By Philip Clifton-Smith
Many people say you either love or hate Africa, but how can we generalize a continent that is so diverse? After fifteen years of holidays in Africa we have still only seen a small percentage. We have never shot anything except photos, but we have always brought back a bag full of memories and stories of our unbelievable adventures. It is now 2013 and we are returning from our third visit to Tanzania.The landing at Kilimanjaro airport is an experience within itself, the view from the aircraft window as we drift by the wonderful volcano with its snow capped peak dominating the plains with its presence, reaching out a welcome to its visitors.
I am now having a cold beer at the Moivaro Coffee Lodge Arusha, after being made welcome with big Tanzanian smiles from the manager and staff “Jambo.” Moivaro Coffee Lodge is a wonderful place to relax before going on safari or climbing the Kilimanjaro.
I have now decided to start writing after been asked the question so many times, “Why don’t you write about your adventures?” So this time I have decided to do it.
I was moved the first time I looked at the volcano with the name Kilimanjaro, but I was even more moved when I climbed it, probably more than anybody has ever been moved. All of you that have climbed the Kilimanjaro will be thinking: “How could he have been more moved than me?” Well, read on and I’m sure you will agree that I was moved in the most unusual way.
Our journey started after landing at Kilimanjaro airport in July 2007. Outside the terminal our rented 4×4 was waiting for us. We had rented the self drive jeep from Kenya with full camping equipment and had it delivered to the airport. After checking the list of equipment and giving the car a quick look over, we headed for Arusha to drop the driver off who had delivered the jeep.
Before leaving Arusha our group had made the decision to climb the Kilimanjaro. This was not our intention when we planned our trip initially, but it seemed like a good idea on the day. So we found ourselves a climbing agency and booked for the four of us a climb on 1st August. Next, we headed for Ngorongoro and on through the Serengeti to Lake Victoria, from there to Mwanza, Nzega, Singida, Tarangire National Park and back to Arusha. A superb trip with a few things happening along the way. I will write about these some other time in the near future or in the book that I have been trying to write for years. This story however is about the Kilimanjaro and how we were moved.
On the 31st of July, we made our final climbing arrangements at the office in Arusha and all was set up to meet on the 1st of August to climb the Kilimanjaro. The next morning after meeting up with the porters and guides in Arusha, we headed to the starting point of the climb. We took some of the climbing equipment in our jeep and headed off in convoy to the Rongai route. There are at least five different routes. None of us had ever climbed a mountain and with a combined age of 231, we had no way but to choose one of the easier ways up the volcano. Anybody who has done the climb, no matter how far you got, you have my admiration. Some say it’s easy. Then I say: ” Try it!”
We arrived at the starting point and asked our guide where we could park our white jeep. We were directed to a hut and were told to park the white jeep next to it. So off we went, a group of amazing porters, two really good guides and four naive city dwellers. It nearly killed me (I did not admit it), but we made it to the first station at 2700m. It was now time for a rest, in my case to lay down and die, my knees, my back – everything was killing me.
The porters and guides just looked like they had been out for a Sunday stroll, we looked like we had been dragged up the slope. Then came the most moving part of the climb a radio call from below: “ Who has parked a white jeep with Kenyan number plates next to the hut at Nale Moru?” We four looked at each other.” Yes, we did. Why?” “Well, it must be moved! A very important visitor is coming to view the new road that is being built, and police do not wish to have any vehicles standing around, especially not one with a foreign number plate.”So ours would have to be moved as soon as possible. “Hakuna Matata – no problem”, our super fit young guide said: “ I will go down and move it.” “Thank God” we all said. We could now rest while our guide would run down to move the jeep.
After some time our guide reappeared at the camp looking fresh and relaxed, but with a strange look on his normally smiling face. “You are not smiling”, I said to him.” Yes”, he answered, “I have had a small problem.” At this moment my stomach told me you are destined to go down the mountain. “I could not start the jeep”, he said. I could not believe it, he could not find the immobiliser switch, so he was not able to start the jeep. So now one of us would have to go down with him and start it. We decided to flip a coin, who would go between Alwyn and myself. I felt quite confident because as a child I had become an expert at flipping coins and landing it to my advantage. So now I would be able to continue my rest while my older and much fitter cousin would go down and back up the Kilimanjaro. My heart was pounding. Just the thought of going down and back up was making me feel sick. We flipped the coin – and would you believe it? I lost. Alwyn being a gentleman volunteered to go down with us. My first thought was: “Why didn’t he volunteer in the first place? I could have stayed and rested.”
So the three of us went off down the Kilimanjaro. We got to the jeep, started it and drove off to find a new parking place. After a few kilometers we found a police station, “We could maybe park it here!” The three of us went inside the police station and asked: “ Could we park our white jeep with Kenyan number plates in your compound at the back of the police station while we climb the Kilimanjaro?” The friendly policeman looked out of the window at our jeep and said “NO!” So I asked him in a polite way if he could suggest a parking place. He looked again out of the window at the jeep with the Kenyan number plates and said: “Yes, go and park it in Kenya!”
So off we went looking for a place to park the jeep. After about 10 kilometers trying to find a safe place to park we came to a village with a small café just off the gravel road. Greeted with “Jambo” and a big Tanzanian smile, the owner offered us a place to park the jeep at the back of the café. The smiling owner then informed us that we would need to clear a place first, which would now involve chopping a tree down. So Alwyn, our guide and myself started to remove the tree.
The tree was removed, the white jeep with all our camping equipment was now in a safe place and we could head back to the mountain. No, it was not that easy! No transport, not a taxi or car in sight only two very small 100cc motorbikes complete with drivers. So the guide on one motorbike, Alwyn the driver and I on the second one. Off we went legs dangling on either side of the bike, we drove off down the road, I felt every bump at the back of the bike with the motorbike bottoming out on the suspension on every bump.
We made it back to the beginning of the trail and restarted the climb. When we arrived back to our well rested group at 2700m I was starting to feel really tired and needed a rest, but our still fresh looking guide informed us we would now have to move on to the place where we would spend the night. “How far?” I asked. “Not far, about four hours”, he replied.
That night after a wonderful meal I got into my sleeping bag and was out like a light.
The next morning we moved up the volcano none of us talking about the strange events of the day before and all that had transpired. The rest of the climb went well and was a wonderful experience. With help and encouragement from Alwyn we made it to the top of the Kilimanjaro to see the sun rise. All the way up the last 100 meters I was promised a hot shower and a beer at the top from our guide. Needless to say there was no hot shower or beer. I did actually start to believe our guide, which I put down to lack of oxygen.
The way back was harder than I expected, the pain in my knees was getting worse. This would be the last night in the tent, the last time the cook would be serving us, the last three course meal on the Kilimanjaro, I was happy I would soon be down on flat ground yet sad to leave it all behind.
During the six day trip it was incredible to see how hard the porters worked to make our climb as comfortable as possible. I often wonder what they really thought about us tourists being pampered from top to bottom of this volcano. They carry everything, food water, tents, our big rucksacks, cooking gas, and everything else needed to make life easier for the climbers. How many of us would get to the top carrying own equipment: tents, rucksacks, water, food, camping gas and the list goes on. My praise and thanks go out to the porters and guides that made it possible to go home and say: Kilimanjaro – JUST DONE IT.
On the last day we said goodbye to the porters before they ran off down the mountain in there rubber shoes, flip flops and their woolly jumpers pulled over their heads passing herds of new tourists climbing up with hiking boots and their Gore-Tex jackets. The porters making the journey down look so easy, taking all the equipment with them, leaving us with our two guides and our little back packs.
Before the porters left us we made one last photo of the group with the Kilimanjaro in the background, the porters started singing the song of the Kilimanjaro. It really was a tear jerking experience. I would be a fool to think we were the first or the last they would sing this song to but at that moment it really felt like it was just for us.
So off we went down the mountain climbers passing us on the way up congratulating us on doing the climb. So as the last kilometers went slowly by with the last hours seeming so long on this very moving experience the journey was almost at the end, then just before reaching the car park from where we would be transported back to our white jeep with Kenyan number plates, the last surprise came. I started to move ahead of our group to get down as soon as possible before my knees gave in then about a half a kilometer before the end of the trail four of our porters jumped out of the bush picked me up and congratulated me on making it up and down the Kilimanjaro, this was unbelievable. At that moment I really felt that I had achieved something but the achievement was not really mine but that of the guides and porters who had made it possible.
THANK YOU ALL!!
Also thanks to the important person that came to view the road, the police, the man at the café, the motorbike drivers and last but not least the white jeep with Kenyan number plates. Without you all, there would be no story to tell.