Mark's Kilimanjaro Trip

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Chapter 4: 
Park Gate to Mandara Hut

In the morning the local contact for the guide company checked my gear. I had everything except a sun hat (I'd left it on the couch at home), and a walking stick, which I usually didn't hike with anyway. He said I could buy a sun hat at the park entrance and they would rent me a walking stick.

Before breakfast I had to pack all my stuff that I wanted to take up the mountain, except for stuff I would need that day, into a garbage bag. The garbage bag then went into a big duffel bag with another person's garbage bag. The stuff I'd need that day went into my haversack.

I met the other ten members of the party at breakfast. They'd just spent the last week on safari together, so they new each other pretty well. They were all experience trekkers except one couple from New York City, who claimed to never have been hiking before. They swam and ran a lot, though, so were in good cardiovascular shape.

It was cold in the morning, actually frosty, which I hadn't expected. I started out with long cotton pants and a cotton long-sleeved shirt. We all piled into two mini-buses and headed for the park entrance, called Marangu Park Gate, at 1980m on the side of Kilimanjaro.

On the way we stopped to look at the mountain. It was so hazy that I didn't see it at first. I saw two hills in the distance, and figured that was it. Then I noticed a slightly darker area in the gray haze. It seemed to cover half the sky in that direction. It was huge! I didn't take a picture because I figured I'd get a better shot later. I was wrong.

We arrived at the park gate, I bought a hat, and we all got walking sticks. They were ski poles. Made good walking sticks, but I never asked where they got old ski poles in Tanzania. Here I am, all fitted out.

At 9:15 am, we started climbing.

We were taking the Marangu route, also known as the tourist route. A kilometer or so in I started to get too hot and had to change on the trail. Fortunately, I'd brought some shorts. Naturally, I was already tired, and so was one of the last people up to Mandara hut, at 2700m.

That first day featured a 700 m gain in elevation over 7 km. At the start we were in tropical forest with birds and monkeys. You had two choices of trail to follow. One was a dirt road up the mountain, while the other was smaller and wound a bit through less traveled areas. I took the big one. I still wasn't really sure what I was getting into, and I wanted to conserve my strength.

Mandara Hut, as it's called, is actually a single large A-frame dining hall with a lot of smaller A-frames around it. The smaller A-frames are for the trekkers to sleep. Each A-frame had two doors, one on each end. There was a wall in the middle, so the two doors led to two different little rooms. Each little room had three beds on the floor, one on each wall that didn't have a door, and a fourth bed above the wall opposite the door.

Our stuff was there when I got there at around 1:30 pm. The duffel bag with two people's stuff in it had been carried up the mountain by a porter, a local guy in old clothes and battered tennis shoes. The only time the whole trip us well-equipped trekkers caught up with any of the under-dressed porters was when they stopped for cigarette breaks! We tried to rationalize that they did this all the time, but I was embarrassed anyway.

At the hut I teamed up with three other people and we took turns getting our stuff straightened out in our hut-half. I got the bunk because I was the second shortest and the most agile. (The bunk was shorter than the floor beds because of the A-frame of the roof.)

After lunch we took a short hike to Maundi Crater, then came back to camp and lounged around. In the evening they fed us simple but surprisingly good food. There were cooked carrots, cabbage, potatoes, spaghetti (no sauce), beef, and tea or hot cocoa. After dinner we sat around, then turned in early. There were lights in the huts -- electricity is created from solar cells on the roof of each hut and stored in batteries underneath. There were even indoor toilets, though they were in an unheated building. The only comfort missing, and I did miss it, was hot water. You could take a short sponge bath as long as you didn't mind doing it outside, in the cold, using cold water. Not for me. I was impressed the lighting arrangement, but too tired to read much, so I went to sleep.

In the middle of the night I heard the call of nature. If you've ever been camping, you know how it is. You wake up slowly, a slight but nagging pressure in your bladder. It's cold outside, warm in your sleeping bag, and you decide to just go back to sleep. So you try fitfully for half an hour, at which point you are fully awake and irritated. You really don't want to get up in the cold. Besides, how far can it be until morning, anyway? So you dig out of the bag far enough to check your watch and find out it's 2 am, or 3 am, or even 4 am. Now your arm and shoulder's cold, so you pull them back into the bag to warm up and check in with your bladder. Maybe the pressure has gone away? No, but you try and go back to sleep anyway. You doze fitfully for another half hour before suddenly opening your eyes, wide awake, no longer even slightly convinced you can spend the rest of the night like this. So you grab whatever cold clothes you can feel and pull them into the bag to warm them. Then you feel for your flashlight, turn it on with your hand over the face so as not to blind yourself or your tentmates, and begin searching for the clothes your couldn't feel on the first check. You pull on whatever you can from inside the bag, then unzip and hurriedly pull on everything else, shoes last, naturally. Then you scramble outside, internally cringing at all the rustling and zipping noises you're making, and head for the toilet or tree or whatever. There you do your business and scramble back into bed. It feels so good to climb back into the still-warm bag with all tension gone that you promise the next time you wake up in the middle of a cold night to the call of nature, you're just going to answer right away and get it over with. If this happens to you enough times, you might actually learn.

On this trip, though, I hadn't learned yet. I fought it for some time before succumbing to the inevitable. When I went outside, though, I was stunned. The moon was so big and white and close it blinded me. I literally had to let my eyes adjust before I could look at it. It seemed to hover over the trees. I went back into the hut to get my camera and took a picture of it. Unfortunately, the shot didn't come out. I don't think I could have done it justice anyway.

I went back to bed, thought about the moon awhile, and finally fell asleep.
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