Monday, 22 December 2014

Climbing Kilimanjaro on Christmas Day

Sunrise over Africa from the crater rim of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This photo and all others by Bob McKerrow

Another kind of treasure waited to be found





In July 1978, I returned to Ethiopia to work for the International Red Cross on a large relief operation for two million famine-stricken people. Having previously climbed the two highest mountains in Ethiopia in 1974, Mt. Ras Dashan (4757 m) and Mt. Buahit (4267 m), I began pouring over maps of Africa to see where I might be able to climb during a week’s holiday at Christmas 1978.

During the many weeks I spent in the highlands of Ethiopia in the course of my work, I become fascinated

Listening to my Ethiopian colleagues telling numerous stories and legends of their country’s rich and ancient history, and I was surprised to hear numerous mentions of Kilimanjaro.

When in the capital I spent a lot of my evenings searching for written account of Kilimanjaro in Ethiopian history and after many months I located a publication in the Tanzanian Embassy which featured a reprint by Dr. R. Reusch in the Tanganyika Standard of February 10, 1828. It read “ For thousands of years these mountains have stood, becoming more and more interwoven with legends. Even in Abyssinia (pre-war name of Ethiopia), Mt. Kibo, the highest summit of Kilimanjaro, is known and one remarkable legend, told me beside the camp fire by old Abyssinian soldiers and hunters is connected with this snow clad mountain. When the first king of of Abyssinia, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, called Menelik I, who governed Tigre as Negusie-Negesshti (King of Kings) had completed his successful conquest of Shoa in southern Ethiopia, Somaliland, Kenya Colony and nor then Tanganyika, and was on his return journey bringing with him much spoils of wars he one day encamped on a desert-like stretch of land which unites Mt. Kibo and Mawenzi, at a height of 15,000 feet. He was old and tired of life and felt death drawing near. But because he was King he wanted to die as a King.
“ King I am and as King I wish to die,” he said to his followers One morning he bid his army farewell and accompanied by a few of his warlords and slaves, who carried his jewels and treasure, he began to ascend the mountain.

Kilimanjaro - King Menelik, Shipton, Hemingway and Valeria all fell in love with this mountain.
His soldiers below followed him with their eyes until he reached the boundary of the eternal snows where cloud encompassed him. In the evening the warlords returned without their King, for he had entered into the crater of the mountain with his slaves, jewels and treasure. And here he will sleep forever. But an offspring of his family will arise and restore the old glory of Ethiopian conquering all the land to the Rufiji River. He will ascend Mt. Kibo, find the jewels of Menelik I, among which will be the seal ring of Solomon which the old King has upon his finger. The ring he will put on his own hand and from this moment he will be endowed with the wisdom of Solomon. Also the heroic spirit of the old King will rest upon him. Thus says the legend.

Fired with the thoughts of treasure and the wisdom of Solomon I arrived at Marangu on December 16, 1978, a small village on the south-west slopes of Kilimanjaro. The base of Kilimanjaro measures 50 by 30 miles in an east-south-east direction. It consists of three major volcanic centres, Kibo 19,349 ft in the centre, Mawenzi 16,890 ft in the east, and Shira 13,140 in the west. Uhuru peak 19340 ft on Kibo, is the highest point in Africa.

Not having any climbing gear and clad only in street clothes when I arrived , I was lucky to be able to borrow a pair of climbing boots from a Bavarian geologist who had fortunately dislocated a shoulder. I hired some warmer clothes from the national park headquarters. I was fortunate finding a local farmer, Valerian, from the Chagga tribe who was keen to accompany me and carry fire wood and water for cooking.

Sign at the Kilimanjaro National Park headquarters/ (note spelling)
Valerian, like so many other Chagga, supplements his income by carrying loads, and if required will guide tourists in snow-free-conditions to Gilman;s point on the crater rim.
Living on the slopes of this great mountain the Chagga have a single finite clear focus on their country, a rare thing for African people whose eyes are so often fixed on stretches of undifferentiated bush or desert reaching indctermunatedly to the horizon. This gives the Chagga people a focus, a precise position in a single great mountain which is one of the most naturally fertile in Africa.

I had hoped to have a look perhaps climb one of the more interesting routes on Kilimanjaro but unseasonal weather over the whole of east- Africa had brought snow down to 12,000 feet. The first three days on the normal route is a delightful walk through constantly changing scenery: from 5000ft at Marangu to 15,450ft the last hut on the mountain.

The first day took us through rain forests comprising a variety of trees ferns with brambles and lichens growing in the trunks and branches. Occasionally we saw clusters of orchids, blue monkeys and small frightened birds. Between 8.000 and 12,000 feet the forest gradually changes to Podocarpus Milanjianus family and Hypernicum revolutum community. Around this altitude one meets with the first of three giant groundsels (photo opposite) endemic to Kilimanjaro (Scenico Johnsyonni), sometimes attaining a height of 30 feet.

The following day we emerged onto the upland grasslands. Here the everlasting flowers begin to become conspicuous. These grasslands almost extend to Horombo Hut at 12,299 feet surrounded by heath-like plants. On the third day we passed through alpine bogs dotted with giant Groundsel and giant Lobelia, a large short-lived herb which grows up to 12 feet. This landscape was identical to one I had seen four years earlier when climbing Mt. Ras Dashan in Ethiopia.


Mt.Mawenzi, from the saddle between Mt. Kibo and Mawenzi. Photo: Bob McKerrow

As we proceeded north over the seven miles between Mawenzi and Kibo, much of the distance being a saddle, the vegetation petered out to form an alpine desert. Here few plants survive because of the extremely low rainfall and temperature. The fresh snow had sorted the tourists out from the more adventurous leaving Valerian and I almost alone in the hut. The next morning we left the hut by moonlight at 1.30 am. It took us one and a half hours to reach Hans Meyer Cave which was completely full of snow. I thought of Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman who spent a night here in 1929 on their way to the summit. They also struck waist-deep snow and Tilman suffered from altitude sickness and vomited frequently.

From here on it was a steepish plod on snow-covered scree to Gilman’s Point at the crater rim, which we reached at 5.30 am in time to see a wild African sunrise.

At the crater rim of Kilimanjaro
Valerian heading towards Mt. Kibo. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Here the snow was very deep and the frozen crust would just support our weight. After the magnificent sunrise clouds began swirling over over the north-east crater rim as we headed towards Uhuru Peak a mile and a half away. With the rising temperatures we began breaking through the crust into deep powder snow.

The edge of the glacier on the crater rimTo avoid the fresh snow we traversed over a series of small peaks which had less snow an their wind-blown crests. Two hours of wading through waist deep snow, we furrowed ourselves to the summit.



Valerian, a local Chagga farmer, on the summit of Kibo Peak, the highest point on Mt. Kilimanjaro. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Our view down the mountain was obscured by cloud. But we could see the whole crater and surrounds but, because of the thick mantle of snow it looked so different, almost featureless, from previous photographs.
We dug into the four feet of snow which covered the summit and found the plaque installed many years ago which cites a speech of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere on Tanganyika’s independecane in 1961.
I thought of the great King Menelik and his buried treasure on this mountain. I think it best be left on the mountain for greed has already caused enough suffering in Africa.
I spent the last night in Tanzania with Valerian and his family. As happy children and piglets squealed around our feet and beer trickled down our throats, I thought that happiness like this is preferable to treasure.

Footnote: This article was rejected by Colin Monteath editor of the New Zealand Alpine Journal in 1978. Later, that illustrious North Island daily, the Manawatu Standard, published it in its Christmas Edition as a feature, on 24 December 1979.

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