Monday, January 3

Promptly at 8AM we are ready in the hotel courtyard, each with one duffel bag for the porters to carry and our own daypack. I have barely kept my porter bag weight below 20kg (the nominal limit is 15) and even then am carrying a 14kg pack myself. Andrew's daypack is 20kg, full of FRS radios, two GPSs, camera tripod and other heavy items. The stuff that we are not taking on the mountain is locked in a storage room. I will regret leaving two things behind: The two paperback novels I brought, and the neckstrap for my camera bag. But I don't know this yet.

All set to go. But where is our ride?
There is a merry commotion as group after group is packed into their bus or safari vehicle and driven off. A large busload went off to the Marangu gate. That's the starting point for the standard "Coca Cola Route" to the summit, which has easy trails, huts and, well, Coca Cola. We, on the other hand, are doing the Umbwe route, which is the most hardcore one.

The safari vehicles are cool. Toyota Land Cruisers and the occasional Land Rover Defender, festooned with iron bumpers, roof racks, diesel engines, snorkel air intakes, dual spare tires, manual transmissions, and ribbed sheet metal riveted to the hood to use as steps for loading things onto the roof. I remark that there ought to be a law that S.U.V. buyers back home in North America have to get a vehicle like this. That would fix 'em. No CD player, no air conditioning, no power windows, just real off-road utility.

Alas, none of these vehicles are for us. 8AM, 9AM, 10AM, and nobody is left except us, and we just get vague excuses.

Pu is depressed because he has caught a cold, his first one in 8 years. He and I walk over to a store near the hotel, drawing suprised glances from the people there. The store is just a barred window in a shack, with a girl handing out the purchased items. The man in front of us buys two cigarettes. They have cough medicine. It comes as foil packets of two tablets each, costing about 12 cents. It is not the right kind though.

A little after 11AM, a busload of porters is glimpsed, and then Chombo and some other guys show up in a Nissan minibus and we are finally on our way. I am worried now about our first day's climbing itinerary. We stop at Zara headquarters in town. Across the road, a large number of men are loitering against a wall. It turns out they are all hopeful for jobs as extra porters. Another stop to buy Pu's cough medicine, and then we go onto the road up the mountain.

The dirt road is incredibly rough, so rough that nothing less than a Humvee would be required for it back home. The driver skillfully but slowly navigates the 2-wheel-drive van through.

Everywhere, people are on bicycles. I notice that all the bicycles are the same. Yi says these are standard-issue Chinese bicycles.

Beautiful jungle at about 6000 feet elevation on Kilimanjaro
Men loiter in front of small stores. Beautifully poised women in colourful clothes walk, balancing baskets of goods on their heads. We pass a colourful local market. Little children wave, and sometimes hopefully call "Chocolate?" to us tourists. Men pull two-wheeled carts full of goods. Occasionally a cart is being pulled by a donkey or an ox or two. One of the guys in our van is clutching a 10,000 shilling note ($10) and calls out in Kiswahili to many people, apparently looking for a missing food item for our climb. He does not get whatever it is he seeks.

The road is lined by small subsistence farms. An acre or two of banana trees, some coffee or corn maybe, a simple shack, usually with no electricity or glass windows. Footpaths lead to other farms farther from the road. Often these are not wide enough for a vehicle to pass.

As we bump along the road, going higher (the trailhead is at about 5400 feet) things seem to get gradually poorer, with drab, torn clothes replacing the colourful garbs earlier and kids looking less spirited. When we reach the trailhead itself, there are a group of men and a larger one of kids standing at a respectful distance, silently observing the supplies being unloaded like one of the wonders of the world. While porters sort out the loads and everyone signs in, I feel compelled to give them something, but what? I find three packets of chewing gum that I can spare. I unwrap them and, holding the 15 sticks of gum fanned out in one hand, approach the children. Do you like gum? The answer is obvious. I am stormed, the sticks of gum torn away from me with such ferocity that some kids get 2 or 3 and others get nothing. Caroline snaps pictures. The children don't say a word.

Pu wants to take a photo of some other kids, and borrows a 500 shilling note from me to give them. That's 50 cents. I'd like to know how far 50 cents can be stretched here. I suspect he just made someone's day.

Mike, who we will meet in two days, cynically says this pathetic display is an act, that they know exactly how to look and dress and act to maximize handouts. Indeed, when I later look at the photo that Caroline took, I notice one of the poor kids is wearing a wristwatch.

We get our bag lunch for the day and are sent ahead with one of the porters, whose name is Shebe, and who speaks good English. Walking on a trail with a pack feels familiar. The trail is initially a vehicle track through lush jungle, with giant ferns and tall trees. The woods are beautiful and virtually free of mosquitoes. Shebe has a children's school knapsack, a 250ml water bottle, and carries one of our large duffel bags, with some sleeping mats lashed onto it, alternately on his head and on the back of his neck with his head bent forward.

After an hour or two, we stop to eat the packed lunch. Because we are so late, it takes us until nightfall to reach the night's camp site, Umbwe Cave (we don't actually see the cave), and by that time we are ahead of even Shebe, with his heavy load. Chombo and the porters trickle in after it has become fully dark and they are badly equipped for this, with few headlamps or flashlights. Even so, they serve up dinner with all the trimmings.

All pictures for this day

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