| 1) Introduction |
Several months before I arrived in Tanzania to visit Kilimanjaro, I had decided to forgo the customary after-trek safari in favor of climbing another mountain, Mount Meru, the second tallest mountain in Tanzania. Although I had told others in my group of my intentions, just about everyone else signed up to do a safari after the Kilimanjaro trek, and I would do Meru on my own. I had emailed the Marangu Hotel before hand and arranged a Meru trek through a cousin of the operators, John Bennett, owner of the Golden Shower restaurant in Moshi (don't think about the name too hard - otherwise you might ask him to rename it ;-). Although it's possible to do Mount Meru without a tour operator, my experience in foreign countries has been that unless you have a lot of time or have some local friends, a paid guide is useful since often they can dramatically improve one's chances of getting through red-tape in a time efficient manner ;-) During the beginning of our Kilimanjaro trek, my tentmate Yehuda expressed interested in joining me on Meru, however, he had already paid for the safari and wasn't sure how to get out of it. By the time we were leaving Kili, however, we had endured 6 days of rain and snow and both of us were reconsidering our interest in Meru. In the end, I had an $1200 option to join the safari (someone was interested in dropping out), however, the Meru trip was much cheaper so I stuck to my plans.
2) Day By Day Account
|Day 0: Jan 19, 2002|
Day 0 is highly instructive of why it's nice to use a tour operator in certain parts of the world if you are limited on time.
On Friday, January 19, 2001 I had a leisurely breakfast at the Marangu Hotel with the rest of my Kilimanjaro group, after which, everyone except for myself and Raoul left for the safari. Raoul was heading back to the States the next day and I was planning on starting my Meru trek today. In the morning I used the hotel's phone to call John Bennett, who was supposed to send a car to pick me up. It was late morning by the time the car arrived, much later than anyone at the Marangu Hotel expected, and I was whisked off to the Golden Shower restaurant to meet John Bennett, however, that's not where the driver took me. He took me to Ahsante Tours in Moshi. Since I only knew of Mr. Bennett, and not Ahsante Tours, I told them that my agreement was with John Bennett and I wanted to be taken to the Golden Shower restaurant which is where they finally took me. As it turns out, John Bennett does not run the Mount Meru tours himself, he runs safaris, but will set you up on a Mount Meru trip with Ahsante Tours after charging a "referral fee." Since this was my first time in Tanzania and I was travelling by myself, I didn't mind paying for the fee since John Bennett was my link back to the Marangu Hotel ;-) After agreeing that the trek fee would include transportation back to the Marangu Hotel I was back off to the Ahsante Tours office. We picked up my guide Alex, a porter, exchanged my travellers check, bought food, etc. and then took off for Arusha National Park. The road to the park was very rocky and in dire need of improvement. I learned that the Chinese government had a road construction contract in Tanzania and that there was a large Chinese population in Dar es Saalam (or just Dar for short) and good Chinese food there. A Japanese group was working on the road to Momella Lakes, however, the road to Momella Gate didn't not seem to have a sponsor at the time.
When we got to Momella Gate, it was 3:03pm and the sun was still high in the sky though there were clouds covering the Mount Meru summit. Although my Lonely Planet: Trekking in East Africa, 2nd guide listed some of the fees involved, they did not have a complete list of red tape regulations, which stipuated that you cannot start your hike after 3:00pm. Because of that, they wouldn't let us in the park, though they did offer to let me pay $ to stay in the high priced local lodge. None of the "business managers" were around and I didn't feel that I should shell out any extra money so I told them I wasn't going to pay for a night in the lodge and that we should to back to Moshi to discuss things with John Bennett. On the way out, we picked up a solo trekker from Poland who had just come down from Meru and needed a lift out to the main road. Since I had hired the Ahsante Tours 4WD, it was my say as to whether we could give him a lift or not - it felt kind of weird, but of course we let him aboard. It turns out he was spending a month trekking around East Africa but was avoiding Kilimanjaro due to the cost. When we got back to Moshi, I spoke with Jordan, the Ahsante Tours business manager and he put me up in the nearby Hotel Buffalo for the night. The Hotel Buffalo was very clean and I got an extra day to relax. I had dinner in the hotel restaurant with two girls from Canada that I met (one from Vancouver and another from Banff) who had just arrived for their Kilimanjaro trek run by Keys Hotel where they would stay the next night. When I told them I had complete that trek with the Marangu Hotel they seemed to be impressed and said that they had heard it was one of the best, though they couldn't afford it. At night, I went up to my room, watched some television - there was a lot of Indian shows from across the Indian Ocean. I watched some really bad Mission Impossible:2 before going to bed.
I was happy that Ahsante Tours was taking care of both the hotel as well as the transportation. I had heard that it would normally run about $100 for a 1-way trip from Moshi to Momella Gate so I was getting an extra 2-way trip as well as a night in the Hotel Buffalo compliments of Ahsante Tours since we arrived 3 minutes late. I was glad it wasn't coming out of my own pocket. I still felt bad about the situation, but I was picked up late at the Marangu Hotel in the morning and we were still shopping for food once I was picked up so I had to balance that out - still, I knew the economy wasn't doing that great so I wasn't too happy about what had happened, as simple as it was.
|Day 1: Jan 20, 2002|
Getting an 8:00am start from Moshi, we were sure to start our hike today. I met Alex again in the morning and found out that he was recently asked to join a Kilimanjaro trek so would not be joining me on Meru though he would drive up to the gate with me. When we arrived, the park fees were paid in US bills and I was introduced to my guide, Bonaface George, and cook, Genarde. I also had a porter, but didn't quite get his name since he didn't speak too much English so I spoke with Gendarde most of the time. Bonaface was a park ranger, Genarde was with Ahsante Tours, and the porter was from a local village hired at the park. We started hiking at 11:30am and arrived at the Miriakamba Hut 2.5 hours later at 2:00pm. I relaxed for the rest of the day talking with a group of 4 Germans coming down from the mountain. They were doing a 4-day trek and this was the 2nd time at the mountain for 2 of them after being rained off on their first attempt. Talking to the Germans, I started to appreciate how much closer East Africa was to Europe than America. It was also enlightening to see the attitudes towards Tanzania, which was a former German colony.
|Day 2: Jan 21, 2002|
This was another short day as our group made the leisurely hike up to Saddle Hut from 8:45am to 11:30am. After lunch, I relaxed for a bit before heading out to Little Meru by myself. Bonaface didn't seem too interested in going so he had the porter show me where the trail branched off behind the hut. The trail is south of the actual saddle which is a bit confusing since the Lonely Planet guide shows the trail as rising directly from the middle of the saddle. I had a few views on the way up including some on the summit ridge, but the clouds closed in right as I reached the summit and started raining shortly thereafter. I made the short hike down and then started to prepare for summit day. It stopped raining sometime in the evening and before heading off to bed, Bonaface and I arranged to leave at 1:30am for our summit bid.
|Day 3: Jan 22, 2002|
At about 11:00pm I woke to heavy rain and lightning. Stepping outside of the cabin, I looked up at the sky and could see intermittent pools of stars in an otherwise cloudy sky. I started to mentally prepare myself for the disappointment of not summiting like the 2 Germans on their first attempt. The Lonely Planet trekking guide described the summit hike along a "knife-edge rim." Now, knife-edge is a very subjective term. It can be YDS class 2 on top and one side and class 5 on the other. Or, as I was thinking, class 3 on top and class 5 on both sides. I certainly had no desire to do wet class 3 in the dark. Genarde came over shortly after I woke and spent the next couple of hours with me looking up at the stars and trying to convince me that a summit bid was still possible though I wasn't so sure.
At 12:40pm the rain stopped though it was still cloudy. At about 1:40am Bonaface arrived and we started hiking up at 2:00am. I didn't rain during our hike, though we were treated to a wonderful lightning show with many flashes of light on our ascent as well as nice views of Arusha below us. When we first came out of the trees, there's a little rock ridge that you cross over before reaching the first bald spot, Rhino Point. About 13:300' we were travelling on about 0.5 inches of snow and cross 2 YDS class 2 rock slabs. Near the top the trail changed from simple ash to climbing through a rock field. We took our time on the way up, arriving at the summit at sunrise at 6:15am in a pink cloud with low visibility. We signed the very wet summit register and then started on our way down. At 14,340' I stopped to take a number of photos as the clouds parted for about 3 minutes before continuing down. I also noticed green paint on the rocks showing the way which hard to notice in the dark. On the way down I got to see the "knife-edge" and discovered that it was a simple class 1 ash trail with about a 30° slope on either side - nothing really intimidating at all. I arrived back at the hut around 8:45am after taking lots of photos of the strange bushes just above the hut and around the saddle area. After breakfast, we started heading down the mountain. We were the only ones that had attempted the summit that day.
On our way down to Miriakamba Hut, we past a few groups going up who told us of buffalo and elephants along the trail and at 11:15am we ran into a group of 5 elephants on the trail including a mother and baby. Bonaface fired a warning shot to scare them off. He managed to scare off 4 of them but a large one remained and we found out that his single-action rifle had jammed during the shot. Although they had radios at the huts, the rangers didn't carry any on them so we were stuck. Genarde and I climbed up into a tree, sitting on some branches about 40' off the ground while Bonaface and the porter tried to scare the elephant away. Genarde told me that if the elephant came he was climbing higher up in the tree and that I should follow him. I thought if I had to climb up the tree any more, my chances of falling and injuring myself was significant - a gamble I didn't want to make. At this time, I was getting a bit worried because we had no ability to change the situation with the elephant and I wanted to make sure we reached Momella Gate before it closed. The main reason was that I wanted to get change to hand out tips to the guide and porter since my smallest bill was a US $50. At 12:15pm we started moving again, but this time with the instruction to tread softly and not speak - which didn't make me feel too comfortable. Once everyone started speaking in swahili again, I became more comfortable. At Miriakamba Hut, we took a time out for some snacks and to fix Bonaface's rifle.
On the way down from Miriakamba we ran into a large number of porters going up with Dik Dik Hotel & Restaurant as well as a smaller party with Zara Adventures. I also ran into John P. and his wife. John P. had just come from climbing Mount Kenya with MEM Tours and provided me with some good information for next time. We made it out in decent time (2:30pm?) to find Alex and our driver waiting for us. Bonaface gave me my 2 certificates, one for making it to Little Meru and another for making it to the top, Socialist Peak. I exchanged my money and paid out tips. We were then asked if we could give a lift for a girl to the A23 Arusha-Moshi Road. She seemed to be the girlfriend of one of the rangers and of course we gave her a ride. Then it was back to Moshi and then the Marangu Hotel.