It was still cold when I shook open the door of Mandara Hut the next morning.
Mist drifted across the dew laden grass and my breath fogged the air as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.
Today I would walk 15 kilometres further up the trail and gain another thousand metres in altitude. This would leave me less than 2200 metres below the summit of the world’s largest free-standing mountain whose colossal bulk evolved from three separate volcanic peaks: Shira, Mawenzi and Kibo.
Shira collapsed some half million years ago and a subsequent eruption of Kibo filled its crater, forming the 3000 metre high Shira plateau on Kilimanjaro’s western flank. Mawenzi (meaning “companion” in Swahili) is a brutally eroded and splintered relic that forms the distinctive rhino-like horn on Kilimanjaro’s eastern profile. Kibo has muscled its way between the two, rising head and shoulders above the crumbling remains of its once mighty older brothers. Crowned by glaciers, it is Kibo that boasts Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa.
From a distance, Kilimanjaro’s flanks have the symmetrical appearance of a text book volcano: a squat, conical mound of igneous rock produced by uniform outflows of lava from Kibo’s vent. But as I climbed above Kilimanjaro’s tree line, the mountain’s irregular profile unfolded. Shallow, V-shaped valleys scored across the slopes revealing its age as plainly as wrinkles around old eyes. Even in her youth, Kilimanjaro was no teenage beauty queen; her countenance is blemished by parasitic cones, formed long ago by lava flowing from small breaches in the side of the main volcano.
The first of these lies not far beyond Mandara, where a side trail sign-posted 'Maundi Crater' offers a short detour from the summit trail. Maundi has long since collapsed and is now a serene, kilometre-wide walled-garden, enclosed within the steep sides of a shallow, tree-ringed caldera. It is a place of solitude, away from the thumping footfall of porters, guides and climbers on the main trail.
A little higher, Sacrifice Hill may also be the product of a minor eruption through the mountain’s north flank. For centuries, this 3100 metre high knoll was the site of sacrificial rituals. I suppose that if you believe that an angered deity will be propitiated by gratuitous slaughter, then hauling your reluctant offering several thousand feet up a mountain can only add value to the ceremony.
Nowadays, Christianity and Islam have pushed traditional practices aside and Sacrifice Hill is just a dimple-topped geological and cultural relic beside Kilimanjaro’s summit trail. But like all relics, it retains a mystical power and I found myself tumbling into a cascade of escapist daydreams as I plodded up the broad trail with the sun on my back.
I imagined Chagga tribesmen from long ago, their village beset by famine, disease or another calamity... I saw the meeting of the village elders; the selection of the goat (Must it be the best? Would the gods notice or mind if we offered a weaker animal?); I heard the plaintive cries of the sacrifice, tugging against its leash as the party set out before dawn. Much later, an altar fashioned from rough stones and then, out of the pure blue sky, the knife plunging, glinting against the glaciers... I watched the meticulous attention to ritualistic details; and finally I saw the long walk home followed by days or even weeks of tensely anticipating the gods’ forgiveness or favour.
With Sacrifice Hill behind me and my mind in random shuffle mode, I tracked back to about 950 BCE when, according to legend, the first ascent of Kilimanjaro was made by King Menelik (son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba). It was comforting to know that I was on a venture pioneered by royalty, not just tagging along behind a succession of B list celebrities on charity climbs.
Not that celebrity attention has been altogether a bad thing. Kilimanjaro has long been known as the highest summit on earth that can be reached without specialist skills or climbing gear. The resulting throngs of climbers caused relentless environmental degeneration on the hiking trails. The Marangu route suffered the most and became known as the Coca Cola trail because of the volume of litter discarded along the path. But that ecological embarrassment is now a thing of the past, partly thanks to the media attention surrounding celebrity climbs.
It was, therefore, slightly ironic that I should be plucked from my fanciful re-enactments of Chagga traditions by a recycled car tyre tumbling along the trail...
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Aerial view of Kilimanjaro showing Kibo with Mawenzi in the background. (Photo from www.china.org.cn) and below, Sacrifice Hill, a parasitic cone on the flank of Kilimanjaro.
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