A Chameleon's Tale, Africa Days
Sunrise on the mountain, and I was the lone climber high above the clouds. At this altitude of over 18,000 feet, the temperature was below zero. In the pre-dawn light, I could make out hills stretching for miles across Tanzania, into neighboring Kenya and Uganda, and even reaching far into the Republic of Congo. As it crept over the horizon, the rising sun brought warmth to my freezing back. I wiggled my toes to keep the blood circulation flowing. I dug the ice ax into hard-packed snow and planted my feet firmly into my own footprints before taking off my backpack. Then I turned to bask in the sun's rays.
It was the first time I'd ever been in snow, and here I was plodding through it, ice castles and glistening glaciers all around me. Uhuru Peak, the very summit, was in sight and within reach, less than a thousand feet to go. The rocky summit of neighboring Mount Mawenzi poked its snow-capped nose above the clouds like some fantastic white pyramid floating on a carpet of cotton. I remembered the legendary carcass of the dead leopard supposed to be frozen on the cliffs of Mawenzi.
By now, pink, yellow, red, and purple streaks shot across the crystal blue sky, contrasting with the snow all around and the dark-brown, scraggy rocks. The raw power of Nature humbled me to my knees, and with hands clasped together as if in prayer, I thanked Allah, the Creator, God, whatever his name was, for the amazing sight facing me. I dragged myself up to the very summit. The view made me gasp. Raising my arms to the sky, I let out a shout of joy as loud as my lungs would allow in the thin, crisp air. Ayinga! I was on top of my Africa.
I signed my name in the ironclad book chained to the Kenyan flag (on this side of the ascent), and took 360-degree pictures. I didn't have long to savor the moment. Just minutes later, the wind picked up, kicking up swirls of snow that brought back the icy cold and forced me to start the descent. Aware that I was one of only two Indian boys among the Africans, most of them hardened to the bush from their village childhoods, I was overjoyed to be one of the nine who actually got to the summit. Besides Daniel Moyale, I was the only other climber in our seven-man team to make it to the top. I reflected on the two hellish weeks of training at Loitokitok base camp before the actual week-long climb.
During the first week, each morning before sunrise, we began with a dreaded dip in the outdoor swimming pool. At about 6,000 feet, the camp was high enough for a layer of thin ice to form on top of the water. "I don't care if you swim or not," Okello, our team instructor would laugh in our faces. "Every hair on your head must be wet before you come out."
The second week of trekking, with fifty-pound packs on our backs, through the wild plains of Amboseli National Park, was the hardest for our team of seven. The park was teeming with wildebeest, zebras, kudus, gazelles, and impalas. One morning, we came upon a family of giraffes munching their breakfast from tall, thorny trees. On another occasion, we tiptoed past a female white rhino with two calves grazing along our route. But wildlife spotting was easy. The hard part was finding our way through the park in the burning sun.
Using a compass to guide us, we climbed specified hills to look for metal cylinders left by our instructors. Only by finding those cylinders would we get directions to the next hill and the next clue. If our team navigated correctly, the fifth and last instruction of the day, on the fifth hill, would guide us to the campsite. If we got lost, we had to find our own food and shelter for the night. Our team did get lost one day, and ended up spending the night in a Masai village.
The Masai, who hunt game with spears and paint their faces in caked mud, had a reputation as fierce warriors who shunned strangers. We had no idea how they would react when we stumbled into their village as dusk approached. Daniel, our team leader, spoke to the elders in Swahili, explaining who we were and why we needed help.
One of the elders translated in the Masai language to a group of his men, and suddenly they all burst out laughing. Then they talked among themselves, pointing to certain huts in the village. By now, the seven of us had bunched up together. We had no idea what we would do if they decided to hold us hostage?