Mount Kilimanjaro, Part 1: the journey, not the destination - a blog, in 1000 Words or Less
It’s 7:25 AM on September 8th. I’m sitting on a large rock below a sign that reads:
Mount Kilimanjaro. Congratulations. You are now at Uhuru Peak. Tanzania. 5895 M / 19341 Ft AMSL.
The perfectly cloudless sky surrounds me in a blinding blue dome. The view is epic, possibly inspiring, certainly too monumental for a camera to adequately capture. My niece sits beside me, a young lady I barely knew a week ago but with whom I have a real connection today. Ten months of careful planning and research have culminated in this moment; I’ve never before felt the sense of accomplishment that I feel right now.
I can’t wait to leave.
This trip, what my dad called the adventure of a lifetime, began last fall when I told him in casual conversation, that I wanted to hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. I don’t much care for walking (why bother when you can get there on a motorbike), but a walk and a hike are two different things. A hike implies a payoff: at the end of all your efforts, you find a waterfall, a viewpoint, a meadow filled with wildflowers. To my mind, Kilimanjaro represented the ultimate hike, a mental and physical challenge with a top-of-the-world payoff. Finding someone who wanted to do it with me was the problem. The only person who expressed any interest has two young children and he simply couldn’t afford the time. That’s when my dad surprised me and said he thought he’d enjoy the hike too; it sounded fun and interesting and he’d always wanted to see Africa.
Our conversation drifted toward other subjects and that was that. Or so I thought. About a month later however, he raised the subject again, in a way that suggested he hadn't just been talking about Kilimanjaro, he actually wanted to do it. I decided to follow up with some preliminary research and ten months after our initial conversation, we met my niece (his granddaughter), on the secure side of Vancouver International Airport and we began a journey that would take us from our respective home towns, to Africa’s Rooftop, the 19,341-foot summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. YVR made the news on the day we left, for the complete mayhem everyone experienced in the terminal building, including three-hour long lineups at domestic security checkpoints. For our part, a passport that refused to scan at an automated check-in terminal necessitated a two-plus-hour wait in a customer service lineup before we even tackled the lineup at security. Full marks to the airline agent who, with very little effort, sorted out that irritant in about three minutes, and by “irritant” I mean, “potential catastrophe.”
With the passport issue sorted, we joined the lineup at international security and after another twenty minutes, made it to the gate with less than an hour to spare before departure time. I still can’t believe we came within fifty minutes of flushing a vacation that cost a significant amount of money, as well as losing months of planning and logistics. Machines, whether they’re airport check-in kiosks or self-checkout terminals at Home Depot, definitely do not take the place of the human touch. It’s unfortunate that Vancouver has joined Toronto and Montreal on the list of well-publicized airport chaos. I guess that’s what the woefully incompetent Omar Alghabra meant when he said things at Canada’s airports are improving.
…after a nine-and-a-half-hour flight, we landed in Zurich. We checked into our hotel and after a quick nap, headed into the city with the Lindt Chocolate factory as our final destination. The factory tour was interesting, the free samples afterward were yummy, and the store with its never-ending variety of Lindt choices is huge to the point of overwhelming although, after some concerted effort, I managed to find a couple of tasty options to bring home.
The next morning, with the YVR debacle fresh in our minds, we arrived at the Zurich terminal building three hours early for our flight to Moshi, Tanzania. We needn’t have bothered. The friendly Swiss efficiency was on full display. We sailed through security and passport control without delay, in plenty of time for an espresso and fresh breakfast pastry before the seven-hour flight departed.
We arrived in Moshi at dusk. By the time we cleared customs and immigration, claimed our bags and met our pre-arranged driver for our transfer to the hotel, night had fallen. My first experience of Africa therefore, was not anything I could see but rather, the stomach clenching stink of burning garbage and continuous, teeth rattling speedbumps. Thankfully, those two negatives were quickly forgotten when we arrived at the hotel. In a flurry of hugs, fist bumps and handshakes, the entire hotel staff flooded outdoors to introduce themselves, saying to my niece, “Welcome, little sister,” and to me, “Welcome, my brother,” and to the old guy in our trio, a respectful, “How are you, babba?” That gracious theme continued the entire time we were in Tanzania; I won’t soon forget these wonderful people, who all seemed so happy to meet us and so genuinely excited on our behalf.
With the better part of two days to kill before the trek officially began, the three of us had time for a city / waterfall / coffee plantation tour on day one, and on day two, a safari to Tarangire National Park.
The three-and-a-half-hour drive to the park (one way) in a Toyota Landcruiser with well-worn suspension, inoperative air conditioning, and a wheel alignment issue that caused the vehicle to shake almost to the point of catastrophic failure whenever we hit sixty kilometers per hour, was so uncomfortable I questioned how worthwhile the safari would actually be. Heavy traffic made the journey worse. Everything, from full sized city buses, to small underpowered tuk-tuks, to lane-splitting motorcycles, all battled for space on a highway plagued by frequent, randomly placed speedbumps, either huge asphalt curbs stretched across the road from from one side to the other, or three parallel ditches dug into it. Happily, my concerns about the value of the excursion quickly disappeared in the park with my first glimpse of giraffes, elephants and zebras in their natural habitat, making the return drive no less uncomfortable but much more tolerable.
Back at the hotel we learned more details about the trek and met the chief guide, along with the rest of the adventurers who’d join us, a motivated group of people who included,
a well-traveled couple from the west coast of Canada,
an athletic couple from Ireland,
a young guy from Australia whose main goal in life (right now) is to work only long enough to finance more world travel,
and, a solo lady from France who had the courage and commitment to continue when the friends she was supposed to travel with changed their minds about climbing Kilimanjaro.
My dad instantly impressed everyone in the group with his affable confidence; most seventy-eight-year-old pensioners aren’t traveling to Africa in order to climb a nineteen-thousand-foot mountain, although perhaps portentously, he knew before the rest of us that “Kilimanjaro” is about the journey, not the destination. For him, the entire fifteen-day vacation was the goal, not the summit.
The nine of us got to know each other over a late dinner.
The hike began the next day...
...part two next time.
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