Saturday, October 31, 2009

Coyote Attack

Photo: Naturescapes Starters
Every once in a while there is a tragedy that reminds me why I don't go out into the wilderness alone. The quiet and solitude must be wonderful, but for me they are more than counter-balanced by the fear of getting lost, getting injured and being unable to contact anyone, and in some places the possibility of becoming prey for an animal or group of animals.
This last danger has been in the news lately, after a 19 year old Canadian woman was attacked by two coyotes in Nova Scotia and died from her injuries. This is a very unusual situation, as coyotes are not often brave enough to go after people, and prefer to pick off pets or other small wildlife. Sometimes they team up to take down deer.
Nobody is sure what happened, since the woman was alone and didn't live to tell the story. She may have run from the coyotes, thus triggering their chase instincts. She may have tried to get too close to them. They may have been desperately hungry and willing to kill whatever they could find.
One thing I feel fairly confident about is that it wouldn't have happened if she hadn't been alone. Attacking lone prey is much easier than attacking a group. In fact, they probably would have stayed hidden if there had been a group of people around.
I know that many people cherish their solo time in the wilderness. Hopefully they have taken the time to learn about the local wildlife, and how to protect themselves in case of a threat. I consider it a real treat to spot wildlife in its natural habitat, but I'm all too aware that I'm on their turf and need to play by their rules.
If you want to read about the woman attacked by the coyotes, there's a story here. In the mean time, please be careful out there!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cool idea - the rain skirt


One of the least used items in my outdoors wardrobe is my pair of rain pants. They are a pain to put on once I'm on the trail because they don't go over my boots. They make me so sweaty that I end up soaked through anyway. They are, generally speaking, not worth the bother unless it's absolutely pouring.

Craftzine, a blog for the sew-it-yourself crowd, recently put up a post on how to make yourself a rain skirt out of an old raincoat. This is quite brilliant! You can put it on over your hiking pants and shorts, and take it off again, easily and without removing your boots! The open bottom makes it much less sweaty than rain pants too.

I can see that in rough terrain, where scrambling is necessary for instance, a long skirt would not be practical. But for other hikes where the trail is fairly flat or well benched, this could be an awesome solution.

In fact, I'm surprised none of the outdoor clothing manufacturers have tried this yet. The only change I would make to the suggested method on the Craftzine blog is that I would put snaps all the way down the opening. That way you can put it on and take it off easily, and you can have them closed up for more protection, or open some for more freedom of movement.

Now all I need is a sewing machine...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mt. Kilimanjaro - part 3

Frosty ground at Barranco Camp the morning of day four

The fourth day of our trek started off frosty, with a coating of white on the ground and our tent.
Our walk for the day began with the dreaded Barranco Wall. This is a fairly steep climb up a rocky bluff, which involves a fair bit of scrambling (especially for short legs like mine).
The top of the Barranco Wall

Thanks to the altitude it was more tiring than it should have been. It took us two hours to reach the top. However, I really felt for the porters who were scaling the same bluff, but carrying heavy loads on their backs, or heads, or both!

The top of the wall got us up to around 4,200m, which was our high spot for the day. But it was by no means the end of our climbing. The rest of the day's trek involved lots of up and down, some of it quite steep. However, since we didn't climb too high I managed to get through the day without a headache or nausea - so that was a bonus.

On day five we were off to Barufo Camp, which sits at around 4,600m. This is the launching point for the summit, so the excitement was starting to grow.
Cairn marking the way to Barufo Camp, summit in the distance.

We got there by early afternoon, and found to our surprise that there were folks up there selling t-shirts, sodas, chocolate bars, and even beer! All for greatly inflated prices of course - after all they had to drag the stuff up to 4,600m.

The campsite was long and narrow, and on a fairly sloping ridge. We camped at the far end, which was fine with me as it meant less walking later on, when we started for the summit.

After lunch we were sent off to nap in our tents for a few hours. Then we woke at 5pm for an early dinner, then more napping. It was freezing cold at this altitude, so there wasn't much sleep to be had. And of course we were getting anxious about the summit attempt.

Sunset from Barufo Camp, summit of Mt Meru in the distance

We got up at 11pm for tea and cookies, then put on all our layers to head up. I was wearing a silkweight shirt, a thermal shirt, two merino layers, a fleece, and my rain jacket on top. On the bottom I wore thermals, hiking pants and rain pants. I also had a warm hat and fleece gloves. We set off at midnight.

It was the day after the full moon, so although we had our headlamps with us we didn't really need them. It was preferable to climb in the moonlight, so we could see beyond the few feet in front of us.

It was a steep, rocky start, which meant I had to scramble up onto the rocks quite a bit. This left me winded at altitude after the first half hour. Our guide insisted on carrying my pack after that. He and the assistant guide were not carrying anything - not even water! This didn't seem terribly bright to me, but it does give them the ability to carry our crap when we can't any more.

We continued up, feeling exhausted, nauseated and cold. The rocks changed to ash and scree. The steep angle never really changed. G was not looking well, and I was concerned that he might push himself too far, not wanting to quit if I was still going. Eventually he handed over his pack to one of the guides too.

We tried to drink our water, although a couple of sips now and then was all I could manage. Our pockets were stuffed with snacks, but we felt to awful to eat. I think I had 3 dried apricots on the entire climb. Eventually, all I could think about was sitting down to rest. Somehow I convinced myself to keep shuffling upwards.

Around 5:45am we reached Stella Point, which is the end of the steep climb. From there it is almost flat to Uhuru Point, which is the summit. There is only a 100m vertical difference between the two. Along the way you pass the top of a glacier, and you can feel the icy wind blowing off it. Very pretty - but I wasn't stopping to get my camera out!

We got to the summit at around 6:25, just after sunrise. The sign at the summit was the congregation point as climbers posed for the obligatory picture there. Around 20 others were on top when we arrived.

The obligatory summit photo

We posed for our summit photo, and it was absolutely freezing up there! I was glad to have made it, but not particularly interested in lingering up there. Down seemed like a great way to go!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Mt Kilimanjaro - part 2

Above the clouds on Kilimanjaro

From the second day, the terrain became much more volcanic. The lush jungle of day one was left behind (or below) and the vegetation became scrubby and sparse.

The track also became steeper and more rocky, but the most noticeable change was the dust! We were climbing in dry season, which means the track was unlikely to be muddy and slippery. Instead there was dust everywhere, including up my nose and in my teeth!

Our guide on the volcanic terrain

However, it was a sunny, hot day and we got to our next camp, Shira Camp, by 1:30pm for a late lunch. Shira Camp sits at around 3,800m, and by the time we arrived my head was aching from the altitude. I took some pain relief, and that helped ease it off a bit - but having already felt the effects of the altitude on day two I was pretty concerned about how I would hold up for the rest of the trip.

My worries intensified that night. About an hour after dinner I began to feel unwell, but was taken by surprise when I suddenly had to stick my head outside the tent and vomit. It happened a second time later that night (although by this time I had a plastic bag at the ready!) I knew this was a common reaction to altitude, but it did little for my confidence. It was only day two!!

I did manage to hold down my porridge the next morning (I avoided eating anything more rich than that) which was good because day three involved quite a long walk. We ascended to 4,600m at a place called the Lava Tower, then descended to Barranco Camp, back down at 3,900m for the evening.

We came across a little striped mouse on one of our breaks, who was busy looking for dropped crumbs and other goodies.
By the time we were approaching the Lava Tower my head was hurting again, as this was another new high altitude. I was hopeful that as we went back down towards the camp the headache would subside. That's the point of these "acclimatisation days" where you walk up to a higher altitude, then sleep lower down. To some extent I did feel better when we got to camp, consider the seven hours we'd been walking.

In front of the Lava Tower
As a reward for our efforts, the clouds parted and we got a clear view of the summit before it got too dark.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Mt Kilimanjaro - part 1

Kilimanjaro as seen from the air

Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, has been on my "to do" list practically since I started hiking. It's hard to say why, except that it's one of the few well known mountains that can be climbed by those of us with absolutely no mountaineering skills. The idea that I could knock off one of the Seven Summits without crampons or a harness was very tempting indeed.

Luckily G felt the same way, and so when we were planning a trip to Africa we immediately included a Kili trek on our agenda. But deciding to climb is only the first of many decisions. There are several routes up the mountain, different time frames for climbing, and of course many, many companies that will guide you on your trek (you're not permitted to go unguided) in various degrees of comfort for various prices.

In the end, we decided on the 7-day Machame route. Taking seven days increases the time you have to acclimatise to the altitude, which in turn improves your chances of summiting. Some trips take as little as five days, but apparently the odds of summiting on those is about 50/50.

We went with a company called Zara, who also do safari trips, Zanzibar trips etc. They're a bit of a one-stop shop in Tanzania with their own hotels and so on, which was why we chose them. We were able to combine a Kili climb and a five day safari trip into a brief two week visit to Tanzania, and they handled all of the logistics. If you've got time on your hands, I'm sure you could find something cheaper, but we were willing to pay a bit more for the convenience of knowing we were booked in, and not having to arrange anything when we got there.

Machame Gate
The climb started off at Machame Gate, which is already 1900m above sea level. It's a chaos of bags, porters, walkers, vehicles, and in our case thick mist. How they keep track of which bags, food, tents etc. come from which groups I have no idea, but it all seemed to work out.

The first day's walk was relatively easy, and followed a gradual incline through misty jungle. It was quite beautiful walking through the mist, even though there were an awful lot of people on the trail.

Eventually it started raining, but not so hard that it made us uncomfortable. However, most of our first day was spent with raincoats on.

Machame Hut marks the first stop at 3,000m. There was a large campground, and we were already above cloud level. G and I had our own tent, Jonathan, the other member of our group, had his own tent. We also had a little dining tent, complete with table and chairs. All of our breakfasts and dinners were served in there, which protected us from any rain, wind or cold. As we got higher up the mountain, I was definitely glad to have it!

The low point of the trip was probably the toilets at the campgrounds. They were all long drops, mainly squat style. This in itself is no problem, but when you're dealing with large numbers of campers who are not used to squat toilets, there's a lot of missing the hole! Generally it was OK when we arrived in the afternoons, but by morning the toilets were revolting!

I was surprised how cold it was already on the first night, and a little concerned about what was in store for use higher up!

Friday, October 09, 2009

Why did the ---- cross the road?

We went on two safari trips while we were in Africa: one in Tanzania (taking in the famous Serengeti) and one in Kruger National Park in South Africa.

While taking my hundreds of wildlife photos, I began to realise I had quite a few photos of different animals crossing the road. After all, the animals have the right of way in these places!

I decided I'd add my bit to the world's oldest joke. No chickens here (but one is pretty close.) If you have a great punchline about why any of these guys are crossing the road, leave it as a comment!

Why did the zebras cross the road?
Why did the giraffe cross the road?

Why did the waterbuck cross the road?

Why did the guinea fowl cross the road?

Why did the buffalo cross the road?

Why did the elephants cross the road?

Why did the impala cross the road?

More to come from the Africa files soon...

Monday, October 05, 2009

Back and blogging!

Photo: New Zealand Land Search & Rescue

Did you miss me?

I promise there will be lots of photos and stories about my trip to Africa coming soon. First I have over 750 photos to sort through! (Ah, I love the age of digital photography...)

In the mean time, I found an interesting follow-up story about how New Zealand is trying to replace their current, and somewhat ineffective, backcountry intentions forms. I first blogged about it here.

Currently, people going into the backcountry are encouraged to fill out a paper form outlining their intended route and return date and time, and include contact info. Upon their return, they are meant to confirm that they have safely completed their trip. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget to do that part (in their excitement over the proximity of a shower and a cheeseburger) which makes for a lot of unnecessary and expensive follow up work for the Department of Conservation and Land Search & Rescue.

DoC is now looking at an online/mobile system to replace the paper forms. This article outlines one of the proposed options. It sounds pretty good to me. Getting tourists to use it may be a challenge though, since they may not have internet access prior to their backcountry excursions.