Moshi, Tanzania The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done: Part 1

I hate throwing up.

The last time I vomited was Ms. Blumhart’s freshman English class. Some sort of puberty thing. Spotty vision in my right eye followed by a migraine headache and then a grand finale in the school nurse’s toilet. No illness, alcohol, or miscellaneous indiscretion has brought me so low since.

I’ve had a run of past relationships in which the female involved afforded vomiting the same gravity I place on a sneeze. I’ve always been horrified by this. Some women can just get up from a table, barf, and sit back down as if it wasn’t worth mentioning.

Me, I fight it to the bitter end.

So keep my stance on regurgitational abstinence in mind when I get to the part where it’s 3am, 17,000 feet above sea level in below zero temperature on the impossibly steep edge of an equatorial volcano and I’m collapsed against a boulder, puking my goddam guts out.

A week earlier and one country over, David and Sangeeta took Andy and me out to a fancy Italian restaurant for our last supper before leaving for Tanzania. I had Penne a la Vodka. I’m dumbfounded at the standard of living possible via the secret network of expat institutions in Mombasa. On the surface, the city is emblematic of every other turbid, third world sweatbox I’ve been to. But there’s a whole other layer. You’d never know these places exist, and I’m wondering if every city of its kind has some equivalent.

David had just gotten back from a World Heritage conference in Paris and he was nice enough to pick me up a brand-spanking-new camera to replace the one I destroyed. So I’m back in the saddle and I no longer have to rely on my miserable descriptive abilities.

David also loaned me a stack of warm mountain-climbing clothes.

In case I haven’t mentioned it enough times, David and Sangeeta are really really nice people.

I discovered a pretty serious problem as I was packing; after climbing Longonot, I’d left my hiking boots in the mission back in Nairobi. I’ve since confirmed that they’re in safe keeping and waiting for me to pick them up, but it meant I had only my Timberland walking shoes to take to Kilimanjaro. This was not a dealbreaker of a screw-up, but it ultimately caused me some pretty serious problems.

Andy and I crossed into Tanzania the following afternoon. The bus manifest at the border crossing had an Occupation field for each passenger. One particularly self-aware traveler listed his career as “Peasant.” I’ve never felt good about putting “Writer” down, so I’ve decided to switch to this more humble alternative.

Weeks after the border crossing, I heard a story that chilled me to the bone. Another guy from Seattle — an acquaintance of several people I know — also took a trip to Africa, also arranged to climb Kilimanjaro, and also took this road to reach the mountain. He was in a van with seven other travelers and three Tanzanians. A truck was going in the opposite direction. It hit four donkeys and fled from the scene at top speed. Seconds later the two vehicles met, the truck lost control, veered across the road, collided with the van. Everyone died.

We passed a village in which all the goats had a foot cut off to keep them from straying.

The bus dumped us off in a town called Moshi. The differences between Mombasa and Moshi were immediately apparent; prices halved, streets cleaned, yards tended. But beneath all that, there seems to actually be some plan behind the town — like some organizational body said “Hey, let’s have a central garden with a clock tower in it, and maybe some main roads that are wider than the side roads and lead in straight lines to important points of interest. We can put up signs, so people will know what the roads are called. This is going to be the best town ever!”

Before I go any further, let me get a couple Moshi kid photos out of the way.

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The hotel came as part of our package with the tour company and was much more than either of us expected; the key features being a pool and a fully stocked bar with dollar beers and spirits. It was a great place to take our final showers, feast, and relax before beginning the ascent. It was also completely empty but for one other couple.

It was clear from the map that our hotel was within a few miles of Mount Kilimanjaro. But after scanning the horizon in all directions throughout the afternoon, neither of us could find the slightest visual indication of its presence. It was lurking somewhere beyond the perennial mists of Moshi. This did not aid us as we mentally prepared ourselves to climb it.

The briefing over dinner went smoothly until we hit a snag over payment. It’s tedious to recount, but bear with me: they expected both of us to pay for the climb in cash — US dollars. This wasn’t mentioned ahead of time, and in fact they required a 20% deposit by credit card to secure the reservation. That turned out to be a hollow claim. Credit cards are scarcely used in Tanzania and clearing a payment is evidently a great ordeal that takes several months. To make things more frustrating, no bank in Moshi will cover the withdrawal of US dollars. The tour company expected us to both be carrying over $800 in cash, though they’d never actually mentioned it.

We talked to the owner of Shah Tours: a guy named Shah. He was of Indian descent, and a strong adherent to the sales philosophy common in his native land: “The customer is always wrong and should be punished at length for crimes that needn’t be specified.”

We went in circles for a while and at long last were just trying to get the guy to admit they should mention the cash thing on their web site. He wouldn’t do it. He absolutely refused to give in on that detail; maintaining that we should have researched the policies of Tanzanian banks with regard to credit card transactions before arrival. We stood up to leave and said we were going to find another tour company and write Lonely Planet to tell them what a disorganized mess his company was. He shrugged and mutteringly conceded that maybe someone should look into the wording on the site. This sudden change of heart reverted the moment we sat back down. At any rate, we resolved that we would eat the additional 7% bank charge for a credit card payment in exchange for his half-assed admission of incompetence.

And that was the end of that.

Day 1 – “Pole Pole!”

Before leaving the hotel, I rented most of the gear I lacked: a sleeping bag, warm gloves, and a pair of almost-sort-of-close-to-fitting mountain boots. They weren’t top of the line, but they were the best I could do.

A van took us to the base of the mountain, where some additional rental gear was thrown at me: two metal walking poles, a headlamp for the final ascent, and a baklava. It’s actually a balaclava, but I much prefer saying baklava. Really it’s just a ski mask, though no one outside the US seems familiar with that term.

We met our guide, Mecke. The spelling on that changes with the wind, but Mecke is pretty close to the pronunciation.


We were also supplied with three porters. Porters are a very interesting subject and I will talk at length about them later. These guys have the thankless job of lugging all our food and cookery as well as up to 15 kg (33 lbs) of our luggage. All we have to carry is what we want on hand during the day. The porters leave well ahead of us and practically sprint to the next campsite with crushing loads balanced effortlessly on their heads.

"We don’t even have to carry our own stuff?" says the fool. "What have I been training for?" says the fool. "This is going to be easy!"…says the fool.

With all preparations made, we were off.


The first thing Mecke tells us is to go “Pole pole,” which is Kiswahili for slowly. This is also the main piece of advice in every bit of literature I’ve read about Kilimanjaro. Climbers feel overconfident, walk briskly, and get nailed by altitude sickness. Mecke set a deliberate, mechanical pace that, try as I might, I just couldn’t stick to. I get lost in my thoughts and let my feet take me. Andy, meanwhile, was Mecke’s perfect shadow, watching every step and falling into his rhythm.

This is a theme that will continue: Andy the able and considered, Matt the dimwitted jackass.


I tried wearing the boots I’d rented, but it wasn’t going well. They didn’t bend at all with my movements, so with every step little bits of dirt and pebbles would fly up and get lodged above my heel between sock and boot. I folded my socks over the rim of the boots to stop this from happening, but that just made the same stuff get lodged between sock and foot.


Fortunately, I’d brought the Timberland shoes in my day pack, so I swapped them in and they carried me along just fine.

We passed a steady stream of climbers going in the opposite direction. You can’t help but stare — these people were on their way down from the summit. What had they been through? Did they make it or were they retreating in shame? I was tempted to ask, but I realized the only answer I wanted to hear was “No.” I wanted to maintain my feeble illusion of exploration and conquest, despite the well-trodden path and the hundred or more climbers coming down from the top each day.

The path wound on through lush green forest for several hours, at points intersecting with the straight, wide dirt road the porters run back and forth along.


In time it got colder, the trees a bit sparser and lower.

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By early afternoon we reached Mandara, the first camp.


Distance: 7 kilometers
Altitude Change: +914 meters
Walking Time: 3 hours
Average Pulse: 126 bpm
Final Altitude: 2774 meters

I’m sticking the average pulse in there cause I was wearing my little heart monitor thing.


It was a handy way of knowing how hard I was working — in case I couldn’t tell from the sweat and blisters and whatnot.

I should mention we were climbing the Marangu route; the oldest and easiest of the half dozen or so different ways to the top. It’s referred to as the Coca-Cola route, presumably because it’s common, uninteresting, and makes your teeth fuzzy. Andy and I agreed early in the planning that we didn’t want to take any chances about getting to the top. With little idea what we were getting ourselves into and not much experience, I think we made the right choice.


On this first night, less than halfway to the top, I already started feeling the effects of altitude; a light walk from our cabin to the meal hut and I’d have to pause for a deep breath. This was a serious concern. Fortunately, Andy and I both had our bottles of acetozolamide, the standard medication for preventing and treating altitude sickness. Altitude sickness works something like this: you’re not getting
enough oxygen so you breathe more.
This causes an increased carbon dioxide intake, which messes up your brain and triggers all sorts of problems. Acetozolamide shuts off the enzyme that prevents carbon from leaving your body, hence you pee it all out, problem solved.


It also makes you pee more in general, so you’ve gotta watch out for dehydration. The drug doesn’t work on everybody and there seems to be some strange voodoo magic behind the whole process that makes doctors kind of shrug and confess they have no idea what’s going on. But it works in enough cases that they prescribe it and wish you luck.

It worked for me. I took one dose at the start of the walk and a second that night. By morning I felt like I was at sea level.

Day 2 – A Walk in the Clouds

At dawn the next morning, I got a chance to watch the porters gearing up.


It struck me that as things go in Tanzania, these guys really have it pretty good. Lugging crap up mountains may not seem like a fun job — Sisyphean in the most literal sense — but look on the bright side:

– they’re getting paid
– they’re getting tipped by rich westerners
– they’re able to talk and joke and laugh with their friends all day
– they’re outside, breathing fresh air
– they’re in Herculean shape

This last perk is probably the most naïve and culturally impaired on my part. Staying fit isn’t much of an achievement in this neck of the woods. It’s just something that happens. Nevertheless, it’s true that these guys are fending off the slow decay that neglect will soon wreak on my body. For proof I look no further than Mecke, in his mid-forties and still able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

We left camp after breakfast and ere long found ourselves passing through a patch of low-hanging clouds.


Ere a little longer, we got our first glimpse of the summit.

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“That’s not so bad,” says the fool. “We can do this, no problem,” says the fool. “We’ll be there before we know it.”…says the fool.

As the day went on, I found myself drifting in front of Mecke more and more. “Pole pole!” he warned at regular intervals. But off I went.

I stopped to rest for a while and wait for Mecke and Andy. One of the porters took an interest and invited me to continue on with him.

The porter was named George. George spoke excellent English. His friend was Yaphet. Yaphet didn’t speak a word.


It’s a fairly reliable thing among Tanzanians that if they have western names, they know English and are at least nominally Christian; the legacy of countless toiling missionary workers. Christians in East Africa generally assume that I’m Christian as well, and I’ve learned not to disappoint.

This was only George’s third ascent up Kilimanjaro. He was just starting out as a porter, and took every opportunity to speak with whitey in the hopes that it would help him become a guide. Guides are the only ones who make any real money, I learned, and it’s very difficult to achieve that rank. All sorts of training is required, which the candidates must pay for themselves out of the pocket change they earn as porters. It takes many many years, and only a small percentage are ever able to pull it off.

George asked how much Americans make. This is always an awkward subject, but I’ve come to realize it’s a lot more awkward for me than for the person asking, so I just get straight into it. It’s no mystery that Americans have lots of money, they just want to hear firsthand how thoroughly they’re being screwed, and I feel everyone has a right to know how screwed they are.

Converting from US dollars to Tanzanian Shillings is easy. You just multiply by 1000. So the $140 million paid to Mike Ovitz for getting fired from Disney becomes 140 billion Tsh, or about 1% of Tanzania’s GDP.

To put it in more practical terms, the average American household makes roughly 100 times what a Tanzanian family brings in. We spend 100 times as much for a meal, 100 times as much for housing, and 100,000,000 times as much on erectile dysfunction.

George, Yaphet and I trudged on through what had become, to me, a medieval fantasy; the soft low brush cut through by a sturdy path that…oh, nevermind — just look at the picture.


We passed a group of a dozen British men, grunting and moaning between lame jokes as they slowly plodded along. We passed an Asian chain gang, at least thirty in number and packed together so tight they looked like one of those dragons in Chinese New Years parades. And we passed a steady stream of porters, smiling, laughing, and singing along to reggae music under their backbreaking loads.


All at once, the fog we’d been walking through went away. On a flat, open hillside, I could see that we’d risen above the first could layer.


And not long after that, the second campsite came into view.


Distance: 11.7 kilometers
Altitude Change: +946 meters
Walking Time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Average Pulse: 131 bpm
Final Altitude: 3720 meters

I checked in, went to our hut, dropped my bag, then found a nice place to sit and stare off at the world’s most scenic outhouse.


Day 3 – A Day of Rest

It is strongly recommended that climbers pay an extra $120 for a day of rest around the halfway point. This gives your body more time to adjust to the altitude, and reduces the chances of mountain sickness further up. We opted to do this, and we faithfully took our acetozolamide pills. Both these things, I think, helped a great deal.

So we had a day to kill. Sangeeta had taught Andy and I how to play a very old game of Arabian origin called mbao (or mbau, or just bao, which in any case translates simply as “board”). There are dozens of variations with lots of different names. Odds are you’ve come across one of them at some point. The board consists of a bunch of little bowls with even littler seeds piled inside. You move the seeds around your side of the board, eliminating your opponent’s seeds with each move until, ideally, they run out first.

One of the game’s enduring charms is that the materials for playing aren’t that hard to come by. Resourceful lads that we are, Andy and I put together our own mbao board out of twigs and pebbles.


That accounted for most of the day right there.

Our campsite was surrounded by some of the strangest flora I’d ever seen; clusters of tubular stalks with bristly green lumps on top.


Having a man with a degree in botany on hand, I asked Andy to identify this strange species. He dubbed it the “Alien Penis Plant.”

Lunch, like all our meals, was sustaining yet depressing.


Food was where the difference between what we paid and what most other climbers paid became clear. We’d sit down in the meal hut with people eating spaghetti and meatballs, breaded chicken on beds of pasta, and other such hearty fare. Meanwhile we got meal after meal of rice with a bowl of thin curry sauce and sparse hunks of knotty beef.

It really wasn’t all that bad. Andy strongly disagreed with my assessment of the food quality. And to keep things in perspective, the food was being cooked for us, served to us, and we were waited on the whole time by one of our porters. It was in many ways luxurious, given the circumstances. But with the amount of energy we were burning, I could’ve really gone for some of that pasta.

…I shouldn’t complain. I lost a ton of weight.

In the afternoon, Mecke offered to take us on a short side excursion to Zebra Rocks. It was an hour’s walk, and a pleasant way to break the monotony. I opted to go. Andy decided to stay at the camp.


Striped rocks. Whoop dee doo!

Andy didn’t miss much, but it was a nice walk.

Distance: 7 kilometers
Altitude Change: 0 meters
Walking Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Average Pulse: 146
Final Altitude: 3720 meters

You get your water each day at the camp. Most people buy it bottled for a couple dollars — an extremely reasonable price considering it has to be hauled on foot. Or, for free, you can get the parasite and bacteria-ridden water that the porters boil before drinking.

Everyone brings along water purification tablets in case of emergency. Feeling cheap, and somewhat curious, I decided to get some of the boiled water and try it out. The first tablet is iodine, which turns it into brown swamp water and kills everything. After a couple minutes you drop in a second tablet that makes it crystal clear. It was as delicious as water can be, and way better than the bottled stuff.

I don’t know much about industrialized water purification, but I imagine there isn’t much more to it than what I was doing.

At dinner we met a German guy who was coming down from the summit. He was a talker, not much of a listener. He went on about all the amazing things he had done, and how we MUST go to Uganda to raft in the class 5 rapids.

He told us how he deliberately flipped his raft over, dumping him and everyone else into the water. He said it was really fun. He was one of those guys who uses the word “fun” as a threat.

He started complaining about his porters, who had refused to carry his walking poles during the final ascent. Incidentally, his walking poles weren’t actually walking poles. To save money, he’d been using sticks.

He announced that he wasn’t going to tip his porters because of their unforgivable snub. And in the calm, hushed tones that come so naturally to Germans, he announced it for everyone in the hut to hear.

The porters caught wind of it and they weren’t very happy. Shortly after the meal, they confronted him. With a day of hiking st
ill ahead, he confirmed that he would
not be tipping them. Part of his justification was that he is German and Germans don’t tip. The cultural distinction was lost on his audience. They dropped his bag and left him where he stood.

There were a lot of Germans on the mountain. I’d say almost half the climbers. It struck me as odd that there was such a disproportionately high number, so I started asking around. The best explanation I got was from a Dutch woman, who said “Germans just really like mountains.”

This got me thinking about the whole phenomenon of mountain climbing. Why do people do it? For all practical purposes, it’s pointless. The best reason anyone has come up with so far is Edmund Hillary’s famous: “Because it’s there,” and that statement is appealing more for its quotable brevity than anything else.

The act itself is inherently grueling and punishing. Take out the getting-to-the-top part, and it’s about as fun as chemotherapy. My theory is that Germans are attracted to mountain climbing because it mixes grand achievement with relentless suffering and self-abuse.

…also, there are a lot of mountains in Germany.

After dinner, Andy and I tried on our maximum-warmth gear for the final ascent.


We looked like members of Hamas.

As the sun went down, I looked toward the summit in a dramatic pose. There happened to be a camera nearby.


Okay, I’m breaking this entry in half. It’s too damn long and the trauma of recounting the days that followed have brought on several months of writer’s block. Stay tuned for the sequel.