It started out early last year. A friend suggested that I think about joining him (and a couple other guys) in an attempt to ascend Kilimanjaro. Getting a view of Africa from 5,895 metres/19,336 feet? Who *wouldn’t* want to do that? As exciting as the idea was, though, I just couldn’t make it work in the planned timeframe. So it was with no small amount of jealousy that I followed along with the planning as I helped out with some of the provisioning over the year (they’re based in Dubai, which is sadly short of excellent stores like Casual Adventure and REI).
Then in October, one of the original crew fell ill and the trip got pushed off to February. I let it roll around in my head for a while, and by the time we were in December, I knew I couldn’t skip this. So I signed on, and from there the trip snowballed. What started out as an in-and-out summit attempt with a few people turned into a six person Kilimanjaro expedition. Then (assuming no one died or otherwise did something inconvenient), we’d head to Zanzibar – adding a few more adults and children – for some rest and recovery. And since it was on the way home, why not hit Addis Ababa for a few days?
So that was the plan for my February. Interested in how it worked out? The first of several installments is on the other side of the jump.
Kilimanjaro is located in Tanzania, though the closest major air hub is Nairobi, Kenya. This seems to have many people thinking it’s in Kenya. Being the brilliant geographer that I am, I managed to make it to the correct embassy in DC, easily securing visas in advance of the trip. For once, the visa process was far less painful than the pre-trip immunizations (tetanus, hep A, yellow fever*, oh my!). The equipment prep is another entry on its own, and will be my own detailed contribution to the What’s In Your Bag? genre.
Most people do route through Nairobi, switching to a local carrier for the last hop into Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO).** We had some miles in the back with United, though, and decided to take advantage of Ethiopian Airlines recent entry into the Star Alliance. Not only did this get us the benefit of being able to stick with one carrier (i.e., lower the potential for lost baggage, a big concern on the way in), but it eliminated any need for a European stop on the way there.
Ethiopian flies a 777 directly from IAD to its base in Addis Ababa at Bole International Airport (ADD). We left Dulles on Monday morning, and our flight clocked in at a little over 13 hours, landing early on Tuesday in Addis Ababa (8 hours ahead of EST). I’ll review the Ethiopian flight offering later (preview: eh.). The connection at ADD was . . . curious. Despite a rather nice looking (from the outside, anyway) international terminal with plenty of empty gates, we parked out on the apron. I rather like disembarking via stairs – fun views of planes! unfiltered sun! fresh air! Kinda jet-fuel flavored!
Then we got on a bus which took us to the domestic terminal. Which was really more like a holding pen than a terminal. Not even a place to buy bottled water. So, fair warning – if you’re switching flights at ADD, you probably want to bring your own provisions. There’s free wireless, but you practically have to plaster yourself against the glass separating you from the rest of the terminal, and really, it was too early in the trip to start looking like a refugee.
After a couple of hours of little more than counting how many times the janitor mopped the bathroom floor at ADD (11), it was back in the air and on our way to JRO. Except first we had to stop at Moi International Airport (MBA) in Mombasa, Kenya. It seems, if the deplaning passengers were any indication, to be a rather popular beach destination for Italians. I thought we’d take on a few passengers here, too. Instead, we just sat. And sat. And sat some more. Just as my mind was drifting to really unwarranted places, we were off to JRO. So I’ve still not been to Kenya.
It’s a pretty quick hop to Kilimanjaro from Mombasa, but it’s enough time to get the plane to altitude. At this point, it’s just short of 20 hours into the journey. Also, for someone who can’t really sleep on a plane, that’s putting me a bit past the 24 hour mark for being awake. So it was with a bit of a fuzzy mind that I first saw this view. Yes, that’s a mountain – Kilimanjaro, in fact – at eye level from a plane cruising at 19,000 feet. And I was just a couple of days away from hiking up it.
Honestly, after seeing that, I spent some time trying to come up with a way to fully convey just how much of a breath-catching moment this turned out to be. Instead, I think I’ll just stick to what immediately and actually came to mind:
Such eloquence, no? For me, that’s not a bad analogy for the rest of the trip – I surrounded myself with incredible and inspiring circumstances, yet ended up focusing in some very basic ways.
We soon landed at JRO and collected our luggage. All of it, much to my relief. I’m the sort that takes pride in being able to manage long trips with little more than carry-on. However, given the equipment and clothing intensive nature of this trip, we were traveling with three duffels (ready for everything from diving in Zanzibar to freezing at the Kilimanjaro summit). Plenty of our fellow passengers had taken advantage of the oft-given advice to wear your essentials (i.e., boots and other hard-to-replace gear) on the plane. That’s not a very comfortable style of travel for me, though, so I opted to roll the dice and trust the airline. And hey, it worked (no near-term plans to test that again, though).
Next up, we had to locate our driver. We’d altered the original plans a bit by arriving a couple of days ahead of time, and the pre-flight communication didn’t leave me entirely certain we’d be met at the airport. And initially, my fears seemed to be well-founded – out of many many placards, there was no “Blacknell” (or even “Blackwell”) to be spied. Alas, it turned out that our driver simply had a very interesting conversation to conduct while leaning against the wall on the far side of the terminal, name comfortably tucked under her arm (but with the “nell” just visible). Hakuna matada, no problem. (Yes, they really say that there. It is not, in fact, a Disney creation.)
Soon we were on our way to our hotel in Moshi, and not far away from some much needed sleep.
Photos here (be sure to turn on the captions by clicking “Show info” in the upper right hand corner).
Next installment: The under-appreciated luxury of Sal Salinero, Moshi itself, and connecting with the rest of the crew.
*Both the Tanzanian and Ethiopian embassy websites indicated that a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate would not be required for our particular itinerary. However, the very first thing we were asked for at both borders were our Yellow Fever certificates. So I’d recommend getting one if you don’t have it already.
**For the record, the airport code is JRO, and not KIA (as the airport itself seems to prefer, which creates needless moments of doubt and confusion).