Mountain climbing for Christmas . . . definitely not our usual tradition. Though being on the move, sleeping outside, being cold and far from home all are probably appropriate ways to remember the reality of the first Christmas.
Our trek started on the 22nd when we went to pick Luke up from the airport. Of course that in itself was complicated by the random departure times and flight shuffling by Ethiopian Airlines, the nightmare of uncertainty. He wasn't on his flight, but as we huddled with other expectant and disappointed families we took hope in the rumor that many passengers would be on the next flight only a couple of hours later. We knew he hadn't checked any bags, so we placed bets on his ability to fly through customs. Sure enough, he was the first passenger to emerge.
From there we drove south to Amboseli National Park on the Kenya/TZ border. Our plan was to camp in the wilderness with the views of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance. In all our years in Uganda, our essential family get-away was Campsite 2 in Queen Elizabeth National Park, nothing but space and sky and scrub and animals. The Kenya Wildlife Service is a depressing subject for another post, but suffice it to say that they refused our park card, extracted a ton of money from us, then mentioned the public campsite was "flooded", then refused to cancel our payment and let us leave . . . then we drove to the campsite which was actually NOT flooded, so we set up camp, only to be accosted by territorial Massai herders who claimed the land (which by gps and by signage was INSIDE the park) was actually theirs so our park payments didn't count and we needed to pay them . . . so we took down our tents in the gathering dusk and drove back to the gate to camp in the very non-wilderness mosquito-infested park headquarters by the gate. It was a beautiful sunset drive through the park, with Kili's snow-capped peak peeking through the clouds and wildebeest and elephant meandering by the road, and we grilled tandoori chicken and naan and salvaged a fun evening, but the bureaucracy was draining.
The next morning Julia woke up pale and vomiting, not an auspicious beginning to what was to be a major endurance test for the week. We packed up and braved the border to TZ, the usual hassles of bringing a car across, fees for this and that, and on the TZ side the sinking realization that Julia's yellow-fever vaccination card was missing. However it was so chaotic that no one noticed. We finally met up with our climbing contact at the park gate in the early afternoon. Then it turned out that the park passes for Kili had to be put into our passports, so they needed to travel with them to another gate, meaning that we could not start the climb as anticipated that day but had to camp at the gate. It was a lovely grassy site and in the end quite helpful to give Julia some recovery time, plus it rained so we could shelter. Plus there was an endless loop of Christmas music playing, and a lighted disco ball, and a rousing game of hearts, so we made the best of it. We had chosen to go up the Rongai route and down the Marangu route, a less-traveled alternative from North-East to South-East.
DAY 1: Rongai gate to Simba Camp (6,000+ to 8,400 ft) This was a pleasant walk through pine forests, gradually climbing to a campsite by a river. Colobus monkeys, leisurely conversations, and our guides constantly telling us to slow down before they figured out these kids don't walk slowly. Again this day was shorter than we expected, but we didn't push to go further since Julia was still struggling with her GI bug.
The daily routine was a wake-up at dawn with ginger tea delivered to our tents (3 little 2-man tents) and warm water to wash face and hands. Then breakfast in the mess tent, a small structure that covered a folding table and six folding stools. We would set off while the porters took down the tents and generally arrive about the same time as them at the next campsite. Lunch on the trail or, if the day was short, at the next site. Lots of rest and reading time, an early dinner hunched around the table in the mess tent trying not to spill our salty soup in spite of the squeeze and slope. At the end of the meal the three guides would slip in, hunched in the small space, and give us the briefing for the next day. Once they realized Luke was fluent in Swahili and the rest of us passably coherent in understanding, they got a kick out of doing all this in Swahili. Shivering into our sleeping bags shortly after sunset to read and sleep until dawn. So many cups of hot tea, popcorn and biscuits, carbs galore. Stars. Latrines. Iodine pills to purify stream water.
But day one was the 24th, Christmas Eve, so I pulled the fun battery-operated string of lights out (thanks Melissa H!) and hung the kids' stockings in the mess tent, and passed out candy-canes to all our porters and guides and cook.
DAY 5: Horombo to Mandara (12,327 to 6,500). The last day started with the obligatory group photo with porters, Uhuru peak just visible in the clear morning behind us. Perhaps the low point of the trip was being informed that while we paid an all-inclusive package (which was about half the average rate so a good deal, but still expensive), everyone involved expects large tips. We had brought tips on the order of a tip not a salary. We had what we had. This was the only day that involved many, many people on the trail. Porters and hikers, coming up and going down. Most of the time our little family group moved relatively quickly and alone with our trailing guides, but occasionally we melded into and moved through larger tours. Germans and Japanese mostly, some cheery and some gasping their "Jambo's". The path wound around shoulders of the mountain, the peak coming in and out of visibility in the clear morning. More and more flowers, bridges over gullies splashing with water. Our last lunch at the Mandara camp, and then through rainforest to the gate. Burning calves and quads, stepping down, rocky paths, on and on. I tripped on a rock and skinned my knee, and Scott stopped to duct tape emerging blisters, but we were remarkably injury-free. Julia brightened with each hundred feet down. At the final gate, we were given our official certificates for reaching the peak and headed into Moshi for a night in a budget motel, tepid showers, cold drinks, Man U football on the TV, and rest before the drive back to Kenya. I had planned an extra day to visit friends in TZ but by that time Julia's bug was affecting me, and the kids staged a we-are-ready-to-go-home coup. So we rose early the next morning for our last Kili views and hit the road north.
This was a highly redemptive week. Exactly two years ago, on Christmas Eve 2012, Caleb had a serious motorcycle accident that destroyed his left knee, tearing through three of the four ligaments and nearly ending his Air Force dream. He has worked hard, both with constant physical therapy after two surgeries, and academically, to hang in there. To be able to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro seemed like an impossible dream back then. We are so grateful for God's healing. The number of days the six of us spend together anymore is small, precious, limited. We are grateful for hours of walking, meandering conversations about classes and friends and the future. This was also the completion of a quest of sorts, as a family we have now climbed the three highest mountains in Africa (Kili, Mt. Kenya, and Mt. Stanley in the Rwenzoris). God often calls people to the mountaintop, away from normal life into the bright thin air of glory, to get their attention. We are listening as we enter 2015.
And we are grateful to our parents whose generous gifts to us helped us to afford this adventure. We are blessed.
Lastly, if anyone is still reading. We told you in our Christmas letter that Scott had signed up to go to Liberia. This was something God laid on his heart back in September when ebola was spiraling out of control. In the midst of crisis, it turned out to be unexpectedly difficult to organize a way to go. In fact he went through five organizations before finding one that had the capacity to even answer emails and phone calls and hook him up with an ebola treatment unit. He was supposed to leave Jan 2, but when we returned yesterday we found the organization asking him to be "on hold" a little longer as they re-assess the situation in light of recent declines in the infection rates. So he may be leaving a week or so later, or the possibility exists that he may not go at all. We don't know. Please pray for clarity. He still wants to go if there is need.