The road to the mountain was long and flat and the land on both sides was dry. A sheet of greenery lay evenly on the hills in the distance. The sun was bright at that hour, and its light produced a misty haze which surrounded the hills where they touched the sky, and it looked as if the blue of the sky had begun to drip on the green hills.
Elusive beauty: The Kilimanjaro reveals itself only to the fortunate. AFP
The Masai men wore red and yellow shuka and they stood out in the grassland. One of them carried a stick on his shoulders, and a herd of goats and cattle walked slowly along the plain.
The sky was filled with clouds, which was not a good sign. We had set out when it was still dark and my driver Bakari had warned me about the clouds.
“Will it rain?”
“Not rain. But there are many clouds. They will hide the mountain,” he said, and then he brought his hands close, as if shutting a window.
“That’s all right,” I said. “We can’t force a mountain to do what it doesn’t want to do.”
In Africa, you wait for the mountain to reveal its beauty. You cannot force the peak to unveil her face. You wait for the beauty to look at you; you do not rush truth. It comes out when it wants to, like the clear sentences you want to flow from your pen—pure, simple, good, clean, and true.
We drove for 2 hours towards Tanzania’s border with Kenya, and we saw her image at many places. Kili time—If you can’t climb it, drink it, one billboard said, and I saw a few tourists at the bar, with bottles of the beer named after the mountain open in front of them, the men settled in comfortable chairs, their eyes squinting towards the peak. A tailor had named his shop after the peak. And there was a nightclub called Kilimanjaro.
My guide was called Goodluck, and I hoped that some of his name’s charms would rub off on us, and that we would get to see the peak. On the forest trail, younger people walked briskly and firmly, as if they were late for an appointment. They will reach the top, they will see the Great Rift Valley sprawled below—but will they see the peak’s face?
We took a steep path going down, following the sound of running water. The slope was sharp, and we passed a village where the Chagga lived, their children waving at us, following us, running ahead of us, standing on rocks by the waterfall, smiling at us, hoping to get photographed. The waterfall was gentle and the flow of the water was even and you could see a rainbow, and Bakari said that was a good sign.
Maybe we will get to see the peak, he said.
We walked further, reaching the base camp, where the more serious mountaineers began changing into warmer clothing and rearranging their rucksacks. It will take them three to four days to reach the top of Kilimanjaro, but will they see what Harry saw, in Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro: “As wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun … the top of Kilimanjaro.”
The clouds continued to shield Kilimanjaro’s face. Part of me wanted to challenge the mountain and sit and wait and train my lens and hope that the clouds would think nobody is looking and slip off a little and reveal the beauty of the peak and I would wait quietly, my eye fixed through the lens, my finger circling the shutter, ready to press just at that moment. I will wait till the mountain gives up. The mountain was not an animal; it would not turn away, running away from me, leaving a cloud of dust. The mountain will always be there. But could I wait, and for how long?
And another part of me said—the mountain will always be there and there will be another day and another season and you will be back and the clouds will slip the veil and I should know the limits and stop where the road ends and accept that the mountain was bigger, that I lived in its shadow and not the other way round, and I looked at Goodluck’s face and he understood and he nodded. It was time to head back.
“In Africa a thing is true at first light and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weed fringed lake you see across the sun baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there,” Hemingway wrote in his posthumous novel True At First Light. We had travelled across another plain in the morning and we knew that there was a peak but in the afternoon when we went there it almost seemed as if it was never there. But now it was twilight and we were driving back and there, suddenly, Bakari stopped the car and before he could say anything I knew and looked out of the window, and there it was, Kilimanjaro, her jaw-dropping beauty, absolutely true, beautiful and believable, true at last light.
I raised my camera, bringing it close to my eye, my finger on the shutter. In that split-second, an enormous cloud surrounded it once again, and she was gone.
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