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Up and into the  Sharga Morityn Nuruu. (More Photos)

 

Gaaj didn’t want to go through the mountains.

“Horses… uhn …” he said every time I traced a path through the Sharga Morityn Nuruu Mountains on our topographic map. These words were usually accompanied by Gaaj’s standard “so-so” hand-gesture. He also began to mime horse hoofs on stones, point to the mountains and say “Rocks… horses … uhn…” or, “Cold … horses … uhn…”

But if you listen to Gaaj long enough you get the impression that there’s not much Mongolian ponies can deal with besides sunshine and grassy pastures. We expected more than this from the beasts that has established the Mongol empire. Besides back in Tsetserleg, Gaaj had promised us that the mountains were doable. Now, here we were on their flanks a day after Blue Lake and he was balking.

We put our collective foot down. We’d take our time on the rocky ground, do short days if necessary and generally do what we could to preserve the horses. I doubted Gaaj’s claims that they were tired in any case. The day before, on the return trip from Blue Lake, realizing that we were finally going in his favourite direction – backwards – Buttercup had trotted briskly on and off for 5 hours. This had earned him the alter ego title, Brown Lightning (incidentally, the same name I gave to a nasty stomach bug I picked up in Cairo).

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Team Meeting at the Map

After much wrangling and finally an expensive sat phone call to Sarah back in Tsetserleg to sort out some translation difficulties, we won the argument and proceeded up and out of the Iloyd Tamir Gol valley along a small tributary stream called the Jargalon Gol. The first foothills rose up green and rocky from the valley floor. But an easily discernable path kept the footing firm. As we walked further into the range, high rounded peaks began to dominate the view, their slopes afire with autumn colours. Further off, a high rampart abruptly terminated the end of one valley. Obviously, we wouldn’t be going that way. We contoured instead into a valley branching the other way. Above us, hawks soared above the grey slopes. Below, the Jargalon Gol glowed silver in the bright sun. It was a beautiful ride.

One thing that is alternately admirable and maddening about Mongolians is that when it comes to campsites, they think like horses. Although we’d passed several good potential stopping points near the end of the day, Gaaj finally stopped us at a sloping, hummocky site that was a solid kilometer away from water. Dave’s excitement at the soft properties of the ground and its implications for his aching back was short lived as he found out that it also had most of the properties of a wet sponge.

But it had good grass.

Overhead, the sky became a riot of alternating conditions as the day waned. Sometimes, rain-filled clouds passed nearby. At other times, patches of clarity prevailed. We went to  bed unsure of what would greet us the next day. But when I crawled out of the tent at dawn, I found only a pale blue sky, pink on one horizon with the rising sun.

I sat on a large rock a little way above camp, enjoying the beauty of the morning with a cup of steaming coffee. Dodreg, first up amoung the guides as usual, soon joined me, silently ambling up to join me on my perch. Once there, he occupied himself with thumbing through my Mongolian travel guide, fascinated with the pictures of those parts of his country he’d never visited. I looked out over our camp below, the pass ahead and the snow-capped mountains that loomed over it all and smiled. Damn, I was lucky.

At least I thought so until, later that day, I was nearly killed again.

***

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It was late in the afternoon. We had crested the main mountain pass of the Sharga Morityn Nuruu, placed a celebratory note signed by our whole gang in the cairn that marked it and then proceded to a pine and larch-covered valley  below. The game trail we followed soon disappeared into thick woods and Dodreg and Gaaj frequently scouted ahead to find our way.

Our horses nimbly picked their way around and over large boulders that were scattered everywhere amongst the dense undergrowth. Buttercup seemed quite sure-footed to me, if a little prone to stopping every few meters for a snack. I was mostly letting him pick his own way until he wandered off trail amonst some particularly large and slippery looking rocks. Just as I started to say “no” and turn him back towards the proper path, he decided to try and correct his trajectory by leaping up on top of one particularly large set of boulders. I could see at once his goal – from these boulders he could hop another over another set of rocks and get back onto the path from which he’d diverged. I would much rather have turned around and retraced our steps to the main trail, but everything happened too fast, with Buttercup deciding, after the briefest hesitation, that he could make the jump.

And he nearly did.

Instead, after hopping to the first set of boulders his front hoofs slipped and skidded forcefully down the other side, throwing me forward onto his neck. Before I could recover my balance, Buttercup lunged forward and upwards in an attempt to correct himself and I was thrown off his right side my foot catching in the stirrup as I went over.

Remember how Mongolian horses don’t like anything coming at them from the right hand side?

Buttercup spooked instinctually and broke into a gallop, dragging me along behind him, dangling by one foot from the stirrup.

I was wearing my backpack and felt it bouncer off one good sized rock, probably saving my spinal cord but knocking the wind out of me all the same. Frantically I kicked to free myself from the stirrup, ground, boulders and tree roots blurring my head in an earthy blur. After what seemed like a damn long time to me, I succeeded came to a rest before a big larch. Buttercup came to a halt shortly after as he ran into the backside of Throwy. The latter had an unusually small desire to run over the unfriendly terrain.

As I sat up on the ground, Janine, Gaaj and the others raced towards me with fear plain on their faces. Evidently, Buttercup had thrown a big 2 hoofed kick trying to get rid of me as he galloped and the whole incident, according to Dave, had looked fairly spectacular and “pretty f*cking scary.”

They were surprised I was okay.  In retrospect, so am I.

Buttercup seemed contrite as I reclaimed him, staring at me quietly with big dog eyes, his great brown head hung a little lower than usual. Besides picking a bad path at the beginning of the whole mess, he’d done nothing that couldn’t be blamed on pure instinct. I told him so genuinely, rubbing his nose and neck. He liked that.

Everyone but Dodreg walked the rest of the way to camp, having had enough of rock hopping and bushwacking (at least on horses) for the day. Finding a camp took longer than expected, with bouts of backtracking and route-finding through the deepening forest soaking up most of the daylight hours. When Gaaj finally called a halt near twilight, we were relieved. Our campsite was again hummocky and again a long trudge from water. But the surrounding woods and grasses were a beautiful assembly of fall colours. The valley heights echoed with the calls of wolves. Most importantly, we could see the trees thinning and finally emptying into a broad gold valley just a few kilometers away.

I didn’t know if we’d proven any of Gaaj’s fears wrong. But we were through the mountains.

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The horses graze after coming through the mountains. We made it just in time too, according to all that fresh snow in the background. It got dumped just after we crossed the final pass.

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Dear Reader,

After a lengthy sojourn, I happily take you back to the tales of our Badminton Across Mongolia (“B.A.M.”) adventure! The crazy horses, the quirky local guides and yes, of course, the eye lice.  They’re all back baby! Now, you can pick up the tale exactly where it left off by reading the post below. Or, if you’ve forgotten what the hell Mongolia was all about, you can start the story right at the beginning and catch up to the current posting by going to our dedicated BAM page right here. Enjoy! And sorry about the 6 month delay, by the way. You’re not sore about that, right?

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And not a bad badminton player either.

Guys. Dodreg is fishing from his horse.

Jason

No one is certain where Dodreg came from or why, though I suspect the answers may be, respectively, “Krypton” and “for similar motives.”

We rode beneath a cement coloured sky, the big brown I’d borrowed from Torgu strolled contentedly, stopping to munch on yellow flowered shrubs that bloomed prolifically along the faint jeep track we followed. So far, eating seemed to be his chief love. He’d shown hardly any interest in following Throwy on one of his daily bolts when the white horse had tried to launch into one earlier that day. It soon became obvious that Buttercup, as I started to call him, was more inclined to take Throwy’s tantrums as an excuse to drop his head into the veritable salad bar over which we rode. That arrangement worked fine with me and I even began steering him through deeper grasses as both an incentive and an additional sort of insurance policy.

While we rode, Torgu and I engaged in our daily version of language lessons. Ostensibly this involved him teaching me a word in Mongolian and I teaching him the same word in English. In reality it was a morning comedy of errors which typically resulted in Torgu smiling vacantly and me riding off in a flurry of cursing and flushed cheeks.

“Goat,” I said to him, as I pointed to a herd of the passing wooly animals. A group of young boys, riding bareback, whistling and shouting to the animals and themselves, steered the flock to a nearby river.

“Goat!” smiled Torgu amiably.

“Good!” I said enthusiastically, bracing to enter the tricky part of the dialogue. Pointing again to the herd I asked, “Mongol?”

“Mongol!” repeated Torgu

“Oh! No, no! Goat in Mongol?” I tried again.

“Onono! Goadin Mongol!” smiled Torgu again.

“No no.” I said, trying a different tack. I pointed to my guide’s horse. “English, horse. Mongol muur. ” ”

“Mongol muur!” smiled Torgu.

“Yes!” I said encouragingly. “Yes!” repeated my guide.

“So,” I closed the loop, “English, goat, Mongol….?”

“Soenglishgoat Mongol!” smiled Torgu, satisfied.

“AHHH!!!” I said.

“AHHH!!!” he said happily.

Bloodshed was averted by the approach of a galloping black stallion bearing a lanky, ink-robed rider, his legs dangling to within a couple of feet above the ground. As the new arrival slowed to a trot beside Gaaj and Tenjin, riding near the front of our party with the pack horses, I saw handshakes and friendly greetings exchanged from the saddles and the dark stranger fell in with our group.  An hour went by, then two, and it soon became apparent that the rider would likely be sticking around for at least the night. As we approached our camp, crossing a lovely stream en route to a sheltering copse of towering pines, the rider slowed his snorting stallion until Torgu and I drew close to him. The stranger extended a large hand in my direction. Torgu nodded at our new companion. “Dodreg,” he introduced, grnning.

“Dodreg,” I repeated, gripping the hand.

“Dodreg,” repeated Torgu.

“Dodreg,” said Dodreg in a quiet, deep voice from under a short shock of jet black hair. His white, underbiting teeth were crowded into a tiny smiling mouth, tucked into the bottom of a wedge shaped chin and bordered with the trace of a mustache. It was a mouth that tended to twitch towards smirking, but not in a bad way. Combined with twinkling eyes and eyebrows that arched like gothic church windows, it was the face of a loveable-rogue mixed with a cheesy movie villain.

Then there was his height. “Heez like a giant,” marvelled Val as we watched Dodreg dismount at camp and stand next to other guides. He easily stood over Gaaj and positively towered over Torgu and Tenjin.  But amongst these men, this was either of no consequence or old hat, and camp was quickly set up in a grassy clearing amongst the trees. Soon the crackle of a campfire joined the thrashing sounds of the nearby rocky stream and Gaaj’s battered black pot was set to boil over the flames while the rest of us erected tents, dug out food for dinner and collected firewood. The horses rolled and grazed gratefully in the field for an hour, whinnying and snuffling at each other socially, before Tenjin began tethering them securely to trees bordering the edges of camp.

Our home for the night had just been established, when Gaaj and Dodreg approached us smiling. Gaaj pointed back towards the stream.

“Fish,” he said, holding his hands far apart. “Big.”

From the folds of his robe, Dodreg produced a 6 inch block of wood around which was coiled about 30 feet of fishing line. Near the end of the line was tied a small piece of styrofoam; then a little further on, a rock; and finally, a foot again after, a large grasshopper writhing on ahook. It was a simple but ingenious little hand fishing device.

I still had some camp chores to finish, but I motioned to Gaaj and Dodreg encouragingly to go down to the river and get started without me. Followed by Janine, Val and Dave, the two Mongols excitedly jogged away like kids headed for the fair with their dad’s wallet. Within a few minutes, I could hear whoops and whistles of joy emanating from the banks as Dodreg began reeling them in, literally, hand over fist.

He didn’t stop until he had 6 fat, red trout wriggling on the bank. Faster than Janine and Val could clean one, Dodreg thunked another down before them with a mischevious smile. As the grey sky faded to black, we salted, oiled and spiced the fish in a variety of improvised marinades, before wrapping each one in foil and roasting it on the red hot embers of our fire until the white-pink meat fell from the bones. They were simply too big cook all at once. So while the second batch sizzled on the coals, the first were passed around the fire on a big platter to be picked at by increasingly sticky fingers.

We ate our fill and then pitched our largest logs on the fire for the entertainment portion of the evening.  All Mongolian men can sing, it seems. And our guides are no exception. Gaaj and Torgu have a song for everything, most of them dealing with tea, mother, women and horses and everyone of them ending with a laugh about whether there’s another verse and who should sing it.  Dodreg prefers to whistle along at these times, and has an amazing, bird-like ability to trill out loud, pitch perfect tunes from between his teeth. But it’s quiet Tenjin who steals the show. In the last songs of the evening, the other guides fall silent and Gaaj’s brother sends eerie songs into the crisp Arkhangai night in a sorrowful tenor wail. I never did find out what they were about. By the time their spell broke, we were all already wandering towards the shadows of our tents, bellies and ears and hearts full.

***

So Dodreg falls in with us over the next few days, becoming in some hazy way, a member of our party. Sometimes, he leads a pack horse (usually the most troublesome one). Other times he simply rides beside the other guides, seated as casually on his black stallion as we might slouch in an easy chair; crouched over one side of his saddle, with almost his entire weight supported on one leg, the other leg bent at the knee holding up, in order, Dodreg’s crooked arm, chin and head.  Once in a while he’ll sit behind the saddle altogether, his legs stretched straight over it like its a coffee table. These casual feats of horsemanship are often done while whistling, tooth picking or cooly smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.

Dodreg has trouble riding placidly for long. Every once in a while, he’ll utter a quick word to Gaaj and suddenly take off at a blistering gallop across the plain. We begin ascribing all sorts of adventures to these sojourns, most of them involving either blood feuds, captive maidens or lost calfs. But day after day, he eventually rides back into our midst, typically at a full gallop; black robes, rawhide ropes and dust swirling behind him, the black stallion snorting and whinnying furiously under his master’s leather whip. Val begins to call him “Thee Dark Knight” and there’s no denying that the guy has a real bad-ass/cool thing going on that is quite entertaining. On his next side trip, we amuse ourselves by constructing various creation myths for our new hero:

The Legend of Dodreg:

– Some say Dodreg was born on a galloping horse. Others say Dodreg was born of a galloping horse.

– Dodreg was born the same size he is today; carrying a whip.

– Dodreg’s mother was the river goddess and his father was the atomic bomb.

– Dodreg’s pubic hair has the tensile strength of steel wire. He’ll often use it to leave outlaws bound for the authorities.

– Dodreg made his current horse by carving it from a block of wood. He threw the wood into the fire and when it glowed like a red hot ember he took it from the flames with his bare hands and breathed life into it. The horse’s name is Roy Hellbeast.

– When Dodreg sneezes, the locals call it a Mongolian Tornado. When he hiccups, the elders say someone dies.

– Dodreg has lived many lives and has been known by many names, including Zorro, Robin Hood and, according to Janine, Magneto.

You get the point.

***

Dodreg has a number of special skills. One day at our lunch break. Dave and I set up a cairn of stones, walk backwards about 25 paces, and start hurling rocks at it. Gaaj soon joins in, then Torgu and soon even quiet Tenjin is hurling away. We hit the cairn every dozen throws or so and spend the rest of the time laughing and making fun of each others’ efforts.

Dodreg watches all this for a few minutes, resting casually on his side, smoking a cigarette. Then he gets up, walks over to us and picks up a rock. His first throw is straight as a gunshot, obliterating the cairn.  Dave trots over to the wreckage and quickly rebuilds it. But before he’s back, Dodreg has knocked it down again. A third throw is nearly as good, barely missing the top stone. “Fucking hell,” mutters Dave, suitably impressed.  Dodreg, though his grasp of English is even more minimal than Torgu, grins appreciatively at the compliment.

When bored, Dodreg likes to pitch his whip, or some other small item a few feet ahead of his horse. Then, whipping Roy Hellbeast into a rearing gallop, he’ll charge forward, leaning steeply out of his saddle to snatch the item from the ground. He encourages me to replicate him, but even on the amiable Buttercup I can’t get up the nerve.

So through the first few days of our acquaintance, we watch this mysterious stranger perform a variety of little miracles and Marlborough Man moments. He finds a hidden creek on a seemingly barren plain. He corals a wayward and ornery bull yak. He picks up a large, live snake from the ground with a tree branch while still in his own saddle, then pitches the ahead of Roy Hellbeast and repeats the process again and again in a reptilian version of his fetch game. We called this last trick Dodreg Snake Polo, and if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it, I’d completely understand if you didn’t believe me.

But I think Dodreg’s most impressive feat comes a few mornings later. Buttercup and I are moseying beside a beautiful stream, fringed on one side by autumn-coloured grasses and leaf-shedding trees and on the other by sheer walls of sparkling black granite. We are well behind the rest of the group, having found a patch of purple-flowered thistles that had required a second breakfast for my four-legged friend.  As we pass a deep pool of water on the river bank, I hear Roy Hellbeast’s hoofs splash. Astride him, Dodreg sits fishing with his hand line, lassoing the lure into the water with one hand and holding the reins with the other. When the lure is cast, he trolls upstream on horseback, slouched over the saddle, smoking a cigarette and carefully watching the wodden bobber for the smallest wobble. The effortless multi-tasking, the graceful simultaneous handling of horse and line is an amazing demonstration of horsemanship, as beautiful as it is impressive.

We’re not certain how long Dodreg will ride with us. It’s one of those complex questions that our phrasebook Mongolian can’t quite get across to the guides. But we all come to agree that maybe it’s better that way; that some morning we’ll wake up and he’ll just be gone; off to help and regale some other bunch of greenhorn travellers badmintoning their way across Mongolia.

Gotcher Nose!

Beware the children of Uluguru. Cute though they may be, they will snatch your nose. (more photos)

And now a brief rest before we continue with your suffering.

– James / Mugende

Half the battle of reaching the Uluguru Mountains is escaping Dar Es Salaam’s central core. This is mainly due to the fact that the average Dar stoplight takes about 8-10 minutes to change.

And there are a lot of stoplights on the way out of town.

Once we make our exit from the capital, the country side quickly takes over – green fields and the occasional mud brick farm home, punctuated by roadside villages. At these, the bus often pulls over for a minute to take on or let off passengers. While stopped, the coach is surrounded by vendors selling newspapers, pineapples, roasted maize, fresh bread, cold drinks and cell phone minute cards. The vendors tap on the windows and hold up their wares, often balancing large baskets of goods on their heads. Passengers peruse, buy and/or ignore at their leisure until the bus peels out onto the highway once more in a cloud of red dust, a few successful sellers sprinting after us with change or goods held out for their purchasers like frenzied relay runners handing off a baton.

The early morning combined with the lingering fatigue of the red-eye flight from Cairo soon has our heads lolling, notwithstanding the odd Tanzanian speed bump that has us bouncing off the ceiling. We’ve unwittingly chosen seats over the back tires of the bus, which I now refer to as “catapult chairs.” When your bus crashes into one of the Tanzam highway’s many quickly-appearing potholes or speed control devices, you can get some serious hangtime. It’s quite the way to end a nap.

A few semi-conscious hours later and we have exchanged the lowlands of Dar for the rugged, forested slopes of the Uluguru. The high green mountains are shrouded in a combination of mist and smoke from the farm houses that speckle the range. Isolated peaks jab through the haze; some barefaced, others covered beneath the canopy of ancient rainforest.Just looking at them through the bus window has our feet itching to hike.

It feels like our Tanzanian adventures are really about to begin.

***

If you were on your second day in a foreign country and were trying to select a guide to take you for a hike into one of its rural regions , what would you look for in terms of qualifications?

You’d probably want someone who could speak both your and the local language. Since it’s a wilderness and cultural excursion, you’d probably also want someone who knew local customs, flora and fauna. And finally, I imagine that since you’re going to be hanging out with the person for a few days, you’d want the guy to be a decent person – fun to hang out with, hell, maybe even a sense of humour.

If you found one guide who possessed all these qualities, you’d probably count yourself pretty lucky.We found a whole company.

Now in its sixth year of operations, Chilunga Tours seems like everything a cultural tourism centre should be – fairly priced, founded and run by knowledgeable local youths, and dedicated to returning a portion of its profits to the local communities. We’re ushered into Chilunga’s simple offices in the local YWCA compound by three smiling 20-something young men – Andrew, John and James. After we exchange friendly pleasantries (this can take some time in Tanzania – people are pretty friendly). the boys give us a presentation on the various hikes, safaris, and cultural programmes they run. It’s so well done that at the end of it, Janine and I stare at each other a little slack jawed – we’re less certain of what we want to do now than we were when we came in.

What should it be? Trekking to cool mountain waterfalls? Culture tours of the traditional villages?Searching for monkeys in the rainforest? We decide to go for all three; stitching together a trek with the Chilunga guides that will see us hike to the small mountain village of Choma, then weave across the mountains to visit a traditional healer in the even smaller village of Madola and finally wind back down to Morogoro through the thickly forested Kilombero Valley to seek out monkeys and baboons. 

We work out an early morning start time for the next day and a price that is fair to everyone and includes everything except our snack foods (or, as James calls it with a giggle, “softi softi”) and lunches, which will be eaten on the march.

For these things, we’ll need to visit Morogoro’s busy central market.

***

“I think you stick out a bit,” I whisper in an exaggerated tone to Janine as we stroll by stalls brimming with onions, mangoes, pineapples, berries, oranges and peppers . Men stand by pyramids of plastic buckets, baskets of small fried fish and stacks of bread while kids try to sell shoppers plastic bags for 100 shillings a pop.

Obviously, the place doesn’t see a lot of “muzungus” – the name liberally applied to any white foreigner – and we are quickly swarmed by a horde of vendors pushing their wares on us. Pretty soon we’re surrounded by a sea of arms holding out fruit of every description for our inspection.

“No, no. We need a small pineapple. SMALL.” says Janine to one man, handing back a fruit the size of a small watermelon and miming that we have to carry this stuff on ourback for the next two days. “No, thank you, we don’t need any eggplant. No, no! Four bananas;not four pounds of bananas.” 

Of course, we don’t yet know the proper prices of anything. So our haggling is awkward and mostly done by shaking our head uncertainly at a stated price and looking towards another stall’s wares until the price comes down a few hundred shillings. The whole process is fun but exhausting. And while we walk away from the market relatively confident that we haven’t been too badly ripped off by local standards, we also realize that our bargaining probably saved us only a total of 2 bucks.

***

 John

John. The smile is permanent.

The next morning, our day packs are bursting with fruit, chocolate, nuts, rain gear and a change of clothes. Since we plan to spend the night with a family in Choma, there’s no need for heavy backpacks. 

My head, meanwhile is bursting with boogers. I had woken up in the pre-dawn hours with the undeniable sensation of coming down with something. “You can’t be serious.” I thought staring at the ceiling as my throat throbbed and my sinuses slowly filled. I’d just gotten over a cold in Egypt not a month ago. Usually I get sick once a year and that’s it. That’s the deal I have with my body. I whine and sook for seven days and Janine does more than her normal abnormal share of chores and then it’s over. There must be some kind of force majeur clause for equatorial travel.

The day is overcast and cool – perfect hiking weather – as we leave the Chilunga offices and walk on a red earth road out of town and up into the Ulugurus. Our guide is John, a 26 year old botany student who aspires to be a teacher. Sporting a Chilunga floppy-brimmed hat, a small satchel and tattered hiking boots, he quickly wins me over with his sense of humour (he likes my jokes) and Janine with his knowledge of the varied plant life we’re seeing as the road climbs the mountain.

The modern homes of Morogoro quickly peter out as the road turns into a rutted track. They are replaced with simple houses made from mud brick and roofed with corrugated tin or thatching. The tin is popular now and readily available, but, in contrast to the traditional thatch, it turns most houses into ovens during the hot season.

John explains that the bricks are all made locally. Mud is gathered, shaped and dried. The dried bricks are stacked in large A-frame piles with cavities at the bottom for fires. The pile of bricks is covered in a layer of clay and fires lit in the cavities, the clay forming a natural oven. It’s so simple, sustainable and perfect that it gets your immediate respect and we walk around several A-frames admiring the technology.

Many doorways are darkened by kids. Unused to foreigners (fewer than eighty may pass by in a year), some watch us quietly, some hide, some wave shyly and some shout “Muzungu!” and follow behind us exuberantly, laughing and dodging behind trees as if at any second we’ll turn  and start chasing them in a game of tag.

One clump of half a dozen kids stares at Janine’s camera intently when we stop to say hello. We offer to take a picture of them and they posewith expressions earnest beyond their years. But when Janine shows them the picture in the viewing monitor afterwards, they areinstantaneously kids once more – laughing and jumping up and down with giddiness over seeing themselves on the screen. Theshyest boy does a cartwheel as we leave.

The track steepens and we pass by farmers from the mountain villages on their way down to Morogoro’s market to sell their produce.Often barefoot and sporting 25 litre buckets or baskets on their heads, these men and women sprint down the slick paths with the strength and agility of mountain goats. We’re suddenly embarassed by both our relatively laboured pace and our modern hiking boots and clothes.

Soon the rutted track narrows to a single path through the bush. Here, we stop a small collection of houses where women make a pre-natal nutritional supplement from a special local clay. The clay is gathered, compacted, partially dried and then rolled into cylinders about 3 x 1 inches. The supplement is famous, popular with expectant mothers all over Tanzania (child birth mortality rates are high here) and an important source of income for the local woman that harvest and process it.

While Janine learns more about the clay and snaps pictures,I play with some curious kids who let me bang out some Muzungu hits on their home-made xylophone. I don’t know about their version of this story, but in mine, I rocked it out and all their laughter was appreciative in nature.

As we pass more houses and farms bustling with chickens, goats and the odd xenophobic little dog, John points out dozens of wild and domestic plants. What to our untrained eye is forest is actually a patchwork of cultivated land blended in with natural elements. One minute you’re walking through thick bush and the next, with no discernable transition stage, you’re walking through someone’s orchard.

 Mountains through the mist

Mountains through the mist.

Everything seems to grow here – passion fruit, pineapples, bananas, guava, avocado, berries, mangoes, maize, cassava, rice, sweet potatoes and carrots are only a partial list. As our eyes adjust and we start to see the forest for the trees, we notice farms everywhere.

John walks us through all of this with the patience of the teacher he one day hopes to be. At our frequent rest stops, he teaches us Swahili words and laughs good naturedly as we mangle their pronunciation. Remembering how our rest breaks would end in Egypt, we ask John to teach us the words for “Let’s Go!”

“Twendi!” he says with a laugh (John generally has a hard time not smiling or laughing).

“And the word for ‘banana’ is ‘ndezi’, right?” I ask, recalling one of our recent lessons. Our guide affirms.

“Ok then,” I say “Twendi ndezi!”

John laughs so hard he has to stomp.

And that’s how we got our trip’s slogan.

***

The simple homes of Choma nestle organically into the hillside of Uluguru. After 4 hours of hiking, we reach the village, footsore but excited to be getting such a strong dose of real Tanzania life so early in our travels. As usual, the children are first off the mark with greetings. The little shouts of “Muzungu!” echo across the town and we are soon trailed by a small parade of small curious faces and waving arms.

The camera is a huge hit and we are soon running a walking photo studio as one child after another herds together a bunch of friends to pose.Everyone wants to see the viewing monitor afterwards and the result is always the same – squeals of joy, laughter, pointing and demands for another picture. Eventually, the kids comandeer the camera itself and engage in their own photo shoot, a lot of the pictures accidentally focusing on feet.

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The tender toddler tootsies of Choma.

For us, the high point is when Janine, showing a group of kids their picture on the monitor, accidentally scrolls back to the beginning of her memory card, bringing up a picture of my sister’s golden retriever.

The kids leap back with a sharp intake of breath. “Simba! (Lion)” they whisper.

We slowly make our way to the town leader’s home. John explains that she is an elected official who serves with a town council of representatives – one elected for each “street” in Choma. While the leader has graciously agreed to host us tonight, she herself has been called away to Dar es Salaam on an urgent family matter and she leaves us in the care of her 3 lovely daughters – Aria, her oldest, Samia, her middle child, and little Rahema, a precocious 5 year old who displays her mother’s political gifts in leading the other children in the neighborhood.

We rest thankfully in the cool shade of the house while John chats with the older girls while Rahema thumbs carefully through our phrasebook, stopping to stare intensely at the pictures of animals that decorate some of the margins. The house is fancier than the others we’ve seen in Choma, with a large sitting room, multiple bedrooms (the leader’s own being generously offered to us), a spotless concrete outhouse and two cows penned in a small coral nearby. This is obviously a family that has done well.

I’ve barely stopped walking when my flu really pounces. Soon, my head and sinuses are throbbing and my head is lolling back on my neck, searching blindly for the best booger drainage position. I’m reluctant to call for a 2:00 p.m. bed time, so I raise myself gingerly from the sofa when John suggests that we visit a waterfall for a cool afternoon swim and shower.

“Twendi ndezi?” John asks, looking at my pale face doubtfully.

“Twendi ndizi!” I say with a sneeze and a rather limp thumbs-up.

But the waterfall is just what the doctor ordered. Reached via a steep descent through a banana tree orchard and shaded by tall leafy forest, it plunges smoothly over a rocky escarpment to a deep 10 ft wide pool below. The cool mist and waters instantly, if temporarily, banish sweat and snot.

After we’ve cleaned up, John leads us back up and through the village, stopping at houses along the way so that we can meet the families who farm the land. Here we learn about the big events in village life (weddings and a young girl’s ascension to grown woman status are the biggest celebrations in this matriarchal society) and the big challenges. While the land is abundant, drought is an unpredictable threat and the staples for which the people trade their produce are suffering drastic price increases. The most important, maize flour, was until recently thought to be outrageously priced if come across at 300 shillings per kg.  It now averages 700 shillings per kg.

Despite their problems, the people are unfailingly polite and generous to outsiders. At one house, the family gives us a large bunch of perfectly ripe bananas just as we leave. At another, the parents laugh delightedly as I teach a group of 7 kids how to juggle, play pattycake and snatch stones balanced on their elbow with one hand. I’m terrible at all these games, but the kids are, for now, worse, making me their lawful king. As we leave though, I look over my shoulder and, seeing them practice what I’ve taught, am pretty confident that within a week I’d be deposed.

***

We return to the house and are treated to a big meal of ugali (a stiff pile of maize-based porridge) and ground cassava leaves. Ugali is Tanzania’s staple. And while it may not be flashy, in a country where meat may be consumed only once a week or less, it’s filling, nutritious and, when combined with the right condiments, delicious. We roll ball after starchy ball and pop it into our mouths with great hunks of green cassava.

John is delighted with our adoption of real Tanzanian food and declares us real Africans with a slap on his knee and a genuine laugh. I suspect that he would have laughed just as good naturedly if we hadn’t been able to eat a bite. I reply to him that I’m considering buying property here and taking on an African wife, once I find Janine a good African man of course.

It really is some lovely real estate. While, we waited for dinner to finish cooking, we stood outside the house and looked back down Uluguru at the city below. In the dusk, Morogo spreads beneath us and off to the horizon like a Lightbright page. “My garden!” John said with equal parts smile and thoughtfulness, gesturing towards his hometown. Sure enough, the city does start to look like a twinkling field as John points out its features. Highways are stems, the various coloured stop lights and billboards their fruit. Cars and motorbikes buzz about like insects.

A technicolour garden, sprouting to life as the mountain forests retreat into the night.

***

Bibi Maria 

Bibi Maria

“This Bibi Maria better be good.” I think with more than a touch of my usual morning grumpiness.

We are hiking across the high face of the Ulugurus, on a track that winds steeply up, down and around the forests and farms that separate Choma from its smaller but higher neighbour, Madola.  There dwells Bibi Maria, a famous traditional healer and the main objective of today’s hike.

There are lots of reasons to be grumpy, despite the cool weather and the quiet Sunday morning majesty of the steep hills, appearing and disappearing amidst the clouds and mist. For one thing, I’m sicker today than yesterday, each of my steps being matched with an attendant sniff, cough and/or hork. For another, the trail really is a roller-coaster, dashing steeply down and the steeply back up the mountain – more of a work out than I’d hoped for after climbing so much yesterday.

John senses our tiredness at one point and calls for an early break.

“We will now relax for a few minutes before continuing with your suffering.” he says cheerfully.

If this isn’t enough, my stomach is still posing a barrage of difficult questions about breakfast. Today’s offering was ‘manioc’, boiled white cassava roots. After last night’s delicious supper, I unhesitatingly heaped my plate full of the pale tubers before discovering that plain manioc has all the tastiness of eating a roll of toilet paper. At least to a Muzungu – our African hosts had no problem cleaning their plates and I felt like more than a bit of a heel for not reciprocating. I resolve to instruct my African wife to serve manioc with large bowls of maple syrup and brown sugar.

Adding to my discomfort is John’s frequent stopping along the way to ask for directions on the best way to Choma. I grow steadily more convinced that our guide is unsure of the trail, until at one rest stop he explains to us that while he’d done this route many times, requests for help were both a show of respect to the villagers we encountered and a way of making them feel involved in having foreigners on their lands – both important ingredients to the success of the cultural tourism programme.

Whether or not it’s true, it makes sense. So I start to smile a little more easily at the harvesting farmers, reclining old-timers, nursing mothers and occasional idle young person from whom we ask assistance. Their uniform cheerfulness soon gets the better of me and my mood lightens. On our way past one mango orchard, a farmer cries out a greeting and starts rolling armloads of freshly gathered fruit down the hill at us. We wave back thanks and stop at the next stream to wash and peel our catch.

When I bite in, I realize instantly that mangos are now ruined for me forever. Where else will they ever be so juicy and perfectly tart at the same time? Dropping our packs, we settle down for the gooey, slurping, tooth-picking extravaganza these little green wonders demand.

Between mouthfuls, I tell John that in Thailand, people eat unripe mangoes as a vegetable. “In Africa, to do that would mean the family is starving,” he says seriously.

I’m also downing as many mangoes as possible in the hopes their vitamin C will be a good backup if Bibi Maria’s medecine doesn’t cure my flu. While I don’t usually go in for the whole “natural” cure craze, at this stage I’m willing to give anything a shot.

The six or eight simple huts of Madola sit at the base of a tall, bare rockwall that juts out slightly from the rest of the mountain. Bibi Maria has already met us once today, though Janine and I didn’t realize it at the time, as Bibi preferred to keep her identity a secret until she could get a feel for us. It’s a trick straight out of the old fairytales, but effective.

When she is ready to receive us, Bibi Maria ushers us towards her thatched hut. It’s a curious structure that, beneath its roof, looks like a single hallway coiled around itself, rather like a snake or a garden hose.

At the first bend in the hallway, the old lady plunks down a short stool and sits, partially secluded in the gloom. With a calm but unsmiling demeanour (rather doctorish really), she asks us through John whether we’ve come for a consultation or to interview her.

Until her question, I’ve been focused mostly and selfishly on my stupid cold. But now, with the option to probe, I suddenly find myself bursting with questions. Janine feels the same way and we both start pitching. When did she get her powers? How does she know what plants cure what illnesses? Who can’t she cure? Who treats her when she is sick?

Over the course of the next half hour, we learn some of Bibi Maria’s strange story. She knew she was a healer in the womb and as a child displayed strange traits and powers, knowing things she wasn’t supposed to know about people and waking up in the forest or strange houses. As a young woman, she began to be visited by visions of forest plants, herbs and trees in her dreams and would be told that they had powers to heal certain kinds of sicknesses if gathered and prepared as instructed.

There was no formal training, but over time, her fame grew and she now runs a busy practice, curing everything from malaria to madness. The only exception, she says solemly, is HIV, which she calls a curse from God himself. At 55, she still travels by herself into the rainforest to gather her medicines. She cannot travel by any means other than walking – a condition of her powers.

If she can cure malaria (“Easy,” John translates, as Maria slaps her hands together dismissively), then I’m guessing she can put a stop to the gooey mess that is my head. Although we’ve already taken up a good chunk of her afternoon with our many questions, I can’t help but ask for some medicine too. The procedure is simple – I describe my problem and place a sum of money beneath a heavy piece of wood just inside the hut (Bibi does not touch money herself). Maria then disappears around a corner and re-emerges a minute later with a large coke bottle and a four litre water jug – both filled with a powdery substance that looks remarkably like dirt. The first, she explains as she measures out a portion into a piece of newspaper, I take a pinch of raw in the morning. The other, I mix two teaspoons into my daily tea. “In two days, ” John translates as Bibi Maria stares at me, “you will feel completely better.”

I still think it looks like dirt. But something about Bibi Maria, staring out at me from the gloom of that spiraling hut, has me taking the two little packets of medicine reverently and with thanks. We leave Madola deeply grateful for the experience, and in my case, a little high off the placebo effect alone.

***

It’s a knee buckling descent down the mountainside from Madola. We scooch and slide down the steep path, past vines bristling with passion fruit and trees drooping under the weight of jackfruits the size of footballs. Two thirds of the way down we enter the thickly forested Kigurunyembe Valley, bisected by a tumbling creek of the same name. Here, young men from the nearby teacher’s college relax with their homework assignments on the rock-shelf banks while monkeys leap acrobatically through the canopy.

Sensing our time in the Ulugurus is drawing to an end, we stop for one last break before leaving the valley. Stretched out on the river rocks, we gab about everything from religion to politics – our comfort level with John making no topic taboo. He seems as reluctant as us to say good bye to the trip, even offering to take the long way home.

But it’s getting towards dusk and Janine and I can sense that we’ve already had the perfect day, the perfect trip, the perfect balance of stunning scenery and fascinating culture that we had hoped for. No need to push it.

Besides, these mountains have really kicked my ass. I’m tired.

We pose for one last picture by the river, holding the camera out at arm’s length in front of us to get all three of us in the shot.

John shoulders his satchel and looks at us over his shoulder.

“Twendi ndezi?” he grins.

“Twendi ndezi.”

 The Walk Home

The Walk Home

Okay. Let’s mail some elephants.

– Janine

 Zanzibar is a strip club in downtown Toronto. I don’t visit it of course. The interior design is tacky and the girls just aren’t friendly.

 But, it turns out that Zanzibar is not just a strip club, it’s a tropical island off the coast of Tanzania. I don’t know much about it’s interior design or the friendliness of the girls, but since I’d spend spend most of my time there on the beach and in the company of my wife, I don’t think either of those criteria much matter in my case.

 So, with our safari adventures over for now, Janine and I have elected to take the long bus back to Dar Es Salaam and catch a ferry for paradise. I don’t know if we deserve it – we’ve been sitting on our butts here for the past four days straight. But we’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re adults and we’re going anyway. So there Mom!

Today was a preparation day –  bus snack purchasing, e-mailing and most importantly, spending the equivalent of a Tanzanian family’s gross annual income mailing home two giant elephant bookends we somehow convinced ourselves to purchase as a souvenir.

But they’re really pretty. At least we think so now. Hopefully, we’ll feel the same when we get home.

Alternatively, I can see a rather awkward moment where we hoist out our ten kilogram ebony behemoths out of their packaging, say “Oh… yes… the elephants”, and start thinking about whose wedding/birthday/graduation is coming up next.

 kili-kiss.jpg

A little romance at the summit? Or is that just their faces frozen together? 

You are now just 30 minutes from Stella point (5752m), a painful, tear-inducing half-hour on sheer scree. The gradient up to now has been steep, but this last scree slope takes the biscuit; in fact, it takes the entire tin.

– Henry Stedman
“Kilimanjaro, The Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain.”

I had a feeling that the hardest battle was going to be in my head.

At midnight on February 19, 2008 we set off from Barafu camp to begin our climb to Kilimanjaro’s summit. Barafu means “ice” in Swahili. The camp sits in the shadow of the glowing glaciers that fringe Kilimanjaro’s broad crater. Excitement, confidence and adrenalin made it difficult to moderate my pace. “Pole, pole,” murmured our guides. Sowly, slowly. It was going to be a long night.

We wore or carried in our packs every item of clothing that might give warmth. The night began comfortably with temperatures in the low single digits celsius. But by its end, we wore every stitch we had as the temperature dropped to minus 10C.

The most difficult day of trekking we have faced in our 10 years of hiking had begun. In the next 18 hours we would undertake a total of 1215m vertical elevation gain over an excruciatingly brief 5 km followed by a crushing descent of 2800m in 13 km.

Jason and I like to believe that we know a thing or two about hiking, but those numbers left us trembling. We were about to push our personal limits into the stratosphere. Literally.

As we made our final preparations before leaving camp, two thoughts competed in my mind. Over 35,000 people attempt the summit every year. If so many people attempt it, how difficult could it really be? However, barely a third of that number actually makes it to Uhuru peak. We were about to find out why.

Our group marched in single file through the darkness, following a long trail of hikers’ lights stretching up the slopes before us. A frosty halo circled the nearly full moon as the Southern Cross, an unfamiliar constellation, shone in the sky above us.

We had worked hard to earn this attempt at the summit of Kilimanjaro. We had chosen the Machame Route up Kili. The route is known for its difficulty (the trail has the most ascents and descents) which makes for better acclimatization than other easier routes. It is also one day longer. Machame therefore offers a marginally higher chance of a successful summit day. We had struggled through our share of altitude-induced discomforts but now we were here; strong, well-acclimatized to 4500m, and ready to reap the benefits of our hard work.

The scientist in me listened to my body with an objective curiosity as we pushed past the limits of our acclimatization. There was no question that scaling the mountain was going to be astronomically challenging. I also knew that the challenge I couldn’t estimate was my body’s reaction to 5800m. But I only had one shot at this. I had made up my mind that only medically significant altitude sickness would make me turn back. Everything short of that would need to be faced and overcome. Somehow.

The one thing you can bank on at high altitudes is a nasty headache. I downed my Advil early and often, but it wasn’t enough. Not long into the ascent a throbbing band tightened around my head that only descending would be able to dispel. Within another hour, I could no longer turn my head without a claw gripping the back of my skull. I gave up trying to take in the moonlit surroundings. My world shrunk to the circle of my headlamp illuminating the steep slope in front of my feet. Patience, I told myself. Seconds will become minutes. Minutes will become hours. Step…step…step…

Our chief guide, Jeremy, set a steady pace of about one step every two seconds. Even at this molasses-like speed, my breath came in urgent pants, as I pulled the thinning air into my lungs as deep and as fast as I could. My heart pounded against my chest, as if I was running the hardest sprint of my life. Two hours into the 6.5 hour ascent the steep trail tilted upwards at an impossible angle towards Stella Point on the crater rim. The scree trail was like fine loose gravel, mercilessly causing our feet to backslide on the steep slope, which we fought against with trekking poles and gritted teeth. Patience. Seconds will become minutes. Minutes will become hours. Step…step…step…

Exhaustion took hold, turned my limbs to lead and caused me to stumble drunkenly as I struggled upwards. Each time the line of trekkers ahead of me would pause to climb over an obstruction, I would rest gratefully on my trekking poles, sinking into an exhausted sleep for a few seconds until the crunch of boots on the trail or the gentle encouragement of our guides would force me into motion again. Waves of nausea would wash over me then mercifully disappear. My fingers became painfully cold. Patience. Seconds will become minutes. Minutes will become hours. Step…step…step…

Our plan, said Jeremy during our briefing the afternoon before, is to go very pole pole (slowly slowly), stopping as little as possible on the way up. Temperatures on the ascent are sub-zero, and drop steadily as you approach the top. Stopping would cause us to get too cold. We stopped only three times in the course of the 6.5 hour ascent, for less than five minutes each time. Jeremy and his assistants cared for us with patience and kindness, doing the things we couldn’t do for ourselves in our zombie-like state. They placed mugs of steaming ginger tea or hot water in our freezing hands. They monitored us closely for signs of altitude sickness, and offered encouraging words which our numb brains struggled to take in. The mugs were colleted. Time to stand up and begin again. Patience. Seconds will become minutes. Minutes will become hours. Step…step…step…

As we trudged upwards, the beams of our lights would occasionally illuminate small groups of climbers resting on the side of the trail. The telltale sounds of altitude sickness occasionally penetrated the gloom. Twice groups passed us going down, shoulders bent in defeat. Jason walked behind me through the night. Health status checks and encouragement were exchanged between us. As always, he was my shadow and my strength.

Time stretched out impossibly as we crept upwards, ever upwards. My body was wracked with the effects of high altitude, but from somewhere deep inside, I continued to make the rounds of self-check. Headache, breathing, heart rate, nausea, strength. Self assessment always yielded the same results. I felt utterly and completely wretched, but I was not getting worse. From within the bizarre fog of altitude effects, I knew that Uhuru Peak was mine for the taking if I could only find the patience to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I descended back into my now familiar trance in the never ending darkness, prayed for dawn and kept climbing. Step…step…step.

The lights of my group were stopped up ahead. Thank Merciful God. We were stopping for another break. But the ground up ahead was flat. I stumbled onto the plateau, confused. I saw Jeremy’s wide open arms and wider grin ahead of me.

“Congratulations!” he said. “You have done it!” As he wrapped me in a huge hug my trance broke at last and I burst into sobs of joy. In the east the horizon was turning a deep red.

Sunrise. The long night was over.

We had reached Stella Point on the rim of the Kibo crater. Uhuru Peak was only an hour’s easy walk away.

Jason and I collapsed into each other’s arms and sank to the ground, holding each other in the thin and freezing air, quietly celebrating and searching for the strength to finish it.

The darkness was broken. The first streaks of dawn traced red and pink tones along the gleaming ice of Kili’s glaciers on our left. The crater floor plunging down on our right side held snow turning a rainbow of colours. In the west, Mount Meru illuminated slowly in the rising sun, floating disembodied above the cotton-candy coloured clouds. Below us in the east, Kilimanjaro’s rugged Mwenzi peak, an older, smaller crater than Kibo, pierced the sky. Just yesterday we were taking pictures from Barafu looking up at this imposing rock face instead of down.

Awestruck, Jason and I walked hand-in-hand as the glory of the summit of Kilimanjaro was slowly revealed to us in the growing light. Our exhaustion lifted as adrenalin carried us forward towards Uhuru.

Ahead people were milling about, embracing, singing, laughing, crying. The sign familiar from so many photographs was just ahead.

Congratuations.
You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895m, AMSL.
Africa’s highest point.
World’s Highest Free-Standing Mountain.
One of World’s Largest Volcanoes.
Welcome.

The sun broke free of the horizon. New tears of joy traced their way down my face as Jason and I held each other and witnessed the birth of the day from the pinnacle of Africa.

Janine

Where are we now?

Home, Sweet Home

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