It starts with buffaloes; dark, squat and with endless stares. We walk through the herd. The guard insists that they do not attack as a group but one should be wary of a lone buffalo for they are prone to charging. In that instance one must lie down and not flee. You cannot outrun a buffalo, he insists. He then quotes some statistic indicating that the highest cases of animal attacks on humans are from buffaloes. Our steps turn light.
We are a group of twenty. We call ourselves the Endurance Club. We all mock the deceiving ease of climbing Mount Meru, having done Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro before. We walk away from the open field and hurry up a small incline that is slightly forested and full of mysterious herbs that the guide knows by name. He indicates their usage. The plants have loyal patrons, ranging from humans, baboons, to as far as giraffes.
‘Are there giraffes here?’ I ask.
‘Yes’, he replies firmly and points tiny pieces of dung on the path, telling us it belongs to a giraffe.
Giraffes squeeze out all nutrients from food they eat, so the feces are tiny and dry, resembling goat droppings. We keep on, going through a series of grassy terraces and forested inclines and finally encounter a river. The river flows silently, no sharper sound to it than what would be expected of the slight swishing of a horse’s tail. Spanish moss, a luxuriant green, has crept over boulders and trees surrounding the forest, turning the scene ethereal. I stare at a rotting piece of log, laden with lichen mushrooms and draped in green moss. I feel it staring back at me, communicating to me.
‘You should always be careful of this places’, says the guard. ‘There are pythons here, even the reticulated python; though they don’t grow as large here as compared to Southern Africa. Twelve feet at the most!’
‘Do they eat people?’ I ask, expecting a no.
I am surprised by a quick yes. About three of four porters have died of python attacks in this place. The pythons normally do not attack but woes betide you if you pass under a tree when one is ready to hunt. The snake will drop down its tail and insert its sharp end through the soft spots of your stomach. It will then twist itself around you till your ribs crack and hold firm till you die. Only then, will the snake start to swallow.
I am happy that this story does not replay in my mind as I walk along. The trajectory turns steeper and our stories and laughter die. It becomes harder to stare at the environment and I end up watching my steps, mindful to stay on track and not to deviate into the bush. There are beautiful flowers here; the landscape is lush with yellows and blues and orange. I make a mental wish that this was my home. As I weave through a forest of giant fern plants and elephant grass, insects flit about in mating games, filling the air with a pinging sound. As I start to wonder when we shall arrive at the first camp, I see a wooden backyard stand peep above the foliage. I am relieved. We have reached Miriakamba camp.
Miriakamba has beer, soda, showers and twin-bedrooms with solar lighting. This is heaven compared to the other camps on other mountains. It is a relief to put aside my mountain boots. After taking pictures about, we convene at the dining hall for tea and popcorns, and shortly after, take the evening meal. Zucchini soup has never tasted so good. It gets darker and colder and night sounds emerge. In the distance, a hyena giggles and the sound mixes with the scurry and scramble of porters going about their duties. We sit in the fading light, sharing anecdotes and regaling in old jokes. Afterwards we fade into our rooms and enter our sleeping bags fully-clothed. I dream about buffaloes.
The next day we assemble, pray briefly, then trek. We go through a fern glade and past that to a series of wooden stairs that unfurl like ribbons. The stairs wind through a tight meshwork of parasitic and fig trees; up and up, till they are swallowed by a forest. The forest is surreal, forever shrouded with mist. Secret lives lurk in this mist. I see bongos and duikers, elegant and beautiful, running in the darkness. Water drips from the trees, a soft sound. Dead trees stand twisted like grotesque masks. It is an untouched world and we would not have been more awestruck if we saw angels or fairies playing hide and seek in the foliage. Finally, we stop and rest at a spot called Mgongo Wa Tembo. Here we see the jagged, terrifying aspects of the mountain and begin to respect it.
From the forest, we enter a scrubland. The soil here is soft and dry, staining our clothes. It is harder walking here because the path is steep and has sharp corners. I walk firmly and briskly, using a lot of energy but determined to reach Saddle Hut so that I can rest. I reach saddle hut four hours later. Saddle Hut is a desert. Unwary crows walk between heaps of buffalo skulls that still carry horns. There are fewer services here; no showers and no lighting. But there is a clear view of Mount Meru; the way it crinkles up like a pile of dark-grey paper, twisting to a small cone at the top where clouds weave in and out in a bizarre game.
Our guide advises us not to rest but to go ahead and climb Little Meru. This is a small hill behind saddle hut. It is an easy climb and we laugh that is shall be easy too, to climb Mount Meru; a statement we shall later swallow.
Back at saddle hut we take our evening meal and go back to our rooms for a nap. At midnight, we are woken up. We take tea as we are advised about the climb to the summit. I hardly listen for I am absolutely excited. I only become present much later as we climb, when our guide begins singing Tanzanian patriotic songs praising Nyerere. I look up the sky and find that the stars are not shimmering, but are actually staring. I feel them beckoning; as if we could walk up to them and leave the earth behind. After a while it is just us and the mountain; no plant, no bird, no other people apart from us.
We clamber up giant, earth mounds in the shape of sand dunes; our guide insists that we stick to the centre so as to not roll over the sides to certain death. After an eternity, we rest at Rhino Point, named so for the rhinoceros bones found there. I wonder what cursed luck forced that poor rhinoceros to come up here and die. We take tea and a few pictures but we do not sit for long. Soon enough, we are walking across narrow, bridge-like ridges that connect one hill to the next. This is a huge balancing act but relief is not waiting for us as soon as we are across. On other side are a series of walls with seventy degree gradients. We walk on our fours, grappling onto firm rocks so as to move. Past these walls, we face boulders as huge as houses piled on top of each other in weird formation. They go on forever, hiding the peak of the mountain. We have to climb up these too and the strain on us begins to show. We decide to split into three groups based on our endurance limits.
The thing about Mount Meru is that it deceives. It mocks your attempt to reach the summit. As soon as you are through an impossible incline of rocks and reach a slightly level plane, you sigh in relief thinking that the summit is just around the next turn. But when you take that turn, you are met by another sharper incline of stone and rocks, inclines which you can only walk up scrambling on your fours. And mind you, the oxygen level is so thin for you are over four thousand metres up the air. You are hardly breathing!
I feel as if my heart is going to burst. But finally, after a series of seemingly endless climbs, I see the Summit Flag and turn enthusiastic. This final ascent is the toughest climb of all since it is almost ninety degrees. Rocks jut out through the defined path (marked by green paint) at angles that make you doubt whether that is a path at all. I push on, gasping for breath, holding onto boulders and hoping against hope that I will not topple and dash upon a rock. The commitment pays off, because soon enough, after a final thrust forward, I am at the summit. I rush and hug the Socialist Peak pole and the Tanzanian flag pole. Never have I been so exhausted and relieved at the same time. I sit down and watch the sun rise, defining the peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro, and adding a tinge of orange to the sea of cloud that stretches from the east to us. There is no earth. There is just the sky, the sun, the sea of cloud under our feet and Mount Kilimanjaro to the east.