A Little Bit Too High

A Little Bit Too High

porterstrikeAt least 20,000 people try to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro every year, but those planning to do so next month have an even greater risk of not making it.

The Tanzania Tour Guides Association (TTGA) and the Kilimanjaro Guides Association (KGA) are threatening a three-week strike over pay.

Now this isn’t the first time porters and guides on Kilimanjaro have threatened a strike. It’s actually the third time since 2011, each time running up to a start date before the government finally mediated.

Each of those times meetings were convened and agreements made that were never kept.

“They are furious over the apparent failure by the government to implement the terms the two parties had agreed” in August, which was to be implemented in 60 days, according to a reporter for the Arusha Times.

The dispute this year came to a head on October 7 when guide and porter representatives went to attend a meeting arranged during the August negotiations to evaluate implementation of the agreement. No one from the government showed up, ironically because the government later claimed it didn’t have the funds to convene the event.

A porter on Kilimanjaro usually gets paid between $15-20/day. The better climbing companies then recommend to the clients that a tip equal to an average of $5-8/day be given at the end of the climb, resulting in actual wages of $20-28/day.

But there are many companies which delay paying the porters. At last check 290 companies were registered with the Tanzanian tourism authorities to operate climbs on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Porters normally carry up to forty pounds, although some have been recorded carrying sixty. As a daily wage the level is actually above average for most Tanzanian tourism workers, but the amount of work they get fluctuates greatly, is very seasonal and never guaranteed.

Because there are few qualifications required to become a porter, the industry is never without applicants. New applicants are generally paid less than veterans, and this results in a constant race to the bottom. Many porters will spend the first several years working less than 30 days annually.

The fact that there are many more applicants than there are jobs, it makes the idea of a strike somewhat illusory, and this may be part of the reason a strike has never actually been staged despite repeated confrontations with the government.

On the other hand, the last-minute government mediation and various agreements made – even if not implemented – suggests the government takes the threats seriously.

While I have seen reports that there are upwards of 60,000 climbers annually government numbers suggest about a third of that. More than 80% of climbers travel the relatively inexpensive “Coca-Cola” route known as Marangu, a 3-days up and 2-days down, 4-night excursion that retails for around $1000.

Twenty percent travel more scenic and less challenging routes that take 2-4 days longer and are generally outfitted by more reputable companies. These week-long climbs can cost as much as $5000 but absolutely attract the more seasoned porters and guides.

Regardless of the route or style chosen, the government mandates that each climber have at least one porter. The more expensive, more scenic and longer climbs often field a staff of up to 25 for as few as 4-6 clients.

Climbing Kili is a bucket list item that attracts a huge range of people, mainly because it really isn’t a climb. No implements are required and it’s a well traveled path that’s followed, regardless of which of the six routes are taken.

The challenge is altitude, with 12,000′ being the make or break point. The summit is 19,347′. About half of Kili’s climbers are unable to make the top because of the effect of altitude.

If the porters strike, and if scabs aren’t allowed (which is normal government labor policy) then the climbs will stop. But frankly it’s hard to imagine.

Despite the government’s posturing that suggests a serious concern with the threat, it’s hard to see it happening this time. I think everyone might just be aiming a little bit too high.

OnVacation: Best Photos

OnVacation: Best Photos

10Jul.eles by rover.ambo.432.jimI’m on vacation until July 23 when I guide my last safari of the year in Tanzania. Meanwhile, here are some of my favorite photos taken on my safaris during the last 39 years. This wasn’t really so long ago, less than a decade ago outside Amboseli National Park (in Kenya) on the Tanzanian side of the border. It marks a significant change in the wildlife, tourism and overall environment of East Africa: the start of “too many elephants.” That doesn’t necessarily mean more ele than ever before, just that as East Africa moves into the modern world, scenes like this are harbingers of great difficulty, social and ecological.

OnSafari: Kili Magic!

OnSafari: Kili Magic!

Kirsten Wede, John & Christina Massimini, Theresea & Brewster Johnson
Kirsten Wede, John & Christina Massimini, Theresea & Brewster Johnson
Easily more than 50,000 flamingoes graced our first game drive in Arusha National Park as we drove to Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The Wede Family Safari began in this remarkable little park hardly an hour outside northern Tanzania’s busiest and largest city. The park surrounds Mt. Meru, Africa’s 5th highest mountain, which towers over Arusha.

You won’t see a lion kill and you won’t see giant herds filling the horizon, but we did see lots of waterbuck, zebra, warthog, baboon and .. giraffe. The park is fondly nicknamed “Giraffic Park” because it has so many giraffe.

And there are great chances of seeing the uncommon black-and-white colobus monkey and rare red duiker, both of which I saw on my first visit this year a couple weeks ago.

It was hippos that most impressed the kids, I think; but it was the flamingoes that resulted in the most pictures from the adults!

It really is a beautiful sight. Both lesser and greater flamingo fringed the Momela Lakes, the crater lakes of the old volcano, and even spread into the shallower parts of the lake interiors. As John Massimini remarked, they’re most beautiful when flying.

It isn’t just the formation they form, but the beautiful pastel red flashing with the underwing white that’s so captivating.

Annika, Isabella, Ranger, Lucas & Magnus
Annika, Isabella, Ranger, Lucas & Magnus

As with my last safari we decided to use tracks from Arusha NP to our camp in west Kili, and like last time, we got lost! But it’s kind of hard to really “get lost” when a landmark like Mt. Kilimanjaro is shouting out.

This time it was probably a half hour delay, and I think well worth it, because we got to see what village life in Tanzania has become. And I don’t mean bomas with kids with runny noses:

I mean proper brick or concrete houses – albeit very small – in regular clusters arranged along the irrigation “stream” that a number of villages out here have cut to provide irrigation to this otherwise arid land.

Today we walked around the 11,000 acres of Ndarakwai Ranch in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. We saw zebra, wildebeest, warthog, eland, gazelle, mongoose, and tons of impala. The kids aborted the walk after a short while, and I called our rovers up to continue with them on a game drive.

While the adults climbed a hill with spectacular views. To the south was the incredible valley between Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro. To the north was Amboseli National Park in Kenya. It was a landscape that was Big Sky awesome!

Babu Hans led the charge on the hike. He’ll be celebrating his 70th birthday soon, and this was the reason for his safari. When I told the ranger who was nimbly jumping ahead of his like an impala about Hans’ remarkable agility at 70 years, the ranger proudly told me he was 73!

I love this place, Ndarakwai Ranch, as a perfect way to ease into a safari. It has lots of animals, really comfortable and beautiful but classic not luxurious tents, good food, and fine staff. It’s not as wild and wooly as the big game parks we start to visit tomorrow, but the outstanding scenery is hard to match.

The perfect way to begin while people are still shaking their jetlag.

Tomorrow: Tarangire!

OnSafari: Kilimanjaro’s Foothills

OnSafari: Kilimanjaro’s Foothills

Debbie Weingarden with the camp's bushbaby.
Debbie Weingarden with the camp’s bushbaby.
A large private ranch on West Kilimanjaro was the perfect place for my group to shake some jetlag and ease into safari.

Ndarakwai Ranch is one of many private concessions in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Its 11,000 acres of beautiful undisturbed veld where wild animals and Maasai herds have coexisted for years.

We spent the morning walking, after I determined that there were no elephants in the area, and because it was so cloudy.

Lyle and Jane Krug hiking in the Kili foothills.
Lyle and Jane Krug hiking in the Kili foothills.

We walked past several dozen giraffe, dozens of zebra and wildebeest, impala, and an amazing number of eland. There was also warthog, Grant’s gazelle and lots of baboon.

From the earliest traditional days with the Maasai herders and continuing uninterrupted today with safari guests the animals are unmolested and have become pretty tame. Most of these animals are spillovers from nearby Amboseli National Park, but their behavior and acceptance of us walking near them suggested they were more sedentary than transitory.

West Kili is pimpled with old ash cones that over the eons have formed into beautiful hills with considerable vegetation. We climbed one, following an animal path, until we were about 400 feet above the slopes on which the ranch was located.

The views were superb, of course. To the west was towering Mt. Meru, over 13,000′ high. To the northwest was the great pan of Amboseli and we watched dust devils twist across it.

To the east, of course, was the granddaddy of them all, Kilimanjaro. Throughout this cloudy day it cleared by for a few minutes, but most of the day quite a lot of the mountain was available with the clouds forming gorgeous wraps around its peak.

Hope Koncal, Mark Weingarden and Dave Koncal.
Hope Koncal, Mark Weingarden and Dave Koncal.

We had good birding, too, including lammergeier, fully feathered breeding steel blue whydah, several types of rollers, waxbills and finches, plus a wonderful array of raptors including augur buzzards, black-crested hawks and tawny eagles.

When we descended the hill I called for our rovers to drive us home and in the afternoon we took a more extensive game drive, seeing a considerable number of wildebeest and zebra. These are not a part of the great migration, although they probably move between Amboseli and possibly Tarangire via Meru.

Our day ended at the ranch’s tree house, which overlooks a beautiful vlei that had zebra, warthog and baboon, and incredible views of the Kilimanjaro landscapes.

“Can we say that we climbed in the Kilimanjaro foothills?” Hope Koncal asked anxiously.

Absolutely, and it was wonderful exercise and a wonderful way to slip into the magic that Africa holds you in.

We took a rather creative way here from Arusha, traveling through Arusha National Park from its southern to northern gate. It was a great game drive itself, with waterbuck, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and impala.

But there were three really great bonuses!

The first was when we saw a red duiker in the deep forest. This animal is growing increasingly endangered because of the erosion of forests. I hadn’t seen it for several years, and I was surprised how literally red it seemed. About the size of a small pig, it moves stealthily and quickly when noticed, so we had but a few minutes to enjoy it.

We also saw the prized colobus monkey that the park is so famous for. These are probably East Africa’s most beautiful monkey, with their long white tails and flowing black-and-white manes.

And we lucked out big time when the Momela Lakes gave us probably 30-35,000 flamingoes! We sometimes see them here, often not at all, but rarely have I seen so many.

And now, on to Tarangire!

Thousands of flamingoes in the Momela Lakes.
Thousands of flamingoes in the Momela Lakes.

Maul Special

Maul Special

Pretty story but not very effective: recruit Maasai morani – the legendary warriors that are expert lion killers – to protect lions. Sort of like hiring the ultimate teenage hacker to protect HSBC.

Lion numbers are dropping alarmingly, and better than any other great African savannah animal lion are a true indicator of the health of the African wild.

Unlike elephant or rhino – which are being poached at alarming rates even as their wild population increases – lion are the top of a complex pyramid of life and while masters of their position are beholding to the foundations.

Many important studies have suggested unusual reasons for the decline over the last several decades, but it now seems clear that the reason is quite simple: the wild is contracting.

Of the big cats, only the solitary leopard seems capable of adapting to a world increasingly dominated by man. The others – and especially the lion – seem unable to establish any relationship with a world increasingly dominated by homo sapiens except to war with him.

And the greatest battles are those legendary pitched posses of Maasai warriors in Old Testament regalia: Maasai don’t kill any animals for fun or food. They kill in retaliation, as if a lesson can be learned.

When a lion threatens their goats or cattle Maasai go on a war path, and some of the most spectacular stories out of Maasailand are of the greatest and most noble of the lion hunts. In the old days headmen were often determined by those who successfully killed a lion.

And remember, this isn’t with a gun. It’s with a spear and a knife.

Maasai and lion have coexisted for centuries because they use the same habitat. The grazing necessary for Maasai stock is the same that all sorts of antelope on the plains need. When there was enough for all, everyone was fat and sassy. There were enough antelope for the lion that much preferred them to a smaller goat or a larger and lanky cow.

Maasai cattle were bred not for meat but for milk. The cost/benefit ratio of a lion bringing down a Maasai cow compared to a wildebeest was no contest. The wildebeest could be killed more quickly (cats kill by strangulation, and this takes enormous time with a cow) and the dinner table had lots more meat for the effort.

But times changed. And note, too, that traditional Maasai are declining just as rapidly if not more so than the wild animals in their homelands. And maybe for the same reasons:

Shopping malls, highways, schools and hospitals, modern farms.

It takes no kopjes scientist to know where this is going.

So arise the Lion Guardians! This high profile NGO in East Africa was formed by dedicated conservationists “to promote and sustain coexistence between people & wildlife through ecological monitoring and local capacity building.”

IE: Pay Maasai morani to protect rather than kill lions.

It’s noble, yes. And anything that can give paid work to young traditional Maasai who are themselves increasingly threatened, is good. Especially in the West Kilimanjaro area adjacent Amboseli National Park.

This area is a microcosm of lion difficulties everywhere. Amboseli is one of the most important and well-known big game parks in the world famous especially for its elephant. Elephant are being threatened today by increased poaching, but their numbers are still increasing in places like Amboseli, because … well, elephant get their way.

But Amboseli is surrounded by an increasingly developed agriculture, particularly just to its south in Tanzania. The highlands of Kilimanjaro are perfect for wheat and other cash crop farming.

The towns of Arusha to the west and Moshi to the east are expanding rapidly. The roads are being paved.

All of this – not just farming – needs water. This is draining the existing aquifers and Amboseli is becoming drier and drier. This is a death sentence for much game like buffalo and wildebeest. The increased elephant population results in deforestation, and combined with the loss of aquifer power the reduction of forests is terrible for impala, duiker and a chorus of tiny things like voles and mice that animals like hyaena and jackal need to survive.

So you see … or don’t, so to speak, as time passes. No traditional food, Mr. Lion heads south to where Maasai live with their goats and cattle.

Lion Guardians believes in conserving the wild and in promoting tourism. It’s a two-pronged argument that often sticks it to itself. Tourism is one thing. Conservation is another.

There’s no doubt that tourism suffers as there are fewer lions to see in the wild. But tourism is already suffering drastically, mainly from the political situation in Kenya linked directly to the violently unsettled situation in Somalia. We hope this is temporary.

Whether temporary or not, conservation is another matter.

I grow quite sad thinking the day may come when there won’t be lions in the wild as I’ve seen all my life. But it’s hard to argue to save the lion with the same powerful scientific arguments for saving the Amazon rain forest. We know almost everything possible about lions and the African savannah. There are of course mysteries yet to be revealed … but not many.

The forest provides my oxygen. The veld powers my imagination – no small thing – but not exactly biological.

And what we know mostly is that Maasai recruited to protect lions are getting mauled, and in the end, not saving any more lions and not convincing their young teen Maasai not to go to the city and become certified public accountants.

That’s life.

Heaven or Uhuru?

Heaven or Uhuru?

This is not 83-year old George Solt.
It's Ake Lindstrom.
Some people thought he was headed to heaven. But George Solt, 83, made the summit of Kili and came down to tell the world, Wednesday!

Briton George Solt hopes to be inscribed in the Guiness Book of World Records next year after the organization’s extensive verification process. But right now there’s no challenge to his own that he is the oldest man to have summited Mt. Kilimanjaro.

The climb was organized by a good friend and Tanzania’s most experienced and knowledgeable outfitter, Ake Lindstrom, owner/founder of Summits-Africa.

Ake himself belongs in the Guiness book. He was born in Kenya, raised on a sailboat in Khartoum, educated in Britain, plays rugby for the Tanzanian National Rugby league and races absurd looking vehicles in East Africa’s miserable road rallies.

And he has almost single-handedly raised the standards of treatment and pay for the previously maligned porters and occasional workers who are so essential to successful Kilimanjaro climbs.

Ake’s company said that Solt was accompanied by family including three grandchildren, and that the climb was two days longer than the normal Machame ascent. Solt organized the ascent in memory of his wife, who died last year.

My own son, Brad (Ake’s contemporary), was one of the youngest Americans to ascend Mt. Kenya, which is generally considered a more difficult climb though it is 2,000′ lower than Kili. We organize many Kili climbs year after year.

I don’t have current statistics in hand, but at its ‘peak’ the Tanzanian Tourist Board announced at a convention in London in 2007 that 25,000 people would attempt to summit Kili that year. Even if that is a slight exaggeration, it indicates that many more people try to climb Kili each year than any other known mountain.

For one thing it’s basically a walk, with only the last bit requiring any real scrambling. The challenge is the height (low oxygen content at 19,347′) and cold. A more recent challenge with global warming has been massive reductions in glaciers and avalanches.

Four weeks ago I was sitting at the Talkeenta (Alaska) Roadhouse restaurant for breakfast under a handwritten poster plastered on the wall lamenting the deaths of a variety of climbers who had tried to summit McKinley in the last several years.

There are about a dozen deaths on Kili each year, a fraction of the percentage of those who die trying mountains like McKinley.

The irony in climbing Kili is that more than half those who attempt it book the most difficult route: the Marangu 3-day up and 2-day down “Coca-Cola” path. The Tanzanian government has built dormitories to house the large numbers of people using this route. It’s the fastest and cheapest way to tackle the mountain, but also arguably the hardest.

A self-motivated climber can show up at the park gate, pay fees and hire a porter, and attempt the summit via Marangu for under $1000. But no matter his/her fitness, the chance of success doing it this way is hardly 50%.

Several years ago we booked a climb for four American Olympic hurdlers. Three of them didn’t make it.

The tough part for most people comes at around 12,000′. It has more to do with your body’s tolerance to less oxygen than its fitness, although that obviously helps. Many physiologies just can’t handle the altitude.

Ake’s company promotes much slower (and more beautiful) routes than the Coca-Cola Marangu. Perhaps the most popular one is Machame, which is a 5-day up, 2-day down trek. Ake’s staff and guides are all professionally trained. You get the right amount and types of food, oxygen is carried, and most important of all, you go slow.

Kudus for Solt, and great congratulations to Ake!