Jambo, Jambo Bwana: The Ups & Downs of Mt. Kilimanjaro
14th June, 2012
In October 2011, after toying with the idea for months, the commitment was finally made to tackle Mount Kilimanjaro. In recent weeks, I along with a team of four other brave (ok, incredibly anxious) souls made our way to Tanzania in aid of The Prostate Cancer Charity where thanks to all those who donated we were able to raise a total of £4,466.
With such generous support from the Slingshot team, an account and photos from the trip are long overdue after being thrown back into working life the day after touching back down in the UK. I have, however, now managed to collect my thoughts on the trek with the following providing an insight into the ups and downs that entailed:
After receiving a final round of last-minute inoculations (which would only technically kick-in after returning to the UK), I headed to Heathrow, met with the rest of the team and departed for Tanzania. There was a naive feeling of positivity above anything else with all appearing to be confident about the six-day climb that lay ahead – “If Chris Moyles can do it, anyone can.” was the general consensus. This lasted until the transfer at Nairobi.
Now fast approaching Tanzania airport in a small prop-powered plane, we were presented with a bird’s eye view of Kilimanjaro, this prompting a gust of exhale after simultaneously realising the scale of the error that had been made. The two 6am runs the week before that had provided me with a false sense of fitness were obviously not going to help me here.
On arrival, we headed for the town of Moshi, located at the foot of Kilimanjaro. Making our way through numerous small towns made up of shacks and derelict-looking housing, and passing those walking the vast stretches of road in-between, we eventually arrived at the surprisingly swanky hotel. Here we would be introduced to the tour leader simply known as Coleman, who we would later discover was a pretty rare breed (a general rule with single-named people).
He briefed us on the trek ahead, which would apparently be a “piece of cake” – quite confusing after the view from the flight in, however it did provide a false sense of hope and left us with a glimmer of self-assurance going into day two.
After a pleasantly surprising English-ish breakfast, we departed for Rongai Gate where we would embark on the first leg of the six day climb ahead. Here we met Joseph, a guy so laidback, I was actually sceptical as to whether he would make it up the mountain himself. Coleman was also present and this would be the first of many instances where he would baffle us with his ability to teleport himself from one camp to the next.
On the initially shallow ascent up to Simba Camp, which took us through thick jungle and featured encounters with local villagers and tree-hopping colobusi (skunk/monkeys), there was no sign of Coleman passing us which was no surprise as he left after us. However, upon reaching camp that evening, the man was somehow casually awaiting our arrival (this later turning out to be a daily occurrence). How amazing can a guy named after a brand of mustard be? Whilst being a perfectly good mustard, I would never associate it with such an adjective.
Day 3 entailed a short walk through more jungle; slowly leading into a less green, more grey landscape – quite a confidence boost as we had at least managed to climb further than any vegetation could manage.
On reaching Kikelelwe Camp (Coleman welcoming our arrival), we would have our first experience with long drop toilets. These are squatting toilets, so deep that by the time it hits the ground, you’re ready to go again. Not a highlight of the trip. Moving on…
Sunday entailed a four hour morning trek up an increasingly moon-like environment, where we would start to feel a shortening of breath for the first time as a result of the altitude – worrying on Day 4.
Arriving at camp around midday, we would then spend the rest of the afternoon playing football, amongst ourselves at first, and then being joined by the guides who turned out to be surprisingly lively (and incredibly skilful) on their feet despite running up the mountain twice as fast as us. Apparently tourists very rarely brought balls with them and despite surely having no time to practice, it was as if ten clones of Didier Drogba had joined in on our amateur-at-best kick-about (this mainly being due to Al (centre) developing a severe case of ‘Toblerone Feet’ towards the summit, although I’m dubious as to whether this was a result of the altitude or a lifelong case of not being able to control his limbs).
Here we crossed a lunar desert, making our way across the ‘Saddle’ between Mawenzi and Kibo, heading for School Camp. This was the last stop before making our final ascent to Uhuru Peak which meant hitting the hay at the unusual time of 5pm.
Up at midnight, we were ready to tackle the most demanding hurdle of the trip. I say we, this was everyone accept for my brother who drew the short straw and had to share a tent with Aki, an older member of the group who was adamant that his watch (running two hours early) was correct and so decided to provide a friendly, but seriously premature, wake-up call. Not a great start for my brother who also just so happens to qualify as one of the world’s angriest men.
Pressing on, we began the slow trek up the steep switchbacks worn into the scree. Conversation gradually silenced as every one of us focused on putting one foot in front of the other; all apart from Joseph who ran from front to back singing “Akuna Matata” – a song starting out as a cheerful pick-me-up but later proving to be insanely annoying with the length of our tempers proving to be adversely linked with the length of the climb.
After five long hours of repetitive zig-zagging, we finally reached Gillman’s Point, the edge of the crater lying at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Everyone feeling pretty contented with their achievement, we were under the impression that it was just that bit further round the edge to Uhuru Peak – the highest point of the mountain at 5895 metres. The peak appeared to be only a fraction of the way around the crater and definitely achievable within an hour so we set off on what was supposed to be a casual stroll to a celebratory finish.
After only 100 metres of the way round, the terrain took a severe turn for the worse with us now having to clamber over solid ice made uneven by the countless frozen footprints peppering the path ahead, most of which being at least a foot deep. Nearing 6000 metres from sea level, this got seriously exhausting and by the time we reached the even gravel path to the finish line, simply walking had become a grim chore to say the least.
After multiple counts of people sitting down only to instantaneously doze off, not to mention vomiting along the final stretch, we eventually reached Uhuru! All those hours, well, minutes of training had finally paid off as we stood between the crater of a dormant volcano and a glacier the height of a ten story building.
Now I’d like to say there was a momentous feeling throughout the group, however, as the photo suggests, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we were simply dreading the thought of the trek back down to where we had departed from over nine hours ago!
I’m sure the descent was highly entertaining for the guides, with some of us (naming no names) almost fainting before attempting to make their way down whilst others stumbled along in a drunken, hobo-like manner (Jamie). That being said, we would all eventually make it back to camp where we would be greeted with some biscuits and a two hour sleep before moving on to the next camp. Much appreciated, Coleman!
On arrival at Horombo Hut Camp, we were welcomed with our first beer in six days and when comparing this with reaching the summit, it’s a close call when deciding which was most satisfying. Dinner was followed by an early night given the day endured; ready for our final day of descent back to the finish line at Marangu Gate.
Following our send-off in song by the guides, we made our way down back through the jungle at pace, briefly stopping for lunch before pressing onto the finish.
After passing more skunk monkeys and a postcard waterfall, we reached the Gate, still in a slight haze about what was going on given the sleep deprivation and fifteen hour hike endured over the two days prior.
It was at this point that a feeling of real jubilation descended over the group having somehow made it to the very summit and back in one piece. Now, I realise that this is something achieved by numerous people every day however we chose to ignore that fact and bask in our triumph as well as embrace the relief that we were able to uphold our end of the deal with all those who donated.
Days 8 & 9
We also had to settle tips with the guides, this being a moment that would unravel all the confidence placed in Coleman as the supreme being he had so far demonstrated to be. We had finally found his Achilles heel – accountancy. Maybe straight-forward addition was just too simple for the complexities faced by this man’s mind on a day-to-day basis; however Tom, our professional bean-counter, was luckily on hand to resolve the situation.
The rest of the night would be spent drinking away the pain and explaining to Al that a £5 donation from a good-looking colleague was simply a £5 donation and nothing more.
After sleeping in, we would rush to the airport and board the plane feeling victorious in what we had achieved over the last week. Given the serious lack of training beforehand, this felt like a considerable accomplishment and surely one for the history books.
As we strapped in and the propellers of the small prop plane began to turn once again, a voice broke over the loudspeaker, “This is your captain Coleman speaking…”
I would like to say thanks again on behalf of Jack, Alex, Tom, Jamie and myself to all those who donated towards The Prostate Cancer Charity. We have since experienced first-hand the difference made by your donations so please continue to support the cause and be sure to watch this space for the Everest blog!