The evening before our hike, we were met at our hotel by a man representing the company that would be leading us up Kilimanjaro. The purpose of the visit seemed to be threefold:
- to ensure that we had arrived with more than flip flops and shorts. (Pass).
- to test the possibility that we would extend the trek. The route we chose is normally an 8-day journey (10+ for the timid). Being that I don't like sitting around much, I opted to do it in 6 days; an option that is not offered by most of the companies for this particular route. Now, I'm not a climber, so this may be an ambitious choice, but I just can't see how it should take so long to climb the mountain. (No thanks).
- to provide some information regarding what to expect during our time on the mountain. One of these details was that we have more than just a guide; we would have a guide plus five porters per person. This came as a surprise to both of us. Sure, we knew that there would be support, but five porters each? This is not Everest. We don't need oxygen tanks or special equipment. We are not being carried up the mountain on a velvet chair.
It felt embarrassingly excessive that we should have so much support for a non-technical hike that would only take us to 5900m. Nevertheless, the arrangements were made (and paid for) and we knew too little about what we were getting into to argue about what would be necessary (or not).
<< fast forward >>
We were picked up in the morning by a man named Nicolas, who had a leather jacket and, as we were about to discover, balls of steel. On the way to the mountain, we stopped a few times to pick up the crew; eventually cramming 14 passengers (plus driver) into the vehicle (along with a week's worth of food and camping gear). With every mile that passed, our anticipation to start the climb grew.
And then the rain started.
We stopped to pick up our park license...and to do a bunch of other things that I didn't really understand (and which took a very long time). Pierre and I just hung out in a moderately dry spot near the toilets; we were aching to go and the time kept passing and the rain just kept falling.
Finally, we were moving again.
As we approached the Lemosho gate, the rain continued and the road became steeper and more primitive. We passed a few Land Rovers that were stuck in the mud and I wondered at what point our dinky van was going to refuse to go on. That's when we discovered Nicolas's...driving talent. Swishing back and forth along the ruts as though we were water skiing. Bouncing up and down as we blindly plowed through puddles. Never hesitating. Never losing momentum. (but frequently grinding the bottom of the vehicle against the 'road'). Nicolas just kept moving.
It was not the sort of driving that one does when he is driving his own vehicle but, since none of the 15 of us owned the car, it didn't matter so much. Every meter that he drove meant one less meter to walk in the rain.
Eventually, the Nicolas yielded to nature and let us out of the vehicle. By now is it was something like 3:00pm. Watching the other 13 bodies unload from the car, we were reminded of our discomfort about having so many porters. This embarrassment at excess was resolved when, upon exiting the vehicle and observing the trail, four of the porters refused to work. We were told that it had been raining a lot lately and conditions were particularly muddy. It was difficult for us to argue on this point, given what we had just been through.
We cut some unnecessary luxuries front the packing list and carried on.
We were a few kilometres from the trail head when we began walking. The road was in such rough shape as to make it impassable even on foot. So, we found a makeshift trail that paralleled the road and forged ahead, sidestepping puddles, leaping over streams, and doing our best to stay upright on the muddy, off-cambre trail.
From time to time, we were passed by porters (our own, as well as those supporting other hikers). The porters were carry thing loads of unimaginable size and weight and in the most impractical ways (on their heads, with their hands). One of the porters seemed to have broken his shoe and was marching along with one sock and one shoe. Rough start. Another had abandoned his shoes all together and left for us a trail of toe prints as a reminder that our situation could be worse.
The rain continued on and off until the sun set, at which time it finally stopped. We continued in the dark for another hour before reaching our camp. By this time, we were mostly dry, though covered in mud. As we prepared for bed, our guide asked us if we would like to wash tomorrow morning. It's a sweet gesture, but I don't really see the point. I have a feeling that we are going to stay that way for the whole trip.