September 19, 2007
Machame Gate to Machame Hut
Total Distance: 6.56 Miles
Total Ascent: 4,000 ft.
Ending Altitude: 10,000 ft.
Greatly relieved at the arrival of my gear, but still suffering from a bit of jet lag, I joined our climbing group in the dining room of the Dik-dik hotel for breakfast around 7:00 a.m. My gear had arrived around 10:00 p.m. the previous night thanks to Kambona’s perseverance with the local KLM office. The cheerful young man at the hotel desk knew that my gear was somewhere between Atlanta, Amsterdam and Arusha. So, to console me he had offered the use of gear that had been left behind at the hotel by past climbers – for a small rental fee. But after a year of painstakingly selecting each component of my equipment, the thought of heading up Kilimanjaro with discarded gear gave me a stomach ache. But after some serious contemplation and soul searching, I came to the conclusion that I had no choice other than to make the climb with whatever equipment I could put together. Fortunately however that concern was behind me now and gratitude and excitement largely filled my thoughts. After a quick breakfast we stowed our luggage in a storage room at the hotel, put our packs and duffels in the bus, and gathered for a group photo with our guide Kambona.
Early in the planning stages our group had decided to do something more meaningful than simply climb the mountain. Each member of our group had committed to raise $2,000 in donations for a carefully selected group of charitable organizations. In addition we solicited corporate donations with the promise of a summit photo with the donor’s logo on a banner. Mostly due to Bill’s connections and thanks to a few last minute contributors, the donations came in at just over $104,000 – exceeding our goal of $100,000. For us this added a substance to our preparations and to the effort now before us.
After the picture, we boarded the bus and set out across the still-unfamiliar Tanzanian landscape. I was still unaccustomed to the sensation of driving on the left side of the road, and out the windshield I could see vehicles approaching in the right lane. To my American-conditioned eye it seemed as if those vehicles were in our lane and were coming at us head-on. Finally I just sat back and let the professional do the driving while I watched the countryside roll by.
September is near the end of the dry season and the fields were scattered with dried corn stalks on the remains of other harvested crops. The atmosphere was dusty and the sky shifted from familiar blue to a grayer shade as it neared the horizon. The weather was partly clouding and in the 80’s, a beautiful day for a hike. I had intended to take a phone with a Tanzanian SIM card with me on the climb. The intent was to phone updates to my brother from the mountain, who would update my blog. But I couldn’t get the phone to work, and in the last minute rush and confusion of getting my equipment packed and ready I had decided to leave it at the hotel. As we drove along the highway, Kilimanjaro finally came into view on the left side of the bus. Kilimanjaro is a huge mountain. From our position it occupied most of the Eastern horizon. At our request Kambona stopped the bus for a moment to give us a chance to take a photograph. Through the hazy air, the details of the mountain were vague, but its sheer size induced a mix of excitement and apprehension. I was used to living in the mountains, but even from this distance the size of this one seemed impressive.
As our bus climbed into the foothills we drove through villages scattered between plantations of banana trees and coffee beans. As we continued the road became rougher and eventually the pavement gave way to gravel. Because of the dryness of the season, the foliage along the road was thick with dust from passing vehicles, which gave the foreground a monochrome appearance. I felt for the pedestrians that were choked by clouds of dust raised by our passing vehicles. Finally after about an hour we reached Machame Gate, the trailhead of the climb.
Machame Gate was a loud and bustling collection of climbing groups organizing for departure. The gate itself was crowded with porters looking for work and merchants selling last minute items like hats, umbrellas and gaiters. Inside the gate, guides, cooks, porters and park rangers were all busy organizing the huge amount of gear and food that would be needed for the strenuous days to come. The guides busily barked orders to their crews eager to get underway. It was somewhat chaotic spectacle of commotion, noise and energy.
Before departing, each climber was required to register with the park service by providing an unexpected abundance of personal information, including gender, passport number, age, profession and national origin. The registration line advanced slowly and was crowded with people all over the world. As I waited I surveyed the crowd, which sported a spectrum of curious gear and unfamiliar dress. The many languages blended into an unrecognizable drone as we waited. It took more than thirty minutes before our group successfully navigated the line.
While we were waiting, the porters were organizing their loads, which included our personal duffels as well as an assignment of common camp gear. The Tanzanian government theoretically limits the weight that each porter can carry. The ethical guide companies, like Kambona’s, comply with this limitation. However, many of the companies find ways around this requirement by providing incentives for the park wardens to look the other direction. My bag was to weigh no more than 28 pounds (13 kilos). This, along with the camp items and his personal gear made up the load that my porter would carry up the mountain.
As we watched the show, Kambona introduced us to his two assistant guides, Godfrey and Mahamood. They were both very friendly and extremely experienced. Tad knew Godfrey from his previous trip and was quite happy to see him again. Mahamood exuded competence and confidence. I felt like we were in good hands. After the introductions and a few instructions we finally passed through the second gate and the work began.
The trail begins smooth, wide and easy. Kilimanjaro has five climate zones including the cultivated zone circling its base. The Machame route starts in the forest zone. The terrain was thick with tall trees, covered by dense undergrowth and sprinkled with small but colorful flowers. The air was fragrant and unexpectedly cool. From the beginning Godfrey set a slow and steady pace. As we walked we were constantly passed by porters carrying oversized bundles weighing sixty or seventy pounds. I quickly noticed that the preferred method of carrying their load was to balance the heavy bundle on their heads or shoulders. As they passed they would invariably greet us cheerfully with a few words of English or with the soon-to-be ubiquitous “pole pole”, which is Swahili for “slowly, slowly”.
Gradually the path became increasingly narrow and steep. The total ascent for the first day was roughly 4,000 vertical feet. The trail had a moderate and constant grade, except for a few places that were very steep. Often the steepest segments were engineered using exposed tree roots like tall stairs. Other places were built up with timbers. I had heard of groups having to endure hard rains in the forest. If it had rained, the trail would have been slippery and miserable in places. But while the sky was overcast, the weather cooperated and the day’s conditions ranged from dry to misty. The temperature was comfortable for hiking, but if we stopped it cooled down quickly and I usually found it necessary to add a layer to keep warm.
The novelty of the surroundings made the time pass quickly. The sights and sounds of the rainforest were new and intriguing. We walked slowly and used the time to get acquainted with our guides and with each other. In talking to Godfrey I was surprised to learn that “hakuna matata” was not just a Disney invention but was used frequently in Tanzania. At lunchtime we were surprised to see that Kambona’s staff had set up chairs around two aluminum camp tables. This was my first indication that the African tradition of climbing Kilimanjaro was quite different from the minimalist approach taken by most North American backpackers. In fact, our group of nine climbers was supported by three guides, one cook, and 28 porters. This allowed the group to bring luxuries that I was unaccustomed to having in the back country. I had expected to be perched on logs and rocks for meals, but the tables even had table cloths. I would soon learn that Kambona was all about attention to detail, and that most everything he did or brought on the trip had a purpose. It was evident that he took pride in a the presentation of the camp.
We rested in our chairs for a while, but after sitting for over a half hour it became apparent that there was a problem. The concerned look on Godfrey’s face told us that something had gone amiss. Kambona was firmly giving orders in Swahili, causing some porters to drop their loads and hurry up the trail while others rummaged impatiently through their bundles. We soon found out that the supplies for lunch had ended up in the pack of someone who didn’t realize he needed to stop. As fast as the porters moved up the trail, the food was likely already at Machame Camp. Kambona had sent a runner up to retrieve the food. But we were carrying plenty of trail snacks, and suggested that we continue with what we had on hand and make up for the lost meal at dinner. Considering the amount of time it would take, Kambona agreed and we set out again.
As we continued to gain altitude, I began to feel slightly nauseous. We were still well under 10,000 ft, so I knew it couldn’t altitude sickness. I had been over 10,000 many times with no adverse affects. But as the day wore on my stomach failed to improve. I wondered if it had something to do with the lack of lunch. But this was far from the first time I had gone long distances without eating more than trail mix. I supposed it was just a residual effect of nerves from the previous couple of days and the delayed arrival of my gear. <
The temperature continued to drop, and soon we were emerging from the dense rainforest cover to the zone of the giant heather. The appearance of the vegetation changes abruptly as the trail crosses between these zones. As we climbed we found ourselves ascending the spine of a ridge that gave sweeping views of the forest canopy below. We knew this transition was a good sign as it signaled that we were nearing the day’s destination.
In the late afternoon we finally emerged into a clearing, and I looked up to see Machame Hut, a small, round structure made of green sheet metal. Apart from my nausea the day hadn’t been too difficult, but it was a relief to sit and rest after the long day. Before going to our tent we had to wait in line to register again. The form required the identical set of data as the one at Machame Gate. Godfrey had us sit on a wooden rail to wait, and when the register was available, he and Mahamood delivered it to us. Kilimanjaro is only three degrees south of the equator, and the sun sets consistently around six o’clock each night. By the time we were done here, the sun was beginning to set and it was cooling down sharply.
Machame camp was slightly quieter than the departure gate had been, but there was still a lot of noise and commotion as the different crews set up their respective camps. When we arrived our camp was already set, but some of the surrounding group’s were still in the process of setting up. In retrospect, this camp was in a scenic and beautiful location by Kilimanjaro standards. Future camps would prove to have virtually no vegetation or privacy. This camp was in a group of small clearings surrounded by a green, wooded area. The trees divided the different groups and lent a feeling of separation from other camps.
Before dinner Kambona showed us to our tents. I laid out my pad and sleeping bag and organized a few things for the next day. Kambona then gathered our group and gave us the latrine orientation, which consisted of the correct procedure for using the chemical toilets, each of which was located inside its own cozy green canvas booth. They were astutely designed and locally fabricated according to Kambona’s specifications with windows, interior pockets to hold the toilet paper rolls and reflective tape on the exterior to make them easy to find in the dark. It quickly became clear how valuable private toilets were as the public outhouses were beyond the worst we’d ever seen. Members of other groups must have shared our assessment of the facilities. After the encroachment of several nocturnal invaders that night, Kambona was forced to post guards at future camps to keep other groups from pirating our potties.
After resting a short while in my tent, we gathered for dinner. Although the food was excellent, this was not the most enjoyable meal of the trip for me. My stomach was still bothering me, and I found that had no appetite. I forced myself to eat in spite of it causing me to feel as if I would vomit. I knew that I required fuel for the following day, but I had no desire to eat. After dinner I retired quickly to my tent. I hoped that a good night sleep would cure my stomach. Without the sun the temperature was cooling rapidly, and lying down in a warm sleeping bag was all I wanted at that point.The clearing in which our camp was located happened to be shared with at least one other group, who appeared to be from somewhere in Europe. These climbers had apparently worked an amount of alcohol into their weight limit and decided to lighten their load for the next day. But in spite of the noise of the party I quickly drifted off to sleep sometime between eight and nine o’clock. Around midnight I was awakened by the sound of one of our members sternly taking our European neighbors to task. Apparently this group considered the feat of making it to Machame an accomplishment worth celebrating. Although I had been asleep, they were still partying and keeping others in our group awake. Once they had been reprimanded the neighbors quieted down, but I was now awake and unable to go back to sleep. The rest of the night was restless, but I finally drifted off around four in the morning.