We climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in six days. The weather cooperated with us, leaving the rain until the final descent. It was perhaps the most challenging thing I have ever done. And the most rewarding. Four and a half days walking uphill, from sea level, all the way to 19341 feet. There is no guarantee that you will summit.
Many things can happen. You can get frostbite, even in summer. The altitude can get you – many people were spotted on the mountain, vomiting. The fatigue can get to you. It is a testament to the power of the human spirit if you make it to the top. Luckily, our team all made it.
Every day you find yourself in a different climate. One day hot and dry, the next day you are in a rain forest, where you can feel the cold, wet ground seep into your bones. Next you dread the moment that the sun drops behind the ridge, as that means cold. You shiver as the crew prepares your meal, and the camaraderie is what keeps you going. Getting into your sleeping bag as the temperature drops, you hope to drift off to sleep, as tomorrow will involve more uphill walking.
I want to keep this post short and let the photos do the talking, but I must mention this: the guides and porters who take you up the mountain deserve your respect. We had a team of 16 people take us up that hill. Two guides, a cook, a waiter, toilet crew, and porters. Everything has to be lugged up the hill, set up on a daily basis, and broken down the next day. This includes all tents, luggage, chairs, tables, propane tanks, food, rented gear, a portable toilet, paper goods, and the list goes on. The porters work their butts off to make sure you have an enjoyable trip. The guides are your confidants, your protectors, and your counselors when things get weird.
We had an amazing crew, led by Deus and Nixon, who pushed us when we needed to be pushed, and showed grit and humanity the entire way. Much love and respect to our team, we are forever in your debt.
Six days, Maasai Mara, Serengeti, and Ngorongoro Crater safaris. Animals galore. Tented camps inside the park, day-long game drives. This is what people come to East Africa to do. I was blown away by the concentration of animals in all three parks. On any given day, we encountered herds of wildebeests, elephants, zebras, warthogs, gazelles, buffaloes, giraffes, hippos, and, of course, the Big 5. The Big 5 are lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes, and rhinos. We got to see an abundance of the first four. So many majestic lions, prides of six or seven lions were spotted on several occasions. We spotted two cheetas feasting on a gazelle. Elephants crossed the road within feet of our safari truck in the Serengeti. Cape Buffaloes are everywhere in these parks. We spotted a rhino adult and baby from very far away. Not ideal, but at least we got all five. Wildebeest and zebras are everywhere in these parks. After a while, you start to say “…more zebras, okay, keep driving.”
In Maasai, we had a nice driver in Becka, who would later turn on us. I will skip that story, as I promised someone in Nairobi. In the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, we had Abel, who was an amazing guide. His eagle eye spotted so much wildlife, and we were the beneficiaries. We survived a few hours weaving in and out of traffic, a couple of near collisions, and a disgusting butchery along the way, and got to the main road entering the park.
This bumpy, 60 km road is quite an ordeal. The van bounced all over the road, passing a road under construction just to the left. Just getting to the camp was part of the adventure. We did two days of game drives with Becka, and the results were excellent. There is so much wildlife in Maasai Mara that a game drive is mind-blowing. See the photos for more. On the third day, we set off for the Kenya-Tanzania border, where we would get through border formalities and then meet another driver for the Serengeti and Ngorongoro safaris. This is where things got weird.
The night before, Becka told us that we would leave at 7am and be at the border by noon. In the morning, when he had referenced Google Maps, he indicated the drive was much longer. I reminded him of what he said the night before. His reply: “my bad.” As it turns out, when we were finally transferred to our new driver, Abel, after 3 pm, he told us that Becka told him it was his first time taking clients to the border, and he had no idea there was a short-cut. Also, along the way, I asked Becka about lunch, which we had paid for. He indicated it would be served on the Tanzania side, which was a lie. Abel then told us that the drive to our next camp would be another 4 to 5 hours.
The roads from Kenya into the Serengeti are horrible. Bumpy does not describe them effectively. We had no idea, of course, as neither of us had ever been to either country.
Then the safari truck broke down in the middle of a small village. Abel had switched gas tanks at the wrong time, forcing air between the two tanks. Thus, no gas could get from the rear tank to the engine. We asked for a bathroom and got one, if you can call it that. Following the potty break, a request for money. We gave the lady a dollar for her services. A crowd from the nearby school gathers. Suddenly, we are surrounded not only by villagers curious about this broken-down Land Cruiser with tourists, but also by a wave of school children. As several local men helped Abel to get the truck started, we played “kick the box” with the children. The adults stood by and laughed as we entertained the kids.
Then things went downhill. During play fighting with a group of the kids, one of them asked for money. Before you know it, several of them were reaching for the zipper pockets on my shorts and asking for handouts. Across the street, Betty stood on an embankment and watched mothers encourage their children to extract money from her. It got to the point that the two of us just got back into the truck to get away from them. For the remainder of the 90 minutes we were stuck there, the prospect of sleeping in this town became more real. As the sun started to set, the men worked outside to transfer the gas manually from the rear tank to the front tank, and the children hovered around the vehicle, periodically asking for money.
Finally, the Land Cruiser started. Our wave of relief was jolted by an argument between Abel and the men who helped him start the truck. There was a ring leader, to whom Abel gave some money to be split amongst them. That was not sufficient. They all wanted money from Abel. It got heated, and I thought things were going to go from bad to worse. Eventually, we were on our way.
When we got to the Serengeti entrance, it was closed. The guard did not want to let us in. Once again, Abel managed to schmooze his way into the park, and we negotiated the crazy, unpaved, nausea-inducing roads to our campsite.
The Savannah Serengeti Tented Site is awesome. It is in the park, and hyenas, leopards, elephants, giraffes, and even lions are spotted within feet of the camp on regular basis. This camp has awesome, large, clean, tented camps with full bathroom and hot water. The staff is incredibly friendly, they make killer food, and the setting is just surreal and beautiful. This camp, and the game drives we did, were simply incredible, and made all the effort to get there worth it.
A full-day game drive in the Serengeti followed, and I will let the photos speak for themselves. We were then transferred to the Ngorongoro Crater, which is replete with wildlife. Such a beautiful day inside this crater, with Abel, our very capable and knowledgeable guide.
Finally, we arrived at our Arusha hotel, and said goodbye to Abel. We gave him a very nice tip, and thanked him for a truly unforgettable experience. We appreciated Abel so much, and realized that a safari guide is many things: an expert driver, a knowledgeable guide, a great navigator, skilled negotiator and an auto mechanic. The importance of the last two roles cannot be overstated. As we learned along the way, if the truck breaks down, the driver cannot call a tow truck. There are too many miles between parks, and a tow truck would be prohibitively expensive. The safari operators do not help. The driver is on his own, taking the help of local villagers in any place he might break down, and negotiating with them after they help get the vehicle back on the road. Stated differently, your guide has your life in his hands. Not only in the park, where he will drive you to within feet of a pride of potentially hungry lions, but also on the roads in-between, where just about anything can happen. If you get a good driver/guide, thank him and tip him well.
As we were checking into the hotel, I glanced out the window to wave goodbye to Abel. He was standing outside the truck, with his hands together as if in prayer, looking at me. This was his way to say thanks for the excellent tip we gave him. Abel, you may never read this, but know that Betty and I appreciate you from the bottom of our hearts.