For anyone growing up under Kilimanjaro, the inimitable snow-capped peak rising from the Kenyan and Tanzanian plains, there is a second mountain, literally in the shadow of it’s greater cousin. This peak, though little known outside of the area, cuts a sharp contrast to the lumbering behemoth to the south; it is jagged and dark, eternally obscured by whirling clouds whipped up over miles and miles of empty flatte below. In Kimaa, the language of the Maasai tribe that dominates these vast savannahs stretching from Nairobi, Kenya to Dodoma, Tanzania, Ol’doinyo’orok means “the black mountain.” The name intimates more than the harsh silhouette; this is a wild mountain, unforgiving and intemperate.
It is more commonly known as Mt. Meru, and it stands over the city of Arusha in a wilderness area controlled by the Arusha National Park. Because of where the park boundaries lie, this mountain more than any other demonstrates the dramatic shift in ecosystems as you ascend an equatorial peak. Arusha National Park is popular for its walking safaris: with an armed ranger you can traipse through the dense woodland and it’s occasional savannah-esque clearings (one of which is called “Serengeti Ndogo”-- the “little Serengeti”) to catch giraffes, zebra, and innumerable birds doing what they do best. The height of the giraffes is somehow only enhanced by the peak looming above them, and a distinct sense of prehistoric awe sets in over you as you begin to hike up into the jungle. The ranger stays with you through the montane forest, ever more alert, for elephants and cape buffalo roam the woods with a stealth surprising for their size. Herds of cape buffalo will scatter at human appearance, but a solitary beast will quickly turn aggressive.
As the trees get shorter and the colobus monkeys fewer and farther between, an eery fog settles in over the ensuing heather and bramble. Because of a forest fire that escaped from a nearby village in recent years, a large swathe of this alpine brush is populated by dead and charred trees, adding to the severity of an already austere landscape. The occasional bright red and yellow flowers (the endemic Mackinder’s Gladiolus and Kilimanjaro Impatiens) startle as they seem to erupt out of the otherwise grey-green bushes.
Within a few thousand feet, you’ve passed from dignified giraffes in a clearing to ravens floating under cold, craggy clifflines. It is at this point that Mt. Meru becomes truly intimidating, because it is in fact a colossal volcano, long extinct but still awe-inspiring. Once upon the highest ridges, the extent of its ancient geological savagery is clear: a broken and crumbling crater rim holds a massive ash pile, over a thousand feet high.
If only this immense peak were still as wild and free as it has been for hundreds of thousands of years; but no, it is now merely a cog in the Tanzania National Parks authority TANAPA’s tourism machine. The park is costly and complicated to enter, and once inside is marred by excessive regulation and infrastructure. There are two large and unnattractive lodge complexes high on the slopes to accommodate trekkers and their required support teams. The presence of numerous (redundantly so) park rangers and supervisors erodes any autonomy. The goal of TANAPA seems to be to create as many jobs as possible and collect as much money as possible, which, on initial examination, seems a perfectly reasonable, capitalistic idea.
Unfortunately, this business model seriously mitigates the purity of the natural experience on a mountain as grand as Ol’doinyo’orok. The roles of park officials are often superfluous and the regulations requiring certain numbers of guides, cooks, and porters result in a mountain overridden by unnecessary personnel. A climber has no option but to tramp up the mountain in the style redolent of Henry Morton Stanley’s nineteenth century expeditions, with dozens of porters and armed guards in tow, progressing in a long, slow line up a tarmaced trail. As if to confirm this capitalistic attitude, the wooden sign at the peak literally begins, “Congratulations, valued customer…”
I’ll admit to some bias in this area, as I’m of a light-and-fast, leave-no-trace adventurer camp (pun intended), and I do understand that as Tanzania is a developing country, it has a responsibility to provide as many opportunities for its citizens to leave poverty behind as possible. The country is endowed with a perhaps unparalleled number of geological and ecological wonders, and it has appropriately harnessed those for the economic benefit of the populace. At least ostensibly. The reality that I witnessed was one of bureaucratic stagnation and paranoia, where no one trusts each other and no one wants to be held accountable for decisions. Regardless, TANAPA has a difficult job protecting and preserving these areas while also catering to hundreds of thousands of tourists, and it clearly has a long way to go.
On the ground, of course, every man and woman working in Arusha National Park has a sincere reason to be there. Either they are truly passionate about protecting and exploring their country’s landscape, or they need to provide food, shelter, and school fees for their children. One of the park rangers that guides trekker’s up the mountain, Sunday (his real name; I also met a Godlistens and a Dolphin), told me his ambition to be a safari driver, explaining that constant trekking with a heavy pack is hard on one’s health (an understatement) but that as he and his younger brother’s are orphans, he has a responsibility to provide for them immediately and cannot afford the training and certification necessary to work in the Serengeti.
Another young man, Kelvin, works as a porter for a foreign-owned company, also hauling up to 100 pounds over the steep the mountain ridges. He would sit with me as I took tea in the lodges, however, and regale me with his passion for protecting Tanzania’s mountains. When I asked him if he didn’t consider his responsibility to provide for his family the priority, he responded, “Bila mazingira, hakuna binadamu pia.” Without the environment, there cannot be humans either. I was taken aback by the wisdom of this statement from a 21-year-old porter. I only wish that TANAPA has a similar attitude.
To summit Mt. Meru, you must leave camp long before dawn, as early as 11 PM the previous night, depending on your fitness. There is a certain freedom to this hike, as you are far above the line of dangerous fauna and can proceed with your guide at your own pace. Under the brilliant African sky you scramble over granite slabs and up an unending ashen rim until you stumble upon the rime-encrusted signboard teetering over a steep cliff.
When I summited with my guide Hussein, we were quickly engulfed in a thick and freezing fog pummeled up the mountain by the vicious winds sweeping in from the northern plains. Even with four jackets and two pairs of gloves, my right side was soon numb and fingers too stiff to operate my camera. We trudged forward, almost entirely blind; if Hussein advanced fifteen feet in front of me, he disappeared. As I gritted my teeth to stop them chattering and kicked my toes against rocks to unfreeze them, I was reminded that, ultimately, no government, no human, no living thing can exert any authority on what is truly wild and free. We just put labels on it and try to survive.
We reached the peak at precisely 5:59 AM. To the south and east a stark and ominous silhouette flashed like a beacon against the crimson dawn as furious dark clouds whipped in and out of view. Kilimanjaro, the great white mountain, Ol’doinyo’oibor. Try as they might, no one really controls these mountains. They still, and will, reign supreme over this unparalleled landscape as long as humans exist and beyond.