Kilimanjaro, Day 3
Shira 2 Camp (3850m) - Lava Tower (4630m) - Barranco Camp (3900m)
I awake in the pre-dawn hours, listening to the cook and porters getting ready. The wind has died down and birds are chirping nearby. Danny jumps up the second the wake-up call comes around. I soak up the warmth for another half hour.
Peering out of the tent I'm disappointed to find that Kili is hidden once again. I dress and pack quickly, eat a gigantic breakfast, and sit around impatiently, raring to go so I can warm up. Danny, on the other hand, has had two hours to get ready but apparently that isn't long enough. We all wait for him.
I wear several more layers as we start out today, which are gradually shed across the morning. The trek commences with a steady climb along a gravel path lined with shrubs, wildflowers and small boulders. Manyama sets the pace and, as usual, it's painfully slow. To distract myself, I turn my attention to the surrounding scenery: the Shira Ridge behind us, with its frequently changing cloud patterns, and Kili ahead of us, disappearing and reappearing from behind a white veil.
Not long after setting out we spy the Lava Tower on the horizon - an immense, flat-topped lava plug jutting straight up into the air. The base of this tower, at 4630m, is not only our destination for lunch but also crucial for acclimatisation. The vast distance between the tower and the peak of Kilimanjaro is daunting. There's still a long way to go.
On our way to the tower we climb to the top of a ridge, where we find flat terrain stretching out for eternity. Strewn out before us is a lava field, full of dark, volcanic rocks creating a lunar-esque landscape. Shrubs have given way to sporadic tufts of grass, and few flowers remain. The wind is noticeably stronger and colder, and my breathing rate has increased. This is Zone 4: Alpine Desert. It is by far the coolest scenery we have seen on this hike.
On a parallel ridge are a series of slowly-moving dots - hikers from the Machame route. We may have more company at camp tonight.
Summiting a small hill we come face to face with the Lava Tower. It's tantalisingly close but still requires one final push to reach the base. A ferocious wind propels us up the last slope to our lunch spot, an almost flat surface sandwiched between the twin peaks of the Lava Tower and Kilimanjaro. I marvel at the enormous volcanic rock tower before us, which, gratefully, we don't have to ascend. Turning around to look at Kilimanjaro, we find the snow is unnervingly close to us now. Porters collect buckets of the melted runoff for the cook to prepare our lunch.
It took us 3.5 hours to walk 7km to this site. I can't remember the last time my pace was this slow.
We are bathed in bright sunlight, but the freezing wind forces us to seek shelter. I am hopeful when I see our tent slightly downhill, where I presume there is a windbreak, but that doesn't appear to be the case. The tent shakes and rattles as though it's about to take off, and I'm almost certain it would fly away if we weren't inside. The heat from the sun creates sauna-like conditions inside the tent, causing us to start sweating and throwing off our layers. It's a huge contrast from wintry weather we encountered all morning. On the plus side we both feel fine, neither of us experiencing any symptoms of altitude sickness.
Two hours and a hearty lunch later, we leave the tower we make our way downhill along a series of switchbacks. The loose gravel on the steep descent causes me to carefully plan each step, and my pace feels slower now than when we were trekking uphill. The wind hasn't relented. Soon clouds roll in from above and below, and it's not long before the Lava Tower has entirely vanished (despite it being only a few hundred metres away). Sunlight is completely blocked, sending the temperature plummeting. To our left is Arrow Glacier, but there is no catching sight of it today.
The terrain continues to alternate between slippery downhills and steady uphills, before we make a never-ending descent through a ravine towards camp. As the elevation decreases shrubs and flowers begin to return, and giant groundsels, endemic to this region, start populating the landscape. I barely notice though, as I am concentrating intently on my feet, hopping between half-buried rocks that provide some stability. To give some idea of the gradient, we gained 780m over 7km this morning, and now we are descending 730m in 3km. Loose and steep are not an ideal combination.
Close to the bottom we pass by a small, powerful waterfall, an unexpected sight while hiking on a volcano. Behind the waterfall is the Barranco Wall, the foot of which we will be camping at tonight. Of course it is blanketed in cloud, but intermittent breaks allow us to see the looming rock face as we walk along the base. The ground levels out just before reaching camp, and an avenue of groundsels guides us in. The 3km section from the Lava Tower took an hour and 45 minutes, confirming my hunch that the pace was slower coming down than it was heading up this morning.
Barranco campsite is expansive and, thankfully, not windy, so fingers crossed our tent will be silent tonight. The toilets are as repulsive as ever. The hiker from Machame, a man from Poland, joins us at camp, bringing our total to four. In a normal year there are several hundred people here. I can imagine the state of the bathrooms when it's that crowded.
Not long after arriving a thick fog envelops us and doesn't lift for the rest of the afternoon, giving us little reason to leave the tent. We wash, drink hot drinks and eagerly await our afternoon snack. A porter comes by to say he is bring popcorn and butter. I give a quizzical look, as though I have misunderstood. Butter? To clarify, he picks up the jar of peanut butter on our table and repeats "butter". Was he bringing us more peanut butter, a tub of butter, butter to go on the popcorn? We just smile and nod, intrigued by what will appear. The porter returns carrying a plate of popcorn with freshly roasted peanuts. We all laugh at the easy-to-make error and dig in. I'm really glad he didn't bring us butter.