Harder Than They Say


This blog entry about the events of Saturday, May 01, 2004 was originally posted on May 11, 2004.

DAY 196:  Mount Kilimanjaro, known locally as “Mt. Kili” or just “Kili,” contains the African continent’s highest peak at 19,338 ft. (5896 m.) ASL.  Some guy at the Tanzanian National Parks Department with a penchant for superlatives also boasts it is the “world’s highest free standing mountain” since it isn’t a part of any major mountain range.

Kilimanjaro draws trekkers from around the world up its slopes on any one of eight different routes.  For those with little to no mountaineering experience, the most popular route is the Marangu Route, an approach from the southeast.  Tour companies bring willing travelers up this way with officially-licensed guides — it is illegal to climb Kili without a guide — on the standard 5-day trek.  The Marangu Route, where is it unnecessary to bring tents because huts are provided on the way, is known as the easiest trail, so much that it has been nicknamed “The Coca-Cola Route.”  However, from what I was discovering, it wasn’t as easy as the tour companies claimed.

On my rushed first-of-five days the afternoon before, the trek was easy.  My guide Jimmy led me up to the Marangu Route through the rainforest from the park gate to the first of three base camps, the Mandara Huts at 9,000 ft. (2720 m.) ASL.  On the way up I encountered a woman on her way down.

“How was it?” I asked her.

“Oh, it’s hard,” she said, looking totally beat.

ON THIS SECOND DAY OF THE MARANGU ROUTE TREK, the environment quickly changed from the lush tropical rainforest (or as Jimmy pronounces, “lainforest” since Tanzanians pronounce L’s for R’s) to what’s known as the heather zone, to the mountain forest and the moorland with the change in altitude climate.  A drizzle spattered down from the foggy overcast sky.

Rama the cook and Waka the porter went ahead of me and Jimmy that morning on the second leg of the trek.  It was this leg where Jimmy taught me some useful phrases in Swahili, which he quizzed me on throughout the day:

Habari. (“How are you?”)
Nzuri. (“Fine.”)

Mambo. (“What’s up?”)
Poa. (“I’m cool.”)

Asante. (“Thank you.”)
Karibu. (“You’re welcome.”)

He also used two other phrases frequently used on the trail:  Hakuna matata (“No worries”) and Pole pole (pronounced poleh poleh), which literally means “slow slow,” but is also used to mean “relax,” “take it easy” or “slow down.”  (I gathered it was similar to tranquilo, tranquilo in Spanish.)

“Mount Kilimanjaro is all pole pole,” Jimmy told me.

Taking it easy is good advice when you’re ascending from 9,000 ft. to 12,340 ft. (3720 m.) ASL.  We kept a steady pace and I concentrated on my breathing, using the marathon-worthy technique that forces you to use more of your lung capacity, which I learned from Irish Sean in Cape Town, South Africa a couple of months prior:  two nasal inhales followed by two oral exhales.  Inhaling the sweet mountain air twice in a row, I made our way with Jimmy passed Kifunika, a hill where local Chagga people used for sacrificial ceremonies.  Alhtough not too far away from the path, Kifunika was a little hard to see since we were walking through a cloud and visibility was poor. 

The route continued on an undulating path, passed birds and field mice, over bridges and through the mountain forest.  While this leg of the trail sounds like a leisurely stroll to grandma’s house, I was reminded that we were on a mountain expedition when we passed by the sign of the Masheu Point, the place on the path where a guide died of pneumonia ten odd years prior.

“HOW WAS IT?” I asked an American couple on their way down the mountain.

“We didn’t make it,” the woman said.

“I thought this was supposed to be the easy way.  The ‘Coca-Cola Route.’”

“It’s harder than they say.  Five of us tried to go up [to the peak] yesterday and we were zero for five,” she said.  “And he’s usually better at trekking than I am,” she continued, referring to the guy next to her.

“On the second day I already started getting headaches,” the guy told me, citing one of the telltale signs of altitude sickness.

“I’m doing pretty good today,” I said. 

“You’ll be fine then.”

Perhaps it was the power of suggestion that spawned the mild headache I got after we went our separate ways, but I kept my concentration on my breathing to the point where it almost because involuntary.

“YOU’RE NEVER ALONE ON THE TRAIL,” Mr. Kimario said to me two days before at the Tin Tin Tours office when I initially inquired about Kili treks.  True, you are never alone because between the dozens of other tour companies in Moshi and Arusha, there’s bound to be someone else doing the same trip as you are with the same start day.  During peak season (June-August), hundreds of trekkers take to the trails per day, but it being the rainy low season, there was only one other guy with the same itinerary as me:  Kenji from Tokyo, Japan, traveling with his guide Festo.  Our lunches in the rain timed out at the same time and we pretty much walked in tandem with our guides to the second base camp, the Horombo huts by early afternoon.  The huts were fairly modern with solar-powered lighting and mattresses.  Nearby was a central outhouse with squat toilets and cold running water. 

After we checked into our separate huts, there was a break in the clouds above us and the sun was actually out for a while.  With the momentary period of blue skies to the south, I went out with my camcorder and SLR to capture the moment.  But the good vibe ended when I saw a team of porters take down a guy in a stretcher, wrapped in a sleeping bag (picture above).  The sides of his head had gotten all blue from the lack of oxygen to his brain.  I was told he never made it higher than the third base camp before altitude sickness got the best of him.

Soon after, it started raining again.  The westerly clouds kept the highest peak hidden, making me wonder if the supposed “Roof of Africa” was worth the risks.

THE REST OF THE DAY was spent at base camp for acclimatization purposes — the standard five-day Marangu Route trek brings people about 3,300 ft. each day on five-hour legs, leaving their bodies to adjust to the change in altitude with its lower concentration of oxygen in the air.  After snacking on tea and popcorn while watching the white-necked robins outside and the mice inside the dining hut by my feet, I took a nap in my sleeper hut until dinner.  Kenji and I were the only two clients having dinner in the big dining hut built for about a hundred.

“You don’t have a headache?” Kenji asked me.

“No, you?”


One by one, altitude sickness was making its way to the next batch of trekkers.  Later on, we encountered a Japanese couple on their way down from the top.  They too didn’t make it to the highest peak; only to Gilman’s Point at 18,633 ft. (5681 m.) ASL — about 700 ft. short of the very top at Uhuru Peak.

That night as I lay in my rental sleeping bag in a cold, cold night, the image of the blue face of the guy in the stretcher stuck in my mind.  I hoped that the sleeping bag he was wrapped in didn’t become his body bag; otherwise there’d be another point on the trail named after a casualty.

Coca-Cola Route?  From what I was seeing, it was more like the route of a shot of hard whiskey.

Next entry: Into Thin Air

Previous entry: Cashless.

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Comments for “Harder Than They Say”

  • :(  The suspense is killing me!

    Posted by Liz  on  05/11  at  06:01 PM

  • WOW! that is insane. i am trying to picture the guy’s head all blue from the lack of oxygen, and it seems scary. the suspense is killing me too. must read on….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  08:29 PM

  • Pole pole doesn’t have the same effect as tranquilo, tranquilo, but hey…i guess so…

    African field mice have nothing on NYC rats and even mice for that matter…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/11  at  09:20 PM

  • Y’know, Kili is supposedly one of the hardest mountains in the world to climb. Not b/c it’s super tall, but because it goes through four climate zones and it screws with your body… I’m in suspense waiting…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  12:45 AM

  • the suspense…IS BUILDING…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/12  at  01:12 AM

  • I am going to climb Kili with Tony (the guy you stayed with in Moshi) and am hoping not to suffer from the smurf illness!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/24  at  04:30 PM

  • Amy: it seems like his breathing technique works….plus throwing up. Good luck!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/24  at  05:17 PM

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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

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