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Bucking the Bucket List

Four days left until the long-long-long flight to Darkest Africa. I can't tell you how this trip will play out since we're still in Sarasota. This is our third trip to Africa. I know we had a great time on our second trip--I've got the pictures--but other than a very long flight and no water in the Okavanga Delta, I don't remember it all that clearly.

Really, nothing went wrong. The flights were on time, we didn't have any medical issues or problems with the food and water, and no one on the tour was stampeded by a mad elephant (Mr. Rearranging Nature--as the guides referred to one large one).

The first trip, however, was a doozy. It was February 2012. I'm still amazed we returned to Africa after this one. Here's the story (a little longer than usual blog length).

As I drag my half-frozen body out of my frost-scarred tent, the Kilimanjaro sunrise reveals a small city of tents and a large number of sleeping vultures. My guide says that the exceptionally cold night grounded the vultures and that the rising sun will warm them back to life. I’m fervently hoping it will do the same for me.

It’s been a long, cold night in a too small tent without the proper equipment. An unseasonal trough of cold has dumped heavy snow over Europe and surprised the climbing groups here with near-zero temperatures. The porters are boiling water for tea to try to calm our chattering teeth. I have all my layers on now: thermal underwear, shirt and pants, fleece jacket and pants, even the Gore-tex wind shell on top. Thin socks and climbing socks wrap my toes inside my camp shoes; I lumber slowly to the dining tent.

The fact that I am even considering food puts me ahead of the game this morning. There are close to three hundred people in this camp area now, and many were up all or part of the night with “gastro” ailments. My husband Robin is one of them and it looks like we’ll have to retreat down the mountain to get him some relief. Nothing on this trip has gone as planned, and there are still two weeks to go.

A year ago we stopped at the guide company’s US office and sat in a room surrounded by dramatic Kili landscapes while the travel coordinator told us of their 95% success rate in getting hikers to the nineteen thousand foot summit. He kept a straight face when he told me that my serious fear of heights would not be a problem with the route we had selected. I kept a straight face when I told him I could handle it.

The year passed quickly. We worked out, practiced with equipment, bought everything on the extensive list they provided. Then, on a cold morning in February when there was no more equipment left to buy, we left Boston for the Kilimanjaro International Airport in Arusha to begin our trek.

As luck would have it, our adventure began almost immediately with a six-hour delay out of Schiphol and an unscheduled diversion to Dars-es-Salaam to replace a crew that had run out of flying hours. After a quick map check, we saw that Dar as it’s called by the locals was actually in Tanzania. Thank God for small favors.

At four in the morning, it was ninety humid degrees inside and out. One failing air conditioner spit the occasional burst of tepid air at those of us lucky enough to be clustered around it. Three hours later, just as we’d given up hope of ever seeing Kilimanjaro, a steward yelled “let’s go” and we crawled back into our seats for the half-hour hop to Arusha. Upon clearing customs, we found the parking lot jammed with Land Rovers draped by half-sleeping guides who had waited the past twelve hours for KLM to deposit us.

According to our guide James, we were heading for the Mt. Meru Game Lodge for the one night left on our two night stay. The Lodge advertises that it has thirty years of experience with guests and that isn’t hard to believe. The bed was lumpy, the toilet barely flushed and the shower only dripped. We got some much-needed sleep and emerged at cocktail time to meet the other guests at the Lodge. Most were British and German tourists on their tenth or twelfth visit. I felt like I’d woken up in an Agatha Christie murder mystery. A corpulent German industrialist advised us not to drink anything with ice cubes or any beverage not from a sealed bottle. His blonde and botoxed wife said that uncooked vegetables and unpeeled fruit are also out. A British man who introduced himself as a Major said the Kili beer was pretty good and safe to drink. I began a romance with baked goods and beer that lasted the duration of our journey.

In the morning, we were dispatched to get a taste of Arusha. Mostly, that taste was diesel fuel from the fumes of the trucks and Land Rovers backed up around us on the single lane road that ran through the center of the burgeoning city. Dusty, open-air shops lined the road; quick-stop type places that displayed endless half-liter bottles of red, green and yellow-colored drinks. Tin-roofed machine shops, cinder-block auto repair stalls and brightly-lit fuel stations filled in the spaces between the quick-stops.

Men on bicycles that look like they were assembled from discarded parts peddled next to the stalled traffic carrying yellow jugs of what James said was cooking oil. Google says that Tanzania is a high-growth, low-income country, with the average income about $600 US per year and 12% overall unemployment. I had a hard time figuring out how anyone can live on an average of $600 a year, even here.

As if to prove the uselessness of statistics in a developing country, we were pulled over by a uniformed man stationed at roadside. James argued with him about whether our Land Rover was properly licensed as a tourist vehicle (James said it was) and how much fine he will need to pay to proceed (none, according to James). While we waited, I looked across the road and saw a large cinder block building in the midst of construction. A brand new Audi Q7 pulled out from the site and sped off with a quick wave to the officer. A sign advertised that this newest building in Arusha was a prison. Since extortion was obviously not a jailing offense, I wondered what crimes required this type of facility.

Later that afternoon, we said goodbye to the Mt. Meru and headed to the airport to pick up our fellow climbers. Thankfully, they arrived much nearer to their scheduled time than we did. James loaded the five of us into the Land Rover and set off for our next stop, the Ndarakwai Ranch. Joining the group were a doctor from Illinois, an opera singer from Maine, and an insurance guy from Pittsburg. We buzzed excitedly about our trips and the upcoming climb until Robin noticed an open truck pull in behind us with what looked like armed guards in the back. James assured us that this was no problem: those men with guns were our guards.

As we drove farther from the airport, the road, once gravel covered but easily passable morphed into a mass of cavernous ruts that had to be negotiated like a slalom ski run, but at much slower speeds. The chances of breaking an axle in the middle of moonless Tanzania seemed all too real. In another ten days, during the interminable wait to enter the Ngorongoro Crater, I’ll be told by a fellow traveler that Tanzanian roads are a vast improvement over those in Uganda’s gorilla region and I’ll silently cross Uganda off my list.

The Ndarakwai Ranch is a private game preserve and permanent tent lodge on the western slope of Kilimanjaro. It is everything the Mt. Meru is not. When we arrived shortly after midnight, we were taken to our soft bedded tents and given warm rain showers to take off the red road dust. The next morning, coffee was delivered while Robin and I sat on the veranda outside our tent watching the elephants and antelope forage in the dawning light.

Over the next two days, we recovered from our long journeys, watched the wildlife and prepared to climb. Except for our opera singer, we all got along fine. We had only had brief glimpses of her since the ride in when she ignored the four of us and our stories in favor of playing with her Iphone.

On prep day, as we laid out our equipment for the impending climb, it bacome increasingly obvious that she was the only one among us that had ever hiked anything bigger than a sandhill. She ran down her resume of mountains with our head climbing guide Kimo while the rest of us shifted awkwardly in our new, unscuffed hiking boots.

After our third breakfast at the ranch, we finally headed off for the mountain. We drove through a small village past a hand-painted sign that proudly proclaimed “Thank you Bill Clinton and Chelsa.” They visited in 1998.

Two hours later we reached the gates to the Kili park and waited another hour to break free of the maze of paperwork and fees that Kimo had to pay. We pulled in to find our hiking team already in place. For five hikers there were twenty guides, assistant guides, cooks, general porters and personal porters. Hot lunch was ready for us and we were encouraged to load up on the roast chicken, sliced beef, potatoes, creamed corn, bread and brownies to keep up our strength for the climb: no dieting allowed on this trip.

After lunch, we began our trek across the barren slopes of Kilimanjaro. We started at 10,000 feet so plant life was scarce. Beny, my personal porter, was carrying my heavy duffle, as well as his own gear. His job is to carry my stuff, walk with me and keep me drinking. I carry a water bottle, energy bars, clothing layers, lip balm, hat, gloves and toilet paper. Jeremiah lugs Robin’s gear so my husband is free to constantly change lens from the portable camera store he carried on his back.

It appears that being a porter in Tanzania is a desirable job in a country with 80% youthful unemployment. “I have no schooling for the good jobs in Dars es Salaam.,” Beny says. “Peoples from Kenya come and take our jobs because they have education. We have no good education in Tanzania.” He wants to become a Kilimanjaro guide because the pay is so much better, but guides need to be certified.

“I first need to be a porter for three years then pass a test and serve two years as an assistant guide,” he says. “But I cannot earn enough as a porter to pay for the guide course and my father cannot help me.”

Guides receive other benefits beyond salary and tips. Kimo, our head guide, has a new Canon camera courtesy of a hiker. He glanced at our Swarovski binoculars as he mentioned that he is often given equipment at the end of a hike that he can use or sell. Items that are small change to many hikers are huge windfalls for the guides. Kimo is not getting the Swarovskis no matter how great the climb turns out.

Back on our trek, our diva was asking Kimo or the assistants the Latin name of every greenish thing she saw. She was often disappointed by their limited knowledge and clearly communicated this to them. The rest of us took turns walking behind her. When we couldn’t stand the chatter anymore, we fell back and the next in line took our place.

After an hour or so, we reached our first ravine, where I realized exactly how stupid it was to think that I’d be able to handle the heights, and how much our travel coordinator fibbed about them. As Kimo assigned assistant guides Samuel and Matthew to each grab an arm and move me down the rocky wall and up the other side, I understood why there is a 95% summit rate. My escorts told me that I was not the first person they’ve done this for. Three ravines and a half-inch of dust later, our first camp shone on the horizon.

At almost fourteen thousand feet, the air was thinner and walking required my full attention. Our tents were quickly assembled while dinner was prepared. We rested and snacked on a can of Pringles that Kimo unearthed. The salty, familiar crunch helped smooth out the rocky terrain. I had to exercise serious self-control to not eat the whole can. Jasper, our cook, has been trained to prepare food to satisfy American tastes, so we got beef stew, more chicken, boiled potatoes and pasta with a very passable Bolognese sauce. Bread, butter, more creamed corn and chocolate-chip cookies completed our feast. Kimo ate with us and then recorded our pulse-oxygen rating. Robin and I were exceptionally good at 95%. The rest of the team, including our diva, was in the 87% range: not so encouraging. The plan for the next few days ws to zig-zag up the mountain, giving us time to acclimatize at 14,000 feet. Altitude sickness is a major issue for climbers. It can strike anyone, in any condition, at any time. The only way to cure it is to descend.

In the middle of the night, I saw the first signs of trouble: frequent visits to the toilet tent. I was there several times, but Robin was having a real problem. He was dehydrating and couldn’t keep enough fluids down. On top of that, the extreme cold had both of us shaking in our sleeping bags, wasting valuable energy.

Now as I stand in the warming sun, Robin can’t even stomach the idea of tea. He sips water gingerly, one eye on the toilet tent. Kimo pulls me aside and tells me he has to go down. There will be no summiting for us. Kimo asks if I want to proceed alone but that’s not our program. It’s both of us or nothing. Besides, at this point, I’m seriously worried about him. His color is white and he can barely stand. Summiting Kili is no longer important. Kimo radios for an ambulance to pick us up and tells us we will have to hike out to meet it. The assistant guides and porters assigned to us for the trek load up all the gear that won’t be going to the top of Kili and start the climb down to the evacuation road. This time, both Robin and I have men on each arm. I’m getting better at the ravines but Robin looks like he might drop if left by himself.

At the evacuation site, while we sit and wait for the ambulance, I watch helicopters flying around the 14,000 foot camps. Samuel tells me there is a small landing site there where the radio has a report of a hiker with a broken leg coming down for evacuation. He’s being carried down from higher up, strapped into a litter for what must be an awkward and painful journey. Two hours later, an ambulance truck plucked from the TV show MASH rolls to a stop in front of us. They fold Robin in the front seat and shoehorn everyone else into the back for what turns out to be a four hour hair-raising and gravel-skidding trip to Arusha. Samuel says that instead of returning to the Mt. Meru Game Lodge, we’ll be convalescing at the Mt. Meru Hotel, “ a very nice hotel, the best in Tanzania.” Great, can’t wait. And we have ten days left.

Well, we survived, stabilized with a diet of bottled water, energy bars and Pepto Bismol. The Mt. Meru was indeed very nice, a Park Avenue glass and chrome hotel transplanted to dusty Arusha. I wasn’t about to complain about the marble bathrooms since I was attacked by the same gastro problems as Robin soon after we checked in. When we reunited with the doctor for the flight back to Schiphol, he told us that the insurance guy contracted dysentery and had to be litter-carried off Kili and air-evacuated home. Both the doctor and our diva were able to summit, but only with the aid of Diamox to control their debilitating altitude sickness.

I was reluctant to tell him that while he was failing to sleep in the sub-zero temperatures on the rocky Kili slopes, we’d been dispatched to the spice island of Zanzibar where we’d lolled in the turquoise bathwater of the Indian Ocean by day and then sipped gin and tonics shoreside as the dhow lufted home in the pale pink of early evening.

As KLM takes off from Arusha, we look down on the mountain, backlit by the just-set sun, and conclude that this view from above is the best way to experience Kili. Instead of ten days with rocks, vultures and toilet tents we’ve been able to discover so much more of the region’s natural beauty, diverse geography and welcoming people.

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