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A classic View of a Kili Climb – Peter MacQueen 1908/1909

This is an excerpt from American adventurer Peter MacQueen’s account of his 1909 hunting expedition in East Africa

Peter MacQueen at 19200ftAFTER a delightful week with the Germans and the colonists of Moschi we made ready for an ascent of Kilimanjaro. We consulted with Sultan Sulima, and he procured for us sixteen of his strongest young men to carry our loads up the mountains. The chief guide was the famous Souho, who five months before had guided an expedition led by Dr. Ahlbory. They had reached the edge of the crater of Kibo, but on the way down had lost several of their men by the terrible cold on the bare, storm-swept slopes of the upper mountain. We took an abundant supply of chocolate, dried goats’ meat, and rice; also medicine, and four blankets each.

With the good wishes of the Sultan and his people we started up the mountain, July 6th, 1908. We had thirteen carriers and two tent men, all Wa-chagas, and our big headman, Mohamet, who was a Swahili from Zanzibar.

At first we were amid teeming tropic gardens on the hillside. The goats and flocks were feeding around the huts and the boys whistled and the birds sung in the soft air.

The good fellows who carried our burdens had forty pounds each, and we let them rest whenever they wished. Very beautiful birds were found as we came toward the higher slopes, resembling humming birds and sun birds. These little creatures may be noticed hovering around the long tubular flowers of certain labiate plants, and on their feathers pollen is conveyed long distances. Nature thus uses them as she does certain insects for purposes of fertilization.

The spoor of eland elephant and leopard were found, but none of lions. At an elevation of between 6000 and 7000 ft long drooping creepers lianas and moss hung from the trees. Great tree ferns were seen in graceful fronds along the valley. A brook followed our path most of the way. It was an artificial canal cut by the natives from the glaciers to their gardens. Rain came weeping from the clouds at two o clock and we encamped at about 9000ft above the sea. Here we found the remains of an old camp and our men cut down trees and brought in fire wood. I felt very much as if I were in the Adirondack Mountains. Soon three great fires were burning and Mr Dutkewich and I had a lordly lunch of hot tea and hard biscuits.

I kept a diary of each day of our trip and difficulties on Mt Kilimanjaro and perhaps I cannot do better than to quote here directly from it:

July 6th 1908 4 PM As I write this the men are seated about the fire or bringing in the wood. Our tents and beds are all arranged and Peter Dutkewich has gone into the forest with a guide to look for game. We are in an open space surrounded by trees one of which is a species of cedar.

peter-macqueen-2July 7th 1908 It rained terribly all night and we put most of the Wachaga porters in our tent. It was rather distressing to the olfactory nerves but Peter Dutkewich is so Russian in his democracy that he must needs put the dusky crowd all under cover of a single tent. I was glad for them poor fellows protected only with a cotton rag from either nakedness or the bleak wind. We had a blanket for each of the porters but did not realize at first how bitterly cold the ascent was going to be. At 4 AM a leopard visited us but did not fancy our scent.

Peter MacQueen’s diary entry continues….

‘We broke camp at 8.45 and ascended through steep and bushy country to the Mué stream. Trees began to look spindling the bush and briar and thorn cut our hands and impeded our porters. Spoor of elephant disappeared but marks of wild boar eland and leopard were plentiful. The kudu, a beautiful antelope, ascends the mountain to fourteen thousand feet, and the wild buffalo comes nearly as high, probably attracted by the sweet perennial pasture. The gorgeous scarlet of the turaco lapped through the forest aisles and we heard the chatter of the hyrax a kind of squirrel whose voice in the trees sounds almost human.

By noon we were through the heavy dripping woods and out in a series of brown fields. We saw much evidence of boar and eland and sighted a paa about as large as a small lamb. In the afternoon the sky was hung with dense curtains of purple gray cloud, and the plain below lay in monotonous blue shadow, [and] only away to the west behind the pyramid of Meru the heavens exhibited one clear cloudless belt which the descending sun turned to refulgent gold and against this relief as on some antique illumination of decorative design the peak of Meru and the jagged hill tops at its base stood out in a simple tone of indigo. There was no end to the beauty and the wonder of the wild flowers. Small pink irises studded the ground in vast numbers and the crimson gladioli gleamed out brightly from the tufted grass. Along the pretty streams which flowed from the snowy crest of the mountain through deep ravines our path was gaily lit by the brilliant red leaf shoots of the protea shrub.

‘At one place where we crossed the stream the banks were shelving, and above the little ford the water fell in dainty cascades. About this spot the scenery lost much of its accustomed asperity. Strange sessile thistles grew here, and fairy-like lobelias. Other remarkable plants were the bright ultramarine flowers, and a peculiar arborescent plant, named Senecio Johnstoni, looking somewhat like a banana, but in reality consisting of a tall, black, smooth trunk, with a crown of broad leaves and yellow blossoms.

peter-macqueen-1‘Tufts of chevril and patches of vivid green moss overhung the gleaming water, which itself was lovely in its pellucid clearness. At an altitude of 12000ft bees and wasps were still to be seen — their very presence seeming to account for the vivid colours of the flora. The fields were sprinkled with beautiful flowers, red and pink, blue and purple. Heather and gorse appeared. There were plenty of signs of game in this upland plateau. We were now up thirteen thousand feet.

‘We set up our tent in a hollow at the timber line, among long dry grass, with plenty of small cedar and cypress trees which could be used for fire wood. We made the Wachaga build a shelter and thatch it with grass close to us in case of wild beasts or rain, and also three fires against the cold.

Yesterday at 5 P. M., Ther. 54° Fahr…. we felt the cold keenly in the woods, and slept little, with all our woolen clothes and four blankets apiece; we gave our mackintoshes to the black porters. Tonight, we are looking at a misty sun. This afternoon, we saw a wonderfully clear view of the foothills of Kilimanjaro. We could look upon an unbroken stretch of green ridges, fields and plains ; the Catholic mission at Kilima ; the houses of Marangu ; the Lutheran mission at Moschi, and that town itself.

‘A formation of clouds, the most peculiar I have ever seen, formed an archway under which we saw the near hills and far away plains, framed as in a picture. At 5 P. M. we were comfortably settled in the highest camp of Africa, and P. D. (Peter Dutke- wich) had gone to shoot wild boar.

July 8th, 19oS: Written in our camp above the clouds, at an elevation of 13000ft.

‘Last evening P. D. returned from boar-hunting, having twice fallen into native traps about eight feet deep. These traps are deep holes, being wide at the top and so narrow at the bottom that the animal cannot use its legs when once it falls in. The natives cover the hole so cleverly that, in the growing dusk, it was impossible to detect the natural ground from that covered by the trap. Hence Dut- kewich fell into the snare.

‘Between five and six last night the clouds parted, the mist drifted down into the valley and Kilimanjaro, the grandest peak in a whole continent, showed its white forehead. From our cots in the tent we could see this glowing wonder of eternal snow amid the eternal green. On the west gleamed the waning sun in a bed of old rose and amber, amid the scarred rocks of Mount Meru, eighty miles away. To the east the piled-up clouds were below us. At one place they were like castles in the air; at another like cities of jasper amid walls of gold; ending in one high mountain peak which leaned close against the Southern Cross and seemed to be the throne of God himself. Then slowly, softly, faded the pink and amber and Chrysoprase, and the light left hill and forest and cloud and far off fortifications and missions of the white man ; and the sky paled and then became aglow with the splendour of the moonlight, and all around was darkness over the land except where the proud Kilimanjaro on her silver throne shone silent and alone, the queen of all the Afric land.

‘We retired about 7 o’clock and were well wrapped, but we shivered all night, having come from 86° to 22° in two days. I was clothed thus : four pairs of socks, one pair of trousers, one pair of puttee leggings, one jersey-woollen, one woollen blue shirt, one negligee shirt, a suit of underwear, a khaki coat, a mackintosh, a skating cap and twoblankets, and yet I was ‘ acold.’ Shall put on a pair of boots up to my knees to-night.

‘We shall probably make the final attempt to reach the summit to-morrow. The height of Kibo is nearly twenty thousand feet. There is a ridge running from Mwenzi Mountain to Kibo. The saddle is sixteen thousand feet. Mwenzi and Kibo are the twin peaks that form the Kilimanjaro. We will get our guides up to the saddle and leave the rest of the men here. We hope by moonlight to walk all night and reach a point near the top of Kibo by daylight. Meanwhile we rest awhile. P. D. makes pictures and I collect all the flora I can for a picture. There are thousands of wild flowers on this plateau, Scotch heather, violets and immortelles.

July 9th, 19o8: Clear and bright this morning. We made pictures from the top of the hill above our camp. At 9 A. M. I started up to the snow line with my guide Souho. He did not seem to mind the rarefied air; but when we had risen a thousand feet I got dizzy; from that time onward for two thousand feet the dizziness continued, till up at the snow line, sixteen thousand feet, I became fearfully nauseated. My guide was as polite as Lord Chesterfield and kindly as the finest gentleman of the world could be. So I owe much to the bare-footed natives of this country, who patiently for eight cents a day bear the white man’s burden. On the wild, desolate uplands I thought of what the Scotchman said of the Kyles of Bute: ‘The works o’ God is hellish.’ For athwart the landscape are rocks, hills and mountains thrown in dreadful confusion, the wreckage of a former world.

‘To-night trouble and mutiny developed in camp. The Wachaga did not bring posho (corn) enough for more than a few days, whilst we had paid them to bring food for ten days. We began giving two heads of corn by the hand of Mohamet, our Swahili man. They all brought the corn to our door, and laid it down, declaring they would not go further with us. We made it three heads, but still discontent. Peter threatened that we would have the discontented flogged and he went out to get a whip. This brought the discontented to their senses.

July 11th, 1908: To-day foggy all day. I went up to fourteen thousand feet to try my weakened system. Was all O. K. except a bit of indigestion pain. Breathe easier after a number of days in high altitudes. The small boy, Moji, hunts rats. The rats are striped like chipmunks. They are very tame and clean.

‘The man we call Moses, an old bald headed fellow, has a fine name, Michili. He came back to-night from the foot of the mountain with a dress coat and we gave him a chicken which died on the way up. We have eaten up the goat and chickens sent us by Salima, King of the Wachagas. Food question alleviated by the arrival of more maize brought by Moses and four men.

‘They keep this posho money to buy wives. A wife costs ten goats. One of the boys said to me, ‘Ver hard on Wachaga to get wife, but when he get her she can make do plant corn, she make wash and cook and make do work for him. Ingreza (English) man very much money to spend. She wife no can wash, no plant corn, herd goats or cook. All money, much merkani (cloth), heap money, big dinner. She eat much posho. She no can cook dinner. She only make Safari and look. Porr, porr Ingreza man.’

July 12, 1908: We ascended in the afternoon with two guides and five men to cave at foot of Kibo. It was at first through dry grass, then through scrub and heather, on to one solitary cactus and huge rocks and stones in great cosmic confusion. Bright yellow euryops flowers studded the occasional patches of bare earth. Beyond rise Kibo and Mwenzi and on the plateau a few volcanic hills, just membra disjecta of the Creation.

‘On upper plateau we made kinetoscope pictures; some stereos and a few fine 4 x 5’s also. Came to cave. Men cold. Passed two corpses of young men who died of exposure, a short time ago. The vultures had pecked out their eyes, the leopards had taken a leg from each. Nothing beautiful now save the beauty that comes from the sublimity of death. Made fire in cave. Guides looked weird, like some play of a theater. Slept a little, but feet cold in spite of heavy boots and several German army blankets.’

July 13th, 1908: At 6.30 A. M., After a cup of cocoa, a potato and some cold goat’s meat, we started for the glaciers of Mount Kibo, highest and grandest of all African mountains, nineteen thousand eight hundred feet. Mwenzi, the nineteen thousand feet neighbouring peak across the plateau to the east, showed its scarred, serrated head wrapped in a cap of white clouds. The moon was going out. The sun was filling this theatre of wonder, making a gallery and museum of things magnificent and grand.

‘Just when we reached the edge of the snow at 16,000 feet, our guides looked at the ice, picked up a few handfuls of the gleaming wonder, then ran away, exclaiming : Oh, masters, this is magic : this is water turned to burning wood. So the ascent was made more difficult ; for they carried away all our food.

‘By nine o’clock we made some panoramic views of the country at a height of 17000ft above the sea. About this height I began to breathe so hard I had nausea, which continued all day. P. D. carried cameras and plates. On we went over a scarified river where formerly the glacier was a burning coal, a river of lava, when the earth was just beginning.

For, before the eland and the elephant took shelter in her sacred heights, — reigned Kibo, Queen of Africa, Kibo, queen of white water, now crowned with gold in the sunrise and sunset. Clothed with ermine always, mysterious, inaccessible, unapproachable, Sovereign now of snow ; once of fire. Her glorious crown flashes back the ruby and the diamond to the sun; and in her diadem of snow were the purple of the jacinth, the blue of the amethystine fire, the brilliance of the emerald, the soft shining of the opal.

By 11 A. M. I noticed, at 18000ft, even stalwart Peter Dutkewich beginning to weaken in the breathing apparatus. At noon we were well nigh on the roof of Africa, photographing, from the very glacial throne of Kibo, the mighty, plains that stretch away towards Nairobi on the northeast, the great German steppe of Moschi, with the blue Parri Mountains in the far, fair, shining horizon, sixty or seventy miles away. At 1.30 we seemed to touch the very sky, we could not walk ten yards without stopping to breathe. I was excessively nauseated. At 19200ft we were struck by a snow storm. It chilled us to the marrow of our bones.

‘We decided to return to camp and try the ascent next day. We put a small American flag up in the snow at 19200ft, the highest point yet reached by English-speaking men in Africa, although the peak was ascended by Dr. Hans Meyer, a German, in 1889.

‘We came in safety almost to the cave when P. D. (Peter Dutkewich) fell on an Old glacial rock and fractured several ribs.

‘We hastened to-bring him down from the mountain and got lost in the rain and the clouds. We found our way to camp by the dead bodies of the men who died on Dr. Ahlbory’s expedition. Arrived at camp at 10 P. M. Got P. D. to bed. Slept fairly well but still cold.

July I4th, 1908: We are getting ready to move P. D. Men are around the camp fires, drying out their garments, only one cotton rag. not difficult; one is trying to dry my stockings. But it rains, and when one side is dry the good fellow turns it so that the dry side is rained upon and he makes no progress in the drying process. The air is very wet in this camp, which is just among the clouds. I question if there are any people in all Africa so highly situated as we are. Perhaps few are more uncomfortable. Rain, mist and fog, morning, noon and night. We shall get away to-morrow and then shake our fists at the worst the cruel Kibo can do to us. I read on my German map: ‘ Kibo, 6,010 meters; Mwenzi 5,353 meters.’ Ah, those careful, scientific Germans!

July 15th, 1908: We had a most awful time tonight. All had gone well with Peter Dutkewich till 6 P. M., when he gave signs of fainting and of heart failure. He had a fierce chill and called me to put a fire near him. We built a fire in the door of our tent; it suffocated him. Put it out and then the natives showed me how to arrange coals in three pans, one at his feet, one at his middle and one at his head. This I did every 20 minutes for 14 hours. His pulse would go 16 and then stop 4 beats. Temperature 102°. Rained and nearly put out the fire. My feelings as I thought fire was going out I cannot describe. It did not go out, and by 6 A. M. he slept an hour.

He awoke and told me to make a stretcher. I cut two long poles of cedar in the forest and then put two cross poles at each end, about two and a half feet long. First we rolled a blanket-waterproof around each of the long poles. These we secured by ropes and then we tied on the cross poles as they do in the army. Afterwards we put two good thick blankets in this improvised stretcher, and, placing P. D. on it, we threw four heavy ones over him, also a waterproof received from the German Bureau.

At 7.30 A. M. eight of the men took up the stretcher and the march down the mountain began. It was raining, and the long grass wet us and the cold dawn chilled us to the bone. When we had gone an hour, I saw three of our men cowering and shivering in the grass. Mohamet would not leave them behind. I had no heart to desert the poor, wretched, fever-stricken men. So I returned to where they lay and carried one on my back for a mile. The others could walk. I found my strength giving out, but ate chocolate and gave some to the sick men. Was revived.

‘Looking ahead I noticed that the stretcher with P. D. had been carried across the fields and that the carriers had entered the woods. For fear that I should lose Dutkewich in the forest, I left the sick man with two of his comrades to take care of him. I plunged through a thicket of trees and lianas and by calling to the men who were carrying Dutkewich I found the party had emerged upon a field.

‘We took the wounded man up to a knoll in the open space, and laid him down while I sent back after the shivering men left out in the grass. The strong men came through the wood without the sick comrade whom I had carried on my back. I gave them chocolate, as they could hardly stand upon their feet. The strongest one I sent back for the lost comrade. He soon returned and told me that he could not find him. The horror of the situation began to break upon me. This man was going to die; he was only half a mile away, and yet I could neither go for him myself nor send a man strong enough to bring him.

‘Souho, the guide, I had sent on through the forest in the darkness of the night with a letter to Dr. Ahlbory, beseeching him to come and save us, if he could. We were making half a mile an hour; would we ever reach the German station? Or would half of us be alive when we did ?

‘So we kept moving slowly and painfully through the forest, over fallen trees, under the great tree-ferns, crossed the little streams that were coming from the glacial heights. The forest was one long, dank vista of gloom. At 4 P. м. we met Souho, the guide, who had carried the letter through to the German fort and returned bringing us two askaris and six new men to carry our stretcher.

‘Sent Souho back for the sick man; and he saved him, carrying him in next day on his back. The Germans sent also a hammock and a tent; and Herr Wolfe sent two bottles of champagne. I went ahead to look for a place to camp; got too far and was lost. Soon darkness came on in the gloom of the forest.

‘I got back in time to see P. D. lying on sloping ground, slipping off the stretcher, and in great pain. Small fire had been made under the root of a great tree. Rain soon came on and wiped out the fire. Tent was not put up and we were all in great misery. Men with tent lost in the darkness. Thought if the rain stopped we would go on in the moonlight. Rain did not stop.

Sat down beside P. D. in the mud. Gave him one bottle of champagne. Revived him greatly. An Askari gave me three thin blankets. Peter had four or five blankets over him, but the pain of his poor broken ribs was intense all night, and the unfortunate position of the stretcher, which I could not move, caused him to slip down constantly hurting him. Wet to my thighs for twelve hours.

‘Night came very dark; no moonlight. Soon the rain became a torrent and for fifteen hours we lay there in the mud. The poor Wachaga men were almost as badly off as ourselves, some were worse, and poor Mapandi, a carrier whom I had noticed shivering with fever for the last day or two, stiffened, grew cold and died beside me in the mud. We prayed for dawn. Again and again it seemed to brighten, but it was only the clouds getting thin near the face of the moon.

July 17th, 1908: At 8 o’clock this morning, I looked around upon the wretched camp; another man had died. Dutkewich was quiet and I thought at first he was dead. I had now been wet and chilled twenty-seven hours, no food, no fire, no warmth. A few chocolates left; I divided them with the men. Even the new carriers sent us by the Germans seemed utterly demoralized. We started the stretcher; it still poured rain, the men had no food. At 9.30 Mohamet, our Swahili man, deserted and ran away. He could stand the strain no longer.

‘I resolved to go for white help. Gave P. D. half a bottle of whiskey, and started down ahead to find the doctor in case some mistake had been made. Met a boy carrying hammock. Offered him three rupees to get me to Lutheran mission. On I went ; fell in the stream fainting. Took a little champagne from the second bottle sent me by Herr Wolfe. Got out of the stream; dragged myself onto my feet and began to repeat in German the words : ‘I will give any man 500 Marks who will bring my friend down from the hill to-day.’ Left Dutkewich at 9 o’clock, met Dr. Ahlbory and Mr. Mauck, one of the German officials from the boma, at n. At first I could not speak, but sat down on a fallen tree, quite overcome.

‘After a few minutes I recovered and was able to show the doctor the spot where Dutkewich was when I left him. The Germans went on and found Dutkewich entirely deserted, except for one of the askaris. The askari was helping him to stand upon his feet; another of the Wachagas had died. Dutkewich threw a blanket over him, as he crawled up toward the stretcher, trembling with cold and exposure. Shortly afterwards the stronger men came out of the woods where they had been hiding and took the blanket from the dying man, Kasungu. Then Kasungu died. The doctor gave Dutkewich hot tea and rum, with food. Upon examination he found three ribs crushed in over the heart.

‘I was taken to the German Lutheran mission where I was treated with great kindness by the missionary, Dr. Passman and his wife. Mr. Dutkewich was brought down to the German Hospital where he had to lie for ten weeks. He wrote me later that the German Dr. Ahlbory treated him as if he had been a brother and that all the white residents of Moschi had helped and cheered him in his long and dangerous illness.

‘Thus ends a really tragic incident that came near wiping out our expedition.’

There are a few particulars of the ascent that I have not mentioned. At the height of fourteen thousand feet I saw the kudu antelope. At the same place I made a note of a brown Stonechat bird who sang to us a cheery note and kept us company amid the chilling mists. Moreover, in our camp at over 13,000 feet, there were many field rats of which I have read no mention in the books of other travellers, and which might well be named Rodcntis Macquccnicnsis. These mountain rats were very tame and came almost up to the table to eat. They were striped like chipmunks but had tails like rats.

I quote again some leaves from my diary: July 19th, Sunday: Lutheran Mission, Moschi, 4800ft. It was a calm and restful day to me after an exciting week. Dr. Passman and I had breakfasted together. Then to church. Two hundred clean, well-dressed Wachaga went to service. Seemed glad to go to the House of God. Singing good and vespers sounded sweetly in the quiet Sabbath hush. In the afternoon I looked for signs of my camp followers from the mountain, but they came not. Slept again. In the evening looked over the scene. Very striking one. Sun sets over Mount Meru, 12000 feet in elevation. Plain is very green after the rain. Small volcanoes on the plains and the Parri mountains in a blue haze on the horizon. Streams flow, birds sing before they repair to rest. The Wachaga cattle graze peacefully. Glorious are the streams of light: tints of brightness, blues, mauves, — opalescent, glistening. Garden smells of wild flowers. Chirp of insects. Great Kibo covered up in mist. I hear songs of praise from German church. The whole scene sings itself into my memory for ever. Limes, pears, nasturtiums, bananas, the pawpaw. Respectful attitudes of the people. Mission folk look better than other natives.