Start height: 1800m
End height: 2800m
We stood waiting at Machame gate while paperwork was sorted. The excitement and tension was palpable as people filled water bottles, took pictures and visited the loos countless times. All those months of preparation, training and fund raising had at last led us to The Big Day.
I'd actually left home three days before, travelling from York to Reading by train, spending a night with the friends I'd be climbing with, catching a plane to Nairobi the next day, spending a night in a less than luxurious hotel, catching a tiny plane from Nairobi Wilson airport to Kilimanjaro airport, driving along bumpy roads to our Kilimanjaro hotel, getting a briefing, repacking bags, seeing the mountain free of clouds for the first time and gulping at how far up it went, trying to ignore the revelry of a group who had just completed their summit, attempting sleep (impossible) in the last comfortable bed we'd have for a while and finally getting to the gate the next morning.
As we waited, we watched scores of porters loading themselves up with huge mounds of kit, balancing it on their heads or shoulders and marching off up the hill. It was a never-ending stream of people, like busy ants working as a team. Finally at about 11.30am we were ready to go. We passed by the starting point sign and immediately began to walk uphill. After days of sitting around, the uphill climb at an already high altitude of 1800 metres immediately made hearts pound and breath quicken, but after the blood got moving and we got into a pole pole (slowly slowly) rhythm, things calmed down and we could appreciate our surroundings.
Almost of all of day 1 is a long, slow 11km walk through lush rainforest. It's hot, humid and in a few places steep. But mostly it is easy walking on a good path. We were lucky enough to spot columbus monkeys in the distance and only had to contend with a short rain shower. T-shirts and shorts are a good choice of kit, but don't forget bug spray and sunblock.
During the walk we stopped to meet our guides, experienced the long drop toilets and decided that bush pees were a better alternative. Almost immediately, the hand sanitising gel that had been recommended came into use.
After a couple of hours, we stopped for a lunch break. We'd been given a packed lunch in an old-fashioned style lunch box. Fried chicken and a beef pasty were the stars of the show, but there was plenty to fuel us so that we could continue our uphill climb.
Although 11km really isn't a long walk, as a leg warmer it certainly felt long enough as we made our way into Machame Camp at 2800m, our first campsite of the trip. The site was a bit of a shock to the system. Cramped and overflowing with tents, rocky and muddy ground, and fairly whiffy toilets all brought the reality of the challenge into sharp focus. It felt like a refugee camp and for anyone who hadn’t quite thought through the realities of sleeping in a tent with fairly basic facilities, it was a short, sharp shock.
We had to find our tents and commence what would become (but wasn't yet) a well practised procedure of inflating mattresses, unrolling sleeping bags, attempting to use the washy washy water to clean off the grime of the day and head to the mess tents for dinner.
It is remarkable what the chefs can create in very basic conditions. While some might find the food basic, it was always tasty. Salty and very peppery pumpkin soup was followed by pasta with vegetable sauce and fresh mango. I didn't fancy eating much. The excitement of the day, following by a lot of uphill walking, a dash of stress at trying to sort out my bed for the night with a mattress that kept deflating, and the first prickles of altitude sickness all meant food didn't hold much appeal. But a hot cup of milo was a warming comfort.
Bedtime on the mountain is early. By 8.30pm you are tucked up in your sleeping bag. I found listening to an audio book the easiest way to send me off to sleep. Earplugs and an eye mask help to block out the sounds of tent zips being unzipped as people head out to the loo and head torches flashing through your tent. You can hear everything that happens in other tents - snoring, farting, chatting or giggling. On the mountain, privacy isn't really an option.
Speaking of privacy, let's touch on a subject that became central to my Kili climb. Peeing. When you drink 4 to 6 litres of water a day (which you need to do to help reduce the effects of altitude) and if you take Diamox (a diuretic) you will need to pee a lot. While you're out walking, this becomes a bush pee (more on those in future blog posts).
But at night it is more of a challenge. You don't want to have to get out of your warm sleeping bag, head out into the cold and stumble over rocks to find a loo in the dark. If you're in a tent on your own, it's easy enough to use a shewee/bottle combo or peebol to pee into. But when you're sharing you need to be a bit more discreet. I had discovered what I thought was a brilliant device - a uriwell unisex urinal. The concertina body extends to hold up to a litre of pee and you can use it in a semi reclined position inside your sleeping bag. It takes a good amount of confidence to let that first pee go, hoping that you don't miss or spill. But they do work. Up to two times. Thereafter, the plastic snaps.....something I didn't realise....more on that later….
So day 1 drew to a close. We'd climbed 1000m in about 5 hours of slow walking, experienced camp life and our first mess tent meal, tackled long drops, bush pees and in-tent urination. Day 2 awaited.
Read Day Two.
Read what to pack for Kilimanjaro.
Read how to prepare for Kilimanjaro.