Kilimanjaro is with its 5 895 meters the highest mountain on the African continent. Being clad with a cap of ice, Kilimanjaro is a contrast to the overheated and dry Masai steppe below. Its top is located within Tanzania, but its foothills extend far to the north and into the neighboring country of Kenya.
Going to Kilimanjaro was my first trip abroad — omitting Sweden which is located too close to Norway to be called abroad. Seeing things in the bright light of posterity, it probably wouldn’t have hurt to have a little more travel experience before embarking on a journey to a place so dramatically different from my familiar surroundings.
Even a meal during transit at Heathrow, offered sobering language lessons. After a short democratic process I was appointed the task of ordering in the restaurant. The reason being that I had given the impression that my language skills by far exceeded those of my companions.
The waitress was however unable to understand my order of steak, which I self-confidently pronounced with an ‘ea’ sound like in the word ‘eager’. After a lengthy negotiation and considerable exhumation of air through the nostrils, we got what we wanted.
It may be noted that I was not asked to order on behalf of the company again.
Ordering, incidentally would turn out not to be a very useful skill in any case, as our chosen hotel in the mountain village of Marangu had a fixed main consisting of chicken. Always chicken.
Since the chicken was implicit it had been omitted from the menu that actually consisted of only two options; rice or potatoes.
Having a trick played out on you, providing it ends well, can be an exciting adventure. Not during, but afterwards. We were conned both severely and frequently.
Reading a small travellers guide — or for that matter using common sense — we should have avoided many of the scams we were made victim to; but no. Not us. Learning by doing was the thing.
Upon arrival at Jomo Kenyatta Airport in Nairobi, Kenya we debuted by getting ourselves into a pirate taxi. By a stroke of luck, the driver didn’t drive off with us and demand a an enormous amount of money to take us back. He simply drove us were we wanted to go – and then charged us an enormous amount of money.
Now, where we wanted to go was the venerable Norfolk Hotel.
Here, we were supposed meet our local contact the next morning. But no; no local contact to be seen. Athanas Minja, which was his name, did not grace us with his presence. For reasons that I cannot remember but that cannot possibly have been sane or good, we decided to attempt the journey from Kenya to Tanzania on our own. Therefore, after a memorable breakfast buffet at the Lord Delamere Terrace, we got on a bus. As did a lot of other people until the bus was so full that it was on the point of breaking down. And then the ride begun.
Speed limits being what they are in Kenya, mostly unobserved, the ride was fast.
The bus was not a suitable instrument for speed, something it tried to tell its driver by making a great many of unhealthy noises.
After a nerve-wrecking eight hours on the bus we arrived at Moshi. This was the hop-off stop for a British girl, the daughter of a couple of missionaries, who we had become acquainted with during the trip from Nairobi. It was however not our hop-off stop — but seeming as if it was the final stop, that didn’t matter much.
Upon parting from our recent female acquaintance, Trond, a believed to be long time agnostic, much to our surprise revealed to her that he had always dreamed of being a missionaries’ son. Polite as we were, we withheld from commenting upon this outrageous claim, until the girl had departed.
It was as we were about to disembark from the bus in Moshi that we first met Athanas Minja our no-show guide.
He said that he had forgotten to adjust his watch and consult his papers and so on and so forth. We were all too ready to believe him, if only he could take us to Marangu, which he for some reason that I’ve forgotten (and that he probably made up there and then), couldn’t.
The bus driver however had nothing else on his agenda for the day, and was for a small surcharge willing to take us the final hour onwards to our hotel.
Our hotel was equipped with a permanent staff of one – the manager. A temporary staff member with a specialization in chicken cooking was also hired on a chicken-by-chicken, day-by-day basis.
After having installed ourselves in our hotel room we wanted to take a walk. Having landed late at night in Kenya the previous day and having spent all day on an uncomfortable bus, this would be the first that we got to ‘see’ of Africa.
Being the only guests in a one man run hotel has its advantages. As we were the only potential source of income, the manager was all the more hospitable to us. Having no knowledge of Norwegian nature and topography he offered to show us THE local attraction. More specifically he wanted to show us “the Great Waterfalls”.
One of us, I cannot recollect which one, insisted that we shouldn’t go by this offer as it was sure to be a scam. We wholeheartedly agreed upon this and turned him down as politely as you may turn down someone who offers to close his hotel to take you for a walk.
After some hundred meters of walking we now felt that we were level the African continent and took up conversation with two biblically named characters we met along the way. Their names were John and Moses. Apparently the Great Waterfalls was a source of great pride among the locals. Therefore, in a short while, Moses and John also offered to take us there. All scepticism had now vaporized and we accepted without blinking.
The Great Waterfalls turned out to be a narrow string of water dropping some 20 meters off a rock. We were not really struck by the waterfall in itself, but accepted it as rather charming as it was surrounded by jungle, something that is far more unusual in Norway than waterfalls. So far so good.
As none of us had bothered to check up on even the most basic facts of travelling on the equator before we left home, none of us were aware of the rapid change between full day light and absolute darkness in tropical areas. Therefore not even the faintest ring of alarm bells sounded in our heads when when Moses and John, our new friends, offered to show us a faster way home – through the jungle. Not even the fact that the short cut started off in the opposite direction of the hotel made anyone of us suspicious.
The lights were turned out almost immediately after we had entered the jungle. Moses and John however did not stray from the path, but led us on steadily. Complete darkness was around us and none of us knew exactly where we were. A growing suspicion that Moses and John, in addition to being good friends, also had commercial interest in us started to fill our minds. The suspicion was replaced by solid knowledge when the company came to a halt and they demanded a substantial amount of money to take us back to our hotel. Even though blackmail originally is a Scottish invention, this also in more than one way could be called blackmail.
Arguing was of course pointless and just as we were to surrender our money, out of the dark came a familiar voice. It was our hotel manager. Having nothing better to do he had closed the hotel and gone to look for us, and now he got us out of the rather tight spot we had landed in. Councious of the fact that we were his only guests ha gave us a fatherly lesson on what to do and not to do, and how much better it would have been if we had only followed him as he had offered earlier.
First attempt – the Marangu Gate
The next morning we were supposed to depart for mount Kilimanjaro. In order to do this we needed a “climbers permit”. Kilimanjaro isn’t much of a climb, but issuing a permits is a steady source of revenue.. These permits were issued at a place called Marangu Gate. This is the most common entry point to the national park of Kilimanjaro. Athanas, our trusted but forgetful guide, had organized transport and took us to Marangu Gate before we were to set off to Umbwe – the entry point for the less common but rather more scenic route we had chosen for our attempt.
Having little or no knowledge of cars, I couldn’t really say anything about the vehicle. It has however been told to me that the brakes might be a weak spot on very old and very ill attended cars. From what I could see this vehicle satisfied all the criteria for being labeled both old and ill attended.
One of the more obvious things about very high mountains that are located on very wide and low plains are that they have rather steep hillsides. Going up these hillsides may prove a challenge for the engine, going down however proves a challenge for the breaks. So after having collected our climbing permits at Marangu gate we started our descent to Marangu and further on to Moshi where we were to buy food and supplies for our hike.
I said started because we didn’t finish. After some two hundred meters of uncontrolled acceleration it became evident that the car had no brakes. Having seen the driver putting rocks under the wheels even though parked on a completely flat area this could hardly be a surprise to him nor Athanas Minja. Surprise or no surprise, most roads have bends and this one was no exception. Beyond the next curve there was a fall of some 50 meters which would be sure to finish us off in a most effective manner.
Just at this moment a small, blue, Fiat pickup came up the hill against us. Seeming as this was the only obstacle that could possibly do anything to slow us down our driver steered straight into the Fiat. Gravity seized for some time and the car landed on the roof not far from the bend that would have been the end of us. I had a long, bleeding wound in my head but the others miraculously didn’t get a scratch.
The Fiat driver was badly hurt. His car had been thrown back some 30 meters from the crash point and he had been thrown out the side window. I would be surprised if he was able to see with both eyes after that crash.
My wound was worrying my companions – it would have worried me as well, but I couldn’t see it. We decided to postpone the departure for Kilimanjaro until we had my wound examined at the Marangu Hospital. Being very cautious of what tourists mean to Marangu, the doctors offered to treat my wound before attending to the Fiat driver – he was a local and therefore without economical interest.
In time I was brought before the doctors – quite a few of them actually. They decided I needed stitching and thus had to have my hair shaved off. To my despair, and my companions great joy, this was exactly what happened.
Our trip was postponed for two days, something which gave us time to consume 9 more grilled chickens at our beloved hotel. It also gave Moses and John the time to come and claim the money they felt they deserved for the guiding services they imposed on us the previous night.
Exploring Marangu wasn’t half bad. We saw a lot that was new and exciting to us. Marangu didn’t offer large shopping centers, only small kiosks of about double the size of a phone booth. Their names however was ambitious enough. One that I remember particularly well was named “World Trade Center”. The selection of items was also rather sparse. More than one of each article was seldom to be observed.
Athanas was far from defeated by the car crash – he was calm to the extent that we wondered whether this was a normal event for him.
Second Attempt – the Umbwe Corridor
Being in Africa to hike, it wasn’t a viable option not to do so. After lazy days in Marangu we set off once again with a new, or at least different, Land Rover which seemed, if possible, even more worn-out then the previous one!
Having successfully acquired our permits before the car-crash there was no need to take the trip back up to Marangu Gate, rather we set off in the direction of Umbwe and stopped by the market in Moshi to purchase the necessary supplies on our way.
To me, Umbwe sounded as just as good a starting point for Kilimanjaro as the next one. I didn’t learn, until we started off, that the Umbwe route, though indisputably scenic, was also among the more strenuous ascents to Kibo. It was at this point I started to ponder whether it was really such a good idea to come here with two over-healthy people such as Ove and Trond, myself falling short of that description by more than a little!
We had hired a fascinating number of porters to facilitate our climb, three for each us in addition to two guides. As we started walking though, it became painfully clear to us that the porters were inclined to carry little or nothing but their own things. They did however set off as if the devil himself was chasing them.
For the first day we followed a winding trail up the forested foothills of the mountain, surrounded by a layer of mist that ascended from the steppe below in the morning. Some time late in the afternoon we caught up with our porters who had made camp for us at by the Umbwe Caves. They greeted us with freshly boiled tea – and pop-corn, an idea we found wonderfully strange, but quickly became accustomed to!
As we sat down to drink our tea we had noticed something that bore ill tidings for the oncoming night. Something vaguely resembling a tent, only smaller, had been erected close to the cave. From the porters’ gestures it became apparent to us that they expected all three of us not only to fit in there, but also to sleep comfortably. Although, miraculously, we did manage to squeeze in, comfortable sleep was out of the question.
Traveling at the equator, I thought it a bit too much to bring my warm sleeping-bag. Instead I brought my sleeping-bag specially designed for particularly warm summer nights indoors – which I thought to be considerably more in tune with the local climate. Wrong again, as the night temperature dropped below zero!
On to the Barranco Hut
Making my frozen joints cooperate the next morning required considerable amounts of scolding hot tea, which was supplied by our friendly porters, before they once again sped off not to be seen till late in the afternoon.
About an hour into the hike we broke out of the forest and into the heather, which on the slopes of Kilimanjaro easily reaches three meters or more in height. At the far end of a long ridge with deep gorges on both sides we could see the snow-clad cap of Kilimanjaro towering above us. The shear dimension and beauty of the mountain in front of me left me speechless, which my companions found a great relieve until I started talking again.
We spent the better part of the day, climbing the ridge, arriving at the foot of the Kilimanjaro rock in the moorlands surrounding Barranco Hut. It was at about this moment that we started questioning whether the semi-cooked meat we had tasted from our porters on the previous night had really been such a good idea after all.
A visit to the porcelain temple is supposed to be a relaxing experience that gives room for reflection and afterthought, however, this requires sitting down. On the slopes of Kilimanjaro, a hole in the ground was the only remedy against the oncoming diarrhea experienced not only by us, but seemingly by every other non-African on the mountain as well.
A little bit of indigestion didn’t put a dampening spirit on us though, we had come to Africa to experience something new – and now we did.
The Karanga Valley
The next day of the hike was an acclimatisation day, or so I was told. We walked up and down along a curving ridge called the Barranco Wall until four hours later, we reacheda small valley, called the Karanga Valley. This was to be our next camp.
At this point I was starting to get aware of the altitude being a factor working against rather than for my progress. Luckily we had anticipated this development and made precautions. More specifically, we had bought black-market heart medicine, blood-thinner! Stocked up on a few of these non-prescribed pills we were good to go once again.
The Barafu Hut – only one night to go!
Leaving the Kranga Valley, the next day offered a short, although on some places steep, walk. On this day, the Umbwe route merges with the Mweka route about midway to the Barafu Hut, the last of the four camp sites on the Umbwe route.
By now I had become a tea-banana-and-popcorn addict and thought of little else as I stumbled on, the final meters towards that afternoons camp.
The location was truly spectacular, we were no longer in the misty clouds, we were far above, enjoying our evening meal to the view of the sun going down on the horizon.
At this point, another proof of our ignorance made itself evident. The final leg of the hike goes through a rather steep, sandy and rocky ridge, extending from the Barafu hut to Stella Point on the rim of Kilimanjaro’s crater. At night the sand freezes and is less strenuous to walk on (doesn’t give in so much), for this reason we were supposed to start walking at about two o’clock in the morning. A torch would have come handy here, needless to say we didn’t bring one.
The Americans in the tent next to ours however, compensated for our lack of planning by a similar amount of over-planning. I didn’t sleep early that night but was listening to the Americans planning, in detail, every single move they were going to make the next day – discussing whether 8 rolls, with 36 exposures each, would be sufficient film for their cameras and so on. By the time I fell asleep it was already time to get up
After several hours of feeling our way forward between the rocks in the darkness, the moon appeared over Mawenzi, Kibo’s craggy sibling. Amidst my cursing, at my lack of physical exercise and the effect of the thin air, I became aware of the astounding beauty of the scene. This was definitively worth it all.
A vague blue started to appear on the horizon, gradually becoming more intense until finally exploding into orange, red and yellow just before sunrise. At this point we were high up on the ridge, with some 200 meters of altitude left to scale before we reached Stella Point.
Ove started to show clear signs of altitude-sickness. After checking that his lips and fingernails were starting to take on a rather unhealthy shade of blue-gray, one of the symptoms of upcoming high altitude pulmonary edema, he was urged to turn around and and make his way down to the Horombo hut to wait for Trond and me. One of our guides followed him, the other one leading the way for me and Trond, not noticing, or caring, about a rapidly growing gap between me and them.
As a consequence, I was the last one to reach Stella Point from Barafu that day, meeting plenty of people on their way back down just as I arrived. By now I was really feeling the altitude. My head felt like I had been drinking 10 beers, which wasn’t such an unattractive feeling. I started off after Trond and our guide in the direction of Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the crater.
I made it as far as to the top of a rather steep rocky “step”, leaving only about 3-400 horizontal meters or so between me and the top. Then, at 5800-and-something meters, I decided that it probably wasn’t a good idea to continue any further. For the first time in my life I turned around. And it didn’t matter to me. I had made a snowball, I had thrown that snowball at Ove and Trond, I had done so on a mountain in Africa, on the Equator. I had, in short, been on Kilimanjaro.
Going down was a good bit quicker than going up, so I was halfway down to the Kibo Hut by the time Trond and our guide caught up with me.
He who said that Africans aren’t entrepreneurs should be beaten with a stick. At the sight us, the Kilimanjaro Mountain Rescue-team was upon us, making sure that we were able to walk by ourselves. They were eying a potential business venture if they could only be commissioned to carry us. I made a mental note, that I would have charged a rather large amount of money to carry someone my size (and weight) several kilometers on a stretcher.
The descent followed the Marangu route, a gently sloping path gradually transitioning from high-altitude desert-landscape to moss, heather, shrubs and eventually forest before arriving at Marangu Gate.
We caught up with Ove at the Horombo Hut where he had arrived some hours earlier. This was the last evening of the hike and if the porters were to make some extra money, this was their final chance. First they put forward a demand that we should give them more money or they would leave our stuff right there. Seeming as they didn’t really carry any of our stuff that threat wasn’t very effective. Next, they insisted that we were to sick and weak to complete the hike and needed to be “rescued”. Once that proposition too had been declined, a quiet discontent settled upon the porters and we went to bed.
Walking uphill with diarrhea is uncomfortable – at best, walking downhill is never less than terrible. The Marangu route was much better equipped for “those in need” with plenty of shelters, around holes in the ground, conveniently spaced along the path. I visited them all.
Back down at the Mandara hut, the first one on the Marangu route, there was even a porcelain-hole-in-the-ground, complete with markings where to put the feet. Never has so little pleased so much.
Sitting in the courtyard of the Babylon lodge upon returning, we were all filled with a sense of accomplishment, but otherwise entirely empty on account of the diarrhea. A sneaking suspicion that my decision to turn around so near the top was disastrously wrong announced its presence – but was dismissed on account of all the uphills that would have to be climbed again to make it right.
Beach and safari
Our motivation for coming to Africa was split three-ways: Kilimanjaro, safari and beach. The car accident had however cost us so much time that we had to cut down on our ambitions and skip the beach at Mombasa from our schedule. Instead we decided to go on safari out of Arusha.
Upon hearing that his three only guests were leaving, the hotel manager offered to drive us to Arusha. After all, there was no money to be made from an empty hotel. He produced a slightly more credible looking mini-van than the antique Land Rovers we had experienced up till then, and we were off to Arusha. The hotel manager didn’t drive himself but had commissioned a helper who drove like if he had made his peace with God (or more likely Allah) and was ready to die. A sticker on the wind screen reading: “Hussein saved Islam”, didn’t offer us much in terms of comfort.
We hadn’t really considered arriving in Arusha alive so when we stepped out of the minivan uninjured we were somewhat at a loss for what to do next. We checked into a hotel and sat in our room contemplating that very question when we were interrupted by a loud knock on the door, quickly followed by the arrival of a small woman who violently demonstrated, with the use of brochures and a variation of the English language, why it would be a good idea for us to come with her on safari.
Odds were against her being a serious actor in the Arusha safari market, and so we made another original decision of following her. Therefore the next morning we found ourselves, once more, on the road in the direction of Lake Manyara National Park in the Great Rift Valley.
A small stop on a snake farm taught us that there are three different types of snakes referred to as “house snakes” in Tanzania. That made the idea of sleeping in a tent less attractive than it had ever been before.
Lake Manyara National Park
Seeing the animals in their natural habitat was a great experience and immediately brought out my inner-Japanese: I was taking photos like if my life was depending upon it. However, with a 66 mm lens, a lion looks much like any other dot on the horizon when photographed from a safe distance.
Lake Manyara, in addition to big game, has hot springs. One into which Trond was fooled to put his hand by our driver. That would have been a tip-gainer with Ove and me, had we had any money to spare, which we didn’t – but he couldn’t know that.
Something which never protrudes when watching wild-life documentaries on TV, is the foul stench of the hippopotamus. It smells much like stale sewage in the summer heat and would greatly discourage toy-producers from ever again making hippo-shaped toys for children.
We spent the night at a campsite close to the entrance to the park. Also on this trip we had two people on our list of employees: a driver and a cook. Whereas the drivers role was clear to us, the responsibilities of the cook were more limited. It seemed to us his main function was to gulp down as much fizzy drink as he could take from a large case he had insisted that we needed.
When we examined the remnants of our supply of beverages we found something odd called “Crest” which we hadn’t encountered before back home. Eager to experiment and gain new knowledge of African gastronomy we popped open a few bottles and drank. Never before had such a foul taste been felt by any of us and we instinctively dropped the bottles and backed several steps away.
The effect of the mountain hike hadn’t left me and I was still feeling nauseous and suffered from diarrhea. The cook however wasn’t aware of this and when he on the first night, with great pride, presented us with dinner, it can’t be denied that he got a both startled and hurt look on his face when I had to run away to avoid reproducing the previous meal there and then.
The next morning we woke to the sound of arguing voices. Some careless people, who clearly hadn’t done enough research before choosing whom to go on safari with, had been abandoned by their driver and left with nothing. The idea of keeping our valuables close at all times came to us at that moment and was probably a good one.
The Ngorongoro Crater
The next day was reserved for a visit to the difficult-to-pronounce Ngorongoro crater where we hopefully would see rhinos. We did see rhinos, we thought they were great but they merely thought we were very, very irritating – which was a good thing though – them being wild animals.
A group of monkeys with fascinatingly big, bright blue testicles took great interest in us and kept coming into the car in search of treats and spoils.
Lunch time offered the funniest sight of the whole trip, when Trond was tricked out of his lunch by a large sinister-looking marabou stork and his friends. The storks had apparently learned how to work together in groups, circling the targeted tourist, scaring him to the extent that he would be giving up his food.
We had been looking forward to that nights camp, a place called Ngorongoro Crater Lodge. According to Norwegian logic that would have to be either on the rim of or in the crater itself. In Africa however, things weren’t that simple. The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge was a dusty parking lot with some wooden huts about 5 km away from the crater – on the outside.
Back in Arusha our driver and cook clearly expected a major tip. We even felt that a tip would have been in place but we simply didn’t have money to spare. A temporary awkwardness descended upon the crowd and for some time we just watched each other until they with a look of incomprehension got back in their car and drove away, without waving at us.
Arusha – Nairobi – Norway
Traveling back to Nairobi from Arusha meant crossing the border betwen Tanzania and Kenya again.
On the border post, when entering Tanzania some two weeks ago, we had been halted by an immigration officer who asked us how many days we were going to spend in the country. We answered him truthfully, saying that we were weren’t really sure but somewhere between eight and twelve days. “Fine”, he said. “I will put you down for eight, it doesn’t really matter anyway”.
When coming back, the same immigration officer insisted that our temporary visas (issued upon entry into the country) were long over due. He said that we had few options but to go back to Arusha and plead our case in front of a judge, or as a special service to us, he would allow us to slip him a named amount of money and he would forget the whole incident.
I had 1000 NOK sown into the lining of my pants, they were cut out, exchanged and used to bribe our way into Kenya again. Whereas I make this sound as a cold and calculated action on our part, I can assure you that this was as far from the truth as you can get. We were panicking.
The bus driver didn’t take kindly to the delay and decided that passengers would have to be passengers and took of. Only by running like #¤%&%¤”#! did we manage to catch up with the bus on the Kenyan side of the border post.
Upon arriving back in Nairobi we were in a state of paranoia. Everybody were after our money which, with the exception of Trond’s Visa, were no longer. We spent his entire credit limit on a ridiculously expensive at the Hotel Norfolk.
This was our first encounter as guests at a luxury hotel. My friends who after the flip of a coin was bound to share the double bed called for room service in order to find out how to operate the enormous bed spread. They ended up being tucked in and having their pillows fluffed by hotel staff. Picking heads in stead of tails I luckily ended up in the spare bed alone.
On the next morning we had managed to negotiate some cash from the hotel by making them charge extra to Trond’s credit card. We needed the money for transport to the airport and for paying an airport tax that was required to leave the country.
Well aboard the plane it took us about three attempts of take-off before the plane taxed back to the mechanics pit and stopped. An hour later a clearly happy voice announced that there was no worries “it was only the fuel system”.
Eight hours later Trond, Ove and I shared a big milkshake at MacDonalds on Heathrow, bought for some French francs that Ove found in his shirt pocket from a trip two years ago. We drank in silence.
Content with being home we could look back at an adventurous trip with many, many new experiences. We had been riding a pirate taxi in Nairobi, traveled into Tanzania on our own accord, found ourselves lost in the jungle after tropical nightfall, been in a car accident, had bananas, popcorn and tea, been on Kilimanjaro, been on safari, been swindled by a Tanzanian official and having stayed at the famous Hotel Norfolk.
Truly a memory for life.