Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro
by Steve Bragg
The Masai tribeswoman thrust a rhino carving through the open bus window and into my face.
“Good price! Twenty dollah!”
I rammed the window up, barely allowing her time to snatch her arm back. I scowled at her ferociously. She took this as a good bargaining ploy.
“Very good price, only for you! Fifteen dollah!”
I glanced around the bus. Ahead, someone was sticking a rabbit under the nose of our driver. Brian was busy trading his shoes for a whole shipment of cheap African trinkets, and Julia was bartering a bandanna for a gourd. Behind us, Manuelo handed out money indiscriminately and took in a blizzard of cheap trinkets in exchange.
Overhead, Kevin cowered on the roof, besieged by offers of spears -- he thought they were trying to skewer him.
This was the border between Tanzania and Kenya, and we were returning from two weeks of climbing and wildlife viewing in Tanzania. I sat back on the bus bench, ignored the pounding on the window, and thought back to the many events of the trip.
* * * * *
It was the eighth day of December, 1994. It was bloody early. My fiancee, Melissa, was watching our baggage in the Nairobi airport while I searched for a bathroom in the airport baggage area. I found it, glanced in quickly, saw no wild animals, and edged in slowly. Good, there was toilet paper. Perhaps this place was civilized after all. A driver for R.E.I. Adventures picked us up a few minutes later, along with Kevin (a salesman), Ernest (a retired teacher from a Alaska) and David (an actuary). We were dropped off at the Jacaranda Hotel, with instructions to meet on the patio in a few hours to meet everyone and talk about the trip.
Melissa and I crashed for a few hours -- it had been a long flight from Heathrow, and we were tired. The hotel’s water was not running, and the electricity was sporadic. The mosquitoes, however, worked just fine. I quickly learned how to wave away bugs in my sleep.
We awoke a few hours later. Rain was falling on the palm trees outside our window. This was a carryover of the “short” rains of November (so named because they only rain on short people). The temperature was a comfortable seventy degrees. We put on sandals and trooped downstairs.
The other hikers were grouped around a covered table on the patio. After a short discussion of the trip, we wandered across the street to a really good restaurant for pizzas and Tusker Lager. Predictably, the focus of conversation was food. We had a choice of the Carnivore Restaurant (not known for its vegetarian menu) and the Tamarind Restaurant, which served great seafood. A call to the Carnivore confirmed that it was full that evening, so we got reservations at the Tamarind instead.
Melissa and I walked to a very small mall during the afternoon, and rode the escalator up through three stories of shops. The locals stared at us a bit, but I was comfortable amid the shops for computers, kids toys, and lingerie.
A few hours later, we went to the Tamarind. The hotel called the cab service, which sent over several dilapidated old vehicles. We negotiated the price with the drivers and drove to the restaurant. There was a policeman outside the Tamarind to ward off climbers, but we somehow got in. I felt a little out of place, being served by a waiter in a tuxedo when I was wearing a “work sucks” tee shirt. However, the food was good, the prawns were enormous (six inches!) and the South African wine was excellent.
We returned late that night, and took our weekly Mefloquine pills for malaria. Melissa discovered that she got heartburn from the pills, and stayed up half the night.
The next morning, we climbed into a reasonably clean minibus, piled our gear into the back, and headed out of town. Our destination that day was the Kibo Hotel at the foot of Kilimanjaro, and we had a long ways to go. . The drive to the Tanzanian border was three hours, and then we’d have another four hours of driving to reach the hotel. Our native driver followed the universal custom of terrorizing the visitors by driving at breakneck speed with his head out the window, reviewing the bodies he had just run over. However, to be fair, he did occasionally look ahead just in time to spot tribesmen by the side of road and swerve toward them. As far as we could tell, the locals did nothing but stand by the side of the road with great dignity, doing absolutely nothing. They always wore a suit coat, and sometimes wore pants, as well. One particularly distinguished gentleman waved at us grandly and raised a stick in the air, on which was coiled a large snake. Eighty percent of the world’s poisonous snakes live in this region of Africa.
The area near Nairobi contained a few game animals. We spotted zebras, Thompson’s gazelles, and a few giraffes near the road. The natives had also suspended dozens of small bee cages from trees along the route. The only billboards featured the worldwide battle between Coke and Pepsi. Coke appeared to be winning the battle in this part of the world, based on square footage of signs erected. Police checkpoints slowed us down from time to time, as we maneuvered around bands of spikes that they had laid out across the road to puncture car tires.
We reached the Tanzanian border without undue difficulty, and switched our baggage to a different bus that was licensed to operate in Tanzania. We spent a half hour in the customs office while our passports were examined and stamped by a bored-looking official. Then we sprinted through a crowd of Masai tribespeople in brightly colored robes. They were after our money, and were willing to trade anything to get it. Most of us cowered in the bus while the locals clamored outside the bus door for someone to come out and trade with them. Miquel, a real estate developer from San Francisco, finally went out with his video camera and took some shots of the women. Of course, they wanted money for the privilege of being in his home video, so he had to cough up some cash for that. Then they spotted Kevin filming Miquel from a bus window, and demanded money from him. It was time to leave. Our new driver jumped into his seat, and we rocketed away.
Tanzania is very poor, with one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes. We passed numerous villages whose huts were made of mud and thatched roofs. People cured their own bricks in the sun, and tended their fields either with hoes or with oxen. Mechanized vehicles were common enough on the roads, but certainly not in the fields. After several more hours of choking exhaust fumes and jouncing potholes, we drove up the outer fringes of Kilimanjaro and stopped at the Kibo Hotel. Despite driving part way around the peak, we could not see it. Heavy rain clouds obscured much of the peak, which covers an area of 50 miles by 25 miles.
A horde of locals clustered around the bus and enthusiastically carried our gear inside. Of course they wanted tips. We all doled out U.S. Dollars, Kenyan Shillings (at 40 to the Dollar) and Tanzanian Shillings (at 450 to the Dollar). The Kibo Hotel is surrounded by a wall of well-cultivated flowering shrubs, has a long dining hall, a bar, and a nice lounge. Best of all, the rooms have showers.
While Melissa cleaned up, I stood out on the second floor patio, looking down on a group of villagers who sat smoking in the shade of a tree. The pungent odor of their tobacco wafted up to me. I reflected that the next week might see the completion of a twenty-year dream. I had wanted to climb Kilimanjaro ever since I had seen the peak in a book called The Mountains, part of the Life Nature Library. I still had the book in the library back home. The peak was not supposed to be that hard. If only the weather would clear up!
We had dinner in the hotel’s long dining hall, along with a motley assortment of other climbers from around the world. Dinner included meat, potatoes, and soup -- hearty stuff. I glanced up at the wall and notice a flag left by a Japanese group. Intentionally or otherwise, they’d misspelled the peak as “Kirimanjaro.”
We crawled out of bed and wandered downstairs for a great breakfast. Then a horde of porters grabbed our gear and hustled it into a pair of mini-buses. We drove up a good road for a few miles through a heavily populated area to the park gate. This was the start of the Marangu Route, probably taking its name from the village of Marangu, which is clustered around the gate. The park entrance includes a store, check-in area, an armed guard, cold showers, and (of course) an accountant’s office (I am not making this up). We were introduced to Mr. Peter, who was to be our guide. He was short and slender, with a big, permanent grin. He was also very efficient. He distributed our gear among 23 porters, who balanced equipment and duffel bags on their heads. The porters were supposed to carry thirty pounds each. We lined up for a photo next to the mileage sign at the gate, all clean and shiny. That was about to change. We browbeat another traveler into taking our pictures. This took some time, since there were twelve cameras.
We eventually ran out of film, and decided to actually start the hike. The path was initially a jeep trail that shrank into a wide track. Trees towered far overhead, and a light breeze kept us cool. The peak is divided into a number of climatic zones, each of which covers about three thousand vertical feet. This was the forest zone. Kilimanjaro is 200 miles south of the equator, but the temperatures were consistently cool -- too cool, as we were to find out the next day. We were above 6,000, which was important from a medical standpoint -- malaria does not exist on Kilimanjaro above 6,000 feet.
For the first half mile, children ran out of the trees and accosted us, begging for money. They gradually fell behind as we ascended. After an hour, we stopped for a break, and put down our packs. A minute later, I looked down to see a five-inch slug crawling over my pack, leaving a long trail of slime. Kevin immediately ran over with his videocam, crying out, “Cool!” I swatted it away with a stick, and we continued up the trail.
This proved to be an easy day of hiking, for the first set of huts appeared after a 2.5 hour walk (though the Park Service’s recommended travel time was three to four hours). This was the Mandara camp, located at an elevation of 8,800 feet. It was formerly known as the Bismarck Hut. It was located in a beautiful clearing with overhanging trees. The visitor’s huts were located slightly above the porter’s huts. Squat toilets were sprinkled through the encampment, as well as concrete wash basins equipped with faucets. I got an A-frame hut with four beds, and roomed with Kevin, Paul (a Californian who had cashed in on a company buy-out, and was traveling the world), and Melissa. The back half of the A-frame was cut off by a wall, and contained an additional four beds. A solar cell panel was mounted on the roof, and powered a set of fluorescent bulbs in the hut. Further down the encampment, the porters prepared dinner in a cook’s hut with a raised roof and enormously long smoke stacks. Since they had a wood fire inside, smoke also billowed out the door.
Before dinner, we went on a quarter-hour side trip to Maundi Crater. The path led through a lush forest to a small crater with a footpath around its rim. Fog covered the slopes above us, but a brief break showed the rocky bulk of Kilimanjaro’s lower summit, Mawenzi (elevation of 16,896 feet). Good thing we were not climbing that! It looked steep.
Dinner was in the dining room in the center of the camp. A porter poured warm water over our hands on the patio, and then we went inside and had asparagus soup and steak. I had been warned of poor food on the mountain, but this was certainly not the case. All of our meals were excellent, and usually included fresh fruits such as watermelons and pineapples.
We woke up to the sound of rain on the roof. We had a quick breakfast, allocated duffel bags to the porters, and slogged up the muddy trail. Kevin spent most of that mile apologizing, since we had discovered that he snored. It was a light snoring, but we quickly made him paranoid about it with far too many snide remarks. For the rest of the trip, he woke up each morning and automatically said , “Excuse me!”
We had a ten mile hike in front of us, and the Park Service’s recommended travel time for it was five to seven hours. Mr. Peter led the way for the first mile, since there was a treacherous stretch of tangled and wet tree roots to negotiate. However, we then reached the heath andmoorland zone of the peak, and split up into smaller groups based on hiking speed. I found myself with Kevin, Paul, and Miguel. The moorlands were invisible beyond a range of 100 yards because of the pelting rain. With nothing to do but hike, we donned Walkman cassette decks and raincoats, and churned through the mud. In many places, the trail turned into a stream bed, and we hopped from side to side, balanced on clumps of grass, and occasionally overbalanced and fell into the quagmire.
A picnic table and outhouse appeared after a few hours, but we skipped lunch (why sit on a wet bench and have the rain pour down your neck?) and forged on. The angle of ascent was low, so we made good time. The temperature dropped as we approached 11,000 feet, and soon our exposed parts were chilled by the dank fog that rolled up the slopes.
Kevin and Paul fell behind a short distance, and Miguel and I rapidly finished off the hike, reaching the next camp after a little over three hours of hiking. This was the Horombo camp, located at an elevation of 12,100 feet. Despite the fog bank, we saw a large dining hut and many subsidiary cabins clustered around and above it. We headed straight for the dining hut and sorted through damp clothes while the other hikers and porters straggled in. The clothes in our duffel bags was fairly dry, since most of us had wrapped our clothes in garbage bags. Mr. Peter obtained cabins for us, and we split up into them. The cabins were identical in structure to the ones in the camp below. Melissa had trooped in feeling cold, so we doubled up our sleeping bags and cuddled for an hour while she warmed up.
The rain eased up in the afternoon, and we even got a few glimpses of sunshine. However, the fog always rolled back in. I spent some of the afternoon perched on a rock, watching a work crew construct more cabins further up the hillside. They collected and shaped rocks on the spot, and used them to construct foundations. Sometimes, above them, the summit of Mawenzi broke through the clouds. Whenever this happened, the entire camp scuttled off for camera equipment, and ran through far too much film. There was even a brief glimpse of the true summit, Kibo (elevation 19,340 feet), late in the day.
Meanwhile, other hikers had arrived and were playing cards in the dining hut. Melissa bundled up and played Hearts there all afternoon. I rigged a clothesline that crisscrossed the dining hut, and soon a wet mass of socks, underwear, parkas, hats, mittens, and other items hung from above, dripping on everyone clustered below. Whenever the sun broke through the clouds for a few moments, everyone scrambled outside with their wet clothes for some “power drying” that never seemed to do much.
This camp had a concrete washbasin with faucets, so I stripped down and washed up while Miguel filmed me with his video camera. I offered concise commentary, such as, “Do you have any idea how cold this water is? Arrgghh!”
We were not moving camp the next day. Instead, we spent a few hours on an acclimatization hike up a side valley. The rain had let up and we only had to deal with a damp mist. The hike took us to the Zebra Rocks (a white-and-black striped cliff that did resemble a zebra) and up to the saddle between the Kibo and Mawenzi summits. Clouds loomed low overhead, so both summits were obscured. My hiking shoes had been soaked the day before, so I switched to double-layer plastic boots, and wore them for the rest of the climb. They were very comfortable.
The hike down was fast, and we were soon back in the dining hut, being treated to a lunch of eggplant patty with curry sauce, boiled potatoes, and vegetables. Thirty-five kids appeared that afternoon, and piled into the dining hut. Things were getting a bit crowded, so I retired to the cabin to read a book. Fog trickled in around the edges of the door, and water dripped from the garments hanging overhead. The rain came down again in the late afternoon, and soon there were mud puddles everywhere outside. Mr. Peter offered to take our wet clothes to the cook’s hut and dry them over the fire. Though it was a kind gesture, we ended up with the smelliest set of clothes imaginable. Manuelo and I poked around under the dining hut, and found a one-wheeled litter used for carrying injured people off the peak. It even had shock absorbers!
The fog was still there in the morning, but it was not raining -- yet. We followed Mr. Peter at a slow pace into the bracken above camp. The last water source on the peak was an hour up the trail. From here on, we used water that was either melted from snow or carried up by the porters. The water they gave us was horribly tainted with a charcoal flavor, so most of us elected to die of dehydration until we returned to a normal water source.
We reached a ridge at 13,500 feet, after which the trail dropped slightly and headed across a barren area, and around the right side of the Kibo summit. This was the peak’s high desert zone. The area was littered with HAG (High Altitude Graffiti) in the form of rocks lined up to spell out words, such as “Pass not this way, ye men of quaking heart,” “Frodo Lives!” and the ever-popular “Elvis seen on summit. Scientists are amazed!” The summit was obscured by clouds. As we crossed the plain at a steady clip, a fog bank slowly approached and dropped a light mist on us. We were not pleased. Most of our clothes had gotten damp in the past few days. We hurriedly changed into shell garments in the shelter of a large rock, and then continued up into the mist. While changing clothes, one of our guides decided to try out my Walkman. There was a hard rock tape in it that he particularly liked, and he smiled appreciatively at Steppenwolf and Van Halen tunes.
More fog rolled in, and the rain became steady as we approached the Kibo Hut at 15,520 feet. The rain really came down during the last hundred yards, so we jogged into the hut. The day’s hike took four hours to complete, which was an hour less than the Park’s Service’s estimated travel time.
The Kibo Hut is not like the lower huts -- it is a central building that contains sleeping rooms (holding 12 people each) as well as a dining area at one end. A central corridor runs through the building. Porter’s cabins are located to one side, and outhouses are at the opposite end of the compound, perched on a fifteen-foot cliff. A woman had fallen off the cliff two days before we got there, and had broken her back. Being a morbid person, I strolled down to the impact site during a break in the rains, and photographed the landing area.
We rapidly consumed bag lunches and snacks of popcorn and tea before retiring to our room for an afternoon nap. The room was chilly, and festooned with wet parkas. David complained of shortness of breath, and had slightly blue fingertips, indicating high altitude sickness. He went off into a corner bunk and promptly fell asleep. Snoring is not supposed to be a symptom of altitude sickness, but maybe the doctors will revise their opinions after examining David. His snoring nearly removed the roof from the building.
Julia was sleeping near him -- pardon me, trying to sleep near him. In the early evening, she (being a calm, rational individual), suddenly exclaimed, “Oh God, I’ll kill him, I’ll kill him!”
I sat in my bunk and rationally considered the alternatives of either waking up David or collecting some serious money from a tabloid for my story of the Kilimanjaro Murder. Unfortunately, civilized behavior prevailed. I lumbered through darkened room to David, murmuring the usual pleasantries at various bunks as I crossed the room, such as, “I say, was that your head?” and “Dreadfully sorry about your hand, but it was on the floor.”
I shook David awake, and pointed out that his snoring was damaging the foundations. He mumbled agreeably, rolled over, and snored louder than ever. I sighed, retreated to my bunk, and started writing about the Kilimanjaro Murder. This story should cover the cost of the trip...
We got up at midnight. Most of us did not like to get up at that hour, and grumbled as we sorted through equipment, donned clothing, changed our minds, stripped, and started over again. I stopped by the dining area for a quick snack. Mr. Peter was looking a bit gray -- he hadn’t slept at all that night, and still had to guide us up the peak. I wandered outside for a look around. Visibility was minimal, there was two inches of snow on the ground, with more coming down. The temperature was 25 degrees. I was feeling grumpy and constipated.
I went back inside. It was now 1:35 a.m. Everyone else was lined up in the corridor, looking grumpy. I wondered how many others were constipated. Mr. Peter led the way through the camp and up at a low angle. I was next in line, and concentrated on following Mr. Peter’s boots. Kevin was next in line behind me, and his powerful headlamp cast sufficient illumination for both of us. There was nothing else to do except wonder why we hadn’t gone somewhere really fun for vacation, like Istanbul. I know where there’s a great cafe in Istanbul, but I’m not sure the owner will let me back in again. However, that is another story...
Further back in the line, Melissa turned on a tape of the Phantom of the Opera, and kept playing it for the entire day. David felt a bit queasy, and turned back. The long, black night dragged on as the slope gradually became steeper. The Park Service’s estimated time for reaching the summit from the Kibo Hut was six to eight hours, and we did not appear to be beating that estimate. The trail started to switch back and forth. After a few hours, the snow turned to freezing rain. I pulled back my hood for some fresh air, and found that the hood was frozen solid. I hit my head a few times (which I should have done before going on the trip) to crack the ice, and pulled back the hood. Looking up, I saw the wavering beams of light emitted by the headlamps worn by other climbers above us. Eventually, we reached the Hans Meyer Cave at 17,000 feet. Hans Meyer was the first person to climb Kilimanjaro, back in 1889. It was still completely dark. Inside the cave, a dense pack of miserable-looking climbers huddled together for warmth. Since we were late in arriving, we were stuck on the cold fringe of the group, and soon decided to keep moving.
A headcount showed that two more of our group had gone back down. The remaining nine people slogged up. Julia was feeling sick, and gave her backpack to Mr. Peter to carry. Mr. Peter led rather slowly from that point onwards. Julia hung over her ski poles at every stop and gasped for air. But she kept going. We broke through the clouds at 17,500 feet, and saw the summit of Mawenzi behind and slightly below us. The sun came up through the clouds a little further on, so we stopped and took pictures. Another half hour or so of climbing got us to Gilman’s Point (at 18,635 feet), on the rim of the crater. Nine people out of our original group of twelve made it to Gilman’s.
The crater is perhaps a mile across. The summit was a longish slog around to the left for another 1.5 hours. Small glaciers sprouted from the crater rim at several spots and ran down into the crater, as well as down the outer slopes. The entire area was blanketed by a layer of fresh snow. The winds were increasing in force, and clouds were moving in, so Kevin, Paul, Melissa and I decided to move out ahead of the others and go for the summit.
Paul was suffering from a bad case of HAFE (High Altitude Flatulence Expulsions) so we let him get quite a long ways ahead. Those people who thought we were wearing oxygen masks would have been surprised to learn that they were really gas masks. We had spectacular views from the rim trail of the sea of clouds below, and of the thin, wispy clouds that blew in from Mawenzi at high speed and crashed into the ridge. A thin mist of snow particles hung in the air. We pulled up our parka hoods, donned ski goggles, and trooped around the rim.
It seemed to take an awfully long time. The summit was not that far away, but we were getting slower at every step. Kevin and Melissa fell behind a bit, and I found myself a short distance behind (and upwind) of Paul. A group returned from the summit, and said that we had twenty minutes of hiking still to go. I couldn’t believe it. This ridge seemed to go on forever. Finally, after ascending a small bump on the ridge, I saw a sign and a few poles sticking up out of the snow a hundred yards ahead. This was it! I jogged to catch up with Paul, and we reached the top. We stood at an elevation of 19,340 feet.
Paul was totally at ease, while I was painfully winded from the ill-advised run. It didn’t matter. We were on top! We traded high fives, and then took photos of everything in sight, and marveled at the wisps of cloud that passed just over our heads at high speed. The wind blew hard, so we crouched over the summit book to sign in, blowing on our chilled hands to keep them warm. Kevin and Melissa appeared over the rise and staggered to the top. Neither one could talk for a few minutes -- they just stood there like posts and stared at the summit marker in disbelief. They had reached Uhuru Peak (previously named Kaiser Wilhelm Spitz by the Germans). This was the first mountain Kevin had ever climbed. After a few minutes, Kevin recovered enough to dance a jig in front of his videocamera.
Three others from our group soon appeared, and reached the summit as well - Miguel, Manuelo, and Ximena, with Mr. Peter leading the way (and still carrying Julia’s pack, though she had already gone down). The return trip was not very fast, for the ridge undulated up and down. We were all tired, and stopped for lunch at Gilman’s Point. Kevin placed the Gilman’s altitude sign between two boulders and laid down on it to rest. After sharing all the food we had, Paul and Kevin tore off down the slope towards Kibo Hut. I followed Melissa down at a more sedate pace. The descent route is a straight run through volcanic scree that cuts through the middle of the traverses used to climb up to Gilman’s. We took giant steps as we plowed downwards. Clouds were building up below, and I recalled that we were scheduled to continue beyond Kibo that same day, and reach the Horombo camp at 11,200 feet. We had a long ways still to go, and it looked like we were going to get wet.
We reached the Kibo Hut and immediately bought each other a Coke. Cold soft drinks can be procured at any of the camps. The prices increase with the altitude, but are worth it. At the base a Coke costs 200 shillings, increases to 400 shillings at the Mandara camp, goes to 500 shillings at the Horombo camp, and then skyrockets to 800 shillings at the Kibo Hut.
The sleeping area was crowded with smelly climbers. We were all smiles. After an hour of rest, we put on our packs and least damp clothes, and hiked down towards the Horombo camp. The pace was surprisingly fast. Fog rolled in and rain commenced falling about halfway down. Kevin and I shifted into high gear and motored down the trail along with several porters who were also eager to reach shelter. Mud was everywhere, and we determinedly stomped through puddles, sending mud flying. After an hour and a half, we reached the Horombo dining hut and collapsed inside on the benches.
I went back outside and peered into the gloom of the porter’s cabin to search for our baggage. It was there. I grabbed my bag, but a porter picked it up for me and carried it back to the dining hut. Kevin sympathized with the efforts of the porters and frequently handed out tips. This time he outdid himself, and handed over three Dollars (to the porter, not me). The porter was astounded. He grinned hugely, shook both of our hands, and vanished out the door. A few moments later, the entire porter crew crowded through the doorway, carrying everyone’s luggage. Kevin and I scrambled for money, and were cleaned out at once. The porters departed considerably richer, leaving us amid a steaming pile of dripping duffel bags.
There was a giving of gifts ceremony at dinner, when we gave money to Mr. Peter, the assistant guides, the cooks, and the porters. Then the rain really came down, and we all scrambled for our bunks. We were out of water (having given up on the charcoal water provided by the cook). Paul volunteered to go out and fill up some bottles for filtering. He picked an especially wet interval to run out to the faucet. We heard him returning from quite a distance, saying “fucking rain” in a clear tenor.
Paul and I companionably pumped water through a filter while Melissa and Kevin snoozed. This was not hard to do (the snoozing, not the filtering), since we had had almost no sleep the night before, and had worked very hard since then. After the water filtering was finished, we turned off the lights and fell asleep. Kevin was too tired to snore.
The next morning was actually nice. The weather had been lousy for four days out of six, and the best two days were on the lowest part of the mountain. We left our duffels for the porters; predictably, they all fought for Kevin’s bag, anticipating a big tip at the bottom. It was still early, only just after 7 a.m. We posed briefly for a news crew who was filming the site with a large videocamera, and then sprinted down the peak. Toe problems developed quickly, as we jammed them into the front of our boots while leaping down from rock to rock. The track was still very muddy, and Kevin had a bad case of HASE (High Altitude Silly Experience) when he repeatedly did a complete 360 in the mud in his no-tread sneakers. We had not seen this area very well on the way up, due to the rain on the hike in. It was composed of low bushes that offered a clear view of the trees below us, and of the next bank of clouds moving in. They never quite reached us, and we only had a few sprinkles to endure on the way down. After an hour and a half, we reached the Mandara camp, with Julia and Brian hot on our heels. Unbeknownst to us, Melissa had taken a wrong turn on the way down, and was now trying to find a way back to the main path (she did).
After a break at the Mandara camp, we slogged down the trail to the park gate. Sitting down at the last stop had been a mistake, for our muscles had cramped. Consequently, we went in a line down the trail, with each person screaming a separate vowel in pain, such as “Eeeeeee, Ahhhhhhh,” and “Ooooooh!” Paul then told a string of dirty jokes that kept us going a bit longer. However, we were getting tired, and the conversation flagged. We knew we were getting close when the village children bounded from the bushes and clustered around us, begging for money. Several of our porters were nearby, and one of them threw a rock at the kids ; can’t give the place a bad reputation with the rich tourists, can we?
After an hour and a half of trudging from the Mandara camp, we saw that the trail was changing from a mud to an asphalt base. This was a good sign. Women were sweeping leaves off the trail with branches, and a soldier was guarding a large and very expensive-looking shrubbery. We were there!
All of us did the same thing -- took off our shoes and socks. I went a step further and threw away my socks. Kevin and Paul went off in search of Cokes while I guarded the gear. They returned with two bottles each, plus an assortment of tee shirts and guide books (why purchase a guide book after you’ve been there?). We stretched out on the concrete steps in front of the guide office and enjoyed the prospect of sitting in a bus for the next few days, doing absolutely no hiking.
Julia and Kevin showed up a half hour later, followed by the rest of our group in the next hour. Melissa showed up with a pair of blackened big toenails that later fell off. Then the much smellier and lighter group got together for a team photo. We packed our gear into the mini-buses and drove back to the Kibo Hotel for repacking and showers. Showers! Ahh! We had not bathed for a week. It felt so good to stand under a jet of hot water and scrub away the accumulated grime.
Downstairs in the hotel’s reception area, Mr. Peter handed out certificates to those of us who had reached Gilman’s Point or Uhuru Peak (the certificates were different, depending on the high point reached). Then we loaded up the mini-buses again and drove for two hours to the city of Arusha, buzzing through swarms of locals at top speed and rarely even thinking about slowing down. In fact, I’m quite sure the driver had no idea the vehicle was equipped with brakes.
The ever-entertaining Kevin leaned out the window periodically and screamed “Jambo!” to whomever stood by the side of the road. They roared back in approval whenever he did it. We stopped at the tour operator’s house in Arusha, and took on Jim and Judy, who had (wisely) decided not to do the climbing part of the trip. We lined up in the kitchen to use the facilities (the toilet, not the sink), and talked to the owner’s Indian wife while we waited.
After being entertained by monkeys in the trees overhead while eating box lunches (us, not the monkeys), we got into the mini-buses yet again and hunkered down for the extremely long drive to the Lake Manyara Hotel. We switched to a dirt road outside of Arusha, and stayed on it all the way to the hotel. The driver considered the road’s poor condition to be a challenge, and he consistently hit the gas when we least expected it, sending Kevin and I (who were sitting in the rear ejection seats) right up to the ceiling.
The Lake Manyara Hotel overlooks Lake Manyara from a spot about a thousand feet up on the edge of a cliff. The view is quite remarkable, since baboons are sitting around the pool. Also, someone with a good pair of binoculars can pick out a startling number of giraffes, hippos, and wildebeests on the plains below. The hotel is a well-built edifice, with an enormous dining room, a giant outdoor chess set, and an empty swimming pool. The water was not running, so the staff helpfully emptied the pool into a lot of 55-gallon barrels, and left the barrels by the door of each room. We scarfed down a buffet dinner and went to bed. Melissa stayed up most of the night, since her weekly malaria pill did not agree with her again. All food agrees with me, and I slept like a log -- until I realized that the sun was up and Kevin was standing on the roof.
Kevin does not always stand on the roof of every building he visits, but it can be an arresting sight; especially when he is buck naked. In this instance, he was not buck naked, but I’m sure it would have been an arresting sight if he were. He was taking photos of the baboons (who were buck naked) down the by the pool. Not only were they buck naked, but they were copulating like mad. As soon as I saw that, I scrambled for my camera and bounded downstairs for a closer view.
Meanwhile, my saner half packed our gear and had breakfast. I showed up late, grinning and happy, with many good copulation photos. I was ignored, as is right and appropriate in marital relations. Following breakfast, we drove down to the shore of the lake to Lake Manyara National Park. The park is an excellent, condensed version of the Serengeti, where most of the wildlife can be spotted in a very small area. We popped up the tops of the two Toyota vans and crowded the roof space with our cameras. Those with larger lens, who were therefore more important, got more space than people like Melissa, who had a puny Ricoh zoom camera.
This was the best place on the trip for viewing giraffes, who obligingly stared at us from some twenty feet away. With a telephoto lens, I got several great shots of the right leg of a fly above the left eye of a giraffe. The local baboon population turned out in great numbers to great us. They hung from trees, scampered across the road, and generally made a lot of noise -- typical teenagers.
We departed the park and stopped at a road-side curio shop that featured several tons of carvings. Kevin wanted to buy everything, which sent the salespeople scurrying to him like flies to honey. This gave the rest of us time for some uninterrupted shopping. Tanzanian shopkeepers have an annoying habit of trailing two inches behind your left shoulder, expectantly holding a calculator (which they probably don’t know how to use), and saying “Good price, mistah -- good price.” The carvings were made of mahogany and very well polished, but the quality was not exceptional. Even back in Nairobi, we never found good-quality carvings. Perhaps mahogany is too hard to carve in detail. Kevin returned to the bus with most of the vendors’ inventory, and continued to bargain with someone through the window even as we were pulling away.
We bumped along for a while, and then pulled into a gas station for a fill up. While waiting, Paul bargained a tee shirt vendor down to an amazing three dollars each for a set of tee shirts. These, of course, were identical to shirts for which I had paid ten dollars at the hotel that morning.
Our route went up into the hills along a passable dirt track to the rim of Ngorongoro Crater. We would be returning here in a few days to view wildlife, but for now we were just driving around the rim on our way to the Serengeti. From our vantage point, a storm was rolling through the crater. With binoculars, we saw herds of wildebeests, a few elephants, and smaller animals roaming about, as well as clustering herds of the wild Range Rover.
The road dropped down the far side of Ngorongoro and went out into the plains of the Serengeti beyond. We stopped for photos well before reaching the official park gates, for we were crossing the migration path of the wildebeest. This was an extraordinary sight. The van stopped in a cloud of dust, and we all stood up in the observation area to see the animals. With binoculars, I estimated the number of animals in the field of view, and then multiplied that by the number of scans with the binoculars needed to see 360 degrees. I came up with an astonishing estimate of 100,000 animals in view.
The Serengeti park is 5,500 square miles, and is flat at the park entrance, with extended views running for many miles in all directions. The far end of the park is occupied by a low range of mountains that sweeps up over the horizon and marches away into the distance. The weather is as big as the land; long lines of clouds and towering thunderheads sweep across the plains, bringing shadows, violent storms, and driving gusts of wind. Small rock outcroppings called kopjes (pronounced “kopees”) dot the landscape. Despite having visited large chunks of six continents, I have never seen a grander landscape.
After blazing through an astonishing amount of film, we started up again and drove through the park gates (just a few poles and an overhead sign), still gawking at the multitude of wildebeests, giraffes, gazelles, zebras, and vultures. The driver spotted a group of vehicles to one side of the road, and drove over to them.. They were clustered around a pride of lions, who were (as usual) sunning themselves and occasionally twitching. One wore a radio collar. After taking too many pictures, we realized that the lions were not going to be photogenic for our benefit, and drove back to the road.
The road was covered with the hoof prints of animals, and sometimes had a body, too. We detoured around a Thompson’s gazelle that had its intestines ripped out. This got us on the topic of dinner, which was served a few hours later. We pulled into a campground near the center of the Serengeti. A large truck was there ahead of us, as well as a camp crew. They had set up a line of Eureka camp tents, with cots and mattresses, latrines, showers, and water basins. Of most concern to us was the dining tent which was both set up and full of food.
During dinner, we were informed that safaris were conducted from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., followed by a rest break back at the camp. Then we would go out again for a late afternoon safari, followed by dinner and bed. We were to bring flashlights into the latrines with us, and use them to inspect the hole before using it, since creatures sometimes wandered in there and did not react kindly to being dumped on. I had developed a case of the African crud, and spent a lot of time in there. The showers were canvas stalls with overhead buckets. The camp staff would fill the buckets with warm water on request, and we could either open the stopcock fully for a five-second deluge, or crack it for several minutes of dribbling luxury. We were also warned not to step beyond the camp boundary, since wild animals were in the vicinity.
The next day was overcast, which did nothing for the photographic lighting conditions. We went off towards the mountains in search of leopards. This area had very little wildlife, partially because of the presence of carnivores, and also because the grazing was not as good. The grazing was fine in the van, since we had an abundant supply of cookies.
We wandered down a series of muddy lanes, stopping frequently to peer up at trees with our binoculars. Leopards stay in trees most of the time, both for resting and eating their prey. They are usually spotted by looking for their tails hanging down from the foliage. A common tree in that area was the sausage tree, which had sausage-like appendages hanging down from its branches. The hanging vines and sausages looked a lot like leopard tails, so we spent a lot of time examining them. We saw no leopards that day.
We also tried to get to a kopje where the Masai tribe had left many paintings on the rocks. Unfortunately, we had to cross a very muddy area to get there. A Range Rover got stuck when it tried to make the crossing, and only got out with some difficulty. Our two vans had held back to see how the Range Rover would do, and turned around at that point. On the way out, the other van spun out in the mud (it’s really fun -- it happened to our van the next day). The trouble is that the Serengeti has a thick clay substrate that turns the area into a skating rink after a hard rainfall.
Kevin is a born salesman. Paul had a 300mm camera lens, and Kevin did not. Consequently, Kevin bent his not inconsiderable skills on Paul, and ended up with Paul’s lens more frequently than Paul had it. Every time the swap occurred, we’d hear, “OK, but I need it back right away. This is a great shot, and I want it too. Next time around, you’ll have to wait until I take a picture first.” The next time around, Kevin had the lens and Paul had to wait. Speaking of lenses, Ernest had an enormous lens, and insisted on everyone not breathing while he waited for the perfect shot (which never arrived). After everyone else had long since taken their photos, we sat in dead silence, waiting for his Pulitzer prize.
On the way back, we ran across a group of cape buffaloes. These are mean, smelly, mean, ugly, and mean creatures about the size of a small hotel. We even saw them chasing lions. They stared as us defiantly as we motored down the road.
After lunch and a shower, we drove back out in search of leopards, while a vast black squall line raced up behind us. We pulled down the retractable roof and continued to peer out the side windows while rain poured down and lightening crackled across the skies. The dirt roads lead everywhere, branching off and merging, and looping back on themselves. One road led us past a hippo pond. Hippos stay in water much of the time, and defecate where they stand. This makes for a rich sensory environment. We breathed in the fragrant musk and nearly fainted. After waiting for Ernest to get shots of a few hippo yawns (which is all they ever do), we drove off and found a small band of monkeys playing by the road.
We got back late, and found hot water in the basins in front of our tents, as well as giant moths fluttering around the lanterns in the dining tent. They dive-bombed us until we doused the lamps and ate in the dark.
During the next day’s safari, I was standing up near the front of the van, looking ahead, and noticed a dense cloud of something moving towards us. A moment later, we were enveloped by a cloud of flying ants. They splattered on my sunglasses and crawled up under my hat, so I ducked down. Looking back, I saw hundreds of them crawling over the seats, walls, and floor. Julia was squarely in the line of fire, and yelped in disgust as we brushed them off of her and each other and crushed them on the floor with our feet.
A few minutes later, the van skidded to a fast stop. From my vantage point above the van, I saw a five-foot black cobra slither across the road directly in front of us and into the high grass on one side. This seemed to be the day for unusual animals. Sure enough, we turned in to a small camping area a few minutes later, and saw an enormous bird hop up onto a boulder and glare down at us. It was a rare Verreaux’s eagle.
It was time to look for a cheetah. We drove back out onto the plains and off the road. The way to look for a cheetah is to scan the horizon for running animals, check overhead for circling vultures, or (the best bet) look for a circle of Range Rovers who are brutally photographing their helpless prey. We did not see any of these indicators. Instead, we prowled around several kopjes, where predators live. No luck. We drove out to mustard-colored patches that turned out to be prides of lions. They were getting boring. We saw 21 lions that day. In fact, we saw everything but a cheetah. Cute little warthogs with their ugly heads trotted about, ostriches ran away from us, peeing like fire hoses as they did so, and hyenas lumbered about on their short hind legs. We even saw jackals (like coyotes, with large ears), a mongoose slithering down a hole, and the occasional dikdik, which is a very small deer.
Searching was a lot of fun. We’d barrel across the plains at twenty or thirty miles per hour, narrowly avoiding gullies and washouts, and steering around vast herds of zebras, gazelles, impalas, and the ever-present wildebeest. Finally, far off, we caught the tell-tale glint of sunlight reflecting off of Range Rover windows. We tore across the short-grass plains and soon joined a large group of sturdy adventurers who were documenting every twitch of a mother cheetah and her young one who were trying to hunt gazelles while being distracted by camera motors.
The cheetah is smaller than a lion, and much faster. The speed of the cheetah is only hearsay, since it just sat there and stared at a hundred or so gazelles, who nervously stared back. Eventually, it wandered over to a nearby kopje for a water break, closely followed by a chugging crowd of vehicles.
On our way back to camp, our driver spotted the leg of an animal far up in a spreading acacia tree. It was all that a leopard had left of its meal. We still didn’t see a leopard, though.
That evening, we got stuck. While turning onto a side road, we sank into a large mud puddle. The second van went around us through the weeds, and got stuck as well. The other van’s occupants climbed out, jumped into the muck, and pushed their vehicle out and in front of our van. Then the drivers strung a cable between the vehicles and pulled out our van. While this was going on, we stood together further up the road, nervously looking for any of about twenty creatures that was undoubtedly about to pounce on us. We then drove to the Seronera Lodge, which is a beautiful hotel right in the middle of the Serengeti, built over and around a kopje. It is supplied by air (an airstrip is around the back) and by dirt road. It has a lovely bar and restaurant, lobby, and even rooms with real showers. A Brit with a vast handlebar mustache was stationed behind the front desk, selling balloon rides for $300 per hour (per person). Several tame hyraxes, similar to guinea pigs, dwelt in the kopje, and posed for photos. The hyrax is also know as the “suicidal hyrax” (at least to us), because we saw them leap off kopjes in a panic as we lumbered up in our van, doubtlessly falling to their deaths below (or at least bouncing back up a long ways). On the drive back to camp, we saw the moon rising over the Serengeti. Paul clambered out for a better photo. We started to warn him of dangerous wildlife, realized that his death would leave more food at dinner, and then loudly encouraged him to hike further away for a better view.
On our final day on the Serengeti, we picked up a guide and drove into a different section of the park, still searching for leopards. We went to a dry lake bed , where thousands of wildebeests milled about, running off in various directions for no apparent reason. The wildebeest is not known for its high intelligence quotient, only for its ability to provide meat to hungry carnivores. We then crossed the road and drove along the edge of another lake (this one with water). We stopped for a break and walked down to the water’s edge. The lake rim was blanketed by thousands of dead three-inch red scorpions. Further from the lake, thousands of bones lay strewn about. We drove down to the end of the lake, disturbed a pair of lions from hunting some wildebeests, and went back up the lake to have lunch. After the drivers checked the area, we stepped out of the two vans and clustered around the picnic basket. Off in the bushes, I spotted something moving. It was a large dung beetle, pushing (predictably) a large ball of dung. This did not seem to be much of a life. Why get up in the morning when you are only going to push dung? At least Sisyphus got to roll a rock.
On the way back to camp, we spotted a hyena who was minus a paw. A strand of wire was wrapped around its limb. Apparently it had stepped into a poacher’s trap and pulled its paw off to escape. We also spotted the heaviest flying bird in Africa, the Kori Bustard (can grow to 26 pounds -- imagine that hitting your windshield).
The day was by no means over. We drove back through the park gate and up into the hills to Olduvai Gorge, where the Leakey family (Mary and Louis) discovered Australopithecus, which is still being sailed in the America’s Cup races by the Australians.
The vans’ next stop was at a Masai encampment. We paid $7.50 each to take an unlimited number of photographs of the tribe. They lived in a fenced-in enclosure with a number of goats and cattle. The ground was mostly packed dung, and flies vastly outnumbered the mammals. The tribespeople donned colorful beads that were stored in a rack, and then got together and bounced up and down and sang songs. It reminded me of a football game. Meanwhile, the headman invited a few of us into his hut. Paul, Kevin, David, Melissa and I crawled through the four-foot high opening of the mud hut and into pitch darkness. We crawled through a short passage and into the main cooking area, where the embers of a fire burned in a pit. We gradually saw a hint of side passages and each other’s faces as our eyes adjusted to the trickle of light filtering in through small holes in the walls. The headman informed us that he slept there with his two wives, and that the darkness kept the flies out (I appreciated that). After we crawled out, I went straight to the van, took off my sandals, and spent the next hour picking dung out of their soles. I did not dare to wear them again for the rest of the trip.
We then drove to a beautiful camping spot in a field overlooking the Ngorongoro crater, at an altitude of 8,000 feet. The camp crew was there before us, and had set up our tents in a line. On the opposite side of the field was a primitive hot shower facility. A water pipe ran through a fireplace, in which a fire burned. The heated water then mixed with a cold water line and came out in a set of showers in a log cabin. The water was actually too hot. We all spent a great deal of time washing our feet, thinking back to the dung in the Masai encampment. After a good meal, we went to bed.
The cape buffalo is a smelly brute that chases lions, trips small children, and makes obscene phone calls. It is perpetually constipated, or at least looks that way. I was sleeping three feet from one. That is an incorrect statement. I was not sleeping.
Light from a lantern outside the tent (cleverly designed to scare away large animals) cast the shadow of the buffalo on the tent. It was contentedly munching on the tent ropes, and belching after its delectable meal of raw camper, lightly rolled in a batter of shredded tent canvas. Oh hell, I thought, as I rolled over in bed, with any luck it’ll chow down on Jonathan instead. He was our trip leader. Young MIT students taste better than stringy old birds like me.
The next morning, we drove 2,000 vertical feet down a narrow jeep trail to the floor of the Ngorongoro crater, along with several other vehicles. The crater is flat across the bottom, with steeply sloping walls. A number of trails are visible, angling down from the crater rim. A different road is used for vehicles departing from the crater, in order to avoid traffic jams on the incoming road. The crater has a startling concentration of wildlife. We drove to Lake Magadi to view the flamingoes, and immediately spotted a very rare black rhinoceros. It was hard to miss, since it was surrounded by a horde of Range Rovers, and trailed by a protective park vehicle. It trotted our way, and crossed the road a few yards away. We saw five black rhinos that day.
A short distance away lay a group of cape buffaloes in a picturesque pose. However, it wasn’t quite what Ernest wanted, so we waited while the cape buffaloes continued to not move. After subduing Ernest, we drove to a hippo pool, where we could see the hippos out of one side of the van, and three elephants munching on tall grass from the other side.
Another short drive took us to a pair of lionesses who were stalking some warthogs. We were pulling for the lions, since we didn’t have any good gore photos. Unfortunately, the warthogs spotted the aggressors (the lions, not us) and ran away. A large group of Range Rovers followed a pair of lions who were trying to mate. Every time the lion got behind the lioness, he’d look around at the throng of tourists, shake his head in disgust, and move on. The vehicles followed.
We stopped at a pond for lunch, along with everyone else in the crater. Black kites (not the Chinese kind) hovered overhead, looking for lunch to pounce on. Everyone ate under the cover of their vehicles’ rear hatches, in order to foil the birds. Kevin put some food on his head to provoke a bird attack. We pounced on him and dragged him back into the van, where he borrowed Paul’s lens for more photos.
It was time to leave. We drove at speed through a water-covered causeway towards the exit road, spraying sheets of water off the road, the van’s tires churning in the mud. We passed another hippo pond and a grove of trees being dismantled by some elephants, and reached the jeep road. It was narrow and steep, and the drop off one side was terrific. Kevin stood up in the back of the van as we ascended, holding his video camera over the edge. He banged his head on the collapsible roof, which collapsed on him. He rubbed his head, pushed the roof back up, and continued videotaping.
There is a hotel on the rim. As shadows lengthened across the crater, we gathered at the hotel’s open-air bar and admired the view, drinks in hand.
* * * * *
A sword thunked down into the middle of my plate.
“More impala, sir?” The waiter inquired politely.
“Why yes, thank you,” I replied ponderously.
The waiter pulled out a small machete and carved a chunk of meat off the sword. It fell onto a pile of zebra, crocodile, and gazelle meat.
We sat in the Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi, celebrating the end of our trip. We were packing in the food and slugging beer as fast as possible. This had been quite a trip -- summiting Kilimanjaro, driving all over the Serengeti, and traversing Ngorongoro Crater. And as soon as we got home, it would be Christmas.