Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

April 9

April 11th, 2016

April 9

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My friend Brian told me that Africa was a place hard to leave. It is difficult to put my finger on exactly why, but part is the sheer exuberance of the place (granted, I only visited east Africa). I could never tire from hearing Swahili (unlike many European languages or some of the US English dialects). It is a language with so much affect, one that catches tone and mood like no other. The liveliness of the streets is also a part– how quickly an empty sidewalk is transformed into a vibrant, colorful place remains a wonder. And I was fortunate to meet many warm and hospitable people. Yes a difficult place to leave. On the flight out, the plane moved up through overcast skies, then broke out above the clouds. Soon, looking down to the right, I could see snow mixed with the level layer of white clouds and some rocks protruding. I realized I was seeing the top crater of Kilimanjaro just barely projecting above the plain of clouds. Only three days earlier, I had stood there–a fitting farewell.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 8

April 11th, 2016

April 8

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Having to wake up at 5:30 after the last week of trekking seemed the height of stupidity, but I couldn’t waste my last day in Tanzania, so off I went on a bus to Arusha. At 1.5 million people, it is the second largest city in Tanzania. There I was met by Jackson Swae, my safari guide and all-around great person. We were soon driving out to the park in a large but empty (except for me) modified Toyota Land Cruiser. Jackson, who was born in the area, not only knows his flora and fauna, he knows well the practices of the Masai. In the long drive out to the park, we passed down and across the great Rift Valley, the migration range for that pastoral people. Along with their traditional dress of bright cloth wrapped in a complicated way and the wooden stick for guiding the cattle, the Masai continue to follow long-standing social and cultural practices. Their economy is based almost exclusively on herding–cattle, goats, and donkeys (which Jackson called Masai 4x4s). They move up and down the valley irrespective of national borders. Their villages, which they only occupy for several years before moving on to different grazing lands, dot the valley and are primarily made up of round thatch and mud houses with conical roofs. Building the houses and caring for the children are the jobs of the women, while the men spend their days watching and moving the herds. The size of the herd determines the wealth of the owner and apparently how many wives he might have. We drove for many kilometers across the valley, never out of sight of the herds and herdsmen. The children begin working at an early age and were often standing at the edge of the road, keeping the animals from wandering onto the pavement.

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On arriving, Jackson raised the roof of the Land Cruiser, and I took my position standing in the back as we drove out through the park. It was what you would expect. We saw mongoose, impala, termite mounds, a “sausage” tree (its fruit looks like long green sausages), zebra, eagles, yellow beak storks, huge herds of baboons, buffalo, wildebeest, wart hogs (who really do move like Pumba in the Lion King), hippos, and many bird species. Toward the end of the afternoon, we encountered a sizable herd of elephants and sat to watch as they circled the truck eating the grass. Among them was a baby Jackson said could have been no more than several weeks old. At lunch we had seen giraffes in the distance by the lake, and on our way out of the park we crossed paths with them up close, magnificent animals. I got my money’s worth on that trip, but it was a long and exhausting day, so I was happy to be deposited at my hotel where I had a good meal and an early night.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 7

April 11th, 2016

April 7

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As if the last few days were not strenuous enough, Gideon and Abu had Anna and me up and packing at 6:00. We had a 19 km hike down off the mountain, and Gideon started at what felt to be a 5 km pace. It was downhill but not always an even track. We kept it up with only one five-minute break all the way to the bottom, finishing in just over 4 hours. We left Anna and Abu far behind and, after some paperwork were all were on the bus heading back to Moshi. It was a clear day, so I was able to see much more than on the misty drive up. Kilimanjaro loomed behind us, looking steep and stark, making me wonder how we ever got to the top of it. The road to Moshi is lined with villages which, along with tourism, are agricultural. I saw the occasional tractor, but most of the work in large fields of corn and rice was done by hand– people of all ages swinging heavy hoes. At the edges of the fields were cows, tethered by a ring in their noses. We passed many people carrying stuff (usually bananas) on their heads, and the ubiquitous scooters transporting things of all shapes and sizes, including a wide box piled high with chickens. In the villages the merchants and craftsmen displayed their wares by the road, including wooden furniture and, in one, what appeared to be finely crafted children’s caskets, both disturbing and beautiful. On arriving at Moshi, we drive to the Hidden Valley office where Primo made one last meal– grilled chicken– and they had cold beer. Gideon and I shared a drink (though he drinks his beer warm) and we all had champagne, toasting the expedition’s success. Then Richard led the crew in several songs to celebrate. It was embarrassing and wonderful–wish I could have recorded the music. Hugs and high-fives all around, we departed. I made arrangements for a day-long Safari to Lake Manyana park tomorrow and was deposited at my hotel where I had exquisite sleep (but an early morning).

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 6

April 7th, 2016

April 6

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Commencing a long hard hike at midnight seems ridiculous, and it pretty much is. I asked the guides about the rationale for such a strategy. After all, we had spent days acclimating to the altitude, it seemed unwise to disrupt diurnal patterns just at the moment we were readying for the big push. They offered three explanations, each with some merit, but not entirely convincing. The hike up from Kibo huts to Uhuru peak is less than six km with a little more than 1000m altitude gain. The summit is 5895m which, for you non-metric folks is 19,341 ft. For comparison, Everest is 29,029′. The highest peak in North America is Denali (McKinley) coming in at 20,310′ and there is only one other North American peak is higher than Kilimanjaro. So the first answer had some merit– seeing the sunrise from the crater rim is an incredible experience (spoiler alert: it is). This is similar to many hiking strategies. People walk up Poon Hill in Nepal starting at 4:00 am to see the sun rise over the Annapurna massif and Daulighiri, but that is a well-marked and fairly short track. Another reason: as this is the wet season and the rains tend to start mid-morning, they like to get up and off the mountain early (missing a whole night’s sleep vs. getting wet, I dunno). And the last, which seemed both patronizing and nonsensical, was actually best. Hikers cannot see what they are climbing in the dark. It might only be six kilometers and only 1000 meters elevation gain, but it is straight up the highest mountain in Africa. I had gone out to piss around 10:00 pm, and the weather had cleared after a torrential downpour. The skies were filled with stars for the first time in several days, though the only constellation I could recognize was Orion (as usual). At 11:00, we got up, had coffee and biscuits (cookies), and by the stroke of midnight we were walking out of camp, each wearing a headlamp directed at our feet, except Anna who carried a torch (flashlight) and consequently had a pretty cold hand most of the walk. We walked out over lava cinders for a short while, but soon it started to snow, the dusting accumulating in the shadow of the stones. We soon discovered that yesterday’s rain had made snow up high, and within the hour we were in ankle-deep powder. People wealthy enough to ski celebrate that stuff, but climbing a mountain in it is profoundly difficult. Off we set, Abu picking out the path and each of us following single file, seeing only the terrain illuminated by our headlamps and concentrating on the footprints directly in front of us. This would go on for six hours–SIX HOURS. Initially, I treated it the way I do all long treks. Walking is an opportunity to think. Indeed, for me, it is the best chance for thinking. I’ve been re-reading Whitehead’s Process and Reality, so it was a good time to consider “actual occasions” and “prehensions.” But we were soon gaining altitude, and the path became more faint and steep. My next “pointless essay” will be about Air (I already have fire–Vital Heat–and Water, so I am well on the way to covering the original four elements, will just then need Earth). Walking at high altitude is a curious and subtle experience. I found doing┬áthe Kili shuffle–placing one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe with no space between (very much the Pink Floyd The Wall walk)–I could mentally explore the intricacies of Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, but soon the lack of oxygen took effect, and I could only see the feet stepping in front of me, step after step, hour after hour. I tried to focus but found I was only able to direct my thoughts toward very intense moments from my past. They had life and vibrancy, but soon faded in the monochromatic landscape I crossed. Walking in snow is physically taxing, so as the air thinned, each simple misstep or slip interrupted carefully patterned breathing, which in turn made me stop and pant, trying to get oxygen balance back. This kept the experience from becoming like meditation, which is the closest activity I can imagine to a pitch-black, many hours, strenuous trek. Like meditation, I concentrated on my breath, but that was not to find release. Instead my body demanded it. Imagine turning to spit and that takes you out of a breathing rhythm and causes distress. The other factor was the cold. Here is where hiking at night was good, as there was little wind. Still, it was well below freezing and my hands would often ice up. I had borrowed one of those down jackets like those people wear on Everest, and found if I pulled up the down-filled hood, my body temperature would go up and my hands would warm. But of course if you get too hot and start to sweat, chills can occur and soon you are heading off the mountain on a stretcher. Thoreau was right, Vital Heat is vital. The snow slowed our pace — it locked it down– so we arrived at Gilman’s point on the crater rim much later than expected. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano– a singular peak rising out of the Rift Valley that characterizes the geology of East Africa. We rested briefly, and for the first time could see beyond the halos of our headlamps. The sun washed across the landscape, making shadows of unbelievable intensity and finally breaking the monochrome of our night walk. The break was short because the risk of chill is higher than the need to rest. By now I was really feeling the altitude. Last month I had crossed Thorung La in Nepal (5400+m) with little distress, but given the exertion of climbing in snow, I was gasping for oxygen and feeling many of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Abu explained later that our trek, in the deep new snow, was exceptionally strenuous so he was not surprised that I was feeling it. I was uncomfortable but felt capable to continue the last bit of the climb around the crater rim to Uhuru point. Of course it was much longer than any of us hoped but soon we gathered around the sign which signaled the end of the climb. Lots of congratulations all around, many pictures were taken, but of course what stunned us all was the sheer magnificence of a clear, rainless morning looking out over the glaciers surrounding a breathtaking crater (and I mean breathtaking in its most literal sense). We soon turned back– lingering at the peak invites many problems including body-temperature drops and perhaps more time sliding down the incline in the rain. As we left, we passed some trekkers who had come up on another route and who appeared to be American. Soon I heard whooping which sounded like someone at an SEC football game instead of standing on the top of a continent. It is a singularly American thing, that self-congratulatory hooting and hollering, that I will never understand. Climbing a mountain is an accomplishment that deserves celebration, but it is also a reverent act. Mountains need to be approached with humility, and not treated as a tick-mark in the inanity of someone’s bucket list. We made our long return to Kibo, and each step brought more oxygen. After a glorious hour resting there, we geared back up and made the descent to Horombo, had supper and slept the sleep of the dead. Emily Dickinson once wrote that “the brain is wider than the sky.” Today I learned that a tired, physically stressed, and oxygen-starved brain is no wider than the faint outline of a headlamp illuminating footsteps in the snow.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 5

April 7th, 2016

April 5

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Stretchers are not usually something you want to pass on a hike. Up here they have ones made with a steel frame and a single centered spoked wheel like one on a heavy mountain bike. Halfway up to Kibo huts they were rolling down a man wrapped in a sleeping bag and cargo straps. There was a porter on each end on one on each side and the man, one of the Chinese bankers I had met the day before, was apparently unconscious. I heard later he had not had a serious crisis like a heart attack, but instead was suffering from acute altitude sickness. Still, watching an evacuation is disconcerting, though clearly the trekking companies are prepared for it. For some reason it reminded me of the search for “Inchworm” on the Appalachian Trail in 2013. An older woman hiker had not reported in when expected, so a full scale hunt was instituted. My son Bennett and I happened to be hiking in that part of Maine that summer and met a number of the search teams, very professional operation though they didn’t find her (her remains were discovered in 2015). Of course they were not carting off anyone’s remains up here today–just a rescue operation. The change in altitude brought another change in foliage. Lower down, where there were still streams, there were many more of those dr. Seuss trees, which Gideon called Giant Senecio. He said they grew where there was running water, but also only grew very slowly. After we got over 4300m it turned to high desert with a lot of red volcanic rock. One part crossed a dusty plain that looked very much like part of New Zealand’s Tongariro Crossing. The ascent was gradual and the path smooth, so we arrived at the Kibo huts by noon. The last hour it rained hard, so we arrived soaked. An English woman named Anna is also planning to summit tomorrow and her porter, Abu, is good friends with Gideon, so we have decided to join forces for the climb. For now, we are to try to sleep as much as we can this afternoon and early evening as the hike commences at midnight.

T. Hugh Crawford

April 4

April 7th, 2016

April 4

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1000 meters– it is a good rule of thumb for acclimating to altitude. I tried to follow it in Nepal on the Annapurna Circuit, and here it is built into the trail. On this approach, there are clusters of huts set apart not by distance, but height. The first huts (Mandara) were at 2720m (after leaving Marangu gates at 1800m), and Horombo huts are at 3720m. Today rather than push on the Kibo huts, we took a day hike to zebra rocks– a formation that really does look like zebra stripes. Then after a quick scramble up to a ridge which gave us the requisite 1000m gain, we turned back and descended again to Horombo for a quiet afternoon before the big push of the next two days which will take us back up to 4700m and then to the peak around 5800m. So far I’m acclimating well, maybe some carryover from last month’s 5400m over Thorung La (looking forward to some lesser European heights next month). Was happy not to hike distance today as the rain has been hard and constant. The last thing I want is ascend the peak in sub-zero weather wearing wet clothes (nothing dries out here as we are up in the clouds). Not much to report on the walk except for these large bushes that were covered with a flower that looked like a yellow daisy. They had thick, evergreen leaves, but from a distance looked like a huge “coreopsis moonbeam.” Wanted to get a picture but it as raining too hard to stop. There were also strange thick trees that must be related to the palm or some sort of tree fern. Heavy green leaves at the top that seem to die and become part of the trunk, definitely the inspiration for a Dr. Seuss book. Very much a cold damp day, most of it spent reading Whitehead’s Process and Reality.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 3

April 7th, 2016

April 3

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Wildflowers were the order of the day, though it started with white-faced black colobus monkeys, the same ones I heard making a strange, indescribable sound in the early morning. We started the day hiking out of the rain forest, the trees so covered with epiphytes that it was difficult to distinguish their actual leaves. Gideon, my friend and guide, said much of the Kilimanjaro slope is covered with camphor trees, but we did not pass any, though the forest floor was covered with orchids and we saw a tiny red flower called Impatiens Kilimanjaro that is only found on these slopes. On passing around 3000m elevation the rain forest stopped abruptly, replaced by a podocarp forest which, as we ascended, continued to diminish in height. The land was covered with flowers though, some familiar– Dusty Miller– and others variations on the familiar like a diminutive gladiolus. The trail remains incredibly well-made, covered in crushed lava and sometimes with tiny black shards of obsidian. At one point in the mud I saw reasonably large prints of what was a clawed animal– a cat larger than the house variety and smaller than a leopard or maybe a hyena. Gideon said that sometimes large game, including lions, pass through, though not often. The rain seemed to threaten all day, but held off– definitely not like yesterday. We stopped for lunch and Primo (the cook) made a hot meal. They really want me to eat entirely too much food, much of it a little bland (plantain soup, etc). For lunch he gave me cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off– felt as if I were at an English tea. This sort of trekking definitely gives a glimpse into the colonial period. I did have a brief conversation with a man coming down from having summited yesterday. He was brimming with warnings about the upcoming trail and enthusiasm for having made it. On arrival at the Horombo Huts, there were many more trekkers either preparing to climb or to descend back down tomorrow. I had not been thinking much about the end point, just how the trek was unfolding, in part because the guides make all the decisions, so I’m just along for the ride. Still, it’s much like Thorung La, with everyone obsessed about the peak, strange world that. The dining room was crowded with trekkers, guides, and lots of very bold mice. One group of guides included a man whose language had clicks — very interesting to listen in.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 2

April 7th, 2016

April 2

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The terrain is much different from what I’ve been in lately. Broad flat plains with that distinctive dark red soil that signals volcanos. A lot of agriculture here–good sized fields of corn along with banana plantations. All the labor seems to be done by hand. While driving to Kilimanjaro park, we passed many people (often quite young) shouldering heavy hoes on their way to work. In the villages they sweep the grounds, so the dirt is in swirls, and they burn all the leaves. There is a real fastidiousness that distinguishes this countryside from many I have hiked through. The farmhouse architecture is interesting though I have not been able to see a house up close. The buildings near the roads tend to be three or four bay structures with doors opening to the front of each bay. The standard building material is either cut volcanic rock or rough formed cinder blocks (with some brick). The nicer buildings then are stuccoed and perhaps painted. The farmhouses are of the same material but have a more complicated style, with multiple rooflines, porches, dormers. I assume it is adapted from English colonial forms, but they are good looking buildings. Most of my morning was meeting with the trekking crew, including my guide Gideon who is quiet, strong and inspires confidence. There are also a number of porters and guides who rode up on the bus with us, though just now, I am not clear who or how many are with me. I have to admit, it is a little awkward getting the Hemingway safari treatment. I’m carrying a nearly empty pack and walking very slowly with Gideon while the other crew take a different route and meet us at camp. As it is the rainy season, we are taking the Marangu route. There are camps with huts at each point of 1000m altitude gain, so there is no need to set up tents in a downpour. Our first night was Mandara Huts (elevation 2720m which meant we climbed almost 1000m today). After a few hours trekking in the strongest downpour I have ever hiked, I found myself the occupant of an a-frame hut complete with mattresses and pillows and was soon brought a washbasin with warm water and soap, then a snack and hot coffee. Near as I can tell, I’m not supposed to do anything except get up every day and walk (slowly). I really do not like being waited on, but that apparently is the only way I can climb this mountain, though I’m still not convinced there actually is a mountain. It’s been very cloudy since I got off the plane and I haven’t seen anything yet that even looks like a volcano.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

April 1

April 7th, 2016

April 1

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Kilimanjaro (and the rainy season). The flight out of Dar Es salaam was uneventful and short. By noon I was walking across the tarmac at Kilimanjaro International Airport– a place that lifted my mood. It is simple, well-maintained, and has a 1950s feel to it, a time before airports became armed camps. Caught a shuttle to downtown Moshi, a place with a much different vibe than Dar. Of course it is much smaller, and safaris seem to be the primary industry but once again, everything was so low-key. The company running my trek booked me into a resort hotel a little way out of town, but I opted to walk and see the town. A bar on a street corner playing great music lured me in for a cold drink on a very hot day, though rainstorms were threatening. I’ve trekked in the rain before, not going to get me down. Walked out to the Sal Saliero Hotel along a road lined with Jacaranda trees. After the Safari Inn, the Sal Saliero is De-Luxe. I guess I should enjoy a last bit of luxury for the week.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

March 31

March 31st, 2016

March 31

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Parting. I had not seen Charlie since just after his graduation last spring from Haverford College, so exploring Dar Es Salaam these past days was pure pleasure, but that does little to dampen the inevitable sadness a parent feels when a son or daughter heads off on their own again. I’ve spent most of the past eight months walking alone (and blogged about solitude), so it’s a familiar mode. Still, it was good to have someone along, to offload some of the cognitive load that travel entails, and of course to remember odd moments from the past 23 years. Tomorrow I head off to Kilimanjaro. The day before a transition is always full of little details– changing money, arranging transport, packing up, but today has an overlay, a tone, one of absence.

T. Hugh Crawford

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