Kilimanjaro: Day 1 on the Mountain

Group Starting the climb of Mount Kilimanjaro

We got to Tanzania! After a three day trip with stops in Detroit, Amsterdam and Nairobi, including almost a full day layover in Amsterdam that we spent touring the city and sleeping in the airport terminal, we got to the hotel in Arusha, Tanzania. After awaking from the night before our hike, we enjoyed a nice breakfast in the hotel, and a long shower, knowing it would be my last for almost a week. We got into a LandCruiser driven by Goodsell, Goody for short, and off we went.

Kili day1 landI didn't realize when we got here how Arusha and Moshi were both a good distance from both the airport and the mountain, roughly 60 kilometers at the farthest, which required some driving to get to our destination. For some reason I had this picture in my head of Kilimanjaro International Airport being at the foot of the mountain, with some country resorts where we would stay in the bush in safari-type camp. Nope. The hotel was nice though, good food at the restaurant and clean. Some typical third-world glitches, but overall a nice rest before we began the real start of the adventure.

Before we left for the mountain, we had one of the more comical episodes of the trip. I had debated before we left whether to bring our big, comfy and warm sleeping bags, knowing it would be cold on the mountain. But they were very bulky, and I didn’t want to carry them, so we opted to rent a pair there, which we were assured there would be plenty, and we’d be fine.

Now something I’ve always warned my scouts about in camping is to not bring your “Scooby Doo” sleep over at your friend’s house sleeping bag, because inevitably they would be cold and miserable. This is one of the first rules of enjoyable camping. So as we’re leaving, the sleeping bags are joined up with us. One is a very nice, down-filled mummy bag which we give to Sam. But to my horror, the one I’m offered is the dreaded “Scooby Doo” rated sleeper, polyester, maybe a three-pound fill. I’m thinking, and saying, “No way, I wouldn’t sleep in this at home, I’m gonna die on that mountain in this!” Okay, I was being a bit dramatic, but I hate being uncomfortable, so of course I whined and cried. Max said no worries, we’ll stop at the office on the way there and get you another bag.

Kili day1 signSo we tooled across town, down into a neighborhood on rutted dirt streets, and up to a walled compound with one of the ubiquitous solid iron gates with a door cut into it. Max and I hop out and go in, and to the amusement of the rest of group in the LandCruiser after we go in, this local dressed in a tribal wrap, Masai maybe, pops out of the door, and according to the group, does the slow survey of the scene as if to check whether they had the foreign tourist in their clutches, and whether anyone else might be looking for him. They wondered if I was coming back. Meanwhile, I’m back in the compound having the sleeping bag discussion, which is to no avail, as they’ve brought me two more poly sleeping bags and a Coleman fleece liner. As there’s apparently no alternative, I pick one and take the liner as well, visions of fully-dressed sleeping dancing in my head. Max, noting my discomfort still, discreetly brings the other bag, which I find that night in my tent, so at least I had two bags and the liner. I was still cold, but was much better.

The gate to the mountain and national park was up some very pretty rain-forest covered foothills, beautiful land. When we got there we went through a registration process, ate a light lunch and started heading up the hill without ceremony other than a group photo.

There were six people in our group, Kirk and Gina from Colorado, and Justin and Bryan, brothers from the west coast. Kirk and Gina got there a little before we did, and we met Justin and Bryan the morning of the trip. Great people, and we thoroughly enjoyed getting to know them throughout. The group size was just big enough to provide a good variety of company, and small enough to be a close group with plenty of attention from the guides and staff. ClimbKili really did a good job with this.

Kili day1 maxWe had already met our guides at the hotel the night before, Mekson (or Mad Max as he called himself) Damas, and Immanuel, now we started meeting some of the porters and the cooks. Our head cook was Benson, who we came to know by his greeting each time he called us to a meal, or brought us a bowl full of hot water for washing, or came into the eating tent with a new course. He always announced himself with a low and drawn out "Hellooo." We all loved seeing him, but came most to enjoy hearing him, and imagining what he would be like in situations at home as the perfect butler. He and his assistant Robert were titled the "stomach engineers" by Max.

Eating on the trail was a novelty for all of us in different ways, for me, the very concept of being served at a table outside after life camping with the scouts and the army was foreign and kind of luxurious. For all of us, there was quickly established a routine of being called to the tent for "tea", which consisted of hot water and assorted powdered coffee or cocoa and tea bags. Another specialty that they started serving was a ginger tea to help with congestion, Gina had developed a stuffy head a day or two into the hike, and the rest of us started drinking it too, so that became a staple of the ritual. After tea would come either some version of porridge if it was breakfast, or soup for lunch and dinner. Always a different flavor from the meal before, but the favors became pretty familiar, and were more welcomed for their heat than for their heartiness. We had cucumber, leek, pumpkin, cauliflower and others. This would be followed by the main course, a starch like rice or spaghetti with a sauce usually including chicken or beef over the top of it. Not gourmet or huge variety, but plenty of it, nourishing and we were very thankful for it every day while we watched the porters hauling every ounce of the food, pots, tents, chairs, stoves, propane tanks, etc., etc. for our use.

As the hike started fairly late, around 1pm, and there was a gradually increasing drizzle, the hike was pretty arduous. Oh, and the fact that we made 4,000 feet of gain to end at 10,000 feet put a little extra pressure on the venture.

The terrain was great though, more forest, spent time learning the local trees from Max, which included lots of camphor trees and a rare lemonwood now and then. Not really any wildlife, middle of the afternoon and proximity to the trail were keeping away any that would naturally be around.

Kili day1 tentsThe trail itself was very interesting. Hard-packed earth, edged by tree limbs partially buried in the dirt stepped up the trail, similar to the way we build them here, but as it is much wetter in the lower elevations, I wondered how long they lasted before needing maintenance. They seemed very well-done and permanent given the wet nature of the area. I guess the high level of traffic keeps them packed pretty solid.

Many stepped trails and breaks later, we arrived at the camp hungry, tired, and ready to go to bed. We ate, tried to keep as dry as possible, and went to sleep. I woke up about 2am, and went outside to find the stars shining. Got to see the constellations of the southern hemisphere for the first time, spectacular. The rain ended, I looked forward to the promise of the morning.