A Travellerspoint blog

High speed = pics

Back on western internet, thought not halfway across the atlantic as I'd expected. Weather at heathrow yesterday delayed the flight into Dar this morning, so we were late leaving, so I missed my vancouver connection. Tomorrow at 1700h, finally, on the way to canada. The chaos in Dar and the chaos at Heathrow parallel but equal worlds. Rebooked at Dar with no paperwork, reversed inexplicably at heathrow, lineups of 200 people crawling slower than my kili ascent for hotel vouchers circumvented by texting with danny and his internet connection, and the astonishing airport sheraton with its drinkable water, plush robes and room service. The best pasta pomodoro and australian shiraz I have ever had.

One picture at a time, one cutline at a time.

Us, on top of Kili.


Ray, me, Rebecca (low down), Flip. At every hut we stayed at, the registration books requested our professions. After day 1, we started making them up. Potter. Goatherd. Sorcerer. Wife #2. Stunt Cock. Musketeer. Stickhandler. I loved these 3, who were the absolutely perfect mates to do this thing with. None of us knew each other before, and we fit so perfectly.

Posted by CateinTO 13:09 Comments (2)


They get you up at 11pm for the final ascent to the Summit. The guide knocks on the door of the barracks-like bunk at Kibo (the "hut of hostility," we called it), and brings you tea. You've had about 5 hours of agitated rest that couldn't be called sleep, anticipating what you know to be the most demanding 10 hours you've ever done.

It doesn't seem possible to be alive right now. It's pitch black, frigid, and the air is empty of oxygen. You're at 4740 metres. For the past 5 hours, you've had to go out into the hostile night every hour to deal with the churning guts you've had for 10 days now, but which altitude has prodded into agony. The first time out, you forgot your glasses, and in the snow-misted night, lost the path to the toilet and walked into the fence that's put there precisely so tourists don't stumble over the cliff in the night. Crouching over the fetid hole in the ground that you've got surprisingly good at thinking of as a toilet, you are wondering what the fuck you are doing here, how it is possible to be alive and having chosen this.

By midnight, you're bundled up. Silk long johns, winter running tights, mountain hardwear hiking pants, rain/wind overpants. Five layers on top. You find yourself outside with your 3 mates, the joking of the previous 3 days subdued. In the air is a kind of dread.

Immediately, you find yourself on a steep ascent, rock and scree. Pole pole, says Fata Aeli, your guide. Today is today. The mountain is the mountain. We walk silently, slowly. Above us on the path, headlamps shine up until they blend with the vivid stars, the end of the path and the beginning of the sky blended and indiscernible.

After 30 minutes, we stop for water, to take off one of the overly eager layers. Beneath hats and balaclavas, everyone looks strained. Fata breaks into a swahili christmas carol, joined by Harold, one of the assistant guides. I recognize the tune but can't place it. The singing in the blackness, the torches plodding uphill, the stars. I use my stick gratefully, muttering the only swahili sentence I know. Na penda fimbo yangu. I love my stick. Pole pole.

At the cave, we stop for tea and a biscuit. Above 5000 m now, the night and empty air pressing on us. Rebecca looks ill, says she's nauseous, and after the tea, suddenly darts up. I'm going to be sick. Harold holds her up, while Flip rubs her back. Do you want to go on? She nods, fiercely.

After the cave, the casualties begin. Guides gently leading people back down the hill. First one, then a heavyset woman sitting blankly on a rock, her guide whispering to her. Through the night, as the endless ascent winds on, several times we suddenly come across guides nestled into a rock shelter, cradling a climber. It's surreal and frightening and pragmatic. I nod. Fata occasionally exchanges a few words with the guide. The absurdity that muzungu come to africa to literally entrust their lives to these gentle, wise, practical men hits me.

I turn on my ipod and let cello music wash at the edges of the gripping headache. Pole pole. Up. Occasionally I push Rebecca forward. Everytime we stop, her body provides her with another excuse to stop. Diarrhea. Her period. Nausea. Headache. My own guts force me to be more immodest than I've ever been on one stop. When I stand up, I realize I've picked up scree in the layer closest to my skin. I find it for days later.

The night is stars, and steps, and up, and pain, and resistance, and surreality, and will, and kindness. Up. Up. The final thread up to Gilman's Point is almost impossible, stopping every 20 or so steps to lean on your stick, occasionally sip the water that is starting to freeze. Up. Scrambling now, big rocks that require hands as well as feet. Up. Tightness, empty air, the stars. Up. The Swahili christmas songs have stopped, though once Fata breaks out into We are Climbing up to the mountain, yes we are, and a deeply unexpected Yippee Kai Ai Yippee Yippee Ai.

I stay connected to Rebecca, checking in with her. Her will is another coat around her, carrying her up. I'm in pain, and the resistance is unbearable. She is somewhere else entirely.

Suddenly Fata points up -- that rock up there, it's Gilman's Point. This pleases no one. It's too far. "It's not what I expected," mutters Flip, the indefatigable travel writer who never ever complains. Up. Breathing deep, finding lungs where there were none. Up. My ipod has shifted to Alison Kraus and Robert Plant, which moves me forward just enough, distracts just enough from the pain. Stars, still, crisp and close.

At 5:45, we scramble up over Gilman's Point. An uneasy milestone. Once thought to be the highest point on the mountain, we know there is still probably two hours to go. We remember the advice of Seamus, the gnomic sage who briefed us. "If you can still put one foot in front of the other at Gilman's, go on." He implied that the last two hours wasn't so difficult as what came before, but right now, that seems impossible.

We are silent, forcing down tea and a biscuit. I've had no appetite for days, no fuel left in my body. We're wordlessly checking in with each other. Miraculously, the sun cracks the night in the east, a slit of flame. Rebecca watches the dawn wordlessly, bleak.

As we sit, the night is shattered by shouts over the edge. Never Again! shouts a woman, hysterically, laughing. Suddenly we are surrounded by loud south americans. I want to punch them in the head, no energy for absorbing anything so full. I find out later that Flip poked them with her stick.

We nod at each other, and go on. Fata, then Rebecca, then me, then Flip, then guide Stevie, then Ray, then Harold. "Is it flat," I ask. "Up and down," says Fata. My heart sinks as the first steps are down. I lose track of everything behind me, except for the continuing boisterousness of the south americans. I'm grateful when they pass us.

We're on the west side of the ridge, the crater and brilliant icefields off to the right. The crater is redbrown, deep, a desert surrounded by ice. The sky is beginning to be blue. I'm walking carefully, pole pole, step, grateful for my stick with mountain on my left and full exposure on the right of the narrow path. Rocks, rolling steps, gasps for breath.

Suddenly we come up to the top of the ridge, open mountain. The world is open on both sides, miraculous. The glaciers on the left, cumulous clouds far far below us. The world below. Sky brilliant now, the sunrise still flaming red and orange.

Sit, water, breathe, bleak disbelief. The world is more open than it's ever been, and more narrow, my gaze a tight band. The headache has formed itself as part of me, no longer mentionable. Rebecca's eyes are small, her movements tiny. Flip darts about taking photos with her big camera, exhilarated. When Fata says Sawa sawa -- okay -- she doesn't hear. "We're going," I try. I have no more energy to mobilize, so Fata, Rebecca and I continue, leaving Flip and Ray and the other two guides on the ridge.

The last 45 minutes are hallucinatory. We can see the summit now, impossibly near and impossibly far. Occasional people are descending, wan and taut, occasionally muttering a word of encouragement. The path is gentle under our feet now, red-brown dirt, the ridge open, but the hills roll ahead of us, every step impossible. I remember the people in the rocks cradled in the arms of the guides in the night, my sister and her husband on the summit 7 years ago. My hardest marathon, my hardest emotional moments.

Breathe, step, step, step, lean on stick. Everytime I stop, I realize I couldn't have gone on another second, want to sink to the ground and lie down, just for a minute. I know that's crazy. Fata is encouraging us, just another hill. We'll see the summit. I count steps, breaths. It's me, and the hill beneath me, and my tan worn leather boots, and my lungs, and the lights shooting across my vision. Rebecca in front.

Step, stick, step, stick. Fata is holding Rebecca's hand now, and occasionally I pat her shoulder. I give her my water. As we round the last hill, about 100 metres from Uhuru, I begin to weep. Empty, exhilarated, pushed. I did this encased in this amazing group, and I did this on my own. Crossing the last steps, Rebecca tucks her arm in mine, and we hug each other. Fata hugs us. SUPER, he says. The man who wears years of the mountain on his face.

Uhuru Peak. 7:15 am, December 17, 2009. 5895 metres, 19341 feet.

I sip water, dig out my good camera. Rebecca's is with Harold, who's been carrying her pack since the cave. Me at the sign, Rebecca, the two of us. The world is open and the world is tiny and narrow. The snows of Kilimanjaro are disappearing, I heard on CBC before I came. I'm here. The mountain is the mountain. Today is today.

We see Flip coming near, and then Ray, staggering, holding onto Harold. The four of us on the summit, hugging in a group, then Ray staggering away and vomiting. Aussie to the core, he rallies for a smile for the photo of the four of us. Harold and Stevie squabble over the camera settings.

I need to get down, chill and immobility setting in. It's the most miraculous place I've ever been, and it's fleeting, a moment only. Fata, Rebecca and I set off down the red path, what feels fast now, any descent a gift.

Halfway back to Gilman's Point, exhaustion overtakes me. Two weeks of not absorbing any fuel, 3 days of trekking, 4000 metres of ascent, no sleep. My body is my body and the mountain, slow. We sit and I force down water, a bite of a bar. Flip and Ray join us, and together, we thread back to Gilman's Point. Na penda fimbo yangu.

We sit, daylight now, drink water, quiet. "I nearly fucked myself with those pictures," laughs Flip. "I think I have that whatsis," says Ray, "that cerebral edema." We look closely at him and realize he's right. Staggering, slurring, vomiting, headache. The 200 m down is restoring him. Altitude is relentless.

An american is sitting with us, and I watch with a kind of detached disbelief as he hauls out his Kindle, his e-book reader. "I take this everywhere," he says, "I thought a photo of it up here would give my friends a laugh."

I'm searching for sunblock and in disarray with my waterbottle and pack when I realize Fata has decided it's time to go. Everyone else is over the edge while I'm still struggling to put my pack back on. It's the only moment resembling panic I feel. "Wait for me!" I shout. I realize how much I'm carried by the formation, lost without the path stepped first by Fata.

Back in formation, we step carefully down, scrambling in reverse. The sun is up now, the blank cold of the night replaced by hard hot rock. My sunglasses are somewhere in my pack. The rockface is practically vertical, so steep, impossible. We climb at night because of the sun, but also because seeing this would make it impossible to keep going.

Down is forever. Scrambling, heat, sun. Layers come off, water dripped in, body emptied. After about 15 minutes, Fata tracks us into the scree slope, and we ski scree, slaloming. At first it's fun, but then it's hard dusty work, sun blazing, dust in eyes, feet uncertain.

The 45 degree slope is forever. Flip slips, and we take off more clothes. Any modesty I had is gone, as I remove all of the underlayers of my hiking pants. Down, ski, sun, heat. Finally Kibo, 4740 m, 10:10 a.m. We started climbing at midnight, after a 6 hour day of hiking upward.

We have one hour at Kibo to rest, but the altitude is too hostile to stay. People have been sent back from this hut, no further climbing possible. We have a 9 km walk ahead of us to Horombo. Head still taut, I sink into the unforgiving bunk.

Posted by CateinTO 01:30 Comments (9)


When I stop to think about the journeys I have been making around the world for a very long time now, sometimes I feel that the most worrying problems did not involve borders and frontiers, practical difficulties and threats, so much as a frequently recurring uncertainty about the form, quality and course of an encounter with Others, with the other people whom I would come across somewhere along the way, because I knew that a lot, sometimes everything, would depend on it. Each encounter of this kind was an unknown quantity -- how would it go? How would it develop? What would be the conclusion?

That comes from a thoughtful little book I've been dipping into on this trip, called The Other, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. ("Very cerebral," pronounced the guy briefing us about the Kili trek today, a little dubiously, after asking me what I was reading).

This observation kind of knits together what I do in Uganda and what I seem to be doing here in tourist-oriented Kilimanjaro. This hotel is a lovely little enclave, gardens, light, flowering trees, flasks of drinkable water everywhere. Run by a Brit who seems to know what he's doing. But when I dropped my key off to go for a walk earlier today, the worried desk clerks told me I shouldn't go without a guide. Thinking that was ridiculous, I asked why. "People will disturb you," they said.

I know that in central africa "disturb" can mean everything from a pesky mosquito to rebels who want to "disturb" the government, so there's a big slide of possible meaning there. But certain that this isn't downtown Nairobi, but rural Kilimanjaro, I decided I could handle the disturbances. And sure enough, as soon as I walked down the hotel's drive, I was joined by a man with the red eyes that signify long term malnourishment, but a flourish in speaking. Wanted to give me a tour, protect me, etc.

I realized how much Kapuscinski's comment plays out in every encounter, how there is a decision to be made to construct men like this as Other Who Will Disturb or Inhabitant of the same system. I walked beside him, answered his questions easily, was firm about wanting a walk on my own. Experienced a slight quickening of the breath that comes along with wondering if he really is Other, someone who would steal my small bag (that foolishly had everything in it -- I'm too naive about that). Tried to let his sameness settle over me, sameness as the people I encounter in Kasese. Wished him well, left him behind.

I walked further down the road, contemplating the difference in my own breathing in a place like kasese where I find a sliver of identity and belonging, can locate myself even among the people whose worlds are so different than mine, even with all of the undercurrents of obvious difference, unease at the privilege where we get waved through a police checkpoint when africans are held back. Wondering if I was actually being foolish to go on, or foolish to worry about it.

As I walked, I heard singing, and realized that it was sunday. Around the next curve, I saw a Swahili sign that I could make out as a Catholic church. Mass was going on, and without thinking about it, I went in.

Very much Other in this packed church, the only mzungu, the only one in trekking pants, sandals, tank top and a ridiculous chartreuse baseball cap featuring the Vancouver olympics that I had to buy at pearson when I realized I didn't have a hat. But I sat in a back pew, and tried to immerse myself in the echoes of familiarity of the patterns of a mass conducted in swahili, with african flourishes. It was unsettlingly comfortable and comforting, for this longtime atheist. Exchanged handshakes of peace, and even, for the first time in 25 years, went to communion, feeling simultaneously guilty at masquerading as one-of, and wanting to locate myself not as gawking observer, but someone with some kind of credibility for being there. A complicated little dance, but in the forced quiet, also calming. Tried to figure out what on earth was happening when, after communion, people pulled garlands (some like leis, some like xmas tinsel) out of their bags and went up and put them around one woman's neck. (Someone at the hotel, who'd seen me there, told me later that they were celebrating 25 years of her being Devoted to Mary, some kind of lay nun. I was disappointed -- I thought I'd stumbled across a novel Tanzanian Catholic pre-xmas ritual).

In one of the Tapestry episodes I was listening to earlier in the week, a neuroscientist was talking about how the brain is reshaped by experience, and how there is evidence to suggest that engaging in prayer and meditation actually smooths out brain waves. (That's a very unscientific translation of what she actually said). I realized that I needed that smoothing out today, the quiet, and the joy of the singing of the mostly female congregation. The upcoming trek is fairly daunting -- the highest non-technical climb that it's possible to do, the unknowns of altitude and the almost certain sickness, the unknowns of how my body will fare given the beating it's taken in Uganda and my overall lesser fitness. There are a lot of warnings that only about a third of the people who do this route actually summit. But wanting to do this, and finding in this space in the church the reminders of times I've walked or run or perservered through equivalent moments, particularly the surreal zone of pain in the last stretch of running Boston.

I wrote when I first arrived in Uganda about my sense of otherness being about pace. I think what Africa does for me is to remind me that slower is possible, can fit me. I have never been easy with that, whether it's actual physical pace or overall patience, space given to the others in my life, moments of pause before reacting to things. Here, I have more moments of pause, I find, more ability to observe my responses. It's travelling solo, and it's having to fit to a group, and it's Africa and what it requires.

The trip leader who briefed us today, and my driver last night, reiterated the Swahili phrase pole pole (pronounced po-lay po-lay), which means very very slow. It's a stretch for me to slow my pace down when I'm walking, when I'm doing anything -- and it's maybe the best thing I could encounter here to take back with me.

Tomorrow, we start climbing; back on Friday. In between, probably the hardest 6 hours of my life, up a steep frozen mountain in the middle of the night. Send me good vibes for Uhuru, the top of africa.

Posted by CateinTO 05:41 Comments (6)


Adjusting to the "mountaineering/adventure traveller" version of Cate is taking a bit of a spine-twisty type stretch. Cracking noise as I fix my gaze in a different direction entirely.

After the surprisingly efficient (if unsafe!) departure from entebbe, my flight to kili was on a shiny plane that would have done Porter proud. We flew across red eloquent plains that I assume were the masai mara, but I have to check my map. The kilimanjaro valley is surprisingly flat, the air sharply clean after kampala, flowering trees and green everywhere. A very different africa for me.

There was a moment, when I thought that entebbe my be closed for the day yesterday, where it was almost a relief that I might miss the start of this trek and head home. Just a flicker of feeling tired, done, a little daunted by the impending effort, especially given that I'm still carrying the bacteria that means that my food leaves me pretty much as soon as it's consumed. But as soon as I landed at the surprisingly charming and clean kili airport, that changed. Kilimanjaro comes quick in succession with words like casablanca, zanzibar, serengeti, for the Romantic Africa. And when I saw the stars popping sharply at me and realized I have 5 nights of lightless dark, I literally giggled a bit with relief. Another wave of exploring this world, Tanzanian workers here yelling at each other as Ugandans never do, some swahili to learn, my body to rely on.

Off to lay out my gear to have it inspected. We start climbing in the morning.

Posted by CateinTO 23:26 Comments (1)

How is it possible

That the nairobi airport has wifi and pearson does not?

Four hours ago I was standing in someone's front garden a kilometre from entebbe watching black smoke billow out from the airport as a fuel tank burned. The airport had been evacuated and we were clustered off the road, certain the airport wouldn't reopen today. Then suddenly, vehicles began moving, we inched forward, and I was checked in and through security in time to do some souvenir shopping.

When I passed through the departure lounge, I could see the fire, flames high, literally 100m from the check in desks. But we took off only 45 minutes late, I met an interesting kenyan man who works in development, and now I'm sitting on the floor of the nairobi airport, waiting to board my next flight.

Onward to tanzania.

Posted by CateinTO 23:31 Comments (3)

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