Friday, March 18, 2011


We came to Tanzania to climb the mountain and did not expect our side trip to safari became the best part of this trip, in fact, it was the best trip we have ever taken before.

Campsite in dawn

The safari was mostly done in Toyota Land Cruiser with the customized roof could pop up so we can stand up to look at the animals. Our guide/driver, Godwill, was knowledgeable and friendly and Chef dada ("sister" in Swahili) made delicious food for us, typically 3 course meals.

We visited three national park – Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro. The animal life there were amazing, we saw animals non-stop, we even saw lots of animals along the road to there!

We saw all Big Five mammals - elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo.

Herd of elephant crossing a park road

3 lions resting on a tree branch

Leopard jumping onto a tree
A rhino is walking
A herd of buffalo behind our unfenced campsite

As well as other animals, birds and other creatures

Nashukuru and Kwaheri Tanzania! We will be back one day!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kilimanjaro Uhuru Peak 5895m via Machame route

Mt. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa and the 4th highest of the 7 Summits. It is the tallest freestanding mountain in the world, with Uhuru Peak rising to an altitude of 5,895m above sea level. It's located at the north-eastern Tanzania, I emphisis this here because a lot of people think Kilimanjaro is located in Kenya.

My attempt to conquer the summit of Kilimanjaro is not because of The Snow of Kilimanjaro by Ernest Hemingway (I actually tried to watch the movie a couple days before the trip, it's such a boring story and had to stop 20 minutes later. I never appreciated, maybe never understood, any world famous literatures. I guess it's about time for me to improve my attainment in literacy), is because it's listed as one of the Top 10 Hiking Trails Around The World of which I experienced quite a few in the past few years.

I have to admit Kilimanjaro is one of the least scenic amongst the trails I hiked before, but is the hardest one I've ever experienced, more mentally. I'm not an active person and didn't do a lot of training for this trip. I started to workout on the elliptical 4 times a week 1/2 hour each time 2 months before the trip (thanks to my friend MZ referred me to a funny dating show "You Are The One", this show accompanied me with all the repetitive boring movements during my 2 months of training). The only thing I prepared on purpose for this trip was MZ and I did an overnight shopping trip on American's Black Friday simply to test if I could stay awake on the summit night. Two of us drove 5 hours to Grove City in Pennsylvania after work, started our shopping at 12:30AM and didn't go to sleep until 4pm. It refreshed my record of stay awake to 33 hours.

Even though we reached our goal and received our certificates, this expedition was not about a photo under a sign or a piece of paper at all, it was about the journey of discovery and privilege. We will never forget the intensity of this trek and the honour of having Kilimanjaro time.

I feel reaching the summit was not that hard physically if you don't experience altitude sickness as we walked extremely slow, the hardest part for me was attitude sickness, I was almost knocked out because of it.

There are several routes up the mountain, we planned 5 days Marangu route originally but substituted to 6 days Machame route at the last minute. Machame route is longer, steeper and a little more difficult than Marangu route but the success rate is higher because it takes an extra day, the final summit is 1.5km shorter and "hike high, sleep low" on day 3 allows the true acclimatization. Big thanks to my safari buddy Ms. A who made this suggestion and sacrificed the most.

Day 1 - Feb 11, 2011
Machame Gate (1811m) - Machame Hut (3021m)
Altitude gained: +1210m
Distance: 10.75km

We got up at 7am, had last chance to have a proper shower before heading to the mountain. Didn’t get a chance to look at the place we stayed last night due to late arrival. The room was clean and cozy, there’s a AC unit in the room but it never worked. The building itself looks good during the day light, the 2nd tallest building in this neighborhood.

The street where the hotel located was just right next to the main street, but has not paved yet. It's nice to watch the locals' morning activities while waiting to be picked up by tour operator.
In Tanzania, it is common to carry loads on their head.
Hey look! There's my dream car parked across the street

At 10am, we were picked up by the tour operator, Peter of Peter Tour and Mountaineer and headed to Machame gate together with our guide Edward, cook Matthew and 6 porters, they are the real heroes! Without them, we wouldn't be able to make it!

Until our departure from home, we were supposed to have 3 people for trekking, however, Mr.W couldn't make it due to an unforeseen situation, now there's only me and my brother. 2 of us with 8 people supporting team? As a longtime backpacker, I feel so guilty!

The 1 hour journey passed through Moshi town and village of Machame which is located on the lower slopes of the mountain, with a few stops to purchase some necessities, which include fresh meat (beef?) from a roadside butcher shop

We arrived at Machame gate at 11am which is kind of late as most of the groups started between 9 to 10 o’clock. The place was quiet with the last few groups ready to go.

The average hiking time,not including our breaks, between each site published by the park.

We proved that the time listed is a little bit too much, we arrive 30 minutes to 1 hour earlier everyday except at the final summit. Mind you that our speed was like moon walking as we were continuously scolded for walking too fast by our guide. One of the things that we heard over and over again on Kilimanjaro was the porters and guide saying “POLE POLE” (pronounced pole-ay pole-ay), the translation is “SLOWLY SLOWLY”. With the air getting increasingly thin, it's crucial to walk very slow to allow your body to acclimate to the altitude.Some circles even recommend smoking two months before a climb to get your body used to oxygen deprivation!

Notice to trekkers

Precautions - 4 to 5 liters of fluid, are you kidding me? I never emptied my 600ml water bottle a day during the trekking

Porters lined up to weight their loads, they are only allowed to carry 20kg per person on top of their own belongings

The trail started with a wide four wheel drive road for rescue vehicle

About 1/2 hour later, the trail led us into rain forest until reach our first camp site Machame Hut

My brother J sprained his ankle yesterday at the airport, it’s swollen like a lump and the color turned to blue. Last night, we used all the remedies we can possibly think of: even elevation, Yunnan Baiyao Aerosol, Chinese herbal plaster, as well as a cream that seems to promot blood circulation offered by Peter, that's very nice of him. He's limping, now the 2 hiking sticks become very handy.

Once arrive/leave at each campsite, porters have to re-weight their loads for 2 reasons:
1. make sure their loads are not exceed the maximum allowed
2. make sure their loads are not reduced significantly in case dumping garbage in the mountain

Tried to become a porter as my 2nd career, but failed on my first test, it's just too damn heavy!

Kilimanjaro peak view before dark - it's not visible often as it always hidden behind the clouds in the next few days

Day 2 - Feb 12, 2011
Machame Hut (3021m)- Shira Caves Campsite (3839m)
Altitude gained: +818m
Distance: 5.3km

This is a fairly short day, so we were woken at 8 am by our waiter with warm washing water (this was provided twice a day, one in the morning one when we arrive at the camp site), to have a quick wash and assemble in the dining tent for a breakfast of sausage, fried eggs, porridge and toast.

We left the glades of the rain forest and continued on an ascending path

Some of the terrain was a little tough

Walked along a steep rocky ridge until the ridge ends

Our route now turns west onto a river gorge at 3,658 meters. The hardest part of the day is now behind us, we now walk between rocks until Shira camp we reach one hour later

At 3839 metres, it has become very windy and cold, the porters used rocks to secure our tents

Most of the guides would lead the trekkers further up to explore Shira cave for more exploration and better acclimatization

I decided to save my energy (they are coming back anyway), chose to rest a couple of hours in the tent and sit around looking at the bright glow of majestic mountain

Day 3 - Feb 13, 2011
Shira Caves Campsite (3839m)- Lava Tower (4627m) - Barranco Huts (3986m)
Altitude gained: +147m
Distance: 10.75km

This was a tough day as it started with a regular but endless climbing with close to 800m ascent to lava tower at 4627m, then went down to today's campsite, Barranco Huts campsite at 3986m. At the end of the day, I felt slightly disappointed as for all the effort, we just gained 147m in height. Nevertheless, this leg of the trek is vital for acclimatization purposes - Hike High, Sleep Low.

The day began with a steady, gentle ascent through the dry, boulder-strewn terrain of the Sheria Plateau towards the western slope of the peak

The area is full of lava rocks, the vegetation becomes more and more seldom

Our first contact with Kilimanjaro snows occurs around 4400 metres high, around conjuction with Lemosho Route
The prominent landmark Lava Tower, also called Shark's Tooth, is 4627m above the sea level, it is the highest I've ever experienced before at that moment. The highest peak/pass I conquered previously was at 4200m, except freezing cold I didn't feel any sysmptom of altitude sickness

We took a small break in a little cave underneath of Lava Tower and started the descent in a rocky and slippery trail.
Opps...almost fell

Passing Shark's Tooth

Looking back Shark's Tooth on the right side

After an hour the landscape changed as vegetation is back in the valley

Senecios is a famous plant of Kilimanjaro, this plant range from little guys at 1 feet to monsters as tall as 10m

This area called the Garden of Senecios and some of the plants are enormous

It began to rain just before we reached Barranco Campsite. Barranco camp is spectacular as it lies at the bottom of Barranco wall, a quasi nearly vertical face over 200m high east of the campsite. We were told that a lot of trekkers actually get a real kick out of this climb. Well, we will worry about it tomorrow

Our assistant guide arrived early and decided to set up our tents over here away from the main camp site to avoid the strong wind. It's quite private, only our 4 tents and the washroom hut is exclusive for us to use as well

Day 4 - Feb 14, 2011
Barranco Huts (3986m) - Karanga Valley Campsite (4034m) - Barafu Huts (4662m)
Altitude gained: +676m
Distance: 8.5km

This day started by the most difficult part: Barranco wall, an almost vertical rocky face of some 200 metres high. Therefore, Edward advised us to get up early to avoid crowds and possibly be rushed by other speedy trekkers on the steep trail

The trail is pretty exposed in places as we often clamber between rock ledges on hands and knees, walking sticks are useless here. This is a place you don't want to miss your footing, what's out there awaiting for you in the abyss!

A few times, I thought we could see the summit of the wall but as we reach there I realized it was not

We were all awed at the endurance & skill of the porters who must negotiate the wall with upwards of the heavy loads on their heads or backs.

As the slope is steep we climb rapidly which gives a wonderful view of the area

The view of Barranco Campsite

We finally can rest briefly at the top of the wall before continuing through the Karanga Valley

We stared to descend in a desertic landscape as far as Karanga Valley

The vegetation is back again

This place looks like Chinese bonsai garden

Here lies the last difficult part of the day - another steep rocky wall but goes down. Our decent was along a rock-and-mud path we shared in places with a mountain stream, the slippery wet rock slabs made me very worried so much... In fact, I was told by another trekker we met at the airport that 4 days later, 3 porters and 1 trekker fell off and lost their lives in different incidents at this place

The trail then led us up through Karanga Wall, on top of it is the Karanga Valley Campsite

Going up slowly

Karanga Valley Campsite marks the half way of today's leg. Some of the trekkers choose to divide today's leg into two by staying at Karanga Valley Campsite to increase acclimatization to altitude. There's no tents up yet as we arrived early.

We continued hiking to pass the junction which connects with the Mweka Trail and continue to the Barafu Huts where the view of the Kilimanjaro is supposed to be magnificent.

It became foggy at the last leg, we were supposed to have a nice view of the summit but I couldn't see anything except endlessness trail. It was so stressful and I almost crashed. At one point, I was bawling....feeling much better after releasing my stress though

After 1.5 hour, we crossed a flat gravel area

We finally arrived at Baraful Huts - a bleak & desolate place with not much signs of life

After an early dinner, Edward gave us a briefing for the strategy of the summiting. We then bundled into tents trying to get some sleep before conquering the summit at midnight. I was so nervous that it is almost impossible to keep my mind calm to get some rest.

I felt good, no sign of severe altitude sickness at all (let's hope it will continue to the top), and quite confident about my physical condition, however, this battle is not only physically but mentally, and spiritually as well! According to my performance of this afternoon, I feel my mental strength is not strong enough, I was at the edge of crashing.

Day 5 - Feb 15, 2011

This was the final ascent after 4 days of hard work to a rigorous vigorous push to Stella Point (5745m) on crater rim, followed by trudge up to Uhuru Peak (5895m). This final stage usually begins at midnight, it allows trekkers the chance to see sunrise from the summit, this was not in our case though, which also leaves enough daylight to allow the long descent to the next campsite, Mweka Huts, as there are limited space in Barafu Huts for trekkers' arrival from Barranco Huts this afternoon. Barafu Hut is not like other campsite where there's a huge flat area to set up tents, it's full of lava rocks, 90% of the flat areas can only suit 1 tent and they are all on different levels. It was hard for our porters to set up our 4 tents, they were all sheltered by rocks and 4 of them were all over the place.

Soon after we arrived Barafu Huts yesterday, I have set aside my clothes handy for the summit attempt- 1 set of wicking long johns, fleece jacket, down jacket and pants, Gore-tex pants and jacket, a Polartec hat also covers my face and chin, a pair of shearling mittens (this may not be the best choice for the mountain but it's the warmest, warmer than ski gloves), wool socks, hand warmers, toe warmers and headlamp.

It took me a while to sleep after dinner and was awaken up by a noise around 10pm last night, sounds like ice pellets hitting on our tent. It made me worry a little bit and couldn't go back to sleep, the only thing I could do was stare at the ceiling of the tent, thinking about everyone at home and thanking everybody for their thoughts and prayers, until it's time to get up.

We met with Edward and Matthew at the dinning tent with a light snack of tea and biscuit. Edward gave us another short briefing, we were told to "empty our minds", don't ask "are we there yet?" and walk "pole pole" and before we know it we will be at the summit. At 12:30am, we took our assigned places in line - Edward, me, my brother J and followed by Matthew - didn't realize what lies ahead of us, headed into the snowstorm up the mountain.

Part 1
Barafu Huts (4662m)-Stella Point (5745m)- Uhuru Peak (5895m)
Altitude gained: +1233m
Distance: 4.86km

The ascent started with a steep rocky cliff we passed over in 15 minutes before reaching a flatter ground. 45 minutes later we walked in the snow and the slope became steeper.

At first walking through the darkness was exciting and magical as I felt the spark of the other hikers and watched the stream of winding lights climb up, up, up ..1 hour and 45 minutes later, we leaned on a big rock and had our first short break. I ate an energy bar and some warm water from my insulated water bottle, what a good feeling in a cold night like tonight! Another 1/2 hour later, I was starving. I didn’t eat a lot for dinner because a lot of trip reports I read state that they were vomiting due to over eating at dinner. I asked Edward if we can take another break but my request was refused because our plan was only one break every hour. 1/2 hour after I had another energy bar and some water later, I still feel hungry as well as tiredness and had an overwhelming desire to find a cushiony patch of snow to rest. I just yelled to Edward “1 second PLS!” and sat down on a rock before he realzied, due to the freezing weather, I ate, more like inhaled, 2 more energy bars, felt satisfied afterwards. Believe it or not, we didn’t take more breaks after that.

The snow was getting heavier while the temperature continue to drop, I couldn’t feel my fingers, toes, the hair beside my face had frozen in stalactites as well as my balaclava. We took one step at a time through the darkness, crawled and suffered the way up through the longest night of my life. After 3 hours of hardworking, it really became difficult as our footsteps on the snow are less secure, one stumbles, another one slips, each and every one has to hang on, but we’ve half way through, victory is not far away from us.

I have lived my life by the principle that, if you try simply hard enough, you can succeed at anything, this is the reason why I never thought about giving up during any trekking, but my mind got off on a wrong track this night as the word “GIVING UP” flashed a few times and I was cursing myself the whole time for spending so much money to torture myself. No matter what, I deserve a beach vacation next time! NO MORE HIKING! NO MORE MOUNTAINS!

The last 1/2 hour was exhausting, the slope was terrible with the snow close to 1 foot deep, it's hard to stay on the snow covered narrow path. I was off track twice and had to crawled from the deep snow up to my hips. Once again, I started to bawling (even though my tears promptly froze), for all the hard work for me to make this far but might not reach the summit. I was despaired and felt I came a long way, Stella point is within reach, I just can’t fail over here, only the proximity of the summit gave me the energy to make it to our first summit, Stella Point at 5745m @ 6:45am. Stella Point is the edge of the massive crater that is on top of Kilimanjaro. We got our first view of the crater - it looks huge and scary, we can still see the porters via Western Breach route were walking in snow inside the crater with their loads. From Stella Point, it was another hour to the high point on the crater rim, Uhuru Peak. We were a little late on schedule, so we didn’t take any break but continued. The remaining of the walk reveals quite easy and pleasant compared to what we've just done. The snow was not deep on the rim as it’s so windy and most of it was blown away. Finally, at 7:45am, after more than 7 hours hiking, we came to the famous wooden board marking Uhuru Peak @ 5895m, summit of Kilimanjaro, the roof of Africa, the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

Edward, Me and Matthew

Part 2
Uhuru Peak (5895m) - Barafu Huts (4662m) - Mweka Huts (3106m)
Altitude lost: -2789m
Distance: 11.5km

At the top, it was freezing cold and we just took time for a few pictures then had to hightail it down. The descent back to Barafu Huts was even harder, the trail was steep, snowy and sliding. I wouldn't make it if the summit happens during the day light when I can see the mountain, the devil inside myself would stop my proceeding just by looking at the trail. It was so slippery, I fell off at least a dozen times even though I walked so slow with a 65 years old trekker who also made to the Uhuru peak. I end up taking advantage of the snow to slid on my butt! It was faster and fun, but it destroyed my Gore-tex pants, my heart is still broken! The average descent time to Barafu Huts is 3 hours but I took 4 hours, I came back to Barafu camp at 12pm sharp and was greeted by other trekkers who arrived earlier. I guess after 4 days passing each others on the trail and staying in the same campsite, they all recognize us, the only 2 Asians among everyone.

Edward advised me that I have a well deserved 1.5 hours to nap, lunch and packing before leaving for Mweka Huts. I went back to my tent and lay down immediately, I was so tired and didn't even take off my boots, I just left my feet outside of the tent. However, I couldn't sleep at all, my face was burning hot!!! I should wear sun screen before descending, harmful UV rays abound even the sun is behind the clouds, especially in the high altitude like Kilimanjaro. I started to wear my SPF 85 sunscreen right away, I knew it's too late, but better late than never, I still have 1 1/2 day trekking to finish.

Lunch was beef stew with potato, pepper and mushroom, it was good, but I could barely eat a morsel. I then started to feel the discomfort of my eyes from bright light with intensive tears. I was so worried that I might got snow blind from UV rays reflection of snow, but was hopping it's not the case. I dig out my sunglasses and didn't take it off for the rest of the afternoon trekking.

We sped our way down towards Mweka camp. The air was distinctly thicker, the foliage became thicker and taller, until it formed large and sparse bushes.

We were lucky enough to spot the most beautiful bird in Kilimanjaro - Malachite Sunbird

It wasn't until 5pm when we finally reached Mweka Huts campsite where dozens of groups were all crowded together, crammed amongst the mud and the dirt.

My face was still burning hot and I could barely open my eyes, they were sore. I washed my face and put some toothpaste on my face to cool down a little bit, but for my eyes I could do nothing except stay in tent. After about an hour, I used my fingers to open my eyelid - I couldn't see ANYTHING, NOTHING AT ALL! I lost my sight, it's just darkness all over the places...I decided to fasting because without help, I wouldn't be able to go to washroom by myself. I spent the rest of the night, the most longest and darkness night of my life, in my tent and experienced what the blind people have to go through every day, it was brutal!

Day 6 - Feb 16, 2011
Mweka Huts (3106m) - Mweka Gate (1633m)
Altitude lost: -1473m
Distance: 9.6km

Woke up at 5am, my muscles were sore. Dame it! I forgot to stretch last night because I was overwhelmed by other issues more harmful. My eyes were better than the night before, I could open my eyes without blinking for 2 seconds before I have to close, it’s hard for me to reopen my eyes though, I had to prepare for a while before I could reopen again, but the most important and delightful thing was I could see the object near me even though it’s blurry. My face became so swollen and red, but I didn’t really care about it. Well, it’s burned and will get better one day.

With the help of my brother J, I started my descent. The first portion of Mweka route was nicely paved, but it wasn't long before the paved trail gave way to the much wetter environment of the rainforest. The ground was muddy, enough to be quite slippery at times. I could hear streams all around us and crossed a few with bridges. The air was thick with humidity.

We finally arrived at the Mweka gate after a few hours, this place was full of trekkers, porters and vehicles to pick us back to Moshi town. We checked out at the gate with a well deserved certificate signed by our guide and park officials.

We didn't see much of Kilimanjaro while in it due to the weather, but had a nice view of it after we headed back
Special thanks to the hard working porters, our guide and Peter Tours, we wouldn't succeed without them - they are the real heroes of Kilimanjaro! Edward guided and supported us well during the trekking; the cook made delicious food with a large portion (we begged him to prepare less or begged them to share with us); the porters waited us to leave in order to pack our tents, equipment and supplies, they carried heavy loads up and down, balancing on narrow paths and risky climbings, but still passed us in a high speed on the trail and when we reached the site where we should stay overnight, our tents were set up and food was prepared.

Our porter Juma passing us on the trail, Juma also worked as our waiter at the campsite