We climbed on with our backpacks and off we went, whizzing quickly through the congestion onto side roads through villages and banana plantations. Our route included plenty of ups and downs and major potholes. While our cyclists had leather jackets and mandatory helmets, we didn't. I tried to push aside thoughts of a tumble on a back road in rural Tanzania and focused instead on the rush of wind, the greenery, the absence of cars, the children we passed who stared at us, bug-eyed. We survived, breathless and exhilarated, to the starting point of our hike—a rock and dirt path leading up to the left from the dirt road.
There are two ways to get to the Mount Meru waterfall. One is by car from Arusha, the choice of time-constrained or physically-challenged tourists, the vast majority. In addition to the drive, there is a half-hour walk mostly on a gently sloping dirt road.
The second alternative is a 10-kilometer, 3.5-hour hike starting from this turnoff at which we found ourselves. It is the one many locals choose because the entrance fee to the park costs less if you opt for the longer route. It begins inauspiciously but turns into a tangle of boulders, thick vegetation, slippery rocks along streams, slippery logs over streams, interspersed with coffee, corn, and banana plantations, villages of mud and thatched roofs, and more bug-eyed children. Plus the trail led up, down, and up again, eventually ascending from Arusha's 1,500-meter altitude to 1,800 meters.
The path required more agility than technical ability, but Erick hadn't seen this as an issue. My son and I had both walked strongly for several hours nonstop the day before. What the guide didn't know, and what I hadn't foreseen, was a misstep I had made the night before, which had resulted in a banged-up knee that was weak and pulsating, held in place by an Ace bandage and a massive dose of pain killer. I was in no shape for challenging downhill slopes and slippery bits in either direction. So Erick sent out another secret flycatcher signal and two local high school boys magically appeared. They assisted me when the going got tricky so I could enjoy the beauty we were passing.
The scenery was in fact glorious. No tourists of any color as we walked, and no garbage, clutter, or signage. It was pure nature, green and flourishing in the volcanic soil. The final hundred meters or so to the waterfall are along a rock-strewn stream, so I was grateful for my waterproof hiking boots. Eric was clad in rubbery flip-flops, but his feet were dryer than mine. Such is the fortune of a former flycatcher.
The waterfall drop is 70 meters down a grey stone cliff fringed by green vegetation. It was impressive, fresh, and cool. We shared the spot with a small group of local students, who splashed in the water, sunbathed on the rocky slabs, and eyed us two white intruders with curiosity.
Then we retraced our steps of stream crossing over slippery rocks for 10 minutes, up a steep slope with stairs, rails, rocks, and sheer grit to get me to the top. (The painkiller was wearing off). This climb up from the gorge and stream brought us to a level picnic area with a tiny food stand offering a limited selection of edibles.
Sacha and I both had frosty cold Cokes, the best thing. Then a Tanzanian version of a Spanish tortilla—eggs with French fries. My son ordered a skewer of beef and I had three small fried samosas.
We looked out over a green gorge as we ate, delighting in our isolation and accomplishment.
Then Erick led us down the sloping dirt road taken by most foreign tourists. We walked for half an hour, passing clusters of foreigners who seemed to think they were getting a workout on this 1.5-kilometer stretch, until we came to the welcome sight of King Geoffrey, our driver from yesterday, smiling and waving, in his white sedan.
We piled in, sweaty and satisfied. Our satisfaction was unaffected by the "flycatcher's version" of our final bill. Our city tour of Arusha had been $10 per person total, one-third what our hotel had proposed. Our hike was about $30 per person, a custom tour on a par with some of the mass-market competition. Although this price did not include our food or drinks or the cost of admission to Mount Meru Park, we had no complaints. The memories are unforgettable, plus Erick didn't charge us extra for that edgy, exhilarating, and absolutely unplanned adrenaline ride into the park.
Claudia Flisi is a dual citizen writer based in Milan, Italy. Her stories have appeared in the International New York Times, Newsweek, Fortune, Variety, and many others. She has visited more than 100 countries, fallen off horses on six continents, and trained dogs in three languages. Her book about an Italian dog, Crystal and Jade, was published in 2016.
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