“They say it’s all in the journey, not the destination, but when you talk to people about climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, they ask: how high is it? (5895 metres or 19,340 feet). Did you make it to the summit? (Yes). Did you get altitude sickness? (Moderately). What was the view like? (Great). But they don’t ask much about the journey and what it was like during the walking before and after the summit. So let me tell you… it was AWESOME!
We were a group of 8 people and sadly I was the only one from Africa. The first day we climbed through the rain forest. We hiked for about 6 hours up to 3100 meters. The second day, we awoke to clear skies and a beautiful view of the top of Kilimanjaro, and I was inspired to keep going rather than head for the airport. We walked through moorlands and boulders to the Shira Plateau for 4-6 hours. We camped at about 3800 meters with a spectacular view of Mt. Meru to the West and Kilimanjaro peak to the East. I think some of my best pictures were taken at this camp.
On the third day, we hiked for a few hours up to the Lava Tower. The base of the tower is at about 4300 meters and the top is about 4400 meters. Half of the group were having bad headaches and feeling nauseous from the altitude but I was still fine. After the tower, we hiked back down to a lower elevation to camp for the night at Barranco Camp. Hiking to high altitude and sleeping at lower altitude is supposed to help with acclimatization.
The night at Barranco Camp was freezing cold as we were in the shadow of Kilimanjaro peak. The next day (day 4), we started with a pretty difficult climb up the Barranco Wall, which involved a lot of climbing up and around rocks and took about 2 hours. After that we had another easy hour of walking to Karanga Camp (4400 meters) then heading to Barafu camp. The view was great from Barafu.
The fifth day was the most difficult and last hike before the summit. Technically this day started at 11 pm on Day 4 when our guide Mndeme woke me up. About midnight we started up the mountain. Temperatures -17 degrees, I felt overdressed at first, but realized quickly that I was going to be cold. The next 6 hours are kind of a blur. All I could see were the feet in front of me going at a snail’s pace. We hiked in the dark up a steep gravel path (actually, it wasn’t much of a path, more just rocks). I started feeling terrible: dizzy, nauseous, exhausted, wheezing. But I pushed on, and at 7 am we made it to Stella Point (not quite the top). After that it was an easy 45 minutes to the summit and we got there at sunrise. I was exhausted but I felt proud of what I have achieved. At the top, a sign proclaimed: “Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895m. Africa’s highest peak. World’s highest free standing mountain. One of world’s largest volcanoes. WELCOME.” Yes! We did it! I was at the peak of Africa!
To be honest, there are moments in life, when you need to take a step back and look at what you have achieved with a sense of pride. When you reach the highest point in Africa and realise what you accomplished, it is amazing but due to the sickness all you want to do is get down!
The sun was just coming up as we started going down, so I got some great pictures of the glaciers on either side and the sun coming up over Mwenzi. It took us one full day to get back to camp.
When I look back I realised it took me 5 days to walk to the top of Africa where I spent about 30 minutes at the top (3 minutes crying emotionally) and then walked back down, simply astounded. BUT was it all worth the pain and cold? YES, it was. The moment you realize you on top of Africa: it is PRICELESS!
Top tip from me: everything you read about preparation focuses on getting to the summit, which is obviously hugely important, as getting to the top is ultimately the goal! But I can’t stress enough that you also have to prepare – physically and mentally – to get yourself back down the mountain again. No-one ever talks about this! I found that the descent was actually the hardest part for me as all the elation gave way to utter exhaustion and, apart from the fact that walking downhill is turbo-tough on the knees and hips, the prospect of having to walk for several hours after the hike to summit almost broke me. So try to save something in the tank for the descent – I think it would help even to make a mental note that you’ll get to enjoy the views you’ll have missed when you were climbing in darkness through the night.
I came back to South Africa with a new word in Swahili: Pole Pole (slowly, slowly). Each step towards the summit, our guide encouraged us and reminded us to walk ’pole pole’ It is worth practicing the Tanzanian definition of walking slowly to avoid cramping and frustration during the early days of the climb.
Quote: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – T.S Eliot