The flight to Mt. Kilimanjaro airport in Tanzania from Amsterdam is full. It's obvious who is planning to climb the mountain, as they already have waterproof gators dangling around their ankles and trekking poles lashed to their day packs.
It's about a nine hour flight, and it's dark when we arrive and descend a flight of stairs to the tarmac. The land surrounding the airport smells like hay. After a week of safari and village visits, it's finally the first day of our own journey up the mountain.
We arrive at the Machame Gate, elevation 5,525 feet, at 10:30 a.m. The parking lot is packed with jeeps, small buses and vans and men hoping to be hired as porters. We must wait our turn to sign in with the ranger. The weather is overcast, just the right temperature. We eat some snacks, use the flush toilet (a rarity in Africa) and finally sign the log book. The Machame trail, also known as the Whiskey Route, and other trails are dedicated solely to the ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We will take another route on our descent.
We start hiking at 12:30 p.m. - I have butterflies in my stomach like I always do on the first day of a SCUBA dive trip...just before I take a giant stride off the boat into the unknown depths of the ocean. I'm carrying two liters of water in my backpack, snacks, toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I drank one liter of water while we waited to start.
We have brought our rain gear, but the weather holds and I only need a short sleeve shirt as we head through the rain forest. Once we get off the fire road and onto the trail, the forest is thick with trees, bushes and vines and moss draped like giant swooping curtains. Steps have been built and shored up with sticks.
The trail is slick with mud, and I'm glad for my trekking poles. It's a steady six-mile climb to our first camp at Machame Hut, and we move pole pole (po-lay po-lay) - Swahili words for slowly slowly. The box lunch is huge and more food than I normally eat, but I save some bars for later - I know I will need it.
The porters have gone ahead, and when we arrive they greet us with a welcome song and warm water for washing. Our first camp is at 9,890 feet. We can see the mountain.
"Tea" is served in a green dining tent - popcorn, ginger cookies and hot drinks. The table is covered with a red and black plaid cloth and we have chairs and candles.
I'm feeling well (taking Diamox for the altitude) except for a runny nose. Dinner is vegetables in a curry sauce, white bread, tilapia and mangoes. My sleeping bag is too warm, a fact which makes me happy as I know the temperatures will drop as the altitude increases.