“I’m going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro and plant trees with Jane Goodall!”
“A bucket list trip?” people would ask. For the record I hate the word bucket list about as much as I despise the phrase 24/7. So pedestrian.
No, my husband and I were invited by a guy who use to babysit our kids on Christmas Eve so we could go to church. Jeff Bonaldi grew up and told me he left Citi Bank to pursue his dream to start an adventure travel company called Explorers Passage. Last spring, he invited me and my husband to join The Explorers Passage to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. What makes this company so unique is that it combines environmental awareness and cultural experiences with adventure.
We were joined by Barney Swan, an explorer and conservationist who heads up Climate Force expeditions to bring greater global awareness to climate change. This young man had a spectacular roadmap considering his father is Robert Swan, the legendary polar explorer who became the first person in history to walk to both the North and South Poles.
We were in!
When we arrived at Weru Weru Lodge in Moshi, Tanzania we met our fellow explorers, most of them young enough to be my children, all of them dedicated to making the world a better place.
One headed up sustainability projects for a bank in France, another quit her job with the NY Economic Development Corporation to work on sustainability projects in Kenya before heading off to Harvard Business School. A Goldman Sachs employee worked part time with Explorers Passage, searching for the balance between making money and making a difference.
I was so uplifted by all of them, every single day, knowing our future is in excellent millennial hands. To top it off, they were more excited than I was to meet Dr. Jane Goodall.
But first, our tour guides took us on a short climb through the rain forest to the Machame gate where we would begin our Kili climb in three days’ time.
On the way we passed a school yard in the mountains filled with children of all ages very curious to meet our brood, shake hands and ask our names.
Once at the gate, the Blue Monkeys in the trees appeared way too familiar with the humans. When my husband snapped a photo of one particularly snarky chimp, he was rewarded with a plop of excrement on his forearm.
When we later shared the story with Goodall, she told my husband he was blessed.
The next day Goodall would arrive in time for lunch, but first we were taken on a tour of the College of African Wildlife Management, where our tour guide and several porters studied.
On campus is one of the Marangu Chagga tunnels built by Bantu-speaking indigenous Africans, Tanzania’s third largest ethnic group who live on the southern and eastern slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro near Moshi. The tunnels were built to protect the Chagga people during tribal wars.
Women, children and livestock would hide in the caves, which was mind-bending because once we got inside, no one could stand up. We crawled hunched over and toward the end of the tunnel had to move along like snakes on our bellies to get outside to the river. My 6’3” 260-pound husband literally had to squeeze through the last bend of the tunnel before he could get out.
Our next stop was to see a medicine man in the jungle.
Dr. Lello O Rabu, an elderly man with a botanical garden of herbs and spices surrounding a simple jungle home with a sort of makeshift gazebo as a waiting room and a large sitting room off the side of his home.
He broke off the branch of a bush with needle-like leaves that, when broken up and rubbed into my palm, smelled of Mentho-lyptus used to cure asthma.
He extracted honey from bees he claimed cured sore throats and another blend of herbs and spices he claimed would cure cancer. A possibility I thought, considering the rain forest is the world’s largest pharmacy where a multitude of natural medicines have been discovered.
Before I left I asked to use the bathroom, only to find a hole in the floor. My iPhone fell out of my back pocket narrowly missing the hole and creating a moment of panic while I cleaned it off and ran out to our small bus.
On our way back to the lodge we stopped at the home of one of our porter’s friends. Dressed in the uniquely patterned and brightly colored dresses you will only see in Africa, the woman of the house prepared local dishes for us to sample.
Bananas cooked in every way imaginable in soup, in meat sauces and with sour milk sauce with vegetables. As we sipped coffee made from beans grown in her yard, her family and friends arrived with drums and sang traditional African songs and danced for us as we thanked them and headed back to the lodge.
Dr. Jane Goodall was waiting for us when we arrived.
She was huddled with her team and a representative from Roots and Shoots, a program she founded in 1991 after she met with a group of high school students at her home in Dar Es Salam.From the beginning the message was: Every individual matters; everyone makes a difference; every day we have a choice as to what kind of impact we want to make on the planet.
The program has three different projects: one to help people, one to help animals and one to help the environment.
Through this program thousands of school children worldwide are planting trees and on this day our group of 20 planted 40 trees at the foot of Kilimanjaro.
Goodall spoke of her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees and her fight to have her work recognized by the scientific community.
Then she turned her attention to climate change and the definitive studies showing it is real and the ignorance of those who believe it’s real but refuse to do anything about it.
“Don’t you find it strange”, she asks, “that the most influential creature to ever walk the planet is destroying its only hope?”
I asked her about the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement and she retorted, “What do you mean? Climate change doesn’t exist!”
She is astounded by our president’s refusal to acknowledge the findings of his own scientists that the effects of climate change will have a devastating impact on the US.
I asked her what we as US citizens could do, and she responded, “Vote for the right president!”
I was honored to present a picture to Dr. Goodall from second graders in Passaic New Jersey.
Their teacher, a friend of mine, spent considerable time teaching this class of mostly immigrant children about Goodall’s work and asked that she sign a picture of them from Halloween.
My friend, Nancy, was dressed as Goodall in a denim jacket with chimpanzees hanging off of it. Goodall signed it on the condition her class would plant a tree.
On the top she wrote, “Together we can change the world.”
Together we embarked to the tree planting (see the Explorers Passage video here) where Goodall instructed us to kiss the leaves to ensure growth.
The next day we would begin our five-day trek to the top of the largest freestanding mountain in the world.
It took more than two hours to register at the Machame Gate before we began walking through the lush rainforest.
A hot sweaty climb through the greenest, densest jungle of tall trees and shrubs I have ever seen. We stopped to climb a boulder and on top found breathtaking views of the mountains surrounding us.
Our first night at Machame Camp our porters set up two dining tents and every night they served up hot vegetable soup, pasta, french fries, corn bread, grilled chicken, fresh salads with cole slaw and greens, rice, beans, fresh pita bread and fruit.
Spectacular considering the 60 porters who accompanied us pranced up the mountain with our bags, tents, sleeping gear, small port-o-pots, cooking utensils, pots, pans and enough food for the seven-day hike.
For breakfast we would have porridge or crepes, eggs, meat, fruit and always plenty of tea and hot cocoa.
Notice the chef all dressed up?
Day 2: Already it’s getting cooler as we follow the Machame Route to the Shira Plateau where Mount Meru rises behind Arusha, the town below, and Mount Kilimanjaro beckons us.
Along the way we are reminded by our porters to “sippy, sippy.” Dehydration is to be avoided at all costs as we reach about 12,000 feet.
As one of our crew so aptly pointed out “sippy sippy” means “pissy pissy.” Easy when you’re a guy and as I found out on this trip, easier now for women. One of the young girls I met had a “she-wee,” a contraption with a funnel that enables women to stand up and pee, just like a man.
Revolutionary I thought but apparently, it’s been around awhile. Squatting gets old, it’s time consuming and let’s face it, I’m not a mooner.
No one wants to see that after a certain age. Then again, after hiking with this lot for a week, no one cared what anyone saw! When we had to go we had to go and we went!
Day 3: We are walking on high moorland, traversing the southwest side of Kilimajaro.
We pass underneath the massive Lava tower and realize we are at approximately 15,000 feet.
For some, headaches start to set in and for others it’s time to take Diamox, the altitude medication that helps your body adjust, along with walking high and sleeping low. Today we hiked more than eight hours, up from the average of six hours of the first two days.
Day 4: We leave camp and hike into the massive ravine of the Great Barranco and before us the 843-foot Great Baranco wall rises.
Make no mistake about it, this is a rock climb but we are carefully guided by our porters who show us where to stop and straddle huge rocks. “Did you kiss the rock?” they ask.
“No,” I shout, “but my breasts are in my throat.”
Don’t look down I keep telling myself, you can do this, you’ve got this, “pole, pole” as our guide keeps telling us. Pole pronounced po-lay po-lay means slowly, slowly and frankly there was no chance of me racing up this wall even though the porters with pounds of supplies on their heads seemed to have no problem at all.
Once at the top I stare at the sliver of a stream below and I feel elated, my endorphins are popping, I am on top of the Baranko wall and I turn around and Mt Kilimanjaro looms even larger.
We head for the Karanga valley and the steep climb to Karanga Camp where a hot meal awaits.
After a hot meal in the dining tents, we discuss the various over the counter pain meds that are working to ease tired muscles and headaches.
We question how it is possible to be in one tent with just your stuff and when you take something out, it disappears. One of our crew, Luis suggests it is the 4th dimension inside your tent.
I mean your stuff has to go somewhere! I imagined it’s the same place socks go when you put them in the dryer and they never come out.
We discuss altitude sickness and our leader Whitey explains it has nothing to do with physical strength and everything to do with genetics. Some of us can deal with altitude better than others.
The problem with altitude sickness is, once it sets in, it’s not going anywhere, no matter how much Diamox you have. We find out one of our crew has kidney stones but is determined to continue the climb.
One this particular night our porters lift our spirits with singing and dancing at the campsite.
I am led into the center of the circle by one of the porters and can’t understand why I want to move but my body is lagging.
My throat is dry and I think I might faint, but somehow I manage to party like a maniac and feel the inspiration of this most magnificent moment in my life.
The nights are much colder now. We wear every stitch of clothing we have, including wool hats, gloves and heavy socks over layers upon layers of clothing.
As the sun sets behind the mountains, the stars pop through the night sky like light shining through millions of pin pricks on a giant canvas.
Shooting stars and satellites dazzle us and take our minds off aching knees and quadriceps.
Back in our tents, we try to find warmth in our sleeping bags and hope we won’t have to use the tent potty in the middle of the night and get lost in the hilly campground.
Day 5: We are walking to Barafu camp at just over 15,000 feet.
We are way above the tree line, no birds chirping, nothing much growing. A steep but short climb.
Once at camp we will eat, we will rest and we will wake up at 1am to begin our final climb to the summit.
Day 6: We leave at 2am because the winds are calmer at night and so it’s safer to start the journey over rocks, and giant slabs of rock, wearing only headlamps to see what is directly in front of us.
To the right I see an orange slipper of a moon. And it really is a slipper, because of where we are in the universe the quarter moon isn’t on the side, it’s on the bottom.
I am excited beyond belief. I feel really good, but altitude sickness has overtaken one of our crew. Cami’s insides are revolting in every direction but she marches on. Even the guy with the kidney stones is on his way up the mountain, having left a little early so he could take his time.
I glance up at the night sky to see the moon moving over us and a stream of head lamps on the same journey.
We’re at 16,000 feet and the sun is starting to rise over the jagged peaks of Mount Mawenzi . The light is shooting through the crevices of this astonishingly beautiful mountain and I burst into tears.
How lucky am I to be in this place, at this time, with my husband and these remarkable people.
We’re at 17,000 feet. My mind wanders. Why am I still searching for a purpose in life. Am I satisfied? Really?
There are so many things I want to do in life. I want to leave a cleaner planet for my kids and my grandchildren. I ponder possibilities and walk “pole, pole.”
Trust the universe I tell myself. Be patient, dig deeper. One foot in front of the other.
We’re at 18,000 feet and I am moving like a tortoise up the mountain. But I am not throwing up. I don’t have a headache but my brain won’t shut up.
What am I made of? I ask myself. Is this worse than 36 hours of labor with my youngest son? No.
If I need to rest I can, but I don’t want to rest. I just want to get there. The sun is blinding, the wind is whipping up. I can see Stella point, which is about 500 feet from the summit.
There are glaciers the color of blue ice all around me yet still a fraction of what they were just a few decades ago. The mountain has lost 85 percent of its glaciers due to climate change.
The porters ask to take my backpack, I say absolutely not. I realize how difficult it is for me to accept help of any kind under any circumstances.
I probably need to work on that.
The air is so thin taking two steps is an eternity. I remember climbing Half Dome in Yosemite, losing my footing and hanging on to the rope with one hand, looking straight down the mountain and thinking, I am not going to fucking die like this!
I managed to grab back on. I remember difficult situations in my life that mirror the climb and the times I had to pick myself up and keep going. This is no different.
I look up and I have reached Stella Point.
One of the porters is standing there with open arms and I throw my arms around him, hug him as tightly as I can and cry uncontrollably. There is hot tea waiting and 500 feet to go, where is my husband?
Gio is behind a rock, he grabs my hand and we walk.
In a matter of moments I see the sign.
Congratulations Uhuru Peak Tanzania 19,341 feet.
I cry again, this time in the arms of my husband. Pictures, fist pumps, elation all around, now we have to walk down? What? No zip line?
I gladly give up my backpack, and begin a three-legged walk with a porter through the lava dust and rocks.
Cami, the puker, is running down the mountain along with two other millennials while my knees scream, “Get me new ones! Get me new ones!”
It was an eternity and I know I climbed the same rocks 12 hours earlier but they weren’t so scary when it was too dark to really see them.
Once back at camp, we had a short rest before we had to pack up and continue heading down to the last camp, the last night before heading back to Moshi, for the most long awaited event of the week!
SHOWERS! Yes SHOWERS!!
We happily hiked through the rain forest singing the praises of showers, clean hair and shaving.
This was shower day, a thought that put a spring in our step and almost erased the dubious smell of perspiration we had almost, and I mean almost but not really, become accustomed to.
We were the first group to do the “Kili” climb with Explorers Passage and we are forever connected by this amazing experience.
I hope more Americans take the journey. Europeans have been hiking it for decades.
But reaching the summit is such a small part of the whole experience.
It IS the journey. It’s finding out what you’re made of. How much gas is left in your tank, letting the beauty around you infiltrate your thoughts, allowing your mind to roam and interacting, if you’re lucky enough, with your fellow trekkers.
It’s where you realize no matter how old we are, no matter where we come from, all we really want is love and affirmation.
Oh wait, and adventure, in our case lots of adventure. Safari and a cross country bike tour of Senegal to the coast and Zanzibar are next on my list.
And back home…
However, I was very disturbed when we got back to civilization to learn the current President of Tanzania had shut down the largest newspaper.
I was even more concerned when I learned John Magufuli has a habit of silencing those who oppose him. I pray Africa does not again fall into chaos.
Africa’s tourist industry is providing badly needed employment to young men and women who are proud to share this beautiful land and would otherwise live in abject poverty.
It is a place where the effects of climate change are painfully obvious and no matter what your political leanings, it’s a fact we cannot deny.
Plant a tree, think beyond tomorrow and remember:
We get a chance every day to take on a new challenge and make a difference in the world.
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