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The Snows of Kilimanjaro

June 13, 2012

Arusha’s airport is called Kilimanjaro International Airport, which appealed to my sense of glamour. But there was no huge square-topped volcano anywhere to be seen, that first morning I woke, though I walked all around the hotel property craning my neck in various directions.  “It’s that way,” several helpful hotel employees told me, waving their hands vaguely, “but you can’t see it during the daytime.” There was a mountain–Mount Meru, no slouch in the big African volcano department–but I had not read anything by Hemingway about Mount Meru when I was fourteen years old. And anyway, Mount Meru was devoid of snow. I scanned its peak hopefully with my binoculars, just in case.

That first day in Africa I fought the feeling that (hornbills aside) I wasn’t actually in Africa. Arusha is at an elevation of  about 4100 feet. But it felt to me like Central America–banana trees and bougainvillea and hummingbirds, which in Africa are called sunbirds. The air felt tropical, and to me tropical implies sea level, and some part of me expected acacia trees (they came later, of course) instead of huge hardwoods, scrub instead of flowers. The buildings I could see, when I peeked through the hotel gates, were low-slung and brightly painted, and the trees were full of weaverbirds, chattering and flipping upside down and flitting in and out of their tennis-ball-in-tube-sock looking nests. I’d first seen weaverbirds in colonies in Costa Rica, hitchhiking with my ex-husband twenty years ago. At breakfast, there was an array of tropical fruit, papaya and pineapple and even the cooked bananas beloved of Central Americans. The coffee was delicious, just like in Central America. Even the smells–woodsmoke and dust and flowers and faint whiffs of diesel every now and then, with an occasional undernote of sun-baked tin–were Central American smells. Perhaps it was just the hangover from the last big trip I’d taken, which was to Honduras, with my mother, the winter before.

I walked around the hotel grounds, but there wasn’t terribly much to explore. My mom napped, and I dragged a chair out under a flowering tree of some sort, and looked at the birds. I saw a mongoose, loping along in front of the little thatch-roofed hut next door, which delighted me to no end. (I had to look it up, of course.) I saw an ordinary housecat, which I assumed was, oh, a lion or something, a very small special lion native to hotels, until I came to my overexcited senses. I saw something called a mouse bird, nesting right above my head, and I saw something called a firefinch, which the bird book described as “confiding.” (But he didn’t tell ME a thing!) Every single bird was brand new, a life-lister worth writing down.

In the late afternoon, we went for a walk with one of the hotel staff, through fields of coffee plants and sausage trees. Sausage trees are like something out of Richard Scarry–huge normal-looking trees, with what appear to be giant sausages hanging from the branches. Alas, I have no pictures of the sausage trees. The “sausages” are a type of gourd, apparently, and Africans make beer from the fruit. They’re the size and color of those things you hang off the side of a boat, so it doesn’t knock against its moorings, and they weigh a ton. However, here are a few rather paltry pictures of the hotel environs. My pictures, in general, are not great, and I apologize. They do absolutely no justice to their subjects, and I am a lazy and forgetful and inconsistent photographer.

This is where I saw the mongoose, right along the bank of bougainvillea, in and out of the shadows.

Here’s the lion. Unlike the mongoose, it held still to be photographed. It also came over to be petted. I figured it had never seen any people before, and so didn’t know to be afraid of them.

This is the view from my birdwatching perch, right outside our room.

All these photos look even more anemic and disappointing than I feared: trust me when I tell you that the colors were brighter, the sunlight more intense, the sky bluer. The lions fiercer.

Here was a bit of wildlife I found in our room, along with its nemesis.

This particular insect, like the lion featured above, was much more ferocious and intimidating in real life. We pulled the mosquito netting around our bed, my mother and I, and slept straight on till morning.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. Was Living Down Under permalink
    June 13, 2012 2:40 pm

    You didn’t describe what happened when you did first see the mountain. Though I suppose you wouldn’t have seen it until you were on your way to Moshi?

    We were walking around Moshi, exploring on our first day there. And like you, people said, “it’s that way.” It’s not til late afternoon when the fog clears that you can see it. We looked and looked and all of a sudden it appeared to us. High up you’d think the peaks were part of the clouds. I took photos. And still, you have to know what you’re looking at or you think it’s a picture of the sky :)

    We spent the summer in Africa that year and passed by Moshi and Arusha a few times. And every time, I’d find myself craning my neck and looking up to see if I could catch a glimpse. We went up Kili that trip. But it’s when you’re down looking up (or truth be told, up looking out) that it really takes your breath away. But then it’s the only mountain I’ve been that close to.

    Your comparisons to Central America are interesting. I haven’t travelled extensively through Central or South America yet. But even trips to Mexico sometimes remind me of Africa.

    Can’t wait to hear more about it.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 13, 2012 2:47 pm

      That’s because I didn’t see it that first day! Stay tuned. You climbed it! Kudos to you, how was it? There was a lovely family we hung around with for a couple of days who were leaving to climb it–I was impressed. Jealous you lived in Africa. I have, so far, missed the boat on that. There is still time, I keep telling myself.

  2. Was Living Down Under permalink
    June 13, 2012 3:27 pm

    It was beautiful. Every day the landscape changed. The first day, it was walking through a rainforest. Then all of a sudden it changed to moss and shrubs. Then to desert – some parts I almost felt was like another planet. Unfortunately didn’t make it to the top – too sick. But even through the sick, I was cognizant of the beauty that surrounded me that last night. The bright stars above and the lights of Moshi below. Being on the mountain, for me, was proof of a higher power. It was humbling.

    I only lived in Africa by default (my parents are/were African?). We left when I was four – does it even count? Still the summers we spent there as children do leave me quite nostalgic for the place. The recent trip in 2004 was with my partner – we spent most of our time (after doing the requisite safaris and kili climb) in Zanzibar, my parents’ childhood home. Awesome doesn’t begin to describe that experience.

    And yes, there is always time.

    • irretrievablybroken permalink*
      June 13, 2012 11:23 pm

      I can’t believe your parents are from Zanzibar. How incredible. And yes, the summers you spend as a child make you a resident–in some ways it’s more intense than living somewhere year round, to return year after year after year. (At least, that’s how I feel about my peripatetic childhood…)

  3. Mike permalink
    June 13, 2012 10:42 pm

    So I take from your above comment you didnt climb kilimanjaro? Only plans for a safari?

    The pictures look gorgeous, I bet everything looked much better in person though! I cant wait to visit in Jan next year! Keep posting more pics if you have any! I’m planning to Climb Kili (reading all I can about it on kilimanjarowiki.com) although it seems sparse with info so any information you have about the area is much appreciated!

  4. irretrievablybroken permalink*
    June 13, 2012 11:21 pm

    I didn’t climb the mountain–I was there on safari with my mother, quite a luxurious safari that she had planned with my stepfather, who was unable to go at the last minute. It was too late for her to get a refund, so she very kindly took me along instead. The company we went with is out of Berkeley, Calif. (Wilderness Travel). I think they have a Kilimanjaro climb–they are probably one of the pricier options, though. Our beloved guide Walter is presently getting his permit to take climbers (he used to do it, then stopped and his permit eventually expired)–if I were going to climb a mountain, I’d want to do it with him.
    Tanzania is incredible. I am envious that you have it all ahead of you.

  5. June 16, 2012 7:59 pm

    Wow. My passport actually expired last year and I haven’t used it since before my kids were born. The big trip in my future is for a convention in Cleveland this fall. I don’t think my photos will be able to compete with these!

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