by vpundir | July 22nd, 2008

The word Kilimanjaro is formed by combining the Kiswahili words Kilima (“little mountain”) and Njaro (“white” or “shining”); thus the name means “little white mountain”.

Kilimanjaro is an inactive stratovolcano and, by some counts, the world’s tallest free-standing mountain. It has three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira; Africa’s highest point Uhuru Peak is located on Kibo. While the volcano has never erupted in recorded history, it has fumaroles that emit gas in the crater on the main summit of Kibo. In fact, molten magma is just 400 metres (1,300 ft) below the summit crater. There have been several collapses and landslides on Kibo in the past; the western breach was created by one such collapse. Since 2006, when a rockslide killed 4 climbers at Arrow Glacier Camp, the Western Breach route has been closed.

The summit was first reached by German Hans Meyer, Austrian Ludwig Purtscheller and Marangu Yohanas Lauwo in 1889.

There are several routes for climbing the mountain. Marangu is the most popular route, and the easiest one too. It is quite touristy, and there are huts with electricity at the campsites. Rongai, from the Kenyan side, is another easy route; one can go to quite a high altitude in a 4×4.

I will be climbing through the Machame route; while it supposed to be a more difficult route, that is not the reason I have chosen it – instead, I chose it because it is said to have the best scenery.

We are driven up to Machame Gate in a jeep, stopping on the way at the “Highway Supermarket” to pick up bottled water. As the other members of the group are picking up other stuff at the store, I start talking with the driver. He tells me how whenever there is unrest and violence in Kenya, or Uganda, or Congo, there is an influx of refugees into Tanzania. He tells me that he doesn’t like Mugabe.

“He is an old man. Why does he need to stick to power so desperately? Look at Mandela – he used his two terms and stepped down. Why can’t Mugabe step down?”

I don’t have an answer for him.

On the way to the gate we pass some beautiful sunflower and maize fields. We also pass by returning schoolchildren dressed in beautiful pullovers in Tanzanian national flag’s colors. The government distributes these pullovers for free, the driver tells me.

At the gate, I am surprised to see the throngs of people – it’s like a carnival out here. I had no idea so many people attempt the Kili. And this is not even the most popular route!

We queue up to register with the Rangers – it is a long and slow-moving queue. We meet a pair of jovial American guys who seem to enjoy taking good-natured verbal jabs at each other. There is also a Florida girl, who is a student of Kiswahili in Alabama, and has spent the last 6 weeks in Tanzania, with a bunch of her classmates, towards fulfilling a requirement for her degree.

Once done, we have to wait for the guides to get all the porters through. The national park strictly imposes a maximum limit of 15 kg of climber equipment per porter. This is easy for me, as I don’t have much stuff – the tote bag that I have given to be carried by porters just has the sleeping bag, a pair of snow boots, and some other very basic stuff (the other few things that I brought, I left at the hotel in a plastic bag, and the laptop and my passport, I give to my guide company to store securely in their office). But the other members apparently need a lot of things on the mountain. Besides, the porters need to carry the tents, chairs, table, cooking utensils, food and supplies, and their own personal stuff. I don’t envy them.

As we wait at the gate, we are handed boxed lunches. It seems that the food has come from Indo Italiano, because the boxes have arrived with flyers for the restaurant. I decide to eat while waiting for I don’t want to have to carry the box.

The Machame Gate is at 1800 meters above mean sea level. Thus to get to the Uhuru peak (5,895m amsl), we’d be climbing just over 4km (4,095m or 13,435 ft) in altitude. I can’t wait!

The path from Machame Gate to Machame Camp goes through a beautiful rainforest. It is an enjoyable, light hike, but I do not like the steps.

The land is wet and murky, and the professor holds up his pants to prevent them from getting dirty. He is very “proper”, and complains about all the dirt and grime and sweat and other random stuff.

The Irishman recommends that we walk slowly, as he thinks that quick gain of altitude may cause altitude sickness.

The professor and I start chatting, and somehow our discussion gradually slides from natural beauty to photos to cameras to optics to physics.

And somehow we start talking about application of energy and work done. I try in vain to explain to him that the work done on a body can be zero, even though energy is being spent in moving it. To use a classic example, if a block is lying at a distance from a wall, and a string is tied to it and pulled vertically up from the top of the wall, the block first moves horizontally towards the wall. The work done on the block is zero till it reaches the wall because it moves at a 90-degree angle to the force applied.

“No!” both the professor and his daughter vehemently oppose me, “The angle does not matter.”

I am incredulous that I am having this discussion with a physics professor.

“Okay, so do you recall the formula for work done on a body?” I ask them.

“Sure, it is force multiplied by distance,” the professor replies.

“Are you sure?”


“Well, it’s actually force multiplied by the displacement.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, displacement is directional. In this case, we are looking at the displacement in the direction of the force applied. While distance is scalar, displacement is vector.”

He is still iffy so I ask him if he agrees that speed and velocity are different.

He nods, but his daughter ask what the difference between the two is.

“Well, speed is a scalar, while velocity includes information about the direction of the motion.”

Right at that moment, the guide announces that it is time to take a break. Since I have sensed that tempers have been rising through the discussion, I welcome the opportunity to change the topic; what does it matter if these two are not aware of a fundamental of physics?

The path is long and crowded, and we pass by some interesting people. Among them is a trio of Canadian brothers and sister. The elder brother is about 28, the younger is in his late teens, and the sister is about 25. They were all born in Africa, so it is a homecoming of sorts for them. They are good-natured, gregarious, and very funny. I like them.

The sun has started to set by the time we reach Machame Hut. It has been a long, tiring day, but we have go back a few hundred meters as that’s where our tents have been set up.

After some relaxing tea and biscuits, we decide to check out tomorrow’s path. Since it’s dark already, the headtorches come in handy. The Englishfolk turn back within 10 minutes, while the Irishman and I continue upwards for another 10, till we decide to call it a day. Hopefully the adherance to the mountaineering adage “Climb high, Sleep low” will serve us well.

On our return, we are welcomed with hot dinner – “karate soupi” (carrot soup), “vegetable saucei” (mixed vegetable sauce) and bread. The professor makes all sorts of comments about the food, but I like it. For dessert, we are served some fresh, delicious mangoes.

Back in my tent before sleeping I use my mosquito repellent spray for the last time – from tomorrow onwards we’d be at altitudes probably too high for the mosquitoes.

Click here to check out my pictures from the Machame Gate to Machame Camp journey.

Before setting out in the morning, I add some glucose powder to my water. This should be helpful during the day.

As we climb up “pole pole” (slowly slowly), a Chinese man overtakes us, leaping through the steps.

“Alright, buddy!” I say to him. At this time there’s no point telling him to slow down; he won’t understand.

About twenty minutes later, we find him sitting on a rock, and I ask him if he is okay.

“I got a headrush,” he says.

“Take it easy, mate,” I tell him, “It’s not about getting there fast. It’s about getting there.”

He nods back and smiles.

After a few hills, I finally reach the highest point we are supposed to climb today. That’s when I realize that I’ve left the rest of the team behind. I feel a little guilty; it feels like I’ve abandoned them. But then again, they have all the guides with them. Besides, all these folks can talk about is hypoxia, headache, diahorrea, the importance of walking slowly, failure and other complains about everything…depressing really. I’m not sure I need all that talk.

Assistant guide number 2 catches up with me as I am resting at this hilltop. We decide to eat our lunches here. As I am having my lunch, and several other climbers are eating theirs too, several white-collared ravens make an appearance. It is good to see another form of animal life on this mountain.

Once the whole group reunites, and everyone has had lunch, we descend to the Shira plateau together. After tea while most tourists decide to relax, we decide to go down to the Shira cave and the Shira hut and check them out.

Upon our return to the camp, we enjoy the warm sun on our back and watch the late arrivals reach the camp. Among them is the Canadian trio we met on the way yesterday, and the American duo that we met at the Machame gate. In fact, both these groups have their tents right next door to mine.

As I sit out there, I marvel at how the mountain changes color through the day.

The professor has contracted diarrhoea. I hate to say I said so but in Tanzania, where the risk of contacting malaria is low, especially in the winter, Malarone could do more harm than good – it’s potential side effects include increased sensitivity to sun, diarrhea, and dizziness, none of which you want on a mountain hike.

After a dinner of potato & leek soup, vegetable soup and rice, we retire for the night.

“What do you think about tomorrow? Do you feel like going up to the Lava Tower?” my Irish tentmate asks.

“Well, I think we should cross the bridge when we get there. Once we reach the junction, let’s see how everyone’s feeling, and then we can decide.”

He agrees.

Click here to check out my pictures from the Machame Camp to Shira Camp journey.

When we set out in the morning, I see one of two American guys we had met at the Machame Gate. We get to talking, and the distraction combined with the facts that both of us are fast walkers and that the climb is very gradual, we have covered a lot of ground by the time the assistant guide number 2 catches up with us. After a while the American starts feeling queasy, and I have to leave him to rest and proceed with my guide.

Before I know it, we have reached the junction; one path from here goes to the Lava Tower, and the other directly to Barranco Camp. I’m feeling pretty good, so we decide to go to the Lava Tower.

The terrain has changed dramatically. While yesterday we were walking on barren slopes, today it looks more like a field of igneous rocks. Upon reaching Lava Tower, we take a break, during which we also each our respective lunches. It is quite windy around Lava Tower, so it’s a good thing that large rocks are available for shelter.

It is at Lava Tower that I realize why the Arrow Glacier is called that – one can clearly see a right-pointing arrow made of snow from here.

There is a route from here to the summit, but it was closed down a few years ago following a fatal accident.

Following the rest break, we descend to the Barranco Camp. On the way, we see some unique vegetation, for instance the water holding cabbage.

At the Barranco Camp, I relax and listen to my MP3 player (a Creative Zen 40GB, not an iPod). The rest of the group joins me about 3 hours later.

Click here to check out my pictures from the Shira Camp to Barranco Camp journey.

We wake up late in the morning, and thus leave the camp late. In fact, we are the last ones to leave the camp.

As has become almost customary, before long I am passing by group after group, and my own group is far behind. I have taken my hiking poles along, and I realize that it was a bad idea when I reach the area that requires a bit of scrambling.

The first part of the scramble I navigate through by throwing the poles ahead and picking them up upon reaching there. But then I reach a patch where that is not quite possible. So I collapse them and stuff them in my backpack. Since my backpack is a laptop backpack, not a hiking knapsack, more than half length of the poles sticks out of the bag.

This is okay for a while till I reach a place where I need to hold onto a column and step over to the other side of the cliff – sort of reminds me of Neo’s hesitation when the agents come for him while he is still in the Matrix in the movie The Matrix. I am just a little concerned that the hiking poles might get stuck in something and cause problems. So I am very relieved that just at that moment, the assistant guide number 2 catches up with me. I hand over the hiking poles to him, and complete the rest of the scramble without them. This little scramble has been the most enjoyable part of this hike so far.

I also feel pretty happy with my Danner EXO Edge Mid GTX hiking shoes. A good shoe becomes a part of your foot; it doesn’t feel like an appendage. And these shoes are marvelous – the don’t even need any breaking in; I wore them for the first time when I got on the plane for this trip. The test, of course, is how they hold up in a scramble, and these shoes are a Godsend.

I also like my Black Diamond Inner Core liner gloves. They are warm, and provide a grip that feels just like a bare-hand grip. That’s probably because of the silicone dots on the palm and tips of fingers. They are a little smaller than their size indication though, and perhaps because of that reason the seams have come off in some places revealing holes in some of the gaps between the fingers.

At the top of the hill there are Germans and Americans taking pictures of each other jumping, seemingly in open skies. It is a little windy up here, but the skies are beautiful. Most of the Americans and many of the Germans have pounding headaches, and they are taking a variety of altitude-sickness drugs and painkillers. I think it’s just the cold wind that is causing them the discomfort.

While I ordinarily love the feeling of wind in my hair, and the lure here is too high, I am not willing to risk my summit attempt for a fleeting feeling, and keep my Buff on at all times.

An Englishman asks me if I am not warm in the buff, the jacket and the gloves. I tell him I am, but that I’d rather be this than cold. His African American wife agrees with me. These two got married recently and decided to climb the Kili for their honeymoon.

On the way we run into a couple of porters carrying another one who has broken his ankle. They request us to stay behind them since they might need our help, so that’s what we do.

It takes a total of two hours to reach Karanga. The rest of the group gets there in an additional couple of hours, which I spend lazing inside my tent. The other three, it turns out, have had severe complaints of headache. I hope they feel better by the morning.

Click here to check out my pictures from the Barranco Camp to Karanga Camp journey.

The hike from Karanga to Barafu is a short 2-hour one. When my guide and I reach the camp, the porters have just started setting up the tents. So leaving my guide there, I go up to check out the Barafu hut, and the Kosovo camp. By the time I return, the tents are ready, as is tea.

But I wait for the rest of the group to arrive, which they do in about an hour and a half. We have tea and chat away till it’s time for lunch. During lunch we discuss the importance of climbing slowly.

Climbing slowly lowers the probability of getting altitude sickness.

“Besides,” I volunteer, “walking slowly and steadily means lower probability and amount of sweat, which is really important in the freezing cold.”

“And why do we have to start at midnight?”, the girl asks.

I venture, “Well, one reason is that climbers can reach the summit at sunrise. Also, it is probably harder to climb during the day because of the odd combination and heat and cold – the sun probably melts some of the snow, cooling down the temperatures of the surroundings.”

“Also,” I half-joke, “at night you probably can’t see all the people falling around you due to hypoxia.”

After the discussion, we relax in the tents till dinner because the area has been engulfed by clouds.

After a dinner of “karate soupi”, toast (fried thick sliced bread) and beans, we retire to our tents.

“Baraf” means “ice” in Kiswahili (and in Hindi), and there is a reason this camp is called Barafu. It is a really cold night out here.

This is the base camp, the starting point. Tonight, I will do what I came here to do.

Click here to check out my pictures from the Karanga Camp to Barafu Camp journey.

We are woken up soon after midnight for tea and biscuits, which is just as well since I haven’t been able to sleep a wink anyway.

My feet are cold as ice. I’m not getting cold-feet; it’s just really cold here at this time. And I know we’ll be walking through snow for part of the climb. So I take out the Sorel Conquest boots for the first time, and hope that they don’t need breaking in. Also for the first time, I put on the new Marmot Randonnee mitts. The great thing about these mitts, I think, is that they have separate chambers for individual fingers – they are sort of a cross between gloves and mitts. But they are a bit small, and it’s not possible to wear additional insulation liner inside them.

Since the guides have strongly insisted on putting at least 3 layers of pants on, I put on my Sierra Designs Hurricane rain pants over my UnderArmour Base 1.0 legging and cotton gaberdines. While the skies are clear and we don’t expect rain, hopefully the rain pants will protect me from the snow and chilly winds.

After the tea, we are handed snack-packs for the summit attempt – 2 Twix bars, a 200 mL tetrapack of orange juice, a biscuit, and a piece of brie cheese, all of which I stuff into different pockets of my Spyder Chamonix. This is the first time I’ll be wearing both parts of the 3-in-1 ski-jacket – the jacket and the vest – together. I would realize only later while checking the pictures that I end up wearing the vest inside the jacket, instead of the other way around – not a big mistake in my case, but it does reduce the insulation.

After filling up my Dromedary hydration bladder, I pour the remaining 300g or so glucose powder into it. I plan to hang it on by back between the 2 jacket layers so that it doesn’t freeze. The backup camera and the extra batteries, etc. are in various pockets of my jacket. And I think it should be okay to carry the camera, hanging on its neckstrap.

I put on the headlamp, but it’s not really needed; it is a full-moon night, and the sky is clear, so the visibility is good despite the hour.

Ok, let’s do this.

The assistant guide number 2 tells me that isn’t going to work. Even though I have additional batteries, my camera will fail to work at the top since it is really cold out there. So I need to grab my bag and put everything, including the camera and the hydration bladder in there.

I don’t want to hold up the rest of the team, so I tell them to go on. I’ll catch up with them.

Finally, at the strike of 1 am, the assistant guide number 2 and I set off from the camp. We overtake the rest of the group just after the hut.

Then we overtake another group. And then another. By the time we cross the Kosovo Camp, we have picked up good momentum.

For quite a while we keep overtaking group after group of climbers walking in lockstep behind each other. After sometime, I feel the need to catch my breath but I don’t want to stop. So we join the tail of the next group we see. I notice that they are not just walking in lockstep, but are actually taking babysteps. Hmm…whatever works! After sticking with the group for 10 minutes, and having recovered, we pick up speed once again.

When I get tired again, we join the tail of another group for a few minutes to catch my breath. Fast, slow, rinse, repeat, so it goes.

“How far to the Stella Point?” I ask.

“I don’t want to say now. But if you keep walking for one hour then I will tell you.”

Soon after that, we pass by three people going down. At first I think that these people are super-quick. But my guide tells me that it’s a porter and a guide taking a climber down. And then I see that it’s the super-fit sports instructor from Quebec that I met yesterday. He’s bleeding from his nose, and a little bit from his eyes. No, he didn’t fall and hit a rock; it’s just the altitude.

Further up, for the first time in a long time, I see a grown man cry. He seems to be built like a tank. He’s tall, he’s muscular, but the mountain has broken him down. His guide is urging him to get up so that he can take him down.

“It’s about a half hour to the Stella Point now,” the guide volunteers.

Upon reaching a big rock, one that can shield us from the unrelenting wind, I ask my guide, “One minute break?”

Unwrapping one of the Twix bars, I share half of it with my guide, and then drink from my Dromedary.

“Are you okay? Are you feeling tired?” the guide asks me.

“I’m not tired. But I am really cold.”

“It’s just for today. just one day.”

“Yeah!” I say and execute on my hands an anti-frostbite maneuver, namely spinning my arms as fast as I can for a minute or so.

Suddenly, my baseball cap falls off down the cliff. It’s dark down there, and in any case I don’t much care for climbing down there to retrieve the cap.

“Well, let’s go on then,” I say.

And so, we go on.

Suddenly, the guide hugs me, and says, “Congratulations!”

At first, I don’t quite understand what’s going on. “Sorry, what? How far are we from the Stella Point?”

“This is Stella Point, my friend. Congratulations! You have earned the diploma.”

Excellent! I drink some of my glucose-mixed water, and jump about, flailing my hands. It’s not that I’m overjoyed; I’m just trying to warm up my freezing hands and toes.

The guide shows me the Uhuru Point in the distance. I don’t feel the need to rest. I’m feeling pretty good. So, let’s go. Let’s do it.

The terrain is simple, and very gradual, but it is very, very cold up here. As we walk through the tops of respectively the Decken and Kersten glaciers, the chill increases every minute. It is fun to walk through the snow though, especially to crush the tall upwards-pointed cones of snow under my feet.

I didn’t think it was possible, but the freezing winds have gotten colder, and are blowing harder. Since there are no mountains around now to break them, they are blowing continuously. My Buff, which served me well during the past few days, is wet and useless, and I am missing the slight cover that the baseball cap provided. At one point I stop to cup my hands over my mouth & nose, and pant noisily so that some of the warm air exhaled would warm my nose. Moral of the story: If you have a ski-mask, bring it along on your Kilimanjaro summit attempt.

My toes are frozen stiff, as are top-thirds of three fingers of my right hand. I can’t feel them at all, and am worried I might be getting frostbite. Maybe I can use the Swiss Army 3-flame lighter to warm my hands. But, as it turns out, it is so cold that even the lighter is not working – the fluid must have frozen. I knew I should have kept it in my jacket pocket, not in the backpack.

So I punch my hands against each other. And I punch, and punch, and punch some more. Then suddenly, I feel an excruciating pain in my right hand. And I laugh, for this means that blood has started flowing into my fingers once again. While my toes are still frozen, I’m not very concerned about them now that I know that they’ll be fine again.


It’s an amazing feeling to here at this time; it’s almost surreal. Looking at all the snow around here, who would imagine that this point is located on the equator or that it is a volcanic cone. I can see the snow-clad crater lying silently in the depth. What could it be thinking?

The sun has just started peeking above the cloud cover. The clouds seem like an ocean. And in the distance, it is hard to distinguish between the snow and the clouds. While the sun has started spreading its orange glow, the moon stubbornly refuses to concede defeat and is standing its ground in the distance. It’s sublime, and harmonious, and breathtaking. I spend a while taking it all in.

While it feels good to stand here, getting here is also a personal triumph. It has helped eliminate a self doubt; it has helped me peel off the label that I don’t finish what I start. Having done Kili, I feel more confident about another specific situation in my personal life.

“Okay, so how long till we get back to the camp,” I ask the guide.

“About 4 hours.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

On our way back, as the light spreads, I am able to take a few pictures of some of the stunning views. As we go past the Stella Point, it strikes me once again exactly how nondescript this place is, barely marked with a little wooden sign.

Further down, I meet the rest of my group.

“Is it much more harder than this from Stella Point to the Uhuru Peak?” the Irishman asks me.

“No, it’s actually easier. Keep going, you are almost there,” I sense that they are attempting the Stella Point, and at this time they have no intention of continuing to Uhuru.

Since I have my camera hanging by its neckstrap, the girl asks me if I would come back to the Stella Point to take pictures; she feels it would be hard to take her hands out of her pockets, let alone her camera out of the bag.

I turn around to have a look at where I have come from. It’s not too bad – I could probably get back to Stella Point in less than a half hour. So I think maybe I should go back. But while the climb does not desist me, I remember that my toes haven’t thawed yet. I am not quite sure that it is okay to let them remain in the frozen condition for much longer, so I must apologise.

Further down, stand a couple of Americans, their faces white, and their bodies shivering uncontrollably. My guide advises their perplexed, and inexperienced, guides that they need to be taken down. I feel sorry for them.

I should also get down to less cold conditions as soon as possible. Also, walking fast should help the circulation, and the thawing process.

Besides, climbing down slowly on the steep scree slope puts a tremendous pressure on one’s knees. So I do what the guides would do – I run and scree (ski on the scree) down. Though it generates clouds of dust, or perhaps partly because it does so, it is fun, even though at many places one is buried knee-deep in the scree.

On the way down, some of the guides I met on the previous days hug me and congratulate me upon finding out that I had a successful summit attempt. My guide and I continue our journey downwards with reckless abandon. We take just one break, in which I share the second Twix bar with the guide.

We reach the camp at about 8 o’clock, meaning we are among the first ones to get there all morning. The return to the camp is quite an experience in itself. Most of the tourists are still on the mountain, and the ones who got sick are inside their tents. But the locals, mostly porters but also the guides that brought back the tourists that got sick, are out and about. Everybody asks you if you made it to the top. When they find out that you did, they congratulate you, shake your hand, and even hug you. Those that are too far, and busy in some tasks, shout out to congratulate you. And it seems that the word spreads by itself, as soon people just come over to congratulate you without even asking if you made it. While they all were friendly even earlier, now it seems they have developed a new respect for you. While a majority of the tourists make it to the Barafu Camp, reaching the mountain’s summit is a rite of passage that changes everything.

After signing the register at the hut, we walk down finally to our tents, where we are welcomed with claps and cheers. And pineapple “juicy” (juice).

As I sit there, sipping the juice, I smile. Not just because I have done what I had come here to do, but also because I think my philosophy has succeeded.

Through this trip, my philosophy has been, and my advice to would-be climbers is, “Don’t try to conquer the mountain. That’s impossible. It’s been here for thousands of years, and it will remain here for thousands more. Instead, try to make friends with it. When the mountain throws out a yang at you, handle it with a ying, and when the mountain lies back in a ying mode, deal with it with a yang. In other words, take it easy in the hard parts – don’t loose breath over it – and seize the opportunity to pace up when it presents itself. Let people say ‘pole pole’ all they want. You have to find your own rhythm.”

Of course, nature has been extremely kind to us throughout the hike. Bad weather can thwart any mountaineering plans very easily, irrespective of any level of competence, energy, intentions or actions of any human.

We are supposed to go down to the Millenium Camp, which is 2 hrs away, and have lunch there. I feel like I am done with walking for today, so I hope my fellow climbers return soon and we can get it over with. While thinking that, I relish the biscuit, cheese and very alkaline orange juice that was given to me before the summit attempt.

Soon enough I get tired and bored of waiting and decide to catch a nap before the rest of my group returns. So I take off the shoes, and jacket, and and slide into my sleeping bag, patting myself on the back for not having packed it before leaving for my summit attempt. Sleep comes on swift wings, and when I wake up several hours later, my group has still not returned. The guide tells me it is better that once the group is back, we have lunch here before going down to Millenium Camp. I’m fine with that.

Finally, the other three of my party return. They look extremely exhausted; in fact, I am worried that one or two of them might collapse at any moment. But as I had hoped, all of them made it to the summit, which magnifies my joy, and of course, makes our group one of the most successful to attempt the summit today.

Once again, we gather in the dining tent, and while the faces have a worn look on them, the eyes betray a gleam of satisfaction. The professor still moans about the food and everything else, but now he at least thinks that it was an experience worth having. We decide that once back in Moshi, we should go to the Sikh Union Club to have a celebratory dinner.

After lunch, I go to the guides to get directions to the Millenium Camp.

“You know, they say around here that Indians are not strong enough for the mountain. But you are as strong as the wagum,” the chief guide tells me.

“Well, if anybody says that again, tell them they are wrong.”

From Barafu, the Millenium camp is only a 40 minutes walk away, but the terrain has changed. And there’s quite a bit of vegetation, including flowering trees. Within 10 minutes of my reaching there, the porters start arriving, and soon my faithful assistant guide number 2 reaches. They provide me a chair to relax in, and start setting up the tents. Boy! It has been so touristy – I haven’t had to carry, set up or pack any tents throughout the journey. It’s a luxurious life!

Click here to check out my pictures from the journey from Barafu Camp to the Uhuru Peak Summit, back to Barafu Camp and further to Millenium Camp.

We leave the Millenium Camp around 8 am. I walk with the rest of the group for a little while, chatting merrily about inconsequential stuff. But soon, partly because I have mentally checked out of the mountain and want to get it over with, and partly because the route is quite like the Machame route with many steps (I don’t like steps), I need to pick up speed. Before I know it, I am at the Mweka Camp, where I need to wait for the rest of the group so that we can sign the register together.

This place is much bigger than the Millenium Camp, and has two camp site, both empty at the moment.

After signing the register, we set out again, and soon the group is far behind me.

In a little while my faithful assistant guide number 2 catches up with me, and we start chatting. Apparently, a Chinese climber went missing on the mountain a couple of days ago. Today is the third day since he went missing and they haven’t been able to find any signs of him. There is serious concern for his safety as he didn’t even have any food, having given his backpack to his guide to carry.

“On the mountain, you don’t eat, you die,” my guide says, “you get cold, you die, and of course, you don’t have water, you die.”

That’s quite a gloomy prognosis. I hope this guy, whoever he is, is found safe and sound.

Moving to more pleasant topics, I ask the guide why is it that while ascending the Machame route was crowded while now while descending the Mweka route is not.

Many people camp at the Mweka Hut, he tells me, and so they are much further down the mountain. That makes sense.

On the way, we see a group of porters taking a break. They are singing a song.

“What are they singing?” I ask the guide.

Apparently the porters are singing about the mountain. Also, it turns out, they don’t like to be called porters because when the climbing expeditions started, horses used to be used as porters; no one likes to be equated to animals. These people call themselves “wagum”, which in Kiswahili literally means “the strong people”.

Soon, the guide falls behind, and I keep going.

It’s not long before I run into the German girl that I have met practically every day on this trip.

She asks, “Why are you always alone?”

“Oh, well, that’s a profound question. I’ll have to ask myself that,” I smile.

“I mean, whenever we meet, you are always by yourself. Where is the rest of your group?”

“Haha! Yeah, I know. They are somewhere back there.”

“So they are too slow for you?”

“Umm…well, yeah, I guess that’s what it is.”

Soon I see the Anglo-American couple again. The wife asks me if I made it to the top.

There is a momentary laspse in my sensing of the tone of her voice and I reply, “Of course.”

No sooner have I said it that I realize it was a mistake.

“Well, we couldn’t,” she says, “I got sick. We had to turn back after 4 hours. People had been turning back since 1 hour from the Barafu camp.”

“Yeah, that’s too bad! But you know, you made that far….that’s great. Besides you had fun, you spent a lot of time together…that’s the important thing, right?”

Next I pass by an American girl, who asks if I am Irish.

“Oh, c’mon! Do I look Irish from any angle?” I think to myself, but presently explain to her that for my bandana I’m actually wearing the colors of the Indian flag. Oh well, I give her credit for knowing the colors of the Irish flag.

Further closer to the gate, I meet the Florida girl from the first day again. She is quite happy and excited to be going home after an interesting extended vacation in Africa.

As we pass another couple of climbers, we overhear their guide telling them that the gate is just 5 minutes away.

“Let’s see if we can do it in 2,” I smile.

Ten minutes down, the gate is still nowhere in site, and the Florida girl falls behind.

When I finally reach the gate, our pickup car is nowhere in sight so I take refuge at the tourist shed. There is a suggestion-box, and I want to suggest that they should use the bio-gas from the toilets at the camps on the mountain to generate electricity for local use. But there is no pen or paper available so I guess the first suggestion should be that they need to have pen and paper by the suggestion-box.

Within 10 minutes of my reaching there, the Irishman from my group joins me, as do the two assistant guides. The guides leave us at the tourist shelter and go down to manage the porters.

While we wait there, several people rally around, vending tshirts, and Kilimanjaro beer, and paintings. While the Irishman and I practically turn a blind eye to them, they have found a great sucker in a middle-aged German woman whom they butter up by calling Mama Africa, and sell one item after another.

“Hey!” I hear someone say, and turn around to see the Austrian girl whom I met a couple of times on mountain.

“Are you for real?” she says.

I don’t quite know how to take that, so I just smile. Her group is leaving for a safari, so we say our goodbyes.

Finally the owner of our guide company arrives with lunch packets. I am really hungry and dig right in. It is not a minute sooner that the professor and his daughter arrive with a bunch of girls, who are apparently fascinated by the fact that I have fries in my lunchbox. Since I am not particularly fond of fries, I let them take them. These young girls evidently climbed the Kili for charity, and one of them is a friend of the professor’s daughter.

After we receive our certificates, it is time to give tips. The standard amount is $50 per climber, which is given to the chief guide who distributes it at his discretion among the other guides and porters. I have Tanzanian shillings, so I give 50,000 to the head guide for overall distribution, and an additional 20,000 to the assistant guide number 2 for all his kindness to me.

Once the porters have received their salaries and tips, they express their joy and gratitude by singing the Kilimanjaro song. Soon thereafter, we take off.

On way back, there are some gardens/orchards where there are sheets of paper stuck to branches of the plants – one sheet per plant. I think this might be an agri research facility, and they probably mark vital signs on the paper.

The paved road begins at the College of African Wildlife Management.

Soon thereafter, the huge huge Arabica coffee plantation starts. The driver explains that it used to belong to the village council, but was taken over by “two white men” three years ago. They now employ the Chaga people as plantation workers, and pay a rent to the village council.

The huge building in the distance is the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical College.

Back at the hotel, we all check in. Funnily, I get the same room as before. When I go to put my stuff in there, I find that there’s no bed in there. Hmm…I’ll resolve that later. First let me go have a look at the town while it’s still day.

Back in town, I am intrigued by the Hindu temple, and decide to go in through the gate on a whim. It is a pretty large temple, with three sancta (each with its own yajna-altar), an open shivling, a basil plant, a flower garden, a stage, a community hall, and bhajan rooms. There are blackboards with announcements scribbled in Gujarati all over the place.

The sancta are locked and there’s not a human in sight anywhere, so I am surprised to see the tens of cars parked all around. As I go around the place, I come across the old, genial African caretaker, who seems to be happy to see me. He explains that the place is quiet because it is Sunday afternoon, and people are at their homes, relaxing. They just park their vehicles here because it is convenient and cheap.

Next, as I go past the famous Mawenzi Secondary School, which has strong links with Buckie High School Scotland, I notice that it easy to figure out that the name Indian Public School has been scraped off the building.

Further down the road is the town mosque. As I walk past the gates of the mosque, my attention is attracted by the sound of music. Deciding to check out the source, I walk into the large field behind the wall, and there it is: on a make-shift stage, a bunch of nattily dressed people are singing “Lord we proclaim you now.”

They have amazing, silky voices – some of the best Gospel singers I have ever heard. As they move from song to song, from “Amazing Grace” to “Here I Am To Worship”, their audience waves colorful flags and claps.

The most interesting thing about this Christian event is that it is taking place in a field owned by a Hindu temple and located next to a Muslim mosque!

And then I see an Indian guy – the first I’ve seen since my arrival in Africa. He is an elderly man watering the plants in the garden. As it turns out, he is the pujari (priest) at the Hindu temple. Originally from Ahmedabad in Gujarat, he has been living here for several decades. He tells me that there are around 450 Indians in this town of close to 140,000 people.

Since we have been talking, a few desi children have gathered in one corner of the field, where they are playing cricket.

In the large hall by the field there is, what appears to be a Sunday market. Stalls are set up for all kinds of merchandise from electronic items to furniture to household goods to clothes.

Once out of there, I pass by the very young children by the side of the street, polishing women’s toenails.

I roam around a bit, and then suddenly realize that I have dropped my hotel key somewhere. So I try to retrace my steps, but am unable to find it. Oh, well, that’s it for the town tour, I should return to the hotel now.

Back at the hotel, I tell the receptionist that I have lost the room key, that the room she assigned me doesn’t have a bed, and that I need to collect the plastic bag that I left at the hotel before going for the hike.

She is very patient, and takes me up almost right away. She assigns me a new room, which turns out to be several times nicer than the previous one. As I am washing my face, she returns and tells me that she was able to find the spare key for my previous room and has opened it for me. After I have picked up my stuff from the old room and moved it to the new one, she sends someone with me to the storeroom, where I find my stuff quite easily.

Everything resolved, I join the party of my three climbing mates who, by the looks of it, have been getting drunk. Although, I must say, before getting on the binge they have all cleaned up rather well.

When I tell them the story about the room, they start making fun of my nonchalance.

“When he figured out that he had lost the key, he must have been like, ‘Eh, I lost the key. Oh, well!'”

As this merriment is going on, the chief guide joins us. He has come to pick up the shoes and trousers that the professor is giving away as they got too dirty during the hike.

He tells us how some people want to go down to the crater, and how he has taken many tourists there. Apparently the air is so very dense down there. He has gone down up to level 3 (which, I think, is the maximum one can), and the air is so dense there that it pushes one back. While no tourists go beyond level 2, he goes down there to bring back salts for his mother.

And then, once again he starts on about how Indians don’t usually climb the Kilimanjaro.

“Before you, I have taken 9 Indians on the mountain,” he says, “but none of them made it to the summit.”

“And he did it in record time too,” the professor chimes in.

All this talk is embarrassing me, so I need to change the topic. Besides, I really am curious about the fate of the Chinese guy they lost on the mountain.

Turns out that he is still missing. It’s the fourth day today, and there is talk that tomorrow they might send in helicopters to look for him.

Then we are joined by the owner of an adventure company based in Nairobi, and a girl who is making a documentary on his humanitarian work. As is fairly typical for conversation starters, we ask him where he is from.

“Kenya,” he responds.

At this the guide blurts out, “You are not from Kenya. Kenyan people are black like me.”

The Englishgirl and I can hardly suppress our laughter, though the other folks either didn’t hear the remark, or chose to ignore it.

Once the guide leaves, we disperse, having decided to meet back in a half hour to go out for our celebratory dinner at the Sikh Union Club.

I take the opportunity to take a shower for the first time in a week. Boy, had I been reeking!

The Sikh Union Club is a large, nice-looking place, though surprisingly empty. Even though we know that it is owned by the same people that own Indo Italiano, it is somewhat strange that the menus are actually those from Indo Italiano, with a sticker saying this restaurant’s name pasted over.

The service is as bad as Indo Italiano. In fact, I’d say it’s worse, because though Indo Italiano took a long time to serve the food, at least they could hide behind the fact that they were very crowded; this place is practically empty – there are guests only on 4 tables, including ours. Also, if you order anything from the Italian menu, it turns out that it comes from the kitchen of Indo Italiano – so the timing could be off with respect to the other items.

Click here to check out my pictures from the Millenium Camp to Moshi town journey.

I wake up late in the morning. So I have to rush through the daily chores quickly. I don’t think I’ll have time for breakfast.

Downstairs, even after I’ve had breakfast, the shuttle hasn’t shown up. So we hang around waiting after checking out.

After quite a while, the owner of my guide company shows up. He tells us that the shuttle is late and that he’ll drive us to the shuttle station.

We pass the same scenery on the way back, as we did on the way here. At Arusha, we change buses, and I realize that it is the exact same bus that we rode during the Nairobi-Arusha trip, and that all of us in exactly the same repective seats.

We cross the border again at Namanga, and I give my passport to the immigration officer. He looks at my passport and says something incomprehensible to me. I can’t quite figure it out.

“Sorry, what?”


“Namaste! Oh, you know namaste,” I laugh out loudly.

He smiles, stamps my passport and hands it back to me.

“Ahsante sana (Swahili for thank you very much),” I say, and wave goodbye.

On the way to Nairobi, I notice further signs of Indian presence in the region. Almost every other large tranport trucks passing by is owned by the A to Z Transport, and is marked with the symbol and the word “Swami“.

And there is a Reliance Industries Limited factory about 20 minutes south of the airport.

Click here to check out my pictures from the Moshi to Nairobi journey of 21 Jul 2008.

At the Kenyatta airport, the guy posted at the KLM queue doesn’t want to let me through to the check-out counter because my flight is the next morning. When I insist that since it is within 12 hours, he should let me through, he starts explaining rules to me. Thus we get into a long-winded discussion (I don’t want to call it an argument, as neither of us raise our voices), and he finally says that if I want to try my luck I should go ahead to the Kenya Airways counter (the flight is apparently operated by Kenya). So that is exactly what I do.

The girl at the check in counter is very helpful. She tells me that due to the regulations, I could either come back after midnight to check my bag, or she could check me in without any checked-in baggage – she tells me that my tote bag could pass as cabin luggage, and that my backpack would also go through since it has my laptop. Excellent! That’s what customer service is – finding solutions. Oh, and I tell her that the airline misspelt her name – while I don’t know her name, her name is spelt differently on her ID and her nametag.

So I take my boarding pass, go through immigrations, and go upstairs, where I grab a bite at a cafe, and finally lie down to sleep for the night on the floor behind a row of seats. It’s been a good trip.

One Response to “Kilimanjaro”

  1. i have only two words: jos pălăria.
    cant read it all, gotta go. wanted to print to have it on the 18hrs train journey, but no way now. with a little luck, will read at home.

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