Last updated on April 3rd, 2023 at 07:39 pm
It was mid-July and couple of days I would be climbing Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak.
Having travelled in quite a few dala-dala mini buses since I arrived in Tanzania, I decided agaist making the 10-hour trip to up to Moshi, a town that lies directly south of the mountain, and instead took a very comfortable coach ride.
After a very pleasant but long journey, sharing biscuits with the new friends I’d made on the bus I finally arrived. But I was confused. I couldn’t see Kilimanjaro! Where was it?
Kilimanjaro is one of the most iconic images of Africa. Animals grazing peacefully with snow-capped Kilimanjaro, ever watchful and looming ominously in the background is the image most of us will think of when we think of Kilimanjaro, or maybe even Africa. That image is taken from Amboseli National Park in Kenya, rather than the Serengeti in Tanzania as many people believe due to the Toto song ”˜Africa’, which has the famous line ”œKilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti”.
I met my guide Samson at the Tanzanian Coffee Lounge in the afternoon before I began my climb. He talked me through everything, and I told him the bits and pieces I needed to hire. In hindsight, I should have bought less and hired more instead of lugging two great big bags halfway around the continent! I was most curious to meet my fellow trekkers, the people I was sure would motivate me up the mountain!
That’s when I found out.
I was the only one booked onto this trip. I would have a guide and porters, but no fellow trekkers! This was going to be interesting!
I caught my first glimpse of Kilimanjaro from the balcony of my guest house later that evening. WOW is all I can say, WOW! Pictures will never prepare you for what you see. It didn’t seem real. I sat there quietly staring at the mountain for the best part of an hour, contemplating the enormity of what I was attempting to do over the next week and I felt a little scared. But tomorrow was another day and I was ready for my challenge…
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I’d woken up much earlier than I needed to, anxious about the next few days. I took my last shower, packed, unpacked and re-packed my bag and then ate as much breakfast as I could stomach. I left my backpack at the b&b and took my 70 litre holdall which the porters would carry and a 35 litre daypack which I would carry. Packing for Africa, including a Kilimanjaro trip as well, need not be as epic as I did it, but I’ll come back to that another time.
I’d spent some of the previous day in Moshi town sending my last emails back home (this took a few attempts due to power failures ”“ save as you go people, save as you go) and most importantly picking up some chocolate for my trip. In hindsight I wish I’d bought more! At least 2 or 3 chocolate/glucose bars just in case and a few cans of coke. They sell them on the mountain, but they cost around $5 each!
Samson picked me up bright and early to take me to the Machame Gate at the base of Kilimanjaro. We drove out of the hustle and bustle of Moshi town, past people going about their daily business and up into the forest. We picked up the rest of my ”˜crew’ en route ”“ Rami, our chef extraordinaire and the porters Chalice, Albert and Henry. All these people just to support me??? It’s a strange feeling!
There was a real buzz at the Machame Gate. Porters hung about hoping for a job, groups of nervous and excited climbers stand waiting to get their permits, doing last minute prep, adding plasters (Band-Aids to you America folk) and getting in that last decent toilet stop. Seeing the other groups taking pictures together and having a laugh together I felt a little sad that I was on my own. My crew were lovely, but as they all chatted away together in Kiswahili, I realised that whilst we were a team, their experience would be a totally different one to mine.
I had chosen the 7-day Machame Route aka as the ”˜Whiskey Route’. Kilimanjaro is usually climbed over 6 or 7 days but the longer you have to acclimatise, the more chance yu will have of reaching the summit. There are plenty of companies to choose from, and the costs vary so it’s best to shop around. This route with Absolute Africa currently costs around Â£1100, and includes your Guides/Porters camping equipment, I nights pre and post b&b accommodation, transfers, food, drinking water, park fees and emergency rescue. It doesn’t include flights, insurance, tips or your own personal equipment.
We set off through the lush green rainforest. At the starting point you are already 1,738m above sea level so the air is already thinner than most people are used to so you walk pole pole (Swahili for slowly, slowly – pretty much like everything else in Africa). The rest of the team hurried off ahead, carrying all the equipment on their backs and their heads, whilst I carried my small daypack. Still to this day I am still amazed by how they do this. Porters constantly ran past me whilst I struggled at a snail’s pace, feeling incredibly unfit.
I was in high spirits. As we walked, Samson pointed out the different types of flowers and trees and told me of his family, his village and Tanzania. All the while the weather was drizzly, the pace frustratingly slow and my feet were beginning to blister. I was wearing trainers rather than boots for the first day as the ascent is fairly easy and boots not necessary. But I was enjoying the walk, feeling alive in the crisp but thin mountain air.
We reached the Machame Camp at around 4.30pm and signed in. The Porters had already set up our little camp in a secluded area! First stop ”“ the loo! I’m famous for having a bladder like a camel and managed to go the entire day without a toilet break (please don’t try this at home kids). In almost all of the places I’d stayed in Africa prior to this I’d been pretty lucky with the toilets. They’d been western style toilets, some were pretty disgusting but they’d been flushable ones at least.
Not on Kili though, the loos are generally long drops. You can hire your own toilet (one of the Porters then carries it up for you), but unless you really have a phobia of long drops I wouldn’t bother. Sometimes you’re lucky and you’ll have a newly dug long drop ”“ bliss! Not this time. I was in the place poo comes to die. I was desperate though, so I held my breath and went for it! If you have a particularly sensitive sense of smell, I’d recommend putting a bit of Vick’s Vapour Rub under your nose, a scarf/buff over your face and Bob’s your uncle, smell disguised. Works a treat!
Whilst I waited for dinner, the guys brought me a bowl of hot water and soap and some treats – hot chocolate, popcorn and biscuits. It was starting to get quite cool so I threw my sleeping bag around my shoulders and watched a film on my iPod. After a little rest I spent some time chatting to the rest of the team as they prepared dinner and I felt like I should be doing something to help.
After resting I went for a walk to take a few pictures of the top of the mountain that how now come into view with the setting sun.
I was served dinner I ate in in my tent by myself. I asked to eat with the others but they said it would be better for me to eat in my tent, which I completely understood. I’m sure the last thing they want after a hard days carrying all my stuff up the mountain is having to entertain me and as they didn’t all speak good English, it was much easier for them to speak to each other in their own language. They were also eating different meals to me ”“ usually the staple Tanzanian foods of rice or ugali (maize porridge which has many names as you travel throughout Africa) with beans, which I had been eating pretty much every day for the previous month. My dinner was a feast of courgette soup, bread and butter, fried fish, aubergine, cabbage and potatoes in a vegetable sauce with mango for pudding! I really wasn’t expecting this! I ate as much as I could but I wasn’t overly hungry! Might have been something to do with the earlier snacks!
I went to bed full and feeling fine, if a little tired and achy with sore feet (do not scrimp on the blister plasters and make sure those boots/trainers are well worn in) and ready for day 2.
It was day two. Henry woke me up at 6.30am with a nice cup of hot chocolate. I’d had a good night, despite needing to pee at 1am. Squatting behind my tent with my pants down in the cold night air, whilst beautifully liberating is COLD!
Not long after began our walk, we were out of the forest and the landscape changed to shrubby moorland. The walk was steeper and more difficult than the previous day and I was now wearing my boots. We were above the clouds now. The sun beat down on us and despite the height we were at, it was pleasantly warm. I was glad I had my sun cream with me!
We arrived at Shira Camp at around 1.30pm. Shira Camp feels like a mirage, a campsite appearing to float above the clouds at 3,800m. Mount Meru can be seen in the distance. Once again I was presented with a massive four course lunch which I struggled to eat.
After lunch it was time for relaxing. Samson and I left our things at camp and took a little walk up the mountain, to help with the acclimatisation process. As we walked I spotted some luxury toilets. I resolved that I would come back later and make use of those bad boys! On the way back I stopped to talk to a young Canadian couple who asked me to take a photograph of the two of them together. We took photos of each other and chatted for a while. It was lovely.
I went to bed at around 9pm feeling a little bit headachy and with tingling fingers and toes from the Diamox I was taking.
I woke with a start at around 1am (this was becoming an annoying pattern). My tent shook as the wind howled around me. Despite my four season sleeping bag I was feeling pretty cold. I put on an extra layer of clothing, snuggled back in and waited for sleep. It never came.
My headache was getting worse, but I was reluctant to drink too much water in fear I might need to wee again. This can only have aggravated any symptoms I had, so once again I would not recommend this. I tossed and turned for what felt like hours. I was nauseous and my stomach was churning. I sat up to look for some Pepto-Bismol and promptly vomited all over myself, my kit and my tent. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. To be honest, as I sat there using my precious stash of wet wipes to clean up the mess, I was kind of glad that I was on my own. As strange as that sounds. Had I been with a friend, I may well have cried. But by myself, I just dealt with it.
It turns out I was suffering from early signs of Altitude Sickness (aka Acute Mountain Sickness or AMS) which usually affects people over 2,400 m due to the lower percentage of oxygen in the air. It is crucial that on Kilimanjaro (or anywhere else at altitude) that you make sure that you drink tons of water. Altitude Sickness can prove fatal if left ignored.
I still wasn’t feeling much better as I began to see light filtering over the horizon. My stomach was still making noises I can’t even describe and I knew I needed to get to a toilet quick. But the nearest toilet was a good 20 metres away and down some rocks. It wasn’t light yet, and I was scared. I waited. And waited. Until I couldn’t wait anymore.Â It was getting lighter but still pretty dark, so I grabbed my head torch and stumbled out of my tent. The cold air hit me and I began to stagger around, I couldn’t walk straight. You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d spent the night making my way through a few bottles of wine. I felt hammered.
After what felt like an eternity I made it to the wooden shack toilet. It wasn’t pleasant. But right there and then I made my peace with the long drops and I never did get to use the posh toilets.
I went back to my tent feeling a tiny bit better, but with a little bit of my dignity missing. I tried to get in a bit of sleep, but it was almost time to rise.
A bit of AMS wasn’t going to stop me. I was determined to carry on…
So where was I? Oh yes, part way up the highest mountain in Africa, covered in my own vomit…
Exhausted and weak after a night of hell, I forced down a tiny bit of breakfast, the smell of sick still lingering in my tent.
Despite feeling like death, I was still determined to carry on.
I told Samson, my guide,Â about my ordeal the night before. I stood there expecting, y’know,Â a hug or some sympathy or something. Instead he looked me up and down with a serious expression, asked me if I thought I could carry on, I said ”˜Yes.’ and he said ”˜Ok, let’s go then’.
I added a rehydration sachet to my Camelbak water bottle before we set off, conscious that I needed to make sure I kept my salt and sugar levels up, after having been so ill. As we walked I began to feel a little better. The air was fresh and the views amazing. The landscape changed again to alpine desert, if Luke Skywalker had appeared right there and then, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
We were above the clouds completely now and Mount Meru was peeking through cheekily. I was a slow (pole pole), but persistent walker and preferred not to take many breaks. Every so often three American guys called Jeremy, James and Chris would pass me. I’d then catch them up as they took longer rests. As I trudged past they’d cheer me on with words of encouragement and then catch me up again a little while later. We were the Kilimanjaro version of the ”˜Tortoise and the Hare’.
Samson and I stopped for lunch in the shade of a rock at the highest point of the day, Lava Tower. I didn’t manage to eat much lunch, aside from a small bar of Dairy Milk chocolate that was in my packed lunch. We then headed back down into the Great Barranco Valley to camp at 3,972m (13,066 feet).
The walk down was in some respects, much tougher than the walk up. You begin to use different muscles and your toes squash painfully into the front of your boots. I could feel my legs trembling ever so slightly with each step downwards.
It was eerily quiet as we descended into the gaping valley and Samson and I were the only people in sight. The views and the plant life were even better than before with oddly shaped Senecios trees scattering the landscape, looking like some strange camel-tree hybrid. We were walking towards a wall of cloud and I felt as though any minute we would be able to touch them.
Walking into Barranco Camp, it looked like we’d reached the edge of the universe. I’d started to feel ill again and my head was pounding. I fought the urge to cry. Without a word, I crawled into my tent and went to sleep. I woke a couple of hours later feeling disoriented and worse than before. The altitude sickness seemed to hit me when I was stationary. I needed to use the bathroom so I stumbled over to the long drop, but as the smell hit me I couldn’t help myself and I was sick again. I’ve been sick a number of times in my life, but this had to be the worst. Bent over, facing downwards and puking into a quite open (and full) long drop is a sight that will haunt me forever.
When I got back to my tent I took some soluble aspirin and drank as much water as I could. I was weak. I felt empty and my stomach painfully hollow,Â but I couldn’t eat. My appetite had completely disappeared.
That night I fell into a broken sleep, the wind and cold, coupled with a headache and nausea keeping me awake.
Straight after breakfast I was to face my toughest challenge yet, the Barranco Wall, an 800ft high, almost vertical, cliff face. It’s not a technical challenge and you don’t need ropes or any special climbing gear, but you do need a little bit of bravery. I strapped my walking poles to my bag, as I was going to need both hands free for this. We began the climb. I wore gloves with grips to help. At times I was on my knees, at others I walked up more easily and Samson provided a helping hand when I needed it.
When I’d watched the Comic Relief Kilimanjaro programme, I didn’t think the Barranco Wall had looked all that difficult. It had been misty that day and you couldn’t see how high it was. But today the air was crystal clear. On the odd occasion I had to step across a gap in the rocks. I tried to stop my legs from shaking, very aware of the ever growing drop between me and the floor. I’m not great with heights and was conscious that if I were to fall, it would be game over. I tried not to think about it.
After about two hours climbing upwards, I reached the top feeling triumphant and relieved. As scary as it is, the Barranco Wall was my absolute favourite part of my Kilimanjaro climb and the fact that I needed to really concentrate on what I was doing was a welcome distraction to the affects of altitude.
Samson and I sat in resting in silence, I stared at the clouds below.
Something felt strange, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. We sat for a while longer.
Then it dawned on me. My mind was quiet. We wereÂ so far above the world that it was like the world didn’t even exist below us.
At that moment, I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom and peace. It was beautiful.
I could have sat there forever, butÂ we wereÂ getting cold and it was time to move on.
The rest of the morning was an easyish walk to Karanga Camp where we stopped to have a late lunch. I was greeted by the rest of the team who had ”˜run on’ ahead. I still couldn’t eat and only managed to force down a very expensive can of coke. I felt awful leaving the meal that Rami had prepared.
It was here Samson gave me the option. We could stay at Karanga and camp there as planned, or if I was feeling up to it we could power on through to Barafu Camp (base camp – the last camp before the summit).
I had chosen the 7 day Machame Route and Karanga is the extra stop on this route and omitted from the 6 day route. The idea was that if I reached Barafu Camp a day early, I could attempt the summit that night (the ascent to the summit usually begins around midnight), and if I didn’t make it, I could try again the following night as scheduled. I decided to carry on to Barafu.
The next few hours went by in a blur.
I’d stopped taking my Diamox the day before, as I had the feeling that it was making me feel worse rather than helping.
We travelled up, down, up, down through the valley, the walk taking its toll on my weary limbs. And even though we were moving, it felt as though we were getting nowhere. Eventually I could make out tents on the rocky hill above.
I arrived at Barafu exhausted. The landscape was almost completely devoid of life and the green trees had disappeared. Tents were pitched wherever there was a suitable flat surface amongst the rocks. After dinner that evening Samson asked me if I wanted to try for the summit that night but I was barely able to move so I said I’d wait until the following night and just try once.
I spent this day resting at Barafu. I was feeling a bit disoriented, headachy and bored. My iPod had died and I hadn’t brought a book. My face was swollen and my eyes had taken on a strange glassy sheen. I took a few trips to the main hut and bought myself a couple of cans of coke (this was getting seriously expensive) and had a few walks around the rocky campsite. The air was thin and even the shortest of walks wiped me out. I was feeling a bit jealous as I watched others sitting together in their mess tents and was feeling pretty lonely. I was sitting outside my tent writing my journal when I heard a voice behind me. One of the American guys, James, was doing a walk round the camp and had spotted me sitting alone. They had spent the previous night at Karanga but had now caught me up. We spent time chatting until it became too cold to sit out any longer.
I went back to my tent where Henry brought me my last supper, but I just couldn’t swallow anything. It was still light when I settled down for bed at around 6pm, ready to climb to the summit later in the evening. The top of the mountain still seemed so far away.
Henry woke me at 11pm, we wereÂ at 15,239Â ft (4,633m) up Kilimanjaro. Still sleepy I got ready, drank a little tea and put on all of my clothes, ready to face the freezing temperatures. I tucked my camera into the inside pocket of my thick down jacket, worried it would get too cold and stop working before I got to the top! Samson filled my water bottled with very hot water, I added a couple of rehydration sachets and tucked it into my pack along with some energy bars. We said goodbye to the others who wished us luck.
It was pitch black and my head torch shone dimly (I should have invested in a better one), lighting the ground below and Samson in front of me. Upsettingly I could see lots of twinkling lights snaking up the mountain, my fellow climbers, far out in front. I had a long way to go. Samson and I had walked no more than a few minutes and I was sweating. Oops, it wasn’t that cold yet. I took off a couple of my fleeces and stashed them in my bag.
We were going really pole pole (slowly) now up the steep mountain, placing one foot carefully and painfully in front the other. As we climbed higher the temperature dropped and I re-added my layers. A million stars twinkled brightly above me, but moving my head from its constant downward position made me feel ill, so I spent most of the time staring at my feet. Every few minutes I had to stop to be sick, except there was nothing in my belly so I was just retching. I could hear someone behind me being sick too. Eventually my vomiting fellow caught up, we smiled knowingly and each other and he and his party overtook me. There was no room for dignity on this last push to the top. The nausea made it difficult for me to keep my balaclava over my nose and mouth so the wind nipped painfully at my bare skin.
I could feel my nose running and reached into my pocket for a tissue. But my nose wasn’t running, it was bleeding.Â Damn. I had to remove my big mittens to hold my nose to try and get the bleeding to stop. My hands were freezing.
Eventually I got my nose to stop bleeding and continued up the mountain. I couldn’t see anyone behind me now. We walked in silence. Â The water in my camelback had frozen now and would no longer come through the tube. I was exhausted and thirsty but even worse than the thought of going up was the thought of going back down having reached the top.Â All kinds of thoughts ran through my mind. At one point I remember watching a film in my head. To this day, I’m not quite sure how I carried on. Perhaps it’s because I’m stubborn, or perhaps because I’d been sponsored for charity and I didn’t want to let anyone down. Who knows?
The sun began to peek above the horizon at around 6.40am. I felt a glimpse of hope. I’d made it this far. I was sick but I was still moving upwards. Â A trickle of people began to pass me in the opposite direction, having already reached the summit and now making their descent back down.Â Still we continued.
It was getting lighterÂ now andÂ quite a few people were passing me in the other direction now.Â EveryoneÂ greeted me with sympathetic smiles and words of encouragement. I passed my American friends and we high fived as we crossed. It was fully light by the time I reached Stella Point at 18,652Â ft (5,685Â m). Â We didn’t linger. I kept my head down and carried on, to be honest I barely remember it.
The Kilimanjaro sign came into view. We were no longer on a steep upwards route but a steady incline across the top of the mountain. It seemed so close now but we were moving so slowly I felt like we were hardly getting anywhere. We walked for about an hour.
Slowly but surely we got closer. A big group were just finishing up their photos as we arrived. I walked up and touched the sign. I hugged Samson as my eyes filled with tears. I’d made it, I was at Uhuru Peak, the top of Kilimanjaro. I was standing at the highest point on the African continent at 5,895m (19,341 feet), the ”˜Roof of Africa’. The view was breathtaking.
There were lots of hellos and congratulations, and a mutual appreciation in our eyes.
The other group vanished quickly down the mountain and we had the summit to ourselves. We were the last people up that morning, but I didn’t care. I felt my eyes watering as I made sense of how far I’d come and what I’d been through to get there. We stayed up there for what felt like ten or fifteen minutes. We took pictures, I even did a little jump and clicked my heels. I was exhausted yet the adrenaline was pumping through my veins.
As we walked away from the sign I felt a strange mix of emotions. Achieving one of your life’s ambitions is a weird thing, knowing you will never experience that exact moment again. I’d achieved exactly what I’d set out to do, if slightly less gracefully than I’d imagined. Whilst I felt proud, relieved and happy I also felt slightly sad. You know that feeling you get on Christmas night? When all the celebrations are done and then it’s over.
Only on the way down did I begin to really appreciate my surroundings. The glaciers shone like blue and white diamonds in the sun, it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
The walk down was much faster than I anticipated. We triumphantly ran down the mountain, sliding on the scree slope. What had taken over 8 hours to climb up, took us 2 hours to get back down. We reached Base Camp just in time for brunch.
The 3 hour walk down to Mweka Camp was gruelling on my poor legs and feet. As we arrived the team were putting up the tents. Samson asked me if I wanted to stay here as planned or continue. I wanted a shower, I wanted a bed. Get me off this bloody mountain! The guys were happy to be finishing a day early!
We carried on walking. I was in serious pain when we arrived back at the gate 3 hours later. Every part of me ached. I’d been walking for the last 16 hours straight.
I picked up my certificate, signed off the mountain and tipped Samson and the porters. The car journey back was a bit of a blur, we dropped everyone off on the way and said a tearful goodbye. I couldn’t believe it was over. Did that just happen?
The warm shower I had back at my guest house was the most amazing shower I’ve ever had in my life. When I got dressed I realised my clothes were really baggy. I’d gone down a dress size. Every cloud and all that”¦
I’ll be posting my Kilimanjaro FAQ’s (including tipping etiquette) and my Kilimanjaro Complete Packing List soon!
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat.
Would I do it again alone? Yeah sure, but it would be nice to do it again with friends to have a different experience.
What would I do differently? I wouldn’t take Diamox. I’d wear my boots in more (once you get blisters, you’ve got them ”“ prevention is better than cure). I’d take more pictures or video. I’d pack more wet wipes and chocolate/energy bars and maybe some cans of coke. And a book. And a solar charger for my iPod and camera. And I’d DEFINITELY use the posh toilets when I had the chance. I still regret that.
But, Kilimanjaro, to this day, is still my greatest adventure.
READ NEXT: Kilimanjaro Packing List
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