I woke up a 5 am, mind racing already about a peculiar number: 13 kilograms. That was the allowed weight of my duffle bag that would be schlepped up Kilimanjaro by a sure-footed porter. What can I shed to make weight? The question alone was an affront to the ego; months of planning and fussing went into curating the contents of that pack. That it had even arrived in Arusha was a celebratory event. I checked it curbside 72 hours prior thinking it had 50:50 chance of actually making the RDU-TOR-YUC-ZUR-NBO-JRO route with me. Now I needed to leave something behind? Which child will you provide as tribute? Impossible.
The afternoon prior our lead guide, Serafin, had informed us of the limitation. Serafin, it turned out, was a man of maddeningly few words. The meeting was held the day before departure so that he could review our kit and assess how suitably prepared each of us was for an 8-day ascent to the summit. There were five of us, all aged around 40, and we were anxious to have our level of preparation validated and have a frank preview of what we were getting ourselves into. (Summit rates for Kilimanjaro range from 25% to 80% depending on route, guide competency, and perhaps most crucially, one’s genetic tolerance for high altitudes. It is not a technical climb - or as a German alpinist put it to me “you’re not going to climb Kilimanjaro, I’ll grant you might walk it, but you won’t climb it” - so physical fitness is not the rate limiting factor for most.) However, beyond noting our lack of rain gear, Serafin was a blank page. He had an absolute poker face, albeit one bearing the patina of 100 + ascents. He would ignore questions about what to expect, and his only reassurance was that his client summit rate was 100%. While the stat was comforting on its own, the silence that followed and the contemplative look on his face as he took our measure seemed to betray a doubt about his proud legacy. To maintain that success rate one must choose his clients carefully we figured. Over some cold Tuskers at the bar later on we debated the odds Serafin would show back up in the morning.
Having sorted last minute rentals for rain gear, two of us set out to explore the surrounding area of our accommodations in Arusha. The lodge was walled, and our request to exit was met with nervous glances. Why do these wazungus want to go on a walkabout? everything they need/want is inside the walls already… Despite the established tourism industry in Tanzania, most tourists are sequestered from the local sense of the place. They arrive in a flying machine, transit to a western-ish hotel, and then set off in a land cruiser to a posh safari destination. Our lodge was tucked away in a working class local part of town, which, aside from the wide eyeballs behind glass in shuttle vans, saw little tourist interaction. In our hosts’ minds therefore, there was little upside and significant reputational downside to having us wander about the neighborhood. (Mind you this concern is just as valid in Boston, London, or Rome, where a conspicuous distribution of means might interact.) Explaining that we just wanted to look around, they insisted we have a chaperone. We acquiesced, and soon were beyond the wall with a guardian that might have been 11 years old.
With our hired muscle shadowing us, we took in the surrounds. It was near the end of the day, and the streets were crowded with folks arriving home from jobs, doing the same sorts of things we all try to fit in between work and home, only the grocer set up al fresco, the mechanic took creative license with his mends, and the shops made up for in spatial efficiency what they lacked in panache. Nevertheless, despite the bustle of the end of day errands, the attention we drew was enough to make a pageant contestant blush. The inquisitive faces seemed to range from:
wtf? Is that a panda? How did it get out of the panda enclosure? To:
Martha, would you look at the size of that f-king panda, good god don’t get so close, clearly they eat anything.
Hey Juma, what do you think those two pandas are worth? I mean pelts and all…
Recognizing that our Swahili was inadequate to the task of forming cross cultural bonds and that our retail therapy would go unquenched, we meandered back to our enclosure with at least our curiosity satisfied.
The next morning was the day of departure, and the day of measures. Solemnly, we brought our packs out to a scale by the van that would take us to the trail head. Triumphant celebrations or mad re-apportioning followed each measurement. (While thirteen kilos doesn’t sound back-breaking, the Kilimanjaro authorities wisely set a limit lest summit bound clients encumber their porters with overloaded packs filled with niceties instead of necessities.)
We left the lodge with 9 people - 5 clients and 4 Tanzanians. Along the four hour journey to the Lemosho gate trailhead we picked up another 16 Tanzanians that would accompany us including our chef, Matchupati, and two assistant guides (if these multiples sound gratuitous, they’re designed such that the remaining clients can continue on should a clumsy or sickly fellow trekker need to be carried down the mountain). We also stopped to pick up cooking gas, tents, stoves, O2, vegetables, and a sack of recently demised yard birds. At the gate the porters divvied up the kit and our gear into larger duffles. They then queued to have their burdens weighed again, overseen by a local ranger that records each measurement and name. I recall standing there, admiring the bureaucratic good intentions - the state being mindful of the welfare of the porters - and then I noticed back at the shuttle-van the porters that had been through the line already were stuffing their duffles with the remainder of our kit. At least half the mass they would be carrying up the mountain was not weighed. The scales, queuing, and documentation was all theater.
And I had left my damn astrolabe and evening smoking jacket behind to make weight.
- Hansell P