Wednesday, September 29, 2010


View Of Crater
My final day of safari is in the Ngorongoro crater. I learn from my guide that the place gets its name from the sound of the bells of the maasai cattle. This is indeed a fascinating place, like someone cut a circular section of 10 km radius of the Serengeti, intact with all the fauna, and placed it in a petri dish. The 650m high wall that surrounds this crater is in stark contrast to the boundlessness of the Serengeti plains just north of here.
Male Lion
On my safari in the crater I'm looking out for the last of the "Big Five" that I haven't spotted yet, the Rhino. While I'm busy watching out for it, a male lion majestically walks past us ahead of our vehicle. Just a few kms away we see a pride of five lions gorging on a buffalo that was probably killed a few minutes ago. Our third encounter with the lions today happens at the picnic spot where a pride strays into the parking area. One young male settles down in the shade of a safari vehicle. When the vehicle moves forward he follows it and sits back down in its shadow. When the vehicle moves yet again, he urinates on it as if to claim ownership. When the driver refuses to obey that contract, he gives up and walks away looking for a more reliable shadow.
We eventually find the rhinos we are looking for but not from a distance I would have liked. After that little encounter, we drive down to the soda lake and photograph the flamingos before driving off to Moshi.
On the drive back it feels different because, for the first time in 5 days, I'm sitting down in the passenger seat with the sun roof lowered down. For the first time in days I'm not straining my eyes to spot wildlife. Nas and I then go on to exchange notes on our respective cultures. He tells me proudly that he is a big fan of bollywood, and that his favorite song is "Mere Naseeb mein" (My only explanation for that odd choice is that his name appears in the lyrics). I have to reciprocate, and so I learn to sing a Swahili song that is something of an anthem in this part of the world.
Jambo, Jambo bwana, Habari Gani, Zuri Sana
Wageni mwakaribishwa, Tanzania Hakuna matata.

We then discussed all the places in Tanzania that I haven't had the time to visit; Tarangire, Mt Meru, Lake Victoria to name a few. The conclusion is simple: I have to visit Tanzania again!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


They say that curiosity, as much as devotion, makes a pilgrim, If you spent as much time as me watching films set in the Serengeti conjecturing about what exists outside the aspect ratio of the TV screens you'd understand why this trip is almost spiritual for me.

Serengeti gets its name from Serengit, Maasai for "Endless Plain", which brings me to the whole truth about this place that none of the documentaries or any of my pictures will (or can) tell. It truly is vast and plentiful beyond belief. The drive into the park is so featureless with no undulation, tree or rock, that it can induce land-sickness. The monotony is interrupted by the occasional jackals, gazelles or the Maasai in his red dress watching his herd! The reason nothing grows here is that a volcano deposited ash over the plains and the thin top soil above that layer supports only grass.
Once you are inside the protected area of the park the vast grasslands are dotted by the characteristic acacias and big granites jutting out, called Kopjes. Of course there are animals and birds in numbers and variety that are mind-boggling. (This without the 2 million migratory wildebeest, zebras and buffalos that are spending this season across the border in Kenya).

Wildlife documentaries don't capture the sense of infinity that you feel in Serengeti. They also misrepresent the rhythm of the place. The herbivores go about the business of eating all day. The carnivores range from Lions, which seem to do nothing but sit around, to the hyenas scanning the plains continuously with their busy gait. The hunts that films focus on are infrequent punctuation that I never get to see in the 3 days I spend there. The closest I get to that is this leopard who had brought home a gazelle to eat both for dinner and the following brunch.
On the second evening I also meet my favorite big cat, the Cheetah. He is at least a hundred meters from my car and he's scanning the horizon for an early dinner. He seems to spot something and starts trotting in that direction. We try to keep pace with him and I notice that we are traveling at nearly 40 kmph. His path diverges from ours and within a minute he's so far that I can't even see him with my binoculars. Having seen his scale of operations here I don't think I can excuse putting a Cheetah in a zoo anymore.
In the two days I spend at the park I see dozens of species of birds, countless ungulates, a male Ostrich getting lucky, a falcon guarding its nest from my intrusions, countless lions, and many more. The safari doesn't end when we get back to the camp, because our tents are right out in the open and we are visited by wildlife at night. On the second morning I see a Zebra just outside my tent and a few minutes later hear a Hyena not more than a few meters away.
On the third morning we drive off to visit Ngorongoro, and on the way out I try to drink everything in. Three days haven't left me accustomed to the vastness of this land and I'm left with that feeling that characterizes all pilgrimages, that feeling of sacred awe.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Lake Manyara

Hornbill Feeding Its Young
I start my tanzanian safari with a visit to Lake Manyara. I have a Toyota Landcruiser all to myself. Feel bad about being the lone passenger in a huge vehicle but secretly appreciate the freedom too, because folks - even friends - don't take too kindly to stopping for every bird. Nasibu, my driver and guide, tells me that they picked him because he is the most knowledgeable about birds. He uses our journey time to give me an introduction to Tanzanian culture. He is very proud that 120 tribes live in perfect harmony. I like that; it's harder to be fiercely proud of  being peaceful than , say, of being a courageous warrior clan.

Manyara offers me good practice for the biggies that I am scheduled to visit over the next four days. On the way out of the park we come across a Silvery Cheeked Hornbill feeding her "captive" female through a narrow slit in the nest. I had always heard about their strange nesting/breeding habits, and this time I got to experience it from up close.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Day 7 - Back to Moshi

Day7 - Before The Song And Dance
The descent down the east face of the mountain is about as boring as it gets, especially after the fantastic views that the rest of the Machame route threw at us. There's nothing much I have to say about the trail, but the highlight for the day was the song and dance that we had with the staff this morning after breakfast.

If days 1 to 6 were all about conquering the peak, day 7 was about hurtling down the hill as fast as I could so that I could hit the shower and be human again. The afternoon was dedicated to reliving the memories from the trip. Everybody's experience of the journey is different. Everybody's experience is the same. There was a lot of joy to have made it to the top. There was a lot of happiness to be back in civilization.

We - Warren, Kea gang and I, apart from a few other folks we met on the trek - decided to celebrate our success by spending time together tasting the night life of Moshi. We hit a club called Glacier that employs the absolute worst DJ in the world. He played a mix of songs that had no business being together. He would stop the songs at the oddest places, forcing the dancers to pause mid-air, look around embarrassed, and then untangle themselves from the dance moves they had been forced to pause in. But no incompetent DJ could dampen our spirits. We laughed and smiled and danced and sang, and we knew, whether we meet again or not, we were never going to forget each other or the seven days we spent together

Friday, September 24, 2010

Day 6 - Summit!

Day6 - The Moon About To Set On Uhuru

I knew from all accounts that day 6 was going to be tough but hadn't thought I'd be doing the hardest thing I've ever done. We began the hike at a little before midnight under the most brilliant moonlight. It sure was dreadfully cold, but the excitement of scaling the summit kept us from noticing the frigid temperatures and we marched on with loud fervor. After an hour's walk we could see the shining peak that gives the mountain its name; kilima for mountain, jaro for shining. The guides were making vuvuzela noises with their mouths almost to suggest that the celebrations could begin already. Until that point, it seemed like yet another stroll in the park just as the previous 5 days had been, but that optimism was short-lived. After about 3hrs of walking a lot had changed; the weather got harsher - the temperature was 10 below zero - and the terrain got frustratingly hard to navigate because we were walking on a gravel slope that slid us back a step for every two we took forward. By now, the water in my bottle was too cold to be ingestible and I didn't drink anything for the next 3 hours.

The exhaustion crept up on me almost unnoticed and strangely it was all mental. Sleep deprivation, hunger, dehydration and high altitudes; that's a terrible mix. I was even hallucinating mildly. I distinctly remember thinking that it was a great idea to take a 10min nap while walking. Later, I learned that a lot of people felt drugged while they approached the top. I was continuously telling myself to take it one step at a time. I tried to make small talk with my teammates but nobody was in the mood to indulge me. It was nearly 6 AM when we reached the crater rim to a place called the Stella Point. Now, the peak was a little over a kilometer away but even that distance seemed overwhelming. Richie served us some tea that refreshed me instantly. Despite losing its warmth before I could lift the cup up for a second sip, the tea encouraged us to get going again. Besides, the cold was really punishing inactivity. We trudged along on the ridge and the sun was peeping out of the horizon behind us, spilling some unreal colours on the skies. When I reached the Uhuru peak at 5895m it wasn't like I imagined it. There was no tumult. I felt relief and only relief.
Day6 - The Whole Troupe

By the time we were done with the pictures there was a nice warm sun. The gravel slopes that had made the climb so irritating made the descent equally easy because we pretty much skied down the gradient. I was still only sleep walking and I didn't feel great, but the thought of reaching the camp made it easy to shut my mind to all negativity and I kept gliding down. Even after I got to the camp at around 10, I was telling myself that all the exhaustion was only in the mind. The body replied in the negative immediately. The retching that began then didn't stop even after every bit of solid or liquid I had consumed had been thrown out. Richie immediately ordered me to start walking to a lower camp. I left the team behind and started walking down at a comfortable pace, stopping only for some violent empty retching. I reached the lower camp, Mweka (3100m), and almost miraculously felt completely back to normal. Only, after walking for nearly 14 hrs without any nutrition or fluid, I felt like I could eat anything I could lay my hands on. The taiwan-made green-tea-flavored oat meal that Sin gave me is a snack that I will never ever forget. The early dinner that evening was special not least for the Kilimanjaro beer that Richard served us. At the end of the meal I finally felt human. I finally felt what I thought I'd experience on the peak, that flooding sense of accomplishment.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Day 5 - Barafu Camp

Woke up on day 5 after an almost sleepless night thanks to two visits to the bathroom, directly attributable to the millet porridge I had enthusiastically consumed during dinner. Each visit involved 15mins of procrastination, 10 mins spent in wearing additional layers of clothing, 5 actually going through the motions in the freezing midnight air, and 10 mins more waiting for the sleeping bag to get warm and snug again.

Day5 - Above The Clouds

The fifth day's hike took us to Barafu camp at 4650m. Since the hike for that day was short, Warren and I decided to go up another 1200 ft just to reassure ourselves that we were holding up well in the thin air. When we got back there was a definite buzz in the camp as all the porters were busy packing up to split from us. We would meet them again only at the next camp. On the other hand the hikers were discussing about how they feel for the next day's ascent. There was a sense of anticipation hanging over the camp like a dark rain cloud. We couldn't see the peak from the camp but we knew she was just around the bend. Part of me couldn't wait for the rush of the final charge to the summit. Part of me wanted the suspense to end quickly. Part of me just wanted to get back to the world of comfortable beds, clean fingernails and climate-proof shelters

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Day 4 - Karanga Camp


On the fourth morning, we scaled the wall to reach the highest point thus far on the hike, 4200m. The route from Barranco wall to Karanga camp includes a lot of alternating climbs and descends which offered good opportunities for acclimatization. The trail wasn't throwing any challenges so I decided to spend my energy picking up swahili, starting with the greetings Jambo (hello), Kwaheri (goodbye), Asante (Thanks), Karibu(welcome). Since Tanzania has the kind of culture in which strangers greet each other if they as much as make momentary eye contact, I got a lot of practise using the phrases I learnt, unleashing them on every porter who passed us. I also learnt that the porters prefer to be called Wagumu (strong men).

From the Karanga camp the summit looks deceptively accessible. Karanga is also the last camp with the water source. From here, water is a scarce commodity and there was intense activity in the camp with all the porters scampering around collecting water for the next camp, Barafu, from where we were to make the final summit assault.
Finally, the moon just keeps getting better with each passing night.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day 3 - Barranco camp

To sum up day 3, we walked a distance of 13km in 7 hrs for an overall gain of a mere 100 m in altitude. The purpose of that was to acclimatize the hikers to the high altitudes. This leg of the journey has some stunning views of the mountain and the valleys, including a curious geographical formation called the Lava Tower at 4590 m.
Day3 - Walk To Lava Tower
I happened to spot a beautiful sunbird on the way to our camp. Janine, from South Africa, who happened to be walking with me at that time identified it as the Malachite sunbird. She told me about her husband, Jacques, who she said was carrying a birding guide for this region and could validate her identification. I casually mentioned to her that I'd like to take a look at the book to put names against all the other unknown birds I had photographed so far. Later in the evening, the couple were nice enough to track my tent down in the crowded encampment and we ended up having a really long chat over at our dinner tent.
Day3 - Malachite Sunbird on Lobelia
By this time Warren and I had been inducted into the prestigious Kea gang. Following the tradition of that clan, we had been blessed with nicknames; mine was 'Birdman' because I stopped to photograph every bird I met, and Warren's was 'Inspector Gadget', after the gazillion instruments he carried, including a device that uploaded his GPS location to a remote server every 15 mins. Jacques was to earn the moniker 'The Real birdman' in an apparent slight to me, because he carried a field guide in his pocket and I didn't. Here he is with his wife Janine.
Day3 - JnJ
The camp was next to a 1000ft near-vertical rock face called the Barranco wall. The camp was at an altitude that seemed to be make-or-break for a lot of people, as we heard continuous retching through the night. It's bad enough that they retched, but to have it played back to them as an echo from the neighbouring wall provoked a few muffled laughs. I must say I found it funny too. Exactly two days from then I was to find out that there's nothing remotely funny about throwing up.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Day 2 - Shira Camp

The second day on the trek was a relatively relaxed walk - about 7 km to a camp called Shira. This leg of our hike took us out of the tree line and into what they call the moorland.
Day3 - Unknown Plant
The groups had spread out a little and it didn't seem as crowded as on the first day. After we reached the Shira camp, since we had a lot of energy left, we decided to trek up another little hill. We were rewarded with some fantastics vistas of the mountain. First the moon rose just over the peak and then the setting sun splashed some fancy colours on the mountain.
Day2 - SunsetAtShira
This camp situated at 3850m amsl claimed the first victim; Josy fell rather ill and decided that she couldn't go on any further. Sad to see her go.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Day 1 - Machame Hut

Day1 - Dinner Tent At Machame Camp

I met the group that I was going to be trekking with; a sweet couple from Hong Kong, Karl and Sin, and Warren from USA, who would come to collect such epithets as "Inspector Gadget", "Mr.Colorado" and "The fittest 46yr old I know!". We also met our guide, Richard a.k.a Richie, whose big smile was to be one of the hallmarks of the trip.

Day1- Crowd At Base Camp

We reached the base camp and found a whole carnival in action. 361 hikers had signed up to start this trek this particular day. Kilimanjaro trail is a popular one, but this was a record and the registration desk at the base camp was ill-prepared to handle the crowd. It was lunch time before the procedures were complete and we were set to go. We popped in our packed lunch boxes and set off into the equatorial forests that cover the base of Kilimanjaro. On the way we met five kiwis who called themselves the Kea tribe; Bridie, Veronica, Rory, Josy and Tess would turn out to be a major source of fun for all of us.

Day2 - Kea Clan

We reached the Machame Hut (2900m amsl) by dusk after walking about 12km. To accommodate the unusually high number of hikers even pathways were taken up for tenting and the place looked not unlike a section of Dharavi. When I snuggled into my sleeping bag after dinner it felt comfortably warm. That was a little worrying because the outside temperature was 17 Celsius and my tent and sleeping bag were going to be put to the test at harsher conditions very soon. But there was time to worry about that tomorrow.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Arriving in Moshi

Kilimanjaro Airport

On every holiday I look forward to doing some thing(s) for the first time. This vacation began with one of them when I boarded an Ethiopian Airlines flight. (My childish fascination for novelty aside, apart from the totally unintelligible flight announcements, the experience was like on any other airline.) My flight took me from Bangalore through Mumbai, Addis Ababa, and Nairobi before finally spitting me out at Kilimanjaro airport, a cozy one-runway setup just outside the town of Moshi, Tanzania. There was a sense of bonhomie in the plane on the last leg of the journey because everyone left in the flight was there to do the same thing, climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. The pilot informed us when we flew next to the mountain, but on that particular day Kili was in hiding and you could tell the pilot wasn't lying only from an enormous bump in the cloud cover.

Kilimanjaro dominates everything in this part of the country, not just the landscape. You get Kili-branded stickers, t-shirts, caps, beers and what not. There's even, and I'm not making this up, a CD titled the top 10 songs on the Kilimanjaro!.

We checked in at a hotel called the Uhuru hostel. Uhuru is the name of the highest point on Mt. Kilimanjaro. See what I told you about everything having the Kili flavour? I had dinner with an English couple and hit the sack early full of anticipation for the following day.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Off to Kilimanjaro

Picture source.
Ok. I'm a total todo-list junkie. For as long as I can remember I've had various "Things to do before I turn X" lists. Although a lot of people seem to think that that's a terribly unspontaneous way of living life these lists have their use because I seem to get a few things done (except for those items that begin with the words "Get married to..."). One of the things that I had resolved to do before I turn 32 is to climb Mt.Kilimanjaro and now I'm all set! No more updates on this blog till I'm back on Oct 2.
Technically I'm a little late with this task because I already turned 32 last week. Yeah, 32, that little turning point in life after which the main ingredient, by weight, of your birthday cake is wax! And here's a picture of the pyre that my sweet friends set up for me at midnight. Folks, next time, bring an extinguisher too.

More later, with stories from Tanzania.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

What's trending in the auto-wisdom scene?

Love is. Especially the unrequited kind. Here's the previous one in the series.