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Getting down from Kilimanjaro not so simple

February 11, 2018

MAGNOLIA, Miss. (AP) — Kilimanjaro has a serious intimidation factor to it. The mountain does Jedi mind tricks on you.

The name, Kilima Njaro, even means, “The mountain that is hard to overcome.”

Our guides told us at the beginning of the trek, “Don’t think too much about the mountain on the way up. Let the mountain think about you.”

They were saying, “Don’t let Kili inside your head where it can mess with your mind.”

That was working fine the first three days, but the terror and exhaustion of the fourth day created a crack in my defenses that Kili wormed its way into. By the time we got to camp that fourth night I’d already decided we were done with this expedition.

Our guide wisely backed off, and we declared the fifth day to be a rest day. We did absolutely nothing that day but lie in our tent, sleep and watch people climb the 1,000-foot cliff on the other side of Barranco valley.

About lunch time the rains moved in (still dry season). We were relieved that we would not have to scramble up that cliff in all that rain.

Elise was already thinking about taking a safari, shopping for souvenirs, exploring the local culture and finding a hotspot so she could Skype with our daughter, Cady, for her birthday.

That evening, after we’d recuperated some, the guide brought maps and updated us on our situation.

We’d just spent four days hiking into this mountainous semi-wilderness, and if we wanted to go back to town, there were only three ways to get there:

. Hike four days back the way we came.

. Down the Umbwe trail, the steepest and most severe trail on the mountain but a fast and direct way back to town.

. Down the Mweka trail, a relatively gentle trail that takes two days to get back to town. Almost all the hikers on the mountain use the Mweka trail to get back down.

I bet you can guess which one we chose — the relatively gentle, two-day Mweka descent trail.

There’s only one problem with that — in order to get to the Mweka trail from Barranco valley (where we were camped), we would have to scale that 1,000-foot cliff that we’d just spent all day watching people climb.

Needless to say, we survived climbing Barranco wall (almost everyone does). The highest we got on that mountain was about 4,200 meters (just shy of 14,000 feet).

There were two or three really frightening spots where it was pushing it to call it a simple scramble instead of a technical climb. But we knew that on the other side of this cliff was a “relatively easy” descent. It would be downhill all the way.

And it was. Sometime you ought to try spending a day and a half walking down stairs two or three at a time.

A Japanese ambulance in Africa

So there we were that last day, clambering down Mweka trail after getting scared off the mountain by a blizzard and an icy cliff.

I got to thinking about the $800 per person gate fees I had paid for us to go on this hike (compared to, say, Percy Quin State Park, which charges $4). A large part of the Kilimanjaro gate fee includes non-refundable rescue fees in case you have to get evacuated.

I asked the guide, “Can you get on the phone and call those $800 rescuers to come pick us up in a Jeep or something?” He nodded and just kept walking.

Elise even pleaded with him to call in the rescue Jeep, but he said it was for people who were facing death from altitude sickness, so she should just “hakuna matata” and “pole pole” (walk slowly).

A little later I asked him, “So, have you made that call for the Jeep to pick us up yet?”

He was surprised because he had thought we were joking. We were not.

He called for the rescuers that we’d already paid for, and when he got off the phone he confirmed that they would meet us at the closest extraction point.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“About five hours down this trail.”

God forbid anyone actually gets injured at that point in the hike because they’d have to hike another five hours in order to get rescued!

We eventually got to the extraction point where Mweka trail crosses an actual road, and were met there by an ambulance instead of a Jeep. It turned out to be a Japanese ambulance (almost all the vehicles on the road were Asian-made), and all of its spoken notifications and warnings were in Japanese.

Amazingly, about the time we were getting into the ambulance for our ride back to the park gate, several other hikers appeared from seemingly nowhere and began piling in for a free ride.

They packed hikers and guides and gear into that ambulance like sardines until there was not a centimeter of unused space. We were all jammed together into one steaming, sweating, groaning mass of humanity for our ambulance ride and complimentary Japanese language lesson.

It took the ambulance about 20 minutes of creeping and bouncing down that road to cut off the last three hours of walking from our hike. It was basically a $100 per person per mile Uber lift, but it was totally worth it to get back to the lodge three hours early.

Hot showers, cold air conditioning and comfortable beds, followed by a shopping day and a safari at Arusha National Park, got us rested and ready for Flightmare part II.

By the time we got back to New York, the New Orleans airport was closed to all traffic because of another ice storm. This year it has absolutely been colder in southwest Mississippi and adjoining Louisiana than it was at the top of Kilimanjaro.

We wound up switching airlines, hopping a flight to Charlotte, camping in the concourse there, and then grabbing a flight back to Baton Rouge to arrive only one day late.

My mother-in-law drove icy back roads to get to us, but when we arrived at lunchtime, the warm sun had already started to melt all the ice. Laissez le bon temps rouler — we were home.

Not a miserable ordeal

All the tribulations and misadventures make for great storytelling, but the trip was not just misery and danger.

It was fantastic hiking, beautiful scenery and good exercise. This was a good test of our mettle and a nice stretch of our abilities.

We thought, being from Mississippi, we knew what hospitality was, but we met amazing, patient, compassionate, wise people who showed us what hospitality was all about.

We had fantastically knowledgeable guides who know everything about every plant and animal and stone on that mountain. They could discourse for hours about the people and the flora and fauna and geology — or they could hold your hand and take every single step with you if that’s what it took to make your trek better.

We saw beautiful people living beautiful lives — including Christians and Muslims coexisting nicely.

We saw an amazing variety of fresh fruits and vegetables grown locally that provided the basis of really tasty local and international foods.

People have asked us what our next adventure is going to be, or if we are going to go back to Tanzania and Kilimanjaro. It might take a couple of years to develop enough amnesia to return to Kilimanjaro, but that 19,341-foot Uhuru Peak is still calling to me.

We do know for sure that we won’t be going back to Kilimanjaro until we get a good dose of someplace that is tropical, sea level and flat as a pan!

Check out www.RoamingParkers.com to keep up with our adventures and misadventures.


Information from: Enterprise-Journal, http://www.enterprise-journal.com

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