Up from the equatorial plains they climb, into a dripping rain forest, through a shrub-riddled wasteland and across a desolate alpine desert before finally making a nighttime trudge up the lonely ice-capped crater that's Africa's tallest peak.
Every year, some 50,000 or so adventurous foreigners brave the oxygen-starved air atop Mount Kilimanjaro for the stunning dawn view of the hazy shapes and shadows from which they emerged just days before.
The tourists, however, aren't the only ones who make the journey. In fact, the foreigners are vastly outnumbered. For every foreigner who climbs Kilimanjaro, at least three Tanzanians, and often many more, swarm up the volcanic slope like worker ants, 50-pound bags perched precariously on their heads and baggy shirts flopping over their skinny frames.
For the world's restless travelers, the allure of Kilimanjaro is clear: It's the world's highest free-standing mountain, yet ascending it requires no technical climbing skills, and its icy chill is far more bearable than most comparable altitudes, thanks to Tanzania's tropical location. Middle-aged professionals and 60-something retirees aren't uncommon on its trails.
The flip side of that is that all these amateur hikers need help.
That's where the Tanzanians, with their blistered feet and sore backs, come in.
Kindness of strangers
Each tourist who climbs Mount Kilimanjaro needs at least three porters to labor beside him or her. One route, Marangu, offers huts instead of camping, but even that journey requires two porters per hiker. The more expensive and luxurious tour operators may assign six or more porters for every client.
Scrunched atop their heads and straddled across their backs are tents, sleeping bags, clothes, food, pots and emergency medical equipment, plus the porter's own necessities. Most groups also bring along mess tents and chairs for shelter during meals.
Veterans of the mountain joke over evening meals about how their quests for jobs in this chronically impoverished country drove them to take on Kilimanjaro's challenge. Now, at least, they can laugh about it.
"I didn't think I could do it again," said Athumani Juma, a senior guide, shaking his head in memory of his first portering assignment. The second time was barely better, he said. The third trip was easier — but it never got easy.
And he was one of the lucky ones. With his father's financial help, he was able to take a guide certification course, and he works for one of the mountain's busiest trekking companies.
For most, though, the several hundred dollars required to get certified are out of reach. They simply make a career of sweating on the mountain, hoping that friendly tourists take a charitable interest.
For them, Kilimanjaro is a series of seven-day hikes through knotty boulders, rolling wet clouds and, as happened on one trek in late December, stinging hail and rain with gusts of icy wind.
Many tourists don't make it to the top, seized by exhaustion or altitude sickness: nausea accompanied by an intense headache and, sometimes, hallucinations.
Porters gradually acclimate to the higher altitudes after their first trips. But many receive only one meal a day and lack proper cold-weather attire or hiking shoes.
They also complain about their pay.
"It is not enough. It is not enough," Beny Satu, a 23-year-old porter with dreadlocks and a quick smile, kept saying about his $5-per-day wage, from which he doubts he can save enough to become certified someday.
Satu ought to be earning more. According to the website of the Tanzania National Parks, under a section titled "Regulations and Park Fees," porters are to be paid a minimum of $10 a day for their work. In a country that had a gross domestic product of $527 per capita in 2010, that would be an attractive wage, except that the work is seasonal and sporadic. Even during the busy period, many porters get only one or two weeks of work a month.
"There are very few companies paying the $10-per-day wage for the porters," said Karen Valenti, the head of the Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project in Arusha, Tanzania, a jumping-off point for the climb.
Since 2004, Valenti, a Denver native and former Peace Corps volunteer, has led the small organization, which seeks to persuade companies to meet certain standards for treating their porters and to submit to a monitoring program. In exchange, the companies get free publicity on the group's website.
Only six companies signed up when the project began, but it now boasts 98, including an increasing number of Tanzanian operators, which traditionally have offered lower prices for budget-conscious travelers.
Many porters aren't paid properly, Valenti said, because no one institution is responsible for enforcing the minimum wage.
Enforcing the minimum wage
Reached by phone, the Tanzania National Parks service said the wages listed on its website were announced by the tourism minister after an agreement with a porters union, but it stopped short of saying the rates are legally binding.
"I would not say they are breaking the law," Ezekiel Dembe, the director of planning and tourism, said about companies that don't pay the listed minimum wage, "but they are not giving justice to the porters."
Provided with a website link to the wage rates, Sirili Akko, an executive at the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators, hesitated at first over the phone about whether the wage is required of its members or how the group enforces those wages. But in response to emailed follow-up questions he said that members must pay "at least the rates suggested by the government." The business consortium relies on complaints from porters unions and customers to enforce the rule, he said.
Porter surveys conducted by Valenti's organization show that in 2010, the average porter wages for partner companies rose to about $6. For non-partner companies, the wages were a little less than $5. When tips were included, the average porter pocketed nearly the $10-a-day minimum.
That's progress. In the three years since the surveys started, the average wage for the non-partner companies nearly doubled.
"The situation is improving," said Valenti, whose organization is branching out into offering free classes and donated clothes to porters.
Although outsiders might find the porter system bizarre or even offensive, the porters themselves aren't complaining: They need the work. They just want to be paid, fed and clothed better, especially considering that most companies charge a minimum of $1,500 for a hike. Many packages cost two or three times that.
"It is very little money," Satu, the young porter, said of his nascent career. "This past year we got a raise. We are hoping this year to get another raise."
(Alan Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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