Day 3: June 12th, 2009
Finally, the day of reckoning has arrived.
I wake early so I can pack my kit bag one last time; it takes a Herculean effort to fit everything inside the damn thing and I stupidly fail to consider how much harder this might be at high altitude. If I did I would have left a lot more stuff behind.
I know that I should eat some breakfast but far I'm too nervous so I just stare at some dry toast instead. There's a mad dash to buy some clean water for the first day's trekking and then our bags are officially weighed before being loaded onto a Land Rover that has seen better days. And then disaster strikes - I'm 0.2kg over the official weight limit! How the hell did that happen? Luckily, Palma is half a kilo under so she takes my William Shatner autobiography for me and we're good to go.
Moments before our departure, a group photo is taken. Look how clean and eager we are:
I spot someone smoking. I'm not allowed to divulge his name on this blog (for complicated reasons) but I'm overjoyed to discover that not only is he smoking, he's doing it in full view of everyone. 'Yeah, I'm smoking and climbing Kilimanjaro, you got a problem with that?'. Result.
After a quick tab I clamber into the back of a jeep. I'm joined by Palma, Paul, and the father and son team of Tony and Tom. I spend most of the two hour drive to the National Park entrance in a state of mild euphoria and disbelief.
Once again we catch a glimpse of Kili's peak on the horizon. Once again it looks impossibly large and far away. Once again I try not to think about it.
We eventually arrive at a place that I immediately recognise. I've seen that sign a hundred times before; I've read its grim warnings far too many times for my own good. We were here. We had reached the Lemosho gate.
After digesting the sign's stern warnings one last time (for luck), we are introduced to Meke, our local guide, and after a crash course in Swahili ("asante sana") we sign into the park. We are then led back to our jeeps and after a short, but brutal, bout of African Massage we arrive at a forest clearing. Where the cast of Ben Hur are patiently waiting for us.
The sheer size of our support crew beggars belief. There must be between 50 and 75 porters and assistant guides congregating in the forest. Waiting for us. To help and support us in our collective desire to climb a ridiculously tall mountain. Insane.
We are each given a packed lunch that consists of a cheese sandwich, a slab of sponge cake, a bar of chocolate, a small sugar banana and a hard boiled egg, and then we spend the next thirty minutes wondering how we are supposed to get a tupperware container the size of two house bricks into our daysacks without sacrificing our waterproofs.
And then, after what feels like forever, we actually start walking. It begins in a far more low-key fashion than I ever imagined it would, and for the first few steps an uneasy silence settles over the group.
We manage to last a whole minute before Al yells "Are we there yet?"
About an hour and a half later and I'm already finding it difficult. It's a lot steeper than I'd anticipated and the back of my legs are burning. I may even be out of breath. I wonder if it's too early to pop an aspirin and I try not to panic.
Ten minutes later and I settle into a comfortable rhythm and suddenly everything feels OK again. The scenery is certainly a step up from the Castle Eden Walkway and the temperature is nice and cool. We stumble across some colobus monkeys (I think) but the only other form of life we encounter are some fire ants which attack naked flesh without a shred of mercy. I congratulate myself on being sufficiently paranoid about creepy crawlies to have covered both my legs and arms completely. Better still, for a rain forest there's a pleasing absence of rain.
I find myself at the back of the group but I'm not too worried. Slowly, slowly. Pole, pole. I spend most of the day with Paul and Palma and while I love the guy to bits, Paul's jokes occasionally make it difficult for me to breathe. I make a mental note to kill him while he sleeps.
And then something amazing happens. The porters are coming...
When the call "Porter!" comes from behind us we are instructed to move aside so we can let the porters pass. I have researched this trip thoroughly and so I know what to expect but nothing could prepare me for what I finally saw.
The word 'pole' echoes around the forest. Pole is a Swahili word that can mean either 'sorry' or 'slowly', depending on how knackered or charitable you're feeling. The porters practically sprint past us and they are carrying three to four times the paltry weight we were struggling with. No wonder are were aplogising so profusely. Some of the porters carry the tents, some carry the food, the others take our kit bags. I am sure I can see my own kit bag bobbing up and down on a porter's head and I'm overwhelmed. At this relatively mild altitude it was a truly impressive sight. When we see it again in a few days time on the Barranco Wall it will literally take our breath away.
After four hours of gentle walking we suddenly emerge from the forest trail into what looks suspiciously like Center Parcs, but what is in actual fact Big Tree Camp. There are tents everywhere, including a huge mess tent that can accommodate more than 25 people. A small army of porters and helpers are dashing around us, unpacking bags and equipment. The temporary toilets look utterly terrifying but I'm almost certainly constipated, so that's OK.
Karsten, our leader, suggests that we head off on a quick acclimatisation walk and I get the impression that we've arrived too early and the porters need some more time to set-up the camp. But we all agree anyway, and to be honest a four hour walk is peanuts given some of my training walks I've been on so I'm fairly eager to do a little more.
An hour or so later and my head is killing me. A dull throbbing ache right behind the eyes. AMS? So soon? What about all that guff about smokers being immune to this shit? How could this be happening to me on the FIRST DAY?! Of course, I tell absolutely no one as I quietly pop a paracetamol and pray.
One of the big topics during our acclimatisation walk is whether we should take diamox or not. Apparently, the doctor is all for it, suggesting that we take it without hesitation. Palma makes the point that if I fail to summit and I haven't taken the drug then I'll never forgive myself. And she's right. I'm not against diamox in principle. I understand that some people regard it as an artificial cheat that dilutes the whole "man versus mountain" experience, but it's a difficult viewpoint to subscribe to when you are leaning on your aluminum leki poles and 75 people are setting up your tent and making your dinner. The main reason I didn't want to take it was because the side effects sounded terrible - more annoying than life threatening, I admit - but continually pissing and tingling for 7 days didn't sound terribly appealing to me. My headache quickly changed all that.
Upon returning to Big Tree Camp we are introduced to our tents and the art of "washy washy'. This involves being presented with a washing bowl of hot water which you must then use to clean yourself. It sounds deceptively simple in principle but when you are sitting in a dust bowl it rapidly becomes a completely different ball game. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Al Pepper and one of the Salt brothers washing half-naked while I am still struggling to transfer a wet foot to my sandals without caking it in dirt. This is bloody hard.
And then we are called to dinner.
I'm dreading this. I'm a picky eater at the best of times and I've heard that altitude can play havoc with your appetite and digestive system. Luckily, I am starving and the food is, frankly, incredible. We kick off with a delicious cucumber soup (piping hot, thankfully) and this is followed by battered fish. Battered fish! On a mountain! In the middle of nowhere! Battered fish! Fresh fruit rounds things off and there are lashings of hot tea on hand to wash it all down with. This is brilliant.
As we clear our plates, Karsten launches into the evening briefing ("tomorrow will be hard") and then we realise that no one has had the foresight to bring a head torch with them so we'll all have to find our way back to our tents in the dark. As we stumble into our new home it suddenly dawns on me that I will be spending an inordinate amount of time in close proximity to someone I don't know that well. We've certainly never been camping together before and even sleeping in separate beds in the same room back at the lodge had felt a little odd last night. How would we really react when we (figuratively) got on top of each other?
Later that night, as Palma was going to the toilet for the fifteenth time, she knocked over a water bottle and soaked everything.
Under normal circumstances I would have been furious with her, and while I would have hidden my anger well (this is our first night together after all) I would have been cursing her as she slept.
However, 9,000 feet up this mountain it seemed like the funniest thing in the world. It wasn't just funny, it was hysterically funny. And the whole camp knew it too if our loud guffaws were anything to go by.
Altitude sickness had well and truly arrived. But we didn't care. Hey, altitude sickness is great! It makes you feel slightly giddy and drunk, and even though forming sentences can become tiresome after a while, the blissful immunity to accidental soakings and the sound of people vomiting outside your tent more than makes up for it. And the tingling feeling is brilliant! It reminds me of a party I went to in 1992...
That night, Palma and I talk and giggle and then we talk and giggle some more. We can't believe we we are really here. After all these months it's really happening. We're zipped up in heavy duty sleeping bags in the middle of Africa. And we're chuckling insanely over the slightest thing.
And we're loving it.
Big Tree Camp Altitude: 2,800m, 9,186ft