MAY 2011 NEWSPAPER COLUMN

BUCKET LIST TRAVEL TALES
ADVENTURE #3


Jambo everyone, this month’s journey takes us to Mount Kilimanjaro. Our adventure group had decided on hiking the Machame or “whiskey route” which reaches altitudes of over 5600 metres. We knew this was the route we wanted, as it has the highest success rate, and allowed for more time to acclimatise as the altitude rose; and this would be key to a successful summit.

Our group set off from the Machame gate, at an elevation of 1490m, for an enjoyable walk through the rain forest area. The end of our first day would see us stopping at Machame Camp (2980 m) for an evening of camping. Day two proved to be very much like our first and would see us to Shira, a camp at an elevation of 3840 m. At this elevation, there is still a lot of oxygen and it’s still pleasant in temperature. After a 2 hour respite, we leave the rainforest and enter the moorland area. Our group heads across a rocky plain and ridge to Shira Plateau, and we catch a glimpse of the glaciers atop Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s still a long way up from here. Camping on this open plain, we can’t help but notice that it is starting to get a little cooler.

At the outset of day three, we head out for a five hour walk to the unique lava tubes at 4630 m and our highest altitude yet. You can easily see that the vegetation is getting sparser, and the air thinner and colder. We head past the Barranco wall and into the valley camp at 3950m. This is a much more comfortable altitude; however, a few in the group are noticing a dull nagging altitude headache.

Day four and there is a chill in the air as we head off to tackle the great Barranco wall. It looks daunting, yet halfway up and we realize it isn’t as bad as we thought. We continue to see saw through the elevations as we head through the Karanga valley; all the while eyeing our campsite atop the next ridge. We are out of the scenic and vegetative area and feel like we have landed on the moon. We are also at 4530m and the air is pretty thin up here. A flat rocky campsite on the side of the mountain is our home for the night, so we don our headlamps and all the warm clothes we have packed. This is the kind of altitude that makes getting dressed, and even getting out of your tent, a huge chore. There is a nervous chatter as we eat our last meal of spaghetti and mystery meat, then head to bed early to try and get some rest before we head to the summit the mountain at midnight.

Finally, at 11:30 PM, we are up wearing pretty much all the clothing we have. Everyone in our group is both eager and nervous to get this summit attempt started.

Our guides have timed it perfectly and we’re hiking on a full moon. The moonlight is bright and surreal, so we opt out of using our headlamps and enjoy the moonlit trail. Starting out pole pole, which is Swahili for slow, and it is a pace we will try to hold to for the next six hours. Eventually, we have broken into several small groups with our guides and tackle it at our own pace. It grows still colder and the air gets thinner and thinner making every step an exertion of will and physical effort. Our hydration packs and water bottles start freezing and still we just keep climbing in the dark. Amidst the group, there is chatter. “Why are we doing this?” “Maybe we’re high enough?” There is even a bargaining attempt: “Just wait for the sun to rise.” But we support and encourage each other and the conquest of Kilimanjaro continues.

Just after daybreak, our efforts lead us to Stella point at 5600 m. After a snack and water break, we are energized again and ready to hit the top. The summit is so close and we set off on a run, but the altitude quickly reminds us where we are.

We reach the summit in sunshine. It’s now time to take in the view that so few will ever see with their own eyes. It’s also time to take all the photographs that we’ll use to brag about it later.

What took six hours to go, now takes four hours to go down. We run down the steep gravel hill ready for a break in elevation. Continuing that way until we finally hit the Barafu camp at 4550m, which feels like heaven after the summit. Exhausted and looking forward to some rest and a meal, we are given a bowl of soup and time for a short nap. Our guides point us downhill and tell us that we have four more hours to the next campsite. Kilimanjaro isn’t finished with us yet, and four hours turn into six as the rain starts. Everyone is physically and mentally exhausted. Eating dinner is a chore. But the accomplishment, the success of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, sustains us. Now our group of adventurers share a new dream; a dream of a cold beer and a hot shower tomorrow when we get off this mountain.

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