16 Jan 2014

Getting High In Tanzania

Tanzania: Usambara, Lushoto, Kilimanjaro, Pangani, Morogoro, Iringa
As we left Dar after the New Year Celebrations, we had added a new recruit in the form of Ida – the friend we had spent Christmas & New Year with.  She was taking some time out from her busy family life to accompany us first to the Usambara mountains on the Tanzania/Kenyan border and then to Kilimanjaro.  Three up front in Tonka is a bit of a squeeze, but manageable for a few days at a time. 

The Usambara’s are a much under-rated highlight of Northern Tanzania, lying just off the busy Dar-Arusha highway.  From the scorchingly hot valley floor, you get immediate relief from the heat as you climb 1,000m via a twisting mountain track that passes through the beautiful hillside village of Irente.  Boasting stunning views over vegetable terraces to the valley beyond, this is a perfect stopover en route to Kili.  Also very appealing is the great campsite at Irente Biodiversity Farm which stocks a selection of locally made organic produce.  Passion fruit juice, Mango chutney, Mulberry jam, homemade cheese, bread and local macadamia nuts were all added to Tonka’s pantry. 

After spending a day hiking the tranquil trails around Irente, winding through orchards of peach trees and fields of maize, it was time to continue west towards the roof of Africa…

The hardest part about climbing Kilimanjaro is trying to decipher the plethora of rules and regulations surrounding it.  If you ask ten different people you get ten different answers, and the greatest misinformation comes directly from the horse’s mouth – the National Park Headquarters at the Marangu Gate. 

The only consistent responses to John’s questions about an independent trek to the summit were that: 
  1. a guide is necessary
  2. a support crew of a cook and three to four porters is “essential”
  3. a 17 kg gas cooker is indispensable
  4. you are only allowed “by Tanzanian law” to carry 5 kilograms of baggage yourself as otherwise “you will never make it”

To John, who is used to carrying 30kgs+ up mountains bigger than this one (and certainly without a chef!), this abundance of red tape was extremely frustrating.  It also reminded him of “The Ascent of Rumdoodle”, with the farcical prospect of additional porters being needed to carry the extra food of the spare porters.  Kilimanjaro is African job creation through and through.  

Since the climb, it transpires that apart from point 1 above, these rules are completely fictional.  But as we were pushed for time and the rotund woman at the park HQ (who was qualified for the job only by virtue of her impressive knowledge of the catering menu) was not for turning, John backed down and booked a relatively budget ($1,420) trip through the Honey Badger Hotel in Moshi.  This would be a 7-day trip up the Machame Route, with six other, as yet unidentified climbers.  Resigned to the possibility of spending the next week with six members of the Dusseldorf bell ringers association, John busied himself with packing the technical gear for this daring ascent – an assortment of various chocolate bars for any eventuality, a good book (The classic “Annapurna” by Maurice Herzog) and a bottle of rum for the inevitable post-summit victory toast with the team.

So it was with some apprehension that John waited in the bar at Honey Badger to meet the other six members of the team.  He should not have worried – they turned out to be six of the nicest people we had met.  All Australian medical students (bar one who was already qualified), they were a great bunch, plus useful companions with their bulging first aid kits.  Ida was also signed up to the trip, and so in total we were 8 on our expedition.

All this is not to belittle the actual achievement of summiting Kilimanjaro – the final day is a pretty long slog, and, as always, the altitude is not to be taken lightly.  But for all that, it is not the tremendous physical feat that some people might have you believe. 

After a frustratingly long wait for the porters to be allocated their loads at the entrance gate, we set off in true Victorian style – an entourage of guides, cooks, spare cooks and porters numbering 27 in total.  All that was missing to complete the image was a gramophone and drinks cabinet bringing up the rear.

Our itinerary, which we all successfully completed, was as follows:

Day 1:  Machame Gate (1,490m) to Machame Camp (2,980m): 18km
Day 2:  Machame Camp (2,980m) to Shira Camp (3,840m): 9km
Day 3: Shira Camp (3,840m) to Baranco Camp (3,950m) (via Lava Tower 4,630m): 15km
Day 4:  Baranco Camp (3,950m) to Karanga Camp (4,099m): 13km
Day 5:  Karanga Camp (4,099m) to Barafu Camp (4,550m): 13km
Day 6: Barafu Camp (4,550m) to Mweka Camp (3,100m) (via Uhuru Summit 5,895m): 30km
Day 7:  Mweka Camp (3,100m) to Machame Gate (1,490m)  

While the pace may be frustratingly slow for some, the hike is undoubtedly beautiful, winding through lush rainforest, cloud forest and high altitude plateaus.

Bidding farewell to both Ida and the medics, we fired up Tonka from his weeks’ vacation and pointed him south west towards the dry centre of Tanzania.  But after an hour we exercised that greatest of independent travel luxuries – a change of mind – and turned him around and headed back towards the coast.  The lure of the Indian Ocean was too great to resist. To satisfy this craving we headed to the sleepy town of Pangani on the North coast.  

Beautiful though it was, one night was all we allowed ourselves as we had a lot of ground to cover between here and meeting Henry & Joyce in Zambia.  So we pressed on Southwest, stopping first at the nondescript town of Morogoro and then at a fabulous farmstay (*The Old Farmhouse: Kisolanza Farm*) on the outskirts of Iringa.  Here we camped in the flower and vegetable rich grounds, and ate dinner in the exquisitely cosy candle lit mud-hut restaurant.  We got talking with an English traveller who, it turned out, had won the lottery and was now spending his time treating his friends/family and hiking and biking his way through the remote corners of the world.  And who can blame him. 

A final push and we were once again crossing the border back into one of our all-time favourite countries – Malawi.

No comments: