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The Mountains of Tanzania, Ehud Reiter

  • Submitted by: Ehud Reiter
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

The Dangers of Africa: A Travelogue Part II: The Mountains of Tanzania

Day 0

My truck camping tour drove into the town of Moshi in Tanzania, near the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro.
We had already spent a week driving through Tanzania. The country's founder and guiding spirit, Julius Nyere, was an idealistic socialist, and he had created a country where people were poor but equal. The villages mostly seemed to have schools, clinics, and running water, and the people looked healthy. On the other hand, the stores all had empty shelves, and what modern infrastructure (roads, railroads, banks, hotels, etc) the country had was decaying. Police checkpoints were common, and the prisons until quite recently had been full of political prisoners. Although Nyere himself was honest, corruption was rampant in the lower levels of government. Tanzania felt like an African version of Eastern Europe: basic human needs were met, but the country was economically depressed, politically repressive, and generally felt grey.
Fortunately, tourists are pretty immune to local politics. Eight members of our group were going to try to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,000 feet). Besides myself, there was Bob, Claire, Dinah, Jan, Jean, Sharon, and Susan. Two guys and six girls - contrary to stereotypes, mountain climbing, at least in our group, was more popular with women then men. Jean and Dina had some previous climbing experience, but the rest of us had never done anything like this before.

Days 1,2, and 3

There is a well-established routine for climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. It takes 3 and a half days to climb up, and one and half days to come back down. There are huts to stay in along the way, and porters are usually hired to carry your food and equipment. Except for the fourth day, when you actually reach the summit, the "climb" is just a hike along a trail. The scenery is beautiful, and always changing. The bottom of Kilimanjaro is tropical forest, but above that is a layer of meadows and flowers, and above that is a layer of desert and bare rock. The final layer, which we would see on day 4, is glaciers and ice.
The hiking for the first three days is pretty easy. You only climb about three or four thousand feet every day, and the path is gentle and in good repair. Porters carry all the gear, so you just stroll up and enjoy yourself. We had a guide, but we had no need for him for this leg of the trip.
I was careful to pace myself and go slowly. I have a tendancy to walk too fast and tire myself out, so I told myself to relax, and take my time. I tried to always stay behind someone else, and let the other person set the pace. I noticed that Bob (the only other guy in our group), had taken a more macho attitude. He was always far in front, and the first to arrive at the hut for the night. When the rest of us would finally arrive, Bob would usually started boasting about how he was going to be the first one up to the summit, and how he was probably going to have to come back down and give the rest of us a hand in reaching the top.

Day 4

The big day. The fourth day of the Kilimanjaro climb is the real test, as the path gets worse and the altitude starts taking its toll. Kilimanjaro is a volcanic crater, and the path goes up to the crater rim at Gilman's point, and then goes around the rim to the highest point, Uhuru point, which is the summit. Most people make it to Gilman's point, but then are so tired and miserable that they turn back and don't reach the summit.
We were woken up at midnight, and were on the trail by 1AM. The first to turn back from our group was Bob, the macho guy who had been boasting that he was going to be the first one up. Perhaps because he had worn himself out by setting a fast pace during the first three days, he decided to turn back after only an hour or two. The rest of us, annoyed by his previous boasting, did not try to dissuade him.
After Bob turned back, the seven "survivors" gradually broke up into two groups. I was in the "fast" group, along with Claire, Dinah, and Jan. In the dark (it was 3AM), we lost contact with the "slow" group, consisting of Jean, Sharon, and Susan. We found out later that they, like so many others, had gotten to Gilman's point and turned back there, not reaching the summit.
So, now there were only four of us left, out of the original eight. As the path got worse and the air got thinner, I think we all started wondering why we were crazy enough to try to climb this mountain. I could no longer think clearly, but just concentrated on trying to put one foot in front of the other. Dinah, the only experienced climber in our group, was having even more problems with the altitude than I was, and began gradually falling behind the rest of us.
At 7AM, we reached Gilman's point and the crater rim. We all collapsed onto the ground, and took a well-deserved rest. Dinah declared that she simply could not go any farther, and was going back down to where she could breathe. Claire, Jan, and I looked at each other, wondering whether we should be sensible and go back with Dinah, or prolong the misery and push on. At last, I said "Come on, we can't turn back now", and we headed off.
So, now there were only three left, out of the original eight. I only have the dimmest memories of walking around the crater rim to the summit. At a reasonable altitude, it would have been a Sunday stroll. At 19,000 feet, I'm amazed that I made it. It wasn't so much that I was tired, as that I had no control over myself. I walked that path like a drunk, staggering from one side to another. At times, there was a significant drop (100 feet or so) next to the path, so this was pretty dangerous. I might have seriously injured myself, except for our guide, Sam. Sam kept an eye on me, and whenever we got to a dangerous part of the trail, he would walk next to me, ready to pull me back when I got too close to the edge.
Well, we made it to the summit, somehow - first Jan, then Claire, and then me. We took some photos, signed a book, rested for a few minutes, and then headed back. For me, walking back to Gilman's point was even worse than walking to the summit, but, with Sam's help, I made it. My strongest memory of the climb down was Jan scrambling down as fast as she could, until she got down to 17,500 feet or so. There, she could breathe, and think, and enjoy herself, and start laughing at the clumsy antics of Claire and I as we came down from the top to join her. When we reached Jan, we all collapsed on the spot, and started laughing. For, we had somehow made it to the top of a 19,000 foot mountain, and would carry the memory of that accomplishment for the rest of our lives.

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