My guide smokes.
In fact, I suspect that when he is not climbing mountains, he is probably quite the heavy chain smoker. I have no problem with this. Up here, the wind is strong enough that I don’t even smell the tobacco.
The air smells pure, like sweet mountain sage and flower nectar. As we walk, my guide shows me bushes of native morning glories, flaming red hot poker flowers, and the spiky Protea kilimanjarica—all beautiful and unique. The forest of yesterday falls away into lower mountain bushes and the air feels even cleaner—I feel healthy just breathing.
I wonder how smoking and high-altitude climbing fit together but it seems to have no effect on his ability to conquer one of the greatest mountains on Earth. In fact, it seems that I am the one thing holding him back.
“If you were not with me, I could climb this stretch in two and half hours,” he declares. His statement makes me feel like an unwanted child whose birth has prevented his parents from achieving their dreams. He has just told me that I am slow.
We leave early—around 8 a.m.—departing the warmth and security of the Mandara huts and heading for Horombo, a thousand meters uphill. All the maps and signs say this second day should take around six hours of steady hiking, but without me, my guide could do it much faster. I do not think he is boasting—he has already ascended the peak more than 250 times in his lifetime.
“I started climbing the mountain in 1979,” he tells me, when I ask. He was only 16 years old and he wanted to earn enough money to buy Christmas gifts for his family. His first client was an East German who paid him no money, but gifted him a coat, gloves, shoes and sleeping bag.
“I had none of these things, and he gave them to me, so that I could start working as a porter.” To become a certified guide, he had to go for long training. Now, at age 48, he goes up and down, up and down.
“Do you get tired of doing this climb again and again?” I wonder.
“No. When you work on the mountain like this, you must love it always,” he says.
Zachary is Chagga—the native people of Kilimanjaro, with their own language and way of life that stands well apart from the rest of Tanzanians. We are so close to the equator and within the most tropical sector of the planet, and yet this high up, I am reminded of high Alpine pastures and unpredictable weather. Blue skies with sun quickly vanish into long wisps of cloud that swirl along the tips of bushes, creating the sense that I am walking into oblivion.
“What is my name? Do you remember?” my guide asks me randomly as we walk side by side. Suddenly I feel great pressure. I rack my brain—it’s a Bible name, I remember that much, but instead of deciphering the answer from that one clue, my mind responds with the lyrics for the Hip Hop hit Say My Name, Say My Name.
“What letter does it start with?” I ask for a hint.
“Zed.” He frowns.
“Zachary!” I reply, but I can see that he is unhappy with me for not replying faster. Zachary insists that I meet all the people involved with my climb. Me and my crew—all six of us. Yes, there is no such things as a solo climb up the Marangu Route. I am a lone traveler but I have Zachary as a guide, and Simon the cook, then Gaston, William and Felix—my poor porters. One carries my backpack. Another carries water and food in a giant basket on his head. Another carries gear—including a camp stove and gas container.
“Why don’t they just supply gas cans and stoves up at the huts and save people from having to carry them up and down so many times?” But I already regret asking the question. Things happen a certain way on Kilimanjaro and they have been that way for a very long time. I am guessing the porter lobby would rebel (if there was such a thing.) In this game of reaching the top, the porters are the pawns but there are jobs in doing these things.
Halfway into our climb, I jump aside as a group of rescue workers wheels a gurney swiftly downhill—only for a moment do I see the porter’s face, his eyes closed in pain, oxygen tubes in his nose. A victim of severe altitude sickness and a blatant reminder to me that this is no lark up a hill. Like any mountain, climbing Kilimanjaro can be treacherous and even deadly.
“You are going too fast,” Zachary tells me. “Slow down. This is Africa, brother—there is no rush.” I sit down on a clump of fair mountain grass and take a swig of iodine-tinted water. He lights a cigarette, relieved.
“One time I climbed the mountain very, very fast,” he reports. “In two days.”
“What is the best country at sport?” he asks me, quizzically, changing the subject.
“I don’t understand.”
“Football. Which country is the best?”
“Italy,” I answer quickly, and then wonder if I have answered yet another question wrong. “They did win a World Cup,” I add for good measure.
“Hapana. Name another.” Sports & Leisure questions are my least favorite whenever I play Trivial Pursuit. I do not enjoy this guessing game about soccer.
“Spain?” I ask.
“No. Not Spain.”
“Germany? England?” Shooting in the dark.
“No, no!” Zachary shakes his head. “Name a different one—a big one!”
“YES! That’s it—Brazil, this man was from Brazil and he wanted to go straight up without stopping. We left the gate at nine in the morning and climbed up to Horombo and slept there. Then the next day we walked all the way to Kibo but he did not want to stop. He said, ‘Let’s go to the summit!’ and so we just kept walking without any sleep, up to the top. It was so windy we only stayed up there maybe fifteen minutes, then came back down. And he did not want to rest—we just kept walking all the way back down the mountain in one day! We got to the gate at around four o’clock!”
“Were you totally exhausted?” I ask.
“A little,” he admits. “But it was alright for me. He tipped well and came back the next January with five new clients.”
To me it sounds like suicide—everything I’ve read tells me to take this mountain slowly—not to rush at all. Today’s path is obvious and not too steep—a strip of mud bordered by flowering bushes of dark green and red-flaming protea leaves. It is a strange beauty up here—a kind of African moorland populated by prehistoric plants. If there is such a word as megaflora, they grow here on Kilimanjaro.
We pass Gaston along the way, carrying my backpack on his back and a giant duffel bag on his head.
“Mambo!” I offer.
He smiles and lets me pass. “You feel strong today!”
“I am only strong because you are carrying all of my things,” I acknowledge. He says nothing, only steadies himself and shifts the bag on his head. Again, I feel utter guilt as the free-wheeling foreigner. Part of me wants to offer to help, but I know that I would not last ten steps uphill with that bag on my back.
At 12:30 I arrive at Horombo Huts, where the altitude is 3,720m (11,160 ft). I wait for the headache and fatigue that comes with high places—what I have felt before in Bolivia and Switzerland—but instead, I am merely hungry and thirsty . . . and cold.
It is cold up here. In the dining hut, dark and noisy with Germans, Brits, and Scandinavian climbers, the mountain wind keeps blowing the hut door open. Each time I feel a slice of cold wind above the waist of my pants and as I type this with numb fingers, the metal of my computer feels like an ice tray on my palms. We are only on Day 2.
Zachary joins me for tea and popcorn—popcorn popped over a fire. I put both my hands on the kernels and absorb the heat. Tiny striped mice run under the benches and I wonder if they are not too cold—these little wild rodents eating our crumbs. We ignore them and sip steamy mugs and he asks me about my job. I have been traveling around Tanzania, I explain. I show him my Twitter feed, show him how I have already shown his picture to the world.
“But what about my story?” he seems bothered. “You write about Tanzania and Kilimanjaro, but what about the guides like me?”
“Yes, well that is part of it,” I agree.
“Will you write about me?” asks Zachary.
“Ndiyo,” I say. Yes.
And I just did.