We woke-up, had breakfast, left our most of our stuff at camp and made our way up the 5 hour round trip hike up Valle del Francés to Mirador (look-out) Británico for some epic views. We were feeling great scrambling up the rocks with nothing but a small day pack. My Osprey usually doubles as our day pack because it’s so light. We threw in a couple of granola bars and our down jackets to enjoy the summit in (it gets chilly when you stop moving) and our rain jackets in case it really starts pouring and started up.
About every ten minutes there is an incredible view we took a ton of selfies and even managed to get photobombed by some of new Chilean friends, who had earlier in the morning shared their Chilean “breakfast of champions” with us – Johnny Walker Red and cookies!
It is so cool to be so close to glaciers. Every 20 minutes or so you’d think you heard thunder, but with there being no lightning in Patagonia, not to mention the clear blue skies, it’s not thunder, it’s a huge chunk of glacier breaking off and tumbling down into to the valley. We saw one huge crack towards the top that we swore was getting bigger before our eye and we were sure it was going to fall at any moment, but despite our stares, it never fell, at least not while we were watching.
Among the many, seeming outrageous, claims Patagonia has made, is the most unbelievable in my book; You Can Drink The Water… from the tap, and right out of the creeks! They say, in the park you don’t need to filter or purify anything, it’s all straight off the glacier and super pure. They say the only place you need to be even a little concerned is at the camps (because not everyone is responsible/respectable). I haven’t googled the validity of that claim but, we didn’t have any issues.
The views from Mirador Británico were amazing! The valley just wraps you up with views of the towers all around.
We hiked back down to camp, packed up our stuff and made the 2.5 hours hike along the windy shores of Lago Nordenskjöld to the most amazing campsite Refugio Los Cuernos.
The Refugio had a wonderful clean and warm kitchen area; Fires are only allowed in very specific, enclosed, areas in the park, and of course, some of them are much better than others. And finally we said goodnight to a glorious sunset.
Hiking at the end of the world, here in Patagonia, has been one of the main “pillars” of our trip since the very beginning. It’s one of the main reasons we’ve been moving so quickly up to this point with a small window of not “freezing cold and dark.” So far we are so glad we got here when we did, even in the height of summer down here it can be cold, wet and extremely windy, hot and sunny, hail and sleet followed by snow; and that’s all in the same day… before noon. To say the weather changes quickly is an understatement, it was pretty surreal to be rained on in extreme wind and look up and see nothing but sun and have to search the sky for the cloud that is providing the present shower. And then there are times when there aren’t any clouds and you realize that what you thought was “rain” was just water blowing off the lake. Add to the extreme weather gorgeous towering peaks, condors and llamas, and it gets even better.
We arrived at the Erratic Rock hostel after a few hours on a couple of buses. Erratic Rock partners with the Bar/Pizza/Rental place next door (Base Camp) to make the unofficial base camp of Puerto Natales, Chile’s backpacker/climber/trekker scene. Every day through out the summer at 3:00pm they put on a free, hour and half long, info session on hiking in the park. I must say, it was one of the best “info sessions” we’ve ever heard on hiking, the info provide is extremely helpful, if you’re planning to spend time in the park it’s extremely valuable.
At the info talk we found out about 3 most common routes through the park named after the rough shape the trail makes through the park:
The W – Torres del Paine National Parks bread and butter. It’s it’s a 3-4 night hike to the most popular views with the option to stay in refuigos (little, expensive, bunkbed-style lodges) or camp and enjoy a boat ride from the bus stop to the start of the trail at the beginning and end.
The O – Follows, more or less, the same route as the W with the addition going over John Gardner Pass and around the backside of the towers and a more extensive look at Glacier Grey with few more nights of camping and a few less people.
The Q – Takes The O and adds a 16km hike through the pampas (grass lands), another night or two of camping and cuts out the boat ride (and the cost associated with said boat) and covers pretty much the entire park.
You can probably guess what we did; The Q! And it was totally worth it, all 138 kilometers of it!
We took a bus out to the park and after registering at the entrance, watching the mandatory fire prevention video (There’s no lightening or anything like that here in Patagonia so fires don’t occur naturally and the landscape isn’t really adapted to recover from forest fires and after they huge fire a few years back they are hyper vigilante and understandably so) we went from a dozen buses at the entrance to 5 buses at the boat dock where the W starts to 8 of us on one bus to the last stop “Administration” and the start of the Q. Due to the park being about 2.5 hours from town and after registration and everything we don’t really start hiking until almost 1pm but it’s not a huge deal as our first planned camp is only a couple of hours from administration. We start our hike through the pampas with our new friend Brad who we meet at Erratic Rock during the Base Camp info talk.
Wow. We were not ready for the wind. I knew it would be windy but it was crazy windy, like makes you want to crouch down so you don’t get blown over. The three of us stumbled our way to the first campsite, Campamento Las Carretas occasionally catching glimpses of the Paine Massif. Just before arriving, as we made our way over the first hill a few guanacos (like llamas) curiously made their way over to see us. Once we arrived at Las Carretas, we took a look around and found the perfect campsite. Brad decided he would go on to Refugio Paine Grande, but it would certainly not be the last we would see of him.
Our first night was great. There were only a handful of other campers at Las Carretas. We meet a couple from New Hampshire that was on their way out who gave us some great advice on the hike as well as a Swiss couple that were also just starting the Q.
We woke-up early, had a big bowl of oatmeal and made our way through the wind to our next destination, Paine Grande. The morning was really rough, with constant 40 mph wind, with 55 mph gusts, blowing sleet into our faces the entire time. Liz learned that her beloved Merrell hiking boots had finally met the end of the road, as she saw bubbles of air and water gurgling out from about six different places on them. Liz was not a fan of this part of the hike.
We stopped for lunch by the lake and watch the mad-house that is Refugio Paine Grande; most peoples first and/or last stop on the W. It’s where the boat arrives/departs and has a huge facility for paid camping, a small store, and a large refugio. After a quick lunch of reheated lentils it was on to our destination for night Campamento Italiano, another free site. The weather had improved, still windy but not getting pelted by sleet, just a steady rain.
Most of this day was through the area that was devastated by the fire in 2011, you can imagine how beautiful it was with all the trees, but the views were still pretty awesome even on an overcast day.
We crossed a couple of bridges, set-up camp in the most protected spot we could find, built a rock wall to help with the wind and made a big a meal!
We knew we wanted to make our way east across Tanzania (we had a flight booked out of Dar es Salaam) so we booked our 2 night 3 day camping Serengeti safari from Mwanza through Serengeti National Park around the edge of Ngorongoro Crater (you’ve gotta pay extra to go down into the crater where the rhinos are) and then catching the bus to Arusha.
It was AWESOME!
We saw almost everything you possibly can see in Serengeti. Lions. Giraffes. Elephants. Hippos. Heartbeasts. Cape Buffalo. We had a cheetah walk around our jeep and monkey that practically jumped into our jeep. We saw a number of leopards and even saw one with a fresh kill up in a tree. We got some great videos and amazing photos, despite not have any kind of a zoom lens. We spent two nights camping in the middle of the park waking up to giraffes walking less then 50 yards from our tent.
From there we made our way over to Ngorongoro Crater but on the way we crossed through the endless plains (Serengeti means “endless plains”) and the great migration. We’ve heard of the great migration, we’ve seen the National Geographic documentaries, “Planet Earth” etc. but it’s impossible to capture it. It’s wildebeest and zebras as far as you can see in every direction. There is a hill on the edge of the park and from the top you can see what almost looks like a single file line of wildebeest and zebras from one horizon to the other. We drove through the plain for over 2 hours and saw big herds and little groups, just as far as you could see everywhere. It was pretty epic.
Eventually even the “endless plains” ended and we made our way up the hills to the crater. We past Maasai villages and saw Maasai tending their herds and flocks among the giraffe, zebras and wildebeest as we made our way up to the rim of the crater. From the top you can see all the way across the crater and it’s looks like scene from Jurassic Park or something like that.
We came to the end of our Serengeti safari at the “bus station” in Karatu where we said goodbye to our guide and then got in a “minibus” to Arusha. It was a standard mini van that was filled way over capacity. And of course the mozungos get put in the way back. You know the little seat in the very back of a mini van that has 3 seatbelts and barely holds 2 adults? We sat 4 wide back there for 3 hours. We spent the night in Arusha then made our way to Moshi at the base of Kilimanjaro.
After our failed attempt to take the mythical ferry from Kampala to Mwanza, we eventually got a bus and made our way to Mwanza, aka Rock City (They call it Rock City because the town is built on top of and around giant boulders). We arrived in Mwanza, Tanzania about 9pm after riding the car ferry with our bus. It was dark and we had no reservations, no Tanzanian money and no idea where we were exactly. We stumbled around in the dark (not a lot of street lights in Tanzania) and finally found a place to stay for the night. It was questionable at best (there was no shower door and a hole in the shower floor) but the owner was nice enough and she quickly made friends with Liz.
Over an extremely overpriced dinner (the owner was nice enough to join us at the hotel restaurant) she invited us to Church with her the next morning! We agree without a second thought, people in Tanzania are so friendly!
The next morning we arose and met our host and realized on the way to church we were going to a Catholic church… I say, “No worries, Liz, I got this… 8 years of Catholic education finally paying off. Just follow my lead!” #OverConfident
ALL IN SWAHILI.
We understood ZERO. We were trying so hard to “pay attention,” stay awake and not offend our host but we had no idea how long it would be. I expected a typical 45 minute mass; I think I whispered “10 more minutes max.” probably 15 times. It just kept going and going; 4 separate offerings where EVERYONE walks up to the front to give money (everyone together, just the girls, just the guys, everyone together again). There were over 600 people (I counted to pass the time for a while). I tried to laugh along with everyone else to the jokes in the sermon.
Somewhere around the 3 hour and 30 minute mark I must have started looking a little bit bored and wasn’t as “focused” on the priest when I heard “something, something, something, Muzungo, something, something Muzungo” and then EVERYONE looks at Liz and I and starts laughing. Muzungo, basically means “white person” in Swahili. Apparently the priest made a joke about the 2 Muzungos in the crowd making it through the whole mass and only “a few more hours left.”
After the service we waited for another 30 minutes for our host to get her gallon of holy water blessed and then it was on to the market. Our host did her grocery shopping and then finally called her taxi driver to take us all back to the hotel. When we got back to the hotel our host stuck us with the bill for her taxi for the day! Then she was asking us what we wanted to order from the hotel restaurant for lunch, it’s almost 4PM now, and we had to politely get the heck out of her hotel before we went broke with our “new friend.”
Our first stop after leaving the hotel was to the ATM (she had taken us for all we had at the time) and we ran into an American girl at the ATM that was getting out of a safari jeep. We had wanted to look into safaris in Mwanza, so we asked her about her experience and next thing we know we’re in the jeep with her guide going to the Hostel she was staying out to see if there was room for us (which there was for 1 night) switching our luggage from the crazy hotel and finally breathing a sigh of relief.
So we had ourselves a safari guide and we worked out the details of our safari!
Flying in we got a preview of the beautiful beaches.
Before we could get to the beach we got stuck in a Zanzibar traffic jam for a few minutes. It gave a whole new meaning to “This is bull!!”
But we had no idea just how beautiful they would be. Zanzibar by far has the best beaches we have seen on this trip!
We indulged in fresh, delicious seafood dinners right on the beach almost every night.
And hung out with the herd of cows that hung out on the beach everyday.
Our scuba diving was fun, but we were a little sad that we missed the whale sharks.
All in all, the beaches were just incredible. We couldn’t get over it!! Crystal clear water, powdery, ridiculously fine white sand. It was pretty awesome.
Minus the three days that our bungalows didn’t have water… that set us up for our 40+ hours of straight travel, including the 19.5 hour flight from Dubai to Buenos Aires. I really like to shower before that long of a flight, but not so much this time, Just a bucket bath.
Day 5 (well kinda, starting at midnight on Day 4) — Jan 28, 2015
I didn’t sleep too much before our midnight wake up call, but I still felt wide awake to begin our summit. Our guides told us that you have to start around midnight and climb the 4,000+ feet in the dark, so you make it to the summit right at sunrise… because as soon as the sun comes up the wind starts up. The wind is extremely strong, basically it’s blowing from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic with nothing to slow it town at that elevation on the whole continent. We had also heard that the clouds start to move in soon after the sun is up, and based on what we’d seen so far with the weather, we had no doubt.
We had been warned that it would be cold and windy and COLD! We probably didn’t have the best attire to summit Kili, let’s review. I had:
a very cute trenchcoat rain jacket from REI (it’s from REI, yes, but let’s just say it’s not exactly “technical alpine wear”)
a nano-weight down jacket that we’ve been carrying everywhere, it’s lightweight… it’s the lightest weight down jacket they make
nano-weight down vest (same deal)
lightweight hiking pants
pair of leggings
charming charlie’s cheap-o cotton scarfy thing
2 tank tops
1 thin long sleeve t-shirt
Buff to be used as a hat like thing
My ole reliable hiking boots
A pair of borrowed gloves from a porter
And I wore every single piece of clothing I could…. Kinda felt like the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Lightweight hiking pants
Ski pants (yep, he wore all three!)
2 Icebreaker t-shirts
1 long sleeve Icebreaker t-shirt
Marmot nano-weight, very well loved down jacket
Merrell trail running shoes
Buff to be used as a hat like thing
A pair of borrowed gloves from a porter
Basically, we proceeded to put on EVERYTHING we had with us and hoped for the best!
Turns out that almost all of the other groups left at midnight. But thanks to our guide’s amazing confidence in our speed hiking abilities, or more likely his lack of desire to get up any earlier, we left at 1:15 AM. He assured us that we would have plenty of time to make the summit by sunrise… he failed to mention that was conditional on us basically doing a light jog up the 4,000+ feet to the summit. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a jog, but it felt like a powerwalking death march, as we passed group after group after group. More on that later…
We started up by the light of our headlamps. We could see other trekkers far ahead of us on the mountain, like a small trail of ants shown only by their headlamp light. Marching up the mountain in the dark only being able to see the back of the person in front of you and about a 4 foot circle of rock illuminated by head lamp gives you a lot of time to think… or sing. I sang the only song I’ve found that I know all the words too, Roger Creager’s, Everclear. Thanks, college. Thanks, Anne Jenkins Roberts. Rick was thinking “Strong Like Lion. Slow Like Turtle. Gassy Like Antelope.” Did I mention it was freezing cold and dark? Turns out we don’t take many pictures when it’s freezing cold and dark.
Luckily the sun does come up eventually to and way before you see the sun you can start making up the ridge line and then rocks around you and then finally the glacier and crater. We’re almost to the summit.
There is another peak “Stella” of sorts that is on one side of the crater that stopped at briefly before climbing the last hundred meters past the glacier around the edge of the crater on the way to Uhuru Peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest point on the continent of Africa and the highest freestanding mountain in the world!
19,341 feet above sea level (5985 meter).
We made it! We tried to keep up the tradition of “Airplane” on the summit, unfortunately we didn’t get a great photo of it. It just looks like Rick is kicking me in the stomach WWE style. Then it was Down. Down. Down.
We woke up on day 4 of our Kilimanjaro trek to quite a bit of ice on our tent this morning, definitely a cold night. But we have clear skies and bright sun.
After breakfast we tackled Barranco Wall, the wall that had been ominously staring at us all evening. It ended up being really fun! Rick and I agree it was our favorite part of the hike. It was more of a rock climb than a hike really, as we scaled the volcanic rock wall. At the top we took a quick break to acclimatize to the 1,000+ feet we had just ascended, and got to take some awesome pictures with the peak in the background.
From there it was a lot of ups and downs through canyons and ridges, as we made to our lunch spot at 12,900 ft. The landscape started to get really sparse, even more that before with just gravel and perfectly round stones from softball to tire sized.
After lunch we had 3 hours of hiking to make it up to base camp. The morning hiking wasn’t bad at all… But in the afternoon part of the hike I started to feel the altitude, lack of oxygen and fatigue a bit. We dipped down pretty far into a valley, so the last hour and a half push was straight up the steep mountain side. But when we made it to base camp we got a fabulous view of the summit, especially at sunset, we felt well rewarded.
Base camp, called Barafu Camp, is over 15,300 feet. With only 3 days of acclimatization under our belt we could definitely feel the lack of oxygen when we moved around. The 400 ft walk to the outhouse from our tent was was quite an undertaking — the outhouse was far town a steep, scree covered hill — I’m embarrassed to admit the return uphill trip may have required a breather break midway for me!
We will leave at midnight tonight to start the summit!!! CRAZY!! So we ate dinner as soon as we arrived into camp just about and were told to go to sleep at 6:00 while it was still light out. We knew we were in for a cold night, plus getting up at midnight to start the summit would be tough, so we got everything ready and slept in the base layers of clothing we would hike in the next day.
Day 3 — Jan 26, 2015
We woke up to a beautiful clear blue sky and amazing view of the Kibo Summit of Kilimanjaro, which is the highest point and where we will summit… assuming all goes well.
We were well above treeline at this point, just tons of rocks and boulders, and these really cool little ice formations everywhere. There are lots of lichens and moss, and a few little succulent looking plants that are really cute. No more animals though.
We had been told that today is our first really hard day. It was supposed to be 8+ hours of hiking, but we did it in 6 1/2 hours! To acclimatize we hike up to over 15,000 feet, but we are sleeping at 13,000 feet tonight. (Hike high, sleep low) The peak we went to today is called Lava Tower.
It had some really impressive rock formations… Which we only got to see for about 2 minutes of the hour and a half we were there, because of the massive clouds/fog that rolled in. Man it was COLD!!! Seriously, look at the clouds!!
The crew had a tent set up for us to eat lunch in and we pretty much stayed in there the whole time and were still cold even wearing all of the layers we brought in our day packs.
We were excited to head off the Lava Tower for our mostly descent to camp. It was probably one of my favorite sections of the hike so far. It was otherworldly with the clouds speeding across in front of us, revealing glimpses of huge bowling ball shaped black and grey volcanic boulders. We soon started following a hidden creek bed that was only revealed by the Silencio Trees growing in a line; they are water indicators and beautiful. We soon saw a small waterfall and plants that looked like outer space succulents.
The color palette around us could have inspired designer decorated house or impeccable wedding – heather gray, mossy green, lichen blue-green, highlights of bright thistle purple and sunny yellow. And the Lobilea Plants! These were once of our favorites.
We made camp at Barranco Campground.
We can actually see Moshi from it when the clouds clear. And again we are fortunate to have amazing views of the summit! As we look up at it we what our guides tell us is the start of our trail for tomorrow, The Barranco Wall.
The name wall is not an understatement! It is straight up!! I’m intimidated. Their sage advice was “just don’t think about it and it will be hakuna matata” (as you know from the lion king, hakuna matata means no worries. Yep, that’s actually Swahili and they actually use it!) well, comforting strategy, huh? Climbing 1,000 ft in an hour. Eek
Another Swahili saying we learned today was “ahh! mama yangu” meaning “oh my mother!” Kinda like “aye yay yay” or “mama mia” It’s pretty much the answer to anything, from a steep assent, to a funny joke, to another one of the porters running past us up the mountain.
Here’s a pic of our dinner set up. I will say, this is not our typical hiking experience, having plates and a full dinner and someone else cooking it, but it’s pretty nice. Of course, comes with a price tag… Which, as I said before, we wouldn’t have paid, except that it’s required that you have all these people to climb Kili. It has it’s pros and cons. My favorite part is having a tent set up and ready for us when we get into to camp and not having to break down camp in the mornings. I’m not such a fan of someone else determining the speed at which we hike, where we stop and which route we take. I’m leaning towards I’m an independent hiker… and our budget agrees with me.
Day 2 — Jan 25, 2015
Today was the “easy day” only about 4 hours of hiking. As soon as we left camp, there were no more trees. We learned new Swahili today – we were told “Pole, Pole” (sounds like the Polly in Rolly Polly bug). It means “Slowly, Slowly”. We got in trouble from our head guide for hiking too fast yesterday (errr, talk to your assistant guide). So we hiked very “pole, pole” today… and still passed all of the other groups… but it was more enjoyable. I have a feeling we’ll be getting more and more “pole, pole” as we get higher up! The day started off nice and sunny, but a few minutes after we got to camp the clouds rolled in with the wind and it got quite cold! So we spent most of the afternoon hunkered down in the tent. Especially when it started to lightly rain for a few minutes.
Just before dinner we went on a short little hike up to the ridge above camp. Passat when with us, showing us some really cool caves along the way, and then an awesome view. But really we went to help with acclimating, it was 200M higher than the campground, and tomorrow we have some really big elevation gain. Altitude sickness is the biggest risk here. Tonight we are sleeping around 12,000 feet at Shira Camp. The summit is over 19,000 feet and that will be the highest we’ve ever been… And 4 days is pretty fast to go from sea level to that high.
The food has been pretty good. We have a cook (required to have on the trip), and we eat in our tent since we took the cheap plan and didn’t pay for a mess tent. We get fruit, rice or pasta, some kind soup at every meal, and so far we’ve had meat at every meal. The first night was fish – which if you’re gonna have fish on a 6 day trek, you wanna have it on the first night! Today we had chicken… Which feels like it’s starting to be a little sketch. I mean it’s not like there is refrigeration, it’s cold at night but not thaaaaat cold during the day. I’m suspect, hoping that’s the last of the chicken we see. Our sweet porter “Manny” we called him because we couldn’t quite get his name, brought us hot water, tea, coffee and all of our meals to the tent. It was quite nice, especially when the temps dropped and the wind picked up, we could snuggle up in our sleeping bags and eat our meals.
The night was quite cold. It was ok in the tent (I did much better with the borrowed sleeping bag, Rick was a little cold with the knock off from Nepal, but he said with the bag liner and a bottle of hot water it wasn’t too bad). But when we had to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom it was downright miserable!!! It’s pretty much unavoidable though… We are supposed to be drinking 5-6 litres of water a day, plus the Diamox meds we’re taking to help with the altitude make you have to pee. I was up 3 times and each time I thought I might freeze to death!
We met our guide Francis and assistant guide Passat at the hostel, we were running late because we had been scrambling to find the things we needed in town like cash to pay, air tickets to get us to Zanzibar since we wouldn’t have time to go by bus now, 6 water bottles, a sleeping bag. We got a quick briefing and we were off to the base of the mountain. After about two hours of hanging around the ranger station, waiting for paperwork, permits and payments to get worked out (TIA “This Is Africa” meaning it will be done in a languid, jovial, but extremely inefficient manner), we were off!
We are taking the Machame Route up the mountain. It’s considered, according to our guides, the 2nd or 3rd most difficult of the seven routes up to the summit. The easiest and most popular is the Marangu Route, nicknamed the Coca-Cola route because so many tourists do it and because there are huts that sell soda at most of the campsites on the way up. We learned as we started hiking that our route is nicknamed the Whiskey Route… we didn’t get a clear answer on why exactly, something about because it’s difficult, something about because it’s for the adventurous… I kinda think maybe because that just what goes with Coke? Will Jacobus, I see a branding opportunity here – The Jack Daniels Kilimanjaro Route!!
Day 1 was going through rain forest with these huge, beautiful trees… But it was unlike any rainforest we’ve ever seen! (And at this point we can say we’ve been in a few, from Costa Rica to Thailand to Brazil to Nepal) The rainforest here must be what Dr. Seuss used to inspire his illustrations! There were so many crazy looking plants, from right out of his books. There were giant fern trees, spindly spiky topped trees, stick trees covered in bright bluish-green mosses. It was pretty cool.
We hiked with just our assistant guide for this part, and quickly learned how he got his nickname Passat. When he was a porter, he was always the fastest up the mountain, like a car, so they named him Passat. We were passing everyone – all of the tourists and all of the porters! I’m proud to say that we kept pace, but it was a work out. We went from 1,800M to 3,000M.
Camp the first night was at 3,000M. We got great Kili views and to see a chameleon! Our guide found him and brought him to show us… An only in Africa science experiment, our guide told us to watch his color as he moved him from his dark-skinned hand to my light-skinned hand, and of course the chameleon adapted to our skin tones within seconds.
I did not sleep too well that night, I was cold most of the night. My knock-off “Narth Foce” sleeping bag from Nepal was not quite up to standard. But I made it through, and Rick says he’ll switch bags with me tomorrow night.