Sunday, April 13, 2008

On the slopes of Kilimanjaro

Machame camp (February 11th, 2008): When I finally got some sleep battling with the power cuts and the mosquito net, it was time to wake up. In fact we were still in bed when Lee and the Dawg called from the reception area all ready. Jumped out of bed and thought about skipping a shower when it dawned upon me that we won’t be having a bath for the next seven days. I acceded to the indulgence and got really late. All packed up, water bottles filled, and slathered with sun screen, we definitely looked like we were ready to ascend the mountain of our dreams. At the new Arusha Hotel, we boarded the Good Earth bus filled with our guides, porters and cooks. Our Head guide introduced himself as Herment Mosha and then he proceeded to introduce us to the others in the Good Earth team. By the time he finished, I had forgotten everyone in the crew except for Justin. Just couldn’t point to him. There would be enough time to figure out everyone as we go.

We passed through the city of Arusha and some dotted villages along the Savanna and couldn’t help notice how similar the landscape was to India. Villagers sitting in a group, talking, combing each others hair, buying vegetable, cycling and some marathoners preparing. So you really don’t see runners in a typical Indian village. We also saw a few drive-through orphanages. As we reached the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro and drove up the slopes through the village of Machame, we were greeted with lush green cultivation of predominantly banana trees. We could never see the mountain even though we strained our eyes in that direction as it was always covered by a veil of clouds, frustratingly so.

At the Machame gate, suddenly there was a population explosion injected with a flurry of activity. The place was filled with people who came to climb the mountain and the guides and porters who took these people up. European tourists in their brand new mismatched clothes and the porters with their hand-me-down mismatched clothes. We being the only brown people were definitely outnumbered by the whites and the blacks. Other than in Thirupati, I am not sure where I saw a bigger crowd. I had no idea Kilimanjaro was so popular. I heard only 50% make it to the top. Well of course, that guy with pink tights can be ruled out right away. There were touts selling rain gear, bandanas and walking sticks at the gate. The guides were busy registering us for the climb, porters were packing and weighing the stuff they would carry, while the we hikers ate boxed lunches and waited for the go ahead sign. Before we were about to ascend, the guide told us that this is no competition and that we must walk extremely slow (pole-pole in Swahili) so we acclimatize better. We started at around 1 pm and walked through the equatorial rainforest, mostly uphill, and mostly difficult. The forest was very lush and beautiful. Endemic trees consist of Macoranga Kilimanjarica and the flower Impatiens Kilimanjarica.

Thankfully our guide, Herment, could sustain long (3 min) conversations in English after which he would lapse into animated Swahili with the assistant guides, Freddie and Antony. They all were good friends and hailed from the same Marangu village on the mountain slopes. Most of the porters and guides belong to the indigenous mountain tribe called Chagga who migrated to the slopes on Kilimanjaro from West Africa many years ago. They are essentially farmers, but have been drawn into the lucrative tourism business lately. Swahili is a very sweet sounding language that I grew to like and learnt a few key words like Jambo (Hello!), Caribu (Welcome). The Tanzanians we met had a very easy going attitude towards everything in general and were cheerful people who never complained. In any situation, you’d hear them say- Hakuna Matata! (No worries!) Everytime I stopped gasping for breath, Herment would say Hakuna Matata! 'Oh come on! I will hakuna.. I better hakuna...its not normal for me to feel like I am going to die.'

When I did have energy, I would probe Herment about his family and the mountain that drew us to Africa. He was very knowledgeable and gave us a lot of pertinent information. Freddie spent most of the time in mountain with a transistor that played loud Swahili music, which seemed to entertain other groups along the way too. The Dawg would suddenly lapse into dappanguttu (South Indian folk dance) for 2 minutes after which he would collapse as he probabaly spent his last ounce of energy appeasing the African Gods. But Swahili music did something strange to him everytime. Antony was the quieter guide who usually led the way. Anytime Antony sensed some trouble, he’d turn around and ask casually, ‘You are Ok?’ It didn’t take me long to understand that any answer he got from us would have resulted in the same reaction from him- to turn back and walk on. One time when Leela was struggling, he turned around and expanded his vocabulary,’ You carry my bag?’ Leela gave one look at his humungous backpack and shuddered. She instantly felt better and moved on without a sigh.

Our first glimpse of the peak

We reached Machame Camp (9,900 ft) at sun set and found to our surprise that the porters had already set our camp for us. Sumptuous dinner was served and we ravenously consumed it. Soup, Rice, Vegetable stew, fruits and of course the famous hot tea that they insisted we drink all the time. Having backpacked in the US a lot and not being used to porters and cooks, we felt all this was way too much luxury in backcountry. Pi went on about how terrible it was to have a chair to sit on when we could very well manage sitting on the floor of the tent and eat. Infact, after day 3, the same Pi wanted a ski lift to get him to the top of the mountain. Tired and aching in every joint, we tried to stretch a little, but eventually fell into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. I am a light sleeper and have trouble falling asleep in the best of the situations. I spent the most of the night reading a book that spoke about Sudanese children being eaten by lions on their way to refugee camps in Kenya. In detail. Now whose great idea was this book? I sat up all night counting Sudanese kids and watching Lee sleep like a baby. How would it be if a lion came and ate her?


Aqua said...

awesome. congrats alpha on conquering the kilamanjaro. (Sounds so dramatic no?) but for someone who can't even walk 50 mtrs without panting...this amazes me.

loved yr post. more pics pls :)

bloghopper said...

So Hakuna Matata is Swahili ? I always taught they made it up. So is the Swahili music anything similar to our bolly music ?

Anu said...

trust you to lie awake and stare even after a day of hiking. at least you didn't start talking...else poor lee would always be accused of falling asleep while the queen is talking :)...

Keep writing.

Alpha said...

aqua: thanks man..more pictures will ensue.

bh: yeah the msuic was pretty cool...bolly music elements were definitely there fact they love bolly music and gwen stefani.

anu: why cant some people stay awake for some heart to heart? Actually unlike you, Lee would start snoring the minute she lied there was no scope to even start my rambling...(did you tip her about ths by any chance, coz I found it very strange that someone could just go out so quick..someone other than Pi of course)

bloghopper said...

How come anyone next to you ends up sleeping/snoring the moment they lie down next to you ;) ?

napp said...

this sounds interesting and yeah, so totally different from hiking in the US....truely must have been an experience of a lifetime!!!!!

keep them posts rollin'''

:-) said...