Thursday, 29 March 2012


...without guide and porters. Heia Safari! Kilimanjaro here we come!

Postcard dd. 16.1.1968 

9. January 1968, Nairobi, Kenia

I travel with Max Gallmann, a design draughtsman from Zürich in Switzerland. We met in Addis Ababa and are now on the way to South Africa. Max spent a holiday on the island of Panteleria near Sizily in Italy. On the way home he took a wrong turn and via Tunesia, Libya, Egypt and Sudan made his way to Ethiopia. Well, it does not matter. Ethiopia has lots of mountains too. And the young ladies there don't have to lie on a beach to get a suntan. But I better stick to my subject.

Near Nairobi in Kenia begins a dust road to Moshi in Tanzania. It measures 130 km. Today we want to reach Mount Kilimanjaro.

We place our bags under a tree by the side of the road and wait for cars with which we can hitchhike. The result is disappointing. Within two hours only a handful of cars pass us. Their drivers ignore us or only lift their hand as a greeting. We are getting thirsty and impatient. We prepare to march back to Voi. Suddenly a column of limousines appears. One of them is a Mercedes 600. At the open window sits Jomo Keniatta, the "burning spear", hero of Kenia's struggle for independence and now President. No room in his car. Too many body guards.

After this experience we give up and take the next bus which comes along. The fare is cheap. That's why it takes five hours to travel the 130 km to Moshi. This is partly due to the bad road. But also every tree and every hut along the road seems to be a stop. At one hut made of mud bricks the driver stops for half an hour to down a few beers. Afterwards he does not drive better, but faster.

We pass the southern border of Tsavo National Park. Ostriches and antilopes can be seen by the side of the road waiting for tourists to take photos of them. Finally we notice a large bank of clouds above the otherwise flat landscape on the right side of the bus. A mountain slope appears and stretches over many kilometres, the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. My second goal in Africa after the Cheops Pyramid is in my sights.

 General von Lettow-Vorbeck             The attack, c1916

Just before the border of Tanzania we pass a hill which is covered with graves. During World War I the German General von Lettow-Vorbeck and his Askari-Soldiers fought    the British here. Another sad souvenir which foreign invaders have left on Africa's soil.

Formalities at the border are fast. Tanzania by the way is a combination of Tanganjika and Sansibar. In the days of Lettow-Vorbeck it was called "Deutsch-Ostafrika".

Late in the afternoon we reach Moshi. First we head for a restaurant and order "rice with mutton and curry" and a large bottle of Tusker beer. Afterwards I pay a visit to the local Sikh Temple in order to find accommodation for the next week. Hospitality and often the supply of food for travellers regardless of their origin is prescribed by the Sikh religion - and free of charge. We certainly appreciate the tolerance and generosity of our Indian friends. In return we only have to stick to the temple rules. Donations will be accepted. I wear the Sikh bangle on my arm as a symbol of international friendship.

 When I arrive in the temple a group of ladies stop their singing and ask me to return later when the priest is present. They stick a handful of sweet pudding into my mouth, symbolic like the sharing of bread by Christ.

After sunset Max and I return. The priest welcomes us. He is a short and friendly old man with his hair in a knot, a long beard and a white shirt hanging over white trousers. Soon we move into a clean room with matresses on a metal frame and thin blankets. We enter our details in a guest book and receive a lock and keys. Once more we feel safe and welcome in a strange environment.

Later it is hard to fall asleep. Max turns the light on, grabs a towel and kills as many mosquitos on the wall as possible.

10. January 1968, Moshi, Tanzania

After a long sleep we start our preparations for climbing the mountain. In the distance, far above the clouds, one can see the ice capped summit of Mount Kilimanjaro reflecting the morning sun from its glaciers. Our map shows Uhuru Peak, formerly "Kaiser Wilhelm Spitze", with a height of 19.340 feet, about 5.870 metres. Moshi is about 2.000 metres above sea level. That means we have to climb some 4.000 metres. One does not have to be an experienced climber to get to the top of KIBO which is a volcanic mountain top with an extinct crater in the middle. Uhuru Peak is the highest point of Kibo.

                                                          Kibo with small lake

There is a second mountain top called MAWENZI about 5km from Kibo. Mawenzi is very difficult to climb and is not as high as Kibo. Only recently two mountainers from Great Britain died there.

Mawenzi and grave

The area between Kibo and Mawenzi is at an altitude of about 5.000 m, is flat and therefore called the SADDLE. Up there the air is very thin making the last 870 m up a steep slope of lava sand a challenge to any climber who attempts to get to the top of Kibo.

Between the ice is a rocky area with a small flag pole called "Gillman's Point." From there it takes another hour or so of climbing over snow and ice to get to Uhuru Peak which is a few metres higher.

We have no idea how far we will get. It is illegal to climb without a guide and porters. Our budget has no provision for that. Like climbing Cheops Pyramid this will be a true adventure.

Prior to climbing we visit Kibo Hotel at the foot of the mountain. A friendly German lady runs the place. But her smile freezes when she hears of our plans. She warns us of  possible mishaps and tells us stories of victims of bad weather and thin air or of people who got lost in fog and became fodder for the lions. Max looks worried but starts smiling again when we are shown the price list of guided tours. We say "Auf Wiedersehen" and return to Moshi where we ask for advice from people who are not involved in the tourist business.

We already have a compass. So we buy a reliable looking map of the mountain and the tracks, buy water containers and canned food, put that and all our warm clothes into my rucksack. Hat, sun glasses, sun cream, sleeping bags and photo gear complete the equipment. My backpack must weigh at least 30 kg. In the evening we drink a couple of bottles of beer in order to strenghten our resolve.

11. January, Kilimanjaro

We reach Kibo Hotel at midday. Two mountaineers from Austria give us a lift in their Volkswagen. A sealed narrow road gently winds its way up the slope.

Max carries the rucksack. I carry the lighter photo bag. Every hour we take turns. The guy with the rucksack determines the walking speed. We purposely walk slowly to conserve energy.

Today's destination is Mandara Hut, formerly "Bismarck Hütte", at about 3.000 m altitude. It is about 20 km from Kibo Hotel. We have six hours until sunset.

The lower reaches of Kilimanjaro are covered with dense rain forests. In between are plantations of bananas, sisal, corn and coffee. We move through this landscape at a leisurely pace, sweating and with aching shoulders due to the weight of the backpack. Every hour we rest for a while and have a sip of lemon water from our bottles.

                            Sikh bangle and broken finger

Soon the sealed road turns into a dirt track. During the dry period it can still be used by Landrovers. We reach Mandara Hut after just over five hours. An aching back and shaky knees are the result of our effort.

The hut is a simple wooden house with a flat roof and three rooms. The room in the middle has a fire place. A table, two wooden benches and several double bunks complete the furniture. On the beds are matresses without sheets. The colour and general condition of them gives an idea of the number of visitors. The walls and all wooden surfaces are covered with autographs. Nearby is a shed for the tour guides and porters. The toilet is very basic indeed. A small creek with clear water emenates from the rain forest and serves as kitchen, Bar and bathroom.

We are already above the lower layer of clouds. The sunset turns the clouds pink. As the shades of the night slowly cover the savanna the lights of Moshi and the rising stars provide an African firework.

12. January

We slept well after yesterday's exercise. The dry heat of the savanna has disappeared at 3.000 m. A cool morning breeze encourages us to keep climbing. Today's march will end at Peters Hut, now called Horombo Hut. A distance of 15 km has to be covered and a difference in height of 1.000 m. That sounds harmless. But due to the thin air a lot of people already get headaches and have breathing problems. We also have been told that heavy rain and snowfalls are common at this altitude. The muddy track and a heavy load on the shoulders can be a real hassle.

Breakfast is a can of tomato juice. We are in a hurry. Max and I have worked in Addis Ababa which lies at an altitude of 2.500 m. We are therefore used to thin air. At least one small advantage!

The narrow track is  soggy and overgrown with slippery tree roots. Despite my mountain boots it takes a lot of concentration not to slip and fall with the heavy rucksack.

Above us the tree tops form a dense roof with the moss hanging down like women's hair. Lianas and bushes full of flowers make the forest impenetrable. Hidden birds begin their morning concert. Sometimes rays of the rising sun shine on ferns and flowers covered with dew. The aromatic smells are a pleasure to inhale. We swap our luggage every half hour now. Legs and lungs don't last any longer. 

Suddenly the forest opens up. Ahead is a flat mountain meadow. This is the limit of tree growth, almost twice as high as in Europe. As far as the eye can see there is an ocean of yellow flowers.

Far away the snow and ice covered top of Kibo appears. Further on the right the brown rocks of Mawenzi pierce the clouds. We move forward very slowly to give the lungs a chance to adjust to the thin air but still have to breathe deep and frequently. The beauty of the landscape is an unforgettable bonus for our efforts.

Lots of hills have to be climbed. Sometimes small creeks rush down the narrow valleys. Or the water simply runs along the path and makes us wade ankle deep in mud. My mountain boots help a lot. Max wears new boots of soft leather and gets wet feet immediately. Slowly but faster than we can walk dark rain clouds creep up the slopes. When they catch up with us there still is no rain. But we have to put on cardigans against the cold.

Every now and then we meet people who return from the mountain. They all look tired and exhausted. When they see us carrying our own luggage they sometimes look at us admiringly, but more often with expressions of pity. Other faces seem to be unable to show any feelings. Some climbers admit that they gave up long before they reached the summit. Well, we know by now that this mountain is not harmless. Only the other day an Austrian had a heart attack up there and died. A young man started spitting blood. The best adventures are the ones which one survives. So we keep climbing.

At midday we have a good rest before we use our last strenght and climb over a hill. Suddenly Horombo Hut, a simple construction of corrugated sheets, is only a short distance away. We are at an altitude of 4.000 m now. Exhausted and with rattling lungs we proudly fall onto the wooden bunks. Now I feel the pressure on the temples. Max takes the first tablets against headaches. Dinner is some bread and a can of white beans. Porters of an American tourist group cook some tea for us for a few coins.

13. January
It was a German January night! After sunset the wind was blowing through the holes in the walls. I crept into the sleeping bag with all my clothes and was still shivering. Due to the cold sleep was hard to come by. Max had similar problems. Actually he is worse off. He did not take any malaria tablets and did not manage to kill all the mosquitos in our room in the Sikh temple. Now a fever seems to start. This would be the time to cancel our climb. But Max thinks the cold will cool down the fever and wants to go on.

I have my own problem. The second finger of my left hand is broken and bandaged. I smashed a train door on it in Ethiopia. The wound is infected and hurts. But I am like Max. We don't give up easily.

In Horombo Hut we slept on plain boards. No matresses. It takes a while until the stiff limbs get soft in the morning cold. Some taste of things to come. The next night we hope to spend in Kibo Hut. Another 1.000 m have to be climbed, another 16 km (10 miles). Kibo Hut is at the bottom of the lava sand slope which leads to the summit.

We sit down and make an inventory before we start walking. How much longer can our bodies last?  One thing is for sure. If we keep carrying the rucksack we will not even reach Kibo Hut. We open another can of beans for breakfast, roll up our sleeping bags and put on all our clothes. We also fill the water containers. No more water from here on. We have to carry our own supplies. Two cans of tomato juice, some bread, some cheese and the photo bag - that is all we take along. Heia Safari! God willing we will make it to the summit, even if we have only tomato juice in our vains instead of blood.

Soon after eight o'clock we start. Without the rucksack we feel better, almost relaxed. But we have to breathe very fast and often to fill the lungs with sufficient oxygen. The legs are sore but keep going somehow. We make good progress.

                                                        Mawenzi with mountain lake

A narrow and flat valley leads us toward Mawenzi. Then there is a creek and a sign: "Last drinking water". We walk another few kilomtres to the end of the valley, climb over rocks and see today's destination. On the right is Mawenzi. To the left stretches the "Saddle" all the way to the bottom of Kibo. Kibo Hut can be seen as a small metallic spot in the distance. The Saddle looks like an easy walk. It is covered with stones and rocks and very few flowers and some grass, surprising at this altitude. We are already well above the height of Mt. Blanc in Europe.

Max walks too fast. I follow him. After a while we suffer the consequences: headaches, dizzyness, increasing pressure in the chest. The legs seem to be made of rubber and want to collapse. Long breaks are an absolute necessity.

                  Kibo Hut is the white dot in the distance.
 From now on we carefully walk step by step as if the ground below is thin ice. Still the last kilometres are pure torture. We have to stop more often and shorten the distances between rests. It takes all our willpower to keep the legs going.

Max and porters of tourist group

 Soon after two o'clock we finally reach Kibo Hut. We have covered 15 km in six hours! Normally we would do that in 2.5 hours. The altitude is 5.000 m by now.

                                                      Kibo Hut

Africa's highest loo. It is dirty too.
 After swallowing some Aspro tablets against the headaches and Max's fever we try to get some sleep.

                                         Kibo Hut

I cover the sleeping bag with a big plastic bag to stop the body warmth from escaping too fast. We are already experiencing freezing temperatures. Max tries to ignore his fever and I try not to think of the pain in my finger. We are dead tired and manage to sleep a few hours.

14. January, Sunday

A Dutch couple share the hut with us. They plan to reach Uhuru Peak (Uhuru = Independence) at sunrise. In order to reduce our risk we decide to follow them. At ten to two in the middle of the night we start. Max with his fever looks miserable. But he wants to come along. Maybe he is worried about me going on my own. He wears a track suit and straw hat for the occasion - at minus 10 centigrades.

At first I feel all right. I wear long undies and two cardigans under the windbreaker. A scarf covers the head under the hood. A shawl protects mouth and nose. The hands are in woolen socks. While we are climbing I even feel a bit warm.

The slope is steep and the sand firm. In the moonshine one can even see where the feet are going. When the moon hides behind the rocks I use the torchlight as a backup. Max is shaking in the cold. I give him my shawl, the scarf and the woolen socks. Now we both feel the cold. The guide, an African, sings a German Christmas song: "Ihr Kinderlein kommet", come ye children. Who would not want to follow him?

The track is getting worse now and steeper. We climb two steps and glide back one step on soft soil and gravel. It reminds me of the sand dunes along the North Sea. But the sand dunes  at the ocean are not 800 to 1.000 m high. Gasping and coughing we reach Hans-Mayer-Cave, a small hole offering protection from the wind. The Dutch climber has a special hobby - he keeps vomiting, a side effect of the thin air. Max with his soft leather shoes keeps slipping and stumbling with the arms up in the air. I suffer in the cold. Breathing is hard, and I have pain in the side of the chest. Short rest periods don't change anything.

At Hans-Mayer-Cave Max wants to give up. He wants to wait for sunrise and return to Kibo Hut. It would be to dangerous to descend down in the dark. An even bigger risk is to fall asleep. Too dangerous at this altitude and in the cold. He has no choice but to keep going.

I have one advantage. I am so tired that I almost fall asleep while I am climbing. I tell my legs to keep walking regardless. They move as if they don't belong to my body. I hardly feel my toes. All I think of is Gillman's Point. That far and no further. Ignore the crystal clear stars in the night sky. Look up to the rocks between the ice. And don't look at the watch. Just keep going. How long are five minutes? How long is half an hour? I forget Max. I am I. And I have to keep going! Max falls backward. I have to catch him without falling. Else we both roll down the slope. Soon Max only falls forward. How does he manage to get back on his feet? Forward, only forward. Tomorrow we can be proud. Tomorrow we can write post cards. Tomorrow is far away. Where the hell is Gillman's Point? Why does one have to write post cards? Why does one have to climb mountains? Why does one have to be proud? Are we idiots?

"Five minutes to Gillman's Point!" sounds the voice of the guide. They must have been the longest five minutes in my life. Finally we reach a gap in the rocks and protection from the wind and see a short flagpole. I fall on my knees and can hardly stop the tears. Is it weakness or joy or both? The time is quarter to six, Sunday morning. Many people come up here every day. They all are proud and want to write post cards. And all agree: "I will never climb this mountain again." And a lot of them come back one day.

 Sunrise behind Mawenzi. Moon reflection in mountain lake. Gillman's Point (5.800 m)

Six o'clock! A small bright spot of sunshine appears behind the top of Mawenzi in the distance. It took us four hours to climb Kibo. Experienced climbers do it in half the time. Most tourists need six hours. No wonder we are exhausted. The Dutch couple finds enough energy to climb the last metres to Uhuru Peak. We are cheating if we don't follow. If only I would not feel so cold! Maybe I could make it. But it is only a passing thought. Max can't go any further and I don't want to. We have reached the end of our strenght. We have had it! We look for a gap between the rocks, huddle together for warmth and wait for the sun. It takes almost an hour before it climbs up through a layer of clouds and fog.

                             Gillman's Point

My fingers are stiff from the cold when I take some photos. I carried the camera under my clothes. The humidity of the body causes the shutter of the camera to freeze and it breaks. Lucky that I have two cameras. One is in the photo bag.

                           Johannes- and Hans-Meyer Notch from Gillman's Point
         Leopard Point from Gillman's Point

Uhuru Peak from Gillman's Point

  Ratzel Glacier from Gillman's Point
We would like to walk to the crater in the middle of the mountain top. But it is too dangerous without a guide. One could fall into crevices in the glacier. Soon we start the descent. It is almost fun. Sometimes we simply glide down the sandy slope on our behinds.


We only make a short stopover at Kibo Hut and continue to Horombo Hut. My rucksack is still there. Max measures his fever - over 40 degrees celsius! He took the malaria tablets too late.

The African porter of an American group of tourists carries the rucksack back to Mandara Hut for me. He gets my windbreaker as a present. It does not happen often here that white people carry their own luggage and climb the mountain on their own. The Africans seem to admire us. One of them gives us flower wreaths to put around our hats. It means more to us than any Olympic Medal.

On the way back I take my time and take photos of flowers. Max slowly follows other people. He urgently needs a bed and a doctor.

 I have almost reached Morombo Hut when I notice that my photo bag is not hanging on my shoulder any more. I forgot it next to a flower about eight kilometres back. Our vaccination cards, Passports and Travellers Cheques are in the bag. Despite the aching legs and the thin air I march as fast as I can back the way I came, find the bag and in the evening fall onto the wooden bunk completely exhausted.  

say "Cheese!"
Next morning we make our way back to the Sikh Temple in Moshi where the mosquitos in our room are happy to see us again. Max is absolutely groggy. After a short rest we head for a local hospital which is fourth class because treatment is for free. The doctor seems to be fourth class too. He has studied locally and gives us a long lecture about Socialism, seems to know more about politics than about medicine. But he finally diagnoses Max's malaria, grabs a syringe with a blunt needle and knocks it into Max's buttock. It hurts. But some medicine enters the bloodstream and will hopefully cure the malaria. 

We want to be on the safe side however. Next day we visit an Indian doctor who belongs to a society of doctors who treat poor people for free. Max receives another three injections and has to swallow a lot of tablets for which he has to pay.

After a restful evening and a good sleep we pack our rucksacks, walk to the spot where the road to Dar-es-salaam begins and try to get a lift on the next stage of our trip to Capetown. A truck takes us for a short ride to Lembeni. To speed things up we take a public bus from there to Mombo. There we stop a Sikh whom we met in Moshi. He has a coffin with a body in it on the platform of his Peugeot van. We put our luggage on both sides of the coffin and place our legs on top of the lid to make sure it stays shut on the way. Then we take off to Dar-es-salaam on a long and dusty road full of potholes. We hold on to the roof racks as good as we can while our behinds are getting tortured on the wooden seats. Late at night we arrive at a Sikh temple in Tanzania's capital. The temple is already closed. But we find a double bed under the stairs leading to the entrance. For the next week this becomes our bedroom.

Max is close to a nervous breakdown. He does not want to eat and is rather apathetic. I try to cheer him up and take him to a bar. An African girl with a blond wig sits down opposite us, invitingly spreads her legs under the table. I ask Max: "Is that hair or flies?" No reaction. This makes me think that he is really sick.

Next day we find an Austrian Doctor who wants to send Max back to Switzerland. This suggestion brings him back to life. After his protest the doctor prescribes some more tablets and a week of rest. We enjoy some days of swimming and resting on beaches shades by palm trees. Afterwards Max reckons that he can rip out trees again. The next road to follow will be the aptly nicknamed "Hell Run" to Zambia.


No comments:

Post a Comment