Friday, October 4, 2013

From the edge of no-where to the middle of no-where

Africa - Day 10 - Wednesday October 2

There was a bit of confusion this morning but we ended up missing breakfast and jumping in the Land Cruiser for our 45-minute trip to the airport around 6:30 AM.  We thought we had a 7:55 AM flight but it ended up being a 9 AM flight.  Considering we were the only ones on the Cessna Caravan taking us to the Serengeti, I don’t know why it mattered exactly what time we showed up.  Regardless, we got there and waited over an hour for the plane to take off on the scheduled time.

The flight was quick and easy, just about an hour.  We landed on the private airstrip of the Singita Reserve.  Upon arrival, our guide Joe was waiting for us in his Land Cruiser safari truck.  As we were loading our bags, a herd of elephants decided to cross the runway just about a hundred yards from us.  It was quite a site.

Joe mentioned that the drive to the campsite would be anywhere from 40 minutes to 3 hours depending on traffic.  We didn’t really understand what that meant so we just smiled and nodded --- off we went.  Within 5 minutes Joe shut the car off as we approached a herd of Impala (deer like animals).  He turned around and said, “You see what I mean, traffic.”  The ride from the airport to the campsite was our first safari.  We saw Impala, Zebra, Giraffe, Wildebeest, Hogs, Topi, Elephants, Baboons, Buffalo, Monkeys, Gazelle, Ostriches and more.  Currently it’s migration season so there are animals everywhere.  We saw no less than 40,000 animals on the ride back to the campsite.  That’s a conservative guess.

We pulled up to our “campsite” and proceeded to get out of the truck.  For legal reasons they can’t build permanent structures on the reserve so they have constructed these various tents.  Picture hardwood floors, elevated off the ground with every amenity needed.  We have two rooms that are about 1,000 square feet each, 12 foot ceilings and they each have a raised walkway to a shared living room tent between the two rooms.  Inside the tent we have our living area along with a bathroom divided by a cloth wall.  The bathroom has a normal, plumbed toilet, a bathtub, dual sinks, a closet and an outdoor shower.

We settled in quickly and then headed up to the main tent.  Someone greeted us with a pitcher of warm water and some soap to wash our hands.  We went to the bar (an old hot-air balloon basket converted to a bar) and they had welcome drinks waiting for us.  After enjoying the welcome drink and saying our hellos, we sat down at a table set for three out on the deck.  At this point we were literally sitting in the middle of Africa with 360-degree views of animals.  It was amazing.

We ate an amazing lunch and then had about 3 hours to kill before our 4:30 safari.  Evan took a nap on one of the outside daybeds and Jamie took a nap in the tent.  I sat at the lunch table (writing this) while Zebras grazed no more than 15 feet behind me.

The afternoon flew by and before I knew it, it was time for our safari.  We hopped in with Joe and proceeded to drive around looking for anything interesting to see.  The three-hour safari seemed like 10 minutes.  The weather was perfect and the animals were amazing.  The most interesting thing on this particular outing was a mother Cheetah and her three babies.  The mother was just lying around while the three cubs romped around with each other in the brush.  I was shocked to see how close we could get (less than 10 feet) without them caring or even acknowledging our presence. 

After the safari we got back to our tents, cleaned up and headed to the main tent for dinner.  There was another group of 10 people here that we chatted with for a while.  Normally they have a campfire setup but tonight it rained so the campfire was cancelled.  We ate dinner inside the main tent because of the weather.  This resort is all-inclusive so we got to order as much of anything as we wanted.  Normally I’m not a fan of all-inclusive resorts because the food & drinks are sub-standard.  Not here.  The food was 5-star all the way.  The wine list was very impressive and the liquor was top-shelf.  We thoroughly enjoyed dinner and then it was off to bed.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Last Push

Africa - Day 9 - Tuesday October 1

We asked Bobos to wake us up at 7 but Evan was up at 6:20 and did his best to make sure Jamie and I were as well.  We dressed in the tent for the last time, packed our bags and made our way to breakfast.  We ate a quick breakfast and started the last sprint to the bottom.  The last day was an easy walk downhill.  It was supposed to take 3 hours but we decided to do our best to keep up with the porters.  We did the 5.27 mile, 5000 foot descent in just over 2 hours.  We beat most of the porters, which didn’t please our guides too much. 

Fortunately for us they sold beer at the bottom so we each enjoyed an almost cold beer as we waited for the crew to catch up.  We met up with another group that had been on the same itinerary as us.  One of the guys in the group was wearing everything Tough Mudder which helped strike up the conversation.  I asked them about their summit and their first words were “I had no idea it was going to be that hard.  It made Tough Mudder seem like an afternoon nap.”  We ended up hearing from at least three others about how much harder it was then they expected.

As we headed to our ride home, we were surprised to see the crew waiting for us.  The hood of the Land Cruiser had a picnic blanket on it along with a bottle of champagne, three flutes and three bottles of water.  They asked who was the youngest,,,, me,, and asked me to open the bottle.  I sent the cork across the parking lot and proceeded to fill the glasses with Champagne.  After that I handed the bottle to the crew.  They started signing songs and passing the bottle around the group taking big swigs from it after each handoff.  We celebrated and laughed until the rain started.  After some quick hugs and high-fives, we hopped in the trucked and headed home.

Shortly after leaving the park entrance we ran out of beer.  We decided to stop at a beer stand along the way and refill.  It turns out the average worker makes about $40,000 shillings a month ($30 us).  So, when we gave a tip of $10,000 shillings ($8 US), it was a big deal.  We stopped at a few more stands before finishing the 1.5 hour drive back.  We also stopped at a local farmers market.  After walking around for 30 minutes or so, we made a few purchases and then continued back to the lodge.  It was interesting to be such a showstopper.  We were told there weren’t many (any) white people that stop at that farmers market and that they were happy to have us there.

Back at the lodge we scheduled back-to-back massages.  Just to be clear, we weren’t back to back in the same room.  We each had one massage after the other.  There was only one masseuse and only one massage table at the lodge.  After that it was dinnertime.  We had previously scheduled to go out with our guide at a local BBQ spot.  We hired our concierge and lodge driver to join us.  It was about a 30 minute ride in to Arusha. 

In Arusha, we ended up on some bumpy dirt road that lead to this obscure BBQ place.  We met up with our guide and the 6 of us ate and drank all night (well, just until Evan and Jamie got sleepy, 8:30 PM).  We said our goodbyes, hopped in the van and headed back to the lodge.  That was it.  Our last day on the mountain ended in the city with all of us hanging out together.  It was hard to believe we had made it.  That it as all over.  That we succeeded.  I will never hike Kilimanjaro again but I’m happy to have done it this time.  My friends were amazing.  Our guide was amazing.  Our crew was amazing. My Wife’s support from 1000s of miles away was amazing.  It was an experience I/We will never forget.

Kilimanjaro Summit or Bust

Africa - Day 8 - Monday September 30

At 11 PM Bobos, our campsite manager, came and woke us up.  I have never been so cold in my life. It was so cold in the tent that I had to change in the sleeping bag.  There was even ice frost on everything inside the tent.  I wondered what in the world we were thinking when we thought this would be a good idea.  After finally getting dressed and packing my bag, I met everyone in the mess tent for our pre-hike meal.  None of us were hungry so we took a few bites of porridge and that was it. 

At 12 PM it was time to hike although by the time we got our act together it was more like 12:40.  We put on our headlamps, grabbed our hiking poles and started up the mountain.  One foot in front of the other, we hiked and then we hiked and then we hiked some more. We kept on hiking.  Our guide had suggested that I shouldn’t wear my base layer because I would be hot.  I didn't wear it. I wasn't hot.  I was freezing. However, it was too cold to take my jacket off and put the base layer on so I kept going.

Along the way I made one very big mistake.  I didn't drink water.  My camel pack was full with 3 liters of liquid ice.  I could feel every sip go through my body and super-cool my insides.  Because of the super cold water and the fact trying to pee on a steep incline in sub-zero temperatures wasn't fun,,,, I stopped drinking.  Around 18,000 feet the headache set in.  About 100 feet below Stella Point (the first summit point, just below 19,000 feet) my head was pounding.  At this point I was taking 3-inch steps just to keep moving.  I knew that if I stopped, I wouldn't start again.

Let me back up a second to describe what we thought this was going to be.  We knew we had to go 4,000 feet from camp to the summit.  We were told it would take 6 hours.  We were told it was a hike along a trail.  4,000 feet in 6 hours didn't sound like it would be steep or even that difficult.  For example, on our first day we did 5,000 feet in just a few hours along a 'not so steep' path.  The summit hike was steep.  Very steep.  It took 6 hours because each step was so short. 

Another thing to note is the top of Kilimanjaro. Picture a volcano with its top blown off and a big crater in the middle.  That's exactly what Kilimanjaro is.  The first Summit is Stella point at just less than 19,000 feet.  Then, you walk around the rim of the crater to the highest point at 19,340 feet.  We were told a lot of people get to Stella point and then just turn around.

When we arrived at Stella point just as the sun was coming up, we were exhausted. Jamie and I had raging headaches that crippled our bodies. We each popped a handful of Advil, drank some warm tea they brought for us and did our best to prepare for the final hike to the summit.  We were told the hike from Stella to the highest point was an easy 1-hour hike.  It did take an hour but it wasn't easy.  Even though the vertical ascent was only 500 feet, with the headache, each step was torture. 

As bad as my headache was, I could still appreciate the beauty of our surroundings.  There were glaciers all around us.  I had never seen glaciers like this before. Piles of ice, some 100+ feet thick and 100s of yards long and wide,,,,, amazing.  As we slowly made our way to the highest point, people that were there before us were barreling down quickly, happily and with ease.  I envied them.  After two false peaks we finally saw the famous sign, just sitting there not too far away.  Another 5 minutes and we were there.  Finally.  Finally.  We made it.

The first thing I did was call Katie.  Hearing her voice shot emotion through me like I've never felt before. I had just completed the most grueling physical challenge of my life and my favorite adult in the world, who had supported me every day of this journey by writing a bundle of letters, one per day to open and read, was on the other end of the phone.  I lost it.  I couldn't even talk.  For safety reasons they only gave us one minute at summit for each day of acclimation we’d had prior.  We were told we had 8 minutes before we had to start down.  I had to get it together enough to say goodbye to not only Katie but also my loving Mother who had stayed up late enough with Katie to congratulate us.  Jamie, Evan and I took a few pictures at the summit and then prepared for our hike down.

After 7 hours of intense hiking, it was time to start our 3 hour controlled fall back to base camp.  Jamie and I were hoping that our headaches would subside as the altitude decreased.  We walked back past Stella Point and then we stepped off the rim on to the steep side that lead back to camp.  On our equipment list were told to wear gators.  Gators are guards that form a seal between your hiking pants and your shoes to keep rocks out.  We didn't need them or use them up until this point. I'm extremely happy we had them for this decent.

We were in 6 inches of gravel & dirt as we slid down the mountain.  We each had a guide who we locked arms with as we descended. Locking arms was as much to help us as it was to help them. With our inner arms locked together and our outer arms holding one hiking pole each, we slid and stopped as one.  While theoretically the descent should of helped my head, the constant pounding on my body made it much worse.  My guide and I had to stop multiple times just so I could rub my head to avoid throwing up.  I'm not a sickly person so it was frustrating for me to be so weak.  We made it back to camp about 30 minutes after Jamie and Evan.  I popped another 4 Advil and drank some salt rehydration medicine that Evan had with him.  About an hour later I was back to myself.

At this point we had 2 hours sleep and had hiked over 10 hours.  We were beat and it was only 11 AM.  We ate lunch and then started our hike down to our next camp.  4 hours, 4.5 miles and 5000 feet later we arrived at our camp.  The constant downhill was a lot on everyone's knees but being back in the warm weather and oxygen rich atmosphere made it all worth it.  We chatted with some neighbors, ate dinner and called it a night.

However, there was one surprise at dinner.  Because it was Evan's birthday, the crew surprised him, and us, with a custom made birthday cake with festive decorations including candles.  Most of the crew came in to the mess tent and sang Happy Birthday both in English and in Swahili.  The BO just about beat Evan to smothering the candles.  They finished singing, Evan blew out the candles, we ate cake and called it a night.  We all slept very well that night.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Kilimanjaro Revealed

Africa - Day 7 - Sunday September 29

Even though wake up was at 7 AM, we were all up by 6.  Evan was the first out of the tent and he quickly called us all out to see Kilimanjaro.  For the first time on this trip, we were able to see how beautiful this mountain really is.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky.  Well, at least not a cloud above us. Looking down at the valley was a different story. The clouds formed a solid layer at around 3000 feet (guess).  From our camp we could see the sides of Kilimanjaro slope down below us for 1000s of feet before disappearing in to the clouds.

The night was cold. Evan and Jamie claimed the slept ok.  I slept great despite being cold.  I had to have my entire body in the sleeping bag to stay warm.  In the morning I realized why I was more cold than normal.  Somehow the crew had opened all the vents in my tent,,, I had no idea. I won't let that happen again.  Breakfast was at 7:30.  Papua fruit, followed by porridge, followed by an egg sandwich.  We were on the trail by 8 AM.

The trail from camp went straight up hill.  By 8:30 we were down to our t-shirts.  The sun was shining strong and the views were incredible. By 9 AM the clouds had rolled in and the temperature dropped by about 20 degrees. We quickly put our warm weather gear back on and continued to hike.  We hiked up to 14,500 (camp was 13,200) before reaching another ridge. From that ridge we could see camp but, like the day before, we would have to hike down through a valley and back up the other side. 

The valley wasn't as far down as the day before but it was about a mile long.  On the other side of the valley we started up a steep slope to the ridge that lead to camp.  The valley and the ridge meet at 15,000 feet.  From there we hiked another 300 feet veticle (another 30 minutes) to camp. 

Walking through the other tent setups to our campsite was a bit surreal.  This ridge was much steeper than last night’s camp so everyone was tucked in wherever there was room.  As we were walking towards our camp site we were passing folks who had summited that morning and were back at their tents enjoying breakfast / lunch.  You could tell they were very proud of their accomplishment.

Our camp was at the highest point before the start of the trail to the summit.  We got to camp early, just before 11 AM.  The hike took 2:54, we hiked, 2.35 miles and camp was at 15,357.  Just after arriving at camp we enjoyed lunch and then spent the afternoon hanging out.  Evan and Jamie took naps and I spent sometime on the blog and just walking around the campsite talking to other hikers who were gong to be starting the summit hike that night as well.

A 5 o'clock it was dinnertime.  We were all still full from lunch so we didn't eat much.  After dinner our guide did one final equipment check and cleared us for the summit hike. We were told to sleep until our 11 PM wake up call.  I think I ended up getting 2 hours of sleep.  Evan and Jamie claimed they slept for about an hour.  Our 11 PM wake up call was the start to the finish of a trip we will never forget.