Tanzania, Africa: Things to know, tips and observations

glacier

Kilimanjaro glacier, photo by Luke Humphrey

Africa was on my mind for many years before I visited. I had a romantic notion of climbing Kilimanjaro and seeing wild animals on Safari, but beyond that, had not really grasped the logistics for traveling there until I was on my way. I’m a pretty seasoned traveler and the adventure that comes with traveling doesn’t seem to faze me. One of my strongest attributes is the ability to handle chaos and even thrive and excel amidst turmoil. The most daunting thing facing me in Africa, in my opinion, was the fact that I would be seen as a Western traveler and worse, a Western, woman traveler. There are many places in this world where I feel safe enough as a woman to venture out, explore and enjoy the

bumper sticker

Love your country
Fear your government

destination but Africa is not a place I would describe as carefree to take lightly to these kinds of leisures. I’ve travelled alone in Vietnam from Cat Ba to Hanoi, bartering my own scooter taxi and walking the streets braving traffic and marketplaces, but even still, Africa is a whole other beast. Here are my observations, tips and things you should know from my perspective before taking a journey there. I am certain I will miss things, but that’s why there is the Internet, forums and of course books you can reference. Hopefully there is something in here that will answer some questions for you that you may not readily find in those places. Whether you are adventurous or not, Africa is a life changing experience, if you let it in…lush, green, vivid, lively, raging, dusty, dirty, beastly, savage, rich, poor, protective, hopeful, needy, grateful, beautiful, pure, corrupt, abundant and expansive. I only have 1 thing to say above anything else, GO.

Flights

Elete and Kili

An early glimpse of Kilimanjaro

When the opportunity came to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in all of Africa, I looked over my finances and explored ways to get to Africa the cheapest. For me, I would be traveling Europe after, therefore, it made sense for me to use my airline miles to get myself to Europe, then find a cheap hub to fly out of from there. Vienna was the recommendation from a friend, and that’s where I made my hub, which worked well for my airline choices to Tanzania. I found an inexpensive ticket (around $850) to Nairobi and settled on taking a shuttle to Arusha from there. My boyfriend would fly on a different airline and meet me in Nairobi. I wanted an airline I would like for the long travels and opted for Swiss Airlines through Zurich. I suggest depending on when you go and where you are traveling from, consider the hubs, changeovers, layovers and fly zones. I wanted to stay as far from anything in the Middle East and knowing how finicky I am with food, didn’t want to trust myself to an African airline at the start. There is no particular reason but my experience of different airlines and their style for food and accommodations. Also, Swiss had one of the best fares so for me, this was a great start.

Tip: look at Europe as an initial destination and find cheap flights from Europe to Africa rather than from N. America to Africa directly. Further, look at neighboring big cities to see if it is cheaper and if you can manage a shuttle between rather than flying to a more expensive port.

Transit

hippo

Don’t get caught by this guy. Photo by Luke Humphrey

There is an airport in Moshi that is more convenient but it costs a bit more and I needed the savings if I would be traveling for a little while after. There is a 6 hour shuttle from Nairobi to Arusha and with some coordination with the shuttle company, we were able to book our seats when we wanted and have them pick us up at our hotel. We had one night in Nairobi and left for Arusha the following morning. On our way back, there is a hub where the shuttle meets and it was no problem to get there and get our seats. One thing to note, if you are flying, and your journey has some close times, you may want to pay the extra money to be sure you make your flight. A shuttle, even though 6 hours away, can be delayed for a long time if anything happens along the way. For instance, on our return, we had to detour for road construction that put us on a bumpy dirt road for a ways. Then, the closer we got to Nairobi, entering in the evening, the more thick pedestrian and vehicle traffic became. We were inching our way for well over an hour, when I heard someone call to tell their friend we were close (maybe within an hour, which turned into well over an hour in actuality). Also, it appeared that the road to the airport was closed when we departed but by the time we got near, it had reopened. The shuttle took us straight to our departing terminal, no problem. We arrived around 8pm with our flights leaving around 11/11:30pm. One terminal had no congestion to check in, but my terminal was queued out of the terminal and a long way down the street. I stood there for a long time content because I knew I had the time to spare and it would not take me 2 hours to get checked in, though, it is Africa and you just never really know…

wall hangings

Some wall hangings at a souvenir shop

Tip: Allow plenty of time for transit (even a day ahead of time if you are traveling between countries in Africa). Expect delays and be grateful if you encounter none. Things go slower there. Border traffic, passport checks, traffic in general, road construction or demonstrations, long queues, etc. Stay aware of what is happening along your journey to be best prepared.

Tip: Shuttles, taxis, busses, intra-African flights, these are all inexpensive ways to get around the continent. Some methods are pricier than others, some more reliable than others, but don’t forget to check them all. On the shuttle ride, I met some other climbers and saw a lot more of the African countryside, as well as got to visit another city during my stay, all of which was part of the adventure I was seeking.

Visas

Bird

An African Bird

Always check the visa requirements online with the embassy of the country you would like to visit. Find out if there is a difference for one-time entry/exit versus multiple entry/exit. Also, it might save you a little money if you buy an entrance visa and an exit visa separately. I bought a multiple entry visa to Kenya since I would be entering when I got off the flight and re-entering when I took the shuttle at the end of the trip back for the airport in Nairobi. I paid $50 for the visa. However, Luke paid for an entrance visa when he arrived at the same airport and bought another one at the Tanzania/Kenya border and paid only $40, $20 each entry fee. It may not be possible at all borders, but it’s something to look at. It did not save much time at the border patrol, either. I may have exited 1 minute faster, all in all, but again, consider if for some reason they decided on the spot to not give him an entrance visa…that would not have been good. Remember, this is Africa–anything is possible.

Currency

market chickens

Chicken coupe at a market

Africa takes American money, currency post 2007. One tip that was not revealed to me until I was already in the country was to bring an envelope of $100 single dollar bills. I kept having to tip $5 because $1’s were rare to come by and I ran out of them quickly from my personal stash. Also, bring cash. Do not rely on your credit card. You tip everyone for everything and internet is not that reliable or available. If you have cash, you can barter more, too.

Tip: Bring $100 single dollar bills for tipping

Tip: Bring cash for all expenses, do not rely on your credit card

market shop

one of the shops at the market, photo by Luke Humphrey

Tip: Keep some cash on you, the rest hidden, stashed or distributed to protect from theft

Tip: When using the ATMs, you will get the local currency and may be asked if you want to pay a flat fee right there or defer to your bank to denote the fee. Always defer. Your bank will most likely give you a better rate than the fee the ATM is suggesting you pay.

Tip: Barter for everything. Very little in Africa is fixed, especially street vendors, marketplaces (flea markets), souvenir shops, etc. If someone wants to show you around somewhere, negotiate their ‘tip’ up front. Taxis are the same. Always negotiate up front before getting into the cab and only pay what you negotiated.

grains

Grains in the market

Tip: Don’t be afraid of losing an opportunity because you wouldn’t pay what they asked. For sure you will find the marketplace coffee in a shop down the street, most likely for less than the market person is trying to sell it to you. Taxis will come along, there will be someone who will take your rate and if not, you will find quickly what the reasonable rate really is.

Tip: If you are a westerner traveling, be prepared to be swindled. Maybe not dramatically, but you may find you pay higher exchange rates, are offered items at more cost than someone else, etc. If you are not willing to shop around, accept this and negotiate perhaps a photo or other trinket as part of the deal.

Tip: Be nice. I don’t like feeling taken advantage of or seen as a walking cash machine, but Africa is needy and corrupt. It is what it is and you can do what you can to protect yourself, but in the end, remember the life you get to go back to and the life you leave them with. One young boy (12 yrs) said on a walking tour with him in his village that Western people are blessed. Keep that in mind as you tip that scale more in your favor.

orphan school

Children at school at an orphanage. Photo by Luke Humphrey

Tip: Donate. If you can, plan to bring extra cash or items to donate. At the end of the Kilimanjaro climb, we left trashbags of things for the guide and his crew. Gloves, socks, hats, ipods, phones, earbuds, jackets, shoes, etc. Seriously, everything will help, even if they sell it. Consider your tip, too. $200-$300 is standard, and they will go out of their way to make you feel like this journey is special for you. Tip them for that experience and more if they go above and beyond. One couple in our group got engaged at the summit. They arranged for a cake at our last camp to celebrate and went out of their way to make sure the couple both summited to have that experience there.

girl

Massai girl, photo by Luke Humphrey

Tip: If you can, visit an orphanage. Better if you can plan a day to volunteer in one. We visited one in a nearby village and if I could, I would have adopted every single one of them. I felt so many things, overwhelmed by their situation. We donated at every school we saw and one in particular, they have a tax ID if anyone wants to donate. Later on our journey we saw one of the school masters walking from the shops. Talk about instant realization that your money is helping.

Village school

Village school, photo by Luke Humphrey

Africa has a lot of needs. It is overwhelming to think of all that is necessary to help the people there. Giving money while there is one way to ensure the money goes to what you want it to go to. Donating to a reputable organization is another. With my bleeding heart syndrome, I could’ve stayed and would’ve given everything to help them, but I know that they would take all I had and it would still not be enough. Therefore, the solution must be bigger and longer standing than that. And, as a traveler keep this in mind. They have no boundaries. They don’t know when to stop taking or asking. You could easily find yourself lost in that place and if you were on the wrong side of luck, destitute or worse. Be generous, but be mindful.

Tip: As in Vietnam, watch your currency closely. Africa has huge money laundering problems and therefore, be sure to check all change you receive to make sure it is good. They will check your money when you give it to them, scrutinize them as well. They are not above slipping a bad note into your fold to rid it from their registers and once you are stuck with it, you are stuck.

Vaccinations

Monkeys

Monkeys, don’t get bit by one. They like to try to take your lunch from the vehicle. Photo by Luke Humphrey

Get them. All or as many as you can before your trip. Some of them like Hepatitis needs 3 shots over a period of time so plan accordingly. I like to travel and got mine some time ago. Even so, keep a record and make sure all boosters are up to date. I let my tetanus lapse and got a lacerated leg in the middle of Patagonia in nowhere Argentina. I got the booster as soon as I got home, but had there been any problem, I might not have had that leisure.

Malaria – I took the pills for the entire time I was in Africa, even though I didn’t see but maybe a handful of mosquitos. I also didn’t travel to mosquito prone regions. Still, it was a short enough trip to not risk it and simply take the pills.

Kilimanjaro at night

Kilimanjaro at night, photo by Luke Humphrey

Dymoxin – altitude sickness medication. This one had a lot of debate in our group. I took one pill on the first high altitude day, or just before and had to pee constantly. I hated it. I didn’t take another one until just before summit day. Then, I took half of the dosage. I didn’t have any problems with altitude and the half dosage didn’t make me pee as much. It’s a personal preference or trial and error kind of thing.

Antibiotics – take some. I have heard of people contracting severe diarrhea after ingesting something or the food not settling right. Worse could be that you get injured like I did in Argentina or any other reason that you might need them. Have them. I never travel without. Up on a mountain like Kilimanjaro, you don’t want to leave yourself at risk with the hope that your guide company has them or that another traveler has some for you.

Gear

Kili porter

Porter on the hike up Kilimanjaro

Kiliimanjaro gear is like any other mountain. Expect extreme conditions and temperatures and you will be fine. Layers work well. Bring antibacterial soap or wipes, for everything. I brought a backpackers small towel and folding bowl (doubles as a plate). I used these and the hot water found at camp to wash every day. This made me feel a lot better and fresh for each day’s long hike.

Guide Companies

safari laptop

Safari tent camp at Kilima Valley. There’s no internet but I am on the laptop, anyway. :) photo by Luke Humphrey

I saw a lot of different companies up there, some with the same offering or similar to the one I was traveling with. Cost is one differentiator but so is the max number of people they will allow in a group. The food was amazing. They even set up a camp toilet for us, which was really awesome. Our company, Climb Kili, was simply amazing. I fell in love with the guides and the crew. They spent time talking to each of us. I worked on learning Swahili to make the most of the long hikes and they humored me by teaching and testing me along the way. Our group was small enough to feel intimate, yet big enough to keep our characters fresh. We never got lost in numbers and everyone had the patience for everyone else. We went at our own pace, waited for those that struggled and encouraged one another as needed. Our mess tent discussions were engaging. Card games were fun and all in all, the experience became life transforming. I am not sure I would have had such a deep connection or impactful time in a larger company. For me, this was perfect. I felt special, I felt included, I was recognized, I was challenged, I was encouraged, I was taken care of, I was looked after…

I would say, look across them all and see what others have to say. Find out how many people will likely be in your group and understand what matters to you. If you are on a mission to climb that mountain, make sure they know it so you are with a team of like-minded individuals. Then, look at the cost. Food and accommodations are essential, but the quality of each can vary dramatically. I can’t speak for all of the companies, but I can say that Climb Kili exceeded my expectations across the board.

Safari

me safari

Searching out wildlife in the Serengeti, photo by Luke Humphrey

Climb Kili set us up for the entire experience while we were there. We were with Kilima Valley for the safari and coming from Kilimanjaro, the experience is a stark contrast. You still sleep in a tent, but the tent is more like a hotel. Be aware that while it looks and sleeps luxuriously, you are still in the jungle. We had a guide with a bow and arrow who would be there in the night in case animals ventured near. If we wanted to walk about at night, he was always at our side.

The same words of advice from the Kilimanjaro guide experience to the Safari guides applies. Price, food, accommodations, all make a difference. The guides are each very knowledgeable about the landscape and the animals. If you want to learn a lot about the animals, they are a book. You can tell him the kinds of things you are interested in as well and surprisingly, he will help make it happen. Well, within reason. I mean, you cannot get out of the truck for instance and he is not going to change that for you.

lizard

I love lizards, look how pretty this one is, photo by Luke Humphrey

Kilima Valley tents are amazing, btw. The beds were the best I’ve ever slept in and it was sad that I couldn’t just take a day to sleep in one.

Water

Don’t drink the tap and always make sure the water you buy is sealed.

That’s all I recall, now. Look for updates if I think of anything else.

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lion

This lion is walking straight to us. He passed directly underneath me by the side of our vehicle. He was beautiful and very full from his recent feast. photo by Luke Humphrey

tree

Tree in the Serengeti, photo by Luke Humphrey

 

 

 

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African wild meets people, Safari

Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater Safari

Ngorongoro Pride

Ngorongoro Pride

Have you ever wanted to see big, wild animals, like the ones you see on National Geographic: Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Zebras, Hyenas, Cheetahs, Monkeys, Baboons, and more….? The famous Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater offer you this in abundance. From Nairobi to Arusha by shuttle, we even saw gazelles, zebras, cows, goats and a lot of interesting people, land and homes, but while these animals are wild, roaming free and can or could be found in these same surroundings, they are no longer common. Be aware, however, that there is always the possibility of running into one or more of them if you are out adventuring.

Maasai school children

Maasai school children

That is how I would describe my taste of Africa, as well. A beautiful, varied, seemingly harmless, but a little like the wild animals I saw in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. The environment is harsh, but just like the animals, the people have adapted to their surroundings. As we traveled from the south to the northern Serengeti, we witnessed many people of varying ages: men, women and children so young that I was astonished to see them alone in the streets, streams or fields. Everyone was going about their daily lives and I got to see a little of what life was like for them. I kept thinking of the animals I had been witnessing for days as I pondered these people’s lives. They journey long distances to get the things they need, including water. They wash their clothes and bodies in the same streams that probably see a fair bit of waste that I can safely assume is not treated by anything up river. I watched people in the middle of nowhere, going somewhere that I hadn’t identified existed. Distance and travel appeared to be just another part to their daily rhythm. And in all of this, many dressed like middle class business workers or at the very least like they were going to church, which looked odd to someone like myself, especially since as an engineer I am typically surrounded by jeans and t-shirts. :)

Monkey

Monkey

The animals I saw were not unlike this. Their beautiful coats did not reflect the dust and desert-scape of their environment. They also migrate over long distances following the rain or grass growth for food and water. Thousands of animals sometimes moving as one herd—a seemingly endless stream of beasts like an endless waterfall, traveling vast expanses of land and going somewhere but seemingly in the middle of nowhere from wherever it was they came. They, too, rely on their surroundings for food, water, and bathing. For instance, there was a body of water with wildebeests in varying stages of rot and upstream a family of hippos lounged.

Cheetahs

Cheetahs

I saw a lot of baby animals were seen in the wild, too. Watching baby baboons, monkeys, elephants, lions, and cheetahs was humorous as their coordination was not unlike that of a human infant. Each adorable and cute for their small and childlike nature. Click the photo to watch a 20″ clip of these two thanks to Luke Humphrey.

Everything in the wild is about basic needs and somehow they all manage to exist in the same space, sometimes prey sometimes preying. Observing this made me ponder the technology we have and the technology this region lacked. How primitive and difficult life was compared to what I knew it could be. I wondered what a lion would do if they somehow could learn to track their food with the use of technology. I mean, someone was already tracking them with collars and it wouldn’t be too hard to think they could learn how to read a signal if trained. Far-fetched, I know, but it was a strange consideration from my seat in the Range Rover as I marveled at how easy food is to come by for westerners.

Frolicking hippo

Frolicking Hippo, just missed the air chomp. photo by Luke Humphrey

Fascinating to watch was a pride of lions teaming up to attack a buffalo. The buffalo managed to keep them off and then proceeded to chase one of them for a long distance before everything calmed down again. Cubs learning how to hunt, lions chasing off hyenas from recent kills, lionesses hunting…wow.

Buffalo chasing lion

Buffalo chasing a lion after a pride attempted to attack it

hyena chase

Hyena chasing another hyena for it’s food

Along with all of this life activity in the wild, there was also a lot of death to observe…death that was made a part of the life of the wild. We saw everything from an exciting lion kill to animal bones, skulls, things like that in the surrounding terrain. One day, driving into the Serengeti, there was a dead hyena lying in the middle of the road with a wildebeest head nearby. Another day, we watched a group of hyenas attempt to get food from a recent pride kill. One snagged a Zebras leg quarter and raced off because it was now being chased by another hyena. Clearly, these animals have rules or no rules about sharing. I came to understand through these observations that there is a hierarchy to life in the wild. They talk often of the Big 5: Lion, Elephant, Leopard, Rhino, and Buffalo. These are the untouchables, the animals that are most difficult to kill.

circle of life

Circle of Life, dead hyena and a wildebeest head

Even with birds there seems to be some order. During one of our drives, we encountered a gazelle being devoured by a group of vultures. Actually, there was an alpha vulture who was feasting on the carcass and every other buzzard, vulture and creature that wanted a part had to wait until this alpha bird was done. The alpha bird ate the ‘good’ stuff like the innards and left the rest for everyone else to fight over.

Essentially, the safari exceeded my expectations of what I would experience and witness even though it was a lot of time in a vehicle. Climb Kili arranged everything for us as well as the Kilimanjaro trip. We stayed in a tent that had one of the comfiest beds I have ever slept in. The tents were like hotel rooms and the service was exceptional. We even had our own guide to walk us at night between the fire pit, lounge and dinner. He walked with a bow and arrow in case stray animals found their way inside the area.

Kilima Valley tented camp

Kilima Valley tented camp, arranged through Climb Kili

Back to Arusha for a few days to visit some villages and learn more about the people…stay tuned…

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Climb Kili

The Climb Kili vehicles

Lions

Lions (brothers) lying right next to the road. we were literally one vehicle’s length away from them.

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Jambo! Mambo. Mambo poa. Kilimanjaro

Kili summit

Kilimanjaro Summit Pose

There are 3 peaks to Kilimanjaro: Shira, Mwenzi and Uhuru, with Uhuru being the highest and most accessible peak –it’s also the youngest and last active part of this mountain. Kilimanjaro is massive with Uhuru standing at 5895m/19,341 ft and during this time of year, with little snow to take on, means it’s just a super long, potentially arduous hike. In my opinion, it’s one of the most approachable mountains if you ever want to take on a summit at this height.

Jungle

Jungle

More than just achieving new heights, this mountain intrigued me for it’s 5 different climate zones. From the jungle to the alpine desert, you are greeted with contrasting landscapes, each with their unique elements. Hours of hiking each day may seem daunting, but the guides make it fun and our fellow climbers kept things interesting. I absolutely fell in love with the upper mountain and could have kept hiking for days.

It was actually a treat to have a guide and a team of porters invested in giving us the best chance of summiting. We didn’t rush, we went at the pace that all of us could keep together. Sometimes it felt ridiculously slow, but then, I would remind myself, “what’s the hurry?” I loved the hiking, I loved the guides, I enjoyed the comradery and I knew the porters would have camp set up for us when we arrived.  There wasn’t anywhere in the world I wanted to be other than at that very place, doing what I was doing; therefore, why rush it?

backpack

My backpack on it’s way up to camp before I arrive. Jo-el, Luke’s designated porter for his camera equipment in the foreground.

Our porters were strong and fast, quick with everything and always smiling. I learned a small bit of Swahili while hiking (basic greetings, numbers, phrases, and some common words) and every time the porter with my pack would pass I would say ‘asante sana’ (thank you in Swahili) with a cheerful nod. He would smile and breeze on past and I would watch as my pack made it’s way out of sight in a matter of moments.

Some days the hiking was harder than others, but overall completely achievable and thoroughly enjoyable. It didn’t really matter because at the end of each hike, there was camp to look forward to. At every camp, upon arrival we would find our tents fully assembled, mess tent complete with table, chairs, hot water and your choice of tea, coffee or cocoa; and the bathroom available to us. I was shocked to see the elaborate offerings made for us each day. For example, we had a hot lunch at the Lava Tower (4600m) waiting

Yummy meal

A sample of a meal at camp, yummy!

for us, mess tent and toilet all setup. This was our first major altitude sampling and the greeting was a welcome break.

Breakfast, lunches and dinners were always hot. Soups, chicken, eggs, toast, porridge, sausages, vegetables and fruits, including a watermelon late in the trip. We had peanut butter, margarine and other accompaniments that we couldn’t believe were hauled up the mountain. I was very thankful for all of it! At some point on the way up, my appetite was insatiable. I was already packing leftovers for snacks along the hike but in the middle of the night I started craving food. I started packing leftovers from dinner so I could eat something later. My metabolism was on overdrive!

mountain first look

Above the clouds, our first look at the mountain.

Rest Stop

Rest stop, our guides: Dastan, Simon, Good-Love, and Mr. Raymond

With the varying altitudes and differing experiences handling the altitude changes, we took things slow at camp. Most of us were exhausted by 8pm. Luke, on the other hand having recently summited Denali, would run off and do some night photography, see his blog for his experience on the mountain. Sleep did not come easily for me on the mountain.  For some reason, despite having used the restroom before retiring to my tent, I would lay down and find myself immediately feeling like I needed to get up and go again. Frustrated with this late night phenomenon, I could do nothing but wait it out for as long as I could then suck it up and venture out (usually around midnight).

Sunset on Kili

Sunset on Kilimanjaro

The higher up we got, the colder the nights but unlike in the jungle we were slowly creeping above the clouds and now the skies were peeking out and clearing up. The night sky was impressive with the lights of Moshi far below. I could clearly see the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and even in the early morning/late night Orion. The moon was not quite upside down but more on that spectrum, which reminded me that together with the Southern Cross, we were clearly below the equator. I looked for other constellations, but found it hard to pick things out. I figured these midnight outings gave me an excuse to look up and enjoy the night sky which made the inconvenience more bearable.

Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro

Kili Night Sky

Night Sky at camp, photo by Luke Allen Humphrey

Summit morning was a long day with a mild-ish hike to base camp and a super early start (midnight) for the summit. While I had layered my socks, I found my toes still froze. That and my water bladder froze and my extra water bottle leaked out. Together with frozen fingers I realized I still have not mastered the art of mountain warmth.

Stella Point

Stella Point

Luke had gone up ahead of our group and was taking photos and our group nearer Stella Point had some gaps. Thus, I made my way up to Stella Point on my own and had a picture taken. I moved quickly to Uhuru, counting my steps as I went, pausing every 100 feet. When I arrived, I was completely overcome with emotion and could feel my eyes welling with tears.

I made it. My first big mountain. A long time, really big dream of mine that I made happen, with some luck and support from Luke.

Now, I may have made the summit but I was severely dehydrated and did not linger, knowing I needed to get down and rehydrate quickly. Of course, our guides were prepared for this and had juice boxes waiting for us on the way up and at Stella Point–a peak being just 20 minutes from Uhuru, which can feel like an eternity if you are having any altitude problems. A juice box was not going to be enough to help me by that point and for the first time that entire trip, I started to feel off.

Summit

Everyone on the summit.

By the time we got back to camp, I had a headache that developed into something mind splitting. I’ve never experienced anything like this and wanted to sleep, but we needed to tear down camp and hike out that afternoon. Also for the first time, we were on a strict time schedule so resting was cut short and we moved out as soon as we could.

flower

Flower – Helichrysu​m cymosum

Back in June I had hurt my knee on a long run and though I was able to hike most things, up was fine, coming down could be a challenge. It seemed if the terrain was not overly impactful on the knee and not longer than a couple hours, I would be fine. But, after that point, if the knee was aggravated, my ability to go downhill deteriorated fast.

The summit descent took a toll on my knee. I knew I needed to get down quickly so I went quickly, which put a lot of stress on the knee for a long distance. Luke had to carry me for a few stretches to give it some rest but still make progress down. When the group had assembled we made the decision to hike further out to get as far down the mountain on this day and not have as long the next. Luke had to carry me at points on this descent as well. I was in bad shape. After some time, and with a lot of leaning on hiking poles, I figured out a way to hobble out on my own. My whole body was wrecked after, but then we were heading out on safari where I would be sitting for days so I figured I could give my knee some rest then.

Chris and sara

Chris and Sara get engaged at the summit

Another memorable moment of this part of my trip was the post summit celebration. First, I should remark that 2 members in our party got engaged at the summit. We had a celebratory moment at the final camp, thanks to some forethought and planning from our guide, Raymond, and Chris (the proposer). Spirits were high as we made our final camp, but I was feeling sad. The adventure was coming to a close and I didn’t want it to end.

After breakfast the next morning, our crew did a celebration dance and swept us into their circle where we moved and embraced the final moments we would all be sharing together. It could have been the summit high, the altitude oxygen deprivation swings or just the intense bonding that occurred throughout the trip; but during this engagement, I was once again moved to the point of tears. I would have tried to hide it but my hands were clasped with someone else’s as we

Celebration

Our crew celebrating our summit, singing to us.

were directed enthusiastically around to a joyous beat. Tears escaped my eyes and rolled down my face as I tried hard to contain the emotion and not start hugging every single porter, cook, waiter, guide and hand. It was a moment that I found myself in love with everything and everyone around me. My love for this mountain, the experience, the people, this celebration, was overwhelming. I had never had such intense feelings like this from an adventure before and I knew I would miss it all once it ended. There aren’t enough words for me to express how grateful I was for everything.

happy ending

The happy ending, our certificate of completion.

This was definitely worth the experience. I can’t believe it took me this long to get around to it, either. 14 years ago, the experience would have been a bit different since the commercialization of the mountain hadn’t quite come into it’s own just then, but I am sure I would have enjoyed that experience, too. Climb Kili, the guiding company we used, made this journey personal and intimate without even trying. I can’t thank them enough for everything they did for us and I can hardly believe the crew will go back in 4 days and do it all again and again until the end of peak season. I’m impressed they can make each summit push a unique and personal one despite the number of people they will meet on the journey and never see again. I, however, hope this will not be my last meeting with some of them.

Next up, Safari time!

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Africa – A Three Part Adventure, Brief Intro

Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro

14 years ago a friend of mine invited me to climb Kilimanjaro and although I was intrigued by the mountain I was not prepared for the undertaking. For some years now, I have been looking for an opportunity to get there and do this mountain. This year, my opportunity arrived. I had always imagined I would include South Africa for the obvious rock climbing destination, but I’m actually ok with the omission. This trip was more than I had hoped to get out of a mountain adventure. I was able to summit my first big mountain, see wild animals in the famous Serengeti and Ngorogoro Crater, tour Maasi and local villages, and sample life of an African family. Each part of the trip had unique elements to it that I’m breaking it up into 3 distinct write ups. It will be easier to digest and I can include tips for anyone interested in taking on a similar journey.

This was a trip of a lifetime and I am very thankful for the opportunity.

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Lost Horizons 5.14b (8c), first female ascent

Lost Horizons, it's about to get real...

Lost Horizons, it’s gettin’ real in the whole foods parking lot…

Little Si, World Wall I, is one of the most impressive cliffs I am fortunate to have exist just 32 miles outside of Seattle, Washington. Lost Horizons is one of maybe two climbs that can top out onto one of Little Si’s false summits. On this route, I could just barely reach the ground lowering on an 80m, 9.2mm, super stretchy rope with a 120cm extended sling at the chains. I would recommend just rethreading half way down the route, which I had to do on the send since I had to climb past my long sling at the top to clean my gear. The entire route is punchy. There are good rests and decent holds throughout, but the cruxes hit you hard and build on top of each other. The climb itself starts on Psycho-Wussy 5.11b (6c+) into Psychosomatic 5.12d (7c) then into Flat Liner 5.13c (8a+) and instead of finishing right to complete Flat Liner, Lost trends left and continues to the top of the wall. For clarification, you do the line in a single push and from Flat Liner through the Lost Horizons crux, there is no resting. It is about a 20-something sequence of sustained and powerful moves.

Dr. Evil 5.14a Little Si, Washington

Dr. Evil 5.14a
Little Si, Washington

Two summers ago, I sent Dr. Evil 5.14a (8b+) and its extension 5.14b (8c) at this same wall. However, last summer, climbing partners were thin, my job was becoming more and more stressful and time consuming and while I had tried Lost two summers ago, falling 7 moves shy of exiting the crux, I was unable to get back on it until this summer. This year, I was blessed with a number of psyched and determined people who were eager to climb first thing in the morning. With reliability in numbers and my determination to not let my ever changing role at work consume my mental health, I settled into life in Seattle and adopted the early morning routine once again—committed to trying and hoping to send Lost Horizons before summer’s end.

 

Breakfast Club 2014 Zak, Daniil, Audrey, Luke, Glen

Breakfast Club 2014
Zak, Daniil, Audrey, Luke, Glen

The early morning routine, if you don’t already know this about me, is sport climbing ‘alpine style’ starting at the crack of dawn. We call ourselves the Breakfast Club or the Morning Crew and though the group has dwindled down over the years to only a few remaining, it was exciting to see a resurgence in numbers. The morning group has been gathering and climbing at this wall and Exit 38 since as early as 2005. We come from all around the city, meet and carpool to the cliff sometimes in the dark so we can get the most time on the wall before having to rush back to the city for work. While there has been an ebb and flow of the morning group, there has generally been a core set, primarily Microsoftees, that have endured and includes myself. These early morning sessions allow us to get in some good climbs with cooler temps and no crowds. We get in a full day at work and for those with families, get to enjoy dinner at home with their spouse and kids. In the summer, the sun hits the wall as early as 8:30 and if it’s a hot day, can become impossible to climb on the wall by 9:30, which is perfect for us. We can easily be off the wall and in the office by 10:30/11am. Engineering teams typically have a later start to the day and this schedule ~2x during the week doesn’t interfere with the flow of corporate life.

Breakfast Club 2012

Breakfast Club 2012 Glen, Mike, Audrey, Daniil

Breakfast club 2009

Breakfast club 2009 Greg, Daniil, Greg, Nathan, Glen, Audrey

Breakfast Club

Morning Crew 2007 Audrey, Daniil, Greg

Psychosomatic crux

Psychosomatic crux

For me, I always had difficulty leaving work once I was there. Our engineering team has been a distributed group of people from Shanghai, New Zealand, Portland, Las Vegas (myself) with my role interfacing with customers and partners and other internal colleagues all around the globe. Spending time in Seattle had the upside of getting important face-time with the core engineering team headquartered there, but with a distributed team and all of the time zones to consider, it was sometimes impossible to manage my calendar. I could have meetings 24 hours a day if I let it happen. The stress of making these important meetings and keep certain days open for these early morning sessions has been overwhelming at times. I would have to sacrifice climbing days to tend to these meetings, especially when they started being in-person, on-site labs. All this distraction meant to me was to get clear on my climbing goals and not waste any time.

Lost Horizons Crux

Lost Horizons Crux
That’s a Lorelli sports bra under there, enough said. :)

Weather in Seattle, while hot and humid, had still been agreeable for the early morning sessions, less one week of torrential rains that set me back just after having my first high point on the route (2 moves shy of exiting the crux!). Temps in the morning after the rains were in the low 50s (12C) and my fingers actually numbed out while climbing. Despite some humidity, the rock was dry and after a day in the gym to stretch out, too slick conditions the day before, this day turned out to be perfect sending conditions. Now, 3 days on, the question was whether my fingers could handle the route and would my body perform that day.

Lost Horizons

Cruxing in the Crux

With all of the work stress and struggling through yet another injury that has taken me out from climbing most of the past year, I could not have predicted a send day. I knew it all came down to my mental space because I already knew the movements and I could tell I had been falling in the crux because I was not fully committing to those moves. I could sense there was underlying resistance and despite the “1 hang” I just knew there was something I needed to do to put myself into another state of mind and push myself through that mental barrier. I knew I could do the route, and at this point, it was just a matter of time, but I didn’t want to wait for the ‘perfect’ send, I wanted to send this now!

Holy cruxy clip, batman

Holy cruxy clip, batman

Lost Horizons

Barely making the big move.

The day prior to the send, on that route, everything climbed ‘off.’ I was cm shy of holds, moving too quickly through sequences, forcing movements, trying hard but not really in the flow of the climb. It became clear that the route was not going to come together that day. My head was obviously not in it. The next day, committed to a different experience of the route, I scrounged up a partner and took the 20 minute detour to pick him up, which meant I had to wake up even earlier than I usually do and on a Sunday, when most people want to be sleeping in. Fortunately, my climbing partner, Zak, is in his last week as an intern at Microsoft and hearing that my boyfriend was willing to take photos, enthusiastically agreed to join us. I was relieved. His psyche was infectious and I trusted him on the belay because he knew the intricacies of this route having belayed me on it a few times prior. That coupled with my Matt Darey tunes, the first time I’d done that this summer, evaporated whatever was clouding my mental state and I went up the route enjoying every move, flowing through the cruxes and bearing down committing to the sequences even barely snagging the ‘finishing crux hold’ to clinch the send.

Lost Horizons

Transitioning into the upper headwall

Finally, a rest! Only one more bolt then anchors....

Finally, a rest! Only one more bolt then anchors….

Lost Horizons

Still some moves up here…

It's been a fun jouney. Now, I can't wait to get some fitness and do New World Order. :)

It’s been a fun journey. Now, I can’t wait to get some fitness and do New World Order. :)

Victory Cone

Victory Cone Photo by Zak Bainazarov

This has been a challenging climbing year, climbing with an injury, not wanting to take more time off from climbing but unsure how much to push myself and how far and for how long. My confidence has been hit or miss, my body has been like a train wreck sometimes not letting me sleep because of pain, but I have had the best support from my climbing ‘teams’ and my team of professionals that have helped me manage the pain, work through the injury and climb at ridiculous times of days just to fit it into my finicky schedule.

Coming back to fitness has been a long road, it’s never been fun, but I have learned a lot about myself, my ability, and best of all, I’ve been able to mix things up for myself and keep climbing feeling fresh. These days when I go to Si, I look at the wall differently. I look for the obscure, less climbed or climbs I’ve overlooked. I am having fun and appreciate all who have chosen to include me or just participate with me and share in these experiences. I especially appreciate Luke taking these pictures (real-time send footage, nothing posed) that I am now fortunate to share with you.

Enjoying a night in the city.

Enjoying a night in the city.

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Kentucky students visit Seattle, year 2

 LCHS AP CS students visit Seattle, WA
TEALS AP CS Class
TEALS Lee County High School AP CS Class from Beattyville, Ky visit Seattle, WA

 On Tuesday April 29, 2014, 7 Lee County High School students from Beattyville, KY joined over 1,000 Puget Sound high school students at the Microsoft corporate headquarters in Redmond, WA for what could be the largest high school coding event… ever! These students represent the impact of the Microsoft sponsored TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) program in the region. LCHS is one of 4 schools being taught remotely this year, but was the only non-Puget Sound school in attendance for the event.

I can Give...

A visit with Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sparks some thought around what each student can give to their community, today.

visiting facebook

Visiting Facebook

Their trip to Seattle included visits with Facebook and Google, which provided a venue for these students to learn more about the varied and exciting college and career paths in computer science. There were presentations, demos, 1:1 and group activities, which included building a turtle box and a flappy bird adaptation. They went head to head with other students for a chance to win an XBOX One.

A common sentiment from what they learned on this trip.

TEALS at Google

LCHS TEALS AP class visits Google

“Computer Science is not just programming, it’s much more.”

Among the exciting computer science related activities they were able to experience, there was also time to visit some popular Seattle sites such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pike Place Market, the gum wall and the Freemont Troll. When asked what they liked best about the trip:

“The food! There was so much of it and it was delicious.”

Akhtar Badshah

Akhtar Badshah, Sr. Director Microsoft Community Affairs

Akhtar Badshah, Sr Director Microsoft Community Affairs met with Justin Austin, Senior at Lee County High School at the Microsoft event. Akhtar wanted to personally congratulate Justin on his success with the TEALS AP class and his acceptance to University of Pennsylvania next fall. Justin recently spoke out about his personal experience and impact with TEALS to Senator McConnell during the Senator’s visit to LCHS this spring.

Justin Touch Develop

Justin participating in the Touch Develop part of the Microsoft application developer day hosted on the main Microsoft campus and open to Puget Sound TEALS participants

“This program allows students with an interest in technology to learn the content, connect with current experts in the industry, and pursue their dreams…thank you to everyone who has played a part in bringing this program to our school.”

“I encourage any student with even a remote interest in computing to take one of these classes.”

Justin wants to study artificial intelligence or cryptography. He thanks TEALS volunteer and AP CS teacher for LCHS, Dan Goldin, Data Scientist at TripleLift for his help with his college applications.

TEALS is a grassroots program that recruits, trains, mentors and places high-tech professionals into high school computer science classes in a team teaching model with in-service teachers. Kevin Wang, founder of TEALS, is a former high school computer science teacher and software engineer at Microsoft. Kevin received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and computer science from UC Berkeley and his graduate degree in education from Harvard.

Audrey Sniezek climbing

Audrey Sniezek climbing in the Red River Gorge, photo by Daniil Magdalen

TEALS found a place in Lee County High School thanks to a current Microsoft employee and TEALS volunteer who enjoys spending time rock climbing in the region. As a professional rock climber, she has travelled all over the globe to climb but considers the Red River Gorge some of the best sandstone climbing in the world.

TEALS was responsible for $10,200 in employee matching donations to Lee County High School in 2012-2013. Microsoft matches employee volunteer time with $17 per hour up to $15k a year. Lee County High School used that money to send the TEALS remote learning pilot, Introduction to Computer Science, students to Seattle for a job shadow and Microsoft visit. This year’s trip was similarly funded for the remote teaching pilot of AP Computer Science A.

LCHS TEA:S Intro to CS

LCHS TEALS pilot Intro to CS visit Seattle 2013

LCHS now offers both Introduction to Computer Science and AP Computer Science A. 6 new Kentucky High Schools will be offering one of these classes in the next school year. Kentucky School Boards Association (KSBA) is in talks for how to offer this curriculum in every High School in Kentucky State.

Visit: www.tealsk12.org to learn more.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, copyright Audrey Sniezek. To view more photos go here.


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Senator McConnell visits Lee County High School, part II

LCHS Senator McConnell

LCHS TEALS CS students get a photo opportunity with Senator Mitch McConnell during his visit to the school to learn more about TEALS in the region.

When I learned the Senator would be coming to LCHS to visit this April, I made every attempt to be sure I would be there. When he came to Redmond, WA for his initial “how did Microsoft find Lee County” visit, I was on the teleconference sitting in the classroom with the students. This time I was glad to see he wanted to visit the students in person. What I didn’t understand was that a lot of preparation and thought was going to have to go into this from the Microsoft side. Also, because I would be an MS representative on the ground there, it made sense to have me as the key liaison between the school and Microsoft.

Superintendent speaking

Superintendent, Jim Evans, gives the introduction and opening speech.

While I wanted the Senator to have the classroom experience to observe what I have described in part 1 of this post, it was clear that with the number of attendees, we would not be able to fit everyone in the room. Therefore, we moved the event to the auditorium and created a bit of a program for him. The Superintendent would speak, then I would represent TEALS and we would share our student’s stories  along with a short hands-on demo and include a parent voice.

Audrey Sniezek

Audrey Sniezek
Program Manager, Microsoft Corporation, professional rock climber and Volunteer TEALS speaks out about LCHS, local partnerships and TEALS expansion in the region.

The students and parent chosen were perfect. Personally, I felt I fumbled my part and was disappointed in that, but I know the student and parent presentations more than made up for it. He wasn’t there to listen to Microsoft’s blah blah blah about TEALS. He heard it last year, though I did want to share how we are expanding and speak out about the call to action. But, I did think it was good for him to hear how Lee County is progressing, to hear why I’m involved and so passionate about it’s success here and for the expansion of TEALS in the region. I wanted to give him some context to let him know that I understand the importance and impact beyond the stats and Microsoft agenda.

Kevin LCHS students

Dr. Kevin Wilson
Data Scientist, Knewton and TEALS volunteer
A casual conversation with some students from the TEALS CS class at LCHS while waiting for the Senator to arrive.

2 of the Intro to CS alums from last year’s class were in attendance and I was able to call them out and share their current story and impact the class had on them. Our Senior from

Justin speech

A Senior at LCHS, Justin volunteers his story with TEALS for the Senator

the AP class, Justin, who is attending UPenn spoke next. He’s generally a quiet person, but he spoke out just fine for this occasion. He wasn’t able to take the Intro class last year, but that didn’t stop him from teaching himself Python at the suggestion of the TEALs teacher that year. This year, he was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to take the AP course and stands out as our top student, poised to do well on the AP exam on the 6th of May.

LaShonda SpeaksThe second student to speak was LaShonda. She signed up for Intro to CS because it was a Microsoft course and she thought she would be learning Microsoft Word and such. Despite this confusion, she decided to stay in the class and give it a try. She remarked how important it was to be in attendance and fully present because she would find herself getting behind otherwise. This she comments, was a habit she had to adjust in order to do well in the class. Part of her speech included a demonstration of one of her projects, one in which she said she was the most proud: Ping Pong.

LaShanda demo

Another Senior, LaShonda volunteered to demo one of her CS projects for the Senator.

She invited the Senator up to the computer with her and did a wonderful job describing what her project did. She even had a part for the Senator where he would change the velocity of the ball and see the change. Her presentation was flawless. He was amused and grinning ear to ear the entire time. When she was finished, the Senator asked her if she thought she would use this (what she learned in the Intro class) after High School and LaShonda remarked, she wasn’t sure. To his curiousity, perhaps, Pong may not be the most representative of what computer science is about but it definitely is the easiest and simplest way to learn the concepts and set yourself on that path. If only there was more time to explain this to him…

Marian speech

Marian graciously volunteers her time to share her story with TEALS and its impact on her son, who is in AP CS this year and took Intro to CS last year with TEALS.

Finally, Marian Ross, Dakota’s mom (Dakota took Intro last year and is in AP this year) and Aunt to LaShonda, spoke. During rehearsal earlier that day, she melted my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Her speech was simply perfect. My only advice to all 3 of them in their prep was to be honest, share their story and express what they liked and challenges they encountered since TEALS entered their lives. Marian talked about Dakota’s 5th in State placement of a recent computer project he and fellow classmate (Tristan, also 2-time TEALS student) submitted. For this same project, they took 1st in Regionals. She described how these classes really make him think about what he is developing and how things work. But, she calls out the internet as their biggest challenge. There’s no place in town that stays open late enough to service them since he’s in Band and other extracurricular activities and the home internet quota is gone in 3 days. In fact, I enjoyed her expression of the situation: (Loosely quoted)

…found the best internet option was Excede Satellite, which costs $60.58 a month for 10 GB, which she thought was a lot. After 3 days, her 2 boys said ‘Mom, something’s wrong with the internet’ to which [she] learned they had maxed their quota. “I guess 2 boys can go through 10GB in 3 days.” Excede said she could buy more at $10 per 1 GB but she can’t afford that…

At the end of the presentations and the final remarks from the school’s Superintendent, the Senator turned to me and said: “Boy am I glad you love to rock climb.” J Cropped group photoWe took a group photo and that was the end of our time with him. All of the prep done for this by everyone involved, made it run without a hitch. He arrived late, didn’t stay too long, but we managed to get everything in we wanted to….I just wish we had more time to really talk about program and challenges.

There was much more that I wanted to say to him to help him really understand what is happening in the region since TEALS stepped foot. The program is expanding, we’ll be in more schools in Kentucky next year. Remote work spaces are being developed and internet is only $$$ away. In other words, the technology ball is rolling and picking up momentum. It’s the people’s vision, resilience, creativity and hope that will change the area and make a difference during these difficult times. Hopefully, they can ebb the job loss tide and create new opportunities in the long and short term that will keep these places habitated and from becoming desolate holes. I know from a climbing perspective, it’s a place I’d love to continue to come back to and experience and see prosper.

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