I am an American technology worker who just moved to Taiwan.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kilimanjaro Day One: and then there were four

December 27, 2012, after day 1 hike

Stuck truck at Machame gate
 Day 1 didn't quite go as planned. The end result was achieved although Africa doesn't seem to be very "solution driven". The lost luggage was still lost at 11AM when we finally agreed to a plan: the four of us with luggage would go to the Machame gate and start the climb with the assistant guide. Elias would go to the airport with John and Cindy to get the one piece of luggage that might have made it there. The whereabouts of the other two bags is still unknown. Depending on which bag it was, they would attempt to secure some facsimile of the missing contents at an outfitter in Moshi. Then...?

It's now 8PM, we are in Machame Camp, just under 10k ft and they have yet to show up. Our 9AM start was severely delayed. We thought getting out of the hotel would be the toughest part, then we were met at the gate by a long line of traffic. One truck on the inside of the gate couldn't be started and they wedged a rock under the rear wheels to prevent it from rolling backwards. It was in the way and blocking an entire line of traffic running down the access road that leads to Machame gate. Had they been solution driven, they could have simply removed the rock, kept a foot on the brake, and allowed gravity to take charge, easily guiding the truck out of the way of inbound trucks and everybody could have been happy. Instead they played with the engine for an hour to finally get it to start and get out of the way for others to come in.
Waiting out the rain at the gate

In the mean time our crew set up lunch in the pavilion at the entrance while we waiting for some paperwork to get done. Meanwhile it was pouring rain, no surprise. As the rain burst from skies at the gate, locals selling backpack covers came out of nowhere. The cover was just a sheet of plastic with an elastic band around the outside so you have throw it over your pack to keep it dry. I didn't have a cover for my daypack but thought it would fit under my rain jacket. Still, I thought it might be nice to have but was shocked that the going price was $20. That's USD! I thought the asking price would be five bucks and you could haggle down to one or two. I decided to roll the dice with the rain jacket idea.

Nice day in the rain forest
We were at this pavilion seemingly for hours before we finally set foot onto the trail, still without Elias, John and Cindy. The climb was pretty tough because it was mostly stairs through the rainforest and could be treacherous to hike after dark. There is a climb up to Cixing in Taipei that it almost all stairs, steep stairs. This was not as bad and it was cool to meet some other travellers on the trail. This is high season so there is a constant crowd heading up the trail. There seemed to be an awful lot of students. What happened to the notion of "poor starving college student"? Africa is not cheap.

End of Day 1
We made it to the end of today's hike right around dark. Steven and Chris came upon a Russian guy at the top who, upon reaching today's apex, flopped onto his back in the grass like a snow angel. They dubbed him "heavy machinery" because he was quite large, maybe 230 pounds, maybe more. The mass of people climbing Kilimanjaro was probably the most fit demographic in a group that size that I have ever been part of. Perhaps, even more fit than casual triathletes. We were already speculating on how far "heavy machinery" would hike before he gave up.

Arrival of the dark lord
Warm and dry
We walked into camp and were looking for people from our crew. We were totally unsure of how many porters it would take to manage this climb and it turned out there were an army of them. Since we got off to a late start our camp was not ready when we arrived but very shortly after, tents were set up and coffee and popcorn were ready. We were wondering if John and Cindy would ever show up. It would suck to have to bail out on the entire trip due to some missing balaclavas. The whole luggage debacle turned out to be a blessing in disguise as there was heavy rain up until our delayed departure and then it eased up a bit. Shirley had rented this pancho and she looked like some evil villain from a sci-fi fantasy movie coming up the trail with hooded cloak and staff in hand. We got a bit wet but once inside the tent we were able to ditch our wet clothes and change into something comfortable. Comfortable and dry are synonymous at this point. Now waiting on dinner...

The Last Shower

December 27, 2012: Day One

We met up with out climbing group at the Arusha Protea Lodge, a hotel about 30 minutes drive from the Machame gate, where the climb will begin. There is a total of 6 climbers plus the crew, no idea what the crew:climber ratio is but I expect it to be embarrassingly high. We hit the jackpot, people-wise,  especially considering that an Amy Winehouse wannabe and her entourage are at the hotel and they are leaving on the same day. So we quite possibly could have drawn that straw.

Steven, the Scottish guy, made and interesting observation that each of us in our climbing group lives outside of their respective home country. Steven works in the ore mines of western Australia. John & Cindy are a couple that teach in Dubai, John a Kiwi and Cindy a Canadian. They came along with their friend Chris who is also a teacher from England. Our guide, Elias, took a survey of our equipment and Steven was severely under equipped, by our standards. Whereas we all had daypacks plus a 15kg rucksack filled with multiple baselayers, socks, hats, sweaters and rainproof gear, Steven was able to fit everything he had in one small backpack. He didn't even have gloves but assured us, if it really get's that cold he can just stick his hands in his pockets! The guide seemed quite uncomfortable with Steven's preparedness but I don't think he has much to be concerned about. He can probably summit in a kilt, commando style.

We were supposed to leave the hotel @ 9:30AM to head for the car to the gate but it is already after 10. I think Elias is probably stil scraping together some gear and had to collect John & Cindy's lost luggage. They were on an Ethiopian Air flight and there gear didn't make it through the layover. Elias is going to stop at the airport to pick it up. They are really anxious about the luggage because they bought all kinds of new gear especially for this trip. Shirley and I just brought our normal ski clothes and will rent sleeping bags and mattresses from the tour company. Since we have to lug all of our stuff to Zanzibar afterwards we wanted to travel relatively lightly.

The water pressure at the hotel is amazingly high, which is great, because this will be our last shower for seven days, need to make it count! I think the toothbrush is most important hygiene product we will be taking up the mountain.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Two days on safari

December 25, 2012

Saw a Cheetah close to the end of the day in Ngorongoro
Safari day 2 almost felt like cheating; it was like fishing in a barrel. I don't understand how Ngorongoro Crater attracts animals in, and then keeps them in, but apparently it does. There is a somewhat isolated ecosystem inside this crater that creates and environment for abundant animal spotting, even with quite a few tour groups in there, hundreds of tour jeeps, but there is a surprising amount of sprawling real estate to spread out into. It was still difficult to find the more elusive animals so it still had a bit of sporting sense to it. We only planned two days of safari on the advice of a friend and it was good advice. I'm not sure we could take another day of animal spotting as it became quite repetitive.

Christmas dinner was turkey and ham and an amazing stuffing which I think was loaded with...more ham. All the food at the lodge was tasted and only once included rice which was a welcomed change of pace from life in Taiwan where every lunch meal at work includes a scoop of rice.

After breakfast we started the trip down to Arusha to transfer to our climbing guide. The Mt. Meru lodge again served as the rendez-vous point. On the first day the tour operator who gave us the overall rundown mentioned that there was a guy from Scotland who would be on the climb with us. Shirley started to get nervous thinking that he would be some super mountain climber born in the Highlands who's veins flow single malt. We met him at the rendez-vous. She might be right.

Masai villages dot the savannah 
On the ride from Arusha out to the safari and back we travel through countryside inhabited by the Masai, the men recognised as being covered in a red cloth carrying a stick, typically herding cattle. They live in round huts with a thatched roof. I wanted to take more pictures but Shirley brought up this idea about cameras stealing their souls. I thought that was the Zulu but I didn't have internet access available to be able to debunk her theory so I just tried to be discreet. I wonder if anyone ever really believed that or if it is just myth.

Friday, February 8, 2013

I bless the rains down in Africa

December 24, 2012

We were picked up at the airport in a Toyota Land Cruiser by our guide, Rizuan, who would be handling the safari portion of this adventure. We made a pit stop for lunch at the Mt. Meru Lodge in Arusha where a representative from the tour company gave us the rundown of the trip. Soon after, Rizuan picked us up to head up to the lodge in between the two game drive locations, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater.

It rained unbelievably hard all night long. I think the rain coupled with 21 hours of drinking nothing but diuretic (coffe + alcohol) caused me to wake up to pee at least 3 times. Nonetheless I slept quite soundly. I thought breakfast would just be a continental spread, which is how it started but then they came by to take orders for eggs, bacon and sausage. Coffee here is great, I'm looking forward to bringing some home. We rode through some of the coffee plantations on our way to the safari lodge.

Today we went on a game drive at Lake Manyara. The morning was raining but it was light enough that we could pop up the roof on the Land Cruiser which allows you to stand up and peer out for an unobstructed view. Our first sighting was baboons and we thought it was amazing. At the end of the day we would pass the same colony of baboons and it seemed much less impressive after all of the wildlife that we would encounter. A group of female lions that we could barely spot through the grass was the highlight of the day as the leopard eluded us. Tomorrow we have another game drive at Ngorongoro and I'm curious what we will see there that we did not see today.

During our pre-dinner shower back at the lodge we could hear Christmas carollers and found them assembled in front of the lodge singing "O come all ye faithful" in Swahili. Last year we were in New Zealand for XMAS. Sometimes I miss the traditional New England XMAS I experienced as a child but it is exciting to experience in the context of other cultures. I was surprised that Tanzania is about half Christian half Muslim.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

2012 Trip to Africa

December 23, 2012

Since the school calendar had a particularly long Christmas break this year we decided to take a trip to Africa as two friends of ours summitted Kilimanjaro this year and convinced us that this was not really mountain climbing but just walking up a hill (sarcastic foreshadow). The plan was to go on safari in Tanzania for a couple days, then spend 7 days climbing the Machame route of Kilimanjaro, then relax on the beaches of Zanzibar for a few days.

Firstly, no, we have never climbed a real mountain before. No, we don't like camping. But we do like skiing, and, well, climbing a mountain is almost like the same thing, right? So we were off to climb a mountain, planning a summit attempt starting on New Years Eve. Getting from Taipei to Kilimanjaro is easy, you only have to go from Taipei > Hong Kong > Bangkok > Nairobi > Kilimanjaro, which is not nearly as difficult as getting from Zanzibar to Taipei (more sarcastic foreshadow). As we boarded the flight from Hong Kong > Nairobi (with a pit stop in Bangkok), we had our first exposure to Kenyan culture. We were seated in the same row but there were 3 seats in between us and we didn't realize this when we got our boarding passes. As people were still trying to board the plane there were people running all over the place, 90% men, and somehow they seemed to all know each other. The guy sitting next to Shirley was shaking his head at the rudeness and said something like, "Welcome to Africa". It was like a big party, but I wasn't in the mood for a big party and I was assuming that even though it was Kenya Airways, there still must be a rule that you can't be running up and down the aisles yelling "Jambo" (Swahili for "Hello") as the plane is taking off. After about 30 minutes of this the plane was finally ready to go and everyone got in their seats. Before everyone had sat down there was still a seat open next to me and I got Shirley to move into that seat. I think someone was assigned to that seat but I took advantage of the fact that there seemed to be no urge for the 300 passengers to actually take their seats so I figured whomever was assigned to that seat really didn't care where they sat.
Shirley checking out a Taiwan history display in HK airport

Or it could also have been the fact that while we were waiting in Hong Kong Airport to get our boarding passes, a family of five was having a big fight with the counter agent because they were being denied access due to visa concerns. The behavior would easily have gotten them tasered in the US but but I would soon come to realize this over emotional arguing would be commonplace in Kenya. I also noticed that throughout the flight people were wandering around messing with stuff in the overhead bins, far from the seats they were sitting in. I think they just randomly scatter their baggage to have an excuse to wander the plane and socialize.

We had a total of 22 hours from door to door which isn't actually that bad and is less painful when the "back" button works on the in flight entertainment system. I, however, wasn't so lucky and I somehow got stuck into the Adele music selection with no "Back" button to save me from this horror. I would rather freeze to death on the Hillary steps of Mt. Everest than listen to Adele for 12 hours so I just shut the thing off and tried to get some sleep.

(to be continued)