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Giant conquest: Mt Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Adventures

IT’S AN AMAZING sight. I’m looking down on the Kibo summit of Mount Kilimanjaro from a Kenya Airways flight, en route from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro International Airport. Very soon I’ll be experiencing this impressive formation from a much closer perspective, as I join a World Expeditions trek up Mount Kilimanjaro.  There are no sharp, jagged spires on this mountain – it is all about sheer size and pure bulk – but even from my lofty viewpoint “Kili” impresses.

I can make out its three volcanic cones – Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira – but cannot discern my chosen route – the Rongai – as the lower half of this giant is smothered in clouds. I had been thinking what a massive undertaking it was for me to get here, travelling a roundabout way from Sydney and taking around 19 hours, but as I check out the mountain – and realise just how bloody big it is – I note that my definition of a “massive undertaking” is about to change.

A SUBTLE BEGINNING

I arrive late to the party, walking into the lodge dining room to find my fellow trekkers already moving on to dessert. It’s an eclectic group of Commonwealth countries gathered at dinner; a mix of three other Australians (Karen and her two adult sons, Steve and Michael), four Canadians (Dave and Tegan, and their fellow Canucks, honeymooners Kelly and Delaney), and three from the “motherland”, siblings Madeline and Ed, and Ian. Most have been in Tanzania for a few days already so I will be the only one playing catch up on time zones and sleep. And with the excitement of what lies ahead, it won’t be easy.

Our group is in the foyer of the Kilimanjaro Mountain Resort, pumped and ready to go. The morning of any adventure is always one of heightened senses, huge anticipation and a touch of nervousness. This is reflected in the scenes and conversations between us in the lodge, and as we head to the village of Nale Moru aboard Land Rovers. It is only when we jump out of the Landies and check out our surrounds – we’re parked next to a pine forest plantation and the track is there in front of us – that trekking to the top of Africa’s highest mountain is about to become a reality.

Before we head off, however, we have one very important thing to do: meet our guides. Headed by Abraham, the lead guides – Joseph, David, Lucy and Ricardo – are all very experienced, as well as keen to get us all to the summit. We’ve already packed our camp duffels for the porters to carry to camp, so it’s just a matter of donning our daypacks and we’re off into the wild.

Or well, into the pine forest initially – itself, a surreal experience in terms of being about as removed from “wild Africa” as you can get. Still, it is a great way to begin our walk and figure out how our guides will be controlling our walking pace as we move higher in altitude. Joseph is firm in reminding  us to walk “poli, poli”, or slowly, slowly, to ensure none of us fall victim to enthusiasm, and then altitude sickness, by moving too quickly for our bodies to adjust to the thinner air.

We soon leave the pine forest – and civilisation – behind as we venture into denser forest along a well-benched track and move into a wilder land. We spot monkeys and baboons at one of our short meal breaks, before we continue higher and experience another terrain change as we move into alpine moorland before reaching Simba Camp, at 2600m.

It is here I realise how much more crowded the trek up Mt Kilimanjaro is compared to the trek up Mt Kenya, which I completed 18 months earlier. Simba Camp is bustling with other guided groups and independent trekkers, although it never feels overwhelming; the overall vibe is a good one as we’re all here for the same reason: to experience one of the world’s great trekking adventures.

The first night of camping is always one of setting a routine and, hopefully, managing to stick with it for each camp thereafter, with the first priority always to lock in the location of the dinner tent (yep, the porters lug all food, chairs and equipment up with us, every day…).

HIGH-ALTITUDE ADVENTURE

Abraham wastes no time getting us all moving in the morning. David leads us out on what is shaping up to be a long day – especially when he mentions 12km and around 1000m of altitude gain. We are soon distracted, however, with views of Kili and its eastern ice fields, as well as the narrow, muddy path that leads through some beautiful alpine moorlands. It’s also a chance to inadvertently test our rock-hopping skills as we jump from one dry patch of track to another to avoid the cold mud, and also scramble (slowly) over slippery wet rocks. Our cold-weather gear also gets a workout: it is noticeably cooler as we ascend to 3600m on our way to Kikelewa Camp, named after the nearby caves that we had explored on the way up.

Throughout the day the guides work their way up and down the group, subtly checking to see if any of us have any altitude sickness symptoms, but so far we’re all good. I (and some others) am taking Diamox (a prescription drug designed to alleviate altitude-related symptoms) while others, including Madeline, Steve, Michael and Karen, have opted for the extra assurance of oxygen tanks for the summit night itself.

It’s always interesting discussing high-altitude trekking with people; for some (i.e. the egotistical), it always boils down to “I am fit, so I won’t have any problems”. But the “problem” does not discriminate when it comes to fitness levels; it is all about the individual’s physiology and how that reacts to reduced oxygen in the air and changes in air pressure itself.

The ignorant may judge those who use oxygen tanks as “weaker”, but they are just that: ignorant. Those who take extra precautions are simply being smart; after spending a considerable amount of money on a trek such as this, you want to remove as many variables from the summiting equation as possible.

SICKNESS AT ALTITUDE

The truth of high-altitude trekking starts to hit home on day three. It has taken us three and a half hours to walk roughly four kilometres – but with a 600m gain in altitude. Lucy sets our pace today, and it is a sure and steady one.

Even at this seemingly leisurely pace, it is easy to feel like you’re breathing in just that little bit deeper, searching for rich air. The terrain has changed to predominantly volcanic and rocky, with the grasses of the moorlands now far below us, and the track is winding in and around some impressive rocky outcrops as we move higher. I am sticking to the hydration mantra the guides have drilled into us and am guzzling oodles of water from my two bottles.

Steep pinches are negotiated slowly and with midway breaks, and it is with some relief that, as we top our final pass and start scrambling along a ridgeline, that I spot the cirque that hosts Mawenzi Tarn and stop to marvel at the jagged spires that loom over our campsite.

Not content with us admiring said spires, Abraham soon has us scrambling up a few, all in the name of aiding acclimatisation. It is here that Michael, Steve, Karen and Madeline all try their oxygen tanks for the first time. As Abraham explains to us, it’s better to sort out any issues with the tanks before summit night. A summit night that is, remarkably (and a bit scarily), only a little over 24 hours away.

GHOSTS IN THE DARKNESS

It’s cold. Dark and cold. Oh, and steep. Dark, cold and steep… and I am still trying to comprehend the halcyon 16 hours or so that has led me to here, in the middle of what must be the world’s longest conga-line of head torches, dancing its way up the steep slopes of Kibo. It had only seemed (and indeed, was) hours ago that we’d left Mawenzi Tarn in what I presume – as it’s just gone midnight – now classifies as “yesterday” morning.

We’d dropped down onto a saddle – a desert-like lunar expanse between Mawenzi Tarn and Kibo – and experienced four seasons in a morning as we were, firstly, warmed by a blazing hot sun, then chilled by thick fog before, finally, being beaten down by a ferociously cold hailstorm, before eventually reaching Kibo Hut. After a small nap, we’d then been given the news that dinner was early, and we’d be up again at 11pm that evening to start the push to the summit. Things had moved very, very fast.

In between wondering where the hell that time went, I also have Bob Seger’s Hollywood Nights looping over and over in my head. I can only put it down to some type of altitude-induced madness, as neither the singer, nor the song’s lyrics, have anything whatsoever to do with trekking up bloody big mountains.

Maybe it’s all those head torches? We stop regularly on the way up the track as it ascends 1200m, encompassing what Abraham claims (rather joyfully) are more than 85 switchbacks. Little wonder our group is silent; I guess everyone – like me – has just transferred their mind and thoughts well away from the physical task at hand, hopefully to a dreamland with a few more song choices than the one I’m currently in…

THE ROOF OF AFRICA

I lose myself in the routine – step forward, plant trek pole, step other foot, plant other trek pole, and repeat – and am only roused from this rhythm during our frequent and welcome breaks.

Our guides ask everyone how they are going and it all seems very positive, so we continue on, even as I notice a slight lightening of the landscape. Abraham has us timed to hit Gillman’s Point at the rim of Kibo crater at sunrise, and he proves his experience by getting us there at exactly the right time.

Gillman’s sits at 5685m – a long way up in anyone’s language – and as we sit and sup on snacks and never-more-welcomed hot tea and coffee, it offers us one of the most brilliant views I have ever experienced. The only sounds are those of camera shutters – and the odd whispered exclamation – as the sun slowly rises over the soft tops of the distant clouds and bathes them in a brilliant golden light.

David asks me how I am going to describe the sight in this story and I say to him I really don’t know – it’s truly worthy of the description “beyond words”.

Once the euphoria wears off, I am presented with another mental challenge: the realisation that there’s still 300m of climbing to be done and I am far more tired than I thought I would be. I also have a slightly queasy stomach, owing to a touch of altitude sickness. The mental difficulty is we can see Uhuru Peak from where we are – it really does look “just over there” – so I just take a breath and start again. This time, however, it is harder for me to get going, but thanks to Lucy, who stays with me for the rest of the way to the summit, it is only two hours more and I am standing at the top of Africa. By the time I am on the last, relatively flat section before the summit, I am nearly beat with tiredness, but the front-runners of our group, coming back from the top, offer plenty of encouragement.

I have summited a number of mountains during my alpine climbing days and it is always a euphoric, satisfying feeling, but one tempered by the knowledge that you still have to get back down again, safely. With Kili, the feeling is slightly different. For one, the fact there are 40 people here makes it feel quite odd after years of being on top of a mountain with only a climbing partner or small group. But the most memorable feeling is of amazement and humour; no sooner have I posed for a few summit photos than I hear the distinctive pop of a champagne bottle.

The Canadians have carried some bubbly with them and are now celebrating at the top – a sight that, even in my hazy, altitude affected mind, I know will forever stick with me. Having a sip of bubbly, on top of one of the seven summits, surrounded by its glacier, ice cliffs and looming clouds, is a surreal experience. My subconscious mind must agree: it’s finally banished Bob Seger to let me soak in my surroundings.

AN IMPRESSIVE PERFORMANCE

The descent is great fun; glissading down loose dirt and moving with the promise of a huge brunch sees us all back to camp relatively quickly, with plenty of smiles and laughs. The most satisfying moment of the return to camp, though, is when Abraham informs us that we are only the second group this season to have every member successfully reach the summit. Our high spirits are only slightly damped by Abraham announcing at brunch that we have a further 15km to Horombo Hut, at a lowly (for us, now) 3700m.

Driven by the promise of a good night’s sleep, we reach Horombo in record time and, while waiting for dinner, I focus on writing down the full experience in my notebook while it’s still fresh in my mind. Two pages of notes later and I finish with a line that sums it up perfectly: “An epic, epic night and day. I am now exhausted…”

THANKS AND REFLECTIONS

In the morning, we take our time waking, before thanking our guides and porters for all their efforts over the course of the trip. David is our nominated spokesman and he gives a cracking speech, comparing us to the US astronauts who first walked on the moon and how they relied on a huge team behind the scenes to get them there. For us, the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro was our moon, and the guides, porters and cooks were our amazing support – a brilliant synergy.

The rest of the day is a fantastic, relaxing, downhill amble through forest (initially) before we reach deep, dense and humid jungle – the type of jungle you think of when Africa comes to mind. We spot some more black and white colobus monkeys, a couple of tree hyrax, and a deer-like creature that darts out in front of Ian and I as we near Mandara Hut.

From Mandara it is straightforward trekking, interrupted only by more wildlife spotting and a group of excited school children and their teachers that we encounter near the national park entrance at Marangu, before the end comes all too quickly and we’re bundled into buses for the drive back to Kilimanjaro Mountain Lodge. And the bar…

Nothing aids reflection more than a few cold beers – especially after such a physical and, as it turned out, mental challenge. Sipping the beer – appropriately, Kilimanjaro Premium Lager – I contemplate the reality of Kili versus the perception. From the landscape to the kindness and assistance of the guides, porters and cooks, to the wild jungle and its inhabitants, to the privilege of visiting a place during what is – for the mountain – a rapidly changing time, it is too easy to agree that trekking up Mt Kilimanjaro is far, far more than just a walk.

THE ESSENTIALS

Getting there: Emirates Airline travels from Sydney and Melbourne to Nairobi, via Dubai. From Nairobi, Kenya Airways offers direct flights to Kilimanjaro International Airport.

See www.emirates.com and www.kenya-airways.com/au/

The adventure: World Expeditions runs a variety of Mt Kilimanjaro treks, using a number of the different routes up the mountain. The author trekked the eight-day Rongai Route. Cost is $2990 per person. See www.worldexpeditions.com