29 June 2011

M.O.N. (Middle of Nowhere)

Just a quick word on just how remote it feels out here. You can only find gas every 200 kilometers. Cell phones don't work. There are no radio stations. Other cars are an anomaly. Birds fly low. There are tires hanging in trees. The speed limit is 150 kph. A mice epidemic is wreaking havoc but it's too far and too difficult to do anything about it. Credit card machines are run on dial-up Internet. If you can find a banana, it's at least a week old and has been transported frozen in dry ice. Signs warn of giant reptiles. You are prohibited from driving between dusk and dawn because kangaroos hop across the highway too often. Coke is in glass bottles. Orange juice costs $11 a liter. Gas costs $9 a gallon and you can't pump it yourself. A dinner salad is $21 but a kangaroo burger only costs $12. Beer is cheaper than water. Shoulder pads and perms are fashionable.

Where am I?

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The Sounds of Silence

There are those experiences - large and small, short and long, personal and professional - that stay with you long after they've happened. Simply being at Uluru had that aura of mystery and significance. We, however, took it one step further with the Sounds of Silence dinner.

The evening starts with a glass of champagne and sunset over Uluru - an otherworldly display of reds, oranges, yellows, and purples set against the brilliant Australian Outback.

The contrast of crocodile, emu, and kangaroo canap├ęs with the endless dirt of the "red center" was further reinforced as we moved to a multi-course dinner set outside under the stars.

Wine, beer, crocodile salad, kangaroo fillets, lamb cutlets, and vegetables were all on offer as was a fantastic lecture on the southern hemisphe's stars and constellations. This was topped off by a glass of port, bread and butter pudding, and a look at Saturn (rings and all) through a Massive telescope.

We were sat at a table with a lovely Australian couple and their 16 year old son as well as an equally delightful American family from Ohio. Topics of conversation included American politics, whale watching, and the best fabrics for hiking. To say it was interesting is a serious understatement.

The entire experience passed with the blink of an eye though I'm certain it will linger for years to come. The center of Australia is just magical.

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28 June 2011

Kata Tjuta is pretty great too

Roughly 40 kilometers west of Uluru lies the site of Kata Tjuta. The holiest site on Earth for aboriginal men, Kata Tjuta is a winding, weaving, staggering collection of 32 rock formations that once again rise out of the Earth with no other natural or man made structures in site. Because their significance can only be known by Anarangu Aboriginal men who have been officially initiated, there is next to nothing I can share about it's meaning. This is not a joke:

What I can tell you is that the 9.4 kilometer walk we took was called the "Valley of the Winds" walk and it was gorgeous. Valleys, peaks, ridges, billabongs, and the like dot the path that led us into, over, out, and around the site. The sound of the wind rustling by was also incredibly atmospheric. Because there is not a whole lot more to say, here are a few more photos:

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27 June 2011

Uluru Is Brilliant

As we head south on the Stuart Highway out of Alice Springs a realization hits us: we are really in the middle of nowhere. The "big city" fades into a brilliant burst of vibrant colors. The deep green of the fauna, the glowing yellow of the brush, the brilliant red of the dirt, and the otherworldly blue of the sky tease your eyes. Indeed, I have never seen colors quite so bright before.

In under an hour there is no sign of civilization save for the highway we're driving on. It's nearly 400km to Uluru and the only stops between here and there are the roadhouse town of Erldunda and two working cattle stations that also sell gas - Mount Ebenezer and Castle Springs. There is no cell service, the radio only tunes in to static, and the last car we saw passed going the other direction about an hour ago. This is really the middle of nowhere.

Slowly but surely the kilometers tick away and we get closer and closer to Uluru. As is true with any wonder of the world there is always the fear that the build up may in fact ruin the actual site itself. Fortunately after driving four hours through the flattest country outside of Nebraska, the site of a 10 square kilometer, 1000 foot tall giant red monolith both wowed and amazed us.

When I say there is NOTHING else around, I mean there is NOTHING else around. Save for a hotel, a cultural center, and another rock formation (all at least 40 kilometers from "the rock") there is NOTHING but red dirt, yellow brush, green trees, and blue sky. How red, you ask? As red as these unedited photos.

We drove around it, we walked right up to it, and we learned as much as we could about it. What we did not do is climb it. Why? Because it is the most holy site in Aboriginal history, culture, and religion they have asked people not to climb it. Despite this very clear, very real, and very understandable reasoning there was still an army of wayward tourists who thought the rock was their play thing. An aboriginal guide said the easiest comparison for Christianity would be if people went to the site of the crucifixion of Christ and peed. I don't really feel like we should be peeing on anyone's holy sites, do you? On that note we heckled some climbers, took some photos of aboriginals, and broke a piece of the rock off to take home with us.

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Location:Middle of Australia

24 June 2011

Entering The Red Center

I'm finally here! The day I arrived in Australia my top site to see was undoubtedly Uluru. Every time someone came to visit I would barrage them with information, statistics, and flight itineraries in an attempt to persuade them to go with me. Four visits later I still hadn't ma it to The Red Center.

We recently started working with an amazing charity called Indigenous Community Volunteers (ICV) on a Larapinta Trail adventure (located in the Red Center). Simultaneously, we entered talks with another charity also looking to do something in this area. What did that mean? An absolute need to do a site visit, hotel inspections, meetings and yes, a visit to Uluru!

We landed on one of just five flights per day to Alice Springs, wandered down the stairs onto the tarmac, and continued into the terminal via a dirt path. After signing my name a dozen times and signing my initials a dozen more, Aditi and I loaded up our white Hyundai Elantra and headed for downtown Alice.

I dropped her at a shopping mall food court so she could continue work on our marathon program and I headed off to meet ICV. Post-meeting I picked her up, grabbed some emergency supplies, and hit the road for Erldunda, our midway stopover. This is. Erldunda:

The Stuart Highway - the only paved road in this part of Australia - led us in a straight line for nearly 2 hours. With a posted legal speed limit of 100mph the ride was not lacking excitement (or giant road trains, which is when a semi truck pulls 3-6 payloads behind it, stretching up to 120 feet in length).

We arrived safe and sound and have checked into room number 23. We are headed to The Tavern for dinner and have to hurry, as hot food is not served past 8pm. Before I rush off, just a few initial observations:

1. It is clear that a majority of Australia's aboriginal population is consolidated in the Northern Territory.
2. Dying strategically selected sections of one's hair is all the rage.
3. Perms, hair mousse, bell bottom jeans, and leopard print are all the rage.
4. Shoulder pads are back in here too (or perhaps never went out)
5. Signs are AMAZING. Evidence:

Onward to Uluru tomorrow. Yeah!!!

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Location:Erldunda, Northern Territory, Australi

21 June 2011

They say it's your birthday!

There is nothing quite like a good fancy dress party to ring in a birthday! Especially when you have amazing friends who go above and beyond to dress to the theme. What might that theme have been, you ask? ONLY IN AMERICA! Six people brought fried chicken and EVERYONE brought a gun. It was a birthday I'll never forget. Special commendation goes to:

Team America - most commitment to costume
Jen Zuber - most amazing birthday cake I have EVER seen
Cynthia Pascual - most talented adopted child and fabulous roomie
Aditi Fruitwala - birthday celebration LEGEND

More photos below of Team America, the cake, and Jen and Rich as Bonnie and Clyde. So many guns!

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Location:Casa de Waterloo

09 June 2011

I went to Zanzibar too!

And here is a link to all of THOSE pictures!


08 June 2011

More Africa Pictures from Kilimanjaro!

Just a quick link to ALL of my Kilimanjaro pictures on Flickr. Enjoy!


07 June 2011

Day 7 Climbing Kilimanjaro: Down we go

Awakening for this final morning on the mountain brings mixed emotions. On one hand, it is done and we are returning to real beds, hot showers, and non-fried food. On the other, it marks the end of the greatest adventure of our lives. The group convenes for breakfast and for the first time in a week everyone is genuinely calm and relaxed. We have done it. We have summitted Mount Kilimanjaro! The thought never gets old and simultaneously doesn’t feel real.

Our six-hour descent takes us back from rocks to small shrubs to big shrubs to tall trees. The sun is once again shining and as we reach the gates at Marangu the group lets out a collective sigh of relief before shedding a few more tears. As difficult as it was - as trying as the experience had been on our minds, bodies, and spirits, there was no doubt that we would miss the mountain. Still, what gave us peace was the knowledge that we would forever have this connection to Kilimanjaro, to our charity, and to each other that could never be fully explained both to ourselves and to others. It was, without question, the adventure of a lifetime.

06 June 2011

Day 6 Climbing Kilimanjaro: To the summit or bust

At exactly 12am we regrouped outside, where a tiny snowfall welcomed us. Once again, this meant higher-than-average air temperature - something we were thankful for. The entire operation began with military precision. We were put in line based on strength, meaning the woman who was still suffering from gastro and feeling quite weak was up front so the rest of us could support, love, and nurture her on the way up. The guides were firm and clear in their instructions, as they should be. After all, most of them had climbed the mountain more than one hundred times.

Like a flash we were heading upward from 4,750 metres at Kibo to 5,895 metres at the summit. From Kibo to Gilman’s Point is mostly a blur. It whizzes by and the only thing on your mind is “step, step, step, right, left, right, left.” My most vivid memory is the heels of the shoes belonging to the woman in front of me. We stop at 2am for a snack and water bottle refill. These breaks must happen at lightning speed, as remaining still for too long lowers your body temperature and makes it near impossible to continue. We stop again at 4am for a similar break, only this time it is much much colder. By 5am we are no longer trekking and are now climbing up what feels like steps. It is not entirely certain, as the absolute darkness leaves visibility at roughly two metres.

Without any real warning, light begins to appear over the eastern horizon. Literally moments later the sign reading “Gilman’s Point” becomes visible. We are there - our first major milestone. Watching the African sun rise over Tanzania and Kenya from above the clouds is an out-of-body experience and by now the entire group is shedding tears of joy, pride, and a touch of relief. We are nearly there and we did it together not just for ourselves but for a great charity.

Now able to see our own footsteps, we begin the two-hour journey to Uhuru Peak - the true roof of Africa. The entire trek is lined with brilliant panoramic views. There are other peaks off in the distance, airplanes flying below where we are currently standing, massive glaciers that are tens of thousands of years old. None of it quite feels real.

Then, just as suddenly, we all reach the sign post marking the summit itself. Breathtaking is the only word that accurately describes how you feel at that moment. Somehow, I managed to rustle up enough energy to jump in the air before huddling the entire group together for a group picture, the same way we started this epic journey.

Because it is so high (5,895 metres), we are only able to stay at the summit for 20 minutes before beginning our descent back down to Kibo. This return happens at a near lightning pace as you literally ski down the loose volcanic scree rock, Mawenzi peak off in the distance. In a matter of what seems like minutes (thought it is actually still several hours) we are back at Kibo where we de-summit our wardrobe before hopping into bed for a two-hour nap. Upon waking we quickly pack our bags, gear up with our wet weather layer on the outside (a must-have item) to combat the light rain, eat another massive meal, and hit the trail.

It is three hours to Horombo, where we will camp for the night. Whether it is exhaustion, relief, or happiness that drives us down that mountain I do not know but the freedom to move as fast as you like (now we are going downhill, after all) and the solace of knowing you have done it somehow carries your beyond-tired body onward. We reach camp, set up house in our tents for the very last time, recount the entire experience over a slightly smaller dinner, toast with a glass of African red wine, and are in bed by 8pm, marking the end of our 36-hour (19 of those walking) journey to the summit with just one day of walking left ahead of us.

04 June 2011

Day 5 Climbing Kilimanjaro: It’s time

At 6:30am I find some tea and a bowl of hot water outside my door as well as a fresh dusting of snow! Once again, it had kept us warm in the night - like a giant soft white blanket. There is a buzz about camp this morning. Today is the day. We’ll walk five hours to Kibo, nap, eat, and nap before waking up at 11pm to begin our summit attempt at midnight. It is then six hours to Gilman’s Point, two more to Uhuru Peak (the summit), then 4 more back down to Kibo. After lunch and a short nap we continue on 3 more hours to Horombo, where we’ll camp for the evening. All in, it is 19 hours of walking in just 36 hours.

The wind is biting as we round the edge of Mawenzi Peak and begin our journey across the saddle between the two mountains. The landscape is a lunar desert - desolate, monochomatic, and seemingly endless. Clouds whisp up and over the edge to our right, roll across the saddle itself, then glide smoothly back down to our left. While Kibo is visible in the distance, our guides assure us that we must maintain our pole pole (slowly slowly) pace to conserve energy and that it will, in fact, be several more hours before we reach camp.

We rest one hour away from Kibo to eat lunch in our own mess tent. At this point, no one has an appetite. Unfortunately, that does not matter. Now more than ever eating food and keep our energy levels high is of the utmost importance. We reach Kibo and find we have been upgraded to huts! That means real walls, real beds, and real mattresses! I am ushering people inside and encouraging them to get to sleep as quickly as possible. We have two hours to nap before briefing and dinner - another meal that we all have to literally force down our throats. Then it’s back to bed for three more hours. This up and down, back and forth, eat and sleep routine works well by now. We have been following similar instructions for nearly a week and everyone does exactly as they’re told without really thinking about it. This is what makes the entire experience possible - letting go and allowing the experts (our guides) lead us up the mountain. The feeling of absolute freedom is incredible.

We are awakened at 11pm by our head guide, who slowly brings us back to consciousness by singing an African hymn. By now, we’re all running on autopilot and doing exactly as we’re told. “Long underwear on, pants on, shirt on, fleece on, outer layer on, shell on, balaclava on, hat on, liner gloves on, outer gloves on, shoes on.” There is only one objective when dressing to summit - put on every item of clothing you have with you. A few other top summit tips emerge as well:

Make your only goal to minimize the amount of “stuff” on you. If you can, leave even your daypack at the huts. You only really need clothes, water, and some protein/energy bars.

Remember that water will freeze mid-climb, which means one liter must be kept inside your jacket. The porters carry extra bottles for you and will refill your bottle as necessary.

Organize your pockets! Keep essential items like protein bars in outer pockets, with your camera stowed in an inside pocket. There is nothing to see until you’ve reached Gilman’s Point, so no need for your camera to be easily accessible the first six hours.

After we’re dressed and geared up, we come together for one final pre-summit warm beverage, some popcorn, and some group singing. Keeping morale high at such a shocking hour is crucial, so we blasted some YMCA, Stand By Me, and Lean On Me while singing at the top of our lungs. It was an incredible energizer and now, it was time to finish what we had started.

03 June 2011

Day 4 Climbing Kilimanjaro: A little R&R

Today is known as our “lazy morning,” as we don’t have to be up until 7:30am. Woohoo! I pull out my iPod and small speakers for the first time so far and crank some tunes to the both the amazement and pleasure of the group. Aretha Franklin’s “Sisters” seems to really get us going. After our ginormous breakfast, we depart on our second acclimitisation walk. While yesterday’s lasted for just ninety minutes, today’s walk will be just under three hours. It is our unofficial assessment with the doctor (who has been traveling with us the entire journey to ensure safety) as to whether or not he believes we will be able to summit. This is done with the utmost care, as safety is - without question - the highest priority.

Thankfully, everyone is in good form and the doctor is, as he says to us, “not worried at all.” We return to camp for yet another massive meal. This time the cooks dish up a phenomenal cheese and tomato toasty that has us all gaga. At 4,320 metres it really is the little things that matter most.

Our afternoon is all about rest and relaxation. After all, tomorrow starts what will be a marathon two days, with summiting the highest point in Africa and fourth-highest in the world on our agenda. No big deal at all! I nap yet again. This is followed by dinner, some bag rearranging, and a bed time of 7:30pm. My grandmother would be proud.

02 June 2011

Day 3 Climbing Kilimanjaro: Up and up

Wake-up call is again at 6:30am, which is a bit more difficult when you’ve been darting back and forth to the toilet all night. Even if your stomach is not upset, the altitude sickness medication - called diamox - leaves you needing to pee at least twice in the night. If there is any silver lining in this situation, it is that your walk to the toilet tents offers sweeping cross-sky views of what can only be described as the clearest, star-filled sky I have ever seen.

Following another gluttonous breakfast and rapid morning “pack, clean, dress, and go” routine, we set off on a mainly uphill four-hour trek that brings us from 3,400 metres to 4,320 metres at the base of Mount Mawenzi, where we will have an additional day to acclimatise. Today’s walk - while shorter - is a near constant uphill. While the sun is still shining brilliantly, the air is markedly cooler as we continue upward. By now there is very little plant life. Replaced by dramatic rock formations, the landscape becomes almost mysterious, bordering on otherworldly.

We reach camp by lunchtime. The final stretch of trail is actually an ascent into the “mini-Kili’s” crater. Now above the clouds, our tents appear to be literally floating in the sky. Somehow each stopping point manages to be more beautiful and more mesmerising than the last. After another enormous lunch, we all enjoy a mid-afternoon nap in the confines of our tent. Thanks to the direct sunlight and small space, my tents acts as a greenhouse and I am - for the first time in three days - genuinely toasty, cozy, and warm. It is completely brilliant.

Post-nap we regroup for our first of two acclimitisation walks. These walks help to ensure summit success by trekking a short distance upward to 4,700 metres then descending back down to 4,320 metres to eat and sleep. While not physically exhausting, these walks offer yet another gorgeous perspective on where we are and what we are doing.

Our evening includes - yet again - an otherwordly-size dinner, lots of fluids, a deep conversation about our fears and motivations, and yet more laughing that prompts other campers to ask us to quiet down. After all, it is 8pm! We leave the mess tent to find that we have been snowed on during dinner! The light dusting has done something wonderful, offering a layer of insulation that has a warming effect on the air temperature. I drift off into what will be the best night of sleep I have had since we began. I only had to pee once!


Kyle Taylor