Moshi, Tanzania

I took a bus from Kampala back to Nairobi, stopping just long enough to arrange a ride to Moshi, Tanzania.  Along the way I met one interesting American after another – Lars, a river rafting guide from Moab who travels around the world every winter; Slava, a former Peace Corp volunteer from Boston who was taking a graduate school class in Tanzania; Lauren, a mid-20s woman from Chicago who dropped out of college to help start an AIDS prevention program on Lake Victoria’s Mfangano Island; and Tiffany, who recently left Dallas to join some kind of peace-promotion NGO that sent her to help monitor the upcoming referendum in the Sudan.  Each of them asked what kind of work I did, and nobody seemed particularly impressed when I mumbled, “I, uh, had a business job.”

Moshi is a medium-sized town just south of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  For the past month I’d been trying to decide whether I wanted to climb the mountain, Africa’s highest.  At first I was all-in.  About 10 years ago my friend Rob Currey told me that he and his dad had just climbed Kilimanjaro, and I remember thinking how exotic and adventurous that sounded.

But when I arrived in Africa I started hearing less-than-enthusiastic reviews from other travelers.  Several people offered some version of, “I’m glad I did it, but it was freezing and miserable and the mountain was covered in clouds the whole time so we couldn’t see anything.”  On top of that I felt a little trekked-out after Nepal, and I didn’t have any of the cold-weather gear I’d need.  I started to question whether climbing Kilimanjaro was worth the time and money.

And so I waffled.  Unable to make up my mind, I decided I’d go to Moshi – the starting point for most Kilimanjaro treks – and play it by ear.  Clouds hid the mountain when I first arrived, but the next morning I walked up to my hotel’s roof and had a clear view of Uhuru Peak, snow-covered and majestic.  Sold.  Instantaneously.  The simple reality of the mountain cut through all my futile rationalizing.  I couldn’t look directly at Kilimanjaro, right there in front of me, without wanting to stand at the top.

 

Mt. Kilimanjaro from Moshi

 

I needed to choose a tour agency.  The Tanzanian government requires Kilimanjaro climbers to hire a licensed guide, and almost every expedition includes porters and a cook.  I also had to pick a route.  There are many different ways to reach Uhuru Peak, each with pros and cons.  The two most popular approaches are the five-day Marangu route (sometimes called the “Coca-Cola route” because trekkers can buy Cokes along the way) and the six-day Machame route.

At first I leaned towards Machame.  I’d read that taking an extra day to acclimatize significantly boosts your chances of reaching the summit, and one of the tour agencies had a Machame group leaving in a few days.  But another tour operator offered me a much better price on the Marangu route, despite the fact that it would be a solo expedition – just me, a guide, a cook, and three porters.

I weighed my options.  Going with a group could be either good or bad, and even if I went solo I’d be able to meet other climbers along the way.  I understood the argument for taking an extra day to acclimatize, but I liked the idea of getting up and back as quickly as possible.  (And of course I couldn’t discount the importance of being able to buy Cokes during the trek – that would at least double my chances of success…)  I chose Marangu.

I met my guide the afternoon before the first day of the trek.  The tour agent introduced a short, sweaty man with mangled yellow teeth.  The odor of stale alcohol wafted over as he extended his hand.  “Hello,” the guide said.  “My name is Happy God.”

“Excuse me?”

“I am Happy God.  Nice to meet you.”

I thought I must have misheard.  “Your name is Happy God?  H-A-P-P-Y G-O-D?”

“Yes.”

I wasn’t sure if I should be frightened or reassured.  “That is a really interesting name.”

“It is a Christian name.”  Yes, I suppose you could say that.

Happy God said he’d help me rent the cold weather gear I needed.  We walked a few blocks to what looked like an abandoned building and entered a dark storage room through a creaky side door.  Climbing gear covered all four walls.  “What do you need?” asked Happy God.  Hiking boots were my biggest concern, so we started there.  A woman materialized from the shadows holding two pairs of boots for me to try on.  The second pair, nicely broken in but still in decent shape, fit well.  I went on to pick out a down jacket, waterproof pants, thermal underwear, gloves, a rain poncho, gaiters, and a balaclava.  Within 15 minutes I had everything I needed.

That evening I ate a big dinner and made a conscious effort to enjoy sleeping on a bed with sheets, knowing that for the better part of the coming week I’d be eating camp food and spending the night in a sleeping bag.