Climbing Kilimanjaro – Day 2 – The Forest

This is the second part of my day-by-day account of what it was really like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  If you missed it, Day One is here.

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It’s not something that had occurred to me before starting, but the nights on the mountain are LOOOONG.  The sun set at around six thirty, and we had dinner at seven-ish each night.  So when dinner was done, it was dark, and, there was nothing to do.  You could read, of course, but that meant using up precious torch batteries (top tip: bring at least two and ideally three fresh sets).  There was no campfire to sit and chat round — they’re banned because of the risk of wildfires, which is a real shame, as that would have been lovely.  And because the campsites are busy, and there are lots of randoms about, the risk of theft is pretty high.  So we were encouraged to go back to our tents immediately after dinner, which meant we went to sleep no later than about nine.  And we weren’t woken until six thirty the following morning, which is a whole nine and a half hours of sleep!  Or, in my case, nine and a half hours of sporadic dozing, in between bouts of twisting around trying to find a comfy position, and trying not to think about needing the loo…

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While the camp was being dismantled around us, we were served breakfast of porridge, bread and jam, and fruit.  At least, I thought that’s all there was and stuffed my face… and then the eggs and bacon were produced!  Astonishingly, the team had successfully brought eggs up from the gate without breaking them – and in fact we had eggs for breakfast every day, which means some careful porter must have carried about 200 of the things up the mountain in on Olympic-medal-worthy feat of precision and balance.  I’m pretty sure if I’d been in charge of egg-carrying I would have dropped the lot within the first 10 minutes!  (Apparently this did happen once: my heart goes out to the unfortunate porter responsible!)

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The morning’s walk took us further uphill through the forest.  Although it was mostly up, it was an easy walk and the slow pace meant there was plenty of time to take in the scenery.

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It was also warm and bright, and the dappled sunlight coming through the trees was very pretty indeed.  For a pasty white girl like me the shade was also fabulous because it meant I didn’t need to worry about getting sunburnt!

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The morning was a chance to start getting to know the group a bit better.  There were 15 of us, and apart from my friend and one other girl in her 30s, everyone else was much older, mostly in their 50s and 60s.  This surprised me a little, as I expected climbing Kilimanjaro to be more of a young person’s game – but this lot were all extremely fit and at the risk of sounding patronising, I was very impressed and I hope I’m still able to climb up mountains when I’m in my 60s!

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I particularly enjoyed the forest scenery, especially the trees covered with this ‘Old Man’s Beard’ lichen.  Reading that back I realise I sound like a mega botany nerd, but it really was very eye-catching!

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By now the nerves had settled, though there was still a low-level uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach about the challenge to come, and particularly the terrifying summit night.  But our guide, John, gave us what I think is probably the best piece of advice I heard on the mountain:  ‘Take it one day at a time’.  Which helped enormously.  When you think about the fact that you have to climb to the top of Kilimanjaro, it’s utterly petrifying.  You freak out, and the nausea kicks in, and you become convinced there is no way you can possibly make it.  But if you just focus on getting to the next campsite, or even to the next rest stop, then it really does start to seem a hell of a lot less intimidating.

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By the afternoon we had left the forest behind and entered the ‘heather zone’.   One of the things they say about climbing Kili is that it’s one of the few places in the world where you can pass through all the major climate and ecological zones in one journey: from lush rainforest full of plants and wildlife, through heather and moorland, through dry and inhospitable alpine desert, and then finally to the arctic zone at the summit (which I wasn’t looking forward to!).

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(By the way, an apology: I’m aware I said ‘Kili’ back there.  I’ve resisted for a long time because it sounds pretentious and jargony, and only people who have climbed Kilimanjaro say ‘Kili’, and therefore sound like twats to anyone who hasn’t.  But ‘Kilimanjaro’ is such a mouthful (and hard to type), so it’s just much easier to shorten it.  If that upsets you, then sorry.  You’ll just have to go and climb it, and then you can say ‘Kili’ too!)

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It was only when we left the forest behind that it really started to feel like we were actually climbing a mountain.  When all you can see around you is trees, you could be on a day hike just about anywhere, and you don’t even begin to get a sense of the scale of the place.  But as the trees fell away and the landscape was revealed, we could finally see how far we’d come, and get some idea of how far we still had to go. And that was impressive, exciting, and panic-inducing all rolled into one.

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After about seven hours of walking we arrived at Shira I Camp at 3610m.  There were maybe half a dozen other groups doing the same route and we were the last to arrive, probably because the average age of our group was significantly older so our pace was much slower.  But it didn’t matter: there’s not a great deal to do in the camp anyway, and our brilliant Lead Guide John had sent a couple of guys on ahead early in the morning to bagsy us a good spot.

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When you arrive, your tents are already pitched, your kit bag is inside, and you even get a small bowl of warm water to wash off the dust and sweat.  It really is the height of luxury!

It was an incredibly clear, crisp, and cold night, so after dinner I decided to take a few photos.  Without a tripod I had to balance my camera on a convenient rock, but it seemed to work ok.

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If you want to read about Day Three, click here.

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