10 years ago, I visited Tanzania and twice I almost died.
Perhaps I’m being melodramatic. But things might not have gone so well if I wasn’t in the hands of good, caring people.
This, in truth, wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. I think I must have been amongst many in their twenties who see themselves as invincible. However, I don’t believe we truly become travellers and adventurers until we learn to accept our own weaknesses.
This is the story of how I twice diced with death in Africa, and the lessons I learnt on the way.
It Started With a Safari
I can’t think of a better way to get a taste of East Africa than on Safari. The Serengeti is an area of savannah grassland that stretches between Kenya and Tanzania. And the advantage of savannahs is there’s not many trees. That means plenty of open space to spot animals.
So long as you have a good guide, anyway. Fortunately, I did.
You might have heard of the adventure tour company, Exodus. Expensive? Well, you get what you pay for and they look after you well. They sent me in with a company-supplied duffel bag and landed me in Kilimanjaro International Airport.
I can’t remember much about the journeys between the accommodation. But we stayed in some wooden chalets for the first night and a hotel built on what looked like Pride Rock from the Lion King for the next few.
Our tour group consisted of a Swiss guide called Rudy, only about half a decade older than me. After that, there were two married couples and a single male. They were all in their late fifties, early sixties. In comparison, I was only twenty-five.
I think the best parts of Safari don’t just come from seeing the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, black rhino — of which I saw four), but also from all the smaller guys running around. The vervet monkeys, hyraxes, and geckos make as much a part of the scenery as any of the more elusive beasts.
Plus, when there’s more of them you can get better photos through sheer statistics — take enough and some have to turn out good.
As I stood up in the jeep, elbows perched on the rim of the roof and telephoto primed, I was psyching myself up for the highlight of my trip. I would soon climb Kilimanjaro, the giant snow capped volcano that towered over the Serengeti.
They said you needed to train. Months and months of upping your cardio levels. Even then, there’s no guarantee that your lungs would have enough volume to handle low oxygen levels at high altitudes.
Truth be told, I hadn’t done enough of this. Back then I thought, as the youngest in the party, I would be the last to fail.
I was about to be proven horribly wrong.
Kilimanjaro: Striving for the Peak
Kilimanjaro is approximately 6,000 metres in height and the tallest mountain in Africa. Views from the top are reportedly fantastic. The crater is usually above the cloud line and it’s possible to walk its icy rim.
There’s several routes up to the top, one of the most popular being the Marangu or “Coca-Cola” route. The alleged easiness and cheapness of this route give it its name and because you can drink Coca-Cola at the guesthouses along the way. Problem is, they rush you up it in six days without enough time to acclimatise. Apparently, it’s not the most scenic either.
See, acclimatisation is essential when you’re tackling a mountain of over about 4,000 metres. The Serengeti has the advantage of being raised about 1,000 meters above sea level. So spending time there helps.
On top of this, I’ve heard travellers recommend climbing Kilimanjaro’s 4,500 metre little sister: Mount Meru before even attempting the bigger giant.
We were to take the more scenic Rongai route stretched out over eight days. I started up well, bounding ahead of the group, kicking up plumes of volcanic ash in my wake. Most nights we stayed in tents, water collected from the river and boiled by our porters and food cooked on site.
It was hot at first. I sweated a lot and I began to understand why they recommended to drink four to five litres of water a day. Then, it got colder and I became grateful for the down jacket that Exodus had kindly provided.
Around that time, I started to feel ill.
Imagine going through a hangover backwards. That’s kind of how altitude sickness feels. It starts off mild and the worst parts of being drunk then build up on you.
I thought it was just a bad flu and I wanted to carry on up to the peak. But the whole group knew better and they all told me that I should go down.
Back then, I saw the status of having climbed a huge mountain as an important part of a person’s identity. It felt like something I needed to have. I wanted to carry on to the top, and I just couldn’t believe I was altitude sick.
But I’m glad I saw sense. Much further down, I’d already passed four porters rushing a guy down on a stretcher. A guy I really didn’t want to be.
Rudy had offered to accompany me to Arusha. To him I must have been in a delirious state. We descended by night and I even identified a porter approaching with a head torch as a shooting star.
But if getting altitude sickness is like having a hangover backwards then recovering from it is getting drunk backwards. After about half an hour, I found myself bounding down the mountain again, in much better spirits.
We got a bus from the city of Moshi to Arusha. It was a minibus, fit for twelve but somehow they managed to cram in thirty. We stayed then at a barebones hostel and I began to learn more about Rudy, a different type of traveller.
He didn’t need to sign up for expensive package holidays to guide him around. Instead, he tended to travel on his own agenda. He’d handle the locals as if he was a local, sometimes getting aggressive when necessary.
Once, after he’d been screaming at someone for trying to rip us off, I asked him, “Were you really angry?”
To which he replied, “It’s a game we play.” This advice, I carry on my shoulders as I travel today.
After staying a couple of nights in Arusha, we got a bus to Kilimanjaro national airport. We met up with the rest of the party and then went on to Zanzibar, where I would almost drown…
A New Agenda
Zanzibar isn’t actually one island but a group of them just off the East coast of Tanzania. They are equatorial paradises famous for exporting spices and are a wonderful relaxing place to stay after a Kilimanjaro trek, with pristine silver beaches and vivid sunsets. If there’s anywhere in the country I’d love to go back, it’s here.
Somewhere along the lines, I’d decided that I wouldn’t go home a failure. So, instead of relaxing and soaking up the sun I decided to attempt a PADI diving certification. Mohammed was my instructor and he reassured me I could get the certificate in two days. But I’d have to study hard.
So I spent the first day in the swimming pool, the first evening reading the PADI instruction manual. It recounted for me nicely the dangers of diving. Be careful of the bends. Don’t touch the animals. Don’t resurface too fast without exhaling. If you do, your lungs might expand and explode. That latter fact scared me the most.
I also encountered another problem. I could do everything in the swimming pool but clear water out of my mask. But time was short so I decided to let this pass and hope that nothing got in there. I had to do four dives in open water before I could get the certificate.
Zanzibar: Diving to the Ocean Floor
The next day we went out on a boat with some other divers. I’d left my entire tour group back on the beach at this point. We flip dived into the water and I followed Mohammed eighteen meters down the length of the boat anchor chain towards the coral on the ocean floor.
Everything went swimmingly until water started to leak into my mask.
Now usually, I tend to breathe through my nose. I can also hold my nose and breathe through my mouth, although I don’t tend to do that very often. However, I don’t know how to inhale without using my nose when its airways are still open. In short, I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I tried to clear the mask, but it didn’t work. I tried again and the situation only got worse. So I panicked. I gestured to Mohammed that I was going up, and I saw his eyes widen. I gestured again.
Then I did exactly what the PADI guidebook told me not to do. I kicked myself upwards with full force. About a few metres from the top, I’d run out of air. I gasped for breath when I surfaced. Not long after, Mohammed popped up.
“What happened?” he asked.
“I couldn’t clear my mask,” I said.
“You shouldn’t do that.”
“I know.” Fortunately, I must have exhaled as I surfaced. Or at least been very lucky.
“Do you want to go under again?”
I thought for a while. Swallowed down my fears, calmed myself down. “Yes.”
The second dive went a lot more smoothly. There’s something about floating, be it in water or in a parachute (I’ve done both), which feels magical. It’s as if you’ve surrendered your muscles to the void and everything becomes effortless.
I felt detached from my body as I watched all the little fishes and the coral reefs pass by. I could feel the water line on my face at the bottom of my mask. But it didn’t go above that. So I decided to let it be.
But that night I had the same sensation. I could feel the water creeping up my mask just before I fell asleep and each time I woke up with a jolt. I hardly slept at all.
The next day, I had to complete another two dives. If I could do this, I’d get the PADI. But when I tried to get under water my breathing became heavy. I just couldn’t get myself to relax.
So I agreed with Mohammed that I’d return to the beach and leave my PADI behind.
How I Became an Adventurer
I remember lying on the beach that afternoon and thinking. I’d always been pushing myself to achieve so much, often more than I could.
But that day I just sat and listened to the waves lapping against the shore, watched the local children play and do handstands, and let my thoughts drift away into nothingness. I realised then that being an adventurer isn’t not so much about what you do. It’s more about taking time to appreciate it as you do it.
This lesson has shaped my travels ever since.
Thank you heaps for reading. This time, I brought you a tale from my past but next week I aim to blog about the present. Lots is happening, but we’re still quite busy right now.
Give us time to settle in after our trip and we’ll tell you more about our lives in China. We already have some adventures planned, including mountains surrounding Fuzhou and the birthplace and resting place of the man who brought the universities to Xiamen.
Oh, and Ola’s sitting an exam in Chinese on Sunday. Wish her luck!
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We’ll see you same time next week (or perhaps even earlier).