Silly Killy

So, as I finally sit down and reflect upon the achievement of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, I’m left with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand there is the clear elation of success, of achieving something so crazily stupid that it defies belief, and thoughts of the vast sums of money raised by others for “good causes”. On the other hand, however, there is an aspect of the trip that causes severe food for thought. Was this an adventure to massage the ego, or an opportunity of an insight into a racial divide that still exists (for all the seeming progress that has been made in equality) or, worse still, was this witnessing slavery in the raw?

Firstly, let me thank those that supported us in raising so much money for our chosen charities. I hope and pray that the money raised can make a difference. The choices made of Cancer Research and St Margaret’s hospice didn’t have much meaning to me at the time. Perhaps it is through selfishness that I had previously ignored the world of cancer as I put up a shield of positivity to hopefully protect myself from the terrible world of pain it causes. That all changed just prior to the trip as someone very dear to me was diagnosed with the terrible disease. This trip suddenly took on a whole different meaning. It was no longer about ticking off another adventure but helping to support the efforts made by the others in raising money. Every slow and methodical plod was now being used to help raise every penny. The charitable cause now had a meaning to which I could relate. Oh, how I now wish I had been able to help more with the fundraising efforts. There are many arguments that could be made about the money raised. The kindness and generosity shown by many cannot and should not be ignored. This puzzled me on the walk and was mentioned by a minority – why does it take 3 men walking up a mountain to get people to make charitable donations?

If we don’t know already, we are lucky and privileged to live in such a world as we have to enjoy. If you consider that you don’t think you are lucky then travel and see the conditions that some people endure in order to survive. Had we not paid to climb up the mountain and instead put all that money to charity, we know the amount raised would been vastly increased. Is it not true of all of us that doing things for charity enables us to handle our guilty consciences? We only have to look at the greed and ignorance of this world and the people in it. Unfortunately, and disappointingly, this was highlighted by bad news shared with us from back home before we left. Members of the local hospice that we were sponsoring were appearing in court on fraud charges. Some were found guilty. What a tragic state of affairs and hardly the motivation needed for what amounted to a slog up a mountain. No man is an island and many others were affected and badly so by dreadful behaviour. Every step climbed and every penny raised was now for a cause close to my heart, and in the time of struggles, of which there were plenty, there was a stark reminder of the need to keep on going and ensure the summit was reached. I will say that I hope all money associated with this trip goes to its intended destinations, and that I can sleep easy. In conclusion, even the good feeling experienced by raising the money has been accompanied by other not-so-good feelings.

Secondly, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that we climbed to summit of Mount Uhuru, the tallest free-standing mountain in the world at 5895m. To put that into context, it’s almost 2000ft higher than Everest base camp, it’s 7 times taller than the highest man-made structure in the world ((Burj Khalifa – 2717ft)), or if you were to place the tallest 16 buildings in America on top of each other the resulting structure wouldn’t be as high as the mountain. For those who live in the UK it’s over 5 times the height of Mt Snowdon. Our voyage to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro was on the Lemosho route (8 days), the longest possible route to the summit of the mountain. Our guide was brilliant and provided us with so much knowledge along the way. He informed me that we weren’t even climbing Mt Kilimanjaro. The shock and surprise must have made for a priceless photo. He informed us that the mount was called Mt Kebo, which is one of 3 peaks in the Kilimanjaro park, the other two being Mt Mawenzi and Mt Meru. Mt Mawenzi (5149m) is unclimbable, Mt Meru (4565m) is climbed by some prior to climbing Mt Kebo (5895m). All the false advertisements and statements of achievement washed away by a moment of truth. We climbed Mt Kebo!!! Eventually the assimilation of all this info put a smile on my face. That said this was an accomplishment, when it is realised that we are only a century on from the first climb to the summit of the tallest freestanding mountain, and that since then only half of all the people that have attempted the climb have made it to the top. We were lucky enough to make it and to see the glacier on top which has shrunk 82% from its original size and that scientists believe will not be there in 50 years’ time. What we mustn’t forget is that the mountain is a sign of freedom for the people of Tanzania. In 1962 they escaped British and European rule and became their own country. The mountain therefore is called Mountain of Hope, and respect should be shown to it and its people. This concludes arguments for all that is good – now the arguments for the bad.

When Heins Mehr first climbed Mt Kebo in 1889 who would have known that so many would have followed in his footsteps (I’m still trying to work out what the appeal is, I can’t even recall what the appeal to me was). We were just like Hans, he was someone from the modern/western world accompanied by “local” guides (not much has changed). Whilst our success could be put down to ourselves (it is necessary to get out of bed in the morning), we can’t ignore the locals, who joined and supported our team (perhaps in the same way that similar people did for Hans) and had to suffer to ensure our comforts and luxuries were catered for. Surely part of the appeal of this trip was to escape the real world and not to live in luxury and be waited on hand and foot. I will admit to thinking a donkey was going to be used to support us up the mountain (stupid I know). Instead we had humans who were perhaps treated like donkeys. They joined in the gruelling climb up the mountain but also carried all our stuff. I was appalled at the sight of these poor men working so hard to satisfy my ego, in threadbare clothes and worn-out shoes (possibly handed down). This was recycling in its most necessary form and I felt a little sad in all the gear, fresh and new, and these guys struggling in barely nothing. Anyone who thinks they know what hard work is, can think again. This was surely the hardest of hard work that I had ever witnessed. I sat there as a fit man appalled at what I was seeing. I dread to think what they were paid, if at all. Slavery in its most camouflaged form?? Comparisons could be made to the debate about the zero-hour contracts and minimum wages being debated in connection with the general election back home, but this smacked of less than minimum wages and it’s no wonder these people are desperate to reach British shores. They clearly weren’t financially rewarded in the way they should have been. We had paid so much money to be there, but I doubt they saw even a tiny percentage of what we paid. Corruption?? From where I sat it seemed that way. We had a tip for them, which sadly couldn’t be given to them in person. It which went via the hotel manager, would they receive it? I hope and pray that they did.

In my opening remarks I pointedly referred to a racial divide. This was evident at every moment and in everything that happened on our trip. This was perhaps a confirmation of what is witnessed during travel but seemed ever so much more apparent here. From comments like, “white guy lets go” said in Swahili to noticing that all the support staff were black and all the people climbing the mountain were white. The black people worked very hard and almost seemed to beg for the white people’s money. The white people were for the most part and for most of the time blissfully unaware of the different world they were trekking in. Yes, it’s a way of surviving and making an income that probably isn’t afforded to them in another way but surely there must better ways to support these guys financially rather than dragging them up a mountain carrying us as they did so. I refer to the porters probably not being paid very much (I have no evidence apart from what could be seen with my eyes and I concede that things are not always as they appear), which prompted my comments about slavery. This whole feeling was perhaps the worst part of the whole trip in my eyes. It was an increasingly disappointing aspect of the trip. I know that our very presence there brings untold wealth to the area, an area that without the money brought in would be plagued by disease and poverty. There is a fine line between what is right and wrong; I cannot say on which side of the line we fell in our presence there.

So, as I conclude this blog, it’s with sadness in my heart that this trip has left me with so many mixed emotions. Achievements and success will remain forever, as friendships grew stronger and new ones were made, but deep down there is an underlying fear of the guilt and pain caused to so many. I certainly will think twice of such a trip again. There must be different ways by which I can raise money here. There must be better ways of improving these people’s lives. Lessons, many of them painful, have been learned. I have witnessed many things and experiences have been shared. If you’re thinking of completing the hike up Kilimanjaro then think twice and consider not only your sense of achievement, your health in both body and mind, and the wealth you bring to the place but the impact that your actions will have.

Daily Diary

Getting to start of our climb
We had agreed separate journeys to Heathrow, since I had to get my dog to my parents whilst Sam and Adge were to arrive by a combination of train and bus. Our meeting up at Heathrow was a joyous occasion. My ‘partners in crime’, clearly overjoyed with the excitement of the trip, were raring to go. I’d finally closed down work and was able to join them in getting ready to embark on our adventure. The offtimes-for-most boring wait at an airport only adds to my excitement of any trip. Heathrow is a good watering hole, and always gets me in the mood. For one person this was desperately needed to calm the nerves associated with flying for the first time in many years.

Excellent flights with Qatar Airways, whose personnel looked at our group and kindly gave us the front seats resulting in extra leg room. A couple of flights, nerves overcome, and some sleep for all meant a safe arrival in Africa. Kilimanjaro airport was a small building and runway in the middle of nowhere which appeared to be only a token gesture for the many visitors who flock here for the mountain and safari. Heathrow or Doha international it was not. Our pre-approved visas got us through the queue quicker than most. The small nature of the airport meant only one baggage claim conveyor that was half in the building and half not. Very easy to grab our bags and find our connection. T.I.A – this is Africa. Our taxi drive certainly opened the eyes of some in our party to the way in which life is different in other parts of the world. For me this was yet another fact confirming that there is much more to life than social media and technology that seems to be an alien on a mission to take over the planet. Next time you think you’ve got a problem take a second to mull it over and then think – do I really have a problem?

Finally, at the hotel after a good 18hrs travel, we needed a cold shower. Better still the hotel had a pool – how refreshing. Wait! Before we could dip in and refresh, we needed our brief. We grabbed a cold beer and sat down with what looked like other novices. We had missed most of the talk – looking back it doesn’t seem like we missed much. The important part of this was meeting our guide. Omari was his name! What his first impressions must have been I have no idea… a group of English lads smashing back beer and wanting to be in the pool more than listen to him. If that was his impression he needs to know that we listened to him intently; he was clearly a man of the mountain, oozing vast experience. We had struck gold. We would find this to be true in 8 days’ time. He did his checks, and left, I hope, happy rather than cursing his luck; I mean we weren’t a group of 3 beautiful women were we? We found out at this point we were going to adopt another member to our group. Mike, a solo participant, ticking off some things from his bucket list as he jumped out of a divorce and before the next relationship came along. We finally got that swim, enjoyed the hotel’s cuisine and a few more beers before an early night (the first of many).

Day 1
Morum Barrier Gate – MTI Mkubwa Camp
6km – 3.5hrs walking

So, bags packed in our 4×4, our driver the ever so happy DJ Khaled (not the famous one) was just pleased to have us in his vehicle. I would settle for the company of this DJ Khaled any day of the week. Our driver may or may not have had means to play music in the car and this suited us fine. He was no American rapper but he more than made up for it with a charming and welcoming charisma. How English society could learn from a guy like this. We couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. Our non-music drive was disrupted every now and again by our chief making the necessary phone calls or someone commenting on the view. It soon became apparent that we were no longer on our time but Tanzanian time as a short journey took longer than planned. A chaotic drive through the city centre, before having to overtake the slow and often over crowed motorbikes on the main roads slowed us down.

We eventually arrived at the Londorossi gate for the purposes of signing into the national park and for the team to complete their necessary checks. It was close to lunch time. We were given a packed lunch to enjoy while our team of helpers completed the necessary paperwork and got weighed. A tedious process it may have seemed but apparently this ensures the safety of the people supporting us up the mountain. All checks done and lunch eaten, we were back into the 4×4 for a 9km drive down to the start point (Morum Barrier Gate). Here we able to meet our team for the first time, as I gave away the biscuits in my lunch box to grateful recipients. We set off to complete the first day’s walking, whilst they got the final bits together. Whilst we slowly plodded along they came zooming past us, carrying and balancing far more than the health and safety boys would allow us back home. At this stage we couldn’t put names to faces as we had barely met. Our walk on the first day was through the jungle. It seemed slow and laborious. As novices go it was relatively easy. We followed a path all the way to the camp (MTI Mkubwa Camp). Our arrival into camp meant that we needed to complete our customary signing in. This was completed under the watchful gaze of a security guard carrying a rather large automatic rifle. We were informed this was to scare the local villagers from stealing our stuff. Not warning off animals?? Either way I think perhaps we were slightly scared. An introduction to the game of whist followed, whilst the remainder of our camp assembled.

The camp was finally ready to host our first evening. A lack of running water meant that showers and toilet facilities were non-existent and a sign of interesting experiences to be encountered on the rest of the trip. An evening in the main tent was shared by us all as we played a card game that was new to some and it being the only form of entertainment. We retired to bed earlier than any of us were used to for our first night’s sleep.

Day 2
MTI Mkubwa Camp – Shira 1 Camp
7km – 4hrs walking

A new dawn, a new day!

We woke, some more disgruntled than others by a disturbed sleep which may have come about by the snoring from others or the discomfort of sleeping on the floor. As for me I woke invigorated by my first night’s camping – I had enjoyed a tent to myself!! Breakfast was eaten before we embarked on a longer day of walking. We set off on our slow and methodical plod.

Sun cream and mozzy cream were applied to the full. The walk started off along similar terrain as that experienced the day before. How nice it was to almost relax and enjoy the surroundings around us. Surely more strenuous and difficult days were ahead of us. We left the rain forest after an hour and started to climb the edges of a peak. It was crazy to think we had barely climbed, and yet, we were already considerably higher than Ben Nevis back home. We peaked our climbing in thick cloud and rumours were that it was a quite a view that we missed. Never mind, I felt sure that better views would greet us on our trek. The only alarming thing to report from our walk today was a couple of groups blaring out loud music through a portable speaker. How rude to shatter my peace. I certainly made my feelings known to Omari, who concurred with my viewpoint. Isn’t travel meant to be an escape from the mundane and every day? This didn’t seem appropriate or respectful of the surroundings we were in. Our feelings at this time were generally good; some were frustrated perhaps at the speed at which we were walking. For me it was so nice though to be taking my time enjoying the moment rather than rushing around a place.

I was starting to lose my mind to the tranquillity and undisturbed beauty through which I had dared to walk. Such a change from the rush and keenness to explore as much of a place when travelling back home.

At the summit of our climb we weren’t blessed with good weather. The clouds had constantly swept in which was amazing to watch. So, we left the cloudy ridge summit, and were soon heading back down again. Surely, we were meant to be going up the mountain and not down, but the climb was a succession of ridges? We followed a rough rocky path to our night camp. Some people were amused to see a helipad, I was not that interested. Just wanted to get out of my sweaty clothes. Here we got our first view of Uhuru (what everyone believes to be Mt Kilimanjaro) still covered in cloud and looking a million miles away. Customary sign in process and mandatory photo before an evening playing cards was enjoyed.

Day 3
Shira 1 Camp – Shira Camp 2
12km – 8.5hrs walking

I was first to arise, and, upon crawling out of my tent, was blessed with the most magical sunrise over fresh and frosty grounds. Not a cloud in the sky could ruin such a view. There were no clouds. I could finally see the mountain. Imperious to see, its very presence commanding my attention. A mixture of thoughts as I compared it to other mountains I had seen. Flashbacks to those moments in Canada recently, and further back in time to New Zealand. Peace and tranquillity, such a beautiful moment to experience, I stood there and appreciated all around me as my breath was taken away. Sunrises are a beautiful thing as the rising sun ushers in the start of a new day. A reminder that we should be lucky for each and every day and to take full advantage of it. The natural world gives a far more enjoyable experience than humankind can ever fabricate.

How nice to sit there and enjoy the view, with no connection to the world, and no need for social media satisfaction, with just my own two eyes to remember such beauty.

Our group arose in stages, slowly and each member complaining of the cold and lack of sleep. I was glad that I was up first. I didn’t need moaning as I was positively glowing, invigorated by life’s greatest show. We enjoyed our breakfast before getting ready to leave. Shortly into our walk Omari informed us that we could take our time and enjoy the view and take photos. We had been truly been blessed and spoilt with our day. We had the mountain path to ourselves, only shared when the porters came running by, enjoying each other’s company as we looked in amazement at the beauty of something that was perhaps going to cause us so much pain. It looked so imposing, our group like a tiny caterpillar slowly crawling its way up this monster of a mountain.

We were so lucky on this day, all alone and blessed with glorious sunshine, all those that we had seen the day before bombing onto the next camp as they wanted to reach the summit a little quicker. More fools them. How grateful I was and perhaps others too that we had that extra day to climb. I have mentioned before how that I am normally in a rush to see so much of one place when I travel. Thankfully this time the mountain was showing me everything it could as I took my time. Lessons to be learnt here perhaps. We indulged in the salubrious surroundings and some took full advantage with their cameras. We eventually arrived at the camp uplifted by what we had witnessed. Our camp was small this evening, with I think only 15 or so people. The older members of our group took some time to rest before the customary yet friendly rivalry over cards. I couldn’t sleep so found a perfect spot on the edge of a rock and sat and soaked up the view whilst trying to read a book. I soon couldn’t read as I was distracted by the incredible view. Words can’t describe how amazing the view was, to the left of my viewpoint I could see the white sea (a phrase used for describing the large number of clouds as one sat above them), to the right I could see the terrain we had covered getting here and behind me stood the monster mountain. I was eventually joined by my dear friend, Sam, and we sat and discussed the world in which we live. 3 days in and I asked as to what on earth we were going to go home to. We were completely disconnected from the cyber world. This wasn’t a fantasy world and we experienced a dose of reality. We decided to explore the camp and came across a couple of our helpers. Two lovely gentleman who would do anything for you out of kindness and probably for very little money. Their smiles so endearing. Conversation was difficult, language barriers and all that, and I wish we could have interacted more with these incredible members of our group. I will never forget Andrew and Nordin. So, we left our new found friends and made our way back to the main tent just as the others awoke in anticipation of an evening of cards as the sun set on perhaps the best day of the trip.

Day 4
Shira Camp 2 – Branco Camp
10km – 6hrs walking

 The first tough day was what Omari gave us warning about in his briefing at dinner last night. He wasn’t wrong in my eyes.

We were going to walk up to Lava tower to get an experience of altitude of 4600m and see how we would cope with altitude sickness. It all sounded easy; some were hoping to feel something on the way. As for me, I just wanted to enjoy the day and hoped I had no signs or symptoms at all.

It was cloudy as we set off. We were walking to some crossroads on the edge of the mountain. Yesterday it had been pointed out to us about another camp on a different route was directly opposite us on another ridge. During the day we were able to trace their pinpoint shapes on the horizon before we merged and joined the same route. It was here that we realised how lucky those previous, quiet days were as we went from 15 people to over 200 people now crawling up the mountain. A toxic combination of loud talking, colourful accents and loud music made for an unappealing part of our trip.

We finally arrived at heavily populated Lava camp. Personally, I was grateful to arrive and pop some pain killers and recuperate. The others claimed not to have experienced anything. I rather collapsed into my chair to rest and relax. We enjoyed a lovely meal, before meeting our chef who was cooking us some lovely meals on the mountain. I kissed him on the cheek as a way of saying thanks and he was slightly puzzled by this gesture!!

We went back to the welcome sign to get our regulation sign-in picture before setting off back down and round the mountain towards our evening camp. As we started our descent from Lava tower the cold had crept in and meant that we needed to wrap up warm. By the time we reached evening most of these extra layers had been peeled off. This was a downward stretch to the camp as we had gone up for an acclimatisation meal only and were going to spend the next 2 days climbing back up to the same height. As we approached our camp, it was carefully pointed out to us what the start of the next day’s route was. I didn’t think much of it, but it did look pretty steep. Others in the group were a little more concerned, and perhaps hiding fears they had. Our route to camp had become more appealing as there was more vegetation and trees and water seemed to make the landscape more beautiful than that to which we had become accustomed. Arrival into camp meant signing in, before ensuring we got a group photo and finding our tents. We weren’t pleased to see a group of 25 tents next to us, expecting a noise that would disrupt our evening. Thankfully their late arrival wasn’t noticed, their probably shorter route clearly taking its toll, they must have clambered into their tents exhausted and we barely heard anything from them. An evening of cards pursued before our newly accustomed early night for sleep.

Day 5
Branco Camp – Karanga Camp
6km – 4hrs walking

 Waking up, no alarm, what a place to be. Ours was one of the first groups up and ready. We wanted this and had planned it the night before to beat the rush up the cliff. It probably would have been a good idea to hand my daily diary for this day over to my good mate to describe the climb, not in a light-hearted tease but so that he could perhaps express the feelings in the best way, as we encountered what was for some, not only a severe climb but terrifying leaps of faith. Legs shook, bags were dispatched as what seemed like a fight for survival on our mission to get up this route proved rather challenging. The old man showed no signs of weakness (yet there was some apparently), I was surprisingly fine with it all and Sam was christened ‘shaky Sam’ as it was too much for him. After many nerve-jangling moments, lots of laughter and support we all finally made the summit of the cliff where we were able to take stock and relax. I went off in the pursuit of those photos with Mike and Omari. Izandini, assistant guide, stayed with the others who didn’t dare leave their perches on the safe ground. After a period of rest, we were ready to set off again as we went back down the other side of the ridge that we had climbed before climbing up the next ridge to our camp.

Along the way we were now much more relaxed and engaged in conversation with each other. We also joined in conversations with other groups going past as well as all the porters flying along the path. The sight of these porters working really is impressive yet cruel. We passed one who was struggling so we gave him all the food we had to give him the energy to keep on going. He didn’t take it just for himself but shared it amongst his colleagues. Their energy consumption must be so much more than ours yet were surviving on very little. Towards the end we had to go down an up one of the ridges to our camp. By this point I was now severely struggling with a flu bug and coughing up I hate to think what at every possible opportunity. We made it down and took rest at the river before the final climb up to our camp and watched as some of the other porters from other groups descended by different routes from ours. Incredible sight as they picked a route and just went for it, where’s the health and safety? Our porters were busy walking to and from the river to get fresh mountain water, our camp already made up for us. We arrived, exhausted from another big day, knowing that the next day was the last easy day before the biggest day of the trip. Sign in was completed and the customary photo was taken before an early night. Our dinner was accompanied by a vivid sunset. During yesterday’s briefing we were told to stop playing cards and staying up late for this one evening to ensure we were in the best shape possible. Promises were also made to Omari not to let him down, and, if we struggled, to dig deep. It wasn’t going to be easy…..

Day 6
Karanga Camp – Barafu Camp
4km – 3hrs

We woke up in stages again. Mike and I were the first risers. We set off with cameras to catch that magical morning sunrise. It really is a poetic and remarkable way to start the day, and one I wish I could experience more when I return to reality. Everyone now finally surfaced we all convened in the main tent for breakfast. Our walk today was to Barafu Camp or base camp! The final stop before we attempted to reach the summit. The walk was short but steep. We rested, as always, at different points along the way. At one of the last resting places we all remarked about a couple of Arab/French lads who we saw were rushing up the mountain. Perhaps they were in pursuit of an Instagram photo (it doesn’t always need to be instant!).

Rumours and whispers abounded as we doubted they’d make it! Later it was confirmed that they didn’t even make it out of the camp that night. All that wasted money on a trip to reach a peak and they were unable to do so. My advice to them would have been to respect the guides they were with and respect the mountain. We arrived slowly but safely into camp just before lunch. The camp was heaving as people were arriving in preparation for their ascent and people were descending off the mountain. A real smorgasbord of emotions was evident, as some people were clearly overjoyed at their achievement and those who were waiting had a sense of fear and trepidation at what was to come. Tales and rumours were shared as it suddenly dawned on our group that it was about to get real. We tried to spend the rest of the day sleeping and resting before our midnight ascent. Difficult when the tent was perched on the edge of mountain, with ever changing weather conditions and hundreds of people walking past.

We were awakened by the ever reliable porter. So, we started to layer up. Our advice for going up was to wear a minimum of 5 layers to prepare for the cold and to cover our water bottles in a sock to ensure that our water didn’t freeze. By now all clothes packed had been worn so a rather dirty and smelling sock was used to provide much needed insulation for the water bottles. Hygiene of a different kind. We convened in the main tent for the final prep, a cup of soup was drunk, coats were zipped up, gloves were put on and headlights were turned on.

We were all set and ready to go a little bit before midnight.

 Day 7
Barafu Camp – Uhuru point – Barafu Camp – Mweka Camp
5km – 7hrs, 5km – 3hrs, 10km – 4.5hrs

 So, our slow plod had begun, just like all the other campers that were at Barafu Camp. Guided by the expertise of our guides and small lights on our head, we had 1400 metres to climb in 4km. I probably would say that this is a steep gradient! Not long into our walk and the Gaffa was the first to break. He complained of struggling to breathe and coldness in his hands. Regular stops were made to accommodate him and looking after the old man and ensuring that he made it to the top with us. The other three of us seemed okay at this time. Not for long though. I eventually broke, two hours from the top. My body felt like it had nothing to give. Completely lacking in energy, I was now dragging myself up this mountain, looking at the stars to try to inspire and guide me. Those people who don’t believe that altitude sickness is a thing are very mistaken. How I made it I don’t know, and what I can remember is a slight blur, although Sam supported me very well up the mountain. I didn’t find his talking very motivational. And told him so!

We finally made our first target – Stellar point. Never have I felt so relieved at seeing a sign. I wanted to kiss it as the pain of getting there had been so much, my emotions clearly getting the better of me. Apparently, there was a sunrise happening around me. That was lost on me as I celebrated on making the top. I perhaps should ask the others for their feeling at this point. After a short rest we climbed the final 200m to Uhuru point. This was somewhat of an anti-climax after stumbling and crawling to Stellar point. The pain and jubilation of arriving here seemed more that the actual top of the mountain.

Gaffa was a little quiet and cold; all he wanted was the picture and to return. That dreaded altitude sickness badly affected him, but he made it. I had managed a second lease of life and although I had a banging head wanted to appreciate the surroundings I was in. We got that iconic picture under the sign before rather rapidly making our descent down the mountain.

A combination of running and skiing down got us down as quickly as possible. As we went down it was incredible to think that we had walked up this in pitch blackness. Such an array of emotions was overtaking us all. As we approached camp there was Andrew, one of my adopted favourites, to greet us back and carry our bags back. I don’t think he was expecting a proper man hug from me as I ran towards him. He was clearly very happy at our success. As we all arrived into camp the heavens opened. Sleet poured down on us. How lucky we were that it came then and not at any other point on the trip. A celebratory Coca Cola awaited us, which I declined (New Year’s resolution). The porters enjoyed the drink instead of me.

A quick pit stop allowed us to rest (apparently) and take off some layers and get ready for a wet walk to our final night on the mountain. Our spirits were clearly high. We felt over the moon though our mood was a bit dampened by the rain. Rather than rejoicing all the way down we were physically exhausted and stumbled down. I can recall having to pause at one point for Gaffa to throw up, the altitude sickness still taking its toll.

Walking on a considerable high yet with our eyes almost shut, our pace was slow. I think it is safe to say that we were exhausted. Eventually we crashed into camp an hour or so before darkness, Sam clearly feeling more tired than most and was already snoring whilst some of us took a wash. We had to wake him from his slumber as our guide had managed to surprise us with some birthday beers and a bottle of wine. What a perfect end to our mountain odyssey, we somehow managed to stay awake and enjoy good food, company and cards. We headed to bed probably a bit tipsy, our first alcohol in a week, and I will probably speak for all when I say we slept like logs.

Day 8
Mweka Camp – Mweka Gate
10km – 3hrs

 All good things must come to an end. We woke up one final time in our now smelly surroundings. 8 days of no shower and reusing worn clothes had taken its toll. We stepped out of our unhygienic living conditions into similar glorious weather with which we had previously been blessed. A slight coldness was felt as we breathed under warming blue skies. The sun was shining and so were we! Smiles that couldn’t be wiped or washed off our faces as we woke from our well-earned slumber. We traced our steps back to the entrance to the camp to get that customary photo under the sign. It was time for our final meal – our chef Saidi had delivered excellent food throughout. Kabila the ever-reliable porter delivered our food, his limited English able to describe what we were about to eat. Normally, our daily routine would be getting our bags out and preparing for the long walk ahead. Today was different, we got our bags out, but were then walked over to a clearing in the trees. Here our 16 helpers came together to sing and dance and wish us on our way. Some of us joined in with the celebration while others observed. We said our thanks and after many high fives, hugs and pictures we got ourselves together for one final walk. A short 3 hour stroll from Mweka camp to the Mweka gate. The adopted member of our group, Mike, was more like walking spaghetti by now – shoe problems – but he was a member of our team, so we supported him just like he supported us up the mountain. For the three musketeers the promise of a bar was too much as we wanted to run down the remaining part of the mountain.

We eventually limped wearily to the gate. We had to complete the customary signing out procedures, as our chief also collected our certificates. During this time we had found our porters had overtaken us and were already in their van and sharing a well earned bottle of local vodka. We joined in their celebrations as we didn’t want to say goodbye. We finally collapsed into our van and made the short drive to a local outlet store. No DJ Khaled to drive us this time sadly. This was nothing like the designer outlets back home. It was a prearranged destination, considerably well-built when compared to the local neighbourhood. There was clearly an agreed deal to bring us here to part with our money. We had none! All had to be done on tabs and settled up later as we had been told not to bring any money with us up the mountain.

Spend we certainly did, gifts were bought for loved ones and drinks were bought for the many. Dollars spent, presents packed and a drink for the journey home. We finally crashed back to the hotel at lunchtime, with a new lease of life and ready to party! There was a much-needed shower, a pool waiting and a bar the contents of which needed drinking. We did all three, yet still came back to a new-found love of cards. Perhaps a perfect end to our trip as we indulged in a few more games and a bottle of red.


Memorable Mountain

Kilimanjaro! Where different worlds collide
Cultures and differences put aside
Tourists and locals unite
We weren’t here to fight

Mt Uhuru, it looked such a beast
As we wandered from west to east
A monster who provides so much hope
How would us tourists cope

Omari was our captain
As we walked the mountain
We were One team
With One dream

With every step
I wish I’d done more prep
Our progress was slow
Our route I would have liked to know

To myself and locals alike
Burdened by the chains of daily life
The mountain represented freedom
It was the pinnacle of Africa’s kingdom

Oh you rugged peak
You looked so bleak
That cold night temperature
Was worth it for the adventure

Promises were given
We certainly were driven
Guided by a million stars
It seemed so far

We reached the top
I’d wanted to stop
A bag of mixed emotions
‘Outdoors’ the great addiction

So there we stood
who could tell our mood
upon the roof of Africa
T.I.A. – This is Africa

North Island Appreciated!

View from Henrys Peak – Mt Egmont National Park

As I find seat B in row 68 and try to get comfy for the long flight back home, I have sadness in my heart that this trip to New Zealand (NZ) has come to an end. The end of any trip is always a bag of mixed emotions, and I guess this time is no exception.

As I look out of the window and get my final view of Aotearoa (land of the long white cloud) our ascent takes us out of and over Auckland, I have to admit that Auckland isn’t the best memory with which to leave. Auckland was one of the disappointing places we visited on this trip; maybe if the flight path had taken us over New Plymouth or East Cape I would have been reminded me of happier times. The memories I have created on this trip to both the south and north islands will last with me for a lifetime.

My return home doesn’t excite me; ~28hrs flying time and a 4hr stopover in Hong Kong Airport gives me enough time to realise that I’m leaving behind my escape from routine and returning to the mundane daily grind full of busyness and gridlocked roads. The lack of excitement is also because I don’t have my next adventure planned as yet. Thinking about it, though, it may be that this is a good thing for all the plans that one makes may mean that one misses out on whatever opportunity arrives tomorrow. Planning was a big part of the preparation for this trip but changes to plans meant that unexpected alternatives were enjoyed.

I read something well known that challenged me while I was away, and I feel applies to me more than anything else that I have read of late – work to live, don’t live to work. Some people aspire to be successful in the workplace and devote their lifetime to the pursuit of position and status – that isn’t me. Yes, I work hard but only so that I can fulfil the dream that I have, which is to discover as much of my homeland and to learn and appreciate as much of this beautiful world as possible. It strikes me that until one travels one does not realise what a wonderful world it is we live in. Travelling has been the greatest education I’ve ever had; it has shown and taught me life, opened my eyes when I was ‘blind’, and for that I can only be grateful to my parents for instilling this travel lust in me and for friends who have been prepared to share my experiences.

I thrilled in an action-packed adventure, some of the best scenery this world has to offer, witnessed nature enjoying freedom, have endured endless miles of driving, sipped on some beautiful wine, met and partied with some delightful people and I wouldn’t have wanted to change a thing. I have covered more than 5500 miles in the 5 weeks spent on both islands. The NZ roads are tailored for road trip lovers and driving enthusiasts. Being neither, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the almost regular occurrence of having the road to myself for most of that particular part of the journey and with outstanding views around me – how different from driving from city to city and within cities back home. 5 weeks probably wasn’t long enough to do the country justice. It feels that I just scratched the surface, and probably didn’t spend enough time enjoying this incredible country.

The North Island is almost a different country from its neighbouring South Island. My feelings are so mixed and torn about this island. It is light years ahead of the South Island in commercial terms and its similarities to the rest of the world make for my lack of enthusiasm for the North Island compared to the South Island. The modernity of the world in which we live with its commerce and technology, necessary though it may be, can be depressing. I make no secret of my belief that we find far too much entertainment and pleasure in modern technology, lack the ability to communicate with the gifts we were given (ears and mouths rather than fingers and thumbs), and have little enthusiasm to get outside and enjoy the free things in life. We’re more concerned with what other people are doing rather than living our own lives. It is probably only a matter of time before the fear of doing anything other than checking Facebook finally takes over. Parts of the North Island are, in this respect, like the rest of the world, and as I flew out I found no desire to return to these places. The next trip to NZ will bypass certain places. Perhaps this is why I fell in love with Havana in Cuba and appreciated the South Island so much more.

The North Island, apparently fished up by the demi god Mauri, is replete with rolling hills, lush green land, wonderful coastline and dense forests. Parts of it resemble rural England or Sweden. As a whole the landscapes are less dramatic than the South Island but there are some wonderful volcanic mountains to be seen especially in the centre of the island. Wonderful displays of culture may be witnessed in places like Rotorua.

Over 75% of the country’s population live in the North Island, and 60% of the nation’s population live in Auckland!! Like London in England, Auckland is almost its own country within a country, and so completely different from the rest of the land.

Travelling the west coast led to the discovery of New Plymouth, one of my favourite spots on the North Island. It is home to the usual NZ power icons, an impressive mountain, beautiful beaches, endless treks and incredible surf. It was easy to see why this part of the North Island soon became my favourite. Almost undiscovered by international tourists it is more of a holiday destination for locals. It was charming, peaceful and provided everything I need for how I would love to live my life.

Forgetting my stop in disappointing Raglan and Auckland, the next part of my trip took me to the Bay of Islands. We were lucky to avoid a massive thunderstorm (what would the boat trip have been like had we been caught up in that?) and I was able to enjoy a truly wonderful day, blessed with unexpected sunshine, exploring one of NZ’s iconic locations. This pleasure was made even more so by the brilliance of Captain Billy, not a Kiwi by birth but clearly has adopted the nation’s passion for the outdoors. His knowledge and skills were truly incredible, and my appreciation can’t be put into words. When you see nature in the raw one cannot help but feel a slight anger towards these waterparks and zoos that trap these animals. After seeing so many species on this trip and recalling previous encounters on a safari, I never want to visit a zoo/aquarium again. There is something truly wonderful about experiencing these animals in the wild but, to be fair by not forgetting how blessed I was to be able to get to the other side of the world for a third time, to get to see them may cost more than going to the local zoo. Sighting dolphins was a small part of this whole day trip and all too brief, but Captain John and the wonderful coastline made for more than adequate compensation.

I fell in love with the East Cape just like I had the west coast. It has been a long time since I have stood a while and appreciated the sunrise. What an experience it was in this location.

It was here that, again, I realised what an incredible world we live in. Standing on the beach, filling my lungs with fresh air, watching the sun change the colour of the sky almost like evolving art, the birds singing in the trees behind, the fresh sea water running over my feet as my toes dug into the ground, I was whisked away into a semi trance. Not disturbed by anyone, a smile and happiness on my face at that moment, thankfully not captured on camera (resisting the temptation to take the ubiquitous selfie) this was unbridled joy. Wherever we find ourselves shouldn’t we all really take the time to ensure that we start each day with the realisation of its newness and freshness, how blessed we are to be alive and enjoy that alone, forgetting about all the worries and problems in the world and get lost in that moment in preparation to go out and live. We should be grateful for each day – we do not know if tomorrow will come. Carpe diem and all that.

This blog gives a brief insight into a few of my favourite moments of this island. I could talk and talk about each and every day, but there is no need to bore you all. I haven’t even covered the discovery of Tauranga, delightful Doubtless Bay, the geothermal wonderland of Rotorua, brilliant Gisborne nor criticised the disappointing Hawkes Bay. The memories are etched in my mind forever and ever. Perhaps these will be shared one day, in a blog or over a pint, but for now they will remain in my memory bank. Until the next adventure!!

Spectacular South

Star jumping at Monkey Creek – Fiorland National Park

Kia Ora. This is my first blog on New Zealand. My whole year has been dedicated to this trip due to its cost, annual leave entitlements and seasonal conditions. My final itinerary for this trip, tried to cover everything that this country has to offer – its culture, cities, lifestyle and scenery.

The start of my journey began in charming Christchurch and has finished with the delightful ferry across to the North Island through the Marlborough Sounds. It also took in the unforgettable Stewart Island plus many more memorable stops along the way. This first half of my 5-week adventure has blown my mind and opened my eyes to some of the most spectacular scenery, met some of the proudest people and participated in many awesome activities. There were emotional post-earthquake scenes in Christchurch, the amazing Milford Sound, the spectacular Aoraki Mt Cook and the surprising Stewart Island are to list just a few of the highlights. Beauty comes in many forms (people, scenery, buildings, are just a few) and this country has delivered so many beautiful “post card moments” I’m sure if we all look at our own countries we could find such other amazing areas of beauty. But as one of the hostels I stayed in says, “Travel changes your perspective”. As a result I have set myself the challenge of finding that beauty back home, before I go off exploring on my next adventure.

The South Island is so diverse, full of myth and mystery, such different dynamics in every region. It’s so rich in everything it has to offer, I have been well and truly spoilt in the weather and everything I have seen. The east coast so dry and well populated (the two major cities are here), the west coast in complete contrast is wet and remote (feels like a million miles from anywhere). The north so pleasant and warm, in complete contrast to the south

where it’s generally cold and chilly. The middle of the island has been sculpted to leave some of the most panoramic lake and mountain views I have ever seen. My time here has been limited, due to my work commitments but I have tried my hardest to view as much of the country as physically possible in my time. If only I had longer?!

The South Island’s reliance on tourism is increasingly evident the more you travel around it. There is proof that the lay of the land has been reliant on agriculture, but not as much as I first expected. The native people realise this, they are proud of what they own and are only too glad to show it off to anyone who visits it. Maybe something we could learn from back home in the UK?! The NZ government also has a huge part to say in this and is ensuring that the legacy of this incredible country lives on.  The Kiwi people have an adorable charm about everything they do, which has been manifested in the time spent with them. It has also highlighted that time also seems to evaporate with them. Something about tourism here is so completely different to other parts of the world, comfort issues, the begging for tips, passion in every person, etc. are noticeable differences.

The main tourist activities of the TranzAlpine train ride, Milford sound, Queenstown and Kaikoura were wonderful in their own way, but were expensive and overcrowded. Take yourself off the normal tourist track and discover a true New Zealand. Find cascading waterfalls, many national park walks, visit the sound of silence and escape reality, and finally visit Stewart Island one of the highlights of my trip!

Some of the main tourist activities referred to above have generally been too commercial to appreciate fully, and this is reflected in my loving them less than the other places I have visited. Like back home, and the rest of world, the need to capitalise has overtaken the beauty there is to appreciate. Maybe I could have been a little braver and tried to find a way of doing these things on my way or terms. The days I’ve loved the most have taken me on a voyage of discovery, that has somehow taken me out of my comfort zone and has rewarded me in riches that will never ever translate into monetary value. The way I feel now is that I am the richest man alive.

Nature has created so many of the things that I have been able to appreciate on this exploration. It’s created and defined a lasting legacy, and is still trying to have an effect. The recent earthquakes have clearly destroyed parts of this land, but the people accept it as part of who they are. They live and deal with it. They don’t hide behind it; they accept it and move on. I found myself wanting to join them with a respect for it and doing my best to preserve it. Perhaps we should all look at our daily lives and think how we could reduce the impact we have on the environment? It was heart breaking that the one thing I wanted to complete on this trip was to see whales in their natural habitat, sadly that was deprived of me due to nature speaking itself in gale force winds. Hopefully I will be able to see that in the second half of the trip.

It’s with sadness in my heart that the first half of my trip has concluded. It’s been more than I expected, the stuff of dreams and fantasy, and has been achieved through desire, passion and hard work. I look forward to some rest and family time over Christmas before tackling the second half of my trip this time around the north island.

Where time stood still!

In what is rapidly becoming a depressing era in which to live, how refreshing it was to visit Havana. This escape from my real world was so magical that I wish I’d stayed longer. There was history at every corner. I was able to enjoy the city’s famous rum and cigars, and its music and dance entertainment.

Havana stole my heart!

Of course I had images of what to expect, but I hope never to have these again on all future trips as they often leave you disappointed. Havana itself didn’t disappoint; it blew my mind and it is without doubt the best city I have visited so far on my travels. It had always been a dream of mine to get there; I had heard so much about it that I was intrigued to go to experience it and prove that dreams can come true.

After visiting this capital, it is my opinion that everyone should visit Havana at least once in their lifetime, and visit it as soon as possible. I’m torn as the place needs some TLC (probably more now after the recent hurricanes that affected the area), but a huge part of me hopes that modernisation doesn’t destroy the unique beauty of this place. Time has almost stopped on this city and as the rest of the world develops and loses it soul and identity, Havana has retained its own. The spirit of the city lives on. Unlike the rest of the world nothing is fake. It is real; it lives and breathes as you admire and experience this iconic city. Havana is Havana; it doesn’t fall into the trap of trying to be something it is not and if there are other cities around the world like this then I want to see them.

As I continue to blog, you will learn that I like to walk. I experience everything that a place has to offer by foot. I reckon that I see so much more than one does on the open top bus tours. I get to experience the real city; I get lost; I stumble upon those unexpected views, unearth those gems, discover those fascinating people, plus the health and environmental benefits are incredible. The everyday hustle and bustle isn’t there, you can relax and enjoy yourself, the sound of music galvanises and entertains. The non-existence of iconic designer shops, coffee and food outlets that have proliferated so many cities around the world adds to Havana’s unique charm. Walking the streets of this famous city, I’m not having to fight with people for my piece of pavement; it is so refreshing to be ​​able to enjoy the city by foot, to look at people and see the twinkle in their eyes, the smiles on their faces as they enjoy life, everyone is polite and friendly, smiles greet you wherever you look, nobody is distracted, people mingle and enjoy each other’s company, there are no tears or sadness around.

One cannot ignore Cuba’s history or present situation, I did try to understand its fascinating history, but I feel I just scratched the surface. There is much to learn of its relationship with America and Western Europe, its revolution, the Castro family etc. The former presidential palace is now a museum (Museo de la Revolucion) and displays some evidence of Cuba’s intriguing past. It is constantly guarded by the nation’s soldiers and is worth the entrance fee. I cannot forget to mention its relationship with America – the rest of the world can’t seem to live without America – Cuba seems to have managed without one!! When I arrived the the Americans had just got their embassy, situated on the famous Malecon. I have never seen a building so well fortified, so much so that I felt a little scared as I wandered by.

The Malecon, the 8km road that stretches around the north of the city, is probably one of those ‘famous drives’. By day nothing is going on apart from some locals fishing off the sea wall’s edge as it is battered by the Atlantic. Stare out towards the sea and see nothing but ocean. The lack of boats and freight ships creates a unique sense of calm. Only one big ship making a delivery was seen in 3 days and a harbour doesn’t really exist apart from 1 or 2 boats moored in an inlet. The Malecon by night is the hub of activity as people flock to meet likeminded people in search of love and romance. What a contrast to the digital dating that now has changed our world. Sit here and enjoy some local rum and lookout almost into a black abyss.

Leave here and head towards some of its squares, each one a complete contrast to the other. Plaza de Armas, peaceful and quiet, is dominated by a local market or book sale. Plaza de la Catedral is dominated by the Catedral de San Cristobal, and the others, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Veija, are lively being filled with bars and restaurants. Everyone flocks to these places and enjoys companionship. One cannot ignore the Revolutionary square either though it is more than a little walk away. It is worth the visit – walk through Vedado district to get there. It is home to the Cuban government, and has various monuments to key revolutionaries with their images wired on the tall buildings almost signalling their importance to its history. I was hoping to be able to get to the top of Memorial Jose Marti but I was sadly rebuffed by soldiers.

My time here was all too brief. It should have been a longer visit, and hopefully I will return one day, or find another city that offers an escape from this so called digital world. For now, I will live in this farcical digital era, with accusations and confessions and wonder what on earth will happen next.

Havana, La Habana, Cuba