~ The Road from Kilimanjaro ~
by KG MacGregor
Disclaimers: This story is uber-esque, with main characters that resemble a couple of familiar faces. Any other similarities to persons living or dead are coincidental.
This story depicts a consenting sexual relationship between adult women, and on occasion, between animals in the wild. There is occasional bad language from the humans; the baboons are incorrigible.
Thanks to my beta reader, Tami, who always gives me more time than she has. Thanks also to my Sweetcakes, who has the final authority on everything that goes out.
Johannesburg to Moshi
Mary Kate Sasser stared out the window of the Air Tanzania A-300, frustrated that the cloud cover had obscured her first peek of the terrain below. Though July wasn't considered the rainy season in the tropical part of East Africa, there really was no dry season per se, just certain times of the year that seemed to get less rain than others. She hoped they wouldn't have to deal with bad weather over the next sixteen days, but her rain gear was packed just in case.
Mary Kate was exhausted, despite the fact that she'd been sitting so long. A last minute seating change on the flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg had landed her in 46-E, the center seat of the middle section in the next to last row. It was very possibly the worst seat on the plane, given the large man next to her who slumped on her shoulder as he snored. On the other side was a baby with an extraordinary set of lungs. When the 15-hour flight finally landed at seven a.m., the petite blonde vowed not to sit again until she boarded her afternoon connection.
Now two hours into the second leg, Mary Kate checked her watch. The local time was 2:15 p.m., and it was?Saturday? Luckily, she had a whole day to recover at the hotel before the official start of her excursion.
The blonde woman's thoughts returned to Bobby, who had come along with her on this trip after all; at least it sure seemed like he was here, since he'd occupied her mind ever since dropping her at the airport. His parting words had set the tone for her ruminations of the last 24 hours.
"I'll be glad when you get back and this is all out of your system, Mary Kate. We've got some serious things to talk about then." Most people back home would say that Bobby Britton was a catch. After all, he was a college graduate with an important job, assistant principal at the elementary school where Mary Kate taught special education. But there were other things that distinguished him from most of the men in Mooresville, Georgia: Bobby didn't smoke, chew, or dip tobacco; he drove a car instead of a truck; and unless he was out coaching the high school baseball team, he seldom wore a cap. Those were all favorable attributes, as far as Mary Kate was concerned. Still, they'd been dating almost two years, and every time she tried to imagine them married, it left her unsettled, even depressed. He presented her with a ring last Christmas, but she'd insisted that it was too soon to consider that. Thank God he'd had the good sense to give it to her in private, but it caused a stir anyway, since he'd already told her parents and sister about it. They were all disappointed, but Mary Kate had remained steadfast. She wasn't going to make a commitment like that unless she was sure, and this one just didn't feel right.
"Bobby?," Mary Kate was exasperated, "?there's nothing 'in my system'. This is serious to me. If you'd been paying the least little bit of attention for the last six months, you'd have realized that this isn't some little mindless whim."
"You know what I mean. I'm talking about things that are important to both of us."
Mary Kate sighed. "Tell me, why is it that things that are important to us don't include things that are important to me?"
"Look, honey, what you need is important to me. That's why I want you to go and do this. But when you get back, we should talk about how we're going to make decisions from now on. I don't want to be standing here next year seeing you off to Mongolia or some South American jungle."
"Don't worry, Bobby. You won't."
The young man misunderstood that and claimed victory in his head.
But it was soon after she'd decided to come to Africa that things started really heading south for Bobby and Mary Kate. She hadn't exactly used the words "I'm breaking up with you," but her intensive training schedule had made her a lot less available, and she had used a hundred excuses - her period, sore muscles, time constraints, anything - to avoid intimacy ever since she made up her mind three months ago that it was definitely time to call it quits. It was going to be hard to deal with everybody and their expectations; her family wouldn't understand it at all. On top of that, there was the inevitable awkwardness at school. It wasn't so bad that she'd have to still see him every day; it was more that all of the teachers and secretaries would whisper and gossip. In the end, they would blame it all on her decision to come to Africa.
Holy shit! The daunting spectacle that appeared suddenly as the descending plane banked left drew gasps from a number of her fellow passengers, some of whom left their seats to stare out the window on her side. Just beneath them - soaring above the clouds at 19,340 feet - was her ultimate destination: the glacier-capped crest of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
In her 26 years, Mary Kate had never been so awed. The long-dormant volcano below her did not look at all like something a normal person with only foothills hiking experience could conquer. Ever since she'd started training for this trip last February, her singular focus had been to stand atop Uhuru Peak, the very top of the crater rim. And until this very moment, she had managed to suppress her own self-doubts about her chances for success. But now that she'd seen the massive tower up close, she was intimidated as hell.
The pictures she'd seen didn't do the actual sight justice.
"That's amazing! Can you imagine being able to just walk all the way to the top of a glacier like that?" Mary Kate had been glued to the television in her boyfriend's apartment for the last two hours watching the documentary on PBS.
"It must not be any big deal," Bobby scoffed. He had been working on the school's budget, paying only scant attention to the program. "I mean, look at those people who did it. Some of them were old. And a lot of them were women."
"What kind of crack is that?"
"You know what I mean. It doesn't take that much if all you have to do is walk to the top."
"But that's what makes it so cool. Most people who dream of conquering something like that aren't ever going to climb a mountain like Everest. The show said that only three out of 10 make it to the top of Kilimanjaro, but it's the sort of challenge that's within reach for even ordinary people." An idea had taken root, and Mary Kate was growing more and more fascinated with the prospect.
"Well, that's just it. If ordinary people can do it, then what's the big deal?"
"I think it would be fun to do a climb like that. And it's in Africa!"
"That's not even a climb, Mary Kate. It's a hike! If I'm going to climb something, I'd rather climb something more challenging, like Everest or the Matterhorn."
Yeah, like Bobby Britton would ever do something like that! He almost passed on going to college because it meant leaving Hurston County.
Unable to get the image of the mountain out of her head, Mary Kate went online to learn more. Three weeks after the program aired, she had gathered information packets from three expedition outfits, two books on East Africa trekking, and almost a hundred pages of first-hand accounts, downloaded from the Internet. Without telling a soul, she'd sent her non-refundable $1,000 deposit to the Summit Trail and Safari Company, reserving her place on a trek in early July, the week of the full moon.
Two weeks after she'd made the commitment, Mary Kate decided to ask Bobby to come along, still not confessing that she'd already booked the trip. Again, he ridiculed the idea, suggesting instead that they spend a week in Orlando or maybe Myrtle Beach, like they had last year.
"Vacations are for relaxing, Mary Kate."
"But it doesn't have to be like that every single time. Don't you ever get the urge to do something different? Not just different from what you always do, but different from what everybody in Mooresville does. I really want to go climb this mountain," she pleaded.
"Well, you go right ahead," he said smugly, certain that his dismissal would squelch her desire for this silly pursuit. "I'll just go to Disney World and Epcot by myself."
"Suit yourself, Bobby, because I've already sent my money in. The first week in July, I'm going to Africa."
"What?" Bobby was livid, incredulous that she would have done this on her own, without even asking him first if it was okay. "Mary Kate, that's not right. We're practically engaged. You shouldn't be deciding things like this all by yourself."
"Why not, Bobby? You decided all by yourself that you didn't want to go. I didn't get a say in that. What makes you think you can decide for me too?" Disney World? "Besides, we are not - I repeat, not - practically engaged."
It was then that Mary Kate decided that she must be sending Bobby all the wrong signals. Obviously, he assumed that it was only a matter of time before she came around and accepted his proposal. She was not going to vacation in goddamn Disney World. Next year, they'd probably go back to Myrtle Beach, and the year after that, he'd want to go to Branson! Then they'd just start all over again. Where was the excitement in that?
Storming out of her boyfriend's apartment after that, the biggest fight they'd ever had, Mary Kate drove over to see her best friend Deb Demers and extended the same invitation. The two women had been friends since grade school, and even though the two of them going off together on a trip like this would have surely set the tongues in Mooresville to wagging, Mary Kate was for the moment beyond caring what people said about her.
When Deb heard the details of the trip, she grew envious of her friend. The woman would have given her left kidney to go, but unfortunately couldn't leave her ailing mother in what would likely be her last summer.
Exactly one month before Mary Kate was scheduled to leave, Bobby changed his mind, no doubt realizing that his staunch refusal had put distance between the two of them. But for her, it was too little, too late.
"But you haven't trained!" she protested.
"It doesn't matter, Mary Kate. I'm in pretty good shape. It's just a walk. Anybody can do that. Besides, you shouldn't go by yourself."
"No, Bobby. I've been working out for six months. I do the stair climber for an hour a day carrying a 30 pound pack. I don't want you to jump in at the last minute just because you don't happen to think I can go by myself." She was steamed.
"Come on, Mary Kate. You're just afraid that I'll make it to the top without doing any of the training."
"It isn't always about you, Bobby. You had your chance to be a part of this with me and you said no. Now it's about what I want, and I want to go alone."
So here Mary Kate was, almost 10,000 miles from home, all alone with her dream of being one of the minority who actually reached Uhuru Peak. Despite her rigorous training and detailed preparation, she was worried that success might come down to little more than a roll of the dice. Was she indeed fit enough to endure seven days of uphill hiking? None of the trails around Mooresville were comparable to what she'd face on Kilimanjaro; and even though she'd taken a weekend trip to the mountains of North Carolina, she hadn't been able to test herself with two long hikes on back-to-back days.
There was also the matter of avoiding injury and illness. One of the stories she'd read off the Internet was from a climber who had rolled an ankle on the third day and was unable to continue. Others reported intestinal bugs that left them too feverish and weak to walk. She couldn't imagine going all that way to be felled by something so out of her own control.
But the biggest question was whether or not her body would tolerate the altitude. Some people were genetically predisposed to problems, and she had no way of knowing if she would be afflicted. The temptation for serious climbers - and for fitness enthusiasts - was to charge up the mountain quickly. But it was critical to let your body gradually adapt to the change; thus the mantra for tackling Kili was "pole pole," the Swahili word for "very slowly."
The most popular mountain route - the Marangu Route - boasted only a 10 percent success rate to the summit, partly because the ascent was accomplished in four days, leaving little time for one's body to adjust to the altitude. But another reason most Marangu hikers didn't finish was that the final push for the crater rim at Gillman's Point left them too exhausted to traverse the ridge to Uhuru.
To improve her chances of getting all the way to the top, Mary Kate opted for the less-traveled Lemosho Glades route, entering the park at Londorossi Gate, about 20 miles west of the peak. The gradual ascent to their summit camp at Barafu Hut - six days on more than 40 miles of trails - allowed for better acclimatization, with the added bonus of extraordinary scenery along the way. Unlike those on the Marangu Route, who would sleep in bunkhouses each night, Lemosho Glades hikers would share two-person tents.
Mary Kate gripped her armrests tightly, as crosswinds on the savannah made their approach more interesting than she would have liked, the lumbering jet bouncing along in its descent toward the small Kilimanjaro International Airport.
The pilots do this every day. They aren't afraid; I shouldn't be afraid either, Mary Kate told herself as her stomach disagreed. This was only the second time she had flown in her whole life, the first having been a quick trip from Savannah to Charlotte for her roommate's wedding during her college days at Savannah State. She envied the casual attitude of the passengers around her, and tried hard to emulate them.
Finally letting out a breath as the wheels touched down, Mary Kate watched the small terminal flash by as the jet slowed. When they turned to taxi, she reached under the seat to collect her bag, a small backpack she would use as a handbag during the five day safari she had tacked onto the end of her trip. Her larger backpack - the one she would carry up the mountain each day - was situated in the overhead bin.
Her weariness forgotten, the excited woman pulled out her brand new passport, open and ready for its second immigration stamp. Her bags had been transferred - she hoped - by Delta Airlines in Johannesburg, but she still had to pass through immigration in South Africa. Now in Tanzania, she'd have to pass through both immigration and customs. Unfortunately, she was one of the last passengers off the plane, and that put her at the back of the line.
Finally clearing passport control, Mary Kate proceeded rapidly to baggage claim, anxious because of a story she'd read where luggage was pilfered by the locals while its owners were stuck in line. Finding that most of the bags had been offloaded and stacked next to the wall, it was easy to spot the bright yellow duffle bag, compliments of Summit Trail and Safari Company. It wasn't that Summit was generous to its clients; rather, providing a regulation bag was the company's method of ensuring that no one over-packed. After a brief panic, she found her second bag, this one a green duffle carrying her sleeping bag, cold weather gear, and walking sticks. "Thank goodness," she murmured dragging the canvas across the concrete floor.
"Lucky you. My ugly yellow Summit bag didn't make it."
Mary Kate turned and found herself face to face with a young man she had glimpsed in the departure lounge in Atlanta. He was only a little taller than she, slightly built, maybe a few years older, with a balding crew cut. As she recalled, he was among the last to board their flight to Johannesburg.
"You didn't get your bags?" she asked, alarmed at his predicament, and oh-so-relieved that it wasn't hers.
He shook his head dejectedly. "No, I was afraid that was going to happen. My flight from Kansas City got delayed, and I just barely had enough time to make the plane in Atlanta. I'm Vince, by the way." The young man held out his hand.
"Hi, Vince. I'm Kate." During her high school days in Mooresville, she had tried to get friends and family to use the shortened name, but they wouldn't go for it.
"You sound like you're from Atlanta," he said.
"Not Atlanta, exactly, but near there. What are you going to do about your stuff?" Mary Kate couldn't imagine how Vince managed to remain so calm. She'd planned since February for this trip, carefully selecting each and every item that was essential to the success of this climb. There was nothing in her bags that she could do without!
"I'm not sure. I doubt it will get here before this time tomorrow. And we leave first thing tomorrow morning." He knew even that was wishful thinking. The growing crowd at the baggage counter suggested that lost luggage wasn't all that unusual here in Tanzania. "I guess I should go report it, huh? Let's hope someone speaks English."
A half hour later, Vince joined her at the open air airport café, where several of the trekkers waited for the shuttle bus to their hotel. "Bad news. There isn't another flight from Atlanta to Johannesburg until Tuesday."
"Oh, that's right! That's why I had to come a day early. My trek doesn't leave until Monday morning."
"So you're not with our group. That explains why your name didn't ring a bell." All of the Summit trekkers had gotten a list of their climbing companions. "Which route are you taking?"
"Lemosho Glades. What about you?" Mary Kate opened up the map she'd been studying earlier.
"We merge with the Machame Route at Shira 2 on Wednesday night. And you leave tomorrow, so that means you'll be at Shira 2 on Monday, and summit on Friday morning. We don't go up until Sunday morning."
"Wow, you've really studied this!"
"You say study; my boyfriend says obsess." Mary Kate no longer thought of Bobby Britton as her boyfriend, but figured it was best if the guys here thought she was attached.
"So which is it?"
"Probably somewhere in the middle, I guess. I'm a planner. I like to make sure I'm covered for all contingencies." Bobby always did the same thing, but he called it being practical. When she did it, he would tease her about being compulsive.
"So what was your plan if your luggage didn't make it?"
"Are you kidding? I would have planned to have a nervous breakdown! But at least I'm already wearing my boots, and I have my camera and toiletries in my backpack." She lifted the heavy pack. "Oh, and two changes of clothing."
Vince rummaged through his own backpack and pulled out a portfolio of travel documents. "I have a few things in here, but all my cold-weather stuff is in my Summit bag. It says here to call this number if you run into any problems. Maybe I should go do that."
For the third time, Mary Kate checked her itinerary to confirm that the shuttle bus would pick them up in a half hour, at 4:45. Gradually, more people filed into the small café, including a young couple who carried Summit bags like hers. Mary Kate waved them over.
"Hi, I see you're with the Summit group too." Shaking hands with the tall man, she introduced herself. "I'm Kate Sasser."
"Hi, Kate. I'm David Kuentzel, and this is my wife, Kako."
"How do you do?" the woman asked politely, her Japanese accent very pronounced.
"I'm fine. It's good to meet you both." Mary Kate's own southern accent was also quite prominent. "Are you going up tomorrow or Monday?"
"Tomorrow," David answered. "There are supposed to be five of us."
"I go Monday. That guy over there in the green t-shirt is supposed to go with you guys tomorrow. But his bags didn't get transferred in Atlanta, so he's calling Summit to figure out what to do."
"Man, that sucks!"
Vince slung his heavy backpack over one shoulder and ambled toward the group. "They said I could get a sleeping bag at the hotel, and maybe a jacket or something. Then if my bags come in on Wednesday, they'll have one of the porters run them up to Karanga Valley."
"Sounds like a plan," Mary Kate enthused. Vince didn't need to face the question of what would happen if his bags didn't arrive on the next flight.
"So you guys came from Atlanta?" David asked.
"I'm from Kansas City, but I flew Delta into Atlanta and we were late getting in. We changed in Johannesburg to Air Tanzania," Vince clarified. "You guys must have come from Amsterdam on KLM."
"Yeah. Seattle to Detroit to Amsterdam to here. We thought it was going to be awful, but it was actually a good thing that we had a chance to walk around between flights. We left on the redeye Thursday night."
"Well, right now, I'm wishing I'd come that way too. At least they have three flights a day into here," Vince lamented.
A white Toyota bus pulled into the circle in front of the café, its faded paper sign reading "Moshi," the village that would serve as their base for the climb. At once, two young men dressed in ill-fitting workpants and wide-collared short sleeved shirts exited and began loading the duffle bags onto the roof of the bus. As soon as she'd seen her bags secured on top, Mary Kate boarded the bus and sat next to her new friends.
The trip to the hotel took them by large open fields, dotted with small dome-shaped huts.
"Masai," Kako explained. "They were warriors; now they herd cattle, which are sacred to them. Most of them wear the traditional red cloths. They are very noble."
"Have you been here before Kako?" Mary Kate wondered how the woman knew so much.
"No, David and I have heard the stories from Tom Muncie." Muncie was the owner of Summit Trail and Safari Company.
"He has an office in the building where I work," David explained.
"You're kidding! You mean to say that a guy whose main business is in Africa has his office in Seattle?" Mary Kate was astonished at the realization that it really was a small world for some people.
"That's right. That's why we decided to do this trip. Tom told a bunch of us about it at a Christmas party last year, and I think we're the fifth or sixth couple from my building to do it."
"So what's he like? I mean, in the brochure he looks like a real party guy," Vince observed.
David laughed. "Well, let's just say that the picture in the brochure is a pretty old one. I think Tom has partied out, if you ask me. He only comes over here about once a year, and he hasn't done Kili since 1994."
"I talked to him a couple of times on the phone. I was kind of hoping he'd be here." Mary Kate had wanted to hear the tales of Tom's adventures. "What made you decide to do this, Vince?"
The young man smiled pensively. "Well, it's like this. I'm getting married in September, and it was my job to plan the honeymoon. So I went to see a travel agent and they had this big poster in the window, you know, with the giraffe standing in front of the mountain. I tell you, it just sucked me right in," he chuckled. "But since Brandy isn't exactly the outdoors type, I had to get this over with before the wedding, you know. She had something a little more?civilized in mind for our honeymoon."
"Well imagine that," Mary Kate joked.
"So how come you're here?" he countered.
Mary Kate told the group about seeing the special on television, and how she was drawn to the challenge. Her story was interrupted by a speed bump that sent them all sailing out of their seats.
"Samahani," called the driver.
"That must be Swahili for 'sorry,'" David suggested.
"Yeah, or 'bite me,'" Vince offered.
After almost an hour of bouncing over the rugged paved road, the bus finally entered a roundabout in what looked to be a small town. The structures weren't exactly modern, but compared to the huts they had passed on the way from the airport, they were castles. Some of the small buildings were wood frame, but most were made of cinderblock. They were purple, bright blue, orange; obviously, there were no neighborhood associations in Moshi dictating what colors one might choose to paint a home or business.
"Who goes to Keys Hotel?" the driver asked.
"That's us," Mary Kate spoke up, pointing to herself and her three companions.
"You change here to other bus," he gestured.
The foursome climbed out and waited while the two riders climbed to the top and passed down their gear.
"Wait! I have one more bag, a green one."
The driver called up to the men on top, and they rummaged through the bags in search of hers. After a fruitless search, the driver proposed a solution.
"We will take the others to their hotel, then bring your bag to Keys."
The idea of separating from her cold weather gear was one she wouldn't consider at all. "No, I'll find it." Before he could stop her, Mary Kate climbed the ladder on the back of the bus, crawling through the bags until she spotted hers on the bottom of the pile. Gesturing to the men on top, they extracted it and passed it down.
"That was pretty gutsy, Kate," David congratulated her. "But for all you know, you just violated the most sacred laws of their religion."
"That's right," Vince added conspiratorially. "I think I read somewhere that women weren't allowed to climb anything that put them higher than men."
"Oh, stop it!" Mary Kate said, swatting her new friend playfully on the arm.
"And then you went and hit me! I swear, Kate, they're going to haul you off to jail," he teased.
"Gosh, could you imagine what a jail would be like here?" David mused.
"No, and we're not going to find out." Mary Kate was adamant, lugging her bags onto the second bus.
Vince reached over and picked up her Summit bag. "You know, I should have pointed to one of the other bags up there. Maybe he would have thrown it off and nobody would have known the difference."
"Yeah, but with your luck, it probably would have been full of women's underwear," the blonde woman joked.
"And that would have been bad because??"
A short trip on the second bus landed them in front of the Keys Hotel, a family owned inn, with a bar, a restaurant, a row of rooms upstairs, and cottages out back. The lobby was appointed in red velvet benches and chairs, with rich ebony wood floors and a long mahogany counter. As was the case in most public buildings, a portrait of Tanzania's president was displayed prominently. Triple-A might have given the place two stars; but here in Tanzania, it was one of the finer establishments.
The new friends agreed to meet for dinner in one hour, and headed to their rooms to shower and change. Electricity was available until 10 o'clock, and only then if they were lucky.
Assigned to one of the rooms upstairs, Mary Kate was momentarily taken aback by the sight of her room: the twin beds were pushed together and completely enclosed in white mosquito netting. Well, of course. Malaria was a problem in East Africa, and one of the Internet reports she'd read told of swarming mosquitoes in some of the hotels. A small shelf provided a space for her two duffle bags and the backpack. When they left for their hike, she would have to repack the essential items in only one bag. But for now, the first order of business was a hot shower.
Or just a shower, she would find. Hot water was scarce, given the restrictions on electricity. She could wait while the water warmed a bit, or hurry through and get dressed. Opting for the latter, she hoped to have a little time before dinner to organize her things.
David, Kako, and Vince were already seated when Mary Kate arrived at the restaurant. Dinner was buffet style, and featured standard Western fare: roast beef, noodles, and tomatoes. Tom had warned everyone off the raw vegetables early in their trip, so the salad bowl was left untouched; but he had encouraged them to try the ugali, a local dish prepared with grain.
"Did you guys remember to take your Larium today?" Vince asked.
Larium was prescribed as a guard against malaria, and most doctors recommended the once-a-week dosage be taken on Saturdays. Mary Kate had taken hers last week, and again at the airport in Johannesburg. She would continue the treatment for three weeks after returning home.
"Yeah, I can't wait to see what kind of dreams I have tonight," quipped David. The medication was notorious for launching the most bizarre dreams. "Last week, I dreamed that my dog went with me to work."
"What's so weird about that?" Mary Kate asked.
The Keys Hotel in Moshi
"You guys have to come look at this," Vince said excitedly, coaxing his friends from their breakfast. They all hurried outside into the street, where they had their first clear view of the awesome mountain. Since they'd descended below the cloud cover yesterday, the peak had been obscured, but the clouds were gone today, at least for the moment.
"Just think, Vince. By the end of the week, you'll be standing at the top," the blonde woman said.
"I hope so," he answered. "I have to tell you, I'm worried that I'm not going to last long without warmer clothes. If it gets too cold up there, I'll have to come back down."
An hour later, Vince, David and Kako - their two travel mates had been delayed - assembled their packs on the front porch, waiting for a ride to the Machame trailhead. Mary Kate came down with a small plastic bag.
"Vince? Listen, I packed three pairs of long johns. This pair is the biggest - I got it to wear over the other ones."
"Hey look, I'm not going to take your clothes. You'll need those," he protested.
"Sure you are. I can get by on two. And here's an extra pair of socks in case your feet get wet, and a long-sleeved t-shirt. Did you get a coat?"
"Yeah, they had a fleece jacket. It ought to do me until Wednesday."
"Well good luck. And wave to me from the top. I'll be at Barranco," she laughed.
"Thanks, Kate. Good luck to you too. Hey, I'll leave this stuff here at the hotel when I get back."
"That's alright. If you end up wearing them for three or four days in a row, I doubt I'll want them back," she said, scrunching her nose with mock distaste. "Just leave me a note when you get back, okay?"
"Yeah, I'll probably have to wear them all the time to keep them from walking down on their own. I'll leave some cash, okay?"
"Stop it! Take them. Just get to the top, okay?" Mary Kate turned to the Kuentzels. "Good luck to you two. Take care of yourselves. I'll be right behind you."
The hikers climbed into a Toyota Land Cruiser and headed out. Their adventure was officially underway.
Mary Kate considered going back upstairs to bed, but stopped herself, worried that she might not be able to sleep that night. It was important to get acclimated to the new time zone. Instead, she changed into her long pants - actually, they were convertibles, the pant legs unzipping to make shorts - for a walk into the village. It was considered disrespectful in Tanzania for women to wear shorts in most public places, but the hotel staff assured her it was okay at the hotel as long as she stayed on the grounds.
Moshi was a bustling village, with a considerable amount of street traffic near the roundabout. Open vans that overflowed with passengers stopped frequently to allow people to jump on or off. Mary Kate couldn't imagine what kind of currency governed this form of public transportation, as there seemed to be no exchange of coin.
Obviously, the merchants were accustomed to the hiking crowd; several of the stores sold t-shirts with the giant mountain's image. Also available were ebony carvings of elephants, giraffes, and lions; and beads of every size and color. The blonde woman reminded herself to start a list of what kinds of gifts she should take back to her friends and family.
Mary Kate smiled as she saw the first evidence that the 21st century had indeed reached Moshi: a sign up ahead beckoned all into the New York Internet Café. Entering the crowded shop, she was ushered to an open terminal, where she immediately accessed her email account. Most of her messages were from friends who wished her luck on her climb. The last one was from Bobby, who hadn't entered her thoughts once all day.
By the time you get this, you'll be back in my arms, fresh from "conquering" that big old mountain in Africa. I wanted to write this note so you'd be able to see how soon I started missing you.
I wish I was with you right now. You must know how I worry for your safety. These are scary times, especially in other parts of the world. Maybe the next time you decide to go off on an adventure like this one, we can find something we'd both like right here in the good old US of A.
I can't wait to hear all about your trip. I'm sure you'll make it to the top, but if you don't, please know that I'll love you anyway.
Mary Kate shuddered at the intonations. The little quote marks around the word conquering were Bobby's inside joke, a patronizing gesture that only he found funny. The hours on the plane had hardened her resolve. She and Bobby Britton were finished.
Too bad it wasn't that easy. Mooresville was too small a town to just blow him off and move on. Everybody and their little sister would have to weigh in on what a fool she was. Mary Kate sighed deeply and hit the reply key. This disengagement was obviously going to take a while longer, especially since Bobby seemed clueless that anything was amiss in their relationship. As soon as she got home, Mary Kate would begin to spell things out more forcefully; but for now, she'd just placate him with a friendly note.
Greetings from Tanzania!
Would you believe I found an Internet café in this little village! It's so interesting to see all the young people crowded into here, all looking things up and reading the news about the rest of the world.
The mountain looks enormous from here, and the glacier on top makes it seem so far away. The first time I saw it was from the plane, and it just took my breath away. I'm really excited about the climb. I met some other climbers but no one from my group. I should meet everyone at dinner tonight, since we leave first thing tomorrow morning.
Would you please let Mom & Dad know that I got here okay, and that everything is going fine so far? I'll try to write again when we get back down next Monday.
Love to all, Mary Kate
More than anything, Mary Kate wished her friend Deb had been able to come along. This was just the sort of thing that both of them would have enjoyed, and both would have been confident that the other would be there for her no matter what. There wasn't another person on earth that made Mary Kate feel so secure.
Hey girl! I just wanted you to know that I'm here in Tanzania looking at this ENORMOUS mountain, wishing like hell you were here to climb it with me. I'm going to think of you a lot on this trip, and I want you to start saving your nickels. If I don't make it to the top, I'm going to try again, and if I do, then I still want to do it with you!
I've been thinking a lot on the way over about Bobby, and I've decided that when I get home, I'm going to break up with him. I just wanted to let you know in advance, because when word gets out, you'll probably be the only one in Mooresville still speaking to me.
Love you lots, Mary Kate
At seven that night, Mary Kate wandered down to the restaurant for dinner, hoping to finally meet her hiking companions.
"Your new friends are there," the waiter said, pointing to a table set for 10; eight others were already seated.
"Hi, I'm Kate. You're all with Summit?"
Amid a chorus of "hellos," Mary Kate moved to an empty seat at the end of the long table. One by one, the others introduced themselves, but everyone conceded that it would take them a day or so to remember names. Tonight's casual dinner was a good opportunity for breaking the ice.
Tammy was a senior art major at the University of Missouri. From photos, she had been painting water colors of wild animals and African terrain. Finally, she thought it was high time she saw things up close for herself. Noticing that the girl had said a quiet blessing before dinner, Mary Kate made a mental note to try to watch her language around Tammy.
Laurel and Kendra were sisters, originally from Pittsburgh. Laurel still lived there, working as an administrative assistant for an automotive manufacturer; Kendra had moved to New York, where she managed office space for a realtor in Manhattan. The sisters were close, but hadn't had much time together over the last few years because of their jobs.
Jack was Laurel's boyfriend, and the three seemed to have an easy rapport. Jack was an attorney - a confessed "ambulance chaser" - and he seemed like a really nice guy.
Another couple, Trevor and Leah, were longtime friends of the two sisters. All four of them had attended college together at Penn State. This trip was a reunion, a last chance to get together before Trevor moved to Tokyo to start a new job. Leah hoped to follow if she could effect a transfer within her company.
Ann was from St. Paul, a 45-year-old mother of three teenage boys. She shocked her entire household when she announced last February that they were on their own for summer vacations this year. She was going to Africa!
The last one in the party was Drew, who moved his seat so he could join Mary Kate at the end of the table. Drew was from San Diego, a financial analyst for the biotech industry. He was thirty years old and quite friendly, maybe even overly friendly, the blonde woman thought.
"I thought there were supposed to be 10 of us," Trevor said.
"I've got the paper with me," Kendra answered. "Let's have a roll call."
Laurel looked over her sister's shoulder. "That's who's missing. Kristin Addison, from Bloomington, Indiana."
Mary Kate immediately recognized the name of her safari companion. Since she was traveling on her own, she'd consented to be paired with someone else at the safari lodges so both could get the double occupancy rate.
So if she doesn't show, will I have to pay extra?
The tall brunette stalked back and forth in front of the now-closed airport café. Her plane from Amsterdam had arrived an hour late and she'd just missed the shuttle's next to last regular run.
"Are you sure that shuttle bus is the only way to get to Moshi?" She had enough cash to hire a car.
The airport attendant nodded. "But it come back in one hour," he cajoled.
Kristin Addison checked her watch: a quarter past nine. She had missed dinner, and would probably not get to bed before midnight, since she had to sort her equipment for the climb.
Cyn Richards, a fellow PhD student at Indiana University, had advised her on what to pack for the trip. Cyn and her partner had climbed Kili two years ago, and encouraged her to give it a try.
"You need to clear your head, Kris. You've done nothing but work 18 hours a day for the last two and a half years. I tell you, it's a spiritual experience. It'll put everything in perspective for you."
The stress had been growing steadily in Kristin's life. It wasn't just the demands of her clinical psych program, though her dissertation and counseling sessions with couples and families tied her up for almost 80 hours each week. It was also the self-imposed isolation, Kristin's response to being burned by her lover Rebecca, then spurned by their mutual friends. That was over a year ago, but she had put her personal life on hold for now, reasoning that she had little to offer while she was totally absorbed in her work. Her circle of close friends included just Cyn and Andrea, and she saw them only when they wouldn't take no for an answer, about once a month.
Andrea pulled out the pictures of their trek to tempt their friend.
"It really does look beautiful," Kristin conceded.
"The pictures don't do it justice." Cyn told her. "And it isn't just the 'man against nature' thing. It's about teamwork, and friendship, and support. There really are some great people out there. And I think in a situation like this one, you'll see them all at their best."
"And you'll have to do the safari thing too," Andrea encouraged. "Seeing the animals in the wild will just take your breath away."
And so it was, Kristin was finally in Tanzania, ready to start her relaxing adventure. She was also going to give this teamwork-friendship thing a try too, she'd decided. Cyn had kidded her about her tough "I don't need anybody" attitude, but the real truth was that she had been disappointed in the past when she allowed herself to depend on people. Erin had chosen escape over their friendship; Pilar had chosen the closet; and Rebecca had chosen someone named Tiffany.
Kristin's new philosophy was that friendships - and more intimate relationships, as well - were all about managing expectations. If you don't expect them to endure, you're less likely to be disappointed.
And speaking of those more intimate relationships, the tall brunette had convinced herself after Rebecca that she didn't need that right now. Not a solitary person by nature, she liked sharing things with someone special, but she hadn't met anyone lately that she wanted to spend a lot of time with. That was just as well, considering that no one seemed to feel that way about her either.
Glancing at her watch again, Kristin had an idea about how to make the most of the time she would spend waiting. Using three of the small tables in the deserted café, she began sorting her gear, loading everything she would need in her backpack and the bright yellow Summit bag. Five minutes after she'd finished, the shuttle finally arrived.
Day 1 - Mti Mkubwa
Cute! Kristin was mesmerized by the laughing blonde at the long table. Too bad about that guy she was with; grudgingly, she admitted to herself that they looked good together.
"Excuse me, miss. That is your Summit group," the waiter told her.
Kristin picked up her plate of sticky pastries and moved to join her fellow hikers, automatically gravitating to the petite blonde. "Hi," she said, almost shyly. From the animated conversations, it was apparent that everyone else in the group knew each other already.
Mary Kate turned to greet the new arrival, startled by the bluest eyes she'd ever seen. "Hi yourself," she said. "I bet you're Kristin Addison."
"That's right," Kristin answered, infinitely glad that the cute woman with the most charming southern accent already knew her name.
"I'm Kate Sasser, and if you couldn't tell already, I'm from Georgia." Mary Kate couldn't tear her eyes away from this tall brunette. With her angular cheekbones and slim figure, she looked like a model.
Ping! There was something about Kate Sasser that jumped out at Kristin?something captivating. Unless she was totally off-base, the cute little blonde had just checked her out.
Mary Kate was pinned in place by the blue eyes, and more than a little intrigued by the crooked smile. "I'm glad you made it. We missed you at dinner last night."
"My plane was late," she explained, still smiling, glad to know she'd been missed.
The blonde shook off her unexpected fascination. "So, let me fill you in on the rest of our motley crew. This is Drew, from San Diego."
Drew stood up straight, feeling it important to demonstrate that he had at least an inch or two on this towering beauty. "Really nice to meet you," he said with his best smile.
"And this is?no, wait, I can do this! This is Ann, from Minnesota." Mary Kate mocked the upper Midwestern accent, just as they had all playfully mocked hers. "And this is Laurel, and her sister Kendra. They are from Pittsburgh, as is this hilarious man next to them. He is Jack, and he belongs to Laurel."
"In his dreams," Laurel joked, but she grabbed his knee under the table just the same.
"And this is Trevor and Leah, from Philadelphia, who appear to like each other very much, if you catch my drift. Trevor and Leah and Laurel and Kendra all went to Penn State together. They seem to think that makes them special." Mary Kate invoked the voice of the Church Lady. "And this is Tammy, from Columbia, Missouri."
Everyone at the table applauded Mary Kate's successful recitation.
Kristin nodded to each one, and finally introduced herself. "And I'm from Miami, but right now, I'm in grad school at Indiana University."
"What are you studying?" Tammy asked. At least she wasn't the only student in the group.
"Well that will probably come in handy on this trip. You can manage the psych evacs," Mary Kate quipped.
"You know, the evacuations off the mountain for psychological reasons."
"I see. Well, I hadn't exactly planned on this being a working vacation, but I'll be happy to help out where I can." Kristin was falling easily into the banter of the group. Clearly, everyone got along already, and unless she was mistaken, this very cute blonde was paired with her on the safari.
After breakfast, the hikers returned to their rooms for their gear. Each person was allowed only the Summit bag and a personal backpack. Everything else would be locked in a room at the hotel. Valuables - passports, airplane tickets, extra cash, credit cards, and jewelry - were itemized and inventoried, then stowed in the hotel safe in sealed envelopes.
Mary Kate waited patiently at the hotel counter for an extra pen while the tall brunette filled out her list. The woman's colorful keychain caught her eye as she slipped it inside the envelope. Deb Demers had one like that, a rainbow flag. Most of the folks in Mooresville were clueless as to its symbolic nature, but Mary Kate knew what it meant, and the realization sent a rush through her that was both exciting and unnerving. Kristin wasn't anything like the lesbians at Savannah College.
At last, the party was ready to go. A rugged Toyota bus - the Japanese auto manufacturer had done well in Tanzania - waited at the front porch, and a tall, muscular black man exited to speak to the group.
"I am John. I will be your trail guide for the trip to the top of Kili. Today, we will drive for three hours to enter the park at Londorossi Gate. Everyone must have the passport number written down. It is required to enter the park. When we reach the trail, we will hike through the rainforest for four hours to Mti Mkubwa - which means to you Big Tree - where we will camp for the night. You will be tired tonight. Do not forget to drink water, even if you are not thirsty - three liters each day."
Drinking lots of water was prescribed as the best defense against altitude sickness. The reduced air pressure and the thin air at higher altitudes combined to interfere with the body's normal exchange of oxygen at the cell level. The increased water intake would help the exchange; and a slow, gradual ascent would give the body time to adapt.
Altitude sickness was the number one reason most people failed to conquer Kili. Depending on one's own conditioning and physiological makeup, higher altitudes could cause headaches, nausea, diarrhea, disorientation, or even chest pains. These problems might range in severity, but most were easily remedied by returning immediately to a lower altitude. In more serious cases, hikers would have to be evacuated by stretcher, unable to continue under their own strength. In rare instances - but often enough to impress upon hikers the importance of drinking water and taking it slowly - the symptoms would lead to death.
As the gear was loaded into the back of the bus, Mary Kate made one last trip to the small store located near the bar. Now bag in hand, she climbed on board. Ann and Tammy were sitting together, already deep in conversation. Trevor and Leah sat together, and Jack sat alone, leaning forward to squeeze his head between his girlfriend and her sister. Just as she moved to take the empty space beside Drew, the tall brunette suddenly picked up her backpack, gesturing toward the open seat.
"Thanks," Mary Kate answered, slipping into the front seat, her back to the now sulking Drew. She had hoped they'd get a chance to talk; Mary Kate wanted to know all about Kristin Addison. "I think we're supposed to be roommates for the safari, is that right?"
"Yeah, five days," Kristin confirmed. Eat your heart out, Drew!
"So what time did you get in last night?"
Kristin explained the delay, and they slipped easily into a discussion about their preparations and how they'd trained for the climb. Following Mary Kate's lead, she turned slightly in her seat so they could include Drew in their conversation.
"I tried to get my boyfriend Bobby to come, but he wasn't interested." For no reason she could understand, Mary Kate thought it infinitely important to tell both Drew and Kristin that she had a boyfriend, even if she really didn't. It was a "back off" sign to Drew, and a?well, a way of letting Kristin know that she was straight.
Must be some boyfriend, the tall woman thought. If I had a girlfriend, we'd both be here, or something would be wrong with their relationship.
An hour later, the bus turned off onto a side road, bouncing them out of their seats as they plowed over one rut after another.
"Wow, look at that." Mary Kate pointed to a group of young girls, all walking with large buckets of water perched on their heads. "I thought that was just a stereotype."
"Well apparently it isn't. Look at the little one! She can't be more than 3 years old."
"I wonder why it's only the women who carry the water," Tammy asked.
"There are very specific gender roles in most African societies," Ann offered. "Men are expected to be the wage earners and to tend the livestock. Women cook and carry the water. And have the children. And work in the fields. And clean up after the animals."
Kristin stole a glance at their guide, who smiled wryly without looking up. Obviously, Westerners would never understand.
After another hour, they turned again, this time onto a narrow dirt road that meandered through a part of the rainforest that appeared to have been clear cut, as only stumps remained. Here was stark evidence of the disappearing rainforest, this for the meager livelihood of some of the world's poorest people.
"I bet those people have no idea that there's a worldwide effort underway to save these trees they cut down," Drew mused.
"You're probably right," Kristin concurred, turning around in her seat to face the young man. He was definitely nice looking, and by all accounts, a nice guy. "So what did you do to train for this, Drew?"
"Actually, I hike quite a bit. I climbed Mt. Whitney on Memorial Day Weekend. I did Half Dome in Yosemite in April. But I'm on the road a lot for my job, so mostly I just run."
"That's what I do, too," Kristin said.
"We run too," Trevor offered, waving a finger between himself and Leah. "We did the New York Marathon last year."
"Wow, I'm impressed," Mary Kate said, suddenly feeling as though she might not have trained enough. "I never liked to run, but I joined a gym and used their stair climber every day."
"I bet you're in great shape, then," offered Leah. "Who knows if being able to run on flat ground is going to do us any good here!"
"What do you think, John? How many in the group usually make it to the top?" Tammy asked. She had done a few weights for her arms and shoulders, and walked three miles every two or three days around the track on campus.
The guide thought for a minute, wanting to choose his words diplomatically. "I would say that half of you will reach the summit. But I do not know yet who. I can know more in?two days."
Half will reach the summit. Those were better odds than most trail companies gave, Mary Kate thought. But still, that meant that five of them wouldn't make it to the top. In all her preparations, Mary Kate had not thought at all about how she would deal with going home disappointed.
The bus lurched to a stop, where John got off and opened an iron gate. When they'd passed through, they pulled in front of a small cinderblock building and he jumped back onto the bus.
"Leave your things here," the guide commanded. "This is the ranger station. You have to see the ranger and write your passport number."
One by one, the hikers exited, walking to the open counter where two rangers directed them to sign the log book. Unescorted expeditions were not allowed on Kili, and every hiker was accounted for from start to finish.
Walking around the building, Jack was the first to find the latrine, a small room in the back with a door opening to the outside. It was totally dark, save a narrow screened window near the ceiling. The "toilet" was a mere hole in the floor, approximately six by eight inches, beyond which?no one wanted to think about.
Mary Kate was the last to go and she hurried, gasping for breath as she exited.
"Held your breath, didn't you?" Jack teased. "What if you had passed out, huh? Did you think of that? What if you'd just fallen on your face in there and your arm or leg had ended up getting stuck in that hole?"
"Stop it! That's disgusting." The blonde woman covered her ears.
"You want to know what's really disgusting?"
"Probably not, but you're going to tell me anyway, aren't you?"
"What's really disgusting is that?" Jack grabbed Mary Kate's arms jokingly in order to pull her hands from her ears. "?by this time next week, you'll be wishing for a bathroom a nice as that one!"
Everyone laughed at the playful twosome, as they grudgingly acknowledged the likely truth of Jack's words. Kristin envied the pair their jovial nature. Despite having known one another for less than a day, they were already acting like brother and sister. It usually took her quite a while to loosen up around new people, but she was going to make a special effort on this trip. If it didn't work out, it wouldn't matter - she'd probably never see any of them again anyway.
Back on the bus, Mary Kate reached into her backpack and brought out the two boxes of shortbread cookies she had purchased at the small hotel shop. One she tossed to the dozen or so porters who sat at the back of the bus. The second box made the rounds of the hikers, and in moments they were all gone.
"These are good. Did you get them in Moshi?" Jack inquired.
"No, actually?I found them on the floor in that bathroom."
Despite continued speculation that "the road cannot possibly get any worse," it did; but finally, the bus came to a stop at a small clearing in the lush rainforest. John indicated that each person should pick up one of the box lunches from behind the driver's seat and find a space to eat.
One by one, the 15 porters assigned to their group loaded up and disappeared into the forest, packing tents, food and other supplies, even a folding table and 10 camp stools, and all of the trekkers' gear except what each carried in a daypack. Mary Kate had to laugh at her own obsession with equipment, decked out in her Kenya convertible pants, a moisture-wicking polyester t-shirt, a lightweight Gore-Tex rain jacket, and $200 boots. Most of the porters - who probably made this trip twice a month - were wearing worn sneakers without socks, cutoff pants, and t-shirts. In fact, Muncie's memo had suggested that they consider leaving behind extra clothing at the end of their trip as a gesture of thanks to the porters.
All 10 of the hikers were giddy in anticipation of the start of their trek. Someone suggested that they take "before" pictures, so all of the cameras were passed around and everyone posed. They had no way of knowing that this would be the last time they would be truly clean.
From where they were standing, the route was completely hidden. Only when John pulled back a large shrub was the narrow trail revealed, a muddy path that started up a steep incline. In only five minutes, all of the hikers were winded and hot, peeling off their lightweight jackets in spite of the cool damp air.
"How high do you think we are?" Kendra asked the others.
Ann was a fount of information. "Moshi was at 4,000 feet; I think the Londorossi Gate was about 65 hundred."
"And Big Tree is at 9,200, so that means we're climbing almost 3,000 feet today," Leah said breathlessly.
For this section of the trip, the group was escorted by an armed ranger. Elephants and buffaloes frequented certain areas of the rainforest, and were a danger if they charged.
"So how do you keep an elephant from charging?" Jack asked.
"Oh, gosh! I apologize for bringing along the guy with bad jokes," Laurel groaned, her voice intoning mock irritation.
That particular joke had made the rounds of Mary Kate's elementary school last year, but she thought it was pretty funny that Jack had brought it up in this context. "Okay, how do you keep an elephant from charging?"
"Cut up his credit card," the lawyer deadpanned.
The blonde smiled in appreciation, but Tammy let out an obnoxious snort. Showing no mercy, several others mocked her with snorts of their own. John simply looked at the silly Westerners and shook his head. He had no idea what a credit card was.
The sisters were behind the ranger at the front of the single-file line, followed by Tammy, Ann, and Jack. John walked in the middle. Behind him were Mary Kate, Drew, Leah, Trevor, and bringing up the rear, Kristin.
Mary Kate marveled at the surrounding landscape, a three-dimensional panorama of deep greens. Only occasionally did the sunlight seep beneath the forest canopy, and a fine mist wafted through the valley below. From time to time, Kristin would call out "Porter!" and everyone would step off the narrow trail to allow the crewman through. Despite their heavy loads, porters moved at a much faster pace, hurrying ahead to ready the camp for their arrival. The blonde couldn't help but wonder what a lone porter would do if charged by an angry beast.
"Jambo! Asante," the porter said as he passed. Hello. Thank you.
"Jambo," they all answered. Tom had provided them a list of basic Swahili expressions.
Kristin too was admiring the scenery, but paid a lot less attention to the plants and trees than to the small butt in the dark green nylon pants up ahead. They hadn't talked much about their lives back home, but Kristin was pretty sure that the blonde woman had checked her out at breakfast, even if she did have a "boyfriend." She didn't seem all that interested in the guy from San Diego. He was definitely attracted to her, it appeared, but his somewhat flirtatious greeting at breakfast suggested he was looking for action wherever he could get it.
"We stop here for a break," John announced.
"Here" was a small clearing where 10 tired hikers quickly dropped their packs.
"Does everyone drink their water?" the guide asked.
Some nodded; others reached for their bottles.
"If you'll excuse me, I think I'm going to get rid of some water," Trevor informed the group, retreating back down the trail behind a large tree.
"I think I have penis envy," Leah groused, looking about for a discreet spot. Walking ahead of the group, she ventured over a small rise where she was hidden from the others.
"I had penis envy when I was younger," the mother of three offered. "But my mother told me that as long as I had one of these, I could have all of those I wanted."
The women laughed; Jack conceded that she was probably correct. As usual, John did not understand.
Mary Kate dropped her pack and looked around. "I guess I should do that, too. Hey Leah, is there another spot over there?maybe something uphill from where you are?" she shouted. If you had to pee outside, it was best not to be downhill from someone else who was doing the same thing.
The hikers took turns using the makeshift men's and ladies' rooms, though Tammy had second thoughts when John cautioned them all to be on the lookout for the green mamba, one of the world's most poisonous snakes.
Once again, they were underway, winding through the rainforest. Unfortunately, none of the women realized that the trail switched back up ahead; as they rounded the curve, they were cautioned by a smiling guide to step over a small river of their urine. And Jack wasn't about to let something like that go.
"Ewww! Women can be so disgusting!"
A half hour later, John held up his hand to slow them as they walked within 30 yards of a tree that housed a family of black monkeys. It was fascinating to watch the creatures crawl from limb to limb, hanging upside down to reach out for leaves or to play with a sibling. Cameras came out as everyone logged this for their scrapbook.
As they walked along, Mary Kate began to wonder how they'd pair up in the two-person tents. Obviously, Trevor and Leah would share, and it seemed that Ann and Tammy were bonding quite well. The wild card was Laurel: Was she going to share a tent with her boyfriend or her sister? If she and Kendra doubled up, it was logical that Jack and Drew would share. But if she and Jack went together, Drew would have to be paired with Kendra, Kristin or her. Mary Kate stepped aside and waited for everyone to pass.
"Hey, what's up?" Wow! The rainforest made those green eyes even more stunning.
The blonde woman fell into step in front of the long-legged hiker. "Listen, we're supposed to pair up when we get to camp, and I was wondering if you wanted to?you know, share a tent?"
Hell yes! Wanna share a sleeping bag too? Okay, that was rude, she scolded herself, but she couldn't stop the smile. "Sure, but I think Mr. San Diego has other ideas."
"Yeah, I know. That's kind of why I was hoping you'd say yes. I thought it might be awkward. He didn't seem to hear the 'boyfriend' part."
"Either that, or he figured it must not be too serious if you were here without him." At least, that's what I thought.
"Actually, it isn't, but that's a story for another day." Mary Kate wasn't sure why she'd decided to abandon the pretense with Kristin.
Ah-ha! The dark-haired woman welcomed the confirmation of her theory with guarded enthusiasm.
"We break here," John called again. Their gait so far had been quite slow, and after the initial breathlessness, everyone had managed to adapt, at least enough that they could talk while they climbed. Tammy was the only one still struggling.
"How much farther to the camp?" she asked.
Kristin dropped her pack and sat down on the hillside, hoping that Kate would hang back so they could have a quiet conversation. She did.
"Anyway, I get the feeling he's going to ask me to share a tent, and I just don't think I want to do that."
"Oh, I'd say he's going to ask alright," Kristin grinned.
"I mean, he's a nice enough guy, but I don't want to give him any ideas or anything."
"You mean you didn't come all the way to Africa to get picked up?" the tall woman teased.
Too bad again, although picking up straight women wasn't the tall woman's style at all. But nobody said she couldn't look.
"Sure, we can share if you want. But I should tell you something first, in case it would bother you?."
Noting her hesitation, Mary Kate finished the woman's sentence. "That you're gay?"
Kristin was startled. Most people were surprised when they found out. "Actually, I was going to say that I snore." Watching the horrified look on her new friend's red face, she thought twice about her cruel joke. "No, really. I don't snore, at least not that I'm awake to hear. But you're right, I am gay."
Mary Kate delivered a playful swat. "That was mean."
"Sorry, I couldn't resist. How did you know?"
"I saw your keychain back at the hotel. My best friend has one just like it," she explained.
"Ah?. Looking at my stuff, were you?"
"I was," Mary Kate confessed, nodding. With increasing seriousness, she went on. "And that's the real reason I wanted to share a tent with you. You had some really nice things, and I was hoping to be able to go through your bags while you weren't looking."
"I see," Kristin smirked. She was really starting to like this Southerner, getting the sense that she was a genuine, down to earth sort. Her sense of humor was disarming, and Kristin felt comfortable that they might turn out to be pretty good friends, at least while they were on this trip.
"In fact," the blonde continued, "the real truth is that I was thinking I would look really nice in your clothes?especially your long pants?." To make her point, the petite Mary Kate sat alongside the much taller woman and stretched out a leg that barely reached the other's ankle.
The blue-eyed woman stifled an incredulous laugh as her new friend leaned forward to whisper more.
"?and that by wearing your most fashionable attire - which obviously would fit me perfectly, since we're exactly the same size - I would be even more attractive to Drew. Nay, I'd be more attractive to all the men in our group, and to the porters as well!"
By this time, both women were rocking with laughter. "I think we have our first psych evac!" Kristin shouted to the group, which turned in unison to find the women sprawled in laughter on the hillside.
"I want some of what they're smoking," Jack said.
John just shook his head again, and bent to pick up his pack. That was their signal that the break was over.
"Ouch!" Mary Kate screamed. Her hand was on fire! "What the hell was that?" The burning intensified as she waved her hand back and forth.
The guide hurried back to where they sat. "Nettles," he said simply, his face visibly relaxing.
"Oh, those are supposed to be painful," Ann said.
"Well they are! What the hell are nettles?" Mary Kate was staring at her hand, looking for stingers or bite marks that would account for this excruciating pain. "Ow!"
John pointed to the plant that was near where she was sitting. "These are nettles."
"They've got tiny prickles, with some kind of stinging substance," Ann explained. "The sting only lasts about seven minutes, then it's gone."
"Seven minutes!" Mary Kate nearly screamed. The pain was growing worse by the second. It was going to be a very long seven minutes.
"Here, I've got some first aid cream." Kristin took off her pack and dug inside. In moments, she was holding the smaller woman's hand, gently applying the soothing mixture.
Mary Kate eventually relaxed, grateful that her new friend had reacted so quickly. The cream was helping, and Ann was absolutely right about the time frame. When seven minutes had passed, the pain was completely gone. But everyone now knew not to touch that little green plant called nettles.
An hour later, the weary hikers arrived in camp, thrilled to see that the tents had already been set up. Their brochures had said they would have to do that themselves.
Kristin noticed right away that Drew had stopped in the middle of the camp, obviously waiting for Kate to catch up. "Which one do you want, Kate?" she called loudly, thinking it best just to head off an awkward moment.
"Let's take that one over there," she answered, pointing to a small yellow and blue tent on the edge of the campsite. It was farthest from the latrine; but then again, it was farthest from the latrine.
The latrine was a tall wooden structure, about five feet square. The "door" was actually just an entrance, the right half of the structure; at the back of the entrance was an opening that led to the left half, where a hole was cut into the floor. Extreme care and concentration were required, as the hole was no larger than six inches by 10 inches. There were no words - nor would anyone want the words - to describe the smell.
Porters had stacked the 10 yellow Summit bags in the center of the campsite. Already, they were smeared with fine black dirt. There were two large tents that were obviously for the guide and the 15 porters. With the flaps open, the hikers could see very few blankets. Evidently, the young men who were carrying their equipment and bags were planning to rely on body heat from one another to get through the night.
Beside the renowned Big Tree was a large tent with screens on all four sides. Inside were 10 camp stools around a long folding table. Two thermoses sat next to tin cups; assorted flatware lay across a stack of tin plates.
"Hot tea, hot water," the porter known as Gilbert gestured toward the dining tent as he scurried into what was apparently the cooking tent, which housed a small camp stove. In a few moments, he emerged with a five-gallon yellow container filled with warm water. Pouring some into a shallow pan, he rubbed his hands together to show everyone what it was for. Then he laid a funnel atop the container. "To drink tomorrow."
Jack pulled the Camelback water bladders from the sisters' backpacks as well as his own. The Camelback was the easiest way to both carry and drink water, since the hiker had easy access to a tube that clipped to the shoulder. Most of the Camelback models held two liters. "Who needs a fill-up?"
The others crowded around, toting their Camelbacks and water bottles, all readying for the hike tomorrow. Using the funnel, Jack poured from the large jug into Ann's clear one-liter bottle.
"There's stuff in the water," she grimaced. "Tom's brochure said the water was supposed to be pure."
"It gets better at the higher elevations, but we should probably filter that and drop in some iodine tablets," Kristin explained.
"I didn't bring any iodine," Ann grumbled. "And I didn't bring any toilet paper either, because Tom said that would be provided too. But Gilbert just told me they didn't have any."
"You're kidding me!" Laurel exclaimed.
"Actually, that would be 'you're shitting me,'" laughed Jack, earning him a glare from his girlfriend, but raucous laughter from everyone else.
"I've got plenty of iodine tablets for everyone," Kristin offered, "but you better be sure you aren't allergic. That would be nasty." Luckily, Cyn and Andrea had prepared her for both of those needs, but she wasn't about to offer her extra toilet paper. "And I brought some cheesecloth to catch the bugs."
Starting over, Jack poured bottle after bottle, all through the finely woven filter. To each liter, Kristin added one tiny tablet. After a half hour, everyone's supply was replenished and readied for the hike tomorrow.
Gilbert had started to bring food to the table inside the dining tent. "Eat now," he instructed.
Three steaming dishes sat on the table: one was a bowl of boiled potatoes; one was shell pasta; the other appeared to be something resembling cabbage, but it tasted more like a cross between that and onions.
"I can't believe you guys are eating that," Kendra said. "I read that you shouldn't eat anything out of the ground."
"Those potatoes are out of the ground," challenged Drew.
"But they had a skin, which was peeled off. You guys go right ahead, but don't come crying to me when you get the runs," she taunted.
"And don't you come crying to us when you get clogged up," he countered jokingly.
"And to think, just this morning, we were all being sweet and nice, asking where everybody was from," Mary Kate interjected sweetly. "Now it's 10 hours later, and we're talking about bodily functions at the dinner table."
"I don't even want to think what we'll be talking about by Sunday," added Ann, who thought to herself that it was a lot like living with her three teenage sons.
"What's this stuff? Milo." Leah popped the top on the small can and sniffed. "Smells like chocolate. I guess that's what the hot water is for."
Gilbert entered again with a pan of?brown stuff, with?stuff in it.
"What's that?" Trevor asked.
"Sauce," the porter answered, as if that was sufficient explanation.
"Now that I'm not eating," Mary Kate announced to an echo of female voices. The three guys were more adventurous, cleaning the bowl as Gilbert reappeared with watermelon slices.
"If there's anyone who doesn't want their dinner napkin, I'll take it off your hands," Leah offered demurely.
"Yeah, right," Jack chided. "I have a feeling we're going to be using dollar bills on our butts before the end of the week."
As darkness fell, so did the temperature. Here at the equator, the sun went down at six, and rose at six. These were the long nights Mary Kate had read about. Hopefully, she and Kristin would continue getting along well, since they'd probably be spending some long nights together in their tent.
One by one, the hikers journeyed to the latrine then disappeared into the small tents. Mary Kate and Kristin pulled their Summit bags under the rain guard, but agreed that their backpacks - which held cash, sunglasses, and other things of value - would be safer inside the tent. Both had followed Muncie's advice and brought self-inflating air mattresses and sleeping bags good to 20 degrees.
"I think I'm going to sleep in my long johns," Kristin said. "What about you?" She dug them out of the Summit bag and began to undress in the darkened tent.
"I was thinking I'd just wear shorts and a t-shirt, but I didn't know it was going to be this cold."
"Yeah, and just think - this is probably our warmest night!"
Mary Kate changed in the dark, realizing as soon as she lay down that the tag on her long johns was in the front, instead of the back where it belonged. Fixing it meant unzipping the bag, and it was way too cold to do that. Besides, she was quite surprised to find herself incredibly sleepy, and it wasn't even eight o'clock yet.
"Yeah?" The tall brunette was squirming in her bag, trying to find room for her feet at the bottom of the tent.
"Thanks a lot for the first aid cream this afternoon?and the iodine. That's really nice of you to share with everybody."
"I'll let you in on a secret if you promise not to tell anyone else."
"I promise. What?"
"I brought toilet paper, too. I didn't bring enough for everyone, but I've got plenty for the two of us," she whispered. The thin tents didn't afford much privacy.
"God, you're my best friend in the world," Mary Kate sighed.
"Hey, if we're going to share a tent, it's in my best interest to make sure you stay clean," she laughed.
"Well, I brought a couple of things I can share, too."
"Tell me. I can't have my partner holding out."
"I have three dozen Cliff bars, a box of wet wipes, and a bottle of hand sanitizer."
"Woo-hoo! That's great! And I have a bar of camp soap."
"It's soap that doesn't hurt the environment. We can use it to wash up, and to wash our clothes if we need to."
"Why are you wiggling so much?" the blonde demanded.
"Because I don't have room for my feet," Kristin complained. "I'm going to have to set my backpack outside."
"Just put it by mine. There's room."
"But then it'll be in your way."
"Oh yeah, like I'm going to grow overnight. Go ahead, move it over to my side."
Kristin did as she was told, and was thrilled to find that she now had plenty of room. "Thanks."
The shivering slowed as their bodies heated the air inside their sleeping bags. Soon, both hikers were sound asleep.
Part Mbili (2)
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