- by Tom Eastman
Vacationing on Mt. Kilimanjaro
Maybe it's due to the rebound of the local economy, or perhaps just a higher than normal urge to travel, but it seems wherever you turn in Mt. Washington Valley these days, locals are all talking about vacations--where to go, what to do, and how much to spend.
Florida, the Caribbean, Utah, Colorado--they're the most popular choices for a change of venue, closely followed by ski trips to Europe. Valley residents Bob Kantack and Anne McBride selected a more exotic locale when they went on vacation in January, as they traveled to the land of Hemingway to climb Africa's tallest peak, 19,965 foot Mt. Kilimanjaro.
"We'd visited Mexico during our vacation last spring, and we were looking for a similar trip that would offer the chance for adventure as well as travel," noted Anne, an intensive care unit RN when not traveling to different parts of the world. When their friends climbed Kilimanjaro in July and told them about their unusual excursion, the couple decided they'd like to give it a try as well.
"I'd worked in college for the Operation Crossroads program in Ghana, and Annie served with the Peace Corps in Kenya, so we both were pretty familiar with Africa. But we'd always wanted to return there together, and climbing Kilimanjaro seemed like the way for us to do it," said Bob, a vice president of one of the development companies associated with the Eastern Slope Inn in North Conway.
January is the dry season in Africa, making it a good time for climbing the famous peak. With that in mind, Bob and Anne booked their travel plans through a local Mt. Washington Valley travel agency, departed New York City January 20 on KLM Airlines, and arrived in Amsterdam. It was to be the first of many stops in a marathon travelogue that ended four days later at Kilimanjaro International Airport. "We flew through eight time zones, flying from New York and Amsterdam to Vienna, Khartoum, and eventually landing in Tanzania at Arusha's airport," Bob related. "It's basically 36 hours of traveling."
From Arusha, the couple booked passage on a bus and traveled across bumpy roads to Marangu, from which most climbs up Kilimanjaro originate. "We stayed at the Marangu Hotel, a nice old place run by an Irish woman and an older Czechoslovakian lady; both of whom have been there for more than 50 years," Bob said. The women arranged guides for the couple for their mountain climbing expedition--guides are required by law in Tanzania--and also hired seven porters for the trip. In addition, they put the Americans in touch with an English couple at the hotel, just some of
the many foreigners they encountered while abroad.
"You meet all kinds of interesting people on a trip like this. It's not like your average Florida vacation at the height of the tourist season," said Bob. "We met Swiss and Austrian travelers mostly, all of whom shared an interest in hiking and the outdoors. Everyone is into giving each other travel tips," he continued, "and there's a lot of camaraderie involved. It's half the fun of traveling."
After resting for a day and a half in Marangu, the group began their five-day journey from the hotel to Kilimanjaro's summit. Climbing at first in sneakers through a tropical rain forest, they eventually passed through terrain that included grasslands, an alpine desert zone, and an arctic zone near the glacial ice at the summit of the mountain. "In 35 kilometers, you travel from the equator to the arctic circle in terms of vegetation," Anne noted.
Frequent hikers in summer when home here in the White Mountains but by no means technical climbers, both Bob and Anne noted the trek up Kilimanjaro is difficult but not overly threatening for most recreational climbers. "We're just average climbers. The beauty of Kilimanjaro is that you don't have to be a technical climber to do it. Anyone who has hiked the Presidential Range here in New Hampshire should definitely consider the trip," Bob said. At the same time, they added the mountain poses its share of challenges. "Even if you're in good shape, there's no way of telling how the - altitude will affect you. You have to be on the lookout for altitude sickness and pulmonary edema once you get up there at all times," Anne added.
Hiking slowly and drinking plenty of liquids to prevent that condition from arising, the party climbed to 9,000 feet to the Mandara hut on Day I of the trip, and then to 12,300 on Day II where they stayed at yet another hut built for hikers. "The clouds broke as we arrived that evening to give us a breathtaking view of the summit, our first of the climb," said Bob.
On Day III they reached the Kibo Hut at 15,500 feet, where Anne first experienced the tell-tale signs of altitude sickness. Headache, nausea, shortness of breath--Anne had it all, and was frightened. "I decided not to continue to the summit, and went back down to the Horombo hut located at 12,000 feet the next morning," Anne said.
Meanwhile, Bob and the rest of the party headed on toward the volcanic rim known as Gilman's Point, located approximately 300 feet below the true summit of Oruru. Rising at 12:30 a.m. and on the trail by 2:00 a.m., the group used ski poles to steady themselves in the dark as they climbed behind the guide on the route as it switchbacked towards the point. Five-and-a-half hours after they started, Bob's party reached Gilman's where they could peer down into the spacious volcanic crater at the summit.
"Seventy percent of the people usually reach Gilman's, yet only 20 percent make it the extra hour and a half to Oruru," said Bob. "I was totally exhausted by the climb and the thin air, so I was happy just to reach Gilman's." After enjoying the view into the crater of the dormant volcano, Bob's party started their descent back to the Kibo hut where they left their climbing gear, and then proceeded down to Horombo hut where they rejoined Anne and spent the night.
They descended the mountain back to the parking lot the next day, from where they took a bus back to the Marangu. Hotel. Rounding out their visit with tours of the neighboring Serengeti National Game Preserve, Manyara Game Park, and Ngorogoro Crater Conservation area, Bob and Anne returned to Mt. Washington Valley 16 days after they'd left, arriving back home February 6. 'Td recommend it to anyone who likes to hike and travel. I'd do it again," said Anne. Added Bob, "You're in one of the richest wildlife preserves in the world, as well as in the region where the earliest traces of man have been found. It's truly an incredible area."