Friday 29 November 2013

o : Kilimanjaro, Day 6 (Epilogue)

Springlands Hotel
About 1000m above sea level

Dear o,

My lips are chapped, my legs are aching and my face is recovering from windchill, frostbite and sunburn.  The summit I climbed yesterday (it doesn’t feel like yesterday) is again hidden behind the clouds, invisible, indifferent and impervious to those who feel they’ve ‘conquered’ it.

After writing my last letter to you from Uhuru Peak we scrambled three hours down to Barafu Camp, recrossing, and seeing for the first tme, the paths through the rock and snow upon which we had zig-zagged in the dark.  While it felt like it should have been the evening of a very long day, we returned to the camp before noon, and took an hour’s collapse into a heap and then a half an hour’s hot lunch.  By mid-afternoon we were off again to Mweka Camp (about 3000m elevation), only a few hours away from the exit gate.

The rapid, straight-arrow descent from alpine desert to scrub and moorland and again into the rainforest impressed upon me the actual nature of Kilimanjaro: it’s a bulging punch up to the heavens from the middle of nowhere.  On the way up we circled the peak like an animal tamer might dance around a wild beast, and thus the transitions in vegetation, landscape, altitude and climate were gradual.  And because we went up, down, up, down, and up again, they were repeated.  But going down so quick and direct, even the temperature shifted between water breaks.  One realises that Kilimanjaro is a vast and almighty tangle of a world confined to a rather small, and anomalous, space in Tanzania’s hot equatorial plains.

After dinner, ten hours of sleeping dead, and a 6am wakeup at Mweka, we traversed the final few hours through Kilimanjaro’s lower rainforest.  We descended another 1200m but felt nothing save for an increase in temperature and the growing daydream of a hot shower.  The forest was beautiful and certainly pleasant to see, but the beckoning mountaintop was gone, the volcanic landscape behind us, and the challenge past.  When we returned to the hotel a few hours ago we received certificates validating our achievement, and then said goodbye to the crew who took us up the mountain.

There are many other guests here who have just summitted Kilimanjaro, or who are preparing to go tomorrow, or who plan to go in a week after their Serengeti safari.  This hotel, owned and operated by the safari and trekking company and made available exclusively to its clients, is a well-oiled and smooth-running assembly line of package adventurers like us.  It’s convenient, friendly and much appreciated, and only hints at the immense industry of which it is a part. 

Our Kilimanjaro trek on the popular Machame route took six days.  There were about 25 other climbers with various other companies at the same point on our route, about half of whom made it to the summit (most of those who didn’t were defeated by altitude sickness).  Each climber, regardless of company, was assigned three porters, and each group (numbering anywhere from one to eight climbers) had a cook, waiter, assistant guide and guide.  This rounded out to about four support staff per paying climber, meaning 100 staff at each campsite.  Because of the scenery and benefits for acclimatisation, the Machame ( or ‘Whiskey’) route is the most popular, alongside the Marangu (or ‘Coca-Cola’) route, common because of the easier overall climb and the fact that climbers stay in huts along the way.

The other routes (Lemosho and Shira, the longest, most scenic, which link up with the Machame; Rongai, the easiest but least scenic; and Umbwe, the steepest, fastest and most challenging) feature less climbers, which is part of their attraction, but are rarely devoid of hikers.  So, right now all over Kilimanjaro, in snaking lines leading slow to the summit and fast back down to the gates, there are hundreds of climbers, and perhaps over a thousand support stuff.  The camps are loud, crowded and sprawling, and take on the attitude of small towns.  At Barafu, our last camp before the summit, the several dozen tents spread out among the rocks seemed to take up all of the empty space, every piece of flat ground as well as all cracks and crevices.  But that was nothing, apparently.  This is the low-season.

From June through to October, the number of climbers (alongside their porters, cooks and guides) multiplies into unimaginable figures.  Several guides and porters confirmed that at some points there are upwards of 200 climbers at any one Machame route campsite – that means 1000 people all camped, cooking, chatting and snoring in one rather small spot.  I could just about see this at Shira or Barranco camps – but Barafu?  Does that campsite sprawl up to peak?  And what about the apparatus, the paperwork, the money, the staff, the food?  I haven’t even mentioned the safaris, a business in the same region that is certainly larger than the Kilimanjaro, and busy all year round.  There must be hundreds of tour companies and thousands of workers in Moshi and Arusha alone.

There are.  Zara Tours, the largest operator, though not without competition, has 120 guides, a whopping 800 porters on staff, and who knows how many safari guides, assistant guides, cooks, waiters, drivers, hotel staff, administrators, marketers, salespeople and street hustlers.  On the road between Moshi and Arusha it seems that half the traffic is composed of 4x4s en route to or from the Serengeti and Ngorongoro, and that they pass by hundreds of hotels, hostels and lodges catering to the northern Tanzania adventure.  However you slice it, and however you enjoy the slices, tourism is a wonder of this country in its own right.

There are costs and benefits to the size and grandeur of the industry on the mountain climb itself.  It’s hard to think of the programme as camping, or at least not camping in the wild.  At wakeup the waiter taps lightly on the tent with a flask of hot water for tea, coffee, hot chocolate or sugar water which you are expected to gulp down in your sleeping bag.  Washing bowls of warm water wait for your hands and face outside the tent zipper, while breakfast is hot, ready and comes in two courses.  After filling up on porridge, toast or the ubiquitous food-colour-pink sausages, your only responsibility before departure is to pack your bags and stuff in your sleeping bags.  You leave the tents (kitchen tent, food tent, sleeping tent, even a toilet tent) behind and go for your hike.  The porters wait for you to leave and then dismantle camp, pack it into huge bags, balance them on their heads, rush pass you on the trail, and have everything set up for when you arrive at the next camp.  Popcorn on a stainless steel platter, sheltered on a folding table in a tall green tent, greets you from the rain and sweat and sore knees.  The porters don’t seem tired at all, but laugh on into the night.

And not only do they seem to be having a good time, they want to be out there.  Flycatchers in Moshi and Arusha (the guys who won’t leave you alone until you’ve agreed to sign up with their company for a Kilimanjaro trek) don’t get a commission on the sale, but only the chance to be a porter or cook on the next trip up.  And many porters, if they work for companies not enjoined to a porters’ association (Zara Tours is), don’t get paid.  They rely exclusively on your tips, which are at best about $5 per porter per day – if you decide the tip is anything at all.  It can’t be too infrequent for a porter to carry 20kg up Kilimanjaro and return home with empty hands.  Some, because of poor equipment, lack of training or extreme stress, don’t return home at all.  The biggest killers of porters on Kilimanjaro are hypothermia and cardiac arrest.

When I descended with the porters from the mountain today, and when I rode back to Moshi with them in the bus, I tried to say a little more than “mambo” in passing.  Most don’t speak English and so just smile bashfully, but quite a few are learning in the hope of going to the tourism school in Moshi or Arusha and becoming fully certified guides.  There is plenty of opportunity here, but plenty of hard work as well.  It’s easy to bitch about not getting the chance to take the tent down yourself, or being told where to eat and at what time, but it’s even easier to admire those who do it for you.

The real conquerors of Kilimanjaro, if there are any at all, are those carry civilisation all the way up, return down, and then count themselves lucky if they get to go climb back up the following day.  I doubt they get fried banana for lunch, but they certainly get my respect.



Kitchen tent
Sleeping tent, with bowls of washing water
Dining tent, outside
Dining tent, inside
Toilet tent
Morning porridge
Freddy, our guide
Mkumbo, our waiter, serving popcorn
Descending from the summit
Mawenzi Peak
Injured? This is how they'll bring you down
Our team
Entering the rainforest
Kilimanjaro impatiens
Towards Mweka Camp
Towards the final gate