James Mixon
James Mixon
Africa 2017
I am a junior at Belmont University from Nairobi, Kenya. I will be spending the summer of 2017 on the tallest mountains in Africa, including Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro, filming a documentary about the guides, porters, and rangers who work to explore and conserve these remarkable areas.
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Alone on the Roof of Africa

The Great White Mountain. Kilima Njaro. Ol’doinyo’oibor. The Roof of Africa. No mountain captures the imagination quite like Africa’s tallest, the biggest and baddest of literally hundreds of volcanic peaks and craters and mounds that speckle East Africa. More accurately, it defies the imagination, as it is an oft-told story that when alerted to the presence of snow-capped mountains along the African equator, the armchair explorers of the Royal Geographic Society scoffed and sent their own adventurer to dismiss these preposterous claims. He even wore a special white helmet to protect him from the brain-addling equatorial sun. To their chagrin, however, there it was: an ancient glacial monstrosity filling the skyline behind the giraffes and elephants on the plains.

Looking out over the Shira Plateau.

Looking out over the Shira Plateau.

Almost 200 years later, the mountain now known as Kilimanjaro is one of the most popular treks in the world. Whereas when German missionary Hans Meyer first climbed in it 1889 by use of ice axes and glacier traverses, any moderately tenacious hiker can now achieve the summit, Uhuru Peak, by little more than a long, rocky walk. You can’t go alone, of course. The massive appeal of the top of the African continent has been duly harnessed by an entrepreneurial Tanzanian government, and it is has been strictly regulated. To enter Kilimanjaro National Park, you must be with a registered Tanzanian tour company and led by a Tanzanian guide.

I attempted to join the ranks of hundreds of thousands before me with a guide named Hussein Said, but my goal was more than the summit: I wanted to see how the park worked, how the machine was oiled, and what made up the culture of the thousands of guides and porters that facilitated this enormous industry.

One of my porters, Leonard, above the barren moonscape that is the African alpine zone.

One of my porters, Leonard, above the barren moonscape that is the African alpine zone.

First, let me explain that any journalistic attempt to examine the inner workings and working conditions of the park is regarded with immense suspicion. A forthcoming post will elaborate my personal experience working with TANAPA and KINAPA (the national and park-specific authorities), but suffice to say that I was limited to speaking with transparent guides, porters, and tour operators who were willing to be honest about the pros and cons of working in such a thickly bureaucratic tourism economy.

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When the fog rolls in and obscures the almost 200 tents that I counted at Baranco campsite on the southwest slopes of Kilimanjaro, you get a taste of just how wild this mountain can be. The cozy mess tents with ever-ready popcorn and hot cocoa are hidden in the mist, the hundreds of porters vanish, and it’s suddenly you, lost, alone, in an impenetrable maze of ridges, valleys, cliffs, gullys, decorated by phantasmagoric foliage appearing like ghostly statues on every side–the giant senecios and 20-foot lobelias become frightening ghouls haunting the mountain with bizarre, protuberant heads. The ‘everlasting flowers’ with translucent white petals emerge ghostly and ubiquitous. Beads of moisture drip down your coat, a portent that at any moment you are at the mercy of an equatorial blizzard or an alpine monsoon. A paludal landscape sucks your boots into bog, often coated by a layer of ice.

The bizarre but mesmerizing Lobelia.

The bizarre but mesmerizing Lobelia.

Even if this cloak of fog lifts, you’ll find yourself staring out over a horizon held up by an endless white blanket. You are above the clouds, too, phenomenally isolated, a spectral island in the sky. One feels as though you couldn’t penetrate this meteorological barrier if you tried. You are alone.

And then you stumble back into camp, where hundreds of people from dozens of countries all huddle around their bowls of soup and wish they’d chosen an easier vacation (“Why not Zanzibar??!”). Why anyone in their right mind would choose to trudge miles and miles of barren alpine desert day after day just to snag a photo with a stupid signpost is beyond them.

Shira campsite at night.

Shira campsite at night.

But then again: the tallest mountain in Africa. How much more remote, how much more exotic can it get? A lot, actually, but even after two hundred years of conquest, Kilimanjaro still holds the public’s imagination as the mysterious snowy roof of the mysterious dark continent. And if a company can take you up for just a few thousand dollars? Sign us up!

Actually, at any given time well over a hundred different outfits are rearing to push, pull, or carry you up the mountain, and they succeed in summiting as many as 20,000 people a year. Kilimanjaro mountaineering is a thoroughly commercial affair these days. The excessive regulations from TANAPA, Tanzania’ litigious park bureaucracy, stipulate that anyone entering the park must have, at minimum, one guide, one cook, and three porters. That number increases rapidly as groups get larger, and armies of more than 400 porters are not unheard of. In strange ways, these trips harken back to the ‘golden era’ of African exploration, where a few Europeans would command thousands of African and Arab porters through dense jungle so that they could maintain a few creature comforts–wine, women, and woolen pajamas. Except that, of course, on Kilimanjaro you’re following well-beaten trails all the way to the summit.

A guide and client on the roof of Africa.

A guide and client on the roof of Africa.

The benefit of this tourism machine, of course, is that almost anyone that can walk can eventually get up 19,341 feet to the top if their support staff is large enough.

The government of Tanzania seems to regard the mountain as a cash-cow first, a natural wonder second., ensuring that it brings jobs first, enjoyment (and that elusive ‘freedom of the hills’) later. At the park gate, a guide must sign five different books in three different buildings before launching up to the first camp, where upon arrival both he and every guest must present their permits and sign again, a process repeated every day until you leave the park. This sort of overbearing government involvement exists, as far as I know, only on Tanzanian mountains.

The result is that, although many expeditions companies have become fluent in these arbitrary practices, they too are reduced at some level to tourism machines focused on navigating red tape instead of green valleys.

A porter takes a breather with a cigarette. Wait, what??

A porter takes a breather with a cigarette. Wait, what??

The porters and guides are also required to carry dual (read: redundant) certifications from both TANAPA and an operator’s association that cost around $30 a year, which is more than many of these subsistence workers can afford. Even the clients feel the effect: the campsites are strewn with trash, and cues of tourists quickly clog narrow trails to the summit, obscuring the view of one of the world’s great mountains.

Because it is, regardless of mismanagement, regardless of overcrowding, undoubtedly one of the world’s great mountains–one merely has to escape the madding crowd, walk out of the littered camp or away from the back-logged trails to sink into an immediate, undiluted awe at that sea of clouds extending away to infinity.

You need only turn toward that inimitable barren moonscape that lies between the treeline and the snowline only upon the equator. You need only contemplate traversing the circumference of a mountain this powerful, a mountain whose shoulders seem to descend forever into the heart of darkness that lies under the clouds.

An endless desert.

An endless desert.

Along the rim of the crater, which you breach just as a faint line of pink streaks the horizon, startling standing glaciers appear to your left, just a thick sheet of ice sitting a mere few hundred kilometers from the equator, dripping away before your eyes. Looking down into the expansive Kibo crater below, you might worry that you’ve been suddenly and unwillingly transported to another planet–a barren, red, inhospitable desert–and in many ways, you have.

Turn your back at the right time and in the right direction and you just might think that you, like the mountain itself, are alone.

Approaching the summit at dawn.

Approaching the summit at dawn.

Porters pushing forward.

The Men of Kilimanjaro

My guide would alternately march ahead of me to set a brisk pace up the ashen volcanic scree and fall far behind me to let me dance alone through the craggy landscape, as he knew I liked to do. He carried a pack that towered above his head with an umbrella strapped to one side and two (never used) trekking poles on other, looking together like some sort of astronaut’s aerial. To shield his face from the wind, he wore a baseball cap and a buff patterned by the Kenyan flag, resembling, as I fruitlessly tried to explain to him, a bandito in a old Western. As we’d pass group after group of plodding tourists, other guides would call out, “Wana nguvu kama simba!” You have the strength of lions! He would wink at me and keep walking.

Hussein watches as a line of tourists ascend the Baranco Wall

Hussein watches as a line of tourists ascend the Baranco Wall

Hussein Said–a small but wiry man, in conversation also understated but direct, he has guided on the mountains of Tanzania for over a decade, claiming at least one hundred summits of Kilimanjaro alone. The child of Muslim-turned-Christian parents (hence his name) in central Tanzania, he was first a primary school teacher but soon discovered that the short and intense nature of expedition work provided equal pay in a briefer period.

He began work as a porter in 2005. He used the endurance he had built hauling water and farming as a boy to race heavy loads up and down Kilimanjaro’s steep and rocky trails. He was one of few porters who had learned English in school, and this benefitted him significantly. A conversation with two German clients in 2007 changed his life–impressed by his strength and tenacity, they encouraged him to pursue training as a guide.

When Hussein enrolled in a KINAPA (Kilimanjaro National Park) course that operates every three years, he underwent several weeks of basic training in wilderness first aid, terrain navigation, and client care. Ten years later, he has guided groups as large as 39 clients (requiring a small army of porters) to the summit of Africa’s tallest mountain.

Sunset over the Shira plateau on Kilimanjaro

Sunset over the Shira plateau on Kilimanjaro

Hussein speaks with a curious African drawl, perhaps the result of years of interaction with divers Western accents, as in “Aaah, bwahna, ah’m very sahrry.” He holds himself with the confidence of a much larger man, and the respect afforded him by every guide and porter he passes at his determined but unhurried pace speaks to his reputation as a serious and competent professional.

He is certainly competent, if a bit quirky. He checks every client’s gear to ensure that they are properly equipped with technical and insulating clothing, but personally wears off-brand jeans to an altitude of 4,100 meters. He insists that clients drink three liters of liquid a day, but himself claims to be satisfied with a single cup of tea at dinner. He’ll plod along at a client’s pace of as little as six kilometers in ten hours, but can also virtually run downhill from the summit to gate in less than five, all without slowing down or drinking.

A downhill sprint, more or less.

A downhill sprint, more or less.

Hussein is an excellent example of the typical mountaineer that works on African mountains. He knows Kilimanjaro’s rippling ridges like the back of his hand (or glove), has climbed in all possible weather conditions, and has seen every possible illness, injury or ineptitude in clients or porters. And yet he has no experience outside of these few, unique, equatorial mountains. There are important geological, environmental, medical facts that he is unaware of, which is not surprising when you consider that he, like most of these men, had only a secondary level education (and even that took him til he was 23 to complete). Although he earns a respectable wage for a Tanzanian, it is still subsistence work, and he must supplement it by tending a small farm. He has eleven siblings, and his father has died. He has to support his siblings, his mother, and himself before he can attempt any other professional endeavour. Further training is expensive and travel is made difficult by government policies and inefficiency.

Hussein marches forward.

Hussein marches forward.

Still, Hussien displays a cheerful resilience that belies the rigours of his life and work. And this, more than anything, is the most salient common characteristic among the mountain workers of East Africa. They love their work, they love their companions, and they love their environment. Almost every guide I’ve spoken to this summer have told me that even if tourists disappeared from their mountains, they would (and many have) venture up by themselves, just to breathe the air and see the sunrise. As a long-time Kenyan mountaineer, Njenga, reminded me some weeks ago, “You don’t have to have a lot of money to be happy.”

On one cloudy afternoon in Baranco camp, Hussein pulled me aside and told me he had something to show me. He positively bounced from tussock to tussock as he led me down an untrailed gully to a secret underground river he had recently found. Deft and nimble without his cumbersome pack, he maneuvered through some thorn bushes to crouch precariously on slippery moss, where a little waterfall gushed straight out of the cliffside, clearly the sudden manifestation of a long subterranean journey. “Almost no one else knows about this,” he told me gleefully.

Baranco camp at night.

Baranco camp at night.

Also on our team were the cook Joshua, who carried a small AM radio so as not to miss any football scores, and the indefatigable Japheth, a man as tall and ebullient as Hussein was small and terse. Japheth, who pronounces it “Jofit,” speaks very little English, but considered this of little importance when he would bring a thermos full of fresh hot water and bowl of popcorn and sit down next to me at the mess table. Without preamble, he would launch into subjects as diverse as international politics, African religious tendencies, homosexuality, and, quite fascinating to him, my myriad identity crises as a missionary kid. Although I understood only half of his rapid and effusive Swahili, I attempted to convey complex ideas on why Americans voted for Donald Trump, why gay marriage was legal, and why I considered Kenya to be home. Japheth would chuckle and shake his head at both my fumbled Swahili and my progressive ideals. “Ni maisha yako, ni maisha yangu,” he’d sigh. It’s your life, it’s my life.

From left to right: Samuel, Justin, Sylvester, Japheth, Hussein, Leonard, and Joshua.

From left to right: Samuel, Justin, Sylvester, Japheth, Hussein, Leonard, and Joshua.

We also had Sylvester, who looks no older than nineteen but had two small children, Justin, Samuel, and Leonard. Everyone called Leonard “Suli” because of the neon blue wind-pants he wore when hiking and when asked, Hussein couldn’t remember his real name.

All the men on the mountain greet each other with an exuberant, “Aya, wazee!” This means, essentially, “What’s up, old men?”, which may refer to their posture, weary from hauling loads, or their wonderful, simple sagacity–that indeed, you don’t need much money to be happy.

When I was walking behind Hussein, sometimes we wouldn’t speak for an hour at a time, until he would ask, without turning around, “James, you’re very quiet.”

I said I was enjoying nature.

“Ah,” he said. “Me too.”

An endless desert.

Permit Me A Story

This is the story of a permit, or permits, or rather dozens of different forms and files and flagrant red tape that I attempted to navigate to shoot a documentary in Tanzania. It’s a very long story, but I’ll try to be as brief and unbiased as I can, though I don’t anticipate much success there.

I have now very nearly completed a project producing a low-budget documentary in the mountains of East Africa over this past summer. I’ve been organizing the logistics of the filming expedition to Kenya and Tanzania for well over a year. The initial idea was incipient over two years ago. These logistics include travel, equipment (both alpine and camera-related), and legal permits to film in the national parks of these two countries.

Filming in Kenya, in parks run by the award-winning Kenya Wildlife Service, famous for their anti-poaching successes and highly competent rangers, was a relative cinch. In a visit to the Kenyan Film Bureau, I pleaded my case as a poor student filmmaker without the coffers of National Geographic in the hopes that they would waive or reduce the fee for filming in the parks. Within 30 minutes, my permit was approved, and free. KWS examined it and passed it as well. They were fairly open and transparent about their systems and their intentions. I even secured an interview with the Chief Warden of Mt. Kenya and the Aberdares National Parks, the “Boss Kubwa (Big Boss),” as he was called.

Tanzania turned out to be a different story altogether. First, I’ll quote an earlier blog post when I was still fresh-faced and naive about the depth of the country’s bureaucratic ineptitude.

“My contacts at KG Mountain Expeditions were able to smooth over the process with the Kenya Wildlife Service and help get much of the fee waived, but the Tanzania National Park Authority (TANAPA) proved to be more tricky. There’s a lengthy application intended to suck large media companies like National Geographic and the BBC for all their worth (Kilimanjaro is a major revenue source for Tanzania). A tiny student production like mine shouldn’t even register, but I still had to go through the same process, which involved numerous trips deep into downtown Nairobi to visit the Tanzanian High Commission high in a dilapidated skyscraper to try and convince them not to charge me thousands of dollars that I don’t have.”

“At one point, they rejected my application at a cursory glance because I addressed a cover letter ‘To whom it may concern instead of ‘To the Tanzanian High Commission in Nairobi,’ despite having their exact address in the top corner. They wouldn’t even look at the rest of the application; they seemed to think that I was being arrogant and disrespectful. It was such a petty detail that I almost lost my temper before remembering that my whole film depending on not offending this particular secretary, so I humbly retreated and fought my way back through the smog and dust of downtown to change 5 words on a new 15-page form. Considering it takes up to two hours of standstill traffic to get into town, I had plenty of time to stew. After two more infuriating visits and several pleading phone calls, I finally walked out with a single piece of paper bearing their light purple stamp of approval, my ticket to Tanzania. The process depended on groveling to the sort of compensatory grandiosity that plagues African bureaucracy.”

After this frustrating encounter, I corresponded almost daily with my contact in Tanzania about the progress of our permit. He was being unceremoniously shuffled from one department to the next, from Arusha to Moshi to Dar es Salaam, always in search of the elusive person who woulc authoritatively sign off on our (now multiple) forms. Bear in mind that we had researched the permit requirements literally a year prior and had found none of these stipulations or offices. They have almost negligible presence on the internet and are uncommunicative by phone and email.

Beyond the standard $250 per day fee that most TANAPA parks charge for filming (this is the only information on any fees or forms available on their website, with no explanation as to how to secure the permit), we were suddenly asked for $3000 from the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts, and Sports (they seem to have a lot on their plate), to “fast-track” an application that we had submitted months prior. Our other option was to move the entire expedition back by a month in order to only pay $1000 extra. Blindsided by this and thoroughly unable to pay these extra fees, we rescheduled the entire trip back by a month and my partner company graciously agreed to absorb the cost as they hadn’t anticipated the expense.

After I arrived in Tanzania, my contact, happy but exhausted, showed me the form he had acquired from the Tanzania Film Board explicitly allowing me to pursue a documentary film about porters and guides in Tanzania National Parks.

But the bliss didn’t last. Upon arriving in Arusha National Park and submitting the form, we were told we needed a second permit from TANAPA and needed to pay an additional fee to submit that, despite our hard-won permit from the Tanzanian Film Board itself. Already side-tracked and behind schedule, we decided to “accept” defeat and agreed to proceed up the mountain sans permit, where I would only take photos. Of course, I wasn’t so easily dissuaded and proceeded to film surreptitiously.

Either I was spotted by a ranger or the gate grew suspicious afterwards and radioed up to the supervisor of the first camp, because he demanded I come to his office late that night and hand over my cameras. When I presented my two DSLRs, they were non-plussed and kept repeating, “Hii ni kawaida kabisa,” or ‘this is completely normal.’ Clearly the park, like the High Commission, like the Film Board, like TANAPA, still thought I was National Geographic, with dozens of enormous cameras. Eventually the supervisor apologized and returned my cameras. I continued up the mountain, more cautious but still filming when I could.

I was beginning to get the impression that the moment TANAPA got wind of someone looking into the actual processes and infrastructure behind their natural resources, they became highly suspicious. As Clemence, an older mountain guide, explained to me, “In Tanzania, no one trusts each other. They all think you want to screw them.” His words, not mine.

How do I know they were paranoid? Because at 1:30 AM the night after I returned from Mt. Meru, the police knocked on my hotel room door and demanded to see my passport and visa. They claimed it was a routine immigration check, but I asked around the next morning, and mine was the only door they hit. I explained I was tourist, on a tourist visa, taking pictures for pleasure, and eventually they left.

Before we headed to Kilimanjaro, we decided to go straight to TANAPA headquarters in person to acquire the second permit in question. My contact in Arusha had already been working on this permit while we climbed Mt. Meru, but was repeatedly told that “the right man” wasn’t in the office. We decided to be more and more transparent about what we were doing, i.e. a student production for non-commercial distribution intended for research purposes only, but this only seemed to make things worse. The term “research” combined with “guides and porters” seemed a very touchy subject.

Eventually my contact received a letter that he thought had granted us permission to film as a student production, but on closer examination (his English wasn’t quite on point), we realized that it actually expressly forbade me from filming on Kilimanjaro. We were supposed to present this at the park gate.

So, after several days of fruitlessly waiting, we went directly to TANAPA and waited for several hours until someone finally agreed to see us. In a rather ostentatious office I sat across a massive oak table from the deputy commissioner and a brusque Indian man who wouldn’t say who he was and wouldn’t look me in the eye. They explained in rapid and terse Swahili that there was no way they could let me film because they couldn’t trust me (more specifically, that “they couldn’t know my heart”) not to besmirch the great name of Tanzania, which I clearly had no intention to do and had explained extensively in letters from myself, Belmont, and KWS. They continued on and on–again, without ever looking at me–their tirade interrupted by the occasional English words: “Youtube” and “reputable media organizations.”

When this course of reasoning didn’t satisfy us, they changed tactics and said that I had entered the country under the wrong type of visa and had overlooked a lengthy process of application through TANAPA directly (a process which doesn’t exist online or in any accessible resources).

Unsurprisingly, they didn’t like it when I inquired about this mysterious lack of information. At this point, the Indian man walked out of the room with a nasty look at me and the deputy commissioner told us to leave.

I left the building with the distinct impression that I was a public enemy to Tanzania.

As I ran this experience by my contacts like Clemence, it became clear that a paranoia runs rampant through the Tanzanian government, a fear of being held accountable for anything, a fear of back-stabbing and being fired. What frustrated me most was not their obvious inconsistency and blatant corruption but that by making life so difficult for anyone not associated with a major media corporation or interested in anything but taking pretty pictures of animals, they essentially shoot themselves in the foot and obfuscate the essential media coverage (and accountability) that their country so desperately needs. More than any other complaint, I heard from guides and tour operators that the Tanzanian government does not know how to advertise its myriad and remarkable natural resources. This failure and this pernicious fear affects average Tanzanians who need jobs in tourism, not the government elite.

Thus, feeling both angry and a bit emboldened, I consulted with my company and we decided to throw the letter away and proceed up the mountain as “normal tourists,” filming under the radar as we had done on Mt. Meru. We had no problem. After talking to several other journalists or videographers who have worked in Tanzania, I found that this was the unspoken but normalized practice.

As I expected, this wasn’t a very short story. But it was an integral part of my experience, although a frustrating one. I came to East Africa not just to climb and film but to see how these mountains operate, and what life is like for those who work on them. What I found was an optimistic resilience in the guides and porters even under an alternately arbitrary and antagonistic bureaucracy.

As my guide repeatedly told me, “Tanzania is Tanzania,” which says so much and yet too little.

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Ol’doinyo’orok — The Black Mountain

For anyone growing up under Kilimanjaro, the inimitable snow-capped peak rising from the Kenyan and Tanzanian plains, there is a second mountain, literally in the shadow of it’s greater cousin. This peak, though little known outside of the area, cuts a sharp contrast to the lumbering behemoth to the south; it is jagged and dark, eternally obscured by whirling clouds whipped up over miles and miles of empty flatte below. In Kimaa, the language of the Maasai tribe that dominates these vast savannahs stretching from Nairobi, Kenya to Dodoma, Tanzania, Ol’doinyo’orok means “the black mountain.” The name intimates more than the harsh silhouette; this is a wild mountain, unforgiving and intemperate.

A porter atop Kilimanjaro's Baranco Wall, with Mt. Meru emerging from a sea clouds behind him

A porter atop Kilimanjaro’s Baranco Wall, with Mt. Meru emerging from a sea clouds behind him

It is more commonly known as Mt. Meru, and it stands over the city of Arusha in a wilderness area controlled by the Arusha National Park. Because of where the park boundaries lie, this mountain more than any other demonstrates the dramatic shift in ecosystems as you ascend an equatorial peak. Arusha National Park is popular for its walking safaris: with an armed ranger you can traipse through the dense woodland and it’s occasional savannah-esque clearings (one of which is called “Serengeti Ndogo”– the “little Serengeti”) to catch giraffes, zebra, and innumerable birds doing what they do best. The height of the giraffes is somehow only enhanced by the peak looming above them, and a distinct sense of prehistoric awe sets in over you as you begin to hike up into the jungle. The ranger stays with you through the montane forest, ever more alert, for elephants and cape buffalo roam the woods with a stealth surprising for their size. Herds of cape buffalo will scatter at human appearance, but a solitary beast will quickly turn aggressive.

A remarkable twin fig tree arch in the jungle surrounding the mountain

A remarkable twin fig tree arch in the jungle surrounding the mountain

As the trees get shorter and the colobus monkeys fewer and farther between, an eery fog settles in over the ensuing heather and bramble. Because of a forest fire that escaped from a nearby village in recent years, a large swathe of this alpine brush is populated by dead and charred trees, adding to the severity of an already austere landscape. The occasional bright red and yellow flowers (the endemic Mackinder’s Gladiolus and Kilimanjaro Impatiens) startle as they seem to erupt out of the otherwise grey-green bushes.

Within a few thousand feet, you’ve passed from dignified giraffes in a clearing to ravens floating under cold, craggy clifflines. It is at this point that Mt. Meru becomes truly intimidating, because it is in fact a colossal volcano, long extinct but still awe-inspiring. Once upon the highest ridges, the extent of its ancient geological savagery is clear: a broken and crumbling crater rim holds a massive ash pile, over a thousand feet high.

The "Ash Pile"

The “Ash Pile”

If only this immense peak were still as wild and free as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years; but no, it is now merely a cog in the Tanzania National Parks authority TANAPA’s tourism machine. The park is costly and complicated to enter, and once inside is marred by excessive regulation and infrastructure. There are two large and unnattractive lodge complexes high on the slopes to accommodate trekkers and their required support teams. The presence of numerous (redundantly so) park rangers and supervisors erodes any autonomy. The goal of TANAPA seems to be to create as many jobs as possible and collect as much money as possible, which, on initial examination, seems a perfectly reasonable, capitalistic idea.

Unfortunately, this business model seriously mitigates the purity of the natural experience on a mountain as grand as Ol’doinyo’orok. The roles of park officials are often superfluous and the regulations requiring certain numbers of guides, cooks, and porters result in a mountain overridden by unnecessary personnel. A climber has no option but to tramp up the mountain in the style redolent of Henry Morton Stanley’s nineteenth century expeditions, with dozens of porters and armed guards in tow, progressing in a long, slow line up a concrete trail. As if to confirm this capitalistic attitude, the wooden sign at the peak literally reads, “Congratulations, valued customer…”

I’ll admit to some bias in this area, as I’m of a light-and-fast, leave-no-trace adventurer camp (pun intended), and I do understand that as Tanzania is a developing country, it has a responsibility to provide as many opportunities for its citizens to leave poverty behind as possible. The country is endowed with a perhaps unparalleled number of geological and ecological wonders, and it has appropriately harnessed those for the economic benefit of the populace. At least ostensibly. The reality that I witnessed was one of bureaucratic stagnation and paranoia, where no one trusts each other and no one wants to be held accountable for decisions. I’ll have more to say on this in later blog posts. Regardless, TANAPA has a difficult job protecting and preserving these areas while also catering to hundreds of thousands of tourists, and it clearly has a long way to go.

Porters pushing forward.

Porters pushing forward.

On the ground, of course, every man and woman working in Arusha National Park has a sincere reason to be there. Either they are truly passionate about protecting and exploring their country’s landscape, or they need to provide food, shelter, and school fees for their children. One of the park rangers that guides trekkers up the mountain, Sunday (his real name; I also met a Godlistens and a Dolphin), told me his ambition to be a safari driver, explaining that constant trekking with a heavy pack is hard on one’s health (an understatement) but that as he and his younger brother’s are orphans, he has a responsibility to provide for them immediately and cannot afford the training and certification necessary to work in the Serengeti.

Another young man, Kelvin, works as a porter for a foreign-owned company, also hauling up to 100 pounds over the steep mountain ridges. He would sit with me as I took tea in the lodges, however, and regale me with his passion for protecting Tanzania’s mountains. When I asked him if he didn’t consider his responsibility to provide for his family the priority, he responded, “Bila mazingira, hakuna binadamu pia.” Without the environment, there can be no humans either. I was taken aback by the wisdom of this statement from a 21-year-old porter. I only wish that TANAPA has a similar attitude.

One of my porters, Leonard, above the barren moonscape that is the African alpine zone.

One of my porters, Leonard, above the barren moonscape that is the African alpine zone.

To summit Mt. Meru, you must leave camp long before dawn, as early as 11 PM the previous night, depending on your fitness. There is a certain freedom to this hike, as you are far above the line of dangerous fauna and can proceed with your guide at your own pace. Under the brilliant African sky you scramble over granite slabs and up an unending ashen rim until you stumble upon the rime-encrusted signboard teetering over a steep cliff.

Moonrise over Mt. Meru. Those streaks of cloud were what we were about to enter.

Moonrise over Mt. Meru. Those streaks of cloud were what we were about to enter.

When I summited with my guide Hussein, we were quickly engulfed in a thick and freezing fog pummeled up the mountain by the vicious winds sweeping in from the northern plains. Even with four jackets and two pairs of gloves, my right side was soon numb and fingers too stiff to operate my camera. We trudged forward, almost entirely blind; if Hussein advanced fifteen feet in front of me, he disappeared. As I gritted my teeth to stop them chattering and kicked my toes against rocks to unfreeze them, I was reminded that, ultimately, no government, no human, no living thing can exert any authority on what is truly wild and free. We just put labels on it and try to survive.

We reached the peak at precisely 5:59 AM. To the south and east a stark and ominous silhouette flashed like a beacon against the crimson dawn as furious dark clouds whipped in and out of view. Kilimanjaro, the great white mountain, Ol’doinyo’oibor. Try as they might, no one really controls these mountains. They still, and will, reign supreme over this unparalleled landscape as long as humans exist and beyond.

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Bada ya Tanzania

After a little over two weeks in Tanzania I’ve returned to Nairobi, having successfully bagged (and filmed) the other two major peaks on my agenda: Mt. Meru, and that most auspicious of African climbs, Mt. Kilimanjaro.

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While in Tanzania I was working with the local sister company of KG Mountain Expeditions called Snow Africa Adventures–it is extremely expensive and difficult for international companies to operate in Tanzania, so almost all tour companies have partnerships across the Kenyan border, from where most of the tourists arrive after flying into Nairobi. Snow Africa Adventures is managed by a long-time mountain and safari guide named Hussein Omari. Hussein was my host and coordinator for my time in Arusha, the township that dominates tourist traffic. It’s the nexus of the business running to Kilimanjaro National Park and the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the two most popular safari areas in all of Africa.

With Hussein’s help, I arranged interviews, got to and from the parks, and explored the towns that are home for the guides and porters on Kilimanjaro and Meru. When I actually went to the mountain, it was with a different Hussein. Hussein Said is also a long-time mountain guide, and of the two Hussein’s he’s the only one that’s still active (and in shape).

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I’ll be posting several updates after this one regarding each individual mountain, the men I was working with, and a particularly complicated story regarding the Tanzanian bureaucracy.

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Team Tengeneza

They wanted to call themselves Team Simba, but I protested; it was so touristy. So they consented to “Team Tengeneza,” which means to create or make in Swahili. We were there to make a film, make a summit, make a difference.

Reuben, team captain, senior guide, is a sturdy and jovial mountaineer with the cheerful resilience of one who has been walking steep miles since he was a boy. His home is in the immense forest stretching out from Mt. Kenya, close to the town of Karatina, where his mother owns a tea farm and elders a Presbyterian church.

Reuben taking a breather during a long hike

Reuben taking a breather during a long hike

Like many guides on Mt. Kenya, Reuben went to Nairobi to attend the Kenya Utalii College for tourism and learned the trade by working as a safari guide in Kenya’s famous game parks. He then turned his eye back on the mountain that loomed over his childhood and began to explore both its slopes and its economy. First he was a porter, then a cook, and finally a junior guide for his uncle’s small trekking outfit. His eagerness and aptitude led him to apply and gain a scholarship to the National Outdoor Leadership School, a U.S.-based wilderness educator. He studied mountaineering in Washington state and wilderness medicine in Wyoming before returning to Kenya as a fully qualified guide. This unique opportunity made him of the most experienced mountaineers working on the mountain, and he began to lead trips not just to Mt. Kenya but to the mountains of Tanzania and Uganda as well.

At the tea farm

At the tea farm

Reuben has two small children, Eston and Nelius, with his wife Faith. They live in a small apartment behind the agro-vet that Faith operates during the day. Business on the mountain has been poor in recent years; whereas Reuben used to take as many as four trips to the mountain in a month, he has only led four trips this entire year to date. Thus, like every other guide, porter, or ranger that I met on the mountain, Reuben must have an additional and more reliable source of income. Like most, he owns and works a shamba, or farm. He specializes in onions.

The other porters, Peter, Timothy, and Humphrey, also told me they were farmer, although the others sniggered when Humphrey insisted upon this. It turns out he grows marijuana.

The squad

The squad

All the men are of the Kikuyu tribe, and for the days I was with them I grew accustomed to the soft rolling timbre of the Bantu language. Trust and friendship were obvious in the interminable laughter that rippled the cold night air around the chai boiling on an ancient kerosene stove.

Like Reuben, as boys these men hauled water up steep hills every morning and evening; now they haul luggage for up to ten hours a day. Reuben’s company outfits their employees better than most, but it’s not unusual to pass (or be passed by) porters with chairs, tables, crates of eggs, gas canisters or iron skillets strapped to the outside of their already bulging packs. Mt. Kenya is challenging terrain even with the lightest pack–the scree, the angle, the altitude–and I saw many porters (including my own) panting, coughing, and grimacing as they slogged upwards.

A star-spangled journey

A star-spangled journey

Team Tengeneza cheerfully put up with my constant videography; I filmed them walking, cooking, resting, chatting, and more. Reuben took me to his farm, introduced me to his family, and sat through longs interviews about working on the mountain. Filming a documentary is, I’ve learned already, mostly about relationship, getting people to be comfortable enough around you to just be themselves, to let you see life as it really is. This took time, and I had a number of other guides, porters, and clients tell me to shove off, but with patience I was gradually able to ask the questions I really wanted. Why do you work here? For the money? For the view? What do you think of the wealthy white tourists that give you work? What about the British alpinists who still operate as though the mountain is theirs?

Joy, resentment, humor, and truth slowly emerged from these men. My team learned to trust me and to let me sit with them around the kerosene stove. They have a hard life, but a good life, and I’m just beginning to understand it.

It's a unique privilege to work in such a beautiful place.

It’s a unique privilege to work in such a beautiful place.

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Kirinyaga

I just spent 10 consecutive nights on Mt. Kenya, Kirinyaga, the heart and lifeblood of the country that’s inherited its name.

The imposing alpine ridgeline

The imposing alpine ridgeline

Ascending Mt. Kenya has been described as similar to just walking north from the equator, except that every thousand miles north is only a hundred meters up; you essentially pass through every biome on earth within a few days. When you arrive at the gate of Mt. Kenya National Park, you have already driven up out of arid savannahs, through lush farmland and into a dense deciduous forest, all in the space of a few hours. Hiking inward from the northernmost gate near the village of Sirimon, you literally cross the equator as you traverse a jungle rife with buffalo and elephants. After watching the trees grow shorter before your eyes, you emerge after only two hours of walking into an impeccable moorland dressed in heather and moss that would not be out of place in Braveheart. Another day’s hike sends you across mountain bogs and frozen tundra a mere 40 kilometers from tea farms and grazing cattle down below. Here the equatorial climate (summer at day, winter at night) encourage the alpine foliage to swell to unusual sizes–lobelias as tall as grown men and many-headed senecio forests–hibernate instead of die, and to bloom just once in their decades-long lifespans.

A Seussian landscape

A Seussian landscape

By 14,000 feet, most vegetation has given way to barren slopes, great moraines where the legendary glaciers of Mt. Kenya used to sit. Even in the last 30 years, the mountain’s glaciers have shrunk at a disconcerting rate. The great white blanket that the Kikuyu believed their god to sleep upon is no longer there, but even the rocky scars it has left awe the imagination.

Above this line of life, rock and ice dominate, and Mt. Kenya is famous for its intimidating cliff faces, arduous routes that draw alpinists from across the globe to test themselves on Africa’s greatest rock climb. The climbs are so demanding that less than 1% of park visitors actually reach Point Batian, the highest peak in Kenya.

Ascending the technical routes. Cold, hard, and scary.

Ascending the technical routes. Cold, hard, and scary.

Most are satisfied with the still demanding trek to Point Lenana, the third highest peak. To avoid the regular snowstorms that immerse the mountain in dark clouds by midday, climbers of any peak must wake many hours before dawn and struggle up the steep scree under a breathtaking African night sky. One can watch tiny pricks of light from headlamps slowly ascend the mountain like a line of brilliant ants.

Reuben on the dawn patrol

Reuben on the dawn patrol

On a truly clear morning, the sun reveals the mountain’s monolithic cousin far away to the south, Kilimanjaro. Next week, I’ll be there.

A startling clouded sunrise on Pt. Lenana

A startling clouded sunrise on Pt. Lenana

A view of Mt. Kenya's twin peaks from the east side of the mountain.

Farther Up and Farther In

Here we go! I’m about to drive up to Mt. Kenya for a solid two weeks on the mountain, hiking, climbing, but most importantly, filming! This is the beginning of almost a full month in the mountains and will be the most intense and rewarding part of my trip. I’ve done a lot of groundwork preparing for this section, gathering information, filming interviews, exploring areas, getting fit, etc., and I’m thrilled to be setting off for the adventure of a lifetime. Because I’ll be way up on the mountain, I’ll be unable to post anything for at least two weeks, but expect some epic stories and pictures as soon as I descend for a brief respite in Nairobi before heading straight down to Tanzania for some even bigger mountains. I packed up my gear last night, and this is what it takes to conquer Mt. Kenya (and tell the story!):

Clothes, gear, cameras, and more

Clothes, gear, cameras, and more

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Ground Control to Ranger Tom

Ranger Tom, in his camouflage and galoshes, is a native of Meru, the gorgeous green hills east of Mt. Kenya. He has worked for the Kenya Wildlife Service for almost 15 years, including stints in the famous Tsavo National Park and as an anti-poaching ranger in Laikipia. Tom was our guide and guard as I and some friends travelled to the Aberdares National Park directly north of Nairobi by 5 hours to explore this unique African moorland.

Scotland in Africa.

Scotland in Africa.

The Aberdares rise unexpectedly out of the Great Rift Valley, the immense tectonic gorge that splits the African continent from Sudan to Tanzania, to a height of nearly 14,000 feet. After miles of dense deciduous forest, a heavy moss-laden thickness broken by rays of sunlight, you emerge into a bizarre landscape unique to this altitude and this latitude: the equatorial alpine, a sort of craggy swamp decorated with strange almost-tropical foliage that blooms only in cold temperatures. Much of it wouldn’t look out of place in a book by Dr. Seuss. The bogs are arduous at best, and sometimes impassable. It is unsurprising that these moorlands were never populated when millions of acres of lush rolling farmland extend in every other direction.

Tom overlooking the Aberdares

Tom overlooking the Aberdares

Now this area is protected by Kenya’s finest, the Kenya Wildlife Service, an agency that controls potentially the most lucrative swathes of land in the country, from the Maasai Mara National Reserve to Mt. Kenya National park. A decorated organization, its rangers are often better trained and better equipped than the nation’s police force. Because Kenya’s greatest economic asset may be its wildlife, one of its greatest threats is poaching, and the government takes a strong stance against the activity through the work of the KWS. Many rangers carry guns as they patrol their territory, and although the weapons are ostensibly for defense against rampaging buffalo and the like, the ranger show little restraint in using them on poachers.

After a rough hour up a rocky road that nearly dismantled my little Toyota, my partners (several American students who agreed to join me for this particular expedition) and I alighted with Ranger Tom upon an untrailed and almost untouched landscape. Our goal is find some rumoured rock spires known as the Dragon’s Teeth that another Kenyan guide, an adventurous young man by the name of Reuben, told me about. Unfortunately, none of the game rangers knew what we were asking about, and even the warden, Mr. Cheruiyot, had only a vague idea of where to find them, but Tom agreed to help us try.

This is a real place.

This is a real place.

As we began to muck our way between the tufts of grass popping up out of the shin-deep mud, I ask tom about his time in the KWS. He told me that he learned to guide during his time in Tsavo, where he would lead bold tourists on walking safaris across a park known for its enormous elephant herds and man-eating lions.

When I asked him about his time fighting poachers and cattle-raiders in Laikipia in northwest Kenya, he was less open. It seemed that fending off humans was a more serious business than lions. I asked him if he’s ever had to kill a poacher. He smiled, winked, and said, “My secret.”

As we trudged through the bog with 30-kg backpacks, tom darted nimbly, almost playfully, from tussock to tussock in his Wellingtons, his only baggage a rifle. Every time I sent a foot deep into the cold mud, I envied his practicality. He laughed at us and said we looked like porters on Mt. Kenya (appropriate).

We found the spires eventually, and Tom watched in fascination as we deciphered a path up the chiseled rocks, fiddling with climbing protection and building anchors. Although we offered to get him up climbing, he passed, stating with some amusement that he was “a very good walker,” and that he preferred to stay on the ground.

Tom with my friend Michael and all our various tools.

Tom with my friend Michael and all our various tools.

Throughout our trek that day, Tom and I reminisced over our various misadventures in the Kenyan wilderness, traded stories of buffalo encounters and getting lost in the bush. As I walked behind him and tried to copy his steps to avoid muddy catastrophe, I distinctly heard him say to himself in a casual, cheerful way, “Good new adventures, good new adventures…”

In a country and continent where ‘doing what you love’ is for most a pipe dream, Ranger Tom is of the rare breed that loves something very simple–exploring the wilderness–and has found a way to do it every day. For all of us stuck in a society where we think we need constant comfort, entertainment, and affirmation, we would do well to see how little is actually need to be truly fulfilled.

At the end of a long day, we bought tom a soda back at the gate, gave him a salute, and were on our way, but not before I took his cell number.

Next time I’m lost, I’ll know who to call.

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Naromoru

In the last month I’ve taken several trips to the small town of Naromoru to meet porters, guides, and their families and to familiarize myself with the local tourism industry. Naromoru is a dry and dusty trading town stationed on the steppes extending from the western shoulder of Mt. Kenya. To much of the south and east, verdant hills roll away from the protected alpine forest into welcoming farmland fed by glacial rivers, but to the west, Naromoru sits on an arid plateau, buffeted by the long, cold winds channeled in from the northern deserts.

The demeanor of both of the town and its inhabitants is as though they’d both rather be almost anywhere else. There are farmers here, too, but they aren’t the smiling, well-fed faces that populate the far green side of the mountain. These are hard, weather men who wrench maize from unwilling earth and hide their sheep from dust devils spiraling uncontrolled across the plain. The men and women here look wistfully up to the snow-capped mountains and follow its contours down into a foreboding moorland and then a dense forest, a nearly insurmountable wall limiting their existence to the dry plateau.

A view looking south from Mt. Kenya over lush farmland

A view looking south from Mt. Kenya over lush farmland

Mt. Kenya is a commanding peak, emerging unheralded from the African highlands to dominate the landscape, the people, and in many ways the entire country. No physical formation is so central to the national psyche. For years, and in some places still, Mt. Kenya was considered the seat of God, Ngai, to those tribes that lived within eyeshot of its snow-clad buttresses. Its Kikuyu name, Kirinyaga, means ‘the great ostrich,’ a bird whose black and white plumage was the closest analogy the agrarian herders had to the epic white blanket atop the peak.

This sacred mountain, whose religious significance effectively dissuaded any African exploration, immediately captured the attention of white settlers, who were more familiar and less intimidated by mountains of such size. Thus Mt. Kenya became a popular expedition for adventurous colonialists and then expatriates, drawing hundreds of wealthy and well-equipped wazungu to trek up its muddy trails.

Anyone less than an accomplished alpinist, however, required guides and grunt labor to haul their amenities from camp to camp. It quickly became apparent that local youth would bear egregious loads up and down treacherous mountain ridges for a few dollar a day, already more than they could make on the family shamba.

A town like Naromoru, then, became and still is a hotbed of recruitment for mountain workers. Labor is already scarce, the farms unproductive, life generally arduous–it seems an obvious choice to carry bags for rich white tourists if only for the slightest chance of a tip or a hand-me-down jacket. More guiding companies are based out of Naromoru than any other city skirting Mt. Kenya. They don’t really have a better option.

A matatu sits under Mt. Kenya, obscured by cloud cover

A matatu sits under Mt. Kenya, obscured by cloud cover

As you drive through the town, you get the distinct impression that the whole place, not bigger than a few square kilometers, is eagerly waiting to jump up and grab your luggage. Men and boys line the highway that passes through town, lounging around fruit vendors arranging their meager goods on a torn-up tarp or a fundi welding together a long-defunct motorbike. Monstrous safari vans whip up dust on their way to opulent lodges and campsites, and occasionally a rattling flatbed will slow down long enough for a few lucky porters to hop in with their plastic grocery bags of warm clothing. As the dust settles, you see the silhouette of the mountain, hazy but implacable, rising up behind the line of dukas.

Paul, a porter who also works as a boda-boda driver

Paul, a porter who also works as a boda-boda driver

Tucked away into little corners of the town are local companies like KG Mountain Expeditions and Mt. Kenya Guides and Porters club. They might occupy the back room of an agrovet, but they generate more income for the town than every agrovet and feed store combined. Almost every boda-boda driver, mechanic, and farmhand has had a turn carryings bags up the mountain, but there are still never enough jobs to go around.

The only option, again, is to wait–to wait for a chance to freeze their digits off, get mountain sickness, break an ankle, all to earn their family enough for a few sacks of maize. Those left behind watch and wonder what it’s like up on this monolith that fills their skyline, up on its icy slabs and sodden swamps.

On my way out of town on a recent visit, I pulled off the highway to ask some local men resting under a bus-stop, the sole shelter from the furious wind, if they’d ever tried to climb the mountain. A man named Daniel told me with noticeable resentment, “Only the visitors have the capital, and so they are seeing instead of us the great prize of our own country.”

Mt. Kenya is no longer the seat of God to local Kenyans, but it is just as inaccessible.

Men shading themselves  on the Naromoru plains

Men shading themselves on the Naromoru plains

The headquarters of KG Mountain Expeditions, the company hosting me

The headquarters of KG Mountain Expeditions, the company hosting me