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Only the stars are higher than we are, or how to celebrate the New Year in the right way

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Author: Alexandra Koval, Moscow
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My dream to climb the Roof of Africa came two and a half years ago while climbing Mount Elbrus.

One day at the campfire, our instructor told me how he and his wife had once chosen trekking boots, tents, and the starry sky overhead instead of Irony of Fate, the couch, and Olivier. I thought to myself, “This is a really unique way to start the year, we should try it out sometime.

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As time passed, I somehow wandered onto the Kuluar website, which I had no idea about, and saw their dream program: here you have a climbing, a safari, and the sunny island of Zanzibar. The only trouble was that in late summer and early winter there were no more places in the group. “Eh, some other time,” I sighed. And the money for such a grand trip, frankly, there was no money. As a result, we slept through the new year of 2020. We slept in a beautiful ski resort, but we slept through it all the same. And then you know what misfortune happened.

It was August, and the Russian media broke the news: “Russia opens borders with Turkey, Great Britain and (drum roll) Tanzania. When I first read this, my heart raced. There it was, a ray of hope! I began to “work” on my husband, explaining that there is no better option for this New Year’s Eve, and unlikely to appear, that such a chance should not be missed. As you can tell from the fact that I am writing this review, my husband surrendered to the bombardment of my beliefs, and we applied for the program. What followed was an agonizing 4-month wait in which I followed the news, talked to the coordinator, and monitored tickets. I was worried that everything would fall through, that the tickets would be canceled, that someone would get sick… Up to the fact that in early December I myself began to have difficulty breathing. The doctor assured me that it was from nerves, prescribed sedatives and sent me home. Fortunately, it was really psychosomatic, and by the time of departure from the country, I was able to come to terms with my cockroaches.

So, on December 27, we safely left the airport of Kilimanjaro after a tedious flight and no less tedious bureaucratic and border procedures and breathed in the warm and pleasant air of mainland Tanzania. That evening we met our international group: five Ukrainians led by Maxim Khomyakevich, two Belorussians and three Russians. All of the guys and gals are fun, interesting, and enthusiastic people, with whom we never got bored.

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I will not tell you the whole program in chronological order, but I will say this: Kilimanjaro is another planet! The mountain and its broad slopes are covered with incredible nature, so diverse and so amazing! It was banana and coffee plantations, impassable jungle, kebab-like trees, lava fields, rocks covered with moss, flowers of all colors and sizes, rocks, caves… There were moments when we had to stop every few steps to take another photo. The great advantage of the route “Couloir” is that the ascent is on one route, and the descent by another, so you can not get bored with the surrounding landscape, because it is constantly changing, and at the end of the day you try to guess what awaits you next.

Now as for the difficulty of the climbing. I can call myself quite a sporty person: I actively run, do triathlon, go hiking in the mountains. Therefore I have not encountered any physical difficulties during the ascent, my legs have never become sore. However, at first it was not easy to keep up with the pace of the local guides. No, it was not high! On the contrary, it was the slowest step of my life. Tanzanians in general and high-altitude guides in particular are sacred to the principle of “pitch-field,” which means “slow, unhurriedly.” This would have been understandable if we had heavy backpacks on our shoulders, but all the things were carried by porters, who overtook us with huge bags on their heads and disappeared into the distance. This was very demotivating and on the first day we could not accept the speed. Then, of course, we were able to penetrate the local philosophy and stomp slowly, admiring the surrounding scenery.

But what was really difficult for me was hypoxia. I first encountered it on Mt. Elbrus, but the headache attacked me for the first time at an altitude of 4,500, and I just took a painkiller. Here I did not wait for hypoxia for long, it bothered me about three thousand. The first day I tolerated it and took a pill at night. The second day the headache returned by noon. On the acclimatization walk I could hardly walk because my head ached and was buzzing with pain at every step. At camp I took the pill again, but it didn’t help for long. In the middle of the night I woke up from my restless sleep and went to the bathroom. Apparently, I got up abruptly, forgetting the golden rule of “field-to-field,” which made my headache worse, nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath appear. For the first time I felt so helpless. It was really scary that I would fall and lose consciousness. The next day I took Diacarb, a blood thinner, on Maxim’s advice, and it saved my ascent.

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On the day of the assault we slept badly, we were philosophizing about “Why people go to the mountains”, trying to understand what all this uncontrollable suffering is for. After all, in sports you are responsible for your body, but in the mountains anything can happen to it, and you can do almost nothing about it. With such thoughts we went to climbing. We welcomed the New Year somewhere on the slope, shouted “Happy New Year”, hugged each other and went on. Initially the entire group walked at the same pace, but it was obvious that everyone had different strengths and speeds. Fortunately, at another break, Maxim allowed me, my husband, and another member of the group to go with one of the local guides. The ascent could not be called completely easy. We were lucky with the weather, it was windless, but cold. The moon even through the clouds gave enough light not to use a flashlight. But we really wanted to sleep. Sometimes our brain shut down, our body began to fall, and only trekking poles helped us not to fall down. We did not want to eat or drink, even though our guide insisted on it. Sometimes I did not have enough air, so I had either to make a halt, or breathe leaning on the poles. I kept waiting for my second breath to open. And it did at Stella Point, after which the steep climb ended and there was an almost straight road to Uhuru Peak. When the guide pointed to the summit about 200 meters away, I felt as if I had wings and ran. It happened once at a marathon when there seemed to be no more strength, but on the final spurt they suddenly appeared out of nowhere. So, at 5:10 a.m. we happily stood on the peak and could not believe what had happened. It was still dark, frost was pinching our cheeks, our feet were freezing, but we wanted to face the sunrise and nothing could stop us. And you know, the sunrise was worth every icy second we spent on the summit. I wanted to cry with happiness and capture every detail in my head. We were above the clouds, a huge crater to the left, a wall of glacier to the right in the distance, crisp snow under our feet, a starry sky above us. And in these wonderful moments I understood why all this agony, all this toil, bruises and blisters – to be above everything for a brief moment: above the worldly hustle and bustle, above problems and hardships. These are moments of euphoria and pure happiness! On the way down, I tried to cheer each member of our group up and share a piece of how I felt. Then there was a two-hour descent down the rocks and boulders. If we had seen the steepness of the mountain slope at night we would have been scared, but we stomped and stomped. We could appreciate the work done only on the way down. But we could not relax either, because it was not enough to get to the summit – we had to go down unharmed. Thanks to the porters and guides who accompanied us all the way to the base camp.

Now let’s run through the people who did everything possible to make the ascent as safe as possible. First of all, it’s our boss Maxim Khomyakevich. He is a very cheerful and interesting person with great mountaineering, hiking and life experience for his 28 years. He supported us with jokes, monitored the condition of everyone, measured the level of oxygen in the blood and listened attentively to our complaints and dissatisfactions, and then everything remained as it was, but we remained confident that we decided so (80 level of skill of negotiation). And he also tried to save us from long conversations with local guides, who not only walk slowly, but also talk very slowly, and we are not used to such a senseless waste of time. In general, Max is a cool instructor, with whom you want to go to the mountains, whom you fully trust. And thanks to him for understanding that everyone has a different pace on the summit assault.

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Guides and porters. The guys working on the slopes of Kilimanjaro are probably the hardest working and most organized Tanzanians. As Max told us on the first day, when we waited an hour for our dinner, the most timely meals we would have on the mountain. And that was indeed the case. We had full three meals a day, including fish, meat, fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as snacks like popcorn and tea. And that’s all the way down to base camp! On top of that, the porters carried our gear, set up and packed our tents, brought tea in the morning to the tent, heated water to wash up and wash their hands. We always ate in a separate tent, sitting at a real table on real chairs. And the guides and porters helped a lot during the storming: they put on mittens, helped to put on backpacks, and even tied our shoelaces! The guides tried to remember everyone’s name and personally ask about how they felt: “Saschaaaaah, hau ah yoo? Hood? Tri tu drawk uta, e lot of uta!” Such service is worth experiencing at least once in your life! After that, probably no one would have spared a tip.

Concluding the subject of the ascent, I will say a couple of remarks on my own behalf:

  1. It was cold, very cold, in trekking boots and thermal socks. Probably better to get double boots for such cases.
  2. Self-heating insoles are nonsense that won’t save you at this altitude. They don’t seem to have enough oxygen to activate.
  3. Puffy and down mittens are love!
  4. If you’re suddenly choosing a sleeping bag, and especially a pair, I highly recommend The North face – Cat’s meow. Even though it’s synthetic, it’s lightweight and warm. We didn’t feel cold on any of the nights. And it felt like we were being hugged by SEALs.

Now briefly about the rest of the program.

Safari is wonderful! I’ve been dreaming for a long time and was not disappointed. The driver was cheerful and attentive, well noticed something interesting on the way, for example, a bird with a snake in his beak, or rhinos in the couple of kilometers away from us. Tarangiri Park delighted us with giraffes, monkeys, turtles and dikdiks. But once we arrived in Ngorongoro, we saw the diversity of Tanzanian fauna: elephants majestically paced twenty meters from us, zebras shook their asses like Kim Kardashian, lion cubs looking after their babies, warthogs scattered at the sound of our SUV, hippos yawned lazily in the middle of the pond. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough leopards to assemble a flash-piano of African animals, but we were left with a year’s worth of impressions anyway!

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On the way back, we stopped at a Maasai village. And this, of course, is the only debauchery of the program. The Maasai dance at full throttle, don’t let you set foot anywhere without their accompaniment, talk about their plight, pity them by showing their babies and offering to take pictures with them next to the “donation” box, and then try to sell you something that you can buy three times cheaper in the souvenir stores. We fell for it, but only because there was no time to evaluate the range of souvenir shops before that.

We flew to Zanzibar separately, not with “Kuluar”. We were there for a week and we were very tired of the heat and slow service. The ocean is very beautiful and the beaches are beautiful, but the sun is not hot only in the morning and evening, at other times, or abundantly smeared with cream, or sit in the shade and stay hidden. If you want to spend the day in Nungwi, I advise to go straight to Mnemba Atoll, because the local spots are not so picturesque. And don’t forget to drink something for motion sickness if the weather is windy. Foodies will be a little disappointed with the local cuisine. It makes no sense to compare it to the Asian variety, because Africans are not much of a gastronomist. And the prices can sometimes be compared with those of Europe. Also, be prepared to wait for at least 40 minutes, even if you ordered a simple salad. Or just eat fruits, which are sold at every step. If they offer you a big pineapple for 5,000, don’t take it! You have to haggle! We got great pineapples for 2-3 thousand. Mangoes are also good, but tasted better in Thailand and Egypt for our taste. I also advise to try lychees (such purple and red mossies), very interesting. And do not forget to take pills for an upset stomach and mosquito repellent. By the way, the outlets in Tanzania are modern British, so do not forget the adapter.

To sum up my long story, I want to say that Tanzania has left an ocean of different experiences in my memory and has taken a place of honor as one of the most interesting countries I have been to. Kilimanjaro is a wonderful and unique mountain, which is worth both the money spent and the effort put in. The introduction to the Couloir was more than successful! I think we will definitely go to the mountains with this club again and will definitely recommend it to our friends and acquaintances. Thanks! This is the way to celebrate the New Year!

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