Climbing Mount Meru

February 2004

3rd February: Breakfast was delicious, comprising for me fresh papaya, pineapple, water melon, tiny sweet bananas, toast and fresh local coffee. We had to split our belongings between our day-sacks, which we carried, our kit-bags, which the porters carried, and items we didn't need for the Meru trip, which were left at the hotel. Valuables, such as passports, credit cards and spare cash which we didn't need on Meru were left in sealed envelopes and put in the hotel safe. The numbers of each dollar bill were noted on the inventory, a time-consuming process, but Sterling was just lumped in as an amount. We were soon packed, ready and piling onto a bus for our expedition to Arusha National Park. It was interesting to see how the locals live as we journeyed to the park. I noticed one big sign which left me puzzled, directing us off the road to "Zebra Crossing & Shop". Why would you want a zebra crossing off the road? Was it a place where zebras crossed? Was it the name of a bar? I never did find out. We arrived at the park entrance to find several vehicles being held up by a man in uniform with a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. At least it wasn't pointed at us! It was a while before I realised he was a park ranger, and that the country had not suddenly come under martial law. He seemed upset, (Someone must have been very unwise. Would you upset a man with a Kalashnikov?) but he calmed down once the vehicles were arranged as he wanted them. One such vehicles was an aging Caravette with a notice in the back saying "In God We Trust". It had one of its back wheels missing!

At last we got through the entrance and were driven to the park gate at Momela (small photo) (large photo). Here we met our allocated ranger, our guides, cooking staff and porters who swelled our number to about 32. It was time to start walking and to our expedition leader's obvious delight we had the challenge of walking across a 6" I-beam over a swollen stream. This accomplished, we continued across a flat plain (small photo) (large photo) seeing a huge herd of Cape buffalo, from which we were glad to be separated by the stream, and the occasional giraffe. There were swallows, too, which might well have been heading for Europe as the year progressed. Our ranger carried a rifle to frighten off creatures that threatened our safety and while he said he'd often fired in the air he'd very rarely had to shoot to kill - with a charging Cape buffalo you don't get a second chance. Then came our first ascent, through woods that superficially resembled the greenwoods of home (small photo) (large photo), if one ignored the species difference and the occasional antelope or monkey. Porters passed us to and fro along the way with a cheery "jambo" (hello) balancing their loads, often our kit bags, on their heads.

We reached the Miriakamba huts (small photo) (large photo), where we were to spend the night, in the afternoon. Each hut comprised a large dormitory and a dining/leisure room and the site even boasted sit-down toilets. The dormitories had simple two-tier bunks which were perfectly adequate for us in our sleeping bags. Bottles of "Kilimanjaro" water, US$ 1 or TSh (Tanzanian shillings)1000 at Moshi, were US$ 2 here. We always checked that the seals on the bottles were intact as we spotted someone here filling up "Kilimanjaro" water bottles with water from a nearby tank using a teapot. Piles of elephant (and other) dung littered the paths nearby. When I visited the toilets during the night I took a trekking pole with me just in case. The cooks provided us with surprisingly varied and tasty food throughout the trip though it was impossible to guess what exactly the sauces contained. There was always ugali (maize porridge) at breakfast which could be sweetened with honey, fresh fruit, toast and omelette with tea or very strong local coffee. Our evening meals started with various tasty soups and had rice or pasta with sauce as main courses.

4th February: I arose earlier than most and wandered outside while three large black birds having prominent white collars arrived and awaited the cooking staff leaving scraps. I assume they were of the crow family, but they were certainly larger than our native Lakeland ravens. After breakfast we began climbing the ridge. It was a fairly easy walk, taken at a leisurely pace. In Lakeland I normally walk alone. I have a normal steady pace (rate of exertion) which allows me to walk for long periods without the need to stop. Before starting on strenuous sections I will reduce my speed and breath deeply in anticipation. This seems to help me ward off aching limbs and breathlessness. I found walking in a group quite difficult as there was a concertina effect which completely broke up my rhythm. However, the limitation on most days of this trip was not how far we could walk or climb, but how quickly we could acclimatize to the altitude. We soon reached the Saddle huts (small photo) (large photo) between Mount Meru (almost 15,000 feet high) and Little Meru (12,500 feet) and settled in to our bedrooms, each of which slept four. They had the same two-tier bunks as the Miriakamba huts. Here the price of water had risen to US$ 3 per bottle. Some party members reported minor symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), I had a slight headache quickly relieved by paracetamol, but this was only to be expected. We had a brief afternoon jaunt up to Little Meru where we got some idea of the climb to Mount Meru which was scheduled for the following morning (small photo) (large photo). We had now left the rain forest behind and had reached open moorland, with its giant heathers. We returned to the Saddle huts, had a meal and got to bed early in preparation for a night-time assault on Meru itself.

5th February: We were woken at around midnight and were soon setting off for Mount Meru in high spirits. This was not to last. Lightning could be seen on the mountain ahead and within 15 minutes we were hit by driving sleet. The electric storms that had tossed our plane around were continuing. Everyone donned their waterproofs but after an hour the guides and ranger decided to call it a day and retreat back to the Saddle huts. We had almost reached Rhino Point where starts a very narrow ridge to Mount Meru. With a drop of 5,000 feet on one side it would have been foolhardy to continue. Back at the huts we waited for the rain to stop and considered our options. If it stopped soon we could still reach the summit of Meru and get back down to Miriakamba in reasonable time. If it stopped later we could still get up to Rhino Point. And, if it didn't stop at all we would just have to go back down. In the end it stopped too late to climb Meru and some of the party went up to Rhino Point where they could see a snow-covered Mount Meru in the distance. I stayed behind with the others as I'd twisted a knee on the descent of Little Meru and didn't want to stress it unduly. We were all devastated by the thwarting of our plans. We found out later from our guide that, as a result of unseasonal weather, on only one day in the previous four had anyone managed to summit Meru, so we were not alone in our disappointment. We set off back down the mountain with dampened spirits and dampened clothes to the same Miriakamba Huts we'd used on the ascent. There while we slept, mice got into our rucksacks and finished off our uneaten packed lunches.

6th February: In the morning we walked down to Momela seeing a troop of baboons seeing us off their territory, and more giraffe than we could set fire to (small photo) (large photo). Our ranger took us on a detour to see a waterfall (small photo) (large photo), then we returned to the path, the 6" I-beam across the stream and back to Momela Gate. Our bus was waiting and soon had us back through coffee plantations and their wonderful aroma to our Moshi hotel where we entrusted our clothing to the hotel's laundry service. Some of us wandered into the town for the afternoon where typical scenes were at a bank at a roundabout (small photo) (large photo) and the main street (small photo) (large photo). We had to brave persistent touts who wanted to sell us naff souvenirs, or exchange their goods for our own. Later in the trip one wanted to exchange some mass-produced animal carving for our doctor's Ray-Bans. Many wanted payment if they thought they appeared in any of our photographs. On the other hand there were smartly dressed children from a local school who greeted us with a charming "Good afternoon, sir. Good afternoon, madam." instead of the general "Jambo".

Back at the hotel, while we were sitting awaiting our evening meal outdoors beneath an awning, we noticed strange squeaking noises, like bicycle wheels that needed oiling, from out in the darkness. The waiter told us they were the sounds of bats. This was confirmed soon afterwards when one of the unfortunate creatures came flying above us and beneath the awning and ploughed headfirst into the hotel wall. It dropped like a stone, fluttered briefly, and lay still. The waiter pronounced it dead but left it there. One of the hotel cats carried it off soon afterwards.

At dinner that evening we were presented with certificates, signed by the National Park Warden, Director General, and our guide, confirming the ascents we'd made sadly only to Little Meru or Rhino Point. Our team leader then gave us advice on what equipment to put in our day sacks and what to leave in our kit bags for the porters to carry on our first day on Kilimanjaro. It was this night when I was first afflicted with the traveller's diarrhoea that had already affected some of the others, and which did not leave me for the rest of the trip.


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