It was cold and dark when we set off for the airport in the early hours of Friday morning. I was nervous and filled with trepidation for the trip ahead but I had to embrace the adventure or I wouldn’t get the best out of it. When we arrived after a long flight it was dark and we were tired so it wasn’t until the next day I could begin to see the beauty and magnificence of Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro. My first sight of the mountain almost took my breath away. ‘Wow’ I thought ‘I’m going to trek up that!’ The mountain sat in the landscape with an air of dominance and absolute presence. I felt a little intimidated but there was no going back now we were almost at the park gates.
So, on Saturday afternoon we set off trekking into the rainforest, a steady few hours climb through the sights and sounds of a truly fascinating environment. To see plants that we grow in our gardens in the UK growing in their natural habitat was a highlight that I revelled in. Tree ferns (Cyathea capensis) stood majestically, their bright green fronds catching the dappled sunlight and the spent seeds heads of the African Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus africanus) standing tall above the forest floor.
It was only on the way back down through the rainforest was I informed that there are leeches, black ants, large spiders and snakes. But even they could not dull my enthusiasm. On arrival at camp later that day we were greeted by blue monkeys and colobus monkeys happily traversing from tree to tree. I wonder, did the monkeys look at us tourists as amusingly as we looked on at them? But rainforest romance aside, my thoughts turned to the practicality of my first night camping on Kili. Living, our waiter, offered me a small bowl of warm water so I could freshen up before dinner. That bowl (along with several packets of wet wipes) became my best friend over the course of my week on Kili. So I’d found the washing facilities, now to find the toilet. A tall grey tent stood by the edge of the clearing and inside was a very clean porta loo. So far, so good. As for the living arrangements, Sam and I had opted to share a tent for the duration of the trip and this came complete with roll mats and self-inflating mattresses. Even in our two man tent there was still room for both our large duffle bags and days sacks but we were mindful of the limited space so were keen to ensure we kept on top of our ‘kit admin’, however I can’t say with absolute certainty that there wasn’t an explosion of bags and kit at some point! We had a hearty three course meal that evening, was briefed by Safi our guide about the following days trek and our oxygen levels and heart rate monitored. We retired early to have a good night's sleep as we had an early start in the morning.
So, we quickly established into a routine. We would be woken in the morning at 6.30 am by Living, with a hot drink delivered to our tent and a hot breakfast served in the mess tent 45 minutes later. Once we’d packed away our sleeping bags, filled our ‘Camelbaks’ with fresh water and restocked our day sacks with fresh snacks, we were good to go! Our porters packed away the tents and tidied away the rest of the camp and camping equipment and even though we always seemed to set off before them they’d quickly catch us up. They made trekking up that mountain look incredibly easy. I have real admiration for the work the porters do, they worked long days, carried heavy loads and made every effort to ensure that we were looked after, all with smiles on their faces. My trip to Tanzania though wasn’t just a personal journey but also to ensure that Monkey Mountaineering work only in partnership with KPAP approved and accredited guide operators. I was reassured to see that all the guides, support staff and porters were all well catered for with adequate boots and clothing and regular hot meals. It was interesting to hear from our guides that not all guiding companies offer the same level of care to their porters. Most days we trekked for around 6 hours, setting off in the morning around 8.30am, stopping frequently for rest and refreshment and because the walking pace was slow I was able to take in the amazing surroundings, take photographs and enjoy every moment. Once we reached camp by early afternoon tired and hungry, we would have a 3 course late lunch and hot drinks waiting for us in the mess tent. Once refuelled my time then was my own. I’d take some more photographs and write down my thoughts and experiences of the day in my journal. I wanted to try and record the emotional and physical feelings I had whilst on the mountain. There was no hiding that some days I found harder than others either physically or emotionally or both and without the normal distractions of everyday life Kilimanjaro became all consuming. But the breath-taking views and magnificent surroundings also gave me opportunity to think, clear my head and ultimately enjoy living in the moment. Having said that, I was keen to maintain contact with home as much as I could and although several thousand metres up a mountain, a few of the camps were able to pick up telephone signals so I could phone or text home. It’s such a moral boost to hear a loved ones voice after a long days trek and I would retire happy to my sleeping bag for a couple of hours rest and sleep. The 3 course evening meal was ready around 6.30pm and I was amazed at the superb quality, variety and quantity of food that was prepared and served to us. For example; fresh cucumber soup, red Tilapia fish caught in Lake Victoria, fresh vegetables, pasta or rice and crème caramel for dessert. I don’t even make crème caramel in my kitchen in Yorkshire! There was always enough for second helpings and we were reassured that any food that we didn’t manage to eat was distributed to the porters so nothing went to waste. Tea, coffee, hot chocolate was always available but the real winner was the concentrated fruit cordial ‘Vimto’ served hot. Sam and I had brought a few of the travel bottles with us and they were a welcome change to the usual hot drinks. Safi, our guide, was particularly taken with the drink. I like to think that he introduced us to Mount Kilimanjaro and we introduced him to the taste sensation of Vimto, Haribo and chocolate éclair sweets! By 8.30pm I was ready for my sleeping bag and my nightly ritual of seeing how quickly I could undress and then redress into my base layer to sleep in. The further we trekked up the mountain the colder the temperature in the evening so by the end of the trip I was fairly proficient!
Most days we plodded along the same routine however there are a few stand out moments for me, the first being the trek to Shira Cathedral. Any successful mountain acclimatisation works along the principal of climb high, sleep low and with that in mind we set out on day 3 from Shira camp 1 at 3610 metres to reach Shira Point and then ultimately Shira Cathedral at just over 3872 metres. By early lunchtime we had made our way across the African Plains and could see the relatively short but steep climb ahead of us. When we reached Shira Point I could see for the first time just how high we had walked. Magnificent, exhilarating, inspiring, spectacular and so much more. There is a natural viewing point and I looked out to see the rainforest stretched out in front of me in the valley below. I was aware of the emotion showing on my face, a beaming smile radiating out. But the best was yet to come. After a 10 minute rest and refuel break whilst we waited for another party of walkers to descend from Shira Cathedral we began our climb. It’s a narrow path climbing up, over and around boulders and whilst I am a confident hill walker I was more than happy to bow to Sam’s mountaineering experience as he gave me a quick course of correct foot and hand placement. 15 minutes later and we were at Shira Cathedral. It took my breath away as I stood staring out at the beauty and magnificence of the natural world, so much so that before I knew it, tears were rolling down my (slightly dusty) face. I felt like I was stood on top of the mountain there and then. We allowed ourselves a few silent moments to take it all in, a quick photo call and then we made our descent before we started to get cold.
My next big hurdle that I had to face was on day five. We set off from camp again bright and early to trek up and over the Barranco Wall. This trek climbs to a height of just over 4200 meters and had weighed a little heavy on my mind the previous night as I knew it was a few hours of more physical climbing on a narrow steep mountain path.
I’d sat for a short time in the evening looking out at the challenge ahead, trying hard to distinguish the actual path, so it was with a little feeling of trepidation when I set off the following morning. We allowed ourselves a little extra time after breakfast to ensure most of the other trekking parties occupying camp had already left as the route is fairly tight. Making our way down into the valley bottom, crossing a small stream and then on up to the Barranco wall path I put my trekking poles away and started to use my hands to assist me climb up over and around the rocks along the route. It was a physically exhausting climb not just because the terrain was quite demanding and the altitude made the air thinner but it takes a lot of mental strength to keep going when your body is struggling and your head is pounding. After a couple of hours climb we eventually reached a point where we could sit and take in refreshments and rest a little however we still had several more hours of quite arduous trekking ahead. By the end of that day I was exhausted and towards the end had to concede defeat and pass my backpack to our guide to carry. That was quite a low point. However I couldn’t let that day cloud the rest of my trip so rested and refuelled I started the next day with renewed vigour!
Our summit day was fast approaching. We had trekked up to Barafu camp at 4650 metres. Most people camp here and then start the summit ascent from this camp but we continued to trek on to Barafu High Camp at 4800 meters. A much smaller and quieter camp nestled under the shadow of the peak and this was much more welcome as its quietness helped calm my nerves. We had an early meal that evening and were briefed on the trek ahead. We were woken before midnight to take in refreshments and hot drinks, refill our drinking vessels and I put on just about every layer of clothing I had available. At midnight we were ready to set off. Its pitch black, and freezing cold (about -15c) with a biting wind chill. The only light I had was from my head torch so it was quite disorientating at times. We made our way very slowly and carefully across the scree on a winding narrow path occasionally having to scramble over rocks and boulders. It was cold. The drinking water pipe on one of the camelbaks had frozen so we had to start using a drinking bottle. Easier said than done when your hands have thick gloves on them and to take the gloves off means potential for frost bite. Each stop we took to take on refreshments lasted a minute at most as we couldn’t afford to get cold, however I was beginning to start feeling it. One of our guides gave me a spare jacket he was carrying in his backpack – I now had seven layers on the upper part of my body but still I was shivering. We’d been trekking now for over four hours and I was beginning to feel a tight restriction around my throat. I loosened off my clothing a little but the feeling was still there. We carried on a little further but I was really struggling now to get my breath. The harder it was to breathe, the tighter the restriction on my throat, so the harder it was to fill my lungs. I was starting to feel a little nervous. Sam could see my anxiety and how hard I was struggling so after a brief discussion with our guides we decided to return to camp. I was devastated. It was 04.30 in the morning and we’d been trekking since midnight, we’d reached a height of over 5500 metres but was still 350 metres short, however that was still two hours trek time in freezing conditions. Our descent was a rapid one, through the scree zigzagging across the terrain. After a couple of hours we arrived back in camp. To not reach the summit was heart-breaking and I felt completely devastated, however the right decision had been made as the potential to be a casualty on the summit ridge could not be underestimated and safety is always the priority. Our support team were great and congratulated us on the achievement we had completed as we had still climbed to over 5500 metres. I shed lots of tears but I couldn’t wallow for too long as we still had a full day’s descent to make and one last overnight camp on the mountain. As we walked down our pace quickened, we were ready to return to the real world and the thought of a hot shower and a comfy bed was motivation indeed. I must admit I felt a sense of relief as I reached the park gates at the end of our trek. We were greeted with the warmest of receptions by our support team and after some singing and dancing we shared a delicious hot meal with the whole crew. We’d been looked after so magnificently on the whole trip and even at the end our boots were taken from our feet and returned to us clean and dry.
Mount Kilimanjaro was an experience that I will never forget even though I feel a tinge of sadness at not being able to reach the summit. However, I still achieved something that I never thought I would do and I was brave enough to step out of my comfort zone and give it a go.
And my fleece sleeping bag liner…..well, I donated that to the porters so it’s probably still on the mountain somewhere keeping someone else warm!