Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Kwisha + Asante. (the end & thanks)

myself and Kilimanjaro.

All good things must come to an end. With the end of my adventure in Africa comes the end of this blog. I hope you have enjoyed it a fraction as much as i have enjoyed sharing my experiences with everyone.

It took me just over 30 hours to travel home from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Washington DC via Johannesburg, Senegal, and Atlanta. But what a trip it was! My adventure in Africa was incredible, and the experiences i've had over the past month will last a lifetime. Looking back i marvel at all the discoveries made, the fascinating things learned, the wonderful ideas shared, and the incredible people that i met. Truly.. i am very lucky.

Several Maasai warriors chillin.

Please check out the photos from my adventure. Though i took over 650 pictures while in Africa.. i've boiled it down to the best 200 for your viewing pleasure, complete with captions! Enjoy..

This trip was certainly made possible with a little help from my friends. So i'd like to extend..

Many Thanks..

...to AJ for driving me to the airport at 5:30am and for use of his ski mask, to Mom and Dad for the super new sleeping bag, to Dana for the use of her Cape Town guidebook, to Sarah C. for the blog inspiration, to Aaron for the excellent pre-departure cd collection, to Grandma for the prayers that i would survive, to Sochieta for the inspirational emailgrams, to Lauren for the last minute sewing job, to cousin Tom for the Endurafit supershirt, to Father Mark for the Swahili lesson (where did you learn THAT?!), to Heather M. for the excellent TZ advice, to Mohammed for taking me to the mosque, to Hermes for the electricity convertor, to Andreas for the moonlight safari inspiration, to Dan for renting my room, to Uncle Kurt for the advice, to Jen for the amazing card and airport pickup, to Donovan at Bootsnall, to the DOC for the time off, to Janis for letting me borrow his trekking poles and for selling me those mountain pants..

..and thank you to EVERYONE who sent birthday wishes, added their comments to my posts, and especially THANK YOU FOR READING!!!

While in Africa i was inspired to no end. In addition to furiously writing in my journal, i composed numerous haiku poems along the way. This is one i'd like to share..

love. life. beauty. death.
a miracle surrounds us -
blink.. and you miss it.

sunset on the Serengeti.. it doesn't get much better than this.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Experiences in Africa.

Cocoa Beach in Dar es Salaam, taken just hours before i left Africa.

Africa marks the 4th continent in which i have stepped foot and Tanzania is the 20th country i have visited. I must say that it feels like i have learned more and been more inspired traveling in this continent than any other. There is something mysterious yet exciting about Africa, and in some ways it is even daunting.

An artist creates a traditional Tinga Tinga painting

Andreas is the well-traveled German friend with whom i shared a few days of safari adventures. When i asked him how many countries he has been to, he began naming those countries he has yet to visit.. Mongolia.. Turkmenistan.. Congo, etc. I certainly admire his travel record. One night he admitted being initially daunted at the prospect of traveling here alone, but that feeling quickly evaporated after his trip began. Despite all the bad news we hear in Western media, i found that Africa isn't such a scary place after all. In fact, the people i met (especially in Tanzania) were genuinely warm and incredibly friendly. When i think back to my initial reaction after arriving in Dar es Salaam, i can now afford to laugh at myself a bit. In very few places have i felt so welcome.

good ol' east African stickball!

Sikhism is a religion that was born in India and blends beliefs found in Islam and Hinduism. While in Moshi i met some really nice Sikhs at the Sikh community center. They invited me to watch their weekly stickball match, which is not unlike field hockey. After the match, Vindi humbly explained that his team was preparing for the east African championships against Uganda and Kenya. If successful, they would go on to South Africa for the continental championships. It was clear to me that making it to South Africa would be a very high honor. Vindi mistook me for a local and asked if i would like to join the following week's match. I thanked him very much and told him that would be great.

Currently polling at close to 80%, i'd bet on CCM's Jakaya Kikwete as TZ's next president

In just a few days Tanzania will hold a major election. I am always fascinated by the local political situation and spoke to everyone i met to get their opinion. Although Tanzania has a stable government and democratic system, it is far from perfect. The current ruling party CCM has an iron grip on the majority, while the 18 other political parties can barely muster a few percentage points in the polls. The lack of a true opposition results in corrupt government leaders who frequently look out for themselves. Candidates must pay large sums to run for the CCM while the party openly solicits "contributions" from businesses for their own "protection". Hmm.. sounds kind of like the mafia to me! But of course CCM prefers it this way.. even passing laws to make it nearly impossible for opposition parties to gain any kind of widespread support.

A candidate speaks to the crowd through bullhorns that are utterly indecipherable.

The thing that baffles me is that most Tanzanians support the CCM despite its self interested tendencies. Their support is partially due to the lack of access to information and real political discourse, but also because the CCM uses its many "contributions" on great big posters, green flags, and gives out free t-shirts and hats to everyone - who wouldn't like that?!

As i spoke to people including a parliamentary candidate named Isaac of the United Democratic Party, i devised a solution to Tanzania's difficult one party problem. "It won't be easy, but it's a start", i told Isaac. While reading about the election i came across voter's top concerns - 1) access to clean water, 2) access to health care, and 3) passable roads.. a little different than the top issues in the States. Still, Tanzanians feel lucky considering Kenya's current constitutional crisis just across the border. The headline in the newspaper one morning read "Tanzania Less Corrupt Than Kenya and Uganda".. nice! I got the distinct impression from several Tanzanians i spoke with that they were thinking.. at least we're in better shape than Kenya!

The mosque in Moshi where we prayed to Allah.

For Muslims across the world it is the holy month of Ramadan, which is marked by fasting from dawn to dusk and the regular five daily prayers. I became friends with a Muslim businessman named Mohammed and we spoke about the Qur'an and religion in TZ. I asked him if i could join him in prayer at the mosque and he welcomed the idea. We met at a designated time before the 4:30 mid-afternoon prayer and made our way to the mosque.

In order to present ourselves before Allah we had to cleanse ourselves. Before entering, we joined the other men at an outdoor bath where we carefully washed our faces, hands, arms, and bare feet. Once inside, we stood on placement lines in the carpet while men filled in on either side and on the lines behind us. When the beautiful singing prayer began, we dropped to our knees before placing our foreheads to the carpet floor, submitting before Allah and asking to be washed of our sins. I was of course the only mzungu, but here we are brothers. They called me Jamu, since John sounds a little, ahem.. Christian. Although the religious makeup in TZ is evenly split between Christianity, Islam, and indigenous beliefs.. incredibly the people co-exist quite peacefully.

woman carrying a bottle of Coca-Cola on her head.. i just love this picture!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

African Cuisine.

For some reason 'Africa' and 'cuisine' just don't sound right together. Perhaps this is because the food found there is as diverse as the continent itself. That being said, Sarah had an excellent question in a previous comment - what is the food like in Africa? Granted, i traveled in just two countries but i was able to sample some local fare along the way. The truth is most of the time i was able to eat like a king in between my Kilimanjaro and safari adventures, eating out for just a few bucks each day.

Being the international city that it is, Cape Town has a fair diversity of influences when it comes to food. While there i rediscovered my beloved Nando's - a Portuguese style flame-grill restaurant chain that began in South Africa and i first tried in Australia.. go figure. They are famous for their tangy but spicy Peri-Peri sauces, which can now be found in American supermarkets as the company prepares to launch its restaurants Stateside. I met the franchise owner who was super nice and we talked about the company a bit. I told her how much i looked forward to seeing Nando's in the States, which she of course thought was great to hear.

The beautiful Greater Kudu.

Having tried kangaroo in Australia, i was somewhat eager to sample some exotic game while in Africa. For some reason, wildebeest just sounds like it would be awesome to try. But on my way to Africa i read an article in National Geographic discussing how people's taste for game meats (especially rare or endangered) has only further encouraged the poaching of these great animals. Thus, i decided to pass on the "game restaurants" that i saw in Cape Town. However, I did sample several kinds of jerky, but only because it was given to me. I tried ostrich, eland, and kudu.. all of which were quite tasty and not too dissimilar to beef jerky.

I spent most of my time in Tanzania, where i was able to try several new things. The staple of the Tanzanian diet is ugali, which is mashed maize or cassava flour mixed with a little water to produce essentially a tasteless white dough. From here, Tanzanians usually add a sauce containing vegetables and if you can afford it, some meat as well. When i asked to try ugali, my safari cook was excited that i was interested, and i must say it was quite good. Of course, without the sauce it would be tasteless dough, but hey together the two make quite a meal!

chicken mambo yote.. delicious!

Another dish that was highly recommended to me by locals was called mambo yote. In this case the dish was composed of chicken sautéed with onions, green peppers, and tomatoes served with cabbage slaw on a hot plate.. similar to fajitas but with rice instead of tortillas. The small cup held a spicy sweet sauce that i poured over the rice and chicken.. it was great!

And last but not least, i had the best Indian food of my life during my trip. It has been said that the best Indian food outside of India can be found in Africa, and i believe it! A sizeable Indian population resides in many African countries. Most of the Indians come to start their own small businesses, and with them they bring some fantastic recipes. I loved it!
Nothing like a safari birthday cake, woo-ee!

While on safari i celebrated my 27th birthday. I asked my guide how Tanzanians celebrate birthdays and he replied, "We usually make a cake". Wait.. that sure sounds familiar. We were camping in the bush and the only thing to cook over were hot coals, but somehow my cook was able to bake me a birthday cake.. i have no idea how he did it. I was very surprised, but felt very lucky and was sure to cut pieces for all of my new friends. Not a bad place for a birthday!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Adventure in the Serengeti!

The Great Migration has begun. Any day now the short rains will arrive, marking the end of the dry season in East Africa. In anticipation, the Serengeti’s 1.5 million wildebeest have already begun to return south from Kenya’s Masai Mara where they’ve spent the past few months. Traveling with them are thousands of zebra. The two tend to stick together, for the zebra have superior eyesight and the wildebeest possess exceptional sense of smell. Together, they increase each other’s chances of survival.

A herd of wildebeest and several zebra walk miles to this watering hole.

A wildebeest making the long migration.

Here i am observing a herd of wildebeest.

We drive along a dirt road for hours to reach the Serengeti, and i am amazed but very pleased that this is the only way to reach the world’s most prolific wildlife park. Along the way, our first stop is Lake Manyara. Just moments after driving into the park, i am absolutely thrilled to see a mother elephant and her 2 year-old just 20 feet away, munching peacefully on acacia branches. Minutes later the trees part and the lake is visible.. presenting an AMAZING scene. Herds of zebra and wildebeest mingle among several giraffe and water buffalo while hippos bob in the water. I nearly climbed out of my seat in excitement, much to the amusement of my guide/driver Hashim!

Lake Manyara - Giraffe, Zebra, and Hippos in the water.. wow!

With all of the excitement, wonder, and awe.. the scene was surreal. It was like entering a real Jurassic Park, seeing all of these incredible animals in abundance that i have only ever dreamed of witnessing in their natural environment. I wish i could impart this thrill and sheer joy to you, but it is something that can only be experienced firsthand. However, I do have a few stories to share from my African wildlife safari.

Water Buffalo grazing at Lake Manyara.

As we drove though the Lake Manyara park we came upon a herd of elephant walking along the road. I discovered that i have a unique talent for identifying the sex and relative age of elephants based just on sight.. i really do love these animals. We noticed a small baby elephant among the group, no more than a few months old. When a baby is around, the herd becomes extremely protective, so we moved cautiously.

This baby elephant rules the road.

Our truck crept along behind the herd, which had no intention of leaving the road. The mother turned sideways and blocked the road completely, not allowing us to pass as the baby proceeded unaware. She wanted to show us who was in charge, so she stomped her front foot and threw dirt with her trunk. When Hashim moved the truck ahead slightly, she turned to face us menacingly head on, threatening a charge.. okay, bad idea!! Finally, after about ten minutes the baby and the herd left the road and we were allowed to pass.

Woah there! Okay, okay.. we'll wait for you and your baby to go ahead!

On our first day driving through the Serengeti we spotted a cheetah, and trotting along not far behind came two cheetah cubs! Hashim told me that even on his many trips to the area over the past nine years, it was rare and special to see just one cheetah, but two cubs as well was incredible! I was able to capture some good photos while the three perched atop a termite mound. We watched them for awhile before i suggested to Hashim “Twende” – let’s go. But he said, “Wait, there’s a hyena!” Sure enough, the hyena stalked closer and closer, eyeing our little cubs as a nice meal. The mother and cubs all watched very closely as the hyena neared. After getting within about 150 feet, the hyena must have realized his presence was well known and he slowly moved off. I cheered silently for the mother and cubs but was thrilled to no end with seeing this occur.

Mama Cheetah and cubs.. aren't they cute??!

I believe this sign is self explanatory.

At our camp i made friends with two Germans and a Norwegian who were all traveling solo like myself. The camp was just plopped right in the bush, with no fences or other barriers between ourselves and wild Africa. A sign warned campers not to leave the camp or else you may be attacked. So after dinner, what did we do? We went for our own walking safari, of course. As the other campers sat around a campfire telling stories or jokes we quietly snuck out of camp as the full moon lit our way.

The full moon rises over our camp.

We crept along in the grass until we could no longer see or hear our camp. About 1,000 yards from camp we spotted something.. look! It was a hyena.. wait, two of them.. no, THREE, and they were looking directly at us, watching. Then they began to spread out as they approached – we were being HUNTED!! Despite the moonlight, it was difficult to clearly see their movements. Someone suggested we go back to camp immediately.. to get our binoculars! We all agreed this was a good idea.

Fifteen minutes later we returned. At first we didn’t see anything. Wait, what are those? Zebra. Several of them.. moving from our left to right, stopping to look at us. Suddenly they were startled and trotted along quickly, and then we saw why.. hyenas trailing them. We of course followed. About ten minutes later we found the zebras in a clearing, with several hyenas lurking in the trees nearby. All at once the zebras took off in a loud gallop. Through my binoculars i could clearly make out the hyenas running alongside snapping at the zebra’s legs, hoping to bring one down. Straight out of National Geographic!

They all disappeared in the bush and we saw nothing. A few minutes pass. I look back to where the zebras were and see two hyenas. Then we hear several loud haunting hyena calls.. woo-ooh, woo-ooh! This is the sound hyena make when they’ve made a kill and are calling the rest of the pack. Though we are an adventurous group, we know this is our cue to leave. If there is a kill, within minutes fifty or more hyena may arrive for the feast.. and we certainly do not want to get caught between them and their meal. Wow.. what a thrill.

Happy to be alive after our hyena encounter.. Andreas, Arland, Carsten, and myself.

The night sky in Africa is SPECTACULAR. I have not seen a sky so full and glorious since i slept on the ground in the Australian outback. A wonderful moon and shining beauty Venus follow each other across the sky each night, giving me immeasurable pleasure. I eagerly identified the constellations and planets i knew and told anyone who would listen while trying to spot satellites crossing quietly just like my Dad and i do together back in Arizona. One night in camp a Spanish guy overheard me talking about where to see Mars and he excitedly brought out a book on the night sky and several star maps, which we pored over together. Looking up at the African night sky is one of the highlights of the trip for me.

He looks nice and peaceful now, but get too close...

After setting up camp one afternoon i noticed a male elephant grazing at the edge of camp. Few others noticed as i followed him a few yards away. I inched my way closer until i was just a few feet away, where i sat down and watched him for the next thirty minutes. This giant is so powerful yet so peaceful. A few minutes later i found my safari buddies and told them, “Come quick - there is something i want to show you”. In our adventurous spirit we approached too closely too quickly, startling the elephant, who turned on us and charged! We scattered and ran for our lives back into camp - that’s one way to get your heart really pumping!

Standing at the edge of the gorgeous Ngorongoro Crater.

On my final day of safari we descended into the Ngorongoro Crater, a massive and spectacular extinct volcanic crater home to more than 10,000 animals. At one point we came upon a cheetah with what at first appeared to be a cub. Through my binoculars i discovered it was a baby gazelle, no more than two weeks old and hardly taller than your knee. The two appeared to be playing.. the little gazelle hopping around playfully while wagging its small nubby tail. The cheetah was also having fun rolling around and softly batting at the gazelle, which was a fraction of its size. The sun shined warm on the yellow grass as the game continued. I watched this continue for a good fifteen minutes and it was fun to watch. You almost had the feeling that the two were good friends.

A pride of lion relaxes, like they do most of the time.

Then, without notice, the game was over in an instant as the cheetah lunged for the baby gazelle’s throat, sinking its teeth in deep and snapping the young animal’s neck. As the cheetah now proudly held the lifeless body dangling from its mouth, i thought it seemed he was aware of his audience. He carried his kill several yards, stopping regularly to look around. But it wasn’t an audience he was concerned with, it was hyenas he was worried about, who would surely try and steal his prize. Just moments before they were playmates, but as the cheetah ripped into the gazelle’s tender flesh, friends no more. And such is life.. on the wild African plain.

Here are several more photos for your enjoyment!

A Hippo pool.. anyone up for a swim?

These guys actually kill more people each year than any other animal in Africa.

A Hartebeest makes his way on the plain.

The shy but friendly Giraffe.. so fun to watch!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Let's go for a walk, in Africa.

The main street in Moshi, Tanzania

When i step out of the café and into the bright afternoon sun i am greeted by Africa. As i walk down the street, a little girl of six or seven in a blue and white school uniform stops.. and smiles at me. Women line the sidewalks sitting down behind the various fruits they are selling, which are stacked in nice neat little pyramids to make them more attractive. A young boy runs down the road pushing a single giant tire, but what is he going to do with ONE tire?? I see a man with a semi-automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, yet he has no uniform and no one seems alarmed – is this normal? I see a woman wearing a tattered Arizona Diamondbacks hat and a man wearing a Tennessee Titans shirt, but i am certain that neither has seen either sport before. As i continue on a man shouts “Hello my friend!” just to say hello – i nod and smile. An entire street is lined with women sitting behind the most primitive sewing machines, waiting.. waiting for the day that everyone in Africa has enough money to have their clothes hand tailored and they reap a fortune. Sometimes you must walk in the street because there is no sidewalk. I pass by a shop selling televisions.. TELEVISIONS, but who can afford them?? There is some odd music blaring from somewhere, but why? It’s really lost in the shuffle anyway. Two proud Maasai warriors sit on a curb in their signature brilliantly colored togas each holding their walking staff as they watch the swirling chaos of life go by. Young boys carry cardboard boxes or woven baskets jingling change in their hand to attract attention to the wares they are selling – anything from peanuts to toothpaste, water pistols to candy. A man passing by shouts “Jambo!” followed by “How was Kili??” and as we pass i give him a thumbs up and wonder if i know him.. before realizing that’s impossible.

Just by walking down the street here i become a part of everything around me. In America, everyone is living in their own little world, encouraged more and more to associate less and less by the thieving shroud of technology. In Africa, we are what we used to be – the living breathing dying sweating talking smiling laughing dancing coughing HULK that is humanity.

ps. tomorrow i will be taking off for a five day wildlife safari and the day after is my birthday. all i want for my birthday is to hear a lion roar in the night while i am lying in my tent.. god wouldn't that be great!

Climbing Kilimanjaro - The Roof of Africa

Some mountain climbers talk about “conquering the mountain”, but that simply is not true at all. If anything, it is more a test of wills, and the mountain’s will is rock solid – having been forged over millions of years. In reality, climbing a mountain like Kilimanjaro is a tremendous personal challenge. The mountain knows all about its capabilities and limitations, but the question is.. do you? You will find yourself tested in ways your never considered until now. The mountain demands much of you – commitment, desire, toughness, patience, physical and mental endurance. But what do you demand of yourself?

In the morning of the First Day of my climb i met my guide, Samuel, and our porters, Nechi, Avoit, and Reginald.. that’s FOUR humans tasked with assisting me with my climb – wow! As we drove around town collecting the final goods needed for our trek, i asked Samuel how long he has been climbing the mountain. With a big smile, he replied “22 years!” When he got out of the truck to buy some meat i saw that his calf muscles were carved from stone and i knew that it was true.

We drove to the base of the mountain and checked in at the Machame gate. I filled in the registration logbook and looked over the recent entries. Almost ALL the climbers were from various European countries. On four complete pages of names i saw only three Americans. Beautiful.

At the Machame Gate.. let's Rock n' Roll!

I began the first day’s climb through the rainforest with Nechi while the others checked in at the gate and weighed our gear. As we talked Nechi told me about his family. He is the 5th of 6 children, though his father has two wives and a total of nine children. I asked him if this was common in Tanzania and he said yes.. sometimes more than four wives to one man! However, you must pay a dowry in cattle for each wife, so only wealthier men can have multiple wives. Then he asked me, “Can you have more than one wife in America?” I replied, “Unfortunately, no.. unless of course you live in Utah.”

The first day's climb through rainforest was gorgeous.

Day Two of the climb began the same as most days. Wake up at 7 am. At 7:15 i am given warm water and soap to wash my hands and face. This is followed by breakfast, which usually consisted of porridge, a few slices of bread, some cucumber slices, fruit (orange or banana), an egg, two sausages, and tea. When i am done, Nechi would come over and ask, “Fee-nished?” And i’d respond, “Ndiyo, kwisha. Asanta sana.” – Yes, I’m finished. Thank you very much.

Weather permitting, my usual breakfast setup.. table for one!

On the second day i met a very nice Dutch couple on the trail. I told them the very best method for breathing and how to treat the wife’s ailing knee. They greatly appreciated the advice and offered me a cookie.. thus we became immediate friends. Whenever we’d see each other on the trail we’d stop to chat and share sweets. As we sat for lunch we saw two porters running down the mountain and found out that a climber was being evacuated from the mountain. We chewed a little more slowly after that.

My god.. WHAT planet am i on??

“Pole pole” (slowly) became more than just words, it was a mantra. In order to improve your chances of success (and avoid altitude sickness or death) one must walk painfully slow for hours on end. It may not sound like much, but this is EXTREMELY difficult.. especially for an American. You must also breathe slowly and evenly – the ultimate exercise in meditation. Indeed, my experience meditating was a tremendous advantage, allowing me to focus my breathing and remain patient. Breathe in. Step left, right pole. Breath out sloooowly. Step right, left pole. Hydrate. Repeat. I became acutely aware of my heartbeat, body temperature, hydration status, and my body’s calls for more oxygen (yawns, lightheadedness, headaches). There isn’t mush time to think about anything else.

Truly.. the porters are Gods among men!

Before the climb i underestimated its difficulty. I thought the days leading up to the summit night would be fine, with the real difficulty coming at the very end. I was wrong. Each day presented its own challenges and as we climbed higher the difficulty level multiplied. I knew that the altitude adversely effects your appetite, so i began the trek attempting to eat everything placed before me. But by the end of day three, i was already forcing myself to eat and could never finish all of my food. Still, each time the clouds parted and the summit appeared i was driven forward. Seeing the vegetation change before my eyes as i climbed was incredible. This challenge was not without its rewards.

The clouds reveal the summit.. pushing me on, so close, yet still 10,000 feet away!

Day Three was the most difficult thus far. The initial climb was long and tough with a large elevation gain peaking at 13,500 feet. It got worse as the weather turned - first bitingly cold wind, then hail, and eventually driving sleet. I did not expect this, as it was sunny and warm in the morning, so I did not have my gloves with me. My hands froze and fingers began going numb. I borrowed some gloves from Samuel, but my fingers were still numb, so i wrapped each hand carefully in a bandana. Luckily the rest of the day was downhill to camp and went quickly. However, i ended the day with a massive pounding headache.. the first symptom of altitude sickness.

The daunting Barranco Wall.

The morning of Day Four i felt much better, the rain/sleet had stopped and my headache was gone. The beginning of the day’s climb however, was up the sheer face of the Barranco Wall. Just looking at it you cannot imagine that it is even traversable. The “trail” consisted of clamoring over rocks and some rock climbing – i loved it.

Scaling the Barranco Wall.. a little rock climbing anyone? It was awesome!!

During the day’s climb, Samuel and i would stick together, while the porters would finish packing up camp only to surpass us on the trail later so that they could begin setting up the next camp before we arrived. Samuel set the pace by leading, reminding me “pole pole” and stopping occasionally to ask, “Habari, John?” – How are you feeling? I’d usually reply, “Mzuri sana, asante. Twende.” – i’m doing very good, thanks. Let’s keep going.

When we reached Karanga Valley, Samuel showed me where the old campsite had been, explaining “The weather is very bad here and many people were dying in the night, so the rangers moved the campsite to the ridge.” I was glad that to be here after they figured this out.

My wonderful porters and guide - Reginald, Nechi, Avoit, and Samuel.

When i would see porters or other mzungus on the trail i was always sure to greet them in Swahili.. “Hujambo!” – Hello, or “Habari?” – How are you doing? This usually elicits a hearty response from the porters and a confused look by the other mzungus. All of the other climbers i’ve met are very surprised to hear that i am here alone, but that’s a badge of honor for me. Four friendly Germans rolled by on the trail before recognizing the wisdom of my pace and adjusted themselves accordingly.

Patience and even breathing will get you through this desolate landscape.

On the evening of the fourth day, i went outside to gaze up at the stars. With the clouds now gone, the half moon cast a soft glow on everything. Spread out far below lies the twinkling lights of East Africa. Above me, the peak of Kilimanjaro strands in grand majesty, its glaciers pure white in the moonlight while the rest is covered in last night’s new snow. I take it all in for a long time. It is one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my entire life.

In the morning of Day Five, we received some discouraging news. Of the four Germans who started the climb the same day as myself, two had had enough and were forced to begin their descent. The other two, more fitter Germans pressed on and made an attempt on the summit the previous night. Unfortunately, they failed in their attempt after only making it halfway. I pushed this from my mind so that we could reach the Barafu base camp at 15,100 feet and get some rest before my own attempt on the summit that night.

Making the final drive to the summit base camp.

As i lay in my tent trying to get some rest at Barafu camp, i was woken by loud chatter and shouts among the rangers. I asked Nechi what the commotion was about, and he said a German man had fallen badly on his way to the summit, breaking his leg. The "rescue team" was deployed, which consisted of four men and a stretcher balanced on a bicycle wheel. I later found out that it took ten hours for them to get him down the mountain and to a hospital. But i couldn't think about that now.. in just a few hours i would be making my own drive for the summit.

The 'ambulance crew' rushes up the mountain to collect the victim.

Kilimanjaro - Drive For the Summit

ne plus ultra • \nay-plus-UL-truh\ • noun *1: the highest point capable of being attained 2: the most profound degree or quality of state

On just 2 ½ hours of sleep, i arose at 11pm to tackle the summit of Kilimanjaro. I was pumped and excited as i piled on all of my gear from head to toe – head lamp, knit cap, ski mask, 3 shirts, my big jacket, 3 pairs of gloves, 3 pairs of pants, 3 pairs of socks, and of course, my lucky red bandana tied around my neck (which kept me in one piece when i ran with the bulls in Pamplona). Samuel and i set off in the darkness with only our headlamps to light the way. The moon was out and our only companion in a clear sky. Just 4,265 feet to go!

time for my shot at the summit.. giddiup!!

Twenty minutes into the climb i had a frightening realization – my fingers were going numb. While my gloves had been warm when i tested them before, they were not windproof. With a sharp wind the temperature was approaching zero and i knew i was in trouble. I struggled to keep my fingers warm for awhile before eventually deciding to put away my trekking poles, keeping my hands in my pockets as i climbed. This was a big loss, as the poles help tremendously with balance, rhythm, and reduce the strain on your knees and calves. This loss had all the dire seriousness as when Luke Skywalker shut off his targeting computer while making his final attack run on the Death Star in the first Star Wars.

For hours and hours we climbed and climbed. My legs burned and the altitude made it increasingly difficult to breathe. The wind picked up and the temperature was well below zero now. My toes began to go numb (despite my 3 pairs of socks) so i tried wiggling them as i climbed. When we did stop for rare breaks they could not last long – any more than 2-3 minutes and we’d lose enough body heat to begin going hypothermic. Although insulated, i had to take a sip of water every few minutes, both to keep hydrated but also to keep my water from freezing.. which it eventually did.

I knew we’d been climbing for hours now but i forced myself not to look at my watch. I was exhausted, forcing myself to just place one foot in front of the other and telling myself “breathe DEEP, your brain needs the oxygen!” Then Samuel told me that we were just 10 minutes from Stella Point, the crater rim. Twenty minutes went by and he said it again, just ten minutes! I kept looking up in the darkness and could see the outline of the rim against the sky, but it still seemed like an eternity away. Finally, we reached the rim and i was ready to topple over – i had run completely out of energy some time ago. We had already been climbing 5 ½ hours.

After a quick break, my toes numb and water frozen, we made the final push for the summit - Uhuru. The eastern sky began to lighten as dawn approached. My energy long since depleted, Samuel urged me on.. by now i was driven purely by determination. Like a boxer still standing after 20 rounds, i literally staggered the final several hundred yards to the summit.

The money shot - standing atop of all of Africa!!!

We reached the summit at exactly 6:00 am, just over 6 ½ hours after we began. At the same moment the sun burst above the horizon to rise over East Africa – and what a glorious sunrise it was! I felt a surge of exhilaration while Samuel and i high-fived and hugged. I was the very first person to reach the summit that day. I walked over to the crater rim and shouted at the top of my lungs – “UHURU!!!” so that everyone would know.

Nothing like watching the sunrise from the top of the world.. oh yes!

After signing the guestbook (who’d have thought?) and several minutes of congratulations and pictures, we started back down. We passed dozens of climbers on their way up and i urged them on.. “You’re almost there!” I ran into Alex, my Dutch friend and congratulated him, but i was disappointed to hear that his wife had to turn back with severe chest pains. As we made our way down i looked in awe at the glistening and mighty glaciers.

Glaciers in Africa are awesome.. too bad they'l be gone in a few years ;-(

Peering down into the volcanic crater atop Kilimanjaro.

I had given everything i had to reach the summit. Going back down was nearly as difficult. I was so spent i just wanted to collapse and roll down the 4,300 feet back to camp. I could not believe how far we’d climbed, looking down at the spec which was our base camp. It was like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon peering down to the very bottom.. “we have to get all the way down there??!”

We finally got back to Barafu base camp after 3 hours, where i promptly passed out. After a quick nap, it was time to pack up and keep going. We descended another 5,000 feet to Mweka camp for our final night on the mountain. In all, that day i climbed 4,265 feet before descending 9,173 feet in almost 12 hours, covering 14 miles of mountain! Wow!

I was so close to Heaven i figured i'd shoot God a hello arrow!!

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was the most difficult thing i have ever done in my life. It was an incredible experience that i will never forget and is something i will always keep with me and that no one can EVER take away. Thanks for reading.

Oh yea.. it's time to celebrate! Make the most of it baby!