To Die On Kilimanjaro, Part 4

Kili1912 Africa has always been known for adventure and romance and when the two clash, as they always do, there are many broken lives and hardships and stories that linger long after the couples leave the continent and become the legends passed on from one generation to the next.

When Arthur left for Kilimanjaro, Phillip did not begin an affair with Gina, he told me immediately. [Knowing that was what I was thinking.] They continued the intense friendship as Gina prepared to leave Africa on home leave once her husband returned. Phillip said that on days when he could see the crest of Kilimanjaro he would pause and wonder where Arthur might be on his long climb. [This was years before cell phones, or even the well organized climbs. It was years before an Italian, in 2001, reached the summit and descended in 8 hours and 30 minutes. In 2004, a Tanzanian would beat that time by three minutes. Both of these men ran the entire way.]

Several days passed without any word of any kind about Phillip’s climb and then a district police officer arrived at the school to speak to Phillip’s father. There has been an accident. A European had been killed on the ice cap.

Phillip and I were sitting on the warm sand of the Malindi Hotel beach. Behind us the party of Germans was going strong. It was actually early in Kenya, not yet ten o’clock. I had finished off my beer but didn’t interrupt Phillip and his story by going for another Tusker. I let him continue to talk in his quiet unrushed BBC voice that kept suggesting he was saving the important details of this tale for the very end. He was in no rush to reach a conclusion. It was actually so quiet that we could hear the lapping of the Indian Ocean beyond the lights of the hotel. I had questions, but I was nervous about asking them. I didn’t want to interrupt the natural flow of his narrative. It was such a vivid story I could not tell if he had told it before, many times, so as to have made it dramatic, or that it was a story he had told himself over and over until he had perfected it. Was it a story where he was still searching for a happy ending?

The police official told his father that one of the Tanzanian porters had come running down from the mountains to say Arthur was dead. And it was Phillip’s father who told Gina. He told her, Phillip said, while the two of them–Phillip and Gina–were sitting in the back yard of the faculty staff housing.

His father and mother and the uniform English colonial officer came around the side of the staff quarters. As soon as he saw his parents and the uniformed British officer, he knew, Phillip said, Arthur was dead on Kilimanjaro.

That afternoon on the lawn of the girls’ school compound Gina was not told everything that had happened on the mountain. Phillip would not hear many of the details himself only after he returned from Malindi.

On that August afternoon, all really that was known was Arthur and the “boys” where within a day’s walk to the summit; they were higher than the legendary leopard of Hemingway’s famous short story, camped for the night before the next day’s final assault on the crest.

The boys were really young men from Arusha, several Tanzanians who played pick up games of football with Arthur, the son of an Indian shopkeeper home from Dar on holiday, and a Maryknoll priest assigned to the nearby boys’ secondary school. They had employed several porters and guides, those who found work climbing Kilimanjaro in the days before trekking up the mountain became one of those feats people from around the world were tell themselves they had to do before they died. There weren’t many Europeans climbing the mountains.

It was an accident, the British colonial police told Gina. It seems Arthur had gotten up to go to the bathroom. [This was years before they had those fancy portable chem toilets that Tom Bissell described as “ottomen-size plastic boxes that reeked of bleach” were lugged up the mountain by porters for climbers convenience, serving the 30,000 yearly trekkers and keeping Kilimanjaro waste free.]

Something had gone wrong on the mountain. Arthur had missed a turned and took a tumbled in the dark night. Visible was poor, footing was poor. It had been raining for hours. He was weak from the climb, suffering from exhaustion. There were a hundred such guesses at how he might have died.

At the secondary school Gina went hysterical. Here she was in the middle of Africa, in the midst of people who she didn’t really know or accept her, this Italian London shop girl in the class conscience English system. Arthur had been her protector, protecting her from the rigid barriers of the English class system that live in the colonial world and now he was dead.

Was it really an accident? Had Arthur stepped off to his death, tumbled from a ridge several hundred feet into the icy cavern simply as a way to put an end to his life, knowing his wife was leaving him when they returned home, what she had already told him, this she would admit to Phillip later on the beach of Malindi. It was over this hasty marriage of theirs.

That secret thought that swept through her mind on hearing the news of her husband’s death soon was whispered by other Brits of Arusha. Arthur, after all, had been such a happy chap. Who knew? There was no inquest, no cause to suspect anything else but a horrible accident. The priest gave the man last rights on the mountainside. And he was brought back to his burial in the back of a police lorry. There was no hope of taking the body to England. He was buried in the cemetery of the small colonial church.

In a whirl of those days, Gina’s life was taken over by others. Phillip and his father accompanied her from one government office to the next, death papers were signed and she suffered silently through mumbled words of sympathy by every sort of official. An Anglican service was held in the small colonial church. The eulogy was given by the Maryknoll priest who had been on the mountains with Arthur. The casket was carried by the Tanzanian ‘boys’ and later lunch was served in the gardens of his family home. No one had the proper clothes, Phillip said. They wore their best dresses, wore suits and white ties, it was like a formal reception when someone important came out from Dar on an official visit.

During this intense week, Gina and Phillip were drawn even close by the tragedy. As bizarre as that was, he found he could follow her unspoken wishes, was connected to her psycho. “It was quite extraordinary. It was almost as if I was inside her head. I have never again been that close to a person, not even my wife. I could understand Gina’s thoughts; she could read mine.”

There was endless details of shipping Arthur’s belongings back to England, of Gina packing up, too, and leaving Africa. At some point the women of the school decided Gina must get away for a few days. She needed to go to the coast and rest before leaving Africa.

Phillip was selected as the only one to accomplish her to Mombasa where she would get a ship for home. It was decided they should go a few days early, before the ship was due to leave. One of the teachers had a connection with a family hotel in Malini, up the coast from Mombasa. A few days in the sun would be best for Gina, everyone agreed. She would then take a ship home as so many other East African colonialists had been doing since before World War I.

And so they went to Malindi and the Blue Marlin, a small family hotel on the waters of the Indian Ocean, where no one would know what had happened on Kilimanjaro, and where they would be alone and together.

 [End Part 4]

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