“… Close to the western summit there is a dried and frozen carcas of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Snows of Kilimanjaro
Well, we did it. The six days of our kili climb flew by in excitement, anticipation, and then happy exhaustion. While the trails were crowded with other climbers, and a great number of porters who were endlessly amazed by our ability to speak Swahili, the landscapes were beautiful, the skies and suns filled with character, and the crisp air refreshing (though also rather thin up top).
It has been too long since I’ve been able to revel in the bodily exhaustion that comes from a true challenge set to me by the natural world. I had forgotten what it felt like to simply walk through changing landscapes, each step of value as I feel rock underfoot, as my muscles tighten and stretch to allow for my forward momentum, as my eyes endlessly explore each facet of the infinitely sided gem that is the natural world; that is the land, the water, the sky, the sun, the air we breathe; that is the mountain.
We slowly made our way through rain forests, heath zones, moorlands, and alpine deserts up up up to the summit. On the first day, we left the beautiful, tall tree canopies behind, entering a world of dwarf pine trees covered in swaying lichens (old man’s beard).
The trees kept getting smaller and smaller until we were only left with shrubs and bushes and the occasional haunted, leafless, gnarly tree consumed by dry lichen.
We continued to ascend through fields of volcanic debris, populated by a few dry flowers and bold ravens. After reaching a high point called Lava Tower, we managed to catch our breath as we descended into a valley of alpine grasses and the unique Senecio kilimanjari: alien trees reaching with their thick arms up towards the mountain.
The next morning, we climbed Baranco Wall to find ourselves on some island in the sky, surrounded by a landscape of clouds.
From there we walked up and down and up again to eventually enter the scree fields on the slopes of the peak – a desolate place of rock, rock, and more rock. A few dry flowers and grasses, and man-made cairns provided some variety, but it was a cold, hard place to be sure.
Then came the final ascent. 9 hours of a slow climb up through the landscape of scree and boulders, we began in the middle of the night, and finished at the end of the following morning.
My head ached from lack of oxygen, and I felt dizzy at times, but we took after the beloved Dory and just kept breathing, breathing, breathing, walking, walking, walking, and we all made it eventually.
What took 9 hours to painstakingly ascend took me and my friend about one hour on the descent. We went scree-skiing and ran down the mountain. It was potentially slightly dangerous, and a stupid decision on my part with my bad knees, but so totally worth it. No regrets.
After a brief rest, we continued walking that afternoon into the evening to reach our final camp, back in the realm of alpine grasses and short trees.
The following day, we descended the rest of the way, entering the clouds once again, and finally reaching the beautiful shelter of high canopies and green forests. Our lungs were as tired as our bodies from the thin, dry, dust-filled air of the peak, and we fully appreciated both the oxygen and the moisture we were able to breathe once again.
On this trip, I was able to once again realize and appreciate how refreshing it is to be just some small speck out in the immensity of the natural world. Out in that wilderness, whose grandeur was admittedly and unfortunately choked a bit by the number of its visitors (including me), my mind had the rare opportunity to clear itself of the daily worries I hold, born from my life here. It was instead filled up by the realities of sweat and dirt and sore muscles: welcomed “hardships” of the individual, the remedies for which are found in the embrace of more sweat, more dirt, more sore muscles; in the vastness of a landscape that does not care, but is so very refreshing in its indifference towards us.
The mountains are nothing but jagged cold shoulders of the earth. They exist simply because they exist – not for us, though we may enjoy exploring them, though we may appreciate experiencing every rock and crevasse of which they are made. While we may hold nature in high regard, it couldn’t care less about us, and that is one thing I love about it. There is something truly wonderful about disappearing into the relationship between a single person, and the energy that passes from earth to feet, a connection solidified by the most tangible form of gravity. One enters a peaceful realm where the minutes become nebulous and the study of a bird’s flight can fill eternity.
Now that I have finished in my reverence of nature, here’s a quick debrief of what I’ve been up to since returning from my lovely trip to Kilimanjaro.
1) I have officially signed, along with my Ward Executive Officer, the contract with the water engineers. They will hopefully begin the drilling of the seven new wells on October 11th, and hopefully the community members who volunteer to help with the work will be responsible and able to fulfill their commitment.
2) I am currently arranging the purchase and transportation of the drip kits for the new permagardens that will be constructed. I hope to pay for them this Thursday, and will try to arrange transportation for next week.
3) We are also arranging the purchase and transportation of the gutters. The transportation for these will be community contribution, so it will require a bit more organization on the side of the village government for us to succeed. The goal, however, is to accomplish this next week as well. We shall see…
4) Two of the four trainings for the to-be garden trainers have been completed. We will hold a meeting this Wednesday with the training group and government members to explain the roles and responsibilities of the garden trainers, and the ideal timeline for permagarden construction. Afterwards, we will complete the third training. Then this coming Sunday we hope to do the final training, allowing them to begin work with community members next week. They will need to develop training and garden construction plans and timelines, but this group is very capable and I have no doubt that they will succeed in the end.
In regards to my activities outside of my main project, my counterpart and I are trying to plan (re-schedule) the beehive construction training. We’ve had some issues with the local woodworkers either being too busy to assist us, or machines breaking. Hopefully this Saturday we will finally succeed. Also, I taught another lesson for my Environmental Conservation and Agriculture Club at the primary and secondary schools, this one about permagardens. In the previous lesson we planned an example garden as a group, working with the concept of companion planting, and this lesson we turned our sketches into reality. I think the students truly enjoyed. They love planting, and consider it an honor to be selected to place a few seeds beneath the soil. It makes me smile.
I will soon be traveling for a week to go to Dar es Salaam for an USAWA committee meeting (the gender and development committee here in PC TZ). I hope work can continue in the village without any major issues while I travel, and I will be interested to see if those who have taken the lead for the various parts of this project will continue on without me there. It will be an indicator to predict the sustainability of the project, and I can only hope those who have said they will lead will take the initiative to do so. We’ll see what happens.
And in the meantime, I’ll just keep on keepin’ on, wherever the road may lead.