DAY 7 (Continued) – Thursday, Jan 24, 2013
DISTANCE: 10 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 14.5 hours
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 4000 ft (to the summit!)
4000 ft (back down to Barafu)
5000 ft (down to Mweka camp)
We had climbed for eight straight hours to reach the summit on very little sleep, and it was still cold and the air was still just as thin. Once we got a look over the edge at our path down, it was daunting how steep it was. It had been a bit deceiving the night before since we zigzagged up the final slope. Now the task was to shoot straight down over 3000+ feet of scree (sand and loose rocks) without breaking our necks. Every step had to be planted very carefully or the ground would suddenly shift out from under us.
Stephanie has always felt hiking downhill is harder than hiking uphill, especially since going down puts so much strain on the knees, and this was no different. For days she had been dreading this part. She would have to take her time and proceed very slowly, or another plan would have to be put into action. Our guide Tom already had a plan in mind so we could get down in the shortest amount of time possible. He had her lock arms with assistant guide Goodluck like they were on a date, and, each bearing a trekking pole, they continued down at a faster pace, sliding through the sand, with much more stability. I meanwhile put my skateboarding skills to good use to keep up. I found that if I placed me feet on the loosest-looking rock areas, I could basically skate down the mountain, and I proceeded to do just that.
An hour later, we were in an area where we could walk the rest of the way to camp. The good news was that our breathing was no longer as labored as it was 3000 feet ago. The bad news was that our descent left us completely covered in gray dust. I left out a small detail about Barafu camp – there is no water source there, so all the water had been carried up from Karanga by our crew. That meant no water for washing up anything, not even the two small bowls a day we were used to.
We dusted ourselves down as best we could, and prepared to get some much needed sleep when we got another surprise…. We were to have two hours to sleep, and then a hot lunch followed by three to five more hours of hiking down to Mweka – our final camp. At first we thought Tom was kidding, but sure enough, we found ourselves conscious once more after two short hours of sleep, and then it was “packs on” for more hiking. We were exhausted and crabby about the situation. Didn’t we deserve some good rest after that 10.5 hour night hike up to and back down from the summit?
Once we got over our initial surliness, it wasn’t so bad. After descending from the rocky heights of Barafu, we hiked through a landscape that looked like a post-apocalyptic wasteland, complete with foggy clouds blowing through. We passed a trio of what looked like stretchers on a single bicycle wheel. Goodluck explained that they were used to transport the injured or altitude-sick down to the park gates when necessary. To me that meant someone had to wheel them all the way up to where we were at 15,000 feet.
Soon we noticed the occasional scrubby plant clinging to the barren rocks, then more and more, then they gave way to bushes, then, at last, actual trees. The hike was still steep, and the path we were following was still muddy and slippery from the rains a week or so prior, but about four hours brought us to Mweka. This camp reminded us very much of camping in the U.S. There were big leafy trees everywhere, and the soft earth was a pleasure to sleep on after several days of rocky ground. Even the walk to the bathroom was once again over flat, solid ground. After dinner we dropped into what may have been the deepest night’s sleep that either of us have ever had.
DAY 8 – Thursday, Jan 25, 2013
DISTANCE: 10 miles
TOTAL HIKING TIME: 3.5 hours
ALTITUDE CHANGE: 1200 ft
Our final day’s hiking took us through lush rainforest where once again we could see Blue Monkeys playing in the trees. Like us, all the porters seemed in excellent spirits as they practically ran down the path to the park gate. We amused ourselves by learning a few more bits and pieces of Swahili from our guides. We learned how to say “You are my husband/wife,” but Stephanie much preferred the similar-sounding “You are my peanut,” and the phrase stuck.
When we finally got to the gate, there was a large group of porters and crew singing traditional Kilimanjaro songs (yes, there are some). It gave us a tremendous sense of accomplishment. While signing out at the office, we once again ran into our British friends. It turns out Mandy hadn’t been able to summit due to her altitude sickness, but Anthony and Emma did. The fact that Mandy didn’t make it served as a reminder to us how lucky we were, since many people pay for these climbs, put in tons of effort, and never summit.
We headed off to where our crew was preparing lunch for us – or so we thought. We drove all of five minutes before our way was blocked by an overturned truck that took a curve to quickly. “Hakuna Matata,” declared Tom (yes, they really say it, oblivious to the Disney-fication of the phrase in the States), “It’s only a few minutes away – let’s walk.” Sure, why not, I thought. We haven’t walked much at all in the past week.
We walked into Mweka village marveling at how hot and humid it was, and only the day before we were so cold that the word “frostbite” cropped up on occasion. We parked it in a tiny little outdoor café where we could watch the world go by, and enjoyed a traditional dish of the Chagga people of Tanzania, prepared by our trekking chef, Hussein. It consisted of meat, carrots and potatoes stewed with unripe bananas. The bananas, being unripe, were also unsweet, and at first we thought they were German-style sausage links. Tom surprised us with a bottle of sweet, Tanzanian wine – a congratulatory gift from Maggie for us reaching the summit.
After lunch, while we waited for the rest of our crew to be ready, I wanted to take a quick ten minute stroll around Mweka Village. Secretly, I was hoping more people would try to sell me interesting souvenirs as they had been all afternoon. My secrets, however, are no secret to Stephanie who saw right through me, and was hot enough that she opted to just stay put. I truly wish she had joined me for what turned out to be an amazing adventure.
One of our crew, Mariki, was born in Mweka and was familiar with the area. Since he spoke no English, Goodluck joined us as an interpreter, and off we went. What I thought would be a 15 minute walk took almost two hours as we left the main street of Mweka and headed off to more rural villages. We passed through banana and corn farms and even a coffee plantation.
The streams in these rural areas form the boundaries between villages, and we crossed a few of them as we made our way through the hilly countryside. We passed a group of locals relaxing in what looked like a shady communal area. Through my interpreter, Goodluck, I learned that I was invited to join them anytime for a swig of the local home-brewed alcohol. At another stream there was a colorfully-clad woman with a large bowl on her head. I didn’t want to snap her photo without asking, but when I did, Goodluck said she’d prefer not to be photographed.
Next thing I knew, a little boy ran ahead of me yelling “Mzungu” at the top of his lungs for all his village to hear. Soon there was a group of four or five little kids all following close behind me, trying to get as close as they could to the foreigner without touching me. They would keep pushing each other to the front of the line, and every now and then, I would stop and let them bump into me – much to their delight. I showed them a snapshot of themselves, and they were delighted by that too. After meeting Mariki’s brother-in-law, one of the little boys asked if I would stay for supper which again drew plenty of laughter from the locals.
On our way back to Mweka, we passed by a corn field. There was a girl who was pretending to work, who really just wanted to get a look at the foreigner. When Goodluck asked her if I could take a photo, she was only too happy to oblige. She ran over, saying: “Succari, Succari” – the Swahili word for sugar. She was probably talking about the color of my skin, but I like to think she was referring to my devilish good looks. One hour and forty five minutes after we started, we were back in Mweka where a hot, bored Stephanie was none too pleased by my long absence. I told her of my adventures, and how I wish she had been there to join me as we settled in for the ride back to Arusha.
We had a long drive back to Arusha, and we watched the mountain we had just climbed disappear slowly behind the clouds. Once at African Zoom headquarters, our crew congratulated us while Tom presented us with certificates of our accomplishment. Maggie took all kinds of photos and we were feeling pretty good – good enough go out with her that night even!! (Okay, I admit we were both asleep in the car by the time she was driving us home.) It had been an amazing eight day adventure with a few surprises thrown in; the perfect realization of my bucket-list goal!