October 16, 2012

Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Seven: Down, Down, Down, and Straight to the Bar

Barafu Camp to Mweka Camp to Machame Gate, Sep 7 and Sep 8, 2012
Distance: 12-13 km, 6-7 hours to Mweka Camp and 10 km, 3 hours to Machame Gate
Elevation: 1600 m descent from Barafu to Mweka Camp at 3000 m and 1200 m descent from Mweka Camp to Machame Gate at 1800 m.  

Descending Kili: One minute you're next to a glacier, and the  next you're in the rainforest. 
Technically, this diary entry begins on the morning of Day six. I had left off with having come back to Barafu Camp early on September 7th after reaching the summit after a long and grueling climb the previous night, but our day wasn't nearly over by then. The longest part of it was still to come.

We rested at Barafu Camp for a few hours, had lunch there one last time, and once we had summoned enough energy to pack up our belongings set off down the mountain to Mweka Camp, another 13 km or so and six or seven hours of walking, perhaps more. I wasn't looking at my watch. Granted, it was all downhill and therefore not nearly as strenuous as what we had done in the early morning, but it was just a lot of walking in a 24-hour period where we had almost gotten no sleep at all. The night at Mweka camp felt positively tropical, it was so warm in comparison to what we'd endured the last few days. I remember pulling the hood of my sleeping bag tight out of pure habit and waking up sometime in the middle of the night soaked in sweat from all the trapped heat.

Or maybe waking up in the middle of the night had become a habit of itself.

The only time we encountered fresh snow during the entire week. Photo: Martin B.

Beginning our descent from Barafu. Photo: Martin B.

Zax in good spirits again and posing on a "Kili ambulance"
One last glorious look at the mountain before it was enveloped in clouds again
Chilling out with - gasp! - beers and cokes at Mweka Camp

The next morning we rose early, said good-bye to our tents, were treated to another serenade of the "Kili Song" by all the porters and guides, and began the last descent to the park gate. Even though it was a relatively short hike, as opposed to everything we'd done before, it wasn't easy to negotiate. A previous rain had rendered the path extremely muddy, and staying upright and avoiding the indignity of a soggy bottom proved quite the challenge. I also have to say that after all the care I took with double layers of socks and such, I did end up getting a blister on my toe - from it ramming into the front of the boot repeatedly during our descent. Can I also tell you again that renting or buying hiking poles is absolutely essential, in my opinion, especially for going downhill.

What else to tell you about the descent? There isn't much left to say. Getting off of Kilimanjaro is a feat accomplished much quicker than going up. Some of us more or less flew down on wings we did not know we had, gaining energy with every oxygen-loaded breath we inhaled, and some of us took a bit longer, slowed down by a few uncooperative knees. The scenery was flying by like in a fast-forwarded movie, so that one minute you found yourself sliding down a field of scree where nothing grows, and the next you were surrounded by dense and foggy rain forest. You know you came through all of this in reverse just days ago, and yet you are now for the first time actually seeing it, where before all you had your gaze fixed on was about a square meter of ground in front of you (or often the garden trowel dangling from the backpack in front, giving you endless hours of contemplation where it might have been and what it might or might not have touched).

Filthy and happy after a loooong day's hike. Photo: Zax

These hands need some washing. Photo: Zax
That was just after the first rinse

Down, down, down you go, and when you think there can't be any more mountain left, you go down some more. You finally have the conversations you couldn't have before when you were always gasping for breath, and you cannot wait to get back to the hotel to finally have that long-awaited shower, as well as even simpler long-awaited pleasures such as getting to the toilet at night without any pesky zippers standing between you and a good dump, and sitting on said toilet separated from the rest of the world by solid walls rather than thin canvas that might blow away any moment; and, while we're at it, sitting on your seat with the comforting knowledge that it is affixed to the ground in a level position in no immediate danger of toppling over with you on it.

Holy cow, I never thought I could write so much about toilets as in this series of Kili posts.

In any case, as much as you look forward to the comforts of civilization, each step that takes you closer makes you sadder. Because you realize that something very special is coming to an end. It feels a little bit like coming home from your first teenage class trip: You've grown very close to your group, you break out in giggles at the mere mention of a shared memory, and you think all the food tasted fantastic no matter what they served you. You've spent a week on one long amazing high and then you go home filthy, happy, and sad all at the same time, quite sure that people who didn't have the experience will never understand.

At Mweka Camp setting off for the last leg to the park gate

What the path looked like that last day. Photo: Martin B.
No African excursion would be complete without a bumpy truck ride home. Photo: Martin B.

But you're not quite there yet. Because which good hiking trip ends without a few cold drinks afterwards?

It is said that you can easily distinguish South Africans from Americans when returning from their Kili climb. While the former will always head straight to the bar for a round of ice cold Kilimanjaro beers, the latter go straight to the shower. It must be a testament to my having one foot firmly planted on each continent that I found myself literally standing at a crossroads in the path, once back at our hotel, being called in one direction by my American son Zax who was desperate to get a room, and accordingly a shower, and from the other direction to come have my first beer out in the courtyard with the rest of our crew. I literally stood there rooted to the spot for a few long moments, not knowing what to do. In the end, Zax got the shower and I the beer, followed by many glasses of wine and, as the night progressed, champagne. I was perfectly happy to sit there for hours in my filthy outfit, feet finally freed from boots for the first time in seven days. So it seems I'm well on my way to becoming a true South African at heart, just as we are getting ready to leave again. It is the story of our lives that we are forever leaving places right at the moment we've fallen in love with them and thinking of putting down roots.

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Figuring out the tip schedule for the porters and guides was quite the exercise and one I can highly recommend having completed before too many beers have been consumed. I can also advise you, should you contemplate a Kili climb, to bring about twice as many US dollars than you originally calculated so meticulously, because you will happily spend a small fortune on "Just Done Kili" t-shirts and other mementos you will probably never look at again, you might need some extra cash to pay some ridiculous departure fees at the airport that no one told you about, and you will want to be very generous to the people who have so little yet gave so freely of everything they have to ensure your well-being that week. Just remember: some of them might even have carried you down a mountain on their backs.

Well, I didn't. Bring enough US dollars, I mean. So because I don't plan these things as well as I should, as Noisette would be quick to tell you, I found  myself squeezed into the backseat of Hillary's car bumping through dusty Moshi post our first round of beers in search of an ATM, along with the other two group members who were similarly short of cash (and similarly lacking in foresight). Amazingly, the first machine we stopped at happily spit out hundreds of thousands of Tanzanian shillings for all our various cards, and then it willingly gave some more after we'd reached the transaction limit. I was a bit suspicious of what kind of fees might materialize on our next bank statement but nothing was going to detract from our happiness that day. The money was duly brought back to the Fat Controller, who did all the counting, and then handed over to Goddy, along with a tip schedule, so that  he could give everybody their fair share. We were then given our certificates, took some pictures with the guys shaking our hands, and then they took their leave from us, after many rounds of well-wishing in every direction. It wasn't quite as hard to say good-bye to Goddy as I  had imagined, because due to a fortunate coincidence he had been invited to travel to South Africa the following month, an event he couldn't help grinning about from ear to ear. We knew we'd see him there again, even if it was to be a very different environment.

It felt weird not to be walking, for a change, when heading into dusty Moshi. Photo: Martin B.
Back at Springlands Hotel: Plenty of cold drinks to go around while tips are handed out
I think Hillary felt like a big brother to Zax

Now there really isn't much left to say, because my tale and therefore my Kili adventure is coming to an end. And probably also due to the fact that my memory is a bit hazy from that point forward. We ended up getting pretty drunk, deriving a lot of enjoyment from laughing about the same jokes over and over again, and, in a sudden spurt of creativity, coming up with all the blog names I've been using for this series. They had to practically kick us out of our chairs when the place closed down for the night, and then there were a few hiccups when we wanted to settle our bills and the credit card machine wasn't working. But somehow it all got settled to everyone's satisfaction and we staggered to our rooms to fall into bed and a very exhausted sleep.

Oh, and that shower did indeed feel wonderful. I almost cried when I rubbed the first drop of shampoo into my hair. Okay, rather a whole bottle. And I most definitely cried when it was time to brush it, it was so unruly.

As I am writing these last few lines of my Kili diary, I am sad all over again. I was reliving every moment on the mountain by writing about it, and I admit I was deliberately stringing you along so that I could indulge in it a little bit longer, and linger once again on those moments of happiness. It wasn't truly over while I was still writing about it. I've still got one or two blog posts coming, about the lessons learned on the mountain and the inevitable tips and tricks for future climbers (Joburg Expat is all about dishing out unsolicited advice, after all), but today's post concludes my diary.
The people without whom it wouldn't have been possible. From left to right: Naiman, Goddy, Hillary,
and Monday
Hillary has since been offered a job in Dubai, training and working in IT. We wish him luck!

Godlisten Mkonyi, our guide, protector, and friend. You can inquire about bookings directly  with
him at www.africamovingrocks.com

I still stand by what I said earlier, which is that everyone should climb Kili at least once in their lives. It is an incredible personal journey, both physically and spiritually, and it will forever be a cherished part of your life. However, I must warn you: The hardest thing about climbing Kilimanjaro is not the night you scale the summit. It is coming home and returning to your prior, rather ordinary, life. Just as much as climbing high is inevitably followed by descending low, the emotional high that climbing Kili gives most people is almost always followed by a state of near-depression. I know that I'm not the only one who feels that way.

You will find yourself sitting on that airplane home, exhausted and yet unable to sleep for all the emotions swirling around inside of you.

You will wake up in the middle of the night for days, disoriented and reminiscent of your tent, in some weird way.

You will sit at your desk for weeks staring into space, not capable to wrap your head around the ordinary business of daily life, dreaming instead of distant snow-covered peaks and randomly smiling at the memory of a shared joke on the mountain.

You will feel like this can't be it, that your life isn't worth living unless you find another mountain to scale.

You will feel closer to fellow Kili climbers, even the ones you've never met, than your friends and family, and you'll be surfing the internet for other people's Kili stories for the temporary relief they provide from your sense of loss.

You will replay the Kili song video again and again and have tears in your eyes every time.

It will take time to get through that phase, and it's not always easy.

And yet I wouldn't have wanted to miss it for the world. For climbing high and falling low and picking yourself up again to look for the next peak makes your life worth living.

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Read the entire Kili Diary series:
Kilimanjaro - The Most Incredible Experience
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day One: Pole Pole
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Two: TeeTee the Toilet Tent
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Three: The First Big Test
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Four: Barranco Disco
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Five: Tent with a View
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Six: Lonely on the Roof of Africa

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Want the whole story? Buy the book:

UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.