From Senega, West Africa, I flew to Tanzania, my first aim being to summit Mt Kilimanjaro – the highest free-standing mountain in the world at 19,342 feet (4,956 meters)… and I’ll start with the bottom line – I made it to the top!!
The flights from Dakar, Senegal through Johannesburg and Nairobi to Arusha, Tanzania proved to be long, uncomfortable and tedious; with the main thought on my mind being bag weight. To begin with I was worried my luggage weighed more than the 15KG allowed on the final, small aircraft – as bathroom scales have never even been heard of in the fishing village of Yoff where I’d been staying for the past two weeks. What essentials would I be forced to leave behind, I wondered? What’s more important, energy bars or ankle gaiters? How many wet-wipes does one really need at 19,000 feet? However my thoughts changed to ‘what don’t I have in my suitcase now?’ once I’d rechecked my luggage in Johannesburg, only to discover it now weighed more than 2KG less than it did in Dakar!! I decided I’d be fine as long as my minus 18 degree down sleeping bag was still there, which it was.
My first glimpse of Mt Kilimanjaro was breathtaking. We were flying at about 19,000 feet above a solid blanket of cloud, the sun shining brightly, when out the port side window I spotted the snowcapped mountain rising high above the cloud. Good grief, did I really think I was going to manage to climb to the top of that? That was my one and only brief moment of doubt, very similar to the feeling I had flying over the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea on my way to the start of the Kokoda track a couple of years before.
My first night was spent at a charming lodge, up an impossibly rutted dirt road, lined with shanty houses and tiny shops on the edge of Arusha. For the first time in 15 days I was to sleep in a bed and eat, with cutlery, at a table. And I felt utterly destitute. Apart from having come down with the flu in the past twelve hours, I was missing the comradeship of West Africa, where we all sat on the floor around a communal plate of food to share our meals. Still, meeting my guide Benedict and running through what I’d packed and the course of the next seven days was reassuring.
I’d chosen to hike with just a local Tanzanian team. Benedict spoke excellent English (he was a farmer and a Christian, so a world apart from the Muslim drummers, griots and fishermen of Senegal), however the remaining seven men only spoke Swahili. Had I wished for additional company there were many others following the same route as me, camping in the same locations each evening- though I was happy spending time with my team, learning about their lives, their culture, their families and their dreams… all through Benedict, my interpreter.
After much research I chose the Machame route, mainly because it was the most technically difficult route to the summit without the need for a special permit; Day 4 involving a near vertical climb. To aid with aclimatisation I opted to hike for seven days, allowing the opportunity to climb high and sleep low, an old mountaineering law, and was rewarded with stunning scenery as I steadily climbed up through five diverse climatic zones to Uhuru Peak.
The words ‘pole pole’ echo around the mountain, being Swahili for ‘slowly slowly’ – and at first I thought Benedict was taking this to extremes, however when day two and then day three passed with no sign of the debilitating headaches, the first symptom of altitude sickness, I was content to hike at his speed, enjoying his company and the ever changing landscape. (After much deliberation I was also taking Diamox, a controversial drug with supposedly strong side effects, but the bonus of assisting with acclimatisation…and found the side effects minimal.)
The porters practically sprint past us, calling out jambo jambo ( how are you?), carrying three to four times the paltry weight I was. Some carry our tents; some the food, the gas to cook with, and others take my kit bag; all bobbing up and down on their heads. At the relatively mild altitude on the first day it was a truly impressive sight; a few days later on the Barranco Wall it literally took my breath away.
But the higher we went the colder it got. Our last camp, Barafu, at 15,239 feet (4,633 metres) was totally exposed to the ever present gales and sleet and we pitched our tents on a narrow, stony and dangerous ridge for the few hours of rest before the summit attempt began shortly after midnight. This camp was packed with other climbing groups, all waiting to make their push for the top and a quiet, tense atmosphere permeated the camp. Apart from the lingering flu, I was feeling great, eager for the few hours of rest to pass so that I could begin the final ascent. Benedict had decided that we wouldn’t leave camp till 1am as I am quite a quick climber and onleaving my tent and looking up, what I first thought were stars turned out to be the head torches of the hundreds of other climbers, already weaving their way up towards the summit.
Climbing through the night towards the summit was mentally and physically challenging – the temperature was minus 20 degrees C and not only did my water freeze quite early on ( despite thermal covers) but so did the mucous from my runny nose!!. I am convinced of one thing: the real reason why you climb to Kili’s summit in the dark isn’t anything to do with the temperature freezing the scree or anything technical like that. No, it’s because if you did it in daylight, and you could actually see the top, your mind and body would refuse to even try. But it was the most amazing sunrise I’ve ever witnessed, and I made it to the peak just in time.
And then comes the moment that no one ever warns you about. In my research for this trip I was always amazed that there was never any video footage on YouTube that showed what it was like getting back down to Barafu camp. And now I know why. I only ever tried snow skiing once and was useless, and so I was at ‘skiing’ down the loose scree. I watched helplessly as so many climbers ‘skied’ past me, weaving backwards and forwards across the loose stones…. Me, I had to take it so very slowly, one slipping step at a time, constantly falling on my butt, my knees buckling under me, until I finally reached Barafu camp- where my cook was waiting with a warm milo and freshly cooked popcorn.From there it was a couple of hours rest and then another five or so hours hike down to our final camp.
What a hike, a great way to spend my 50th birthday! my appetite has been whetted for more adventures…. where to next I wonder?