Thursday, 31 January 2013

Eating in Fogang Part 1

I was employed to carry out an inspection and report on an industrial operation in China, the details of which while interesting have nothing to do with eating - which is the subject of this account.

The first meal in mainland China was a magnificent spread served in a private lounge in a swank spa hotel. A salon privet without any allusions to gambling (unusual in a nation of reportedly inveterate gamblers). Very civilised, a room with a couple of couches and a low table from which one can delicately sip Chinese tea.

The Dining table was circular with a very large Lazy Susan dominating the centre. Our hosts were most attentive and signalled to the perpetually hovering waitron that I should be furnished with an EPNS knife and fork set – a kind gesture that I huffily rejected. Stick to the chop sticks my inner arrogant self declared – which was more than the damned food would do to the blasted implements.

It was a familiar Chinese dining affair with a steady and measured stream of dishes ranging from fish stuff to poultry stuff, baby succulent shrimps, sweet potatoes, and nigh-on inedible spinach. This latter green muck had been heavily steamed but still retained an eerie and ghastly luminescent hue. It’s like eating a vegetable that truly does not want to be eaten and is holding a grudge against anyone foolish enough to attempt to. Needless to say capturing the stuff with chop sticks is a mission in itself. The soup however was delish and divine!

As we slurped away – and you can only slurp out of the cute and entirely un-ergonomic porcelain spoons provided – the faithful George turned to me with a face suffused with pure ecstasy and making expansive lip-smacking noises said something complimentary about the soup. I had to agree that it was jolly nice. “Sharks fin” he extolled, and it was still jolly nice even knowing what it was. And after all as a salve to my green conscience I did not go out and kill the fish, nor did I order it, nor did I know that it had been ordered. At another restaurant in Hong Kong a couple of days later I came across sharks fin soup on the menu at the astonishing price of HK$2,600 for a bowl.

“We drank some perfectly odious locally made 
Cabernet Sauvignon . .” The wealthy Mr. Wu sits on 
Mr. Cs’ right and the studious George is on 
my left. The delectable Belinda is guarding our backs.
We drank some perfectly odious locally made Cabernet Sauvignon – at least that's what it said on the bottle, in English and in Chinese. This stuff tasted like ten year old corked port. Mr.Wu our generous host kept insisting upon a round of kombai (sp?) a drinking tradition that means “bottoms up” to the person to whom the salutation is addressed. I have experienced this tradition before and refused to participate this time on the grounds that no persons’ liver could survive an onslaught of the rotgut on offer. I stuck to beer in fatal combination with the wine.

During our meal we discussed what I would or would not like to eat. The people of Guagdong Province apparently have a reputation unrivalled throughout China for eating anything – and anything means anything; rat, dog, snake, bat, bird, aeroplane. This was a lively conversation and I was relieved that by the end of the evening I felt that at least I knew what I had eaten and was secure and happy in that knowledge (sharks fin soup notwithstanding). I publicly applauded Mr.Wu’s choice of menu with another swig of that appalling wine.

Lunch the next day was taken at a very busy restaurant in Fogang that had a frantic valet service in the car park. The generous Mr Wu is plainly very well known in this milieu. The foyer has a large display area of live aquatic wildlife. Here you can view your menu in the flesh. Quite whether you identify your chosen escargot with an indelible magic marker as you pass by I don’t know. There was a very large tank of Koi, which are giant goldfish with psychedelic colouring and attitude to match. The type of fish the Japanese seem to venerate and misguided Westerners spend thousands of dollars on purchasing, breeding and “showing”. The Chinese are far less aesthetically bound - they just eat them. Also on view was a particularly luscious looking slab of freshly slaughtered crocodile complete with craggy skin.

We were swept past these temptations into another salon privet; with a similar array of couches, circular table, Lazy Susan (this time electrically powered), and wide flat screen TV showing truly dire soaps with a Cantonese soundtrack and subtitles in Chinese (why?). This room had its own outside squat-pan privy accessed via a windy path through a very pretty formal outside walled garden. 

Mr Wu made a comprehensive and complicated order for the seven of us. Gosh this guy’s got money - but what is on the menu?

Friday, 25 January 2013

Kili 6 – Uhuru to Mweka Hut

Day 6 – Uhuru to Mweka Hut
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . We run back down again. The most exciting day becomes the most grim.

The descent is dreadful. 

Our previous snow tracks from Stella Point to the summit have become packed under the feet of other walkers and are now a treacherous ice field. The path below Stella Point is a lethal mix of ash scree, rock shards and ice, all obscured by snow. Felix bounds down this nightmare concourse with all the energy of a Dassie on an acid trip. Lyndsey is a close second and I follow a very poor and panting third. This change of pace from funereal upward motion to frantic descent tells heavily on my thighs, knees and buttocks. Where previously I had been priding myself on steady and un-laboured breathing I was now gasping like an overweight Ox. The route down bore little resemblance to the way up and perversely seemed longer.

Gratuitous picture of Kilimanjaro moonlight
I can only surmise that because the ascent was undertaken in moonlight and under severe physical and mental duress it was necessarily a slow, measured, contained, local and introverted experience. The descent was undertaken in broad daylight, and was fast, furious and dangerous. It was a wide uncontrolled extrovert experience.

What should have been distinguishing landmarks from the climb up were only vaguely recognizable on the descent. Existentially these were two different mountain sides, and the time frames taken to descend or ascend were not comparable. And that is that.

We fall into Barafu Hut at about 9:00am and sit in the mess tent listening to the rain that has accompanied us during the last half hour or so of our descent drumming on the canvas. I say to Ishmael, our Major domo, that what I really need is some juice. He looks pityingly at me and indicates the giant soup tureen in the centre of the table which is now brimming with some form of energy juice. These guys think of everything. Our summit breakfast comprises a consomme of spaghetti, potatoes and carrot. Yummy!

Gratuitous picture of a Kilimanjaro sunrise
We are given an hour to rest and then have to commence our descent to Mweka Hut.

Initially this descent is okay, but the weather closes in and soon we are walking in heavy rain. This would have been unpleasant but bearable had we not also been walking along a wide broken path that in the current conditions fast becomes the bed of a river replete with waterfalls and prettily decorated with rapids and whirlpools.  “Bearable” rapidly turns to “unbearable” and Lyndsey says what I am thinking. She says with a classic sense of understatement “I am really not enjoying today.” I concur wholeheartedly and would have agreed verbally if I had had the strength to open my mouth other than to gasp for breath. I can safely say that I have never been so exhausted in my entire life as I crawled into Mweka Hut at about 2 pm.

We had walked from 11:00pm the previous night to 2pm that  afternoon with just one hours rest.  In that time we had climbed 1,285m and then descended 2,795m. And our spirits had soared and fallen to the same heights and depths.

There aren't many photographs of today, because it was dark for a lot of the time, and when it got light there was too much cloud, and when we got back down below the cloud level we were running too fast, and then it started raining and then I was too tired to get the camera out of my backpack, and then I simply fell asleep.

Day 7 - Mweka Hut (3,100) to Mweka Gate
A gentle walk. How the good book and a pair of surfing shorts saw us through.

The walk from Mweka Hut to Mweka Gate is far more civilised than anything we have done so far. An awful lot has happened to all of us and we chat as though we have known each other for years – which in an existential way we have. As the trail descends through the cloud forest there is a last chance to see the mountain from this angle. It is magnificent and there is a little bit of all of us up there, somewhere.

The last view

As a postscript my new found ability to see people’s auras had receded as we descended. According to my subsequent Internet searches this is a condition known as intraocular inflammation and it is well documented in the literature of veterinary science. This is something I would like to investigate further.

Felix the Guide of whom I had initial and completely unfounded doubts about proved to be the sort of person in whose hands you would gladly place your life, as indeed we did. In turn he clearly places his life in the hands of a greater being, because for this last triumphal photograph he dragged out a battered copy of the bible. That I can deal with – but those bloody surfing shorts . . . . . 

The essence of success. The good book 
and a pair of dodgy surfing shorts

Monday, 21 January 2013

Kili 5 – Barafu Hut to Uhuru

Day 6 – Barafu Hut to Uhuru
The longest day ever. More toilet stories. We make the top and I see auras.  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Day 6 started on day 5 – at ten pm. Having been dragged from our warm and safe arctic sleeping bags we supped on tea and biscuits, a sparse and bland final supper. Three pairs of socks, four layers on the under-carriage and seven on the trunk, beanie, all-in-one scarf and sunglasses, trekking poles at the ready, we were set for the final assault. My stomach was in riot mode but I could not face the long drops before leaving. This was a very big mistake.

Because we are essentially different parties we split once more into two. The other seven set off 30 minutes or so in front of us because we two are deemed to be the stronger party. Last night was a full moon and tonight while the clouds are low the light is diffuse and we don’t need headlights, although we pass others who are wearing them. As we ascend over an uneven series of rock sheets it is difficult to maintain balance and to get any rhythm; this is tiring and it is so cold, but once through this first hour we get onto a track of sorts. As we climb the air clears and we seem to be leaving the clouds below us. Across the saddle is Mawenzi about 11km’s away, it is the first time we have clearly seen this peak. Its lower flanks are shrouded in cloud and there are eerie flashes of lightening around it.

The snow line is probably at about 5,000m. White patches lying in protected rock nooks and under giant boulders gradually start merging into larger areas.

It is around about this point that I have to reflect on a couple of potential life expanding experiences that should be avoided. Mixing chewing gum and peanuts is a tactile and taste disaster, this I can attest to. Gouging ones eye out with a blunt radish is also an unwholesome activity and one which I admit has never really been a temptation. Doing number twos very early in the morning at an altitude of over 5,000m in sub-zero temperatures must be avoided at all costs, but I had to do it and it was not nice. Enough said but while other folk were taking their minds off the pain of walking and breathing by counting steps, listening to fading music on iPods stricken with extreme cold, thinking of sex, composing stories about their cats, or doing quadratic equations in their head, my mind was exclusively focused on my growling and liquid lower intestines and rebellious sphincter muscles. This, I am convinced, is what got me to the top.

The final ridge walk. Stella Point is up there 
somewhere – not sure where exactly.
Lyndsey suffered nausea and for a period had to stop every ten steps or so – but could not throw up despite Felix's urging and encouragement to "let it out". During one such stop I said – “Lynds, there is a one legged man who has just passed us.” And there was, and I think it spurred us both on for at least another twenty steps.

After exactly 6 hours walking Felix announced “There is Stella Point”, pointing to a crest just in front of us.

It is at Stella Point that one has technically summited and have become eligible for a certificate of success. That last twenty metres suddenly became heavenly; feet and boots were light and airy and we flew to the snow crusted rim of the crater. Bugger me – this is it! We hug; me, me daughter, the guide and the assistant guide. A dramatic and emotional moment. The increasing tensions of the past four days are dissipated and replaced with exhausted elation. I lean my forehead on my walking pole and the exhaustion and relief wells up in my throat and my eyes fill with tears.

We sit in the lea of a rock outcrop overlooking the ash pit and crack a slab of Kendal Mint Cake and sup on hot water from the flask. We bloody done it! Felix says we must move on or face a certain frozen death where we are – so reluctantly but energised, and oh so energised we move on and up.

The walk from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak is along a gently rising ridge. To the left lie the slopes we have just toiled up (We just done that!) and to our right and below lies the Reusch Ash Pit – the ancient caldera. It looks desolate and very very cold. An ash and snow blend. People apparently camp overnight there – but we see no one down there this bitterly cold morning.

We trudge upward on packed frozen snow. It is easy walking after what we've just experienced but still we maintain that slow rhythmic pace, because that is now the pace of life, and the pace of achievement.

The rear of a very large Glacier
Things don’t often loom at you – but this does. Its height is somehow indeterminate – could be five, could be ten storeys high. It’s the back of a glacier, the Furtwangler Glacier, not the snout that  melts into the ice cold babbling streams we saw and had crossed below, but an obvious wall of ice, broken, pinnacled, fissured, indubitably vertical and massive. Inexplicably painted in aquamarine and streaked in sky blue. Brutally . . . . Big.

Uhuru Peak is crowded, and shrouded in mist. 

Yes, Uhuru peak is shrouded in mist. We have spent 5 days of increasingly painful exertion, 5 days of rising emotional tension, 5 days of diamox induced tingling extremities, 5 breathless days - all carefully timed to almost coincide with a full moon, a choreographed experience of mountain moonlight segueing into a glorious East African dawn. Not a bit of it - we are shrouded in cloud and visibility is down to 10 metres. It is a shame that we don't see dawn breaking over the plains of Northern Tanzania and Southern Kenya, but frankly had we have been lucky enough to have done so that would have actually been a bonus to this remarkable experience.

We line up for the obligatory photo beneath that famous sign board. A strident and demanding voice expresses annoyance when our assistant guide has problems understanding the operation of Lyndsey’s camera thus delaying proceeding by at least 20 seconds. The sort of familiar and strident carrying accent so unwelcome and familiar in such circumstances. Not exactly an Ubuntu spirit (a mix of togetherness and mutual tolerance) on a peak called Uhuru (KiSwahili for peace) it takes all sorts . . .but hell . . . we’ve all just done it hey?

It’s all a con. This was actually shot in a studio . . . 
Suddenly I’m seeing auras around the heads and torsos of people about me. They are luminescent lime green and deep purple. I fumble for my sunglasses which I had stupidly taken off earlier. Clearly I am going snow blind and need to counter these visions. The glasses have the reverse effect and polarize the auras into horrible starkness and set them dancing around the faces and heads of the subjects. This frightens me a little and intrigues me a lot. Have I suddenly become prescient and will this be a permanent condition?

Felix is anxious that we commence our descent and given that there is absolutely no view to be had and it is minus 9 Celsius and we are hanging around at 5,895 masl this seems to be a reasonable suggestion. 

As we slip down the path from the summit towards Stella Point shouts from behind warn us to get out of the way of a couple of guides supporting between them a strapping fellow who is deathly pale, has a bubbling hacking cough and is clearly in advanced stages of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPO). This trio runs through the ascending and descending climbers with a shocking urgent violence and uncompromising speed that illustrates the seriousness of this guys condition.

We meet the rest of our party who are thirty or so minutes behind us and are just nearing the summit. More hugs, kisses and hearty back slapping. 

We’ve done it guys!

But now we've got to get down . . . . . Today!

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Kili 3 - Shira Plateau to Barranco Camp

Day 3 - Shira Plateau to Barranco Camp (3,950m)
The mystery of the dead butterflies. Music on the mountain. I am Poncho challenged. Lava Tower and a flurry of snow. We talk again about bladders.

There is frost on the ground and the porridge is most welcome. The plate of flattened fried eggs and cardboard toast is not quite so appetising. The coffee is beginning to taste almost human – but this maybe because of acute mountain sickness attacking my taste buds.

Polystyrene rocks
Once again a pole pole snails pace is set, and once again it takes 15 or so minutes to get into rhythm and once again once you’ve got it you’re invincible – in a modest sort of way.

The sparse vegetation is quickly left behind and we are now walking through what appear at first to be boulder fields but are probably heavily weathered lava sheets. It is possible to identify distinct strata of between half and two metres thick. In places the rocks are sculptured into groups of fantastic standing stones – so fantastic they could absurdly be moulded from polystyrene. Small white and yellow flowers shelter in crevices – scant relief in an otherwise very desolate landscape.

Here, and at higher altitudes there are dead butterflies strewn across our path. They are universally white with symmetrical brown markings on their wings. Why are they here? Have they been blown up, or have they voluntarily flown up and been destroyed by altitude and cold? What ever the answer we mysteriously never see a live one.

A Porter with a tent on his head, and 
a Daughter with a flower pot on hers
It is quiet up here, largely because the conversation on the lower slopes has dulled as we concentrate on walking and breathing.  In the windy silence distant music can be heard. It comes closer. A brief flash of anxiety from the fear of an aneurism or worse – this is not however the onset of an early death but a porter swinging by with an aged radio strapped to the back of his pack, and that is also a recurrent theme. It is impossible to have a clear and unencumbered walk for more than about ten minutes before the word “Porter” rattles up the column like a Chinese whisper and we step aside to let past some of the fittest and most badly shod young men in world. These guys carry the lot, often on their heads. It is also on this stretch that one of our own porters succumbs to the altitude, collapses and has to be rushed down the mountain on the back of one of his colleagues.

We luncheon (in our hastily erected mess tent) at a col near the base of Lava Tower which is an ancient volcanic plug. This is a most desolate place where everyone should be bouncing around at one tenth gravity in large white suits and silly helmets and calling each other “Buzz”. A grey, brown and dusty moonscape.

Lava Tower with moon walkers
There is a threatening patter of rain and we all reach for our ponchos. I dive into my economy-priced green number which instantly rips down the front. Fortunately someone is far more prepared than I am and a duct-tape repair is effected. Much relieved I gingerly don the thing again - and the hood tears from brow to nape. Chinese industry may be exemplary, but their rain-wear sucks.

As we walk up towards the rear of Lava Tower the rain becomes tiny hailstones, and as we walk down from Lava Tower we experience for the first time snow which is light, fleeting and does not settle.

The long march up to Lava Tower is an exercise in acclimatisation, because from this pinnacle of 4,600m we then descend to 3,800m through a fascinating valley of broken rocks and mysterious caves. Leopard tracks were last seen here 5 years ago. The vegetation is colossal, with Senecio of between three to four metres tall and giant Lobelia. Through the clouds we glimpse Barranco Wall which is 500m high and at the base of which is Barranco Camp.

Gigantic Senecio with a small guide
Today has been the most varied and spectacular day so far.

Once again the primary topic of conversation at supper was matters of the bladder, and horror of horrors one of the party presented for inspection a device to enable ladies to wee from a standing position. I am not the squeamish sort but when this device is being brandished around the supper table and all I've got to defend myself is battered banana in one hand and a leg of fried Rook in the other I start feeling unsettled and vulnerable.

A mysterious and primordial valley
Next Day

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Kili 4 – Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp

Day 4 – Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp
A bit of a scramble. Architectural cairns. Hypothermia beckons.

Barranco Wall, early morning
Last night Barranco Camp won the prize for the most spectacular camp site so far. This morning it still has that accolade. The Western wall of Kibo is free of cloud and drips with ice. Below the town of Moshi is clearly visible. To one side is Barranco Wall which is shear – and that is where we are going.

Barranco Wall is a scramble and a delight. We had not expected a technical climb but a bit of scrambling lightens the monotony of just walking. Two of our party suffer from vertigo and are clearly extremely uncomfortable with this exercise but cope magnificently. At the top of  the wall we stop briefly to robe up for the in coming wet cloud formation. My hopeless poncho stays in my rucksack.

At the top of Barranco Wall we see the first examples of architectural cairns. 

Cairns litter the English Lake District where walkers and climbers have for centuries piled up stones to form small pyramids that define the path, a vital navigational aid when the mist descends. There is a culture of adding one or two stones to cairns as you pass – a democratic way of expressing mountain camaraderie and mutual concerns for safety.  Here on Kilimanjaro the path often splits into many diversions, and occasionally there are cairns of varying sizes vaguely defining the route, but here are also cairns that are not way-markers but are expressions of architectural aspiration. And stunning in their simplicity they are too.

These votive icons are evident all the way up the mountain, and I should have taken the time, called a temporary halt and constructed one or two myself.

As we descend into Karangao Valley to climb the other side the rain becomes torrential. There is thunder in the air and my waterproof jacket is clearly only shower proof.  The inescapable truth dawns on me that I have a defective poncho, I have no waterproof over-trousers, my gloves are not waterproof, my beanie is soaking wet, and my jacket is probably only mist proof. Oh joy! Hypothermia beckons and I start worrying in earnest about the final ascent. 

It is here that I am reminded of the statistics given out by Tanzania Parks that only 45% of starters make the summit and that chillingly on average 10 people die every year on the mountain of altitude related issues.This is a level of paranoia I do not need.

Day 5 – Karanga Camp to Barafu Hut (4,600m)
Why are we doing this? We arrive at the highest long-drop in Africa.

Last night at least three of us had nightmares. One dreamt of falling off the mountain – understandable perhaps for someone who has issues with heights. One fought in her sleep with her Mother (“and this never happens in real life”). And someone who buys clothes off the peg, prĂȘt a porter and has never had a "fitting" in her life, had a nightmare about a flaming row with a dress maker called Lucy. 

Dawn at Karanga - Kibo
 Drearily I had a dreamless sleep but woke, as every other morning with a sense of dread and foreboding about the task ahead. Not today’s task – but the final task, the big push – summit day. There is real anxiety about this which centres  around not only mundane stuff like the expectation of racing hearts and shortness of breath, insufficient water and not enough thermal layers, but the now certainty of hypothermia brought on by defective rain-gear, and also the very real fear of altitude sickness. So what the hell – the chilled rational mind asks – am I doing on this frozen bloody mountain? Who am I kidding and who am I trying to impress?

Dawn at Karanga - Pastel skies with Mweru
in the far distance
It is bitterly cold at day break and with distended bladder you struggle into fleece and boots and nose out through tent flaps stiff with ice into a frozen dawn and – you know at once why you are there. It is an incomparable raw beauty. The air may be thin, but it is pure. The sky is a clear roseyette light blue. Cloud wisps are painted on the underside with deep reds and golden yellows, and behind – always behind – Kibo rises raw, massive, dark brown rock, mottled with ice and snow; overseeing all.

Breakfast cannot be dwelt upon. Limp toast and flattened eggs snarling at you with attitude, it’s just like all the others. Souped up with that awful instant coffee we’re off again – pole pole at snails pace.

To day is gentle, up a long slope, along a winding path and up a steep escarpment to the highest long-drop in Africa at Barafu Hut. As usual we settle into the rhythm and walk for an hour before the first call of nature stop is requested. As we have ascended the opportunities for privacy have become more and more remote.

Four ladies in search of a bit of temporary privacy
Barafu Hut is a sad place. Kilimanjaro Parks have a couple of tin sheds which double as administrative offices and sleeping quarters for their employees, otherwise the place is littered with tents all jostling for whatever little flat ground there may be. There is an all pervasive smell of human shit. The Tourists long-drops are located on the edge of the cliff – because that is where the longest drop is and the tales of climbers having fallen to their deaths during the night while popping out for a mid-night wee are all too believable.

This is truly a transit camp, occupied with people on the move, or at least about to move. A place burning with the anxiety of potential summiteers, glowing with those who have the quiet exhausted satisfaction of having summitted, and the limp luke-warm sense of those who did not make it to the top; but my god there should be no sense of failure there, because frankly to have got this far is an extraordinary feat.

It is from this disorganised, riotous, emotionally charged odoriferous base that we are to launch our summit attempt. Oh . my . . goodness . . . me . . . . this is . . . . .IT!

Eager climbers discussing diamox, Rook Burgers,
female urinatory devices; anything in fact that might
take our minds off the big push 

Next Day

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Kili 2 - Machame Hut to Shira Plateau

Day 2 - Machame Hut to Shira Plateau (3,840m)
An embarrassing lunch with fetching tablecloth. How do the chickens get up the mountain? I cannot find the coffee tent. Is Diamox good for you?

The morning is crisp and the hot water in plastic bowls for washing cools rapidly. The mountain looms over us, massive and benign, snow fields and glaciers very visible but distant. It’s awfully high.

Breakfast is porridge made – we think – from traditional scots oats mixed with pap, and jolly nice and wholesome it is too. The fried eggs and toast are however less beguiling and the coffee has not improved with ageing, but hell, who’s complaining, we’ve got a mountain to scale.

We set off at the same early morning snails pace. It takes at least 15 minutes to get into the rhythm, but once it’s reached it feels that you can achieve anything.

A picture that needs no caption
We walk through vegetation that is an uneasy transition between the cloud forests below and stubby windblown shrubs. Reminiscent of Western Cape fynbos with  Restio’s, Ericas, and Protea all present. We ascend quickly and the rhythm feels good. Looking back Machame Hut is receding fast, Mweru is an imposing mountain 80km’s to the West and the plains between Arusha and Moshi are cloud covered.  At one stopping point Kibo can be seen framed between feathered deeply green trees, startlingly white. The immediate slopes are thickly vegetated; a primordial garden.

As we rounded a rock promontory at the edge of the mid-day resting place we saw, and scoffed at, the sight of two trekkers and their guide seated in isolated splendour to one side of a plateau on folding chairs at a table fetchingly covered with a blue table cloth. “Pur-lees” we muttered under our laboured breaths, until we saw – oh horror – a table with a fetching blue table cloth, laid out with cutlery and plates with a soup tureen in the centre, set for nine! The menu comprised boiled eggs, toasted sandwiches, oh and soup – did I forget the soup? All rounded off with fresh orange quarters. Who can really complain?

Luncheon al fresco

Local chicken
There are certainly no complaints from the largest rooks I have ever seen. These birds are plainly masters at high altitude scavenging and follow us all the way up the mountain to the highest camp. My only fear for them is that they may die of over-eating. My suspicion is that far from carting frozen chicken pieces up from below the porters are actually trapping these birds and serving them to us as chicken a la caught, and there is a certain similarity between those powerful thighs and the “chicken” chunks. . .  Bombay Rook perhaps?

From our palatial picnic site to Shira Hut the topography becomes more vertical and more reminiscent of Cape Town's Table Mountain, both in terms of rock formation and flora. As we traverse the mountain side the mist closes in and we cross a number of streams fed by glacial melt-waters.

Shira Hut could be any refugee camp in the world. It is desolate with clumps of wind swept trees. There are tents scattered over a wide area. A couple of forlorn long drop toilets stick out like odiferous sore thumbs. I find myself scanning the site for the Red Cross tent, or at the very least Medecins Sans Frontieres, or UNICEF; in fact any one who might have some decent coffee, but to no avail.

It is cold and the wind is whipping round the tents. I waterproof my boots to take my mind off things. That, evening as we plough through our wholesome soup talk turns inevitably to Diamox (after having exhausted the days urinary tales).

Diamox is a wonder drug that is supposed to act as a prophylactic against altitude sickness. It also does other things as well and is generally considered by the non-medical community to be pretty hardcore stuff – whatever it is used for. It is so hard-core that while all nine of us were taking it not one of us had been given consistent instructions for its use. Some were taking one tablet daily in the morning. Others were taking two tablets, morning and mid-day. Some were taking one tablet, but half in the morning and half in the evening. Someone had been advised to take three a day. Needless to say confusion and subdued anxiety was rife. What’s more Diamox has some interesting side effects. It is a diuretic, which explained the frequent toilet stops (and thus the urinary banter), and causes the most dire tingling in the extremities. It is also responsible for all sorts of other temporary ills and rightly became the excuse for any minor mishap that befell us.

Shira Hut. The coffee tent is the blue one?

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Kili 1 - Machame Gate to Machame Hut

In February of 2010 my daughter Lyndsey and I climbed Kilimanjaro – the highest walkable mountain in the world – and we made it to the top.

How do you write a travelogue without trying to ape Paul Theroux, Jan Morris, Ernest Hemingway  – or any old hack from any old out-door adventure magazine? I don’t know - but perhaps while the whole trip is themed – walking up what is arguably the most spectacular mountain in the world, each day has its own special place within the whole. And as those great European travellers of the Victorian era; Speke, Burton, Baines, Chapman, Geddes, Livingstone, Stanley and those that recorded their exploits would have done, each chapter would, aside from a dry tabloid headline, have a brief resume of the contents to come, an “executive summary”, a “spoiler”; but of course it never is because it is meant to whet the appetite, and does so. The format goes something along the lines of –

Chapter 23 – From Mburru Mburru to a fast flowing River
In which Carruthers gets the squiggles, we lose half our Porters, sugar runs out, young Rodgers sees off hungry Male Lion with sharpened teaspoon, I get caught in man trap and have to self-amputate arm, finally set up advance camp, Jimbo tells damn funny story.

Stirring stuff, and that’s how it should be!

Day 0 – Getting There (600m)
The last cup of coffee. I see the mountain for the first time.

O.R. Tambo International Airport to Nairobi is a three and a half hour flight. The Nairobi stop-over is two or so hours and is only relieved by excellent but expensive coffee served at a cafe at the end of a seemingly endless circular shopping corridor. The duty free shops offer nothing of particular interest and could be anywhere. There are the obligatory copies of the Herald Tribune and the London Times. There is Whisky galore, there are tee shirts with vaguely East African designs, and there are lap-top computers priced in dollars that are significantly more expensive than those sold at home. Little am I to know that this is the last decent coffee I will get for some time. I should have had three cups instead of two – mind you at three US dollars a cup . . . .

The flight to Kilimajaro International Airport is aboard a Precision Air turbo prop which flies at a ceiling of 18,000 feet for the 50 minute flight. The pilot observes that Kilimanjaro will be seen to the left of the plane as we approach the Airport. Kilimanjaro is 5,895m high. This equates to 19,330 feet or there abouts; so the plane is actually flying lower than the mountain.

And there it is towering above the clouds, higher than we are flying, and it is magnificent, and I have committed to climb it, and I suddenly feel butterflies in my stomach.

Kilimanjaro an aerial photo
from below the peak.
The slopes are whiter than I had imagined they would be. It is vast beyond human scale. I am speechless and just a little scared. I take photographs but like all the subsequent photographs I take they do not do justice to the real thing.

Day 1 - Machame Gate to Machame Hut (3,000m)
We walk “Pole Pole”, have a picnic, get popcorn and are treated to plastic flower arrangements.

Having signed in at the Machame Gate we forgather – or rather the porters, cooks, bottle washers and other not-so supernumeraries forgather. There are two groups under the wing of Zara – the Outfitter. Lyndsey and I constitute one; and the other is 7 strong. We have two head guides between us.

Cloud Forest
Felix is our guide. He is old – one year older than me. Moody is the other guide – a stripling at thirty something. Felix and Moody assemble the porters, cooks and assistant guides into a military column. There must be over forty of these guys! What are they all doing there?

We set off at a snails pace. The watchword is Pole Pole, which is KiSwahili for “slowly”, because if you go any faster you will ultimately die. This advice we take at face value and comply, but it is very frustrating. I look back and already Felix is lagging far behind and I wonder if he is really up for this. Not only is he wearing the worst pair of surfing pants I've seen in a long time he is already walking at a sub-pole pole pace. Will he make it, or will we have to carry him back to base and swop him for a younger and fitter version?

The initial vehicle track soon deteriorates into a walking trail, and then to a series of steps. We walk through forests which should be dank and dark but are not. The canopy is high. Tree Trunks are embraced and festooned with moss. The air is cool and soupy. The vegetation is lush and familiar with ferns, restios and plectranthus.

We had been given lunch boxes at the start of this walk. White cardboard boxes that had expectations of carefully manicured and crust-less white bread sandwiches, iced cupcakes, juice cartons, party hats and those whistley things that you blow and they squawk as they shoot out in other peoples faces. The essence of all the above were there – boiled egg, meat filled bread roll, juice carton – but regrettably nothing as frivolous as a party hat. We browsed on this picnic while seated in a clearing on our as yet untested poncho’s. Some of our party ventured into the deeply foliated interior for toilet purposes and returned ashen faced with tales of signs of earlier visitors - a common theme throughout this trip.

At one point we glimpsed a distant waterfall, and it was here that I realized that we were in fact walking up a ridge with steep sides disguised by thick vegetation, and suddenly we broke through from the forest into sparser vegetation with no canopy, and within half an hour had arrived at Machame Hut.

Our tents have been set up and we are invited to partake of tea, coffee and popcorn. The popcorn is piled on an aluminium platter and tastefully decorated with chocolate cream biscuits. It is all covered with clingfilm. Lynds and I sit in palatial isolation in a battered mess tent set for two eating popcorn and drinking the worst instant coffee ever designed by man – this in a country that grows the stuff. Lynds suggests that it is silly to be sitting here like this and we should surely join the others. I think that this is a tad forward – she says don’t be stupid – and so do the others, and from then on we are a group of 9 rather than two groups of 2 and 7.

Supper consists of soup and chicken pieces. It is served on a table covered with a blue tablecloth lit by two candle stubs set in hollowed out sweet potato halves  and adorned at either end with a fetching bunch of plastic flowers. In the middle is a lonely battery operated fibre-optic spray centre-piece.  110% for presentation effort from our guides, cook and porters – but why?

Camp 1 Machame Hut. The blue tent to the right
 is a mess tent for two. The one on the left is a
mess tent for 7, now 9.
Next Day 

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A Firey Energy

Once a year the Bush Fire Festival in Swaziland brings together a diverse group of performers and audiences who gather at the eclectic House on Fire venue in the Malkerns Valley. As an adjunct to this event the Bush Fire Schools Festival takes place over two to three days prior to the main event. For the past three years I have either acted as MC for this event or have been a facilitator . . . . . . . .

Picture a large audience of 200 school kids first thing on a chilly May morning. The atmosphere is edged with uncertainty. The kids are wary of where they are. For many House on Fire is an entirely new and rather strange place to be. They are drawn from schools of varied locations and backgrounds and they are cautious of each other. They are timid and unwilling to speak and express individual views. Cliques are split up and they are herded into reluctant groups. These four large truculent groups are 50 strong and contain representatives from many different schools and are given apparently confusing instructions about where to go, and when to eat lunch, and where the toilets are. With these brief directions I send them off on an uncertain journey of discovery that will take a day to complete but may endure for a life-time.
Mncedisi Shabangu & Hamilton Dlamini blow some warmth into a chilly 
May morning with 'Woza Albert'
Contrast this with the same audience later in the afternoon of the same day. There is a very different energy. All look tired and some individuals look exhausted, but now the atmosphere crackles in stark contrast to the morning moroseness. I stand in front of a buzzing group of teenagers who have been exposed to a remarkable set of experiences over the past eight hours and the latent energy is palpable. Interestingly the one small group who were obviously there under pressure to attend still look even more disinterested than they have been throughout the day. I wonder why?

During the day participants have been involved in making familiar and unfamiliar music using unconventional instruments. They have taken part in strenuous and edgy physical theatre with one of the foremost practitioners in this art. Story telling using poetry, rap and mime and the spoken word have been investigated in depth. In previous years similar groups have also sung in formal choir sets, have watched a mulungu fluent in Zulu with the hairstyle of a chicken sitting on top of a pole, and have been part of the largest drum circle ever seen in Swaziland.

Steve Barnett - the "Silent Conductor" in the crop circle
At the end of the day the professional facilitators encourage their audience to talk about their experiences. Have they enjoyed the day? What have they enjoyed most? What do they think they will take away from this experience? The responses are quick, individual and articulate. No one seems to be afraid to express their views. A facilitator may have scared some – and they say so. Someone liked the music workshop the most, particularly learning how to pick a tune out by blowing on a piece of plastic water pipe. Someone else was inspired by using rap to explain ideas and emotions. Others are bemused by the way they have been encouraged to express deep-set feelings and emotions in a safe space.

Mncedisi Shabangu, Hamilton Dlamini & Prince Lamla talk Physical Theatre
under the trees
Throughout the day I have skipped from one facilitated session to the next, never staying long enough to experience a full session. Although I regret that I have missed the nuances of each activity I have been able to watch students who were quiet or inexpressive in one activity blossom in the next, and have observed those natural extroverts who have grabbed each new opportunity with verve and excitement. And I have watched the small unenthusiastic school group dragging themselves from one point of purgatory to the next!

Talking to both participants and the facilitators during and afterwards I hear views about the schools festival providing a platform for expression. For some participants it has been a safe haven and for some a well needed but edgy space. I hear descriptions of new tools being provided for new ways to express emotions and ideas. From the facilitators I hear expressions of amazement of the latent talents and willingness and yearning for expression that the young people of our small country harbours.
Harmonica lessons with Adam Glasser
These views are mirrored by the comments made by the teachers who attended the day before where they shared their own experiences with the professional facilitators whilst also being immersed in the same activities that their pupils were to experience the next day.
It would be tempting and trite (and a little paternalistic) to say that the schools festival offers a glimpse of a mirror image of Swazi society. It does not aspire to this but what it does do for me is provide an intriguing keyhole view of a new community. A community that wants to use and share the tools to which it has been exposed to express feelings and emotions and tell stories to you and me on a variety of stages and platforms, and most important to be able to do so without fear. A community that incidentally when asked for feed-back on the days experience shouted in almost one voice "we want dance and poetry as well"! What do you make of that? Such a community can only be a force for good, for the givers and the recipients.
And what of the reluctant small school group?
Well lets face it they represent that minority in every society that will want to dampen the ebullience, verve and courage of others. Perhaps they are there to remind us of the contrast between having positive expression and that deadly, sapping negative energy of lethargy. I hope they attend this year. I would be delighted to see them participating with the same spirit as the others, but if they don’t they will surely see again how painful alienation can be, and perhaps from that even they will understand.
 © Steve Mitchell 2012
This article in its original form, and without photo's, was first published in 'Bhomisa' (a dedicated festival newspaper published by the MTN Bushfire Festival and the Swazi Observer) and in the Swazi Observer. 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013


“Excuse me.”

The air is still and thick with dust and smoke. Dust because it has not rained for weeks, and smoke because the grass is bone dry and the evidence of periodic veldt fires can be seen across the flat valley floor towards the high ridge of the striking Ngwenya mountains. The colour of the landscape is burnt umber. In the middle distance distinct grass types can be identified; some colonies wave with deep red fronds and in the marsh areas butter coloured reeds with green tops crowd together. Where recent fires have occurred the land is charcoal black. Sporadic trees stand alone, dark green, stark and aloof.

Occasional cars and trucks speed along the tarred dual carriageway towards the Ngwenya border post. The highway is elevated here and the vehicles are removed from the life below. On the transverse road that runs under the highway leading West to Hawane and East towards Sicunusa more sedate rural vehicles chug, splutter and smoke – adding to the general fug in the vicinity of the market.

“Excuse me,” this time a little more insistent and punctuated by delicate throat clearing.

The market is a flattened dusty area defined by rows of small brick structures forming three sides of a square. A laager of commerce. Each shop unit has a steel tip-up garage door common on any urban house. At the entrances there are counters piled with goods. Long green bars of soap, tins of pilchards, matches, bread, bags of meillie meal - the stuff of life. Root vegetables and fruit are wrapped in neat pyramids in clear iplastici. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, oranges, onions, and tomatoes. Each pyramid contains between six and eight items and all cost fifteen Emalangeni for ease of commerce. Cabbage and spinach are sold in bunches for ten Emalangeni each.

There are as many stalls outside the formal garage structures. Here the vendors are exposed to the winter sun that provides warmth in the open but cannot penetrate the shade. They sit under once cheerful coloured but now dull and faded sun umbrellas, invariably with babies and toddlers in restless attendance.

“Sorry Madam, excuse me”

A seasoned victim of mendicants and beggars Sara stiffened. How many times has she heard just this approach? The opening gambit would follow. Something along the lines of “Can you help me?” And how many times had her innate generosity been called upon. She was most vulnerable to frontal assault from well dressed persons waving what appeared to be an official letter with an appropriate official ink stamp giving the bearer permission to collect money for this or that worthy, and apparently government sponsored cause.

The most memorable encounter had been the heart rending case of the poor fellow who had caught his arm in a thresher, or was it a bark stripper, or perhaps the rock crusher at Nkwaleni Quarry. Whichever demonic piece of machinery it had been it had rendered his left arm (or was it his right?) so useless that it seemed to revolve as if the elbow was a ball joint rather than a lever. He’d had to travel urgently to Siteki (why is it always Siteki?) to get the currently redundant limb set and thus rendered usable. He had emphasised his predicament by theatrically twirling the loose limb with such violence that Sara thought it must surely finally detach itself and thump twitching to the ground like a newly landed fish.

Twice. Twice Sara had given to this noble cause. The second time was admittedly a year after the first and she only realised after handing over the obligatory 50 Emalangeni (why always 50?) that while the story and the fellow were the same (and perhaps therefore potentially credible) the limb was different.


She turned to face her interlocutor.

Standing in front of her was a youngish man in his mid thirties. Shaved head with a carefully groomed pencil moustache. He was wearing a sharp suit and those absurd shoes that Sara had noticed had recently become fashionable, impossibly shiny with long wedged toes. The well pressed collared shirt was open at the neck revealing a chunky gold chain. He could easily be one of the new crop of preachers who had sprung up recently at little more than the drop of a psalm. To his credit all his limbs seemed to be intact.

As she had so often in the past reflected - here I am, a lone mulungu among a concourse of Swazi women and all I want to do is to buy onions, sweet potatoes and whatever green vegetables I can find, and I get approached by someone who thinks that because I am white I have got money to spare.

“Can you tell me another word for ‘generosity”.

He pronounced the word with care, each syllable deliberately enunciated “gen-ur-os-ity”, the “os” inflected and running into “ity”.
Oh my God she thought – this is a new one. I wonder how the holy book will be invoked. This is beyond money for a taxi ride to town in order to catch an onward connection to Siteki to collect money for a sickly child in need of emergency hospitalisation. I am about to be severely tested.

“No no I don’t think I do,” she said politely. “I don’t think I do know another word for generosity”. The word deliberately flatly pronounced with no unnecessary inflection or emphasis for fear of giving inadvertent offence, but at the same time underscoring a strength to her reply. The start of a defence against a biblically inspired onslaught on her conscience.  

“Eleven letters”, he said. “Fourth letter e.”

Only then did she become aware that he was brandishing a copy of the Times of Swaziland. It was folded carefully in half, lengthways. He was pushing the newspaper towards her as emphasis. Uppermost was the cryptic crossword. Sara could see that at least a third of the white squares had been completed in careful block capital letters with blue ink.
A wave of relief washed over her, heavily tinged with the guilt of wrongful expectation. Oh dear, she thought, caught again; and so comprehensively caught again!

“Goodness me,” she exclaimed.

After a moment of careful consideration the man said “I don’t think so Madam. Goodness me is ten letters, and two words. I need eleven letters in one word. Just one word. Generosity, eleven letters. Can you help me?”