There was a wonderful piece in The New York Times, a year or so ago, a special magazine section called Play, on November 2, 2007, written by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996) and author of Chasing the Sea as well as two other books. Tom went on assignment for the Times to climb Kilimanjaro.
What is it about Kilimanjaro that makes people want to write about it? Hemingway wrote a long story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro,that had nothing to do with Kilimanjaro, but nevertheless Hemingway began his short story, “Kilimanjaro is a snow covered mountain 19,710 feet high, and it is said to be the highest mountain in Africa. Its western summit is called the Masai “Ngaje Ngai,” the House of God. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.”
Now Tom had the good sense of not looking for that leopard, or for that matter searching for the meaning of life, or even to fulfill a challenge in his own mind, ‘I can climb Kilimanjaro before I die!’ Tom was on assignment from the Times and that was enough for him. He tells a great story that is full of information about the mountain, even if you don’t want to climb Kilimanjaro.
Everyone it seems has a Kilimanjaro story, even me. No, I never climbed Kilimanjaro, or to rephrase the famous line about climbing mountains: “I didn’t climb the mountain because it was there.”
Mine is a true story and it takes place far from Kilimanjaro, in a small resort hotel in the small [at the time] village of Malindi on the Indian Ocean where Hemingway went to fish and where I went in the summer of ‘63 with two PCV friends on our vacation from the Highlands of Ethiopia. We wanted warm water, warm sun, and cold beer. [Cold beer at the time was very hard to find in Africa.]
I returned to the Blue Marlin and Kenya in the winter of ‘69 when I was traveling for half a year through Africa, having started in West Africa and worked myself down to South Africa, [staying with Peace Corps connections] then up the eastcoast and arriving in Mobassa, and then to take a bus north to Malindi and the Blue Marlin Hotel.
When I was first at the Blue Marlin in the summer of ‘63 it was a hotel full of Brits in the days just before independence for Kenya. By the late Sixties the Brits had been replaced by Germans who have the ability to make Americans look good in foreign countries. Today, I’m told, the village and hotel are overrun by Italians.
My story begins in a hotel full of Germans and where the few English speaking tourists gravitated to one end of the bar and it was there that I met Phillip and his wife, April, and their two lovely young daughters. They were finishing up dinner and I was sitting alone at the bar and we started up a conversation, as English speakers will when they are out numbered.
Phillip and April were ‘on holiday’ as the English love to say. Phillip was a secondary school teachers in Botswana, a country I had been to a few months earlier. In fact, I had been to Maun where they lived and we talked about my camping out on the banks of the Thalamakana.
Phillip, I was to learn, had returned to Malindi and the Blue Marlin like me for sentimental reasons, but they were vastly different mine, and he did not speak of them until April said goodnight and took the girls off to bed and he came over and sat beside me at this bar where the Indian Ocean was just fifty yards away across the sandy beach. We could see the whitecaps sparkling in the moonlight. It was March and warm and the Little Rains were over so we moved from the bar out to chairs on the sand and continued to talk about the game parks of Botswana, to trips we had taken through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Phillip mentioned that his parents had been teachers, too, in Arusha, Tanzania when he was a university student at Oxford. He told me how he came out on holidays from England to visit his family, and also to spend his summers in East Africa.
I asked him then if he had ever climbed Kilimanjaro. By now we were far removed from the drunken noise of the bar. We were alone under the vastness of a bright starry night, and one can not imagine how many stars there are in the universe until they have sat out under an African sky.
Phillip, I forgot to mention, was a few years older than me, in his early thirties, and he was handsome in that correct English upper class way, and his young wife April was stunning, blond and elegant and graceful.
When I asked Phillip if he had climbed Kilimanjaro, he shook his head and fell silent. He took out a cigarette and lit it. He sipped on his Tusker beer and didn’t say anything. I thought at first I must have touched on a raw topic. And then I realized he had something to tell me, to tell a stranger he had met by chance and would never see again. He said next, in the quiet and proper calm way of the English, that he knew someone once who had been killed on Kilimanjaro.
And this is the story he told me that long ago night on the beach of the Blue Marlin Hotel in Malindi, Kenya under an African sky.