[Mandara Hut --> Horombo Hut]We wake up at Mandara Hut to birds. The sky hints at the colors to be unraveled above the cloud canopy that’s as thick as the ocean tide. A few porters are up and about, a few climbers make their bathroom runs, the birds continue their squall. An orange arc pokes through the clouds, glowing defiantly. Within seconds the entire ball of sun has emerged, announcing the start of day or, in Swahili time, twelve o’ clock.
The sun glares down at us as we begin our first full day of hiking. We stop frequently to drink water, catch our breath and snap photos, and I realize I need to pee as many times. I claim to be a bold public pee-er, but I wend my way from shrub to shrub until I’m convinced no one can come around a bend in the mountain and catch me in a crouch. Not that bold after all.
Sunshine spills over the hills mercilessly; the vegetation is shorter, more arid. My every step is a thought, a decision, and I am struck by the clouds in the distance, whose movement is effortless, wistful. They rise and float and hover with ease, carrying themselves with lofty poise through the hills. I envy their lightness as I feel the weight of the pack on my back—and it’s a measly day pack, not even my full hiking pack! What a wuss!
We’re walking with our heads in the clouds—literally! They toy with the distance we have traveled and the distance remaining—sometimes we can see the hills we have surmounted, other times it looks like we have walked out of thin air. The shrouded pathways ahead of us make me imagine that the end of the world is the grey abyss that we are about to step into.
I get contemplative. What is dust and what is cloud? What is hill and what is sky? Where is the earth and where is heaven? Where does our path begin and where does our journey end? Everything is obscured, hidden behind whispers of water vapor powerful enough to distort landscapes. Our hiking shoes leave prints in the sand—autographs of the anonymous climbers daring to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro—and an afterthought of dust in the air.
The Senesia trees we pass look like stunted banana trees on drugs. An experiment in metamorphosis that ended abruptly? Perhaps the clouds got in the way. Perhaps the banana trees smote them. Who knows—they make me giggle every time we see one. Hamsa declares them her favorite tree.
We admire and coo at every chameleon and beetle we pass, some are on their backs, flailing until their right themselves; we assist a few along the way and feel righteous. We spot a tiny black lizard; 2 rats scuttle past.
Hamsa asks Katana how much farther to Horombo Hut, our destination, and Hosea gestures into the distance. “Quite far away,” Katana cheekily translates and ten minutes later we climb a hill and see tents a few hundred feet away. In fact Hosea had said we were nearby, but Katana decided otherwise. Our surprise is well worth his fib!
Signing in at camp, we find our hut and meet our roommates: Onja (christened as such by her spirit guide) from North Carolina, and buddies Az and To from Israel. We sponge ourselves clean in hot water, which we leave brown with dirk kicked up and inhaled over 11 km.
Hosea and I take a walk after tea, we reach a large rock and sit there, waiting for the view—that is, Kibo peak. Like the previous day when Kenya said karibu, the clouds today acknowledge our presence and seductively lift along the outline of the peak, inch by jagged inch. Pole pole sana, Hosea complains, but I am enjoying the pace; it slows my breathing and opens my eyes to the vista of cloud, hill and peak around me. The longer I stare, the more I want to become a part of the view, be defined in the context of Nature. I want to meet the silence of the sky with my own; it envelopes me in its grandeur.
Our Israeli hut-mates share crazy stories from their time in Ethiopia—Molo, the infamous beauty in the coffee village; their first night in Addis Ababa hazy from drugs and unprotected sex, prompting one to say to me, “I cried, I did not know which was worse—to be the father of a black Ethiopian boy or to die of HIV, or both.”
Dinner is many hours, many courses and simply languorous, accompanied by photos, stories, letter writing, national anthem singing and concluded with a dance party while the only other table of people left in the dining hall politely ignores us. We exit the dining hall, holding our breath in anticipation of the cold and it blasts us, finding all our exposed skin and freezing it. We seek refuge in the constellations clustered above, they glow and egg us on towards greater heights, closer to them. There are patches of grey in the sky; the Milky Way. Back from the deserts of Egypt, the ribbons of galaxy greet me, Salaam Aalekum. ’Sup!
In bed, wrapped in layers of clothing and sleeping bag, I feel the stillness and purity of the air around me. Quite a contrast from the dance of dust and smoke that occupies the daytime, that has followed me since arriving in Africa. There’s been jet streams from the plane, ocean trails following boats off the Tanzanian coast, clouds of dust belched out of buses on the dusty road from Dar Es Salaam to Arusha, wisps of grey from the sporadic fires in the settlements along the main road. Now it is dark, the grey has turned to black and the smoke has turned into stardust. I am smitten, I am smote.