Bosman's Bush Telegraph - 3 August 2000
We did it!! We can now count ourselves among the few (or not so few) who have visited the highest point in Africa. We reached the top of Uhuru Peak at half past ten on Monday morning after a monumental twelve hour hike that had started at eleven o'clock the night before. Kilimanjaro, consider yourself climbed, you bugger! Being at the top of the world is most exhilarating and the sense of personal achievement that we felt for having got there on our own two feet (well almost) was enormous. Although, I must admit that this giddy feeling might well be attributable to the lack of oxygen at 5896 metres (almost 19000 ft) above sea level! Let nobody EVER tell you that climbing Kilimanjaro is easy or enjoyable though. It is without doubt the hardest thing that I have ever had to do. Needless to say we are mentally, physically and emotionally drained and have retreated to Arusha to lick our wounds. On the up side, we are alive and did not suffer too much from altitude sickness. We have however not been able to walk for two days and have bright red faces (a combination of sun, wind burn and frost bite, I suspect!). We have also developed a rather nasty Voltaren dependency. Luckily none of these seem to be permanent and we should be as right as rain in a couple of days.
Our adventure started last Thursday when we reported at the gates of Kilimanjaro National Park to start our 6 day hike. We were met by our guide Exaud who spoke very little English but assured us that he was confident that we would make it to the top. The rest of our team consisted of an assistant guide called Omari who was also going to be our cook and three porters, Brycon, Frank and Steven. The porters are amazing. They carry between 20 and 25 kg's of luggage on their heads and literally run up the mountain. In many cases they do not have proper shoes and some of them chain smoke the whole way! We were rather apprehensive about the whole trip as we still had not seen the mountain because the weather was so foul but we set off regardless, kitted out in our rented rain gear, gaiters and sporting our rather smart rented walking canes. The first couple of days of the hike are remarkably easy and lull you into a false sense that climbing the mountain is within your grasp. There is absolutely no preparation for the unadulterated hell that you experience on summit night. If I had known what I know now I would have turned tail and tried to see if I could get my money refunded!
The key to climbing Kili would seem to be that you need to do it really slowly. By moving slowly you give yourself the best chance of acclimatizing to the ever increasing altitude. It would seem that fitness itself does not increase your likelihood of suffering from altitude sickness but if you are fit you are physically able to hike fast and tend to overdo it without giving yourself time to acclimatize. The guides constantly tell you to slow down and there is a constant refrain of "pole pole" which means "slowly slowly" in swahili. The snail's pace enforced by our guide was quite annoying at first as the first few days of the climb are not particularly steep or physically challenging and we felt that we were able to go faster. The benefits of the slow pace definitely paid off though once we reached altitudes of over 3000 m above sea level. By summit night we had redefined the term "pole pole" and were walking even slower than snail's pace, if that's possible!!
The first day of the hike is spent meandering through the rain forest at the base of the Kilimanjaro massif. You climb almost 1000 m and walk about 12 km's over 3 or 4 hours. As we were forced to walk incredibly slowly by our guide, we set our minds to learning some swahili as we figured that this would be the only way that we would be able to communicate with our team. Within a matter of minutes our guide was calling me "mama" and Nev, "baba". Nev wanted to find out how to say "mountain goat" in swahili (who knows why!) and within a matter of minutes things had deteriorated so badly that I was being called "mama mbuzi" or mother goat. Our guide and the porters thought this was hilarious and within minutes it had stuck! For the rest of the trip I was called mama mbuzi not only by our team but by all the other porters and guides. Lovely. Everyone thought it was the funniest thing they had ever heard and whenever there was a lull in conversation someone would crack the "mama mbuzi" joke and everyone would dissolve into fits of giggles. This persisted for the full 6 days. Needless to say I was rather tired of it by the time we hit Uhuru peak. Although I did get my own back when mama mbuzi turned into a petulant brat on summit night, stomping her feet and winging about not wanting to take one more step or go up one more uphill.
After spending the first night at Mandara (about 2700 m above sea level) we headed out of the rain forest and made our way to Horombo. Once again, the hike was not particularly tough and the 15 km's took us about 7 hours. At Horombo (about 3700m above sea level) we caught our first glimpse of the beast as we had finally reached a level above the clouds. Boy, was it huge! Towering over us, covered in snow. Very daunting. It was also at Horombo that we got our first taste of the effects of altitude. We first noticed it when we tried to race from our hut to the bathroom (altitude seems to affect bladder control!) and found that we were totally out of breath and light-headed. We needed to concentrate very hard on moving slowly when doing the most menial tasks like zipping up our sleeping bags and putting on our boots. We also completely lost our appetites which proved to be an enormous problem as our team of porters religiously prepared a three course meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner and were very hurt that we could hardly make a dent in it. Poor guys. We just could not bring ourselves to eat huge quantities of food. I also developed a gastro intestinal problem (the less said about that the better!) which was really just the cherry on the top. We (or at least I) were starting to realize that perhaps we had bitten off more than we could chew.
Luckily we had booked an extra day for acclimatization purposes and so were able to stay another night at Horombo to acclimatize and recover from our various ailments. This proved to be invaluable as we were able to do a short hike towards the stunning Mawenzi Peak and then to rest for the remainder of the day. I think that this extra day really improved our chances of reaching the top as we did not suffer the effects of altitude too badly for the rest of the hike. The only problem with the acclimatization day is that you get to speak to loads of people who are returning from their summit attempts and who are just dying to tell you all sorts of horror stories and jeez are some of them horrible! You also get to see the odd pulmonary oedema sufferer vomiting blood being raced off the mountain on a stretcher. Super stuff. It really plays with your mind and by the end of the day Nev was so ready to head up the mountain. I on the other hand was ready to turn tail and RUN!
The next day we set off for Kibo, the last stop before the summit on the Marangu route. Once again you climb about 1000 m over 15 km's and the hike takes you about 7 hours. The terrain changes dramatically towards Kibo and is very desert like. Kibo Huts are an absolute pit and when you arrive their you wonder whether you have in fact entered hell on earth. The terrain is desolate and it is freezing. When we arrived it was just starting to snow and the whole area resembled something out of a bad science fiction move (apocalypse now etc). The huts are cramped, dark and dank and filled with people trying to get a few hours of sleep before heading for the summit. There are also all sorts of people in various stages of altitude sickness and everyone is nervous and ratty. Once again, the ever cheery porters tried to force feed us a three course meal which we picked at before getting our gear ready and trying to get some sleep. Yuck!
Exaud woke us up at about ten thirty that evening and we forced down a cup of tea and a biscuit before donning our thermal underwear, polar fleece pants and jackets and rain gear and heading up the hill. It was freezing. Our thermometer froze at -5 degrees (typical its South African, what we really needed was a Norwegian thermometer!). The temperature was estimated to be between -20 and -25 degrees centigrade though. Of course, typically, we picked new moon night to attempt the summit so it was pitch dark. Our route was illuminated by our bobbing head torches and Exaud carefully picked out the steep zig zag route up the almost vertical slope. It was so cold that our torch batteries kept dying (South African once again - not geared for sub zero temperatures!) and we had to keep stopping to change them around. Some other complicating factors that added extra fun to the summit night included the fact that our toes froze, the slope was covered with loose rock and sand (called scree by the mountaineering fundis - for the uninitiated such as ourselves it was just bloody awful!) which meant that we took one step up and two down and the fact that the air is so thin above 5000 metres that breathing was a chore.
After labouring up the slope with much bitching and moaning for almost 9 hours we finally reached Gillman's point at the top of the crater just after seven o'clock in the morning. Our progress had been painfully slow. I literally took one step and then had to take a rest before I continued. Breathing was very very difficult and was excruciatingly painful. For much of the time Nev was pushing me up the hill from behind and Exaud and Omari were pulling me up from the front. It was such a relief when the sun finally rose. Not only was the sunrise the most spectacular ever but our toes and fingers finally started to thaw (thankfully!).
From Gillman's Point it took us another three hours to reach Uhuru Peak. Our guides were sceptical about whether or not I would make it but there was no way that Nev was going to let me turn back. Nev was amazingly strong! He was determined to make it and luckily he had enough guts and determination for both of us. We trudged on and finally reached Uhuru peak at 10h30. The views from the peak are gorgeous and provide one with a vista over glaciers and ice fields. Superb! The peak is not quite what we expected. Its not really a peak at all but rather a slightly raised portion of the volcanic crater. Either way we got there! Our guides congratulated us heartily and plied us with tea and a celebratory cup cake. I think they were less happy that we had got there and more relieved that the horror of having to drag me up the hill was finally over.
Of course, just because we had reached Uhuru did not mean that we could stay there! We still had to drag ourselves down the slope to Kibo and then back the 15 km's from Kibo to Horombo. We arrived at Horombo at about six in the evening after having been on our feet since eleven thirty the night before. I have never been so exhausted in all my life. I must say though, that it is such a relief to descend to thicker air so that our breathing could return to normal. What a day! All we could manage was a brief dinner and a coke before we crashed. We could not even manage a celebratory beer which must tell you a lot about our state! After a good night's sleep, the magnitude of our achievement hit home and we set off down the mountain feeling completely euphoric. With lots of oxygen and many extra red blood cells cruising around our brains we felt amazing as we tramped down to the Marangu gate where we retrieved our car and headed for a much needed shower, sauna and bottle of Australian sparkling wine. A perfect way to celebrate. Thanks Pixi.
Its all over now and I rather suspect that nothing will ever be the same again! We are now off to the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti before heading to Zanzibar for a much deserved rest. My Dad and sister will be joining us in Zanzibar and I cannot wait to see them. They are also bringing us lots of supplies from home which should improve our lives considerably!
Hope you are all well
lots of love
Penny and Neville
Ps: Please, please take pity on us and dont send us any jokes, attachments and large photos. They are impossible to download on our cell phone and very costly! Nev, would also appreciate it if you excluded the text from our emails when you reply to them as this will streamline the downloading process and save us some much needed dollars! Thanks. p&n