We’d leave the lodge in the sunshine of a beautiful day, driving the 2 hours to Machame gate of Kili National Park in the bus loaded to the gunwales with equipment and porters.
Once there, it’s all business. The porters start unloading and dividing up the equipment and bags, hurrying over to an ancient scale at the boom to the access road leading to the trailhead. There each one’s load gets weighed before they hitch it up onto their backs and heads and start up the road at a tidy clip.
Us, on the other hand, would leisurely sign the register at the gate office and leave the head guide to do all the paperwork while we wandered around and took pictures. Settling on the wooden benches of the hikers area to wait for our call to start, I’d get the opportunity to purchase a sunhat since I’d discovered, during packing, that I’d forgotten mine at home. Now I had a rather practical souvenir. Chatting to another group of two hikers, we discovered that we’d be rather few on the mountain.
Once walking, our guide mentioned it being the end of the season because of the rain that usually starts in December. Now, however, it had started raining earlier but at least the route was not busy. Sometimes there can be 400 people in camp at any one time. That would be awful! Thank goodness we were just four operators with two clients each on the Machame route … what a pleasure. This meant, no constant stepping aside for porters, no faster climbers rushing ahead, no overtaking and jostling for position … just peace and quiet in the forest on the lower slopes.
It would not be very long before we started to hear the distant rumble of thunder. With a storm fast approaching both Suzann and I were starting to get a bit uneasy. The louder the rumble, the more uneasy were got. Especially since the other groups had stopped to take their rain gear out already. Our guide just soldiered on with us, ever upwards. Finally voicing our misgivings, Gabriel told us not to worry, he was sure if it rained, it would only be a spit and a spot … and he turned out to be right. I still don’t know how the other climbers made it to the first camp dressed in rain gear. I’d have melted …
It was still relatively early when we signed the hiker’s register and found our tents on the muddy bit of open earth where the trees had begun to give out to stunted vegetation akin to our fynbos. It was time for a wash in a salad bowl of warm water with a mini bar of hand soap (like those you get at the hotel). Suffice it to say, not much was washed … Supper was a soupy affair and, as we’d soon come to learn, so was all other meals except breakfast, of course. Soup is their way of keeping you full of fluids. Apparently good hydration is the key, especially since you’re already taking meds to stop your brain from swelling due to rapid altitude changes. And the only way the brain is spared is to rid the body of, you guessed it … fluid. So you visit the loo quite a lot.
With a stomach full of soup and, of course, rice, greens and beef, we headed off to our little igloo of a tent. The hired air mattresses were thin but not uncomfortable. Except for poor old Suzann, you seemed to be blowing down. Waking me with her constant rustling to find a more comfy position on the hard earth she’d, by then, came to land on, we decided to double what was left of her mattress and I’d scoot over so she could share some of mine. Now those of you who’ve seen these hiker’s mattresses will know how narrow they are. So we spent the night snuggling very close. In the morning we’d discover that someone hadn’t tightened the valve properly. But eventually that would not turn out to the problem. Something else was causing the mattress to blow down. In the end Suzann ended up with the guide’s mattress while he slept on her ‘puffer-downer’.
Despite the odd sleeping arrangements we did get a good night’s rest before taking on the sleep, rocky climb of day two. Here the vegetation begins to give out quickly and soon you’re walking between rocks alone. The morning started out clear and warm, so hot in fact that Suzann and I had to find a conveniently large rock behind which we could hide to strip the tights we’d put on under our pants the morning. As the day went on however, the clouds rolled in. At first the clouds were a layer below us with the peak of nearby Mount Meru sticking up through them. Later though the sky would begin to drop and a swirl of mist and cloud would envelope us. It’s amazing how chilly it gets when the sun disappears. Lucky for us it was a short day and we got into camp in time for lunch. That is if we could find our camp. You see, the porters all go ahead to set the entire camp up so that when us hikers arrive we can just dip into our bags in our tents for some warm clothes and a bit of hand wash in our salad bowl before heading to the mess tent for yet another bowl of soup.
Finally running our campsite to earth (not without a great deal of shouting back and forth … follow my voice kind of thing … the mist was so thick). But with an early day there comes the inevitable boredom of lying in the tent and doing nothing. Suzann and I both are not very good at doing nothing, so we decided to head out into the dreary afternoon to explore the campsite. We’d only actually get to appreciate the amazing view from this barren camp filled with ravens and here and there a stunted tree, the next morning.
Another clear day greeted us as we emerged from the tent after yet another salad bowl ablution session. Turning to face the mountain we’d see the most spectacular sight … the glaciers of Kili, sparkling white as they slide down from the crater rim. And as we stood to watch in awe, the sun rose behind the mountain peak turning the world into a dazzling, shimmering spectacle of light. Even the large barren piece of mountainside we’d called home that night looked beautiful as it hung precariously to the side of the steepening slopes. The breeze that inevitably comes up, had not yet begun to blow, affording us the chance to ‘stand on the edge’ as it were and look out over the clouds below.
After a breakfast of finger millet porridge (very nice, by the way), some sausage, egg, and other bits and bobs … the Tanzanian combinations often seemed questionable to us but we survived … it was time to hitch up the day packs, extend the hiking poles and start trudging (pole, pole) after our guide. It would really be ‘walk high, sleep low’ that day. It was the ascent to the Lava Tower that lay ahead and the only advise the guides gave was not to think what you are actually doing. Easier said than done, but it was surprising how quickly we got to the famed Lava Tower in the end. If the weather allowed, our guide would’ve taken us up the tower but the mist began to roll in and by the time we arrived at the base of this giant rock outcrop, we just got a few seconds to take a picture before the mist obscured the tower completely.
The mess tent and toilet were set up for lunch … the mess tent for lunch, of course, and the toilet was a very welcome addition (always get an operator that takes a portable camp toilet along … don’t say I didn’t warn you! … you don’t want to use a long-drop squat toilet, believe me). But we still sat snug in the tent, slurping away at our soup, when the drops began to fall. Very soon a little stream had begun to course through the mess tent and we would have to get the rain gear out. Thank goodness we had the tent to kit ourselves out in before braving the downpour outside. But we had to leave. There was still some way to go before we’d get into camp three, just below the dreaded Baranco Wall.
Setting off at a blinding pace, the assistant guide out front, me next, then Suzann, and finally the head guide bringing up the rear. I just had to forget my ‘heights frights’ and plunge headlong after the guide as he hopped, skipped and jumped down the steep rocky path. With the rain properly set in, it was not just us that chose the path of least resistance downhill, so did the water. It felt like we were descending a waterfall! I just kept momentum and tried to step exactly where the guide up ahead of me stepped. This, I told myself, would definitely help me not to slip, slide or worst case scenario, fall down the cliff. Soon I was huffing and puffing and sweating buckets inside the waterproof layers of my rain gear. I prayed silently for the hell to end but we just seemed to go down and down and down. Finally, with the rain letting up slightly, we stumbled into a very wet, very misty campsite. Everything was wet, if not from the rain, then from my own sweat. We spent a rather uncomfortable afternoon trying to dry out everything within the confines of our micro tent.
That evening though, as we stepped out of the mess tent after supper, we were greeted by the most amazingly beautiful sight I’d ever seen. The rain had stopped, the clouds rolled back to reveal a star-filled sky. And in the light of the moon rose the snow-topped summit, starkly white against the pitch-black sky. Looking slightly left, we’d see the denser darkness of the Wall rearing up above the camp. Everything was bathed in a silvery glow which made the snow cap on Kili appear even whiter. In the face of such magnificence, you realize just how small you really are, and just how big God really is …
And it would only be our big God that got us up the Baranco Wall in one and a half hours where it usually takes two. Crossing the streams out of camp to the base of the wall seemed worse since everything had iced over during the night and when you step on the ice, you slip. The guide had to lead us over each stream, holding on tightly so he could steady us if we slipped. Starting up the wall, things became less icy but far steeper until we were scrambling up the cliff face. When you hear the guide say, ‘you see, here you spread your arms and hug the rock, step onto the ledge first with the one foot, then the other, and then come on over to the path again’ you begin to feel the panic rise. But you ‘hou jou pose’ and before you know it you’re standing, in the crucifixion position, with a sheer drop at your back. Yet, since I’m writing this, I obviously made it back onto the path again, only to have to step out over another sheer drop and be yanked up to the path by the guide … and this was the way!
With the adrenaline still coursing through our veins we began the descent on the other side, not as steep but muddy and slippery. When we eventually got down to the stream below, the other climbing groups all took a breather but, to our dismay, our guide just walked on by … and we had follow him up yet another slope. But it wasn’t far to the next camp where the lunch tent (and loo, of course) had been set up for us. We were not going to overnight there. Instead, we’d push on to base camp, Barafu that afternoon.
Now lunch is always great in a sheltered tent, but eating a big meal and then having to struggle upwards in a long, hard slog isn’t. I soon began to feel rather queasy. All the blood was coursing to my muscles that needed every last drop of what oxygen there was to keep me walking. This, of course, left my stomach somewhat short of the energy it needed to work all of that food down. I was like a captive crocodile fed in winter … the food just lay in my dormant stomach. Stopping for a breather, I took the opportunity to quickly gulp down a tablet that would just help the whole process on a bit. And the fact that it works for nausea as well was just a bonus. Soon I’d feel relief as things in the gut area began to move on.
Coming into base camp we’d meet a few other climb teams that had opted for other routes. Now we all had to follow the same path to the top. Most teams were gearing up to leave at midnight but our guide suggested a more respectable hour of 3am. If we also started at midnight, he said, the cold would certainly be a limiting factor, and of course, the fact that you can’t see where you’re headed. This apparently often causes climbers to give up. We didn’t plan on giving up though. Although I did have my misgivings when I heard myself wheezing when simply taking a trip to the loo. Filled with concern, Suzann alerted our guide and he rocked up at the tent to take my oxygen sats. Turned out, my blood oxygen level was absolutely normal. He just suggested I up the dose of the acetazolamide I’d been taking to prevent my brain from swelling, oh, and of course, to chill. I was freaking myself out. If I could just relax, then things would be better. I did as I was told and ended up having a good rest, waking 2am to begin preparations feeling fine.
With two layers on the bottom, five layers on top, two pairs of socks, ski gloves, a beanie and my buff pulled up over my nose and mouth, we set off into the dark, treading slowly onward following the little dot of light from our headlamps. The path began to steepen and we’d traverse a rocky ridge, switch-back style. Our guides would stop as the sun turned the top of the clouds a deep orange colour and slowly emerge as a fiery ball above the white fluffy mass below. It must’ve been spectacular but I was too tired to fully appreciate it. I was still using my hiking poles, but Suzann had handed them over to the guides, who carried our day-packs as well, preferring to keep her hands firmly in her pockets for extra warmth. Despite the fact that we had on ski gloves, our fingertips were frozen. We wouldn’t stand too long to admire the sunrise since when you stop moving, you start freezing.
Slowly we went, pole pole, ever upwards. But the higher we climbed the more I struggled to breathe. I just couldn’t catch my breath. Eventually the assistant guide would go on ahead with Suzann to Uhuru, while the head guide and trainee would struggle on from behind with me. Afterwards they were supporting me but we still had to stop every few steps for me to catch my breath. It felt as if an elephant was sitting on my chest, it just wouldn’t expand enough to get in the oxygen my muscles were screaming out for. But the guides wouldn’t let me give up and finally I walked out on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I had made it to Stella Point on the crater rim. Looking to my left I could see the signboard on the little bump that represents the highest point on the rim. But I was on top and that was enough for me. The view is the same from Stella as from the bump that is Uhuru. The snow filled crater lies in front of you and the scree slopes leading down to the bed of clouds lies at your back.
There was not much time to appreciate the view or take in the achievement because I was steadily feeling worse and worse. The guide just allowed me to wait for Suzann to descend from Uhuru so that we could get a picture together at Stella before he insisted we go down as fast as we could. This was also only because Suzann was nearly back at Stella by the time I made it up there. Apparently she couldn’t contain her joy when the guide with her confirmed I’d made it to Stella on his two-way radio. I’d looked soo bad on the way up, she truly feared that I would not make it to the top. But making it to the top is only the half of it, you still have to get down.
I started off with gusto, practically running down the scree slope. In my befuddled state, I knew that I had to get down as fast as possible. I was beginning to feel nauseous and my entire head started to pound like cartoon watermelon on the verge of bursting … pulsating. But my headlong rush quickly slackened to the pace of an arthritic snail. This was where the guides took over. Each with one of my ski poles in the hand to steady themselves, they supported me, one on each side, arms hooked in so I practically hung by the shoulders between them. And then they started down that mountain. You just saw dust rise and fine stones scatter. Even with them supporting me so much so that my feet only just touched the ground every now and then, I had to call halt a few times to catch my breath. Then we’d ski to a standstill in a cloud of dust and Suzann and the other guide would get a chance to catch up with us. While I was being dragged down the mountain, poor old Suzann was doing all the work herself, slipping and sliding and falling on her bottom in the dirt. But finally we reached the rocky outcrop above base camp and I was allowed respite on a large boulder. Waiting there, I didn’t feel too bad as another climber suspended between two guides came hurrying past. But I had started to feel better. As quickly as the symptoms started, so quickly they disappeared with a reduction in altitude. I was able to take up my ski poles again and walk into camp alongside Suzann to the congratulations of the entire team of porters who were waiting to shake our hands, pour us some juice and take off our boots (despite the stinky socks).
We had but an hour’s rest before it was time to head on further down. We’d walk all the way down to the edge of the forest on the lower slopes before making our last camp of the climb. Coming into camp at around 6pm, we were exhausted and our knees shattered from the constant downhill. But we had summited and we were going home (well back to the lodge) tomorrow.
Sleeping like the dead, we woke to a beautiful morning on the edge of the forest. Last breakfast in the mess tent, last wash in a salad bowl, last battle to squash stinky feet into boots, last time to hitch up the day pack and extend the hiking poles for a slip-n-slide descent through a very wet rain forest. We were sent on our way by the porters dancing and singing their farewell before we headed off down to the Mweka gate where we’d take the last photos and get our certificates.
On the bus again, on our way back to the lodge, the realization set in … Cross Africa is finished! All glory to God!