Friday, September 30, 2011

Kilimanjaro - Day 5

Monday, August 29th was our first (of six) hiking days.  Our Guide told us he would be coming back around 8am to pick us up and then we would make an hour or so drive to Machame Gate - our trailhead.
There were still plenty of things to take care of in the morning so I woke up shortly before 6 (was too excited to sleep anyways).  I jumped in for a mandatory shower - after all I wouldn't be able to take one for the next week or so.  Our hotel was not exactly 5-star and the shower not exactly inviting, so this was not one of my famous 30-minute showers and I was done in less than 5 (probably a record).

I imagine Park Plaza has similar bathrooms;  on the plus side - you could take a shower while sitting on the toilet

After my quick, uneventful shower I quickly got dressed in some swanky hiking clothes and with that I was ready to leave.  Nigel got up shortly after me and by 6:45 we were ready to head out for breakfast.  Since we were checking out of our hotel we had to make sure we took everything out of our room, so with 3 bags in tow each it was a slow walk to the restaurant (why we didn't just leave the stuff in the room and come back after breakfast is beyond me).

Charging the phone that would cost me a small fortune in usage charges over the next week

Breakfast was the usual eggs, toast, fruit and tea and by 7:30 we were both ready to get on with our trip.  We waited in our hotel lobby for maybe 20 minutes or so and shortly before 8 our Guide showed up.  We left our excess bags in the hotel (later we found out that someone went back to pick them up and store them in their house - probably a better idea) and headed out to the Machame Gate.

Nigel trying to use our WiFi - at 5kbps it was quite a painful experience.
We drove for about an hour - mostly through very narrow roads (which didn't stop 3 cars trying to pass at the same time).  Eventually, after a very "fun" ride, we got a few glimpses of the Machame Gate entrance

On the outside the Machame Gate didn't look very attractive - it was situated outside of a very poor looking village and it was very dirty all around.  As soon as we entered the gated parking lot, though, you could tell it was catered towards non-locals - manicured lawns, very clean, proper bathrooms - very nice place.  Locals were very much not invited - which a tall cement wall with barbed wire made it very clear.

The outside of the gate was very crowded - a lot of porters come to the Machame Gate and stand in line waiting to be hired.  They are let inside as they're needed, so in the morning there were at least a couple hundred lined up outside.

When we got to the parking lot - shortly after 9am, there were not a lot of people around.  Within the next hour literally busloads of hikers arrived (some groups were easily 40+ hikers) and it got very crowded very quickly.  Thankfully before all that chaos we were able to explore the gated area a bit, so after everyone arrived we just sat around and waited for our porters to get ready.

Quite literally busloads of people were coming every few minutes

Inside the Machame Gate - outside were a lot of people either waiting to get hired as porters or trying to sell stuff to hikers

Getting porters ready seemed like a very chaotic process, but we quickly realized that they had a very good system and despite of what we thought they were very organized.  Me and Nigel "required" 12 porters (including 2 guides and a cook) to carry all our stuff (some of the bigger groups had upwards of 150, so we were definitely one of the smaller ones).  It took our Guide and the porters a little over an hour to organize and divide up our stuff.  They had a limit of 20kg per person, and the park rangers would weigh every single bag the porters would carry, so the limit was somewhat strict (but looking at some of the stuff they carried there's no doubt that some porters carried a bit more than the limit).

Our group of porters with our stuff

Waiting around was quite boring...
...very boring indeed (see if you can spot how bored I was)
While we were waiting for the porters to get ready we had to register with the park services (an activity we would have to repeat every single day on the mountain).  Because of the large number of hikers that day we had to wait in a pretty long line, but eventually we got our info entered in the books and were ready to go.  Not long after we got back to our porters we were told we were all set and ready to head out on the mountain (fun fact: we were yet to see Kilimanjaro  - it was so cloudy every day that we didn't get as much as a glimpse of the mountain).

Porters waiting to get their stuff weighted
By the time we finally set out onto the trail it was close to 11am.  Our Guide and the porters stayed behind to make sure all the weights were proper and me and Nigel set out for a very slow hike with our assistant guide, Emmanuel.  And what a slow hike it was!  The phrase we would hear A LOT throughout the trip was "pole-pole" - which roughly translates to "take it easy".  So easy we took it.  Not so much for the porters - seeing them carry the huge bags of stuff on their backs and/or heads made me feel like a wuss.

Nigel with Emmanuel (on left) just steps of getting on the trail

They climbed the same route we did!! (except for the summit)
The first our of the hike was literally a walk in the woods.  The path was very wide, trail mostly flat so pole-pole was actually quite annoying.  But I enjoyed the scenery (it was rainforest after all) and the company of Emmanuel.  After about an hour we started climbing up a bit more and I figured it would be like this for the rest of the day.  After less than 10 minutes of an easy uphill hike we entered an area where a lot of people where waiting for something.  We were told by Emmanuel that this was lunch spot (already!!) and that we were going to stop for about an hour and get some food.  We had no idea what to expect from lunch so we just waited around.  Our porters and our Guide aught up with us 15 or so minutes later and set up a little camp for us.  At first we felt very uneasy about all the attention and "royal" treatment we were getting, but after seeing others receiving the same luxuries as we did we just accepted it as something normal on the trek.  Still, sitting in those chairs made me feel like an asshole.  Nigel was also quite uneasy about using them.  But hey, someone was carrying them anyways, so might as well put them to good use.

Lunch took about 15 minutes to prepare and was delicious (like all the food we were getting on the trip).  It consisted of cucumber soup, some veggie sandwiches and a type of pancakes that I used to love back in Poland.  In addition we got hot water for tea, hot chocolate or coffee (this would be typical for all meals we had).  At the end of lunch we also got fresh fruit for dessert.

After about an hour we were all set with lunch and ready to move on.  We left everything behind (nice to have others cleaning up after you) and set out on the trail with Emmanuel.  The trail was a bit different from this point on.  We were still very much in the rainforest, but the trail was much narrower and was a lot more steep than the first hour of the day (but still very easy to hike).  The rest of the hike was rather uneventful - we walked for about 3 more hours, still taking it very very slowly.  There was not much to see (we were still well below the tree line) so we spent the time talking to Emmanuel and just generally enjoying ourselves.

When we arrived at our first camp it was barely 4:30pm.  Our tent was already set up (those porters walk FAST) and all our stuff was already waiting for us.  Before we had a chance to go to our tent we had to go register with the park services, so we walked up a little and did just that.  After that our hiking for the day was over (extremely easy day to start).

Our only task when we got to the camp was to set up the inside of our tents (sleeping pads and bags).  For the lack of anything better to do we set that up very quickly.  We were told that dinner would be at around 7pm so we had a lot of time to kill before then.  There wasn't much to do around the camp - we wondered around a little, took some pictures, but after a while that got boring so I decided to take a quick nap (what better way to spend an afternoon!!).

By 7pm our dinner was ready, as promised.  Unlike lunch, dinners were served inside a big tent, with our tables and chairs of course.  We also had a candle for some mood lighting (which we thought was a little dangerous, but thankfully nothing ever happened).  Dinner for the first day was friend fish, some potatoes, fresh fruit and plenty of stuff to drink.  We were joined for dinner by Emmanuel and spent a good hour enjoying our meal and company.  We found out what the plan for the next day would be (didn't like the 6am wake-up call idea).  The next day promised to be a lot more fun in terms of hiking and a lot more difficult as well.  We would also go above the clouds for the first time so we were hoping to finally get a glimpse of Kilimanjaro's summit (since technically we were already on Kilimanjaro so we "saw" the mountain).

After dinner it was already pitch black so there was no point in staying up - there was really nothing to do.  It was also extremely dusty.  The soil all around was a very fine dust and every step would cause big clouds of dusty dirt to raise up.  There was dust on everything, you could feel breathing it in.  That was the final straw for me and I decided to call it a day and go to sleep.  I attempted to use the "bathroom" before bed, but after finding it absolutely disgusting I decided to skip that activity (hint to other hikers: you are supposed to go IN the hole, not all around it).

Our fine "bathrooms" - it was just literally a hole in the ground with walls and a roof.  I would later learn that they had those all over the trail to prevent people from going all over the place - in retrospect a great idea.
Before going to bed our Guide old us that one of good ways to avoid altitude sickness (something me and Nigel were a bit worried about) was to sleep with your head up a little.  I raised my sleeping pad a little to accomplished that, but Nigel really took it to heart and put as much stuff under his pad as he could find.  Not a good idea, but who am I to question his methods (he admitted it was a bad idea the next day).

Falling asleep was easy, despite it being well before 9pm and before I knew it my first day on the mountain was over.  The hike started out very smoothly and I was hoping it would continue like that for the rest of the trip.


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