This morning went on like any other, except it wasn’t; we were heading out to start our attempt at the world’s highest free-standing mountain. We filled up our little bus with rucksacks and then moulded ourselves in afterwards. There was a last minute stop at a supermarket to get some energy snacks, little did we know how vital they would be for morale purposes, before heading to our start point at Machame Gate, which had a 456m step-up on Ben Nevis already. The drive to our starting line involved going through lush rainforest and rural towns where the locals look at you thinking you are insane, and lets face it they are right.
At the gate, the climate was noticeably colder but we were still surrounded by lush forests, we were rushed through the gate as there were a number of wannabe porters and vendors that rushed in every-time they opened the gate in the hope that they’d get lumped with one of our rucksacks in return for a tip. Those who didn’t make it through had to sit and wait for the next bus full of “Wazangu” to roll up and hope their trek up that day wasn’t going to be fruitless. On the otherside of the gate there were numerous white climbers signing in at the bottom and about triple the amount of porters and guides. There is meant to be a-sixty-climbers-per-day limit on the mountain but looking at the numbers at this gate alone and the 4 members of staff per person climbing, I don’t think that is a very strict rule. After handing our rucksacks over we got our first glimpse of the ridiculous amount the porters have to carry and you couldn’t help feeling sorry for them and that there was something horribly “master-servant” about it. You had to try and think of this as one of the few ways they can make a decent amount of money and from day one they had definitely secured themselves a good tip from me.
The first phase of the climb was through a pretty wide mud track used by 4x4’s but this slowly dwindled into a footpath but all the time we were surrounded by dense forest. I got chatting to my first guide of the trip called William (I am pretty sure this was an Anglosized name) who like to sing and seemed to develop an early soft spot for me as, although he was the guide for the other group he would seek me out whenever the groups crossed paths over the next few days. For the first day the walk was pretty challenging but that was probably why, because if was our first day of walking a solid six hours or so, plus the weather was pretty humid and there was no wind whatsoever so when we got breaks they were very much appreciated!
Our dinner was a very pleasant surprise to see as our porters had raced ahead and set up a long table(with a table cloth), chairs and all appropriate crockery as well as cooking us a fantastic meal. We thought this was all rather lavish for the mountain and we would have been happy to just eat off our laps, but we appreciated their tremendous effort all the same! The food was excellent with cucumber soup, vegetable sandwiches and some mango all prepared by two chefs that were part of the team and little did we know this was only a glimpse at the culinary delights they had in store for us. We also saw our first encounter of African wildlife with what can only be described as Kilimanjaro’s answer to a seagull only it’s black and has a ridiculously strong beak...
We set off again with quite a fast pace and were still trudging through rainforest until just below 3000m when the trees suddenly got a lot shorter. Our slowest walker was put to the front so the pace was very “pole pole” (Swahilli for slowly) for the home straight, compared to before where Marc was essentially sprinting up the mountain. This new speed gave us the chance to just get chatting away to each other and get to know the people who were going to see you at your absolute worst in the coming days. People were instantly fascinated about Orkney and managed to get a few more with the old “smoke signals” joke before teaching them some basic words and phrases. I sang Orkney’s praises further by feeding hungry mouths with some Orkney Fudge and I think there is a niche is the market if Argos were interested in broadening their sales… We reached the Machame Hut Camp(3033m) at about 5pm which was about six hours after we’d set off from the gate. We all had a well-earned sit at the camp as we waited to sign in, though in the end I don’t think anyone signed in as themselves…
After sign in we headed down to our camp where the porters had already put up our tents and came around with basins of warm water and soap so we could wash some of the grub off ourselves. The amount of work the porters do up the mountain would never stop amazing us and their uplifting spirits wouldn’t stop cheering us up when we dared complain.
It was quickly getting dark and after the excitement of our lunch it was time to be bowled(no pun intended) over by our impressive dinner portions. The chefs had cooked up exceptional amounts of soup, toast, spaghetti, potatoes and a vegetable curry to fill us up, even Dan stuggled by the end. The food up the mountain was already miles better than the food we had got in our hotel and I don’t even think that was because we were starving and tired! On a toilet run I sneaked out I looked up into the sky and saw that there was the most impressive display of stars I had ever seen, so after our group de-brief we all headed out and stared up at the stars. It sounds cheesy now but it got worse when someone put on Hoppipola by Sigor Ros and we had a complete teen drama moment going on as we lay on the ground stargazing. People kept trying to get pictures of the stars but turning on the flash and their head torches wasn’t going to get them anywhere so I decided to put my camera down early on and used my built in camera to remember the scene instead.