Day One: Machame Gate to Machame Camp
Hike: 7 miles
Altitude: 5, 380 feet – 9,350 feet
“Good luck,” says someone within earshot of my complaints. Tell that to the bride, I sarcastically retort in my head. (I can’t say it out loud yet; we’re still a new group of traveling partners and all that jazz…) Before we even set off, it’s raining at Machame Gate. We spend the first twenty minutes unpacking our parkas and negotiating waterproof backpack covers with our new Maasai Wanderings guides. In. The. Rain. This is going to be a long seven days.
My secret looms large; I’ve never been on a camping trip before. But when Darryl asked me to sign onto Kilimanjaro, who was I to say no? For charity, no less. So we went to Paragon, and I copied everything she bought. Sleeping bag liners, a Platypus water bladder (which I mistakenly called a Papyrus), Smart Wool socks, a travel towel, hiking pants that zip off at the knee, carabiners, and a mini-flashlight. $350 later, I felt hike prepared.
Readjusting my walking sticks for the third time, and setting off with Richard, a guide who has spent much of his life making a living off of “Kili,” that first hill was a blatant reminder that I’d never done anything like this. Machu Picchu, while a checked box on my list, was only an overnight situation. I was about to scale the highest freestanding mountain in the world. 19,000+ feet. As a virgin.
I tried to sing “Whistle While You Walk” in my head over and over as we approached the fifth soggy hour in the rainforest – one of five ecosystems on Kilimanjaro. Jared and Josh, brothers from Rhode Island, tried to make small talk. I could barely breathe, let alone answer questions about New York City or my work, so I fell to the back of the pack in avoidance. My boots were muddied beyond personal comfort level; I had sweat through all of my layers and my hair had soaked through my Yankee hat. I was barely managing the 4,000-foot ascent to 9,350 feet. Forget 19,000. And how would I ever clean my new hiking pants?
When a cramp in my quad struck about 90 minutes outside of camp, I knew I was done for. How mortifying: day one, quad cramp. Thomas to the rescue. One of three 50-somethings on the trip – friends from boarding school – Thomas was Mr. Stretch. He looked like Lewis (or Clark) with his flyaway white hair and matching moustache. Thomas bought the Kilimanjaro safari hat from the hawkers at the gate; Thomas was a guy ready for expedition. Traveling with his son, Sam, his quirky demeanor (and constant limb stretches) kept him at the back of the pack, but when the quad tightening struck, Thomas massaged and stretched me to the point of completion. “Walk strong into camp,” he pushed me from behind. And, I did.
As I entered my damp abode, drenched to the bone, I knew bronchitis was only a campsite away. But, I made it. Did Darryl have any idea what she signed up for, I wondered, as I peeled off my many layers. Remains to be seen.
Day One. Over. Praise the Lord.
Day Two: Machame to Shira 2 Camp
Hike: 3 miles
Altitude: 9, 350 feet to 12,500 feet
We wake to another rainy morning, but since we’ll be hiking out of the rainforest ecosystem today, it should clear about midway through our climb. I’m starting to see why the nickname for our route is “The Whiskey Route” rather than the tourist-friendly “Coca-Cola Route.” Damn, maybe I drank too much whiskey before enrolling. The forty-nine porters, four cooks, three tent porters, and six guides, round us up, setting an AM ritual of packing up bags and tents, taking breakfast, filling water bottles, and suiting up for the day’s trek. Tanzanian park laws stipulate roughly three porters per person to carry food, sleeping supplies, and baggage. With sixteen hikers, additionally, posse is an understatement. We’re more like a small, menacing crowd.
Max, one of the other boarding school friends, feeds me electrolytes to help keep the cramping at bay; Jon, the organic Rhode Island bartender, squirts silver into my mouth (a cure-all, I’m told), and I load up on potassium and sodium tablets. My body is on intake overload but with thirty-seven miles looming large, and a summit simultaneous, I’ll do whatever it takes to get by.
Darryl and I go “pole, pole” (slow, slow) with Matthew and Dennis, two of our guides, today. The terrain looks like something out of Avatar, a creation of James Cameron’s imagination, and we traverse both rocks and grass to reach Shira Camp. Matthew has been doing this for fifteen years, he hopes to retire next year and open a supermarket, of all things. Dennis, a tender 29 they nicknamed "Rasta" for his dredlocks, is just starting out and works to care for his elderly mother and provide his daughter an education. Porters pass by as we climb, their heads piled high with our belongings, and various items like mess tent benches, water jugs, sleeping mattresses, crates of eggs. Many listen to the World Cup on transistor radios from the early ‘70’s. They greet us with “Jambo” (Hi) and “Mambo” (What’s up?). When you ask them the same questions, they answer “Poa, Poa” (Cool, cool…). Obviously.
When we finally arrive at camp, way behind the rest of the pack, we hope that our tent occupies prime real estate. We learned the hard way that slanted ground is not the way you want to attempt sleep. Moreover, you don’t really want to be around anyone. There’s a lot of, well, personal sounds happening throughout the night. Nothing seems off-limits, and it plagues everyone. Equally. Luckily Atenas, our tent porter, has taken a shine to us and delivered. As we set up our life-jacket orange mummy-style sleeping bags for “tent time,” we hope tonight’s rest will treat us better than last’s…