In December 2011 I was going through a personal crisis. My husband and I were recently separated and I was still hoping for a reconciliation. But it seemed that this was not what was in store for me – not yet anyway.
At the same time, my best friend was planning a trip to Africa and extended an invite which I promptly turned down. A week on safari in Kenya, a trek up Kilimanjaro and a week of rest on the island of Zanzibar sounded like a trip of a lifetime but I felt like I had to be home.
A week later I was in my parents kitchen, making a cup of tea when it dawned on me that although it wasn’t my dream to go to Africa, I had to go. What was stopping me? What was the point of staying home?
There were many moments on the trip that confirmed to me that I had made the right decision in coming but none more than summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro. After spending a week on Safari with a group of strangers who became friends, Martha and I departed for Moshi, Tanzania where part 2 of our African adventure was awaiting us.
First Date Nerves
The city of Moshi sits at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro and is where most Trekkers will stay before they begin their ascent. The mountain looms above the city, making it hard to ignore. There were minutes where the clouds completely hid the peak and then suddenly, it was there again, in all it’s glory. I was so excited but also equally nervous. I know I hadn’t trained as Martha had but I was confident in my physical strength. Mental – not so much.
On the afternoon of our arrival, a meeting with our mountain guides was scheduled. Both of us were very curious to see the men who would be our safe guarders on the climb. We would essentially be trusting them with our lives. We were both also nervous, it was like a blind date.
Enter Frank and Nairobeci (I gave him a nickname on the trek and have totally forgotten his real name! So awful I know! the moniker comes from his birth in Nairobi and his wish to become an R&B singer, plus his striking resemblance to a member of Jodeci, A 90’s R&B group).
Devante, A member of Jodeci as well as a dead ringer for Nairobici
At first glance I would trust them as far as I could throw them, which was far because they both weighed probably a combined 150 lbs. We sat down and they reviewed the itinerary. The promise of macaroni was made multiple times by Nairobeci. They left and we felt even more scared and nervous than before. And questioning if macaroni was an African superfood…
Wrong Guy Route
There are several routes which reach Uhuru peak, the highest summit on the mountain; Marangu, Lemosho, Shira, Umbwe and Rongai.
Our lead guide, Frank, had selected Rongai for us as it was easier to acclimatize, success rate for summiting was very high due to said acclimatization and it was less travelled. It would take us 6 days to reach Uhuru peak – the highest point on the mountain at 5,895m (19 341′). Martha called it the Wrong Guy route because we had the wrong guys taking us up.
Once we arrived at the very base of the mountain, a few hundred climbers were also there waiting for their crews to have food, supplies, camping equipment weighed. Along with Frank and Nairobeci, we were to have a group of 5 men who would carry everything for us, as well as cook our meals and set up our camping equipment. They would travel at mall walker pace from camp to camp and us four would take our time.
As we waited we saw our fellow Trekkers had guides that were really tall and strong looking, with impressive hats and hiking boots. They were textbook guides. Our guys looked like mall rats in comparison. As the crowd thinned out, we were talking ourselves off a cliff (pun intended). Once they came to collect us, we were relieved to see they had changed their Lacoste trainers for boots. And off we went.
All the roads to the to the top
Westlife 4 Life
We quickly discovered Frank was the talker and Nairobici was the silent type. We also discovered Frank loved to sing songs, was a lover not a fighter, and couldn’t carry a tune. But neither can Martha and I. We sang, harmonized and forgot the words of many a Shania Twain and Celine Dion song. And I can’t forget to mention the all request hours. As I mentioned earlier, Africa was full of signs telling me I was in the right place. And I knew I was meant to be on the mountain with Martha, Frank and N when Frank was telling us about his absolute favourite song by a UK boy band named Westlife. I knew it as I have dabbled in boyband-dom in my day. As we enjoyed Franks off key version, a cyclist was seen coming towards us. I heard a familiar tune and God as my witness, that same Westlife song was playing. I felt overjoyed – how had the stars aligned to have this song playing at that particular time. It was absolute Kismet.
The biggest element you can go against when climbing a mountain is acclimatization. Even athletes like tennis great Martina Navratilova had to turn back from summiting as they couldn’t acclimatize.
As we began to ascent higher I was beginning to experience nausea and shortness of breath. The nectar of life on the mountain was popcorn and Horlicks, the only thing I could keep down.
In Swaheli, Pole Pole means slowly, slowly. Everything is pole, pole. As we climbed higher towards our goal, we took our time. But the peak was always there, teasing us.
A view of the peak while hiking to our next campsite on Day 2 of our journey.
We finally reached Kibo, base camp for the final ascent. It was barren, and cold. We felt like we were on the edge of the world. No vegetation, gray skies, and of course, the Kili looming above us. That evening it was hailing, we hardly slept due to nerves and the howling wind.
4am we were woken up and prepared ourselves for a very long day – anywhere from 14 – 18 hours of hiking.
As we began walking, pole, pole, the mountain was black and the flashlights of the other climbers looked like twinkling stars. It was beautiful.
An hour in, a stretcher whizzed past us, with a man lying lifeless. My heart stopped and yet we carried on, pole pole.
Summiting would be a two part process. The first, the most difficult, was zig zagging up the mountain in a series of switchbacks at a steep incline to Gilmans Point (5 681m). Then pole pole on to Uhuru peak (5895m) along the edge of the crater combating the environment and ourselves.
Hour after hour we climbed, stopping frequently because I thought my heart would explode. The altitude was playing its game with me and was winning. I gave up about 5 times before reaching Gillmans Pt. but my friend and Boy Band members did not let me turn around. Onwards and upwards, pole pole, we went. Past Gillmans point, along the crater, I had a meltdown and tried to convince my group I would “wait right here, and they could pick me up on the way back.”
This is where Martha pulled me aside. Fierce determination on her face, she said she believed in me, that she wasn’t going to leave me, this was something we were meant to do together and it was one of her dreams to fulfill.
A couple of hours later, we could see the peak within our reach, and as we staggered to the top, our breath laboured, our legs fighting against themselves, we cried, and hugging each other summitted Mount Kilimanjaro. Legends like Hemingway had written about it, Toto had sung about it, and here we were, standing on it.
With minimal time to spend at Uhuru due to poor oxygen level, we first took a few pictures of Frank as he had never been (I hope you are picking up on the sarcasm, guides usually make a weekly trek to the top), and then began our photoshoot.
Me at the top, squinty eyed and so proud!
I walked the length of the peak, I could see Kenya to my right, ancient icebergs to my left. I wished my husband was there to see what I saw, I missed sharing the moment with him, my parents and siblings. I thought about one day be able to tell my kids about the time I did the Kili shuffle up the mountain. I was grateful for making it, and thankful to my friend for including me in this adventure, because it truly was a dream I never knew I wanted to fulfill.
And then it was time to go. How do you say goodbye knowing you may never be in that exact spot again?
We walked away, hearts full, breathing heavy and prepared for the journey down the mountain.
A week later, enroute to Nairobi from Zanzibar, our plane was flying by the mountain, and there I was, eye level with the giant I had conquered. It dawned on me right there how high I can gone, and how much I was capable of.