This whole adventure started sometime last summer or so when I flew somewhere to Africa over the Kenyan and Tanzanian border. I sneakily snapped a picture from the aircraft window of the highest African mountain – the Kilimanjaro’s Uhuru Peak and later posted it with the caption “See you next year”. I don’t really remember what I meant by that. I possibly had this vague idea of one day trying to climb that Big Mamma. To my surprise Dad was the first one to comment saying ” A life- long dream of mine.” I was like ” Hang on – WHAT?”
And that’s when we started talking. And my vague idea suddenly became very real. In 2015 we would fly to Africa and attempt to summit the Mount Kilimanjaro 5895 m. Getting my dad involved was the best choice I ever made. If this was just me I would be still talking about planning the whole thing. However my dad sat down, googled “Kili”, read everything there was ever written and to be read about “Kili”, made informed decisions, booked what was there to be booked and sent me the invoice. All I had to do was search for flights and get my gear. Which basically meant go online and go shopping. My two favourite activities!
With every piece of equipment I bought I was getting more and more excited about this trip that was taking me way beyond me comfort zone. And as the pile of clothes and various tools was growing in the corner of my room I realised I was missing the most vital part – my best friend Holly. And so I just flat-out told her ” I think you should come”. And she -and that’s why I love her – said “Ok cool.”
And so there we were- my father The Kiliboss as he would have liked us to call him or rather The Lizard as he later became to be known to the Kili population. My wife Holly-my tent mate-who has become famous for having consumed the largest amount of various liquids (tea, water, soup etc) and climbing the mountain purely on that diet. And then my humble self perhaps the only person to ever read three entire books whilst climbing. However I don’t have that fact verified. But what can I say Jo Nesbo really got me hooked.
February 2015 rolled over faster than any of us expected. Or perhaps that was just me. It caught me completely by surprise. The last few months prior to the trip I have spent getting used the new cabin I’m currently working in, travelling between Dubai and Abu Dhabi on my days off and spinning (indoor cycling) at Flywheel. And before you ask – yes that was the only training I have focused on. Unlike the Lizard that has purchased a backpack filled it with stones and hiked pretty much the whole of Czech Rep up and down. Dedication at its finest.
And so before I knew it was the 14th Feb and the three of us were sipping a glass of Moet et Chandon at the Terminal 3 in Dubai waiting for our gate to Dar Es Salaam to open. That glass of champagne was the last bit of luxury we treated ourselves to. Or so we thought. See we were preparing ourselves for 8 days of no hot water, no running water, no beds, no toilets, no heating , no proper food. Most of which we were right about. Apart from the food. Somehow – and honest to God I still don’t know how – our guides managed to treat us to a hot 3-course african cusine three times a day. Yes that’s right. We were freezing our butts off in tents considering long drops a rarity among the more usual bushes but we were stuffing our faces with pancakes and all kinds of plantain stews and soups and marinated meats everyday. Even at 5000m altitude. Gordon Ramsay eat your heart out.
Climbing a mountain is an experience such as no other. And climbing it with people I care about made it that much more special. The three of us were accompanied by a group of local porters and guides that have become our little family for that week. Before the trip has started I couldn’t quite imagine what is it gonna feel like having my bags carried up by someone else. And having seen it the first day – the intimidating pile of stuff tied together that these guys pick up like a shopping bag, place it on their heads and shoot up the hill I mostly felt ashamed. I felt like the privileged white girl visiting Africa for “the experience of a life time” that quite frankly I was. However as the week progressed and we got to know our guys a bit better (I’m not even gonna attempt to spell their names) I came to realise that they are happier than most of the people I have ever met. They are proud of what they do (as they should be), they are grateful for us tourist coming a hiring their strong arms so they can go back home to their home towns and families and enjoy the reputation and respect and hard cash that being a Kilimanjaro porter and consequently a guide brings. I have been humbled by their pure joy of life. Those guys woke up and greeted every single day with a wide bright smile and genuine laughter.Sometimes even a song. They are so happy just to be alive, warm.dry, fed and among friends. They have so little and yet so much more than most of us. I have said it before and I’m saying it again. Africa and its people have a very special place in my heart.
I already said I let the Lizard pick and decide everything regarding the climb. Including the route. Ok -I feel like now it’s perhaps a good time to explain the nickname. Needless to say my dad isn’t too keen on it. Ever since we started the chain conversation over WhatsApp he would regard himself as Kiliboss. That never really caught on. However the moment we hit the mountain and I noticed my dad changing his upper layers (each of a different shiny colour) with pretty much every passing cloud I noted aloud that he was “like a chameleon or an overgrown lizard” and boom a nickname was created. My dad tried to convince the guys to call him “Simba” instead which is “also of the animal kingdom” and means “lion” in Swahili. But once a Lizard always a Lizard. And so the only “Simba” that came with us was a jar of jam that the Lizard confiscated upon the first taste and only let us smell it for the rest of the trip.
So as I was saying the Lizard picked the route. Which meant that without knowing it we gave up all the luxuries of the modern day climbing such as huts, bunk beds, tiled toilets and benches to sit on. Not that we had an idea until the last day anyway. We tackled the mountain from the North using the Rongai route. It may be a little less comfortable and little longer however in exchange for that we had Kilimanjaro to ourself for the majority of the trip. There were days when we literally met none else but our lil group. Plus it’s apparently the “cool’ route to pick which we also didn’t know until we arrived back to the bottom of the mountain and were exchanging stories with other climbers that were left impressed that two young girls and one Lizard took on “The Rongai”.
Rongai start in a rain forrest which is inhabited by loads of monkeys and one human family trying to sell us Mars bars and cans of Coke. We declined and days later kicked ourselves for that decision because in our careful planning and list crossing we somehow collectively forgot to bring any chocolates or general sweets. We didn’t get to see the monkeys apart from one bushy tail however they most definitely saw us and let everyone else know by frantic wild screams. For a moment there I imagined that monkey scene from Hunger Games and considered turning back. But soon enough we left the rainforest behind as we climbed up and up to the first camp in moorlands. And in the beautiful moorland we stayed for a couple of days. I must say that was probably my favourite part of the mountain. The views are not yet as majestic as a bit higher up but they are still great mostly overlooking the vast Kenyan territory. There is loads of peculiar flowers and bushes to admire and cheeky little gerbils and field mice running around and stealing your lunch when you are not looking. There is plenty of streams and tiny lagoons that allow a bit of a daytime wash that’s not really plausible in the evening as the temperature drops rapidly once the sun is gone (ever since day 2 we were pretty much at 3000m and above so regardless of being right on the Equator it gets COLD). Once we got up to 4300m we camped at the same spot for two night to acclimatise. At this altitude you get to experience what it’s like to be a 90-year-old. Tasks such as getting up from a chair, walking, talking or generally breathing are rather difficult and so you try to avoid them as much as you can. We spent most of our time resting in tents, slowly moving around, peeing (yes even at this altitude I have to go every 30mins plus I was enjoying the rare luxury of long drops instead of the more usual bush or a large stone), reading books and eating Simba jam. Well some of us did anyway. The second morning we got up, packed the camp and set off for the longest part of the whole journey – the day leading up to the summit attempt.
First part was to cross the lunar desert between the Mawenzi Peak at the bottom of which we camped and the Uhuru peak. The crossing itself isn’t long or challenging but our bodies were already tired and the altitude really started taking its tool. But the time we got to the Kibo Hut, the highest camp on the mountain at 4700m above sea level we were exhausted and ready to sleep. Which we needed to since that night we had to get up at 10pm and start climbing to the summit. The only thing that got me out of my warm sleeping bed was the thought of a chocolate biscuits we were promised. I couldn’t care less for some Uhuru peak. However when I saw my cup of tea and the much anticipated biscuit my stomach turned and I declined. That was kind of my first clue that tonight wasn’t gonna go as smooth as I hoped.
We set off. I’m trying to remember how exactly I felt and what was going thru my head but it’s very hard. I wasn’t well. My body wasn’t reacting well to the altitude and sleep didn’t help either. I wanted back to bed, I wanted to crawl into my favourite fetal position and sleep forever. I most certainly didn’t want to climb 1000 vertical meters for the next 12 hours. My head felt heavy my legs wasn’t listening to my commands. I was slowing down the group and so we bid our “byes” and “see you at the tops” and parted. I felt a little better for not having the pressure of the whole group upon me but as my guide and I progressed I could feel every meter hammering my head and adding weight on my shoulders. I felt let down by my body. I was ready for feeling nauseous and headaches. I wasn’t ready for this. What was “this”? “This” was like standing at an empty platform and trains passing me very quickly . The trains being my thoughts. I literally couldn’t think. My legs weren’t mine. Or at least they didn’t act like it. I said “Let’s go” and they stood still. I said “left” and they went right. It was at about 5100m that my knees gave in and I just simply fell to the ground like a bag of potatoes. And I felt like that will do and I can just stay there and sleep. It was there that my guide said ” I think it maybe time for you to ask yourself the question.” “What question?” I said. “If it’s really worth it going on.” he replied.
But I just couldn’t imagine giving up. So I pulled thru. After about an hour I was at 5200. Yes I walked 100 vertical meters and took me an hour. And it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Or so I thought. I didn’t know the hardest thing was yet to come. I needed a break every ten meters or so at this point. To catch my breath, to stop my head from spinning to make my legs listen to me. My guide looked me in the eyes and said ” Gabby, you have to turn. This mountain is not worth your health.” I knew he was right so I didn’t say anything. I just sat down on rock and cried for a little bit. It was a very silent very composed cry. Looking back I think it was mostly a relieved cry rather than a defeated one. I looked up at the sky full of stars it must have been about 2 am at this point and I still remember thinking that this was the most beautiful sky I have ever seen in my life. Then I looked up the steep hill and saw the procession of lights and tried to guess which one of them was my dad and which one was Holly. I then tried to look even further beyond the lights and tried to catch a glimpse of the peak that I was to never see with my own eyes. But it was still too dark. Then I took a deep breath and said “Ok, let’s go sleep.” And every step I took down the hill I could feel my wits returning, my lungs filling with more air, my head clearing and my legs feeling lighter. It felt like waking up from a very deep dreamless sleep.
Did I feel disappointed? No. I never reached the peak but I still climbed the mountain. I walked, ran, slept , ate, laughed and cried on that mountain for over a week. I zigzagged it from North to South. I woke up a few times and saw the world from above. I was on top of the clouds and for once I got there myself on my own two legs and not on an aircraft. So in my head I accomplished what I came to do. The Lizard and Holly both summited successfully and I was there to give them a hug and take off their bags and help them recover when they returned to Kibo. We were there for each other to exchange the full stories (dad and Holly had to also split up at a later stage), to cry a little and laugh a lot. It was a happy day. And it wasn’t over yet.
We still had to cross over to our last camp of the trip. That was a long one. And a dusty one. I have never been so happy to see a camp let alone such a hight tech one with things like sinks with running waters and mirrors. That night we ate dinner in silence and very quickly and went to bed before the sun set. The next morning was our last one on the mountain and we had the longest part ahead of us however it was all downhill and in a very low altitude so it basically felt as if we were flying. Which we were. We raced to “the finish line” aka the last gate of the park but right in front of it we stopped and like right sportsmen and Kilimates we crossed it together. And that was it. The adventures has come to an end and now it was time to enjoy the Kilimanjaro beer and the Kilimanjaro song that our guides had ready for us. Hakuna Matata indeed !