Saturday, August 12, 2017

Thank you, God!

No, it is not what you think it is.

I have not forsaken rationalism for a sudden restoration of faith in some higher power.

You will get it as you read on.

People are attracted to certain places. Even the most nomadic ends up going back to that “one place” frequently. Growing up usually means family; which usually means holidays; which means you explore new places each year. However, one does not resist that “one place” which keeps calling out to him.

In my case, it is Kili.

The first time was in 2014, more out of a competitive spirit. My friend has done it, so I should. He did it in style on his 50th birthday, I must do it before I am 50. And so it came to pass. Read about it here.

The second time was in 2016. This time it was to honour a commitment to an acquaintance. And about this here.

It was on the descent from Kili in 2016, the seed to 2017 was sown. The garrulous guide and I found a common ground (one of the usual three with men) Football! (the other two are women and women). In the middle of Pep G going to City and what would happen to Yaya Toure and the special one going to Old Trafford and Chelsea’s chances of winning the league under Conte and so on and so forth, I expressed my desire of coming back again next year, with my family, and inquired if Mount Meru would be a good choice for the family, to be followed by the inevitable safari.

And he agreed that it would indeed be a good idea; and offered to render his services once again if I desired.

I act quickly. I returned in the second week of August and booked the dream vacation for the family in November. Little did I know that Mount Meru would push me to the limit in 10 months’ time.

And here one word, almost a commercial endorsement, in appreciation of Zara Adventures and the formidable lady, affectionately called by everyone as Mama Zara.

We stumbled on Zara, more by chance, the first time around in 2014. This is the 3rd time I spent with Zara and I can only recommend strongly to anyone who is interested in similar adventures/holidays. In all fairness I have not experienced any other tour operator, and in all probability they are good too. But the story of Mama Zara is inspiring and the warmth and smile that you get from her is genuine.

The holiday almost did not happen. Thanks to few of my friends who stood in the time of crisis, I could take the break that I desperately needed.

2nd of August 2017, exactly to the day I summited Kili the previous year, found self and family in the, now familiar surroundings of Kilimanjaro International Airport, roughly 1/5th the size of a modern city mall.

And the whole family was excited, a little unsure, and prepared ourselves for the next three gruelling days.

At this point in time, I had no idea exactly how gruelling it was going to be.

Day 1: Calm beginnings:

It was a routine day. Lulled everyone into a false sense of complacency. The ranger who accompanied us with a mean looking rifle turned out to be superfluous. No animals came within few hundred meters. We did see a giraffe soon as we started and few baboons and numerous birds. One bird had a call that sounded like a mobile beep and often led the group to halt and fumble for the phone.

The trek from Momella Gate to Miriakamba (1500 MSL to 2500 MSL) was like a walk in the park. We hardly broke sweat, and reached the first point in a decent time of 4 hours. To the rest of the family, 2500 MSL was already the highest they had ever reached. I envied them, as every step upward was going to be a new record for them, a la Sergei Bubka.



Another pleasant surprise was firm huts, with bed and mattresses, a proper dining room and toilets with running water. A welcome change from crawling into a small tent, on uneven ground, with wind whipping you all night, holding on to rickety tables and having dinner in a make do dining tent.

The walk was pleasant, the food exemplary (the guide Alfan (from Zara) throwing in some family touch by bringing special cutlery from his home in our honour) and soon after the dinner the family crept off to a peaceful sleep. It was getting colder, what else could one expect at 2500 MSL, but the sleeping bag provided enough comfort.

We were all bitten by various insects, had welts and rashes but the confidence of a series of vaccinations we had taken prior to the journey made us bold to march on.

Day 2: Day of “Buffaloes with acute Diarrhoea”

It had rained all night. It had to, right? What is a climb if the weather is going to be clement all along. It was still drizzling as we set off. The departure point was Miriakamba at 2500 and destination for the afternoon was Saddle Hut at 3500.

The path was consistently steep and constantly winding. And extremely narrow. The need for the ranger was vindicated as there was enough proof of buffaloes in the vicinity. The narrow bath was splattered with buffalo dung all along. It must have been a herd of them, and with an acute case of diarrhoea! We hopped and jumped and after a while gave up trying to avoid stepping on them. We reached the 3000 level in good time. The smiles were still on.



The day was soothing, we did not catch the sun at all. After the small lunch break at 3000 level the party split into two! The ranger, my wife and my daughter stayed in one group. The guide, me and my son took the lead. The second half was taxing, from 3000 to 3500. We trudged on. There is something that is extremely beautiful about the Mount Meru climb. One usually comes to the mountains seeking solitude and silence. Both were conspicuously absent on Kili. I had about 40 people in front of me and another 40 behind me at any given moment on Kili. The porters were noisy in the night. You missed the silence on Kili. Here, on the other hand, it was QUIET. There were probably just about 15 people climbing on that day. And the mountain was big enough to keep them at a good distance from each other and allow you the silence you craved. It was just a metronome plonk, plonk of your dreary legs one after another after another after another…
In the meantime, way behind us, unknown to us at the moment, my wife was struggling to make progress. The walking sticks which were meant for additional support became just an additional stuff to drag along. She refused to smile, make any progress and had I been around, would have probably murdered me, slowly at that. As she later confessed to us, it was thanks to our daughter, who not only carried her bag but also offered her numerous bits of encouragement.

When our daughter gets hyper, she gets HYPER!

The sun broke, probably symbolically, as the leading party reached the camp at 3500. We had to wait for a good part of an hour and a little more before the rearguard joined us. As a matter of fact, my daughter and the ranger joined us while my wife trickled in.

She had that “why the eff did I marry this guy” look on her face. She was extremely tired and on the verge of collapsing.

You can see her famous completely resigned walk here.


And when they finally made it to Saddle Hut, I was waiting at the entrance to the huts, with a correct worried expression on my face, and first saw our daughter jumping into view, like a Gazelle, waving frantically at me, then turning around, shouting to my wife, still behind the bush, to march on. And finally my wife came into view, struggling to walk straight, but finally managed to reach us.

Teary eyed, all emotions, she gratefully acknowledged the precious role that our daughter played on the way up from 3000 meter onward till Saddle Hut.
Like a Mafiosi would say “Family is important” 😃😃

You can see her pain in this proud picture of the full family reaching an altitude of 3500 MSL.

A proud family moment.



Another wonderful accommodation, another fantastic lunch and we all grabbed a quick hour of sleep. It could have been a three hour rest, if we had managed good time, nevertheless the important aspect was we made it this far, together.
At 1700 hours we set off for Little Meru: the mini summit at 3820m. The climb was steep, winding, less taxing, hardly technical, and a totally exuberant family made it to the top just as the sun was setting down.

We basked in the golden light and breathed in our moment.



In front of us, the imposing Kili was firstly golden, then pink as the sun dove deeper.

To our right, we saw the imposing and intimidating Mount Meru for the first time as the clouds cleared.


I shat.

It looked like a huge cobra with its hood spread and equally menacing. We could easily see the rim that we would traverse that night and a chill ran down my spine.

I looked at the mountain and stole a look at my wife and a decision was instantly made.

She was not going to make it.

I could be a dick frequently. And I was one on that evening too. I kept on pressurising her, giving her all the pep talks (Al Pacino, Bill Pullman, Barrack Obama…) and unnecessarily putting additional pressure on her.

She was firm and said that she would not go one meter above 3820, and that she was proud of what she had managed to achieve, more importantly together as a family.

Both my children, showed maturity beyond their years (as a matter of fact, more than what I displayed) and told me to not put pressure on her.

Over the dinner we decided, much to my wife’s relief, that she would go back to the comfort of the sleeping bag and the hut while the remaining idiots would set off later at midnight.

Here the credit for my wife not joining us on this, in hindsight a certain suicidal mission, goes to the Ranger and my children.

The ranger was blunt – these were his words, repeated verbatim, “No picture is worth your life”.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T.  I remembered the words of the great Ed Viesturs “The most important role of the guide is to get the client back to ground safely, not take to summit at any cost”

Day 3: The night of the walking dead.

A fitful sleep. The usual orchestra of piling on layers. Zero appetite.

On the plus side, the sky was clear, a bright moon shining giving the entire landscape an impossibly gossamer make up.

My daughter threw up just before the climb.

Perfect!

Five bobbing headlamps danced along the road. Unlike Kili, here it is not a climb that is
A
     L
         M
               O
                    S
                        T
                            V
                               E
                                    R
                                          T
                                              I
                                                 C
                                                     A
                                                         L
But serpentine and long and winding and gradual and …well,in one word, sickening!

We started well, silent but enthusiastic and soon our old nemesis THE WIND joined us, uninvited. It was brutal and buffeting and relentless.

Our first destination, a mini stop, like the bread crumbs dropped by Hansel and Gretel, was Rhino point, a shade below Little Meru in elevation at 3800.

It was the time for the second sensible person in the family to call it quits. My son could not breathe, mostly due to the stupid wind, and after valiantly trying as far as he could, he said “Bye Guys! Good luck. Am not risking anything anymore for just a mountain”

At times am amazed at the clarity of the next generation.

Between my wife and my son, my wife was wiser by 70 minutes 😃

As my son left with the assistant guide back to Saddle hut, my daughter who has inherited her weird genes from me, said “And then there were two”

I felt like strangling her, but that would have proved her forecast and I would have been standing alone saying “And then there was one”

We reached Rhino Point.



So far so good.

Then the bedlam began!

Without any warning we were face to face with a rock cropping, at an ugly angle, the end disappearing into the dark abyss, who said that the unknown does not affect you, it made it scarier, I was not certain if I would fall a few feet or forever into an abyss and the guide scampered across holding onto the chain that was nailed to the rock with the dexterity of a mountain goat and we were standing like, well, idiots, not knowing what to do. 

We mimicked what he did, used one hand on the chain, the other hand groping for a hold, any hold, that the walking stick could muster and crawled across.
Then the guide said the most horrible words I ever heard.

“Only two more”

What he did not say was, that there were two more such menaces with a chain to hold on to your dear life and there was a last one with NO CHAIN.

Kili was enervating, but never once did I feel my life was at peril. Here, within the first two hours I have already seen my obituary column in the newspapers.

The last manoeuvre of the rock cropping without chain was the scariest of my trekking life so far.

That wonderful record was about to be shattered with what awaited us further on, but I did not know it then.

After the crazy rock adventures, the long walk along the rim of the crater started.

From reading up about the trek earlier on, I knew that to my left was the
D
     E
         E
             P
                C
                    R
                        A
                            T
                               E
                                  R

And to my right was the sloping mountain, and in the dark I was not certain about the width of the ledge I was walking on.

I instructed my daughter who was walking ahead of me to walk in the middle.
Thankfully, or maybe she realised the futility of the wisecrack, she did not ask “Where is the middle?”

And the crazy, stupid, harsh. biting cold wind kept at us with no mercy. It did not stop or slow down even for a second.

We took shelters behind rocks to escape the wind and catch our breath only to step out into that merciless wind yet again.

We lost track of time! We were hopefully looking at the sky to see if it was brightening, hinting at daybreak, as that would mean we were getting closer to that “stupid wooden plank on the top of the mountain”

We were walking for what felt like eternity. The scary walk along the rim, not knowing what was on either side was far more scarier than the rock dance earlier.

Designed by a sadist, the walk kept taking you to the inside of the hooded cobra and back to the outside and each walk on the inside of the Cobra Hood, whilst it gave you the reprieve from the wind, scared the daylights out of you knowing that the endless crater was on your left, probably a few feet away.

Finally the day broke and we could see where we were going. To an extent, as the fog and clouds reduced visibility to a few meters and the wind was not making it any easier.

We saw the first climber returning, on his way back, and were certain that we were closer to the top.

The affable guide, punctured our hope, by saying that we were another 80 minutes away.

This defeated our resolve. I did not see any point in trudging on for another 80- meaningless minutes, but humans have this inexplicable feeling called “pride”, hard to swallow, impossible to admit.

With each step the father- daughter duo halted, contemplated, sighed and ploughed on.

With uncharacteristic snappiness I asked my guide ”Tell me how many more minutes, or how far ? and be true please.”

He ignored my insult, egged us on, clapped and sang and made me squirm with shame for the way I treated him with my earlier question.

And at the end of one of the longest nights in our life the father-daughter duo climbed two unassuming rocks and

Voila

We were in front of the stupid fucking plank.

My daughter demonstrated for the second time that she had inherited my gene.

She did exactly what I did when I reached the summit of Kili in 2014.

SHE CRIED.

The temptation to kick that stupid wooden plank vanished, and suddenly there were lot of tears, smiles, hugs and that indescribable sensation of summiting overwhelmed us.

I did the following things.

Hugged my daughter, sat down to rest and relax, apologised to the guide for my insolent behaviour and smiled like a moron as both the guides (the assistant guide had dropped my son and returned to join us, before we reached the summit by the way, another blow to our fragile ego) sang the regular mountain song (replacing Kilimanjaro with Mountain Meru) in our honour.



The descent is always the same. You climb down in a sense of disbelief. The eerie landscape in daylight made the ordeal of the previous night even more worthy of mention.

I fell down a few times, my daughter fell twice, hurting her knee in the process, a rolling boulder almost broke the leg of our guide and like they used to say during second world war, it was SNAFU.

Some views on the way down











We returned to our hotel, washed and resembled human beings after three days and set out on the “touristic safari” thing in the next days.

Our guide for the safari was named Godilsten. And we chose to call him God, in short.

We visited Lake Manyara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro,

I do not know how lucky others usually are in their safaris, but we were exceptionally lucky.

What we managed in two days of Safari, covering two national parks and one conservation area, was as follows.

  •          The Big 5
  •          A zebra chasing a jackal
  •          A lion on its crouching walk towards its prey
  •          A lion just outside our jeep window
  •          A hyena and a jackal fighting over a carcass
  •          A male lion humping its mate
  •          4 lion cubs sucking milk from their mother
  •          A blue bum monkey inside our jeep
  •          A swarm of birds in flight
  •          A male bull elephant searching for its mate
  •          A lioness hunting a herd of zebra (and failing in its hunt, returning empty handed to the three cubs, almost National Geographic)
  •          Two gnus fighting
  •          A lioness walking straight at our jeep and halting just beside us
  •          An elephant walking straight at our jeep and steering away in the last moment
  •          Wait for a zebra and a giraffe to pass on our way from the dining room to our wild camp.









Our guide for the safari, went to extreme lengths to show us all these, and he always kept a tight lid on what was next, thereby throwing countless surprises on us continuously, and after each breathtaking experience our family would collapse blissfully and say:

“Thank you, God”