What an adventure to hike with Jamling Norgay! Photo by Madelyn Given.

Campfire Stories, Part 3

On trips with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and family, our campfires were for fun. At the end of a day in pleasant weather, we would gather dry sticks to add to dry wood we usually brought from home. Everyone was cheerful as we waited for the fire to die down to red-hot coals, and then we would toast marshmallows and make s’mores. We still do enjoy these great campfires with family and friends.

But I remember on Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and later in the Himalayas on Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, our only campfires were for our cooks to make our meals and to boil and purify water for our tea, which we poured from a big tea kettle into our water bottles each day. Our porters and sherpas would then sit by the small fire to keep warm. I would take my water bottle and put it in my sleeping bag to keep my feet warm at night. By morning, the water would be cold even inside my bag, but if it had been unprotected in my tent, it would have been frozen. Sometimes a small fire was built in the morning for hot milk or hot cereal, but usually only once a day. At 15,000 or 16,000 feet, we were above the tree line and could not collect wood, so bundles of wood had to be carried up with us. As we went higher, we had no campfires at all and only used small mountaineering stoves.

One day on Kilimanjaro, we climbed from dawn until it was time for a break for lunch. We had been climbing in clouds all the way and we were wet. We stopped at a cave and went inside to sit down and dry out for a few minutes. The porters started a fire. It was dreadful! It only took a few minutes to drive everyone outside to sit on a rock. My eyes were stinging, and everyone was crying, choking, and coughing from the smoke. You couldn’t see a thing, but we felt our way to the opening. To make matters worse, one of our porters had twisted his ankle and it was badly swollen. They discussed who would carry him down and who would stay, and all would now carry extra in their already heavy loads.

Using only our campfire, our amazing cook managed to make a birthday cake for Jamling Norgay! Photo by Madelyn Given.

Using only our campfire, our amazing cook made a birthday cake for Jamling Norgay!

Each night on Kanchenjunga, our cook made a hearty meal of soap, a main dish of meat, vegetables, and rice, and hot tea. We sat and ate our meal and then listened to Jamling Norgay tell amazing stories of his expedition on Everest and mountaineering and rescuing people in thin air. His father, Tanzing Norgay, was the first to summit Everest with Sir Edmund Hilary. He led the Swiss team first, then two years later the German team, and then two years later the British team, and finally conquered the tallest mountain in the world. One night our cook made a birthday cake to celebrated Jamling’s birthday. Imagine: high in the Himalayas, on the most primitive campfire with no camp oven, our cook made a birthday cake!

[posted July 12, 2016]

A rare campfire on Madelyn Given's thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail.

Campfire Stories, Part 2: Appalachian Trail

There is nothing like a campfire to bring comfort to the body and soul when you are far from home.

A few years ago, I hiked the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mt Katahdin, Maine. It was a grand, never-to-be-forgotten adventure, all 2,175 miles. There were highs and lows every day: it was a strenuous feat but a grand experience. Every day, I hiked from dawn to dusk, rarely stopping except to purify water or to take a breather. Before dusk, I would be hurrying to find a place to set up my tent or reach the nearest lean-to shelter. I would set up my tent pronto to get out of the wind, rain, or cold. Then I would unpack my pack, find something to eat, and get off my weary feet. I had no added energy to build a campfire.

What an adventure it is to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail! Photo by Madelyn Given.

What an adventure it is to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail!

During my four months on the trail, there were very few campfires built by thru-hikers. My son offered to hike with me early on, and one night we were hiking along the AT on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. On this clear, pleasant night, we set up camp and enjoyed a campfire. No one else was around and it was a peaceful moment in time.

Another campfire was quite different. After beginning with my son, I had continued hiking solo, and I had now reached Pennsylvania, known as the rocky state by the hikers. Every four to six days, hikers are able to get off the trail near a town or other place to get food and supplies. For some reason, I must have been thinking of a campfire, because when I bought my food I bought a package of marshmallows.

By this time it had been over two months of walking every day, and I had had only one campfire. I had made some trail friends along the way and I thought this would be a pleasant surprise. The young fellows were always so hungry. I reached the campsite with a lean-to already full and I looked for a place to set up my tent.

It was the least likely place to set up a tent I had ever encountered. The place was full of brush, on the side of a very steep hill, and muddy. It was dusk and I was exhausted, with no hope of moving on down the trail. Nevertheless, I set up my tent, and then three more of my friends arrived and pitched their tents almost touching each other.

During this time, the mosquitoes decided to invade the place! Only one other night in four months had I been attacked by mosquitoes, and this was one of them.

The hikers decided to have a campfire to rid the place of the mosquitoes, but the pesky creatures had a way of finding me. Bringing my package of marshmallows, I walked from my tent over to the lean-to area in front of the fire, planning to stay by the campfire and chat with my friends for a while, but the mosquitoes got the best of me.

I left the marshmallows (to the delight of the happy campers), hurried to my tent, zipped it up, and called it a night. To my dismay, the mosquitoes had won the battle that night.

***

(posted June 21, 2016)

What an adventure to be camping in Kenya! Photo by Madelyn Given.

Campfire Stories Part 1

There is something about a campfire, especially on a clear night, far from civilization, that is special to remember. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some campfire stories. Enjoy!

***

Camping in Kenya was remote and adventuresome. We arrived at Tsavo East, on the Galana River, about 6 pm one night. We had a delicious dinner of fish, salads, and dessert, prepared by our cook and his assistant on a tiny primitive campfire. Our tiny tents were set up in a semi-circle. Mine was on one end near a tree that had been badly clawed by a lion!

Our small group with our expedition leader had become quite close, as we had already spent a week in Amboseli National Park hiking, then six days climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and now hiking in a different region of Kenya. It was remote and there was no one else there, only the animals and the unmistakable smells, sights, and sounds of the plains of Africa. We did have a fly over one day by the park ranger: he tipped his wings and we waved so he knew all was O.K.

Hippos at the river, seen while camping in Kenya. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Hippos at the river, seen while camping in Kenya. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The staff prepared a big campfire on the sandy river bank; we could see crocodiles and a group of hippopotamuses on the sandbanks. It was a beautiful evening and a grand place to view the stars and constellations, with not another light anywhere except our campfire.

As darkness fell, we set up our folding camp chairs, sat by the campfire, and listened to our expedition leader tell tales—all true—of Tsavo killer lions that lived there. This thousand-year-old trail by water from the middle of Africa (the Congo) to the Indian Ocean was where the natives, dragged by chains, were sold into slavery around the world. They were shackled by their necks and cruelly treated. If they fell because they were too tired or sick to move on, they were chopped from the long line of chains and left to die. The lions became accustomed to this easy way of living and soon became the man-eaters of Tsavo. Later, when the Trans-African Railroad was being built through this area, the lions attacked and killed many of the workers. The village people keep an eye out for them even today. The male lions here have no massive manes.

It was a warm and pleasant evening as we sat facing the fire; large scorpions started to arrive and began circling the fire to get warm. They were six to eight inches long! I decided to move my camp chair away from the fire some more and folded my legs up under me.

Soon after, I said good night to my hiking companions and went to my tent. I had left my tent flaps open, but being a bit concerned of the wild animals and creatures I had just seen, I went around the tent to put down the back flap and I had to go through some bushes. When I came around to the front of the tent, I bent down to go inside. Just then, a huge spider dropped off my head onto the floor of the tent. I didn’t shout, which wouldn’t do much good here in the wilds of Africa. We were so remote that by the time the poison went through a person it would be too late for help.

I instinctively grabbed my sneaker, killed the spider, and threw it outside my door. The next morning I asked my porter what kind of spider it was and he said, “Mama, it is bad!” I was the oldest in my group, and the guides and porters all addressed me as Mama—a very honorable name to them.

We didn’t have a campfire many days, since we were often too tired, and after a long day of hiking, we would usually go straight to a meal and our tents. Nevertheless, those few Kenyan campfire nights are precious in my memory. What campfire nights hold special meaning for you?

(posted June 14, 2016)