Pole Pole

Climbing Kili was on the top of things I wanted to do in Africa. I needed to get it out of the way early in the trip, while I still had some of Jen’s pre-holiday conditioning. But that meant leaving Jo to finish buttoning up everything in Austin and then travel the first leg to African with the kids by herself (though from the word on the street, I hear she is happy to have me out of the way so she can “finally get some shit done”).

We are to start on July 28 and take seven days to summit Kilimanjaro and clamber back down. Aaron and I meet our motley crew of four other fellow climbers and lead guide, Yassin, in Arusha the evening before. Yassin, checks and weighs our gear to make sure it is less than 15 kg. My old Northface duffel comes in at 11 kg which includes the heaviest rental sleeping bag in the world weighing a whopping 3 kg. But no worries – I’m not getting anywhere near my bag – there are porters for that.

The next morning we are driven to Machame Gate (evelation 1800m or 5906 ft) where we meet the rest of our support crew of about 20-25 people. It is busy but not overly so – perhaps 5-10 other small groups also setting out. After registration and weigh-in (to ensure that porters don’t carry more than 20 kg each, and to get an initial weight so people don’t leave trash on the mountain), we set off. The porters mostly balance their main load on their heads. With lots of smiles and nods and “jambos” they soon zip past us carrying their loads. They aren’t massive in a body-builder / weight-lifter way, but all stringy and tough and typically dressed in well-worn t-shirts from major football clubs or name brands, sweat pants, and pretty run-down shoes or hiking boots. Yassin introduces us to our other guides – Frank, Johnson and Yassin Jr, the camp manager Gaspar, the chef Manasi, and a couple of other key people in the crew. Our path is a nicely graded road that snakes steadily upwards through dense “montane forest” – or temperate rain forest. Lots of huge trees, giant ferns, moss and epiphytes that would grow on your ass if you stood still long enough. The road gives way to a narrower tidy graded trail which then turns into a single file path with frequent muddy steps of various sizes and tree roots designed to trip.

Our first major stop was for lunch. Due to being the first day and all, Yassin had informed us that it would be a cold lunch. We reached a clearing on the trail and there was a large yellow and grey mess tent set up with a table and enough chairs for 7 of us. Chef Manasi served us quiche, cake, fresh fruits, and kachumbari (a fresh tomato and onion salad with large chunks of avocado and lots of lemon). Waiters provided soap and water for us wash hands before lunch. Everything was served on real plates and metal silverware. We finished with hot tea.

While I was still mulling over how little had changed since Dr. Livingstone, we were introduced to a young man who was our toilet guy. He walked us over to a tall narrow tent (like a tent version of a sentry box outside Buckingham Palace but with a huge zipper running down the entire front) and gave us a tour of our toilet. Inside was a smallish white plastic shitter with a little trap door into the shit container below, a pump to flush water, and a metal container slightly larger than a big coffee mug with a matching metal lid for used TP. All nice and clean and very doable. The toilet guy’s job was to empty an clean the toilet multiple times a day and to carry it all up and down the mountain – tent, toilet, and all. We quietly agreed that he had the shittiest job.

By the way, lest you think I’m a total jerk, the tour company had assured us that “Urth Expedition is a proud partner with the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP), a local non-profit organization that is dedicated to the fair treatment of porters and crew on Kilimanjaro. KPAP is the local initiative of the International Mountain Explorers Connection (IMEC) and performs the monitoring activities for IMEC’s Partner for Responsible Travel Program.  We gladly follow strict standards in more than 10 areas of treatment criteria to assure that we are responsible, fair and have good treatment practices towards our mountain crew. Each trip is reviewed by KPAP to insure compliance. Because of our partnership with KPAP, you can rest assured that you are choosing a company that can make you confident you are making an honorable choice by being a part of the commitment to a humanitarian cause.

A few hours after lunch, as we approached our first camp I thought it was easy going and I felt like a champ. By camp, we would have hiked about 11 km and gained about 1000 m. On the trail we occasionally we’d step to one side to let porters hurry past us up the mountain with their 20 kg bags on their heads. They had to take down the mess tent and toilet and all the other stuff after lunch and get past us up to camp and set it all up before we got there. All that while the guides told us over and over again to go “pole pole” – pronounced polay polay, meaning ‘slowly slowly’ in Swahili. Or perhaps “pussy pussy”.

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