September 11, 2011

Towards the summit of Kilimanjaro

Epilogue – Last words about Tanzania

Thomas Kieller

Photos 1 and 3 – Copyright United Athletes Magazine

Thomas Kieller: A break on Kilimanjaro.

You may prepare yourself well for a first time in Africa, but I can tell you that the culture, the lifestyle, the sceneries and the weather which are there can change pretty quickly your vision of things. The moment I disembarked from the plane in Tanzania, I knew right away that I was in unknown territories. Around 9 P.M. and in the obscurity of a hot night of September, I arrived at Kilimanjaro airport where the infrastructures are, if I may say, at a minimum. First shock! Besides, I noticed a bit of anxiety on the faces of the people who got off the plane and who were walking on the landing runway in the direction of the air terminals. They had a perplexed look.

After answering two or three brief questions from the customs officer, I looked at the crowd which was gathered at the exit in order to find the driver who was going to take me to the hotel. Yes, in this commotion, I wanted a little bit of stability. Ah ah ah! It is Audifus Lemunge who welcomed me with a beaming smile and who drove me in a Land Rover to Arusha while passing through a bumpy road. With the window half-open, I smelled the air of the country while seeing the dust flying off the road. It was my first impression... I knew now that my sojourn of one month in Tanzania took a promising way.

There are more than 120 ethnic groups in this country with their unique way of life and values. Besides, Arusha is an exemplary city to discover the Tanzanian culture because here you find people from every tribe. You can see this by walking downtown. It’s quite destabilizing. One must not be surprised to see some Maasai people with their striking red clothes stroll with a joyous look in the market area and to offer you tobacco. The purpose is not to smoke it, but to inhale it by the nasal cavities. A little bit strange you may say, but there is more than this. The sandy roads are jam-packed with people and stands where you can find many products. Concerning the comings and goings of cars and motorcycles, the drivers must be particularly vigilant at the intersections of the public roads by exchanging signs, because there are only two traffic lights in this city of 1.3 million inhabitants. The lifestyle is obviously different from home. The cultural shock is there and yes this makes the beauty of the trip.

The traditional dance of the Maasai warriors.

Besides, the life in the big Tanzanian cities is exhilarating as in Arusha, Moshi, Dar es Salaam or Stone Town (to name only these). They are the cities that I visited and they all have their specificities. Certainly, Dar es Salaam with 2.5 million inhabitants is a little bit intimidating for the traveller compared to the other ones. Surely, I misunderstood it, because I did not have a guide to lead me in it and to let me discover its interesting places. However, I can say that there was a lot of life and mass movement there.

By its organisational structure and the ways of doing things in Tanzania, one can see that it’s a young country. The citizens and the leaders obtained independence of the country in the 60’s. However, one can see regularly the difficulties that the people are confronted with. Unfortunately, poverty is lived on a daily basis. In spite of the numerous problems, the Tanzanian people are united, happy and welcoming and this shows their courage.

On numerous occasions, I saw Tanzanians work hard to bring food to the table! One of my most significant experiences occurred on the footsteps of Kilimanjaro at the Simba farm where I saw men and women work in the fields under a blazing sun. Everywhere in the country, they try to find opportunities to make a living. The economy of the country is largely based on agriculture. Indeed, there are other areas of activities typical to developing countries like mineral and natural gas industries... Evidently, the arid climate has an impact on the economy and on the lifestyle. Everybody tries to find his way and for some this means simply to survive!

Tourism gives a good hand to the local economy and is still in progression. One of the great wealth of Tanzania is its diverse landscapes. One can pass from the savannahs to mountainous regions as with Kilimanjaro. Far to the east, the Indian Ocean brings another decor. The island of Zanzibar and the Arabic and Persian heritage that we can find there with its architecture and all the spices present the other side to the country. Of course, it is also important to mention the numerous national parks where it is possible to do unforgettable safaris.

Indeed, the safaris allow the travelers to see incredible sceneries and the wildlife which lives in difficult and hot conditions. The parks have all their different features. You can find huge baobabs, groups of elephants and lions which make the signature of the National Park of Tarangire. There are a lot of beautiful landscapes in the National Park of Arusha with a great number of giraffes. In the splendid site of Ngorongoro with its prehistoric character, 25,000 large animals live there. Amongst other animals, there are hordes of buffalo, wildebeests, zebras, Thomson’s gazelles and hippopotamus. Diverse big cats and predators complete the decor. However, I did not have the pleasure to see the vastness of the Serengeti plains and the mass migration of animals. Sadly, one cannot see everything in a visit of four weeks. The reputation of Serengeti and Ngorongoro is well-established. The landscapes are breathtaking. I highly recommend the Ngorongoro crater. I was astounded when I arrived at its rim. The descent is superb and thrilling...

The huge baobabs of the National Park of Tarangire.

One of my highlights in Tanzania was my long walk in the countryside as well as my ascent of Kilimanjaro. A 125 km adventure which pleased me a lot, because I had the opportunity to challenge myself physically in a context which is quite different from my home and at the same time I could observe the Tanzanian life along the road. A tiring experience, but which was exciting at the most.

During the first 60 km, I saw the tropical vegetation with banana and coffee plantations, but afterwards I also saw the pretty arid countryside. Those red-orange fields are evidence that dryness rage in September. I should say that among everything I lived in Tanzania it is the arid sceneries which touched me the most. To live in those conditions it’s not easy at all. Nevertheless, there are people who are doing their best. Along the road, I stopped at the village called Engare Nairobi where the reddish shacks and the dust blown by the wind seem taken from a typical scene of a spaghetti western. I entered a bar in order to relax and to cool down after all the kilometres walked in the hot sun. However, the server brought me a room temperature drink because in this place they don’t have refrigeration appliances. This simple example is a reflection of their life. I will always remember this village, the heat, the arid climate and the sand that I got in my face along the Sanya Juu Road.

The arid climate of Tanzania.

Afterwards, I did the ascent of Kilimanjaro by passing through a dense forest, the Shira Plateau, the alpine desert, the Western Breach and the volcano crater in order to reach the final objective. The arrival at the summit marked work well done and the sensation of freedom is incredible when I looked down the mountain. Moreover, the journey of more than seven days with the team was quite pleasant. There is a spark of magic when you exchange stories under some shiny stars. This long walk allowed me to surpass myself and I will keep, at the same time, good memories.

In brief, during my visit in Tanzania, I saw rapidly the difference between their lifestyle and mine. I will say it again, it was a cultural shock. For me, it took some time to understand it. This difference strikes hard and it brings at the same time a questioning of what life is under hard conditions. I’m glad that I could live this experience in the heart of Africa. This adventure in Tanzania touched me. Africa has called me once and I am quite sure that I will go back to understand a little bit more the life of the people who live there. Now, I will take the time to rest a bit before traveling towards new places...

Special thanks

Thanks to Alona Bondarenko, François Legrand, Simon Mtuy, Henri Richard, Carlos Sastre and Steve Young for their participation during the interviews. Thanks to Julie Veillette and Onesmo Gabriel for their friendship and their invaluable information while giving me a good view of the Tanzanian culture. Thanks to the guides Sylvester Henry Geay and Saning’o Kimani as well as to the driver Audifus Lemunge for the excellent 60 km walk in the countryside; it was pleasant and colourful! Thanks to the guide Simon Mtuy and the assistant-guide Jacksoni Ezekieli Mtui for their useful advices and for their help well appreciated on Kilimanjaro. Thanks to Fidelis Mfumia who showed me the Maasai village named Laiboni and for the three safaris in the foolproof Land Rover; it was always pleasant and enjoyable. Thanks to Tim Leinbach for his collaboration in order to plan well the adventure on the mountain. Thanks to Wim van Leara who showed me the great Simba Farm while describing me in a colorful manner the lifestyle in this country. All these persons contributed to this story by sharing their own life experience and about Tanzania. For all those nice moments, I wish to thank them sincerely.