The teas of Kilimanjaro

The recent autumnal weather not only signals the beginning of prime backpacking season in the southern United States, but it has had me thinking back on our adventure on Kilimanjaro a few years ago.

As one would expect, virtually everything about that trip was foreign to us, but our guides took great care of us and made sure to make us as comfortable as possible during the climb.

Weeks before we embarked, the guides asked us about food preferences and favorite meals. Then, when we climbed we were accompanied by a professional chef that the Tanzanians called the “Stomach Engineer” and a “table boy” to act as our steward.

Being from Mississippi, we thought we understood hospitality, but the Tanzanians went to every extreme to teach us a thing or two about African hospitality. The thought of serving their guests pre-packaged or dehydrated instant camping food horrified them so much that they had porters (who they called “strong men”) to carry large baskets of fresh eggs, meat, and produce up the mountain, and the chef would prepare everything fresh each meal. During the middle of the 8-day trek they had extra porters that would run resupply baskets up to the Stomach Engineer from the bottom of the mountain.

It turns out that “Stomach Engineer” is not just a fancy name for a short order cook. The physics of cooking works differently at high altitude, so boiling water or oil and timing meals is no easy task. It also takes a great deal of skill to cook something that tastes good at high altitude because people’s senses of taste actually change at high altitude. Airline meals are a great example of how difficult it is to make something that tastes good when it is consumed at 15-20 thousand feet above sea level.

The Stomach Engineer must have studied up on southern U.S. cuisine because one meal on the mountain was fried fish and a couple of meals were fried chicken. It certainly wasn’t Paula Deen or Justin Wilson, but it was perfectly done and very tasty. I think that my favorite thing that I ate while on the mountain was an aromatic safron rice with a few peas and carrots mixed in.

Every meal was a production, including breakfast, which was typically served English- or German-style with egg & bacon, toast, and an assortment of jams and nut butters served with hot tea or coffee. Hot tea does not really seem to be much of a thing for most Americans. We are typically coffee people. The coffee that they brought on the mountain was instant but it was very good local instant coffee.

If all of this sounds suspiciously like glamping instead of camping, bear in mind that in order to even get a permit to enter Kilimanjaro National Park, you have to hire a guide, an assistant guide, a cook, and 2-3 porters per member of your climbing party. It is the job of these experts to keep you alive and healthy and maximize your chances of completing your climb intact. They have found over the years that without this much support, very few people would ever be able to make the ascent.

One of the things that the Head guide and the Stomach Engineer did for us every morning was to make a big pot of hot lemon and ginger tea. I don’t know if it was commercial tea or if it was custom compounded, but knowing their aversion for pre-packaged I suspect it was the Stomach Engineer’s own special recipe made from fresh ingredients.

They would pour a pot of this lemon ginger tea into a large insulated thermos and send it with the Head guide each morning. About the time we’d hiked and climbed and gotten cold and tired and somewhat dispirited, he would call a halt and serve us up a couple of cups of this miraculous hot tea and pretty soon we’d be revived and ready for some more of Kilimanjaro!

Funny thing about Thermos bottles – when you fill them with a hot liquid, seal them, and then climb a few thousand feet up a mountain, the change in air pressure forces all the air out of the bottle and it locks itself shut. Fequently the Head guide and an assistant or strongman would have to team up and clamp onto the bottle and struggle for a few minutes to break the seal.

When we returned from Kilimanjaro we quickly added this little bit of Tanzanian hospitality to our own cold-weather camping/hiking routine. We have found that the locally-available store-bought tea bags with lemon rind, ginger, and lemongrass are a wonderful and inexpensive way to revive in the middle of a cold-weather hike!

We also purchased a large, insulated coffee carafe at a second hand store and tried it out. We found that it will keep liquids palatably hot for 18 to 24 hours, so that means that you can make your morning tea or coffee the previous evening and you won’t have to try to build a fire or work a backpacking stove with frozen fingers the first thing the next morning.

Originally published in Pulse Magazine