When I arrived at the airport in Kilimanjaro, I could not believe how absolutely easy immigration into Tanzania was, considering I needed to purchase my visa there. Visits to a U.S. post office are more time-consuming and painful than this experience of entering an East African country.
Upon leaving the airport after the simplest border control in recorded history, I found myself in the familiar position of standing with my bags on a cart, looking around for someone who had my name on a sign. And, no one did.
I pushed my cart against the wall so I was out of everyone’s way, and dug through my backpack to find my local contact’s information. When I called, she reassured me that the driver would materialize momentarily. So, I sat on my cart, turned away taxi driver after taxi driver, listened to my “Africa” playlist, and relaxed.
I watched as patches of Westerners walked through the doors, into the glare of the Tanzanian sun. Backpackers looking for cheap taxis, tour groups looking for shuttle buses, tourists looking for their prearranged drivers. A lot of them were resonating with a palpable stress I recognized. I am sure I looked like that in Bamako when my drivers failed to immediately materialize. (read the “Love Letter to Mali” series for the first-hand account!)
Here I was surprised to realize I was not worried at all. I shrugged, and continued to watch the parade of nations.
It was funny to see all the different nationalities, and how they were dressed and acting, given where we were. The Russians were obnoxious, in sequin tank tops, spike-heeled snakeskin boots, drinking vodka from canteens, loud, and over the top in every kind of way. The Brazilians were only a little less extreme than the Russians, and the Italians were only slightly better than the Brazilians.
The Brits were uptight and frumpy, complaining and looking hot and uncomfortable. The South Africans were only a little less extreme than the Brits, and the Americans were only a little better than the South Africans.
The French looked appropriately relaxed and on-vacation; they were dressed comfortably but sharply, and, especially by comparison to everyone else, presented an attractive package.
When I finally found my driver, he was terrific. We had a super rugged safari vehicle, and as he drove me the 45-minutes to my hotel, he told me about the local area.
I loved my driver’s accent. I loved his eyes. I love that he insisted I sit next to him in the front seat.
So, I already loved Tanzania. But, I don’t think my attraction to The Hottie Driver can explain why I instantly felt so comfortable and at home at Rivertrees hotel. It is a gorgeous old farm estate on many acres converted into a charming hotel. I spent the afternoon sitting in the open-air restaurant drinking coffee (they freshly roasted and ground the beans for me).
I decided to go for a run through the grounds. I followed the river, and wound my way among the cabins and dense trees, with monkeys in them. While I was walking to cool down, I started to fantasize about living here. I felt like I am home.
After my shower, I looked in the mirror at my back, and was shocked at the giant red welts. I had just arrived from Ethiopia, and had been attacked by tse-tse flies yesterday. Under normal circumstances, I would be alarmed enough at what I was looking at, but I was even more freaked by the realization that I was about to set off on the Kili climb with some kind of allergic reaction.
I called reception.
“Does the hotel have a doctor?” I asked.
“Great, I have weird welts on my back I’d like someone to look at.”
“So, you want a doctor?”
“OK, I’ll send one over to your room.”
That was so easy. Ten minutes later, there was a knock at my door, and someone arrived with a power adapter.
“Ah, I don’t need an adapter, I want a doctor.”
“Ah, I don’t have one of those, maybe you can call reception?”
Eventually I stopped freaking out and adjusted to the fact that I just had some bug bites. So, I took Benadryl and quit my worrying. Mostly.
To distract myself I strolled over to the gift shop that had beautiful beaded jewelry. I started to pick out gifts, but my mind was aflutter with thoughts of The Climb — so I gave up and just browsed.
“Can I help you?” asked Gretchen, the resort manager, who was manning the register.
After chatting for a few minutes I decided to show her my back. “So, I’m sure it’s nothing, but I have these bites. Can you take a look?”
“Sure. OH MY GOD. I mean, ok, I see. They are tsetse fly bites. Yes, these are quite inflamed.”
“How many are there?” I asked.
“Ah. Well, let’s see. I can see at least sixteen distinct bites, maybe more. Some of these look quite large and could actually be two bites that are swollen together. You poor thing.”
“Should I be worried? I am going to start climbing Mount Kilimanjaro tomorrow, and have to wear my rucksack and all.”
“Really? Tomorrow? Ah. Well. No. No, not at all. You’ll be fine. I’m sure. Just fine. Just a few bug bites, right?”
I smiled nervously, both relieved and a little freaked out. I told her I’d be back after my trek to get some jewelry, and I headed to the restaurant for my pre-climb briefing.
The President of the hiking company soon arrived to deliver the pre-climb briefing, and introduced me to my head guide, Frank, who was all dimples and muscles. The President explained that while Frank and I were climbing, he would be monitoring us from town and arranging any emergency evacuations. First thing they told me is that I was the only one doing the climb. That meant all of the food, equipment and personnel were for me. I was so embarrassed to have a team of twelve men escorting me on just a week-long trek.
The briefing went something like…
“Make sure you eat a lot. Eat until you are full. Then keep eating.”
“Oh, ok,” I laughed. “I usually am a pretty good eater. That shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I’m not kidding. You need to consciously stuff yourself at all meals. Your body will try to tell you it’s full. Ignore it. You need more calories than your body thinks you need. And more water. Your body will use up to three times as much water as normal.”
“OK. Got it. Eat and drink.”
“Yes, nonstop. At least six liters of water a day. In addition all the liquids we will serve you at meals.”
“OK. Check. Imbibe. Ingest. Got it.”
“The golden rule is ‘Pole Pole.’ That means ‘Slowly Slowly’ in Swahili.”
“It is like you are telling me to do all my favorite things. Eat and drink tons. Move as slowly as possible. This climb is up my alley for sure.”
The President didn’t laugh. “It is important that you keep your pace slow in order to avoid stressing out your body while it is trying to adjust to the altitude. Because, if you do get altitude sickness, you will be sent down. There are no second chances. We take safety very seriously.”
“Right, as do I.”
“OK. So you will be in charge of your day sack. You can put the rest of your gear in one duffle that the porters will carry. Any questions?”
“Actually, yes. So, I have these bites on my back. I’m sure they’re nothing. But I’m a little worried my day pack may rub them raw.”
“OK. Let’s take a look.” So, I turned around and lift up my shirt. “Oh My God! I mean, OK. If they are irritated by your pack, he’ll carry it,” he says, pointing to Frank.
“Thanks.” Frank and I looked uneasily at each other.
The President and Frank conducted a thorough kit check of my gear and I unsurprisingly passed with flying colors. I had already proven to myself that when it comes to adventure travel, I have the shopping part down pat. After arranging the pick up time in the morning, they left.
Holy cow. Now that it was about twelve hours away, I was starting to get a little nervous. And, I was definitely more nervous knowing that I would be doing this alone. What if I didn’t make it? That meant the whole crew would have done all this for nothing. But, I was more excited than nervous. I couldn’t believe I was finally going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a life-long dream. Literally.
Stay tuned to Part III for the climb…