Day 1. 12/31/2019, 6:40am. Ilboru Safari Lodge, Arusha.
I woke to the sound of roosters, followed by the laughter of owls and a chorus of birds.
Today is the last day of 2019 and I am embarking upon day 1 of the Machame route on Mount Kilimanjaro. I had landed with a group of new friends last night from JFK and was ready to go.
10:16am. On the bus.
We see the peak emerge ahead of us. Just a round top covered by snow. From this distance it appears only 100m above the ground, but we are really looking at a 5895-meter (19,340 ft) structure.
As our van pulls ahead on the asphalt belt, I gaze out of the left-hand side of our bus, noticing that the landscape hasn’t changed for more than 30 minutes. That’s how broadly and stately the majestic mountain presides. It commands own weather of condensation from the ground up, almost reaching the peak.
A tiramisu of clouds rise above a flat expanse of trees as far as your eyes can see.
We were driving toward the southern base of the mountain to mount the Machame route, aka “Whiskey Route.” It’s a 7-9 day climb, depending on which tour group you go with, with additional 3-4 days included for acclimatization, which proved critical for our successful summit.
2pm. Machame Gate, 5,400 ft above sea level.
We arrived hyped. The porters, some 30 of them (79 came up with us), rushed to our bus and, as one smooth operation, began to offload our big packs bound to the roof of our bus. My porter Fusso grabbed my bag and attached my rented sleeping bag to it swiftly with a friendly introduction.
We checked in with our passport numbers, ages and names, the first of many check-ins at every single camp along the way. A leisurely lunch and a long, long wait later, we began to hike a little past 2pm.
An extremely excited man in uniform greeted us: “Hakuna matata!! Banana!!! Banana!!” He yelled over and over with great enthusiasm. We returned his calls with less volume, one part due to nervous excitement, and one part due to self-consciousness, which we were soon to lose with one another in the upcoming days.
Thus began our hike on a steepish concrete road in single file, 19 pairs of legs going at a pole pole pace. Slow slow.
It was the perfect pace for storytelling. I will admit that we were a particularly chatty group (at least for me). In hindsight, I am amazed by and filled with gratitude for the depth and breadth of conversation I had with the people in my crew. There is something magical about sharing life stories out here – pockets of deep humanity scattered across wild landscapes.
But yes… Slow it was! We averaged 55 minutes per mile pace for the first day’s 7 miles (6.5 hours) over nearly 4,000 ft of elevation gain to close out at Machame Camp, 9,800 ft above sea level.
We had our first taste of walking in the dark over the last hour of today’s climb. Not everyone had thought of keeping headlamps in our day packs yet, so we relied on our eyes to reach the endpoint. I sensed undoubted relief when we arrived at Machame Camp under a full moon.
Our porters had set up our campsite a few hours before our arrival – they continued to do so throughout our trip. Tired but buzzing, we were fortunate to unpack and go straight to dinner. The temperature remained above freezing tonight, but I was definitely cold.
I didn’t stay up to welcome the New Year. But I couldn’t think of a better place to sink into sleep, under my tent, under the stars, as the earth rotated silently into 2020.
Missing my crew as I write this.
Thanks for reading,