Although I’ve been on countless boats and ferries, I had only spent one night on board an overnight ferry before. And even that was a long time ago. But when I came across a sailing trip around the Zanzibar archipelago, a wave of wonder and excitement rushed through me. Rami didn’t need much convincing either since we decided that our African travels will pretty much be full of new experiences. Living on a boat for seven days seemed to fit right in with camping in the wilderness for the first time and summiting the highest mountain on the African continent.
Yet when a dinghy came to shore to pick up our backpacks and take them to the boat, I was shaking in my flip flops and making stupid jokes to mask my nerves. As we climbed into the dinghy and headed for the boat, I couldn’t help but think, “What did we sign up for?!”
It wasn’t until we stepped on board our new home for the week that I realized how truly unique and possibly even luxurious this adventure will be. We were on board a 56-foot yacht named Julia. We had a private cabin with our own bathroom, skylights that opened up for fresh air, and even a narrow closet. The space at the back of the yacht had two large tables, plenty of sitting space and a kitchen where a dedicated chef would prepare all of our meals. At the front of the boat, three mattresses were secured to the nets below to allow for sunbathing or relaxing. There was also a lot of deck space, which was perfect for sitting down and enjoying the scenery. Best of all, there was only one more person who signed up for this trip – a young lady from Switzerland named Bini.
The crew consisted of the skipper Caio, the chef David, and two guys – Hamisi and Omari – who assisted with everything related to the boat. In total we were three tourists being taken care of by four crew members on board a spacious yacht, setting sail for some of the more remote and secluded places in the Indian Ocean.
For the next seven days, we were immersed in pure nature of the Zanzibar archipelago. Technically “Zanzibar” refers to just two large islands – Unguja (home to the historic Stone Town) and Pemba. But there are over forty smaller islands scattered around Zanzibar that are often referred to as “Spice Islands” due to their production of various spices. We got a taste for all of these spices as David whipped up meal after meal full of freshest ingredients, flavoured with cloves, coriander, fennel seeds, curry powder and others. We couldn’t help but let out a “Wow” every time platters of food appeared before us.
We got another taste of luxury on our very first night as we docked near Mnemba Island, home to a very exclusive resort. At USD $1,700 per person per night, this private island resort would charge an outsider USD $300 just for stepping foot on its beach! Luckily the waters around the island are part of a conservation area, and as such we could dock there without paying the hefty fee. But the real perk was in the morning as we were the very first ones to go snorkelling and admire the coral reefs with their abundant marine life before all of the tour boats arrived from Unguja.
Besides snorkelling near Mnemba and later in the pristine waters of Mesali Island, we got a chance to go kayaking in the mangroves of Pemba Island. Rami and I are not new to kayaking by any means, but navigating among the tree roots sticking out of the water and branches about to poke you in the face turned out to be more challenging than we expected. After a few collisions with the trees, we finally got the hang of it, paddling slowly and gently in the calm waters of the mangroves. We were doing quite well, gliding in the narrow channel between the trees and marvelling at the fact that we were the only ones there. Then before I knew what was happening, I found myself in the water. The kayak had flipped!
For a second I panicked, but then I realized that the water was shallow and I could touch the bottom with my feet. However, I also realized that I better not do that since there were many tree roots growing out of the sandy bottom. It turns out that Rami had leaned too far to one side of the kayak while trying to dodge a tree branch heading for his eye. This caused the entire kayak to flip and both of us ended up in the water. With the help from one of our crew members, we managed to get back onto the kayak and continue gliding through the sleepy mangroves as if nothing had happened.
The beauty about sailing is that one can reach places of pure wilderness, untouchable and unreachable by roads and the civilized world. As early as on our very first day sailing to Mnemba Island we saw dolphins jumping out of the water right in front of our yacht. We didn’t have to sail very far, and yet here they were – right in front of us but undiscovered by the people on the shore.
One morning, I was standing in the back of the boat, looking out at the horizon to keep myself from feeling seasick as we sailed. The water was wavy and the sun was blinding my eyes. At first I thought I saw a mirage. After looking at the waves for so long, it was bound that my eyes were playing tricks on me. But then I saw it again – a shiny grey mass rising out of the waves and glistening in the sun just for a few seconds. I knew instantly that this was not a dolphin. It was something much larger and much heavier, disappearing into the water for long stretches of time. In fact, after a few glimpses of this creature, I couldn’t spot it anymore for maybe another five minutes. But then it came back, rising out of the water higher than ever!
“Whales!” one of the crew members exclaimed. “A mama and a baby,” clarified our skipper.
I had never seen whales before. It was an incredible feeling. Although we thought we saw some tail splashing far in the distance earlier in the week, this was a much closer encounter. The whales swam parallel to our boat for a while, disappearing back into the water for long stretches of time, and then reappearing with their backs just above the water. We all gathered on the deck and stared out into the open ocean, long after the whales were out of sight. This was a true wilderness encounter.
But it didn’t stop there. I woke up one morning with cheers and laughter roaring from the back of the boat. Having woken up early, Rami stumbled back into our cabin and proudly proclaimed that they have caught two tuna fish and it was Caio’s birthday in addition to his own! Despite having me swear not to tell anyone that it was his birthday, Rami couldn’t keep his secret when he found out that Caio’s birthday was literally that same day. And what a coincidence it was that Mother Nature gifted these men two heavy tuna fish that were caught at the same time! This was probably the freshest tuna I have ever eaten in my life and a testament to the wonder of this adventure. Every night for the rest of the week we ate pieces of the birthday cake and doubled-over from laughter as we watched Omari and Hamisi dance to the “Happy Birthday” song by the Tanzanian singer Diamond Platnumz.
In fact, a very special cultural experience was a visit to the village where Omari and Hamisi live. Situated on Pemba Island, this tiny village was full of kids that swarmed us as soon as we got out of the dinghy. “Jambo! Jambo!” they exclaimed, waving their hands and following us wherever we went. The girls really took a liking to my scarf that I wore around my legs to cover my knees as a sign of respect to this Muslim society. They touched my scarf and giggled, turning away as soon as I made eye contact.
Omari and Hamisi took turns showing us their houses. At each one, we were welcomed to sit on the carpets laid out on the floor while numerous relatives and swarms of kids surrounded us and watched us attentively. Each time we were presented with hot sweet tea, made from ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. As we sat cross-legged on the floor, we were invited to share a meal with their closest relatives. From freshly-baked bread, to grilled fish, to boiled sweet potatoes and chapati pancakes, we got a true taste of the food that locals in this village eat every day. The ingredients came from their home-grown gardens that we saw with our very own eyes while walking around the village.
The children of the village were shy at the beginning, studying us with curiosity when they thought we weren’t looking. But when I took out my phone to take pictures, I found myself surrounded by smiling faces eager to take a selfie. Some of the older kids started practicing their English abilities, asking us questions like “What is the name of your mother?” and “Where are you from?” Sadly, it became clear very quickly that they did not understand our answers. It turned out that our Swahili was at times more advanced than their English.
The visit to this local village showed a juxtaposition of the old and the new. The villagers lived in crudely-built stone houses and slept on the floor. Yet they had plenty of home-grown food and managed to cook, wash, clean and even educate their children. In the absence of electricity, the villagers used their cell phones for light when it got dark, and charged their phones with solar power during the day. It appeared that they lived in a remote area, yet just a half-hour drive away was a forest reserve where researchers studied the flora and fauna of the Pemba Island. There is no doubt that this village was remote and secluded, but its way of life was far from primitive.
Towards the end of our sailing adventure, it was time to head back to the northern part of Zanzibar called Nungwi. We got so used to spending nights in the serenity of the empty waters without any boats in sight, that when we finally got to Nungwi, we were shocked by jet-skis zooming by and music drifting from the bars on the shore.
The next morning we all sat quietly on the deck, staring out into the distance, unable and unwilling to disturb the last few moments of silence we came to appreciate over the past week living on the boat.
When it came time to say our goodbyes to the crew, we were all sad that this journey was over. As I climbed into the dinghy for the last time like a pro, I gave Julia one last look-over. This is what our travels are all about – new experiences that shake us outside of our comfort zone and show us that even the more remote places in this world can be accessible.
During our entire hike to the peak of Kilimanjaro, I kept a journal, writing my observations every day. The following are my journal entries, almost verbatim.
Day 1 – Hakuna Matata
Date: Aug 15, 2017
Start: Lemosho Gate (2,100 m)
End: Mti Mkubwa Camp (2,650 m)
Jambo Africa! We arrived in Tanzania on Sunday, Aug 13th and spent the next day relaxing at the Springlands Hotel. I was actually quite jet lagged, so I’m happy we took a rest day. We met our guide Issa, rented sleeping bags, hiking poles and other gear, and packed for our hike.
Today we officially started our climb! We met our team of porters, a chef, and assistant guide, and we were driven first to register for the hike and weigh our bags, and later to the starting point.
We arrived at the Lemosho gate around 1:45 pm and had a picnic lunch. There were huge black and white fluffy monkeys in the trees! We already saw some zebras and giraffes on our drive earlier today, so the monkeys are a great bonus.
At 2:00 pm, we officially started to climb Kilimanjaro. We were going through the rainforest part of the mountain, as that is the landscape that exists at the lower altitude. There are lots of trees all around with branches resembling ropes, just hanging down from the trees. We saw the black and white monkeys again several times as well as blue monkeys.
When we started the climb, the rainforest was dead silent, but soon enough we heard various birds singing or calling each other. There weren’t any insects except for some red ants on the ground and a caterpillar. Apparently the red ants bite, but to keep them out, you can sprinkle some salt around your tent since they are afraid of it.
The weather is a bit unpredictable. If you’re not moving, you will be cold just standing under the shady canopy of the trees, It also rained intermittently throughout our hike, but our rain jackets saved us. In the sun, it can easily get pretty hot, especially if you’re climbing uphill.
The climb wasn’t very steep today and we completed it in just two hours instead of three hours that is usually expected for this distance. But the ground was full of tree roots, so we had to really watch where we stepped.
Our camp is great so far! Our tent includes a sleeping area that is sectioned off, with mattresses on which we can put our sleeping bags. The other area has a folding table and chairs where we will eat our dinner. We also have our own private toilet in a separate tent that is pitched nearby.
Our team is feeding us well. We snacked on some popcorn and tea while awaiting dinner.
There is also a huge monkey that was walking around the tents earlier. Ahh! As I’m writing this , the monkey nearly gave me a heart attack by poking its head into our tent! We had to shoo it away.
So far there’s nothing to worry about, although I can see how it could easily get pretty cold up here. But for now, hakuna matata!
Day 2 – Pole, Pole!
Date: Aug 16, 2017
Start: Mti Mkubwa Camp (2,650 amsl)
End: Shira One Camp (3,610 amsl)
“Pole, Pole!” in Swahili means slowly, slowly. That is the exact strategy that is used by our guide as well as many others in order to successfully summit Kilimanjaro. You don’t want to ascend too high, too quickly because you will exert unnecessary energy and you will sweat a lot, potentially leaving you dehydrated. So it’s best to take it one step at a time.
Yesterday the slow pace surprised me and actually tired me out when we walked on flat terrain. But today I welcomed the Pole Pole strategy with open arms as we climbed up almost 1,000 m from 2,650 m at the Mti Mkubwa (Big Tree) campsite to 3,610 m at Shira One Camp.
The day started out pretty cold. In fact, Rami and I were a bit cold at night even though we had a couple of layers on and slept in sleeping bags rated for -30oC. So when we resumed our hike today through the shady forest, I was wearing a wool base layer, a fleece and a rain-jacket to keep warm.
It was also very new to us to sleep on the ground in a tent. I’ve only done this once before on a school trip to Algonquin Park in grade ten, while Rami had never camped. Our bodies were sore in the morning after sleeping on the hard ground.
The forest changed a bit from the rainforest we hiked through yesterday to one of those enchanted forests you read about and imagine in fairy tales. It was dark and full of dense trees that had green, hair-like vegetation drooping from the branches. It’s as if we were in some ancient story or fairy tale, walking happily on the trail between these dense trees, just minutes away from something bad happening to us.
But nothing happened, and soon enough the forest ended abruptly and was replaced by tall bushes on both sides of the trail. From here on until our next camp, the ground was full of dust and rocks of various proportions. This dust managed to get everywhere – in my nose and in my mouth, on my clothes and on my daypack, and all over my hiking boots to the point where I couldn’t see their original colour anymore.
The temperature changed as well, with the sun beaming down on us and no shade in sight to hide under. I had to peel away my layers and regretted that I didn’t wear a t-shirt instead.
From here it was not an easy climb. Some people say Kilimanjaro is a “walk-up” mountain, and I suppose it is in some areas. But the terrain we tackled today was basically like walking up the stairs for about four hours. Thank god Rami and I started doing Bikini Body Guide (BBG) workouts in preparation for this trip as those workouts had a lot of step-up exercises. Today was like a four-hour-long step-up exercise, made harder by the fact that each rock we stepped on was different and was a bit slippery because of the dust.
Today was definitely a challenge. At one point, I found myself to be a bit frustrated – with myself, with the hot weather, and with the never-ending trail that just kept going up and up at a steep angle. “But this is only day two!” I kept telling myself. I knew I had to push myself.
The altitude also makes it harder to breathe as the air gets thinner and less oxygen is available, which only adds to the challenge.
As we climbed to the top of one ridge, we finally saw the peak of Kilimanjaro. Covered partially in clouds, it stood there a bit intimidating to be honest. I can’t believe that (hopefully) we will climb all of this way to the top.
Our hike today took just under five hours, including our walk through the enchanted forest and a short stop for lunch.
Right now we are relaxing at our camp, awaiting dinner and admiring the peak.
Day 3 – Above the clouds
Date: Aug 17, 2017
Start: Shira One Camp (3,610 amsl)
End: Shira Two Camp (3,850 amsl)
We had another cold night last night even though we were wearing even more layers this time. I think I drifted in and out of sleep the entire night, waking up from the cold. But on the plus side, every time I woke up at night to use the washroom, I would notice the night sky. It was so dark with hundreds of stars shining down on us. I’ve never seen the stars so clearly in my life. Rami spotted the Big Dipper, and I for the first time ever saw what I think was the Milky Way. It is also dead quiet here at night. The silence is deafening!
As soon as the sun comes up, it starts to get noticeable warmer. Our hike today took us across the Shira plateau, and I gradually peeled away my layers one by one until I was left wearing a t-shirt. That is how powerful the sun can be here, especially at these higher altitudes.
Today was not a particularly hard day. In fact, today was meant as a day for acclimatization. We walked across the moorlands for a long time, mostly walking on flat ground.
Here and there, our guide Issa pointed out animal poop from buffalos and mountain goats. He explained that at times, a fog descends on the moorlands, and the animals get lost and wander around until the dog is lifted. Other than that, no animals live on the moors.
We then approached the base of a peak that we needed to climb in order to acclimatize. The trail steepened, but I also noticed many trees covered with droopy, hair-like vegetation, similar to the enchanted forest from yesterday. We could see the Uhuru Peak from our trail easily and clearly as the clouds surrounding it parted.
We climbed to the top of the peak called Cathedral Point, which is at 3,872 m above sea level. The most astonishing thing was that we ended up standing there at the peak, looking down upon a fluffy blanket of clouds surrounding us. We were above the clouds! Besides being in an airplane, I had never been above the clouds before. With the sun shining, the clouds looked like a never-ending swimming pool, inviting us for a swim in its fluffiness.
We concluded our hike by making our way to Shira Two Camp, which required us to descend quite a bit and then climb back up to 3,850 m elevation. All in all, our hike today lasted about 4.5 hours. It wasn’t too bad at all, but I noticed my upper back on my right side was hurting a lot. I’m not sure if it’s my lung that’s giving me trouble from my heavy breathing during the climb, or if my backpack is not sitting right on me.
We are required to carry 3L of water with us in our daypacks every day. Combined with my DSLR and extra layers of clothing, my daypack weighed 5kg today. I’m going to try and lighten it up a bit tomorrow.
At camp, our tent was already set up as always and we washed our hands with warm water and soap in small plastic tubs. Shortly after, we were served a hot lunch consisting of chicken stew with potatoes and vegetables, as well as muffins, avocado and hot tea. We are very happy with the food that’s provided to us so far. It actually tastes good and there’s so much of it! We have never been able to finish a single meal so far – that’s how much food we’re given!
Today I noticed that when the hike is fairly gentle, stupid songs get stuck in my head for hours at a time as I daydream and walk in my own zone. For example, we saw a white-neck raven today – a huge bird with shiny black feathers. All I could think about afterwards was a Russian song “Vorona”, which means “raven”.
We also came across an area meant as a helicopter landing area to rescue hikers that fall dangerously ill. Shortly after, we encountered an ambulance that took away one of the hikers, driving down the only road that runs through the Kili National Park. It’s scary to think that it’s possible to get very sick here. But thank god, we haven’t felt altitude sickness at all so far.
Day 4 – Lava Tower
Date: Aug 18, 2017
Start: Shira Two Camp (3,850 amsl)
End: Barranco Camp (3,900 amsl)
Last night we actually had our first good sleep on the mountain! But it took a lot of layers to keep us warm. I personally was wearing four: a t-shirt, my wool base layer, my red poofy jacket and a down jacket that we rented from Zara Tours. We woke up refreshed and ready to tackle the day.
We started off walking uphill through the alpine dessert, with lava-covered rocks scattered around us. It was a steady, uphill trek, but the angle of incline wasn’t very steep.
As it happens every day, porters from our own tour company and all the others passed us by. I was once again amazed at how much stuff they carry, often wearing running shoes instead of hiking boots. They tend to carry the heaviest things on their heads because it’s apparently easier since there is less weight pulling them back. They get to camp or the lunch spot way before us to set up everything and cook for us. We later learned that a porter, who is just starting out, earns only about USD$40-50 for the entire duration of the trip. It seems like such a small amount, but for them it’s clearly worthwhile.
The goal of today was to reach a big rock called the Lava Tower, sitting at 4,600 m above sea level. Starting at Shira Two Camp at 3,850 m, we were able to complete this 750 m ascent in just shy of four hours.
At the Lava Tower, our tent was temporarily set up with our dining table and chairs. We were quickly served a hot lunch consisting of fried chicken, veggies, sweet potatoes, French toast, juice and some sliced pineapple. We spent an hour eating lunch at this altitude in order to acclimatize.
It was actually quite gloomy as we were literally inside a cloud with low visibility. It was easy to get cold just sitting in one place without moving.
After lunch we actually started descending to our next camp – the Barranco camp at 3,900 m high. Here we will spend the night.
Our descent took us through another moorlands landscape, along a stream that carries water from the glacier that sits at the top of Kilimanjaro. It’s important to note that the water we’re given to drink on this entire climb comes from the mountain itself – either from a nearby river or a glacial stream. Our team then boils the water and gives it to us. But of course we also use our own water purification tablets to clean the water before we drink it just to be safe.
I found the descent to the Barranco camp a bit difficult on my knees. At times the trail was a bit slippery as well and it was easy to lose your balance if you weren’t careful. But the sights all around us were magnificent. It was possible to see a cross-section of the mountain, enveloped in clouds. There was also a lot of green vegetation. We even saw a little blue bird drinking from one of the plants.
Besides mild headaches that seem to have disappeared, Rami and I don’t feel any symptoms of altitude sickness. I hope it stays this way.
Our camp for tonight as well as the last portion of today’s trek was a lot busier because today our Lemosho route joined with Machame route at the Lava Tower. There are literally a hundred tents at our campground and it is noticeable nosier. This also means that there will be a lot more people traffic from now on until the very peak. But as our guides say, this is not a competition. We just have to take it one step at a time.
Day 5 – The Barranco Wall
Date: Aug 19, 2017
Start: Barranco Camp (3,900 amsl)
End: Karanga Camp (3,995 amsl)
After another chilly night, we got ready for our climb. These cold nights are really not fun to be honest. I even noticed some frost on the top of our tent this morning.
But there is nothing that gets your heart pumping, your blood flowing and your body warmer than climbing. This is especially true if you’re faced with an almost vertical incline. The Barranco Wall is exactly that. There is barely even a trail. Instead we were climbing from one boulder to another, holding onto jagged rocks for balance. Thank god the exercises we did as part of our prep for this trip included lots of squats and step-ups. Today more than any other day it was all about the leg muscles and being able to lift your knee to your chest as you placed your foot on the rock and then use that leg to step up on top of that rock.
One rock after another, we continued to climb the Barranco Wall. Clouds would surround us and then pass, but overall it felt like we were climbing in a fog the entire time. We reached the top of the Barranco Wall in one and a half hours, ascending over 340 m from our last night’s campsite. It was quite the achievement – 340 m in 1.5 hours! Usually hikers take about two hours to reach the top.
We spent fifteen minutes at the top taking pictures of the clouds that covered our view and congratulating each other. The porters have to climb the exact same wall, all the while wearing heavy backpacks and balancing baskets full of camping equipment on their heads.
Afterwards we resumed our hike, this time walking a little bit downhill towards our campsite. Perhaps I misunderstood our guide, but for some reason I thought our descent to our camp is going to be gentle and uneventful. I was happily walking down the trail, admiring the lava rocks around me covered with black and hairy moss. There were some yellow and white flowers on the way. The weather was cold, but I was fine wearing my jacket.
Finally our guide pointed out our campsite in the distance. It looked maybe fifteen minutes away, and I started picturing a hot lunch waiting for us.
Imagine my shock when instead of going straight towards our campsite, we suddenly came across a very deep valley. I was floored and then a little bit discouraged. I came to realize that we had to descend all the way down to the floor of the valley and then climb all the way back to its other side! “How inefficient!” I thought to myself.
The Karanga Valley was definitely not the most fun part of the day. Its slopes are steep and often just made up of dirt. Without ricks on the path, you don’t have much traction. As a result, it’s very easy to slip and fall. Luckily there were many trees along the way, and I grasped them for balance.
After climbing all the way back up to the other side of the valley, we arrived at the Karanga Camp sitting at 3,995 m above sea level.
Here we just had a delicious hot lunch of fried chicken, French fries, salad, fruits and hot tea. All in all, we completed 3 hours and 45 minutes of hiking today.
Tomorrow we will finally hike to the Base Camp of Kilimanjaro!
Day 6 – Base Camp
Date: Aug 20, 2017
Start: Karanga Camp (3,995 amsl)
End: Base Camp (4,673 amsl)
Today is a critical day as not only did we have to hike to Base Camp in the morning, but at night we start our ascent to the top of Kilimanjaro – the Uhuru Peak.
The morning trek took us through the alpine dessert. The trail had a steady include almost the entire way to Base Camp, but we hiked slowly so as to not run out of breath. There were just a few boulders to climb, but nothing compared to the Barranco Wall we scaled yesterday. My leg muscles are pretty sore, especially my calves. I also find that the first hour of hiking is always the hardest as my muscles get warmed up and my shoulders get used to the weight of my daypack. After that, it somehow gets a bit easier.
We made it to Base Camp in 2h 40 mins. At 4,673 m elevation, Base Camp is 678 m higher than our camp from the night before. Here we could see the ending point of a glacier at one of Kili’s peaks.
Base Camp is full of tents everywhere. There are people like us, who are planning to summit. But there are also people who have already summited and they’re coming down the mountain to pick up their stuff from their tents. There’s a different energy here as we can actually see people hiking down the mountain’s slope. Those that are incoming are congratulating those who summited and are now outgoing.
The sun was very strong when we first arrived at Base Camp. It’s easy to get sunburnt if you’re not careful. There is however a chilly wind blowing through the camp, so a jacket is still necessary.
After having a hot lunch, the guides ushered us to take a nap. I think I only slept for two hours since out tent is stuffy from the relentless sun. I also had a headache today hiking to Base Camp. After taking some ibuprofen, it got better, but after napping I feel like it’s coming back. I’m not sure if the headache is due to altitude or dehydration (I drank barely 2L yesterday) or hunger (I didn’t eat well last night) or lack of proper sleep (the cold nights continue preventing me from sleeping well).
There are also cute little mice running around, scavenging for food. We first noticed them at our lunch stop at the Lava Tower, but to see them at this altitude in this barren landscape is a wonder.
So the plan for the rest of the day is as follows: around 5:00 pm we will have an early dinner, then we will nap again until 11:00 pm, at which point we will pack our daypack and get ready. We should be on the trail around midnight, equipped with our headlamps to light the path. It should take anywhere between 6 to 8 hours to reach the Uhuru Peak summit, just in time to hopefully take some nice photos right after sunrise. After that, we will descend back to Base Camp for brunch and then descend further to Mweka hut for dinner and our last night on the mountain.
I’m actually quite nervous. I really hope we can make it to the Top of Africa!
Day 7 – Started from the bottom, now we’re here
Date: Aug 21, 2017
Start: Base Camp (4,673 amsl)
End: Mweka Camp (3,100 amsl)
We made it! We climbed to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro – Africa’s highest mountain! Wow, what an accomplishment! It feels a bit surreal right now actually, probably because we’re sleep deprived and exhausted. Most importantly I can tell you that it wasn’t easy.
So we woke up from our evening nap yesterday around 11:00 pm. We packed our daypacks and organized our belongings that would stay down at Base Camp while we climb. Around 11:30 pm, we had some warm tea and cookies just to warm up our stomachs. Then in pitch darkness at 12:15 am (that is 15 mins past midnight) we started our ascent.
It was cool to see lines of headlamps above and below us as we climbed. Against the backdrop of the night sky littered with stars and pitch darkness all around us, the headlamps were kind of beautiful. They also let us know that we weren’t the only ones climbing to the peak.
It was freezing outside! The wind was also incredibly cold and strong enough to make you lose your balance at times. Luckily we were prepared with our gear. I wore no less than five layers on the top: 100% wool base layer t-shirt, 100% wool base layer long-sleeved shirt, a fleece, and two jackets – one on top of the other. On the bottom I wore two layers of thermal underwear, my hiking pants and finally rain-pants that we rented from our tour company. On my head, I wore a hat liner, my alpaca wool hat and the hood from my red jacket. I also had thick gloves on my hands and a fleece scarf to cover my face from the wind.
Rami’s gear was similar – five layers on top, three on the bottom, three on his head, thick gloves and a bandana to cover his face. Can you imagine how much clothes we were wearing?! But it was all worth it as we didn’t feel the cold except for on our faces.
The trail was very steep. The cold wind kept blowing in our faces without stopping at all. Our noses ran from the cold and our throats were dry from breathing in cold air.
Climbing to the peak coupled with all the previous days of hiking and camping was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life from a physical perspective. Rami and I were both worried about getting sick from the altitude even though we’ve done so much acclimatization over the last few days. But in the end, it wasn’t altitude sickness that got us – it was back pain. Maybe because we weren’t using hiking poles or maybe because our back muscles are weak, but our backs started aching around the two-hour mark.
At first the pain was easy to ignore as I concentrated on shielding my face from the wind, but soon enough I had to request a break and just lie on top of a flat boulder to release the pressure. This worked for about two minutes as the pain returned when we resumed our climb.
I must admit I had my weak moments. Quitting wasn’t an option of course. I didn’t just camp in the freezing cold nights just to quit! Sitting on a rock for too long was not an option either as without movement, you would feel cold within a minute. The only way was up.
But the back pain was pretty bad. There were a couple of times when my eyes swelled with tears as I realized that I had to endure this pain for several hours more. During one particular break, I once again stretched out on a rock and looked up into the sky. With no cloud cover, the sky was full of bright stars. Then, all of a sudden I saw two shooting stars! I pointed them out to Rami and secretly made a wish that we would both make it to the peak.
I’d love to say that that was a turning moment for me, but alas it was not. Rami and I continued to climb through the back pain, and my emotions bounced from being sad and tired to frustrated.
Mentally, the most challenging part of the climb was not knowing just how close you are to the top or to the important milestone called Stella Point. At an elevation of 5,756 m, Stella Point is just 45-60 mins away from the ultimate peak – the Uhuru Peak. But in the darkness, it was impossible to judge for ourselves how close we were to Stella Point. Our guides could tell us roughly how much time was left to reach it, but Rami and I both found it hard to be in the darkness about our progress.
In fact, I saw the sign for Stella Point so suddenly that I was shocked that we finally reached it. It came out of nowhere! The sun was just starting to peek above the horizon, so the sign was still enveloped in darkness and difficult to see from afar.
Finally at Stella Point I felt happy and relieved. Our guides hugged us and said we were doing great. We each had a cup of hot ginger tea from a thermos the guides took along with them, and then we were back on the trail towards the peak.
As the sun came up, we could finally appreciate our surroundings. We passed by several glaciers on our left, situated against the perfect backdrop of a blanket of clouds. To our right, we saw the gigantic crater that was once spewing lava when this volcano was active.
Ahead of us was THE SIGN! The sign that we made it to Uhuru Peak! We made it to the Top of Africa! The rising sun illuminated the sign perfectly for us.
All in all, we started our climb at 12:15 am and reached the peak at 6:40 am. From Base Camp, this means that we climbed 1,222 m in 6 hrs 25 mins. Despite being at 5,895 m above sea level, we didn’t feel altitude sick at all.
After taking some pictures in the freezing cold (it was -18oC at least!), we started to head back down. We realized that we were actually one of the first few groups to reach the summit. As we descended, we saw lots of people still trekking towards the peak. With the sun now fully above the horizon, we snapped a photo at Stella Point before heading all the way down to Base Camp.
We used a slightly different trail to descend. It was full of rocky sand, which made it fairly easy to glide down, albeit dangerous. Despite finally using hiking poles for going down, our knees started to ache. We also noticed a pair of Japanese guys that had to be carried down by their guides due to altitude sickness, despite reaching the summit successfully just moments before us.
We made it back to Base Camp at 9:15 am. At that time, we ended up taking a quick one-hour nap in our tent since we didn’t sleep at night. After that, we had a quick lunch, changed into lighter clothes and set out descending towards Mweka Camp.
Our descent took about 3.5 hours, but it started raining and there were a lot of rocks on the trail. Right now our knees hurt from all the pressure of going downhill, especially on muddy and slippery rocks. The Mweka Camp sits at 3,100 m above sea level, which means that in addition to climbing to the peak of Kilimanjaro, we also descended almost 2,800 m today. We popped some ibuprofen to help our knees recover.
Overall, I’m very happy with what we have been able to achieve. It definitely wasn’t easy. I’m proud of myself and of Rami for persevering through the back pain, through the cold wind, and through climbing such a challenging trail. We heard from our guide that not everyone who started the climb with us today made it to the top. Some people have failed. And others, like the Japanese guys, succumbed to altitude even after reaching the peak. I guess I’ll take back pain and achy knees over failure any day.
Day 8 – Asante sana, Kilimanjaro
Date: Aug 22, 2017
Start: Mweka Camp (3,100 amsl)
End: Mweka Gate (1,640 amsl)
The Mweka Camp where we spent our last night on the mountain was back in the rainforest climate zone. You could feel the humidity in the air even though the weather was still cool.
Both Rami and I must have passed out from the long day when we finally got into our sleeping bags for the night. We both slept through the entire night without waking up.
In the morning, after breakfast, we gathered with our entire team to tell them “Asante sana” or “Thank you very much” for taking such good care of us and making our trek as comfortable as possible. In return, they sang us once more a song about Kilimanjaro. I loved how everyone on that team always had a positive attitude and a smile on their faces. They truly did a great job always having our tent ready and feeding us lots of good food.
Afterwards we started hiking down the last stretch of the mountain to the Mweka gate. It actually started raining, so the trail was very muddy and slippery in some places. Rami and I both wore our rain jackets and realized that on this trip, we really put every single piece of technical clothing that we had to the test!
It took us about 2.5 hours to reach the Mweka gate, descending almost 1,500 m down to an elevation of 1,640 m above sea level.
It was a bit unbelievable to see all the vehicles waiting to pick up the hikers after the Kili trek. In a way, it was also a big relief to finally feel that we finished this journey. At this point, I was also day-dreaming about finally taking a shower after eight days of the camping lifestyle.
We signed a Kilimanjaro comment book at the tourist hut and then hopped into our van to drive back to our hotel. At the hotel, the staff congratulated us and our guides presented us with certificates of achievement.
As more and more people congratulated us, the significance of our accomplishment started to sink in. After all, not everybody made it to the top. We later learned that one young woman from Germany had to quit after two hours of climbing on summit night because she simply felt too cold, despite wearing five layers of clothing. However, her boyfriend continued on and I remember seeing him at the summit.
So what has this journey taught me? First, I think our mind is a powerful thing. If we really want something bad enough, then we can find the strength within us to achieve it. Rami’s mantra throughout the entire summit night was “Mind over body, mind over body,” which I think sums up how strong our willpower can be despite physical pain.
Second, despite the fact that we were all strangers to each other, I heard words of encouragement every time I sat down on a rock to rest. “Don’t give up!” a guide from another tour company would urge me as he passed by with his group. “You are so close already!” I would hear through the darkness. I think challenges like this can bring out a sense of community or brotherhood in people. In fact, our own guides nicknamed Rami as Simba, like the lion from the Lion King. As for me, they called me “dada”, which means “sister” in Swahili. “Dada, you made it!” said our guide Issa to me when we reached Stella Point. “Simba!” they would exclaim whenever Rami reached a major milestone. It was a nice feeling to know that in the end, we were all together, united by a common goal to reach the top.
Finally, I think this journey taught me that no matter how intimidating a challenge can be, it’s possible to conquer it “Pole, pole”, one step at a time. This experience has been so different from anything that I’ve done before, and I am certain I will remember it for years and years to come.
I was starting to get impatient. Where are they? We’ve been waiting here for at least half an hour, squinting from the sun and keeping our eyes peeled to the steep slopes of the canyon covered in the morning haze. Our guide said they appear every morning because the conditions are perfect at this time of the year. But I was starting to doubt it.
Then out of nowhere he appeared – a large, majestic condor, gliding through the air with his black and white wings spread out wide. Everyone around us let out an “Ah!” and started pointing even though our guide said to keep quiet so as to not spook the condors.
Slowly, more condors appeared, gliding very close to the slopes of the canyon and disappearing somewhere below the cliffs where we could not see. They were still fairly far away, but I was happy we finally spotted them. There were probably a couple of hundred people crowding the two viewing platforms at the Condor Cross, gripping their cameras, peering with impatient eyes into the depths of the deepest canyon in the world.
But soon enough the crowd start to thin out as tourists piled back into their vans. Rami and I were also ready to go, but our guide ushered us back to the viewing platforms, saying it was too early. I put my camera away and was just approaching the railing to admire the view of the canyon one last time when a lady standing at the railing smiled at me and waved me to come closer.
“There are so many of them!” she whispered as she nodded towards the slopes. All of a sudden, a few condors shot up into the air almost right above our heads. Then more and more of them appeared, circling around and gliding back and forth right in front of us. They were huge! Now that I could see them much closer, I could appreciate just how big these birds are. Later we learned from our guide that their wing span can be as long as five meters! It was all worth the wait.
But how did we get here?
After getting a nasty food poisoning on Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, we managed to take a bus and cross overland into Peru. The city of Arequipa was our first stop in Peru and we welcomed the warmer weather and lower altitude! For our entire stay in Arequipa, we still had to take antibiotics to battle our food poisoning, and unfortunately the pills made us quite nauseous. We lived off of instant soup packets and chips for that week, but we managed to enjoy Arequipa and take a trip to the Colca Canyon.
On the way to the Colca Canyon, we had many opportunities to take pictures with llamas and alpacas. They are so funny-looking up-close!
Our tour to the Colca Canyon was actually quite pleasant. The company used large Mercedes vans that stopped on the side of the road every now and then to show us some wildlife.
Although we were there to see the condors, a very touristy thing to do was to take pictures with other wild birds. I’m not exactly sure what kind of bird this was, but it was fun to take pictures with it nevertheless!
But back to Arequipa. It’s remarkable how different Peru was from Bolivia. All of a sudden, we noticed a Starbucks and a McDonald’s, which were nonexistent in the Bolivian cities that we visited. Arequipa also had a couple of shopping malls, home to familiar stores like H&M and fast food restaurants like Dunkin Donuts. We even saw a few Scotiabank branches around the city!
And so it appeared that Peru was much more developed than Bolivia, and clearly more economically open to international food chains and stores. Another stark contrast between the two countries was the people and to some extent the language. Unlike Bolivia, where 80% of the population is indigenous, we struggled to recognize indigenous people in Arequipa. As well, we felt pretty confident with our Spanish after three weeks of classes in Bolivia, even though we knew that Bolivians speak very clearly and tend to annunciate words when they speak. But when we arrived in Peru, we instantly realized that Peruvians have some sort of a different accent when they speak Spanish. We found it a bit challenging to understand them and to be understood by the locals.
Although we loved our time in Bolivia, it was a breath of fresh air to arrive in Peru and to start discovering a new culture and new places, like the Colca Canyon with its magnificent condors and friendly llamas.
We’ve heard fellow travellers say that you either love La Paz or you hate it. While “hate” is a strong word in my opinion, I’ll be honest with you – La Paz will not make it into my top ten cities of South America.
After visiting cities like Sucre, Potosi and Uyuni, all of which had a fairly relaxed atmosphere, La Paz hit me over the head with a brick of sensory overload. The city is very crowded, the sidewalks are so narrow that it’s very hard to simply stroll around, and there are many cafes catered only to tourists, which makes the city inauthentic. Did I mention the altitude? La Paz and its neighbouring El Alto are the highest cities in the world, which makes it challenging to walk up the stairs or even to walk up a hill. And there are a lot of hills in La Paz!
In addition, it was cold! Maybe we got a bit unlucky with our hostel, but our room was freezing, so much so that we slept under three heavy alpaca blankets and water bottles filled with hot water and tucked away under our sweaters. The shower also sucked, spitting either droplets of boiling hot water or a bucket-load of ice-cold water. There was no in between! We’ve read online many people complaining about the showers. It amazes me that a city so densely populated and so frequently visited by tourists and locals alike would have the worst showers in the country because they use an electric heater to heat up the water instead of gas.
Nevertheless, we did manage to have some fun in La Paz. In order to get quickly acquainted with the city, we went on a walking tour and learned very interesting tidbits about life in La Paz. One of the most interesting stories involved a prison that is situated in one of the main squares in the city. People who are imprisoned there actually have to pay in order to stay there! In addition, their wives and children can stay with them in the prison, but have full privileges of going in and out if they please. The children go to school every day, while the wives make money by selling fruits and vegetables in the markets for instance. In the evening, they all come back to their home in the prison. Apparently it’s much cheaper for the wives to live with their husbands in the prison as opposed to living away from them in the city.
We also learned a bit more about the cholitas on the walking tour. Cholitas are indigenous women in Bolivia, usually from Quechua or Aymara backgrounds. But the cholitas in La Paz are different from those we encountered in Sucre. First, cholitas in La Paz are predominantly Aymara, whereas in Sucre there were a lot of cholitas from the Quechua culture. We learned from our guide in Uyuni that the best way to tell the difference between Aymara and Quechua people is to look at their cheekbones. The Aymara people have very high cheekbones that stick out and their faces are more pointed, whereas the Quechua people have a fairly round face. We could tell right away that the cholitas in La Paz were Aymara.
The second major thing that sets cholitas in La Paz apart from others was their clothing. In La Paz, the cholitas wear skirts that are much longer than anywhere else that we’ve seen. The length of the skirt goes down all the way to their ankles, covering what’s regarded the sexiest part of the cholita’s body – the calves. As well, cholitas in La Paz wear very tall bowler hats. The story goes that British businessmen came to La Paz and wanted to introduce and sell tall bowler hats to men. But when the shipment of hats came from England, they turned out to be too small for the men to wear. So the British convinced the women to wear the hats by touting them as the latest fashion statement. And of course because every woman wants to have what other women are wearing, the tall hat trend spread very quickly. As a result, these tall bowler hats became a must-have fashion accessory for the cholitas, who are so adept at wearing them that they don’t even need to secure them with anything. They use their head to balance the hat so naturally that they can even dance without the hat moving an inch!
Apart from the walking tour, we rode the cable car to the city of El Alto. The cable car ride took about ten minutes, giving us plenty of time to admire La Paz from above. The city is sprawled among the surrounding mountain slopes in a sea of red roofs and occasional soccer fields. The ride made me wonder what it’s like to live on those mountain slopes and how long it would take to get down to the city center amidst the traffic and the intertwining streets of the city.
Finally, we attended a cholitas wrestling match. I couldn’t believe it either at first, but it is in fact a wrestling competition that takes place between the cholitas, who wear their traditional outfits, skirts and all. It was entertaining, but a bit disturbing since the cholitas were quite violent with each other, pulling on each other’s braids while some of the referees spit in cholitas faces. Of course, the entire wrestling match is staged and we could tell that sometimes they just pretended to hit each other, while acting as if it hurt. However, this was the first time we watched wrestling live, and to see it performed by women wearing bulky skirts was quite entertaining.
While La Paz was rough on us, I must admit that Lake Titicaca beat us up harder than any cholita. The bus ride to the highest lake in the world was quite scenic. At one point we had to take a boat across a small channel while our tour bus was ferried over separately. The town of Copacabana, which sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca, was small and touristy, but the weather was warmer than in La Paz and quite pleasant.
The lake itself is just that – a lake. I’m not sure what I was expecting from it exactly, but arriving to Lake Titicaca was a bit anticlimactic for me. But the worst part of our journey began when we took a boat ride to the nearby Isla del Sol. This Sun Island appears to exist solely for the purposes of attracting backpackers. There are many hostels where backpackers can spend the night, but besides that, there’s not much else.
Of course the island is promoted as having ancient Inca ruins, of which the only one we managed to witness was the Inca stairs.
The island is also home to many donkeys, which are used to haul tourists’ backpacks or provisions up the steep slopes of the island. We had about four hours on the island, and being bored out of our minds, we ended up spending a lot of time in a restaurant. This is probably where we got one of the worst food poisonings of our lives.
We didn’t feel it until later in the evening, pretty much right before going to bed. Rami was the first to succumb to the illness, puking his guts out as I mentally tried to convince myself that I was fine. But soon enough it was my turn to stare at the bottom of the toilet, which turned into a very long night. We took turns being sick the entire night, with me breaking the record by throwing up five times! By the end of it, I had absolutely nothing left in me, and Rami didn’t even have the strength to stand up.
Our tummies were really hurting by the morning. I knew that this was no ordinary food poisoning since the pain and the nausea did not go away even after we puked everything out. My stomach was hurting so bad that I could barely walk. I basically had to stand in a hunched over position, while holding my stomach with one hand. We decided that we needed to get medical help immediately, and so we took a taxi to a nearby clinic. Using our broken Spanish and Google Translate, we were able to communicate with the doctors and we got a baggie full of different medications as well as antibiotic injections.
We stayed in Copacabana for one more night with the doctors checking up on us in the evening. After that we felt slightly better, but we wanted to get out of Copacabana out of fear that we might eat more food that could make us sick. You see, Copacabana is a tiny town that is very touristy. As a result, we believe that many of the restaurants just don’t care about food hygiene and quality. We needed to get out fast.
So we took a gruelling long bus ride, crossing the border into Peru and ending up in Arequipa. For five days straight, we had to take really strong antibiotics that made us dizzy and nauseous, and caused painful headaches. But the warmer climate in Arequipa and the atmosphere of a bigger city cheered us up and helped us recover even though we could only eat soup packets and crackers for the entire week.
Overall, we loved Bolivia due to its breathtaking landscapes and all of the memorable experiences that we’ve had, from taking Spanish lessons, to visiting the dinosaur park and rock climbing in Sucre, to descending into the darkness of the Potosi silver mines, and being blinded by the endless stretches of the salt flats in Uyuni. And despite the awful food poisoning, we would always have fond memories of Bolivia and would recommend anyone looking for an authentic South American adventure to put this exceptional country on your bucket list.
The moment our 4×4 entered the salt flat was very unassuming. The road simply changed from dirt to salt abruptly, as if someone covered it with a thin, white blanket. But as our driver changed gears and stepped on the gas, I felt myself holding my breath and unable to blink as I looked around me at the vast desert covered with blindingly white salt. I turned around to look at my fellow tour mates and we all let out a laugh at the same time and shook our heads in disbelief. How could this be? One moment we were driving on a dirt road, through a small village selling alpaca sweaters and llama keychains. The next, we appeared to be floating on a surface as flat and white as a sheet of paper.
In fact, if I didn’t force myself to look at the crusty polygon shapes on the ground, I couldn’t even notice we were moving. Other SUVs far in the distance appeared to be suspended in the air, while mountains and volcanoes seemed to be hanging just a notch above the horizon.
But soon enough the optical illusion was disrupted as we approached a building, made entirely out of salt. This was the oldest salt hotel on Salar de Uyuni, with everything from walls to tables and chairs constructed out of blocks of salt. I was impressed and also a bit worried since I knew we were going to stay at a similar salt hotel later that night.
We walked around, taking in the vastness of the flat. There were other tourists taking “perspective pictures”, playing with the illusion of the endless desert. A collection of flags outside of the salt hotel drew people to pose with the flag of their home country, while a monument of the 2015 Dakar Rally was hard not to photograph.
The sun was high up in the sky and I tried to take off my sunglasses only to squint so hard that I couldn’t see anything anyway. The salt was blinding! It was cold enough for a jacket, but the sun was beaming down so hard that I was also afraid of getting burnt.
Soon it became our turn to take perspective pictures. We hopped back into our SUVs loaded at the top with our backpacks and jugs of gasoline to last us the full three days of our trip around Salar de Uyuni. After driving for another fifteen minutes right into the heart of the flat, we stopped in a place where there was nothing around us, but the vast stretches of salt. No other tourists were in sight and even the mountains blended into a single purple haze, indistinguishable from one another.
We were two SUVs and our drivers were kind enough to help each one of us to take some fun pictures, playing with the endless horizon of the salt flat. Our guide even coordinated two fun videos by positioning a Pringles can into the shot and having us “come out” of the Pringles can, pretending that we were entering a new planet for the first time.
The emptiness of the flat was unbelievable. I felt like I was in the Matrix, transported into the training module where there was nothing around me but whiteness. We must have spent about an hour taking pictures, but it felt like ten minutes for me. Before I could exhaust all the possibilities of crazy photographs that we could take, we were ushered back into the cars to our next stop – The Cactus Island.
Just when I thought the salt flat was completely empty, out of nowhere appeared a piece of land, full of cacti. The salt flat is actually the bottom of a prehistoric lake that no longer exists, and this piece of land is an island called Incahuasi. In fact, there are many islands on the salt flat, but this one is extra special since it is home to five thousand cacti, many of which are over one hundred years old.
The cacti are extremely tall with trunks as wide as trees in some cases. Although their needles are thicker than toothpicks, I’m sure they could do some serious damage if touched. Interestingly enough, these cacti are not native to this island. Their seeds were blown over here by the wind, sprouting up on the scarce pieces of fertile land among the desolate landscape. I could only imagine how colourful this island must be when the cacti flower.
We climbed to the top of the island, walking past the giant cacti and trying not to slip and fall. On more than one occasion, I felt like there was a person from our tour standing next to me only to discover that it was actually a tall cactus towering over me. I knew that I had to be more careful if I didn’t want to end up with a free acupuncture session!
As the sun started to set, we made our way back to our vehicles and set off for another spot on the flat where not a soul could be seen all around us. There we watched the sky as it lit up with shades of red and orange, admiring our shadows that stretched for probably a kilometer or two as the sun slipped below the horizon. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped drastically. Despite all of the layers of wool clothing I was wearing, I began to shiver.
We drove in pitch darkness towards a much larger piece of land, harbouring our hotel made entirely out of salt. The temperature in the room was cool just as I suspected, but the salt blocks insulated us from the strong winds that howled outside throughout the night. We slept under two alpaca blankets with a sleeping bag on top of us for good measure.
The remaining two days of our tour were full of adventure and admiration of the diverse landscape that this south-western part of Bolivia has to offer. The second day turned out to be particularly tough. We had an early morning start and started driving across another stretch of flat land, but this time it was not covered in salt. There were mountains and volcanoes all around us, and the land was so flat, that you could see the shadows of the clouds on the ground and on the slopes of the mountains. The wind was strong and cold, even though it was very sunny.
I sat in the front passenger seat because I usually get a little carsick if I sit in the back. From my great vantage point, I spotted a South American animal called vicuna crossing the road or nibbling at the grass in the distance. Our driver was a Quechua man, and true to his roots, he continuously chewed coca leaves the entire day to fend off hunger and the effects of altitude. I sat there in the front, admiring the volcanoes around me, trying to spot vicunas and breathing in the smell of coca leaves as we drove on, stopping in certain spots to take pictures.
Our entire trip to South America was timed to avoid the rainy season. As a result, we were visiting Bolivia during the winter – the driest, but also the coldest time of year. It just so happened that this year in particular, the area around Salar de Uyuni got a little bit more snow than usual. In fact, we were under the impression that we could only go on a two-day tour, because we were told the three-day tour may not be possible due to the heavy amount of snow.
However, we got lucky and the tour company decided to run three-day tours after all. But in the afternoon of the second day of our tour, we tried to make our way to Laguna Colorada (or the Red Lake as it is commonly called), and our group of four SUVs took turns getting stuck in the snow.
At one particular stopover, we were pummeled by hail as we hobbled through the snow to a nearby restroom. The visibility decreased radically throughout the afternoon, but our guides were determined to show us all the must-see places on the tour. Due to the delays getting stuck in the snow, we were way behind schedule. By the time we got to Laguna Colorada, I started to feel carsick and altitude sick. Although Salar de Uyuni sits at over 3,600 meters above the sea level, I didn’t feel the altitude on the first day. But on the second day, we climbed all the way to an altitude of 5,000 meters. Coupled with a long afternoon on bumpy roads, the freezing weather and the snow, the altitude started to get to me. My head was pounding and I felt nauseous. When we finally got to our hotel for the second night, I went straight to bed.
Our final day of the tour was filled with wildlife spotting and looking at various rock formations. We started out looking at rock paintings made by the ancient Viscachani culture, which would mix animal blood with llama fat to make red paint. This ancient culture actually knew astronomy and painted various animals on the rocks, such as snakes and pumas, which they believed corresponded to the constellations in the night sky.
While looking at the paintings, we spotted a viscacha among the rocks. This is a furry rodent that is a mix between a chinchilla and a rabbit. I even came across a ball of its fur stuck on a bush as it escaped from us between the rock formations. There was evidence of llamas from the hoof markings on the ground and an abandoned bone with a hoof that I found lying around. We saw Andean geese flying in twos above the land, and wild ostriches walking around among the bushes. There were also many llamas grazing on the grass in a mossy canyon that we visited.
Unlike Peru that heavily promotes tourism, Bolivia is humble and quiet on this front. As a result, it remains largely undiscovered and often overlooked by backpackers and tourists alike. But our tour of Salar de Uyuni and the surrounding areas clearly illustrated that there are natural wonders and ancient history that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
I have to admit that I didn’t even know the significance of Potosi until I started reading travel books about Bolivia. So in case you don’t know it either, here’s a quick summary from my understanding.
Potosi is famous for being a major source of silver to the Spanish during their colonization of South America and Bolivia in particular during the 1500’s. The Cerro Rico mountain, which translates into “Rich Mountain” from Spanish, had enormous supplies of silver, so much so that the Spanish joked that they could build a bridge made out of silver from Potosi to Spain and still have loads of silver to transport via this bridge.
However, as with any discoveries involving precious metals, Potosi has a dark past. In order to exploit the silver resource, the Spanish enslaved millions of people of African origin as well as indigenous Bolivian people to work in the mines. The conditions in the mines were awful of course. From the long work hours to unsafe explosions, to health problems arising from breathing in toxic substances, it is estimated that about eight million miners died in the mines during the colonial times.
Today it is popular among tourists to go deep into the bowels of Cerro Rico to walk in the historic mine tunnels and see the miners still at work. Sadly the mountain only has about seven more years of silver left, after which it will be completely depleted. And despite working conditions improving slightly, miners start working as young as fifteen years old and die young as well, anywhere between 50 to 60 years of age.
Our tour started off with us being outfitted in some miners clothing, complete with a helmet and a headlamp and rubber boots. We also brought some bandanas with us to cover our mouth since we knew that the mines were going to be very dusty.
Our guide explained to us that there are currently 12,000 miners working in the mines. About 30% of these miners are organized into cooperatives, which actually provide some form of health insurance and pension. The cooperatives then employ the rest of the independent miners, which receive only 100 bolivianos per day (about CAD$20) plus a share of the profits from the mined minerals.
In order to help the independent miners (and in a way to say thank you for letting us walk through their workplace), tourists often buy gifts for the miners before the tour. But these are no ordinary gifts. In order to be as productive as possible, miners don’t eat much during their shifts. Instead they chew on coca leaves to give themselves an energy boost and keep alert. Coca leaves also help with altitude sickness since Potosi is the highest city in the world after La Paz, which is also in Bolivia. In addition, miners often drink almost pure alcohol at 96%! As such, it is common to buy the miners coca leaves, alcohol, Fanta or dynamite sticks as gifts. Yes, I also thought it was a joke at first to buy dynamite, but apparently miners are very appreciative of these gifts especially since there are many robberies that occur between the miners inside the mines. Anything from equipment to dynamite usually gets stolen if it’s not locked up properly. So a stick of dynamite actually comes in handy!
Outfitted in miners clothing and gifts in tow, we finally arrived to the main entrance of one particular mine to start the tour. This mine has nine levels, containing 91 kilometers of tunnels inside and about 500 entrances. Every day, miners have to walk for about ten minutes just to get to their work site!
Inside the mine it is absolutely pitch dark. Unless you have your headlamp on, you will not be able to see anything in front of you. The mine is literally a tunnel burrowed out of rock, with jagged ceilings and uneven floors. There are rails that run along the floor that enable carts loaded with rocks to be wheeled out of the mine. There are various cables that run along the ceiling of the mine supplying electricity or pressured air.
The tunnels are uneven, requiring you to bend your knees and bow your head in order not to hit it against the sharp ceiling. Thank goodness for helmets because I definitely hit my head more than once! The air is hot in places and cold in others. There is constant dust hanging in the air, which reflects in the rays of lights from your headlamp. If you are not moving, you are surrounded by dead silence, the kind that doesn’t even carry sound.
We spent about three hours inside the mine. We came across two miners working on preparing an explosion on the level above us in order to break a large piece of rock that they found. Although we didn’t linger long enough to hear the explosion, Rami climbed up to another level to see the piece of rock for himself.
We descended into another level, crouching on our knees at times and scaling down a precarious wooden ladder not attached to anything in particular. At this level, we came across an area, where the miners were preparing holes in the rock, in which to stick dynamite sticks. While there were no miners there at the moment, we were able to peek into the bags they had loaded with promising samples. Some rocks contained blue shiny particles, which were silver deposits, while other rocks sparkled with almost golden dust that was zinc deposit.
We also came across the “God” that miners worship, which was basically a statue decorated with ribbons and surrounded by various offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes, alcohol and beer cans. I put the word “God” in quotations because the miners, which are from indigenous backgrounds, actually cannot pronounce the word God in Spanish, and instead refer to this statue as the Devil. The miners believe that this God or Devil rules the underground and hence should be worshiped in order to keep the miners safe and bring them luck in finding good deposits of silver.
After three hours of walking around and breathing in dusty air, I personally was exhausted and eager to get out and see the light of day. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but by the end of the tour I was starting to get antsy. I can’t even imagine working a 12-hour shift in this dark and dusty mine every day for several decades! Nevertheless, it was remarkable to walk through these tunnels that are saturated with history and struggle. I only wonder what will happen to the 12,000 miners that are on the line to lose their jobs once all of the silver is depleted from Cerro Rico.
Every Spanish school in Sucre organizes some activities for the students, whether it would be cooking classes, playing sports or salsa dancing. Our Spanish school organized a trip for us to a senior people’s home to get a glimpse into the harsh reality of getting older in Bolivia.
Unlike Canada, senior housing in Bolivia does not have many resources. As a result, the majority of the elderly people cannot actually stay at this home overnight. Those people that absolutely cannot move end up sleeping on the floor at this home. But the others hike up to two hours each way every couple of days just to get a single meal and maybe some medicine.
The senior home we visited had no medicine whatsoever. Donations from us and other students were used to buy some muscle relaxant cream (similar to Tiger Balm), medicated heating patches for sore muscles and ear drops to prevent and treat infection. Why would these people need muscle relaxant, you ask? Well, the beneficiaries of this particular senior home were indigenous people, mainly from Quechua and Aymara background. The majority were women that still work at the markets despite their age. They carry heavy bags on their backs, full of produce or handicrafts to sell. They often hike for a very long time carrying these bags, which puts a major strain on their muscles.
Upon arriving at this senior home, we were greeted by the elderly people and shook hands with them. We then set up a room where each elderly person could sit on a chair while we, the students from the school, would massage their sore muscles. We massaged their backs, their arms, their sore legs and feet. Rami even treated a woman who fell and had a huge bruise on her elbow. I administered ear drops for every senior person there.
Some elderly women teared up when they were being massaged. Perhaps it was a simple act of kindness from us that caused them to get emotional. Sadly, we could not communicate with any of these people since they spoke in their own indigenous languages instead of Spanish. But we learned about their stories from our Spanish teachers.
One woman was 99 years old and spoke in a language that no one understood. In order to communicate, she would point to parts of her body that hurt. She was the only one in a wheelchair, and due to the lack of mobility, she slept on the floor at this home.
Another woman was a bit younger but could not make any sound at all. We learned that she had mental issues and her own family tried to kill her by slitting her throat and leaving her to die on the street because she could not contribute financially to the economic well-being of the family. Since her throat was slit, she could not talk at all.
Yet another woman was 98 years old and was in a good shape considering her age. She had sore muscles of course, but she was smiling all the time and communicating with our Spanish teachers. Her hair was jet black, with not a single grey hair! Rami and I were thinking that her active lifestyle involving hiking everywhere is likely a contributor to her relatively good health.
There were also two orphaned children that were being looked after by the man, who runs the senior home. They were both found on the street and were being educated in hopes that they could make something of themselves in the future.
After we finished giving massages, we fed the elderly with some crepes and fruits juice. And when we were done, they all clapped for us and wanted to take some pictures.
Of course not every senior person in Bolivia ends up in these dire circumstances. Those that are lucky, have families to take care of them when they are older. But this experience opened our eyes to a harsh reality that exists for some indigenous people in Bolivia as they get older and have no relatives to take care of them.