That's Swahili for "Hello". As I sit here now, the past four weeks seem almost too packed to be real; my vacation to Africa would certainly not classify as the relaxing kind. Several months ago, my friend Andrew (currently spending two years doing volunteer computer work in Malawi, Africa) wrote asking if anybody wanted to join him on an adventure to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano and is the highest point on the continent of Africa. I didn't give it much thought at first, but as time went on the idea seemed better and better. At the end of May, I purchased a round-trip ticket to Africa, thus making the decision final.
The first thing to do was go to the doctor. Four weeks, six shots, and several hundred dollars later, I had had enough preventative medicine that I could make the trip in relative safety. Walking around for weeks feeling like your arms have been used as punching bags wasn't any kind of thrill, but it did keep the upcoming trip fresh in my mind.
The week of August 14th to 18th was spent doing the final preparation. Everything at work had to be finished up, including the last minute install of five new unix workstations. I don't think I was home before 11pm all week. I also did a fair amount of running around to get a number of things to take to Andrew -- things that are simply difficult to find in Lilongwe, Africa including diabetic jam, artificial sugar, and a bathroom scale. Finally, Friday rolled around and it was time for the adventure to begin.
August 18: (Day 1)
Friday started like almost any other day, except that I had a completely new unix network going in to use at Precidia. Most of the day was spent handling minor difficulties and adding some new software that the guys wanted. And, of course, a new feature required by Jean Cotu in our primary product. There's nothing like making a code change just a few hours before virtually disappearing from the face of the Earth for the next month. I mean... What could possibly go wrong?
Arriving home around 5pm, I pulled all my stuff together and got a ride to the airport from my good friends Andrew and Carol so as to catch my flight to London. Thanks to a friend at work, I had two upgrade tickets to first class and so got to skip the line of people waiting. Unfortunately, the flight was full and I couldn't use the upgrade. C'est la vie.
As I sat down in the waiting area to call Mom (who had been insisting I call before leaving) and got the sad news that my dog had died. It wasn't a surprise... She'd been quite sick for about a year, though you wouldn't have known it to see her. She had still been a happy puppy (a 4kg dog is still a puppy even when ten years old). It was a sad way to start my trip, though. For those who don't know, my other dog died in January. It was depressing to think of going home at Christmas and not having any furry tummies to rub.
My flight was called and I boarded the Boeing 767 for a direct flight to Heathrow international airport in London. I'd been in a 767 once before and had the foresight to request an aisle seat. I ended up sitting one row back from the big TV screen with a well-behaved little boy on the seat in front of me. His legs were too short to reach the floor so I was able to stretch out completely and never once bumped feet. Two movies, half a book, and two hours of sleep later, I was on the other side of the pond.
August 19th: (Day 2)
My flight touched down at 7:30am BST (+1:00 GMT). Heathrow is a big airport! It comprises 4 separate terminals and handles over 60 million passengers each year. After collecting my bags and getting my passport stamped (for the first first time ever!), I followed the crowd and suddenly found myself out in the main area -- no customs, no baggage check, nothing. I was amused to see about a half-dozen people holding up signs with someone's name and "Nortel Networks" written below it. I just can't seem to get away from these people! I thought about pretending to be one of those names, but decided against it.
My flight to Africa didn't leave until 9:30 that night, so I had some time to go exploring. The first step was to catch a train to Paddington Station in downtown London. Knowing nothing about the "London Underground", commonly referred to as "The Tube", I just struggled around the station with my arms growing longer by the minute as my bags weighed down on me. I bought myself a day pass and hopped on the first train to Victoria station in the center of downtown London. I left my bags in a locker since it is from there that I needed to catch the train to Gatwick airport for my next flight.
Food! My stomach was rumbling for something to eat and what is the first place I stumble upon? You guessed it... The good ol' golden arches. Don't worry. That's not where I ate. Instead, I found a nice English pub and ordered a meal of fish & chips. That's not what I got, however. Oh it was fish, I'm pretty sure, but you wouldn't know it from the taste. In fact, I don't think it even had a taste. It was just a fillet of soggy breading and grease. Yum! I did have a good talk with the barkeep, a New Zealander who had been to more countries in the previous 9 months than hours I'd spent on a plane.
The first thing I noticed upon heading out to the street were the words "Look Right" painted on the crosswalk. It's a shame I didn't think to get a picture of it. I had meant to return and get one on my way back but completely forgot. Every year, numerous North American tourists get killed in England because they don't look both ways before crossing the street. I got so paranoid that I must have looked three times each way before ever taking that first step.
My first stop was Buckingham Palace. I figured it was one of the few things I should be sure to see, especially since I happened to be there during the short time it is actually open to the public. Luck was not entirely on my side, however. There were huge crowds of people milling about and so getting a ticket for "today" meant taking whatever time they gave you. Having only 8 hours or so to spend, I couldn't really afford a random interruption, so I wandered around the square outside and looked at parkland around it. Seeing the palace proper will just have to wait until the next time I'm in London. If nothing else, it gives me a reason to go back, right?
If you want to see almost nothing of everything, it's hard to beat the "hop on, hop off" busses that clog London's streets. From the back of one of these babies, you can see the surface of almost every major landmark in the London area. As an added bonus, it also includes a 90 minute boat cruise along the Thames. It's a great way to waste film on something you never really saw, but one can't afford to be too picky with only a few hours in the city.
One of the newest attractions in London is the British Airways "London Eye" Millennium Wheel. It is the largest observation wheel ("Ferris Wheel") ever built and is the fourth tallest structure in London. The wheel itself is built similar to that of a bicycle. The structure is supported entirely from the center spindle, but instead of having metal tubes or beams radiating outwards there are tension cables pulling the outer circle inwards. The entire structure is supported by the hub out over the river Thames. Even more crowded than Buckingham Palace, it was not possible to get any ticket for that day. In fact, some times were booked solid as much as two weeks in advance. So alas, the only pictures I have of the wheel were taken from the ground.
I also got to visit St. Paul's Cathedral, which was quite the impressive display of architecture and art. The clergy is quite restrictive there; they've gotten so annoyed with the tourists that they now forbid all picture taking. Luckily, my new camera can take pictures without using a flash. As such, I managed to get a couple photos of the interior without disturbing anyone or getting in any trouble. These images don't really do justice to what the cathedral was really like, but I'm sure that comes as no surprise to anyone.
Wandering around a bit more left me in front of the London Dungeon. This was one place the hop-on/hop-off tour was especially useful because I could buy a ticket from them and go directly inside without waiting in line for two hours. The show started with a walk around a number of rooms depicting various horrors of the middle ages. I tried to take a few pictures, but didn't have a flash. You can be the judge of how they turned out. We got herded as a group in to a room where an old witch talked about various torture devices. Being hungry and a bit jet-lagged, I actually had to sit down during this. You might say I wasn't feeling to good. Afterwards, they took us through a series of rooms where they talked about the reign of Jack the Ripper and also had a pretty good show to make you feel like you were caught in the London fire. All in all, it was a good show, but there were probably better things I could have seen in my little time in the city.
Time was starting to run short for me at this point, so I pretty much spent the rest of the tour just looking around from the back of the tour bus. I would have like to have stopped and spent some time in Hyde Park but just didn't have the time. It looked really nice as I rode by. Next time, I guess.
Returning to Victoria station, I picked up my bags (I'd forgotten how heavy they were!) and got on the train to Gatwick airport where I found, much to my significant surprise and delightment, a public shower! After sweating around London for most of the day, this was a wonderful relief to me and probably the people I sat next to. I packed away my camera and boarded a 747 (another first for me) to Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa. Twelve hours and one more time zone later (half of it spent asleep), and I was on yet another continent.
August 20: (Day 3)
Airplanes don't taxi up to the terminal in Africa. Instead, they roll the stairs up to the plane and then take you by a short bus trip to the airport proper. I got in the short line for going through immigration, which of course was a mistake. I'm not sure what the woman inside was doing (she was replaced just before I got to the window), but the room was almost cleared by the time I finally got my passport stamped. Malawi customs was the most strict of any I went through on this trip. I say this not because they searched my bags or grilled me about everything I was bringing into the country, but because that was the only place where anybody even asked if I had anything to declare.
Andrew picked me up in "Pee Wee" (his Toyota Land Cruiser) and we drove back to his house in Lilongwe. Being a volunteer, he doesn't get paid very much but that is still more than most of the locals. As such, he has a fairly nice house and a servant, actually a night guard just to help protect the house from being robbed. Lanswin and his family live in a small building next to the main house. He also has a couple dogs that help protect the place. The dogs themselves are extremely friendly when you've been introduced to them properly, but they can be quite scary to strangers. I got one growl from Loki the first time I tried to enter the house, but after that he was just a big suck.
For dinner that night, we went to "Burgerland". It wasn't quite McDonald's, but it was definitely a fast-food place, complete with milkshakes and ice cream. The most noticeable difference was what condiments get put on the burgers: relish, chili, mustard, thousand-island dressing, and more. It made for an unusual taste, but still pretty good.
Afterwards, we stopped to visit some friends who were leaving to go home the next day, but I'm afraid I wasn't much of a conversationalist. In fact, I was so tired that I couldn't even focus my eyes. I can't remember much of the trip back to the house, but I did eventually make it to bed and proceeded to be dead to the world for the next 12 hours. Ahhhh...
August 21: (Day 4)
My day of recovery... I basically did nothing for the entire day. I sat around, read, packed, and watched Lanswin's wife dry some freshly ground flour (carrying it around in a big tub on her head). I didn't take many pictures of people over the course of my trip, at least not that they were aware of. I wanted to capture the area, not make spectacles of the people. Besides that, it's embarrassing to have people catch you taking pictures of them. It was surprising sometimes to have kids come up to me and ask me to take their photo. I don't pretend to understand this.
Houses in Malawi are usually built of brick which are in turn made from the land cleared for the house. The clay soil is formed and stacked in big piles with open arches beneath it. A fire is then started in those arches, baking the clay into hard brick that is then used to construct the house.
Vibeke (Andrew's girlfriend) and I talked about the things that we are used to being done by machine that in Africa are done by hand. Laundry is one of them. The wealthy hire servants to do most of that stuff, but Andrew and Vibeke have a small hand washing machine and dry the clothes by wringing them out by hand and hanging them on a clothesline.
I also found out that ironing clothes in Malawi is for more than just that clean-pressed look. There is a type of fly that will lay its eggs on the damp clothes. If you then put that fabric next to your skin, the eggs will hatch and the larva will borough in through your skin and take up residence in the muscle where you can actually feel them moving around. A little vaseline over the entrance hole will cause your guest to come out for air, where it can then be pulled out with tweezers, but it does tend to leave a scar. Ironing or leaving clothes in a dark place for a couple days will kill the eggs.
Andrew says that, while it wouldn't be too bad overall to find one of these things on your arm or back, there are other places where the thought just makes one shudder... which is why he irons all of his underwear twice and then leaves them in a dark closet for a few days before wearing them.
August 22: (Day 5)
After loading the truck with all of our stuff, we were ready to start on our journey. Pee Wee had other ideas, however... It wouldn't start. The starter motor would crank the engine, but it just wouldn't catch. In desperation, we decided to bump-start it. For those of you that don't know, bump starting is when you manually push the vehicle as fast as you can. Someone in the driver seat then lets the clutch out which forces the turning wheels to drive the engine, hopefully starting it. It took two tries but it worked, thus starting a continuing journey down the road to becoming a passable mechanic.
Theorizing that it must be an electrical problem somewhere (since the only difference between a starter moter and bump-starting is that you're not driving the engine with battery power), we stopped at the Toyota garage and got new points and a condenser to install at a later time. If we had only known then what we know now... We pushed the truck out of the dealership and journeyed onwards.
We hadn't traveled far when Andrew introduced me to one of the common snack foods in Africa. Standing by the side of the road every so often was one or two young boys waving a handful of something. "Mouse-on-a-Stick", Andrew called it. These boys have caught local field mice, skewered them on a stick, and roasted them over a fire. No fur is removed, of course; just dead mice scorched over an open flame. In this case, it appears to be some kind of small birds on the sticks instead of mice and, what luck, they seem to have been plucked! Tempting as it was, I was still too full from breakfast for a meal such as this.
The road we were on is the same one the president of Malawi drives on and we passed within sight of his palace on the trip. Not content with having to pass one or two cars every few kilometers, he actually gets the local police to close off the road as he travels down it at 120km/h. This is also the only time you ever hear a police car with the siren going. Roadblocks, however, exist all the time and are quite common. There reason was never very clear to me, except perhaps to keep people from traveling too much and maybe incurring the occasional bribe.
The terrain in southern Malawi is pretty flat and dry, but as we traveled north, there was definitely more green around. There is also a mountain range rising up beside Lake Malawi that was fun, if rather slow, to traverse. The pavement itself had been deformed from the weight of all the trucks driving the road (being the only road from Tanzania to Malawi) and curvy enough to making passing difficult. There was some concern as Pee Wee seemed to be stuttering slightly on the uphill climb. Once past the summit (where a coal mine sits protected by barbed wire), things seemed better and there were some nice views of the Lake as we wound our way down the other side of the mountain.
Many of the roads in Malawi have been donated by foreign governments to help stimulate the economy of the country. Unfortunately, the Malawian government has a woefully insufficient budget for maintaining these roads once they are finished. The result can be roads so riddled with potholes that they are worse than no road at all. We spent the latter part of the day going about 40km/h and weaving wildly across the spotted pavement while Andrew keyt saying that they're really "not all that bad, comparatively."
We stopped for the night in Karonga at the "Chamber Beach Hotel", a nice place recommended by a friend of Andrew's. Despite the lack of hot water, a line of ants marching down the wall, and a friendly gecko watching me from the ceiling, the rooms was quite clean and pleasant. We checked the water and oil in Pee Wee and got some bad news. As we poured the oil in to the top of the engine, some of it literally flowed through a gap in the seal under the head cover. We added a "head gasket" to our wish list and then got some dinner before making it an early bedtime.
August 23: (Day 6)
I awoke to a knock on my door because I set the alarm on my watch for PM. The day was grey, but there were a number of fishing boats out on Lake Malawi. After a breakfast of eggs and sausage, we pushed off (literally) down the road and headed towards the Tanzanian border. Crossing countries in Africa is different than going between Canada and the US. Here, you drive up to the window, answer a few questions, and they wave you on your way (well, most times anyway, right Behan?). In Africa, you have to go in to the local side and get your passport exit-stamped. In Tanzania, we had to go through immigration, customs, and get new car insurance. All in all, it took us about one and a half hours to get through.
After the border, the terrain turns back in to mountains. Not far from the border, as we were climbing another hill, the stutter we felt in Pee Wee suddenly stopped, along with all other engine activity. As we considered our options (going for help; coasting back down the hill) we began to wonder if the problem wasn't something simple. Sure enough, after adding a jerry-can of fuel, it (bump-) started right up again. The slope of the hill had simply pulled the gas away from the intake.
One of the most notable trees of Africa is the Baobab tree. Many people describe it as growing upside-down because the branches look the way we expect a tree's root system to look like. They sprout leaves only in the wet season, are usually hollow in the center, and will often live to be over 1,000 years old.
The rest of the drive to Iringa was uneventful except for the scenery. The surrounding landscape changed from mountains to flat to terraced hills to forest, all within the space of a few hundred kilometers. It seemed every time I looked out the window there was something new to see. The change to forest was quite abrupt as can been seen in the photo on the right. It was as though someone had drawn a line and would allow trees to grow only on one side.
Sitting on top of one of the rolling hills is the town of Iringa. Having three banks, a Pepsi bottling plant, a couple auto-parts stores, and a Greek restaurant, Andrew and Vibeke could not keep from commenting several times about how life would be different if they were living in a "real city" like that one. I think Andrew might be a little out of touch... <grin>
I'd like to take a few moments to talk about hygiene in Africa. Upon hearing about my trip, many people have expressed interest in "seeing Africa". After four weeks there, my advice is as follows: If a stained tub makes you shudder, don't see Africa. If you scowl at someone who doesn't wash their hands after going to the bathroom, don't see Africa. If you get queasy at the thought of a toilet that hasn't been flushed, don't see Africa. I'm quite serious. If the worst of North America makes your stomach churn, then Africa will have your skin crawling right off of your body. Oh, you can visit Africa; you can watch the animals while on safari in the comfort of your overlander with its westernized toilet, but in doing so you won't actually see much of Africa, the continent and culture. If you really want to see what things are like in Africa, you need to stay where the locals would stay and that isn't always pretty.
When I first walked in to the bathroom of my room in Iringa, I shuddered. The toilet and tub were both stained brown, the toilet had no lid or toilet paper (the latter of which I was prepared for, at least), and the sink faucet spewed something between water and red mud. At the time, I was disgusted. Malaria medication tends to cause things to flow rather freely so avoiding the toilet was not an option. I just had to plunk my bear butt down on the rim. My bath the next morning consisted of me pouring water over myself while I stood in the tub with my sandals because I couldn't bare to touch anything. Looking at these photographs now, though, the place seems quite pleasant. That's right... There was worse to come.
That night we enjoyed a terrific meal at a Greek restaurant up the road. We had a good laugh over this because not only were we eating Greek food while in Africa, but we were doing so while listening to Canadian music -- Celine Dion, to be exact. After dinner we relaxed, played some games, read, washed, and went to sleep.
August 24: (Day 7)
Pee Wee developed a flat tire sometime during the night, but Andrew and Vibeke had changed it late the previous night after they noticed it while getting blankets from the back. The tube that had been installed in the tire was too big and thus had been folded to make it fit. The rubbing had eventually worn through one of the creases. We drove in to the main part of town to fix the tire and also went shopping for a head gasket. It was after 11am when we finally rolled out of Iringa with all five tires back where they were supposed to be.
Not too far from Iringa is Mikumi National Park. Covering about 3200 sq.km, it is the smallest of the game reserves in Tanzania. Besides the monkeys and baboons at the side of the road in the mountains, this was the first real "African Wildlife" I had seen on my journey. When i first saw the giraffe standing by the side of the road eating the leaves off of the trees, I thought "neat" and took a picture. Over the course of the day, though, this little moment kept sinking deeper and deeper: no bars; no cage; no zoo... just a wild giraffe... eating lunch... by the side of the road.
That night we stayed at a hotel outside of Morogoro. Because the area was getting to be more and more of a tourist area, the prices were going up. They wanted to charge us $US35/room to stay at this place, but we convinced them to give us the same rate they give residents: T.Sh 15,000 (roughly $US20/room). While this may sound pretty cheap, the rooms in Iringa and Karonga were only about the equivalent of $US5/room. It was nice to stay in a comfortable room with a clean bathroom and warm water. Still, there was some sort of bug living in an empty faucet hole on the tub. I know this because it decided to come out and join me while I was showering.
That night we decided to replace the head gasket on the truck. We grabbed the manual, the toolbox, the parts, and opened up the hood. It didn't take more than a few minutes to figure out that we had the wrong part. We had gotten a head "gasket", but what we figure what we really needed was a head "seal". We never did find out for sure. Not to be deterred, we lifted up the head cover anyway and discovered that the seal was actually intact and fairly new, but had simply fallen out of its groove and been squished out of place. Holding up the head cover, we carefully placed the rubber back in its correct position, set the cover down again, did a second check to make sure it was still where it was supposed to be, and then tightened the bolts. It was an easy operation overall and it never leaked oil (from there) again. Now to wash up and get some dinner!
August 25: (Day 8)
Breakfast consisted of eggs (no surprise there) and sausage. The sausage, however, was a surprise... it was actually just a boiled hot dog -- not very appetizing. At 7:45 we took off for Moshi.
The day was fairly cool with some clouds in the sky, but the time passed fairly quickly. We stopped a rest stop / gas station for lunch and were suitably impressed. This place not only had running water, but full flush toilets and showers in the bath rooms! Except for the architecture of the building, it could have been a place here in Canada or the USA.
Kili, Ho! False alarm, never mind. As the day wore on, we were getting more and more anxious about actually getting to the base of Kilimanjaro. Kili is an extinct volcano that rises out of the Serengeti plains of Africa without actually being part of any mountain range. When we topped a small rise and saw a mountain rising all alone in front of us, we figured this might be it. We were wrong.
We drove and drove, scanning the horizon the entire way but never saw the 6000m peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro. There were some other mountains in the area, but none looking anything like "Africa's Highest Peak". Eventually, we arrived in Moshi and had to face the fact that Kilimanjaro had been right in front of us for the last 30 minutes or so, but we just couldn't see its peak because of the overcast sky.
We got rooms at the local Y. That's right... The YMCA is in Africa and they had a 25m pool to boot! This was definitely a plus. The rooms were clean and the showers even had warm water at some times in the day. The proper flush toilets were especially nice since I wasn't feeling so well. It hard started a little after lunch and had gotten worse as the day went on.
We went and talked with a tour company that was set up in the Y and arranged our climb. They would provide sleeping bags for all of us and a winter jacket for me as well as arranging a guide and porters; the only major thing we would provide was the determination and the energy. After settling this and walking back to the common area, we turned around and saw Kilimanjaro for the first time. The three of us just stood there dumb-struck for a bit. It was a truly impressive sight and somewhat daunting. "We'll be there, soon," we told each other.
The night was not kind to me. The minor upset stomach had gotten progressively worse until it was obvious that my body was desperately trying to flush something out of my system. At about 2am and a dozen trips to the bathroom, I decided that waiting for my body to take care of it may not be the best choice and so took the ciproflaxin antibiotic prescription I was given. Amazingly effective stuff, it turns out... Within an hour, I was doing much better and actually managed to get some sleep after that.
August 26: (Day 9)
The Y in Moshi is not a place to go for culinary delights. Dinner the night before had consisted of beef so tough than neither knife nor teeth could cut through it. Breakfast on this morning was cold eggs on soggy toast with another boiled hot dog as a sausage. We resolved to eat elsewhere that night.
The day was easy. We finished organizing the hike, including paying. I then went back to bed for a couple hours while Andrew and Vibeke went to explore the town. After my nap and just lounging around with a book for a few more hours I was feeling much better.
When evening came and it was time to head out to eat, we encountered a little problem. Pee Wee wouldn't start; the battery was all but dead. Rather than worry about it, we pushed it back in to the parking spot and took a cab to the restaurant. We'd fix it when we got back.
Eat. Sort out our stuff for the climb. Go to bed. Andrew wasn't feeling well. Oh oh...
August 27: (Day 10)
Come morning I felt normal, but Andrew had had to resort to the ciproflaxin during the night. We finished packing our stuff away and put the things we didn't need in to a storage room at the Y. Then we loaded up with our fourth, Hans, and were driven to the park entrance. It was a cloudy day, so we had no view of the mountain.
At the base, we met our guide, Sera, who had been to the top of Kilimanjaro about 30 times previously. Our party consisted of four hikers, two guides (Sera and his assistant), seven porters, and one cook. It seemed excessive to have ten people to support a group of four, but what did we know. It was just as well, because by the time we got to the top we were just as happy not to have had to carry any more weight than was absolutely necessary.
For the first part of the trip there is actually a road to follow, though the only traffic that travels it is the occasional land rover going to bring down someone that has fallen victim to altitude sickness. The road only goes about half way to the first hut, so you can't even count on that if you get in trouble.
The base of Kilimanjaro is rainforest. It's not like the primary rainforest your hear about; it's secondary rainforest, or "cloud forest". What's the difference? Douglas Adams' book Last Chance to See has a pretty good description:
"I thought that the whole problem with rain forest was that it wouldn't grow again when you cut it down," I said.
It's hard to describe the feeling of walking through this kind of lush vegetation. Some parts were quite muddy, but the climb as a whole was very peaceful. I'd be looking down at my boots, watching them squelch through the mud as I maneuvered around the tree roots. A light rain was falling through the trees and I'd look up to see the clouds swirling through the forest. The deep green of the trees was such a contrast from the pale colors of the African plains we'd just been through. The whole experience was quite emotional.
It took us four hours to make the climb to Mandara Hut instead of the usual three. "Polé polé." We just walked nice and slowly. The only worrisome point was that my right hip was hurting. After about a third of the way I had removed the hip belt of my pack to move the weight from my waist to my shoulders and that had helped some, but it was still troubling. I've had difficulties with my hip while climbing before and if it was hurting already then there was a good possibility I'd never make it to the top.
We arrived at Mandara Hut around 5pm. It was a bit of a surprise to get there as there was no warning at all. One minute we're walking through rainforest and then next we're in a clearing with a number of A-frame huts. I left my pack and walked on for a bit further. I just had an overwhelming desire to be alone for a while. Walking through the cool air surrounded by all the trees had all my emotions bubbling to the top.
We weren't that hungry for dinner, but forced ourselves to eat anyway. It's important to keep your energy reserves as high as possible, which is the same reason for taking each walk so slowly. If you were to burn up your energy reserves then you would have nothing to carry you up that last 1000 meters. So we packed it down and then headed off to our hut for bed. Andrew was feeling better, but I had a small problem. It seems that all the water I drank during the day decided to wait until after dark to leave. I was up seven (count 'em, seven) times over the course of the night.
August 28: (Day 11)
After a good breakfast (more eggs, of course), we packed up and headed off along the trail around 9am. Before we had even gotten out of the camp, we came across some "skunk monkeys" (so called because their coloring is that of a skunk) in the trees. They bounced around from branch to branch and basically ignored us as we hiked along.
It didn't take long to get above the tree line. We were still climbing through cloud, but you wouldn't know it by the feel. The thin air can't hold much moisture so the mist actually felt dry against the skin. The only real water above this altitude comes when it actually rains -- and then it pours. The entire path is criss-crossed with ditches dug specifically to route the runoff water around the footpath. Without them, the path would erode within a single rainy season.
My hip still hurt a bit, but it hadn't stiffened up so I hoped that as long as I kept the pack weight on my shoulders then it wouldn't get any worse. Those who know me know that I'm an endurance animal. I'm not a good at "sprints" but if I set an easy, steady pace, I can keep it up forever. Polé polé. Taking it slowly also means only doing aerobic exercise so no sore muscles the next day. Andrew and Vibeke generally walked a bit faster than than I did, but would stop more often to rest. I ended up a fair bit ahead of them when Sera, our guide, caught up with me. It seems that Vibeke was having some trouble; she wasn't feeling well. We hoped it was just some altitude sickness.
There are some things that seem to stay the same no matter where you go in the world. Young kids still play peek-a-boo with their fingers, adults are generally happy to help someone visiting from elsewhere, and smokers still leave cigarette butts in the middle of nature. You'd think that with all the difficulties associate with the thin air, people would manage to restrain themselves from some things. The truth of it, though, is that it really doesn't make much difference. Whether you make it to the top or not has little to do with how good of shape you're in, but only how fast your body can adapt to the changing atmosphere. Overweight smokers will make it to the top while super-fit joggers get sick.
The clouds rolled in more and more as I climbed until you couldn't see more than twenty meters ahead. I didn't really mind too much, though. I would occasionally get almost above the cloud cover and the heat of the equator sun beating down on me might as well have been an extra weight on my back. I caught up with Hans and we waited for Andrew and Vibeke to arrive so we could all eat some lunch. Vibeke was feeling a bit better after having left the contents of her stomach a little ways down the mountain.
There wasn't a lot to see or take pictures of because of the cloud cover, but the flora by the side of the path was pretty impressive on its own. There were tall flowers growing out of the ground, lichens growing on rocks, and some kind of fern that was big enough and tall enough to be a small palm tree.
After over six hours of slow, steady plodding, of breathing in with the left foot and out with the right foot, I finally rounded a bend in the path and saw Horombo hut for the first time. Because of it's placement, there is no view of it until the very end of the path so I was never sure how much further of a trek it was. The relief I felt at having reached the end of the day's journey was so profound that I just sat down on a rock and enjoyed the view for a while.
After we had all arrived and settled in to our cabins, we moseyed on down to the mess hut to see what was for dinner. Vibeke had elected to stay in the cabin and rest, and was being seen by a doctor. There was actually a (rather attractive :-) medical student up here studying the causes and effects of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), often referred to as simply "altitude sickness". Everybody in the cabin got roped in to participating in the research but me since I had left for the mess hut before she arrived.
Though Vibeke was not with us as we started to eat, we still had four. Our extra guest scampered around the floor looking for any small morsels that people may drop. My shoulders were just aching from the hike so as we ate our carrot soup and spaghetti I would stop every few minutes to stretch them out. I couldn't believe that after only five minutes they would stiffen up to the point where each stretch would send waves of pain along my neck and back. I drank very little at dinner (so as to avoid a repeat of the seven trips the night before) but we all stuffed as much food in to our faces as we could handle.
Robert Jordan wrote a small passage in his book Eye of the World (from the Wheel of Time series) that basically became our motto for eating on this trip. The scene involves one of the main characters, a young man by the name of Rand observing Lan, an experienced warrior, while eating. They have just learned something that took away Rand's appetite and he looks over at Lan who continues eating, not with gusto, but "like a man stoking a fire." At every meal, regardless of how hungry we were, we forced ourselves to stoke our fires.
The three trips I made in the middle of the night weren't all that bad, over all. They forced me outside where I could see the sky. With no artificial light for maybe 100km and the thin air, the stars were beautiful. The sky was almost more white than black and you could see the Milky Way quite clearly as a streak of stars right across the center of the sky. I tried to take some pictures, but the thirty second exposure was not long enough to actually get anything decent on film.
One of the odd things that I found about the night sky was not the different constellations, but rather how the stars move over time. Here in the north (and in the south, too), the stars rotate in a circle around a point. At the equator, though, the stars rotate from east to west like being inside a big drum. The Milky Way was directly over head when I went to bed and by midnight it had drifted to the horizon and a different set of stars was up above.
August 29: (Day 12)
I awoke the next morning to the sounds of birds chirping and the first light of dawn visible through the window of the hut. It was tough to drag myself out of bed but it was worth it for the pictures I got. I remember standing at the edge of the slope and watching the sun rise over the side of the mountain. The warm sunshine made a sharp contrast with the cold air. All in all, it was a remarkably relaxing and peaceful time.
We had arranged our trip with an extra day at Horombo hut so as to better acclimatize to the altitude before the last part of the climb. The best way to help the body adjust to the thinner air is to climb up to a higher altitude and then sleep at the lower altitude. As such, our day off involved climbing up to "Zebra Rock" which is an additional 400 meters higher and about half of the way to Kibo Hut where we would walk the next day.
One of the odd features about this area of the mountain was the sudden changes of vegetation. It was mostly light, rather sparse grass but running down the mountain in streaks were areas of a denser grass with fern trees. Curious of what caused this, we investigated and found that the denser grass was almost marsh land, places where the water ran off from further up the mountain.
Zebra Rock is a low cliff face that has been stained over the years by percolating surface waters. What I found to be the most interesting was that the rock seemed to have numerous shapes of faces in both the shape of the rock and its coloring. After a brief rest atop a nearby boulder, from which it was possible to see the next day's destination, it was time to turn around and go back to camp for a lunch of chicken soup, eggs, chips, and pancakes. Stoke, stoke...
The remainder of the day was spent simply relaxing. I read for a while, layed around the camp, and sat on a rock just watching the movement of the people arriving from Mandara Hut. Vibeke had slept/rested most of the day and so was feeling much better, but everybody agreed that she would not have the energy reserves necessary to finish the climb. We had a dinner of Chinese rice, chicken, and vegies, after which we played a couple games of euchre with Dave, a chiropractor from Sussex and a fellow climber. I tried to take a few more star photos, but they suffered the same fate as the previous night. Three more trips to the bathroom ensured that at least I have memories of the stars if not any pictures.
August 30: (Day 13)
After stuffing down as much breakfast as we could eat, we got our things together for the hike up to Kibo (pronounced "Kee-Bo") hut. To reduce the amount of weight we were carrying, Andrew and I put the stuff we would need in to his pack and then took turns carrying it. The trail to Kibo is just a long, steady incline.
The entire terrain slowly disappears over the course of the day. In the morning there is scrub brush and small birds around, but by afternoon everything has turned to arctic desert. We passed the last water about two hours into the day and filled up our bottles. The water at this point was probably perfectly safe to drink, but we never took any chances; it just wasn't worth the risk after having come so far without any real problems.
Vibeke was feeling much better that day and so walked with us most of the way. Though she didn't have the energy reserves that would have been required to make it to the very top, she still wanted to do as much of the climb as possible. Our guide, Sera, went back to Horombo hut with her while the assistant guide continued with us.
Upon arrival we found people sunning themselves on the rocks and pitching tents for the night; they had apparently come up via a different route. We slept in a nice cold room that held twelve. It may have been warm in the sun, but it was cold everywhere else. After dropping our stuff off, Andrew and I walked up a bit further just to acclimatize as much as possible. We both had minor headaches from the altitude and hoped it wouldn't cause us too much difficulty the next day.
Kibo was a funny place, really. There is no water but what you (or your porters) bring up from Horombo, but you can still buy a Coke or a beer. The toilets are cement pads with holes that drop down over a cliff. Luckily(?), after having cleaned my system out so thoroughly the day before we started the climb, I had yet to enjoy those particular mountain comforts.
Film! Oh, no... All my film was still tucked away safely in my pack which we had left back at Horombo hut! I had to borrow a roll for use the next day, so the nice high-quality roll of Kodak Royal Gold 200 film I had brought just for this day got substituted with a roll of no-name film I managed to borrow from someone else. Oh well... At least I managed to get some pictures.
An interesting fact about oxygen deprivation... At the altitude of Kibo (about 5000m ASL), your body spends energy faster than it can absorb it from what you eat. We had a light dinner and went to bed around 8pm for a few hours rest interrupted by only a single pit-stop.
August 31: (Day 14 -- barely)
The alarm woke us at 11:30pm and we started to collect our things. We put on all the warm clothes we'd brought, including long-johns, cotton pants/shirt, two pairs of wool socks, sweater, jacket, neck warmer, and touque. At about 12:30am we departed. I carried nothing but my walking stick (a ski pole), a small bottle of water, and my camera.
There was no moon that night, so we could see nothing of the trek we were undertaking. These pictures are from the brief excursion up the mountain we had taken the night before. We set a pretty good pace at the start, but after about 30 minutes I was ready to fall asleep. I wasn't physically tired; I just wanted to lay down and take a nap. I must have spent 50% of the next two hours following our guide by sound because I couldn't keep my eyes open.
Andrew had told me about canoeing trips he had gone on and some of the difficult portages he had done. His advice for dealing with such an uncomfortable and difficult hike was to just forget about the destination. Instead, you get in to the rhythm of the walk with an attitude of "This is all there is; this is all there will ever be." That's very difficult to do, but I tried. The slope was quite steep and covered with loose sand and gravel that would sometimes cause you to slip backwards half of each step you took. But as we wound our way slowly up the mountain, I never looked at my watch and I never asked how much further. I just plodded along, one foot after the other.
We stopped at several places during the climb, one being a small cave in the side of the mountain. As I sat their desperately trying not to think that "we must be 1/3 of the way there by now", Hans sat down beside me and cheerfully announced that we'd come 1/5 of the distance! "I don't want to know," I told him, trying to hide the pain I was feeling at that little revelation.
As the climb continued, my resolve began to waver. Reasons to turn back would float across the void I was trying to keep in my mind. I could pretend to twist an ankle. I could say that my hip had started to hurt again. I could feign altitude sickness. I could... say many things. And nobody would know that I wasn't telling the truth. Except me, of course.
I am extremely grateful for having Andrew with me on that trek. He climbed a little faster than I did, but when he got more than ten meters ahead, he'd stop and wait for me to catch up. He never said anything but by not getting too far ahead and waiting there with his silent encouragement, he helped me keep my resolve. I think I would have made it even had I been alone because, despite the array of convenient excuses, I never really thought seriously about stopping. There is no doubt, though, that his presence made it much easier for me.
Finally, I couldn't stand it any more. I absolutely needed to know how much further it was to the top. I was figuring we were at least 2/3 of the way. I also knew that if they told me we weren't even 1/2 way yet, that I would never make it to the summit. Luckily for me, we were about 90% there! The last part of the trip was mostly climbing over rocks instead of plowing through loose gravel, which was more physically strenuous but easier to deal with emotionally.
After five hours and thirty minutes of climbing (minus the occasional rest), I stepped around a boulder to see as sign marking "Gilman's Point". My knees went weak and I almost broke down and cried. I put my hand on the painted board and croaked an "I made it!". The euphoria of the moment was almost overwhelming. I sat down on a rock and looked out to the horizon where the first light of the sun was just becoming visible. Amazingly enough, we were one of the first groups to make it to Gilman's. We could see scattered lines of flashlights still winding up the slope beneath us.
Looking back, it was probably for the best that the night had been so dark... They tell you that you do this climb at night so that you can get to the top in time to see the sun rise from the summit. Horse Hockey! You do this part of the climb at night because if you went during the day when you could see what was ahead, you would look up and say to yourself, "I can't do this!" Considering the mental struggle I had throughout the hike as it was, I can easily understand how such a thought would decide the outcome of the climb before it even started.
Gilman's Point is not the highest point of Kilimanjaro. It is another ninety minute walk along the edge of the crater to cover the last 100 vertical meters to Uhuru peak. Andrew started off right away but I decided to stay here to watch the sun rise. Others arrived and we all congratulated each other while the sky grew brighter and brighter. As with the other days, there was a solid blanket of clouds surrounding the base of the mountain so we couldn't see the Serengeti or any of the surrounding cities. Still, we could see the orange ball of the sun as it rose above the horizon of the land but had not yet risen above the cloud cover.
Even with the clouds blocking a view of the Serengeti, the view was spectacular. We could see Kibo hut below us and Horombo hut waaaay off in the distance. Kilimanjaro's other peak (the other end of "the saddle") seemed almost to be piercing the otherwise flat landscape surrounding the main crater. Most of the people had stopped on the slope to watch the sun rise but were now continuing the hike upwards.
When the sun had fully cleared the top of the clouds and we had taken all the pictures we wanted, I started off on the path to Uhuru peak. It wasn't long before I caught up with Hans who, though having had a much easier time of the hike for all the days before this and even the first half of this day, was now having to stop frequently to rest. Altitude affects everyone sooner or later. Even the guides aren't completely immune; we came across one who was bent over double in pain and throwing up everything he'd eaten in the last week. A couple other guides came to carry him back down.
This part of the trip was really a pretty easy walk. Because of the thin air, we moved very slowly, but the ground was solid and the hills weren't too steep. I didn't have any thoughts about turning back now. I got to the top to find Andrew resting against a rock and enjoying the sun. I walked over to the sign marking the peak and stood on the highest point. Just for fun, I jumped up in the air. I'm not sure why that extra 30cm of altitude seemed a good idea. Perhaps I was afraid that one of the other stones was a few centimeters bigger. <grin>
There was a book for us to sign and we took a few pictures. Then, suddenly, it was no longer an adventure of getting to the highest point in Africa. It was history. We had done it. There was nowhere left to go but down. The true measure of success, of course, is making sure that you get to the bottom in the same health as when you started, but having reached a point where we simply couldn't push ourselves any further, there was little danger of not meeting that goal as well. By 9:30 in the morning, it was time to turn back.
It was easier to appreciate the surrounding landscape as we descended. The beautiful glaciers off to the side weren't all that appealing while concentrating on every step upwards, but going down affords time to look around and enjoy the scenery. Vegetation was sparse of course, but the rock surrounding the crater is magnificent and stands in stark contrast with the smooth plateau of volcanic ash at the bottom. There was no snow on any of the ground we actually hiked over.
It was also quite amusing to meet people coming the other way, almost at their goal. One woman actually said "Bless you!" to Andrew when he informed her that the peak was "just up this hill, and then a nice level walk for another 10 minutes." We all understood her sentiment.
Going back down the mountain was an experience. Instead of walking, we almost skied down; with every step we would slide about a meter or so in the gravel. It went so fast that we'd made it to the bottom by around 11:00am. I stopped at one point near the bottom to take the photo on the right, but I'm not sure how to describe it here. When I give the picture on the right to someone, I tell them to hold it up in front of their face as closely as they can but still able to focus easily. This picture was taken using a "normal" lens, so the perspective is the same as what the eye would see. Now, keeping the picture in front of your eyes... tilt your head back 45 degrees. That's right, 45 degrees! As I said before, it was just as well I couldn't see from the base what we were about to attempt.
We ate a light lunch at Kibo hut but didn't stop to sleep. Of the twelve people in the room, only one woman did not make it to the top. She had succumbed to altitude sickness at the cave (which was actually closer to 1/2 way, not 1/5) and had had to turn back. We packed up our stuff and walked back down to Horombo hut, which took us about another 2.5 hours and didn't feel nearly as tiring as it had the day before. Was it really only 24 hours since we'd walked this path the other direction? It felt more like a week had passed! Vibeke met us about an hour from Horombo and we told of our adventure until we arrived.
We sat around talking, ate some dinner, and played three games of Euchre with Dave (who had also made it all the way to the top with no problems) before calling it a night. But what a night it was! That night was by far the coldest of any night we had been on the mountain. Even the running water froze. The light sleeping bags we had been given by the company were simply not enough even with a silk liner, long-johns, and a sweater on. Luckily, (three cheers for this...) I didn't have to get up even once in the night!
September 1: (Day 15)
Getting out of bed was very difficult in the morning. The sun was appearing over the horizon but it would be a little while before it managed to thaw out the frozen camp. The ground was frozen, the pipes were frozen, and most of the people were frozen, too. We ate breakfast, packed up, and prepared to leave at around 8am. We got together with our entire crew (porters, guides, and cook) for a victory photo and then started down the path.
We hadn't gone very far when a group of guides and a stretcher caught up with us. Someone had pushed themselves too far and had gotten seriously ill. Over the previous twelve months, seven people had died from altitude sickness while climbing Kilimanjaro. Statistically, it is young men who have the most problem, but my friends and I all agreed that this was probably because that group is the most likely to ignore the warnings their bodies are giving and keep climbing until it simply gives out on them.
As we were approaching Mandara hut, we decided to take a short detour up to the crater we didn't bother to go to before because it was fogged in. After all the walking down hill, going back up again was a bit of a shock, but the extra oxygen at the lower level meant we didn't run out of breath nearly as quickly. The clouds were partially obscuring the peak, but we could just make out the slope we had climbed.
We stopped briefly at Mandara hut to have some lunch and then headed back down in to the rainforest for the last leg of our hike. The ground wasn't as muddy as when we had come up but there were still some pretty bad parts and one place where a section of the trail had been closed. Another stretcher came down behind us and it was somewhat amusing to watch them try to control it through the slippery ground. These stretchers actually have a wheel with some pretty big springs on it to allow most of the weight to be taken by simply rolling it along the path. The people at the corners then lift when it has to go over a rough spot or a drainage ditch.
The path we took down was actually a bit different from how we came up. We spent less time on the road and instead walked down alongside a small stream for a while. It was nice to be back amongst the deep greens again; I hadn't realized until I returned how much I had missed the rich colors of abundant life while I had been in the drab landscape of the higher altitudes.
While walking along the road for the last part of the journey, I found that I had not fully prepared my feet for this adventure. Before going to Africa, I had worn my hiking boots constantly for the previous six weeks. I had worn them to work and I had worn them when I went hiking in the Gateneaus. I thought my feet were pretty accustomed to them, but I was wrong. There was one thing that I had never thought about practicing... walking downhill. I had had no problems during the trip upwards, but walking back down was creating some good-sized blisters on the heels of my feet. I had also missed with the sun-screen the area of my neck exposed to the sun by the "V" of my shirt. Oh well... Not much to do about either of those things now.
We knew we were near the bottom when the children appeared and sang us a song about Kilimanjaro. It was short, cute, and followed instantly by requests for "just one dollar", although it seems a pen would have been an acceptable substitute. And then we were at the bottom.
Once at the bottom, we stopped for a few pictures, a few souvenirs, and to get our official "I did it" certificates stating that we had reached Uhuru peak, the highest point in Africa. We returned the few pieces of equipment we had rented, got in the Land Rover that had been sent for us, and rode back to Moshi. It was a pretty quiet ride back; I don't think anybody had much energy to spare on conversation. Upon reaching the YMCA, I almost had to stay in the truck. My body simply didn't want to move any more.
Shower!!! A nice, hot, long, running-water shower... With lots of soap and running warm water... Did I mention warm water? I can't wait! I've cleaned nothing but my face and hands for the last week. After grabbing a quick "before" picture, I was off to the bathroom for that nice, long shower with running... Damn. No hot water. <sigh> I had teased Patricia (the med student) about being in a warm shower by the end of the day while she was stuck up there with the frozen pipes, but perhaps she got the last laugh after all. Oh well... Let's try that again... Shower!!! A nice, ...um... long, running-water shower! At least the cold water wasn't all that cold. It was still marvelous and I actually felt half-alive by the time I finished getting cleaned up.
We sat and read/talked for a couple hours, and I made a call back to the office (as I promised I would from time to time) to see if there was anything they needed to know from me (there wasn't). There was no way we were going to stomach the food of the Y so we took a cab to a restaraunt recommended by someone we had met on the mountain. By 9pm we were all in bed.
September 2: (Day 16)
I was awoken rather rudely by some loud horns blaring out in the street next to the YMCA. It was definitely noiser here than up on the mountain. I read for a while and then got up around 9am for a shower (there is hot water in the mornings) and some breakfast. We all took our laundry down to the front desk to get it done and went to see what kind of state Pee Wee was in.
It wasn't good -- the starter motor wouldn't even turn. It didn't take us long to discover that the source of the problem was that the battery was completely dry; it had developed a crack and all the acid had leaked out. We took it to a battery repair shop (in Africa, they fix everything; new is just too expensive) recommended by the owner of the tour company to be repaired and refilled. One of them came back a bit later with the sealed/charged battery and installed it. After that, Pee Wee started right up.
That would have been that, had the mechanic not then decided to re-seat the battery without bothering to disconnect it first. The positive terminal of the battery touched one of the brake lines (which is tied through the vehicle body to the negative terminal) and melted a hole in the tubing. Pressing on the brake pedal would cause a stream of oil to squirt from the damaged area. This is bad. This is very bad.
Several hours later, they had brazed over the hole and recalibrated all the brakes. A quick test, though, showed that Pee Wee wasn't stopping all that quickly. Andrew couldn't even lock the wheels on the semi-loose gravel of the parking lot. So they took the truck away to the garage (Andrew went with them, of course -- otherwise loose parts have a habit of disappearing or being replaced with cheaper ones) to fix it. I stayed and went for swim and another shower. When they returned after fully readjusting the brakes and installing a new master cylinder kit, the brakes were finally "strong". As an added bonus, the guy had bypassed the current-limiting resistor on the ignition coil and now Pee Wee would start on its own. The secondary starter motor (meaning me, of course) was off the hook.
We went to a BBQ place for dinner and were once again in bed by 9pm. Pretty sad, I know.
September 3: (Day 17)
It was about 10am before we finally were able to pick up our laundry and head off towards Dar es Salaam. It was to be a long drive that day and starting so late did not bode well for being able to make it the entire distance. As it turned out, we needn't have worried...
We had traveled about an hour when Vibeke first noticed the smell. Something was burning. Something... asbestos. I put my hand to the lug nuts on the front wheel and quickly removed by now-burned fingers. Those bolts felt like they should have been glowing red. You see, the helpful mechanics in Moshi had finally managed to get the brakes to work so well by simply having them on all the time! Out came the repair manual.
I now know the basics about fixing brakes. Drum brakes have a little wheel that can be used adjust the tightness of the brake shoes against the outside drum. These are normally adjusted until they just start to rub and then backed off a few notches. These adjustments can even be made while the wheel is still on... if you know which way to turn them. The book neglected to mention that little part. As a result, we had to remove three of the four wheels to figure it out (font and back are slightly different and left to right could have been the same or mirrored). Of course, removing a brake drum when the shoes are seized against the inside of it can be quite a challenge. It took the better part of a half-hour to slowly pry the first wheel off. We loosened the brakes according to the instructions in the manual and then found that now the brakes almost didn't work at all. So we compromised... They rubbed a little and we could stop a little.
We stopped at the next big gas station we found and had the mechanic there take another look at the brakes. He worked on them for a couple hours and when he was done, they were somewhat better. They didn't rub much and we could stop reasonably well; Andrew only had to pump the pedal three times to get the wheels to lock. Before you get thinking how dangerous this is, remember that this vehicle was probably still one of the safest on those roads.
Speaking of safe vehicles, there are numerous trucks and busses in the area that are incapable of driving in a straight line. We called them "crab cars" because they appear to be moving down the road sideways; you can seed both the front and one side as they move towards you.
We stopped that night while it was still light out and found a place to stay at the local Lutheran Mission. Now that there was no hurry, we carefully put rocks around all four tires and once again took off the wheels. This time we made diagrams that clearly showed exactly what actions to take to tighten/loosen the brakes. By the time we were done, the brakes were set so they didn't rub any appreciable amount and yet still stopped about as well as they had before. We cleaned up, ate, and went to bed.
September 4: (Day 18)
Almost all of the places we stayed had a shower of some sort, mostly like this one where the shower head just hangs over a drain in the bathroom floor. Unfortunately, the shower in this place didn't work. Instead, I had to just wet the soap, lather up, and then pour cold water over myself to rinse off. What a wonderfully invigorating way to wake up in the morning!
We ate a small breakfast (eggs, of course) and headed out about 7am. We stopped once after an hour an let the left-front brake out one notch, but other than that they were all running pretty well. We made it to Dar es Salaam without incident. Dar is a city; a real city. It actually has multi-lane divided roads, high-rise buildings, and the general bustle of life with 1.5 million people. It was nice to be in a big vehicle; the general rule in Africa is that if it is bigger than you, then it has the right of way. We settled in to the local YMCA and walked out to explore.
After wandering around for a while, we stopped at a fast-food place to get something to eat. This turned out to be a priceless experience: I had a chicken burger, but Andrew opted for the "fish 'n chips". When the waitress delivered our meals to our table, all of us just stared for a minute, then I almost fell out of my chair I laughed so hard. You get used to certain things and don't even consider that people with different backgrounds may not think the same way that you do. Apparently, his meal was quite good but I was just as happy to have ordered something else.
The rest of the night was pretty quiet. We stopped at an Internet Cafe for a short while, went back to our rooms, read for a while, and went to sleep.
September 5: (Day 19)
The next morning all of us went our separate ways to run some errands. My goal was to get some money as I had run out. This turned out to be an amazingly difficult thing to do. None of the four banks I tried would actually transfer money from an overseas bank. In the end, I settled for a cash advanced against my visa card.
Andrew decided he was going to stay in Dar es Salaam for a day to get himself a new passport (the old one had gone through the washing machine) at the Canadian embassy and to try to find a mechanic who could actually fix Pee Wee's brakes instead of just incrementally improving them. Vibeke and I went ahead since there was really nothing we could do anyway. We caught the noon ferry to Zanzibar Island and hoped Andrew would be able to catch the one the next day.
The trip on the ferry was pretty rough at the start and I could feel my stomach getting decidedly disagreeable. I walked out to the bow and sat there for a while talking with a couple German geography students that had just finished a tour of one of the game reserves and were now going to relax in Zanzibar. The ferry ride was some six hours long but I ended up falling asleep while sitting on the stairs to the bow for most of it. I had a nice tan on one side of my face for my effort.
Since we were seated right at the front of the ferry and loading/unloading takes place from the back, we just sat and waited for everyone else to clear out before getting up. It was while we were waiting that we got our first taste of what was to come. Before we even got off the boat, no less than six people asked if we needed a guide to our hotel. We had arranged where we would stay with Andrew so he would be able to find us and so we refused all the offers.
It wasn't until we had gone through immigration and headed towards the entrance arch that things really got bad. Carrying a couple bags, we might as well have painted bullseyes on our faces with a sign saying "tourist (read: sucker) here". Cabs started at 1000 TSh (Tanzanian Shillings) to go anywhere and had dropped to 500 by the time we reached the arch. Then the "guides" started. They just kept coming up to us, asking if we needed someone to take us to our hotel. "No charge!" they would say. "I help you for free!" I was very polite (my first mistake, I think) in saying no, when what I really wanted to say was something like, "Look... I know I just got off the boat but I'm not stupid. You're not out here trying to help me for your health." The deal, of course, is that they get a commission from the hotel if they bring you, a commission you can usually negotiate off of the cost if you arrive on your own.
Then it got bad. Three of them were following us. I told them we didn't need their help and to please go away. They wouldn't. We ducked in to a hotel we had wandered up by chance. They waited outside. We went in to the bar to get something to drink. They followed us! Finally, we gave in. "Fine. Take us to this place." Things didn't get better.
Why it took all three of them to guide us, I wasn't sure, but when they turned down a small alley I began to get worried. I pulled my pocket knife in to my free hand. I wouldn't think of using it as a knife, but it would make my hand much more solid if I actually had to use it. We turned down a smaller alley. All three of them were still with us and my confidence level was dropping rapidly. We turned in to an even narrower alley and I could see some pile of gravel in a small courtyard between the buildings. "This is it," I thought. "This is where we're going to get mugged." We entered the courtyard and they pointed, "There it is." Whew!
That place was full so we let them take us to our second choice. I wasn't so worried now and we got to the next place quickly where we checked in. I'm not sure if they got their commission or not, but I assume so. They then tried to sell us tours to one of a dozen attractions on Zanzibar. I politely told them to go to hell and we went up to our rooms. They had air conditioners!!! Oh yeah... Perhaps this place would turn out all right!
By the time we got cleaned up, it was already dark. We walked across the street to a restaurant and had some delicious garlic prawns (I do like towns by the ocean). As we were leaving, we came across a TV in the lobby and sat down to watch the last 30 minutes of Enemy of the State before going back to our room.
September 6: (Day 20)
Breakfast was served at a rooftop restaurant and consisted of, you guessed it, eggs and toast. We walked down by the waterfront and around one of the many outdoor markets. I bought a number of souvenirs and then had to go back to the hotel to drop them off so I wouldn't have to carry it around for the rest of the day. Everything you buy at a market like this is bargained for. They ask for an outrageous price since you're obviously not a local and thus don't really know the actual value. I'd offer about 1/4 of that and try to settle at about 1/2.
The old part of Zanzibar is referred to as "Stone Town". The buildings are all old and made of stone (like you would have guessed something else, I'm sure) with narrow winding cobblestone streets between them. Unless you have an excellent sense of direction, which I don't, it's easy to get lost in there. The streets are mostly lined on both sides with stores and shops, and just as many individuals selling things outside. What got me the most was the mix of old and new. There would be an old building with an ornate handmade wooden door and an Internet Cafe inside.
I then paid an outrageous amount of money (for Zanzibar, anyway) for a fresh
pineapple. We went back to the room and wolfed it down before going down to
the port to see if Andrew made the day's ferry. There was no sight of him,
but we could see schools of fish right off of the pier. Okay, perhaps the
fish weren't quite the same thing. Instead of taking Andrew around, we got lost
in Stone Town for a couple more hours, relaxed for a while, and then went for
a nice dinner at a French Seafood Restaurant at the Old Dispensary.
September 7: (Day 21)
We passed the next day with more aimless wandering around Stone Town and along the beach. Some movement caught my eye as we climbed over the rocks on the beach and we found quite a number of very small crabs hiding in the crevices. To the left is a picture of one (right in the center of the photo) but it can be difficult to see.
Andrew arrived on the ferry that evening, so we took him through immigration and then fended off all the potential guides (including the same three as before) as we took him to the hotel. It was a hot day and we were all thankful for the air conditioners in the rooms. We rested for a while and then went to watch the sunset over a drink at that French seafood restaurant.
For dinner we went off to the old fort to see an African dance show. The walk was full of the usual "helpful" people offering to show us to restaurants, to arrange a tour for us, etc., etc. By this point I had pretty much learned how to deal with them. "Hallo, Brother!" they would say. "No." I would reply. Answering with anything else just seemed to encourage them. One guy we encountered on this night just would not go away. "No. No. No. No." He actually admitted that he was just going to accompany us so he could claim commission at bringing us there! When we finally arrived, I told the woman behind the desk that "he did not bring us here." Her knowing nod told all.
Dinner consisted of a BBQ buffet of African food with a dance show put on in the courtyard of the old fort. The dinner/show was three hours in total and quite enjoyable. They demonstrated several different types of dance over the course of the evening, and at one point they started pulling people up from the audience so Andrew and I joined the group. It was almost like "tag"; one person would dance solo for a short while then pull someone else in to the center while they went back to the outer circle.
September 8: (Day 22)
Zanzibar has long been known for the spices it grows. We spent this day taking a tour of some of the various plantations in the surrounding area. I can't even begin to remember most of them any more, but a couple of them were memorable. Did you know that five different kinds of pepper come from a pepper tree: Black, white, red, green, and one other that I can't remember, depending on how long it stays on the tree and how you prepare it. Did you know that bananas grow upwards? Did you know that a pineapple grows up from the very top of the plant? Did you know you can wash your hands with soapberries?
Of course the most important thing we saw was from the cocoa tree! I mean, spices are all very well and nice, but this world wouldn't be nearly as pleasant of a place without chocolate. Samples of everything we saw was passed around in its raw form for us to try so by the end of the day our mouths had gone through quite the experience.
They took us to a small shop were people could buy some of the processed spices and then for a nice lunch of curried chicken and rice. Don't worry... The goat was still there when we left. After lunch we toured a Turkish bath, a palm-tree forest, and a natural cave with with a small underground stream. We finished the day with an hour on one of the nearby beaches.
One of the biggest concerns people have about visiting Africa is the danger of political unrest. Tanzania is not the turbulent place that Rwanda and Uganda are but it did have an upcoming election. The demonstrations were all peaceful and the long line of vehicles in the rally we passed coming back to Zanzibar Town didn't give us any trouble, but it is a bit unnerving knowing that you're a stranger and an obvious target of many people. One thing I found interesting... The two political groups had defined themselves with color, presumably because of the large amount of illiteracy in the region. I started referring to one as the "green party" and the other as the "blue party".
We had dinner at a nice Italian restaurant (I ordered king fish with almond sauce) and then went to a little ice cream place we had seen for dessert. The store had just been opened two weeks previous by an Italian couple and the gelato was amazing! We all ordered a bowl of three scoops but at Andrew's insistence I actually had a second bowl after the first. I really didn't want to. Honest! He made me eat it!
September 9: (Day 23)
We took up a bus north to the "White Sands" beach and then a boat up to a small resort near the tip of the island where we stayed in a grass thatch hut right on the sand itself. It was somewhat cramped with three people in it but seemed the only proper place to stay. I found it quite comfortable, though the others were a bit cold during the night. I guess being so long away from home has thinned Andrew's blood.
The beaches of Zanzibar are really amazing! The sand is almost white and very soft underfoot, almost like talc. There is lots of sun, lots of water, and lots of women in small bathing suits. We spent most of the day just lying on the sand resting, reading, and generally enjoying the scenery. Andrew and Vibeke had wandered off somewhere, so I spent a lot of this time alone.
There were a few people renting out snorkeling equipment at various places along the beach, so while Andrew and Vibeke played cards at the bar, I went exploring in the ocean. Perhaps my memories of the Pacific Ocean have faded with time, but I don't remember it being nearly as salty as the Indian Ocean was. It was kinda neat to be able to simply float on top of the water without any effort.
Knowing nothing about diving, snorkeling, or the ocean, as well as being all alone, I didn't venture very far from the shore. What I found astounded me. Small shellfish were everywhere, scurrying along the sand under the water. If I picked one up, it would retreat to the safety of its shell and peer out at me until I put it back down. There were small forests of sea porcupines and schools of little fish that might have been the same kind that dressed Andrew's dinner plate a few days before. They would swim away from me at first but then come to investigate, swimming around and nudging at my hand when I floated it towards them.
And then there were the noises. Everybody knows that water carries sound exceedingly well, but it also disguises the direction it comes from. There was something in the water that would, for lack of a better word, croak at me. Sometimes it was closer and sometimes further away, but I could never spot anything that seemed appropriate to make it. Being alone and knowing nothing, it was a little unnerving.
All in all, it was a great experience and when I left the water I couldn't help but feel very, very small. The saddest part was the fact that I was all alone. I couldn't help but keep thinking how nice it would be to share this with someone, to hold hands and kick slowly along the surface while watching the ocean life go along beneath us. Being the third wheel in the group just emphasized all this. <sad sigh> Maybe next time...
Of course Andrew and I couldn't resist one of the best parts of any beach... The volleyball game! All told, we must have spent a good 1/4 of our beach time on the court with the other tourists, and even some of the locals. We were blessed with a beautiful sunset, too, but I missed taking a picture of the best part (with the sun reflecting off the water) because I was too busy on the court. Also, I had no one to share it with...
September 10: (Day 24)
It wasn't long after sunrise that I dragged myself out of bed and down to the beach. Rain does interesting things to the ocean. The fresh water is less dense than the salt water and so floats on top until it finally mixes. The result is beautiful blue water instead of the usual green ocean. After breakfast (eggs, what else?) we laid on the beach, read, and suntanned. It was nice to be able to sit and just relax for a while. All this vacation was starting to wear me down. <grin>
Around noon, we caught the bus back to Zanzibar Town and spent the remainder of the afternoon doing more wandering around Stone Town, admiring the architecture, buying more souvenirs, being pestered by kids to have their picture taken, and eating more gelato.
For dinner, we went to the Emmerson & Green hotel. We had actually tried to book a room there for just one night (at $US100/night, we couldn't stay there for more than that) but it was full. As it was, when we made dinner reservations on the 6th, we got the last spot open for the week. The hotel only has ten rooms, but each of them is a complete suite with carved soapstone bathroom fixtures and a separate bedroom with a nice large bed.
Dinner was served sitting on a low bench and consisted of a delicious four course meal with a live band and a dancer. It was expensive but well worth it. We also had a spectacular view of the city as the sun went down.
We caught the overnight ferry back to Dar es Salaam. Since the ports close at 10pm and open at 6am, and it is only a six hour trip, the ferry actually anchors for two hours out on the water. I went out to the bow again and ended up talking with a young woman named Mica, one of the German geography students on their way back. She and I actually talked for well over an hour all alone on the bow before she decided it was time to go back in and get some sleep. I chose to stay outside a bit longer and was still watching all the fish in the water when she returned a few minutes later. It seemed we had been locked out. We pulled up a basket so we could sit down and resumed our conversation for about another hour until the captain woke up to get the boat back under way and could let us in to the main compartment. I was actually quite disappointed at this. After having spent considerable time over the past few days lamenting at being here alone, it was wonderful to enjoy the company and conversation of someone nice.
I went back in to the main cabin but instead of going to my seat, I took advantage of one of the matresses that the crew had been using for sleep. I think I was the only one of us three who actually got a good rest that night.
September 11: (Day 25)
Andrew had left Pee Wee at the YMCA after having spent the better part of two days trying to find a mechanic who could fix the brakes. The first guy had claimed that it simply couldn't be done, but Andrew had luckily not given up and the second guy fixed it right away. It seems that the mechanics in Moshi had not installed the new master cylinder kit correctly and so it was not moving enough brake fluid. Now that that had be rectified, they worked like they were supposed to.
We ran some errands and left Dar es Salaam at around 10:30am. At 1:30pm, I had the opportunity to witness my first bribe. Andrew got dinged for speeding (if you call 5km/h over the speed limit to be "speeding") and the officer asked for a 20,000 TSh "fine". No ticket. No paper trail. Just a fine. Now, 20,000 TSh is an outrageous amount of money in Tanzania. At an equivalent of $US25 it may not sound like all that much, it's important to remember that most of these people may make on the order of $US10 per month. We expressed our outrage (politely, of course) and in the end got fined only 10,000 TSh. It wasn't worth trying to argue any further. On the plus side, he did give us directions...
Livestock in Africa is generally free-range. Most of the villages we stayed at had chickens running around the back roads and we often saw goats and cows grazing at the side of the road. While were were stopped for gas that day, we saw a young goat bleating and apparently looking for its mother.
The game park we were heading to was way off the main highway, so we spent the next 5 hours bouncing along 120km of old dirt roads. Some of the terrain got pretty rough, but nothing Pee Wee couldn't handle. Not being too sure of the way and having not much gas to spare, we began to get worried when we couldn't find the place we were looking for. After it had gotten dark and we still hadn't reached our destination, we turned back to the last village we'd seen to ask for directions yet again. The local school master was kind enough to ride with us to the camp which turned out to be about five minutes past where we had finally decided to turn around. Oh well.
Rooms at that camp were extremely expensive ($US50/night or so) so we arranged for the safari truck to come and pick us up at the village the next morning and went back to find a room there. So for closer to $US2/night, we had rooms. Granted, they weren't the nicest rooms I've ever stayed in, but the cement toilet holes were clean and the cockroaches stayed on their side of the room, so it was acceptable. Hmmm... It seems my standards had changed a bit over the past three weeks.
September 12: (Day 26)
The shower in this hotel consisted of a bucket of water and small, square room with five foot walls. It doesn't sound all that pleasing, but it was actually quite nice to stand out under the open sky and watch the sun rinsing off in the distance as I washed. It's not exactly the kind of experience I get in by bathroom at home.
We had breakfast (still more eggs) and then got in the truck that had come to pick us up. It was a small Toyota 4x4 with a canopy over the back bed, which was where Andrew and I sat while the guide rode in the main cab. Vibeke had elected not to come along and so it turned out that we were the only two going on that day's trip. I put my 300mm portable telephoto lens on to my camera and prepared to capture the day. It promised to be a pretty good tour because we had come across some giraffes, some monkeys, and even a couple elephants eating right beside the road before we even made it to the park entrance!
After signing in and picking up a park ranger with a rifle, we entered the main gate and drove off cross-country. There was actually a semblence of a dirt track but we didn't always stick to it. The terrain was mostly closely cropped grass, cut that way by all the animals eating it. All told, we saw over a dozen different types of animals, not including birds.
A number of impala and zebra were grazing in a field just inside the park entrance, but as we pulled off the trail and headed overland towards them, they ran off. Unlike most game parks in Africa, the Selous Game Reserve is too far from the main road to attact many tourists. Thus, the animals are unused to having vehicles and are scared of them. In other parks they will ignore you even if you drive up almost beside them, but there so few visitors here (we didn't see another person all day) that the animals are very skittish. So no, I don't have a "butt fetish" (at least, no more than any other healthy male :-)... It's just that my photo subjects kept running away.
We came across a tower (yes, I looked it up) of giraffes almost right away. They would turn to watch us approach but as soon as we got anywhere close they would start to run away. Watching a giraffe run is one of the most amusing sights. Because of their long legs, their stride is rather slow and so it appears that they are actually running in slow-motion. When you see it on TV, you don't think much about it since you're so used to seeing special effects. In real life, however, it seems just that much more strange.
Andrew and I were talking about the perfect regularness of a certain type of tree we kept seeing. For whatever reason, the trunk always splits in to two equal branches and each branch also always splits in two. Even stranger, the next split always happens on both sides about the same distance from the last. We didn't find out the real name for it, so we just dubbed it the "binary tree". Okay, I know... That's bad. Now quit your groaning, will ya? <laugh>
We finally got close enough to a bevy of impala (okay, a "bevy" is actually a group of deer, but it's the closest I could find) to get some good pictures. They would watch us carefully as we approached and then as soon as one would start to run, they would all go. The males all have the twisting antlers which, if you think about it, is rather difficult. Making horns that curl just involves one side of it growing slightly faster than the other, but a spiral would mean a twisting of the bone as it formed.
If you've ever seen the movie "The Lion King", then you should know that the Disney animators sure did their research. Every time we would catch sight of a warthog running across the fields, we were reminded of that movie because the movement matched so precisely. A warthog runs with what I can best describe as a giggling trot, almost as if it was prancing along the ground. Despite their method of movement and their small size, they can still cover a lot of ground in a very short time.
Herds of wildebeast (also known as gnus) appeared now and then as well. The term "wildebeest" (two e's) is actually Latin for "Wild Beast". They are known for their strange laugh which is actually a mating call. We didn't get to hear any of that though. When they weren't busy running from us, they seemed mostly concerned with keeping the lawn closely cropped.
The animals of Africa are not the only things to have adapted to those that would eat them. Some of the plants, too, have developed defenses. These two trees have evolved to provide some pretty serious discouragement to being used as lunch. The tree in the foreground has leaves that grow and harden in to two inch spikes that are sharp enough to draw blood if you were brush against one. The other tree has fern-like leaves with serrated edges. When those dry, they are about as effective as a saw blade. Every time the truck drove near either of this type of tree, Andrew and I would always pull towards the center of the bench.
That pile of rocks rising out of the middle of the lake... It's not a rock. It's a bloat. Both Andrew and I assumed it was a bit of land rising above the surface of a shallow lake; until we noticed that it was moving, that is. It is actually a bloat of hippopotamuses swimming (standing?) in the water. While they seem to be pretty docile animals they are actually quite mean, especially if you get between them and the safety of the water.
We had gotten out of the truck at this point and were stretching our legs while eating some lunch. While we were watching the hippos wade slowly through the water, some movement by the shore caught our eye. A crocodile had been resting there, probably waiting for a bird to land nearby. As it moved out in to the lake, nobody had to remind us to stay near the truck.
Not far from the lake, the truck stopped and the ranger pointed off to our right where a male lion was just wandering back in to the trees. Like excited kids, we tried to take a bunch of pictures but the truck started moving again almost immediately. If we had only known...
When the truck stopped again, we saw nothing but our guide pointed out a lone lioness resting on the ground not ten meters away. *snap* *click* "Whoa! Andrew! There's another right there!" We hadn't even seen the one only five meters away. Look, there's another back against the tree! Three in total... That guy had quite a harem here!
Not fifty meters away, we came across another lioness, but a quick look around found several more, including a male! He had apparently been in a fight in the recent past since he had an unhealed wound under his right eye. All in all, there were five females and one male here, and none of them even gave us a second glance; lions simply aren't afraid of anything. To them, we would have appeared to be a single, very large animal, something about the size of an elephant. As long as they weren't starving, they would leave us alone -- assuming we didn't get out of the truck and suddenly become several much more edible creatures.
While we were watching, one of the females got up to move around a bit and this seemed to annoy the male a bit. He flashed his teeth at her and then moved off to be with another. Oh yeah... I sure was glad to be in a vehicle. Mostly though, they seemed most interested in not exerting themselves in the heat.
One lioness had rolled over on her back and stretched out like a big kitten. It made you want to go up and rub her tummy, but we were strong and resisted that particular temptation. Having only three meters between me and them was about as close as I really wanted to be.
As we headed back past the first lions we saw, we were surprised to see that there were actually four lionesses in the shade. There had been one more we had missed completely. There was no sign of the male, though. He was apparently off doing his own thing. Not hunting, of course; in a pride it's the females that do the hunting. The males only join in if it's a difficult kill. Other than that they mostly sit around and tend to their harem. Not a bad life, I suppose. <grin>
A number of giraffes went running away from the truck and turned in front of us as we bounced along the ground on our way back to the entrance. The three frames in the picture to the left were taken 0.5 seconds apart as they galloped along. They really are amazing creatures to watch.
One other animal we came across briefly was the hyena. These scavengers are some of the most detested animals on the plains; they're known for both their ferocity and their cowardliness. If you're bigger than they are, they will leave you alone. If not, they'll hound you until you drop.
At one point we came across a number of very large bones that had been scattered across a field. Judging by the size, we figured it might have been an elephant and the bones spread by various creatures carrying them off for a meal. Unfortunately, we didn't see a skull anywhere.
And then it was time to go... The way back out of the park had one major annoyance: tetse flies. These are a type of biting fly that are known for carrying Diptera, or sleeping sickness. Happily enough, they seem to have preferred Andrew to me. Either that or they can't bite (poke, stab, whatever) through nylon, the fabric of my clothes. I suppose I should mention that Andrew did not find this as "happily" as I did. <grin>
When we finally got back to the village, we cleaned up and went across the road for a beer. Ahhhh... We had dinner of BBQ chicken, chips, and eggs. There was no electricity, so we went to bed where I read by flashlight for a while before going to sleep. All told, we had seen impala, giraffes, lions, elephants, water buffalos, hippos, antelope, zebras, warthogs, hyenas, baboons, wildebeasts, and a crocodile.
September 13: (Day 27)
We rose early, had another bucket-shower and a breakfast of... can you guess? We left about 7:30 and I read through most of the four hour trip before we reached the highway and got some lunch. Shortly after getting back to the main road, we again passed through Mikumi National Park. There was actually an semi-official greeter waiting on the edge of the road just inside the park boundary, along with some elephants on the right and a warthog on the left.
By 7pm we had reached Iringa without incident. The sun had set off to the side as we drove and it was after dark by the time we finally arrived. We booked rooms at the same hotel where we had stayed on our way out, went back to Lulu's, the Greek restaurant where we had eaten before, and had a nice meal and some chocolate milkshakes. And ice cream. :-)
One of the most humorous things I found about Africa was the presence of the Cola Wars. Everywhere you go, there are Coke sign, Coke fridges, and Coke stands. Coca-Cola is actually the one product you can buy anywhere in the world. You may have to pay a lot for it, but you can always get a Coke. In other places, you find stores blatantly advertising all the Pepsi equivalents. Leave it to North America to push the unimportant in places where it doesn't really matter.
The place we stayed at in Iringa was the same place where I first encountered some of the more typical African amenities. I now learned that the original rooms we had were intended for foreign tourists. The rooms we had now were much more typical of Africa, meaning that they had the hanging shower head instead of a tub, and the toilet consisted of a flush hole-in-the-ground. If I ever actually moved to Africa to live, I'd have to become much better at balancing in a squat position.
September 14: (Day 28)
The cleaning staff awoke us early in the morning. After a cold shower, we got something to eat (you guessed it) and started our journey back home. We were five minutes out of town, going down the side of the hill when the engine cut out. Oh goody. Not sure what to do, we coasted the rest of the way to the bottom, waited a few minutes, and tried again. It started and seemed to run just fine. We voted to continue on. What's the worst than could happen? Everything was under control.
Three hours later, the engine died again. This time we were going up a hill. Hmmm... Coincidence? We pulled out the book and tried to find out was wrong. It seemed, after disconnecting the fuel line and checking it, that it was simply a matter of there being no gas getting to the engine. A little searching revealed that the fuel filter had come off of its mounting bracket, so perhaps it was weighing down and causing a kink in the line. Attaching it was easy. Then we had to push Pee Wee, weighing in an just over two tonnes before counting cargo, up the hill to the top. With Vibeke steering, Andrew and I got our quota of exercise for the month as we inched it slowly to the top. Once level, it started fine. We had no further problems that day and it seemed to have better power now, too.
We arrived at Karonga around 5pm and stayed at the same place we did on the way up. Hoping that the loose fuel filter was indeed the source of the problem, we elected to continue on the next day rather than wasting a day trying to find a local mechanic to take a look.
September 15: (Day 29)
It was 8am when we left Karonga and at 9pm Pee Wee stopped dead. This time the terrain was level and the fuel filter was still attached. We pushed it off to the side of the road and checked the same things we had before. There seemed to be plenty of fuel arriving at the carburetor. The air filter was clean enough. There are three things needed for fire: fuel, oxygen, and heat. That left one thing remaining to check: the spark plugs. We disconnected one of the cables and held it next to the chassis while cranking the engine. Nothing. No spark.
You know... They probably put current-limiting resistors on ignition coils for a reason. Perhaps bypassing it so it would start better was not the best idea in the world. Maybe the coil had burned out. The book gave all the information necessary to test the coil, but you need some type of electric meter to check it. Fortunately, we did. Unfortunately, it was broken; one of the wires had come off of the needle. So while Andrew sat down to relive his days of hand-winding little tiny transformers by trying to tie the wire to the needle with another small wire, Vibeke and I sat in silence.
After about an hour of fighting with the stupid thing, he finally had it. We wouldn't bet on its accuracy, but at least we could see if the coil was alive or dead. I went to disconnect it from the engine while he put the meter back in to its case. I pulled the high-voltage output wire from its plug and went to disconnect the two input wires, but could only see one. Now that was odd because I'd looked at it from the other side of the truck and had seen all three wires. Oh, lookie here! A wire is broken! It was still close enough to look connected from a short distance away, but definitely too far away to pass electricity.
It seems that when the ignition coil had been last replaced (shortly before I arrived to begin this entire journey), the mechanic had pulled the ground wire tight to attach it. After all the bouncing around on the African roads, it had finally had enough stress and simply broke. I spliced another piece of wire on to it, reconnected the coil, and Pee Wee started right up. We hopped in and continued onwards, laughing at ourselves for not having checked for broken wires right at the beginning.
The two hour delay meant we would be getting in to Lilongwe well after dark. Driving at night in Africa can be a terrifying experience; some vehicles don't have any lights at all. To pass, you look exceedingly carefully, pull out, switch on the high-beams, look again, and then pass as quickly as possible. It was nice to finally pull up to Andrew's house.
The water had been turned off. That's right... Africa is one long, never ending adventure. The city was claiming that they hadn't paid their bill (none had actually arrived) and shut off the water a couple weeks before. We made pasta cooked in what could be drained from the hot water tank and called it a night. The rest we could worry about in the morning.
September 16: (Day 30)
After another bucket-shower and a breakfast consisting of toast with peanut butter and (oh thank you, thank you, thank you) absolutely no eggs, Andrew and I took a minibus in to town to do a little shopping pick of a few more souvenirs. Public transit in Africa can be taking your life in to your own hands. The busses, intended to carry maybe 14 passengers, may often be loaded with close to 30 people and riding on bald tires. It's not uncommon to hear about a bus blowing a tire and going off the side of the road, nor is it not uncommon for there to be absolutely no rescue effort.
For the afternoon we drove to Dedza to visit the pottery store there. This was really a great place. You could pick a design pattern and get full sets of hand-made dinner dishes, as well as cooking dishes, serving plates, candlestick holders, salt & pepper shakers, napkin rings, teapots, etc., etc. I ordered a full service for ten (call it setting for eight with a couple spares) and paid for it with my Visa card. The entire thing came to under $600 Canadian and should arrive sometime in January. They even have no-hassle insurance. If anything gets broken during shipping, you simply let them know and they'll send you another one free of charge.
While Andrew and I ate lunch at their restaurant, we couldn't help but think what a great service this place would be on-line. The infrastructure was there. All that was needed was a web site and a way of transmitting orders from that site to the store in Africa. Excited about this new idea, Andrew and I went to talk with the owner. Coincidentally enough, somebody else had approached him not four days before with a similar idea. We're still looking in to what we can do. If we get something working, I'll let everybody know.
It was after dark when we got home again. We had a nice dinner of homemade lasagne, talked for a while, and played a game of chess. Then it was time to pack up my things and head for bed. I did have one rather unexpected surprise: While using the bathroom scale I brought to weigh my bags for the airplane, I decided to step on it myself. Though I had noticed that I was doing my belt of a little tighter, I was not prepared to find that I had lost 15 pounds over the previous four weeks!
September 17: (Day 31)
My last day was pretty uneventful. I went in to see Andrew's workplace and then we played some volleyball with some of his friends. It was a sand court, but by far the most abrasive I've ever played on. After an hour, my feet were stinging something fierce. There was just enough time to clean up and go to the airport for my flight out.
British Airways is a very nice way to fly. Andrew told me that a lot of people don't realize how tense they are in Africa until they get on that plane. When they sit down in their seats, they suddenly feel all that tension start to drain from their bodies and they completely relax for the very first time since they arrived. I can't say I had that experience, but it was a nice feeling to be going home. I slept most of the flight.
September 18: (Day 32)
There was a total of a total of 7 hours between when my flight from Lilongwe arrived and when my flight to Ottawa departed. My bags were checked all the way through (which for some reason is possible going this direction but not the other), so I just got on a bus to take me from Gatwick to Heathrow. Again I was unable to use the upgrade certificate that I had been given but at least I was early enough to get a seat along the emergency exit aisle.
There can't be many things more boring than being stuck in an airport for hours on end, but there was no paint in trying to go in to town -- I would have gotten an hour to look around at most. At least with the extra leg room of the emergency aisle, the flight home was reasonably comfortable. I spent most of it sleeping or reading since they decided to show the same movies on that trip as I had seen on my flight out of Ottawa.
And then I was home... long, warm showers, a bed I actually fit in, and best of all, breakfasts of something besides eggs! I called Mom to let her know I had arrived safely and got the happy news that they now had two new additions to the family, both very small, very furry, and very playful. It seems I'll have two puppies to get acquainted with when I go home for Christmas. That done, I had a whole twelve hours to relax before having to go back to work again. Plenty of time to recover from four weeks of non-stop activity. Actually, in all honesty, I was greatly looking forward to getting back to my old routine. I was very tired.
Now that it's all over and I'm looking back at it, the entire time seems almost unreal. It was just so different than the life I'm used to here in Canada. I've tried to capture some of the feelings I had while over there, but the truth of the matter is that even if this trip report was four times as long as it is, I couldn't possibly tell all the experiences I had. I can't even remember them all at will. Much of it is reduced to just a general feeling about the place and the people; things that will only bubble to the surface of memory when some local association triggers it.
Would I do it again? Yes. Will I do it again? Probably not. It isn't that I don't want to go back, but I'd rather do something else next time; Australia is next on my list. When that will be, I'm not sure. Maybe next summer or the summer after, depending on what the state of Precidia is. Or maybe sometime in the winter! Yeah, that's an even better idea.
I hope you've enjoyed my stories and my pictures. Hopefully I'll have another to write within a couple years. Until then, Polé Polé! Take care and happy traveling!-- Brian