Climbing Kili

The WhichWay Adventures Overland Tour had come to an abrupt end in Nairobi and the tour group disbanded, which turned out to be an unexpectedly gut-wrenching experience. I suddenly found myself separated from the bunch of loonies I had just spent a considerable period of time with, who at times had managed to stretch my tolerance levels to impossible limits. It was at this moment that I sensed how much I had suddenly come to miss everyone and how much camaraderie had developed, without my actually having realised it.

The WhichWay truck was winding its way back on the return journey to Cape Town, with the ever-dependable Werner and Marcelle at the helm and two others and myself in tow, plus the mutt we had picked up in Dar. After spending a night at Arusha, we left on the morning of 24th September, 1996. As we approached Moshi, we were delighted to see that clear skies afforded us a magnificent view of Kilimanjaro, which had been denied us on the way up. After an emotional farewell, I boarded a local bus to Marangu, which, at 50 shillings, turned out to be substantially cheaper than the shuttle service costing $30-$40. We covered the journey in one and a half hours, notwithstanding a puncture en route, which was not too surprising, given the appalling road conditions. I was a trifle surprised that we weren't requested to disembark while repairs were in progress!

The bus reached Marangu Hotel, where I was dropped off, following a steady though beautiful route past banana plantations. The hotel consisted of a series of tidy bungalows scattered around a sprawling, well kept garden, with a long drive-way leading up to the main reception area, unassuming yet charming. After checking in and taking a short nap before lunch, I returned to my room to do some washing. It was then that I overheard a jubilant bunch of Scotsman in the garden who had just arrived after having summited successfully, celebrating with their guides and porters.

I wondered if I would be blessed with the same good fortune in a week's time. My climbing gear was inspected by a member of the hotel staff, who would make up any shortfall and loan any equipment deemed unsuitable for the climb, without any additional charge! I considered this a fantastic service! I went on a walk of the surrounding plantations up to an exquisitely beautiful waterfall, then through the local village, sharing thoughts with the intelligent young guide who had earlier placed himself at my disposal. After a much needed bath, I was summoned to dinner, where I met the hotel owner and climb operator, Seamus-Brice Bennett. He indicated that another party was expected to arrive on a KLM flight later that evening after having been delayed and that we would consequently all be briefed the following morning.

Day one

A wake-up call and a quick shower later, I wandered down to the dining room at 8h00 for breakfast. Dorothy and Tony had arrived the night before but without their luggage, which was still being located by airport authorities. They were subsequently supplied with the necessary items. Introductions completed, we were briefed by Seamus in his office. And what a briefing it turned out to be! By the end of it all, with the fear of God struck into us, we wondered whether we honestly wanted to continue with this climb! After loading up, with separate parties of guides and porters, we headed off in the Land Rovers up to the main entrance at Marangu, where we checked in. Once the walk commenced through the rain forest, our anxieties tended to dissipate with the mist encircling the treetops.

Lychen and moss covered the branches of the yellowood, camphor and beech trees. A stream repeatedly crossed our path. The gravel path gave way to a section where the rock and roots of trees so huge formed a natural stairway through the wilderness. One almost expected a goblin to make a sudden appearance, like some Tolkenesque figment of the imagination. The pace was slow and the steps deliberate, a tactic which would prove to our advantage days later. Acclimatisation was the name of the game, even at this early stage. We stopped for a brief lunch of sandwiches, an egg and fruit. En route we acquainted ourselves with a Dutch couple, John and Els. We reached the wooden A-frame huts at Mandara at 2850 metres within 4 hours, covering 9 km in the process, and enjoyed tea and biscuits.
Mt. Kilimanjaro rain forest SCENES OF TANZANIA

As soon as the mist began to settle in on this idyllic setting, temperatures plummeted, but not before my guide, an amicable fellow named Gibson, had escorted me on a stroll around Maundi Crater. After dinner, it was time for a rendezvous with dreamland.

Day two

As today's hike involved a relatively short trek to Horombo, there was no rush in getting up. James, son of Gibson, would take care of my well-being. I was brought a metal bowl of hot water which afforded me a quick wash. Mandara is the only base equipped with running water for showers and it being cold despite there being solar panels in evidence (for lighting purposes), nobody in their right mind would shower at that time of the day! So for a variety of reasons, bathing of any nature was abandoned for the duration of the climb. After a quick breakfast, we headed off into the crisp morning air. During the first half hour we still found ourselves in the rain forest but this gradually thinned out into a landscape of lush fynbos, very reminiscent of that found on Table Mountain. Walking, as always, was "pole pole"!

Clusters of huge, unusual looking groundsels, which grow to a height of 5 metres, protruded above the surrounding landscape, shortly after we approached Horombo, altitude 3700 metres, at 14h30, this after a six-hour walk covering 14 km. The mist was pretty thick, once again causing a drop in temperature. I had developed a sore throat and consequently began to cough fairly profusely, while simultaneously developing a case of the snivels. I realised that I had a cold, too, and the mucus made breathing difficult.

I feared that this would hamper me in my effort to reach the summit. Horombo was pretty crowded owing to the upward and downward traffic of climbers having to spend the night there, which does not occur at any of the other bases; the porters consequently jostled for the most favourable position at the dining-room table on behalf of their clients.
Mandara and Horombo huts

In case of altitude sickness, I had been advised to use Diamox tablets. One had to time one's intake of Diamox, being a diuretic, to avoid having to walk to the "loo" at all hours of the night. Feeling the way I did, my thoughts were concerned primarily with hitting the sack at the earliest possible opportunity.

Day three

The much-mailigned Marangu or so-called "tourist route" to the summit is generally a five-day climb. Although the success-rate is pretty good, the effects of acute mountain sickness (AMS) and oedema, as it is known in its extreme form, are well documented. Any one or more of a number of symptoms may manifest themselves: loss of appetite, severe headaches, diarrhoe'a, vomiting. Several accounts of Kilimanjaro, notably one by Sorrel Wilby, in her book "Africa", describe the advantages of allowing an additional day or two to acclimatise sufficiently. Climbing Kilimanjaro is not cheap by anybody's standards. I had decided to book a six-day climb in ensuring that I did make it to the top. As a bonus, I could even end up enjoying it, I surmised! Well, when I awoke at the start of day three, I felt like "death warmed up". My entire body was sore and the 'flu was upon me with a vengeance.

On the advice of an American doctor who had given me two Claritin-D tablets, it did not take much to persuade me to forego the opportunity of using the extra day to climb to the base of Mawenzi, the sister peak of Kilimanjaro, via the "upper Kibo" route, in an attempt to recover the situation. A sense of despondency began to set in. When the others returned in the early afternoon, I went outside to take a few photos after the sun came out and the weather had warmed up slightly.
Mawenzi viewed from Gillman's Point at dawn

That night, as I responded to the call of nature, I was able to witness the ice-cap atop Kilimanjaro under a full moon, under a cloudless sky.

Day four

As they say in the classics, "what a difference a day makes"! Buoyed by feeling much stronger after the rest, I decided to continue with the hike. After having breakfast and packing up, we headed for Kibo. I stuck with John, Els, Tony and Dorothy, and progress was slow. We crossed the Maua river which would provide us with our final supply of water en route to the summit. By midday the mist had set in. The approach to Kibo hut seemed endless and it was cold. It isn't uncommon for those persons on the upward journey to interrogate those returning from Kibo as to how they had faired, anxiously attempting to reassure themselves that they, too, will be successful in their own efforts. Without realising it, we began crossing the region known as the Saddle. The landscape had by this time taken on an extremely desolate appearance. We had now entered the zone of alpine desert. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached Kibo, altitude 4700 metres, at 14h30. It had taken us six hours in total to traverse the 13 km. Kibo, a large forlorn dormitory with cement floors (unlike the wooden floors of Mandara and Horombo), loomed out of the mist in the approach of the last few tens of metres. Tony's reference to it as "Stalag Kibo" seemed all the more appropriate! Once more I was coughing profusely. The two couples and I shared one of the rooms in the dormitory with three cheerful Bavarians. Apart from enjoying a warm soup, we gnerally ended up picking disconsolately at our food. Although suffering the inconvenience of having to get up several times in the evening, I managed to sleep for approximately four hours before waking up at 23h00.

Day five

It was after midnight, Sunday, 29th September, 1996 and day 51 of my overland tour, as we ventured out into the cold under a full moon. I had done most of the packing for the summit earlier, prior to crawling into the sleeping bag which the Marangu Hotel had loaned me. There seemed to be a fair amount of humour doing the rounds, especially when it transpired that one of the Bavarians had been up all night after having taken the Diamox tablet I had given him to counter any possible effects of altitude sickness. At this point the only aspect of altitude sickness troubling me was a fairly severe headache.

The full moon meant that we would not require the use of our head torches. Only our guides would accompany us on the rest of our climb. We made good progress and passed several groups en route, until John became troubled by stomach cramps and vomiting. I attempted to breathe steadily, taking regular sips of the water I had mixed with Game isotonic drink. I took to counting each and every step, pausing each time after several hundred steps of the renowned "Kili shuffle". Although the break was welcome from the point of view of regaining one's breath, my hands and feet would become extremely cold. The ascent follows a scree slope of loose ash cinders, which I'm led to believe is easier to scale when it's still frozen. Well, it didn't seem all that frozen to me as my ploughed into it's softness. John's condition worsened as we reached Hans Meyer Cave and was on the point of throwing in the towel. He decided to continue, however, after the persistent badgering of his guide. Gibson uttered the word "sorry" in his manner of displaying sympathy, each time I coughed profusely. The least I could do in return was to share my frozen health bar with him. I was sweating terribly under the layers of clothing. I kept the water bottle under the Polartec jacket to prevent the water from freezing. Looking up at the skyline under the full moon and sensing that I could almost reach out and touch the summit seemed to fill me with renewed enthusiasm.

Somehow the summit did not seem all that far off. Just before dawn at 6h00, after 5 hours of climbing, we reached Gillman's Point, at which point I promptly but privately burst into tears. We stopped for tea, photos and a rest, as we watched the sun rise beyond Mawenzi and illuminate the southern glaciers of Kilimanjaro in blinding light.
Mt. Kilimanjaro Summit SCENES OF TANZANIA

A cold wind blew as the clouds rolled in and consumed the jagged edges of Mawenzi. It was a truly magnificent sight, even though I was in a somewhat dazed condition and not able to comprehend it fully. I simply could not contain myself and emotion got the better of me. I uttered a prayer of gratitude. It was then that I desired more than anything, to share this magical moment with those I held dear to me. I had overcome the odds brought on by my sudden bout of 'flu and the scepticism of my guide, who, a day or two earlier, felt that I was too ill to continue. Gibson and I shared some chocolate. John had decided he had had enough, of the climb, that is! Yes, I had forgiven Gibson for his poor sense of judgement but he ultimately had the last laugh, by capturing me on camera at Gillman's Point, with the sign held upside down! The effects of altitude sickness, perhaps?

Now there was no stopping me! The final section to Uhuru Peak, now within sight, involved a horizontal walk of 3 kilometres, gaining almost a kilometre in height. I had heard how climbers succumbed to the severe effects of altitude sickness on this section, in particular. Emotionally and physically sapped of energy, I continued relentlessly at a snail's pace, edging partially around the crater rim. Now and again I paused to take photographs, not fully aware as to whether I was compensating adequately for the lighting conditions.

It took one and a quarter hours to reach Uhuru Peak at 5895 metres ASL. Gibson and I embraced once more. He had seen it all before, of course! Climbers from Shira Peak on the longer Machame Route also reached the summit. After final photographs were taken, and a brief rest, we returned to Gillman's Point. Gibson proceeded to demonstrate the technique used in decending, plunging one foot before the other into the loose scree, the effect of which was to break one's forward movement. Plumes of dust rose into the air. Where would I possibly muster the energy for this, I wondered?
The effects of altitude sickness, Gillman's Point!

It was sheer hell on the calves and knees but great fun! One false step and I would end up with a broken leg or two, if I were to have the misfortune of making contact with a solid rock buried beneath the soft scree. While the zig-zag path by which we had ascended in the wee hours of the morning was now visible in the bright sunlight, the way down was undoubtedly more direct! Now I understood the purpose of the gaiters in preventing dirt and stone from getting into the boots. I made it to Kibo Hut in one and a quarter hours, caked in dust and sweat. Golly, was I in dire need of a shower or what? John and Els had left and the Bavarians were asleep. After a bit of soup, Gibson and I departed for Horombo in warm, sunny weather, still sporting layers of clothing. We passed several hikers en route. The boot was, quite literally, on the other foot, in terms of those now on the way up.

Although pausing occasionally for photograhs, we reached Horombo base within two hours. The total round trip distance for the day was in excess of 24 km! Once having removed my wet clothing, I slept for a few hours. Supper was at 17h30, although I was devoid of any appetite. On my own in hut number 8, sleep was deep, blissful and uninterrupted till dawn.

Day six

James brought the hot water at 7h00 and breakfast a short while later. I arose and packed. We departed after 8h00 with John and Els in tow and set a cracking pace. The hills were shrouded in mist and thankfully I had sufficient warm clothing. My cold and cough were still in evidence. En route I got into conversation with Amy, an American from Chicago. Mandara was reached within three hours. A short rest and journey continued. The descent through the rain forest was slippery and treacherous. My toes hurt, my body ached and my legs began to buckle, though I was grateful that the last few kilometres were covered across sheltered terrain. Colobus monkeys, sighted at Mandara, were once more in evidence. Marangu Gate was reached two hours later. Gibson proudly presented me with my certificate which confirmed that I had successfully summited the highest point on the African continent, and shook my hand warmly.

We drove the short distance down to the hotel in the Land Rover sent to fetch us. It was at this moment that I appreciated its close proximity, as I don't think I could have possibly tolerated a long and arduous trip over pot-holed roads! After sharing a few welcome beers with my support team and dealing with the well institutionlized but awkward tipping procedure, I lowered my aching body into the soothing, hot waters of my hotel room bath tub, where I remained for at least the next hour, savouring the moment.

The fact that by this time the next day, I would find myself in Johannesburg, after a flight from Kilimanjaro Airport at 9h30 via Dar-es-Salaam and Zanzibar, was, quite understandably, furthest in my thoughts. A kaleidescope of images experienced over the past 8 weeks had left me with a lasting, indelible impression of the real Africa.

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