Esther arranged a tour for Alex and I the next morning. A guide drove us to the mountain. We could see it in the near distance with its white peak. Kilimanjaro! I’ve known about this amazing mountain since I was boy reading National Geographic. The tallest mountain in Africa. Over 19,000 feet in elevation, rising almost from sea level. The highest solitary mountain in the world. A mountain on the equator where there are glaciers on the top. A mountain that defeated every climber until the middle of the 19th century when a German and an Austrian reached the top along with a local climber named Yohani Kinyala Lauwo, who only received credit in 1989, on the centennial of the climb. Since that time, four trails have been mapped, and climbing equipment has improved to the point where ordinary hikers can reach the top. One man from the Andies ran to the top in just over six hours.
We drove through the gate on the southern slope of the mountain. We were already 2000 feet up, and a guide named Yankee Davis explained all about the mountain and the trails. He promised me that if I come he will make sure I can reach the summit in good health. Julie thinks that it a bad idea for an overweight, out of shape, 56-year old man who has had heart surgery. Who should I trust? The woman who has been my companion for over 25 years or a guide that I talked to for an hour?
Then our guide to us to Kilasiya Waterfall in Marangu. I was expecting something like Bushkill Falls with loads of tourists taking a casual walk around to see the waterfall. No, there was only one other person there, and the trip down to the fall was steep, muddy, and treacherous. I was cursing the fact that I had worn Birkenstocks instead of boots since I was planning on hiking! Alex is a young rugby player who is joining the Navy. Did I mention that I am a 250 pound man with bad knees, a stiff back, asthmatic, and had heart surgery? But I made sure that the young fellow got down safely. The trip was worth it! It is a single free-fall waterfall in a beautiful little gorge. Alex stripped to his shorts and went for a swim under the waterfall itself. Icy cold. I, however, remembered the good doctor’s warning about swimming. Honestly, the cold water did not daunt my spirit! It was so beautiful and refreshing to sit in front of the fall and feel the spray. And then our guide said those horrible words. Let’s climb back.
Just the night before I had read the part in the Two Towers when Gollum leads Frodo and Sam up the Winding Stair out of the Morgul Vale. This was something like that. Up and up. Steep with uneven steps covered in slippery mud. Halfway up, I had to stop because the heart was pounding so hard I could hear it. Rest. Apologies to my
younger and thinner companions. And then a renewed assault. Almost to the top and then there was bench. What a beautiful view of the vale below. Yes, let’s sit awhile and contemplate the meaning of life while the heart stops pounding. And then to the top. Yes, after that surely I can come back and climb Kilimanjaro. Right?
Our guide is a member of the Chagga tribe whom the government recognizes as the caretakers of Kilimanjaro and the surrounding forest. He told us many interesting things about the area and his people, including the brewing of banana beer. And then he took us to the Chagga caves. This may have been the most interesting part of the trip. A young Chagga woman told us about the caves. The Chagga and the Maasai were neighbors who depended on each other. The Maasai are nomadic herdsmen while the Chagga grew various crops. Most of the time there was mutual respect, but in times of drought the Maasai cattle would die and they would raid the Chagga villages for food. They also captured Chagga women and raped them so they became pregnant. When the child was weaned and no longer need its mother, the woman was killed so the child would not know his or her mother had not been Maasai.
About two hundred years ago the warfare between the Chagga and Maasai was so severe that the Chagga dug tunnels in the ground overlooking the river. Along the edges of the tunnel there were rooms big enough for a family to live for weeks in darkness. The only light came from burning castor beans. Air vents shafts allowed fresh air to circulate, and the openings were protected by poisonous plants. The entrance to the tunnel had a low place so that intruders would bump their heads and cry out. Three Chagga warriors kept guard and when they heard an intruder they beat him with heavy clubs. Then they chopped up his body and washed it out the tunnel into the river where the crocodiles devoured it. So the Maasai never knew what happened to their scouts. It is a grim story, but the tunnels are ingenuous, and UNESCO helped the Chagga to restore a small portion of the two-mile network so people like me could see them and learn this story that I now have told you.
Then I bought some gifts for family and our guide showed two of the Chagga traditional huts where people lived in peaceful times. Then he showed us how to take raw coffee beans and pound them to remove the shell, and then how to winnow them to get the kernel. And then we helped roast the beans in a clay pot on an open fire. Then we pounded the roasted beans and threw them into boiling water. And, of course, we then got to drink the coffee with milk and sugar. This is what Moravian lovefeast coffee should taste like! It was an amazing day with the Chagga that ended with a visit to someone’s home in the village where we shared a very large glass of banana beer, but I will leave the mystery of the taste to your imagination!
Then it was a rush to get back to the airport for my flight to Dar Es Salaam on FastJet. On the way we drove through Maasai country and I could see their huts and some of the men herding cattle. Women build the huts and stay with them while the men roam with the animals. The flight was good, and the driver from the Latana Hotel was there to greet me on time. The 7 mile drip from the airport took over 40 minutes because of traffic. My room had a canopy bed! And I was asleep by midnight but woke at 3:30 a.m. before the alarm. My next flight was at 7 a.m. and the same driver took me. He had slept in the car.