[Excerpt from my book, “Travels with King Kong – Overland across Africa”]
In 1974 and 1975, I travelled with an overland expedition across Africa from Morocco to Kenya. After five months on the road (that’s another story), we finally reached Nairobi. I spent the next few weeks along the Indian Ocean coast of Kenya, including a month on the fabled island of Lamu, just south of the border with Somalia. Later, I met up with a small group who planned to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, and the invitation to climb the highest mountain on the African continent was something I just couldn’t pass up.
February 10, 1975 Twiga Beach, Kenya
“On our way to a meeting with Kilimanjaro” So, early that morning, we packed up our camp on the beach and loaded our gear into Liam’s old red Landrover. As we rolled down the highway toward the border with Tanzania, tunes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones blasted at full volume from the loudspeakers. That’s when I knew I was in for a wild ride! I laid on the top of the bags in the back of the old Landrover as it roared down the rough gravel road, swaying to and fro.
We crossed the border into Tanzania with no problem, and an hour later, as evening approached, we came to the “Marangu Hotel”. In the dim light of sunset, we had a glimpse of the mountain, its summit shrouded in a fluffy blanket of pink clouds that spilled over the side of the peak and cascaded down the slope like a giant waterfall. We were told about a small campsite behind the hotel by a group of German and Austrian climbers. So, we set up camp and then went to the hotel office to check-in. We were promptly “chewed out” by a prim old lady for not having reported to the office first. We were apparent victims of inadequate signage or notices. The experience was a foretaste of future hassles with the Marangu Hotel management. After dinner and a couple of beers in the hotel lounge, we retired to our campsite in the cool, crisp mountain air.
February 11 – 12, 1975 Marangu, Tanzania
“Waiting for the Mountain” We awoke to a pleasantly cool day under the shade of the huge trees in the hotel garden, where we were camped, as we waited for space to open up in the mountain huts. Confirmed reservations for space in the huts was required to obtain permits to climb the mountain, which was managed by the National Park Service of Tanzania. We spent the day lounging in the old hotel, a series of rooms surrounding a lovely courtyard full of beautiful red and gold flowers. The lounge and dining room were filled with old wooden and leather furnishings, nothing pretentious, just warm and homey. Surrounding the old hotel were several small gardens, huge old trees, spacious lawns, and an area of pens and hutches for everything from chickens and rabbits to ducks and goats. Another resident of the “Marangu Menagerie” was a “bush baby”, a small, shy, retiring creature native to the tropical forest. We usually began our day with a hearty breakfast in the dining room and took dinner every evening in the hotel as well. Meals were always solid, hearty home cooked German food, but it was served by a sour, grumpy, capricious staff who often went out of their way to let us know it was a real “pain in the ass” to serve us! Fortunately, it never took anything away from our enjoyment of the delicious food.
I often spent the afternoons relaxing in the warm sunshine, writing in my journal, and reading Rachel Carson’s book, “The Edge of the Sea”. (it was ironic, since we were over a hundred eighty miles from the ocean) Early in the mornings, just after sunrise, and early in the evenings, the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro was visible from the hotel garden.
It was a very imposing sight, almost like it was directly above us – the view was more than enough to inspire us for the climb to the top! After dinner in the evenings, we would usually sit in the lounge, share a few beers with the German and Austrian climbers, and talk about our “date” with the mountain. Then we would all head to the campsite and retire for the night under the stars. I always rolled out my sleeping bag under a picnic table so as to avoid the heavy dew that showed up every morning.
February 13, 1975 Marangu, Tanzanzia
“Monsoon in Marangu” This day was pretty much the same as the past two days, except that Liam, Petra, Helga, and Tim drove into Moshi, the nearest large town, to buy some provisions and attempt to change money on the black market. I spent the day relaxing beneath the huge trees overlooking the garden, writing in my journal and reading Rachel Carson’s book. Later in the afternoon, the group returned with lots of fresh fruit and a rate of 13 schillings to the dollar, almost double the official exchange rate at the bank! We were happy about the success with changing money, but also a bit apprehensive because the hotel was not supposed to accept any money without official bank exchange receipts. As it turned out, they never required us to show the official exchange receipts, although they were empowered to do so. That evening, we all enjoyed a wonderful dinner of traditional German schnitzel and potato salad. Then we took our after-dinner coffee sitting in the lounge around a roaring fire in the old stone fireplace. Suddenly, the wind picked up speed, the windows began to rattle, and the bushes in the garden shook – a clear sign of an impending storm. Within a few minutes, the deluge of rain began – first as a soft patter of raindrops on the roof, followed by light drumming on the slate roof shingles as the raindrops united.
Finally, the rain turned into “waves” of water beating with incredible force on the roof above us. I couldn’t stand the tension any longer and felt compelled to witness the event first-hand. As I stood in the open doorway, feeling the brisk wind in my face, I watched as wave after wave of heavy rain crashed against the buildings, flowers, bushes and garden. The ground quickly became a small river and soon a lake, as water poured off the hotel roof in steady streams. At one point, I feared the roof might not be able to withstand the torrent of water and the incessant pounding of the rain. On and on it continued, for more than an hour, never letting up its fury! Then, all of a sudden, the onslaught of the storm ended as quickly as it had begun, and gently faded away into the night. The raging waters subsided, the land appeared again, and the evening air was refreshed as if it was the coming of spring! It was an incredible phenomenon of nature I would remember for a long time after. Not trusting the night to remain clear, we rolled out our sleeping bags under the shelter of a small hut, to await yet another day in the shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro.
February 14, 1975 Marangu, Tanzania
“An Afternoon by the Waterfall” The day began with word that we would be permitted to start our climb of Mt Kilimanjaro the following day. We were all excited with the news and made final arrangements with the Kibo Hotel for a guide, porters, and gear that was required for the 5-day climb. After we confirmed the permits, paid the fees, and met with our climbing guide, we decided to visit a lovely waterfall about two miles upstream from the hotel. As we hiked up the road, always with Kilimanjaro in our sight, we had visions of what the climb to the summit might be like. A narrow trail to the waterfall led us through the dense forest and past some banana plantations. Soon, we came to a cool, clear mountain stream, bubbling over huge boulders into small pools of water shining in the bright sun. Along the trail, I spotted a small pool that looked especially inviting and secluded. So, I decided to stop there, while the rest of the group hiked up the trail to the waterfall. The pool was hidden by a steep slope and surrounded by thick forest. I climbed down to the edge of the pool and tested it “gingerly” with my toes. The crystal-clear water was cold, but not unpleasantly so. I quietly slipped out of my clothes and waded into the icy water, until I stood up to my knees.
Then I “plunged” in and found it to be very invigorating and refreshing! I splashed and paddled around in the water, enjoying the beautiful “seclusion” of my private pool! After an hour or so of invigoration in the cold stream, I climbed out on to a sun swept rock to relax and bathe in the warm rays of the sun as it dried my nude body with intense warmth. Later, I took another short dip in the pool and then retired to a comfortable spot on a large rock beside the mountain stream. As the water tumbled over the huge boulders, it provided a constant musical interlude as I did some writing in my journal. At least two or three hours passed as quickly as minutes in a day. Then I decided to join my friends at the waterfall, and as I approached, I saw it plunged more than 50 feet into a large pool. Everyone in the group was stretched out on the lush grass beside the pool.
It was an idyllic scene, reminiscent of an old-world painting of people reclined under large trees beside a stream. It was like a piece of art I had seen in the Tate Museum of London. We all lay on the grass until the sun’s rays failed to reach us any longer – then we bid farewell to the beautiful secluded spot and headed back to the hotel to prepare ourselves for the climb to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in the morning.
February 15 – 19, 1975 Marangu, Tanzania
“Kilimanjaro – The roof of Africa”
[Day 1] I began the day with a cold shower at 6:00am and breakfast at 7:00am, before we all gathered our gear and met up with our guide and porters, in preparation for the 5-day expedition to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. As we were about to depart, Petra had a run-in with the hotel owner for having entered the kitchen to boil some eggs without first obtaining permission. It was a clear case of not respecting the “chain of command”, and she received a harsh reprimand from the hotel owner. When we prepared to leave the hotel and begin our trek up the trail, the owner, a little “beady-eyed” man with a Hitler style mustache, gave us final instructions in a stern voice and bid us a safe journey. At that point, I almost felt obligated to “salute”! The first three miles of the route followed a new gravel road up to the Kilimanjaro National Park entrance gate. Our guide and porters insisted that before we left civilization behind, we had to make a stop for banana beer, known locally as “Bombay Bomb”! The taste was rather bitter and heavily fermented – it stretched the traditional definition of “beer”. But we all shared a cup with the crew before entering the national park.
Once inside the park, the trail quickly became more primitive, but relatively free of rocks and a steady uphill grade. It felt so lovely and free to be hiking through the lush forest without the oppressive burden of a 40-pound pack on my back. Following the slow steady pace of the porters gave me time to fully appreciate the surrounding countryside, a beautiful combination of coniferous forest and equatorial woodland. The weather of the day was perfect, with clear blue skies and pleasantly warm temperatures. Earlier in the day, as we had prepared to leave our campsite at the hotel, the view of Mt Kilimanjaro was spectacular and beckoned us upward. Around mid-day we stopped for lunch beside a small stream, and the crystal clear, cold spring water afforded my feet a welcome dip. We also met several people along the trail on their way down from the mountain, and they told us stories of how tough the climb was – not something we wanted to hear just then. But we would be undaunted from our goal of reaching the summit. After hiking another couple of hours, we were in sight of Mandara Hut (#1) at 9,000 feet elevation. Just below the hut, the trail entered a large open field that afforded us a fantastic view of the hills and vast East African plains far below. We could even see Lake Manyara and the town of Arusha in the distance, over 100 miles away.
As we got close to the hut, the landscape changed abruptly to meadows of thick grassland, intermingled with juniper shrubs and small coniferous forest along the nearby stream. The hut was nothing fancy, but it was comfortable, with bunks, a large table, and an old stone fireplace. There were two other climbing parties on their way down, so a lot of people were lounging around the hut, sharing their experiences of reaching the summit. As I stood on the front porch of the hut, I had an amazing 180-degree panoramic view of the entire northeast corner of Tanzania – it was such an awe-inspiring sight, that I wondered what awaited me on the summit! Precisely at 4:00pm, we were served hot tea and biscuits, a continuation of the old British influence. As we sat on the lush green grass outside the hut, with the vast expanse of the East African plains below us, we listened to the mellow sound of Santana on my cassette tape player – a beautiful moment to remember!
While the sun slowly descended behind the mountain and evening fell upon us, the porters served us a delicious dinner of vegetable soup, Swiss steak, boiled potatoes, carrots, fresh fruit and coffee. From our table beside the fireplace, we looked out upon a beautiful, multi-hued landscape of orange and red that slowly transformed into deeper, more somber shades, eventually becoming a single color – black.
Soon, we became aware of the chilly night air and the blanket of a billion stars overhead. It was a spectacular light show for our benefit. Far below us, the lights of many small towns and villages twinkled in the night. Off in the distance, we could see a few spots of orange glow from a huge brush fire far to the south. The rest of the evening was spent playing cards by the light of a kerosene lantern and a roaring fire in the stone fireplace. About 8:30pm, everyone’s eyelids became so heavy that we all headed for our bunks and bid each other pleasant dreams – knowing the morning would arrive early and the start of day two.
[Day 2] We were awakened before dawn by our guide who brought us cups of hot tea to take off the chill of the night and give some light to our eyes. As I sipped the hot tea, still huddled in my warm sleeping bag, the first rays of sunshine began to give color and life to the landscape outside the hut. Slowly, as we awakened to the day, so did Mt Kilimanjaro. As I climbed out of my sleeping bag, I stumbled around trying to find my boots and my camera to capture the spectacular sunrise. I stood on the front porch of the hut and took several pictures of the vast sea of clouds below us, as the sun painted them with soft, golden shades of orange, pink, and red. At last, a fiery ball peeked over the eastern hills and announced the official beginning of the day. It was not long after sunrise that our porters served us a hearty breakfast of fresh mango, bananas, hot porridge and boiled eggs. Soon it was time to pack up our gear and prepare to move out. We left the hut around 7:30am, with our porters in the lead. But we soon outdistanced them, as they were carrying heavy loads at a much slower pace up the steep trail. As I watched them, most being smaller than me, I was very impressed by their incredible agility and stamina, especially since they were so ill-equipped compared to us. Many wore old, worn out “plastic” shoes, while others had no socks and just old ragged sandals.
The first mile of the trail descended through thick forest covered in moss and lichens hanging from the trees. It was a lovely scene with the early morning light softly filtered through the dense canopy – it gave us the feeling of being back in the tropical jungle, except for the effect of the chilly morning air. Then, all of a sudden, the trail left the edge of the dense forest and emerged into a huge open grassy meadow, with a beautiful view of the snow capped summit of Kilimanjaro.
As we tread lightly through the lush grass, there remained a bit of frost covering the ground. From that point, the trail crossed mostly open grassland, sagebrush, and a low growing form of juniper. The trail itself was in good condition, with only a few large rocks along the way. It climbed at a slow, steady grade over several low ridges. As we neared an elevation of 11,000 feet, the trail crossed through some rocky canyons with small streams and a strange palm-like plant with a top in the shape of a burning candle. The scene resembled a scattering of birthday candles spread atop a rocky cake! I even imagined a light snowfall would make the scene look like “icing” on the cake – a very bizarre and fascinating illusion! Just beyond the “birthday candles”, the trail passed above a huge wildfire burning in the juniper brush on the steep slope below. The thick smoke obscured our view to the south. I remembered having seen a small spot of smoke high on the southern face of the mountain from the Marangu Hotel campsite two days before. At the time, I thought it might have been caused by the thunderstorm the day before.
Early in the afternoon, after hiking 12 miles of trail, we arrived at Horumbo Hut (#2) in time for lunch. At an elevation of 12,000 feet, we were starting to feel some effects of the high altitude, though I still felt strong and in good shape – confident I would be able to reach the summit.
After lunch, I sat outside the hut reading my book, and I noticed some curious little mouse-like creatures scurrying around gathering dry grass. Soon it was time for an early dinner of roasted chicken, rice, potatoes, carrots and soup. A large party of Swiss climbers had just come down from the summit, so there were a shortage of bunks and a few people had to double up for the night. Following dinner, I walked out to a point of rock where there was a spectacular view of the sunset as it painted the mountain and clouds in a beautiful spectrum of orange and red. As I watched the sunset, I could see the glow of the brush fire that had been burning for the past three days. Later in the evening, we were told by one of the guides it been started by a campfire and two porters were jailed for having started it. The fire had spread rapidly over a large area below Horumbo hut, and apparently it had already crossed over the trail below, forcing some hikers to scurry around it. That night, an older Swiss gentleman played a few folk tunes on his harmonica before lanterns were turned out and we all headed for bed. We tried to get some sleep, but it became difficult at times.
[Day 3] We arose early as usual, before dawn, and heard a howling wind blowing outside – just the sound of it made us feel a lot colder. Once again, our guide brought us hot tea to get our blood flowing, so we could manage to hop out of our warm bunks. Then he advised us it would be a day we could expect to really feel the effects of the high altitude. Already I had begun to notice heavy breathing and pounding heartbeat, even while I was at rest. After another hearty breakfast, we slowly made our way up the trail again. Our guide continued to emphasize the importance of going slowly to avoid exhaustion, so we followed the pace of the porters ahead of us. It was a very steady, comfortable pace up the steep slope toward a long ridge between the base of Kilimanjaro and its little sister to the east, Mawenzi Peak. After four miles up the steep grade, the trail reached the crest of the ridge. From that point, the trail stretched out another five miles across the broad, rocky saddle that resembled a barren desert – but bitterly cold.
The strong wind drove the cold air through our skin like sharp nails – not what one would imagine as Africa! As long as we kept moving, it wasn’t too bad, but as soon as we stopped, even for a brief moment, the cold went deep into our bones. It was no exaggeration to say that we weren’t really prepared for such a drastic change in the climate. It felt more like the North Pole than the Equator! The final two miles to reach Kibo Hut (#3) became a very steep, heartbreaking trek, as the hut looked so close yet so far away. The last 300 yards were very difficult, due to the steepness of the trail and the high altitude. We finally arrived at Kibo hut about 1:00pm in the afternoon and quickly arranged our gear in the hut.
That afternoon, all of us experienced the effect of the thin air as we attempted to catch some sleep at 15,500 feet elevation. But due to the lack of breath and bad headaches, it was nearly impossible. Later, a few people became nauseous, a common malady of “mountain sickness”. I couldn’t eat anything that evening and had to take four aspirin for my headache. One of the German guys gave me one of his sleeping pills, and I managed to fall asleep for a couple of hours, until we were awakened at midnight by our guide with cups of hot tea and biscuits.
[Day 4] We drank our hot tea and I managed to eat a couple of biscuits before we got dressed for the final assault to the summit. It was literally a matter of putting on every available piece of clothing, including two pair of pants, to brave the subzero cold of the night. It was a real shock to hop out of a warm sleeping bag, but after a few minutes, I felt in pretty good shape compared to earlier that night. However, there were many who didn’t feel quite so fit. As we stumbled out of the hut, it was pitch black, bitterly cold, and the wind was whistling like a mad hawk! At 1:00am, we began to follow our guide up the steep, sandy trail, hardly able to see one foot in front of the other – so we just followed the shadowy figure ahead. I had nothing to break the strong bitter cold wind as it stung my face in the dark. With our walking sticks, we steadied ourselves in the soft volcanic ash and probed for large rocks in our path. At one point, my eyeglasses became so fogged up that I felt like a blind man swinging his cane in all directions, desperately trying to find his way. The “trail” was hardly a trail at all, and it was very frustrating to make any headway in the soft volcanic ash. It was a matter of zigzagging across the steep slope, and for every step up it was half a step back.
On and on, hour after hour, we continued to climb up the incredibly steep 45-degree slope of the ancient volcano. It became a matter of simply putting one foot in front of the other, while the bitter wind chilled us to the bone. The higher we climbed, the thinner the air became – so thin that all of us were breathing heavily just to move one foot at a time. It was a slow, monotonous rhythm – step up one foot, breathe deeply, step up another foot, breathe deeply. On and on we climbed in the darkness. At one point, as we neared the summit, two of our group felt totally exhausted and couldn’t get their breath. But after a short stop, the rest of us encouraged them to persevere. Just as we approached the rim of the giant volcanic crater atop Kilimanjaro, the early morning sunrise began as a soft warm glow across the entire eastern horizon of the earth – what looked like half of the world! At last we stepped on to the edge of the crater rim, a place known as “Gilman’s Point” at 18,500 feet elevation. From there, as we looked east toward the sunrise, we knew we were the special guests of GOD, and with the best seats in the house! As we watched from the top of Kilimanjaro, the soft orange glow on the horizon became brighter and the clouds below us reflected the sun’s early rays.
Then, the climactic moment arrived as a massive ball of fire slowly rose over Mawenzi Peak below. The jagged rocky spires appeared to be on fire, as if they were giant burning candles, sending the brilliant sunlight skyward and into the heavens! The entire peak was glowing with fire – a spectacular and awesome natural phenomenon as anything I had ever witnessed before in my life!
As the sun began its daily journey westward, I knew I had been most fortunate to have shared the experience. Having reached Gilman’s Point, the official summit of the climb, we turned to face the west and looked down into the massive volcanic crater at the heart of Mt Kilimanjaro. As an ancient volcano, it had been dormant for tens of thousands of years. Snow and ice covered the floor of the crater and remnants of massive glaciers surrounded the rim. Our guide invited three of us to hike up a mile or so around the rim to “Uhuru Point”, the highest point on Mt Kilimanjaro at 19,380 feet. Slowly we hiked along the southern edge of the crater, past ancient glaciers and spectacular ice formations, which Earnest Hemingway referred to as the “snows of Kilimanjaro”, seen from the plains far below. But what most people thought of as a “snow covered” summit, was in fact the remains of ancient glaciers formed tens of thousands of years ago when the earth was in the middle of an “ice age”.
As we approached Uhuru Point, we passed close to one of the ancient glaciers, and I was able to see the beautiful, deep blue color in the massive ice, in hundreds of layers formed thousands of years ago. The solid wall of ice towered over 100 feet above us as we gradually made our way to its base. When we stood at the foot of the massive glacier, its face was virtually vertical – a result of “sublimation”. At such an extreme altitude, the ice did not “melt”, rather it transformed directly from a solid form to water vapor! Such a unique natural phenomenon, and only on the top of Kilimanjaro. When we neared Uhuru Point, the bitterly cold wind became so strong it was difficult to remain standing upright. But we pressed on, one step at a time, until we reached the highest place in all of Africa – 19,380 feet above sea level.
We hugged each other, much in the same way as I suspected climbers on Mt Everest had done upon their conquest. From Uhuru Point we had the most awesome view of Tanzania, Kenya, and the plains of East Africa! There was no doubt at that moment – “everything” was below us! There was no higher point on the African continent, and it was a once in a lifetime feeling of literally being “on top of the world”. (one would have to travel over 3800 miles to the Hindu-Kush region in Pakistan to find a higher place on earth!) We marveled at the view of the world from almost 20,000 feet above sea level, at least for as long as we could bear the brutal cold wind.
Then we began our descent past the ancient glaciers that glistened as they reflected the brilliant mid-day sun. At one point, I took a photo of Tim standing at the base of a glacier that towered over 100 feet above him.
At last we met up with the rest of our group at Gilman’s Point and began our descent down the steep slope we had labored so hard to climb in the middle of the night. Whereas we had struggled to put one foot in front of the other on the climb up to the summit, we literally “plowed” our way down through the soft volcanic “scree”, as if we were in deep snow. As we almost “flew” down the mountain, I couldn’t help wondering how on earth we had been able to climb the incredibly steep slope in the middle of the night? As I looked back on the climb, I was sure that one of the main reasons for climbing the steep ascent during darkness was psychological, so that what might otherwise look “impossible” would not stare us in the face for the five long hours required to reach the summit. And, of course, there was another important reason for the night climb – to arrive on the summit at the precise moment of sunrise over Mawenzi Peak! It was truly a joy to witness the spectacle of sunrise from atop Mt Kilimanjaro, knowing we were the first people to see it in all of Africa that morning! Within a couple of hours, we arrived back at Kibo hut, where our porters had prepared hot soup to welcome us and celebrate our successful climb.
A short time later, we began the long 10-mile hike down to Horumbo hut. Somehow, the cold wind that swept the broad barren ridge between Kilimanjaro and Mawenzi didn’t seem as bitter or uncomfortable as it had felt before. Perhaps we were becoming accustomed to the altitude and mountain climate. We arrived at Horumbo hut in the late afternoon and the air quickly became very chilly as clouds began to fill the sky. As we settled down in the hut, I met a girl from Finland who would be going up to the summit the next morning. I asked her about her hometown and when she said she was from Helsinki, I mentioned I had gone to graduate school with a guy from Helsinki named Rikko Haarla. Immediately she gasped and said he was her friend! Then she told me he was working in the southern part of Tanzania – it was a very strange coincidence and really amazing. I ended up lending her a few of my clothes for the climb.
Then I walked down to a small mountain stream for a quick washup before dinner. It turned my whole body into a giant goose bump, but it was also very refreshing and invigorating! I joined everyone for a wonderful dinner of roasted beef, potatoes, carrots, and hearty vegetable soup – it was clear that my appetite had returned in earnest. As the evening fell upon the mountain, we sat around the table in the hut playing cards, reading, and swapping stories with those who had been to the summit (aka “veterans”), as well as those awaiting their chance (aka “neophytes”). Later that evening, as the oil lamps were turned out, I fell into a deep sleep, anticipating the return to base camp the next day. My last thoughts were of my love for Marion and the prospect of her letters waiting for me in Mombasa!
[Day 5] We were awakened early, once again by our ever-faithful guide named John, who always brought us hot tea to give us the energy and motivation to climb out of our warm sleeping bags. Following another hearty breakfast, and a bit of first aid on my heel blisters, we set off down the trail. Tim set a quick pace as both of us “scrambled” down the path, but we were certainly no match for our porters who seemed to “zoom” past us in their eagerness to return home and be with their families. About a mile down the trail from Horumbo hut, we encountered smoldering ashes and a landscape scarred by the huge brush fire we had seen several days before. The blackened earth seemed to stretch for miles in front of us, almost all the way to the rocky base of Mawenzi Peak. We scurried through the charred land, and surprisingly, amid the devastation were several small pools of standing water from a storm the night before. So, I figured it must have been the rain that doused the flames and saved part of the mountain from a worse fate. I recalled having seen storm clouds boiling over Mawenzi Peak when I had sat on the rocky point near Horumbo hut on our ascent up the mountain. It seemed that nature had prevailed in the end, as it always must.
Further down the trail, we came upon a couple of hamster-like creatures that appeared to have been “stunned” by the fire – they just sat in front of us with blank eyes! They were the unfortunate innocent victims of human carelessness. Beyond the fire zone, we reached the thick forest, which had been too moist to burn and most likely acted as a natural “fire break”. And just as soon as we entered the forest of lush vegetation and moss hanging from the trees, the soft light of the sun filtered through the dense canopy of thousands of leaves. A couple of miles further, we arrived at Mandara hut in time for lunch, which had been prepared by our porters well before our arrival. As we sat on the porch of the hut, enjoying our boiled eggs, biscuits, and crisp fresh carrots, I began to compose stories in my head of our ascent to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Although I was certainly not the first person to reach the summit, it was still an astounding personal achievement none the less. And at that moment, now on the descent, I felt incredibly proud of having achieved my goal! But even more importantly, the experience of reaching the summit was one of a lifetime that would stay with me forever! It was a short lunch stop, after which Tim and I hurried down the trail for the final 12 miles to the national park entrance gate, the place where we had started our trek to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro five days earlier.
Upon reaching the gate, we each wrote a few comments in the visitor’s book about our experience. But quite frankly, even though I tried hard, I found it difficult to put my amazing experience and deep emotions into words on paper. As I attempted to compose a few sentences for the record, they seemed hardly adequate to express my deepest feelings and emotions – but how could one expect to do so with only a few lines on paper? However, I did chide the National Park Service for their proposed road construction all the way to Mandara hut. I was just glad I had been able to hike to the hut without the ugly sight of a road. As we prepared to leave the national park, we had our guide take a photo of us as we all stood beside the entrance sign, (the equivalent of a modern day “selfie”).
We were clearly back to civilization again as we trudged down the road for the final 3 miles, past many people, houses, cars, etc. until we reached the hotel. While we sat in the lounge with cold beers in hand, we all shared the same good feeling of having reached the summit – but it also felt good to be back down. Sharing the experience around the roaring fireplace with friends, I felt a strong inner emotion of satisfaction and peace with myself.
As other climbers arrived, we celebrated our “comradery”, now being mountain climbing “veterans”, with another round of cold “White Cap” beers. Following the “celebration”, we packed our gear in the old red Landrover and headed for Twiga Beach. Along the way we dropped off Tim in the small town of Voi where he could hitch a ride to Nairobi. Then we drove on into the late afternoon toward Mombasa and the south coast of Kenya. That evening, we shared dinner at the “Curry Bowl” and talked about some of our most memorable moments on the climb to the summit. After dinner, we checked into the “Savoy Hotel” for the night in downtown Mombasa. Unfortunately, the water had been turned off earlier in the evening, so there was no shower that night. But I did manage to scrounge up a wash from a bucket of water in the toilet. Needless to say, it was rather inconvenient, but what could one expect for 7 schillings a night? (about $1.25) We had gone from the snows of Kilimanjaro to the oppressive heat of a Mombasa night, all in the same day! Such was the incredible diversity of Africa!
The climb to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro remains a treasured memory, and every time I read the notes in my journal and look at the photographs, it’s as if it all happened yesterday! I hope you enjoy the trip as well.