The evening air in Africa is full-bodied, rich, and complex. The humidity gives it body; the rich red earth and thick vegetation give it aroma and richness; and scent of living beings gives it complexity. My first drowsy late-night memories of Tanzania are hazy. In the Dar es Salaam airport, once you have passed through customs, you walk past the barrier where there are the universal limo drivers waving their usual signs with client names on them. You are not in a glassy, high-ceilinged greeting area. You are in the open sultry air of the African night. A taxi driver wearing a clean white shirt, with, a necktie and an official looking ID badge, quickly approached me. For about $7 he took me to the Transit Hotel that was literally right across the street from the terminal. He honked his horn when we reached the gate so that the security guard could buzz us into the front yard of the Hotel. This must have been a precaution against the rough customers who patronized the sin spots and gin joints in the surrounding neighborhood.
The room was stale and hot: the air-conditioning hadn’t been turned on in days. Even though I had taken malaria, the presence of a mosquito net suspended over the bed was disconcerting. I cranked up the AC, such as it was, and slept poorly thinking about all the unfamiliar bacteria crawling over every surface.
There was another $7 car ride across the street in the morning to catch a flight to Kilimanjaro International Airport in the city of Arusha at the foot of the mountain. From there I caught another overpriced cab ride to Moshi where the rest of the expedition members would slowly gather in anticipation of our impending trek up the mountain. Nobody became acquainted until we had a meeting with our guides at 6PM on the night before the expedition.
We introduced ourselves: there were two people in their early twenties from Vancouver Canada, an elementary school principal from Edmonton Alberta, a couple in matching t-shirts from Melbourne, Australia, A mercurial hiker from Vienna, Austria, A nice couple in their early thirties from Philadelphia, and me. Our guides were all in their 20s and 30s hailing from the immediate area.
The plan was to meet for breakfast at 7:30 and depart on the bus at 8:00. I dutifully set the alarm on my wristwatch for 7AM. At 8:10 I was startled from my sleep by desperate pounding on the door. The wristwatch alarm was too weak to wake me from my jet lag induced sleep. The guides were all in my room frantically helping me get my gear packed while everyone else was sitting on the bus patiently waiting. They were all staring at me as I boarded the bus to take my seat. I was super embarrassed. Despite the tardiness, everyone seemed friendly enough. People asked about whether or not I’d had any breakfast. They all offered food. I sat down in a seat next a woman named “Lucky”. I felt better immediately.
We drove around for a few hours, ferrying from one office to another picking up and dropping off paperwork. Finally, we arrived our starting point: Rongai Gate. At this location there were perhaps 75 potential porters waiting around for work. We were required by park regulations to hire a porter for every 20 kilos of weight. After everything was weighed (trekking gear, tents, food, kitchen utilities, etc.) we were required to hire 27 porters. A man named Manrai was assigned to be my porter. He would carry my bag and set up my tent for the duration of the tour.
Every day at about 9AM we would start out trekking while the porters broke camp. Within an hour they would come charging by us at twice our own speed so that they could arrive the next camp in sufficient time to have everything set up for us when came trudging in later in the day. They were overtly cheerful and always offered a friendly "Jambo" as they passed. On the second day they had sufficient time to set up camp and then welcome us with a musical performance that included three well-rehearsed songs and some low-down, hip-shaking, dirty dancing that some of the female trekkers happily participated in. The second day had been a slog up about 2000 meters that required eight hours of walking. Most of us were too tired to dance but we all felt energized by the music and goodwill.
Bowls of hot water were bought to our tents for the washing of face, hands, and perhaps one other body part per day. After washing we would go to the mess tent where all ten trekkers and the guides would dine together. Dinner table discussion gravitated toward raunchiness. By the end of the trek we were all freely exchanging words and ideas that most people would not repeat in front of their grandma. Dinnertime was jolly for most of us excepting those who were feeling the effects of altitude. Each night we slept at a higher altitude. The first night was at 8000 ft., the 2nd night 11000 ft., the 3rd night 13000 ft., and on the fourth night we slept at nearly 16000ft. Sadly, we are not all created equal when it comes to altitude. Each night after dinner we were given an overview of the next day’s adventure and then one of the guides would come around to each of us with a device that was supposed to measure our blood oxygen by clipping onto your forefinger and reading out a number that had to be somewhere between 70 and 100 in order to carry on. By the fourth night some people were raring to make a summit bid while others were just barely able to get a few mouthfuls of food down their throats.
We began our trek for the summit at 11pm. The ascent is made possible by a long series of switchbacks that zig-zag upward. The first five hours of the walking take you up a slope the same pitch as a chalet roof. You can see the headlamps of all the other groups glowing in rows. It looks like an ancient ritual: tribes ascending to the rim of a volcano for a human sacrifice at dawn.
The combination of altitude, and steepness make this a place where many people either start doubling over with the dry heaves, or just plain run out of gas. At this point two members of our expedition were doubled over, and one had decided to go back down because he simply could not go up any longer. A woman from Australia fainted right in front of me. Her knees buckled, and her husband had to catch her in his arms so that she would not go tumbling down the mountain.
A science professor from Pennsylvania started staggering from light-headedness and fell down in front of me. After that I kept a constant vigil upon him. There was a woman that I had to step over who was so distressed that she lay curled up in the path screaming at the top of her lungs. She must have had plenty of oxygen to produce such a sound.
There were five of us left. When we made it to the rim of the mountain at Gillman's point there was no question the we would all go on to Stella point and then the highest point at Uhru.
At Stella Point we met up with all the people who had come up the Lemosho trail. This is a far more populated trail than the Rongai route that we took. It began to feel like 5th Ave. at lunchtime. Every other person seemed to be throwing up or passing out. The general pallor of the Trekkers was an eerie gray. I had to take the last 500 ft at a snail’s pace: Pole, pole, stopping to catch my breath every three or four steps.
The five Trekkers in our group made it to the top and took pictures by the famous sign that reads: Congratulations you are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania 5895m. Africa’s highest point. Highest free-standing mountain in the world. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Who wouldn’t want to pose next to a sign like that? Indeed, there was a ten-minute wait to get your photo taken there. There were 40-50 people at the summit at the same time as us.
It was not a good day to linger at the summit and have a picnic. The winds were bitter, and the dust blew in our faces, making it hard to see. The glaciers were a spectacular sight with their layers of deep blue ice. I had been hoping to look down upon the vast Serengeti plain, but it seemed like we were miles above a layer of clouds covering the earth below. It looked like the view from a jet. The crater of the volcano was shallow but vast with, filled with dirty snow.
The trip back down the mountain took about 1/3rd as much time. The cardiovascular part of the hike was over and now it was all orthopedic. It entailed 4000ft. of steep, sandy, quad-busting descent and by the time we got down we all made haste to our tents for a recovery nap. My favorite part of the descent was running into the Australian woman who had collapsed in the wee hours of the morning. I thought for sure she would turn around. But we met up her a quarter mile past Gillman's Point. She had made it through the worst and was determined to make it all the way to Uhuru. I told her that she was one gutsy woman and wished her good luck. She came stumbling back into camp about three hours behind the rest of us. We cheered her on. She turned out to be the hero of the day.
But there was more.
We had to hike another three hours down to our next camp. Nobody was in the mood, but the hike was all downhill and it went through a wide-open dry expanse between Kilimanjaro and Mawenzi called “the shoulder”. We managed to keep ourselves occupied with the scenery and good conversation, but it was still an awful lot after summiting Kilimanjaro already that day. After about 14 ours of walking we spent the night at Horombo Camp: a major outpost on the Marangu route.
Despite the Promethean effort of the day we still managed to have a jovial time at dinner. By now we had come to know most of the crew by name and enjoyed each other's company. Nearly everyone in the expedition had taken to calling me " Papa" by then. This was no doubt because I was the oldest person on the expedition. It was all good. I felt like Hemmingway.
Although it took us 5 days to make our ascent up the Rongai Route; our descent only took two long days of walking downhill on the Marangu route. The Managu route is also known affectionately as the “Coca-Cola route”, because it is the shortest and most crowed way to get to the top. There were throngs of day hikers in crisp clean clothes along the last few miles of the trail to the park entrance in Marangu. One of them came up to me and asked if I was Hulk Hogan. I liked Hemingway better..
By the end of 7 days of camping in the dirt with possibility of a shower, I wore my filth like a badge of honor. When we got back to the hotel however, I was happy to turn in the badge. Everyone in the group had been dreaming of a hot shower. It didn't take long before the hotel water heater was overwhelmed.
That last night we all met for dinner around 8:00PM. Everyone was clean and also distracted by the electronic devices they had all brought with them to the table. Everybody had communications to catch up with. Things were sedate. I thought we were about to make an early night it. Suddenly the Kilimanjaro beer came out along with a deck of cards. Someone looked up a card drinking game that had us all doubled over with laughter from the raunchy humor that ensued. We finished up at about midnight and shared tearful, heartfelt hugs all around. We all had one hell of a time.
These group expedition experiences are like a sugar high. Once everyone has said goodbye there is a kind of crash where the exhilaration is over and all that’s left is an empty vacuum. If you don't fill the vacuum in a timely manner a blue period ensues. I tried to thwart off the depression by going to Zanzibar. It's not far from Dar es Salaam in distance but there are many hustlers to be circumnavigated along the way. Everywhere I had gone by myself on the streets in Africa I had been greeted by young men trying to figure out a way to get money out of my wallet.
The approach was consistent: " hello sir How are you? Are you enjoying your time in Tanzania?" The fellow would follow me down the street like a dog trying to hump my leg: offering all manner of guide services, logistical assistance, artistic wears and great deals at the store of one of their relatives. The number of these " flycatchers" increased to swarms when the cab driver left me off at the ferry terminal. The streets are lined with travel agencies who offer the same services as the flycatchers, except they are licensed, and you have some chance of meeting them again if things don't go right. I allowed myself to be buggered by a travel agent that the cab driver had selected for me. He sold me an overpriced first-class ferry passage and a return plane ticket on a funky local airline. Then I was assigned a porter who railroaded me past all the lines and found me a seat in the premium class section for a $42 fee which he insisted was fair.
All of this made me disappointed in myself for not pre-arranging all these details so as to avoid the swindle.
The ferry took an hour and 45 minutes to make its way over to the island where, low, and behold, there was another swarm of flycatchers waiting just outside the terminal to swindle me for the second time. I only needed to hire a car to get me to the Marishiki Palace Hotel in the heart of Stonetown. The hotel itself was a renovated palace that once belonged to an Iman but now belongs to an Italian woman who looks to be in her fifties and well preserved. The place oozed charm and elegance at a $200 per night rate. The hotel had a rooftop restaurant where I could eat scrumptious seafood from local sources and watch the sunset over the Indian Ocean.
Stonetown is the biggest municipality on the island of Zanzibar. At the center of the city is a spice market surrounded by an impossible maze of ancient narrow streets lined with dry goods peddlers and artisan’s shops. It reminds me of other spoiled and beautiful cities like Havana, Casablanca, or Venice. The architecture is full of old-world detail and has aged like a crumbling but lovely autumn leaf. The weather was hot with enough humidity to make your clothes stick. Islamic influence is everywhere. I visited during the month of Ramadan. Women in black, full length gowns with headscarves sat in weary groups. They languished in the shade of trees by the mosque where they could starve in solidarity with each other during the long hot days. The men stayed inside praying in unison. They prepared themselves to meet Allah by washing face, hands, and feet along the rows of faucets and drains that line the walls on the outside of the mosque. Restaurants were not allowed to serve dinner on the sidewalk until after 6:30 when the sun went down.