When I was at university, I had a book that I wrote little bits about life in as I learnt them. It had quotes, recipes, tickets from events I’d been to and at the back a list of things that I titles “things to do before the end”. Morbid I know, but it was my bucket list. It was constantly changing as I crossed things off and added new things. One of the things on my climbing bucket list was climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Have you ever heard the saying, pole pole? I learned all about pole pole while climbing to the roof of Africa but it was epic along the way.
The Top of My Climbing Bucket List
After getting dumped and quitting my job, I decided it was time to hot foot it overseas for a few months and picked Africa as my destination. Even in 5 months, I saw nothing but a snippet of what Africa had to offer, but I did cross a couple of things off my climbing bucket list with the main one being making it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Before Kili, I ventured to the top of Mt. Meru (the second highest mountain in Tanzania) and to be honest I found it a far more gruelling trek as you ascended much quicker and I was up and down inside 3 days, whereas Kili took 9 days in total. It was on Meru that I learned the practical use of the words pole pole, which translates into slowly slowly. You can do Kili much faster on different routes, but not wishing to spend my entire trek vomiting and with a pounding headache I opted for the longer option and avoided both of these things, suffering only from a drum being played inside my head and the urge to vomit when sleeping inside at crater camp inside the mountain.
It would be disappointing to go all the way to Tanzania and only see the hotel and the mountain so I’m going to include my writings from my entire stay in Tanzania which I know is only short but at least if it’s on your bucket list it might entice you to stay a few extra days (or alternatively it might persuade you to leave immediately depending on your style). Whenever I look back on my climbs I find it very hard to believe that my body tolerated so much, and sometimes (just for fun) when I’m walking my dog I try and walk as slowly as I was on the mountain and am left in disbelief that I walked like that for days on end.
The only hints of western culture in Tanzania are mobile phones and vehicles with wheels (electricity does not factor in here). Hopping off the plane in Dar es Salaam I walked straight into not only the intense humidity felt on the equator by the beach, but also another world. As I was only transiting I very quickly moved back inside the airport to take in what I had just seen and prepare myself for what was to come. After surviving what I believed to be one of the shortest finals in aviation history we landed at Mt. Kilimanjaro airport. I wasn’t actually sure that we were going to level out before landing and at one point I did suspect that our nose wheel may land first. Only after landing and seeing the huge KLM plane land shortly after did I realise the pilot was trying to beat it in (which he did do successfully I’ll admit). If that wasn’t enough for my nerves I then got a taste of taxi’s: Tanzanian style. Upon exiting the airport I was met by a young fellow who offered me a taxi to Arusha. Considering it was already well into the night and it was the only option of getting into town I followed him to the remnants of a car and prayed (and prayed) that I’d get to my hostel safely (this wasn’t the only time I prayed to arrive safely when using public transport). Travelling alone can be daunting enough sometimes, while travelling alone in Africa, after dark, 60km in a taxi that looks like it’s taken 100 too many trips up a rocky track is enough to have you pulling your own hair out. I’ll admit that it wasn’t that bad once I got to the hostel and tipped him $5 as I was so relieved to be in so-called civilisation, however the sudden left hand turn into a desolate fuel station on the way did make my heart skip a few beats until I realised he really was actually getting fuel.
I quickly (after being woken early by them) learnt that car horns are the road rules in Tanzania where they basically mean either “out of the way, I’m coming through”, or “check your blind spot, I’m about to pass, so don’t pull out”. Dalla Dallas are the local form of transport and are basically a mini bus (usually painted odd colours with my personal favourite one called ‘The Undertaker’), and are NEVER full, even if you may think they are. It took me a week or so to get the courage up to catch one of these, and it was only with the help of a local guide that I had any idea where it was going or how much it would cost. Seeing the sign in front of the driver which said “God bless these hands” did actually (honestly) have me wondering if it may be my last moments on earth. I was however pleased to see that the numerous speed bumps along Tanzanian roads worked their charm and we never did get too out of control. Most of the time though I chose taxi’s to get from point A to point B, which unlike South Africa (excluding Cape Town) are relatively safe to catch albiet far more expensive then a dalla dalla, and at one point the driver and I were even bopping away to rastafarian gospel music because it makes him “feel happy”! The Tanzanians really were a happy bunch which may be due to the combination of Konyagi (a clear alcohol bought in plastic sachets) and dagga (marajuana) consumption.
My first port of call was Arusha which left a LOT to be desired. Besides the fact that the main street sounded like a carnival of horns from 6am to 11pm, I was left feeling a little out of place when the receptionist suggested I not walk around alone as people are getting robbed at knife point on the main street. Welcome to Arusha! I initially took heed of this advice and found myself in a taxi trying to find somewhere that I could book my climb of Mt. Meru. I eventually alighted from the cab and was very quickly spotted by a rasta guy scouting for white tourists just like me to sell safari’s and climbs to. After initially repeating “Hapana Ahsante” (no thanks) and getting nowhere I followed him towards their “office” and stopped very quickly when I caught sight of it. I was looking at a small wooden door with a sticker on it that read in faded letters ‘sunbird tours’, which was located to the side of a petrol station down a few steps. After suggesting that I might not want to follow him as I may not come out alive (I actually did say this to him), an old fellow turned up in his Sunday best and ushered me inside and up 3 flights of stairs to an office with a notebook on the table. Again I prayed. I don’t think God has ever heard from me as much as while I was in Tanzania! Long story short though I survived, got my climb booked and after a cold shower (no electricity) and a beer with an American who had just been robbed on the main street in broad daylight I left Arusha to climb my first mountain.
Meru was tough, but bearable (just!). The scenery was quite amazing and we spotted giraffe and buffalo while crossing the lowlands. After climbing above the clouds on the second day, we found ourselves moving slowly to ward off any altitude sickness that our 3000m climb in 2 days might throw upon us. Starting for the summit at midnight after an hour of sleep is not for the faint hearted, and the first 300m hurt.
Once at 3800m though, I had got myself into a routine of one foot in front of the other and up we went. The summit walk is dangerous and at more then 1 point a wrong foot would literally send you sliding a fair way down the mountain as we were walking along the very steep crater rim all night.
By sunrise, we were still not at the summit, so we watched it over Kili above the clouds which gave me a little bit of extra strength. To be honest though, by this point, the summit still seemed so far away, and with the numerous false summits along the way I did entertain the thought of turning around, only to look back and see that it was just as hard to get off the mountain! It was a game of mental toughness in all its glory! Upon reaching the summit, I was exhausted but I did enjoy the view for long enough to take a couple of photos, have a bite to eat and psych myself up enough to clamber down the rocks that I had just spent the last 7 and a half hours clambering up.
By the time I reached the gate at the bottom of the mountain, I had been walking for 16 hours that day, my feet were on fire, my knees did not know why their owner would choose to do such a stupid thing, my hips wanted to remove themselves from my body, my mind did not care that buffalo were a mere 100m away from us, nor was I amused when the guide wanted to stop and take a photo of me with the giraffes in the background, I wanted to cry at the pain I was in and I wanted to vomit. All in all it was a great warm up for Kili!
After a few days in Moshi batting off the constant barrage of people trying to sell you stuff, I caught a taxi with my rasta/gospel taxi man, and made my way to Marangu where I was to meet the group I would be climbing with. Arriving a few days early I took the opportunity to see a little of the town with a local guide called Frank who showed me the waterfalls, coffee and banana plantations, Chagga caves, markets and the blacksmiths, as well as taking me on the much anticipated dalla dalla. The hotel was a piece of luxury after my hostels and it even had power for a majority of the time!
Eventually, I met my fellow climbers who were all from Australia and consisted of a couple and their daughter, as well as another couple who were all family. After our briefing of what to expect on the climb, we set off to start the Lemosho trail but hit a rather large snag on day 1.
The truck was an old Merc and carried 29 people plus our supplies and as such failed to get out of first gear on any sort of incline which left us running late. When we did eventually arrive at the park gate it was late in the afternoon and had we gone to the start of our intended trail we would of still be walking into camp at 9 or 10 at night. Thinking better of that the guide decided we would drive as far as we could and walk straight to our 2nd camp at 3400m. Our heads certainly felt the 2000m gain for the day but I was just left feeling a little light headed. We were lucky however as we spent 2 days at the camp which was vital for our acclimatisation on the mountain. Our route had us approaching the mountain from the western side, across the Shira Plateau which was once the oldest and biggest of the 3 volcanoes, towards the southern side, before summiting from the South Eastern side. Along the way we hiked for between 4 and 7 hours a day, through some of the most beautiful scenery, going as high as 4600m but spending the first 5 days hiking mainly between 3500m and 4000m which was crucial to our lack of headaches and vomiting! We walked slow (well I walked slower then the rest), we farted…a lot (said to be a good sign of acclimatisation), I drank copious amounts of water at 5-7L per day, I ate like a dog who hadn’t eaten in a week, my socks stank, my clothes were dirty, my hair was a birds nest that I never attempted to brush, I had blisters which ankle tape seemed to sort out, the weather was beautiful, it was cold though and moving was tough. Simply walking from your tent to the mess tent left you out of breathe if you moved at anything more than a snails pace. Along the way we all got burnt, even putting sunscreen on 4 times a day was useless against the sun that high up, I fashioned a David Attenborough style hat using my trusty needle and thread, someone dropped their camera down the drop toilets along the trail (which are just a hole in the floor) and I repeatedly left my wooden walking stick behind and could always be heard saying “where’s my stick?”.
Eventually after all of this, we made it to our final camp before the summit, Barafu Huts. Here we got our first look at Mawenzi, the second oldest of the 3 volcanoes, and which is now a series of jagged, brittle peaks. As we were all feeling quite dandy at 4600m we decided a quick acclimatisation hike was in order, so we sauntered up to 4800m and had our first taste of seeing people with altitude sickness coming down the mountain (or more accurately being dragged down the mountain by their guide). As we were sleeping inside the crater the following night we wouldn’t be setting off for the summit until the following morning, which unlike those who would be going up the mountain on an hours sleep we got a couple more before it got to cold and uncomfortable to sleep. Waking up we were able to see the trickle of head torches approaching the crater rim on their way up, and slowly started to make our way up the final leg. The best way I can describe walking at altitude is either like a chameleon where one foot goes forward, stops, then the other comes forward, and where there is absolutely no forward momentum, while the other way is like having your feet tied together and you sort of shuffle. While the rest of my crew strolled along in front I chilled out the back singing all sorts of songs and always walking slow enough so I did not have to breathe through my mouth. My favourite songs while on the mountain were The Fisherman, Hakuna Matata, Sweet Caroline, Circle of Life, as well as most other ones from the Lion King. They took my mind off the monotonous, gruelling task at hand and took me to a ‘better’ place!
Eventually we all needed a break and it was at this point that you could see the backbones starting to break, people were getting crabby, they suggested the guide wasn’t stopping enough, they didn’t bring the right snacks etc. It was at this moment that your mind starts to go ‘why are you doing this?’, ‘you know you want to turn around, come on…there’s still 5 hours to go, turn around’. It’s like having a devil and an angel on each shoulder taunting you.
At this moment my experience on Meru was invaluable and I knew that if I just kept going I’d get there, I never doubted my ability as I’d done it once before and I am so grateful for it as I watched other people doubt themselves (albeit we all got there), but not having to fight with yourself is a huge burden off your back when you’re at 5500m, there is no oxygen and it is cold. My slow and steady idea paid off as I was the first to step onto the crater rim and Stella Point where we all got a second wind and could finally see the purpose of all this madness…Uhuru Peak (I was the last to get to there though)! I must admit though I was more excited to reach this point then the actual top, as it had been our focus for the entire day and probably one of the big differences between summiting at night and during the day.
From here it was a beautiful, gruelling trudge around the crater rim passing glaciers either side and looking onto the crater floor and our home for the night. Along this path my head started to throb…and throb…and throb.
By the time I got to Uhuru Peak at 5985m, I was sure someone was playing a drum inside my head, so after a few photos, congratulations and hugs all round, I hotfooted it down to crater camp to allow the thumping inside my head to decrease.
After a good hearty meal it was off to bed and no sleep. I’m pretty sure humans weren’t designed to sleep at that altitude and as such I didn’t. My head never really did stop pounding, everytime I rolled over in my sleeping bag I wanted to vomit, however I couldn’t because I was too busy gasping in air as I couldn’t get enough oxygen by breathing through my nose. It was horrible. To make matters worse I woke up from a doze at 4am with ice INSIDE my tent and my water frozen even though it was insulated. I was sleeping in 9 layers of clothes and it made no difference.
I eventually got up to find another girl walking around as her lungs were crackling (the start of pulmonary oedema) and after crying and gritting my teeth through the pain that my hands were in from the intense cold, combined with my pounding head and the urge to vomit, I followed my guide and 2 other climbers off that mountain as quickly as possible! I have never experienced cold like that before and will be forever grateful if I never have to again.
By the time we reached 4600m, I felt like a new woman and over the next 2 days we made our way off the mountain and back to the land of running water and Amarula! My shower was amazing! I don’t know if you can fall in love with running, hot water but that day I did.
After 9 days I smelt terrible, my hair literally made the water run a shade of brown and my pores on my face were full of dirt. Looking at my feet properly for the first time was a bit scary and overall I was just a bit tired. After a good meal, a few beers and couple of Amarula’s I was off to la-la land and my first night with a pillow! BLISS!
Climbing these mountains gave my life something beautiful and ignited my spark for adventure. The beauty of adventure is that it is different for every person and as we grow up from childhood we seem to lose what makes life an adventure. When we are kids we find adventure in the smallest of things from climbing a tree to chasing frogs in the garden, and I am forever grateful to Africa for helping me dig my adventurous side out and I refuse to ever let it go again.
Live life like the adventure it should be; I’m grabbing mine with both hands by next tackling the Simpson Desert in The Long Walk Home.
Featured Writer: Jenna Brook