Chapter 1 – What doesn’t Kili me…

“Hey! You’re peeing on Kilimanjaro!”

– Jason to Janine at the first rest stop

“That man has lawn chairs on his head.” I mutter to Janine through shallow breaths on Mount Kilimanjaro.

The porter strolls past us with 4 folded lawnchairs balanced on his noggin, to be precise. And a folding camp table. And a 20 pound rucksack on his shoulders. His sneaker soles flip flop against the bottoms of his feet as he walks by in the driving rain. I feel more than a twinge of guilt. Encased in my fortress of gore-tex and waterproofed leather boots, I carry only a light day pack containing my warm fleece and a lunch.

Another jeans and t-shirt wearing porter walks by me with a 30 litre propane tank.

That’s it. I start to walk a little faster. Ahead of me, before he even sees me move, Oruki, our assistant guide mutters a cautionary “pole, pole” (slowly slowly).

It’s the mantra of Kilimanjaro trekking guides and everybody else that attempts to climb up onto the roof of Africa.

We weren’t sure we’d end up doing this hike. First of all, it’s expensive. Budget hikes start around $1,000 a person. You can travel for a long time in a lot of places on $1000. Second, despite its mystique, Kili also has a certain “touristy” flavour to it. You’ll see more Muzungus here in a day than you will in a month in other parts of Tanzania. There are plenty of off the beaten path destinations where you can trek for a fraction of the price and not see another white face for the duration.

But flying over or driving past Kilimanjaro has a way of challenging

your ideas about whether you should pony up the cash. As we passed the mountain on the bus, its massive cone, even partially covered in cloud, exerted a strong pull on our imagination. When we finally stopped staring out the window and looked at each other, Janine and I hardly needed to speak.

We were going.

***

The early afternoon air at Kilimanjaro’s Machame gate is thick with mist and the sounds of porters arranging their loads and jockeying over who will take what. Our group of 8 trekkers – 4 Czechs, an Australian, an American and the two of us – makes for quite the trekking party. All together, 17 men are assembled to see us up the mountain – cooks, porters, guides and assistant guides. They lug everything from huge baskets of vegetables, large primus stoves, jerry cans of fuel and mess tents. Typically, each man carries something on his shoulders (such as one our 75 litre backpacks) and something on his head. Heavily muscled and definitely walking with a certain swagger, they can be a little intimidating. But quite frankly, they’ve earned it.

While our head guide Jeremy deals with last minute paper work, we set out with the assistant guide Oruki, up the mountain. Within seconds, the busy scene at the gate is left behind and we are strolling through Kili’s moss-encrusted cloud forest. Tall, thin trees stretch up until they are lost in the mist and I suddenly feel like I’m back on the West Coast Trail in Canada, minus the giant sitka spruce. Strange bird calls echo through the trees. It’s hard to believe we’re already at 1800 meters. By the end of the day, we’ll be camping at 3000. Back home, that would be glacier territory. But here, we’ll still be below tree line.

The path climbs gently but steadily. Kili’s summit at 5800 meters may be short compared to the monsters of the Himalayas, but the peak is still higher than Everest base camp. Therefore acclimatization is a must and Oruki sets a deliberately slow pace designed to give our bodies time to adjust to the high altitude.

Rests to drink water are frequent. We’re supposed to consume three litres each a day – an astronomical figure for me and my granny bladder.

But, again, we put our trust in the professionals and chug dutifully. As a result, soon the rest stops are being used for more than just drinking. At one bathroom break, clouds roiling below us and another heavy bank rolling in above us, I’m suddenly struck by the fact that we’re actually here and actually climbing the mountain.

“Hey!” I call to Janine, “You’re peeing on Kilimanjaro!”

“Yay!” I hear from behind a bush.

***

Our mood gets a little damper when the rain starts. Although this is supposed to be the dry season on Kili, the rains have come early (the guides tell us that seasons here have been noticeably off in the past several years). Mist soon transforms to patter and then a downpour that has the whole group reaching for ponchos and rain jackets. The porters barely break stride and are soon well ahead of us on the road to camp.

In the last hour or so of walking, we leave the cloud forest and enter a strange new zone of giant heather. I’ve never seen trees anything like it before and will frankly have to consult my field guide before I can give you a more detailed description. It’s an alien landscape that, emerging from the ongoing thick fog makes an unforgettable impression.

When we reach our stop for the night at 3000 meters, we get our first taste of the glory that is porter-assisted camping. Porters gather around to see how we set up our tents. From here on in, they tell us, they’ll have them set up before we reach camp. A large mess tent is set up in the middle of our site, containing tables, chairs and a heaping bowl of popcorn for us to snack on while dinner is being finished.

Carafes of tea and coffee steam. Large bowls of hot water are given to each camper for hand and face washing. I enjoy mine as much for the heat as the cleanliness.

Dinner is 3 course affair of soup, fresh beef, vegetables and a fruit dessert. “This is better than we’ve eaten in a lot of Tanzanian restaurants,” Janine says between mouthfuls. Heads nod around the table.

After the cooking crew has taken away the last bowls and plates, we all go our separate ways to bed. It’s a big group, and I sense that it will take a few days for the new friendships to form and the language barriers to be overcome. Right now, everyone’s too tired to make much of an effort beyond basic nicities.

The sky starts to clear as we duck into our tent. Brilliant stars peak out from behind the last few racing clouds. The porters are bedding down in the mess tent in a flurry of shouts, jokes and jockeying for position. Somewhere, more than 2 and a half kilometers further up and roughly 2 and half thousand bathroom breaks away, Uhuru peak waits.

Jason

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Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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