To be honest, climbing Africa’s highest mountain was never on my bucket-list.
Staying in a lodge in the Masai Mara or going for sun-downer game drives in the Serengeti was more what I had in mind when imagining a trip to one of Africa’s most iconic regions. I sort of wanted to see the sun set behind the world’s highest freestanding mountain, and not necessarily see it rise from the top …
But alas, the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro presented itself in November last year through a whatsapp from Susan (we’ve been friends since Grade 2): “Wil jy Kilimanjaro klim in Januarie?”.
Y.O.L.O., right? What better way to start a new decade.
To set the scene: Many people who attempt to summit Kili train for at least 8 months to a year. We sort of had three months to catch up with the Afrik1li expedition team. A few Jonkershoek, Table Mountain and Lion’s Head hikes had to do the trick. Small hills in comparison, by the way.
To add the the stacking odds, in those three months, I was first in Singapore (December) and then in Abu Dhabi (January), bringing a debilitating flu back from the former and into the latter #notcoronadontworry. Walking up a flight of stairs in Abu Dhabi was exhausting. My lungs, and heart-rate were not at their best behaviour. I decided to ignore my body’s protests …
Reality check: People die on Kilimanjaro. Someone I knew died tragically from AMS (acute mountain sickness) a few years ago. South Africa lost Gugu Zulu not too long ago. A porter sadly passed away while we were on the mountain. It is said to be the most underestimated of the “Seven Summits”.
So, I was, in fact, nervous. I kept my fears to myself, but just in case, I made a few hasty administrative arrangements before leaving. In case the mountain won.
Geared for the cause
I landed back from Abu Dhabi on Friday (17/01). We flew to Johannesburg to meet up with the rest of the team, and then out to Tanzania via Kenya, on Tuesday evening (21/01).
I got to know some of the group’s personalities via an entertaining whatsapp group, but I had only met one other team member apart from Susan, before the evening on OR Tambo. I felt immediately welcomed as we arrived and got showered with sponsored gear. From branded soft-shell KWay jackets to gaiters to second-skins, shirts, beanies, buffs and pocket knives. Mountaineering Christmas in January.
[Context: The Afrik1li expedition was the brainchild of David Hood, an alumni of the Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool (Affies) in Pretoria. As he explains, he had a dream nine months ago to do something extraordinary for the brother-and-sister schools’ 100-year celebrations, and to contribute meaningfully to the Affie community, of which his family is still an active part through his children’s attendance of the two schools. He climbed Kilimanjaro a few years ago, with expedition leader Louis Carstens, and felt like it was the appropriate adventure to attempt again, and rally troops around as a fundraiser for the Affie100 Fund. The idea was to summit Kilimanjaro on the morning of 28 January, the day of the schools’ century anniversary, and to do a live transmission to Pretoria from the top of Africa.]
Along the way, various sponsors came on board to support the cause, from the Voortrekkers to the ATKV to the Alzu Foundation, as well as generous individual benefactors. Hence, an entire kit of cool stuff to treasure as part of the lingering memory of being included as an outsider …
Being an outsider
I had a few remarks to field from my own alma mater community when I started to share publicly that I would be joining this expedition. Because, let’s face it: You don’t really get more “outsider” than being a former Waterkloof Hoërskool deputy head-girl, currently from Cape Town, on an Affie alumni expedition :). The wonderful group of people embraced my Klofie-background with humour and grace …
For those unfamiliar with Pretoria dynamics: Waterkloof and Affies were in my high school days, and still largely are, fierce rivals. On all levels.
But as these things go, some of my best friends (with Susan as the reason for my trip inclusion), and many of my high school crushes (from Reynecke to Retief :)), happened to attend AHM and AHS. My Anton van Wouw Standard Five class migrated pretty much in tact over to Affies. Our matric holiday in Margate was a case in point in inter-school relations. Seven Klofie girls and probably about 20 Affie guys. Those were the days :). Varsity days at Tuks gave rise to a friendship and study group, and a new Day House HK that consisted primarily of an Affie-Klofie-Menlo leadership alliance.
My strongest connection to the Affies legacy is through my parents and their siblings. We grew up with their amusing high school anecdotes. My father and my mother’s brother were best friends. They played first team rugby together in the early seventies, and that is how my mother came to fall in love with a Wit Bul / junior Blue Bull center. My uncles and aunts were top athletes and prefects, and their photos still hang in the halls. My cousin was a Affie teacher and hostel house father.
So, I had my personal and family connections to be able to “defend” my participation in the Afrik1li cause to those that had questions about my loyalties :). Besides, I was invited by an Affie …
I dedicated the expedition to my late parents and uncle. My dad and uncle would have wanted to join, and sing the AHS anthem at the top. My mom would have followed on Google maps and Facebook every day, liking and commenting on every post.
Flying out of Joburg in the early hours of Wednesday morning (22/01) and landing in Kenya four hours later, with a short hop on a propeller plane from Jomo Kenyatta International to Kilimanjaro airport, brought the anticipated adventure into life.
I’ve had the undeserved privilege of disembarking from airplanes and going through passport control in multiple nations. Landing anywhere in Africa is different to any other place on the planet. For me, it’s deeply meaningful. A sense of being rooted in the continent that has always captured my imagination.
The Ebola posters and people with surgical masks greeting you for a fever screening as you enter the airport is slightly intimidating, but hey, at least they are super vigilant. This was two weeks ago, before we knew that corona would become a global health crises. Kenya is uber high tech with their screening stations. Ain’t getting nothing dodge through there.
With everyone through customs, we met up with Bariki and Nestor, two of the heroes who came to play a massive role in the uniquely humane and spiritual experience that is climbing Kilimanjaro.
With the heavy gear bags hauled on top of a bus with frilly velvet maroon cushions, we were off to Weru Weru River Lodge in Moshi for a day of getting ready for the real action.
Day 1 (Thurs. 23/01): Bearded treegiants
Umbwe Gate to Umbwe Cave (1 660m to 2 895m)
Vegetation zone: Rainforest
There are various routes up Kilimanjaro. Some are more, let’s say, intense than others. Umbwe is the most direct approach. “Most direct” is code speak for “bloody steepest way possible”. For in case anyone tried to use that specific euphemism on you.
Upon arrival at the start of the route, we met up with the army of porters and guides (read: superheroes), the crew responsible for our safety and comfort. There were about 70 guys that went up with us. They carry the tents, food, equipment and duffel bags. They are also the cheerleaders and lifesavers, but more about that later. To be honest, without them, getting even 500m up that mountain would not have been possible. After weighing all the porters’ bags to make sure that none of the them were carrying more than their allotted weight (18kg!), we set out into the first vegetation zone, rainforest.
My soul comes alive anywhere where it’s cool and green, and there’s a symphony of birdsong. While we were getting into it, walking pole pole (The Kili creed, meaning slowly, slowly) under that towering canopy of bearded treegiants, overgrown with creepers, with its lush fern undergrowth, the anticipation of being a small human in an untamed wonderland for a whole week lifted a few years off my shoulders.
The first encounter with the rain and mist that would stay with us for the largest part of the expedition heightened the sense of marvel for me.
Our first night on the mountain (clinging to the side of a muddy slope at Umbwe Cave camp) was marked by locating tents in the dark in a downpour, crazy monkeys overhead in the dead of night, and mudsliding to the porta-loos in the dark. More than once. Zero sleep.
The adventure had truly begun.
Day 2 (Fri. 24/01): Upwards into moorland (aka moerland toe)
Umbwe Cave to Baranco (2 850m to 3990m)
Vegetation zone: Moorland
We started most of our days on the mountain around 6am, with duffel bags ready for collection at 7am, then breakfast. And washing, you ask? Well, about that … We had the option to get a small basin of warm water to top-and-tail every day. For the rest of it, there’s wet wipes, hand sanitizer and Lady Speedstick. Confession: I didn’t wash my hair for five days. Dry shampoo only goes so far. If you’ve ever touched the tail of a merino sheep in the bushveld, you would have a sense of what my ponytail felt like eventually. That’s some hardcore roughing it right there. For a soprano.
On day two, altitude was starting to show some of its resistance power. The day’s climb was about a Jonkershoek Panorama route elevation, but the pushback from being more than twice as high above sea-level became a factor to reckon with.
We were still going pole pole in the rain and mist, winding our way up through the rainforest into moorland. The canopy opened up, and as the mist-curtain lifted, we had brief sneak glimpses of the rolling valleys and plummeting gorges that we were starting to rise above. Amani, one of the angel guides, pointed out to me that the emerging giant lobelias only opened during the day, and that the Scottish thistle is also a normal sight on this height. I thought: I miss Chris 🙂
We reached Baranco camp at almost the end of my rope. Never really been one for never-ending uphills. But gloriously, as we reached the camp, the mist lifted enough so that we could clearly see the snowcapped Uhuru peak up close for the first time since arriving in Tanzania. Up until that point, the peak was a rumour, shrouded in a grey cloudcloak. Now, it was right there. Looming. Lewensgroot. On our tenflapstep.
Day 3 (Sat. 25/01): The Wall
Baranco to Karanga (3 990m to 4 030m)
Vegetation zone: Moorland
I recently started on the Game of Thrones journey. Sort of in the middle of Season 5 as we speak. For context, Jon Snow just became Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. So, there’s a slight fantasy going on here, but sort of imagine The Wall. Not quite as high (well, only about 260m), and not made from ice (rock counts, though). But still. Now, imagine Yosemite Scale Class 4 scrambling yourself up that. In the rain. On a watershed altitude height.
Baranco wall was a tough stretch for me. If it wasn’t apparent.
Porters have lost their lives there, and it quickly becomes clear how that might have happened. There are a few places where a misstep could lead to a straight plummet. I put my head down, and just went pole pole. With the help of Tuesday, another one of the mountain angels, and some chearleading by the rest of the economy class passengers of our expedition team … (business class were the faster group …).
After the wall there is a descent into a valley, where the downpour turned into ice rain. At this stage, the scenes in my head turned from GoT to Hunger Games. Soon, they would unleash the tracker jackers. We were drenched to the bone already, with the wind driving us up against the moon landscape on the one side, and now the sky was throwing rocks at us …
There was however one moment in that storm where I turned my face into the wind, and looked up from the sense of feeling battered by the elements. I saw two silver paths sloping and flowing into one, disappearing over the next crescent, with the three guys in their soaked cloaks soldiering on ahead of me, their own private determination to keep putting one foot ahead of the other silhouetted against a canvas of sleet rain. A priceless painting, etched into my memory.
We reached the edge of a valley from where you can actually see Karanga camp clinging to the slopes on the other side. Be not fooled. There is still that valley to cross. Down. Then up. Pole pole. Nestor insisted on feeding us marie biscuits for the final climb of the day. The rain gained momentum, and towards the end of that final scramble there were waterfalls streaming down the path. Into your face.
Nicki had Milo ready at the top. I would have paid too much money for that one sip.
To be honest, my physical reserves were getting low, and my resting heart rate’s response to altitude was starting to become a cause of concern for our two (phenomenal) expedition leaders, Louis and David.
I sat in my tent, entertaining a thought: Do I want to cry now? Then I recalled some of the things that I have had real reasons to cry over in life. This was, not by a long shot, one of those reasons.
I was still having the most epic adventure of my entire life.
Day 4 (Sun. 26/01): Catching breath
Karanga acclimatization day (4 030m)
We spent the next day just chilling at Karanga camp. A proper sabbath: Playing poker and drinking Milo. A day on the beach, really. Except that it’s more alpine desert. Freezing. Wet. With increasingly less oxygen. We had about 10 minutes of sunshine, offering another glimpse at the peak, which seemed pretty close …
At around 4 000m above sea-level, some mild altitude sickness symptoms can become common. Most of us were nursing headaches and tummy challenges, with one of our team members starting to struggle with a worrying cough. High altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) is one of the most dangerous conditions that can develop really quickly on the mountain. Together with the leaders, he made the difficult decision to do a rapid descent, which is literally the only way to make sure it doesn’t become life threatening.
That night, with everyone settled down in their tents, a series of rock avalanches came crashing down the valley that we had crossed the day before. It starts off with a rumble that makes you instinctively sit up in your tent and go: “W.T. actual F. is that.” Then it grows into a crashing wave, sounding like tree branches cracking under the pressure of a fire, with the echoes of the boulders hitting the valley below reverberating into the darkness. An eery and unnerving symphony.
I recalled my initial joy of being a little girl in a wild land, and lay there, questioning my sanity.
Then, you need to get up to go the loo. Again. Mission. Find headlamp. Grope around for glasses. Unzip minus 20 degree sleeping bag. Wiggle out of thermal sleeping bag liner. Find beanie (because: freezing ears). Find wet wipes (because: gastro). Unzip tent. Put on muddy tekkies. Wiggle out backwards. Avoid falling on your face from tripping over other tent ropes. Walk three steps, and pause to catch your breath (because: altitude).
A billion stars, winking at Africa.
Then, I cried. For beauty. Not pain. Not anymore.
Day 5 (Mon. 27/01): The altitude watershed
Karanga to Barafu … to Millennium (4 030m to 4 660m to 3 830m)
Vegeation zones: Alpine desert and Moorland
You never really know how things will turn out in life.
On the morning of day 5 my resting heart rate behaved better (down from averaging at around 120, to 106), with the assistance of my stress-less-coach, Freddie. It was decided that I could continue on to Barafu, and attempt to join the summit bid later that night.
A few of our other team members were really starting to battle with the debilitating nausea relating to AMS. Our uphill trek to Barafu, the last stop before Uhuru peak, now reaching proper alpine desert moon landscape, was hard. Not just the physical exertion, but also the harshness of the terrain. Barafu, to me, was not a welcoming site, despite the amazing efforts made by the crew to set up camp. Plus, I stepped in poo on the way. The proverbial straws were piling onto the proverbial camel’s back. The proverbial camel was starting to balk.
That afternoon, my resting heart rate was 125. Not ideal. What lay ahead was a zero sleep few hours, with the summit bid starting at midnight, and that entailed a massive effort that would also add another 1 200m to the altitude meter. Quite frankly, I was potentially heading for a heart attack, and the pounding arteries in my head weren’t exactly reassuring.
I had an honest conversation with Louis, who also expressed his concern over what the long-term effects of overexertion could be. I came onto the mountain with the final stages of a Singaporean flu virus still in my system. On all fronts, this was actually a bit reckless of me.
It was time to make a decision: Attempt the summit at the potential risk of heart damage, or perhaps even heart failure, or descend at the risk of heartbreak.
I said I would take an afternoon nap to see if that calmed my heart down. Balking camels are still stubborn as hell.
It was AMS, or maybe even just plain old gastro, that made the decision for me. No time to discern between the two up there. The moment I lay down, a horrible wave of nausea hit, and the three subsequent emergency trips to the porta-loo clinched the deal.
Way down she goes.
Around 6pm, Nestor basically got into the tent, and without a word, just sympathetically packed my stuff. As I stuck my feet out the tent, Gabriel put on my shoes and gaiters. Anwari gathered what was left, and just like that, after a teary goodbye to the rest of the team, I was escorted by two angles down the slopes we had just climbed, to join two of our other team members who went down straight after reaching Barafu that afternoon.
Now, I was balling my eyes out.
Just before the mist drew a curtain over what would be the final view of Uhuru peak, to wrap my misery in its freezing arms, a rainbow appeared to the left of the path. In between the sobs, I asked the guys if we could stop for a minute to take in the kindness of seeing, in that moment of disappointment, the eternal covenant sign. They suggested a photoshoot. These amazing guys still needed to take me half-way down Kilimanjaro to meet Bariki, and then get back up to summit with the rest. They were not just carrying my stuff, but also technically my life, on their shoulders, and saw the opportunity to break through my self-pity with gentle humour and immense kindness.
Kilimanjaro porters and guides will restore your faith in humanity, I promise you that.
As night fell, the lone figure of Bariki emerged from the mist. I hugged Gabriel and Anwari, and started the rest of the trek down to Millennium camp, following closely behind Bariki in the dark.
It was raining. It was misty. It was dark. I was halfway down a mountain I wanted to reach the top of. I was sick. The final straws did their thing. Bariki was patient and kind.
Thankfully, after about two hours of not knowing where I was, or where we were going, we reached Millennium camp. I fell into the stopgap tent that had been set up for me in the “siekeboeg”. Miraculously, my bag was there, carried down by another unsung hero. That night, my water bottle became unusable for other purposes. And that is the least gross way to say that I could not even fathom the thought of unzipping the tent to walk one more step to be sick outside.
Deep into the night, I heard more voices. AMS striked again, this time rather drastically. Another one of the team had to make an emergency descent, just before the summit bid started. She was in danger, and had a nightmare experience on the way down. It is her story to tell, but I will just say that we all had immense respect for the character she demonstrated after surviving the ordeal. Again, Gabriel and Anwari came to the rescue, with Bariki meeting them in the middle. Those heroes did not sleep that night, and our exhibition leader also demonstrated his leadership integrity by forfeiting a 100% Kili summit rate to make sure that she came down safely in the middle of the night.
Day 6 (Tue. 28/01): Ups and downs
Millennium to Mweka Gate to Weru Weru (3830m to 1645m)
Summit Day – Uhuru Peak (5 895m)
Vegetation zones: Moorland and rain-forest (Summit – Eternal ice / glacial)
The following morning, as our other friends broke through with their massive effort to start to reach the top of Africa, the legendary “siekeboeg” crew of five started our long slip-and-slide down. Those of us who were heading the opposite direction cheered them on, and as we reflected on the way down, realised how much of a personal victory each of us had achieved, regardless of how high anyone got. We heard via the walky talkies that from the remaining 12, one more needed to turn back. Eventually, 11 reached the summit to celebrate the schools’ 100th birthday, as originally planned in the dreaming up of the trip. Asante sana, Baba Yetu.
Just a short comment on going down a moerse mountain in one day that took you five days to get up. It’s not as easy as one would want it to be. The down actually hurt more than the up, in terms of knees and quads and hips. And toenails.
But alas. We were all starting to feel like we might not in fact die, due to the return of the miracle element: Oxygen.
The best tasting Fanta I ever had in my life, was from the spaza shop at Mweka gate.
The following day, we were all reunited at Weru Weru River Lodge to exchange war stories. The summit night was absolutely grueling for the team that reached the top, and major celebrations were in order.
We were all safe. Alive. With a little less body fluid, but with all of our limbs. Hakuna matata!
All of us had a deeply personal encounter with an immovable African icon. Some of us, almost broken by the sheer force of its presence. Forever impacted by the selfless love of the people we met on the way. Old friendships cemented and new friendships established.
Bless the rains down in Africa. A song of ascents.
Asante sana, Kilimanjaro.