Feeling like a child on her first day at school, I stand apprehensively at Machame Gate, the starting point of my long-awaited trek to the summit (hopefully) of Mount Kilimanjaro.
A sea of porters carrying rucksacks,bags of food, barrels of eggs, tents, mats, all unbelievable balanced on their little heads and fragile shoulders, sprint past me and disappear into the dense vegetation.
Led by Gaudenz, the chief guide, together with 16 of my buddies, I take my first step into the Montane rainforest, initially a messy, muddy trail surrounded by dense vegetation. A relatively easy walk, I obediently follow the golden rule – ‘pole pole’, which in Swahili means ‘slowly slowly’.
This rule is crucial and fundamental to anyone who seriously intends reaching the summit. Five hours and a little bit of sweat later, the group reaches Machame camp at 3000m, our destination for the night.
A lovely whiff of food fills the air, as our porters busily prepare supper, having already set up our tents, together with a basin of welcoming hot water to ‘wash’ in.
Totally impressed at the efficiency of these porters , I marvel even more at the tables they have just set up, complete with starched tablecloths, stainless steel cutlery and napkins, ready to feed us a fantastic dinner of vegetable soup, chicken, mash and watermelon.
After a night of extreme nausea and uncomfortable squatting behind frozen bushes , I wake up to clear blue skies, fresh air and a steaming mug of tea and warm honey bread outside my tent! An automatic, almost regimental sequence of procedures follows:
roll up bulky sleeping bag and frustratingly try to stuff it in its way-too-small bag
strap sleeping mat to rucksack
fill camelback with boiled water
slap on heaps of sunblock
stuff daypack with chocolate stores
grab walking sticks …..
…..and finally, totally laden, remove everything to answer nature’s call!
Walking through some great scenic paths, we enter the moorland zone, marked by volcanic rock and the very weird Lobelia and Senecio plants. Stopping several times to rest and munch on energy bars, we eventually reach the Shira Plateau, with fantastic views of Mount Meru.
The terrain changes dramatically as we walk through the alpine desert, with sparse vegetation and moon-like landscape. Injuries start to set in – a twisted ankle, an acute Achilles’ tendonitis due to ill-fitting boots, a number of blisters and sore backs, and by far the worst, early signs of acute mountain sickness. We eventually reach Barranco camp which is initially shrouded by a dense layer of cloud, but eventually lifts, offers rewarding views of the peak we are soon to conquer.
The next morning, a rich breakfast of toast with mango jam, porridge, bacon, eggs, sausages and watermelon gives me the energy I need to climb the daunting Barranco wall I have been dreading. In spite of giving the illusion of being steep with fatal, sheer drops, it turns out to be a pleasant, 2 hour climb along safe footpaths.
Feelings of uneasiness start to seep within some of the group. Nausea, bouts of diarrhoea, headaches, breathlessness and general fatigue, make the walk up to Barafu camp a rather unpleasant one. Silence fills the air as we trudge on, pole pole, stopping only to catch our breath and squeeze some sickly-sweet energy gel into our dry, chapped-lipped mouths.
Barafu camp, a very inhospitable place is covered in rubble and broken glass and, worst of all, infested with rodents. Tents set up as usual, we are expected to get some rest until around 11pm, at which time we will start our final ascent to the summit.
At 10.30pm sharp, our guides bring warm tea and honey bread to each of our tents and urge us to get ready. With biting-cold, gale force winds blowing outside, I instinctively put on all the gear I possess, layer after layer, until I can barely move shoulders and elbows to a quarter of their full range of motion– but at least I’m warm!!
Carrying only the bare essentials – a head torch, camelback and the sickliest sweets I have, I obediently join the single file behind Gawdenz.
Struggling to keep upright, I battle the gale and stumble up the rocks and scree, barely able to see more than a metre in front of me. Hour after hour, I push on, setting mini goals and just focusing on placing one leg firmly in front of the other.
Glancing behind me, the initially bright line of head torches has now dimmed to a few scattered lights several metres apart –some have slowed down, and two others have turned back.
I try to keep positive, but with temperatures at around minus 25 degrees celsius, and a now-frozen camelback still strapped to my chest, it’s hard. My last reserves of energy are used to chew jelly beans which my better half forces in to my dehydrated mouth every few minutes .
This is what keeps me going until finally, at 6am, a burnt-orange glow fills the sky and the biting wind abates. As the sun rises, so do my spirits, and I can hardly believe my eyes when Gaudenz announces,
‘We here. We at Stella Point , the crater rim. Very soon we reach Uhuru Peak’
I collapse on the volcanic terrain, totally oblivious of the fantastic views that lie below, and wait, as each member of the group slowly appears, some held up on their feet by the guides, others almost dropping dead on arrival!
The last hour’s walk to Uhuru peak is bearable, almost enjoyable, due to the jaw-dropping views of glaciers and distant peaks. Finally, after 6 exhausting days, I see it. It’s real. And I’m there.
The signpost reads:
‘Congratulations – you are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895AMSL, Africa’s highest point, world’s highest free-standing mountain, one of the world’s largest volcanoes. WELCOME’