Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Five: A Tent with a View

Karanga to Barafu, Thursday Sep 6, 2012
Distance: 4 km, 3-4 hours
Elevation: 400 m net climb from 4200 m to 4600 m

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 4
One of my favorite Kilimanjaro pictures, the view of Kibo from Karanga Valley camp

Going from Karanga to Barafu is a relatively easy hike. As I’ve said before, if you do the Machame Route in six days instead of seven, you’d go all the way from Barranco to Barafu, making it absolutely imperative to get up very early so as not to be delayed, as we were, at the foot of Barranco Wall, unless you don’t mind dragging yourself into Barafu past sunset. But if you have the extra seventh day, you are in no rush.

In our case, we have another half-day of what on paper looks like a leisurely stroll ahead of us. Except when you’re hiking Kili, nothing is a leisurely stroll. Even your nightly trip from your tent to TeeTee (because you still have to pee – the altitude and the cold seem to have an inverse relationship with the size of your bladder) renders you utterly breathless. Which is why once again I’m so happy we (or rather the toilet guy) brought along TeeTee. Even if we’ve taken to removing the top to help with the smell, which makes it look kind of weird when tall people are using TeeTee and have their head poking out while the rest is hidden from view, if not from imagination. Still TeeTee is infinitely preferable to the alternative, the notorious Kili squat toilets. After you’ve huffed and puffed your way to the toilet, you really have no energy left to squat. What you need is a solid seat to rest on. Although I should tell you that what constitutes “solid” is a bit of a flexible term. The higher we climb on the mountain, the steeper the terrain at our campsites is becoming. You find yourself sitting in TeeTee fervently hoping that the whole thing won’t topple over with you on or rather in it, which would definitely not be a pretty sight.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 5
Setting off from Karanga to Barafu
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 5
I never get tired of watching the porters who always look so graceful balancing their loads

Then again, these thoughts rarely occur to you while on the mountain, only afterwards. While you’re on Kili, your idea of personal hygiene takes a serious turn to the simplistic. You’re very happy with the bare minimum. Like brushing your teeth occasionally, washing your face and hands once a day, and rationing the remaining wet wipes for the most dire needs. And yes, you can wash yourself with one wet wipe while in your sleeping bag.

And here’s the thing: I quite enjoy this part of our adventure, contrary to all expectations. This morning I realized, with a start, that I haven’t looked into a mirror in five days. And I haven’t missed it one bit. If anything, it makes you feel better about yourself. Do you know how often we stare into a mirror on any regular day? And how often we find fault with something or other we glimpse there? I’m not big into hair care and make-up anyway. There is only so much time in each day, and I usually find better things to do with it. Overseas visitors at our house are always baffled when I can’t supply them with a hairdryer. I don’t own one.  My daughters are probably scarred for life because I don’t know what to do with their hair beyond a simple ponytail. The other day Impatience had to go to school as a girl from Little Women as part of their Read-a-thon, and she begged me to put her hair into two braids and to roll them up into these buns above her ears. How is this physically possible, I ask you? Let’s just say the exercise resulted in a lot of lost hair and a flung hairbrush.

But I digress. All I wanted to say was that even with a Beauty Lite approach to your appearance the way I practice it, you still are obsessed with mirrors. (Did I tell you I once hit the curb while checking my lipstick in the rearview mirror, resulting in very expensive new tires?) And you don’t realize that avoiding to look into them might make you a happier person.

I should mention though that the one toiletry routine I can’t do without is brushing my hair. I’ve become quite obsessed with brushing my hair both morning and night, before hiding it again under the beanie. (I’ve also become quite obsessed with, if not fallen in love with, my beanie). If I can’t wash my hair, it has to be brushed. Leaving me with big wads of hair in my brush that I then have to dispose of surreptitiously under a rock, lest they go flying off into someone’s face. I’m not sure how other women deal with the hair issue but all I can say is if you’re female and planning a Kili trip, make sure you bring a nice hairbrush.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 5
Arriving at Barafu
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 5
A rocky campsite. Photo credit: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 5
Here you can see how steep the terrain is at Barafu Camp. Photo credit: Martin B.

The mountain is quite busy this time of year, as I’ve told you, but if anything it seems even busier now. Which is probably due to the fact that several routes are converging and merging into one. We cross paths with Lance’s group more than once, snaking up just as slowly as we are, which leaves me slightly disappointed. I would have loved to see him in action scaling Kili at a clip of 9 hours 45 minutes again. That would be a sight to behold.

The view, when we arrive at Barafu, is breathtaking. If, indeed, you have much breath left at this altitude of 4600 m, where from what I’ve gleaned from previous debates between Johnny Fartpants and Professor Calculus the oxygen content has dropped from 21% (at sea level) to less than 12%. Actually, from what Google tells me, I’m not quite sure if there is still the same amount of oxygen in the air and the lower air pressure makes it feel as if it was less, or if it is indeed less. But it hardly matters. You’ll definitely know something is amiss, even if you can’t quite pinpoint it. By the time we reach the summit, the oxygen content will have shrunk even further to 10%. That’s a whole lot less than what your body is typically used to.

We actually get a good long look at the surrounding scenery, because for the first time this week we have to wait for our mess tent. Not because our porters have been slacking off – they’ve been here hours before us, as always – but because the spot they’ve had their eye on is still occupied. That’s because Barafu is really not the ideal campsite. If you had the luxury to pick from a range of suitable places, this wouldn’t make the cut. It’s steep and it sits amid a wasteland of rocks and scree and it’s a miracle there is even enough level ground to pitch our tents. Or perhaps not a miracle but the result of hard work previous porters have put in to dig level platforms into the mountain. Because of this, there is only limited space for a group like ours, and we have to settle down to wait until the previous group’s tent is taken down. These guys have summited last night and come back this morning or perhaps just now, judging from the look of utter exhaustion on their faces. One of the women looks to be in no shape to move on, but we refrain from talking to them. We don’t need any horror stories so shortly before our own ascent.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 5
Sunset over Barafu Camp. Photo credit: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 5
Bearded vulture circling over Barafu Camp. Photo credit: Martin B.

So we sit there taking in the view. Normally you’d give a lot for such a view, but I suspect most Kili climbers don’t really appreciate it. You are constantly out of breath, the world feels like it’s tilted at an impossible angle (can I just say the toilet tent is now pitched on such an alarming slope that sitting in it, let alone getting to it, is an adventure onto itself), your hands and feet are frozen as soon as the sun has disappeared, and you are very apprehensive, to say the least, of what is yet to come. Goddy tells of people who have fainted up here, not because of altitude but because of the sheer terror the prospect of Summit Night stirred in them.

And yet it is so peaceful up here. You are so far removed from everything back in your normal life, both literally and figuratively. You are floating above all of it, the world at your feet. If I’m not to reach the summit, having reached this place should be enough. When you look across at Mount Meru, poking through a sea of clouds, it looks as if you’re above it. As indeed you are. When you turn to the left, you get the first good look at Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s other peak.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 4
Here is Kibo in all its majestic beauty. Photo credit: Martin B.
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 5
Mawenzi Peak. Photo credit: Martin B.

This brings me to one of the questions that has nagged at me for a while, that of the naming of all these peaks and the origin of the word Kilimanjaro. Because that snow-covered peak we have been looking at ever since we got above the clouds at the end of Day One is actually called Kibo, meaning “snow” in the local Chagga language. Then there is the other, more rugged looking and somewhat lower peak called Mawenzi (for “broken top”), which no one ever seems to climb up. So we are climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, trying to reach Kibo. Except if we ever do get up there we will be standing at Uhuru (“freedom”) Peak. Why this mountain has to have so many names, I don’t know. To give us yet another topic to talk about? As for Kilimanjaro, Google and Wikipedia don’t give conclusive answers at all, so I’ll go with what Goddy tells us. We have been trusting him with our lives this week, so surely we can trust him with all other matters. Goddy says it means “Shining Hills” derived from kilima for “hills” and njaro for “shining” or “white.”

That settles that.

While we’re on the topic of language: If the ten of us all came to Kili with one big goal in our minds, Goddy is pursuing a second one with equal tenacity: Teaching us as much Swahili as he can.

Never mind that the phrases he teaches us probably make no sense whatsoever. He doggedly repeats them for us day in day out, and quizzes us on them at night before bedtime. Like Poa kitchisi komandisi nana frigi – something about a cool breeze and a banana in the fridge (I admit my Swahili spelling skills are probably not up to par). See what I mean? But because there is nothing much else to distract us, and because we are always happy to be distracted from our toilet obsession, we humor him and learn to say things like asante sana (thank you), karibu sana kaka yangu (you are welcome my brother), lala salama (good night), and something that sounds like cashew asebui that none of us can ever remember. And of course, since we’re in Tanzania, lots and lots of hakuna matata’s.

I find that I love Swahili. It’s a beautiful language, and it’s at its most beautiful when Goddy, and sometimes the other guides, are singing to us. Here you’ll see all of them giving us a pre-summit pep song – from left to right Goddy, Naiman, Monday, Peter, and Hillary. Listen for yourself (and see if you can catch the part towards the end where they’re making fun of our snack habit):

Lala salama.

To be continued… Next up, Summit Night!



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