The Stuff of Legend

Unknown to the World … Until Now

The Film

The first person to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro was German national Hans Meyer. At least that’s what the history books have been telling us for the past 130+ years.

But consider this: Kilimanjaro is a grueling, potentially fatal climb into extreme altitude (almost 20,000 ft) through notoriously severe weather.  Which means that the mountain was either extremely kind to Meyer, or someone who knew how to climb it led his way.

That someone was Yohana Kinyala Lauwo, a local tribe member from the foothills.   Legend has it that Yohana, a teenager at the time, was given the job as punishment by the Elders for poaching.

Meyer returned to Germany a hero, leaving Yohana behind as the forgotten man.   Over time, of course, that all changed. Indigenous people like the Sherpas on Everest started getting their due, and finally, the world learned Yohana’s name.

Hard to imagine but today’s stories about Kilimanjaro still commit the same sin of omission: they focus on the wageni – in Swahili, the visitors – who fly in to bag the peak, and then later, aggrandize their achievement on social. No one reflects in any meaningful way on the people who make the climb possible.

Until Now.

Because now, in their new documentary, The Kings of Kilimanjaro, The Frank Bros. flip the script. Taking center stage for the first time are the Black Indigenous Mountain Guides, Chefs and Porters who make every single Kilimanjaro climb possible. Without them, no one climbs, let alone survives.

Yohana was a Chagga from the Marangu area in the famed foothills.

The Kings who star in the film are also almost all Chagga from Marangu, a place for centuries their ancestors have called home.  The mountain, and climbing it, is in their blood.

The Frank Bros.’ film highlights eight iconic Indigenous characters.  World class athletes.  High Altitude First Responders.  And when required, on-call performance coaches.

All committed to one mission: enabling the wageni (visitors), many of them “alphas” back home, to achieve the greatest physical and spiritual accomplishment of their lives –
getting up and down the mountain and living to tell the tale.

The stuff of legend.   

Unknown to the world.

Until now.

The Inspiration

Almost five decades ago, South African-born adventurer Eddie Frank first set foot on Kilimanjaro. He remembers it as the Bad Old Good Old Days on the mountain when climbers didn’t respect altitude or the weather. He was wearing jeans and sneakers in a blizzard and froze his ass off. Some guides were even climbing in flip-flops and sleeping in caves.

The culture on the mountain is starting to change, and Tusker Trail, the world renowned trekking/climbing company that Eddie went on to found, is leading the way.  With guide and climber health & safety their #1 priority, Tusker transformed how people climb Kilimanjaro. Taking a cue from Eddie’s company, other outfits are starting to do the same.

Experiencing the Indigenous Chaggas’ strength & character over the years inspired Eddie.  He knew that one day he would reveal their story to the world, a story that had to get told.

And that story is The Kings of Kilimanjaro.  

Immersive and upbeat, the two-hour feature documentary offers moments of deep repose as The Kings celebrate life while facing their deepest fears on the at-times desolate mountain.

It’s not cinema tourism.  It’s not a voyeuristic peek into some “exotic” world.   It’s the Kings on the Kings – these rock stars in their own words.  Soulful and poignant, it takes you into a world where their reputations on Kilimanjaro precede them.

They are all leaders, some subtle, some overt.

And back at home in their communities, they carry the respect of true royalty. One of them even descends from a legendary Chagga tribal Chief.

The Production

After chasing dreams and destinations all over the world, Eddie Frank finally seized the moment. Time had come to make The Kings of Kilimanjaro, his homage to the elite group of Indigenous Chagga Tusker Mountain Guides, Chefs & Porters for whom Kilimanjaro is their “office.”

Teamed with his brother, Laurence, a writer/producer with his share of Eddie
adventures, they minted The Frank Bros., a new filmmaking duo, and started to chase the new dream.

Self-financed, they brought on a seasoned documentary film director who helped them assemble a small, agile, international film crew – three-strong, technically proficient and able to work at extreme altitude.  They got permission to film a group of Quebecois climbing with Tusker to fundraise for cancer survivors.  Everyone, including Eddie, met in Tanzania.  The filmmaking adventure had begun.

Then, a setback.  On Day 2 of 10 on the climb, the film director suffered a dire medical emergency and had to be evacuated from the mountain, one of the many victims of Kilimanjaro’s hidden perils. But the Frank Bros. would not be denied.  Eddie came off the bench to sub in as a first-time director, with Laurence, on the far end of the SAT-phone, backstopping him in Denver.

A special shout out goes to Julian Jones, Tusker’s Operations Manager in Tanzania.  He makes everything happen.  With his steady hand, the climb and the production were a triumph.

But it turned into a mixed blessing.  Immediately after the shoot, when came time to turn the raw footage into the finished film, Covid shut the world down.  The bar got raised even higher on the Frank Bros. fulfilling their dream.

After a few false starts, they found an incredible documentary film editor in Paris, Yen Le Van. She loved the project, but business was at a standstill. No one was climbing, and all film work was on pause.  Despite that, Eddie insisted on paying Tusker’s Guides, Chefs & Porters a salary, meaning there would not be enough in the coffers to hire Yen, absorb the high cost of post-production, and properly finish the film.

The Frank Bros. could not quit, not now. So they put together a crowdfund campaign on Indiegogo, featuring teaser clips from the yet-unfinished film. Thanks to the Faithful, the fundraise was a huge success, helping them complete their labor of love.

The Kings of Kilimanjaro

The King of Kings

Because of his experience, stature and training, Simon is the most famous Kilimanjaro Mountain Guide. Born in Marangu Lyasangoro, he descends from generations of Kilimanjaro Guides, having worked his way up from porter to become King of the Mountain. A father of three, still all students, when he’s not climbing, Simon moonlights as a shopkeeper, raising livestock and farming.  Work is the most important thing for him on Kilimanjaro.  Gregarious and generous of spirit, equal parts gentle and firm, Simon’s reputation precedes him on the mountain. He named his first son “Eddie Frank Jr.” after some guy who gave him a shot when he (Simon) was still a teenager.

The King in Waiting

Simon’s cousin & protege, Kombe is his heir apparent.  The father of three young children, he is earnest, engaging, extremely confident and capable on the mountain.  Like Simon, he worked his way up from porter to become a Head Guide.   From Marangu Komela, Kombe is an avid churchgoer, and he farms when not guiding.  To him, being a Kilimanjaro Guide “is in his blood.”   Committed to environmental protection on the mountain, his dimples belie his seriousness and tough character. Kombe has also been a Medical Guide on treks to Everest Base Camp, certainly a first for a Black Tanzanian.

The Philosopher King

The only King who is not an indigenous Chagga (he is Meru), Urio is a deep thinking and feeling traveler in life from Arumeru Arusha.  A throat cancer survivor, Urio endured countless radiation and chemotherapies, and fought his way back to full health to revive his stellar career on the mountain.  Amiable, clear eyed, and a known jokester, Urio is a devoted husband and father of four.  His main focus on Kilimanjaro is climber and crew safety. Knowing that death lurks at every turn, he believes that “Earth is not our permanent home.“ Humble and wise, he is quick to say that we only know what we know. Beyond that, lies all life’s mystery.

The King of Song

A talented singer from a long line of singers, Uredi is from Marangu Mashariki. Blessed with a great voice and a powerful charisma, when he climbs, he leads all songs for Tusker Trail.  As a head porter who cooks for the climbing crew, Uredi would certainly be a Guide, but his father’s untimely death forced him out of school to work, costing him his one good chance to learn English.  One of his four kids is special needs, and Uredi’s work on Kilimanjaro allows him to amply provide.  When not on the mountain, Uredi farms, sings in the church choir, and loves woodworking.  Beneath his smile, you feel the pain, and for him, generosity and friendship are the perfect antidotes to the human condition.

The King of Dreams

Empathic, tough as nails and worldly, Nemes is always pushing for self-improvement.  He’s  an outlier in his community for having married late, and the reasons are profound: before building his own family, he chose to take care of the orphans left behind by his two deceased brothers.  A skilled and thoughtful farmer in addition to guiding, Nemes is from Marangu Komela, and works hard to uphold the Chagga tradition.  Wry and forward-looking with a ready, infectious smile, after retirement, he dreams of traveling the world.  He is quite fond of his hybrid Billy goat, who according to Chagga tradition, has no name.

The King of Cuisine

After portering briefly on Kilimanjaro, Alex, a native of Marangu Lyasongoro, decided that the kitchen was his calling.  A skilled mountain chef and a caterer back home, there is nothing he cannot cook, on the move, and at altitude. Fajitas at 15,000 is his most popular dish. A cousin of Simon’s and father of four, Alex is self-contained and proud.  A reserved and powerful leader who commands respect in his community, for Alex, Kilimanjaro provides everything he needs to support his family.  He also farms and raises livestock. Friendship is everything to him, and he lives to be happy.  As Tusker’s ace mobile chef, he is perhaps the first Black African to have traveled widely in Mongolia, and on horseback.

The King of Kindness

Devout, sweet-natured and strong, Gaudence is the proud father of six, two of whom have completed college.  He is from Mbahe Moshi, and like many responsible dads, moved his family from familiar turf there “for more space.”  An avid sports fan, Gaudence farms and raises livestock when not guiding.  The oldest of all the Kings by a few years, Gaudence followed his father’s path into guiding on Kilimanjaro.  Undaunted by a near-fatal fall that his younger brother, Kimti, suffered on the mountain, he puts all his faith in a higher power.  Amiable and gentle, Gaudence is a close friend of Urio’s, but does have a few choice words for all his good buddy’s “blah blah.”

The Queen of Kings

College-educated and the proud mom of two, Sarah is true Chagga royalty.   As the Managing Director of Tusker Trail Tanzania, she is the great grandniece of legendary Chagga Chief Mangi Meli, a fierce freedom fighter who gave his life protecting his people from German colonial violence and exploitation.  Sarah is deeply proud of and inspired by her heritage. She feels fortunate to earn her living on the ancestral mountain, while welcoming visitors from all over the world who want to climb.  With a profitable side gig as an art & curio storeowner, Sarah is also an avid gardener.  A commanding presence, she is a rare (and everyone knows powerful) woman in the largely male world of Kilimanjaro climbing. If it wasn’t for the gap year she took in college, she’d probably be what her parents wanted: an accountant.

The Soundtrack

During pre-production of the film, Eddie Frank had a brainstorm: to contact legacy Afropop star, Samba Mapangala, whose music he’d been listening to for years. Eddie invited him to write the film’s theme song, and Samba agreed.

Teaming with Soukous legends, guitarist Caen Madoka and drummer Komba Bello, Samba put together an all-star band for a session date in Paris. It’s one of the many musical highlights of the film.

The Filmmakers

Eddie Frank

Starting as a wild child in his native South Africa, Lake Tahoe-based Eddie Frank always had adventure in mind.  He dropped out of high school, abandoning a fledgling career as a photographer, to start a business ferrying trucks across the Sahara Desert, which he crossed over 33 times.  Fording wild rivers, he got malaria, shot, arrested several times, and even dined with (and survived) a cannibal emperor. He went on to found the world renowned overland trekking company, Tusker Trail, leading rugged mobile camping expeditions through Africa.  But when laying eyes on Kilimanjaro for the first time, he knew that his future lay there – on the mountain.

Since then, in addition to Kilimanjaro, he has led climbs to Everest Base Camp, throughout the Himalayas in Nepal, and across Mongolia’s Altai Mountains on horseback.  But he always returns to Kilimanjaro, which he’s climbed 54 times. Eddie’s film, The Kings of Kilimanjaro, is his valentine to the mountain, but mostly to the amazing Indigenous Chagga Guides, Chefs & Porters who make every climb possible.

Laurence Frank

If Eddie is the adventurer in the family, then his Denver-based/South African-born “baby” brother, Laurence Frank, is the storyteller.  Sleeping under the stars in the Sahara Desert on one of Eddie’s hardcore early expeditions, he got inspired to pursue his great love, film.  With a modest goal – to teach.  But his destiny had other plans, and he fell backwards into the life of a storyteller for the screen.

Along the way, he’s compiled over 100 hours of produced television, including scripted dramas, reality, and documentary, for major networks and National Geographic, Animal Planet and Discovery.   Having held every job under the sun, including ditchdigger, ironworker, food service, and educator, he found his own ways to cheat death while traveling widely.  No stranger to Eddie’s world of adventure and Kilimanjaro, Laurence was a natural partner in the making of “Kings.”

Tusker Trail

Founded by Eddie Frank almost half a century ago, Tusker Trail is the most experienced and trusted climbing company on Kilimanjaro.

Its Mountain Guides are medically-trained High Altitude First Responders. The elite of the elite, they are the heart and soul of every Tusker climb – the true Kings of Kilimanjaro.

At 19,341 ft., Kilimanjaro’s summit in East Equatorial Africa is considered extreme altitude where hidden physiological perils can afflict even the healthiest of people. Because of their specialized High Altitude Medical Training, Tusker Mountain Guides are sometimes all that stand between potentially disastrous outcomes and climbers fulfilling a dream.

It wasn’t always this way.  For generations, locals and visitors tried to ignore the risk of Kilimanjaro’s rapidly changing weather and extreme altitude.

But after immersing himself in the science of human anatomy at altitude, including workshops and idea exchanges with medical thought-leaders in the field, Tusker founder Eddie Frank designed a groundbreaking system of climber observation, safety and, if necessary, intervention.   And by “climber,” Eddie meant everyone on the mountain – Guides, Chefs, Porters and visitors alike.

Because every King – every Tusker Mountain Guide – has been trained in this system, it is rare for Tusker climbers to suffer pulmonary or cerebral edema; pneumonia; Altitude Sickness, breaks or sprains.  They are able to climb on, above the clouds, and into their dreams.   For those not so lucky who must turn back, they have the Kings of Kilimanjaro to thank for their lives.

In a welcome development, Tusker’s culture of all climber safety has spread to other companies on the mountain.

Seven of Tusker’s elite Mountain Guides can be seen starring in The Kings of Kilimanjaro, a new documentary by The Frank Bros (Eddie & his brother Laurence).

The Kings (all but one) are Indigenous Chagga who were born and raised on the slopes of Kilimanjaro.  They know the mountain intimately.

This, combined with their elite training, makes them the Stuff of Legend, helping ordinary people achieve the extraordinary at extreme altitude in often treacherous weather. Amazingly, all the Kings have summited many hundreds of times.

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