Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

We climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro…but

we didn’t get to the summit. As you can imagine, this came as a big surprise, because both my daughter, Martha, and I felt great as we were climbing pole pole (slowly, as instructed by our head guide, Clemence Mtui) through the lush rain forest and the moorland (alpine desert), and across the Shira Plateau. The scenery was beautiful, almost mystical, and we puttered along enjoying the companionship of our two guides, who explained in detail the various trees and plants—all new to us—and the numerous species of monkeys and unusual birds, exquisite varieties of protea, and tropical vegetation such as African pencil cedar, potent wild spice plants, and the furry giant groundsels with their saucy cap of vegetation. During our first day slogging up the muddy trail in the rain forest, we were especially careful of the ants that marched across our path. In a nanosecond they could attach themselves to a pant leg and cause havoc. Ants in your pants became very real to all of us!  

 

We spent our first night in Big Tree campsite (mti mkubwa in Swahili) all by ourselves (one of the beauties of the trip was the solitude we experienced on this route, the Lemosho). The food was mostly Chagga, which we had experienced in our four days of visiting villages in and around Marangu prior to the climb, and it was fabulous—heavy on the fresh veggies, with chicken and stuffed pastas for variety. And the chicken soup was to die for! I had never tasted such perfect distillation of pure chicken flavor in my life. Chagga remained our favorite cuisine throughout our time in Tanzania.

 

On our second day climbing through the alpine forest we found an unusual anthill built high up in an acacia tree from bits of elephant dung carried up the mountain by these miniscule insects. The nest was a large gray pockmarked ball, which housed these tiny stinging ants that bothered the giraffe and kept it from eating the leaves of the tree. But who ever saw a giraffe at 12,000 ft.? The ants lay dormant, but to activate them you poked the ball with your stick and they swarmed out by the billions.

 

It wasn’t until our second campsite, Shira I, that we saw our first views of Kilimanjaro, its remaining glaciers glowing salmon-red in the sunset and iridescent in the night. It was cold and clear, a silent sky alive with stars and constellations.

 

The conversation was always lively as we trekked. Like everyone else we met on our three weeks in Africa, our guides were eager to talk about the American election and the political and economic problems so prevalent in Africa and the world. Seemed almost out of place, like interjecting a totally incongruent reality into other-worldly, untouched nature, as we made our way up the vast mountain. We also discovered that our guide had worked with Scott Fisher (an amazing climber who had conquered both Everest and K2), for four years during the time he was leading treks up Kilimanjaro. Mtui was devastated over his untimely death on the illfated trip up Mt. Everest in May 1996, the worst tragedy ever recorded on the mountain. He had been with him on the trip up Kilimanjaro that Scott led to commemorate the 50th anniversary to the founding of the CARE organization.

 

Our third day ended after six hours, with the usual tea, hot milk or chocolate, honey, and popcorn in our tent. All seemed to be well as we wandered around Shira II campsite, which resembled the moon, a prelude to the landscape of lava rocks ahead. Martha felt great until she lay down. Throughout the night she became more nauseated and Mtui was sure it was altitude. It seemed impossible, because her breathing was fine and her body felt strong. We both had had no altitude problems, but found it difficult to sleep. We thought it was probably because of the noisy colobus and blue (sykes) monkeys scampering around the tent. This night, however, was different, and by morning it was obvious that Martha needed to descend.

 

We were both devastated, but had agreed, beforehand, that if one of us had to go down, the other would continue. After eating breakfast under the shadow of Kili in the early morning sun, accompanied by tiny, mischievous birds who stole every crumb they could find, I continued up the mountain, but with a heavy heart.

 

On day four the rain finally came, but it was gentle and rather relaxing. Fog hung over the mountain, matching my gloom at having to continue alone.

There were exotic formations formed by huge boulders on the crest of each hill, and sharp black rocks dotting the landscape, a reminder of the great eruption 1700 years before. I liked the trail, because it became steeper and had sections of large rocks reminiscent of Mt. Washington.

 

 

After nine hours we arrived at Lava Towers and in front of me was a clear picture of the steep trail leading to the summit, winding around the glaciers. Only two more days. I could hardly wait!

 

Just before supper I leaned over to fix my sleeping bag, and a huge orange triangle appeared in my left eye. I closed it. I opened it. The triangle remained. Then I remembered medicine for a thickened cornea that I was supposed to have been using that day. In my upset about Martha I had forgotten. As soon as I put it in my eye the triangle went away. But the eye felt heavy and definitely not normal.

 

Mtui came to my tent, looking very glum. “I need to talk with you, Meg. Seriously. I’ve been noticing your eyes all day. They don’t look right.”

 

Now I was really freaking! He had come to the same conclusion independently. But I, in my panic, had told him that I had a retina problem, not a simple corneal anomaly. So Mtui, in his attempt to calm me, told me a couple of horror stories about people who had caused permanent damage to their eyes by the pressure of high altitude. It had nothing to do with stamina or breathing. That was enough! I now know, in retrospect, that if Martha and I had taken diamox for altitude this wouldn’t have happened. This was hubris on my part, since I never liked the way the medicine made me feel and felt that I had done enough high altitude climbing to know my body. No time to look back or assign blame. My desire to reach the top could not compare to my fear of jeopardizing my sight. It was decided.

 

The next morning, still feeling fine, but worried about my eye, I wandered around the campsite, enjoying the bright sun that obliterated Kili’s summit by 9 A.M., and taking photos of the immense rock that gave Lava Tower its name. I had been listening for four days to the singing of the porters, so I gathered them together and took a video of all of them and Mtui lined up in front of the tower, singing “Kilimanjaro” and dancing. The harmony was vintage Africa and the dancing loose and rhythmical. It’s my favorite video of the trip and I’ll let you know when I put it on YouTube.

 

We started down. The small rivers flowing from the glaciers had frozen solid overnight and there was frost on the high desert. All I could think of as I raced down a trail that took me nine hours to climb and only three hours to descend, was the story of one of my heroes, Greg Mortensen (Three Cups of Tea), who didn’t make it to the top of K-2, but, instead, ended up living in a village in Pakistan and getting to know the people, which resulted in the building of a dozen schools for young girls. In a word, he changed the lives of hundreds, and, ultimately, thousands of people by that little twist of fate. And as Martha and I were pondering our “failure,” it soon became evident that by missing our intended goal we had given ourselves four days of the most wonderful experiences in Arusha, which we would never have had if we’d spent those days on the mountain. Our egos were a little bruised, because it seemed like such an easy climb compared to the rugged terrain of New Hampshire’s White Mountains or the Rockies, but the time we spent together was a far deeper and a more meaningful “summit” experience—getting to know people doing positive outreach projects, which make a difference in the lives of those living in and around Arusha.

 

Elizabeth Hudgins, who co-owns Nature’s Gift Safaris, introduced us to ex-pats from many countries working in Africa. Dr. Sheila Devanne, a lively and dedicated Irish nun, directs the Arusha Mental Health Trust and counseling center. To use her words, “We were founded with the assistance of The Medical Missionaries of Mary, and are supported by “the widow’s mite.” Their website is: www.mmmworldwide.org. Trauma is a huge problem in Africa, whether mental or psychological, but it is not as popular a charity as AIDS, so this understaffed and struggling hospital needs all the help it can get. We were fortunate to attend the dedication of a new hospital, the Arusha Lutheran Medical Centre, built for $10 million, which was raised by Doctor Mark Jacobsen, the hospital director, who has lived and worked in Arusha for over twenty years. Not only doctors and architects, but also artisans, facilitators, and fund raisers and their wives were honored in an outpouring of gratitude from the community.

 

We had a chance to talk with people from around the world who were responsible for starting schools (such as the one Greg Mortensen’s mother started in Moshe), and are now teaching alongside their Africa colleagues in such places as the MaaSae  Girls Lutheran Secondary School in Monduli/Arusha (there are many different spellings for the word Maasai). We visited this school and were escorted around by an American couple, Jean Wahlstrom and Marvin Kananen, whom we had met at the hospital dedication. They live in one of three small round faculty houses and teach at the school for young Masaii girls, many of whom were taken from their families to keep them from being married at 12. These are two people who really care for the girls and are giving them a future they could never have had otherwise. This school, with its modest coffee plantation and beautiful buildings, is supported by the Minnesota-based charity, Operation Bootstrap Africa.

 

Of all the places we visited, the one that touched us the most was the Tamiha Orphanage started by Crispin Mugarula, himself an orphan, who was able to get an education, become a teacher, and start his own care center. There are about thirty children, eight of whom have AIDS. These eight stay at the school all night. Crispen has found homes for the others during the evening, since he realizes their need for a family setting, but he makes sure that they are fed three meals and given a healthy supplement (ugi, made of millet, corn, and water) during the day. I have never seen such bright, eager children. And the eldest was four! They sang for us, and recited  the alphabet, and numbers. There were swings, a small garden for fresh vegetables, and a shed with animals for the children. A teacher and two assistants (university students from the U.S.) taught at the center. Crispin plans to start a primary school so the little ones, who have come so far already, can continue their education and won’t have to go to state schools. This is a dream that is very real. Please write to me if you want any more information. I urge you to visit the website at www.tamiha.org

 

Kenya and Tanzania have over 100 tribes and there are numerous clans within each tribe. For example, both David and Clemence are part of the Mtui clan within the Chagga tribe. They speak their own special language, plus Swahili, the national language, plus English. And most of us have trouble with one! But a great many people we met do not want to be mistaken for Masaai. There are several groups that have broken away over disputes and they always preface their remarks to us with, “I’m not a Maasai, you understand.” I think it’s because of the tribe’s lack of interest in education, the treatment of women, and the poor standards of hygiene and health that have led to these criticisms. But these are generalizations and we did meet two very enjoyable watchmen at the Everest Inn in Arusha, with whom we had very informative chats. One, Sai Toi Ti, showed us techniques for killing lions (something neither of us expect to use!), which include the deft use of large knives and some clever dancing to distract the animals. This was hilarious and is among our best videos.

 

No trip to Arusha is complete without a visit to the local Meru Market, where craftsmen from the area sell Masaii beaded handcrafts and carvings made of ebony and rosewood. This we did the day before leaving for our safari, which began at the Tarangire National Park. It will be difficult, but I’ll try to compress these five glorious days of game rides and just hit the high points. In my book I described the three safaris from my first backpacking trip, but these were quite different. They were luxurious! We still camped close to the animals, but the lodges were exquisite and the food four star. Our first day was filled with elephants of every size. It was fascinating to see the family groups, the wandering bowsers (or bachelors) and the big bull elephant who ruled the clan.

 

Just after we arrived at our thatched cabin, Martha came strolling onto the path with a banana. All of a sudden a velvet faced monkey came hurtling toward her. You never saw anyone drop a banana so fast! We were surrounded by the creatures and had to run for cover. Monkeys in Africa are cheeky. And baboons are the worse.

 

I think I took photos of every kind of tree in Africa—the jacaranda, acacia, sausage, candelabra, fig, wattle, and thorn, to name a few that were pointed out by our very knowledgeable guide, Agnol Malunda. But the baobab, with its many inhabitants, was the most outstanding, and says Africa to me.

 

The next two days we drove around the famous Ngorongoro Crater, which was formed when a giant volcano exploded and collapsed on itself three million years ago. The original volcano was as tall as Kilimanjaro, but the crater is now 2,000 ft. deep and its floor covers 102 sq. miles. The crater is host to 25,000 large animals, the highest density of mammalian predators in the world, and almost every individual species of wildlife in East Africa, including wildebeest, zebra, eland, and Grant and Thomson’s gazelles. It also boasts the densest known population of lions (though we had to search for them), leopards, waterbuck, cape buffalo, mountain reedbuck, African wild dogs, and dik-diks, which look like very tiny deer. We saw no black rhinos or leopards, but lots of zebras and wildebeests that make up the vast migrations in the rainy season.

 

I had lots of fun photographing ostrich families fleeing across the plain, wart hogs sitting in water holes, birds whose names I can’t pronounce, but look like varieties of brightly-colored storks, and hyenas, who like to dig a hole and sit in it for hours, peering out with dog-like faces. I plan to put some of these pictures up on facebook.

 

A fascinating stopover was the Olduvai Gorge (or Oldupai), a steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley, which stretches along eastern Africa and through the crater. It’s one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world, considered the seat of humanity after the discovery of the earliest known specimens of the human genus, Homo habilis. We were lectured on the excavation work pioneered by Mary and Louis Leakey in the 1950’s, which furthered the understanding of early human evolution and is continued today by their family.

 

Every lodge where we stayed seemed grander than the one before. There was the Tarangire Safari Lodge, the Bougainvillia Lodge in Karatu, the Ndutu Safari Lodge on the edge of the Serengeti, and the most luxurious of all, The Ngorongoro Farm House, where a steaming washrag was given, upon arrival, to each dusty traveler. This was a far cry from my simple tent in southwestern Kenya’s Masai Mara in bygone days. No matter how grand these places were, however, you needed a guard to take you to your abode, since the animals were roaming not too far away. It freaked Martha out, but I found it exhilarating.

 

A word about the amazing Serengeti Game Park, famous for the thundering migrations of thousands of wildebeests during the rainy season. Just imagine animals running single file for hours across the plain, stopping now and then for water before continuing their journey. You wonder where all these animals come from and how they can flee so blindly that, when crossing a deep river, they drown their own by running over them. They are not known for their intelligence. Then add to this the tiniest of creatures, a Fischer’s Love Bird, clinging to a weaver bird’s nest or swarming around our cabin—an adorable creature the size of a hummingbird with iridescent coloring that would put a parrot to shame. Finally, picture dozens of slimy hippopotamus lolling in water that stinks beyond description, lifting their heavy bulk on stubby legs only to plunk back into the water with a grunt and a giant splash. Our videos are superb. Thank heaven they don’t record smell!

 

But the episode which delighted us on an early morning game ride was the spotting of a female cheetah and her three cubs. Our vigilant guide saw animals scattering, and sped across the plain to find what turned out to be this noble animal. We watched as she groomed her offspring, “instructed” them to stay by an acacia tree, and went forward in search of “breakfast.”

 

At the end of our safari we visited elephant caves and a majestic waterfall near Karatu on the edge of the Serengeti. This walk in the forest turned out to be anything but benign. Our guide, Gabriel Mao, was a doctor of traditional medicine, and proceeded to stop at every herb and plant, pointing out its uses for various diseases. We finally reached the caves, which had been created by elephants digging up the earth to ingest the vitamin-rich soil. The stream flowing at the bottom of the caves was also full of salty minerals and attracted other animals, like cape buffalo, waterbuck, and baboons. On our return, Gabriel noted fresh scat from the buffalos and elephants and suggested that we speed up, since it was getting late and the animals would return. Martha raced ahead and stopped short of the rear end of three huge elephants strolling down the path. We turned quickly and Gabriel calmly took our hands, leading us off the path, down an embankment, and deep into the woods. He then lit a cigarette, waved it so the smoke would rise, and started making loud elephant sounds that could curdle your brains. He walked back up to the trail, holding up his finger to check the wind and make sure our smell was reaching the animals. Soon he signaled for us to follow. You can imagine how fast we made it down, especially when faced with the possibility of meeting the world’s meanest animal, the cape buffalo. They are vegetarians, but will stalk and kill a human just for the sport. Not today, thank you.

 

Our final adventure was very special and very disturbing. It lingers with us still. We decided to add another day while Agnol was with us, and visit the Hadzabe tribe which lives south of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This entailed traveling over roads that were scarcely more than stream beds and far from any town. The people are the last remaining ancestors of the original hunter-gatherer tribes who first inhabited Tanzania, and their lifestyle has barely changed for millennia. It is said that they live as man did during the stone age.

 

If you read about the Hadzabe on line you will find reports pleading to leave these people alone and let them have their privacy. Efforts of the Tanzanian government to give them schools, medicine, and a window into the modern world failed in the 1970’s. But what we experienced that day made us wonder about all those reports.

 

When we arrived the older men had already gone hunting, so we were left with five young boys and one man. We had a second guide, from the Datonga tribe, who spoke the special language of the Hadzabe, similar in its click sounds to the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert of South Africa. We all followed behind at a fast clip as the boys, skilled hunters, darted and moved stealthily among the trees. They were dressed in scanty skins or old cut-off jeans and were light-skinned and slight. Their only weapon was a homemade bow and arrow, but they all had large knives stashed in their belts. A few of the arrows were poisonous, for use on baboons (the favorite meat) or larger animals.

 

For three-and-a-half hours we trailed these hunters. In that time the boys killed a squirrel, a large mouse, and a bird (they put an arrow through the nest). There were stops to climb a tree laden with sweet orange-red berries, which I tried, and to discover special roots and plants, which I didn’t try. After the boys made a kill they would smack the wriggling creature’s head on a branch or rock and secure it by the neck on their belt. When they decided to build a fire and eat their prey, they did it by fashioning a long stick and rotating it fast between their palms to produce smoke. While the fire was smoldering they put it in a small hole in dry dung and placed grasses on top. Over the fire they put the three animals, after taking most of the feathers off the bird. One boy rolled the small bodies in the dirt and removed excess charcoal before eating. Then he carefully ate the mouse tail as if it were a succulent piece of filet. And everyone shared in turn. Even the two dogs got the entrails.

 

On the way back Martha followed the older man and videotaped him stalking and killing a very large lizard buzzard. He shot his arrow through both wings and immobilized it. What a feast that will be!

 

When we returned, the men had come back from an unsuccessful hunt. They greeted us warmly, but did not have the enthusiasm, spirit, or alertness of the young boys. One boy was playing a native instrument fashioned from a gourd, while the men just sat and stared. Two toddlers, the only small children in the group, were standing shyly, their swollen bellies a sign of malnutrition. Agnol took out his large book of birds to find the name of the buzzard, and the boys gathered around, eagerly, as if they had never seen a book before.

 

The women had come back from foraging for roots, plants, and fruit. The males, of course, do the hunting and honey-gathering. They live in primitive round-tos made of woven grasses and sisal reeds covered with pieces of old cloth and animal skins. The women sat huddled together. They had no water, so we handed them two large bottles. With patience and gratitude they passed the bottles around, giving everyone a chance to drink. We asked our guide about the water and he said that this is a nomadic tribe that follows the animals, not the water. You wonder about disease and whether they ever get a chance to bathe. A Westerner has trouble seeing what looks to him or her like massive deprivation. The Hadzabe have no schools, do not know the ages of their children, and do not read or write, but they do know their natural surroundings well. I could only wonder what their future would be like.

 

There were only thirty in this particular group out of 25,000 remaining Hadzabe in Tanzania. Their livelihood is threatened by commercial plantations and encroaching farms, which create barriers along the seasonal migration routes of the animals upon which they depend for hunting. And tourists are also having an impact, with the introduction of marijuana and alcohol. We were very aware of this and careful not to give them anything except the water. But I also felt a sadness as we left. There is much food for thought in our experience with the Hadzabe.

 

Our final stop was at the Barabites, or the Datonga tribe. This is a group that broke away from the Maasai. We spent some time watching them melt down metals and old locks to fashion jewelry for the tourist trade. It was rather beautiful, with intricate designs etched on each piece.

Help me plan my trip

We learned a lot in our time in Africa. People were friendly, whether we were dining, climbing, or just walking on the street, exploring Arusha. I am also convinced that I am jinxed with British Air. This is the second time my bags have been lost in Heathrow. It took us four days to find them and they arrived just before we were to start our climb. I finally submitted a claim. It took me hours to unscramble the exchange rates and receipts. Martha convinced me not to charge for pain and suffering. She said it would be bad Karma. Oh well.

 

And as I discovered on my first world trip twenty-two years ago, I’ve never seen clouds as beautiful as in Africa…or sky so blue.

 

I have alluded to the organization who planned and carried out our trip,  Nature’s Gift Safaris, and its co-owners, Elizabeth Hudgin and David Mtui. www.naturesgiftsafaris.com This trip began as a family excursion with ten members, but, because of time constraints and money considerations, became a journey for Martha and me—a mother/daughter exploration. Even with our dwindling numbers, Elizabeth and David gave us top notch service and we enjoyed a full trek and safari at an incredibly reasonable price. It never felt like a tour. We were one-on-one with our guides, and we knew that no porter or cook climbing with us on the mountain was being exploited, as so often happens with large commercial outfits. When our climb was shortened, Elizabeth took us in tow and gave us a cultural experience in and around Arusha that was invaluable. David shared his expertise of the Chagga villages and the original thatched huts occupied by his generation of Chaggas. We wandered through the banana plantations and small farms, having tea with his relatives and learning about tribal and clan practices. What a raconteur David is! We felt as if we had found a family as well. And we became acquainted with the Tanzanian countryside in an intimate way…its waterfalls and dense forests; its farmers and trades people. Thank you, David and Elizabeth.

 

Just before we left for our belated flight home we met a Kenyan representative of British Air who, like so many, wanted to talk about Obama. He was ecstatic when he heard that we had worked on his campaign, and even managed to get us an upgrade to business class because of the rough time we’d had with our baggage. He gave us quite a description of the Luo Tribe of which Obama is one of the clans. He said that they were among the most intelligent, articulate Kenyans, were great orators, and if you ever met one, you’d better not let him open his mouth or he’d beat you every time in an argument. Then he said that for years the Luo have been trying to get the best of the Kikuyu tribe, whose most famous leader was Jomo Kenyatta, but they could never beat them and win the presidency. “But,” he said, “You Americans managed to do it!”

 

If we were to distill the essence and spirit of our trip, aside from the humanitarian activities we observed and the fine people we met, our mantra would be: Hakuna matata (no worries) and pole pole (slowly). We give you these important lessons to examine in the face of stressful life in these United States.

 

It wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t give an update on NY theater for visiting firemen…and women. This addiction will continue through 2009 and I have decided not to fight it. If I want to write another play I need to see as many as I can. How’s that for rationalization? Highlights of the year so far are Mamet’s Speed the Plow with the excellent Norbert Leo Butz and Raul Esparza in a tour de force of ensemble acting. And nobody beats John Lithgow who was outstanding in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. I was lucky to see it just before it closed. A newcomer, in previews, with the incomparable Mercedes Ruehl and Lily Rabe is Richard Greenberg’s American Plan.  More on the cultural front after I defrost. It’s cold in New Jersey. But I’ll stick it out…no trips planned for awhile.

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3 Comments

  1. Great post on your experience, especially the details about your Hadzabe visit. Don’t be disappointed about the kili climb. AMS is common and could strike anyone.

  2. Yana

    So Meg…this is great but what about those “singing porters” I’ve heard so much about?
    Love,
    ~Yana

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