Little did my fifteen year old daughter Michelle think, when she was asked to be a bridesmaid in July this year that she would have to follow a long long trail up and down the biggest mountain in Africa to reach the wedding venue.
Especially as the wedding was to be in Zanzibar, at sunset, overlooking the Indian Ocean.
When my husband Alan’s son Magnus proposed to his longtime partner Jane last year, our congratulations froze on our lips when we heard what they planned for the hapless wedding guests. Jane adores sunshine, beaches and the sea and Magnus scuba-diving, so we fully expected that they would want a honeymoon in the tropics. What we did not anticipate was that they had decided to take their guests there as well – and that Magnus had a further surprise in store. In order to prove his virility he was planning a pre-wedding expedition to the summit of Kilimanjaro. (Perhaps one should be grateful at least that the wedding was not at Uhuru Peak, we thought ruefully.)
Alan’s daughter Justine immediately agreed to join her brother on the expedition. Michelle sidled behind us and mentioned that she too liked the beach and could accompany Jane. After all, Jane would need her in Zanzibar wouldn’t she?
“Oh no, not until the day before the wedding, you go with them and enjoy yourself Michelle!” said the happy bride. Poor Michelle was in for it. To our surprise Magnus’s plan took off. His best man Mat agreed to climb the mountain too, as did his uncle Roger and two hardy friends, Robert and Chris. The total party would be seven strong – five men and two girls. I was quite worried about Michelle. She is a good walker having joined in many charity walks at home in the UK. But she has never climbed a serious hill, let alone 19,000 feet of crags and rocks.
“Maybe she’s too young” I said.
But Michelle herself was getting used to the idea of going and could not now be dissuaded. Justine is an excellent walker and was probably the fittest of all and she would certainly keep an eye on her little sister.
In the end of June this year, we saw them all off at Heathrow: Jane and her family, and Magnus and his six companions, dubbed “the Magnusificent Seven” by the cheerful bridegroom. Not without some trepidation I gave Michelle a last hug and waved goodbye. I had provided her with some altitude sickness tablets, as I was quite worried on account of her youth – children under fourteen years are not allowed to climb Kilimanjaro at all, as younger people tend to be more affected by lack of Oxygen than adults. Roger, the oldest member of the expedition and Justine had decided to take them also, but the four hardy young men wanted to manage without. Possibly there were some regrets about this later.
In Dar es Salaam, the parties split – Jane and company were met by Nicola, the genial owner of Coastal Travels, and escorted to Terminal One to take a Coastal Aviation flight to Zanzibar. Magnus and his group boarded a Precision Air plane to Arusha. There they were met by Shah Tours, who were arranging the expedition. From Kilimanjaro Airport they were whisked away to the Mountain Inn near Moshi. But the weather was so overcast that they were as yet unable to get even a glimpse of the challenge ahead.
That Sunday evening they attended a familiarization lecture about the trek. Their guide Charles sounded reassuringly experienced. It was only later that they learnt that he holds the record for climbing all the way to the top of Kilimanjaro and down again in a single day. Magnus had sensibly decided that his group would take six days to do it: the usual five plus one extra day allowed for acclimatization halfway up. This usually gives the best chance of getting all the way to the top.
That night as they prepared for the trip, they carried out a thorough check of their equipment. Justine had advised us on the gear Michelle would need and it seemed like a mountain in itself – sleeping bag, water bottle, special snow glasses, boots, many pairs of socks, good waterproof anorak and trousers, backpack, sleeping mat – the list seemed endless. Luckily, on this climb the heaviest part of their belongings would be carried up the amazing porters, leaving them each with a small daypack only.
Next morning after breakfast they were driven by minibus to the base of the mountain, which has a diameter of about forty miles. This is encircled by some of the best land in the country, rich and fertile. They passed through coffee and banana plantations cultivated by the local Chagga people. When they reached the starting point they began to climb frustratingly slowly up through the rainforest to the first hut, Mandara. Their guides constantly reiterated “Pole pole!” - meaning that they should take it slowly. Apparently climbers who move too fast are more rapidly affected by altitude sickness.
Meanwhile the bride’s party was settling into a very different environment. When they arrived in Zanzibar they were welcomed at the Airport and quickly transported to Mbweni Ruins Hotel, which is about five minutes’ drive south of the Stone Town, on the beach. There they were welcomed by Vivienne Bekker, the friendly South African manager and shown to their rooms. Everyone was tired from the long flight out of the UK. But the walk through the tropical gardens to airy rooms overlooking the Indian Ocean worked some restorative magic. Soon they had changed and were relaxing by the turquoise blue swimming pool, getting their first taste of Kilimanjaro – not the mountain but the excellent local beer. Before long “Kili time” had become part of the order of the day.
The Mbweni Ruins are part of a complex built by Victorian Missionaries under the aegis of David Livingstone, to house and school freed slaves. In the 19th Century British ships were blockading slave dhows coming from the mainland, and when one was captured the slaves were released into the care of Anglican missionaries. Every family had a plot of land and assistance to build a house on it. The children were educated at three different schools – one for boys at Kiungani, nearer to Stone Town; the girls at St Mary’s School for girls at Mbweni and the very smallest children at Kilimani near by.
Quite a lot of the ruins of St Mary’s remain including a beautiful chapel. The owners have researched the history and there are photographs of the buildings as they originally were. Sometimes romantic dinners are organized in the roofless chapel, under the stars. The gardens were planted over the last ten years, around the two ancient cycads which were almost the only trees in the grounds when the hotel was started. Most exotic trees in Zanzibar are now represented here, plus a collection of some hundreds of species of palms from all over the world, which were grown from seed. Rattans from Indonesia happily embrace cinnamon and clove trees from Zanzibar and one might see the occasional acacia from mainland Tanzania sending prickly branches above the canopy.
A special and restful atmosphere pervades the grounds, remarked on by many visitors.
Jane had time to relax for a few days and took her family on trips and tours around the Island and to nearby Chumbe Island, which can be accessed by boat from the beach at Mbweni. Some of the party went to Jozani forest, where red colobus monkeys seem uninhibited by visitors and leap and bound from tree to tree and sometimes over the feet of startled tourists.
Back at Mandara Hut Michelle was fascinated to see monkeys, but these were the black and white colobus, which are quite a different shape to their red-backed cousins in Zanzibar and have very thick, bushy tails. She also noticed blue, or Sykes, monkeys. By now the intrepid seven were relaxing outside the wooden National Parks huts, repairing kit, mending blisters and resting tired feet. The altitude here was still only 2750 metres and the air was soft and damp.
Alan and I were still in England and I had been trying to contact Michelle on her mobile all day. In the evening, she switched on and I was able to get through and have a chat. She was tired but happy and said everyone was fine. She didn’t think much of the food, which was inevitably a bit samish since it all had to be carried up by the porters.
It was very different in Zanzibar where the wedding party were enjoying a sundowner on the beach at Mbweni. Sickle shaped sails passed slowly in front of the sun and the first cry of the galagos – bush babies – echoed round the gardens. And as the fruit bats swept out of the ruins on the evening quest for food, the bride’s party settled themselves in the Raintree Restaurant where they were served a delicious dinner of Zanzibari seafood, exotically spiced vegetables and tropical fruits. No-one spared a thought for the weary climbers so far away to the north west.
Next morning, which was Tuesday, Magnus led his faithful companions onwards and upwards, aiming for the next hut at Horombo which lies at 3720 metres. It was now that they started to feel quite a bit colder and already some of the men were suffering from mild stomach upsets. The girls were fine, perhaps because Justine kept a very strict eye on their water supply and insisted on it being boiled each morning. Roger, the Mzee of the group was starting to find the mountain hard going. He mentioned for the first time that he had broken his ankle the year before. He is also diabetic and as the air grew colder his insulin machine froze and stopped working which exacerbated his problems. By now he was hobbling slightly but then nobody was finding the walk a picnic, except possibly the two girls who annoyed everyone by “scampering” up the hill as the men put it.
By late afternoon they reached Horombo Hut and collapsed into their beds. Michelle was conserving her phone battery and did not switch it on. Unaware of this, I was in England wondering why I could not contact her.
On Wednesday, Roger decided to stay near the hut and rest. He enjoyed looking at the plants and animals – by now the scenery had changed to a misty moorland landscape with giant groundsels looming up from it like strange sentries. The others took the acclimatization walk towards Mawenzi peak. As they climbed above the cloud level the skies cleared and for the first time they had good views of snow-capped Kibo, the higher of Kilimanjaro’s two main peaks. People who have climbed the mountain in the past are certain that the snow cap has now decreased considerably. Presumably this is due to global warming and climate change.
That night everyone felt cold in spite of warm sleeping bags. The altitude was just beginning to affect everybody. In addition Mat and some of the others were now suffering continuously from the effects of food-poisoning. But despite these problems, on Thursday morning they all set out for Kibo Hut, which would be their base camp for tackling the summit.
I phoned my father, known as “Babu” or grandfather, who lives at Mbweni Ruins. He told me that everyone was content and that though it had been raining – unusually for July – it was now fine and all was set for the wedding. But no-one had spoken to any of the climbers for two days. The relatives and friends at the hotel were thinking about them and wondering what was happening.
Jane had discussed the arrangements for the marriage with Vivienne and the Registrar was coming out to do the ceremony at Mbweni, on the cliff outside the restaurant as the sun was going down. The menu was planned to the last detail and people were beginning to think of decorations and to get excited about the coming party. All the staff were going to be there to help – no hardship as they love celebrations and fun. Many of them helped to build the hotel before it opened in Chistmas 1994. Labourers and builders became gardeners and waiters, housekeeping or front office staff and they are all part of the Mbweni family.
That night I finally spoke to Michelle who luckily had switched on one last time at Kibo – the battery was a little slow from the cold but it worked. I asked her how the climb had been from Horombo to Kibo, which is at 4750 metres.
She merely replied “So-so.”
She was fine but did have a headache, but no nausea. Justine too was fine, but most of the others were feeling sick and headachy and Roger was suffering from his ankle and lack of insulin. He decided that he would forget about climbing further, and the opinion of all was that he had made a fantastic effort to get so far.
I told Michelle that Alan and I were about to set out for the airport and that we would fly over them at dawn on Friday as they made their attempt on the summit.
“I’ll wave,” she joked.
It was an odd experience next morning as we looked down from the aeroplane and saw Kilimanjaro’s peaks above the cloud blanket, rosy in the dawn light. There was a full moon in the sky which added to the strange beauty of the scene. Alan and I were both thinking of the little group who must be battling their way up the long slope to Gillman’s Point at that very moment.
In fact, the remaining six all made it to Gillman’s around dawn, after going to bed at around 6pm the evening before and rising at 11pm after very little sleep. By the time they got to Gillman’s, no-one really had any expectation of going further, but as they waited for Chris and Mat who were some way behind, Charles moved them on and told them they would go on a little further. Then a little further until, in a daze of disorientation and hampered by freezing cold, they found themselves at Uhuru Peak, 5895 metres above sea level.
They gazed out over a sea of cloud, with patches of land visible in the distance. It was amazingly exciting and beautiful as the sun rose and Kilimanjaro cast a long shadow towards Mount Meru.
They remembered to take a few pictures and then started the long descent, all the way down to Horombo hut where they collapsed into bed and slept for hours. But not before I, newly arrived in Zanzibar, managed to connect with Michelle and hear that they were all safe.
Next night they reached the Mountain Inn and enjoyed hot baths and cold beers and started to feel a little human again. On Sunday morning they flew to Zanzibar and were met at the airport by a welcoming committee which of course included the bride.
When the cars bearing the triumphant climbers reached Mbweni, the staff started a wonderful ngoma, dancing and ululating and casting armfuls of flowers. It was a great celebration. Vivienne stood smiling with seven Kilimanjaro beers wrapped in white napkins, her accolade to the victors.
That afternoon was idyllic, most of the climbers, the family and all the friends of the wedding couple relaxed on the sea wall between the pool and the beach as the tide came in and the sun set. A golden light warmed us all as we sat and chatted and caught up with the news.
My son David and his lovely partner Natalie had arrived from Dar es Salaam. David might have joined the Kili climb if it were not for the fact that Natalie’s elder sister was getting married in Dar on the Saturday and he was needed there. Well it sounds like a good excuse anyway!
On the morning of the wedding Vivienne and bevies of workers cut down palm leaves and barrow loads of pink bougainvillea, and began plaiting, weaving, digging on the beach, laying tables and cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Sophia, one of the housekeeping staff, is an expert at henna painting and was kept busy by many of the ladies including Jane, decorating arms, wrists and ankles.
Justine and Michelle made buttonholes for the men of hibiscus, gardenia and bougainvillea. Alan’s cousins Jen and Chris, and his sister Claire headed for Stone Town, away from the frenetic activity.
That afternoon, we all gathered by the restaurant and greeted a rather nervous Magnus. Jane arrived in a stunning white dress on her father’s arm and the Registrar conducted the ceremony and congratulated the happy couple on their brave and wise decision to marry in Zanzibar. All the guests blew clouds of bubbles over the newly married couple who stood in a palm and bougainvillea archway as the sun slowly sank behind them into the waves sweeping in on the beach below. Vivienne had lit bonfires above the tide line. The swimming pool sparkled with flowers and floating candles and increasingly happy guests sipped champagne.
As we all prepared for an enjoyable evening of dancing and feasting, I felt that one could hardly find a more idyllic setting for a wedding. And perhaps the hardship of that cold long climb made it even more pleasant for Magnus to be on a Zanzibar beach!