Editors' Choice

Kilimanjaro Dreams

by Ken Matusow

Strange things happen in the thin air of high altitude.

Do you believe that dreams come true? With a graduate degree in applied mathematics and a career in computer science, I generally don't. But many years ago I had a strange experience, so odd that the details remain fresh in my mind.

On the morning of December 31, 1979, I lay on a wooden pallet shivering with cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Every breath I attempted turned into a gasp for air as I suffered from a mild case of altitude sickness. I lay curled up in my sleeping bag at 13,500 feet in the Horombo hut on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro.

I had reached the summit the previous day and was on my way down, looking forward to meeting some friends for an end of the decade New Year’s celebration in the tourist town of Arusha. Arusha was going to be a treat, for it was only marginally in Africa. Although strategically situated in Tanzania between the mega-tourist attractions of Kilimanjaro, Ngorongroro Crater Game Park, and Nairobi, Kenya, Arusha served as a kind of Americo-European oasis. Restaurants served semi-edible food; shops were sometimes partially filled with goods; almost-new autos and taxis managed to drive on semi-paved roads. Tourists walked the streets at night retelling stories of lion and leopard, elephant and rhino. With a cold Tusker beer in hand a few of these travelers boasted of their ascent of Kili. I looked forward to being one of them.

Climbing Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa, was a great way to end the seventies, Four days earlier I had hitchhiked to the base of the mountain with a kilo of rice, a small jar of sugar, some loose tea, and a personal commitment to climb the peak. Although not quite prepared for the trek, I was nervously confident I'd have little trouble. A year of tramping through Africa had inured me to the rigors of the continent. I had backpacked in the Drakensburg of South Africa, the Malutis of Lesotho, and the Malange mountains of southern Malawi. Kilimanjaro, I hoped, would be no problem. Although an ascent of Kili was rigorous due to the 19,000 foot altitude, the climb is non-technical and the route I planned to take was very well traveled. The itinerary was well known. Three days’ walk to the base of the summit at 15,000 feet, then a grueling scramble up 4,000 feet of scree to the top. The standard plan is to reach the summit at dawn of the fourth day, then rush down the mountain in a day and a half. A short ride would bring the tired but victorious trekker to Arusha where he would enliven and exaggerate his tale with Tusker beer.

My first two days on Kilimanjaro were fairly easy. Starting at about 6,000 feet, the path led upwards in a gradual but steady climb. Accompanied by a dozen European travelers of varied history, I walked through subtropical rainforest and then a Rouseau-esque jungle of large ferns. Monkeys howled from the trees, daring one to spot the source of the noise. Enfolded in clouds, the trail was often damp and slippery, with mud and rain an occasional companion. Five hours of slow walking brought me to an elaborate array of huts at about the 9,000 foot mark. I was wet and tired. The huts looked incongruous, shiny new and clean, sitting on the slopes of the largest isolated peak on the planet.

In 1979 Tanzania was a thoroughly broken country. Only a single road claimed to be paved, the term “paved” referring to silly bits of lonely tarmac that wound its way through the bush. On this “paved” road ran an occasional truck or bus slowly lurching from pothole to pothole. Along the road isolated grocery shops beckoned with empty shelves, with no food available for purchase outside of a few tins of sardines. Restaurants greeted travelers with African-style polenta adorned with a few rings of onion and perhaps a morsel of tough beef. Small general stores stocked nothing but cases of surgical soap stolen off one of the ships sitting in the Dar Es Salaam harbor, ships that sometimes anchored for as long as a year before being unloaded. Traveling through Tanzania in 1979 gave me an appreciation of the concept of infrastructure by exhibiting a complete lack of it. In Tanzania I always expected delay and surprise. Yet in the middle of a rainforest at an elevation of 9,500 feet sat a beautifully constructed hut, new, clean, and well maintained. The hut was literally one of few things in the country that actually worked.

The refuge was greatly appreciated. The huts were dry. Sleeping arrangements were dormitory style, sleeping bags thrown on wooden pallets filled with Westerners of various ages, sizes, and nationalities. Using my tiny pellet stove, I quickly steamed some rice and boiled some tea. I bought a bit of stringy meat and an onion from a porter and proceeded to make a kind of ad hoc stew. After the meal, a few cups of tea, and much conversation I settled down for the night.

The next morning, brilliant blue skies with cool, dry weather made for ideal walking on a trail that gradually gained elevation amid the now savannah-like terrain. Looming in the distance was snowcapped Uhuru peak, the highest summit of Kilimanjaro. After about 15 minutes of walking a solitary cloud blew in from the south obscuring the spectacular view and enshrouding the 15 or 20 trekkers in a cool, damp mist. For the remainder of the day we walked through a surreal gray landscape populated with ten-foot-high versions of lobelia houseplants.

A second set of accommodation, called the Horombo Hut, met me late in the afternoon at an elevation of 12,500 feet. At this altitude the weather was decidedly chilly and very non-tropical. The mist had congealed into a light rain coating the wooden portico of the hut in a slick patina. I was cold and wet and tired. With a slight headache that made the now two-day-old stew look quite unappetizing, I heated dinner on my pellet stove. After washing my one-and-only pot, I boiled up multiple cups of tea. The banter of the prior day was much subdued, the energized milling of the first night replaced by a damp and cold gloom that matched the gray of the outdoors.

As with day two, the third day started out in spectacular fashion. The air was cold and extraordinarily crisp. A light frost covered the sparse vegetation, reflecting the eastern sun like tiny lenses. My pack felt light and my body energized as I walked through the semi-desert. It seemed as if we were on an idyllic island in the sky as the hot, humid world of Africa drifted thousands of feet below. And like the second day, a mist soon enveloped us all, obscuring the mountain once again. The overwhelming sense of space and distance was replaced by a claustrophobic gray. As I climbed, the vegetation thinned. The land seemed to noticeably dry with each mile. A sign, printed in English, advertised “last water.” The mist lifted, replaced with airy snow flurries, allowing me to see, in the distance, the third and last hut. This hut was quite primitive and small. Made from stone, as there was no wood at this altitude, the small, lonely looking structure surrounded by small piles of snowdrift, lay at the base of the final summit. Even in mid-afternoon, the weather was cold and dry, a constant wind blowing across an empty desert. I was traversing the saddle, a dead, flat plain sitting 15,000 feet above sea level. For hours I slowly walked to the hut amid a landscape so devoid of anything alive, so lacking in points of reference that it was impossible to gauge distance. Eventually, the remaining trekkers gathered at the hut, nibbled at a light meal, and crawled into warm clothes and sleeping bags.

As tradition dictated, everyone was up by midnight. In silence I dressed. The drinking water from the barrel outside the front door was covered with a thin layer of ice. Bright, unblinking stars peppered the night sky. I began the slow trudge up the final peak. Almost total silence, punctuated by the crunching sounds of my boots, embraced me as I slowly made my way up the scree slope. Each of the previous three days I walked with fellow trekkers, talking of Africa and the mountain. This night I walked alone following the flashlights of the walkers ahead and above me as they traced a meandering dot of lights towards the summit. My head throbbed. I felt nauseated, suffered stomach cramps. I threw up and endured a bout of diarrhea. After a while I found a small cave into which I curled up and dozed. Then it was up the scree slopes again. One step followed another. I tried to breathe, but not much seemed to happen each time I inhaled. Ten steps, then rest. Then it was eight steps and rest. The sun came up illuminating Uhuru peak. I was behind schedule. One step followed another, six steps, then a rest. Four, then a rest. Two, then rest. Suddenly, without realizing it, I was at the top, standing on the rim of the caldera that crowns Kilimanjaro. I was wearing every piece of clothing I had with me. It was bitter cold as I looked at the glaciers, the craters, the land below. The view from the summit of Kilimanjaro is rightfully considered one of the finest panoramas on earth. The heat and humidity and lushness of Africa lie a scant three miles below. There seemed to be no connection between this moment and the continent of Africa. The unreality of the moment intensified as two hang gliders floated off the summit to begin their lazy descent to the savannah below. After taking a single photo there was absolutely nothing else to do but start down.

I wrenched my left knee as I glissaded down the scree. I waved as I passed the previous night's hut, its forlorn countenance of the day before replaced with the kind image of an old and trusted friend. The desert began to come alive, first with grasses, and later with scrub and small trees. Eventually the Horombo hut appeared. My refuge. The snow was gone; the land was alive. I had made it to the top of Kili. I ate the remains of my disgusting stew, drained countless cups of sweet tea, crawled into my sleeping bag and fell into a listless, restless sleep. I rarely remember my dreams, but that night was an exception.

My dream that night was strange and vivid. I dreamed I was on Kilimanjaro. I dreamed I had just successfully navigated the summit and was heading down the mountain for a New Year’s Eve celebration. In the dream I came down the mountain and took a local bus to Moshi, a town close to Arusha, the other tourist town in northern Tanzania. I disconnectedly wandered the streets of Moshi for a while, then, as is wont to happen in dreams, I suddenly found myself at the entrance to a bar. I walked down the steps into a kind of subterranean tavern. At the bar was King Kong. King Kong was a huge Tanzanian that in real, non-dreaming life I had met at the YMCA in Dar es Salaam. We shared a room at the Y and had become friends of a sort, until one day he walked off with my watch, my traveler's checks, and some cash. In my dream, he was standing at the bar. As he spied me, he sidled around a pillar in a pathetic attempt to hide his 6 foot 6 frame. I walked over to him and he gave me a smile. "Hello King Kong. How are you doing?" I looked down at his wrist and saw my pilfered watch. On closer inspection it wasn't my watch, but one that was similar. I had a blue Omega, while the one he wore in my dream was gray. After a dreamy non-conversation he took off the watch he had on and handed it to me. I put it on my wrist and ran to the bathroom. At this point the dream ended and I woke up. I had never before had a dream like this. The dream was clear and fresh and powerful. It seemed much more like a memory than a dream. Not surprisingly it is the only dream I still remember after 20 years.

After I woke at Horombo Hut, the dream stayed with me. I cleared my head, quickly dressed, and hurried down the mountain. I found a bus to Arusha, where I was to meet a friend. I briefly remembered that in my dream I had taken a bus to Moshi, not Arusha. So much for curious dreams. The short ride to Arusha was uneventful. As usual I played the pickpocket game. I put a small amount of cash in my front pants pocket and tried to identify the pickpocket who would eventually remove it. I failed as I did every other time. The theft was not malicious, and really wasn't even thievery. It was a battle of skill and wits. If I had caught the guy he would have most likely given me a huge smile of acknowledgement and cheerfully given me back the money. Perhaps he would have offered to buy me a beer, with my own money of course. This was, after all, Africa.

In Arusha I met my friend and checked into a cheap, dirty hotel. After I had a marvelous shower and change of clothes, we walked to the Equator Hotel to celebrate the new decade. The bar, located in a basement area, was packed with travelers, many of whom he had gotten to know. As we were having a beer, I happened to glance up, and spotted my old antagonist King Kong standing in a corner. As he saw me turning towards him he quickly leaned behind a pillar, trying to look nonchalant. I went over to him. "How are you King Kong?" We had a brief conversation where he claimed he had not stolen my watch but only meant to “borrow” it to time a long-distance phone call. By the time he brought back the watch, I had gone. He was innocent. Why didn't I wait around for him to return the watch? Why did I want to make him feel guilty? "Do you still have my watch?" I asked. I glanced at his wrist and for a brief moment I thought he had mine on, but he didn’t. My watch was a bluish Omega, while the one he had on was a gray Seiko. He claimed he had my watch at his hotel and he would fetch it for me. "Great," I said, "can you lend me the watch you have on while you bring back mine?" After a brief hesitation, and to my surprise, he gave me the watch and said he'd return with the original in a few minutes. Before leaving the bar, he came to my table and introduced a few of his friends, big, scary-looking fellows. Each one looked at me, my buddy, and his girlfriend. They shook each of our hands and left. I went to go to the bathroom. As I passed through the door my dream of the previous evening came back to me in a rush. As the dream returned I panicked. I couldn't breathe, I felt cornered, trapped, and frightened. I walked back to the hotel to try to get my bearings. I had a dream the night before that had come true a few hours later. It was not a vague dream, but one with lots of detail and dialogue. With the exception of the name of the town, Moshi in the dream, Arusha in real life, the dream predicted the reality to the smallest detail.

I don't know why I panicked. Nor do I know if there is any meaning in “the dream that came true.” None of this makes any sense, nor will I draw any conclusions. But it is a true story. If this experience had happened in America, I would consider it extraordinary. But it happened in Africa, not the US. In Africa, dreams that come true, especially ones that occur on the slopes of the holy mountain Kilimanjaro and on the last night of a decade, somehow seem par for the course.

Although it no longer works, I still have the gray Seiko, the watch from my dreams.


Ken Matusow is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Between technology startups and consulting contracts he usually takes off to explore the developing world, often for months or years at a time. He also works as a volunteer to assist technology companies in remote parts of the globe. Working with groups such as Geek Corps and the International Executive Service Corp, he has assisted and advised technology companies in Bulgaria, Mongolia, South Africa, and West Africa. He lives in northern California with his wife, Barbara.


About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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