(FROM AFRICA'S MAJESTIC MOUNTAINS
from the Nov, 12, 2003 edition of The Billerica Minuteman (Billerica, MA, USA). Article by Michael Kevin Farrell
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You know you are on a big mountain when you have to look down to see the clouds.
Mount Kilimanjaro. At 19,344 feet (5896m), this mammoth sleeping volcano in Tanzania stands as the highest peak in Africa. In July 2003, I made it to the top with my buddy Gilles Jequier, of Switzerland, whom I met while studying abroad in Ireland.
It has long been my dream to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro.
After saving the necessary funds and receiving the proper medications and vaccinations, we booked a hiking and safari company based in Tanzania called Shidolya.
We would fly to Nairobi, Kenya and stay with friends there, and then travel to Tanzania. First would be a three day hike to the summit of Mt. Meru (a warm-up for Kilimanjaro), a four day safari in the Serengeti National Park, and finally, a six day hike to the rooftop of Africa, Kilimanjaro.
Upon arriving in Nairobi, it struck me that I look quite different from the vast majority of folks there. It was sort of like swimming in the ocean up in Maine; you know before you jump in that you're in for a shock, but it still jars you nonetheless.
Where many worlds meet
What humbled me was that most everyone spoke three languages - English (since Kenya used to be ruled by the British), Swahili, and also a tribal language.
Most places I traveled in Kenya and Tanzania were quite safe and incredibly beautiful. Nairobi was an exception. Chaos reigns on the roads as small, dangerously overcrowded rusting taxi vans (called matatus) abruptly swerve through lanes of traffic to pick up as many passengers as they can. Poverty and violent crime -especially car-jackings - are rampant. And, like much of Africa, the rate of HIV/AIDS infection is tragically high.
However, the city also has many charms. Beautiful plants and trails adorn Uhuru Park (Uhuru means freedom in Swahili). There are gorgeous churches, mosques and other buildings.
My Kenyan friends were extremely hospitable to me and to Gilles. They picked us up at the airport and served us dishes of meats, poultry and rice were served with chipatees (a sort of cross between pancakes and tortillas - very tasty). Kenyan tea and, of course, coffee were mainstays as well.
At night, we watched "Big Brother Africa," a reality TV show where contestants, each representing a different African country live together in a big house.
These folks quarrel, fall in love, fall out of love, and make fun of each other's countries.
The next day, we were off to take the six-hour bus ride from Nairobi over the border into Arusha, Tanzania to begin our adventure.
On the way, we saw members of the Maasai tribe, recognizable by their traditional clothes and elongated, heavily ornamented earlobes. As the Maasai walked along the road, motorists whizzed by with their windows down, blasting Eminem or 50 Cent.
Herds of livestock blocked the road as schoolchildren smartly dressed in British style school uniforms stepped around them, loosening their ties and plugging the headphones into their CD players after a long day of classes. I heard 50 Cent and Eminem songs everywhere I went.
Young people waited in line to use the Internet at indoor computer stations while tailors on the dusty sidewalk outside pedaled furiously on their old fashioned, foot-powered Singer sewing machines.
Once we arrived in Arusha, Tanzania, we met our guides from the Shidolya Company.
Mount Meru, a an inactive volcano, stands 14,979 feet high and would take three days to complete. Like Mount Kilimanjaro, Meru is lush and heavily forested at the base and desolate at its summit. To put Meru's height into perspective, when I went skydiving in Rhode Island, we jumped out of the plane at only 10,000 feet. The highest point in New England, Mount Washington in New Hampshire, is 6,288 feet. Meru is more than double that - and Kilimanjaro more than triple.
Although Meru and Kilimanjaro are mammoth, virtually all the routes to their summits are non-technical, which means they require no special gear like axes, crampons and ropes.
The slopes of Mounts Meru and Kilimanjaro are relatively gradual. The most difficult aspect of them is combating their extreme altitude and cold.
Mount Meru is only about 20 miles from its famous cousin; most hikers overlook it completely. We loaded onto the white land rover and headed on the bumpy road to Arusha National Park, Meru's home. It was lush. Monkeys scampered by as we were bounced around on the uncomfortable seats. In After unloading all of the packs and food at the trail head, Gilles, our master guide, Edward T. Urio, from Shidolya, and I met Moses, a park ranger.
The most striking aspect about Moses was the large gun he carried to scare animals if they got too close. Porters came to carry the large backpacks, tents, and the three days' supply of food. We started walking in a damp, green field, seeing giraffes in the distance, munching away on the trees above. By the end of the day, the scenery had dramatically changed, and there were fewer trees and animals.
It is illegal to hike either Mount Meru or Kilimanjaro without guides and porters. In addition to being a foolhardy idea, hiking without guides would further cripple an already fragile economy.
Edward and Moses carried packs that were three times as heavy as ours, and they would stride up the mountain, while Gilles and I labored while wearing our Gore Tex jackets, SmartWool socks, and water-proof hiking boots.
If we tripped or stumbled, they would yell, 'Sorry!' It was humbling to see a porter's toes poking through their old sneakers as they kindly asked us to move aside so they could get to the campsite a few hours before we had to set up the tents.
By the middle of the second day, the misty green forest and animals were far below, and the air was thinning. We went to sleep in the afternoon so that we would wake up to hike under the stars, reaching the summit to see the sunrise. At midnight, we left in the blackness, switched on our headlamps and started up to the summit of Mount Meru.
View of heaven
Six long, cold hours later, I glanced up to see a pole with a rusting, steel flag of Tanzania attached - Mount Meru's summit! Gilles and I looked at one another and scrambled on all fours to the top. The sky, once pitch black now turned to a dull blue, which revealed that the 'ground' far below us was actually a layer of white, fluffy clouds. About ten minutes later, the sky, now a brazen red, revealed the black silhouette of Kilimanjaro. Finally, the sun rose from directly behind Kilimanjaro, crowning it.
Most amazing sunrise of my life. We're on top of Mt. Meru and we see Kilimanjaro in the distance.
King of beasts holds court
Once we had hiked to the bottom of Meru, it was time for the four day safari to the Serengeti National Park of Tanzania and the Ngorongoro Crater. This would give time to heal sore muscles, and bring us face to face with the wildlife.
A safari is not for those wishing to travel in luxury. You are coated in insect spray to ward off mosquitoes and tsetse flies, and most roads are of course unpaved. I was not particularly looking forward to the safari. Although I love the outdoors, most animals just do not impress me.
That was before I saw the animals of Africa on their own turf. We had been stopped in the large white land rover for 20 minutes when two elephants walked gracefully past. Gilles and I stood on our seats, looking up at them through the open roof.
Yes, the Serengeti is as impossibly vast as it looks.
Even they don't like George W. Bush
Then there were the lions. When giraffes, monkeys or elephants strode by, we sometimes got out of the vehicle to get a better look. Not so with the lions. Rolling up the window with five lions merely feet away is an exhilarating, terrifying experience. I never heard one roar. There was no need for them to roar. The lions made me think twice before I bedded down in my tents out there, but they never bothered us while we slept.
False alarm. It's just Barry Sanders.
The last day was spent in Ngorongoro, a massive large crater, and one of the very few places the rhinoceros can still be found.
There were reflective pools with flamingos, water
buffalo, and hippos. We were able to see one rhino through our binoculars at the end of the day. But we were ready to hike again, and it was time for Kilimanjaro.
We had chosen the six-day Machame-Mweka combination route to reach Uhuru peak, the summit of Kilimanjaro.
As always, bureaucracy
Upon arriving at the start of the trail at Machame village, we were immediately greeted by people hawking gloves, hats, and trinkets. The rain coming down made a mess of the muddy unpaved roads and parking lots. We were forced by officials to wait in a single long line of fellow soaked hikers to sign our names to a single notebook.
Signing this register was supposed to keep us safe, though how it would is a mystery - there are no access roads for emergency vehicles to reach the top
I complain about our government like everyone else. But my mail comes on time, and I can pay my bills to the Registry of Motor Vehicles on-line. I receive timely updates on town elections and meetings, etc. The few times I had to deal with African bureaucracy - whether in passport control, base camp registration centers or embassies - the experience was dismal. Some might say this is a cultural thing. I do not believe this to be true. My Kenyan friends and the Tanzanian guides both complained about this systematic government inefficiency and incompetence as well.
Rooftop of the continent
Remembering the view of Kilimanjaro from the summit of Meru kept me motivated, because this overcrowded, smog-infested muddy "base camp" was a most depressing sight. We were finally able to sign our names in pen to the now dilapidated and partially illegible notebook and we were able to begin.
And yet, it's still better organized than the Big Dig.
It looked as though we had entered the Amazon basin. The mud was thick, and we sunk to mid-calf in it. Rain kept coming. Mist was thick.
I'm breathing hard with a 20 pound pack, and they're right behind me with 50 pound packs without effort. Humbled? Why should I feel humbled?
We were greeted at the first campsite by an African in a round, wooden shack doing a brisk business selling soft drinks and beer. The name of the beer was Kilimanjaro and it was sold at many other campsites and checkpoints.
By the third day, I felt lightheaded, and I felt at times as if the ground around me would start spinning. By that point, the lush canopy had shrunk to an occasional tough, windswept plant and there were few animals about. Mist was even thicker, and it felt like we were walking through - or in - the clouds.
Kilimanjaro is a very international place. Bonds are formed quickly at altitude. Even if you're hiking next to a guy and you don't speak his language, you're both wheezing and going through the same ordeal.
Rising at 11:30 p.m. on the fourth day to make the
final ascent was a shock to the system. Our starting elevation was approximately 13,000 feet, and we climbing to Uhuru peak - the summit of Kilimanjaro - at 19,344 feet. This ascent would take about six hours, and we hoped to arrive in time for the sunrise.
I was already feeling lightheaded, but this worked to help keep me in the zone. As I put on my double-layered jacket, gloves, hat, long johns, hand warmers and headlamp, I was not worried about how I looked. I was not worried about whether I had lost my passport, forgotten someone's birthday, or remembered to shut the stove off before leaving for Africa. It was simply, "Okay, Mike. Left foot. Good! Right foot. Okay. Ignore that Scottish hiker who is doubled over and vomiting next to you. Keep going. Left foot. Good!..."
After about four hours of hiking through blackness, we reached Stella Point. At 18,701 feet and still a good two hours from the summit, this is the place many hikers turn back due to the extreme cold. I paused and ate some chocolate bars and finished off the tea Gilles had carried. We continued. I wish I could write something inspirational that I felt as I came closer and closer to the summit of Kilimanjaro.
The truth is that I remember manipulating the hand warmers in my gloves so that I could get my pointy fingers warm. This project, combined with hiking, used up all available brainpower. That we were only two hours away from the rooftop of Africa was far too much for my mind to handle.
After about an hour and a half more, I was jarred from my most profound thinking - right foot, left foot, fingers are turning to ice, right foot.
I peered up and the mountain I had been hiking for the past five days seemed to have some sort of twin signposts ahead. I turned to Gilles with widened eyes, and our boots started crunching through the thin layer of snow with a faster pace. Twin wooden poles with signs nailed to them became visible, as the blackness turned to a dull blue. The summit!
It became three times as cold when I stopped. I had been eager to find out what I could see from the rooftop of Africa. Lions? Elephants? Villages and cities?
Glaciers. Huge, awesome expanses of ice next to me. To my right. To my left. There were glaciers far below that appeared to rest atop the clouds.
Ok, I know they're melting due to global warming, but they're still freaking huge.
The little geology I learned in school was usually about the past, while the geology I saw taking place on Kilimanjaro was very much an active, chaotic, and awesome event.
Gilles (right) and I at the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Colby represents.
The sun rose. It was easier to breathe. What started as a brisk walk down the trail became a jog, and then an all out run - not terribly bright, but exhilarating nonetheless.
We arrived back at the camp site at about 8 a.m., slept for three hours, and spent the next day and a half hiking down, passing along the way many other happy hikers and peddlers of Kilimanjaro beer.
At the village at the bottom of Kilimanjaro, countless men, women and children dressed in jeans and T-shirts approached us. All were selling the identical assortment of spears and beaded ornaments that appeared to have been mass-produced in Taiwan.
We made our way wearily to a restaurant, where we had our final meal as a group.
The Shidolya package provides those who reach the Kilimanjaro summit with a bottle of red South African wine, which we gladly consumed. The ordeal intensified the wine's effects. I wearily plodded to the land rover. Once inside, my head fell to the back of the seat in front of me, and I was asleep before the vehicle was even started.
I always laugh to myself when people say they conquered a mountain. I simply went to the top of the aforementioned peaks and Mother Nature was kind enough to let me be.
I hope to return to Africa to scale other peaks in the future, and I will bring more hand warmers with me.
Michael Kevin Farrell, is a 1996 graduate of Billerica Memorial High School, and a 2000 graduate of Colby College in Waterville, Maine.