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No Wooden Rhinos
Climbing Kilimanjaro
Story & Photos by Tom Demerly

Africa is a destination that invokes a feeling of adventure. The land of Hemmingway. Of big game safaris. Of natives and tribal dances and music. In our mind we see it as lions under trees in the Serengeti. We see Africa as the Discovery Channel pipes it into our home. The real Africa is different, both much worse, and much better.

I spent over a month in Africa this year between two trips, once to race the Marathon Des Sables in Morocco, the second trip, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and go on safari in Tanzania.

Kilimanjaro is often regarded as an "easy" climb. Mostly by armchair climbers who don’t know anything about climbing. The fact is, Kilimanjaro is 19,345ft. high, and anything that high is tough. Especially those last 5,000 feet.


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The Keys Hotel in Moshi, Tanzania. Complicated plumbing, but a nice place.


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Porters sort loads at the entrance to Kilimanjaro National Park.

Rasa Poorman, my sometimes climbing associate, and I left for Africa on September 19. We had a one-day stop over in London, England. Although I’ve traveled the world I somehow missed London and looked forward to seeing it. I wasn’t disappointed. London is a beautiful city, and the English should be proud of it. We rode the underground transit system, The Tube, walked, shopped, ate and shopped some more before our transfer to Gatwick airport and the ghastly 8-hour flight to Nairobi. A splendid day.

Once in the air I learned we would be flying over Libya. Commercial flights over Libya were prohibited due to political tensions. Americans are still not allowed to travel there unless they obtain a special visa. This is because the last time Americans flew over Libya they were dropping bombs on it. Recent political concessions meant that British Air was now saving 15 minutes between London and Nairobi by flying directly over Libya. This is also a good idea for Libya. If they ever get pissed at the West again, they don’t have to smuggle bombs on the planes anymore; they can just shoot at them from the ground. It was intriguing to me to know we would fly over the forbidden zone, enemy territory. Other than the food on the plane, the flight passed without incident.


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IMG Guide Craig Van Hoy, Possibly the best guide I have ever climbed with.

Nairobi was hot. Welcome to Africa. The airport was in a state of bedlam and it felt like the kind of place where an American tourist, like me, is going to somehow get ripped off. I read all the books though, so I had the shots, took the pills, had extra toilet paper, kept my money hidden, carried extra copies of my passport and had an empty wallet on my hip for the pick pockets. Clearly, I was ready.
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The beginning of the climb was a wonderful hike on excellent trails.


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As close as you’d ever want to get to a cape buffalo.

We met our able-bodied, albeit somewhat leisurely driver, Dawson in the parking lot. Our vehicle was a mini-bus type affair. We six climbers and our guide, Craig Van Hoy of International Mountain Guides (IMG), loaded our gear. We started the drive for, first, Arusha, then, Moshi, Tanzania where we would be at the Keys Hotel, a place frequented by climbers from all over the world climbing Kilimanjaro. Outside the airport we encountered our first roadblock. Sheet metal spikes were dragged into the road to prevent anyone from trying to run the roadblock. Police, or at least, guys in uniforms, guarded it with Kalishnikov automatic rifles. Not the Ohio turnpike.
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This porter’s load, including food, cooking utensils and cooking oil, weighed almost 70 pounds. He carried it on his shoulders.

The roads in East Africa are bad. Not U.S. type bad, but so bad you are often better off just driving next to the road in the dirt. Consequently, any suggestion of traffic rules have long since degenerated to two basic tenants: Biggest vehicle rules and go wherever the hell you please.
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Even with heavy loads the porter’s passed us easily throughout the climb.

 
Dawson was in strict compliance with both of these rules as we bounced, jarred, jiggled and (tried) to avoid motion sickness for the next six hours to Arusha. I passed the time by trying to read (tough when the road is so rough the book is a blur in your hands), trying to sleep (also tough when it feels like you’re riding in a dryer) and coming to grips with the fact that all the dust entering our vehicle seemed to be headed directly up my nose.

After some time, well, a lot of time, we reached the Kenyan/Tanzanian border. We stopped at a little rest stop that had cold cokes, bathrooms and sold what looked like thousands of little wooden rhinoceros. The border itself was a few minutes down the road. We relieved ourselves, drank some cokes, and piled back into the bus for the trip to the border. We knew something was up when Craig started giving us a "safety briefing" about the border. "Keep all the windows closed tightly and keep anything valuable away from the windows. Stay inside the van and don’t take pictures. Don’t make eye contact with anyone."


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The cooks worked tirelessly to prepare excellent meals.


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Sunset at camp 1.

I will describe the border to you, but you cannot understand this place until you visit it. It is a place where hopeless and desperate people congregate. There are makeshift stores in ramshackle huts with ancient sheet metal coke signs nailed to them. There are dusty, skeleton-like people in swaddling clothes and bare feet with their hands out. They don’t even have the energy to ask for anything in particular. They just hold their hands out. There are industrious, fast moving children in rags darting about demanding everything in English "dollars!" "Shillings!", "pens!", "your watch!", "sunny glasses!". There are officials on the take making deals to get who knows what or who knows whom across the border. There are hordes of old women at the windows of your vehicle, knocking on them, trying to sell beads, bracelets, spears and everything else a tourist may think is stereotypically African. Suddenly those Road Warrior movies didn’t seem so far fetched.

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Dinner is served. From left to right: Craig, Unidentified British Climber (our guest), Stu Froehling, Rasa.

We left the border behind and made our bumpy way to Arusha. Arusha is what happens when you take a lot of people who are sick, starving and have no sanitation, put them in a small area and call it a town. These people occupy the spaces between all the buildings. Every inch of it. Begging, selling, peddling, starving. There are standard merchants going about their business of selling week-old western newspapers, wooden rhinoceros, and all manner of other crap. The people who live and work in the businesses are somehow immune to the advances of the beggars. But in our tourist ""adventure clothes" they were drawn to us like flies to an open wound. Making the fifteen-foot trip from our bus, across the sidewalk, to the safari company office was like crossing a mosh pit. Men held blankets in your face, boys held spears out at you, shopkeepers ushered you toward their door. There is no soft sell in Tanzania. We changed some money and headed across the street to a hotel (in the safety of our vehicle) to get lunch. This was also our first orientation with African restaurant service. We ordered ham and cheese sandwiches with fries and cokes. We got the cokes. The sandwiches showed up half an hour later but without the ham. When we got our food, as if on queue, two dogs ran up and started humping next to our table. I presumed this was the entertainment. The fries never did show up.
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Cloud deck over Tanzania as seen from first rest break between Camp 1 and Camp 2.

On the road from Arusha to Moshi we got our first look at Kilimanjaro. It was really big. It also seemed very far away. Kilimanjaro is the highest freestanding mountain in the world. That is to say, it is not part of any mountain range. It just burst up out of the ground a few zillion years ago. Because of this it absolutely dominates the landscape. When you first see it you can’t help but think, "This is going to be a long walk."

Before I left the US a friend of mine, Don Rembowski, leant me a Motorola Iridium satellite telephone. Don works for Motorola and we get into lengthy conversations about technology when he visits my store. I mentioned I didn’t think those phones would work. He took the opportunity to lend me his to prove they did. The idea was for me to call him from the summit of Kilimanjaro, Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa, when I got there. I showed the phone to Rasa and she mentioned she wanted to call her husband back in the US. I wanted to see if this thing worked before I (or more correctly, one of our porters) lugged it up the mountain. Rasa got through to Glenn, her husband, but discovered one of her dogs was sick. This was very bad news to her. Just as I was drifting off Rasa quietly said from the next bed ""Tom, I can't sleep, I'm worried about the dogs, can I call Glenn again?" She was quite distressed, and I really felt bad for her. The prospect of beginning the climb the next day not knowing if her dog was OK would really suck. We fired up the Motorola sat-phone and got Glenn. As it turned out, Glenn said the dogs were all right, and the one in question was at the vet where it was believed she would be fine. We went back to sleep.


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The climb up to Camp 2 as the weather deteriorated.


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Rasa walks to our cave/kitchen in the rain at Camp 2.

In the morning we ate breakfast and sorted gear for our climb. We would bring one large duffel bag each to be carried by our fifteen porters and a small backpack with our personal gear for the day during the climb. I tried to pack light but allowed myself a couple luxuries like four pairs of socks for the week and a miniature copy of the Tao Te Ching. We rode in Landrovers and Toyota Landcruisers to the park entrance. Once at the entrance our porters divided up loads and we signed the entry register to the park.

Our climbing team had a total of 24 people: 15 porters, 2 guides and 6 client-climbers. That’s quite a herd. Our porters were fit-looking young men in their early 20s. They wore hand me down clothing and makeshift footwear ranging from sandals and tennis shoes with no socks, to rudimentary boots. The loads were carried in the most haphazard style. Enormous wicker baskets were hoisted onto their heads and shoulders. Cans of cooking oil were tied to the baskets. One porter carried cartons of eggs and loaves of bread. A few porters, in addition to their baskets, carried backpacks so full they looked like they would pop.


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Michael, our local guide, and Eric, one of the porter’s managers in the kitchen for Camp 2.

It seemed odd. We milled about adjusting the carbon fiber suspension stays of our ultra lightweight backpacks and lacing the kevlar laces of our air suspension hiking boots while these guys threw the majority of our crap, all our food, our tents, our sleeping bags, our camera batteries, video cameras, walkmans and satellite phones, music CDs and other wilderness "necessities" on their heads and carried them up the mountain. We left about fifteen minutes before the porters on our way up the trail. They passed us quickly and never looked back. They would arrive at camp almost an hour before us. By the time we dragged our dead tired, lily-white tourist asses into camp they had everything set up and were cooking our dinner.
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Epic sunset after rainstorm from Camp 2.


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View of upper slopes from Camp 2 after the storm cleared. From left to right: Stu, Craig, Jeff, Rasa.

The novelty of climbing Kilimanjaro is you ascend through several different climactic zones. The first one is rain forest. Our route was the Macheme route. This route traverses a good portion of the mountain before turning up one of the other routes to gain the summit. While the "tourist" route (the Marangu route) takes only 3-4 days to climb, the longer Machame route generally takes a full seven days from bottom to top.

The Marangu route is the route that gave Kilimanjaro its reputation as a walk-up. The Marangu has all the technical challenges of a steep driveway. It has been so heavily traveled, and littered, it is called the Coca-Cola route. The one thing the Marangu route does offer, along with all the others, is altitude. Tourist climbers often use this expressway route to get high on the mountain before they are acclimated to the altitude. Then they get their ass kicked. People turn around in droves on the Marangu route. Although it is the most heavily traveled, it is also the most frequently failed. Our strategy on the Machame was to spend several days traversing the mountain to get used to the altitude, then make a quick dash from our high camp at 15,000ft. to the summit, and rapid descent back down to 10,000 ft.

For all the squalor and poverty and dreariness that was Africa over the previous days, the rain forest was its polar opposite. Luxurious moss oozed off every limb. Tall, dense forest canopy buried the trail in deep shadow. It was silent in a dark living depth that felt like deep water. Everything sweated and dripped. Green was everywhere except the sucking brown mud of the trail. Large, strange birds with massive heads and red-tipped wings flew between branches. Shy Colobus monkeys shadowed us, but rarely showed their faces. This place was so foreign, so living and with so many complex things going on at once the time passed very quickly. The plants were making oxygen out of carbon dioxide so fast you could almost hear the photosynthesis. It is one of those rare places were you sense (accurately so) that the wild places still have a hold on the planet.
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Rasa Poorman free climbs the 400-foot Barranco Wall, our biggest obstacle (other than altitude) on the way to the summit.


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Traversing ridges on the way to Camp 5, our high camp at 15,000ft.


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Sunset at High Camp

We began to see the tops of trees and slowly the foliage began to appear shorter. As you go higher on a mountain the plants get smaller until they run out of oxygen altogether and give up. We arrived at our first camp amidst a group of trees not more than nine feet tall. The porters had a fire going and were busy making popcorn in an old pan and brewing tea. Rasa and I found our tent and our duffel bags, opened our sleeping mats and bags and set up our living area for the next 10-12 hours. It seemed somehow cheating to have the porters. They did all the work. All we had to do was walk.

Continued...

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