Six Blind Men and an Alien
They tell the story about the four blind men and the elephant. One felt the elephant's trunk and declared he was touching a snake. Another felt his leg and concluded that it was a tree trunk. A third felt his tusk and said it was a spear, and the fourth felt its tail and proclaimed that it was a rope…
Phoenix Pick, 2013.
Paperback, 108 pp.
Six Blind Men and an Alien
You know, if Papa Hemingway had been around in 2038, he’d have written "The Slush of Kilimanjaro", because that’s what he’d have found.
The mountain was a thing of beauty back in 1900. You could see the snow and ice from 80 miles away. By 2000, ninety percent of it had vanished. No one knows why. Or perhaps, like the blind men, everyone knows why, and everyone is wrong.
The Tanzanian government started panicking in 2015. After all, with the game parks depleted of wildlife due to habitat destruction and poaching, the tourists who visited Kilimanjaro were their major source of hard currency. They even tried making snow the way ski lodges do.
It didn’t work, of course. They were trying to replace most of a many-miles-long glacier, not provide a path for a handful of skiers.
So more of the snow and ice vanished each year, and by 2038 there sure wasn’t a hell of a lot left. But 2038 was a special year, because it marked exactly one century since Ernest Hemingway had written his classic "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", and my sponsor,
, decided to fund one last climb up the mountain: "to walk in Hemingway’s steps and experience the awe of Kilimanjaro one last time."
Sounded good, even if Papa
climbed up past the tree line to the glacier. At least, everyone at
There were six of us, plus the porters.
Jim Donahue was the still photographer. He’d won a number of awards, and his pictures had appeared in just about every prestigious nature and travel magazine in the world.
Adrian Gorman was our guide. He’d climbed the mountain a couple of dozen times, even wrote two books about it. He was the closest thing we had to a celebrity. He knew it, and he acted like it. No one liked him very much, but we trusted him to get us to the top and back down.
Charles Njobo was a representative of the Tanzanian government. (Every expedition had one, which created an extra job for the impoverished country.) He couldn’t believe that we’d gone to all this trouble and expense just to see where a long-dead writer had found the corpse of a leopard. He just knew there was something sinister going on, and he was determined to root it out.
Bonnie Herrington was our video camerawoman, tough as nails, dependable as a Swiss watch. I’ll never know how she was able to climb that mountain with her eye glued to the viewfinder when most of us could barely do it with our hands and vision unencumbered, but she managed.
Bonnie’s sound man, electrician and jack-of-all-trades was Ray Glover, a huge tank of a man who deferred to her every wish. When I asked him why, he explained that she had made him two fortunes already, and he expected her to make him a third one when the documentary of our climb was ready to air.
And there was me-Anthony Tarica. I hold degrees in mammalian biology and botany, so I figured they’d chosen me because it was cheaper than sending a biologist
I should also mention Muro, the head porter, a Chagga who knew a bit of English and a touch of German, and was too proud to sleep and eat with the rest of the porters. He always staked out a place halfway between them and us, which corresponded to his position within the safari-but he was destined to play a major role in our adventure.
Most of the conditions below the former snowline haven’t changed much. When you hit seven thousand feet, even the tropics can get damned chilly at night-and yet you’re only a third of the way to the top.
Three-quarters of the villages are down below you, but you’re still in heavy forest, and you’ve got to watch your step. Even today there are still a few rhino, buffalo and elephant up there, but they’re very hard to spot. The brilliant black-and-white colobus monkeys are much easier to see, poor little bastards-that’s probably why there are so few left.
At ten thousand feet you can see your breath once the sun starts setting; in fact, if you’re exerting yourself, seeing it is almost easier than catching it. There’s still an occasional elephant up there, and once in a while a leopard, but most of the animal life at this altitude burrows into the ground or has wings.
At thirteen thousand feet you’d better do most of your breathing through your nose, because the air gets very thin and very dry.
Just short of seventeen thousand feet you hit Kili, where the Chagga tribe lives. They say it used to be covered with snow, but that was half a century ago. The women cultivate the fields. It’s too high up for cattle, so there’s not much for the men to do, and they spend most of their time not doing it.
Donahue had serious trouble with the altitude and stood, bent over, gasping for air. One of the porters walked over with an oxygen canister, but when he realized that Bonnie had her camera trained on him he waved the man away. "What do you think, Mr. Gorman?" he said.
"I don’t think we’ll try it today," answered Gorman. "It’ll be dark in another hour, too dark to take any photographs. I suggest that we’ll stop soon here and start out first thing in the morning."
Donahue finally caught his breath and nodded his agreement. "How the hell did an overweight boozer like Hemingway get up here?"
"He probably didnt," said Gorman.
"Well, I’d like to think that he did," said Donahue stubbornly.
"Would it make any difference if you knew that he didnt?"
"Not a bit.
says to walk in his steps, either real or presumed." He smiled. "Could be worse. They could have told me to run with the bulls."
"At least we’re doing it on their nickel," chimed in Bonnie.
"Their shilling," Gorman corrected her. "You’re in British East now."
I looked at the great Adrian Gorman, a legend in his own time, author of two books on his adventures, and actually felt a wave of compassion for him.
You poor son of a bitch
, I thought;
you don’t even know whose country this is anymore. It stopped being British East or British anything-else before you were born, for Christ’s sake.
"So we stop here for the night?" asked Donahue.
"Another few hundred feet up the mountain," said Gorman. "There’s half a dozen huts there, built to accommodate climbers. They’ve got some supplies, and they’re a hell of a lot warmer than tents. Six of us, six huts. It works out very neatly."
We made it in another half hour.
"Where will the porters stay?" asked Bonnie, looking around.
"They’ll use the tents."
"They’re going to be awfully cold," she said.
"They’re Chaggas," answered Gorman. "They’re used to it."
I turned to Muro. "Is that so?"
"Oh yes," he assured me. "Nothing bothers the Chaggas."
"Except the Zanake and the Makonde and the Maasai," said Gorman with a chuckle. "How do you think they wound up so high on this damned mountain?"
Muro stared at him sullenly but said nothing.
"We don’t care why the Chaggas climbed the mountain," interjected Ray Glover. "We’re concerned with why the leopard came up here."
"Not really," Donahue corrected him. "We’re concerned with
he got to. Hemingway was in charge of
"Do your readers really care, I wonder?" said Bonnie as one of the porters made the rounds of our party, pouring hot tea for each of us.
"They’d better," said Ray, rubbing his hands together. "An assignment in the Sahara Desert looks pretty appealing right about now."
"It’ll look even better when we hit the snow line," said Gorman.
"When do we get there?"
"Sometime tomorrow morning," answered Gorman. "A century ago we’d have been above it since yesterday."
"All I ever saw were pictures," said Ray, "but even so, it’s still hard to imagine old Killy without that gorgeous ice cap."
"It’ll be even harder for all the tens of thousands of people who live on the lower slopes of the mountain," said Gorman. "That’s a lot of water that won’t be flowing down to them."
"I just hope that
don’t flow down to them," muttered Bonnie. "This is a lot steeper than the films I’ve seen."
"You saw people climbing the Marangu Route," explained Gorman. "That’s the easier way to the top."
"Then why the hell didn’t we take it?" demanded Donahue. "This isn’t supposed to be a feature about the climb, but about what we find."
"The Marangu Route is still in daily use, and no one’s found anything," answered Gorman. "We’re the first people to take the Mweka Route in more than five years. If Papa’s leopard exists, we’ll find it here. The way the mountain’s melting, they could hardly have missed him if he’s anywhere near the Marangu Route."
"You realize," said Charles Njobo, speaking for the first time in hours, "that even if you find this leopard, you are not permitted to move him."
"You say that twice a day," said Bonnie irritably. "Has anyone disagreed with you?"
"Besides," added Ray, "if he’s up here, he’s been thawing out for years. Who’d
to take him home?"
"I am just making sure you understand," said Njobo, a little defensively.
"They understand," said Gorman. He patted his rifle. "Besides, I’ll shoot the first one who tries to make off with it."
"You, too?" said Ray. "No one wants to make off with it. Hell, we’ll probably smell it long before we see it."
it’s up here at all," added Donahue.
"And on that optimistic note, I suggest we have dinner and get some sleep," said Gorman. "Tomorrow promises to be a long day."
The chef cooked us some kind of very dry, stringy meat that the porters had carted along-I think someone said it was klipspringer-and after we finished we climbed into our huts.
I took my medication-I was the oldest member of the party by a decade, and I had high blood pressure and skyrocketing cholesterol-and tried to fall asleep. Certainly my muscles were tired enough to go the whole night without even twitching, but I couldn’t control my excitement. Up to this point Donahue and Bonnie had done most of the work, but we were getting to the altitude where my expertise would finally be needed. If there
a frozen leopard up here, where was he likely to be? That in turn led to the question: what did he eat? Herbivores, obviously-and that meant there had to be herbivores up here before the glacier had turned to slush. If so, what could they themselves have eaten? What kind of plants grew here, and what kind of plant-eaters could they nourish? The leopard would never be too far from his prey, not when he could be seen so easily against the white blanket of the snow, so knowing the habits of his prey would lead me to where he was most likely to have lived and died.
I began going over every variety of plant I had seen that day, sorting them out in my mind, trying to decide which were new to the slope and which might have been there when the glaciers still loomed large-and suddenly I opened my eyes and it was morning, and the camp was bustling with activity.
"Good morning, Professor," said Gorman, who was supervising the making of breakfast.
"Good morning," I said. "And it’s Doctor, not Professor."
Gorman shrugged. "Six of one, half a dozen of the other."
Before I could reply, he had walked over to the kitchen area and was berating one of the assistants for breaking the yolks on a pair of eggs.
"I hope we find some elephants or lions up here," said Bonnie softly, joining me as I watched our guide’s latest fit of temper. "Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before he starts using the porters for target practice."
"He’s supposed to be the best," remarked Ray Glover as he walked by us.
"Well, next time, let’s find out the best
," said Bonnie. "A century or two back, he’d be carrying a bullwhip and using it on every porter in the party."
"And then wondering why we flinched every time he walked by," added Ray with a smile.
"I’ll tell you one thing," I said, and they all turned to me. "I don’t like him any better than you do, but I’ll bet every member of the party makes it back safely. He doesn’t strike me as someone who loses many clients from panic or carelessness."