Eyes on the small stuff at Mt. Kilimanjaro

Porters carrying food and gear towards the top on Day 3.

Kilimanjaro is big. It’s Africa’s highest mountain, at 5,895 metres high. It takes at least five days for most mortals to scale its sides. Every day, it rejects some amateur mountaineers and sends them back down the mountain on bouncing, one-wheeled stretchers.

These were clinging to a mossy rock like tiny white trees.

I joined the throngs of tourists who each year hike to the top for beautiful views, bragging rights, and a taste of altitude sickness.

Yes, the big picture was impressive. After a moon-lit hike that started at 1:30 a.m., I saw the sun’s orange glow spread over the clouds from Kili’s frozen Uhuru Peak. There were glaciers beside me and snowy mountain ranges below. I felt higher than the sun.

Dew-dotted flowers, called Everlastings, the early morning of Day 2.

But during the days working my way up this massive piece of rock, I often found myself more interested in the tiny stuff right along the path. Maybe it was because my eyes were usually focused down on the rocky trail in front of me. Maybe it was because clouds covered my view of the mountain  for hours on most days.

Ice crystals formed on the ground after a cold night.

Or maybe it was because the small features proved to be just as impressive as the bigger mountain looming in front of me. I found beautifully shaped plants that would grow into odd giant Senecio trees. I found piles of dark volcanic rock shards which nature had somehow shattered like a huge broken plate.

Radial vegetation on Kilimanjaro’s slopes.

On the chilly morning of Day 2, I was transfixed by dew drops on mountain flowers. On the even chillier third morning, I woke up and walked, crunching,  through strange little strands of ice that had sprouted up from the ground overnight.

And on Day 5, I couldn’t see much of the black mountain ahead, but I kept stopping to peer up at the inky sky full of the closest stars I’ve ever seen.

Very green, very graceful.

My hike up the mountain was good practice for me to enjoy the massive obstacle that I was determined to climb, while also keeping my eyes on each step of the way. There were plenty of striking, beautiful things that I might have missed by being interested only in the final, more obvious destination.

Of course, Kilimanjaro itself made an impression. It’s the biggest mountain I’ve ever experienced. (Here, see for yourself below)

At the top, near Uhuru Peak, watching the sun come up.

Walking the last stretch at the top alongside a glacier.





During this Kilimanjaro climb, I also registered something I don’t always notice: my ego. Hiking up with five Tanazanian guides and porters to help carry all my warm clothes and cook my food was a somewhat humbling experience.

I only found a few examples of this mountain flower.

I like to travel partly because it makes me feel independent, capable, and adventurous. But I didn’t particularly feel that way when I arrived at a campsite where my tent was set up for me, my food was cooked and served to me, and I slept in one tent while my five helpers shared another one.

Kilimanjaro is a challenge for most tourists, but I can’t imagine climbing the mountain while hauling two huge, heavy bags on my shoulders like the porters. I had to get over my discomfort with receiving all this help during the first few days.

I did, eventually. This is the reality of how people reach the top. I couldn’t have done it without the help of others (or at least wouldn’t have enjoyed it much), and once I accepted and felt grateful for that, the mountain became a little more beautiful.

Mountain vegetation gets sparse as we near higher elevation.


Haircut in Kampala

A shopping complex in a busy downtown part of Kampala, where I found plenty of hair-cutters. But how to choose the right one?

I tend to be pretty shaggy, and am just fine with that. But even I have my limits, and the equatorial heat in Uganda was starting to make me question a mop of hair’s utility.

So, it was off to find someone who could offer a trim. Selection was very good, with little salons (or “saloons”) on absolutely every street, wherever I go in East Africa. But those are all for African guys with very short hair, so I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t find anyone who could handle what I wanted.

This is Brian. He cut my hair.

If not, so be it; I could just shave it all off. Fortunately, after ducking into a few hair studios (I figured women’s stylists might be my best bet), I found Brian in a one-room salon with cheery yellow walls. It was busy, which I took as a good sign. He assured me this wasn’t his first foreigner’s haircut, so I settled into a chair with Ugandan women on either side having their nails styled or hair braided.

As I relaxed and had the deed done, I heard Brian’s story of saving money for years, then buying the hair salon from its disinterested owner after starting his career elsewhere. He mostly cuts women’s hair, but also has a regular customer who’s a foreign guy like me.

A few quick, professional snips and I’ve been shorn.

As the owner of this small business, Brian works 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., six days a week. Sunday is his “day off,” when he works only six hours, until 2 p.m., he told me.

The final haircut was a little shorter than I usually prefer, but it should be just right by the time I’m back in Canada at the end of June. And Uganda is proving to be hotter than Kenya, so I don’t mind the extra air flow.

Unsure of local etiquette, I did not tip. But Brian’s getting a shout-out: look for him in the William Street area near Kampala’s taxi park. Tell him Scott sent you!

…and after.


Hiking the beautiful peaks of Uganda’s Mt. Elgon

Early morning view of the mountain range from Mbale town, as I pack my bag to set out for the four-day trek.

Mountains are my favourite scenery. There’s something incredibly beautiful about the intersection of fast-moving clouds, gigantic rocky towers, and bright blue sky.

Our guides, park rangers Jasper and Alex. After an hour or so of hiking, we had reached the edge of Mt. Elgon park.

I went looking to take my breath away on Mt. Elgon, a national park on the border of Kenya and Uganda. After organizing porters, guides, tents, sleeping bags, and food in the town of Mbale, my hiking companion and I started the four-day hike.

First hour and going strong, as we march uphill through farmland. The views were already impressing me, with many hours yet to hike.

It was rainy season in East Africa, and Mt. Elgon has a well-earned reputation for being a very wet mountain. One of our guides told me that the heavy rains that stream down these rocks provide much of the water for the Nile River and Lake Victoria.

We began steadily climbing through farmland a little ways from the park boundary, at a height of 1,700 metres above sea level. Once inside the park, we twice interrupted local residents cutting down trees, which is allowed only on two days per week. They quickly dropped their bundles of bamboo and disappeared into the forest at the sight of our armed guides/park rangers.

After lots of steep hills, we had climbed through several of the mountains vegetation zones: rolling countryside, rain forest with tall, thick trees, sunny thickets of bamboo, and then Elgon’s alpine heath, with scraggly trees and yellow grass.

Up here, the path became more of a stream and we edged our way along the driest side. My shoes were still soon wet, and the rest of me soon followed when, unsurprisingly, the rain began. it was a damp,chilly night at a sheltered camp site at 3,500 m elevation.

A lookout spot where we rested. You can see how many people live on the foothills leading up to the mountain; I don’t think they often make the long walk down to town.

Day 2: we’re approaching Jackson Summit, a steep rocky mound shrouded with cloud.

Jackson Summit, getting closer, but first we headed for Wagagai Peak, the highest part of the Mt. Elgon range.

Day 2 found us walking shortly after 7 a.m. towards Wagagai Peak (4,321 m) and Jackson Summit (4,160 m). After a warm sunny start, the wind blew in some thick clouds and the weather turned misty and damp.

The hike to Wagagai was a long walk steadily uphill, but rarely much more challenging than that. Approaching grey rainclouds meant we didn’t stay on the chilly mountain top for too long. The views of the nearby volcanic crater were good, but the mist obscured anything farther away.

Mt. Elgon’s otherwordly landscapes, with strange little trees and clouds drifting in and out.

As we started our descent to head for Jackson Summit, the rain began coming steadily down. Soon, we were wet and cold, with soggy shoes and chilly fingers.

For lunch, we had made the world’s driest peanut butter sandwiches. Not even the constant rain could soften up that bread!

Clouds rolled in, making everything misty and chilly.

To try to keep warm, we picked up the pace and walked quickly through the wet yellow grass. The trip up Jackson was steeper, but it didn’t take long to clamber over all the wet rocks and reach the top. I actually had to use hands on some of the steep parts.

At the top, I saw the black remains of a fire and some clothes. Later, I learned that some local residents still come up to the mountain top for traditional ceremonies.

Summit achieved! The view from Wagagai Peak. It was getting cold and the rain was coming heavier, so we didn’t stick around too long.

The local customs here include circumcision ceremonies that made me thankful I wasn’t born into Uganda’s Sabine tribe. Traditionally, young men in their teens must stand for public circumcision without flinching or making a sound.

After a very quick, cold lunch, we are now very wet and scrambling over rocks towards Jackson Summit.

Day 3 saw us leave our camp at 3,500 m above sea level and retrace our steps back towards the peak. Next we turned to walk over a gorge with a spectacular view, then down a new trail through the volcanic caldera.

This vegetation zone at the mountain top is called an African alpine moor, where not much grows among the rocks except a few small high-altitude trees and some scubby bushes and flowers.

We reached a ridge at 4,000 m elevation, passing many oddly-shaped rock formations along the way. While resting here, I saw the wind blow in tendrils of cloud to conceal the nearest peaks, then whisk them back out again just as fast.

The rain has dried, and the flowers poke their heads up.

Day 3: a beautiful sunny morning as I look out across the first deep valley we will need to cross. Even more gorgeous in person.

Next, we began our long descent across several gentle mountain slopes and valleys. This was our longest hiking day, and it lasted eight and a half hours. Going downhill is actually harder than climbing upwards, and some of my seldom-used leg muscles became very tired.

Rock formations up in the grassy alpine moor, Elgon’s highest vegetation zone.

Still, my eyes weren’t tired of taking in the beautiful view. Mountain air currents make weather unpredictable; I watched a cloud coiling around itself as wind pushed it toward the mountain, then rise as it hit that natural rock wall and curl over itself in a constant swirl of white mist. Very neat!

After a long day of walking, we reached Tutum Cave, our destination for the night. This is definitely the most interesting place I have ever camped: a cavernous cave with a waterfall spilling over the entrance.

Alex lets us take a rest on a ridge before starting a descent.

By balancing on some rocks, the waterfall became a powerful, not-so-warm shower that I took advantage of. Squeaking bats flew in and out as dusk fell, and we slept to the pounding sound of the falls.

We’ve climbed back up to 4,000 m above sea level here and the clouds are almost close enough to touch.

Following the trail along the side of a valley.

Day 4 was a relatively easy four-hour hike down to the edge of the park, then over countryside toward the town of Sipi. We passed again through spooky, mossy trees, then bamboo and rain forests. Finally, we were walking past farms, cows, and onto roads for the final leg into town.

Finally, we descend to where a dark, mossy forest grows.

Sipi is a small place, but it does host an impressive trio of waterfalls, ranging from 65 to 100 metres high. We walked past these, said goodbye to our guides and porters, then settled into a simple guesthouse for a big meal, cold drinks, and a beautiful view of the Sipi Falls.

Mt. Elgon is the first African peak I’ve hiked, and it far exceeded my expectations. Except for some cold and rainy moments, it was a superb experience. The four-day, three-night pace provided challenging, but not exhausting, hikes.

After our longest hiking day yet, we also took the opportunity to rinse off in this natural shower.

The various landscapes all had their appeal, and it seemed that every 20 minutes of walking revealed a new vantage point with a whole new view of the mountain. I recommend it, just don’t expect to stay dry, especially in the rainy season!

Tutum Cave, where we set up camp for our third night and fell asleep to the pounding of a waterfall pouring over the cave entrance.

The joys of simple living

A cheap guesthouse where I slept for a night. Not pictured: the noise from a nearby night club.

I also could have called this post “The unglamorous life of a backpacking.” At least, that was the alternative title that came to mind while I rinsed my dirty socks in an also-dirty guesthouse sink.

You see, when I travel, I prefer not to stay in the nicest hotels. In fact, my accommodations often could be called “bottom of the barrel.” Part of this is my own stinginess; three months spent in expensive places would quickly add up to more than I want to pay!

But the places where I sleep are also an important part of my travel experience. Taking private transportation directly to a comfy hotel means I would miss a huge amounts of grit and beauty. Falling asleep in a cheap room to the delightful lullaby of shouting motorbike drivers and street kids playing tag on the street below (true story!) is a real part of life in this part of the world that I wouldn’t want to skip.

I’m in East Africa to learn and challenge myself. Do you know what’s challenging? Washing all your dirty laundry by hand in a basin or sink! That sure makes me appreciate the luxury of tossing anything remotely dirty into a machine that does all the work for me.

Some places have showers with hot water, other times (usually at people’s homes) it’s a basin and pitcher to pour water on yourself.

How about a cold water shower, or maybe washing by pouring water on myself from a basin? That makes my Canadian habit of standing relaxed under a hot stream of water seem absolutely luxurious.

I’m not saying this because I think the Canadian way is entirely wrong. I don’t plan to completely stop driving my car on our smooth highways, eating junk food occasionally, or enjoying the air-conditioning on a hot summer day once I’m home.

But travel to other parts of the world can be a good reminder that I don’t need those things to survive. I like to abandon my comfortable way of life for a while, in the hopes that I can more fully appreciate so many of the foods, conveniences, quiets, and comforts of Canada once I return.

I’m certainly blessed, both through the technology and comforts of home and through opportunities to live differently.

What’s cooking in Kenya? Ugali, of course!

The finished product: lunch of ugali and tiny, dried omena fish.

I recently got my first Kenyan cooking lesson. A good friend I made in the small town of Sega took me to his home and let me help make a simple lunch of ugali (a thick, sticky mass of carbohydrates, and the foundation of the Kenyan diet) and tiny fish called omena, which are pulled from nearby Lake Victoria, then dried and eaten whole.

Tasty and salty. You don’t ever notice the eyes, I promise!

So, how did we do it?  Easy!  First, my friend George fired up his “jika” a small, charcoal burner and began heating a pot of water for our ugali.  After the water began to boil, he added a little corn flour.  Then, we began to stir.

As the gooey ugali began to thicken, George added more flour to make it the right, play-dough-esque consistency. His experienced hands put in the exact amount, but I’m sure I would need to try several times to get the right ratio.

Here I am, stirring ugali as it thickens over the charcoal heat.

George, my friend and culinary instructor.

George plopped the mass of ugali on a plate and covered it to keep it hot while we started the fish.  Some oil poured in the bottom of a pot, then the fish, then some salt, then a little onion and finally a small tomato all sizzled over the charcoal. I stirred so it wouldn’t burn, and eventually the fish turned slightly golden and crispy.

Stirring the thick mixture of corn flour and water takes some muscle.


Finally, we enjoyed the fruits of our labour. Showing proper Kenyan manners, George brought a basin and a pitcher of water so I could wash my hands as he poured it for me. Now with clean hands, we squeezed the hot, doughy ugali into edible balls in our palms, then scooped up a few fish for each bite.

Ugali may not have a lot of taste, but believe me: it fills you up! George and I were very full after a meal that probably cost only a few dozen cents in total. Maybe, if you ask me nicely, I’ll even make it for you once I’m back in Canada.

Bonus picture: another meal in Sega. This time, nyoyo (corn and beans) and uji (millet porridge) that I bought at a small stall by the side of the road.

Making Connections: friends on the path

I love a good story. That’s part of what drives me to travel; the people I find in new places often tell me things that I never would have learned at home in Canada.

And some of my favourite real-life stories aren’t just sitting around somewhere, waiting to be discovered. No, they’re being actively created by passionate, driven people.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of these inspiring people on my travels so far. I’m impressed by people driven to challenge the status quo, step into uncharted territory, and work to improve their world. These brief paragraphs can’t capture their entire stories, but I hope you’ll see why I’ve been happy to meet them on my own journey.

Dan Ogola, as featured on CNN.

Dan Ogola is a friend I met in Nairobi, where I stayed for nearly a week with him and his young family.  Dan grew up in Ukwala, a small rural community in western Kenya, then later moved to the Nairobi slum of Kibera. These are very economically poor conditions that rarely produce movers or shakers, but Dan has become an energetic social entrepreneur. He founded the Matibabu Foundation, which is devoted to promoting prosperity through better health and education. Dan has built a hospital in his hometown and co-ordinates dozens of volunteer American doctors each year. He believes in supporting the young women who often marry and start families so young, so he founded a girls high school.  His next project is a education centre that will offer adult classes and improve community health awareness.

Dan was featured on CNN earlier this year as a global innovater.  You can watch a preview of their great full-length profile (the long one is also available on YouTube) here:

Kate McKenzie is a teacher from Alberta on an ambitious eight-month journey around the world to find positive stories of hope and share them with her students back home. Kate is traveling to some of the world’s most challenging places, including Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan.  I met her in Rwanda, where she joined our team to visit the Kiziba refugee camp.

Kate asks great questions and is really keen to find positive aspects even in the most challenging places. That’s refreshing, when our Westernized eyes sometimes focus more on the poverty and difficulties in other countries. And she seemed always interested in being with local people and learning about their lives firsthand.

Read more about her Worldviews project at http://www.worldviewsproject.com.

Kate joined our team to visit Kiziba and learn from the refugees living in that Rwandan camp.

You can also hear about the Worldviews project in her own words here:

And finally, I spent this past weekend with Joel Chacha. He was born in rural south-western Kenya, but was able to come to Ontario with a missionary family in the 1960s to finish high school and get his post-secondary education.

That opportunity changed his life, and he hasn’t forgotten the impact of access to education. He now lives and works in Mississauga, and has found Canadian donors among his friends and co-workers to support nearly 30 students back home in Kenya. Joel comes home at least once each year to meet the students, check their marks, and encourage their progress – with limited funds and too many bright minds to nourish, poor achievers may not have their scholarships continue!

Joel at his family's homestead near Migori, in south-western Kenya, where we met with several students he has helped support.

I met Joel in New Hamburg before my trip, and he kindly invited me to spend some time at his family home. It was a great chance to meet with these young people, who have almost all had one or both parents die from AIDS, cancer, or other diseases. With a much lower life expectancy in Kenya, orphans are a big problem, but Joel sees education as the door to a better life and a career beyond subsistence farming on the family’s plot of land.

His organization is called Teamwork Children’s Services and he has also begun managing a similar program in Zambia.

That’s just the start!  But these three examples have done very interesting things, and done them with respect and generosity.

Shooting the African wildlife (with my camera)

Yes, I really could walk this close to the zebras.

Animals! I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing creatures so far on my travels. Most of these are from Lake Nakuru National Park. I’ve since seen many other animals walking through the Kakamega rain forest or the lower slopes of Mt. Elgon, but my camera batteries are dying and I can’t upload them all!

Here’s a small sample:

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Before you conclude that all I’m doing is playing with the fauna, next I head south to Migori to meet with some students whose education is sponsored by a former New Hamburg, Ontario resident. Then I head to Sega to spend a few days with a community health project.