In December, 2003, at the end of my year of volunteer teaching in Arandis, I climbed Kilimanjaro as part of a group and then went to the beaches of Zanzibar for a few days to bake in the sun. I was intrigued by the idea of standing on top of the highest mountain in Africa, in the middle of a glacier, and then a few days later being at sea level on a beach.
These are notes taken from my journal chronicling my last morning in Arandis, along with a general reflection about Africa written sometime around 2007.
A short reflection on what Africa means to me
Beryl Markham wrote “There are as many Africa’s as there are books about Africa. And there are as many books about Africa as you could read in a leisurely lifetime”. Today, sitting in the departure terminal of the Windhoek airport, I came upon an article noting the passing of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski—author of one of my favorite books about Africa (narrowly edging out Marham’s ‘West With The Night’) which is called ‘Shadow Of The Sun’. Kapuscinski actually died in January, but I missed the news at that time.
Being in Africa, and reflecting on its significance in my life, seems only to confuse me more. There is so much that I don’t understand about my attraction to this continent. Even while I look forward to being home with my friends, family, and Mandela, I feel a great sadness about leaving. I always feel despondent and even desperate as my departure nears. And after five years of living in and visiting Namibia, I don’t understand it any more today than I did when I first arrived in December of 2002.
The easy culprit is the children. Pure of heart and with a seemingly endless supply of smiles, it seems impossible not to fall in love with the children of Africa. The immediate and complete love for them seems out of proportion with my generally more reserved nature. It’s as if I was somehow born to this moment, and this place, and yet do not understand how or why. But those are yet hollow words, with no substance.
Perhaps in the end, the answers don’t matter much. Maybe it’s enough to experience the joy of a journey so clearly marked as my own. Perhaps the answers are so deeply encoded in my DNA that there is no answer that my mind can comprehend. It’s the simplest things that elude explanation at times.
Saturday, December 6, 2003 – Johannesburg to Moshi, Tanzania
Yesterday morning I drove out of Arandis at dawn. I did not sleep well and decided to just get on the road instead of hanging about. It was a tough goodbye. I drove to Beverly’s and gave her a last hug, and got one in return. She was sleepy but glad I stopped instead of just driving away. I drove the long way around town, half hoping to see someone so I could stop and chat. It was an emotional and lonely goodbye.
It was a long drive across the desert to Windhoek, my head full of thoughts of the past year. It was my last drive across The Namib for some time.
Today I have been cranky all morning. Not sure why. Customer service at the Holiday Inn was predictably terrible but I am used to that. But there is something more. I am still feeling strange about leaving Arandis. The send off from the kids was amazing. On Thursday after running club, the tennis kids joined us for our after run chat. It was my last run with the kids, at least for awhile. We were around 60 in total. Many of the kids had cards or gifts for me and they came up one by one to give me those. A few got up to give a small talk to say thanks. Then they sang me a goodbye song and while they were singing they all got up and got in a queue and filed past to give me a hug. Quite a moment for me. I was very touched and could not help crying.
I am pretty sure I am doing the right thing by leaving at this time, but I will miss those kids terribly. Their easy gratitude and love is rewarding; their friendship is automatic and unconditional.
It dawned on me yesterday during the drive to Windhoek that this is the very first time in my life that I feel like I have done something important. It is a good feeling, especially since I am young enough to carry on with these programs. I feel like my role now is to get some funds raised and oversee the transformation of MYO from an idea to a real program that can educate and mentor 100 or so kids a year to give them a better chance at college and being a caring, engaged, and compassionate adult. MYO needs to be more than just a thought or gesture.
This morning I came to the Johannesburg airport three hours before my flight to make sure I had plenty of time to find the long term storage facility. It took about five minutes, so I am having coffee, reading papers, and watching CNN. It seems that Air Tanzania does not even open until one hour before the flight.
I have to take American dollars into Tanzania as it seems that is how everyone wants to be paid. I went to Thomas Cook to convert my Namibia Dollars to USD. They charged me two commissions (rationalization is that I have to change the Namibia Dollars into Rand and the Rand into USD). Even though the Namibia Dollar is pegged to the Rand they still charge a commission for making that change and then on top they charged another transaction charge. Part of my crankiness I guess, but I am sick of the countries in this area getting deeper and deeper into my pocket for every little thing. It is shameless to have to pay a double commission and a transaction charge to this fucking company and it just seems that every time you make a transaction, in tourist areas, they do everything they can to rip you off. Clearly I am not myself–I just am not feeling well about leaving the children behind. It feels like abandonment and I am very much on edge.
I got into Moshi around 3:00 and was picked up by the hotel driver. Kilimanjaro is a massive presence overshadowing the whole area. Mt. Meru is next door, which also is a pretty damn big mountain. The two towers make the airport and plane seem like toys. I met Franz and Martin at the airport when we landed. They are my climbing partners; a father and son team. Franz has a limp, from his childhood when he had polio. He was raised in Austria and both his brothers died from the disease just before polio vaccines became widely available at the end of the war. Both seem nice guys, if a little frail for this trip. Martin is 21 and Franz 52. Martin is skinny and shy. He seems insecure, but a nice guy just the same.
When we got to the hotel our guide was waiting for us (Danforth), so I quickly changed into some shorts and we met him for a beer. Franz and Martin had dinner but I had bought a sandwich at the airport and ate that while I was re-packing my gear.
My Malarone was stolen with my baaki so I am here without malaria medicine. Danforth said it is no problem on the mountain as it is too cold for mosquitoes, but when I get to Zanzibar it could be trouble as that is a highly infectious malaria zone.
Sunday, December 7, 2003 – Moshi, Tanzania
It was very hot and humid last night. Sleep was difficult but I got a few hours. The mosquito net even makes it seem hotter. About 4:00 am it rained for an hour or so. The rain fell hard and straight in huge drops, in the way of the tropics and rain forests.
After breakfast, we loaded our gear into a kombi and headed off with Danforth. It was about a 40-minute drive to the drop off and park entrance. On the way, we stopped at the grocery and the butcher, but each stop was only a minute or two. At the butcher, there was a goat and half a beef hanging from a wire outside the dirty shack. There were people gathered around watching while the worker hacked off a few pieces of beef and gave it to Danforth in a plastic bag.
The terrain got more and more tropical as we got closer to the mountain. We passed fields of coffee trees, banana and mango trees and a small field of sunflowers. In the couple of small communities we drove through, scrawny goats and chickens wandered around the yards and street and barefoot kids waved at us. Women, many with babies wrapped in blankets on their backs, watched us pass. They must see these kombi’s everyday, but still it is an excuse to stop and stare for a moment. Tourists mean money for the local economy and I suppose are intriguing to local population.
After signing in at the gate, we were off at around 10:20. Today’s hike was 13km at a pretty moderate grade. We stopped for a brown bag lunch at 12:30 and hit camp around 3:30. This camp, Machame Hut, is at 3000m. We started at around 1600m. The walk was on a well maintained trail through rain forest. We hit a few patches of mud, but the big rains of the season are over so it was not bad. I wish I had some better hiking boots as these big Caterpillar boots are heavy as hell. They will be warm and dry, just heavy for this kind of hiking. We saw a few black monkeys playing in the trees of the rain forest, but mostly it was a pretty quiet hike. Danforth readily answers questions, but offers little information or idle chit-chat unless responding to a question. I like this about him.
There is only Franz and Martin and I in our group, but there are approximately 20-25 people in 5 or 6 different groups making the trip on the same day, so we are effectively part of a larger group. I assume we will be together each night. Franz had a pretty tough day of it. When we arrived in camp, he was completely covered in sweat and complaining of a small blister. I watched him clip the price tag off his boots in the kombi on the way from the airport, so a blister is no surprise. Martin could have the same problem as he also has new boots. We stopped twice today for Martin to change his sock configuration so not sure how bad his problems are.
In our larger group there is a guy from UK (Barry), three young Canadian fellas who are touring Africa (Scott, John, and Roman), and two ladies from South Africa. They are both married and wanted to come do this trek, but their husbands had no interest so they came alone. There is a group of four from Spain and a group of four or five from France. Only one of the Frenchies seems to speak much English and they are a little aloof anyway. They are fit though and skipped right past everyone and had their camp set up by the time we made it. Franz is pretty slow but there is no real hurry as everything I have read suggests going slowly to let our bodies get used to the altitude changes.
The mountain top was occasionally visible through the canopy, but mostly it was covered in clouds. Now, from camp, which is outside the rain forest, we would have a view, but it is still obscured by clouds. The porters are lively and social, talking among themselves in Swahili. They are fast going up the hill, even with their loads. Danforth says the park restricts them carrying more than 20kg, but they often end up with heavier loads and from the looks of their packs I believe it. They are studs.
I have my own two man tent and the South African’s are sharing a tent. We also have a larger tent where the porters set up a little table and camp stools for us to eat. We had broth soup and pasta and tea for dinner. After the long hike, it was pretty tasty and readily accepted.
Monday, December 8 – Kilimanjaro
Woke this morning to clear skies and a beautiful view of the mountain top. It looks a hell of a long way off and I suppose it is. It is a very beautiful scene, with the white of the mountain top set against the vivid blue of the sky. The clear, high mountain air makes everything seem more clear than usual.
We are now camped at Shira Hut at 3800m. Today’s hike was 13km. It was a beautiful hike today, with occasional glimpses of the mountain and fantastic views looking back on the plains behind us. We had breakfast at 7:30 and left camp at 8:30. Danforth brought us tea in our tents at 6:30 so that was cool. I slept fine. Around 11am, it turned cloudy so our views were gone and by lunch we were socked in. We were walking through the first cloud layer and visibility was down to around 50 feet for much of the day. The porters packed us a lunch which we carried and ate at around Noon at 3550m or so.
Franz is really suffering. Apparently he has a large open blister and he got slower and slower as we climbed today. The route is not technical, but there are some steep parts to the trail. It is not just his blister, his fitness level is pretty bad as well. He kept asking Danforth “how much farther”; seems he was asking every 10 minutes or so and it was really starting to get a bit annoying, but shows how bad off he is. I am not sure he will continue and not sure what the process is if he decided he cannot go on. Franz was saying when we arrived in camp that he had meant to get to the gym (whatever that means), but just did not have the time. Martin is also pretty weak, but not as nearly as bad as his father. So clearly these two had not prepped for the long trek.
This camp is wide open and also could have great views, but we are right in the midst of the cloud layer. Occasionally it looked as if it was going to clear, but then another cloud rolls in and we could not see the tents that were only 50 feet away. It was kind of surreal and got cold by sunset. I had hiked in only a long sleeve shirt, but at camp had to put on a thermal underneath and my heavy Cotton Oxford fleece over the top. The Frenchies set up their camp all the way across the valley from us. Not sure if they don’t like us, or are just exercising their right to be French. We had a great dinner of soup and curry chicken over rice. Several people are starting to lose their appetite from altitude sickness, but I am not one of them. I felt great and ate two helpings of everything. I did have a slight headache, but it went away after we had been in camp for an hour or so.
About 7:30 pm, the clouds suddenly lifted and we had a beautiful moonrise and view of the mountain. The moon was full and made a spectacular scene framed alongside the glacier on top of Kili. I spent an hour or so chatting with the Canadians and Barry and then hit the sack around 8:30. I asked Danforth for some water so I could sip a little during the night. He filled my aluminum water bottle with boiling water, so I took it into my sleeping bag as a hot water bottle. Damn nice. I took a sleeping pill and slept mostly through the night.
Tuesday, December 9 – Kilimanjaro.
Franz has taken himself out. He had a bad night of little sleep and time to reflect and came away thinking that he was not fit enough or prepared for this trip. It was probably the right decision, because today’s route was significantly tougher than the first two days. A porter escorted him off to the evacuation center where he got a free ride down in a jeep, while we headed off in the other direction, still climbing of course.
I woke up a few times during the night, but slept pretty good. I had a bit of a headache last night, but felt good this morning. Again, we woke to a bright blue completely clear sky, with fantastic views of the mountain, the summit, and the plains below. There was a thin layer of ice on our tents and the ground when we first woke up, but soon after the sun came up and it all disappeared. After breakfast, Franz left with his porter and Martin and I set off with Danforth. Martin is not sleeping at all and eating little. He is feeling nauseous and decided to take some Diamox to see if it helps him feel better.
Several people in our larger group are starting to experience nausea and headaches. John, from the Canadians, is pretty sick, but plodding on.
Today was a pretty long and brutal hike. The first that I have felt challenged. It was a long day and I was ready to see camp when it arrived. Today we went from 3800m, up to 4650, then back down to 3900m to Barranco camp. We hiked some pretty steep stuff, and there were a few areas where the route was slightly technical, especially coming down in a couple of places. I am sure Franz made the right decision because he would have had a very difficult time today. Martin has taken over the role of stopping to rest every 30 minutes or so and constantly asking Danfort how much further. He is also not fit enough for this trip, but so far hanging in there. Not sure how much tougher things get, but if they escalate too much I think he will drop out as well. Again, I am not really sure what the procedure is, but I presume there are evacuation routes and processes for wherever we are. Today’s route was meant to acclimatize us by going up to 4650 and then camping back down at 3900. A lot of people really felt bad today. I had a somewhat bad headache when we got to camp, but I took an aspirin and it went away within an hour or so. Two of the Canadians are now sick and apparently one of the Frenchmen is feeling pretty bad as well. Not sure about everyone else.
We had our lunch at Lava Tower, which was the highest part of today’s route. Martin seemed to really be in trouble for awhile, but to his credit, he kept putting one foot in front of the other and made it into camp. The second half of the day was mostly downhill, but of course that can be tough on knees and ankles. Danforth seems to run downhill, while his uphill gait is very slow. I was tired when we hit camp but after my aspirin, a tea and a rest, felt much better. We crossed a lot of high mountain streams, skirting much of the day just below the snowline. It is getting significantly colder now but it is a good temperature for hiking. Once we stop, we have to pile on the layers. I am feeling pretty grody after three days with no shower, just an occasional splash on the face and hands. Still no significant mountain sickness; just the slight headache.
Today we hiked 15km and this camp is called Barranco Wall. It is a beautiful camp, surrounded on 3 sides by huge mountain sides, and 2 narrow valleys directly on either side of us. On the 4th side is a drop and presumably a view of the plains, but again we had clouds. Every day starts cold and clear, but by mid-morning the clouds come rolling in. Today, again, we hiked through clouds much of the day, so visibility was often 50-100 feet. Barranco Wall goes straight up on one side of the camp. Our route tomorrow, is to cross the stream at the bottom of the valley at the base of the Barranco Wall and then scale right up it. From here, it looks impossible, but I am sure that once we are closer it will not be so bad.
Again, I got a hot water bottle and now it is very cold. I had three layers on and now added two more for sleeping. Martin and I are now sharing a tent since Franz is gone. Makes it easier for the porters to only have to set up and carry a single tent. Martin is fastidious. He spends a lot of time organizing his pack, re-packing, and generally fussing about. He seems to have everything categorized in different plastic bags which is noisy and tiresome. Nice guy but pretty damn weird. He seems to have brought a complete pharmacy with him. Maybe I’m fussy from living alone my whole life. Nah, that’s not it.
Wednesday & Thursday, December 10 & 11
Today was the big day. Longest and toughest day by far, and we have a few hours rest before we leave for summit. I slept well once Martin settled down. He was up for an hour or so re-packing and re-packing, then up later to get a chocolate bar which he noisily ate sitting next to me. Very annoying, but finally my sleeping pill did it’s job and I drifted off with my hot water bottle next to my tummy. Of all the advice I read about high altitude, bringing over the counter sleeping pills was a good call. Everyone is complaining about not sleeping well so I have shared my pills as they help. I woke up once and looked at my watch and it was 9:30. The next moment Danforth was waking us up and it was 11pm.
I felt good. No worries. I was wearing most of my clothes, but put on my outer layer of pants and pulled on a 3rd pair of socks and my boots and was up and ready to go. Martin was very slow as usual. I had tea and a biscuit and by midnight was ready to go, but Martin was still fiddling around with gear. I finally walked to the upper camp where I told the Canucks I would meet them, but found they had already headed out. They wanted to stay with us, but had decided not to wait as we were running a few minutes behind.
We set off for the summit around 12:20am. Ahead of us, there was a slowly moving string of lights of the climbers moving up the mountainside. We took our place near the end. It was dark and the snow had turned to ice and was slick, so the going was slow with steep terrain and unsure footing. After about 20 minutes however, we hit a small plain before the real climbing began on the narrow, steep trail. Martin wanted to stop so we rested for about 10 minutes by the side of the trail. There were perhaps 25 or 30 people ahead of us and at least 10 more behind us. We moved on for about 15 minutes when Martin said he wanted to stop again to eat a chocolate bar. At this point, I asked Danforth if we could go on ahead and leave Martin with the other guide Enosay. He was all for it as I think the pace was too slow even for him. I was starting to feel a little nauseous and a headache was coming on, so I wanted to keep moving so we were not on the mountain too long. Besides it was damn cold so motion was good. We headed out in a hurry and within about 30 minutes had caught up to the end of the line of the second group. Danforth and I passed that group and continued on at a quick pace. About 30 minutes later we caught the lead group which consisted of Barry and the Canadians and a few others. We rested and chatted with them for a few minutes and it was decided that Danforth would lead and they would follow us. We headed out and within 10 minutes had lost the rest of the group. I felt pretty strong from a fitness perspective, but was getting sicker and sicker due to the altitude. All I could think about was getting up and down and off the mountain, so the idea of spending more time by going slower did not suit me. I wanted to keep moving fast so that is what we did. Soon, the headlamps and torches of those behind us were out of sight.
At 4:00 am, Danforth and I hit Stella Point. We had climbed hard for around three hours with only a couple of short stops for water. Stella Point was cold and windy and snowy. It was still full dark and so was eerie knowing we were on top of a glacier and not knowing what lay below if we were to slip and slide down away from the trail. We sat next to a huge boulder and had our last bit of water. One of my water bottles, the one I kept inside my coat, was nearly empty and the other was frozen. I also had been taking a few bites out of an energy bar, but it had progressively gotten harder and more frozen. I broke off the last bit of that and let it warm in my mouth and finally got it down. Now I was really suffering from the altitude sickness. My head was pounding and my stomach wash churning away. It was damn cold and windy, so after a few minutes we headed out for Uhuru Peak. The walk to the peak was not steep, but with the wind howling and blowing the snow, it was still a chore to get across the ridge to the summit. It was still too dark to see much, but we were able to see part of the glacier bed and off to our right, a deep deep valley that I felt we were too close to considering my stumbling around. We hit the peak around 4:45 am; two hours ahead of schedule. Just before we got there, we passed one of the Frenchmen coming the other way. I had never even seen him and do not know what time they left camp, but he was first up with his guide and we were second. At the peak, my digital camera would not flash because it was too damn cold. I pulled out my other camera and managed to get off a shot of the sign at the top. I felt horrible from altitude sickness and my hands were frozen so I told Danforth we needed to get off the fucking mountain and so we headed down. Just before reaching Stella Point again, we came across the main group making their way to the summit, and a few minutes later we saw Martin and Enosay. I was a little surprised because I thought given Martin’s slow start and whining that he would not make it to the top, but there he was. He did not look good, but I was happy for him as he only had the comparatively easy walk across the ridge to the summit.
The sun was just coming up now and I took a look back to see where we had been and the long line of people slowly making their way the final 1/2 mile or so.
Danforth and I headed down on a scree bed at a lightening pace, taking big steps and sliding an extra foot or two after each step on the steep grade. It was tough on the knees but the mountain sickness and massive headache were worse, so we kept moving fast. We went down and down and down and down; at some point I became convinced that we had gone too far down and must have been below base camp, but Danforth continued to go down. I thought I saw a small village, way below us but Danforth assured me they were big rocks. I was absolutely certain he was wrong, and even when we were within a hundred yards of what I thought was a hut, it became clear that they were in fact big rocks. Not sure if I was really hallucinating or if they really did look like huts. The altitude sickness really fucks with you once it takes hold.
The trip down seemed to go forever but we pressed on and finally caught a lateral path that took us up over a small ridge and after a couple of kilometers we rejoined the path we had taken to the top about 10 minutes above base camp. We made our way down the path to lower camp and arrived just before 7am. This was the time we were supposed to hit the summit and with the exception of a two-hour break at base camp, we had been climbing or descending for 24 hours. All the porters came over to shake hands and offer congratulations and one handed me a much welcome glass of juice. I crawled into the tent with all my clothes still on and fell right asleep. I woke up at 8 or so and stumbled up to main camp to check on the others. No one was down yet but I could see a small group descending and when they arrived it turned out to be the Canucks. They had all hit the summit and like me, did not hang around long. We sat around and chatted and had tea and biscuits. We were all feeling celebratory but also still sick and exhausted. At 9:15, Martin came into camp with Enosay and he immediately crashed out.
At 10:45 we headed down to the next camp which took about 2.5 hours where we had a short rest and then made the command decision to go ahead and hike the rest of the way out. We were supposed to stay at the lower camp overnight, but we were all ready for beer and good food and so we walked the rest of the way out of the park. Total for the day was around 40 km, hiking from 4800m to 5900m and then all the way back down to 1700m. By the time we go to the park entrance it was 4:00 so we had been hiking for around 33 hours give or take with the few rest stops.
Long damn day.
Friday, December 12, 2003 – Moshi, Tanzania
A little sore this morning, but not too bad. I had breakfast about 8:00 and then went into town to check e-mail at an internet cafe and then check out Moshi. It is a pretty cool African town; seems to be around 50% Muslim based on how the people are dressed. Hot as hell here, probably around 100-105 or so. I got back to the hotel around 11:30 and met Danforth and the guides to give them their tips and the clothes that I decided to donate to them. I gave my boots and a few shirts and socks. The boots are just too big and bulky to carry around on my next stops in Zanzibar, Amsterdam, and London before making my way home for Christmas.
About 6:00 pm, Barry, as in UK Barry, came to our hotel and we had dinner with the couple from Portland and one of the Aussie boys who also climbed. After dinner we were having beer in the bar, but we decided to move outside and check out the wedding party that was going on. Actually, it was a ‘pre-wedding’ function, where a big crowd had gathered to watch the man ask the woman to marry him. Presumably she said yes, because the party picked up steam and never let off. It was all going off in Swahili so we did not really know what was going on except for the occasional translation by the waiter or another guest who could speak English. They had several goats cooking in a big cooker and they insisted we eat and so we all had a second dinner. We all drank beer like it was our last night on earth and in spite of still being tired we managed to party and dance until 2:30 am. I was a little hungover the next morning, but all good. As Steinbeck says, ‘I have taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as punishment’.
Saturday, Sunday & Monday – Zanzibar
I flew from Moshi Saturday morning to the little island of Zanzibar.
This was pure R&R after the long climb and it did not disappoint. There is something starkly interesting about being in a country that is primarily Muslim, but the beaches are filled with tourists in typical beachware. So women in burka’s or hijab’s are walking around next to women in bikini’s and it all seems to work just fine.
I did little more than read on the beach, swim a little, drink cold beer, and had a few great meals. On Saturday night I met a nice lady from UK in the hotel bar and we hung out a bit over the weekend. I do not recall her name now. I have no notes from these days, so going from memory.
Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar but there is no history of which house he lived in. There is a bar where people gather to show their respects to the great and flamboyant singer. I had a couple of beers there.
I visited StoneTown and also took the ferry over to Dar es Salaam. The ferry was massively over-crowded and I remember thinking this is how news gets made. There were probably 500 people on the boat and I am guessing design was for no more than 350 or so. I stood the entire time along with many others, because there were not enough seats. Every bit of floor space was occupied by people or luggage. Little kids were spread out to sleep on blankets put down on the deck. There were four old wooden life boats that looked to hold around 20 people each.
Overall, a lovely excursion after the long climb. When I left Zanzibar, I flew home via Amsterdam and London. Amsterdam for food and fun with Sjoerd and Onah and London for a few days of shopping and visiting friends. London at Christmas time is amazing. Finally, I made it back home, one year after I had left. As sabbaticals go, this was a good one.