One of the very first posts I made when I started this blog was regarding a climb on Mount Fuji. At the time I joked that climbing Fuji was a mission akin to a one legged man carrying a polar bear to the top of Everest in a canoe. In actual fact, it was surprisingly simple, if somewhat monotonous.
So, when a friend told me he was planning a trip to Africa to climb Kilimanjaro, I thought my extensive experience with punishing, slightly oblique strolls might prove invaluable and I immediately offered my expertise.
This was to be the whole purpose for our trip to Tanzania and the culmination of almost a week’s training.
Having ariived in Arusha, we were to meet the organiser of our tour, a man named Nelson. Unlike his more famous namesake, Nelson turned out to be pretty laid back. In fact, it would be impossible to be more laid back than Nelson without a serious convex urvature of the spine. When we rang him up once at 2pm to confirm our trip and his response was “Awwww man, it’s too early! Call me back in a couple of hours.”
Anyway, against all expectation, it turned out everything had been organised quite well. After a while, we found the people who were supposed to pick us up from the bus and they took us to our hotel which was also quite nice. We were met by two young men who described the climb as easy and tempted us with some frosty cold Kilimanjaro beers if we were to come back successful. Without meaning to spoil the whole story, I still don’t know what that beer tastes like.
I would like to categorically like to state now, that climbing Fuji and climbing Kilimanjaro and not quite as similar as I originally estimated. For starters, the Fuji ascent take around 5 to 6 hours. The Kilimanjaro ascent takes around 5 to 6 days.
Four of those days are spent in relative comfort, being waited on hand and foot by the small army of people we paid to service our every need. Apparently, it is necessary to have an staff of 14 black men to get two overweight white men to the top of a mountain.
Our guide Babalu introduced them one at a time; “These are your porters, this is your waiter, this is your evening butler, this is your morning butler, this is your personal fitness trainer, this is your manicurist and hair stylist… etc”.
I have absolutely no recollection of their names, except that the assistant guide was called Peter. The only reason I remember that much, is that he was the man who effectively carried me back down the mountain.
For the first 4 days of our trek, it looked like my oblique strollery skills were coming to the fore. We didn’t climb any gradients greater then about 3 degrees, and we were only walking for about 5 hours a day.
Admittedly, the lack of oxygen was slightly worrying at times, but hallucinating that I’m a tap dancing pink elephant is no more ridiculous than hallucinating that I’m a person capable of climbing a bloody great mountain.
So, after 4 days we were ready to make our summit attempt. Please note, in the literature provided for the climb, they specifically use the word “attempt”, no doubt in a bid to avoid prosecution.
Suddenly, we were no longer walking up a gradual incline. Somebody had snuck in while we slept and added another 40 degrees of slope to our mountain.
What I remember of this climb was scree and enough switchbacks to make a snake think “Cant we move straight for a while?” Eventually we made it to Gillman’s point, which is at the caldera, but not the highest point on Kilimanjaro.
By this stage, altitude sickness was causing my head to pound like a epileptic Chinese man with a new drum kit.
After nearly falling dizzily into the crater and then being told it would be another hour to make the highest point, I decided I had reached my limit. My friend, to his credit, pushed on a made the summit, in what I can only assume was a desperate bid to make me feel like a useless piece of shit.
When we arrived back down, Babalu (who had been a champion all the way through) organised a “Congratulations, you tried but actually you kinda suck” certificate for me and then encouraged me to try again some other time. It was a mark of how nice a man he was that I didn’t feel a need to turn around and punch him in the nose.
It may sound strange for a person with a website called the Cynical Traveller, but I am in fact afraid of flying. It hasn’t always been so. In my younger and more carefree days, I was thrilled at the prospect of being suspended in thin air in a 400 tonne mix of metal and explosive liquids. I even went so far as to go stunt flying in a light aircraft; basically what amounted to two seats bolted onto a set of wings.
It is difficult to isolate the exact time when I became afraid of flying. It would make sense that it was during a trip over the Pacific with Malaysian Airlines where my plane plummeted about 70 metres and everyone (even the stewardesses) screamed. However, my recollection of that incident is that I was remarkably clam during it, and, as I don’t have an excessively high laundry receipt for underpants, I assume that this is not the instigating cause.
In fact, I believe I can trace it to the point in my life when I broke my ankle playing that most genteel of Anglo/Australian sports, Cricket. This was the moment when my sub-conscious decided to stuff the concept of mortality deep into my heart.
All of which is an incredibly long winded explanation of why I would choose to take a cramped, sweaty 12 hour bus trip over a relatively comfortable 45 minute flight.
So, after having arrived in Tanzania and spent a few minutes checking the sights of Dar out, we had a couple of days to waste until catching a bus to Arusha.
Arusha is basically the tourist centre of Tanzania, and as such, there were several buses going there from three or four different companies. However, in order to offset the, quite frankly, ridiculous convenience of this, the companies made sure that each of them offered only 2 choices of departure time; an obscene 4.30am and a slightly less obscene 5.30 am. Additionally, all the buses set off from the same area, so knowing which bus is yours is a difficult prospect
Obviously in the confusion, we must have inadvertently telegraphed the sheer magnificence of our gullibility because two men who were putting cases into the bottom of the bus asked to see our tickets. They then informed us that the ticket price only included the seats and not our luggage. We would have to pay a further ten dollars each to put our luggage on the bus. We decided we weren’t interested in seeing Africa “Au Natural” and opted to plump for the extra cash. The gentlemen, faces beaming, informed us that they would take good care of our luggage, and escorted us onto the bus so that we could no longer see them shaking with laughter.
Top travel tip: This is a scam!
The trip then proceeded to get worse as my travelling companion decided that the contents of his stomach and his doxycyclin tablets had had a rather serious disagreement and one of them was about to be kicked out. The sad thing is, we still hadn’t even managed to leave the bus station at this point.
So, while my friend sat in distress, and I sympathetically ate a bag of cashew nuts, we slowly set off.
And we slowly continued.
And we slowly, slowly, slowly continued.
For some reason, the Tanzanian highway department have decided that the best way to ensure safety on their highways is to put speed humps every 5km or so. So, there is very little chance of your bus breaking into more than a trot. However, fortunately the bus drivers attempt to make up as much time as possible by overtaking on blind corners.
Having said that, the slow bus speed did offer me the opportunity to poke my camera out of the window, engage the motor drive and take an extraordinary variety of blurry, poorly composed pictures.
Such as this:
This proved to be amusing right up to the point where we entered our first town and the bus actually stopped. Then, the rather angry individuals I had photographed suddenly seemed a lot more menacing and I slid back into my seat below window level and decided that the back pocket of the seat in front of me was far more fascinating than it had any right to be.
Anyway, there’s only so many hours you can take photos for, particularly once it gets dark. So it was music on and staring outside until we rolled into Arusha, where luckily our hotel had organised people to pick us up.
Bus to Arusha highlights:
1. The ability to take photos of locals with a large measure of impunity
2. The fact it wasn’t a plane
3. The rest stop which was selling chicken and chips
4. A bottle of free Krest Lemon, Tanzania’s most delicious softdrink
5. The bus arriving at Arusha
Bus to Arusha lowlights:
1. The inability to take photos of locals with a large measure of focus
2. The fact that even though it wasn’t a plane, it had a higher probability of crashing in a ball of fire.
3. The rest stop toilet
4. A packet of free biscuits that came with the Krest
5. Trying to find the people who were picking us up when the bus arrived at Arusha
Africa. The birthplace of humanity.
The name resonates with a primordial beauty. Africa has everything. Millenia of history. A harsh, unforgiving and yet beautiful landscape. An abundance of varied and dramatic wildlife.
What it didn’t have, was a fat, sweaty white man making cynical, slightly humorous comments (well, actually it probably did, but allow me this conceit).
So, Tanzania. Our first port of call was Dar Es Salaam and from the moment we touched down at the Julius K Nyerere airport, and spent 90 minutes in immigration, I knew we were in for a treat. The moment we tried to take our first taxi and it required jumper leads to start, I could sense this was the beginning of something special. By the time we drove in from the airport, and noticed a truck with 15 men in the back, one of whom was holding an AK-47, I was positively shitting myself with excitement.
Dar Es Salaam is the capital and largest city in Tanzania. However, coming from China via Dubai, Dar had a slightly more humble feeling about. Suffice to say, that I could probably urinate over the tallest buildings in Dar without splashing on the walls.
Likewise, don’t expect a sea of neon lights. I’m pretty sure London was better lit than this during the Blitz.
That’s not to say that Dar doesn’t have its charms. There’s a lively fish market, a bus station and even a choice of 2 supermarkets!
Our hostel was located on Libya street, possibly not the most auspicious of omens with which to start a trip. However, it turned out to be a very respectable establishment with good food and nice people.
This turned out to be a metaphor for our whole time in the city. It was never quite as scary as we thought it was going to be.
Despite Tanzania being one of the safer countries in Africa (an honour akin to being named the prettiest girl in the women’s shotput), we were constantly warned not to go out after dark for fear of violent crime. It was only after we went outside after dark, that I realised my legs were are so white that they actually glow with a slight fluorescent light. Suddenly, I felt very conspicuous indeed, and each passer by looked like a potential mugger preparing to perform an emergency walletectomy.
However, our time in Dar passed without us being mugged, raped or abused in any way. The worst incident involved my travelling companion discovering that he had a problem with doxycyclin after popping a couple of Malaria tablets five minutes before catching the 10 hour bus to Arusha.
And, for the duration of my Tanzanian posts, I will include a highlights and lowlights of each place I visited.
Dar Es Salaam Highlights:
1. Not actually dying
2. Discovering “Tangfastic” lollies in the Supermarket in the town centre.
3. Watching fishing boats by the bay.
4. A very nice Chinese restaurant with an “all you can eat and later regurgitate” menu
5. That moment when you touch down and realise “Shit, I’m in Africa!”
Dar Es Salaam Lowlights:
1. Interrupted electricity supply frying my ipod charger.
2. Being terrified of going out after dark for the first two days
3. Mosquitoes the size of small hummingbirds
4. Being pestered by the touts near the docks
5. That moment when you touch down and realise “Shit, I’m in Africa!”
Next week: The Bus to Arusha