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Monday, 17 September 2012

The top of Africa

The Journey to plant the International Year of Co-operatives flag on the top of Africa, August 25 – September 1, 2012.

Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest point in Africa, often called the “Top of Africa”.  One of the most interesting things about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is the unique ecosystems. At the lower elevations, there is a belt of forests and as we proceeded up the mountain, there was less and less vegetation.

Here’s our journey:

For those who haven’t been following the blog, we had a great team.:  Three of us are career co-operators who work together at Canadian Co-operative Association International Development division:  Ingrid Fischer, Africa Region Director, and a Canadian who resides in Uganda, Lydia Phillips, Asia/Americas Region Director and Jo-Anne Ferguson Senior Director.  Lydia and Jo-Anne work in the Ottawa office.  We were joined by two friends:  Monnie Biety, international consultant for credit unions, who resides in Colorado and her niece Gabrielle Markel, who just finished high school and lives in Alaska.  (Gabrielle brought the average age of the team down.)
Our first glimpse of the mountain
The trip was a year in planning. We researched and worked on our personal conditioning.  When our dear friend Myrna Bentley had to withdraw due to her health she committed to accompany us in spirit.  We took a deep breath and knew we simply had to make it to the top.  

This was our first glance of Kilimanjaro as the plane landed.  We started to sense the reality of our challenge even though the mountain still seemed a long way away.

Our guide, Raymond, and his MEC gaiters

There are several routes to the top.  We chose the Lemoshe 8-day route as it offered the best chance of success giving us time to adapt to the altitude.  Ultimate Kilimanjaro was our guiding company and we were pleased with their competence and supportive approach.  We had two Guides, one Assistant Guide, a Cook and 16 Porters carrying camping and cooking equipment.  We found a co-op connection -- our Guide Raymond wore gaiters from Mountain Equipment Co-op!

It is NOT a wilderness hike – you may get tired but you won’t get lost!  At any time there are hundreds of trekkers on the mountain lead by qualified guides and porters. We shared a camp each night with about 200 hikers.    Here’s one of the camps: 

All trekkers proceed “pole pole” (pronounced polĕ - polĕ) which means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili and is the best advice for anyone who wants to make it to the top. After carefully reading the instructions (better late than never) we were ready to go.


We spent our first day and part of the second day in the forest. It’s very lush dense vegetation with heavy rainfall.  This is from about 1,800 to 2,800 meters.    It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Entering the forest zone

View of the forest zone


The heather zone is a transition from the forest to the moorland. We found mist and fog close to the forest and low-growing shrubs growing in dense masses.

Amazing fauna:


This is an open area with peaty soil covered with heather and bracken and moss. It’s very cool and clear climate and it’s where we really started to feel the elevation changes.  We had frost on our tents in the morning and the sun was very intense during the day. 

Jo-Anne showing off the frosty tent
From our camp on day 3, we had a closer look at our goal – the top of Kilimanjaro!  The excitement was growing and we tried to keep the butterflies in our stomachs flying in formation.

The Moorland was interesting and made us think of Lord of the Rings.


This is generally anywhere above 14,000 ft and we arrived here on day 5.  It has very intense radiation, high evaporation and big fluctuations in the temperature. At nights it was about zero Celsius and about 20 degrees Celsius during the day. There is little to no water and pretty much no plant life. 

Ingrid in the alpine zone

and more climbing....
(L-R) Ingrid, Lydia and Jo-Anne

Lydia with a snow/ice ball

Remember we said that we weren’t alone on the mountain?  Well, here’s the rush hour on a narrow pass that all hikers and porters must go through. 

Our guide, Wilson, looking for a merge lane.

That night, from our tents we realized that our target was coming within reach.  Butterflies be still.....


This was incredible!

On our last day before the assent we had cold arctic conditions with half the amount of oxygen we were used to. It was hot, intense sun during the day and extremely cold, freezing temperatures at night.   There is little protection from the sun and no surface water.  It was hard work for the Porters, The second-last camp was the last water source and porters carried the water several hundred metres to that camp and then it was a five hour hike to the last camp- Barafu.  The water we drank and cooked with had been carried from very far away.


We had an amazing view of the top of Kilimanjaro from our tents – we were above the clouds in clear and sunny conditions.

We kept an eye on the peak and on the rising full moon.

We started for the summit at midnight and walked by the full moon following the winding switchbacks in a long snaking line of more than a hundred of trekkers.  Along the way we were serenaded by 3 accapella singers.  It was amazing and completely unexpected -- with so little oxygen, maybe I imagined it! 

Lead by the “blue moon”, it took about 6 hours to reach the first point at the summit – Stella`s Point.

We knew we would all reach the top once we got this far.  Only 45 minutes to Uhuru - the highest point.  

The moon was setting and the sun was rising.  Both so close that you could reach out and touch them … if you had any energy to reach – I stuck with polĕ – polĕ, one step after another.  The light of the sunrise on the glacier was a sight I can never forget – a full range of blues and pinks

Whoopee!  Now the time we’d been anticipating for more than a year – unfurling the 2012 International Year of Co-operatives flag on the Top of Africa.  We took our time with lots of photos of this memorable moment.

Okay, so we had made it! Now what ………………..Oh the way down ….
Not sure we carefully considered the fact that as high up as you climb you must descend.  The Summit is a combination of rock and thin sand-like dirt.  We sort of skied down (telemark style) the first 1.5 kilometers. 
After that it was back to polĕ-polĕ till we arrived back at base camp at 10:30 a.m.  It had been an incredible ten-and-a-half hour journey.  We had seen the full moon – the blue moon- and the sunrise on the Top of Africa!  

From now on, when we see a full moon, we`ll feel a flood of emotions and amazement to wonder at the beauty of nature and our good fortune at having seen it so close up.
After a brief rest, we continued down the mountain, feeling stronger and more lucid as we got more oxygen at lower altitudes.  

Affinity Credit Union, Saskatoon, provided toques for all our Guides and Porters. Myrna Bentley arranged this before she had to withdraw from the climb.  These hats will keep them warm on their next climb
Our team started together and ended together – all having seen the Top of Africa!  What an incredible experience.

Just before the end, there was a wonderful viewpoint to look back at the challenge we had completed:

It was the same Kilimanjaro we’d seen from the airplane just 8 days earlier, or was it.... we had a new appreciation of what it takes to meet the challenge and new understanding of the beauty and majesty of the Top of Africa. 
We were extremely lucky -- we each had some minor high-altitude symptoms but no major problems, not even a blister!

Hope you enjoyed reading about our trek, we enjoyed writing about it.

Ingrid, Jo-Anne, Lydia  


Most striking image:
Prayer flags battered by the wind on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

How was the weather?
We were extremely lucky and had sunshine mixed with clouds every day except one.... we were in a downpour on day 3.  When we got to camp, we were all wet, cold but incredibly ... not cranky.  Although maybe there was a moment when Lydia & Jo-Anne sat helplessly on their duffle bags on a piece of plastic and realized that a lake was forming under their tent.  When the rain stopped, we hung our gear out and remarkably, nobody slept in a wet sleeping bag and all our clothes were dry to start the next day.

What was the best decision we made?  To hire our own biffy.

What critters did we see?
2 colobus monkeys, 2 very fat mice, 5-6 varieties of birds. Some of those few birds we saw are rare and endemic to Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru.  We saw a race of Montane Whiteeye that is endemic to Kilimanjaro and Meru, the fat little Alpine Chat is endemic to East Africa and found mostly above 3400 metres so not many habitats for him, the Banded Green Sunbird is only found in the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania, the white necked raven is not so rare.