Kilimanjaro: Memories from the Roof of Africa (6 years on!)

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When it dawned on me- sometime last week- that today would mark my 6 year “Kiliversary” I was struck powerfully by two things. Firstly; six years has passed since nineteen year old me set out on the biggest, scariest adventure I could comprehend at the time. Secondly; I can remember the whole experience as vividly as if it were yesterday. Permit me this sentimental trip down memory lane, would you? 🙂

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The first time I saw the peak of Mt Kilimanjaro was not, as the above picture would lead you to believe, upon clearing the rainforest zone at the base and emerging into the grassland strata. It was actually during my plane ride from Entebbe airport in Uganda (where I had previously spent a month working with Soft Power Education) to the Tanzanian airport named after the great peak. A relatively short haul flight, our propeller plane had reached altitude for the journey when the pilot announced over the tannoy: “Ladies and Gentlemen, if you look to your left you will see the spectacular Mt Kilimanjaro”. Excited, I leaned across the man sitting next to me- almost knocking his bag of complimentary peanuts out of his hands- and peered down, hoping to get a glimpse of the peak I would be scaling in just a few days time. After a few moments there was a polite cough and the man next to me raised his index finger, directing my gaze upwards. All of a sudden I saw the great monolith standing proud above the clouds- above us. I gulped. This was going to be harder than I had expected.

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The rainforest zone was the most difficult climate level due to the humidity. Every step was clammy, every breath was thick with moisture. I was wearing a waterproof jacket (in hindsight- why bother?!) and sweat was dripping out of the sleeves. Emerging up through the dense vegetation into the fresher, comparatively flatter grassland strata felt like I was flying! You can see the joy on my face here, that’s not just because I’m modelling such a fashionable hat/ sports bra/ khaki trouser combo! It was on this level that the Sherpas who were dutifully carrying our kit, food and personal belongings up the mountain (ten of them for every one of us) took over with gazelle like agility, nimbly progressing up the familiar path as they had done hundreds of times before
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Walking through the cloud line felt like passing through to another world.Turning around after having this picture taken and seeing a carpet of fluffy white and knowing that there were hundreds of thousands of people going about their day below- some looking up at the underside and trying to distinguish patterns within the patchwork- felt like an enormous privilege.

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The guides who work on the mountain are extremely spiritual and believe that the mountain should be respected, almost as a deity. We’ve seen all too recently the devastating effect natural disasters can have, from earthquakes to typhoons to forest fires and so I think its understandable that these men were so deeply in tune with the dormant volcano. It seemed completely natural to take part in the blessing ceremony at the end of the first day’s climb. I picked a piece of rock from nearby and placed it as an offering as our guide said a prayer for our safe passage to the summit, and back down. We descended to our huts and turned in for the night, and I felt a sense of calm and safety enveloping me as I drifted off to a well earned sleep.

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Above the rainforest, the grasslands, the cloudline, there’s The Saddle. A vast plateau of barren land where very little grows. It’s hot, and the lack of shelter means the wind whistles through like you’re in a spaghetti Western. It’s not all bad, though, because at least once you’ve eaten your packed lunch- prepared by the guides- you can make use of the five star facilities! Yep, folks, even at around 4,400 metres above mean sea level you can find a porta-loo (this probably says a lot about how commercialised this route is, but that doesn’t take away any of the relief at the sight of the lavs!).

I didn’t want this post to become too picture heavy, so I’ve heavily abridged the five day trip. Other notable memories that will stick with me forever will be the realisation that one member of our party was suffering from hallucinations- a side effect of altitude sickess- as we navigated a narrow path to the summit flanked on one side by a deep chasm, and that his wife was holding onto his backpack less for moral support and more to stop him careering off down into it. I remember, at several points during the three and a half day ascent, thinking I wasn’t going to make it. I was not physically fit by any stretch of the imagination, but luckily I’m stubborn and by some miracle avoided any symptoms of the altitude at all- which meant I only had to battle my own desire to give in! I remember the uncontrollable shivering as I got into bed at Kibo hut (4370 metres AMSL) at around 9pm knowing that I had to be awake again at midnight to begin the ascent up frozen scree slopes to Uhuru peak. It wasn’t all grim, though, guys! I also remember one of our bunk mates (Kibo hut sleeps 10 to a room, presumably for body warmth!) changing into her thermal underwear and then uttering words I never thought I’d hear from a woman who- like all of us- hadn’t washed in three days, was battling exhaustion and trying to prepare for the gruelling slog ahead:

“Would anyone like a spritz of lavender pillow spray?”

It lifted our spirits and sent us off into a sound sleep (well, nap). Three hours later we were woken, forced to eat (I had seven eggs, as everyone else was suffering from the altitude sickness and had lost their appetities) and herded towards the peak. We snaked up the scree in our hundreds, maybe even thousands; the only evidence of our being there in the blackness was the trail of headlights lighting our way. It must look odd from above, as though the mountain is alive and we are the life blood travelling to the heart, slow and steady, trickling upwards. I was more concerned with stuffing glucose sweets in my mouth with every other step to consider this at the time but, y’know, hindsight 😉

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And here it is- the money shot! The sunrise from the peak was every bit as spectacular as you would imagine. I find this photograph particularly striking because it shows the shadow of Mt Kili completely dwarfing the shadow of Mt Kenya.

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At 06:25am on the 29th August 2009 I climbed higher on foot that I had flown in an aeroplane a week prior. I was a mountaineer, a successful adventurer, a very happy bunny! On our descent we stopped at a point called Gilman’s Point (the aim when you begin your final ascent, as the summit is actually relatively flat from there) and watched the world wake up. I ate my packed breakfast to celebrate the accomplishment.

As soon as I had phone signal (around halfway back down) I called my parents, at what was around 5am GMT:

“GOOD MORNING PARENTS! I’M ON TOP OF THE WOOOOOORLD!!!!!”.

Little Welsh x

I hope you enjoyed my little trip down memory lane! It would be great to hear of your adventures- please do point me in the direction of anything you’d like to share, I’m always looking for some good reading!! 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Kilimanjaro: Memories from the Roof of Africa (6 years on!)

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