Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro – An Experience of the Highest

[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.

Overland across Africa (Map of the Route)

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.

Mt. Kilimanjaro from Marangu Hotel campsite

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.

Waterfall near Marangu Hotel

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!

View from Mandara hut

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.

On the trail to Mt 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.

Me with my climbing companions outside Horumbo hut

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.

At 14,000 feet elevation – on the way to Kibo hut

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!

Sunrise from the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro

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.

Me on the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro

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.

Tim standing at the base of an ancient glacier

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”).

At the end of a successful climb

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!

Twiga Beach on the coast of Kenya

 

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.

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Pink Floyd in Africa

    So what is Pink Floyd doing in Africa you ask? Well it all started with the “big breakdown” when King Kong died in the middle of the Sahara Desert, 200 miles from the nearest town. A valve had dropped through the top of the piston and we tried in vain to seal it off, but the engine just couldn’t pull the weight of the old bus over the soft sand. We were forced to camp at the only well for a hundred miles around while we waited for parts to be flown out from London. Ten days later we worked to rebuild the engine, and to help pass the time amidst the searing heat of the desert, I brought out my cassette tape player and put on the new Pink Floyd album “Dark Side of the Moon”. Then I joined the drivers, Stuart and Joe, in making the repairs as Pink Floyd played on and on!

Repairing a broken spring in the desert
Repairing a broken spring in the Sahara Desert
King Kong stuck in a huge mud hole in the Congo
King Kong stuck in a huge mud hole in the Congo

After that, every time we encountered a mechanical problem with Kong, and there were a lot of them, sometimes two or three a day, Pink Floyd was there to keep us company as we made the repairs. There were broken springs to replace, clogged fuel lines to fix, flat tires to mend, and even a broken engine mount which the manual said could only be replaced by removing the entire engine. But since we were in the middle of the jungle at that point, it wasn’t possible. Once again we came up with a bush mechanic’s solution to replace the broken engine mount, to the sounds of Dark Side of the Moon echoing in the jungle.

Broken down in the middle of the road
Broken down in the middle of the road
A broken axle on the road to Rwanda
A broken axle on the road to Rwanda

When we finally arrived in Nairobi, after traveling overland for almost five months, I gave my Pink Floyd tape to Stuart as a token of good luck as he prepared to do a return trip to London. Even now, after 40 years, whenever I hear Dark Side of the Moon I’m instantly transported back to Africa!

Life before King Kong (1945 – 1974) cont…

After a joyful reunion with my family in Illinois I bought a 1965 Mustang, packed all of my worldly belongings in the car and headed west on Interstate 90 through North Dakota, Montana and Idaho to the small gold mining town of Republic, Washington. The old town of 750 residents was located along the banks of the San Poil River, some 25 miles south of the Canadian border and over 75 miles from the nearest town of Colville on the other side of the Kettle River Range. When I arrived in Republic and checked in at the ranger station I was shown a small one bedroom house on the station that was provided for me, and that was very fortunate because there were very few places to rent in town. To give you an idea of just how small the town really was, when I went to the one and only grocery store for the first time, the clerk at the checkout counter said “you must be the new forester”! (So I suspect the whole town must have known I was coming)

Republic Ranger Station in winter
Republic Ranger Station in winter
Curlew Lake - Republic Ranger District
Curlew Lake – Republic Ranger District

Over the course of the next two years I became accepted into the small community as if I had always lived there. I made many good friends, especially on Friday nights when I was invited to join people for a few beers at the local bars, of which there were three, all within the space of two blocks along the main street. Winters were quite cold and snow usually arrived before Thanksgiving and remained on the ground until after Easter. My job involved mostly field work, so I spent a lot of time in the surrounding mountains supervising crews planting trees, thinning stands of young timber, clearing brush along trails, and fighting forest fires. During the summer of 1971 a young high school teacher named John from Tacoma took a seasonal job in the fire lookout tower on Bodie Mountain. Soon we became great friends and over the course of the next year I drove to Seattle many times to spend the weekend with John and his friends. I always loved the journey which took me across the mighty Columbia River and Grand Coulee Dam, through the sagebrush hills of eastern Washington, and over the summit of the Cascade Range into the dense forests of western Washington. (such a dramatic change in landscape)

Grand Coulee Dam in Eastern Washington
Grand Coulee Dam in Eastern Washington

In the fall of 1972 I decided to take leave from the Forest Service to study for a Master of Science degree in Environmental Planning at the University of Washington. Once again I packed all of my worldly belongings in my car, now a 1965 VW bug, and headed for Seattle. There I found a room in a communal house a few blocks from campus. (as an added note, earlier I had been given a beautiful Sealpoint Siamese cat named Ming by some friends in Spokane who had to find him a new home) So Ming and I moved into the huge old house and I joined 10 other students. Once every two weeks each of us prepared dinner for the house, along with the occasional guest or two. While I pursued my studies, John and I spent many weekends together enjoying the cultural delights of the city, especially plays at the Empty Space Theater and music festivals at Seattle Center, site of the 1962 World’s Fair. In addition, there were backpacking trips along the remote Pacific Ocean beaches on the Olympic Peninsula, hiking in the North Cascades, and sailing among the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound.

University of Washington and Mt Ranier
University of Washington and Mt Ranier

Then early in 1974, John approached me with the idea of travelling around the world after I completed my degree. Not having made any plans beyond that point, I said “why not”! After that, every time he and I got together he always talked about the places we would go and things we might do on our trip. As time went on and I was approaching the completion of my research project and the writing of my thesis I became more consumed in my studies. So John took on the role of travel agent and went about making the arrangements for our trip that he planned to start in Africa. At that point for me, Africa was not much more than a huge piece of the world map, thousands of miles and a whole world away. At the beginning of the summer John announced that he had signed us up with SIAFU, an overland expedition that would be travelling from London to Nairobi, departing in September, just three months away. In the meantime there were visas to be obtained, several inoculations required, and gear to be purchased. Time seemed to fly by as I madly rushed to finish my thesis and submit it to the Graduate School before the time came when I had to board the flight to Europe where I would meet up with John. Finally the day came for my departure, which by strange coincidence was also my birthday! Over the next several days there was an Eastern Airlines flight to Chicago, an overnight flight to Luxembourg aboard Icelandic Airlines, an overnight train to Madrid, and a ferry to Tangiers. As I stepped off the ferry and into the chaos of Morocco, the realization finally hit me that I was beginning a journey into the unknown for who knows how long. Follow me as I share my experiences of facing unexpected challenges, meeting new people in strange cultures, and trying to make sense of my emotions along the way.

My Passport
My Passport

Travels with King Kong is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble

I hope that you will enjoy reading it and give me your comments please. Thanks!

(I’m also on Twitter and Facebook )

Embracing the Life Changing Power of Africa: My Travels with King Kong

I would like to invite you to read an article that was just published in the Magic City Morning Star newspaper about my travels in Africa. http://tinyurl.com/oorebqx   I hope you enjoy reading it!

Here are a couple of excerpts from my book.

An encounter with Monsieur Gabey   “We camped just outside of town (Meiganga) next to a small hotel and zoo. Actually it was more like someone’s front yard, or to be more specific, Monsieur Gabey’s place. He was an eccentric old fart who had been in the Cameroons for over 40 years after coming from Paris. He bordered on being an alcoholic and could be quite moody, sometimes very happy and friendly but at other times cold and unresponsive. However, he was a great cook and fixed us some delicious French dishes from the fruits and vegetables he grew in his garden. For dessert we had fresh mandarin oranges picked from a tree just outside the dining room window while we were seated at the dinner table. It was quite a nice time despite the negative feeling on the last day as we were leaving. I think he was sad to see us leave.”  (November 1974)

Our drivers Stuart and Joe with Monsieur Gabey
Our drivers Joe and Stuart with Monsieur Gabey

Catching grasshoppers on a Sunday night   “In search of an evening’s entertainment, four of us headed down the street toward a local bar for a couple of beers… where dancing was going on to the sounds of James Brown. We ordered some beers and watched the local people dancing, as well as the large crowd gathered outside on the edge of the bar observing the scene and listening to the music. Then all of a sudden, out of the night sky came a horde of large grasshoppers that were attracted by the bright lights. Everyone stopped dancing and started grabbing the grasshoppers, putting them into bottles or stringing them on long twigs, so we got into the swing of things and did the same. It was really a wild scene to see people picking up grasshoppers from the tables, snatching them out of the air, and grabbing them from people’s hair. And all the time the music was blaring out of an old dilapidated speaker from a scratchy record. The people in the bar were just great. They were having a marvelous time and wanted us to as well.”  (November 1974)

Children catching grasshoppers
Children catching grasshoppers

This is a book review that you might be interested in reading.  https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/travels-with-king-kong/

 

Life before King Kong (1945 – 1974) cont…

So what is ADM you ask? Well, now after 45 years it’s no longer classified and I’m able to tell you. From Fort Leonard Wood I joined my fellow soldiers, newly initiated combat engineers, on a flight to Fort Belvoir, Virginia where we spent the next 8 weeks learning how to maintain and detonate Atomic Demolition Munitions (ADM). We were segregated from the rest of the post for obvious security reasons. The ADM’s were basically nuclear land mines designed to destroy bridges, dams, and other large infrastructure, but not to be used directly against enemy troops, thank goodness. The process of arming an ADM involved a specific sequence of steps that required “two man control” to ensure that the weapon could not be armed and detonated by just one person.

Following successful completion of ADM school I was stationed in West Germany at a small, remote post in the Rhon Mountains on the East German border by the name of Wildflecken, which translated in German means “the wild place”. During WWII the post was the main training site for Hitler’s mountain troops and was discovered by the Americans only after the war. When I arrived in the spring of 1969 the post served as one of the three major US Army training sites for armored and artillery units. Winters were very cold and snow remained on the ground from early November through mid-April, so the troops training on the post did not have many good things to say about Wildflecken. But I loved the place since it was located high in the mountains and surrounded by forest. There was also a very historic and sacred monastery nearby where the monks made cheese, baked black bread, and brewed a delicious dark beer. During the summer months many of us would hike up to the monastery, known as the Kreuzberg, to savor the delicious food and beer.

Our barracks on post
Our barracks on post at Wildflecken
Looking at the Rhon Valley from the Kreuzberg Monastery
Looking at the Rhon Valley from the Kreuzberg Monastery

Our Special Weapons Platoon was divided into 6 teams, and besides our daily routine of ADM training, each team pulled 24 hour guard duty at our nuclear weapons storage site near the post. So every 6 days I would spend 24 hours with my team at the site, known as NATO 17. Every so often we would receive a phone call from NATO headquarters giving us a code that we had to match with a code stored in a safe at the site. It always required two of us with separate keys and combinations to unlock the safe. Luckily all the codes we received were practice and not the real thing! But with the Cold War and Russian troops stationed only a few kilometers away along the East German border, every phone call was an anxious moment.

NATO17 - nuclear weapons storage site
NATO17 – nuclear weapons storage site

But all was not work and I spent many hours in the woodworking shop at the USO Service Club on post building furniture for my room in the old German barracks. Our rooms had walls 3 feet thick and triple paned windows to deal with the harsh winter weather. I also loved to spend time in the photo lab developing my pictures of the lovely German countryside and small villages.

Winter scene of the Rhon Valley from Wildflecken
Winter scene of the Rhon Valley from Wildflecken

In the summer of 1970 I took a 2 week leave to visit the historic and cultural sites of Italy and France, which sparked in me the adventure of travel to far off places. Then in September of 1970 I was discharged from the Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey, having served my two year commitment. Following a reunion with my family in Illinois, I took a job as a silvicultural forester for the US Forest Service on the Republic Ranger District of the Colville National Forest in northeastern Washington State. Little did I know at the time that I would meet a guy named John who would transform my life forever. (stay tuned)

Life before King Kong (1945 – 1974) cont…

Upon arrival at Fort Leonard Wood on an Ozark Airlines flight from St Louis, I was marched to an old wooden barracks along with 60 other new recruits and assigned a bunk in the squad bay. As I climbed into my bunk that night and lights out was called, I lay awake for a long time amid the anxiety of what might be in store for me over the next 6 weeks, not to mention the next two years! The next day I forfeited my civilian clothes for Army issue, even down to my skivvies. Soon I was humping a heavy duffel bag of gear in formation with 120 other recruits to another barracks that be our “home” for the next 6 weeks. No sooner had we stowed our gear than we were marched to the Post barber shop for a mandatory #1 haircut, which is basically a shaved head. (there were pictures on the wall of 3 other haircut styles but we were given no choice)

My "home" for the next 6 weeks
My “home” for the next 6 weeks

Over the next 6 weeks we endured 6 and a half days a week of training from morning til night, with only Sunday morning free for church services, and virtually everyone took the opportunity to get out of the barracks for 4 hours. Don’t mistake it, boot camp was physically and mentally challenging, but I was fortunate to be able to put up with it and not risk the wrath of the drill instructors who showed no mercy in harassing any weak or overweight recruits. Eventually I “graduated” from basic training and was fortunate to get a week of leave for Christmas with my family before reporting back to Fort Leonard Wood for AIT (Advanced Individual Training) at the Combat Engineer School. During the next 8 weeks I learned how to build bridges and field fortifications, place and detonate demolitions, and fire various weapons. Being the middle of January our field exercises were conducted in snow, ice, and frigid temperatures which is not very comfortable when you’re camped outside for days at a time.

Then two weeks before the end of AIT we received our orders and the entire company was to go to Vietnam (1969 was during the height of the war), so when I called my parents it was not what they wanted to hear. The next day, Saturday morning, 24 of us were called out from the morning formation and the Post Sargent Major offered us the opportunity to “volunteer” for ADM school at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Since no one in their right mind would ever volunteer for something in the Army, we were all pretty skeptical. Finally someone asked the question that was on all of our minds – “what is ADM?” The response from the Sargent Major was “I can’t tell you because it’s classified, but I need your answer by Monday morning!” So all of us spent the weekend asking everyone on the post “what is ADM”, to which they all replied “I don’t know”. Finally on Sunday afternoon we met a drill instructor who said he had served with an ADM unit. At last we might have an answer to our question, however his response was “I’m sorry but it’s classified”. Seeing our forlorn faces he said “but I can tell you this much, there are no ADM units in Vietnam”! Wow – that was good enough for us, so Monday morning 24 of us volunteered for ADM school, and unbeknownst to us, it would spare us and our families from the horrors of the Vietnam war.

While I remain grateful for the opportunity I was given, I also remain in debt to those who served our country in Vietnam, and who did so with distinction and valor! (to be continued)

Life before I met King Kong (1945 – 1974)

On September 6, 1945 I was born in the third floor flat at No. 16 Cambridge Gardens near the top of Portobello Road in Notting Hill Gate, a centuries old neighborhood of London, England. Eighteen months later my mother and I boarded a flight to New York and then a train to Pana, Illinois to join my father who had served as a radio operator on a B17 bomber based in Peterborough, England during WWII. We lived in Pana for 11 years where my father worked as an electrician in the coal mines. My sister and I attended a very small elementary school where there were two grades in every classroom. It turned out to be one of my best educational experiences. Then we moved to a farm north of Bloomington, Illinois where I spent some of the best times of my life, surrounded by vast fields of corn and soybeans. There was always work to be done on the farm, and it was during these years that I formed a deep bond with the earth, a bond that would last a lifetime.

On the farm in Illinois
On the farm in Illinois

Upon graduation from high school our family moved to Champaign and I entered the University of Illinois to study for my Bachelor of Science degree in Forestry, which seemed a bit strange as the campus is in the heart of the “corn belt”. But over the next four years I fell in love with forestry and dreamed of someday living among the mountains in Montana. During the summers I always had a job and one summer I spent 3 months stationed on Selway Mountain fire lookout tower in the Beaverhead National Forest of Southwest Montana. The experience of being alone (I had just 5 visitors all summer and 4 of them came the same day!) at the top of the 10,000 foot summit of Selway Mountain on the border with Idaho, and views for 100 miles in every direction was one of the most enjoyable and memorable experiences of my life.

Selway Mountain Lookout Tower
Selway Mountain Lookout Tower

Following graduation in 1967 as one of the “centennial class”, I spent       the summer in Bonners Ferry, Idaho on the Kaniksu National Forest fighting forest fires. Then it was on to Oregon State University in Corvallis where I studied for my Master’s degree in Forest Engineering. After graduation I took a summer job in Ennis, Montana on the Beaverhead National Forest conducting a timber survey in the Madison Range on the edge of Yellowstone National Park. During that summer I had the opportunity to join a group that climbed the highest peak in the Grand Teton National Park at over 13,500 feet. (this was my introduction to mountain climbing that would later follow me to Africa, British Columbia, and Alaska)

Then near the end of the summer I received my notice to report for the draft, something I had been expecting since my college deferment had expired upon my graduation from Oregon State. I was ordered to report to the “reception station” in Butte, Montana where I was formally introduced to what would become the next two years of my life. After signing several documents, without much choice on my part, I was handed a ticket for a flight to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri where I would spend the next 6 weeks in boot camp. As I boarded the Northwest Orient Airlines flight to Chicago via Great Falls and Minneapolis, I had no idea what lay ahead of me for the next two years. Little could I imagine at that point just how much the Army would transform my life. (stay tuned)

“Travels with King Kong” – what is it all about?

In 1971 I was working as a forester on the Republic Ranger District in the Colville National Forest of Northeastern Washington State. That summer a young high school teacher named John, from Tacoma took the job of fire guard on Bodie Mountain lookout tower and soon we became good friends. Little did I know at that time that 3 years later the two of us would embark on a journey around the world. While completing my Master of Science degree in Environmental Planning at the University of Washington, John began planning our around the world trip, starting in Africa. Since I was consumed in my studies and writing my thesis, John made arrangements for us to an overland expedition that would be traveling from London to Nairobi. But before we could leave Seattle there were visas to be obtained, several inoculations needed, and gear to be purchased – not to mention the submission of my thesis to the graduate school.

In the late summer of 1974 I rushed feverously to complete the final draft of my thesis, pack the essentials I thought I would need for traveling across the Sahara desert and through the jungles of the Congo, and not to forget to book my flight to Europe where I would meet up with John. It all happened in such a mad rush that it wasn’t until John and I stepped off the ferry in Tangiers that I finally realized I was headed into the unknown for who knows how long! A few days later we met up with the overland group camped on the beach south of Tangiers. This was where I met King Kong for the first time – he was an old British Army bus, and little did I know then that he would hold a lifetime of memories for me.

Join me for an incredible journey through the heart of the Dark Continent!

Asilah Beach, Morocco Tangiers

Welcome!

Welcome. My name is Jim Henderson, author of Travels with King Kong. I’m so happy to have you as a visitor to my blog about my new book. This project is very special to me, and I hope to share some of that excitement with you here.

I’ll be using this blog to interact with you about Travels with King Kong, expanding on some of the topics in it and blogging on some of the ideas related to my book. This is a great place for you to get to know me, and I’m looking forward to getting to know you, too. What did you think of Travels with King Kong? What questions do you have for me? How do you relate to my book?

I’ll be returning here frequently with new posts and responses to feedback from you. Until next time, tell me a little bit about yourself.