On the morning of our departure, rain lingers on the clothesline like upside down dew drops. Katana’s parents wish us safari njema before they leave for work. It’s a handy phrase: safari means journey and njema means good, so asked with the right intonation, it bids people bon voyage and receives them at the end of a journey as well, especially when followed with the ubiquitious karibu!
The weather taunts us with cloudy skies and a blurry sun. Where on earth is that damn mountain?!
We drive two hours to the Marangu Gate, the entrance to the Kilimanjaro National Park and one of the routes to take up the mountain—there are six in all—where we meet our family for the week: a cluster of guides, a cook, and our porters. We surrender our heavy packs to our porters and carry just the day’s necessities in smaller packs—2 bottles of water, lunch, a jacket, snacks. They hoist our hiking packs onto their heads with hardly a change in expression—they do this for a living, after all—and depart briskly for that evening’s camp. Our porters, cook must reach camp before us so that by the time we arrive, tired and sweaty, they have tea and dinner ready, and a tub of hot water to wash ourselves in before bedtime. They’re young, old, hardy, smiling (or “cheesing,” as Christopher Barry likes to say), intimidatingly fit; an indelible part of the Kilimanjaro experience. They’re not as curious about us as I naïvely expect, and I remind myself that this is their livelihood: they live in the foothills, climb the mountain hundreds of times a year, have seen all kinds of people, all sizes of groups, all ages and colors and people along the spectrum of low-to-high maintenance begin this trip. It’s thanks to the guides, porters and cook that most climbers complete the climb to their satisfaction.
We’re given two walking poles each; they will come in handy on muddy terrain, steep slopes, on ice, during the descent; I develop a love-hate relationship with them over the course of the week. We sign in the Guest Log at the park entrance, take pictures, and start climbing, giddy with nervousness and excitement.
Our chief guide, Hosea, leads and sets the pace, announcing, pole pole—slowly! He sucks water through a tube attached to his pack and reminds us to drink constantly. Everywhere and everything is green. The path is gentle, welcoming, the plants rustle on either side of us, wishing us karibu. Sunlight pokes through when it can, but the canopy dictates how sunny it feels on the ground. This is rainforest, and we’ll be passing through moorland, alpine desert and, finally, glacial climate when we summit. The diversity of vegetation is breathtaking, and we’ve only just begun!
If I stand still I hear…nothing. Nature is so impressively quiet and we are so embarrassingly loud, and the clash amazes me. I delight in a chance to become a part of the peace, in spite of the earth crunching under my feet, the loud cadence of my breath, my chatter with Hamsa, Katana, Hosea, Allen. Pole pole, the mountain says.
We reach Mandara, our first camp, in the mist of the afternoon. The sky is the color of wet paper, each wrinkle on the damp surface a cloud. We find our packs in a hut with 4 beds; the porters are shrouded in mist on the other side of camp in their own tent, playing cards, drinking tea, eating ugali (a local cornmeal porridge, pervasive in Tanzania): effortlessly acclimatized, completely at home.
After cups of tea and hot chocolate we take a 30 minute walk to the Maundi Crater. Already the vegetation has changed: the dense foliage has been replaced with “Old Man” trees, as they’re known, whose leaves, branches and ferns droop. The sun is bolder now and has less foliage to fight through: hills and tree lines are tinged golden. At the top, the earth gives way to a crater. Once volcanic, it is now covered in a carpet of dry grass that look like enormous dandelions swishing in the breeze. Little white flowers poke through the grass. We descend into it and climb up the other side where valleys are vague contours of sloping greens. Hosea points in the direction of Kenya and Lake Chaga that is half Kenyan, half Tanzanian. “Do you see it?” Hosea asks me, and I shake my head: a froth of cloud obscures everything and I only see shades of grey and white. Then, as if on cue, the clouds roll apart and Kenya is sprawled out in the distance. A black and white Colobus monkey is visible in the trees miles away, he makes the branches dance as the clouds drift. Nature lifts her skirt a little, and I’m hooked.
Hosea and I walk 50 feet to the other rim of the crater where we see Kibo and Mawenzi peeking through the clouds—Kilimanjaro’s peaks! Birds sustain a melody as we stand in awe, then march our way back to the dining hall for dinner.
Mealtime is a candlelit affair, everyone’s eyes flickering with the flame as they sit with their guides and wonder aloud about reaching the summit. We muse over zucchini soup, spinach, potatoes, bread, rice. A man at the far table plucks a guitar—simply tuning it is musical, at this refreshing altitude!—and adds music to the chatter and clink in the large hut. My first thought: a climber who plays guitar! My second thought: there is a porter in our midst who has to carry that up the mountain. I think of the porters transporting food, tents, water, clothes, shoes, medical supplies up and down the mountain; what unexpected items have they carried up, besides a guitar?