- 20 Aug 1999
- I caught the 6 a.m. bus headed for Harare, but got off in Tete,
Alone on the road again, and alone in Tete is really alone!
For 15 years Mozambique was embroiled in a bloody civil war. Foreign
sponsored guerillas waged a campaign of destruction on the country's
infrastructure and people attempting to destabilize the
radically socialist government. The peace agreement was only signed in
1992 and the ravages of the war are still quite evident.
Like a lot of Mozambique, Tete has a ghost town feel. Big colonial buildings
with beautiful lines, but everything dirty and run down. The hotel where I
stayed was obviously once a grand place to be. But now, there are only few
patches of paint left on the walls, the doors all show evidence of being jimmied
and the bathroom is a museum. Still present was the clawfoot tub, but the only
functioning fixture was a bare pipe delivering cold water into a bucket.
Heightening my sense of isolation in Tete, nobody spoke a word of English.
It took me a long time to find the bus station and even longer for them to
convince me in sign language that the only bus going to Beira was leaving at 2
a.m. In the restaurant for dinner the menu was entirely in Portuguese,
Mozambique's official language, and I was completely in "guess and point" mode.
I fortuitously ended up with a nicely grilled chicken.
- 21 Aug 1999
- I caught the 2 a.m. bus to Beira.
Midway down the coast, Beira is Mozambique's second largest city after the
Southern capital, Maputo. My guidebook listed the sidewalk cafes of Beira's
central square as one of the highlights of the country. I found only a squalid
little coffee shop alongside gutters running with human excrement. They did
make a decent cappuccino though, the best I've had in Africa.
Arriving at 2 p.m. Saturday, I went through my usual "new city" routine: find
a place to stay, then figure out the money, phones, and fun. In Mozambique
money would turn out to be a huge problem. Most places only accept Mozambiquan
meticais (pronounced "meta-cash"), credit cards are unheard of, travelers
checks are frowned upon and all of this might have even mattered if anything was
open on a Saturday. As it was, I was a prisoner to my dump of a hotel until I
could find a way to change enough money pay the bill. Since I usually rely on
plastic and don't carry a lot of American cash, running out of money would haunt
my whole visit to Mozambique.
- 22 Aug 1999
- Sunday, with even less stores open, I explore the beach.
It's a pleasant enough beach and the huge wrecks that line the shore are
oddly decorative. They certainly maintain the decay motif. Another sad theme
are the cripples and amputees, victims of the millions of land mines still strewn
throughout the country. With missing limbs, withered limbs, bent and
twisted limbs they work the streets on makeshift crutches begging everywhere.
Many of them are in terrible shape and they cracked my usual resolve against
Land mines are a bad thing.
Late in the day I discovered Biques, a nice South African run resort on the
beach that changed a traveler's check for me. Yeah, cash! I spent the rest of
the day researching the bus situation in pantomime and Portuguese. I got three
different answers so just chose the one the best suited my schedule.
- 23 Aug 1999
- Bad plan.
The 10 a.m. bus I was promised didn't exist. Instead, I was to make due with
a 3 p.m. departure giving me another afternoon to kill in Beira. I passed my
time watching the locals partake in the national pastime of shitting and pissing
in public. Modesty is not a big thing in Mozambique.
The bus turned out to be a completely non-African experience. All the
livestock had to ride on the roof, the aisles had to be kept clear, excess
baggage had to be paid for and -- believe it or not -- the seats were assigned.
The conductor spent vast amounts of his time chasing people around the bus
trying to explain and enforce assigned seating. very un-African.
At midnight, the bus dropped me at the turnoff 20k from Vilankulo. Yikes!
No sign of the transfer lift I'd been promised would be "no problem," and no
sign of any traffic to hitch on. I started to scope out the possible sleeping
arrangements. The junction area is seedy little market. Thatched huts that
might be shops, bars or restaurants, but of course, only the bars were open at
midnight. These markets are ubiquitous in Africa and range from ok to really
scary. I didn't relish the thought of sussing this one out in the dark,
but of course, wandering off into the bush isn't safe either with the land
I was a few minutes from throwing my sleeping bag down on the median when a
local guy asked me in English if I needed a ride. "Oh yeah..." These guys
I should have known something was wrong when they didn't recognize the name
of the place I'd picked out of the guide to stay. "No worries," I thought
though, "I have some vague directions." For the equivalent of less than a US
dollar they drove me not only the 20k into town, but also another few kilometers
up the coast on a treacherous sand road. I thought for sure we were going to
get stuck, but those guys could drive!
Now it was getting close to 1 a.m. and I made the discovery that the backpacker
joint I was expecting had transformed itself into a five star resort. I don't
have the heart to tell my ride we were in the wrong place. I hop out and decide
to go upscale.
- 24 Aug 1999
- Explore the town and then return to "Beach lodge."
After a swim in the Indian Ocean I wandered up the hill to my luxury chalet
and watched the sun set. I sat there with my feet up on the deck railing and
thought, "You know, this is pretty ok. I should write about it."
I booted the laptop but as I hit the first key, the screen went dark.
I listened as the fan wound down, the dyeing breath from a CPU
cooling into rigor mortis. I worked on it for hours, with no luck.
I couldn't get the slightest sign of life out it. Plugged into the wall and
trying with each of my three of my batteries I couldn't even get the "charging"
LED to blink never mind anything more promising. Ratz!
Finally I succumbed to my Y-chromosome and took it apart with my Swiss Army
knife. No sign of any obvious problems inside although there were a bunch of
loose screws. Double Ratz! Now I'm really really alone in Mozambique!
- 25 Aug 1999
- Enough luxury. I paid my bill, it was the only place in town that took
plastic, and switched to a more typical rat hole in town. Actually, it was a
very nice rat hole, after I got used to the bucket toilets and army cot bed.
I'd come to Vilankulo to dive the Bazaruto Archipelago, but the weather
started to go bad and the money issues were weighing me. That the only bank in
town wanted US$15 to cash a traveler's check was the final straw.
I made plans to leave.
I ended up not thinking much of Mozambique, but what many people tell me is
that it gets nicer the further south you go. Vilankulo was far nicer than
Beira, so maybe I believe this theory.
- 26 Aug 1999
- Caught the 5 a.m. bus to Chimoio then got a minibus taxi to the Zimbabwe
border at Machipanda. Trying to dump my meticais at the border I discovered an
inventive little scam. The guy would show me the rate on his calculator, but
then as he did the calculation he'd switch into hexadecimal mode! I double
checked all the math with me piloting the calculator...
The guy in Zimbabwe customs had a friend who'd take me into Mutare for
only US$10. Outside, the first cab I asked offered $US 1. I made it
into town just in time to buy a ticket for the overnight train to Harare,
capital of Zimbabwe and a big, modern city.
Leave Mutare at 9 p.m.
- 27 Aug 1999
- Arrive Harare at 6 a.m.
First order of business, find the Tanzanian high commission and get my visa
processing started. Second order of business, get someone to look at my
computer. It took me till 4 p.m. to find someone who felt confident enough to
even look at it. Of course, as I pulled it out to show him the problem, it
booted just fine. Sigh.
Of course, when I brought the laptop to a phone to download my messages it
again wouldn't boot. Sigh. I head for an internet cafe and send a pleading
message, to Sony customer support:
||"So, I was on this beach in Mozambique..."|
- 28 Aug 1999
- Errands in Harare.
Back to the internet cafe, no sign of any help from Sony. I send them
another pleading message and confess the sin of taking my laptop apart.
- 29 Aug 1999
- 5:45 a.m.: I get on the bus to Lusaka, Zambia.
9:45 a.m.: The bus leaves.
7:00 p.m.: Arrive Lusaka.
8:00 p.m.: Realize I've broken a new frontier in stupidity. I left my travel
wallet in Zimbabwe!
This is really a drag because it contains not only my plane tickets, back-up
credit cards and diving card but also my brand new cache of American dollars.
I called the hotel and they had found it! (I'd put it someplace "safe" and then
forgot about it). If you are ever in Harare, the Elizabeth Hotel (753-437) might
be a bit noisy, but the people are fabulous.
Now, how to get it to me? Going back isn't a great option
because it will cost me a fortune in visas as well as lost days.
- 30 Aug 1999
- Out and about running errands in Lusaka, this time without the
A solution to the wallet issue. DHL will fetch it from the hotel for me and
then ship it to the DHL office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Great! I'm back on schedule, so I buy my tickets for tomorrows 36 hour train
journey to Tanzania.
Still no word from Sony, but the laptop again decided to boot. I'm going to
save this update off to disk and try to upload it. at the I-Cafe.
On the excuse of getting some new pages stapled into my passport, but really
just to check it out, I visited the American Embassy in Lusaka.
I somehow expected to flash my passport and be served a bit of apple pie.
Instead I was subjected to my first real search in Africa, and this by Zambian
soldiers, no US Marines in sight. They confiscated my pocketknife and escorted
me into an office with the thickest bulletproof glass I've seen since eating in
a Harlem Kentucky Fried Chicken. Using a phone out of a bad prison movie I
communicated my simple request and sat down to read some tax literature while I
Far from being the little Yankee oasis I'd expected the embassy turned out
to be a veritable fortress catering mostly to foreign nationals in search of
visas. As cars enter, their hoods are raised to check for explosives (I
presume). Then, a little mirror on wheels is used to similarly inspect the
undercarriage. As a direct result of the bombings of the Tanzanian and Kenyan
embassies the whole compound is now surrounded by a fence of thick concrete and
steel barriers. An formidable sight, but not the warm reassurance I was looking
As she delivered me my thickened passport the attendant called for a guard to
escort me back to the gate. On the way I did something they obviously don't get
very often, "Umm, excuse me, is there a toilet here?"
The Zambian guard gave his best effort at blushing, but clearly didn't know
what to do. After confirming that I was indeed an American he walked me over to
the "real" embassy. Ahh, this was what I'd expected-- plush carpets,
wood paneling and honest to goodness American Marines complete with southern
accents and crew cuts.
"Umm, hello? I've got to take a leak."
Of course, they didn't seem very excited to see me, but then what marine ever
has? I was run through another battery of scanners and to my embarrassment this
one turned up my Chinese manufactured knockoff of a Leatherman Tool. Ooops.
Then, with his hand on his pistol, marine #2 came out from behind even more
bulletproof glass and escorted me to the bathroom. He stood in the next stall
while I did my business and tried to chat him up about the bombings and what it
was like to be a redneck stationed in Zambia. That didn't go so well and
shortly I was relieved in more than just the obvious way to be back on the
streets of Lusaka.
- 31 Aug 1999
- Catch the TAZARA train to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
I enjoyed Zambia, but in addition to being one of the poorest countries in
Africa, it's just a bit odd. I had one cabbie who was all flustered about
making sure I was in compliance with the seat belt law while the door was tied
shut with a shoelace and the road looked like a minefield. That's Zambia.
Another of my favorite Zambian things are the billboards that, to me at
least, fall a hair short of making complete sense:
A government with no women|
is like a pot balancing on one stone
A roof without Harvey tiles|
is like a mouse without a computer
or vice versa
- 1 Sep 1999
- The (current) TAZARA slogan is, "On time all the time." The Journey from
Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was slated for 36
I didn't hold my breath.
Built in the 1960s by the Chinese to connect Zambia's copper belt with the
sea, the TAZARA line was once the pride of East Africa. These days it's a bit
run down, but full of history and the scent of its former glamour still lingers.
Our journey was halted for 45 minutes around 1 a.m. when the train hit a
Toto, I don't think we're in New York anymore.
- 2 Sep 1999
- We arrived in Dar es Salaam only 4 or 5 hours late. If you think of that as a fraction
of the entire journey it really isn't too bad.
I checked into a place with some folks I'd met on the train and went in
search of DHL to inquire about my wallet. Of course, they had no idea what I was
talking about and had no record of any package being sent under my name. The
best they could do was to send an e-mail inquire off to the folks in Harare.
- 3 Sep 1999
Bad news: A bunch of Americans got killed in a Tanzanian plane crash.
Good news: I wasn't one of them.
Good news: DHL heard from the folks in Harare.
Bad news: They haven't done anything because don't accept COD shipments.
(why they didn't mention this while I was still in Lusaka is beyond me)
Good news: We can try a credit card.
This is all actually a bit worrying. You can't get cash from a
credit card in Tanzania. My plan had been to use personal checks and my American
Express card to purchase traveler's checks. But of course, both my checkbooks
are in the wallet mired in DHL bureaucracy and still setting at a hotel desk in
Harare. I'm limited to the amount of cash I have on hand, about US$200, until
my wallet shows up. Scary given the amount of progress shown so far.
Good news: I heard from Sony about my laptop.
Bad news: It may be singularly most unhelpful piece of e-mail I have ever
The only place in the world my laptop can be serviced is Fremont,
CA. If I send it to them though, I need to back it up first, because export
restrictions require them to format the disk before sending it outside the
states. Just how am I supposed to back up a 6 gigabyte drive on floppies? In
addition, I have to pay for all the insurance and shipping and then want untold
amounts of paper work all of which is probably buried in a Boulder, CO storage
On the brighter side of things, despite all the admonitions I'd received to the
contrary, Dar is a really fun town. It's a confluence of African, Arabic,
and East Indian cultures and the mix is really working for me. I have never
before been in a place where knowing three words of the local language (Swahili)
buys you such incredible amounts of good will. If you can do the greetings it's
as if you've made a friend for life.
|Jambo || - ||hello|
|Habari || - ||How are you|
|Nzuri|| - ||I'm fine thanks|
- 4 Sep 1999
- Despite promises to do so, the DHL customer service manager never called me
yesterday and today she is neither in the office or answering her
Instead of getting upset, I took the ferry to Zanzibar.
- 5 Sep 1999
- I spent the day exploring Zanzibar's capital, Stone town, perhaps the most
labyrinthine city I've yet been in. Several times I lost confidence in my even
still being on the island only to round another corner on the narrow crooked
streets and find my hotel right in front of me. I'm convinced all the
buildings are on rails and they shuffle them each night while the tourists
Part of my plans for Zanzibar were to catch up on my writing, but of course
my laptop decided not to boot again. It seems to change state from working
to not working when I carry it about, so trying to think positive thoughts, I
took my laptop for a walk.
- 6 Sep 1999
- A day of successes.
I found a place where I can get cash off my Visa card, I wont starve!
I changed from the dump of a place I was staying to a pleasant guest house
with flush toilets, hot water, and a good breakfast all for the same price as
the dump, 8,000 shillings (US$10).
I found a great bookstore with an amazing selection of English novels.
I finally figured out how to jiggle my laptop for it to come to life, I no
longer have to take it on indeterminate walks.
I discovered the best Indian restaurant in town.
My only failure, DHL discovered there is money in my wallet and shipping cash
internationally is a big no no.
- 7 Sep 1999
- Two mediocre dives in the Indian Ocean off Zanzibar. Beautiful
reefs, but they were practically ghost towns. Perhaps due to over fishing?
The highlight of the day was lunch. As we munched samosas, chili fried
potatoes and other Zanzibari snacks a group of dolphins frolicked only 20 or so
meters from the boat. We watched for close to an hour as they would explode out
of the water launching their entire bodies into the air then do a half
twist before crashing on their backs into the water. It was an impressive
display with no obvious purpose besides maybe good clean dolphin fun?
- 8 Sep 1999
- More news from DHL, they've had a change of heart and have decided to be
helpful. They'll use some of the cash from my wallet to cover the shipping costs
and then will wire the rest to me in Dar es Salaam. Why this plan
took a week and a half to concoct escapes me, but there are worse places to be
I took a "spice tour," an organized visit to several of Zanzibar's
plantations. The tour ended in warm, gentle rain on a gorgeous white sand
beach. I went for a swim with a lawyer from London I met on the tour. This
was her first trip after recovering from a coma and other serious injuries
sustained in a rollerblading accident. We compared head injury stories as we
drifted on the crystal-clear jade-green waters, the rain drops texturing
the surface reminding us to swim and not fly.
- 9 Sep 1999
- A Visit to Beit-al-Sahel, the Palace Museum on the history of Zanzibar's
It's hours after midnight, I am flat on my back, every muscle in my body is
begging for mercy and I seem moments from throwing up last nights goulash.
As I lay here contemplating all that, I look up to see the constellation of Orion
brighter and clearer than I have ever seen it before. I also notice it's tipped
over at a funny angle. That turns out to be a mistake, because in the moment
it's taken me to realize that I've forgotten to take a deep, lung swelling breath
and that lapse brings me once again into hypoxia. The world begins to spin and
I'm terrified of falling off.
Usually it's hard to fall off when you're flat on your back, but I happen to be
laying on a 45 degree scree slope. With that and the lack of oxygen the odds
are pushed from possible to likely and the consequences are dire. For
some number of hours we've been hiking up the steep, loose rubble that is
the Barafu route on Kilimanjaro. The precise number of hours escapes me, but if
it's 2 or 3, or even say 5, it seems unlikely to make much of a difference when
they attempt to identify what will be left of my body if I fall.
Best of all, I'm paying big bucks for this, and that seems as good a as any to begin.
Her name was Cecilia, and her mother is highly placed in the Special
Investigations Division of the local police. She befriended my on the bus ride
from Dar es Salaam to Moshi, and then, sparing me the mob at the bus
station, offered me a cab ride (we were staying across the street from each
other). The conversation as we exited the cab was far beyond my limited
Swahili, but from the body language, it was obvious that it went something like
I laughed as they came to some sort of agreement, I'd both warned her and
offered to pay. Welcome back to tourist hell.
Cabbie: Excuse me Mam, but I can't help but notice you are in the company
of a tourist. I'm afraid it's company policy that I'm going to have to rip you
Cecilia: Huh? What are you talking about? I've lived here my whole life,
I know what a ride from the bus station costs, he is just along for the
Cabbie: Sorry Mam, no exceptions...
As a tourist walking around the streets of Moshi, you quickly pick up a
shadow, a guy who escorts you around to the places you need to go
and then (I'm assuming) gets a small commission from each place you do business.
In general I avoid these guys, but with limited time to pull together a complex
plan I acquired a decent one and let him be my shepherd.
Access to Kilimanjaro is highly regulated by the Tanzanian government. It's not
possible to just climb the mountain, you must climb with a guide, the guide
insists on porters, and there are lots of fees.
Summed up, it's at least US$300 just in fees to climb the mountain.
|Entrance Fee||US$25 per day
|Guide/Porter Entrance Fee||US$5 per person per trip
|Camping fee||US$50 per day
|Hut fee||US$40 per day
|Rescue fee||US$20 per trip
Because you must climb with a guide, you are at their mercy as to what they feel
like taking you up. Kilimanjaro is really a trekking/tourist mountain. They
make it very difficult to do any technical mountaineering. My goal was to do the
most serious route I could talk anybody into, as cheaply a possible, and with
the minimum amount of assistance.
The worst they had to offer turned out to me the Umbwe/Western Breach
combination, and the four places my shadow took me to all quoted me the same
price, US$520. In theory that should have made things easy, but this is
Tanzania and nothing involving money is easy. They wanted payment in US
dollars, but thanks to American Express screwing up my account I had none.
Some places would take credit cards, but charged a 10% commission, I could get
Tanzanian shillings from my credit card at a rate of 715 to the dollar, but then
they would charge me 810 shillings to change back into dollars. My meager supply
of traveler's checks was also a possibility, but that involved another set of
commissions and rates. After an hour with the calculator and some negotiations
via my shadow I finally struck a deal with one of the places. You'd think the
hassling was over, right? Hah! You've never been to Tanzania...
I was short a few pieces of gear (sleeping bag, jacket, gloves, hat). The
original deal was that they'd provide everything except the sleeping bag which
I'd rent for 5,000 shillings, but somehow I ended up paying 11,000 for all the
rentals. The sleeping bag was Army/Navy surplus, the jacket was thin
Polartech, the gloves were more suitable for driving than mountaineering, and the
technicolor hat sported a pom-pom that would be the envy of camp.
Even then, I wasn't done with the finagling. The tour organizers came to my
hotel at 8 p.m. claiming it was impossible to get a permit for my route, and
wouldn't I rather do something easier (for them). No! I put my foot down, sent
them off, and went to bed uneasily.
The unexpected expected, they picked me up on time. They expected unexpected,
instead of Mr. Tunzo as I'd been told, my guide is Kunta (I make none of this
up). The plan is for them to drop me at the trail head while Kunta goes
somewhere else to acquire the permit and then join me.
The route we took, the Umbwe, has the reputation for being the most difficult
approach route to the mountain. This is Tarzan's Africa, lush green jungle with
dangling vines and moss covered trees. The trail is a steep mud rut that weaves
its way among the tree roots. It was thoroughly unlike anything else I'd seen in
Africa and I greatly enjoyed our 2 hour hike.
|9:30 a.m. ||They drop me off at the
trailhead, which is one building in the woods, miles from anywhere.|
|10:00 a.m. ||I wait.|
|11:00 a.m. ||The ranger notices I've been
sitting here a long time, and in Swahili, begins to chew out the porter who was
dropped with me.|
|12:00 p.m. ||I ask the porter if he is sure
the guide is coming. His response, "Hakuna Matta" (no problem).|
|1:00 p.m. ||We get chewed out again in
Swahili and warned we won't be able to leave after 2 p.m.|
|1:45 p.m. ||Kunta shows up with the permit,
we acquire a second porter and we're off.|
I carried my backpack containing my clothes and all personal camping gear. In
bundles balanced on their heads, the porters carried our food and group
equipment. Kunta carried a plastic bag with a load of bread and a flashlight.
At dusk we set up camp, and while the porters made a fire from damp jungle twigs
Kunta took stock of our supplies. To his horror, he discovered we had no
margarine or cooking oil, and with a 5,000 shilling note of mine he sent the
porters back down the trail to fetch some. They wouldn't return until well
Oh my. I've gone to sleep and woken up in a caste society. Luckily, I'm on top.
For breakfast I get two eggs, toast with margarine, lots of fruit I don't
recognize and as much tea and instant coffee as I can drink. I'm well into my
third cup when I realize I'm monopolizing our only mug. I relinquish it to the
guide whose breakfast is tea and toast with margarine. He eventually relinquishes
the cup to the porters who wash the cup and get some plain bread. This
hierarchy of living conditions existed throughout the trip end neither I nor
any of the other trekkers I spoke to ever got comfortable with it.
The days hiking is one of transitions. We start out with more muddy scrambling
among the tree roots, but the jungle gives way to dense forest of groundsel (a
single stemmed plant looking a bit like a joshua tree), and then finally to
rocky alpine scrub.
Over the course of the day I take stock of our group. Much to my dismay, I
find we are Team Cotton. Kunta wears jeans and a button down dress
shirt, the porters have on cotton tights and sweat shirts. Outside of my meager
stash, there isn't an inch of wool or synthetics to be found amongst us.
I also begin to realize that we aren't a group of mountain people on an outing.
To the question, "What is your favorite route?" Kunta has no answer. In fact,
on prodding, it's obvious the question doesn't even have meaning for him. He is
here because it's the best job he can find, not because he loves the mountain.
It's also obvious that he has essentially no mountaineering training, and I'm
on my own to set a proper pace and maintain hydration. The annoyance of having
a "guide" who was far less competent than myself forced upon me by the Tanzanian
government festers in my heart for the entire trip.
We end up at Barranco huts where several other groups are camped. Kunta takes
one look up at our proposed route, The Western Breach, and declares it too icy to
climb. My protests notwithstanding he joins forces with another group and
makes plans for us to proceed together up the Barafu route.
The plan for the day is to hike from Barranco huts (3,900 meters/12,792 feet) to
Barafu huts (4,600 meters 15,088 feet). All was going as usual until one of the
porters challenged me to a race. Well, he didn't really challenge me to a race.
Really he just passed me a bit too quickly on the trail, but in the land of
Evan, that's equivalent to slapping me in the face with a white glove.
It was hardly fair. He was of course on the porter's starvation diet and he
carried a load twice as heavy as my backpack balanced on his head.
He still kicked my ass. We were a match on the uphills, but I couldn't even
come close to hanging with him on the descents as he bobbed and weaved down the
step gullies in tennis shoes.
Somewhere in this performance Kunta realized I wasn't your average muzungu
tourist. At his urging we pushed on hard from the lunch stop and after an
agonizing effort reached Barafu huts around 1 p.m. Kunta had the idea of going
for the summit that day and after a short break we headed out.
I was completely wrecked from the days effort and after only five minutes I knew
going for the summit was a bad idea. After 10 minutes it was clear I was going
to suffer mightily. After 15 minutes I realized it was just plain stupid and we
returned to camp for a well deserved nap.
For a reason I've yet to fathom, our summit day began at midnight. After a quick
tea and biscuits (cookies) Kunta and I were again on the trail. Or first omen
was a woman sprawled alongside the path. She had spent the night inside the
crater and had come down with altitude sickness. Somehow she'd been carried
over the rim and a group was administering oxygen to her. It was a bit
intimidating considering no one I was associated with had as much as a Band-Aid,
never mind oxygen.
Kunta's 2 D-cell flashlight lasted about 20 minutes. We carried on for
another 20 before he demanded my Petzl headlamp for himself to spy out the
trail. That was the last I saw of my feet till sunrise.
It's difficult to describe the rest. The trail is vague switch backs ascending
steep sand and scree. Kunta kept a few meters ahead, never shedding light
behind, and leaving me to paddle along in the dark on treacherous loose rock.
Without being able to see where to place my feet for each two steps I took I
slid back one.
As if that weren't maddening enough the altitude began to take it's toll.
Normal breathing wasn't sufficient. Each breath had to be a maximum effort,
consciously inhaling until my lungs felt ready to tear and then forcefully
blowing out . The slightest stray thought distracted me from this effort and
brought on incapacitating dizziness. Even with the best breathing I could go
only a few minutes before collapsing in need of rest.
Step, step, slide, collapse. Breathe, breathe, breathe. My memory is a montage
of resentment, frustration and confusion. Mindlessly staggering up the trail in
Kunta's footsteps bemoaning my lack of a light.
At 4 a.m. we reached Stella Point on the rim of the crater. From here to Uhuru
peak, the summit, the difficulties eased off but the effects of the altitude
grew more pronounced. Surprisingly, I had no headache (the most typical high
altitude symptom), but I did have severe nausea and disorientation. Rising from
one of my many breaks I found it impossible to stand up. The ground bobbed and
weaved beneath my feet and I collapsed again into a heap with far less control
than any drunkard has ever had.
With Kunta's incessant herding we negotiated a small snowfield, and at 4:45
a.m. reached the summit. At 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) above sea level it is
Africa's highest point.
There was little to enjoy though. It was pitch dark and bitterly cold.
As my toes and fingers went numb I contemplated the wait till sunrise.
Bypassing the opportunity for a flash photograph in front of the summit sign
we quickly retreated and began our descent.
It took 2 hours to reverse the trail back to Barafu huts. Two long and
difficult hours, but with the weight of the summit behind us, the air seemed
so much thicker. On the way, we passed many parties still on their ascent.
Although I could see that look grim of desperation in their faces, I envied
their journey with its awaiting sunrise and wondered why it was we'd started so
After A bowl of soup and a quick rest at Barafu we continued our descent all the
way down to Mweka huts at 3,100 meters/10,168 feet.
I awoke with tender calves and swollen knees. A last breakfast, the torturous
task of figuring out what to tip the porters, and then a final hike down a
slippery, clay-clad streambed to the trailhead where the park officials made out
certificates proclaiming our success.
Kilimanjaro-- been there, done that. For better or worse.