KILIMANJARO – MILLENIUM CLIMB

Extracts from an article in The Times by Matthew Parris presented here with his permission.

Toilet paper festooned the poles supporting the makeshift canopy, in a gay new year display. Winding the rough, pink Tanzanian tissue neatly round and up the wood produces an effect of orderly merriment, like a barber’s pole. The ceremony for which these preparations had been made was our send-off on a millennial climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. We were at the Machame gate to the national park, on the edge of the forest at the mountain’s foot.

We nine were among the 800 expected on Africa’s highest mountain for the turn of the century. Our guardians, the Kilimanjaro National Park, would see us gathered at the gates to leave, and again when we returned a week later in a new century. In between, we would be throwing ourselves upon the mercy of the forests, tundra and snows.

We knew about the send-off party when we heard the drums. Labouring up the slope towards the gate in the Marangu Hotel’s Land Rover, followed (in a bus named the Mwika Express) by an embarrassingly large contingent of guides, porters, tents, equipment and food expertly organised by the hotel, we were overtaken by a fleet of top-of-the-range Toyota Land Cruisers containing men in suits, and police in uniform. The ladies wore expensive sarongs.

In the Congo they call them the waBenzi but here in rural Tanzania a new Toyota Land Cruiser is the more reliable indicator of membership of Africa’s ruling elite. The waToyota consisted of the Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, a Permanent Secretary, the Regional Commissioner, the District Commissioner and the chairman and trustees of the Board of the Kilimanjaro National Park. Reader, before you mock, remember the plumes and the memsahibs, and ask where these habits were learnt. True, for a fraction of the cost of the official procession, which had lurched here and there at the walking pace dictated by an atrocity of a road, that road could have been repaired.

But we were greeted with a warmth which no colonial administrators’ party would have extended. The lavatories, on the other hand, were incomparably worse. The ceremony was Africa in vignette. It was hours late. Half the climbers were too. But somehow everyone eventually turned up and caught the spirit of the occasion. This too is Africa.

Proceedings had been further delayed by the most appalling traffic snarl-up. You might think that in the East African plains, where there are few cars and much space, a traffic jam would be improbable. But the park authorities had managed to produce, with fewer than 20 vehicles, a jam of spectacularly neurotic quality. Manhattan could not match it. Everything happened -as everything around Kilimanjaro must -on a 30-degree slope. Nobody could turn round. The waToyota were trying to arrive, the climbers to depart, porters’ lorries to advance, escort vehicles to withdraw, and everyone else to park. There was nowhere to park. Vehicles trying to execute three-point turns -into the mud bank became stuck; and all this was serenely observed by the platform party slowly assembling beneath its special canopy. A ring of brightly robed African women danced around a man thumping a skin drum, a group of Maasai dancers leapt rhythmically as though from a trampoline, and Toyotas revved and hooted, wheels spinning in the mud.

Somehow the vehicles sorted themselves out. The last arrival contained a television crew. A loudspeaker system had been rigged up. Ladies in sarongs watched imperiously from the podium. There is something about an African woman of consequence, something about her bearing, the way she moves, that declares she’s of account. How do they do this? English women have to announce their importance by their hat.

“Distinguished guests, honoured tourists and climbers,” began a dignified looking gentleman, “may I say good afternoon?” He paused, then introduced the podium party. “And now” he continued, “for the chairman of the board of trustees: me.”

“You will notice” he went on, “that eminent colleagues have each brought a spouse. I have not. This is because I have a number of wives. In the spirit of Tanzanian democracy I asked them to decide among themselves, by voting, which should accompany me today. By the time I departed they had still reached no decision.” He looked a nice man, but we climbers were restless. If we left it much longer we might not make it up through the rainforest to the campsite above, before dark. “A little light music, please,” called the compere.

The regional commissioner spoke next, in Swahili. “A professor,” whispered my guide in tones of respect. We checked our watches. But the main event was still to come: A speech from the Vice-President of Tanzania, read by the Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism. Mrs Zakhia Meghij, a Zanzibari, was an imposing woman. The wife (I think) of the Permanent Secretary was European. Feelings of ethnic hostility are less marked in Tanzania than in much of Africa. The late Julius Nyerere may have almost wrecked his country’s economy with his dreams of village socialism, but no man in Africa ever did more to inspire a sense of co-operation in disregard of race or tribe. Tanzania is a good country and getting better.

The Vice-President’s speech was witty and well crafted. It mentioned the millennium bug. “Tanzania has worked hard to minimise this problem, and there is no worry for you climbers. Even our support services are free of computerisation.” We laughed at the joke but we were champing at the bit. And at last we were dispatched to the mercies of the mountain: “By a miracle of the Almighty, snow at the Equator,” said Mrs Meghij.

Balloons over the podium bounced and the toilet paper rustled in the afternoon breeze. Mrs Meghij shook many hands, including that of my niece, Christina, astonished that she was only 11. Christina became briefly a media sensation as local journalists dived to interview her. “I wish you all the best in the next century,” cried Mrs Meghij as we surged up the hill into the jungle. In the best political tradition, she accompanied us for the first hundred yards, wisely halting when the mud got deeper, and waving us cheerily onward.

“Every success,” she called again. The African women ululated, a feature sadly missing from official occasions in Britain. We disappeared into the undergrowth, observed by monkeys. Ululations died behind us as we were hit by the most monumental downpour.

Seven weary, happy days later we returned from the summit snows, Christina victorious, covered in mud. We slithered down through a sunnier rainforest through a different gate, Mweka, observed by different monkeys. Different women were ululating, a different drummer drummed, and there was even beer and t-shirts provided and a portable satellite telephone operated by batteries. The energy that had gone into our welcome was touching.

Sadly, the same energy had not been put into the organisation of our climbers’ exit register. The system was in complete chaos. The numbers had overwhelmed the single officer with an old exercise book, a ballpoint pen, and a pile of certificates. Nobody seemed to have anticipated this. Nobody had the nous to react to it and improvise.

After two hours we gave up. One alternates between hope and despair in Africa; sometimes before lunch.

It was another couple of miles walk down to our waiting vehicles. Some 20 lorries, Land Rovers, Toyotas and minibuses had parked along the rutted dirt road. But nobody was going anywhere. The blue lorry blocking the road at the head of the queue was driverless. Rage mounted among the rest. The driver of a minibus behind stormed off up the hill, accompanied by furious passengers, to seek out the truant driver. We sat.

A distant roar came from up the hill. The driver had been found and was being chased back. Down he sprinted, running for dear life, pursued by an angry crowd. As he passed, all the Africans waiting in the road yelled and kicked at him. He looked absolutely terrified. Had he stumbled, he might have been lynched or kicked to death by the mob. He really might, such was the mood; a flash-fury, frighteningly violent.

The violence passed. The driver made it to his cab and now another traffic drama, with much hooting, hysterical shunting and one collision, as vehicles tried to manoeuvre past each other to get away first.

And we were off -our open lorry bucking and rearing down the dreadful track, the wind in our faces. Behind, a struggle for precedence between a Toyota, a minibus and two Land Rovers, teetered on the edge of catastrophe. But the fragrant gardens and friendly staff of the Marangu Hotel -Tanzania’s welcoming face -beckoned.

It was Sunday. We passed a packed Lutheran church, doors open, the congregation all singing. Back at Marangu, the Minister had sent a medal for Christina.

Oh, Africa.

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