International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Africa
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."
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
Image: Loree's Mom
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 didnt show up when expected,
wed cut our losses and head south.
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.
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
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 days climb, I wondered if I too
shouldnt 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
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
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 Thomass 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, Ill do things differently.
© Loree Westron May 2009
Loree teaches creative writing at the University of Portsmouth
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