I didn’t really have a clear idea what it would be like to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. I imagined dramatic scenery and a spectacular view from the top, with lots of rock scrambles and hearty camaraderie along the way. I didn’t anticipate six days of utter misery. Despite being in reasonable shape for my 57 years, it was the altitude that got me in the end.
We started from Moshi, in North Tanzania, for the 45-minute drive to the Machame entrance. In good African form, we didn’t worry too much about which side of the road we drove on, and ignored oncoming traffic. Our driver’s name was Good Luck in Swahili. Lucky for me, I faced the back and was spared the mental stress of seeing the oncoming hazards, and only saw the road rapidly receding through the rear window. I figured if I survived that trip, I could survive anything, maybe even the climb.
The weather was tropical. We started off wearing shorts and T-shirts. Monkeys swung from the trees in search of free handouts. Our guide, an irrepressibly cheerful fellow named Antonio, set a pace that seemed ridiculously slow. We chafed to go quicker, but he pleaded with us, “ Pole pole! In our country, we only have one attraction, so please slow down and enjoy it!”
Our porters, loaded down with all our gear (we carried only our essentials in our daypacks), set off at a near run. At around noon, we caught up with them. They had set up a portable picnic table complete with tablecloth and chairs, and served us lunch. After this beguiling start, the path narrowed and started to climb steeply. Six hours later, I was tired and dehydrated and could feel a headache coming on. We had reached Machame camp at about 3,000 metres, so altitude might have played a part.
The next morning, my head felt better and we continued our ascent to Shira camp at 3,800 metres. The last of the trees disappeared, the landscape covered with lichens and small shrubbery. We arrived after another six hours. Most of the afternoon was still free and we were invited on a little digressionary hike to see some nearby caves; I passed to enjoy a nap instead.
It was around this point I started being called “Daddy” by our guide. He shared with us the story of his oldest client, an 87-year-old man who was determined to climb Kilimanjaro – and made it in eight days! I now knew I had to do it, or be humiliated by an octogenarian.
Day Three was billed as acclimatization day and we followed a famous mountaineering creed: Climb high, sleep low. By lunch, we are at the apex of our day’s climb. I am so tired I can’t sit upright in the mess tent and fall asleep on the floor. Our guide is mildly alarmed, asks me a few questions to check if I’m delirious, performs a blood oxygen test, and assures me I’m fine.
Descending after lunch is depressing, all those painfully achieved vertical metres being thrown away, only to be climbed again tomorrow. I would seriously like this all to be over but don’t see any way out. Turning back at this point would be almost as much work as going on.
The afternoon drags on in a fog, hour after hour. Somehow I make it through to evening. I crash exhausted on my sleeping bag, only to jump up again and rush outside to vomit. I’m not eating anything any more. Even a sip of water takes me a few minutes to swallow. Again, our guide assures me I’m fine and all my symptoms are “normal.”
I wake up on the morning of Day Four mildly surprised to be alive, and even more for feeling a bit better. I eat some breakfast. Maybe I’ll survive this after all. After a seven-hour climb, we settle into our last camp at 4,500 metres. Except tonight we’ll only sleep until midnight, when we’ll start our final push to the summit.
The temperature feels like minus 5. Around 10 p.m., the wind picks up and by 11 it’s blowing at gale force. One would have to be mad to go out in that. But I hear the gentle voice of our porter offering me a cup of tea, and I unzip the tent fly to accept it. I guess that means we’re heading out.
The temperature continues to drop as we climb. With wind chill, it must now be minus 20. Our guide, who on our first day cajoled us to slow down and enjoy the climb, is now a man possessed of purpose and I can hardly keep up. He seems impatient and reluctant to let us rest. Maybe he knows something we don’t; this is no place to rest; this is a place to die.
Hours pass, eight to be exact. And finally the sign, saying, “Congratulations, you have reached Uhuru Peak, 5,895 metres, the highest point in Africa.”
What was I expecting to feel? I couldn’t remember.
We were not met by heavenly hosts. Angelic choirs did not perform for us. It did get a bit warmer though, now that the sun was up. People posed for photos in front of the sign. I took a picture of the dear Australian woman who had pushed me on whenever I had staggered back on our way up through that gale. Someone snapped one of me, but for some reason the camera didn’t work, so I have no proof I actually made it. Oh well, I can always Photoshop myself into someone else’s picture.
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