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of appetite, to nausea, pulmonary oedema, cerebral oedema and death.
The only good thing about altitude is that individual reaction is not related
to age, fitness or weight, and because our brains shrink as we get older,
those over 40 are less likely to suffer. That makes the top of Kilimanjaro one
of the few places in the world where you can be old, fat, out of shape and
have a small brain, and still compete with skinny, fit, big-brained youth.
The only cure is descent, and the key to avoiding altitude sickness
is acclimatisation. Over time, the depth of respiration increases, more
blood is forced into your lungs and a particular enzyme is produced that
increases the release of oxygen from haemoglobin to the body tissues. The
rule of thumb is that for every extra day you spend on Kilimanjaro, you
have a 10 per cent greater chance of success. While the website of each
tour company claims success rates of more than 90 per cent, more reliable
sources put the number at 60 per cent.
Day 1: 1800m to 2700m
There are several tracks that lead to the top of Kilimanjaro. We are booked
into the seven-day Rongai Route, working up from the Kenyan side of the
mountain. It takes four hours by bus to reach the Rongai Gate from our
hotel in Moshi, a fascinating trip through villages and rural Tanzania.
After lunch, we hand over our duffle bags to the porters (maximum
15kg), fill our water bottles, sort our daypacks and set off along a
well-worn trail through stunning rainforest. We move at a shuffle, with
chief guide Freddie in the lead. While initially frustrating, moderating
our pace is good discipline for later in the climb and gives us a chance to
take in the surroundings. For the first hour, we are accompanied by some
delightful kids on their way home from school in Kenya, and later come
close to a group of black and white Colobus monkeys. After four hours, we
arrive at camp one, settle in to our tents, have dinner and sleep. It has been
an easy day, but I’m already battling heavy flu and a hacking cough, and
am beginning to wonder if climbing to 6000m is the best way to recover.
Day 2: 2700m to 3500m (acclimatise to 3900m)
We wake at 6am to a knock on the tent and a hot cup of tea – a delightful
morning ritual that only varied on summit day. Breakfast is at 6.30am,
and all in all the food is pretty good, considering it all has to be hauled up
on porters’ heads. At breakfast, Freddie announces that we are to go to a
different camp and summit a day early, due to lack of water and strain on
the porters carrying water up to camps that are dry. About 25 tourists and
even more porters are reported to die each year on the mountain, many
from altitude sickness, so this is a valid concern. Nevertheless, it gives us
one less day to acclimatise and lessens our chance of reaching the summit.
We depart at 9am and walk for four hours. The pace of change in
topography as we climb from rainforest through into moorlands is
fascinating. Everything gets progressively smaller, including the height
of the trees and the size of the leaves and flowers. The canopy breaks and
sunlight hits the ground, promoting the growth of numerous shrubs and
grasses, and the colour palette grows more diverse.
Chatting with the guides offers a chance to learn more about the people
of Tanzania. With more than 120 tribes, it is a lucky nation in Africa that has
almost no violence or intertribal conflict.
The first president and ruler for 25 years post-independence from the
British cultivated a socialist approach and insisted that all tribes use Swahili
as the common language, similar to Kenya.
As in Kenya, marijuana (ganja to the locals) is grown everywhere and
widely used, while alcohol is expensive and not so common, so violence is
rare and a ‘hakuna matata’ (no worries) approach to life prevails.
We arrive at 1pm after four hours of walking and everyone feels
more fatigued as altitude starts to affect us – already the oxygen
levels are a third less than at sea level. We sleep for two hours and
then set out on a 30-minute acclimatisation walk. A few of us take
packs and torches just in case, and as 30 minutes turns to two hours
and day turns to night, we are quite grateful. This is our first lesson in
Mawenzi Peak – viewed from
Kilimanjaro – stands at over 5149m.
Local children in Kenya, returning from school.
60 guides and porters accompanied the tour.
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