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Kilimanjaro: Moshi Town

As we had flown in after dark, the next morning was when we really saw Moshi for the first time. Moshi is one of the larger cities in Tanzania (10th largest or so).

Typical street in Moshi. This is just off the main drag.

Breakfast was included at the hotel, and afterwards we went sightseeing and shopping around Moshi. A group of eight very-not-native people wandering around town drew the notice of a number of "helpful" young men. They made conversation and were very nice, and wanted very much for us to buy things from them or visit their shop down the way. Getting rid of these people was basically impossible, and I grew rather uncomfortable with them around.

Incidentally, there really aren't any sights to see in Moshi.

We had intended to travel to a larger city, Arusha (via bus, an hour away). This whole idea was doomed from the start. We went to the bus center where there were a couple score of buses. (All buses are private rather than public.) We tried to figure out which bus to take and how much it would cost and were unable to do so. Our helpful new friends were of no help at all. We decided, finally, to not bother going to Arusha (it was getting a bit late anyway).

For those trying this on their own, good luck and godspeed. Heather went to Arusha via bus while we hiked Kili. Even with pretty clear instructions from someone, she got a bit of a runaround before finally getting to a bus. I suggest having a local you trust help you (say your guide) or just have the tour company arrange it. It may not be "authentic", but you may actually arrive where you're trying to go.

Click to see the Moshi gallery

We ate lunch at the Chagga Grill. Chosen from the guidebook because it was real local food. Turns out most of us didn't really like it, and they overcharged us (even so, it wasn't too expensive). (I'm guessing we didn't get the good food looking as non-local as we did.) I was largely variations on boiled potatoes, carrots, okra, and chicken/beef/mutton. A staple starch is ugali (made from corn) which is basically the equivalent to Hawaii's poi. Consistency of mashed potatoes, but more bland.

A bit more wandering around town and I was ready for a break. Some went looking for a coffee house, I went to the hotel. Around 6pm I went out on the roof and saw Mount Kilimanjaro for the first time.

Kilimanjaro

We gathered for dinner and went to a place we had seen that morning called "Deli Chez". We are uncertain if this is a play on "delicious" or a misguided attempt at being cosmopolitan. The menus were about ten pounds and had lots of Indian, Chinese, and Korean food as well as burgers and pizza. We liked the place (and would recommend it). The food was good and the prices reasonable. We spent around 67K TSh for the nine of us.

The trip back to the hotel was dark. Streetlights are not a fixture in town, which I guess shouldn't have been a surprise. However, one takes some things for granted without even thinking about it.

Listening to the bar across the street as I went to sleep, I realized that Auto-Tune had found and invaded Africa.

Kilimanjaro: Arrival

When Craig, Kat, and I arrived at San Francisco airport, our flight was delayed an hour. We had just short of an hour for our layover in Amsterdam, but figured that we'd make up time in the air. The flight itself was uneventful. KLM has entertainment systems at each seat which helps a lot.

We did not make up much if any time, however, and when we got off the plane we high-tailed it to our next flight. Kat thought it was unfair that Craig and I had long legs as we nearly ran through the terminal. We made it, just barely, to the Amsterdam flight and met up with the rest of the crowd on the plane itself. (Most of us were seated near each other.)

The trip from Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro airport was also mostly uneventful. It's nearly as long as the trip from SFO to AMS, but is North-South rather than West-East. A bit before landing, I realized that it was the first time I had ever been south of the equator.

We got off the plane (down stairs; I always feel like the Beatles or Nixon when I go down stairs from a plane) and crammed into the hot and crowded immigration area to get our visas. The airport reminded my of the old Albany airport terminal. It has one runway, and no taxi lanes. You land, U-turn, and travel back down the runway to the terminal.

Happy to be on the ground!

If you are traveling to Tanzania, you can get your visa right there in the airport. We had read a variety of different requirements online for what we needed to bring. When we passed through, all we needed was our U.S.A. passports and $100 US. They didn't care about Yellow Fever immunizations since we're from the U.S. That said, there was an immunization office there and trust me when I say that you do NOT want to get your shot there. We didn't need any extra passport photos or anything. They scanned our passports, took our fingerprints (electronically) and that was it.

Do make sure you get in the visa line when you get into the terminal. It's one big gaggle of people for both normal (post-visa) entry and to get your visa. The visa is on the right (along with a doorway that leads to the restrooms).

Through immigration, we picked up our luggage. Well, most of it. Those of us who ran to the plane didn't get theirs. There is one plane a day from Amsterdam, so our luggage would be a day late. Luckily, we added in an extra day just in case something like this happened.

We met Nelly and Ursula from Ahsante, who brought us out to their bus. On the way, many overly helpful people descended upon us to help with our bags. They were quite forceful in their desire to help us. Jenn had changed some money in the airport and after a bit of a scuffle with an overly-generous tip we sent them their way.

Tanzanian shillings

That brings up the topic of tipping and money in general. Tanzanian shillings are the currency of Tanzania, but nearly everyone will happily take U.S. dollars at various exchange rates. When our trip started, 1 USD was roughly worth around 1,500 TSh. Many places simply drop the hundreds digits, so if something costs 3500 TSh, it would be 3 USD. This is not a very good exchange rate, but most things are pretty cheap (unless you're being taken, which we were on several occasions). An appropriate tip for most simple things is 1 USD or 1,000 TSh (which is a single bill). So, a buck a bag seemed to be the norm.

The guidebook suggested that Tanzanians would only take our "new money" with big heads and recent dates. This is true with the exception of ones, which they took without looking at really. I hadn't brought any, which would have been problematic if my Dad hadn't done so. Getting change is not guaranteed even for shillings; getting change for USD was very rare. The hotel we stayed at (the Panama) gave us a great exchange rate, however. We charged everything to our rooms, and then settled up in USD when we left.

Though some money was exchanged in the airport, the rest of the shillings came from ATMs. Finding an ATM in Moshi was a bit touch and go. We did find one that was pretty consistently operational (I think it was the Barclay's).

We did a lot as a group, so we decided to have basically one person pay for things (dinners and so on) and settle up after we return to the U.S. There were some exceptions to this, but I think it worked out well on the whole.

Moshi from the balcony of our hotel.

So, Nelly and Ursula met us and shuttled us the 45 minutes to our hotel in Moshi. This was the first time we got to meet Nelly, who was the person we did all of our planning with via email. They were both very nice, which was a hallmark of our dealings with Ahsante. Let me just say now that even as Americans go some of us in the group can get uptight and OCD about things and they were able to handle it well.

We got our rooms, and basically turned in for the night. The Panama is a fairly modern hotel: en-suite bathrooms, western toilets, A/C, and televisions. (Televisions seemed pretty rare overall.) They had wifi in their lounge/dining room and their own kitchen.

So, as we're unpacking our bags and getting ready for bed, the lights went out. In all of Moshi. They came back on after a few minutes. Power is not reliable in Tanzania. In fact, it went out once or twice every day, though not for very long.

Even though we had been in Tanzania for a few hours and drove across it for 45 minutes, we still hadn't seen anything because it was still dark. We would actually see Moshi for the first time in the morning.

Kilimanjaro: Preparation

It started almost as a joke, I think. I was planning on taking some time off from work, someone said "Hey, why don't we climb Kilimanjaro?", and I said yes without hesitation. Or even thinking about it. It seems I make potentially life-changing decisions without much consideration. I'm pretty sure I decided to make the jump to Silicon Valley in the same way. Buying a car, on the other hand, can take a decade. What to have for lunch lies somewhere in between.

So early this year, several of us decided that we actually would hike Kilimanjaro. I invited Craig and my Dad, both of whom (and Craig's Dad) decided that they were also crazy enough to do it. All together there would be eight of us who would go on the trek: Dan (friend from college), Kat (roommate), Jenn and Chris (friends for many years, married), Craig (best friend) and his Dad, and me and my Dad.

Jenn stepped up and became the main contact and point-person for the whole thing. (Never-ending gratitude and thanks go to Jenn.) We started looking for a trekking company and after a not-insubstantial search found Ahsante Tours. Other tour places (including ones that came highly rated) seemed to have a difficult time returning our calls and emails, which was not confidence-inspiring. Ahsante was much more helpful and interactive. We also liked that they are a local business in Moshi, Tanzania (rather than a foreign-run company) as well as members of KPAP (Kilimanjaro Porter Assistance Project) (which sets minimum standards for treatment of porters). Overall, we were very happy with Ahsante both before and during our trip. I recommend them.

There was one particular guidebook which I recommend highly: Kilimanjaro: The Trekking Guide to Africa's Highest Mountain, by Henry Steadman. On the whole, his advice was pretty good and largely accurate. The maps provided for the various routes are cleverly constructed and easy to read.

Ahsante's office with the week's treks. We're Tuesday ("Jenn Group x8")

After much research and discussion, we decided on a seven day trek via the Machame route. This is supposedly the most interesting route to hike and also provides very good acclimatization for the summit. The success rate for Machame is better than other routes. You can do this route in six days, but we inserted an extra day at Karanga camp (between Barranco and Barafu). I'll spoil the surprise now and say that I am very happy that we put this extra day in and at this location.

We targeted late August/early September for the trip. Once we jiggled everyone's calendar, we ended up leaving the U.S. on 2 Sep. We gave an extra empty day before the trek started to give travel some slack, seven days for the trek, another rest day, five days of safari, and a last day to begin travel home. We decided that it would be silly to go to Africa and NOT do a safari, so we added a five-day safari on as a sort of "prize" for finishing the trek. (Craig and his Dad returned after the trek, because Craig wanted to get home for his son's birthday.)

All the plans in place, we started getting airline tickets to Kilimanjaro airport. The only big airline to fly there is KLM, via Amsterdam. So, my flights were SFO to Amsterdam, and then to Kilimanjaro, which was pretty easy (though it is a long pair of flights). We had a variety of problems with KLM. We bought upgraded (Economy Comfort) seats and found that they would vanish out from underneath us. This actually happened to me for my return flights while I was in Africa, which was vexing. But KLM is the only game in town. Even if you get everything squared away in advance it may change without you being notified. My advice is to be vigilant.

Chris finished his 100th mile this summer.

And thus began a summer of gear testing and fitness improvement. I hiked practically every week with Craig and his son, Chris. We tested boots, packs, socks, liners, shirts, pants, nutrition, and so on. We also know several of the trails by heart now. In addition, I had been and continued to run. I logged 450+ miles running and around 100 miles hiking over the spring and summer. So, I was in pretty good shape. Others mainly did a bunch of hiking to get used to being on their feet for so long (and test their gear, break in boots, etc). I was at REI twice a week for two months. They're probably wondering if I got hit by a bus since I haven't been around.

We collated several different gear lists from Steadman, online, my friend Matt(who had done Kili a couple years ago), and Dan (who has more experience with cold camping than the rest of us). Here's my gear list, with post-trek comments regarding how the items worked out.

The tour company were to provide tents, and we decided that we would rent sleeping bags and sleeping pads from them as well. This kept us from having to lug these bulkier items around the world. It also meant that I didn't need to buy a 10 degree bag I'm never going to use again. This worked out very well, I think. The equipment was in fantastic (nearly new, I'd say) condition (as were the tents).

And suddenly it was two weeks before leaving. I had done a pretty good job of not thinking about how crazy the whole idea was, or the fact I was going to Africa, or any of the scarier or more exciting things. But now it could not be denied: I was going to Tanzania with whatever was in my bags for around three weeks. What was I thinking?!

All my gear laid out and ready to go. (click to enlarge)