To the Roof of Africa – Part One

Part one of a two-part series chronicling our trip halfway around the world and up the tallest mountain in Africa, along with my reactions to it.

Preparing for Departure

Packing was an interesting experience, but I’m done early, so now there’s nothing to do but think about what’s to come of the trip. The last of my runs before our departure mark the end of months of training to prepare. Though I’ve never traveled outside the Western Hemisphere, that aspect of the trip is far from my thoughts when I finally have the time to consider what it will take to hike for seven days, camp in the African wilderness for six nights, and reach elevations far above anything I’ve experienced. Nervous doesn’t appropriately describe it. Excitement is too optimistic a word for it, but fear and self-doubt never enter the picture. Not knowing how I felt about the situation adds to the confusion.

The time to head to the airport arrives. Check the bags one last time; pack the passport, cash, and wallet someplace safe but accessible; and head out the door to Brian’s car. That’s all to be done. We’re on the way.

To Amsterdam

Arriving at the airport, we haul over 30 pounds of gear a piece to the check-in counters. Brian, Phil, and I rendezvous with Jared and, with brightly-colored daypacks as our carry-on baggage, begin the winding path through security.

Documents checked, shoes in a bin, belt off, and electronics out. All familiar steps.

And once we’re through security, Toto’s “Africa” comes on over the loudspeaker of Boston Logan’s Terminal A.

Very appropriate.

Logan is the last thing we will see of the States for nearly two weeks, so we commemorate with a beer at the airport bar. The distraction is a kind reprieve from thoughts of what’s to come. Then we take a dose of anti-malarial medication and head for our gate.

The Layover

Stopping at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport suddenly brought the long-distance travel aspect of the trip back to mind. A massive airport seeing nearly 50 million passengers every year, Schiphol is located 20 minutes outside of Amsterdam. Though our four-hour layover isn’t quite long enough to leave the airport, the stop instantly expands the world I’ve lived in — hearing dozens of languages spoken throughout the terminals as we walk from one wooden clog-selling store to another. The country of origin of every passing group different from the one before it, this place is a massive intersection of Europe and the rest of the world. Even still, business is done in English, making our time spent here simultaneously eye opening and comforting.

Austin & Phil waiting at Schiphol

A stop at an Irish pub, a quick nap in some uncomfortable terminal seats, and then back in the air.

First Experience of Africa

Prior to stepping off the plane, I had no idea what to expect. Films tend to portray rural African airports with dirt runways and chickens running in front of planes. I had also heard that Kilimanjaro International Airport was one of the better airports in East Africa. With no comparative data, that wasn’t a very helpful description.

What greeted us was something I couldn’t have accurately imagined. The large Airbus A330 taxis to within 100 yards of a building smaller than your average Best Buy. One entrance path leads into an open room now filled with European and American tourists weary from the eight-hour flight. Waiting in line for our visas, the sound of ceiling fans blowing warm, muggy air mingles with the buzz of insects’ wings as they flit around the open lobby.

Our plane outside Kilimanjaro airport

As with Amsterdam, all interactions are done in English. We clear the visa office, baggage claim, and customs without incident to meet our trekking company’s representative and two other Americans who are departing for Kilimanjaro the next morning.

We throw our gear to the driver loading the van’s roof rack, hop in, and start down the dark, bumpy, two-lane highway towards Arusha. The breeze through the open windows alternates between the crisp freshness of early morning, the smell of smoke from farmers burning their fields for the next round of crops, and the distinct aroma of wildlife. The air, no matter its smell, is a welcome change after over 24 hours in planes and airports.

Arusha

Our first day in Africa is spent adjusting to the time difference and preparing (mostly mentally) for the coming week on the mountain. After an unremarkable Western breakfast of omelets with toast, we take a walk down the road from our lodge into the central part of Arusha, a massive city of 1.5 million people (fourth largest in Tanzania).

Our lodge in Arusha

“Don’t bring your passports or important documents with you,” says our lodge’s manager before we head off. “The streets aren’t entirely safe.”

Passing by glimmering buildings built by Chinese investment companies alongside ancient concrete homes, we leave the portion of the city formerly occupied by British settlers prior to Tanzania’s independence in 1961; a section of the city once mostly off limits to locals, but now owned by Tanzanian business people who purchased the old homes and estates and turned them into hotels, bed and breakfasts, and lodges for tourists.

The center of Arusha is a bustling urban environment mashing together many aspects of humanity. The HIV/AIDS epidemic of previous decades has left 1.4 million Tanzanians still afflicted and thousands of orphaned children on the streets. This combined with an unemployment rate above 10% and Tanzania’s largest industry (agriculture) suffering from a multi-year drought has produced a harsh social and economic environment with tourism being the only sector of continued growth.

Mount Meru just outside the city of Arusha

We wander through the hazy city: crowds on the street, some selling miscellaneous knick-knacks to tourists; hectic traffic full of cabs and minibuses literally overflowing with passengers; and the massive market that brings vendors from days away. We are left with only a narrow sense of how life in this country is for locals, but it is far from what we’re used to.

Meeting Our Guide

After our return to the lodge, we wait anxiously in the courtyard for the guide that will be leading our team up Kilimanjaro, the guide that takes us to the roof of Africa and back and then repeats it again with another group of tourists two days later.

Two well-dressed, relaxed men walk up to shake our hands. Leo, our chief guide and excellent English speaker, is an incredibly laid-back individual that seems to be able to assess and react to any situation with patience and accuracy — a perfect candidate for someone you’re placing so much trust in. Our cook on the trek, Shukuru, has also joined Leo to learn of any dietary allergies or preferences, but remains fairly quiet while Leo describes what is to come tomorrow.

I get a sense that this meeting is as much to answer our questions as it is for the guide to see how well prepared we are to attempt to summit a 19,341-foot mountain over the course of the next week. 30 minutes of dizzying conversation about when we leave (7:30 a.m.), how long the drive is to the Rongai Gate (well over four hours), and how far we’ll be hiking upon arrival (just over four miles) passes in an instant and we’re saying goodbye to two faces we’ll become extremely familiar with over the next seven days.

“Kilimanjaro is my office,” says Leo. “And I’m ready to get back to my office.”


Part two coming soon. More photos of our trip can be found on Flickr.