Kilimanjaro Diary, Day One: Pole Pole

Machame Gate to Machame Hut, Tanzania, Sunday Sep 2, 2012
Distance: 9-10 km, 5-7 hours
Elevation: 1200 m climb from 1800 m to 3000 m

Before you’ve even embarked on your flight to get to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, you’ll have heard the worlds pole pole. Which means slowly. Apparently, nothing quite equals pole pole in contributing to your success in making it all the way to the summit. In equal measure, however, nothing equals pole pole in contributing to your impatience early on. From the moment you first arrive at your hotel in Moshi – in our case, the Springlands Hotel *, but there are dozens, possibly hundreds, just like it – events will move at a pole pole pace.

Because our Joburg-Nairobi-Kilimanjaro flight left at such an ungodly hour, we roll into the courtyard of our hotel on Saturday morning and have an entire day at our disposal. There are only so many times you can pack and repack your bag and once you’ve rented your hiking poles – definitely useful – and bought a few bottles of water – also very handy in addition to the water bottles you might already have packed – and taken one last commemorative shower, you are really all set and ready to go.

Except then you still have over half a day of sitting around waiting for dinner and listening to a briefing which tells you nothing about what you need to know. What you do need to know you find out from some kindly South Africans who have just returned that very morning from their climb and see you are assigned to the same guide they have come to love over the previous seven days.

Just think about this for a moment: Our guide and his team have just returned from summitting Kili, and tomorrow they’ll turn around and do the same thing again, on only one night’s rest. Remarkable.

What’s also remarkable are their names: Our head guide is Godlisten, Goddy for short. His name in Swahili is Mungu Sikiliza, so I think we’ll have to stay with Goddy. Our assistant guide is Hillary. We christen him Sir Edmund on the spot and cannot help but feel confident that such auspicious names will have to lead to success.

Except all this doesn’t interest us terribly at the moment. Because the question we really need answered by this other group is the one about the toilet situation. Since I’m not much of a planner I have successfully supressed all thoughts about this topic up until this point, figuring there is nothing to be done about it.

It turns out there is, however, and it doesn’t involve the use of the garden trowel from my packing list.

What we actually need to get, we learn, is our own private toilet tent.

A private toilet tent? How cool is that! And by the way, if you are not enjoying the toilet talk, you might as well skip the next couple of chapters. Hiking on Kilimanjaro – or any other mountain, I presume – reduces your topics of interest to three things: Where will I eat, where will I sleep, and where do I empty my bowels. And not only you will be preoccupied with this. Everyone else in your group will be more in tune with your bodily functions than you ever wished for, trust me.

In any case, a private toilet tent is just that – a little tent with enough room for a bucket topped with a toilet seat that gives you complete privacy from prying eyes. Not so much from prying ears, alas, but still it is infinitely better than having to use the infamous drop toilets all the camps are outfitted with. If you’re planning to frequent those toilets, you might as well not worry about altitude sickness. Because there is no doubt you’ll be fainting from the smell way before you’ve even reached 3000 meters.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
Toilet apartheid on the mountain…
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
…but I’m sure the smell is all the same.

So I am asking you, what would you be willing to spend on the luxury of someone carrying this private toilet tent up the mountain for you, so that you only have to share it with nine other people rather than three hundred? I’m guessing a lot more than US$10 per person.

Yep, that is possibly the best deal of any kind I have ever come across.

I mentioned three hundred people. If you’ve had the illusion that climbing Kilimanjaro is for nature lovers or anyone seeking the solitude of the great outdoors, you might think again. Somewhere between 25,000 to 35,000 climbers attempt to summit every year, from what I’ve meticulously researched online. Okay, I Googled it and went with the first link. That puts the number of people on the mountain in any given week between 500 and 700, and certainly much higher during peak season, which of course is when we went. So my guess of about 300 people in camp on any given day in September is probably not too far off. Which means each night you set up camp amidst a buzzing tent city, all of them spaced just a few meters apart, a distance allowing for a lot of nocturnal noise sharing, if you must know the truth. The route up the mountainside – whichever of the six official routes you choose – on any given day resembles more a busy highway than a hiking trail. You’re much more likely to step on someone else’s toes – and, frankly, someone else’s turds – than seeing any wildlife or enjoying even a moment of solitude. It’s a beehive.

But it doesn’t matter. Everyone has come for the same purpose and you all share one big goal. Standing on Uhuru Peak on day six, at 5895 meters, long enough to snap the group picture so you can get the hell out of there again as fast as your legs will carry you.

First things first, though. Pole pole. Which means ever so slowly, in case I haven’t mentioned that. Pole pole starts right at the park gate where you arrive after about an hour’s drive in a bus. You sign in with your name and age, you use a real toilet for the last time, and then you wait. And wait.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
Our boys waiting at Machame Gate
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
Monkeys on the signs at Machame Gate

If you’re so inclined, you can meander over to where your guide is meeting with the porters he’s assembled for the trip. This is where all the supplies get divvied up and weighed so that every one carries about the same weight. A staggering weight, let me tell you. Each of us has a duffel bag allowance of 15 kg, which I’m proud to say both Zax and I have stayed under by 5 kg each. And that’s a good thing, because I think Dory with her many layers has gone over the limit, judging from her about-to-burst bag. Then there are all the tents, plates, cups, chairs, stoves, tables, and food for seven days. It’s a lot of stuff and it’s all laid out there at the park gate, down to the tightly bound bunch of parsley. We get three porters per person, meaning we have an entourage of thirty porters – 31 to be precise, I forgot toilet man, who by the way is truly overjoyed to have a job for the week – catering to our welfare on the mountain. Each of these porters easily carries 22 kg on his shoulders or on his head, and he does it in half the time it takes you with your puny daypack. When he gets there, his first job is to hike back down for half an hour to the next riverbed to fetch the water needed to sustain everybody. Then he helps pitch the tents, cut vegetables, and set the table. And after all that he still finds inspiration to carve Kili-jargon messages into the watermelon half that holds the fruit salad, making you laugh out loud while you have dessert.

These are some amazing people.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
Porters loping uphill

You might also use the time waiting at the park gate to eat your lunch pack. That much less to carry up the mountain. And if you’re lucky it will sufficiently spur your digestive system to warrant another visit at those nice toilet facilities!

Some others might be happy to have this break, before we’ve even taken a single step, to undertake repairs. I won’t name any names but somebody has already managed to lose the bottom piece of his hiking pole, somewhere between the hotel and  here, and now it is distinctly too short to be of any use. By the way, you’ll find me sprinkling in words of advice re climbing Kili here and there – though I will also attempt to list them all at the end – and one of them is that hiking poles are a must, in my opinion. I’d never hiked with them prior to Kili (if I’m honest, I’d never hiked much before Kili, period, with or without poles) but they make things so much easier on your legs and knees, both going up and coming down. Especially coming down. You can rent them at the hotel or bring your own.

But what use is a stubby short hiking stick without the bottom piece? Leave it to Professor Calculus to solve this puzzle. The forest supplies a nice piece of wood, a rubber stopper for the bottom is found somewhere along the way, the Leatherman tool does the rest, and bingo, you have a hiking pole good as new and with a lot of character.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
A new hiking pole with character
Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
Finally setting off up the mountain!

Finally, close to noon, we set off up the mountain on a wide path into the rain forest. A surprisingly steep path, but even so the pace is sooooo much slower than you would prefer. One foot in front of the other, pole pole. You lift up your foot for a step, but the person in front of you is moving so slowly, because your guide upfront is moving so slowly, that you cannot in fact put your foot back down yet, making you hover on the spot, foot suspended in midair, struggling not to topple backwards. The pace is so slow you wonder if you’re  not actually losing altitude. You stop every ten minutes or so to let some porters through, who greet you with a friendly jambo and wave as they hurry past you not pole pole at all. What sustains them, you wonder?

Dagga, it turns out. Weed. Ganja. We come across some porters who are taking a break and are smoking, and the smell is overpowering. Of course I should mention here that I have no clue what the smell is, but the sixteen-year-olds in our group waste no time informing us with absolute certainty that it is pot. How they know this, I do not ask. Rather, I’m preoccupied with the thought of how to source some for myself, if this is what makes these guys sprint uphill like mountain goats.

We spend the whole day slowly moving up, pole pole. All the way from 1800 meters at the park gate – which is already a bit higher than the altitude of Joburg, if anyone cares to know – to Machame Hut at 3000 meters. There we sign our names into the book again – a procedure we are to repeat every night of our climb – before being treated to a wonderful dinner in our very own mess tent, overlooking a sea of clouds below. We have left the rainforest behind us and are camped between a few smaller trees.

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
Moving pole pole up what looks like a giant staircase

I reflect on the fact that we’ve hiked through dark rainforest all day, barely ever catching a glimpse of the sun,  surrounded by tall eerie trees and gigantic ferns, and how unusual it is that we didn’t get rained on once. Even the forest road we hiked on first and later the narrow path were bone dry. I thank our good fortune, as I don’t really want to find out if the ponchos I bought are indeed waterproof. Maybe picking early September, one of the dry seasons on the mountain, was in fact a good  move.

Bedtime comes early when you’re on the mountain. Mainly because there is only so long you can linger in a mess tent (without alcohol) and also because the warmth of your sleeping bag is beckoning. The downside of turning off your headlamp at 8:00 pm – you’ve already read in your book which you wouldn’t even have brought had your friend not recommended one to ward off sleeplessness, but now your arms are getting cold; you’ve tried reading inside your sleeping bag but there isn’t enough space to extend your arms to the distance needed for people my age, and no one has thought to put “reading glasses” on your packing list – is that this makes for a really long night. But never fear, it will be broken down into nice little packets of about three hours each, separated from each other by several trips to the toilet tent. Which I’ve privately christened Teetee the Toilet Tent.

So you get up and out of your tent at some godforsaken hour. What are the chances Teetee will be occupied, I ask you? High, it turns out. It is a veritable zoo out there, and you pass the time waiting in line shivering and staring up the mountain. And then you’re glad you got up, even if it means you have to unzip and re-zip fifteen closures in the process. Because the sight is incredible. Kibo – another name for the peak we’re trying to scale and shrouded in clouds all day long – is suddenly towering above you in all its majestic beauty. You see its snow-covered ridges far above you under a moonlit sky, and it looks equally foreboding and magnificent. You also see lights reflecting off the snow somewhere up there and realize it must come from other people summitting right now in a long line of headlamps.

By the grace of God, that will be us in five days.

To be continued…

Kilimanjaro Diaries Day 1
Photo credit: Adrian V.


* Springlands Hotel is the base of Zara Tours, and my earlier comment notwithstanding I can highly recommend this outfit. They cover everything from airport transfers to equipment rental and are a very well-oiled operation, employing a group of very skilled guides. Book through them and you won’t be disappointed (and probably save a good deal of money). More Tips for Kili later in this series of posts.


Want the whole story? Buy the book:

UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.

Share this: