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"To the Top of Africa"
March 21, 2001

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The hike down begins
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (14Mar01)

One would think that with all the fussing and whining I did about the sterile, packaged experience of organized trips, that the last thing I would want to do is go on another tour. Unfortunately, however, I was not alone in my desire to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak. Thousands of people each year face the frezing temperature, thin air, and rocky slopes in order to lay claim to bagging one of the "seven summits." Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro is one of Africa's premier tourist activities, and as a result, it was a total zoo.

The moment we stepped off the bus in Arusha, we were attacked by a rabid pack of Kilimanjaro trekking safari tour operators. Times were tough in the tourist industry in Kenya and Tanzania; the number of tourists visiting Africa has dwindled, and low season was soon approaching. Consequentially, there were too many companies chasing too few tourist dollars.

It had already been a long day traveling from Nairobi across the Tanzanian border, and neither Diana, my travel partner, nor I were in the mood for hassle. All we wanted to do was to catch a taxi to the bus stand so we could complete the last two hours of the journey to Moshi, the small town at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro where we planned to send the night.

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Diana
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (12Mar01)
The tour operators, however, had a different idea. Their job was to get the fresh meat straight off the bus and straight into their offices, where they could book a tour before their competition got their hands on us.

After beating away the worst offenders, I had hoped that we would end up with a real taxi driver, but soon we found ourselves parked outside an office that distinctly did not resemble a bus station. "The bus will be here soon; let's wait in the office." The second someone mentioned a Kilimanjaro tour to me I went ballistic. It didn't take me long to convince them that if they valued their lives, they should take us straight to the bus station. Five minutes later, we were on the bus to Moshi.

We weren't in the clear yet though. When I tried to pay the bus fare, the "taxi driver" tried to wrestle the 5000 Ksh (US$8) bill from the man collecting for the bus, and the two got into a big argument. I eventually had to snatch the bill back, and get off the bus to find someone else to make change.

We eventually made it to Moshi, and after a good night's sleep, we were ready to tackle booking a tour. Moshi was a pleasant, quiet town, the kind of place with just a couple of paved roads and a handful of small dirt tracks lined with tailors manning footpedal driven sewing machines. Even though it was the base for many tour agencies, we were able to wander the streets relatively hassle free.

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Just like home
Moshi, Tanzania (15Mar01)
We ended up booking with a company called M.E.M. tours. I would have prefered to do the trip solo, but the government, realizing that they had a lock on the Kilimanjaro climbing market, turned the mountain into a cash cow by requiring all climbers to use registered tour agencies. Of the US$590 for a six day trip to the summit, about US$450 went straight to the government and most likely, straight into Benjamin Mkapa, Tanzania's president's pocket. That left about US$140 to cover all the other expenses, including a guide, porters, food, and equipment. That may not sound alike a lot, but once you've factored out the government's cut, US$150 goes a long way in Tanzania.

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Hiking in the forest
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (10Mar01)
The name of the route we chose was called the Machame route, often referred to as "The Whiskey Route" so that tourists don't have to struggle with strange and difficult names like "Machame." We were joined on the climb by Edward and Frederick, two thoroughbred upper class British chaps recently graduated from Eton School, and out on their first adventure away from home. Despite their stereotypical British schoolboy demeanor, they were sweet and charming, and always impressed me with their mastery of art history, politics, latin, and crude jokes.

Included in our entourage were our guides, Eugen and Joshua, along with eight, that's right, eight porters. While the packing list wasn't quite as outrageous as the Nepal trekking trip I did many years ago, on which were carried, among other things, a full table and chairs, the pack train of porters made our trip look more like an Everest summit bid than a routine guided hike. I have a general rule when I travel or hike, which says that I must carry all of my own things, because if I can't, then I have too much and its time to jettison some things. Our guide apparently had never heard such an outrageous idea as a client carrying their own pack, and carefully explained to me that it was a long, difficult hike, and it would be absurd for me to carry a full pack. After about ten minutes, he eventually realized he wasn't going to win, and we set off up the mountain.

The first day was perhaps the most beautiful, winding through thick, dripping green rainforest. My waterproof boots really started to prove their worth as we sloshed through ankle deep puddles of mud. I spent most of the first day, in fact most of each day, alternating between speaking Spanish with Diana and speaking politics with the Eton boys. Each day the terrain got sparser and the air thinner, and each night the simple meal of rice, soup, and chicken seemed all the more appealing.

By the fourth night we had reached Barafu camp (4600M, 15,500ft,) our final camp before the summit push the next day. The terrain at that point was little more than rocks and a few hearty shrubs with giant white slab glaciers floating above us. Even on day one, it became unbearably cold once the sun disappeared behind the horizon, and by the time we reached Barafu, it was downright freezing. After hurredly shoveling down our food, we retreated to the tents to catch a few hours sleep before the summit push.

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The summit
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (14Mar01)
March 13/14 - Summit Day. We awoke at 11:30 pm, in the dead cold of night, to prepare ourselves to begin the ascent. The weather had turned bad overnight, and a light snow flurry swirled through the camp. Further down the mountain towards Moshi, lightning was cracking from a thick, black sky. I was worried; weather is everyting when climbing mountains, and I couldn' think of a worse place to be in a lightning storm than on the highest point on the continent. A little voice kept playing over and over in my head, "Head for lower ground; avoid high ground, open spaces, and exposed ridges." I reluctantly prepared myself for calling it a day and heading to lower ground. Our guides, however, weren't phased in the slightest. They didn't even mention the storm, and when I asked them if they were concerened about it, they assured me that it would stay below the summit. Seeing as they had been on Kilimanjaro a hundred times more than me, I yielded to their expertise. After a quick cup of tea, we donned our headlamps and began the slow grind up.

The advantage of heading up so early was that the snowpack was frozen and therefore much easier to ascent. The disadvantage, of course, was that it was bone-chillingly cold, and the second we would stop for a rest, my body would seize up. I eventually realized that it was easier for me to pace up and down over the same 10m section while the others rested, rather than allow myself to get cold.

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Ed, Fred, and the guides
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (14Mar01)
Fairly early on, Ed and Fred, along with their guide Joshua, started to pull away, and Eugen stayed back with Diana and I. After more than two hours of slow going, Diana was freezing and tired. With over four hours left at our current pace, it was clear that she wasn't going to make it. We decided to separate, and she stayed back with Eugen as I haeded up the mountain in search of the others. By that point, the other group was nothing more than a speck of light high up on the mountain. I began to run - well, not actually run; at 5700M (18000ft.) it was more like a slow-motion jog - up to the light above. After half an hour of full-out exertion, I reached the other party, panting and dripping with sweat. Ed and Fred were looking rather frazzled, and after I had a chance to catch my breath, I continued my routine of pacing up and down to stay warm during our various rest stops.

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Glaciers
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (14Mar01)
As we reached the rim of the crater, the solitude we had enjoyed for most of our trip was broken as we merged with a string of hikers who had come op the Marangu route (AKA the "Coca Cola Route.") At that point, I decided to break away from the group and push on ahead alone. After half an hour, I reached Uhuru Peak (5895M, 19450ft.) just as the sun peaked above the horizon. I was the only one to make it to the top in time for sunrise.

The summit, like all summits, was a magical place; a place of indescribable peace and beauty. The fifteen minutes on top made the five long days hiking up worth it. The top of Kilimanjaro is fairly flat, with a distinct rim and shallow crater. Shortly after sunrise, Ed and Fred arrived, and after the obligatory high fives and summit snapshots, we began the long, painful descent.

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Sunrise
Mt. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania (14Mar01)
For some reason beyond my understanding, the guides had decided that we would get sick if we ate lunch. So after no more than a bowl of soup at camp, we continued descending for another four hours. By the end of the day I was in an incredibly foul mood. I had been hiking for 13 hours with nothing more than a cup of tea and a bowl of soup all day, and we had run out of water after the first nine hours. The trail was slick and rocky, and I kept twisting my knee trying to navigate through them. When we finally reached camp, I guzzled two litres of water, collapsed in the tent, and passed out.

After a good night's sleep, I was in a much better mood, and we quickly polished off the final few hours back to the base. Almost as if to emphasize how well beaten the summit to Kilimanjaro as, the ranger station at the base handed us certificates to show we had indeed made it to the top of Africa: #16424/2001. I suppose it was good to see something from the government's US$450 cut.

With Ed and Fred on their way back to England, Diana and I decided to endure two more days as package tourists so that we could see the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater. As we quickly learned, no matter how packaged and mechanical an organized safari tour can be, it is far better than a tour gone wrong.

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Zebras
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (19Mar01)
Our troubles started before we even left Moshi. Having originally decided to join up with Ed and Fred, we found ourselves scrambling to find anyone to go with once Ed and Fred changed plans and headed home. After idling in MOshi for a couple of days, we finally managed to run into a few German tourists who wanted to do a similar trip.

Things didn't start well. We had asked to start at 5am, so that would be sure get a full first day in the crater, but the driver didn't show until 6:30. Adding in the extra half hour early that we got up because the clock was set wrong, and that meant getting up two hours earlier than necessary. Then, after only three hours driving, we were dropped off at a cheap hotel hours from the crater. It seemed that the tour company decided it would be better (read: cheaper) to put us up in a cheap hotel than pay the camping fees for the park. Even our driver had been left in the dark, since he had never heard anything about our plans to go to the crater that day. A phone call to the office didn't improve my mood or the situation. They insisted they were following our original itinerary, and that they couldn't possibly have sold us the trip we had agreed to since they wouldn't be able to do it for the price we paid. Stuck in the middle, our driver did all he could to bridge the gap between five irate customers and a swindling boss. He scrambled to find us camping gear, which had never been loaded on the truck since they had never planned to let us camp.

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The view from the rim
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (20Mar01)
Our next surprise came later in the day when, half an hour outside the park, our driver pulled into a campsite and said, "We camp here." It appeared that he had never been given money to pay for the more expensive campsite, and this was the only one he could afford. A second, more venenous call to the office had a similar result - they refused to pay for the campsite since they insisted that they had never agreed to our staying there. Realizing that there wasn't much we could do until we returned to their office and could wring their necks in person, we decided it was better to just enjoy the sights and not to get annoyed.

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Death in the crater
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (20Mar01)
Driving into the crater the next morning was breathtaking. Ngorongoro crater is actually a caldera, a giant collapsed volcano. 20 km across, it is home to numerous elephants, giraffe, lions, buffalo, gazelle, and countless species of birds. Since the walls of the crater are quite steep, many of the animals just stay in the crater; a petri-dish of big game.

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Vulture feeding frenzy
Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania (20Mar01)
While seeing big game was old hat by that point, the abundance of birds and the spectacular setting made the trip well worth all the grief we endured gettting there. I will never forget the image of a score of vultures buried neck deep in the carcass of a buffalo, picking at its eyes and tearing at its dried, jerky-like flesh.

Once back in Moshi, we headed back to the office of our tour company to unload all our pent up anger. It still didn't get us anywhere, but as the designated aggressor, I had a very cathartic time laying into them. If you are ever in Moshi, Tanzania, I recommend giving Kilimanjaro Travel Services a miss.

Copyright 2000-2001 Peter Birch All Rights Reserved.