A social experiment

One day around 6 days into the safari I asked the kids to do something for me. It was pretty easy and it required one of them to walk back to our tent about 200 yards away from the lounge tent. They both refused. I explained there would be consequences. Still firm “no’s”. So I took their iPads and kindles away for 3 days. I thought they would be despondent and mad and depressed the whole time. I was willing to put up with that.

They were upset for 5 minutes. Then I heard laughter from the tent. Peals of laughter. This continued for the next several days. They horsed around with each other. They played endless hours of Uno. The interacted with us. They were bloody human again.

Learned something!

Northern Serengeti

Northern Serengeti has a lot of flies. Between noon and about 4 pm, especially in areas near water, they are thick as wildebeests. Not to take anything away from the raw beauty of the place and its animals, but you can’t hold a camera steady when you’re swatting at a hundred flies. These are the garden variety flies. Then there are the tsetse flies that can give you sleeping sickness. They are bigger, like horse flies, and they take a chunk out of you when they bite. Most tsetse flies in northern Serengeti don’t carry the sleeping sickness parasite so your chances of getting the disease are low. Bug repellent doesn’t really help. Avoid wearing blue or black – they are attracted to those colors.

Flies and wildebeests aside, northern Serengeti is teeming with animal life. After we witnessed multiple wildebeest river crossings, Joshua and Philip took us on drives in search of some of these other inhabitants.

This lovely couple emerged from a korongo (Swahili for gorge). Joshua called them a honeymoon couple. The male lion and one female lioness from the pride wander off together for a few days of serious copulation. We’re talking 20-40 times a day though each go only lasts 10-20 seconds. They did look pretty happy and confident – all that sex and being on top of the food chain.

Speaking of food chains, the number of dying or dead wildebeest is able to support a healthy population of hyenas, jackals, and vultures. We saw groups of over 20 vultures, sometimes with a couple of jackals mixed in feeding on dead wildebeest.

One evening we spotted two male cheetahs hunting together. They wandered up to a herd of wildebeest who scattered around the cheetahs. The wildebeest looked totally confused but Joshua explained that their semi-random zigzagging movements were actually designed to confuse the cheetahs.

We found many large herd of elephants. One had several females and juveniles, one stately matriarch, and three small baby elephants that were still nursing.

We crossed the international border between Tanzania and Kenya which was marked by a signs on the Tanzanian side. The land as far as the eye can see is gently rolling grassy plains with occasional hills. The animals don’t pay any heed to man-made invisible international boundaries.

There was at least one joke in our 4×4 about how the Kenyans were going to build a wall to stop the massive migration crisis and that they had convinced their voters that the wildebeest would pay for the wall.

The Great Wildebeest Migration

Wildebeest are funny aminals. Even their name is wierd in English, though the etymology is straightfoward in Afrikaans (“wild cattle”). There are almost twice as many wildebeest in Serengeti as there are people in Austin. If you’re stuck on Mopac or the interstate at rush hour, you know that’s a lot of wildebeest. Wildebeest are migratory. They love short green grass so they follow it in a giant 2,800 km circuit every year. In February and March they have about half a million babies in the flat endless plains in south-eastern Serengeti. It rains from March to May here so they are assured an abundance of short green grass. The herds graze here till the rains end in May when they start moving in large numbers to the area near the Grumeti river in north west Serengeti. By July and August they start moving further north and cross the Mara river into northern Serengeti and across the Kenyan border into the adjoining Maasai Mara National Park. They stay here through the dry season and then with the short November rains they start moving south east back to the short grass plains, arriving by December. Then the cycle starts all over again. By migrating and following the food, the wildebeets swell to larger numbers than the ecosystem would have been able to support if they had been non-migratory. Though they probably don’t know that.

The herd population is fairly stable. That means there are a lot of dead wildebeest every year. They die from thirst, starvation, exhaustion, and predation by hyenas, lions, crocodiles, and other beasts of prey. About half a million gazelles and a quarter million zebras travel portions of the migration route with the wildebeest. The zebras particularly can been seen moving alongside the wildebeest. Incidentally, the zebra eat long grass. So they don’t compete for the same food as the wildebeest. Zebras a better at sensing prey animals, and wildebeest have learned to be very skittish, reacting quickly to a zebra who has detected a lion. In fact, wildebeest react to the safari 4x4s much more skittishly than any other animal we saw. All the animals are familiar with the 4x4s since birth. Beside wildebeests, other animals do not to fear the 4x4s. Most of them completely ignore you even if you are only a few feet from them as long as you are inside the ubiquitous 4x4s. But not the wildebeest. They buck and jump every which way and then they gallop away till then get turned around and realize that they are headed straight back at you and then chaotically gallop away again, in the process scattering a few dozen other wildebeest into panic.

As we drew closer to the Mara river we noticed huge herds of wildebeest. In the early morning or evening hours they move in long almost single file. Occasionally they gallop to catch up with the ones in front of them, but just as randomly they stop, turn around completely, and sometimes stampede in the opposite direction. In the heat of the afternoon they collect in tens or twenties under the scant shade of whatever trees there might be, motionless like statues. But the emergent trend through all this was a movement in the northen direction towards the Mara river, genetically driven to cross the river and head to the short green grass of Maasai Mara at this time of the year.

The first river crossing that we saw was pretty dramatic. They all are. Including dry washes and smaller creeks, we witnessed at least 6 crossings in three days. A herd had collected on a bluff overlooking the river. There was a wooded area in the middle. The way down to the river was via a steeply inclined path. The rest of the bluff was too tall to climb down. We were positioned on the other side of the river, back from the edge and hidden from view. When we got there, we joined about 20 safari 4x4s. But they must have been waiting for a long time because they slowly drove away till we were the only ones left. Meanwhile, the wildebeest milled around but made no move. Once a while one or two would walk purposefully towards the steep path down, but they always changed their mind and wandered away. Joshua told us that one animal needed to take the first step. It isn’t a leader. Wildebeest don’t have leaders. Just someone to trigger something in the brains of a dozen wildebeest around it, and the rest follow in a classic example of a herd or mob.


We passed the halfway point in the safari today but we again have a long drive. From our haven on the western side of central Serengeti near where we saw so much wildlife on and around the banks of the Grumeti River, it’s time to drive to the Mara River at the northern end of the park. Serengeti is big. For my fellow Texans who like the Big Bend National Park, the distance from the Persimmon Gap entrance in the north to the Rio Grande Village at the Mexican border on the south east is about 75 km. Today we are going to drive from the middle of Serengeti to its northern edge, a distance of more than 170 km.

Our first stop after a couple of hours is a hippo pit. The river is choked with hundreds of hippos laying in mud and their oozing excrement. They periodically grunt, swish their short little tails, climb on top of each other, bite a couple of butts, and go back to sleep. At first sight it is disgusting. But being vegetarians, their shit isn’t particularly smelly though we are a mere couple of feet above them on the river bank. And after a while the entire communal slothiness of the thing grows on you. You start picking out a baby here and a mother there or a couple of playful juveniles in the middle or a bad tempered butt biter who farts a lot. Vivian and Evan get quite engrossed in hippo watching like the rest of us. Eventually we all have to tear ourselves from the spectacle when our short break is over and we have to get back to our 4x4s.

After a while we are back in the endless plains of the Serengeti but the land is more gently rolling here and the grass is increasingly growing greener. We start seeing bigger and bigger herds of wildebeest heading north mixed in with only slightly smaller number of grazing gazelles and herds of zebra, eland, impala, and did-diks darting between the trees.

Joshua cautiously pulls off the main dirt road and drives to a low tree under which we discover a resting lion and a young lioness. We drive a hundred yards away to another shady spot to see a huge lioness. Then it becomes clear that we are looking at a pride of lions resting after a kill. One cub is still tugging at the buffalo carcass. Everyone else is resting and licking their own and each other’s bloody chins.

We spend a long time looking at this scene play out. Then Joshua reminds us that we still have a way to go. An hour later we pull into Mara Under Tents – our first real tented safari lodge.


Last night our Maasai warriors, spears and all, escorted us back to the “tents” after dinner and cigars by the pool. This morning we woke up early, had a quick breakfast and got back in the 4x4s with Phillip and Joshua for a full day of game viewing in central Serengeti.

[photo credit to the Lahia website]

Less than 30 minutes out of camp, Philip cautiously pulled off the main dirt road towards a river crossing. In the mostly dry river bed was a herd of elephants. On the other side was a large family of baboons. And right in front of us was a pride of a dozen lionesses and cubs. Here’s a closeup on the main Mama. Even Vivian and Evan sat up and noticed.

A few more miles down the road we almost ran into a huge elephant. He was a bit away from his herd and stepped out on the dirt road at about the same time we came around a bend. Philip quickly swerved right while the elephant crashed into the brush on the left. Then he recovered his balance and seem to take a few belligerent steps towards us before backing up into the brush again, but he kept his face towards us and flapped his ears. He was clearly ready to take this argument to the next level. We left him in the brush, passed his herd a few minutes later, and headed down the road, keeping the river bed to our left. A bit later we were rewarded with a rare sight.

A leopard mother and her young cub were hanging out at the foot of a tall acacia tree. While we watched, the mother made her way gracefully up the tree and proceeded to plonk herself down on a big branch like it was the most comfortable bed in the world. The cub wandered off into the brush. We waited for an hour and watched, during which the mother occasionally changed positions and then eventually walked down the branch towards the trunk. We drove around to the other side of the tree and saw that she was feeding on a gazelle carcass that she must have killed and dragged up the tree earlier. The cub was nowhere to be seen.

Still later we drove off to see a cheetah that had been spotted a few miles away. Upon arriving we saw a beautiful cheetah sitting under a tree. Nearby, there were three large vultures in the tall grass. Philip conjectured that the carcass from her kill must have attracted the vultures. Then we noticed a herd of elephants come over the horizon. They were moving roughly in the direction of the cheetah resting under the tree. Game watching is like fishing. It’s mostly waiting. We waited.

Eventually the elephants arrived. They either smelled the carcass or the cheetah or both and raised their tusks to sniff the air. Then they ambled at their leisurely pace straight towards the tree and the cheetah hiding in the tall grass. We held our breaths and waited. At the tree the herd split up around it, and the bigger elephants walked right up to the cheetah. The cheetah at that point decided that hiding wouldn’t do, and in the photo below, you can see it getting up and walking away from the elephants.

And that’s how we spent most of our morning. Later we waited for a lioness who was crouched down on a grassy bank to attack gazelles that approached the water hole but that didn’t materialize during our wait. So we went back to the mother leopard in the tree. Her cub had reappeared. He scrambled up the tree and ate on the gazelle carcass while the mama continued to sleep on a branch. The mothers in our safari truck joked about how it must be the mama leopard’s time off and that she had left the kid a snack and didn’t want to be disturbed.

We ended that afternoon driving up to another lion – in this case an old dude resting under a tree. And then back to the large pride of lionesses and cubs from the morning, a passing herd of zebras and wildebeest, and then back to our safari lodge. Vivian and Evan swam, we drank excellent wine by the pool, and had a lovely dinner. Another day in paradise.

[thanks to Prabhu for this lovely photo of zebras]

Olduvai Gorge

Last month archeologists and Tanzanians celebrated the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the “Early Man” fossils in Olduvai Gorge in a remote portion in Tanzania. There is a nice brand new museum funded by the EU and two huge replicas of skulls at the intersection of the dirt road that leads to the 45 km long archeological site. If there is a haloed spot in the search for our ancestors, it’s Olduvai.

We reached it after a two hour journey on bumpy roads through treeless dusty valleys on the northern side on Ngorongoro dotted with Maasai villages and herds of cattle, and then eventually the endless plains of Serengeti (it’s what the word “Serengeti” means).

Olduvai is a screwed up word for Oldupai, the wild sisal succulent that grows in the gorge. The Leakeys (mostly Mary) found fossils of early hominids from 1.9 million years ago, Homo erectus from from 1.2 m.y.a, Homo sapiens from 17,000 years ago, and the earliest stone tools. Add to that the fossilized footprints from Laetoli 45 km away which are, at 3.7 m.y.a, the oldest evidence of our ancestors rearing up on their hind legs. Olduvia provided us some of the earliest and most solid proofs of human evolution and put to rest “theories” of the earth being 6000 years old. It also showed us that we are all Africans. So in the big scheme of things I was just as interested that Vivian and Evan see this corner of the world as any lion or elephant or wildebeest. Evan posed beside a replica of Lucy (from Hadar in Ethiopia, 1,500 km up the Rift Valley) and seemed suitably impressed. I wanted to spend a few days here but in the interest of moving things along we hung out for a couple of hours during which I did my best to soak up the feeling that people go to The Vatican, Mecca or Bodh Gaya for. My faith lives in places like this. Aaah – the smell of scientific method in the air!

After several more hours of driving through dusty endless featureless plains filled with gazelles, zebras, ostriches, and an occasional hunting lioness, a brief stop at a rest stop that felt like it was out of a Mad Max movie, more bumpy dirt roads, and winding up a hillside, we suddenly appeared at a safari lodge where they welcomed us with chilled white towels and champagne. And an infinity pool with a view of a hundred miles of Serengeti under us. And a sunset from a Fauvist painting. Vivian echoed all our thoughts. “Daddy,can we spend the rest of the year here?”


The kids are settling into their traveling lifestyle. So far, 10 days into their year of travel, they have hit the books for about 30 minutes one day. Meanwhile, the stuff they leave in their hotel / safari lodge rooms at checkout has steadily decreased.

We stayed the night before at the very edge of the Rift Valley looking over the infinity edge pool (too cold for me) into the seemingly infinite shores of Lake Manyara shrouded in mist. Yesterday we drove up to an amazing property called the Retreat at Ngorongoro, just outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and had a lazy afternoon and evening and used the fireplaces in our rooms at night to warm up. In the morning we loaded into our 4x4s and headed from an elevation of about 4800 ft up to 7000 ft at the rim of the Ngorongoro crater which was completely covered in fog and clouds. Philip drove us around the rim and down into the huge crater floor. The rim is heavily wooded steep and the crater is flat and grassy. Once we were down in the crater, the clouds had burned off and we were left with a brilliant blue sky and a perfect day. The crater was formed about two million years ago when the caldera of a volcano collapsed into itself, and Wikipedia bills Ngorongoro crater as “the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera.” It is a Garden of Eden for wildlife – no humans live inside the crater.

We explored the crater floor till lunch time. A lot of that time was spent looking at a bachelor group of six young male lions. They were resting on top of and under a bluff when we discovered them, and at various times, they sat up and expressed interest in a passing lone buffalo but they didn’t move much. If you look at the third photo down you can count the six lions. There is an army green safari truck in the photo whose lone occupant is the Lion Lady, Ingela Jansson. She is studying the whiskers of the six lions which is how researchers identify them.

Over a boxed lunch of grilled chicken and fruits, Ingela explained her work to us. Our group of two safari trucks and thirteen visitors are customers of Austin and Arusha based Fair Trade Safaris which helps fund conservation efforts in several places, including Ingela’s work. Ingela explained that about 20 years ago she realized that the main pressure faced by lions were humans, the pastoral Maasai who share the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with the animals (unlike the national parks which are exclusive zones, the NCA is a mixed use land, allowing animals and a few tens of thousands of humans to co-exist). So she created a system to lion guardians based on a system that had been shown to work in Kenya, where a Maasai warrior is a full time member of her group, and his job is to keep track of and facilitate the safety of lions and cattle (and humans) in his home area. Ingela’s experience has shown that pride in being a guardian of lions, having a well-paid responsibility, and keeping his people and the lions safe is a suitable proxy for being the brave Maasi warrior who under other circumstances would have killed the lion.

Ingela then shared a box full of cards with the whisker marks, parentage, age, and other details of every lion in the area. We looked at the six we had seen earlier in the morning. Evan had the opportunity to rename one of them Leo after his friend (like most others it carried a number, in this case MASEK-89 or something like that). So, Leo – if you get around to Ngorongoro, you may be able to see your namesake one day! In the group photo, Evan is standing in front of me, and to his and my left is Ingela, the Lion Lady.


The very first stop on our safari is Tarangire National Park – one of Tanzania’s premier parks that often gets overlooked in favor of more glamorous cousins like Ngrongoro and Serengeti. Joshua drove us there in about three hours from Arusha, explaining the lay of the land and its people along the way. We got there at lunchtime, ate our boxed lunches, and drove into the park.

We came up to a watering hole and saw a large number of wildebeest, zebra, and an odd warthog or two. Wildebeests are amazingly unattractive animals and seem to have been badly welded together from discarded portions of cattle, horses, elks, deer, and other animals. Geeks of a certain vintage will recognize them from the cover of the O’Reilly Gnu book (yes, they are indeed gnu). Their other claim to fame is that they are the most popular prey animal on the African savannah.

We saw Baobab trees, lions, elephants, baboons, lilac breasted rollers, secretariat birds, and other amazing wildlife. And spent our first real day of our vacation together without any real disasters. About 360 days to go!

Uhuru or Bust

While I write this post from the comfort of my hotel room in Arusha, Jo, the kids, and Carol left Austin this morning. Or they tried to. After an eight hour delay they finally made it to JFK past 1am, then to their hotel for a short rest before continuing on to Doha and Arusha tomorrow. Jo was in low spirits at one point. I tried to cheer her up by saying that we’ll only be doing this for one year. She wasn’t amused. I hope to see their shinning smiling faces tomorrow afternoon here at the hotel.

If someone tells you to start climbing from Barafu camp (elevation 4,680 m or 15, 354 ft) at midnight, and reach Uhuru Peak (5,895 m or 19,341 ft) , the highest point in Africa, by sunrise you should rightfully tell them to bugger off.

So the six of us, and three guides and three other support crew headed off up the steep rise north of camp with our headlamps on and dressed in all of our warmest clothing. By the time we got to the Rock – the first steep climb, you could see a snake of headlamps reaching towards the stars. We knew we’d be climbing for six or seven hours.

Soon I was an automaton. Just putting one step in front of the other. Not letting the wind push me over. Climbing. Stopping and forcing a sip of half frozen water down throat. Then getting back up and following Nita’s backside up the mountain. My eyes were glazed and I felt like a sleepwalker. My hands were freezing. So was my snack – the Kit Kat in my pocket. The snake of headlamps went higher and higher and I followed. I stopped at one point to put on my balaclava. It made my face feel warm and dry for 10 minutes. Then my snot froze around the nose opening and it felt like I was wearing a block of ice. I was too tired to take it off.

I was aware enough to analyze how I felt and while the easy answer was “like shit”, there was really nothing wrong. So I kept at it. Still – this was firmly in the no fun zone.

Then dawn came and a glorious sunrise lit up the whole continent under me (thanks for the photo, Nita). My senses were all pared down to just keep me climbing, but even in that state I felt the sunrise. The snake of headlamps faded out in the daylight and the abstract was replaced by a huge mountain still above me. I had been steadily climbing for five hours in the darkness. How could there still be so much to go? But the sun was on my back and I put one step in front of the other. Stella Peak finally appeared. I was on the crater rim. Yassin gave me a huge hug and pointed the way up. I could see the wide sweep of the rim to my left, towards the final prize, Uhuru peak. I had expected the rim to be flatter. But the going did get a lot easier. I started looking around. Enjoying the white blue-green vertical ice faces of the glaciers. Looking down into the crater floor. I met Aaron and Bernard returning from Uhuru. Only 20 minutes, they said. Like the last round of a workout, I walked faster than all night and suddenly there was Uhuru, with it’s shabby chick wooden signage. It was 8:45 AM.

There was a big contingent from a cancer or urology group from Omaha taking photos at the peak. It took them for ever, but by then I was a functioning human again. I could speak and eat and drink and look around. Gaspar and I took photos. We chatted. I thanked him. After a while we headed down. In three hours we were back at Barafu camp. I still couldn’t eat, but rested a bit. Then the walk to Mweka camp – at least four hours below. It was pitch dark by the time we got to camp. We started that day in the dark and ended it likewise. Still couldn’t stomach the thought of food. But got a good night’s sleep. Next morning, Day 7, was an easy 9 km hike from Mweka camp down to Mweka Gate and suddenly we were out of the park and Kilimanjaro was behind us.

Done. I climbed the mountain, but with a ton of help and support. And I learned more about myself than I did about Kilimanjaro. Would I recommend it? Absolutely. About 5 hours of feeling miserable out of a week of fun. I can work with that.

Thank you, Gabriele, Onsemo and Yassin, for putting a great group of people together to take us safely up and back down. Thanks, Jen, Sam and Kevyn, for keeping the old bones moving. Thanks, Aaron for agreeing so readily to jump into this adventure. And thank you, dearest Jo, for giving me the time and space to continue to do stupid shit. And you thought I’d fall off the mountain… : )

Climbing Kilimanjaro

After Aaron left for the airport at 2:30 AM this morning, when I walked back into the hotel lobby in Arusha, the security guard seemed confused. I explained that my friend was headed home but I was not. Where was home, he asked. “America”, I said. The man’s face furrowed with concern. “I hope he is safe. Lots of shooting”. I assured him that America was a very safe country and that there was no reason to worry. Then I came back upstairs and checked some stats. We come in at 4.9 homicide deaths for 100,000 people in the population. Better than Somalia, but not as good as Rwanda. Incidentally, we take better care of our mentally ill than those two countries. And play a lot more violent video games than them. Hmmm – I’m so fucking confused…

Back to Kilimanjaro. At 5,895 m (19,341 ft) it is not ranked in the top 200 peaks in the world because all of those are in the Himalayan or Hindu Kush ranges. It is the tallest peak in Africa and the 4th tallest in the world according to an obscure ranking called prominence – which measures how much taller a peak is compared to it’s surroundings. It’s supposed to be the tallest mountain that you can walk up. A seven year girl from Austin and an 89 year old woman have climbed it. The fastest ascent took only 4 hours and 56 minutes, and then the dude sprinted back down in less that 2 hours. Most amazingly, Kyle Maynard – who was born without arms or legs, crawled up unassisted every step of the way to the top of the mountain in 2012. About 30,000 people attempt to climb up to the top of Uhuru peak each year. Two thirds make it. One thousand are evacuated due to acute altitude sickness. Somewhere between 10 and 30 die. Altitude sickness strikes unexpectedly – we saw a porter being evacuated who had made the trip many times before. Putting it in perspective, this may be the hardest thing I have attempted – the hike to Everest base camp / Kalapathar was a walk in the park. But I’ll try not be offended if a seven year old limbless girl passes me on the way to the summit of Kilimanjaro.

On the second morning we wake up at Machame camp with the smell of composting toilets indelibly mixed in with the morning tea and breakfast. Today is a short but steep day. Over 1000 m of elevation gain in about 5 km. We get to Shira camp (3,850 m or 12,631 ft) nice and early. A couple of the guides take two of us on a side hike after lunch. Here’s looking back down towards Shira camp. You can see the registration hut and the colorful clumps of tents in the distance. If you like the stark Martian beauty of alpine landscape, this place rocks.

Day 3 is interesting. We climb from Shira camp in the morning to reach Lava Tower at lunchtime. Lava Tower is at 4,600 m (15,091 ft). It’s getting harder for me to find oxygen in the air. Kibo peak and Arrow glacier rise up like a giant to our north. But after lunch we descend through some stunning scenery into the beautiful Barranco valley all the way to Barranco camp at 3,900 m, ending the day with a paltry net gain to 50 m. It rains the last hour but not too hard. We should have stopped and pulled on our rain gear. We are wet and cold and grumpy by the time we crawl into our tents. The camp is immersed in a thick soupy fog-cloud. A Boy Scout could get lost between the mess tent and the toilet tent. It rains all afternoon and starts getting seriously cold. Ice forms on our tents. In spite of Chef Manasi’s best efforts, the food is beginning to taste like ass. And Aaron says I’m snoring louder each night.

After midnight the clouds clear and the night sky is spectacular. I feel I can reach past the stars to the Magellanic clouds. As the purple light of dawn approaches, it’s obvious that our tents are at the edge of a precipice. The sheer drop into the Barranco valley is balanced by an ominous wall of rock rising straight up on the other side. Shit – it’s the Barranco Wall which is the first item on our to-do list today.

What are you doing, staring at the night sky instead of sleeping, you ask. We have been told to hydrate like sea sponges, and we are taking Diamox – both in efforts to stave off altitude sickness. But the combination makes me want to leak like the Exxon Valdez. So I am cozy and almost warm in my sleeping bag. Then I have the urge to pee. I ignore it. Eventually my urine-soaked brain realizes that the problem isn’t going away. I unzip my bag. Grope for a light. Put on a warm layer, hat and gloves. Unzip several zippers and flaps in the tent which seem maximized for making very loud sounds – all while trying to not wake Aaron. Find my boots. Pull them on. Lace them up (no one wants to drag their laces through the dirt of the toilet tent). Bend down, twist, push head out of tent, do a Turkish get-up, run to the toilet tent. Yell knock-knock. Pull down the toilet tent zipper. Rush in and try to hit the tiny shitter before I piss on everything because my penis feels like an uncorked magnum champagne bottle at the winner’s podium at F-1. Then reverse the process, though with the added benefit of being fully wide awake and cold but in possession of an empty bladder. Finally back in my bag and almost warm. And then I have the urge to pee.

There are six of us. Besides Aaron and me, there is a son and mother pair from Austria. Bernard is a medical student from Salzburg. He’s the kid of the group and at the prime of his life. When he’s cold which is often, he does mini jumping jacks. While I try to find a rock to sit on. Christine is a doctor in Vienna and though she doesn’t start conversations, she’s nice to be around. And she hikes like a robot mountain goat without a hint of tiredness or emotion, her first step as perfect as her last. The other pair are Indian cousins from London. They are funny, especially Nita, who is sinfully easy to joke around with. She’s a banker and is as good at giving verbal shit as she is at getting it. Ajay is young and in pretty good shape though he seems to be coming down with a combination of a stomach bug and mild altitude sickness. It’s a good thing the mess tent has a dirt floor.

One night we celebrated Nita’s birthday. Chef Manasi produced a birthday cake with icing and all – made in a kitchen tent using a gas stove and a saucepan at three miles above sea level. The whole crew comes in and sings Nita happy birthday in every known African dialect. Then they sing her many other songs, eventually serenading her good night (lala salama). These guys are seriously nice. They treat us better than I treat my kids. And I bet I get paid only slightly less for my efforts.

Back to the Barranco Wall. As we wake up and drink our tea and wash our faces on the morning on Day 4, we unwillingly start noticing how small and insignificant and precarious the climbers on the wall look. And how big and inhospitable the wall is. Here’s a great photo Nita took of Bernard standing at the edge of our camp with his camera and taking a photo of the Barranco Wall. We put on our day packs, but we look about as excited as a bunch of wet cats going in for prostate exams. The crew sense we are feeling pretty blue. They burst into catchy camp songs. We get sucked into the tempo and rhythm of the jambo jambos and bomba bombas and join in. Soon everyone is dancing and clapping hands and singing whatever we can. Ten minutes later we leave camp smiling and warm and ready to tackle the Barranco Wall.

Outside of the summit, the Barranco Wall is the media hog of Kilimanjaro. But it’s reputation far exceeds it’s bite. It is an 800 foot climb diagonally up a craggy cliff face with lots of hand and foot holds. The guides help us at exactly the right places while the porters still run up the wall – occasionally having to throw their loads up to a higher point and then climb after them. Looking down isn’t a good idea though. We make it up in less than two hours. Christine later tells me that she is terrified of heights. She was in front of me the whole way and I had no idea. Robot mountain goat.

We cross some deep valleys, the last of which is the Karanga valley, and end Day 4 at Karanga camp, with only a net 60 m gain to show for our efforts. Kibo peak rears up above Karanga valley marbled with ice like a fat rib eye. The summit looks doable.

Day 5 is easy. Short hike from Karanga camp to Barafu camp at 4,680 m (15,354 ft). It starts snowing and then sleeting on us about 30 minutes out of Barafu camp. The air is thin, I force some instant ramen soup down for lunch, skip the early dinner, and am up in the pitch darkness and chilling wind at 11pm to start getting ready for the summit climb. One way or another the shit meets the fan tomorrow.