We left my hotel, the Beaco Restort, about 8 a.m. for an excursion to Ngozi. I was glad now that I had packed extra jeans and good hiking shoes. The weather was cool and misty when we left. The Moravian College folks had their suitcases in the back of the car since they were heading to the airport right after lunch. All I knew about the place we were going to was that it was near the Malawi border and that the climb was a bit steep. Sr. Kategile told us that she would wait in the car while we hiked. Our driver was Jessie and Peter, the academic dean of TEKU came with us.
After an hour drive we got to the turn-off from the highway. Just a hand drawn sign and a gate across the dirt road. Peter and Mary negotiated the fee, which initially had a 70,000 TS surcharge for the foreigners (mzunga). She convinced them to provide a guide for the normal price of 30,000 (about $6). While they were negotiating we stretched our legs. Across the field was a school and the children were out of recess. Some of them were interested in us and I stepped forward and waved. One boy did handstands while some of the girls popped behind and out from bushes. Gradually some of the bolder ones came forward and we smiled at each other. Then one boy came up to me and I shook his hand.
After that about three dozen children came down to where we were. They all wanted to shake my hand. Jessie came and talked to them and they asked him while my hands were so soft. They really liked the way they felt. He explained that I do not labor with a hoe like all the grown-ups they know. Cynthia pulled out her camera and they surrounded her to get their pictures taken. We exchanged funny hand signals, like peace-out, and then it was time for us to go explore and for them to go back to school. Priceless.
The roads were very bad to the trail head. At one flooded place, Jessie checked the depth with a stick before we drove through. And then the road became more of a single car path. And then we noticed swarms of flies on the windows. Tsetse flies, Jessie said. That got us all a little worried and Cynthia crawled back to her bag to get Deep Woods Off. I had sprayed before I left the room, but after a horse fly bit the palm of my hand I gratefully accepted more Deet. We pulled over to wide place in the road while Peter and Jessie examined the path ahead. One of the cars could not make it, so we put all of the luggage in the smaller car and we climbed into the big 4-wheel drive.
Ever since I was a boy I’ve wanted to hike through the jungle, and now I have. Or maybe it is a tropical rain forest. It was lush with plants, but we never saw nor heard animals. There were banana leaves more than twice as big as me. The only flowers were stunning red ones and tiny purple ones. Thankfully it was not raining, and the temperature was not too bad, but the trail was very muddy and slippery. And then it started up. It was very steep, and in places the rocks acted as stairs. It was not climbing with hands steep, but still it was very steep. Peter, who is much bigger than me, decided to go back to the car.
Our barefooted guide was very fast. The altitude was not all that bad. About 2000 meters at the beginning and 2600 at the top (6000 ft to 7800 ft), but as we climbed we all felt the diminished oxygen in the air. We were four scholars, not athletes, and three of the group was still suffering from jet lag and lack of sleep. One of us was struggling with the effects of gravity on 250 pounds. Apparently swimming 40 laps a day does not prepare the body for a very steep and very long hike. About two thirds of the way, the senior member of the party decided it was prudent to stop and wait for the rest of us to make the trek. Two of us were very tempted to stop, too, but Christian insisted that must see the lake. Jessie was kind enough to stay with her. I reached for my inhaler and discovered I had forgotten it or lost it.
Okay. Slow steady breathing through the nose. Don’t be ashamed to stop to catch breath. Keep going. The way down will be easier. The guide said it was just ten more minutes, but the steep part is coming. It was a five-foot vertical climb up tree roots. The rest of the way was relatively flat, but I looked back over the direction we had come and was shocked to see how high we were. Jungle below us, narrow trail before us. Don’t give up now. Sweat is a healthy physical reaction to exertion. People pay money to go to hot yoga classes to sweat like this.
And then we reached the summit where there were log benches to sit on. There was the lake at least 200 meters below us. The climb was more than worthwhile. The lake is beautiful. I wish the sun had been shining. They say it turns from deep blue to emerald green. It is the second largest crater lake in Africa (the other is also in Tanzania) and is one of the deepest. There is an island in the middle of the lake, and the trees grown right to the shore. The locals will make the descent to get fish, but we looked at the “path” and it looked like a shear drop to me. From time to time the volcano still spews poisonous gasses into the lake. It was so perfectly beautiful and it was all the more beautiful because of the journey to it. The guide says he brings tourists everyday, but other than the trail and the benches there is no sign that tourists have ever been there. No trash, no markings. The air was so pure and clean. It was sad that we were on a schedule, or as my Tanzanian friends say “time is not our friend.” The way down was much quicker, easier, and more dangerous. We picked up the two we left on the trail and started down the mountain. Twice I slipped and landed on my ass. Suddenly we were back at the cars.
On the way back we were for a time in the funeral procession for a young Moravian woman who died Wednesday in childbirth. Sr. Mary told me all about her and how much she was loved. Two buses from the university were full of students and faculty going to the funeral. It was a somber reminder of how quickly death can come. Mary has already lost a husband, who I knew when he was a student at Moravian Theological Seminary, and a daughter named Mercy. I remember picking the Kategile family up at JFK in 1989 and driving them to Bethlehem. At that time there were five children. One of them was Mercy. Death comes quickly in this world.
It was a somber ending to a great morning in which I accomplished something I’ve wanted to do for 50 years. I not only went hiking through the jungle, I climbed a volcano. And I was rewarded with a spectacular view. But this afternoon I rested in my room and listened to rains outside. Tonight I have dinner at Sr Mary’s house.