimambo was a superstar as our chef and camp staff. He kept a tight ship and was so friendly. I was glad we bonded over elephants being both our favorite animals. I showed him all the photos I had taken during our game drive. Daniel, our Lake Natron guide, was awesome. He had an endless supply of patience and encouragement, and was keen on experiencing our geological explorations with us. And lastly, but not least, our guide, driver, companion, and animal encyclopedia, Daudi. He was a phenomenal guide. This trip would not have been as rich without him. He worked hard to make us happy and help us accomplish our every desire. We only have the best thoughts and sentiments toward Dorobo Safaris. We highly recommend them for anyone planning an excursion to Tanzania. They were stupendous and pivotal to the success of this trip. I hope I have the opportunity to work with them in the future.

Their reputation and long list of top clientele speaks volumes of its own. But I confidently would like to promote them as well.
Dorobo Safaris:

Like a whirlwind, our trip was over. Melissa headed to the airport, and I was picked up by a driver from Kessy Brothers Tours Ltd. and taken to Moshi. Cheating a little, I will talk about this company now, using hindsight, since I was already on a plug for Dorobo.

I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro using the Kessy Brothers Tours company. They were recommended to me through friends of my sister. Contacts she made in Guinea during Peace Corps. I will admit further encouragement was that this company’s prices are easily well below most other companies. Internet searches suggested the risk with cheap companies is that you miss out on quality food and the expertise of other companies. But that is just not the case here. I had an exceptional guide, Penieli Samuel Urio. He has summited Uhuru over 100 times and counting. He knows everything to expect and is very diligent to safety and acclimation. I also had a great cook, Betos. He served me three massive meals a day, always striving to cater to my tastes. He checked in with me frequently to make sure I was happy. I also think he was possibly worried that I was not well, since I found myself completely unable to finish any of the three three-course meals he prepared for me all six days. His skills over a camp stove are impressive, but I just cannot fit that much food into my body. Maybe if he only fed me cookies… I then had a personal attendant, Joshua. He served me all my meals and setup my eating blanket in my tent. He always had a smile and tried to teach me fun sayings in Swahili. My favorite was a response to mambo, how are you? It went poa kachizi kama ndizi ndani ya fridge, crazy cool like a banana in the fridge. And then there were three other porters, Godiliza, Daniel, and Jofray. All distinct in looks and personality, they brought their own bonus to our crew.

From observing various companies while on my hike, I will say the main difference is that we were probably more minimalist. I ate in my tent, rather than have a separate food tent with chair and table. I used the camp pit toilets rather than have a dedicated porter responsible for carrying around and cleaning one for me. And let’s be honest, I would not have been able to handle such unnecessary extravagance. Otherwise, I was safely brought up the mountain, and summited Uhuru Peak. I highly recommend Kessy Brothers Tours for any Kilimanjaro hike. I suspect the logistics change slightly when dealing with additional hikers, the number of guides and porters definitely increases.

Kessy Brothers Tours:

After arriving to their office in Moshi, we settled all the logistics for the next day. They provided me with the gear I was missing and introduced me to my guide. And then I was whisked away to Sal Salnero Hotel to repack, shower, rest, and prepared for my Mt Kilimanjaro trek.



Oldonyo Lengai in 1.5 ascents and an outdoors safety announcement

Oldonyo Lengai in 1.5 ascents and an outdoors safety announcement

I thought a long time about what I wanted to say here. I have a plethora of notes and thoughts and feelings from this day. But I think it is important to start with a safety announcement. As an avid outdoors woman, I sometimes take for granted the skills and comfort levels of my outdoor companions. I often go outdoors alone, so when I meet people out on the same adventures, we just happen to all be on the same page. This is not always true when planning an excursion in advance with companions. We all have our own abilities, fears, goals, and dislikes. So I want to talk about it.

When climbing mountains, there is one very important rule: the summit is always optional, but your safety is not. I repeat, no matter how much you want to push to the top of a mountain, it will always be there for another day. But if you become injured, or worse, die, you may never have another mountain in your future. This rule remains true whether you are out on a day hike, undergoing a grand expedition, paid $70,000 for the opportunity, or whatever other circumstances you can argue. If your safety is in danger, the peak is always optional. This might seem obvious if the situation is a threat of lightening, blizzard, any high altitude illness, or other confronting risk. But it becomes more nuanced at the nitty gritty side. What is the balance between pushing yourself and not exceeding your personal abilities? Only you can answer that question. The important thing is to remain true to your feelings, AND to practice excellent communication.

Please, I repeat, please, anytime you are going outdoors with other people, always take the time to discuss each person’s abilities, goals, and limitations. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about these things with the people you go outdoors with, whether from intimidation, pride, or whatever, step off your high horse right now. Going outside is a fun, challenging, and rewarding privilege. But it also has risks, real risks, life threatening risks. You would not go backcountry skiing without digging a pit to check snowpack. You would not rope up to trad climb with someone who cannot set anchors. You would not skydive without checking your parachute. I can go on, but the point is that we have safety checks for high danger sports, but it is also important to make safety checks for less obviously dangerous sports. I myself am often guilty of jumping in before asking questions and thinking about risks. But if you really do not feel comfortable doing an activity, whatever your reason(s) may be (physical ability, fear of heights, an emotional block to certain activities, lack of equipment, uncertainty, disinterest, etc), find an environment where you can work through those uncertainties on a safe playing field. Join organized expeditions (REI, NOLS, local outdoor stores), find classes (REI, local recreation centers, local universities, certification outfitters), and try to meet people who are willing to teach you (Meet Up groups, online support forums, friends, etc). Seriously, I know a lot of people who say they have always wanted to do X, Y, or Z, but never knew how to get started. My solution is always that you will find a way if you are truly passionate. Start small, do not be afraid of failure, know that you may have to do something several times before you know if you actually enjoy it. When deciding to thru hike for the first time, I planned a three day, very easy hike. Everything went wrong. I forgot my water treatment, I had never practiced setting up my tent before and it rained that night, I didn’t know where to begin with proper foot care and happiness. But I accepted defeat, went home early, and learned a lot. I tapped the knowledge base of friends and tried again. Now distance hiking is one of my all time favorite activities.

When you go outdoors and are surprised by a limitation of a team member, it is both your responsibilities to have talked it out before the adventure began. That is all I have to say. It is lazy and irresponsible to not take the time to have these discussions when preparing for an adventure. And remember, the summit is always option, but your safety is not.

As a brief recap of the day. We had a very short night’s rest. I honestly think I got maybe two hours of sleep. We left for the base at 11pm and were climbing by 11:30pm. I forgot to record this climb. It was still relatively warm outside, and the moon was shining brilliantly among a million twinkling stars. It was perfect out. We drove up the escarpment toward a saddle between Lengai and the ridge. The climb started as a gentle sloping flank before steadily steepening. We made it several miles up the side of Oldonyo Lengai before having to turn back. Melissa had even less sleep last night, she was sick to her stomach. When I thought that was it, I knew she could be ok if we went slowly and kept her fed and hydrated. But here is where my negligence comes in, I had never sat her down for that all important talk about goals and limitations. Melissa is afraid of heights, and has not climbed a mountain before, so did not know how that limitation would manifest with both feet securely on the ground. Knowing her to be a rock climber, I didn’t even think to ask. We made it a good ways up the mountain before Melissa shared the state she was in, stubborn to the point that she kept going even while thinking one false step would ruin her. As a blindly confident person, I have never faced a fear like she did this morning. That determined, we turned back. The summit so near, but Melissa’s safety more important. Once at the bottom I curled up and slept the last hour before sunrise. Then we walked another mile or two down the road to the lone tree to wait for Daudi in the meager scraps of shade as the day’s heat set in. We returned to camp, ate breakfast, and made a plan. I would go back with Daniel that afternoon and Melissa would explore Lake Natron and some cinder cones located there.

I went back to bed, in my sun-sweltering tent, to catch another three hours sleep before waking for lunch and summit attempt number two. Daniel and I set out at 3PM, in the stifling afternoon heat. We regained this morning’s ground quickly. I should clarify that there is not actually a trail up Oldonyo Lengai. We were literally retracing weathered steps up lava flow channels. When the mountain steepened, we were often picking steps from entrained boulder to entrained boulder, since the lava was slickly smooth or eroding rubble. And it was straight up, no switch backs, no protected coves, nothing. As real an effort at climbing up a raw, loosely vegetated mountain as it can get. I did record this second attempt, so you can watch how my pace lagged tremendously toward the top, the lack of sleep and heat-induced exhaustion setting in, my legs cramping like I have never felt before. Daniel, of course, not even breaking a sweat. That man is patience reincarnated.

We arrived at the summit just in time for sunset and to catch the last light across the valley. It was beautiful! And very interesting to see how the crater had changed from all the photos I have seen online. Since the 2007 to 2008 activity, there are now two hornitoes building up in the bottom of a deep, but filling crater. The south crater wall, which I think was attached prior to 2007, is now a separate abandoned rim wall. There is a crack about 1-3 feet across and 10+ feet deep running all the way around the current crater. And I observed at least five separate gas vents, seeping hot sulfurous volatiles.

As quickly as we arrived, we headed back down to take advantage of the last rays of light. Which was nice, because heading down those shear faces was much easier with daylight. I quickly realized that we would not have the same bright moon as this morning and my headlight batteries were running low. Thankfully Daniel led the way and I only needed to watch him mostly. The winds picked up from our backside, stirring up as the dust we disturbed with our steps. As the second in line, I received the powdery, blinding dust from both our dust clouds. We watched Daudi arrive as we sped down the mountain, his headlights seeming far away. But before I knew it we were back at the vehicle and headed to camp. A delicious meal from Kimambo awaiting me. I ate, showered, and went straight to bed. An exhausting but deserving day.



Geologizing around Oldonyo Lengai

Geologizing around Oldonyo Lengai

Melissa and I continued our morning ritual by watching the sun rise over the flank of Gelai volcano from the edge of camp. It is nice to have freedom of movement again! Then Kimambo outdid himself this breaky feast: soft cinnamon bread twists, eggs, bacon, mango, pineapple, passion fruit, hot tea with milk, and my daily dose of EmergenC. Maybe the meal was not all that different from other mornings, but we were excited to be switching our focus to rocks!

For the past 20 million years or so, this part of northern Tanzania has witnessed two major periods of extensional crystal deformation, both followed by pulses of volcanism (Dawson, 2008). Instabilities in the mantle during late Tertiary time caused regional uplift and the formation of an irregular, domed highland. Extensional faulting along the crest of the domed structure, formed three diverging grabens: Natron, Eyasi, Pangani. In fact, more recent normal faulting throughout the Oldupai region may have originally developed along these older structures. Within this tectonic depression, numerous single mafic shield volcanoes (Gelai, Kitumbeine, etc) formed, while others coalesced into larger volcanic provinces (Mt Kilimanjaro, Ngorongoro volcanic highlands, etc). Renewed extension during the upper Pleistocene formed a half-graben with faulted margin in the west. This is the East African Rift as known today. Lakes Natron and Manyara developed within local depressions adjacent to the western rift margin. Finally, renewed volcanic activity on a much smaller scale activated Mt Meru, Kerimasi, and Oldonyo Lengai. Kerimasi and Oldonyo Lengai are the only two that have erupted carbonatite lavas. Oldonyo Lengai remains the only active volcano in Tanzania today, and the only active carbonatite volcano in the world.

Our first aim for the day was a place on the USGS map named “Ildonyo Loolmurak,” a small cone next to a volcano called “Loolmurak crater”. Daniel told us the local name for the crater is “Kerimasi” and the cone has no name. I enjoyed how “oldonyo” was spelled “ildonyo,” as ‘mountain of the crater.’ I have not investigated how the USGS determined the names of these cones, but it does beg to wonder whether they went straight from old papers, repeating the errors of early researchers, or consulted a local knowledge source.

The target material was to look at the lava flows from the small crater. From walking down the cone’s flank, it looked like 3-4 different lava flows of olivine melilitite separated by light-colored nephelinite layers. Everything was pretty weathered, but we observed large (1-3mm) olivine phenocrysts and abundant vesicles in the melilitite. The nephelinite was hardly worth hammering off a piece.

Then we stopped at a debris flow mound Danial called “Lollkimojok.” It is supposed to be a debris mound overlying a distinct phonolite lava dome, according to the USGS map. We found plenty of phonolite lava, but nothing in situ suggested it was independent of the debris flow material. I won’t say we throughly investigates the matter, but all the phonolite “outcrops” were higher on the mound than debris material, completely lacked any type of contact suggesting either burial or intrusion, and frankly looked like it was locally transported with the debris material. Like I said, we didn’t investigate on any major level, but this unknown relationship remains a mystery to us.

Near the NCA gate we also stopped at an active fault locale. It was as close to active faulting as I have ever seen. There is old uplift creating an ~50m cliff overlooking the lake bed below. Behind the cliff are a series of cracks parallel to the cliff face revealing active graben formation where this crust is stretching apart. The most prevalent crack, about 50m back from the cliff and 10-15m deep, is supposed to be less than 20 years old. Geology on a human scale! We could see bats flying around in the shaded portion of the chasm.

We kept today relatively low key because it is exhaustingly hot in the baking sun, and we are preparing for a nighttime summit of Oldonyo Lengai!

As already mentioned, Oldonyo Lengai is the only active volcano in Tanzania and the only active carbonatite volcano in the world. Thus it might also be one of the most famous volcanoes in the world. Early explorers thought the light coloring was snow, but it is actually light colored carbonatite ash and how the minerals in the lava weather to a grey color. The volcano is deeply incised by deep, radial gullies. Much of the eastern side was blown out by a violent eruption 2,500 years ago, and that eruption caused a large landslide scar still visible on the northeast face. Much of the landscape around Oldonyo Lengai are the remnants of large debris flows covering the east to northeast flanks. The most recent eruptions took place over 2007-2008, with lava flows and large ash eruptions that caused a lot of destruction and some mortalities in the small town of Engaruka.

Oldonyo Lengai, a nephelenite-phonolite-carbonatite stratovolcano is estimated to have begun ~0.37 Ma (Klaudius and Keller, 2006). Lavas of Oldonyo Lengai are geochemically diverse, erupting combeite-wollastonite-nephelinites, phonolites, and natrocarbonatites (Klaudius and Keller, 2006). Of the known extrusive and intrusive carbonatites, only the lavas at Oldonyo Lengai are natrocarbonatitic (Woolley and Church, 2005; Jones et al., 2013); thus these lavas are unique and have no other direct comparison in the geologic record. The unparalleled major oxide compositions, trace- and rare-earth-element geochemistry, isotope systematics, and volatile concentrations of Oldonyo Lengai natrocarbonatite lavas give igneous petrologists insight into deep carbon systematics, mantle processes, magmatic differentiation due to liquid immiscibility, and carbonatite petrogenesis (Simonetti et al., 1997; Dawson, 1998; Keller et al., 2006; Klaudius and Keller, 2006; Potter et al, 2016).



Leaving the Serengeti for Lake Natron

Leaving the Serengeti for Lake Natron

It rained while we were sleeping. As camp was packed up, I could smell the wet earth mixed with fire and vegetation. I feel like I am attuned to so many more smells here. Things are not paved over and transformed away from their natural state. It reminds me of being on trail. When you regain your ability to smell people – the soaps, bug spray, sunblock, perfume, and more – before you see or hear them. But this is different. It’s stronger, I am bathed, and have not become the same kind of feral beast I am on trail, yet I can smell the world in the air. It is like the rush of smells of nature when you first step out of a cave. You don’t realize you haven’t been able to smell nature until you are being reunited after breathing sterilized air. I like it.

Melissa and I again perched our selves on the kopje to watch the sunrise, Lucas dutifully leading the way. I spotted a banded mongoose, but discovered my camera battery was dead. We saw a wildebeest herd hustle by our camp. I don’t understand why predators don’t attack while they herd. It is clear the strongest wildebeests make their way to the front of the line while the calves are left racing to keep up the tail. As we drove out, we passed heaps of ostriches really close to the road. The pink legs of the males and faces of the females indicating breeding time was fully visible at this close distance. We could see Masai women collecting water from a stream that developed from the brief rains. It is scary to think water here is so scarce that these people work hard to capture all they can. Most of the migrating animals are independent of water, so they do not rely so heavily on a constant water supply.

Since the animals are mostly in Ndutu, we asked Daudi to take us into Serengeti National Park as a special request. As the always gracious host, he of course complied. The herd was noticeably thinner, but we still had many great sights! Immediately we saw about 20 hyena lurking around a carcass and encroaching on nearby wildebeests. The endless plain of its namesake was more evident here than in Ndutu. Prior to formation of the plain, this area would have been largely exposed pre-Cambrian metamorphic rock. Then the Kerimasi volcano, a small carbonatitic strato-cone on the north edge of the Ngorongoro volcanic highlands, produced a series of explosive eruptions, blanketing the entire area in pyroclastic air fall tuffs. The result is the “endless plains” seen today. Besides the mountains at the horizons, it could easily have passed for the plains of western Kansas (animal presence aside of course), interesting how so many geological environments can produce such similar looking results. We watched a miles long line of wildebeests crossing the road towards Ndutu, and a picturesque juvenile tawny eagle staring us down from in a lone acacia tree.

On the way back out the same road, it was like all the animals had come swarming. Instantly we spotted a female cheetah lounging by the side of the road. Then a lioness in the distance perched on a giant rock under a tree’s shade. The hyena were on the move and ostriches took off running. These animals are oblivious to the boundaries marked by humans, seamlessly crossing back and forth as best fits the path of their migration. Ndutu and Loliondo are pivotal to this ecosystem’s survival. The animals will go as they please, continuing migration routes established long before humans divide up their land as our own.

We went back through Oldupai Gorge to drop off Lucas and capture our last views of this earth cradling humanity’s evolution. Then we set off for Loliondo, the far other side of the rift fault. We drove across the far east side of the Serengeti, where Oldonyo Lengai volcano continues to contribute to those vast grass plains. Loliondo is where game hunting is allowed. You can immediately see the differences from Masai only territory. The buildings are more permanent structures, a combination of more wood resources and other tribes than Masai. Also, there is a noticeably greater turn to agriculture.

We pulled off for lunch under a whistling acacia and looked out over the landscape. The Tanzanian government has hired Chinese immigrants to build a paved road from the Serengeti to Lake Natron and then to Arusha. What a difference that will be for this landscape. I am not comvimced the outcome will necessarily produce beneficial results to the people living in these areas, but it will dramatically change tourism, for one. But that is all a long way off. For now all we see are the scars of ground being leveled. Then, many large bridges will have to be built. This land is riddled with deep gouges from water ripping through the fine sediment and wearing away the rock during rain storms. I hope their engineers have geological understanding, or the road is destined to crumble as quickly as it is built. But maybe that wouldn’t be such an overly bad thing. Not that I want to prevent the opportunities of easier travel, wealth of tourism’s arrival, or the modernizing of this land. But it will surely change this place in unpredictable ways.

Soon we began to loose elevation. I could tell from rising temperatures, and the wide sediment ravines we kept driving down, working our way off the Rift Valley escarpment. We passed through the village of Engaruka to Water Fall Camp. It is a public camp, and the only green oasis on this side of the escarpment (and we are not even in the dry season, when all the plants wither to black sticks). The owner hires Masai from the village below to work as camp helpers for whatever guests arrive. There are other camps, but I suspect this is a favorite. The grounds are relatively flat and grass covered, there are giant trees casting shade (several large fig trees were dropping fruit!), and it overlooks Lake Natron with Gelai looming behind it. And a short walk to the edge of the plateau reveals decent views of Oldonyo Lengai and the escarpment towering up behind us.

We met our Masai guide for this region, a kind and patient man named Daniel. He will accompany us on all our excursions, including Oldonyo Lengai. Melissa and I also learned that Daudi is Masai. No wonder he was able to tell us so much about their culture, his culture. And Kimambo is from the Chaga Tribe in Moshi. Daudi told us “oldonyo” is Masai for “mountain,” and “Oldonyo Lengai” is Masai for “Mountain of God.” So the Google map name of Ol Doinyo Lengai is yet another example of incorrect spelling from European explorers. We also discovered numerous other discrepancies as we showed Daniel our USGS geological map of the region. It contained a whole slew of of oldonyo spelling variations for the various peaks around; made all the more funny when that means everything has been somewhat formally named “mountain.”