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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Africa

Cut Price Kilimanjaro
Loree Westron

Half way up Kilimanjaro I found myself abandoned, first by the fleet-footed porters, then by my guide, and finally by my own mother. The trek had begun several days before under highly questionable circumstances when a shadowy figure approached us on the street in downtown Moshi. "You want to climb the mountain?" he whispered, glancing over his shoulder to see who might be listening. "I give you good price. Top notch guide and strong porters."

We recognised the man from the tour office in the YMCA but were unsure how long he had been following us. "You book with Michael," he said, tapping his breastbone. "Cost you less shillings than the Y."

Image: Loree's Mom

Like every other tourist on the street, my mother and I had come to Moshi to climb Kilimanjaro, so we let the sales pitch continue.
"Three days up the mountain, two days down, cost you $1100 US from the Y. Book direct, you pay $1000."

Although the cost of living in Tanzania is very low by our standards, and daily expenses such as food, transport and accommodation are a fraction of what we would pay at home, tourist excursions of any sort are expensive. Since our safari to the Serengeti we had kept a close watch on our shillings and were eager to save money where we could. A small savings on the climb could extend our stay in Africa by a couple of weeks. After a hurried discussion of the various options, we decided on a compromise: three days on the mountain – two days up to Horombo Hut, and one day back down – for $600 each.
"You make good choice," Michael assured us as we all shook hands. "Now you give me money. I go buy food and hire porters."

It was then that alarm bells were triggered. My mother and I exchanged worried looks, each hoping the other would step in with an excuse for not handing over the money on the spot.
"Come," our new friend said, impatiently. "We go change money." He was insistent, not wanting us to slip from his fingers. Obediently, we followed.

Beneath a hand-written sign proclaiming Foreign Exchange Office, Here! at the front desk of a nearby hotel, I pushed a fan of signed Amex cheques across the counter. Michael bantered with the woman behind the desk as she thumbed an assortment of shilling notes into piles, combined the piles together, and slid a stack of notes the size of a house brick towards us. Promptly, I turned to our tour adviser and handed him the requested sum, still trying to convince myself we were getting a bargain.

Hurrying to keep up, we followed Michael through the local market, a labyrinth of kiosks selling everything from papayas to pig heads. As he purchased food by the bushel, we realised this would be no mere hike: Michael was preparing for an expedition.

Back in our room that evening we counted and recounted what remained of our grubby stack of shillings, finally admitting that our instincts had been correct. The woman in the exchange office had short-changed us by an inch or two. As we reassessed the situation, our trek up Kilimanjaro seemed in doubt. If the Land Rover didn’t show up when expected, we’d cut our losses and head south.

But at nine the next morning, just as we had arranged, Michael arrived to collect us. Forgetting our previous worries, we climbed into the Land Rover and were soon speeding towards the mountain.

At the entrance to the park at Marangu, there were yet more fees to be paid, not included in our bargain price: park fees; hut fees; rescue insurance; rental of boots and warm clothing. The cost of our budget expedition was mounting rapidly.

Having introduced us to our guide, James, and two porters, Michael jumped back into the Land Rover. He would return in three days, he shouted through the open window, then sped away into a cloud of red dust. And so our climb of Kilimanjaro began.

Setting a brisk pace, James marched us along a well-trodden path into the thick-forested flanks of the mountain. Laden with food and equipment, our porters rushed ahead as James pointed out mountain buzzards, sunbirds and babblers, and named the flowers and trees that we passed. Before long, the muddy path grew steeper and with each step forward, we slid half a step back. Half way through the afternoon, the path disappeared altogether and with James behind us whispering "Polepole, Mamma," we scrambled up the rocks and roots of fallen trees.

It took five hours to reach Mandara Hut, the last two of which had convinced my mother that she had gone far enough. She had reached her summit. The following morning, one of the porters stayed with her while James and the remaining porter continued up the mountain with me.

Fifteen minutes into the second day’s climb, I wondered if I too shouldn’t have stopped at Mandara. By comparison, the previous day had been a leisurely stroll. We climbed a thousand feet an hour during the first half of the day, stretches of which were nearly vertical. A few steps ahead, James and the porter chatted between themselves, seeming to forget their lone female charge. As I slid and stumbled on the rocks and loose scree, the distance between us grew. Eventually, their voices faded into the silence and for a moment, I was alone on the mountain. Then Thomas arrived.

A park ranger, Thomas was on his way to Kibo Hut where he would spend the next ten days looking after the mountain and the people who climbed it. When climbers fall ill, something which happens not infrequently, it is Thomas who gets them down again. "People think Kilimanjaro is an easy climb," he said. "But every year, people die."

At 11,000 feet, the air was getting thin, and though the trail had levelled off above the tree line, each step felt as if I were wading through water. With my paid companions no longer in the picture, it was Thomas who kept me going, encouraging me with each step. As we reached the lunar slopes above the clouds, the twin peaks of Kibo and Mawenzi appeared for the first time, their snow-capped summits glistening against the sky.

Reaching Horombo Hut in the early afternoon, I sat in the porters’ kitchen with Thomas, listening to guides and porters from other treks swapping stories in Swahili. Feeling out of place and suddenly homesick for my mother, I made my excuses and left to await supper with a handful of other climbers in the dining hall.

Against a darkening sky, the summit was within reach and it loomed like a sentinel over our little cluster of wooden shacks. Two more days and another $400 would have got me to the top, but Thomas assured me I had made a good climb and that the mountain would wait for my eventual return.

On the morning of my decent, James and the porter appeared outside my cabin door. Thomas had warned me they would come for their tips. For their work, porters receive just $5 a day from tour organisers, while guides – who carry no gear but take responsibility for the party and cook all the meals – receive slightly more. As I presented both men with a fist full of shilling notes, each shook my hand and bade me a hearty asante sana. For a short time, the resentment I felt was forgotten.

I strode quickly as I made my descent, but James and the porter were faster and soon I was on my own once more. Without Thomas’s cheerful encouragement, I slipped and stumbled my way down the mountain under a growing cloud of self-pity which only my mother could clear. Nearing the end of the trail I heard her laughter ring through the mist. In a moment, my doleful isolation was gone. I hurried on towards the gate to find her regaling Michael with stories of her own adventures.

We had made the mistake of trying to climb Kilimanjaro on the cheap and had wound up paying through the nose. But on reflection, it had been worth every shilling and I left the mountain planning to return. Next time though, I’ll do things differently.

© Loree Westron May 2009

Loree teaches creative writing at the University of Portsmouth

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