Seeking Adventure: Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, Facing Mountain Gorillas and Tracking Game
It’s pretty safe to say that I’m a fully-fledged Africa junkie. I’ve had a range of travel experiences in various African countries over the past few years. From seeking out the Big 5 on over 60 game-drives to diving with sharks in South Africa and climbing the dunes in Namibia to sleeping under the stars in 5-star luxury tented camps. I’ve had other equally amazing experiences but my bucket list still remains boundless. And that’s what I love the most about Africa – there are a million things to discover and experience. When I’m there, I find peace and reveal a new sense of clarity on life. Naturally, it is an unwavering addiction.
My family and friends were not surprised when I told them I was going back. This would be my fifth time. Drawing inspiration from my dreams and ambitions, I crafted a unique itinerary that would put me in my happy place. Beyond just a trip, this was to be an adventure and there would be three chapters to my story:
1. Conquer Kilimanjaro
2. Track mountain gorillas in their own habitat
3. Witness the Great Migration in the Masai Mara
CHAPTER I: MT. KILIMANJARO
Similar to Kensington’s Machame Climb tour, the seven day trek took me through rainforest, moorland, alpine desert and finally the summit of the highest mountain in Africa. Steeper trails for longer distances and impressive views of a variety of habitats are what draw seasoned climbers to the Machame Route. The changing terrain brought a new backdrop daily as we trekked slowly and steadily for about 6-9 hours. My main concern was acclimatization. I’ve suffered from altitude sickness before and it’s not pretty. Machame’s acclimatization schedule allows hikers to climb high and sleep low, helping to minimize symptoms of low oxygen and high altitude. With the additional help of Diamox (prescription used to treat acute mountain sickness), I was hopeful. Physical and mental strength is a requirement and by the time I arrived in Arusha, I was confident I had both. I had been training over the past year with one goal in mind – reaching the top.
By the end of the trek, our guides, Emmanuel (lead), Father Fred (assistant) and Kindalee (cook) became our friends and our family. The porters played an equally important role. They transported, set up, took down and cleaned up camp (including the porta-pottie) every day. None of the tasks looked easy. But they performed the arduous duties seamlessly with high spirits and wide smiles. They were nowhere nearly as equipped for the weather and terrain as we were. While we sported quick dry shirts, down jackets and North Face hiking boots, they flew past us in torn sweaters and broken sandals. After setting up camp, they would wait for us with hot tea and wash basins. I looked forward to these moments; to be welcomed by the luxury of hot water and friendly faces after a long, tiring day.
Day 1: Macheme Gate to Macheme Camp (Altitude: 1,800m to 3,000m)
“Pole-pole!” Emmanuel would often remind us to slow down in Swahili. I was frustrated with the slow pace in the beginning. But by the end of the first day, I realized that a steady pace would get us farther in less time and with fewer breaks. On this day, we made our way from Macheme Gate to Macheme Camp through the rainforest. Walking on a clear-cut path, we were surrounded by lush scenery and could hear bird calls and waterfalls in the distance. It was hot and humid. I knew the importance of staying hydrated and was glad to have my CamelBak – 3L of water per day was necessary.
That night’s ritual repeated itself for the rest of our trek. Reaching camp, I would wash up, eat dinner, take rest and get to know the guides and porters before finally collapsing into my sleeping bag for much needed sleep. Of course, the effects of the altitude meant that I’d have to frequent the toilet a few times during the night.
Day 2: Macheme Camp to Shira Cave Camp (Altitude: 3,000m to 3,200m)
We made our way to Shira Cave Camp through heather and moorland. It was the first day we started a bit of climbing. Around us, there was sparse vegetation and the sound of birds was less constant. That night was much colder than the previous. We no longer had the rainforest canopy for insulation.
Day 3: Shira Cave Camp to Barranco Wall via Lava Tower (Altitude: 3,200m to 3,940m and acclimatization at 4,600m)
Real changes started happening on day three as we made our way towards Lava Tower. It was the hardest day of the trek. Shortness of breath meant I was feeling the effects of the altitude. Although my appetite remained, I definitely was not feeling 100%. The bone chilling winds of the Alpine Desert prompted me to start layering. Reaching 4,600m, we spent lunch acclimatizing to some serious altitude. Heading back down to Barranco Camp for the night, I knew that this was definitely a test day. Falling asleep, I desperately hoped I’d feel better the next morning.
Day 4: Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp (Altitude: 3,940m to 3,900m and acclimatization at 4,200m)
I didn’t truly appreciate the sheerness of Barranco Wall until reaching the base of it. Climbers, porters and guides were all making their way up at the same time, creating bottlenecks and traffic jams. This was the actual “climbing” part of the trek. At one point, I was carefully shuffling sideways while desperately clinging on to the rock with my fingers. I still can’t comprehend how the porters were briskly making their way to the top with all the camp equipment and gear on their backs. We finally reached the top for a quick break before we continued mostly downhill towards Karanga Camp. That night we went for an acclimatization walk to 4,200m. I hadn’t realized until then that the guides gambled with cards to determine the loser – the one who would take us on these pre-dinner walks!
Day 5: Karanga Camp to Barafu Basecamp (Altitude: 3,900m to 4,600m)
Here was the plan: walk a few hours to Barafu camp, rest, have dinner, sleep and then wake up at midnight for our attempt to reach the summit. We had a fierce wake up call to winds ravaging the tents. I proceeded to put on everything I had with me; thermals, fleece jumper, wind-proof jacket and two pairs of gloves, just to name a few. I popped a Diamox and emerged from the tent. Right away, I noticed something amiss - the mess tent was gone.
Day 6: Summit
So ferocious were the gusts that morning that it had carried away the mess tent! At that moment, I felt justified in my decision to put on everything I had. We set off just after midnight towards a slightly visible incline leading to the peak. It was pitch black; all I could see was a trail of headlamps and the stars above. I looked up at the mountain once and saw specs of twinkling headlamps that looked an unreachable distance away. I immediately decided I wouldn’t look up again – it was too discouraging to not be able to gage the distance or know how much longer. I pushed on, knowing that soon, it would all be worth it.
Approaching 6 a.m., the horizon transformed in to a beautiful colour of orange signaling the sun’s arrival. Peeking through the clouds, it illuminated the Tanzanian country side and lifted my spirits. I could see Stella Point finally; the top of Mount Kilimanjaro (not quite the summit) which was enough to propel me the hour it took to reach Uhuru Peak. At 7:30 a.m., I had reached the highest point in Africa. I stared in disbelief at the enormous glaciers and the clouds that spread out over the vastness of Tanzania. I could not wipe the smile off my face knowing that a lifelong dream had come to fruition.
The guides and porters greeted us with cheers and a Swahili song when we returned back to Barafu camp. The cook presented us with a celebratory drink from a Coca-Cola bottle which I graciously and happily accepted as a replacement for champagne!
UNFORGETTABLE MOMENTS: Emmanuel taught me how to count to 100 in Swahili in an attempt to keep me distracted during the challenging parts of the trek. The amazing group of guides and porters were always attentive to my needs and knew how to make me laugh. Their unwavering commitment to their jobs went beyond my expectations. The porters created a positive vibe by singing songs and the chef made a cake as a surprise one night. Their ongoing effort to make me feel comfortable with the little they had at their disposal was a humbling experience. I had collected some used items from friends and family back home and gifted them to the porters at the end of the trek. They reveled at their new clothes and shoes, exalting their deepest appreciation and gratitude. It was the least I could do for my new friends who I was lucky to have found on the way to the roof of Africa.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: Peppercorn steak with French fries. Teriyaki chicken, hearty stew, noodles and fried chicken. Did I mention fresh doughnuts? This is just a small sample of the extensive, mouthwatering menu on the Machame trek. The chef knew exactly how to feed my body and soul. I can safely say that I ate better on the trek than I do at home! I’m also pretty sure that I gained weight on the trek, contrary to what I thought would happen. Every meal was exceptional and I never went hungry. A welcome surprise indeed!
CHAPTER II: MOUNTAIN GORILLAS IN UGANDA
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is located in southwestern Uganda. Spreading across the steep ridges of the Albertine rift valley, this ancient rainforest is one of the few in Africa to have flourished as a home to half of the world's endangered mountain gorillas. Here, I planned to see the largest living primates in their natural habitat for the first time.
The one day gorilla trek allows only 32 people per day and takes between 5 to 8 hours. We woke up early and departed with a picnic lunch. In groups of four, we trekked the deep and steamy forest dense with a variety of evergreen trees, lianas and epiphytes that reached great heights. After an hour of hiking through the forest and then rolling hills and farms, we finally caught sight of the gorillas. We had tracked the Habinjayo family - with 15 members (including a 3 month old!), it is the largest group of gorillas in Bwindi. An hour was permitted for us to move closely with the group and take pictures. A distance of 9m must be kept at all times unless they advance towards you. I wasn’t really prepared for this to happen nor did I think it would. So when the biggest, male Silverback stopped a meter away from me and started to bang his chest – I froze in fear. The alpha male glared at me for a while and then started to move away. The females followed him. The tension finally subsided and I realized that this is exactly what I came here for; to be exposed to the wild at its most raw and intimate. Watching the mountain gorillas on ground level, on their turf and in such close proximity is one of the most exhilarating and magical experiences I’ve ever had. Seeing the mountain gorillas in Bwindi was more than just crossing something off my bucket list. It had become yet another reason for loving Africa.
CHAPTER III: THE GREAT MIGRATION
Built around Kensington Tours’ Kenyan Migration tour, I experienced some of the best game drive I’ve ever seen, staying at an unbelievable luxurious property and taking a balloon ride over the plains of Masai Mara.
Sanctuary Olonana is a small and exclusive camp situated on a private stretch of the Mara River in the heart of the game reserve. Surrounded by nature, I could hear hippos at night and see on to the vast plains from the outdoor shower of my suite. Opulent and luxurious, the property was welcome relief and a well-deserved treat after the roughing out I had done just a few days before while trekking up Kilimanjaro. I would recommend this elegant property to anyone looking to retreat to opulence after game drives, cultural visits, and balloon flights – just a few of the activities offered by Sanctuary Olonana.
The small size of Masai Mara funnels animals into a tight space creating great viewing. Game drives allow you to venture into plains covered with hundreds or even thousands of animals. The great migration is a natural phenomenon that occurs each year as wildebeest and zebra herds migrate. Following their food source, this migration moves into Masai Mara in Kenya (approximately Aug-Sept).
I’ve been on more than 60 game drives in the 10 months I’ve spent in Africa. But I saw more action in the three days of game driving this time than ever before; a lion pride killing a wart hog, a crocodile taking down a zebra and a male lion eating an entire zebra. It was as if I was watching a National Geographic documentary! On a lighter note, I got to see plenty of baby animals – a sight to pull at anyone’s heart strings.
I learned many lessons on my Kili adventure. Here's a video of me learning how to wash on the mountain using just two bowls of water. Obviously, there is NO nudity. Enjoy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=26zaLyUzN80&feature=youtu.be
Ivona Siniarska is one of our passionate Africa Destination Experts and in-house adventure seeker. When she's not in Africa, she's in the office creating unforgettable trips for her clients. Since 2009, she's been to Africa five times and her first hand knowledge of the continent is impressive. So is her endless list of awesome experiences; over 60 game drives in 30 parks throughout Africa, shark diving off Gansbaii, climbing dunes in Namibia, gorge swinging in Zimbabwe - just to name a few. Ivona also loves to treat herself to luxurious accomodations and knows where to go for a real opulant experience. Who else would you have planning your next trip to Africa?
If you're interested in Ivona's Kilamanjaro climb, her great migration safari or gorilla trekking and would like more information, you can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. She'll be more than happy to fill in the details and help you start your own adventure.