I picked up the request from Andy Calloway to write a few words for kinveronline as I sat outside the registration office on the way out of the Kilimanjaro national park in Tanzania.
A few minutes earlier I had completed the seven day trek to the highest point in Africa, and while I probably imagined myself as some sort of conquering hero, in reality after seven days without access to hot water I was looking more Big Issue than Bear Grylls.
Half an hour or so later and I was sat in a small roadside kitchen as my cook for the last week prepared our final meal of the expedition.
Gaudet (although the spelling is just a guess) is from Chagga heritage, colonially we would have used the word tribe, and their main dishes contain plenty of plantain – green tasteless banana looking vegetables which despite his best efforts still remained as palatable as cardboard in much the same way as the several other times he had served them that week. The rest of the meal however was lovely, thin strips of meat (jokingly introduced as ‘Simba’) fried in spices and green vegetables were my favourites all washed down with Kilimanjaro beer.
Later as we drove back to the local town – Moshi, I reflected on Tanzania as a country.
Groups of excited children in smart school uniforms kicked balls and played on their way home all apparently able to enjoy themselves without a mobile phone in their face. Every corner in the road had someone selling local produce and the countryside was clean, green and productive.
Tanzania is far from a wealthy nation, but its population is well fed, values education, has a visible and active police force, and despite being a melting pot of local ethnic groups manages to live in harmony internally and with its near neighbours. It has two main exports, coffee and its nature capital.
There is an irony that a so-called civilized country like ours cannot hold the line on protecting our Greenbelt, while as far back as 1959 Tanzania set aside 12,000 square miles of the Serengeti as a nature reserve and relocated the resident populations out purely for the benefit of its wildlife.
While we wring our hands over single use plastics, Tanzania has simply banned them from Kilimanjaro national park. I say that Nature Capital is a Tanzanian export, of course, it isn’t actually exported, what they have successfully harnessed is the potential to sell the experience of their wild places to visitors. Safari is a great appeal, as is the island resort of Zanzibar, but for me, Kilimanjaro is the most impressive of Tanzania’s crown jewels.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Kilimanjaro is an extinct volcano, ask any child to draw a volcano and the picture will look like Kili, but it is in fact made up of three cones, the smaller Shira and Mawenzi peaks, with the central Kibo peak rising just under 5900 metres above sea level.
Its overall height makes it the highest spot on Africa, and glaciers sit on its slopes and although its overall height is dwarfed by most of the Himalayan peaks, it is the distance from top to bottom which gives it its magic, and makes the challenge of climbing it so special.
Of course, I would say it’s special, firstly because I have actually made it to the top, and more so because most recently was my second time to the summit.
Climbing Kilimanjaro is an experience that is hard to photograph or describe.
For most visitors six or seven days is the ideal time to allow for a successful summit, time spent slowly gaining altitude, acclimatising and gaining strength ready for a final 1000 metre push to the top, in the freezing dark, to reach the roof of Africa hopefully to coincide with sunrise.
Slowly accustoming your body to altitude is a vital part of the first few days on the trek. Ultimately acute mountain sickness can be fatal, and at the onset of the more severe symptoms, the only realistic option is to get the patient down from altitude as quickly as possible.
Every person I have met at altitude has suffered some of the milder symptoms; fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and breathlessness to one degree or another. I have learned that for me it gets me at a little over 4000 metres.
Last week on the mountain this coincided with a planned rest day at Mawenzi tarn, and I spent the first night there shivering in a normally warm sleep bag, with a dull throbbing headache and no appetite. By the end of the following day the symptoms were much reduced, but even knowing they were coming had briefly left me doubting if I would be able to take on the challenge of attempting to summit for a second time.
The route I had chosen for my second summit (The Rongai route) was one of the least popular of the five main routes up.
In truth, it is only unpopular as it is harder to reach the start from the main population centres. Once underway I was rewarded with spectacular views of Kibo from day one. The mountain is big enough to generate its own weather patterns, and despite climbing from the reportedly drier Northern side afternoon thunderstorms were a regular feature of my trek.
On day 4 I first realised that what was falling as rain on our campsites in the night was snow and ice on the upper slopes of the mountain, and although it was largely melting during the day, anyone on the mountain overnight was facing some harsh conditions.
Day 5 on the mountain is planned as a short one.
A 3-4-hour trek and relatively modest 400m gain in altitude gets you to one of the two ‘basecamps’ from where summit attempts start. In my case, I reached Kibo camp at around midday, and after a hearty lunch settled into my tent for a rest.
Later in the afternoon I sorted out my clothing for the overnight trek to the summit, checked and rechecked batteries for my headtorch and chatted briefly to some of my fellow trekkers as the sun set and the evening lightning show started up again in the distance.
By midnight I was up and dressed in virtually every serviceable item of clothing I possessed.
My day bag was stripped down to just essential fluids, high energy snacks, and camera, and then we were off, my guide and I joining a slow-moving line of head torches picking their way up the crater wall in the darkness.
We had a strategy, walk for an hour rest for five minutes and repeat. At least five times.
For most of the first four hours we had nothing to show for our efforts, we passed Hans Meyer Cave but as the driving wind became toughened by icy snow the pace of several trekkers ahead of us slowed. Most of these had come up the so-called Pepsi route, with a reputation for being a more comfortable first few days, but with a sting in the tail to catch out the unprepared.
When we could we squeezed through groups of resting trekkers but anything resembling a faster pace left me panting in the thin air.
4 am is a horrible time of any night, 4 am on a cold mountainside is no easier, only the fact that my altimeter was shopping a steady increase gave the motivation to keep going.
At around 5 am we reached Johannes notch, a rather innocuous rocky outcrop, but the last feature before Gillman’s point, where the steep path reached the crater rim. By now there were only a handful of head torches in front, and some of those behind us were turning back for their tents.
And then suddenly it happened, ‘well done guys’ (my guide always referred to me in the plural) to start with I didn’t register, but there it was – a sign with Gillman’s point. Even if I turned back now, I had reached a ‘point’. Sheltering amongst the snow drifts was a young woman from Manchester with her guide. Two of her trekking companions had pushed on to see if the conditions improved. We chatted, briefly, shared a gallows humour joke about being found in the morning huddled round a half-eaten Mars bar and had a drink. By now the water in my CamelBak was frozen so I had the tortuous decision of taking my gloves off to get water from a drinking bottle. But at least I had gloves. My guide hadn’t! Before I could question his sanity, my guide was urging me on again ‘Twende, pole pole’ – Swahili for let’s go, slowly slowly, and we were off.
The path here is more level but the snowdrifts made it hard to follow and my walking poles were more hinderance than help, but the despair I had felt an hour earlier was being replaced with elation.
I had been on the top before, I knew it gets easier and before long Stella Point appeared in the darkness. Here the other route to the summit joins the crater rim and I could see more head torches emerging from below. Stella point is where we should see the sunrise, but if anything, we were still a bit early, and the cloud wasn’t kind. But it was getting light. The final task was to reach Uhura Point (freedom point) at around an hours fairly level trek round the rim.
By now there was little fuel left in my tank but when you are that close to reaching a goal, we can all find a little in reserve.
Consequently, at around 7 am I found myself stood by the sign every trekker on Kilimanjaro hopes to see, having my photo taken.