the tough truth about kilimanjaro
Kilimanjaro is one of the world’s classic mountain climbs, but only 70% of trekkers get to reach the highest point, Uhuru Peak. 90% make it to the crater rim, but as Claudine Haber discovered, even that is no walk in the park…
“Dora knocks on my door, she is holding a list of things I must take for the climb. I scan the list and show her each item. There are some things I don’t have, so she takes me to the storage room where a menagerie of clothing, glasses, trekking gear are housed. I gather what I think I might need. She gives me a sack to put my items in. When all is complete, I am ushered to a briefing session that gives us a run down of the ins and outs of this fascinating mountain and tips on how to survive. So here I am, Heidi-like plaits, boots, wooden climbing stick, Wina’s blanket (I promised to take it to the top) and ready to yodel up a mountain without a goat.
Day 1: We are transported to the gates of Kilimanjaro National Park. We sign in and our journey begins through the lush rainforest. There is a team of 7 with us. It is a real expedition. Each porter has a job, ranging from the cook to carrying supplies and setting up camp. I am taking the ‘Coca-Cola route’, or otherwise know as Marangu Route. 4 days trekking our way up to 5896 metres, the highest peak in Africa. Around 70% make it to the peak. The porters run ahead to set up camp. We have two guides with us, Fatah-Elel and his son Harold. It’s 3 hours to the first camp.
“Polle Polle”, “slowly slowly “. I trek my way through the enchanting forest. Mountain children cross our paths trying to show us chameleons that they have found. They rest them on sticks wanting tourists to take photos, so they can extract money or chocolate in return.
We stop for lunch half way where we are introduced to our rivals, Team Korea. Eighteen Korean men and women ranging in age and dressed in spanking new colourful hiking couture and equipment. They sit next to us and we greet them in limited English. They smile and nod at us. We are back on track and Team Korea push by, grunting as they pass. We don’t see them after that. Arriving at Mandara camp, 2725 metres, Fatah-Elel shows us to our hut. 4 bunks. Tea is served in the dining room followed by dinner. Our chef cooks us rice, vegetable soup and an egg. Simon introduces himself as our waiter. He is from the Chagga people, a race that live around the mountains of Kilimanjaro and used top be rivals to the Masai.
Day 2: The rainforest changes to long stiff grasses and mountain vegetation. It is a peaceful walk. People coming down the mountain wish us luck. I meander on. I still haven’t seen Killi so it’s all a bit surreal. I am climbing somewhere but where am I headed? Bit like life sometimes I guess. It’s 15 kilometres from Mandara to Horombo camp. Porters run past in both directions. “Jambo” they say in Swahili, and then they are gone. I continue with my one wooden stick meandering up, it’s quite enjoyable.
It’s late afternoon when we arrive at Horombo hut at 3780 metres, and once again tea then dinner are served. An extra layer of socks is donned. The cold is starting to get to me.
Days 3-5: Simon knocks with our cup of tea. Little did I realise it will be the longest day of my life. I go outside and there sitting in front of me is snow-capped Mt Kilimanjaro. I take quick photos before the cloud covers the peak. By 7:30 am we are on our way. Our first stop is a zebra crossing. Mountain rocks covered in zebra-like stripes. We continue on, taking off clothes according to the season of the moment. My friend tells me to look behind. In the distance I spot, that’s right Team Korea! They are charging for us, overtaking us again with their grunts. An elder Korean member looks at my stick. She asks me in broken English “where I got my stick from.” I tell her the hotel and she replied that she paid one dollar for hers. We dont see Team Korea after that, as they have an acclimatisation day. We continue on and rest for lunch, with a view of the mountains amongst the desert terrain. Once again I strip off clothes. The weather tends to be four seasons a day.
We continue through desert. I’m enjoying just plodding through this terrain. The wind brushes my face and within moments I am in a snow blizzard, balaclava and all. The temperature drops to below zero. I trek for at least two hours before reaching 4740 metres and Kibo hut. The conditions have deteriorated and I’m worried that the night ahead will maintain the same. We are housed in bunks with 10 other people in the room. It’s the United Nations of Kilimanjaro. I’m the only Aussie. In an effort to stay warm I decide to wear everything I’ve got.
5pm and dinner is served. They carb load us with pasta. Then we are sent to bed. I don’t sleep as I am wired with excited anticipation. We get word that it’s a blizzard up on Gilma’s Point and only 4 in the previous group summited. My digits are cold. I’m trying to keep normotensive and sleep, but my mind won’t switch off.
11:00pm Simon and Harold come into the room. It’s time. I put on everything, 10 layers and I’m still cold. New Heidi plaits – have to look my best. Tea and cookies are served. I stuff a few in my pocket. Simon gives me his flashlight.
12:00am Gilman’s Point is 5 hours away. Each of us have a guide to help us make the ascent.
I start to climb, Fatah-Elel is by my side. I am reassured that I’m with someone who has climbed this mountain for the past 30 years. We set off in the moon light. I don’t use my flashlight, just walk in the dark up the mountain. “Polle Polle.” I’m dizzy, I stop frequently. I’m not sure I can go further. I catch my breath. Fatah-Elel pushes me gently along. He says “I’m sorry you feel like this.” It takes me an hour before the dizziness resolves. The upward climb is walking on gravel. I look up and see a ripple of flashlights, looking like miners going to work. I’m glad it’s dark, because if I saw what I had to climb in daylight I might have thought twice.
My fingers and toes are frosted. The numbness is the focus of my mind. I’m anaerobic. Each step Fatah-Elel pushes me up. I take a few steps then rest my head on the stick to recover my breathing. We stop half way at 5000 metres. I sit and don’t feel like getting up. My water is frozen as I sip. Fatah-elel offers me chocolate. I dig in my bag to get some cookies,but I can barely eat. He forces me to eat. Other groups pass me by. I tell them to go ahead as I’m slow. I actually don’t remember much of what I said to people. Delirious. Seeing butterflies. Confused. Altitude does strange things to your body. I dig for my space blanket out of the bag and wrap in around my hands. Instant relief. I continue on.
Wina’s blanket is covering me as well, but I don’t relise that I drop it on the way. I tell Fatah-elel and he calls to the people below, but no one hears. I’m disappointed that the blanket is not coming with me. He says we will get it on the way down. The walk is physically and emotionally painful and I wonder why I decided to do this. Fatah-elel tells me “Hakuna Matata”, “today is today.” I keep going. He says the sun will be up soon. I cant wait. I have lost track of time.
There still another couple of hours till I reach Gilman’s. A German guy passes me by. He is as slow as I and suffering altitude sickness. I offer him Panadol which he takes. He thanks me later.
Sunrise. The sky illuminates and orange and pick colour. I’m still walking up slowly. Fatah-Elel keeps saying to me “today is today”, “Hakuna Matata.” Daylight appears and I see the others coming down. I ask Fatah-elel if I can have some tea. So a cup is passed to me. I still have another 40 minutes to get there. Polle Polle” each guide says as I walk up the steep ascents of Killi. I’m exhausted, barely able to cope, but I keep going.
“Never give up” one guide says. My mind is strong but my body is shutting down. Miserably, I am taking small steps and 5 breaths to recover my breathing. Torrents of wind strike and evolve into a nasty blizzard. I’m still freezing but I continue, as I know I’m not far off. At 7:00am I take my final steps and yes, I reach the top 5691 metres above sea level. I see the sign “Congratulations you have made it to Gilman’s Point. The second highest summit. Welcome to Tanzania 5691 metres AMSL.”
Seven hours later I arrived. The peak Uhuru is another 1.5 hours away, but Fatah-elel says “You made it to the top, you don’t need to got to Uhuru.” Fatah-elel gives me a hug. “You made it Claudine. Hakuna Matata – today is today.”
I am happy to have climbed to the second highest summit. The weather takes a turn for the worst. I take a few quick photos and it’s time to go back down. It’s below zero. As I start my descent I begin to cry. I haven’t cried like this for awhile. It was such a struggle and I think I needed the release. But I’m better for it. I needed to go through all that pain in order to move on to the next stage of life. Fatah-elel asks me if I’m ok. I tell him they’re good tears. I’m so happy I got to where I did.
Fatah-elel grabs my hand and we basically ski through gravel to get back to Kibo. One pole in my hand, Im whooshed through the gravel, asking him to stop every so often as the dizziness re-appears as I go down. I’m glad the goat didn’t come with me. The boots are on their last legs the sole has completely come off. I guess every journey has an ending. These hiking boots started their life on an Africa adventure ten years ago and now have ended it in the same continent. Circle of life.
Two hours later, I’m back at Kibo. The others are asleep. I sit on the bed try and remove whatever clothing I can. The Heidi plaits are looking disheveled. I crash into a deep slumber. I find out later that Uhuru was covered in blizzard, so Kilimanjaro was not able to be seen. People crawled, turned up with blue lips, altitude sickness. But I was happy with what I did and yes, I got the certificate to prove it!
One hour later I am woken for lunch. It’s another 15 kilometres back to Horombo camp . I spot Wina’s blanket on the table. Someone has kindly collected it for me off the mountain. I shuffle my way down and shattered I arrive at Horombo camp, 3 hours later.
The following day we get back to Marangu. Our guides present us with our certificates and sing us an African song, Jambo Kilimanjaro. I thank Fatah-elel for his guidance that night. If it was not for this mountain man, I might be still at Kibo hut!”
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* photo by Ian Jones – Intrepid Photography Competition