We spent our final full day in Tanzania on the first section of Marangu route to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This is Africa’s tallest peak and one of the highest in the world that can be summited without any special climbing equipment or training. It does, however, take a decent level of fitness and the better part of a week to do it so that your body can acclimate to the altitude on as you ascend.
We didn’t have the time to climb the mountain, but were very interested in seeing the rainforest that makes up the climate zone at the base, so we asked our safari agency to arrange a day of leisurely hiking for us. Unfortunately, the “leisurely” part of our request was not communicated to our mountain guide, David, who thought he needed to get us up and back from the first camp where people planning to summit stay overnight (the Mandara Hut, altitude: 2750m).
Now, even though we had not planned to do any climbing, the 4-hour trek to the Mandara Hut would certainly have been “do-able” had we starting early enough. But the previous night’s hotel was two-hour’s drive from the mountain, and once we got to the Marangu Gate we discovered that neither Benja nor David had the voucher necessary for our entrance into the park. It took them the better part of an hour to straighten that situation out, which gave Dr. Darling and I plenty of time to observe other visitors, most of whom were planning to go all the way to the summit.
The thing that struck us most was the stark contrast between the climbers (mostly western tourists) and the hired porters who were earning a pittance to haul the heavy stuff (mostly food, drinking water and the trash generated by its consumption) up and down the mountain.
The climbers were invariably decked out in high-tech outdoor clothing and expensive hiking boots that often looked as though they’d been purchased just for the adventure. The porters, on the other hand, were usually dressed in regular street clothes. And while most had fairly sturdy shoes, I saw several in cheaply-made tennis shoes or sandals.
Both the Swede and I found this a bit unsettling. But it was just one of the many situations that brought into sharp relief the difference between the life of the average tourist visiting Tanzania and the life of the average Tanzanian. This had not been as obvious when we had been out in the bush, because most of the people we encountered there were tourists just like us, accompanied by guides just like Benja. It was not until we were “back to civilization” that the third-worldliness of the country and the impoverished conditions in which many people live really become apparent. It made me keenly aware that the standard of living I know is due mostly to an accident of birth … and it was really humbling.
After getting the permit situation straightened out, we started out on the trail with David, who at this point still believed he had to get us up and back from the Mandara Hut before sunset. It wasn’t until we reached the designated lunch stop along the porter’s’ road that we finally got through to him that we were there for a leisurely hike through the rainforest to experience the nature, with plenty of time to stop and take photos, including this beautiful long-exposure image of a small waterfall by Dr. Darling.