Mount Kilimanjaro for AICR: Machame and Shira

By Wednesday, June 11, 2014

To say I was nervous for Africa would be the biggest understatement of my life. It wasn't one of your bog-standard trips - it was serious adventuring. The two flights and long drive to get to Moshi, Tanzania allowed me to attempt to mentally prepare for the subsequent week on Kilimanjaro.

I found myself frequently reminding myself why I was climbing the mountain while I was on the road. My group had raised over £30,000 for the Association of International Cancer Research (now Worldwide Cancer Research) and while that fact didn't make me feel any less unsure of what to expect on the mountain, it did make me feel a little stronger. And I knew I'd need a lot of strength to survive the next week...

Day One: Machame | Day Two: Shira

Day One - Machame

I was still a little anxious as we drove to Machame Gate but my nerves had subsided somewhat after getting to know everyone in my group and finding that we were all in the same state of both excitement and apprehensiveness. While our guides from Ahsante Tours bought permits, we enjoyed the last access we'd have to indoor plumbing we'd have for the next six days. We filled out water bladders and bottles, a group shot was taken in the drizzling rain and before we knew it, we were off! 

As altitude only really becomes a problem at around 3000m above sea level, it was quite a shock to find that even on the first day, with no risk of sickness, our walking pace was that of a light stroll! Now and then one of us would overtake our lead guide, Alfiyo, and he would have to remind us to go "pole, pole" [po-lay], which means "slowly, slowly" in Swahili.  

We trailed up into the montane rainforest on a muddy path and spied a few blue monkeys through the trees. We would frequently have to move to one side to make way for porters - the superhumans who carried our bags and tents. I'm not only incredibly grateful to them for that, but their presence over the course of the week gave us all the extra boost we needed each day. It's very hard to complain about being tired when they overtake you carrying more weight on their shoulders and heads than you could possibly carry even at sea level. 

The trees began to thin as we entered the moorlands. Still in a cloud, we reached Machame camp five hours after we departed from the gate. All the tents had been put up already, so we paired up and chucked our bags into our new homes. We then moved over to the mess tent to tuck into some popcorn and biscuits accompanied by a choice of tea, coffee or hot chocolate. It was hard to believe we were already 3,100m above sea level! 

The sun set around 6pm so we found ourselves tucking into dinner, using candles and our head-torches for light. I was so impressed with Ahsante Tours' food! I'm not sure what I was expecting but it certainly wasn't the feast we got each evening. Gallons of fresh soup to start and then heaps of pasta and a delicious stew afterwards, followed by fresh mango and orange slices for desert. I was out like a light the minute I slipped into my mummy-style sleeping bag.

Day Two - Shira

We were woken at sunrise by our guides and quickly packed up our things before heading to the mess tent for breakfast. I was once again surprised by the food on offer. A kind of porridge flavoured with lime and then a round of sausages, omelettes cut into quarters and a whole load of toast. We knew we would need to eat a lot to survive the day ahead. 

When we stepped outside after refilling our water supplies, camp was completely gone. Our porters were just waiting for us to get out of the mess tent so they could stuff that in a bag too and beat us to the next camp. 

The second day proved to be very steep. Of course, we still walked "pole, pole" but occasionally walking on steep, wet rock made me feel a little like Bambi skating on ice. But I didn't slip - on this day or any other. And the fear of the impending introduction of my face to the ground didn't stop me getting very excited as the landscape began to change! Finally leaving the clouds of the rainforest below meant we got our very first glimpse of the summit!

As we stopped for lunch in a spot overlooking the forest below and the distant Mount Meru, we met these very impressive birds; white-necked ravens. Sharp-eyed, they were after our sandwiches! They became our travelling companions along our trek, welcoming us at each camp and while there were mixed opinions amongst the group about their presence, I couldn't say a bad thing about them knowing how intelligent they are.

We made it up on to the Shira Plateau (3,840m) in the afternoon and knew we'd have to be on the lookout for altitude sickness. I had been noticing small signs from my body that signalled we were gaining in height; in particular, an increased respiration rate. I had started taking acetazolamide to offset the symptoms of altitude sickness a day before we began our trek and our guides also recommended drinking at least three litres of water a day - an amount I managed to get through on our walk alone. Overall, I didn't feel much of a difference than the day before until that evening where I got a small headache before bed.

After a short rest, we went on an acclimatisation walk to the nearby Shira caves, formed by the eruption that also formed the plateau we were camping on. We passed the only helipad I saw on the mountain (logical, as the nearest emergency helicopter is actually in Kenya...) and gained around 100 metres in height to the top of a random outcrop with lots of home-made cairns, or stone towers. We got a great view of the summit, though the photo below doesn't do it justice!

We skipped back down to camp for dinner, which followed the same pattern of a delicious freshly made soup followed by rice and stew. Sun set quickly again, and we suddenly realised it was cold. As much as we all wanted to stay up talking, we just couldn't manage it - even in our coats! We knew it would only get colder so we attempted to find our tents in the dark and snuggled down for a well-earned rest.

Mount Kilimanjaro for AICR
Day One: MachameDay Five: Uhuru
Day Two: ShiraDay Six: Mweka
Day Three: BarrancoSafari
Day Four: Barafu Zanzibar

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