It is five a.m. and the workers are up, and the kitchen is clattering with pots and pans and dishes. I don’t need to be up for another two hours, don’t need to start the biggest of days in a long, long time, so I stay under the blanket and mosquito net and try to forget the noises, just outside my door. As the kitchen comes to life across the hall, I fade in and out of consciousness, dreaming short and forgettable dreams. On the other side of my room, beyond the wall, is the dining room. Hungry hostel patrons arrive when it opens at six, eager to start a day in the Serengeti, or Ngorongoro, or Lake Manyara, or – like me – Kilimanjaro.
I roll out of bed at seven, with butterflies in my stomach. At least, I hope they’re butterflies. When your stomach feels upset for any reason in Africa, it is cause for some concern. Last night, we ate at Arusha’s finest fast food, McMoody’s, named and decorated to imitate McDonald’s. What better than greasy, suspicious fast food before six days ascending and descending the highest peak in Africa.
I shower – no flip flops, even in a dirty hostel. I decide, as I dry, that I have the worst room in the place, situated between the workers quarters – where they rise and fall at all hours of the night – and the kitchen – where the day begins long before I want it to – and the dining room – where patrons stay and talk right outside my window long beyond my bed time. The walls are thin, they keep out the noise no better than my mosquito net would. This is the kind of hotel/hostel/stopping place you are eager to leave to go climb a mountain.
I eat a good breakfast in a lamentable dining room, food prepared in a lamentable kitchen. The butterflies begin to feel like sickness. My stomach is, for one reason or another, upset. Amanda’s is, too. Elizabeth, Amanda’s sister and the third member of our trekking trio, feels fine. We eat. We pack. We wait for our bus ride to Kili.
It comes expectably late. Our guide, August, is riding shotgun. We toss in our bags and leave the hostel with excitement and butterflies and bags full of warm clothes.
We roll through Arusha, a nice city with a few big buildings and lots of vendors. It sits in the shadow of Mt Meru, an hour down the road from Moshi at the base of Kilimanjaro. Before we are out of town, we stop and an unassuming little duka (shop) to rent gaiters. It does not fit my prior notions of a mountain-gear outfitter. There are shelves with tea and toiletries, and a clothesline with peanuts and candy and condoms, and crates of soda in the back. A man comes and buys two individual cigarettes while we wait for the woman behind the counter to find us some gaiters.
Then, we drive. The rains fall, and I think of how I have not seen rain in two months in Mumba. The landscape, if it weren’t for the Maasai and the meager shacks, looks a little like the Midwest where I live. It is flat and neatly apportioned for farmers, strips of trees to segregate their land.
It’s cloudy, and though we’re near the base of the mountain, we see nothing but a vast slope upward and out of sight. The road is straight until it bears left up toward Marangu, the starting point. Then it winds and weaves and steers blindly into switchbacks up the mountainside. There are lush green trees, banana trees, bushes, all wet with fresh rain. The base of Kilimanjaro is a rainforest though all the surrounds it is dry thirsty savannah. I tell the girls this is what I think Congo must look like, and I beam as they agree. They lived there.
While we wait at the gate, peddlers offer us hats and cigarettes, and we decline thoughtlessly. By the time we pass though the gate, my butterflies – or whatever they were – have faded. Still, I beeline for the restrooms. Our guide, August in his broad-rimmed Aussie sunhat, distributes lunches. Porters divide our things. We climb only with backpacks, small ones.
We sign in at the gate, and there are prospective climbers all around us. My first inclination is to evaluate them, to thin the ranks and find people who make me look svelte by comparison. There aren’t any. Some are old, some young, all in reasonable shape. There’s a flock of Japanese people decked out in extensive gear and taking pictures. In the sign-in book, under “Address,” where everyone else has simply written their country of origin, I want to write my extensive contact info. But the line is long and the mountain is waiting, so I write only “USA, Mich.” I miss Michigan. We turn past the headquarters, beyond the gift shop with expensive candy and t-shirts and “I did it” certificates, and walk up a short path to an archway. As best I can tell, it serves simply to be the official official starting point, the spot at which people can really say, “Now I’m climbing the mountain,” even though it’s at an altitude of almost 2000 m.
August waits at the gate and sends us on with the assistant guide. He tells us there are six porters and himself and the assistant guide and, I think, a pit crew, doctor, firefighter, basketweaver, and phrenologist, all of whom we’ll have to tip when we finish. August stays behind to sign paper or some other official business. We climb for an hour before he catches up.
The first day of the climb is short and breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a gentle walk up through a vibrant jungle with few mosquitoes and abundant plant life. Not a square inch of anything is without an abundance of biodiversity. It’s a biology teacher’s dream. We go up for two hours, and it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s damp and I sweat, a lot. It’s hot today, but the rain is done for now. We stop for a bit, where our road nearly crosses that of our porters. They climb a steeper, shorter way, where trucks can go if need be. At our stop, I get my picture taken with a great big slug. So far, so good. We go again.
There are waterfalls and the forest canopy is thick and the path is well-trodden. A few people pass us going down. Some are successful (I ask them) and I’m in awe, like they’re celebrities. I I can’t yet include myself among their ranks, as I am unsure of why my body can and will do. A group of people with various handicaps passes us, too. One is pushing himself, determinedly, in a wheelchair. I think he made it. Then, a man rolls by on a stretched with an oxygen mask. I don’t ask him if he made it.
Soon, the forest begins to change. Green broad leaves fade away, the waterfalls are gone, and gnarly trees with yellowish/tan lichen beards come to dominate. We hear monkeys, I see a colobus. They’re big and white with bushy tails.
My sweat continues to pour, off two months worth of beard, down onto my shirt. I am sore, I am tired. I ask August for a break, and we stop next to a trio of Belgians. I size them up and decide they’re no more motley a crew than we are. A woman introduces herself, her husband, and her father. He is an old man. They are friendly and we are happy to meet new people. August tells us we are 20-25 minutes away from camp. We press on and finish the first day’s hike in 3 and ½ hours. No record, but much faster than we expected and faster than the 4-6 hours advertised by a sign at the trailhead.
The camp here is called the Mandara camp. There are huts and a dining hall and indoor bathrooms with flush toilets. This is camping, I tell myself. Soon after we stop, we feel the chill. We’re at 9,000 feet, and I reapply the layers I discarded on the last 20 minutes of the trail. We make our home in a small hut, hang up our damp clothes,, and have popcorn and tea in the dining hall.
August takes us on a short day hike, just fifteen minutes up the hill to Maundi crater. It’s a bed of grass surrounded by a rim of trees and is, to me, unremarkable. But from the rim, you can see the floor of Tanzania far below. The clouds hover abover our heads, and the sun breaks into beams to shine like flashlights on parcels of land below. We hike back to camp, and dinner is ready. The Belgians are next to us again, and a Spanish couple with a tag-on American sits on the other side of us. We converse with both. When dinner is over, there is nothing left to do. We return to our huts to rest, which turns into an early sleep.
Half-way through the night, I awake to Elizabeth and Amanda leaving the cabin. They don’t return for an hour and I know something must be wrong. Still, I pretend to sleep through it and will find out what I need to in the morning, if they want to share.
It is Tuesday morning. I rise, dress, brush my teeth. Elizabeth taps my should and says she needs to talk outside. Amanda lays in bed, unmoving.
“Amanda has giardia.”
This, I have heard of, and in no uncertain ways that would lead me to believe it isn’t an awful awful stomach bug I don’t ever want to experience. Elizabeth tells me she doesn’t want to sacrifice her sister for a lifelong dream, and I hear the panic and despair in her voice. She tells me, “She might need to go down, and I’ll go with her. You can carry on alone.” This all sounds a little hasty to me, and I ask if we’re sure it’s giardia, if maybe it’s just something she ate. She has already checked with herm mom, and they’ree sure it’s giardia. Still, I think of them making a heavy decision and her feeling fine in another few hours at the bottom of the mountain. I tell her we can wait a few hours, see how she feels, and go from there.
Elizabeth agrees, but seems solemnly and stubbornly committed to getting her sister off the mountain. I go to breakfast. There, the female half of the Spanish couple reveals herself to be a doctor. I share my heavy heart – a day into this and one is sick and our trip is in jeopardy. She offers her assistance. Elizabeth doesn’t show for breakfast. I bring our remaining fruit for her, and the Spanish doctor lady stops me on the way back. I tell her I’m bringing the fruit for “the older one with black hair,” but the language barrier between us has her convinced I’m going to disobey her orders that the sick one drinks a lot and eats a little. Elizabeth comes and I give her the fruit.
Within an hour, Amanda is convinced she can go on. Whether it's naivete, hopefulness, or healthiness, I can’t say. But she’s ready to go, so we pack and take to the trail behind August.
This section of the trail seems flatter. We pass a few more successful summiters, and lots of porters. Here, we share the trail. Some of them run with sacks of pots and pans balanced on their heads, resting on top of the 50 lb packs strapped to their backs. I could never do this job.
I ask August how many times he has climbed the mountain, and I do it with careful, special English. He speaks quickly and his English is good except that the words run fluidly together, like Swahili. I have to think about what he says. He tells me he has been a guide for 14 years, and has climbed the mountain hundreds of times. We are lucky to have such an experienced guide, and I tell him this.
He tells me he’s climbed with people from all over the world, and has climbed in France and will go to Colorado and the Himalayas soon, too. I ask which people come out here the most, and with no hesitation he tells me that Americans do. He says he’s climbed with old and young people. Two years ago, he took two 97 year-old women from Madrid all the way to the summit. The summit day took them 19 hours and it was really difficult for him because usually that part takes 6-8 hours. I marvel at the story of the old women. When I’m 97 – if I’m ever 97 – I will not be climbing stairs anymore, let along mountains.
August volunteers that Austrians make the best climbers and Japanese make the worst. He told me that if ten Japanese climbers start, one will make it. Later that day, a group of Japanese climbers pass us going down. He greets them in Japanese. After an exchange in Swahili with their guide, he tells me they didn’t make it.
After three hours, I am exhausted. Lots of ups and downs. I curse every downhill, because to me, I might as well be walking backwards down the mountain. I learned on the first day that one doesn’t look more than ten feet in front of them, it will only cause disappointment. The uphills will not end. You don’t stop noticing the incline and you don’t stop caring. You can, however, keep yourself from thinking about it.
My pack is heavier with every step. Water, food, layers of clothes, medicine, and books all weigh it down. I brought my big Bible. And I have never resented a concordance so much.
We reach the crest of the hill, and though it’s cool, I am near collapse. There are a few picnic tables. Long ago on the trail, the gnarly trees ended, and here there are only shrubs and flowers. The clouds roll around us; we’re in them. The Belgians are eating at a table, and they invite us to join them. I am tired. Amanda has a violent stomach bug and she broke her toe two months ago and is only 17. She seems to be doing fine. Soon, with my layers again missing and sweat seeping through my shirt and cooling in the breeze, I am shivering. The younger Belgian, his name is Birger, tells me we’re at the halfway point. Only the halfway point? I want to curse. The good nws, however, is that we only have 200 more meters to go upward.
We eat a lunch of dry muffins and oranges, and hit the trail again. Rest is an amazing thing, because by doing nothing you can do so much. I am refreshed, and when I tire, we catch convenient glimpses of the summit between breaks in the clouds. We sweat through, and by three o’clock, we arrive at Horombo hut, the most beautiful sight of our journey, save for a few brief glimpses of the iconic snowy flat-topped summit. A cloud envelops the camp and we begin to freeze. More popcorn and tea, and we are warm. Soon after, a dinner of spaghetti. We wish we’d had a lunch of spaghetti. Again, we retire for an early night.
I have never been this high before, at 3,720 meters or 12,300 feet. The altitude, it seems, forbids me sleep and I catch occasional glimpses of dreams that are trying to start. A mouse visits, eats some of our food. I would kill it, but I am too warm. Elizabeth catches me shining my light on it. I tell her that a mouse is eating her food. She gets up, it scampers away. I lay in bed until the sun comes up. Though the night held none, today is a day of rest. Acclimitization. We three and our new Belgian friends welcome it. I tell myself, “I think I can do this.”