Kilimanjaro: Beyond My Comfort Zone – Part 1

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That’s me at my summit. Shira Camp 1. Kilimanjaro. Tanzania. That’s in Africa, a place I’d never planned to visit, not through any particular fear but because I was comfortable within my little bubble. I had my work, my writing, dogs, popping to the shops, mooching around Cambridge. Nice and simple and safe.

Like Sheldon Lee Cooper once said, “It’s called the Comfort Zone for a reason.”

I admit now that my life was kinda boring.

Albeit safe and predictable.

But yeah, soooo boring!

Returning to the familiar is a good thing – a chance to recharge and refresh with a view to facing the next chapter of life. Right now the familiar is a constant reminder that there’s more stuff for me to see out there in the big wide world. Talk about stuff. I knew there was a lot because the world is pretty big, but I never thought there was that much of it. Believe me, there’s stuff everywhere! And I now want to see it all.

I’m glad I went to Africa. If for nothing else it has served as a catalyst for a much-needed lifestyle change. It has opened my eyes to so many possibilities I never gave much thought to before. I am feeling a sense of loss with post-expedition blues, where adrenaline and excitement must give way to a slower more calculable pace. Which sucks because I want the adventure to continue.

But hey, let’s not dwell on that for now!

I have a story to tell.

Rather than throw every last word and photo at you in a seemingly endless and exhausting post (as is my usual style) I’ve decided to chop my adventure into a few parts.

I’m thinking: Africa Alive, Moshi Time and Safari.

All photos are large so you open them up big style. The majority were taken with my Galaxy S7.

Let’s roll back a little…

Shiny & New!

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Left to right: Vicki, Julie, Jo, Pete, myself, Frankie, Valerie, David, Joel, Mike, Hannah, Chris and Hayley.

On 18th Jan 2017 we assembled at Norwich Airport at the ridiculous hour of 4.30am. Look how eager and fresh and tidy were all are!

I felt anxious. I hadn’t flown for over 20 years and the furthest I’d driven was 6 hours to Brecon Beacons in Wales last October. I was feeling a little out of my depth and had to remind myself I was actually there, that it was really happening.

Norwich Airport is dinky, but it’s clean and modern. Quick tip, when paying the £10 Airport Development Fee (aka Leaving The Country Tax) don’t waste an extra £3 on the Express Super Speedy security bit. There are 2 lines that go through security and the Express one meets with the normal one around the corner and the queues merge anyway!

Yeah, some of us were caught in the noob trap.

First flight to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport was about 50 minutes on a tiny Fokker 70. I remember those type from when I was a kid. I was looking forward to the big plane.

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After a 2 hour wait we boarded a Boeing 777 200. A big chunky plane with seats everywhere!

Flight Time

Our expedition leader, Jo Bradshaw, missed the flight due to too much fog in London and had to meet us the following day. I watched the Ghostbusters remake, it was okay.

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The food had improved somewhat in 20 years, so it was at least better than edible. Kinda.

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KLM Airlines staff were polite and cheery.

I know this is all a bit photo heavy, a little like looking through a friend’s collection of holiday pics and wondering how long you’ll need to wear your “I’m sooooo interested” or “How amazing!” face for. But still, I managed to snap a cool photo of Austria through the window.

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Bag Nightmare!

Seven of us lost our duffel bags between Amsterdam and Kilimanjaro Int. It was a huge pain the arse and something we didn’t need after a long flight. And even though I was tired and cranky I was intensely excited at being in a different country. The air was insanely hot and dry when we got off the plane and walked to the arrivals terminal, which was awesome!

There was a long queue for immigration where we got our visas – form filling, photos and fingerprints taken. We’re British. We know how to queue.

We finally met our local contact, Mussa, who was very patient whilst we filled in lost bag forms.

It wasn’t that much of a nightmare. You’ve got to be pragmatic these days and let things go with a “Meh.”

Sal Salinero Hotel

I find arriving at places at night a strange event as darkness masks the true nature of your new surroundings. I get two impressions, one in the dark, and in the dawn of the new day. I found myself comparing the two and reconciling the differences.

The hotel was a tropical island amid a sea of red dust and dirt.

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It was lush and green, calm and relaxing. I couldn’t fault the level of customer service provided by the hotel staff – well dressed, helpful and always ready with a polite karibu.

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The wi-fi was solid. I’m with EE and bought a few roaming data packages – 100MB for £40 that lasted 7 days.

My first day wasn’t great as I had a bad stomach upset and was off my food. Not sure if that was due to a virus, nerves or the heat. Either way I didn’t enjoy the breakfast, or lunch at a restaurant in Moshi, or the evening meal for that matter.

The food at Kaka’s was amazing! If you’re in Moshi I suggest a visit as it’s truly taste-tastic!

On our first visit I could barely hold down a mango smoothie, as I was so worried I’d puke up anything heavier.

But the second visit – see below! The chicken was spicy, like tandoori style, but earthy and rich.

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I was somewhat preoccupied with worrying, a lot – about my stomach cramps, not eating enough to maintain energy levels, making sure I managed my diet and taking diabetic meds at the right time, whether I was drinking enough to avoid getting dehydrated.

I couldn’t settle and join in with the group as much as I wanted. And I so wanted to relax and go with the banter and be wrapped up in the excitement of the climb to come.

It was like I was surfing the little waves at the beach, instead of launching myself further out and joining the team.

I felt like a dick at the time. I wanted to tell everyone “Hey, I’m not like this normally. I’m just a twat right now, please excuse my non-smiling face and total lack of amusement. Yeah, I hate me too. Sorry.”

The night before Day 1 of the climb I laid in bed hoping that come morning I’d be bright and alert with zero stomach pains and as excited as everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I was over the moon to be there. It was like a dozen Christmas’s come at once. That feeling didn’t vanish, but it was marred by my stomach issue and lack of appetite.

Londorosi Gate

Early the next morning we climbed into 2 mini buses that took us and our gear through the amazing Tanzanian country, just under 4 hours if I remember correctly, to Londorosi Gate which is at 2,250 metres above sea level.

There we signed the visitor park book, ate lunch, took some photos and watched the porters sign in and prep for the expedition.

The place was a hive of activity with groups coming and going, porters chatting, people playing pool. Yup, there was a pool table in the waiting hut.

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Okay, the lunch.

Here’s the thing.

It was weird. It came in a small pizza box. I had a carton of mango juice which was sweet and delicious. There was a tiny cremated sparrow leg, with the same taste and consistency as a rubber bouncy ball. A strange cake thing that tasted like the box itself. And a bunch of carrot and cucumber sticks.

So, yeah, weird.

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I’m on the right if you couldn’t guess.

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Jumping Off Point.

Back on the buses for another 40 minutes or so until we reached our setting out point, Morum Picnic site, 3,407 metres above sea level.

A quick info dump about altitude levels. Click to make big.

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Just to put things into perspective.

It’s pretty high up.

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The trip between gate and picnic site was fine. Pretty even. Lush forest. Extremely bumpy road. We passed a bus that had tipped over and was surrounded by locals trying to determine how to get it right side up.

The unexpected thing about altitude, that I hadn’t considered, was how you can feel okay whilst sat in a bus, but the second you hop out and begin mucking about with your backpack and trying to walk and talk…aaaaaaand BOOM!

Where’s all the air gone?

It was a strange sensation as if an invisible force was trying to lift me out of my body. I watched a few of my more eager and fitter team-mates hurry away to explore the local area – rocks, a small hill and some huts. I suspect I wasn’t the only one who was shocked by the sudden impact of high altitude.

I sat on a rock and took deep breaths.

I can’t recall if it was at this point, or the team brief the night before, where Jo told us not to fight out bodies. Don’t do any weird breathing exercises, or walking and talking too fast. We had to allow our bodies to do what they needed to do in order to cope at high altitude. Our bodies are more intelligent than we think.

I took that in. Looking back it sure does make a lot of sense. And not just at altitude either.

It was at that point I decided to check my blood sugar levels.

I wasn’t happy. Sat on a rock with a stomach filled with concrete jelly. I wanted it to settle or get the fuck out of my ass in a hurry. I needed one of those horrible yet purifying moments:

“Urrgggghhhhh!!!!”

Plop. Plop. Plop. Machine gun fart. Splatter. Sizzle. Squirt.

This kind of event is usually accompanied with a sudden sweat soaked face, trembling hands, feeling light-headed. But oh so relieved the devil has been purged, right out the ass and back into hell!

You’ve been there before, right?

It’s a situation normal people try to avoid.

Not me. Not then. I wanted rid of the evil.

Yeah, well that didn’t happen for me.

My stomach was in no mood to grant requests. Whatever sick bastard had taken residence inside me wasn’t leaving any time soon.

Checking my blood level I was shocked and angry that my gadget gave a reading of 28. I hadn’t been that high in nearly a year. I’d taken the right meds at the right time. Sure I hadn’t eaten a lot, but that should mine they’d be low, not high.

We began our trek to Shira Camp 1, our first camp. I’d taken pain killers and was drinking water.

As time passed I slowed down. I felt as if the concrete in my stomach was trying to weigh me down. With everyfoot step it ached and stabbed me. I lost track of time for a while and concentrated on my walking and watching the feet of the person in front.

Ralphing.

Julie, a friend from work who had also signed up for the crazy adventure, slowed down from the main group to walk with me. For which I was grateful. She urged me to tell Jo how I was feeling. I didn’t want to. I wanted to make it to camp, take a massive dump and come out of the crapper tent feeling 2 stone lighter and pain-free

It was the only logical thing to do to stay safe.

I explained my symptoms to Jo, who listened and asked questions. She said to keep her updated if anything changed and we walked on. Seldom in my life have I experienced my energy levels drop so fast. Every part of my body was heavy and weak, tired and lethargic.

I stumbled to a stop at one point.

Jo asked if I was okay. I was about to respond when she said: “You’re not okay, are you?”

I made it to a rock. I have no idea how. My tank was empty. Not enough energy left to talk.

The second I sat everything came up. A hot acidic roar of bile launched itself out of my mouth. I heaved and dumped it on the dusty ground.

It’s funny how you notice things at strange times. In those few seconds, as thick sludgy drool hung from my mouth, I noticed how dark the ground was, and just how fine the dirt was too. It wasn’t dirt but grey powder. Or flour. That was it. A magic chef had scattered an endless supply of grey flour all over the Shira Plateau.

I felt Jo’s hand on my back. Soothing words.

I felt more than a little foolish. A grown man ralphing on a mountain.

I hate puking. I’ve been known to spend hours very still on the bed to avoid blowing chunks. I’d rather a family of spiders crawled all over my face.

Julie later described how she’d rarely seen anyone’s face so white so fast.

And that evil bastard in my belly just laughed and gauged his little red talons into me.

Canyons!

We moved on, with much encouragement from Jo, Derek (one of the guides, and an excellent human being) and Julie. I hated myself. I’m talking deep dark angry loathing. I wanted to snap my fingers and be transformed. Free from pain and happy!

I hated how I wasn’t enjoying a single thing. We trekked alongside these amazing canyons, filled with boulders, streams and so much stuff to look at. All I could concentrate on were the set of boots in front, my breathing, sipping water, making my walking poles work properly.

Side note: I know the 360 Expeditions kit list includes walking poles, and lots of trekking websites praise them, but looking back they were more a hindrance than a help for the most part. Maybe later when the terrain became difficult they’d be useful, but they were in the way there.

If I’d been normal I’d have taken photos and loved every second of the stunning surroundings. No. I was pissed off. I wasn’t sulking. I simply wasn’t well enough to take anything in and enjoy it.

Maybe it was hours later when we arrived in camp. It was dusk. The team were in the mess tent. I wanted to make a bold entrance and say “Hey! Hey! Better later than never! How’s everyone enjoying day one?”

I wanted to be that person.

Jo spoke to me outside my tent. She had a tiny pill that would either prompt me to puke the rest up or ease my stomach. Kill or cure basically.

Emotional Bombardment.

I collapsed in my tent, did a kind of half shuffle on my matt, and remained that way. I’d taken note of the toilet tents – like a port-a-potty but in a tent. I want to purge myself. But all I could do was lie there, letting my body take deep breaths, unable to move my leaden limbs and feeling consumed by a plethora of emotions I never want in my head and heart again.

Let’s see – I was angry with myself. I felt humiliated for being so slow and weak. I felt like I’d let so many people down, the team, people at home – friends, family, people who’d donated to the charity. I felt guilty for not doing better when I knew I should. I was anxious about whether something was really wrong with me. I worried about so many things my head hurt.

I’d dreamt about the trek for months and the reality was quite different.

Jo’s tiny wonder pill did indeed help, for about 20 minutes. I even managed to get to the loo.

I did a wee. Just a fucking wee.

And that was dark and cloudy. Ew. Fucking ewwwwwww!

Where was the joyous big dump I deserved?

Julie came and checked on me. I smiled and tried to be a grown up. I was okay. I just needed to rest, get some sleep and things will be cool in the morning. I didn’t eat because I was certain I’d puke again, and that was not happening!

My spirits were lifted when a few of the team stuck their head in the tent and asked if I was okay. I was told they’d cheered when I arrived in camp. That still makes me smile.

I managed to get my kit sorted, and crawled into my sleeping bag. I shivered for a while before putting thermals on. I found a comfortable position and tried to get some sleep.

People snored.

Julie headed out to the toilet in the night.

I was jealous of her.

And I was worried. I’d drunk 3 litres of water and squirted a feeble shot glass worth of cloudy piss.

Where had all my wee-wee gone?

Day Two.

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That’s not the best photo of me. At about 6 or 7 am I was an aching, unhappy, weary dick head. Still, that’s the sun rising above Mount Kibo. Cool huh?

After another disappointing wee I spoke to Jo and discussed my symptoms again. I was more than worried if I continued and got worse, well, I didn’t want to consider that. I hadn’t acclimatised well enough even though I’d drunk some during the night I was dehydrated and that’s not good. And my stomach wanted to kill me.

I forced myself not to cry when Jo said I’d reached my summit.

My expedition was over.

Even now it hurts to recall that moment. I could have dropped into my tent, placed my head in my hands and wept. I had failed my team, my friends, family and myself. How do I tell everyone and avoid tears?

In the mess tent I actually loved the odd pizza slices of scrambled egg, although the chocolate maize porridge was something of an acquired taste. The team asked how I was.

Okay. Thanks.

That was all I could muster.

And I’m sorry. I wanted to say more. I wanted to join their laughter and banter. I wanted to keep on going.

I didn’t want to go home.

Jo spoke to the team about the trek ahead that day and then asked me if she could tell them.

I kept my eyes on the table.

I couldn’t speak. I just nodded.

Jo said that after struggling the day before and not having improved in the night, I wouldn’t be continuing. “Sadly, Dave has reached his summit.”

I blinked and forced a smile. Never have I felt so small, lonely, weak and pathetic in my entire life. I’d let them all down. I hated myself.

I was given congratulations for getting so far, that it was still an amazing achievement.

I was grateful for the support.

If you were there with me, then thank you, sincerely, your kind words helped me get through the rest of the day.

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I watched as the team gathered together, ready to break camp and head for Shira Camp 2.

Jo explained that we’d have to trek a few hours to the 4×4 track, where I’d be picked up by a park ranger, driven to Moshi and hospital, at least for a checkup, maybe a drip if I was still dehydrated.

Julie wore a sad smile on her face.

She asked if I wanted her to come with me. The fact that was ready to give up her own trek and summit attempt was enough to choke me to silence.

I couldn’t speak, only shake my head. I wasn’t going to cry. I managed to say no. She asked again and I refused. I couldn’t have that on my conscience.

It’s at times like those when I’m reminded of what true friendship means.

I’m not talking about being mates, bit of banter down the pub, or hanging out at work.

True Friendship.

True friendship goes beyond simple actions and words. It is about making a true connection with another human being. Friendship is something I hold in the highest regard. To me it is more precious than gold or diamonds.

Rarely have I experienced such a deep, heart-felt, soul touching moments of friendship.

We hugged.

I forced myself not to cry, although my voice did crack. I told her to keep going and reach that summit.

I shook hands with the team, told them good luck, and received best wishes.

We parted company along the trail between Shira Camps 1 and 2. I walked with Jo, and outstanding guides Patrick and Suley. I can’t praise these guys enough, or the porters. We’ll come to them in a later post.

My own trek was spent in quiet contemplation until we reached the 4×4 track.

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I won’t deny that day was one of the worst in my life.

I had failed, big time, and it hurt in so many ways.

At the time I had no idea that my real adventure was about to begin.

And that, dear blog reader, is a story for another time.

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6 thoughts on “Kilimanjaro: Beyond My Comfort Zone – Part 1

  1. What an amazing adventure. Dave, I’m so proud of you pushing yourself to the limit like that, but am relieved to see you have returned home in one piece. I admit to having been very worried about you going in the first place, what with your diabetes and your dodgy hip, but I didn’t want to act like a fussy parent of a small boy going on a camping trip for the first time 😉

    • Aww, that’s very kind Sarah. I wasn’t too concerned with the diabetic thing as I’d worked hard to reduce my sugar levels and get my medication right. Oddly enough I never had an issue with my hips, whereas my trip to Brecon Beacons and the hips problem was very evident. Wonder if there’s a heat/cold thing going on that has an impact?

      • I know that damp cold plays havoc with my joints, especially my thumb joints, and so it’s quite likely that it would have caused an issue with your hips. Also, I know that Vitamin D deficiency can cause deep ache in the bones, which is what it was causing me until the doctor diagnosed my problem. I used to know a woman who was in constant pain from her rheumatoid arthritis when she lived in England, but when she went to live in Spain, she had no pain at all.

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