Posts Tagged ‘Camping’

Fear of Heights

September 25, 2008

Paul, my guide, seems unfit, and James, my porter, looks frail.  Paul frequently has to stop to bend over and catch his breath, leaning for support on the nearest tree or rock.  He has a deep, persistent hack, probably from the chain of cigarettes he smokes “to stay warm” on the mountain.  James is skeletal, and squashed by the weight of my pack which he gamely carries on his back.  In his right hand is a gallon bottle of paraffin; in his left is our camp stove, loosely packed into a thin plastic supermarket bag.


My companions visit the mountain frequently, for business, and they continue to conduct their business as we hike.  They know every place where topography and meteorology coincide to produce a magical hotspot of cell phone reception, though the connection is never clear enough to allow a normal volume of conversation.  They scream into their phones, breathlessly, as we ascend.  The constant conversation is the more likely cause of their fatigue than the cigarettes they smoke or the loads they carry.


When asked, they narrate the forest like museum docents.  The podo is a hardwood tree with small, thin leaves and bark like a steel cable twisted around itself.  The pencil cedar, or red cedar, looks similar from afar but has needles rather than leaves.  The hagenia looks much like an octopus tree, with the same pinkish hue to its new leaf buds.  A wispy, weeping moss is draped delicately, but thickly, over everything.


Slaty flycatchers are common.  Several times we startle large francolins, like miniature turkeys.  Little malachite sunbirds flash aquamarine in the foggy sunlight of the grassy moorland.  Duikers skulk in the shadowy undergrowth.  They look like fictional jackelope, small harelike deer or large deerlike hares.  Twice we see larger grazers or browsers, but both times from a distance; most likely they are bushbucks.  There is evidence of even larger mammals, buffalo and elephant; their trails through the dense bamboo are cavernous.  Small, fluffy alpine chats besiege our campsite like pigeons around a generous octogenarian in a city park, their furlike feathers blowing in the brisk wind.




In the morning I watch a plane – slow and tiny against such an expansive backdrop – fly up the western slope of the mountain and disappear over the ridge, just barely maintaining altitude.


Trees are rare in the moorland bog, frozen by night but squishy underfoot during the daytime thaw.  There are skinks today, the only reptiles I have seen on the mountain.  The sunbirds are still present, darting from flower to flower, and the alpine chats are here as well, raking the ground around my tent for crumbs.  Alongside the chats are what would appear to be seadeaters, but they are streaked with yellow in a way that suggests a canary.  A flock of starlings are perched on nearby boulders, and two birds of prey are calling to each other from opposite walls of the valley; they are heard but not seen.  Later I learn from another hiker that they are mountain eagles.  Nearby is the entrance to what may be a small burrow, perhaps the home of some hermetic mountain rodent.


Paul and James have bunkered themselves in the wood shanty which serves as the camp’s only hut; it looks no warmer than my tent, pitched about a hundred yards away on a flat patch of soft grass by a bend in the glacial stream which flows through the valley.  The stream is my source of water, which I treat with iodine.  My companions have started a fire, which I will raid for embers when night falls.  Now the sun is shining, though a light hail bounces around me. 




The night is intolerable, bonechilling.  Inside the tent, a liter of water freezes into a solid cylinder of ice.  Coming nights, at higher elevations, will be icier still.  Here, on a volcano on the equator, I am worried about the cold.


The earth is hidden in the clouds below.  Here is a world of ice and stone, a desert moon high on the mountain.  A small tarn sits at the bottom of a slight depression, its water a rusty alkaline orange.  Lobelia boil forth from the hardscrabble rock.  A dense fog, the crown of a passing cloud, suffuses the landscape with a geothermal and appropriately volcanic air.  There are no birds here, but above me on the cliffs I can hear a mountain eagle calling.  A rock hyrax is sunning itself calmly just beyond my reach.  On the far side of the tarn rises Batian, imposing and godly.  I am thankful to be here alone rather than below at the hut, a bleak dormitory bunkhouse capable of sleeping scores.  Tonight at least a dozen people are there, Paul and James among them.


They helped me gather firewood before leaving me for the night, showing me how to peel the rough honeycomb bark off a dead giant lobelia to find the dry hardwood inside.  One wall of a large boulder is angled sharply in, forming a shallow shelter protected by the overhanging rock.  It comfortably radiates the warmth of the fire.


In the cold night air there is no ether of any sort between earth and sky.  From the equator I watch the whole dome of the starry firmament rotate above me, obscured only at the edges by the empty darkness of the rocky fortress which surrounds my campsite.




The small den is a cozy and comfortable oven.  I could sleep here, but for the irrational fear that slowly seeps through me and then seizes me completely.  It is dark and for the first time I am entirely alone on the mountain.  My imagination runs to the wild; familiar shadows suddenly look more like feline predators; familiar noises suddenly sound more like prowling ghosts in the darkness.  The dance of the firelight, the rustle of my tent in the wind, the dark silhouette of a lobelia, the scrape of my metal spoon against my metal bowl, every sight and every sound is a lion about to strike.  Even my own movements frighten me; even my own heartbeat, magnified by the hood around my ears, startles me.


I retreat to my tent, which I know is no safer from threats real or imagined but which I hope might allow me to sleep through the night and through my panic.  It does not, and I lie awake expecting a lion’s paw to rip through the tent.  Once I start to doze but my own snoring quickly wakes me.  For the rest of the night I lie uncomfortably on my side never my back lest some few moments of snoring slumber betray my location to any nearby beasts.  Every time I hear a noise outside my tent I have to decide whether to react, thereby making noise myself, or lie still, thereby remaining unprepared for the impending attack.  I solve the problem by remaining prepared at all times, lying with a pocket knife in hand.  It is not the absurdity of this defense, a pocket knife against a lion, which convinces me to abandon the strategy.  Rather, it is the realization that I am more likely to injure myself by sleeping with a pocket knife than by being unprepared for an unlikely lion attack.  I reassure myself that I am camped high on the mountain.  It has been two days since we have seen signs of any prey large enough to support a population of lions.  I know this yet the solitude and the darkness make it hard to be rational and easy to be scared.  I am convinced that at least one savvy lion survives here on a constant supply of unwitting tourists.  I suffer these irrational fears until the grey of dawn warms the sky.  I feel the relief palpably, and finally I sleep.


The morning is clear.  A mountain eagle surfs the sky, probably looking for the hyrax I saw yesterday or the striped grass mouse I saw earlier today.  Thin filaments of ice remain in every pocket of shadow, having grown in the cold darkness overnight just as weeds grow in the warm daytime sun.


The trail today, anticlockwise around the summit circuit, is an enormous sine curve, rising and falling through each of the glacial valleys that drain the mountain.  Worse than the vertical futility of the hike is the ground cover, a loose and rolling gravel.  It is impossible for me to remain on my feet, so instinctively I crawl up ridge and down valley on hands and knees.  Paul glides casually and rapidly along, both hands in his pockets.  Occasionally he removes one hand, which he uses not to maintain balance but to send text messages on his cell phone.  James, wisely, has taken the more direct route clockwise around the summit.


We have left the land of the living.  Today I see only two animals, a rock hyrax and a mountain chat.  The only plant growing so high is the heliochrysum flower, tucked into rocky crags where it is protected from the cold sweeping winds.  The only other life still present is the miraculous green algae growing in the glacial lake from which I filled my water bottle.


I have mild altitude sickness, which I only notice when trying to pitch my tent.  It is a spatial puzzle that makes no sense to me.  It is backwards, then upside down, then inside out.  The repetitive bending and standing is more tiresome than the hiking.  Across the Lewis Glacier is Nelion and, slightly above and beyond, Batian.  On this side of the glacier is the third highest peak, my morning goal, Point Lenana. 




The final climb is steep in places, though this is hard to notice in the darkness before dawn.  The mountain above is negatively visible, an empty silhouette erased from the light of the background stars.  The icy glacier below is faintly there, like a mirage of fuzzy luminosity shimmering behind closed eyes.  It is still dark when we reach the peak, though dawn has cracked the circular horizon to the northeast.  With frozen hands, I snap photographs documenting my achievement and I send text messages to friends and family announcing my victory.  Other hikers arrive as we start to descend.


Again I struggle with the loose scree underfoot.  I look like an adolescent learning to ice skate, while Paul glides gracefully as though downhill skiing.  I concentrate, considering it an opportunity to learn a skill I clearly do not have.  I try short, choppy steps and I try long, deliberate steps; I try controlled sliding; I try strategic bounding.  I am secretly relieved to see Paul, despite his general gracefulness, fall more than once as well, and each time he looks back quickly to see if I have noticed.  At the end of the day, when I joke with him that the downhill is hard, expecting some form of camaraderie, he says, “Yes, I can see it is hard for you.”


We are following the Chogoria route out of the park, past the sparkling emerald Lake Michaelson at the bottom of the sheer Gorges Valley.  We have diverged from the main route to follow a lesser path through the bush to a waterfall on the Nithi River.  Its banks are soft and floral, lined with light foliage and draped with pale moss.  We follow buffalo trails through meadows of red hot pokers.  Most trails end in nests of flattened grass.  Paul is visibly nervous, looking left and right and even over his shoulder, I imagine to make sure I have not been taken silently from behind.


Point Lenana, and behind it Nelion and Batian, are once again but distant pimples on the cone of Mt Kenya.  The park lodge is a welcome oasis of groomed landscaping high on the mountain.  The grass is trimmed neatly, by man and buffalo.  A sign at the office reads “Dangerous Animals At Night.”


Before seeking a room, I ask where I can stand to get decent cell phone service.  I am directed to hold my phone to a very precise spot – an exact nondimensional point in three dimensional space – on the veranda of one of the outbuildings.  I type several text messages, and then raise my arm to tap the magic connection.


I have undressed for the first time in five days.  I am raw and grimy, and I have spread my clothes around the room so now it smells as rank and fetid as I do.  There is no way to regulate the heat of the water from the woodburning stove, so it is scalding as it flows from the showerhead.  I stand halfway between the hot water of the shower and the cold water of the basin, slapping at them in turn to create a mixed spray of comfortably warm water.  I dry in the clean mountain air, and then I have no choice but to pull my sweaty clothes back over me.




We walk out of the park instead of driving as most do.  I fear that I may be expecting too much grace from the mountain gods.  After surviving the lions for five days, I am worried that maybe it would have been wiser of me to get out while still alive.


James has arranged a ride with other hikers departing later.  Today he will not have to carry my bag, which is lighter now but still shamefully heavy.  As agreed before departing Nanyuki, I had bought and packed all of my own food.  Still, at nearly every meal my companions served me from their own supply.  My stores, too large to begin, have barely diminished.  For no purpose, James has packed a week’s worth of food up and over the second largest mountain in Africa.


We read a signpost advising first that we keep to the trail – to avoid wild animals – and second that we make noise – to let any wild animals know we are coming, should we fail to avoid them.  Paul, doing his part to announce our presence to any nearby beasts, orates on tourists from Israel.  They are frugal to the point of being cheap, selfish, and even dastardly.  They use false student identification cards to gain discounted access to national parks; they pack dangerously little gear then get angry at their guides for failing to carry extra necessities like rain coats and food; and they hire their own transport to and from the mountain but refuse to pay for seats for their guides.  Unwittingly – for I have no idea if Paul is aware of the stereotype of the stingy Jew or even if he knows that Israelis are Jewish – Paul seems to be pronouncing the results of an international double blind experiment in the social sciences.


We pass a recent cat print, about an inch across; Paul assures me it is not a lion.  A crested eagle poses for us on the branch of a dead tree overhanging the road.  Turacos appear and disappear in the shadows as they flash their iridescent red wings.  We leave the mountain bamboo forest behind and enter a broadleaf forest of podo, camphor, and tall, slender blue gums.  Signs of civilization reappear, first honey farms, then cattle, stacks of firewood, and finally a soft, grassy football field.


In a hotel halfway back to Nairobi, I finish reading the book that has guided me through the mountain.  It is the true story of three Italian prisoners of war who escaped from the British camp at Nanyuki during World War Two.  They did so not to dash for their freedom, but only to climb the mountain which loomed over their captivity, a visceral escape from whatever is routine.

The Fairway

February 22, 2008

According to the guidebooks, there’s no official name for the coastal alley between Mananjary and Manakara.  The Fairway is just what we dubbed it, and is surely what the experts would call it as well.  We expected adventure in the wilderness.  For most of the way, we found something more like a golf course.

We had, at the time, five years of experience between us as volunteers in Madagascar.  Rob worked with the national parks service in the desert southwest.  Mike worked in a health clinic on the central plateau.  I was an English teacher on the west coast. 

We owned all the guidebooks and we met many of the tourists.  We knew all the popular spots for vacations, how to get there and what to do once there.  But we wanted to get away from those places, to do something new and unknown, something not suggested in the guidebooks and not considered by the tourists. 

We scoured our maps with an eye for adventure.  We saw potential on the southeast coast.  The highway that connects the two largest coastal towns in that region swings well inland between them.  Over a hundred kilometers of pristine shoreline separates the towns.  A broken footpath stretches part of the way along the coast.  There are few villages, and there are several large cuts in the path where rivers flow into the sea.

We decided to hike that coast, from Mananjary in the north to Manakara in the south.  It sounded wild and adventurous; it was a lot easier than we expected.

It was raining the morning we left.  Mike and I searched the market for food and other supplies, while Rob haggled with the boatmen for a ferry ride across the first major cut in our path, the river that empties into the Indian Ocean just south of Mananjary.  We bought six baguettes, two tins of sardines, six small triangles of processed cheese spread, and six oranges, enough for two skimpy days of food.  We hoped to scavenge more food along the way.  We also bought small plastic bags and large waterproof rice sacks for raingear.

Rob and the boatman never agreed on a price.  In the end, boatman let us on board, but he refused to paddle.  Instead, he sat in the back and heckled us as we paddled ourselves across.  Still, we had to pay a little.

The sky was clear and the sun was warm and bright on the other side.   We stepped from that dugout canoe into a fantasy vacation that, with only a couple slight hitches here and there, continued all the way to Manakara.

The path started right at our feet and led up a gentle slope to a flat lane of soft grass.  Low bushes lined each side of the grassy corridor.  Here and there, palms towered over the bushes.  Through the trees to our left, we saw the beach and then the long blue horizon of the Indian Ocean.  To the right, we saw the turquoise freshwater canal that runs the length of the east coast of Madagascar.  But before us was only that alleyway of grass.  It looked like a long and spectacular par five.  We took off his shoes and walked barefoot.

We had our only real trouble with the trail later that afternoon.  The bushes and trees grew taller and thicker.  They crept closer and closer to us.  The trail narrowed.  We lost sight of the sea to our left, the canal to our right.  Then the trail disappeared and everything looked the same in every direction.  We were in a jungle, with a thick, dense tangle of creepers all around us.

We still heard the crash of the waves on the beach, still to our left.  We decided to hack in that direction.

Our jungle was a lot smaller than we thought.  A few steps later we emerged onto a bright and sunny beach, right at the feet of a group of women bent to gather fallen coconuts.  They dropped their coconuts and ran to hide behind a one-legged man who seemed to be their supervisor.  This unusual party guided us back to the soft, grassy corridor; we never lost it again.

Early the next morning we came to a small village where we supplemented our meager supply of food.  We bartered for some rice and fish and then paid a little extra to have it all cooked for us. 

In the meantime, we entertained.  Everyone in the village came to watch, to gawk, to laugh.  Rob juggled and danced.  Mike made faces and tried to tell jokes across the language gap.  I photographed the whole madhouse affair.

Here, we saw the Madagascar that we hoped to find on this hike away from the colonial big cities.  The villagers were still using the ravinala palm tree for nearly everything:  the wood for the frames of their homes and the fronds for the roofs, for pliable fishnets, baskets, and even for waterproof clothes.  They all wore a small, unique palm frond cap with four points and no bill.

But they all wore evidence of the outside world, as well.  They had old, ragged shirts, cheap windbreakers, and stained shorts that had trickled down to them as donations from wealthier people all over the world.  In villages like this one, these discarded fabrics die their final deaths, first worn to rags and then scrubbed to shreds and only then discarded.

We hired two men in the village to ferry us along the canal in their dugout canoe, a ride that helped us cover almost fifty kilometers that day and shaved one whole day off the length of the trip, not that we wanted to rush.

The boat ride ended in the sort of paradise one expects to find at the end of a rainbow, a small village of stunning real estate named Tanambao.  It sits atop a high sand dune on the inland side of the canal.  The town itself is built on the fine, white sand of the dune, but all around it is a field of low, green grass.  Palms shade the town and line the grassy field.  Across the blue water of the canal is the narrow strip of land that separates the freshwater from the saltwater sea.  Tall pine trees, an unusual surprise on a tropical coast, tower over a grassy path.  Beyond that is the beach and then the Indian Ocean.

Just before dusk that evening, the trail came to a dead end at one of the cuts in the coastline where a river flows into the ocean.  We decided to worry about it in the morning.

We picked a cozy spot nestled in some pine trees and made our camp.  We went to bathe in the freshwater of the canal, always alert for nearby crocodiles.  That night we ate the last of our food.  We slept outside, around our campfire, under the stars.

The next morning, we waited only thirty minutes at the mouth of the river before a fisherman drifted by in his canoe.  A short but heavy downpour blew in and back out again while he paddled us across.  That was our last little bit of difficulty or discomfort in four days of hiking.

We ate boiled, unripe jackfruit for lunch that day.  We had come to another small village, and that was all they had to offer us.  It tasted terrible and gave us diarrhea for days, but it filled us when we had no other options.

We spent several hours in that little village.  We sat and watched an old woman weave a mat from palm fronds.  We drank coffee with a group of men.  And again, we played with the kids.

If we wanted to eat dinner that night, then we had to find the next village by dark.  After an afternoon marching doubletime, we made it with only a sliver of dusky sunlight left.

 We were now near enough to Manakara that the village had a small market.  We bought a gluttonous amount of peanuts and homemade biscuits which we ate ravenously right in front of people who never get to eat so much in a day.  We bought rice and fish and again paid someone to cook them for us.  And then we bought eggs because it was taking too long for the rice and fish to be ready.

No one seemed to mind.  In fact, a spontaneous party followed our arrival.  Everyone came to meet us, but this time they entertained us; they sang and danced while we ate.  Later, the Prezidenta ny Fokonolona provided us, for a modest fee, with a room for the night. 

We made it to Manakara the next afternoon.  It was another easy and beautiful day along an easy and beautiful trail.

We crossed a small footbridge and saw a hotel and a string of bungalows on our left.  Mike sat outside in the shade while Rob and I went inside.  We bought some snacks and asked about the distance to town.

“Twelve kilometers,” they said.  We were shocked.  We thought we had another hour of walking at the most.  “But a lobster truck comes here every afternoon to buy from the local fisherman.  Ask him for a ride into town.”

And that’s how our adventure ended, in the back of a flatbed truck, sitting on top of several coolers of live lobsters.