Friday, January 10, 2014

The Roof of Africa, The Chimps of Zambia

Halfway through December the Ngoma Dolce Music Academy went on holiday break.This gave me my longest stretch of travel time.Here's how I filled it

Just before the break hit one of my friends and I watched the Simon Pegg film The World's End - the tale of an epic pub-crawl.Eager to see more of Lusaka, we designed our own.The movie involves 12 pints, one at each bar.They don't have pints in Zambia so we had to compensate by hitting 16 different spots with a Mosi beer at each.We named it the Mosi Marathon.The result was seeing a large portion of the city's nightlife in one very silly, tough to remember sitting.For the sake of those involved, I'll stop with this one here.

The academy had our final recital of the year, a Christmas concert.My student performing did well.But as soon as it was done, so were my work commitments for the year.I went to the Inter City Bus Terminal, booked a ticket to Solwezi, and the next day at 3 in the morning I was on a 9 hour bus alone to a new province: The Copperbelt.

Once we hit Kitwe, one of the first major stops on the route, I realized I was shivering.This was a new feeling for my time in Zambia but (based on what was still to come these next two weeks) something I needed to get used to.The wet season thrived here; the Copperbelt perpetually felt like the first few minutes after a big rain.

Lusaka to Kitwe, Ndola, Chingola, and then I got off on the middle of the road at the turnoff for Chimfunshi - about 100km before Solwezi.I was about 20km from the border to the troubled DRC.Here I was supposed to wait for my organized pickup into Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage.The day before, however, they emailed me saying that there is no phone service here and that their pickup car was having issues.I was to wait for them until they could arrange a ride.I didn't feel like waiting an indefinite amount of time alone, so I sat on the side of the road with a few typical Zambian women who sold tasty bugs for the next 3 hours.Once they had me read them the Bible I figured it was probably time that I get going.I said goodbye to my new friends, found a Zambian walking the same way as me, and we began walking the 15km 'road' to the orphanage.

At the 11thkm I was finally picked up by a car.They took me the rest of the way, apologized for their tardiness, and explained that because I was there during the week and during the rainy season I was the only visitor at the camp.Thank goodness for signs; without anyone else at the camp, how could I figure out how to use their toilet?

I made myself at home at the surprisingly comfortable education center,

ordered a beer, and began cooking in the kitchen.Apparently a lot of American college students studying primatology end up here at some point or another.Little snacks left in the kitchen confirmed this. Nothing made me happier then starting to season my rice and finding a giant bottle of Cajun Seasoning staring me in the face.I went to bed listening to one of the heaviest rainstorms I've ever experienced a happy man.

The next day I was supposed to go on a bush walk first thing in the morning.The rain left the organization unsure of what to do with me, though.They dropped me off in the house of the founder.She lived right next to the main part of the orphanage.I walked in happy to meet her, happier to see 3 dogs, and ecstatic to see a baby chimpanzee wearing a diaper in a crib.

Even better yet, they were all friends.So I tried to become his friend by showing him my can of ginger ale.Shiny.

The owner is a huge jazz fan.Around this time she found out that I was too, so she put on some Louis Armstrong Hot 5 record.Then I fed a baby chimp in a diaper out of a bottle while a sweet dog licked my feet and I listened to jazz.

While I was coping with reality and having one hell of a joygasm, the founder began explaining what they did here.Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage was the biggest Chimpanzee Sanctuary in the world.They rescue chimps from all across the globe.Orphans from the DRC, illegal pets from New Zealand, circus acts from Israel, abused animals from Canada, the chimps were at Chimfunshi for a vast array of horrible reasons.But thank G-d for this place.All of the money from visitors feeds directly into helping them.Each chimp has far too much space to know what to do with.The apes that aren't in need of extremely special care at the orphanage may as well just be considered wild with the amount of land they have in their yards.They are cared for wonderfully and have happy lives.This place is a godsend for troubled chimps.

Once the rain cleared up she took me to view the orphanage.Because it was feeding time for them, they all congregated near the entrance (so don't be misled by the presence of a fence; they have ample space).For the next hour I watched chimps eat oranges, balls of nshima, onions, and orange monkey fruits.Occasionally they would use tools.

Sometimes they fought, other times they helped their young.However they ate it was a great sight to see.

After this I went back to the camp, ate some more, read a bit, and was picked up by a car to tour the yards for the feedings.The yards were so large that a 4X4 and 30 minutes were required to get to each one.Before arriving, I took note of the danger I was about to encounter.

I will always remember the sound of 120 chimps screaming for joy at their lunchtime.After watching them for 5 minutes it became impossible to forget how closely related we were to them.They were so human in their interactions and social hierarchies.

And then came 2 of the happiest hours of my life thus far.Usually bush walks are just during the morning hours, but the staff at the orphanage were so flexible and willing to work with me that they made an exception.These people are great.I signed over a release, placed adventure hat down (he's nearing the end), put on a giant blue jumpsuit (so the chimps won't rip my shirt), and loaded my pockets with peanuts.A guide and I walked into a giant yard where 5 of the more docile chimps from the orphanage would join us.They knew the drill; as soon as their door opened they bombarded the stranger in search of his peanuts.

After about 10 odd minutes of this, the novelty was gone for all of the chimps.All of the chimps but Dominic, that is.

For the next two hours we walked around their giant yard.Just me, my guide, and 5 chimps.Dominic wouldn't leave me alone.That was ok.

It's odd when you can't tell if your holding a hand or a foot.When I wasn't playing chimpy-back, I followed the other apes.How's that old saying go? - When in Chimfunshi, do as the chimps do.

It was a thousand childhood dreams coming true in 2 hours.

Accepted by the chimps and no longer viewed as a threat, they carried on as if I weren't there.

As my two hours neared a close and the rain came back, we retreated to the orphanage for their dinner.We said our goodbyes, but not before we had a moment to reflect on what had just occurred.

I walked back to the owner's house looking for shelter from the rain.And then Jules the baby chimp took his first steps in front of me.I was spoiled.We were waiting for my truck back to the education center when we decided it would be fun to play scrabble.Jules the baby chimp in a diaper is a horrible speller and had no business playing Scrabble with me.

The next day I woke early, hopped in a truck, and was [unnecessarily and unexpectedly] driven all the way to Chingola.

Honestly, everyone at Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage is some of the nicest, friendliest, and most helpful people I've met in all of my travels.If you ever go to Zambia, go there.

I had planned on extending my trip to the Copperbelt a bit longer but I knew I was not going to top the experience I just had.I happily caught a 10-hour minibus back to Lusaka.With the extra 2 days I gained from an early return I was able to get some much needed sleep.I needed rest.After all, I was about to climb the highest point in Africa.

On December 21st, my travel buddy from my last adventure, her sister, and I took a 32 hour bus to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.As soon as we crossed the border the mountainous landscape that helped define this East African country took over.Its beauty was almost enough to distract us from the 4 horrible Swahili songs on loop.Almost.Thank goodness for horrible African cinema.That andnext to the landscape got us to Dar.

Even at 11pm on a Sunday (when we got in), traffic into the city was backed up for about 2 hours.This city and I didn't get along from the beginning.However we were able to put our differences aside for the night; we booked a hotel right next to the bus station and called it a night.

After just a few hours of real sleep we were desperate for, we woke up at 5am and walked to the station.Even at this hour in the dark you could barely move.The people were unfriendly, rude, and corrupt.It smelled horrible.Crowded is as much an understatement as calling bacon 'ok'.There were about 30 busses throughout that day that were going to Moshi (our next destination).Somehow they were all already full.All of this made me despise that bus station with a passion.Or perhaps what really did it was when a Tanzanian woman made horribly uncomfortable eye contact with me for a moment too long as she squatted down next to a bus and the public and proceeded to poop.On second thought, it could have been that.

Poop and eye contact aside, we found a minibus that took us the 12 hours to Moshi.It probably only would have been 10 hours if our driver hadn't stopped to help another bus that broke down.Damn nice people.

The scenery was something special.

By this point in our journey, after about 3 days and 44 hours of bus rides, we had seen so many different landscapes.We were able to look out the window for a very good chunk Tanzania.Nifty.

But finally we were there.We met with our guide for the next day, had a few much needed beers, enjoyed a real meal for the first time in a while, and retired.

The next morning we looked out our hostel window and saw this.Little did we know this would be the last we'd see of the peak until we were halfway up the mountain.

Bring it on, Kilimanjaro.But it was not yet time.We had been living in the middle of Zambia too long to have the gear necessary for this inevitably cold trip.We toured the nice city of Moshi in search of gear.

After one more stop (where the world's largest Snickers purchase had to occur) we were ready.We met our guides, porters, and hopped in one more bus.This one brought us to the small village of Marangu.

We signed in, stretched, ate a meal, read the comments of those who had succeeded (and failed), studied the terrains we were about to encounter

and were off.

We started climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa.We were taking the Marangu route; the whole trip would take 6 days.Since Kili is a freestanding mountain (the tallest free standing mountain) and is in the middle of Africa, you encounter some very different landscapes the higher you get.The first day had 4 hours of trekking.We made our way through a rainforest for this leg of the hike.

We passed shy colobus monkeys and curious blue monkeys.It wasn't too steep, the scenery was beautiful, and the hike was rather enjoyable.However as soon as we reached our camp, Mandara Huts, the tank-tops we started our hike in quickly became inadequate.In this new temperature at 2,720m, it no longer felt or looked like Africa.Our camping huts were unlike any I've encountered in this continent as well.

We watched the sunset

ate, admired the stars, and called it a night.I was the only one who slept through the night.Thanks for those genes, Dad.

The next day was Christmas.We came prepared.At breakfast we unpacked and put on our Santa hats.

We even had enough for our guides and some porters.

This was going to be a very bizarre Christmas.

We started off by quickly visiting Maundi Crater.

We then continued on through our second landscape, the moorland.

We passed some very odd plants along the way.

And then we were quickly reminded of the dangers we were subjecting ourselves to.We passed a month-old grave of a porter who died on the mountain.

We paid our respect, observed a moment of silence, and moved on.So far so good.Even after 6 hours of hiking we could not figure out why people thought this was so hard (we would later change our minds).

And then we realized that we were at the same level as the clouds.They slowly approached, akin to the poisonous fog in Catching Fire or that weird invisible plant-induced toxin from the horrible movie The Happening.Come on Marky Mark, you could've done so much better.

And then we were above the clouds.

It was above the clouds, at 3,720m, that we made camp at the Horombo Huts.

We watched the sun move from above to below the clouds (our new reference point)

ate, sang some carols, and called it a day.This whole climbing Kilimanjaro thing was easy so far.

Since Mt. Kilimanjaro is freestanding and is so tall, it subjects those climbing it to the dangers of altitude sickness more than most mountains.For that reason we used day 3 to acclimatize.We barely ascended, instead hiking a mere 3 hours to a lookout point at a pretty similar altitude.

We hiked (really just walked) to Zebra rocks.

We killed some time by playing a really complex game called throw rocks at more rocks.You would be shocked at how much fun it was and how much it actually caught on.We then reached our destination, the clichKilimanjaro lookout point.It deserved every single picture taken there.

It was around this time that we realized how difficult it was becoming to breathe.At this point 3 sentences of chit-chat was about all it took to lose your breath.The air was getting thin and we still had a ways to go.We were all on medicine for acute mountain sickness and were taking a day to acclimatize and this was still happening.Oh man.

We returned to Horombo Huts and feasted.Our guide made a bet that I, like most, would lose my appetite due to the altitude.I think at this point he started realizing he would lose this bet.Once again, thanks for those genes, Dad.We caught the sunset and called it a night.

The next morning we put on some more clothes and started the 6-hour hike through the alpine desert.It was getting colder and even tougher to breathe.

We were getting close.

Eventually we made it to Kibo Hut at 4,700m.

We were tired.The trip was beginning to weigh heavy on us and we still had the hardest part to come.We were shown to our room, which we shared with about 10 other hikers on the same pace as us.Kibo Hut acted as an odd limbo between everything before us and the dreaded summit excursion.We caught a few oddly timed hours of sleep, ate, and rested for one last time.At 11:30pm we awoke to much needed hot chocolate.Our guide gave us one hell of athat got us a balanced combination of excited and petrified.The mood was ominous and epic.I layered up like I never have before.

At midnight we were off.There was a peculiar little train of muzungus walking up the mountain in little groups, single file.It didn't take long for each group to create its own pace.The Swahili phrase 'pole pole' (slowly) was the motto for this leg.It was pitch black outside so we couldn't see what we were climbing.We would later learn that this was probably a good thing; we would've been discouraged if we knew what we were attempting.We did, however, have a vague idea of how steep it was - by far the highest angle we've encountered thus far.The only lights were from the stars, the moon, and headlights on each hiker.Once significant distance was created between each group, the distant torchlights merely told us where we had been and where we would soon struggle in 10 minutes.We zig-zagged our way up for 7 hours.Over our shoulder on each zig we could see stars at the same level as us.For every zag we could see a yellowthat were now far below us.I've never seen a sky like that.It was a shame that I couldn't enjoy it.I was in too much pain.We took one small step every few seconds.Our movements became lethargic and heavy.No words were said; we needed to save our breath.We were hungry but getting a snack would require taking off gloves - a ludicrous thought in the -16 C temperature.We were thirsty but my water froze.Despite 3 pairs of socks and boots, my toes were beyond cold.Occasionally we would scream a chant in Swahili that gave us and groups within earshot a much-needed boost.This was an exercise in will power.We were praying that each large rock that could block the wind would be our next resting point.But we even came to avoid breaks; a stop in movement only made it colder and we probably would not be able to put our bodies back on autopilot after a pause.These were easily the toughest 7 hours of my life.Just when we were about to give up, we reached Gilman's point.From here on everything got easier because the incline decreased.However it was colder, we were more tired than each moment before, and our lungs were struggling.One of the members of our group had completed 2 iron mans before.As the altitude took over, she began throwing up and admitting that this was tougher than any race she'd been in before.We were in trouble.Walking along the rim of a giant snow-covered crater was no easy task in this temperature, in the dark, in this physical condition.But somewhere in between Stella's Point and Uhuru Peak, the sun began to rise.With the much needed increase in temperature came one of the most incredible sights I'd ever seen.

The sun rising from below the clouds, below us, as seen from atop of Africa gave us the final push we needed.

As I struggled through the remaining snow, I giggled; 3 days ago I was wearing a tank-top in a rainforest.This thought vanished as I gazed upon a glacier in Tanzania.This was surreal.

The clouds seemed to be miles away.

And then I was at Uhuru Peak.For a short while I higher than anyone else in this continent.And then I realized that Antarctica, Oceania, and Europe don't have any higher mountains.I was higher than anyone in the majority of the continents.I was afraid that this would be adventure hat's final adventure.I brought him with me, ready to bury him at the roof of Africa.Once I realized I couldn't part with him, I held him up like my lil' Simba.

He was the tallest hat in Africa.A few months back, an American who also lived at my bar and I introduced Zambia to the stupid drinking game of 'icing' people as a joke.Much to our dismay it caught on like wildfire.I realized the gravity of my mistake when I was iced atop Mt. Kilimanjaro.What had I done?

That has to be the tallest ice in the world.It also had to be the worst drink I've ever had.I was in desperate need of water but all of mine froze.And alcohol doesn't.I hate you, Smirnoff.

I realized that at that moment, my pants were down as I chugged alcohol, one of my friends was falling, and the other was on the ground throwing up.We were at the roof of Africa in snow at sunrise.This was a very peculiar scene.We [kinda] composed ourselves for a moment to capture the victory.

We did it.We climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.Feeling a combination of accomplished, weak, and weird, we looked around us in awe.

After we took this in, we remembered we were absolutely freezing and one of us was sick.We quickly began the descent.Now that it was light out, we could see what we had just climbed using nothing but headlights.

The descent back to Kibo Hut only took 3 hours.It would have taken less time if I didn't have the knees of an 80-year-old war veteran.We slept for an hour, ate a quick meal, and hiked 3 more hours to Horombo Huts, our home for one more night.
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