Sixteen readers of all ages, fitness levels and walks of life joined Getaway Magazine and journalist Alison Westwood to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. They took the Umbwe Route, a spectacular trail that’s one of the quietest. It’s also the most difficult.
Liars, I thought as another group of successful climbers streamed past me down sheer scree. ‘You’re nearly there,’ they’d said. ‘It’s only 10 minutes to Stella Point,’ they promised. But as I stood high on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, the crater rim still seemed impossibly far away.
With each step, my feet slid backwards, my chest was skewered with pain and I bent over my trekking poles, gasping thin air that couldn’t relieve an intolerable sense of suffocation. We’d been walking since midnight, but sunrise – our planned summit time – had long come and gone.
‘Pole-pole.’ Our guides said it like a mantra as we climbed. ‘Slowly, slowly. Enjoy the scenery.’ Speed or hurry of any sort was discouraged. We’d even nicknamed our head guide Thomas Meela konokono, Swahili for snail, because he led us at the pace of one. Now, he turned and paused while I caught up. ‘Girl, you are very slow,’ he said. It was a proud moment: I’d outsnailed Konokono.
The thought carried me up a few more metres. ‘19, 18, 17, 16…’ Waiting members of our group counted down my steps. Then I was looking into the outer crater, a vast, desolate amphitheatre edged with blue-fluted glaciers and strewn with misshapen boulders.
A kilometre or so further along its wall, I could see a tiny, silhouetted sign. Uhuru Peak, the highest point in Africa. My friends turned towards it, but I sat down on a rock. I was dehydrated, trembling, exhausted. I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I wanted to get there.
Into the cloud forest
There are many reasons to conquer the world’s highest freestanding mountain. To most it’s a long-held dream, a landmark in their lives. For others it’s the chance to prepare for even greater heights. Perhaps some just want the gold certificate – ‘been there, done that’. I suspect there are also scores like me – people who thought it seemed like a good idea at the time.
At any rate, I had no difficulty finding travel companions and 17 of us assembled at Keys Hotel in Moshi for the briefing. Rob McKenzie, a 64-year-old pharmacist from Durban, was the oldest, while Riaan van Brakel, a beefy entrepreneur from Tzaneen, looked strongest. Most of us had never met and none of us had climbed Kilimanjaro before. Fortunately, our five guides had scaled it more than 2#000 times between them.
From Moshi, it was a short bus ride to Umbwe Gate, where a great array of people, food, baggage and camping equipment was jumbled on the grass. When people claim Kili is crowded, it’s possibly because of their own crew. Our party now numbered 58, including two cooks and 34 porters.
After signing the book, a formality climbers must perform at each stage, we hitched up our gaiters, shouldered our daypacks and left the hubbub behind. It was just before noon and I almost skipped up the grassy jeep track under its lofty canopy of foliage. Sunlight filtered through giant ferns, illuminating clusters of dainty purple Impatiens pseudoviola and the shrimplike red and yellow flowers that grow only in these forests, Impatiens kilimanjari.
We sat in a comfortable ditch to eat our lunch and watched in amazement while the porters passed. Each carried a government-approved load of 20 kilos plus their kit. Metal tables and tent poles were slung over shoulders and sacks of cooking pots or stacks of plastic garden chairs balanced on heads.
Making way for porters was a daily feature of the trek. We’d leave camp while they packed up, only to be overtaken later as they almost jogged the same course we plodded. By the time we arrived at our next stop, they’d have pitched the tents, fetched water for us to wash with and laid out a spread of popcorn, biscuits and hot milk for Milo.
Our first camp, among tangled, twisted trees, looked like a goblin’s den. To reach it, we’d clambered through a fairyland forest of towering camphorwoods, figs and podocarpus. The trail had grown muddy and steep with slippery tree-root stairs, draped in bearded lichen and offering tantalising glimpses of misty ridges. But there was something missing. We’d been climbing the mountain for six hours and hadn’t even seen it yet.
Under the ice cap
Next morning the path got steeper still and led us along a knife-edge ridge, wooded with spindly giant heathers and carpeted in thick, golden moss. The fronds of ericas and lichen parted and there – glaciers dribbling down its side like the world’s biggest ice-cream cone – was Kibo, the youngest and highest of the three volcanoes that form Kilimanjaro.
For the rest of the day, its daunting black-and-white mass was almost constantly ahead of us. The tall heath dwindled and gave way to outlandish moorland of giant lobelias and tree groundsel, some of which looked oddly anthropomorphic and stood clumped like families waiting to have their portrait taken. Far behind, Mount Meru floated above the clouds, the only other island in a sphere of sky.
By now, the effects of altitude were obvious. Despite warm sunshine, the air was frosty. There was a great deal of heavy breathing as we scrambled up the last hill to Barranco Hut and a perceptible reluctance to continue the short distance from there to our campsite.
Instead, we rested a while, gazing at the colossus that reared above, its crown wreathed in clouds that threw fleeting shadows over tents sprinkled like confetti at its foot. We’d already gained all but 650 metres of the altitude to our base camp at Barafu. Small wonder Umbwe is considered the toughest non-technical ascent.
Our trail now converged with trekkers from the Lemosho, Shira and Machame routes and swung away west. It was a gradual, easy walk to Karanga campsite, we were assured – once we’d negotiated the Great Barranco Wall.
This lava cliff stretches out of the mountainside like a mammoth flying buttress upon which, as the sun rose next morning, we could see an endless, slow-moving line of white ants: porters and climbers from other groups. Although we loitered to avoid rush hour, we still got stuck in a human traffic jam created by the near-vertical scramble.
It was something of a social occasion. We chatted to a band of Americans who planned to raise funds to build wells in African villages by climbing all Seven Summits (this would be their first); we revised our Swahili vocabulary (kushoto – left, kuliya – right, twendai-twendai – let’s go); we stopped to rest and our guides broke into song. ‘Kilimanjaro, mulima murefu sana,’ they chorused, which I loosely translated as ‘Kilimanjaro, stupendous badass mountain’.
Later, as sunset turned Karanga Valley golden and melted Kibo’s rock and ice into soft pink, I shuffled around camp like a geriatric cat looking for a place to die. A bunch of British medical students playing Frisbee bothered me immensely. How could they leap about at this altitude when I could barely walk? Had I acclimatised properly? We’d start our final ascent, the ultimate test, in just 30 hours. Would I make it?
To the top of Africa
That was the question in each person’s mind as we assembled for dinner in Barafu the following evening. All day, tired climbers had passed us on their way down from the summit path to Mweka. Some, with big grins, were happy to tell us about their triumph. (‘It’s incredible; there’s beer up there!’ one joked.) Others marched grimfaced and silent, their supreme efforts a failure.
Our guides gave us a rundown of what to expect, reminding us they’d always be on hand to help. Rob made a speech and quoted a passage from the Bible, ‘They will rise up with wings like eagles, they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not faint’. We cheered and declared no one would be left behind. Then there was nothing more to say and we crawled off to sleep. If we could.
I think one of the reasons summit day starts at midnight is that it’s better if you can’t see where you’re going. There was a half-moon, however, and we could see the ghosts of glaciers that never came closer. A star winked above the dark pinnacle. It was a mild night – only 7˚C below freezing – but wind buffeted us and our torch beams bounced wildly in a parody of the conga.
Nausea, stomach cramps, headache and breathlessness sapped my strength. Each time Thomas called a break, I sat down like a puppet with broken strings, too tired to eat or drink. Dawn broke and people were returning from the top. We were still hours away, but Riaan kept calling ‘Jambo! Jambo!’ and his spirits lifted mine.
It was almost 10h00 when the last of us left Stella Point. As we staggered along the gravel track, we could see some of our team had already reached the sign. It was dry season, so there was no snow, but the Southern Icefield loomed to our left, undulating upwards beside us. Finally, we crested a gentle rise and were officially standing at the top of Kilimanjaro. I half-expected some profound realisation to fill me with awe.
It never did. So I stretched out one hand and touched the tatty wooden sign covered in stickers and draped in prayer flags, the improbable nucleus of so much hope. ‘Congratulations! You are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895m amsl. Africa’s highest point. World’s highest freestanding mountain.’
For a moment, I thought I might cry. Then I smiled instead. We’d done it. All 17 of us were standing on the peak together and that was good enough for me. Konokono and his crew sang the Kilimanjaro song to celebrate. I gazed down at the clouds and the craters, the glaciers and the far blue horizon. It was time to get back down to earth.