Trip Participants: Gary & Lynn Clark, E. Chris Horley, Patricia Krueger
Kilimanjaro Climb + Game Parks, Tanzania Slideshow: click
This is a very long report that is essentially a transcript of my trip ledger. I don't have time to turn it into great literature. It is offered here for the useful information it might contain for others planning a similar trip rather than as interesting reading (I'd recommend something by Steinbeck instead).
Our party of four went to Tanzania for a two-part trip: First, a 6-day guided climb of Kilimanjaro, then a 5-day guided game safari to three game parks: Lake Manyara, Ngorongoro Crater, and the Serengeti Plains. Although paying for guides is not our usual style, it is not an option in Tanzania and many other African countries. This is big business that draws in significant hard currency, and it is not legal to go on the mountain in any other fashion. It may be possible to arrange your own drive through the wildlife parks, but I suspect that obtaining the necessary permits would be a bureaucratic nightmare.
Kilimanjaro with Moshi in the foreground.
The regular route on Kilimanjaro is the "Marangu"; as the easiest and most direct way to the summit that utilizes hotel-sized huts for sleeping, it draws 80% of the traffic on the mountain. The Machame route is longer and more difficult, but also much more scenic. 20 years ago it was an adventure, with only a few ascents per year. It is now drawing serious traffic; we shared it with several other parties on the same itinerary. It begins by climbing the SW slope, goes east, then back west to traverse about 1/3 of the girth of the mountain at elevations between 12,400' and 15,000'. The final 4300' to the summit is on the west slopes. The traverse naturally goes up and down numerous drainages. The net elevation gain for the trip is around 13,300', but the total gain is at least 20,000'. There are several short sections that almost make it to class 3 status, but the vast majority is a well-trampled trail. This was supposed to be the beginning of the dry season in Tanzania, but the rains had not let up and the countryside was verdant. We had excellent weather, with only short storms each day in the afternoons. Parties before and after us were not so lucky; one party reported 2 feet of snow on the upper part of the mountain, with rain almost all day every day.
Our game park experience was typical. We saw amazing numbers of animals, most at very close range. However, the density of humans watching the animals was almost as impressive. We arranged the entire trip, from a "meet and greet" service at the Nairobi airport through delivery back to the airport, through Zara, an international travel service based in Moshi, Tanzania - right at the base of the mountain. There are many companies offering climbs and safaris - you can find them on the web. We were happy with Zara, but it is not a luxury operation. The price reflected that; you can pay many thousands just for the safari portion if you want drivers in uniforms, bedframes in camp, etc. Do your own research and make your choice depending on the level of comfort you want. As dirt-bag climbers, we were happy just to be in tents and not have to cook for ourselves.
Part 1: Getting to the base of Kilimanjaro
Thu, 01/11/01 - Fri, 01/12/01 - Getting to Amsterdam:
We got up in Los Alamos at 5:00am so as to have a comfortable margin at the Albuquerque airport, but this would turn out to be in vain. On arrival at the ticket counter we learned that our flight to Atlanta had been cancelled (the crew was on strike). They had rerouted us thru Cincinnati and Paris, and we had a couple hours to burn. We went to REI to buy some last-minute items. The flight over the Atlantic was surprisingly comfortable compared to others I've taken in the long-distant past. I took liberal advantage of the complimentary wine, and the movies were pretty good. In the confusing and sprawling De Gaulle airport in Paris we had a very tight connection. We rushed to find our gate only to find that the flight was delayed. We finally got to Amsterdam around noon instead of the early morning arrival planned. The Schipol airport in Amsterdam is one of the best in the world. As a major international hub, it seems more like a small city than an airport. We put our big duffels in lockers, then bought tickets for the train to the city center, which we boarded right in the airport. On arrival in Amsterdam we puzzled out how to use the local tram system and eventually arrived at the Euphemia Hotel. I had made reservations here in advance via the internet just by searching for "Amsterdam Hotels" and sending e-mail. The best that could be said about the hotel was that it was cheap (about $50USD). It was basically a hostel with paper-thin walls, smoking in hallways, etc. I had only wanted a place to crash for two nights to alleviate our jet lag, but I should have spent a little more. We immediately went to sleep. I woke once thinking the clock meant it was already 6:00am, but it was only 6:00p. I ate a cold sandwich left over from the airplane for dinner, then went right back to sleep. When I woke next, I realized we had been in bed for 18 hours! This turned out to do wonders for jet lag.
Sat 01/13/01 - In Amsterdam:
We had breakfast at the hotel (included), then went hiking at random toward the south. Amsterdam is a very nice city, but it must show best in the summer. It was bone chilling cold even with all the clothes we had brought for the summit day on Kilimanjaro. The canals were interesting and picturesque, as were the narrow streets and even more narrow buildings. Although there is considerable auto traffic, the city runs on bicycles, even as cold as it was. Bikes are everywhere on the streets, all with hefty locks, as apparently bike thievery is a thriving industry. Shortly we chanced into a multi-block street market where just about anything could be bought, from boom-boxes to fresh octopus. We had a map, and soon found the big museum that is a "must-do" for tourons. It turned out to not be very exciting or extensive, or maybe we missed something. We saw some Rembrandts and other Dutch masters paintings. After the Reijks we continued hiking about aimlessly, then began looking for a restaurant for dinner. We found lots of crowded, smoky places before happening on one that was almost vacant. When we got the menu we discovered the reason - this wasn't going to be cheap. Once resigned to the cost (about $60 with 2 glasses of house wine), we just enjoyed a truly gourmet meal.
Sun 01/14/01 - Getting to Africa:
We had decided the night before that we'd walk back to the Central Station rather than mess with the tram, just to get a little exercise to start the day. We were on the street by 7:00, which was totally dark due to the northern latitude. Upon arrival at the airport we had the timing just about right to get our bags, change from cold weather clothes to something we'd be comfortable in stepping out of the plane at the equator, and get to the gate. Of course then the plane was 45 minutes late. We kept watch for Chris Horley, who was supposed to arrive from the states for this flight, but we boarded without him. It was clear the Delta airline mini-strike affected him, too.
The flight over the Alps and then northern Africa was awesome. The sun was setting over the Libyan deserts, and the cliffs and spires cast long shadows across red sands. We arrived at Nairobi International Airport around 9:00pm. Although one of the largest cities in Africa, the airport instantly reminded us we were in the third world. Baggage was being moved from our DC-10 in a single crude trailer attached to a farm tractor; quite the contrast with Schipol airport in Amsterdam with it's gleaming and efficient infrastructure. We had arranged "meet and greet" service at the airport, which turned out to be an excellent idea. Rather than hassling with a taxi driver, we had a very friendly and helpful fellow who seemed to exist only to make us feel welcome in his country. He took us to the "Panafric" hotel and briefed us on the arrangements for the morning. The hotel was excellent by third-world standards.
Mon 01/15/01 - Getting to Moshi, Tanzania:
We got up at 6:30 and went down for the (included) breakfast buffet. Our driver picked us up around 7:15 to take us to the boarding spot for the "Davanu Shuttle" to Arusha, Tanzania. Downtown Nairobi is a hell of people and diesel fumes. I was not to see a gasoline vehicle for our entire stay in Africa - diesel seems to be the standard for cars, buses, and trucks alike, perhaps 10% of which had been tuned in the last decade. A tolerance for diesel exhaust is a requirement for travel in these parts; indeed, the locals seemed oblivious. We hung around for 45 min until everyone had arrived for the shuttle. It wasn't completely full, but any hopes of having some room were dashed when the driver went to the airport to pick up more people. Packed in like sardines, we continued to the Kenya-Tanzania border. This was the only stop of the trip where we could get out - no food, no water other than what each person had on their person. There was no room inside even for a daypack. Most of the passengers go out in Arusha, but we continued on to Moshi, a small village at the base of Kilimanjaro. Both of these towns are depressing places, with little infrastructure and throngs of people just hanging out or wandering the streets. We traded vans a couple times, and then finally arrived at the Springlands Hotel in Arushu. This is a private hotel only for the use of Zara clients. The hotel was excellent - rooms were simple with small beds, but the grounds are beautiful, the people friendly, and the security good. We were excited to immediately spot two species of weaver birds making nests in the trees. (See critter list at end).
Dinner (indeed, all meals) at the hotel was buffet style, served in an open pavilion at long rows of tables. This was a good way to meet other people staying there. All of them were either preparing to climb the mountain, or had just returned. Breakfast is included, but not dinner, but it was less than $10, so it was a no-brainer rather than chancing some restaurant in town (which was a couple miles hike). We slept under mosquito netting, but actually only saw a couple of mosquitoes, and I was never bitten the whole trip. Apparently over 4000 people a day die from malaria in Africa, so we had a keen interest in mosquitoes.
Late during our dinner, much to our surprise, Chris and Patty arrived. They both had a nightmare experience with the airlines, but arrived in good spirits and were anxious to get on with the climb the next day. I felt pretty sorry for them - we were grateful for the two-day rest in Amsterdam.
Part II - The Climb
Tue, 01/16/00 - Getting to Machame Camp:
Up at 6:30, packed bags: 1 summit pack, 1 duffle for the porters to carry on the mountain, and one to stay behind. The guide (Wilson Olotu) arrived to introduce himself. 50 years old, he had guided the mountain for 15 years; when asked how many times he had summitted, he shrugged and said, "Oh, hundreds of times." He wasn't overly friendly at first, but I could see we'd get along OK. He warmed up as the trip went on, and I came to appreciate and genuinely like him. A full week after our climb, we happened to see him again, and he greeted us like old friends. He had already made another ascent in the meantime.
We drove first to town to a location where potential porters seem to just come each morning hoping to sign on to a climb. Wilson chose some porters in a process transparent to us, then we continued on to the Machame trailhead. The last part of this was really a 4WD road, but somehow they got a van up it. There is a pretty efficient operation up there; registering with the park authorities, organizing loads for the porters, etc. There were about 30 potential porters hanging out there as well, hoping for work. We were ready pretty quick (which is easy if you only have a day pack). Wilson finally told us we could start up the trail with the only porter who was completely ready at that point. We headed out eagerly on a broad trail through a mature canopied rain forest. The trailhead is about 6000ft, so it was a comfortable temperature. The destination for the night was the camping area around the Machame hut at 10,014'. (Note: most elevations in this report are from my GPS unit, and should be accurate to within a couple hundred feet. There are different numbers on web sites and maps, which we never reconciled. I trust my GPS).
This was an interesting day. The hike was entirely in rain forest. Due to the recent rains, the trail was a mud-fest. Around 2:00p a thunderstorm was clearly developing, so we stepped up the pace a bit. The pace was already brisk, as we were so happy to finally be on our feet rather than our butts that we were really charging up the mountain. The thunderstorm developed fully around 3:00p. We were within 20 minutes of the hut, but didn't know it. Since we were well above 9,000', this wasn't the gentle warm rain one would expect at lower altitudes in an equatorial region; in fact it was mixed liberally with hail. I went for my Goretex in my daypack, and was frustrated to find it was not there. This meant that it was either in the duffle the porter was carrying, or more seriously in the duffel I left in town. I got under a big tree and managed to avoid getting drenched. I was in nylon shorts and a long-sleeve nylon shirt over light capilene. In about 20 minutes Chris and Patti came by on the trail. Neither of them had packed rain gear, either, and were in much worse shape with only cotton T-shirts and shorts. We all commented on our readiness as mountaineers, and then got going up the trail to avoid hypothermia. Lynn had gone on ahead when I stopped to look for my parka, and continued on to the hut. She had her parka, so was quite comfortable. Shortly after we arrived at the hut, the porter we had started with arrived with Chris' duffel, and the sun came out, so all was well. Machame hut was probably originally built to house climbers, but it is used now only for the Rangers. Everyone else camps nearby.
About 30 minutes later the guide arrived somewhat breathless and excited. He was seriously embarrassed to have his clients arrive in camp before he did. Although we hadn't realized it, we had broken all kinds of rules, both official and unofficial, by arriving unescorted at the camping area before it was completely set up ready to receive us. They pride themselves on having the tents ready with tea on the table when the clients drag their tired butts into camp each day, and we had completely messed this up for them. Wilson would make sure this wouldn't happen again. His professional reputation was at stake, and in fact his guiding license - the park requires parties to be within watch of their clients, a fact that would cause me considerable consternation as the trip went on. A good part of my enjoyment of the mountains is the freedom to explore. This was completely missing on this trip; we had to ask permission to take a short hike after dinner each day, and the answer was either "No", or "well, OK, but don't go any further than that point over there" - typically a few hundred yards away, always in sight of camp.
That night I tried mingling with the porters and the cooking crew, taking photos, chatting as best possible with simple English and simpler-still Swahili. This wasn't going all that well - I sensed some discomfort. Finally Wilson made a comment that was subtle while making it clear that we were to stay the hell out of the way. They weren't really interested in getting to know us - they were here to do a job that they'd done hundreds of times, and we were to stay in our area while they stayed in theirs. Things went better once we understood these ground rules.
Wed, 01/17/01 Getting to Shira Camp:
At his insistence we literally lock-stepped behind Wilson all day to the Shira Camp at 12,443'. First came a ridge that led to a small saddle area, then a cliff band to a broad plateau. We were above the rain forest, in more open savannah and scrub bush. The plants were all new to us, and several were spectacular. We were most reminded of hiking in Joshua Tree - the plants had that desert-spiny personality. One of the trees looked a lot like a Joshua Tree, but of course was not. There were good views all day from the crest of the ridge. The trail was simple, but there were spots where hands were required. We never tired of watching the porters do this with 50-60 lbs balanced on their heads. We had daypacks and two ski poles apiece, and still found some sections tricky. Most of the porter loads were just odd-shaped bundles of things tied with crude twine. Footgear varied from plastic shower sandals (flip-flops) to trashed-out running shoes. Only the guide had a pack and boots. Thus equipped, their assignment was to fix us breakfast each day, then completely pack up the camp after we had departed, sprint past us, and have it all ready when we arrived. This is one reason the pace must be kept slow for the clients. A side-benefit is that acclimatization is furthered, and the success rate increased. Most people on the mountain are not experienced climbers. For many this was the biggest peak they would ever climb. Although we chafed at first at the slow pace, after resigning ourselves to our fate we started to enjoy the casual nature. There was plenty of time for photos along the way, and we would arrive in camp at the end of each day still feeling fresh. Had this been an independent trip, I'd have been tempted to combine some of the days; 6 was a good schedule for acclimatization, but it meant that some days were almost comically easy (this day had only 3 hours of hiking.) Not everyone on the mountain felt that way, as I've noted - there was a huge gamut of abilities represented.
There were hundreds of people in this camp, and I started to understand one of the problems of Kilimanjaro. It is highly sought-after, notably by Europeans for whom it's a relatively short trip. Just the numbers of climbers would have a big impact on the peak, but the system of using guides and porters effectively triples the numbers. Our group of four required 11 support people. The impact on trails and camping areas is substantial, and growing. The trails on the lower part of the mountain are a disgrace. There are three obvious reasons: first, the usage, which must be in hundreds per day; second, the rainfall, which is frequent and substantial, and finally, the lack of engineering. The trails we were on seem to have evolved rather than having been built. They went straight up the mountain; no switchbacks or water diversions. Thus they form streams and erode. Below about the 10,000' level, the trails are horrendous. In places the original trail is an impassible trench eight feet deep. To both sides are ad-hoc passages that are also eroding rapidly; the whole affair can create a quagmire of mud and tree roots that is often 60 feet wide.
When we inquired as to the lack of trail maintenance, we were told that the substantial revenue generated by climbing permits goes directly into the national treasury, rather than being reinvested in the park. Thus it goes for schools, roads, etc. In such a desperately poor country it is hard to argue with these priorities, but the fact is, the golden goose is being plucked. I would not do this mountain again in spite of its intrinsic appeal due to the deplorable nature of the trails and camping areas. Trash was less of a problem, but still evident. There are plastic bags and water bottles sprinkled about, typically behind boulders at popular stopping places. I picked up a couple of large plastic bottles each day (adding them, somewhat guiltily, to the porters' loads). The litter isn't out of control, but it could get so without vigilance.
At all camps and at intervals along the trails there are wooden outhouses of recent construction. These vary from 0-Star to 2-Star, a rating system I used to describe them to others in our party, since I was usually first to brave their use. A 2-star outhouse was one in which you could breathe without gagging, since all of the recent users had actually hit the hole. You can guess the rest of the ratings.
Thu, 01/18/01 - To Barranco Camp:
This was supposed to have been a hard day, but didn't turn out so. We left camp at 8:30 and were in the next camp shortly after noon. Starting in full sun, we did a long monotonic climb through a big flat valley area, winding through boulders from small to car-sized. We finally reached a saddle with nice views. The trail dropped a little to cross a flat valley, traversed under a big cliff, then reached a saddle at the high point so far: 14,000'. Wilson gave us the choice of hiking up to a "Lava Tower" some 600' higher, or continuing on the standard trail. He discouraged the former since there were considerable clouds by then, so there wouldn't be much of a view. We were in agreement to be lazy. We now traversed a series of valleys with lots of up and down until arriving at a pass with dramatic views down a verdant steep-sided valley. This valley is called the Great Barranco, and is easily the most scenic portion of the trip. The trail drops thousands of feet down this valley, along a watercourse with many short waterfalls and scenic pools. Unfortunately we did this in heavy mist. We caught glimpses of exotic sunbirds sipping nectar from Lobelia plants, but didn't get enough of a view to positively identify them. Wilson chose a "shortcut" through this section. I was appalled at the damage to this verdant area caused by the impact of thousands of other boots doing the same, but of course I wasn't in control. This area will soon be seriously compromised.
We arrived a spectacular camp at an uncharacteristic flat area in the Barranco. Walls rose steeply to the East, waterfalls were about, and I wanted nothing more than to explore this area to try to see more birds and plants. This was discouraged. I hung around camp and waited for dinner. This camp was at 13,050', for a net gain that day of only 600' in spite of having climbed many thousands of feet out of the bottoms of valleys.
Friday, 01/19/01 - To Barafu Camp:
I was determined at least to take some photos of this area, so I got ready early and told Wilson (rather than asking permission) that I was going to start out early and would wait for them along the trail. He only agreed when I pointed out that he'd be able to see me clearly from camp. Thus emboldened, I raced out of camp to try to maximize my short spell of freedom. Reaching a particularly beautiful verdant area just above camp, I cranked off a roll of film documenting the numerous small streams and their attendant plant life. The snows of the summit area were in full sun above the impressive cliffs of the Western Breach Wall directly above.
Absorbed with my photography, I failed to notice our group leaving camp. I panicked with the sure knowledge that I was in big trouble with Wilson - he had reluctantly agreed to let me go ahead, but now I was separated from the group. I couldn't see them on the trail, so retraced my steps to camp to ask the porters which way they had taken (trails were numerous in the area, so it wasn't obvious). Shortly I was rejoined with the group. However, this had a price. In my chagrin at committing such a faux pas, I had left a good pair of binoculars lying on the ground where I had been taking photos. Oh, well, $250 is just in the noise for this trip.
We now did the apparently famous 1000' steep ascent out of the Barranco Valley. There is some actual easy 3rd class here for short sections; it was impressive to watch the porters negotiate these. More traversing on the now barren terrain above tree line, drop into another valley, climb out of it, and then monotonically up through a moonscape to high camp (Barafu camp, 15,141'). Finally we were above Colorado! I monitored myself closely for signs of altitude problems, but none materialized. Patty admitted to a headache. We went to bed immediately after dinner, since the summit climb would begin in less than six hours.
Before retiring, Wilson came to brief us on the plan for the next day, and to monitor everyone's well-being. We brought up a subject that we had been discussing for some time. The summit climb was scheduled to begin at midnight, implying an 11:00p wakeup. My calculations had us arriving at the summit well before sunrise, and I knew that Wilson would not want to hang around. We wanted very badly to have some light at the summit; indeed, the experience of sunrise at the highest point of Africa is reputed to be one of the main "raisons d'etre" for the entire effort. I wanted to lobby for a 2:00a departure. Wilson cautioned against anything that drastic, but admitted we were a very strong group, and finally settled for a 1:00a departure. (Especially slow groups, we were to discover later, were shepherded out at 11:00!)
Saturday, 01/20/01 - To the Summit:
The climb was routine - one foot in front of the other up a long, dark trail formed by tens of thousands of boots in the volcanic scree and dust. I began to long for a sliver of light on the horizon just to break the boredom. Wilson was enforcing a very slow, deliberate pace. Patty's headache had gone away during the night, but now she was suffering GI discomfort, nausea, and other symptoms that could have been altitude, but also could have been a simple stomach bug. She was stoic but wordless as she tramped along behind Wilson, staring at the small headlamp beam trained on his heels. We only took two short breaks on the way up - to answer the call of nature, and to thermo-regulate. Very reluctantly I traded my Goretex wind shell for a down parka - at our slow pace I was having trouble staying warm, but it is so rare to be able to climb in a down jacket that I hesitated for fear it was overkill and I'd soon be overheating. No such problem - it was surprisingly cold from about 16,000' to the summit, and for the first time all day I was cozy.
In the pre-dawn gloom I could see the slope ahead finally begin to relent from the uniform steep slopes we had been on for hours. We were arriving at the crater rim! This point is named: Stella Point. It is an important point for many, because a decision is often reached here not to go on, depending on the conditions of weather, the route, and the clients. Wilson could see rather quickly that we had every intention of continuing. Indeed, I had become concerned that he might refuse to go on, based on Patty's condition. I had determined to fight this rigorously, up to and including mutiny, but fortunately my fears were unrealized. We traced the trail along the crater rim for the next hour. Arriving a little before the others with the excuse that I wanted to film the arrival of the party at the top, I stopped a few yards below the top so we could all reach it together. This was a fine moment. Although a bit jaded by summits after 35 years of reaching them (the journey's the thing, not the destination), I was genuinely moved by this success. We had come a long way around the planet, and as one of the "Seven Summits" of the planet (the highest of each continent), this had significance beyond the run-of-the-mill highpoint in the local landscape. I must admit to making a bit of a fuss at the top. Some of this was strategic - the sun was remaining stubbornly below the horizon. I knew that Wilson wanted to start down as soon as possible; not only did the summit not hold much excitement for him, but his clothing was well below ours in sophistication, and I suspect he was cold.
We were determined not to be cheated of the opportunity, though, so we pointedly ignored him while we took photos of each other in every possible combination with and without Wilson, photos of other groups now arriving, and exercised every other stalling tactic we could think of. My original thought of leaving high camp at 2:00am would have been just about right - I suspect we hung at the summit for about an hour, stretching Wilson's patience to the max.
Finally it happened - the sun burst spectacularly over the horizon, bathing the summit in a deep orange glow. Now we had to take another round of photos without using the flash. Fuji and Kodak made out pretty well up there.
Now for the return, which concerned me much more than the ascent. The itinerary called for retracing not only the 4300' we had just climbed, but also to continue down to the Mweka camp, a flat spot in the rain forest at 10,250'. My knees have not been able to handle a descent of this magnitude for many years now (getting old sucks). I had made this known to everyone involved, including trying to change the itinerary before we even left the states. I didn't want to end up on the top of one of the porter's heads for the last part of the descent, or more likely, to continue forcing the issue until I was a candidate for knee surgery. Wilson acceded to my warnings by taking us back down the same trail we had used for the ascent - apparently there is a steeper way down where people just glissade the scree. It took us longer, but by switchbacking at a slow pace, I managed to arrive in the Barafu camp with no signs of knee pain yet. We had lunch there, packed our duffels for the porters, and then headed down. Whenever possible, I walked down backwards, a trick I had found in the past to help when my knees are failing.
The trail enters the scrub, and then full-canopied rain forest. Here the trail changed dramatically. It had rained on the mountain for a few hours every day on the trip, usually in the afternoon after we were already in our tents. This trail through the lower elevations where most of the rain falls was even worse than the Machame section through the same zone we had taken on the ascent. A deep ugly gouge in the side of the mountain, it was often impossible to keep from full butt-plants in the mud, even with two ski poles. All the while we struggled with the trail, porters were passing us as if we were parked, in their usual array of footwear not suitable for hiking on sidewalks. Many people came up the trail as well; some of them were barefoot. We found that most were carrying supplies for the Mweka camp usually Coca-cola and beer. A beer at the camp was $2. My mental arithmetic brought me to the conclusion that these guys were climbing 5000' of some of the worst trail imaginable with a cargo on their heads that could not have provided over about $30 in income. The world is not a fair place.
Toward the end of this hike we suddenly heard loud noises in the canopy - we had been on the watch for birds the entire trip, but barely dared to hope for this - a troop of Colobus Monkeys! There are very few of these left on Kilimanjaro, and we were very lucky to be able to watch these large, beautifully marked black and white monkeys for as long as Wilson's patience extended.
It began raining hard just after we arrived in camp. The tent had never been the totally safe haven from the elements we might have hoped for, and now we perched atop our Thermarest pads figuring we could float if necessary. Fortunately the platform was anything but level, so we had streams instead of a lake. Much to my relief, my knees had survived the hike with little problem. I decided that the lack of a heavy pack was the difference. The expense of hiring porters balanced against the cost of knee surgery back in the States. It seemed like a good trade.
This was the night for tips all around to the staff. We had sought guidance on this from many others, to conclude that the going rates were about $30 per porter and $75 for the guide. Our group had been outstanding, so we went beyond this, with the sure knowledge that, although we couldn't cure poverty in Tanzania, we could make a little difference in the lives of a few people with whom we'd had direct contact, and had come to appreciate and respect. We have no idea what they earn in regular salary for a trip up the mountain, but I suspect that tips are a significant increment to that.
Sunday 01/21/01 - Back to Moshi
Back to civilization. First, a relatively easy hike of about 4000' to the park boundary, where we signed out and received our official, signed, suitable-for-framing certificates for having reached the summit. Agricultural development begins immediately at the park boundary, as is apparently typical throughout Africa - without these parks and preserves there would be nothing left remotely resembling a natural landscape. We continued hiking to a point where a 2WD vehicle could pick us up. This was a really interesting hike past coffee and banana farms, with intriguing glimpses of people peering out at us from their thatched-roof huts. I wished we could do a lot more of this, but it wasn't to be on this trip. Not only on the mountain, but also on the game safari part of our trip, we were kept deliberately out of contact with the locals. This was a major difference between this trip and others I have taken, and seriously diminished the experience. It was a predictable outcome of taking the "packaged tour" approach, which we've never done before.
We spent the night back at the Springlands hotel; a shower was most welcome, as was the beer. We watched a very touching reunion between a returning, victorious summit team of a son and his rather elderly father (yes, even older than me!) with their wives, both of whom had spent the week at the hotel. Observing them made me again appreciate the fact that adventure is relative. This had been a routine hike for our group; although supremely interesting, it posed little challenge. For the group of father and son, it was clear that this was a Life Experience. We had seen the elder previously as he arrived at the final camp on the descent about 4 hours after we had. In the middle of the heaviest rain, it was clear he was near his physical limit. I was quite moved by observing this family in their quiet but intense celebration that lasted well into the night, and went over to add my congratulations. This is a great sport.
Part III : The Great White Hunters bag their game
Monday, 01/22/01 - The safari begins: to Lake Manyara
Once again we were impressed with the professionalism of the Zara people. I had rather expected the kind of laissez-faire attitudes I had encountered in other third-world countries before, but I guess this is a lesson in the dangers of profiling. The vehicle was ready at the appointed time, and the driver and cook introduced themselves: Hassan and Hilda. Hassan immediately went to work loading our gear on top of the forward cab of the Land Rover, which was set up with three rows of seats inside, and had a pop-top for viewing and photographing the critters. Chris and I were excited to get out all our high-tech toys, almost all of which were purchased in the weeks before the trip in anticipation of this phase. Although I have a reputation for having fairly up-to-date equipment, I couldn't hold a candle to Horley in the large and expensive toy competition; state-of-the-art still and video cameras and other gizmos kept appearing from his bottomless gear bag until I was forced to admit complete defeat and humiliation. Any one of these toys could probably have fed a family of four in Tanzania for a year. It was a disgusting spectacle, and he should feel ashamed of himself.
Now into the Land Rover. Although clearly the vehicle for the job, it wasn't exactly luxurious with 6 people and all their gear for a week. We decided to rotate occupancy of the seats, since the last row was quite cramped and had limited views. First we stopped in town to do some airline ticket changing; Patty and Chris had decided to extend their trip a week in hopes of visiting the Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda. We spent quite a bit of time with the travel agent, not realizing that this was at the expense of the time we'd have to see the wildlife. Although the distances are not great, the roads of Tanzania present a similar story as the trails on Kilimanjaro, so travel is very slow. We traveled mostly on dirt roads, and it was clear they had not seen a grader in years. As the centers of the roads deteriorate to mud bogs and potholes, the Land Rovers drive on the edges, ever widening the roadbed. It was sad to realize that a single road grader and operator would constitute a significant improvement to the transportation infrastructure of the country.
We finally arrived at Lake Manyara Park around 4:00pm. This lake lies at the bottom of the fabled East African Rift, one of the most dramatic and active geologic areas on the planet. This was the first day of our "5-day" safari, and most of it was spent just getting there. However, my consternation over this fact disappeared quickly once we entered the park gate. Within a few hundred yards we were into the thick of it - the place was crawling with the fabled creatures we had only seen in zoos: zebras, impalas, giraffes, baboons, dik-diks, and monkeys. When we got excited over seeing a distant wildebeest, the driver said "many wildebeest in Serengeti" so we could get on with the drive and not waste too much film. It was growing dark, and we had only 2 hours in the park. We stayed in a meticulously manicured commercial campground that night.
Tuesday, 01/23/01: To The Serengeti:
To get to the Serengeti plains, once must drive first past the Ngorongoro Crater. Stopping just once on the rim at a viewpoint, we could see that this was like the Valle Caldera in New Mexico, only on a far grander scale. The rim rises about 3000' above the valley floor, and is a nearly perfect circle about 12 miles in diameter. We quickly spotted some tiny dots on the floor, which through binoculars turned out to be elephants.
Next came the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is a huge plain descending to west from the slopes of the crater. The Masai people live here, and the men of the tribe could be seen at frequent intervals along the road. We did not stop, but I was as intrigued by them as the wildlife. They are exceptionally picturesque in their bright red clothing and ornamentation. They have staunchly resisted western culture, preferring to stay with their traditional lifestyle, although at some point in the past they switched from hunting and gathering to tending their own bands of cattle and goats. They have limited the intrusion of tourons through the simple method of insisting on payment for photographs. A fair deal, I thought.
At first there wasn't much wildlife to see, but the scenery was staggering in its scope and beauty. The day was perfect, with a deep azure sky and fluffy white cumulus clouds. Visibility seemed infinite. I'd have been happy to spend a few hours just photographing the scenery, but the critters further down the road beckoned. Within a couple of hours of leaving the crater rim, we were into it in a major way. It was the beginning of the wildebeest migration, and they were gathering literally by the millions. Interspersed were probably half-a million zebras. Hyenas, giraffes, ostriches, gazelles, and several other kinds of antelope kept us from getting bored by the sight of simply 2 million grazing animals. This was what we came for.
Eventually we reached the gates of the Serengeti National Park. We hadn't realized it, but hiking was permitted in the Conservation Area. In the park, though, you can't get out of the car. We had been traveling through short-grass prairie; I'm not sure if that was due to the species of grasses or the fact that the grazing animals had been there a while. Now, suddenly, the grass was high. Within a few miles we came upon a big male lion lying in the deep grass within 10' of the road. He was completely unconcerned by our presence. Soon there were several Land Rovers sharing the lion, a theme that was to repeat itself with each new sighting of a relatively rare animal. We could be alone if we simply wanted to watch zebras, but a leopard or cheetah would quickly gather a small herd of Land Rovers. The big cats would not even look at us, even though they might remain extremely alert for other animals. That night we stayed at Serenera campground, a nice spot but certainly not the "camping in the bush" feeling we had hoped for. With several permanent cooking structures shared by about 15 Land Rovers full of tourons like us, it felt like any other developed campground. There were some new birds there, and we were told to put everything inside our tents because the hyenas would pack off anything we left out.
Wed 01/24/01 - In the Serengeti:
We woke to light rain, which persisted through the beginning of our tour of the local area. There are numerous roads here, and the safari drivers know where to go on them to maximize wildlife sightings. We hadn't gone a mile before a big group of elephants appeared in the mist in front of us. This was our first close-up-and-personal encounter with elephants, and was one of the highlights of the trip. Then it was on through the rain, which was now starting to turn some of the roads into rivers. We had heard stories of recent groups spending most of their time pulling other vehicles out of the mud, so were relieved when it started to let up. Up ahead was a small group of Land Rovers, which by now we knew to signify a significant critter sighting. Our driver pulled into position expertly, giving us a 50-yard-line seat to the piece de resistance of African wildlife viewing. Two cheetahs were just starting work on a fresh impala kill. We watched them eat the whole thing, then slink off into the grass to sleep it off for the next several days. It was fascinating, but again I was put off by being part of the modern safari scene: a couple of animals surrounded by literally tens of vehicles. Some of the vehicles were full of people who had no clue how to behave around wild animals. Loud exclamations, children laughing and fighting with each other, and a constant babble of voices rendered the scene less than idyllic. Homo sapiens is the noisiest species on the planet, and I'm often not proud to be one of them. However, the alternatives are even less attractive. I decided avoid the normal safari scene in the future; there must be alternatives.
By the end of the day I felt like a kid after Thanksgiving Dinner. We had come to see wildlife, but there was too much of it to absorb in one sitting. We should have spent another night here, but we decided to head back to the Crater, which is one of the most famous wildlife destinations in Africa. By leaving the Serengeti late in the afternoon, we could be at Ngorongoro for two nights. This turned out to be a mistake.
That evening on the rim of the crater of Ngorongoro I became concerned by the weather - cold and windy, threatening to rain. Back at Moshi I had lobbied for leaving our sleeping bags behind. An inquiry to a local netted the information that the campground at Ngorongoro was no higher than 4000'. Since we were about 3 degrees below the equator, this should make for mild temperatures. I figured we'd do fine in just our clothes, and make a little more room in the Land Rover by not packing two sleeping bags along. It turns out that the altitude of the rim is around 8000'. We spent a couple nights here with all our clothes on and wrapped up in whatever bits of fabric we could improvise. We weren't miserable, but we certainly weren't comfortable.
Thu 01/25/01 - Ngorongoro Crater:
There are only two access roads to the crater - one is reserved for entry, and the other for exit Both are dirt, steep, narrow, and dramatic. Part way down we stopped at a scenic pullout, and were immediately surrounded by local vendors trying to sell crafts and baubles. We had grown quite used to this by now - they know where the tourists will be stopping, and as soon as you get out of the car you are besieged by people who do not take no for an answer. Closer to population centers we were plagued by small children begging for money with their few words of English. If not alert and careful, their hands will soon be in your pockets. This group wasn't too obnoxious, though, and we actually bought some things at prices around 1/3 of their starting price.
We had an efficient start, and were one of the first vehicles into the crater that morning. We came upon a group of lions lying directly in the road. There were only a couple of vehicles already there, but this wouldn't last long. The lions wanted nothing but to sleep, having clearly just gorged on a kill. This was fine, except some of the males decided the best place to sleep would be the shade. The only shade around was from the Land Rovers. Some of the drivers had a very difficult time when they wanted to leave avoiding rolling over the animals.
As the day went on we checked off all those things we had hoped to see; the spectacle of thousands of flamingoes at the lake, more lions, and finally rhinos. There are but 12 rhinos left in the crater, and not many more in the entire country due to poaching for their horns. Every rhino is now accompanied by a vehicle full of armed rangers wherever it roams. Oh well, at least a lot of Chinese have fancied themselves sexier through the near extinction of this exceptional creature. (see previous note on my opinion of Homo sapiens). Just before leaving the crater floor we came upon a magnificent scene of elephants in a verdant area - one of my favorite mental images from the trip.
Ngorongoro lived up to its reputation. As a totally enclosed ecosystem, the animals are resident year-round, with no significant migration. The variety is staggering, but the feeling is not like the Serengeti with its seemingly infinite spaces. We decided not to return for another day.
Fri 01/26/01 - Back to Moshi:
A long, slow drive back to Moshi. Our driver and cook were ecstatic that we were quitting early - they'd seen it all so many times that they were thoroughly jaded. The only expression of interest I saw from Hassan on the entire trip was when we were next to the cheetahs, which was truly an exceptional sighting. On the way back we drove right past animals we'd have stopped for in considerable excitement a few days before. However, even this drive was frequently punctuated by entreaties to Hassan to stop for yet another brand-new critter.
Sat 01/27/01 through Tue 01/30/01 - Getting Home:
Every good trip must end, and unfortunately the worst part always comes at the end. I think this is because one is willing to put up with more without complaining at the beginning of the trip - you're excited to be going somewhere, so the insults visited on your person by the transportation industry are taken in stride. On the way home, though, you just want to get there. As someone once put it "Whoever invents the transporter beam (as in "Beam me up, Scotty") is going to make a shit-load of money." To make a long story short, it was 46 hours of cars, planes, and airports before we touched down in Albuquerque. We had opted not to stay over anywhere on the way home, so any sleep was accomplished in a sitting position. We were very fortunate to not have full planes, so we had some room to stretch out. Arriving in Albuquerque around 10:00p, our bodies were still on Africa time of 8:00a. We got a room at the Wyndam hotel at the airport, and spent the entire next day drifting toward home. Arriving at our front gate, we were greeted by 3 feet of snow covering the entire driveway. I post-holed in to the house in my light traveling clothes, changed to warmer clothes, and spent the next 6 hours on my tractor clearing snow so we could drive on in to our garage. Needless to say, I wasn't much use at work the next day.
Critter list (In no particular order):
Birds: Hartlaub's Turaco, Streaky canary, Ostrich, Maribou Stork, Black-crowned night heron, Lesser Flamingo, Greater Flamingo, Kori Bustard, Secretarybird, White-Headed Buffalo Weaver, Red-Billed Duck, Egyptian Goose, White-winged Widowbird, Yellow-Billed Egret, Abdim's Stork, Sacred Ibis, Yellow-Billed Duck, Black Kite, Red-necked Spurfowl, Yellow-necked Spurfowl, Gray Crowned Crane, Black-winged Stilt, Water Thick-knee, Blacksmith Lapwing, Crested Hoopoe, some kind Kingfisher, African Gray Hornbill, Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill, Southern Ground Hornbill, Wire-tailed Swallow, Garden Bulbul, Mariqua Sunbird, Yellow-fronted Canary, Pin-tailed Whydah, Golden Palm Weaver, Village Weaver, Southern Red Bishop, White-winged Widowbird, White-browed Sparrow-Weaver, Red-winged Starling, Superb Starling, White Necked Raven, Pied Crow
Reptiles: Red-headed Agama lizard
Mammals: Warthog, Zebra, Giraffe, Vervet Monkey, Kirk's Dik-dik, Waterbuck, Impala, Western White-bearded Wildebeest, African Cape Buffalo, Thompson's Gazelle, Grant's Gazelle, Coke's Hartebeest, Jimela Topi, Hippopotamus, Leopard, Cheetah, Lion, African Elephant, Black Rhinoceros, Cape Buffalo, Spotted Hyena, Black-backed Jackal, Savannah Olive Baboon, Eastern Black-and-white Colobus Monkey