Kilimanjaro is the world highest freestanding mountain peak, at an astonishing 5,895m. It is also the highest point in Africa and often referred to as the roof of Africa. I have never been much of a mountaineer, or into trekking, but for some crazy reason I decided to add climbing Kilimanjaro to my bucket list of things to do before I turn 30. The clock ticking and with no previous trekking experience, preparation began in the gym and building stairwell. In addition also ensuring I had the correct kit, to take on the biggest challenge of my life, to date.
After arriving in Tanzania and seeing Kilimanjaro for the first time, I felt a lump in my throat as it looked a lot higher and further than I expected. All fear was set aside and the goal was to take each day as it comes and not to worry too much about getting to the summit, until the time arrives. During the trip I often found myself wondering, “What the hell was I thinking”, but all the time focussing on the job at hand and never allowing my thoughts to dwell on the significance of it.
Our group consisted of 13 support staff (guides, cooks, waiters and porters) along with an amazing organiser and guide, Sarah, and three very eager trekkers with their eyes set on “Freedom” Uhuru peak.
We were dropped off, support staff immediately queued to get weighed in before setting off on the Rongai route for our great Tanzanian adventure. The first part of the trek, took us through the forest, where we were greeted by little children from the surrounding villages shouting “Jambo, Jambo” (Hello in Swahili) and sending us on our way. As the forest became thicker we started to experience the nature around us, with Blue and Colobus monkeys staring at us, maybe also thinking that we were “crazy”. The Rongai route is often referred to as the Coca Cola route because of the locals selling Coca Cola along the start of the route.
After a four hour trek on the first day we finally reached Simba camp (2,671m). In the backdrop a beautiful mountain, we were looking forward to a good night’s rest but not before being stunned by how bright and close the stars in the evening sky appeared.
Day two consisted of about four hours of trekking, we were able to reach Second Cave camp (3,450m), just in time for lunch.
All along the trek I would be amazed at the porters (professional Kilimanjaro climbers) going passed at a jogging more than walking pace, and this with heavy loads of gear. Seeing the porters with their heavy loads made me vow not to complain about the weight of my small day pack. By the time we arrived at camp, exhausted after the day’s trek, our support team was already there, the camp was set up and the tea and snacks were being prepared. This pace at which the support staff was constantly moving amazed me every single day of the trek. We would get up early, breakfast would be ready, then as we started with the day’s trek our support team would pack up camp and race passed on route to the next stop. By the time we arrived the next camp would be ready and waiting for us, Lord Varys in the season six finale of Game of Thrones when he became the subject of many a meme came to mind.
As the trek progressed the temperatures started to fall quite rapidly, and for someone like me who lives in Dubai, where anything below 20 degrees calls for a winter jacket, this was quite a challenge. I however came prepared with layers of clothing and hand warmers. My kit consisted of two different thickness thermo long sleeve shirts, three different fleece tops, rain jacket, down jackets, thermo pants, trekking pants, waterproof pants, socks varying in thicknesses, a scarf, balaclava, beany, ski hat that covered my ears, a sun hat, three pairs of gloves, hand warmers and my trekking poles.
On day three we trekked about four hours to Kikilewa camp (3,600m). This camp site had a wonderful view of the side of the mountain. All the way along the trek and at the various camp sites fellow trekkers made conversation, predominantly discussing each other’s treks, when we would be summiting, and what previous adventures drove you to this one. This was one of the things that I enjoyed about the climb, the feeling of comradery amongst total strangers. The sharing of a struggle or adventure such as this led to some wonderful new friends from all walks of life.
On our fourth day we were on-route to Mawenzi Tarn Hut Camp (4,300m), with the most gorgeous view of Mawenzi mountain. The trek for the day seemed a bit harder than the previous days, with a lot more climbing over rocks and trying to find the best path possible. At first it felt a bit strange when we started with the day’s trek as we were moving further and further away from Kilimanjaro and getting closer to Mawenzi. The main reason for this detour in our journey to Kilimanjaro was to allow ourselves to better acclimatize to the altitude. Altitude sickness is the main reason why trekkers do not reach Uhuru, and Sarah and the crew decided they were going to give our group the best possible chance to avoid altitude sickness and ultimately to reach Uhuru peak.
The day had finally arrived, from the Mawenzi Tarn Hut Camp we were going to embark on the final trek to the summit. Our main goal a mere few hours away, we first had to trek to Kibo Huts. The view along the trek was really interesting, as we went from looking over mountains of greenery that soon become rocky paths and finally becoming the alpine desert known as the saddle of the mountain. It was on the saddle that we also passed what was left of the 2008 plane crash. Although Kibo Huts were visible from the start of the saddle, it felt like it would take forever to reach. After around 4 hours, we finally reached Kibo Huts camp (4,750m). The route of the evening stared us in the face and it looked beyond steep. I tried not to focus on the path that may or may not break me that evening. I knew it would not be a walk in the park, but in retrospect I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared me more for final trek to the summit.
After a quick lunch, prepping our kit for the summit, a nap and an early dinner we started the journey. Sarah took each of us through our clothes, making sure we were ready for what would be the coldest night of my life.
I was excited, scared and beyond myself at this point. I layered and layered and layered even more. After wearing three layers of gloves and hand warmers, my hands still felt cold. Two words that every guide constantly reiterated along the trek is Pole Pole (Slowly in Swahili ). This was exactly how I planned to get to the top. Slowly, one foot in front of the other. After all “climbing” Kilimanjaro is nothing more than walking and putting one foot in front of the other. Every hour we stopped for a few minutes to rehydrate, grab something to eat and replenish energy to get through the next hour. This may sound quite easy in theory, but when you are wearing three pairs of gloves and standing still in a freezing -15 degrees celsius, it is easier said than done. I was lucky enough to have an amazing guide that helped me with the little things, like opening my water bottle and handing me my snacks. Every stop I had the same routine. First I would reach out my shivering hand and ask “Noamba Maji” (Swahili for Please may I have water) then me and my guide would eat our snacks before continuing for the next hour. After about six hours of trekking, we were finally approaching Gillman’s point (5,681 m). We all sat down for some well deserve rest and tea. This was by far the best tea that I have ever had. After the tea we were energised and well on our way to Stella point. The sun started to appear on the horizon and the view was just breathtaking, with the rising sun reflecting off of the glaciers. It is at this moment that you realise you are above the horizon and high in the clouds.
At 5,730m, we reached Stella point. The evening walk has taken its toll on a number of the trekkers along the route with some people sitting on the side of the path, either waiting for their second breath or being hammered by the symptoms of altitude sickness. Others however were merely mesmerised by the view, in total awe of the surrounding beauty.
There were less than 200m to go before we finally reached Uhuru, I was struggling tremendously to find my second breath. I already had 4 servings of energy Gu and I just had no idea where the energy would come from to reach the top, but this was my mountain to climb and I was not giving up, even if it meant I had to crawl to the top.
At this point the guide took me by the hand and said “Tunaweza” (Together we can in Swahili). We walked together step by step “Pole Pole”, and we finally reached the summit. After seeing the sign for the first time, I for a split second thought, was this it? No balloons, no champagne being popped? I was tired beyond any words could describe, but it only took one glance at the view to know that I have just made it to the highest point in Africa and reached the top of the highest freestanding peak in the world (5,895m). Needless to say I felt untouchable, I knew if I could make this, then I sure as hell can take on anything that life has to throw at me.
On our way back to Stella point we came across so many trekkers that were so close but yet they wanted to give up. I was doing all I could to motivate others, having just experienced the summit and couldn’t imagine these fellow trekkers turning around before reaching Uhuru.
The temperatures started to rise and the route seemed a lot easier on the way down, although the down hills were a lot tougher on my knees. I was wondering, with every step and pain, why they have never installed a zipline from the top. That would have made things a bit easier, but this was Kilimanjaro and easy is something that she will never be.
It took us around four hours to reach Kibo Huts. There were parts on the downhill where we needed to run down in the gravel, parts where we were climbing down rocks and some parts where I was wondering if I made cartwheels down the mountain whether I would get to camp quicker. After seeing Kibo Huts for the last two hours of the descent, we finally reached our camp and I felt like I was about to die. I passed out in my tent on top of my luggage and I slept like I never slept before.
After an hour of sleep, we continued the decent to Horrombo. The mountain was dry and dusty, something I was thankful for, because for the most part we were walking in a dry mountain stream bed (A path that would have been somewhat more difficult to use in the rainy season).
All along the path, white everlastings were visible. We were walking in the clouds with the white ever lasting’s on either side of us. Though beautiful it somehow reminded me of a scene out of a scary movie, you know the one right before someone dies. I started walking a little faster, just to be safe. After a few hours of trekking we arrived at Horrombo camp (3,720m). Our first flush toilet in a week, still no hot shower though, but getting closer to civilization.
As the sun rose on our last day of trekking, it all started to feel a bit nostalgic and surreal. We had about five hours of trek left for the day. As we reached the forest, the final stretch to the foot of the mountain. I was tired but I didn’t dare close my eyes or risk missing the experience and the beauty in every step. Tired and with blistered feet, we arrived at Marangu gate (1,830m), ready for the drive back to civilization where taking showers were no longer a luxury but part of a daily routine.
Although this trip was nothing like I expected, it pushed me to new limits. Limits I never knew existed.
As our bus was driving off, the mountain was behind us, with clouds starting to cover her. I took one final look at her with total respect and a sense of accomplishment. We reached “Freedom peak” and the bucket list item was ticked off.