Our trip began early in the
morning, while it was still dark. The journey across
Tanzania to Kilimanjaro would take two long days across
one of the only paved roads in the country. Songea
lies, literally, at the end of the road and Kilimanjaro
rests near the other end after two days of driving
through misty highlands, arid plains, precipitous
mountain passes, and glorious elephant studded plains.
We’d needed to get an early start to this traverse so
that we could reach our halfway point before night,
when vehicular traffic must share the road with
giraffe, zebra, and other animals as well as roadside
The kids piled into the bus and sat atop gunnysacks filled with the onions, potatoes, rice, and other produce we’d eat as we trekked up Kilimanjaro’s slopes. Much preparation had preceded our departure. We spent many long weekend days trekking for hours in the mountains behind Songea to build up our stamina for the arduous trip, and made sure to eat nutritious foods in the days before so we’d have enough strength to complete the journey. Countless negotiations went into securing our right to climb, lodging and gear for the trip, with the biggest logistical hurdle being our transportation.
We first had to get the parents on board, and at first they really didn't understand why they should contribute money to send their kids across the country to climb a mountain, famous though it may be; what was the use? But when their kids started making the case, and they saw how much they wanted the experience, how low the cost would be, and how it might benefit their educations, parents voiced their support and contributed as much as they were able. Some gave money, some helped us cook the chapati and maandazi that we sold to raise money, and the trip got some momentum. All that we needed were the long walks into Matagoro Forest to get ourselves in shape and we could count down the days to our departure.
The kids were optimistic and bubbling with excitement as we left for Morogoro, our halfway point; there was one paved road in Songea and it led to Morogoro through the beautiful, cool air of the highlands along a route that meandered with the contours of the rolling hills. We passed through Njombe within 4 hours and Iringa at 7, the last town in the highlands before we began our descent down the sharp switchbacks to the oppressive heat of the valley.
Our bus broke down the first time in the heat of midday at the foot of the Udzungwa mountains, and as we waited for the engine to cool, baboons called nearby and the kids took advantage of the time to stretch their legs and pose for our first group photo underneath the shade of the van’s rear hatch. We were still optimistic that early in the trip, and the two hour delay only meant that we’d reach Mikumi National Park in the late afternoon, when the animals would begin to stir after resting out the afternoon heat. The road to Morogoro passes directly through the middle of this park, and we passed on a fortunate day. For the first time in their lives, our students saw the animals they’d only seen crudely drawn in textbooks, and which attract thousands of tourists annually. Their faces pressed against the windows on either side of the van, the students called out the animals names in Kiswahili as we spotted giraffe, gazelle, and a herd of elephants, with a baby following closely on the heels of its mother just feet away from where we’d stopped the van to watch: twiga, etc. Their excitement carried them into Morogoro where we slept soundly in preparation for our long arrival to Moshi.
The second day lacked the spectacular vistas of the first, but excitement built as our destination neared. Twelve hours north to Moshi and our first glimpse of the purple slopes of Kilimanjaro stretching impossibly high above Moshi Technical School, the school where we’d spend the night and pick up the shared equipment for the climb. Another group had just come off the mountain and the two groups of kids shared experiences, and anticipation built and the kids began to realize what all their work and training had been for, that they were about to experience something they’d never imagined.
We set off early, made last minute purchases, and began the steep drive up the road to Marangu, the starting point for student climbs, but again, the van broke down, and we had to switch all our gear to another for the last leg up where we’d meet our guide and pack for our early morning start. The drivers would have a week to get the van working, while we reached for the top of the mountain. Adronisi, our head guide, along with two assistant guides and four porters to help carry gear, explained the route to us: we would take six days, with one day of acclimatization in the middle, and we could only climb a little each day so that our bodies would have time to adjust to the altitude, and the lessons related well to our studies of pressure in physics. We would spend the first night at Mandara Hut, the second and third at Horombo Huts, and spend a few hours gathering strength at Kibo Hut before we’d set off for the arduous last bit.
The first day saw us pass through a rain forest, ripe with lessons for our biology curriculum as ancient trees loomed over us, flowers abounded, and Colobus monkeys chattered in the trees throughout. The kids bubbled with enthusiasm and nearly ran up the hill, the lack of oxygen not affecting them. In the afternoon as we rested, we’d relate aspects of the day to our classroom lessons. Why does Oxygen decrease as we go higher? What does this mean for our bodies? How has the vegetation changed as we climbed? Kilimanjaro is the only place in the world that has 7 different climate systems within such close proximity and its lessons were numerous.
Day two, and we began to feel the lack of oxygen as we left the forest behind and reached the broad expanses of the moors, with their endless views out to the plains below. Giant groundsels towered above us, and cascading brooks sparkled with clear glacier water; we really departed from what we’d ever experienced before at this point, and the world seemed alien and the students wanted to know about everything about we were seeing.
We needed the rest that day three would afford and passed much of the time relaxing around Horombo Hut, located high on a spine of lava with magnificent views of the summit, two days away, its glaciers white against the deep blue sky that one sees at altitude. We also made a brief acclimatizing trip up to Zebra Rock, an aptly named rock wall striated with white and black mineral washes that provided close up views of the mysterious, broken towers of Mawenzi, Kilimanjaro’s lesser peak.
Tourists who were also climbing the mountain were curious about the group of Tanzanian students that were staying in the same huts and experiencing the same highs and lows that they were on this once in a life time trip; normally the only Tanzanians they see are porters, and our students hastened to explain with pride, how they’d saved and trained to come, and they even taught the tourists lessons about the biology and geology through which we’d pass as we climbed higher up the mountain. The boys tested their athleticism against a group of particularly energetic American tourists, and soundly trounced them, besting them in all their games.
As we left Horombo Hut, we
also left behind all the vegetation and entered the
moonscape of the saddle between the two peaks. The
valley was shrouded by mist as we climbed slowly – the
lack of oxygen was really making things difficult, and
we had the added weight of extra water as we’d passed
the last reliable source in the morning – and the short
trip to Kibo hut stretched out to hours as we sucked in
deep lungfuls of the increasingly thin air. When we
stopped to eat lunch, we noticed that all across the
valley floor, climbers had spelled out messages with
rocks; some had been there for many years. We proudly
added our own message: “Songea Academy, 2002,” before
continuing with the exhausting climb. Later in the
afternoon, I finally found what I’d been waiting for
the whole day; in the shadow of a large boulder was a
little drift of snow that hadn’t yet melted, and I
scooped some up and threw it at Jerry – it was the
first snow they’d ever seen! And we had a small
snowball fight, at least until we bent over double
gasping for air.
The huts this time were small, not really meant for sleeping, more just for rest and a girding of strength as we readied ourselves for the most difficult day, 7 hours of climbing to the summit in freezing temperatures, and 5 hours of descent back to Horombo Hut for our last night of rest on the mountain. At around 11 at night, we suited up in our warmest clothes, pulled out our torches and set off to climb up the steep summit cone. After months of anticipation and seeing the summit grow closer each of the last four days, we were finally going to attempt it. We put our water bottles inside of our jackets to keep them from freezing and set off in single file, up the tight switchbacks of frozen ground for the long, hard slog to Gilman’s Point where we hoped to watch the sun rise.
Walking becomes painful at this point, as you struggle for breath and the air is cold in the lungs and the whole thing makes you nauseous; you struggle to focus and rely on your will to keep placing one foot in front of the other until there is nowhere higher left to go. But, unfortunately, will alone is not enough, and some of the students began to experience symptoms of altitude sickness. First Lucy, then Sophia, and Grace couldn’t continue as they felt too sick to go on. I felt especially bad for Grace, who’d been the most eager of all my students throughout the whole trip, always offering to help, and enthusiastically approaching each new challenge.
As one of the guides led them back down to recover, the rest of us continued up to Gilman’s point. The snow in the path was filthy, but everything else glowed white as Tim crouched with his camera to record the sun rising behind the fractured summit of Mawenzi. And we waited, the sun crept higher and the neutral density filter on the camera recorded it in Technicolor glory. The students huffed and stamped to keep warm in their second-hand jackets and waited for the slow packing of the tripod before they could continue up the trail and towards the summit, which had seemed so distant to them minutes before when they nearly turned back with their peers for the cold and the sickeningly thin air.
We set off just as the sun began to warm us and behind Adronisi slowly shuffled forward along the sweeping arc of the crater wall. Less than two kilometres to go and yet we spent two hours staggering, insensible to each other and the passing time as we focused on inching forward to Uhuru. Glaciers rose high to the left - though in a few years they’d likely suffer the ravages of warming - while to the right we looked across a precipice to the cone of the inner crater. And finally we reached it! Our elation mirrored the improbability of our having made the trip at all, 2 days across Tanzania and five days up. We posed and preened before the sign delineating the “Roof of Africa” as Adronisi sat bemused, and adjusted his gaiters for the retreat down to Kibo Hut. Pictures show us smiling as we savoured our triumph on the summit and record a memory that we’d never relinquish.
So, we walked down the mountain, victorious, and received our certificates of accomplishment, and even those that had to turn back were happy for the experience and couldn’t wait to tell their stories to those back home. The van waited for us as we finished, exhausted, and drove back to Moshi-tech for a celebratory dinner with soda, pilau, and the obligatory speeches.
Our trip wouldn’t end smoothly, however, as the van refused to cooperate, and stretched our two day trip back into three and we travelled in the night, our only company, the long distance truckers and the solitary candles along the roadside that signified a vendor ready to be woken up at any time of night to sell his wares to whoever might pass. For every three hours that we drove, we’d spend an hour sitting along the side of a dusty road, waiting for the engine to cool, or for some spare part to be retrieved from a distant town. The time stretched, but the students remained in good spirits; they’d get another day off of school, but I was dumbstruck when, as we passed one long wait on the side of the road, one of the shabbier looking vans from Songea passed us on its own long journey, and it managed it without break down. All my months of planning and anticipation for the van had been for naught, but it was no matter, because the trip was a success, and over those ten days, we all experienced something unique, and wonderful, and even years later, when I went back to visit my students, their first words after greeting me, would be memories of the trip and exhortations to do it again.