The wake up call is early - 6 a.m. - as we want to arrive at the Mweka Gate by lunch and have plenty of time for a shower before we board the airplane at Mt. Kilimanjaro Airport.
Tips are distributed to the porters, and after handshakes and a goodbye song, we head down the trail at 8 a.m. I am happy this morning that we are at a further camp - Mweka Camp instead of Millennium Camp as previously planned - as our hike out is shorter, our lead guide estimates two-three hours to the finish. But based on my performance yesterday, he says it will take me five hours!
The weather continues to be clear. The trail is slippery mud and steep, deep steps, but could be slicker if it were raining. I imagine I am a machine, mechanically working my way down the mountain, my trekking poles an extension of my body. Although I am in the slowest group, even my husband comments on how quickly I am moving. I am determined to reach the gate before lunch, as none in our group can leave before we all sign out at the gate.
Our guide slips and falls on the mud as do two others in our group. By 10:45 a.m., my legs are rubbery again, but we have reached a deeply rutted fire road. Children appear out of the rain forest and ask for chocolate or money. Our guide says the gate is just around the bend.
It's a very long bend, but I finally turn the corner. I can see vans and Land Rovers ahead. Vendors swarm us selling cotton handkerchiefs the colors of the Tanzanian flag, small animals carved from wood, t-shirts and necklaces. One offers to wash our boots.
I find my name in the log book, and sign out. I'm proud the final descent only took me three hours. After a brief ceremony where we each receive official certificates of our accomplishment, we eat lunch, then climb into Land Rovers.
The warm water of the shower feels as good as I imagined. The dirt of a week swirls down the drain. My hair emerges from under the bandana and hat. I lock my Kilimanjaro clothes into a duffle to open later at home.
After a cold beer and dinner, it's off to the airport. It's dark on the tarmac. The surrounding fields smell like hay, and I brace myself to climb the stairs to the airplane, one step at a time - pole pole.