A Letter from a Traveller to Tanzania

In December 2015, Réal Saindon left for a trip to Tanzania: Meru and the three summits of Kilimanjaro.  Here`s his story.

My voyage to climb Kilimanjaro did not really begin on December 27, 2015 at the airport in Quebec. You have to include the preparations which, I believe, are an integral part of the adventure on which I had embarked.
In June, I made the decision to get in shape to realize a dream I had had for many years: to one day reach the summit of Kilimanjaro.  The year 2015 represented the limit for me to achieve this aim.  At the age of 68, it was now or never.
From June to December I trained walking, trekking and climbing in the mountains. I did it alone, with members of my family and with the group Détour Nature; a total of 43 summits (in Quebec, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York). My favorites were Mounts Katahdin and Lafayette.
Once I had officially registered with Karavaniers in August, I started to check my equipment, purchase what was missing, and replacing what was not suitable in order to be in the best situation possible to reach this highest summit in Africa, this mountain that I had admired only in photos.


The morning of 27 December, I left from the airport of Quebec City, three hours late due to the bad weather. From JFK in New York the next leg was to Amsterdam where I was to meet up with the other participants. On my backpack I had written RÉAL-KARAVANIERS-KILIMANJARO, which helped me connect with the other members of the group.
At the airport in Kilimanjaro, our guide Michael and the local representative of the team were there to meet us and all went well. We were taken by bus to Planet Lodge to finally sleep in a bed after the long hours of travel. 
The next day, our main problem was getting the local money, the Tanzanian shilling. We had to try a number of places and, for those of us with US dollars in small denominations ($20 or less), the exchange rate was 50% less; i.e. 1075 vs 2150 shillings.  The bank machines would not accept Desjardins cards because of their 5 digit PINs. The one that worked for me with my Mastercard would only allow a maximum of 200,000-shilling withdrawal at a time. As the shilling cannot be exchanged in other countries, we should have acquired them before our trip from our bank.
Planet Lodge, which served as our home base in Arusha, was comfortable, pleasant and with an attentive staff.  I quite enjoyed our first hike with the group around Arusha, it allowed us to get to know one another while visiting. 
The Mountain

The beginning of the climb of Meru was very interesting.  In addition to a magnificent views of the countryside, we saw our first wildlife (giraffes, buffalo, monkeys, wart hogs, antelope and zebras) which I had only expected to see on our safari later. Beginning at about 2,500 metres, I started to have problems with nausea caused either by the altitude or the malaria medications.  On the evening of 31 December when we rose at midnight, as a result of my lack of appetite due to the nausea and the low levels of oxygen in my blood, I decided not to ascend to the summit of Meru.  This summit was technically very challenging for the participants and only six succeeded in seeing the sun rise at the summit on New Years 2016. In the morning, I made it to the summit of Little Meru with Diane and Michael.
Then there was the descent. After crossing a herd of buffalo with our armed Ranger, we arrived at the entrance of Momella where a team of porters and kitchen staff were awaiting us to feast: songs, dance and great food. Then it was back to Planet Lodge for a real shower after four days of “wash-wash” (manual washing from a small bowl of water). We washed our hiking clothes by hand as we were leaving the next day for seven days enroute to the summit of Kilimanjaro.  It was time for a good beer in the gardens as we awaited our supper.
Londorossi Gate is where the ascent of Kili begins.  There was a festive attitude with our support team of thirty.  There was a five-day climb to Crater Camp where we went through lunar landscapes regularly above the clouds. We woke at 4am on the sixth day to climb to Uhuru Peak.  Climbing in the snow, fatigue and the altitude slowed us down, but arriving at the summit and the official photo revived our energy.  Mission accomplished, we had arrived at roof/top of Africa!
The descent was rapid but put to work leg muscles that had not been used on the climb.  After two days of descending we arrived at the entrance to Mweka, where there again a team was awaiting us to celebrate before our return to Planet Lodge for a well appreciated shower after seven days on the mountain.

The Safari

The next day after a good night’s rest at the Lodge, we left by Land Rover for the Safari.  Two Land Rovers, eight passengers, loaded to capacity with our baggage for five days. A third Land Rover accompanied with the Africana Travel team of support staff, tents and food. 
At our first stop at Lake Manyara we had our first encounter with elephants and pink flamingos.  The next day we headed for the Serengeti and the great adventure of the African plains, it was magnificent. We spent the next days admiring the wildlife of this great wild expanse.  Most of the time we were standing in the Land Rover, our heads above the roof, with binoculars and cameras in hand.  Our tents were set up in the high grass near two trees on the wild plain with hyenas waiting close to our camp.  At night with my head light, I could easily see them.  Their eyes shone just 8-10 metres away.
Our three days in the Serengeti allowed us to see giraffes, zebras, wildebeest, antelope (especially Thompson and Bleu Jeans), elk, buffalo, dromedary, lions, leopards, mongoose, hyenas, fennec and many varieties of birds including the Marabou stork.  These were memorable days, especially the last, when we saw these animals by the tens of thousands.
The climb to the top of the Ngorongoro crater is spectacular with the majestic trees and the winding red soil road. With a diameter of 20 kilometers, this crater is the largest on earth.  We slept on top of the edge, our tents and the Land Rovers forming a large circle in a nice wooded area.  Because of the large number of predators in the area, a Massai warrior stood guard around the camp fire all night.
The next morning, we were up at 5am to get to the bottom of the crater by 6:30am. We descended by a steep, twisting road running one way along the interior flank of the mountain. The bottom of the crater resembled a large plain with two lakes and streams. After a few kilometers we caught sight of elephants, then rhinoceros including a white one. A little later after crossing a few creeks, we saw ostriches and then came upon a herd of hippopotamus. They are enormous animals; some were in the water while others were on land grazing. We also saw our only rabbit of the trip; magnificent with his large ears and big round eyes.
Our exit from the crater was on the opposite side, again a winding road but this time with interlocked cobblestones. On our return towards Arusha, we stopped to eat at the site where we had spent the night near Lac Manyara. One of the Land Rovers had to have its brakes repaired before we got to the town.
Once again the shower at Planet Lodge was well appreciated after wonderful five-day trip on safari.  It was then time to pack our baggage, the dirty laundry going into a sealed airtight bags!! A last great supper at Planet Lodge and at 7am the bus from Africana Travel took us to the Kilimanjaro airport. Our plane left in the evening for Dar Es Salaam, then to Amsterdam, JFK New York and Quebec; arriving at 11pm the next day with 8 hours of jetlag. 
I found the local group fantastic, led by Brian (a jovial, big fellow) they were always happy and with our well-being in mind. It was in large measure thanks to them and Micheal (our guide) that we experienced such a wonderful adventure. On many occasions, they would take and carry some of our equipment to reduce our load when the conditions got difficult.  The kitchen team did a remarkable job considering that we were on the mountains or in the bush for most of the  days. The choice, quality and quantity of the food was always right on.  We were also lucky with the weather which we could say was great from beginning to end. 
Mariève, Nancy, Marie, Diane and Martin (a couple), Christine, Catherine, François (my roommate), Karine and myself (Réal) formed a wonderful group of trekkers, eleven in total with Michael our guide. Seven women and four men who did not know each other at the beginning, spent three weeks, every day together in a spirit of companionship that was the heart of this adventure. It was a tremendous experience. We have shared between three and four thousand photos and a source of price in what we had achieved. I was the one they nicknamed Babu.
This trip was the crowning experience of my adventures in the mountains in addition to the realization of one of my greatest dreams. The safari is a must for anyone who visits this region, my thanks to Karavaniers and their local team for their experience and expertise in this type of travel.
Réal Saindon