Friday, June 23, 2006

From Nairobi to Mombasa to Lamu and back again, Kenya . . . "Come back tomorrow"

Nairobi (nicknamed ‘Nairobbery’) is, according to our guidebook, “commonly regarded as the most dangerous city in Africa.” A bold and an unlikely claim, given what is going on in parts of the rest of the continent.

We suspected that it could be a bit of an exaggeration and discovered that Nairobi was not nearly as bad as anticipated. Yes, we did get chased for a few minutes by a homeless street kid of questionable sanity. However, this was more my fault than the boy’s.

In a country where the average daily wage is under US$2, I had unknowingly left a 500 Ksh note (approx. US$7) hanging out of my back pocket. Clever. As soon as the cash was out of sight back in my bag, the kid was gone. Making a conscious attempt to be a bit more 'street smart' we walked around the city without any hassles.

We left Nairobi after a few days to head, once again, for the coast of East Africa. This time our destination was Lamu in the north eastern corner of Kenya, via Mombasa. It took us 2 days to get to Lamu. Some stats for you:

Distance from Nairobi to Mombasa = 425 km
Scheduled hours of travelling time on the train = 14 hours
Time it actually took us to get there =21 hours
Average speed = approx. 20 km per hour

Distance from Mombasa to Lamu by road = 320 km
Scheduled hours of traveling time: Bus = 6 hours, Ferrry = 30 mins
Time it actually took us to get there = 9.5 hours

By the time we got on the bus that would take us from Mombasa to Lamu I was pretty tired and dozed off only to wake up next to two men in camouflage clothing - each with their own automatic rifle. These were our armed escorts. You may be wondering, as I was, why we needed armed escorts. Apparently, “years ago” it was not uncommon for Somali bandits to attack the buses heading to Lamu.

I quizzed a few Lamu locals and found out that “years ago” really was years ago. The last attack was in 1999. While I was stressing out about what in the world to do for millennium New Year’s Eve, war and famine in Somalia caused some Somalis to walk several hundred kilometers to rob their wealthier Kenyan neighbours. Still “one of the world’s most dangerous destinations”, Lonely Planet comments that the “traveller to Somalia is spoilt for choice in the number of things that can go wrong.”

Chances that we will add Somalia to our itinerary = 0

Curious as to how the other tourists found the long journey from Nairobi to Lamu I conducted a bit of a survey. Interestingly, I received several different responses. For example: “We flew.” “We took the plane.” “We came by air.” “By bus and train, are you joking?”

Number of tourists stupid enough to spend 2 days getting to Lamu overland instead of 90 minutes in the air = 2

Once we arrived we spent our time in Lamu recovering from the journey. Lamu, a Swahili town on an island off the Kenyan coast is a bit like Zanzibar in both architecture and feel. Although, thankfully unlike Zanzibar, Lamu’s residents are not as keen to make a few dollars from tourists and their friendliness never became harassment. Also, unlike Zanzibar, Lamu has no cars. The space between houses is so narrow that only donkeys or people can travel though the town. Fantastic - no polution - Phil thought until he stepped in a pile of donkey manure.

We spent most of our time wandering around, eating, fishing (I caught two, Phil one), sleeping, dodging donkey excrement and attempting to bond with the locals over World Cup games. Phil was exceptionally good at the latter:

Phil: What was the score in the Togo game?
Local: Two - One
Phil: Togo – One?
Local: No, Togo lost, the other team won.
Phil: So, Togo - one
Local (with some agitation): No, the other team won.

I was forced to intervene before it got nasty.

After a few days there we made the bus and train trip in reverse, this time spending a few nights in Mombasa. With such a cool name, I was anticipating great things from Mombasa. I was let down, not by the city but by the weather. It rained almost constantly and we spent a lot of time inside debating about whether to go out. Eventually we did get out to see the Fort and buy a few masks before we got on the train for Nairobi.

Back in Nairobi I realized that I had left my black jumper on the train and went to the station to get it back. I was told: “Your jumper is not here . . . You should come back tomorrow . . . Your jumper might still be on the train . . . The train on its way to Mombasa . . .Yes, the train steward does have a phone . . . No, we can’t call him. . . We don’t have his number. . . You should come back tomorrow . . . Yes, the station can communicate with the train through the control centre . . . No, we can’t call the train from the control centre. We don’t know the number. . . The Station Master can call . . . The Station Master is not here . . . The Station Master will be here soon. . . The Station Master will be here in 10 minutes . . . The Station Master will be here just now . . . The Station Master will be here in 15 minutes . . . The Station Master will be here very soon . . . The Station Master will be here tomorrow. . . Yes, you should come back tomorrow.”

Probability that I will go back to the train station tomorrow = 100%
Probability that I will find the Station Master = 25%
Probability that I will ever see my jumper again= 1%

Fed up with people, we visted the baby animals in Nairobi National Park. Who would have thought baby elephants wallowing in mud and a baby rhino could be so cute.

Did I or didn’t I get my jumper back? The exciting answer will be revealed in the next entry – probably in a couple of weeks. We have had enough of the coast for a while and will be heading into the interior in the next few days.

Phil is posting some more photos today, probably of our Kili attempt. Click on the 'Cape Town to Cairo Photos' link or here for the latest shots.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania . . . "Pole Pole"

Climbing Kili is a bit of a production and many decisions had to be made before we even considered setting out. The first was the choice of route as there are several different ways up the mountain. The easiest and most popular is the Marangu route (aka 'Coca Cola' route) where hikers stay in cute little huts and can purchase certain necessities (beer, Coca Cola, snickers bars etc.) en route. This sounded quite appealing to me but was quickly vetoed by Phil. At the other end of the scale there is the Machame route (aka 'Whiskey route') apparently one of the tougher walking routes and with no cabins en route, camping is required. I vetoed Machame. So we were left with few choices and decided on the Rongai route - it required 5 nights of camping but at least gave us fairly easy walking for the first few days.

Route chosen we began walking with our entourage of 9 people. In addition to our guide (Joshua) we had an assistant guide, a cook and 6 porters to carry the camping equipment, food and our bags. Given different circumstances this would have made us feel like royalty but when you are not able to shower or change clothes for almost a week, one does not feel particularly special.

I had the beginnings of a slight cold on day one but we were quite optimistic about our chances of reaching the top. This was largely due to Joshua's genius. The man walked so slowly ('pole pole' in Swahili) that it was impossible to imagine not being able to follow him anywhere at that speed. Walking speed is a bit of a controversial issue for us. I am a slow walker - a stroller in fact - while Phil is a brisk paced walker. As a result we can usually be seen walking the streets of Africa with me at least 10 paces behind him. I have complained that this makes me look like his servant-girl but he has pointed out that, as he is the one usually carrying all the stuff, people are unlikely to make such an assumption.

Joshua's pace was slower even than my slowest walk and he explained to us pretty early on that the only way we would get up the mountain was to go 'pole pole' and Phil managed to get used to the speed eventually.

The pace was purely for our benefit; Joshua could have gone much faster on his own. In fact, he could do our 6 day walk in one day if forced to – although he did admit that he would be “very tired” after such an attempt. The guides and porters are incredibly fit. The porters literally run up the mountain carrying 25 kg and barely break out into a sweat. You get the sense that you are surrounded by several potential Olympians. So it was with a strong sense of physical inferiority that we went “pole pole” up the mountain.

The first day was "a piece of cake" followed by the second day which was "the easiest walking I have ever done". Phil asked me to take note of these comments I made early on, suggesting that they would come back to haunt me. I was not discouraged.

However, my optimism faltered somewhat on day three when I began feeling the effects of the altitude (headache, breathlessness) and my cold. Things got progressively worse as the altitude increased and by the time we got to the camping spot on day four - Kibo (4,700m) - I found myself asking why in the world we were paying good money to make ourselves feel sick.

Kibo is the last stop before you attempt the peak. You arrive in the afternoon have an early dinner and try to sleep, but invariably fail due to the altitude. Your guide then gets you up at 11pm to start the climb to the peak at midnight. Temperatures are low at this height so we set off covered in layers of clothes all hired specially for the occasion.

Despite feeling very average we were still confident we could follow Joshua’s slow steps up the mountain. The plan was to get to the top in about 5 hours. The ‘top’ being Gilman’s Point (5,681 metres above sea level) – the rim of the crater. From there it is normally a one and a half hour walk around the crater rim to the highest point on Kili – Uhuru Peak (5,895 metres above sea level).

Our ascent of the mountain did not quite go as planned. We plodded on at a fairly steady pace until about 5,300 metres. After that the altitude was all a bit much for me and I found myself using my walking poles to drag myself up the mountain. At about 5,600 metres Joshua and his assistant guide grabbed one of my arms each – I thought this assistance was quite unnecessary until I too noticed that my legs were not really working. They very kindly ignored the 25kg weight limit for guides and porters and helped me up to Gilman’s Point where I collapsed in a bit of a heap. The highest point on Kili is apparently the highest point in the world that can be reached without any “technical or life supporting facilities.” Personally, I certainly could have done with a tank or two of oxygen. Without that, it was pretty clear I wasn’t going any further.

Phil managed to make it to Gilman’s Point unassisted but felt terrible and when asked whether he wanted to take one of the guides and continue to Uhuru Peak his unambiguous response was: “No way. I feel like shit.”

We took in the view from Gilman’s Point for a few minutes and made our way back down the mountain and beyond to our camping point for the night.

I was not at all upset about our failure to reach the highest point of Kili. I was somewhat consoled by the self delusional thought that I may have made it had I not been suffering from a cold. Upon leaving the mountain I noticed a sign warning that people with a "sore throat or a cold should not go above 3000 metres”. Ooops.

Phil’s feelings about our failure to reach Uhuru Peak changed quite dramatically from ambivalence to devastation. His devastation increased as we descended the mountain and as the memory of his suffering at Gilman’s Point subsided.

While suffering the effects of altitude sickness he was heard to say:

“Why are we doing this again?”
“I’m coming down with you.”
“I am never doing another altitude climb again. This is it.”

But hours later: “Why didn’t I go to the Peak?”

A day later: “I can’t believe I didn’t go to the Peak.”

And later: “I think I have to do Kili again.”
“We should climb Mount Kenya (5,199 metres) when we are in Kenya.”

While Phil was trying to come to terms with his disappointment, I was struggling more than I should have on the easy (18km down hill) final day of our walk. I lost my breakfast (and I don’t mean I misplaced it) close to the bottom, which was probably an appropriate end to the whole experience.

But while I can’t say I enjoyed the Kili experience, I am pleased I gave it a go.

After Kili we finally said goodbye to Tanzania having spent about twice as much time there as we had planned. We are now in Kenya – where we may or may not climb Mount Kenya, but if we do, it certainly won’t be for a while. We are spending a few days in Nairobi trying to work out what to do next.

Our Tanzanian cell phone number no longer works so please discard it. We have a new number for Kenya so if you want to call or text please use +254 721 921 845.

Next entry will be when there is something else to write about, which maybe a few weeks.

Phil tells me he has posted new photos of Mozambique, Zanzibar and Tanzania so click here to see the latest pictures.