Friends in High Places: Socialist Peak or Bust!

Abandoned! When my Peace Corps climbing partner got the sad news that her dad had died suddenly and unexpectedly, she caught the next flight back to the U.S. It was two days before we were supposed to leave for Mt. Meru, Kilimanjaro’s closest neighbor and Africa’s fifth highest peak. But it was Thanksgiving, 1995. I had five days off and no other plans. And I’d already paid the piper. It was time to dance.

Salim and Simon

With only one month left in Tanzania on a two-year contract, I decided I knew the country well enough to go it alone. I jumped on the next flight 400 miles north to Arusha, and met my guide and porter early the following morning at the base camp of Mt. Meru . I had four days for the climb, a reasonable time for most hikers, then back to Dar es Salaam for work at USAID on Monday morning.

Guides and porters are mandated for the climb. Meru, unlike its closest neighbor, Kilimanjaro, teams with wildlife, including leopard and Cape Buffalo. Nevertheless, I eyed the two guys who would be my best friends for the duration with some skepticism. Half my age, Salim, the guy with the gun, scowled grimly and tried to look officious but succeeded only in looking slightly deranged. Simon, the gentle giant of a porter, was grinning at me expectantly, ready to carry everything we needed for the expedition.

Susan, the beginner. I shouldered my backpack. What better friends could I ask for? But I was nervous. Climbing Adirondack ‘mountains’ with vertical ascents of 2000 feet at best did not exactly guarantee success clocking 26.7 miles in four days on a 12,000 foot ascent. These guys looked a little more ad hoc than I expected. Less rugged, unlike the older, commanding safari guides I’d come to expect on earlier trips. Young. Funky. Salim’s gun looked like it’d been abandoned by a nineteenth century Cowboy, better for slamming a stampeding buffalo on the snout than stopping it dead in its tracks with a bullet to the brain.

He grinned when I asked if we really needed the gun. “Madam. The forest is full of dangerous animals.” Yeah, right, I thought. It’s a mountain. “Anything you say.” But friends are where you find them. Simon lifted the giant duffle bag across his shoulders: our food for the next three days and some clothes, and off we went. Fortunately, the first leg is easy, relatively open, clear.

Sign post at base camp. This and all the mountain and route images courtesy of The Mountains are Calling.

Some climbers think Meru is much harder than Kilimanjaro. According to the Mount Kilimanjaro Climb, “make no mistake, Mt. Meru is a challenging and demanding climb! Most people expect it to be easy since it isn’t as long or high a trek as Kilimanjaro. Wrong! I don’t know anybody who is not taken by surprise by how challenging this climb is. 4562 m/14980 feet is serious altitude, most people WILL feel it, it IS hard on your body. But most importantly, the climb itself, that last night to the summit, is a much more difficult and more challenging trek than even the last night on Kilimanjaro. Do not underestimate Mt. Meru!

By noon the second day, when we finished the second leg at Saddle Hut, I’d stopped underestimating the climb. It was all I could do to fall into a bunk house bed and sleep for two hours. At 3500 m/11,482 feet the altitude was kicking in. I woke considerably less dizzy, so we climbed up Little Meru, another 300 m/1000 feet, ate a quick trail dinner and hit the sack. The father and daughter hiking team from Germany who were in front of us were already in bed, anticipating the 2 a.m. wake up call.

Little Meru is visible on the right shoulder. A quick climb up and down — once you get over your altitude sickness at Saddle Camp
The cinder cone up close. Look for the antelope. It truly does walk on its toes!

It’s traditional to hit the the trail early so you arrive at the top in time to see the sunrise, but Salim couldn’t rouse me till 5. I was glad because the last bit required total focus, shimmying around high outcrops and trudging across lunar sand. In the dawn’s light, we saw two klipspringer kicking up the grey dirt as they raced around the far side of the peak. Rarely seen because they are nocturnal, monogamous unlike most other antelope, and the sole member of their genus, klipspringer live in eastern and western African mountain ranges and river gorges from the Red Sea Hills to the Cape and north to Angola. Sightings on Meru are infrequent. Salim grinned for the first time on our hike.

Check out Australian adventurer Jackson’s account of his Mt. Meru climb at Journey Era

Tanzania’s Mount Meru is a dormant stratovolcano 43 miles west of Mount Kilimanjaro. You can see Kili from Meru’s 14,980-foot top. By some counts, it’s the fifth-highest of Africa’s highest peaks. Topologically more interesting than Kili, with its cinder cone and subsidiary climb up little Meru, it’s less crowded, except by the wildlife visible right from the trail. More than 400 species of birds, zebra, giraffe, Cape buffalo, and leopard (if you’re luckier than we were). But whatever you do, don’t step on the trails of red ants! They’ll eat right through the seam between your sole and upper in seconds.

You just don’t throw rocks at this baby. National Geographic photo

If you thought finishing the Adirondack High Peaks’ 70,000 vertical feet in three years was amazing, try Meru’s 15,000 or so feet in three days! Try it with ever-vigilant Salim (‘safe’ or ‘undamaged’ in Arabic) and 6-foot plus Simon, who enjoyed throwing rocks at the aging (read angry) Cape buffalo we met on the way down. When I protested, he shrugged. “If they charge us, climb a tree.”

The last morning, I heard the black and white Colobus monkey troops, endemic to the mountain, calling to each other. Andrew Skeoch of Listening Earth says of his recording of Colobus family groups “If you listen carefully, you’ll hear distant groups begin, and the sound of their wonderful growling build as nearby groups join the chorus. The loud yapping calls heard at beginning and end are those of Northern Greater Galagos (Bush Babies).”

Taken from the top by NASA

Trekking Hero calls Meru East Africa’s most scenic trek, starting from day one when you cross under the giant fig tree arch. It’s a beautiful initiation point for a beautiful hike!

Mountains are pivot points. I can’t stay away! But that should come as no surprise: Aries are Goats. Aries (♈︎) (Latin for “ram“) is the first astrological sign in the zodiac. It’s in my stars!

Flanked by Simon on the left and Salim on the right Snapped with my old 35-mm digital by the only other tourists, a German father-daughter team, who were slightly ahead on the trail.

But as much as Aries are prone to leap ahead alone, Meru proved, like the Adirondack’s 46 Peaks, that no one does great things on their own. Salim and Simon, like my Adirondack friends, are still lively in my memory, even though many of the marvels I saw on Kili’s neighbor have faded in the intervening 26 years.

Meru’s summit is known as Socialist Peak in honor of the country’s early commitment to equitable development

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