Where in the world has an entire continent, a myriad of cultures and multitude of histories, peoples and languages been reduced to a few singing lions and a warthog?
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Africa. Or to be specific, East Africa, as Africa is a continent not a country.
Believe it or not – and take a deep breath here whilst clutching your chair – there is more to East Africa than famine, wars and poverty. In fact, almost immediately upon arrival it was startling how normal everything was: yes, the roads were slightly more tumultuous than those in placid England; yes, there were more street peddlers; but ultimately people lived here and there is nothing more normal than humans.
Thus, it was no surprise when Oli – my travelling partner for the first part of the trip – and I were extorted in our first taxi ride upon arriving in Dar Es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania.
But before that taxi ride was an even more protracted and convoluted affair. If there is one piece of advice to take from this blog, let it be this: think twice before booking a bargain flight with Egypt Air. Not only was our flight delayed from Heathrow airport by two and a half hours, but our ‘direct’ flight from our transit in Cairo to Dar Es Salaam, also included a stopover in Entebbe. Yes, that’s right: the plane decided to stop in Entebbe without prior warning. Having grown up exorcised by stories of the terrorist plot at that airport in the 1970s, this was not the most welcome news.
Fortunately, the purpose of this stopover was to offload no more than a handful of passengers and not to recreate the ghost of Idi Amin, so we were safe.
Back to Dar Es Salaam: A taxi had been arranged to pick Oli and me up from the airport by Peter Meela, our booking agent for our trek up Mount Kilimanjaro and safari. Conveniently, our avuncular driver also happened to be Peter’s father. The driver was kind and patient. He had waited for four hours as our flight was delayed due to the aforementioned round-the-continent air trip across East Africa. He also demanded $40 for the twenty minute drive. This was only overpriced by approximately 70%. After a compromise at $20 and a foreboding threat that he was going to “tell Peter about this”, Oli and I boarded a ferry to Zanzibar.
Zanzibar was quaint and idyllic. We stayed in the Stone Town, a stone’s throw away from the port (blame the delirium caused by malaria tablets for that pun, sorry). It was a maze of narrow intersecting streets and whitewashed alleyways. Our first day was spent relaxing. On our second day we opted to do what all Brits do best: go on an organised tour. Surprisingly however, this ‘spice tour’ which allowed us to smell and taste an array of – you guessed it – spices, was fascinating. If you are interested, cinnamon chewing-gum tastes identical to the cinnamon, whereas vanilla flavourings are made more pungent compared to its rawest form. The tour also included a stopover in a ‘slave cave’ where Zanzibar’s slaves were ‘stored’ when slavery was made illegal (God bless the ingenuity of humankind) and an hour at a beach.
That evening Oli and I sampled the beers Tanzania had to offer (Zanzibar is a province of Tanzania) whilst watching a competitive 18-a-side beach football match with the sun setting over the ocean.
Now, for a moral tale. When you have a an early morning ferry which it is essential to catch, decline any advances to go out for a couple of drinks by friendly people you have met earlier that day. Oli and I, of course, were too naïve to refuse this kind invitation by two girls we had met on the spice tour earlier that day.Several beers, a few Amurula shots, a snooker-bar and a rooftop club which would be better placed on the set of a B-rated, lewd and sleezy Hollywood film later, Oli and I missed our ferry the following morning. I blame Oli for this; he blames me. After all, it was he who agreed to the drinks. It was I, though, who managed to set my alarm for 6:30am without turning it on.
Waking at 9:15am, we ran to the port, dehydrated and tired. We just managed to catch the 9:30am ferry. Good news.
Back in Dar, we caught the first taxi to the bus station. Upon arrival, a fixer was waiting for us:
“Where do you want to go”, he asked.
“The next bus is going at 6:30am”.
“We need to go to Moshi today”.
“Not possible,” he gently replied.
“We need to go NOW.”
The fixer turned to his colleague and told him to run on ahead. He ushered Oli and I to hurry and follow the man disappearing into the distance. Poetically, rain started to drizzle at this point. The last bus to Moshi – or rather, overcrowded minibus packed to the seams with luggage and people – was filling up with petrol, ready to leave. After handing over an overpriced bus fare, Oli and I took a deep breath and crammed ourselves on to the vehicle.
It was essential to leave that day as we were beginning ascent up Mount Kilimanjaro the following day. Was it worth the inconvenience? Yes. Was it an experience? Yes. Was it comfortable? Yes, if your idea of comfort includes standing on subway with somebody’s raised moist armpit gently pressing against your face.
To summarise the journey: Oli and I could not feel our legs, primarily because there was no where to put them. Magically, however, after a baby had wretched all over a seat 3/4 of the way through the journey, a seat appeared for one of us to sit on. After the first hour, a wicked wench decided to sit on my rucksack, leaving me to stand by the door for three hours. It was an unparalleled way of preparing for the impending seven day hike up the world’s tallest free-standing mountain.
We arrived in Moshi ten and a half hours later having only consumed half a bag of nuts and a 1 litre bottle of water between us. This was ninety minutes later than scheduled, but by the end of the journey we had made great friends with the other participants in this cattle cart.
Peter Meela met us at the bus station and we finally ate our evening supper almost at the stroke of midnight.
Peter was kind, patient and personable. We experienced problems transferring payment to him the following day, but he did not express his frustration and was forthcoming in agreeing to wait for an emergency wire-payment from our parents (thank you again!!!).
By and large, we shall let the pictures of the Kilimajaro hike tell most of the story. In short though, it was one of the most memorable and mesmerising experiences of my life. Oli agrees too. Our team, comprised of six porters, a munificent cook and a guide and assistant-guide named Gerald and Prosper respectively, were superb and supportive.
We climbed the Machame route over seven days. The diversity of flora, fauna and scenery was something to behold. The peak aside, one of the most salubrious scenes was seeing sheets of billowing clouds drifting past the horizon. Whilst they do not capture the raw beauty of the scene, just look at the pictures.
Gerald and Prosper entertained us throughout. They carried a radio blaring the best music had to offer during the first five days. Here is a personal favourite. It is like a psychedelic and surreal Swahili version of the chipmunks:
The ascent to the peak was always going to be difficult and more notably, cold. I wore the following layers:
– Four pairs of standard socks and one thick, fleeced pair.
– Underpants, a pair of thermal trousers, swimming shorts, jeans and a pair of ‘windbreaking’ pants
– A t-shirt, a thermal top, a shirt, a football shirt, a fleece and a thick waterproof jacket
– A scarf
– A woollen hat
– Three pairs of gloves: one thin, one thermal, one thick.
It was still freezing. Halfway up the climb, Gerald supplied me with a balaclava and substituted my thick pair of gloves for an even thicker industrial pair.
The climb began at midnight. The first hour was fine. In fact, I recall Oli asserting in a blasé manner how warm he was. That changed as soon as the sharp and icy wind started cutting against our bodies. The altitude did not seem to affect us, although the coldness took its toll, particularly on me. Oli wishes he took a photograph of me incoherently asked Prosper to pour water and stuff a snickers into my mouth. Lies, I promise. Kinda.
Now for a confession: I welled up once we reached the mini-summit. It was cathartic. I have also just relinquished any of the little dignity I may have had left. But so what: it felt as if we had achieved something and there we were, figuratively overlooking the whole of Africa. The sunrise from the top, twenty minutes after reach arrived, was also beautiful.
We walked a further thirty minutes to the very peak, took our gratuitous photographs to prove that this is not all some sort of elaborate lie a lá News of the World, and soon began our descent down.
We are now back in Moshi.
Tomorrow begins the next episode. Hint, it may involve the following:
N.B. Comments are open
N.B.B. I am having difficulties uploading pictures. Follow the link above as they may have been added by the time you read this. In the meantime:
Here is the link for the most recent pictures: