It was with a good deal of trepidation that I walked into Heathrow at about 3.30pm on September 19th. Just what had I let myself in for ? I had signed up for the trip at a low point in my life with no real idea of what I was signing up to. My previous (and only) experience of mountains had resulted in being hospitalised with a serious neck injury after parting company with a sledge ! True, I had tried to train for this, undertaking long but very flat walks at weekends in Suffolk and trips to the Peaks accompanied by Rebecca who was always encouraging and great company. In fact our relationship blossomed as she helped me train for Kilimanjaro. Then Natasha, Rebecca and I had struggled up Ben Nevis and my God, it certainly was a struggle. Given how hard Ben Nevis had been how could I possibly be contemplating a mountain almost 6 kilometres high ? There were two trips to Snowdonia, one with Brian Jackson of Expeditionwise which was great fun and very informative and one, again with Rebecca, when we completed the Snowdon Horseshoe one day and climbed Trefan the next. Apart from that I was slogging it out in the gym as often as I could make it, struggling through programs designed by Jo Fraser. I had absolutely no idea of what was going to be involved or how I would react to high altitude and I felt totally unprepared. And now …………. here I was at Heathrow about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime !
I was wearing my white Charity Challenge T shirt and looking out for other similarly clad team members. Sitting against the wall in a dark corner I found Paul, a tall, friendly Welshman and introduced myself. I had met Elaine and Paula at the Snowdonia training weekend and Elaine, Gordon and I had exchanged several emails via a Google Group. I had contacted everyone on the list a few weeks previously and had received an email with photo of Roger and Kay and a phone call from Butch. David had emailed me his training program. However now I was feeling completely ill-prepared for meeting these people and even worse, living with them over the next 12 days and fighting our way up that massive mountain together. Gradually our numbers swelled. Gordon, a jolly Scotsman whose catch phrase seemed to be “Och, I’m only joking,’ Kat , a shy psychology student with her parents, Scott and Steve who were cousins, Elaine with her family and Paula. I noticed Gerald walking past. A quiet man of few words, but he came over and introduced himself as ‘Butch’. We discussed our families and our motivations for the expedition. Paula, Butch and Paul were diabetic themselves, Steve’s father was diabetic and Elaine, Gordon and myself had diabetic children. Gordon explained how, even though he was excited by the challenge of reaching the top, he knew it would be tinged with regret because, even if he achieved that summit, afterwards he knew his daughter Skye would still be diabetic. It was a sad moment of reality. Steve had thoughtfully bought sticky labels and a pen so by now we all had name badges and then we moved on to the pre-arranged meeting place and after more introductions, more name labels and a team photo organised by Kat’s parents …………. we were on our way. At least we were on our way through Heathrow security. That involved Kat having her rucksack emptied and searched and then her having to repack it all again. I’m not sure I would have been able to get everything back into mine.
Finally we all made it onto the plane although we were not all sitting together as we had expected. At last we took off and I really began to feel it was real after all. Somehow though, the plane journey was surreal. A warm flannel, a random meal at well gone midnight, my inability to suss out how to use the in flight entertainment, being moved to the back of the plane to a spare seat because mine would not recline, then another warm flannel and breakfast at 5am, four hours after the last meal ! I don’t think I had more than a few minutes sleep all night.
After all the queuing at Heathrow I did not know what to expect at Nairobi but our bags arrived quickly, we filled in forms for an entry visa which was issued without question and, in fact, without payment in some cases and then we wandered out past an official who was sitting at a desk completely ignoring all the passengers. That must have been passport control ! Then in the sea of people meeting the flight we saw a smiling African man holding a Charity Challenge sign. It was 6.30 am but everywhere seemed busy. We crossed the car park to a smart looking bus only to discover that our’s was parked further on. It was a small minibus and we were 20 people all with large rucksacks, most were about 65 litres, and a day sack each. Immediately some young youths started loading our rucksacks in through the window and piling them behind the seats. They hung around giving us meaningful looks. Most of us did not cotton on to the fact that they expected a tip for their efforts. Dan, who had obviously read the information provided about tipping being expected gave the lad who had thrown his rucksack through the window 10 dollars. That lad must have thought it was Christmas ! Then we all piled in. There were rows of seats with a double seat one side and a single the other with a fold down seat between them. So we had to load ourselves in starting from the back. Somehow all the luggage and people ended up in the bus though it was very squashed. However we were in high spirits, passing cameras to the front and back of the bus so we all could record the journey. Bottled water, crisps and fruit were passed down the bus as we nursed our day sacks and we set off heading for Tanzania. As we left the airport African scrub land stretched before us as far as the eye could see. Scott shouted out ‘Africa Baby’ and our team’s catchphrase was born. Almost immediately we saw two giraffe in the distance and I looked forward to seeing much more wildlife on route. However, it was not to be. Apart from statues of some elephants, I saw no more wild animals at all on that journey. Someone claimed to have seen a monkey, and there were plenty of cattle, goats, a few donkeys and chickens, massive termite mounds and bizarrely, an ostrich.
The Kenyan road was dreadful, full of potholes some of which were so large we had to drive off the road to avoid them. The traffic was almost exclusively minibuses similar to ours and old lorries. We saw people walking through the bush miles from anywhere and some on old, large bicycles. It was hard to imagine where they had come from or where they were heading. Some had no shoes and those which did had often fashioned them for themselves from old tyres. Most of the people we saw were just sitting. The adults stared blankly at the road but children waved. No one seemed to be doing anything. We passed through very dilapidated towns with tiny dirty shacks. Some were ambitiously labelled ‘Hotel’. All the signs were in English which surprised me. The drive went on and on and finally as we neared the border there were more buildings but all still rickety shacks and more people. There were signs of businesses repairing bicycles, shops after a fashion and hairdressers but all in these tiny, dirty huts.
At the border we got off the bus to get our visas to enter Tanzania and were immediately swarmed by locals either begging or trying to sell us jewellery and carved animals. It was hard to walk through them as they tried to put bracelets on you saying “Dollar, dollar,” or “No money,” then trying to accost you at the gate demanding payment. Knowing this was probably their only source of income was hard but as soon as anyone spoke to one of them they were besieged by other hopeful vendors. It was best to keep your head down, arms folded and try to ignore everyone. Some of our group did good deals and had bought all their gifts for friends at home for a pittance before even getting into Tanzania. It was bizarre being in a No Man’s Land between two sets of gates and in total chaos. There were forms to fill in and a queue in a smart office building but stamps were issued without anyone checking the paperwork. In fact one of our group realized, on the way home, every time he’d been asked for his passport number he had mistakenly written his telephone number and it had never been noticed !
We boarded the bus again and drove into Tanzania. The roads here were a bit better but still with plenty of pot holes. The African bush stretched out to the far distant horizon, very very flat but punctuated by the flat tops trees you always associate with Africa in pictures. Later in the journey we left the road to drive on ill defined rough tracks through the bush. It was very dusty and we tried to cover our noses and mouths with our t shirts. Lunch was provided in the bush under an open sided tent with blue plastic chairs to sit on. Another surreal moment ! We tucked in heartily to carrot soup, beef stew, potatoes, carrots, beans and coleslaw, followed by small, slightly crunchy bananas. It was weird eating this meal in the middle of no where under canvas and sitting on plastic chairs ! A group of Massai women, adorned in jewelry with masses of ear rings stretching their ear lobes almost to their shoulders, came and sat quietly by the tent displaying their necklaces and bracelets for sale. Their attitude was so much more dignified than that of the towns people who had flocked around us at the border. One women had a bulky woollen looking cloth draped around her back and then she deftly manoeuvered her baby from her back to her front and started feeding him.
We then transferred to 4 x 4 vehicles for a faster and more hair raising drive through the bush. The dust was unbelievable and we were all tired but lurching through the bush over rough ill-defined tracks there was no chance of sleeping. There were a lot of cattle with the humped necks which I’d always previously associated with India. We passed close to some Massai settlements of round huts with pointed straw roofs and fenced areas. It seemed the goats and cattle were mainly herded by the children carrying sticks but we also saw young men with spears. Only the children waved at us. In one settlement there was a herd of dozens of goats and cattle but we saw very few people and only about 4 huts. It was hard to imagine why the herd was so big given they were unlikely to trade the meat or any other products with anyone else. On and on through the dust, with little to see except cattle, goats and termite mounds and the vast expanse of scrub. We did see three more giraffes and the driver stopped and pointed out a herd of zebra which, even with binoculars, were the tiniest of dots on the horizon !
We were all exhausted when we reached our first camp. It was a welcoming sight, ten 2 man tents in a huge semi circle set up next to a mess tent and with a toilet tent and shower tent beyond. The toilet was a revelation. A toilet you could sit on, with toilet paper and a air freshening block, marked ‘Climax’ (!) hung on a piece of string in an open topped green tent with a bucket of water and a cup to enable you to flush everything down into the base. Sheer luxury to what I had been expecting. And a shower as well ! Actually a canvas bag to be filled with water hung over a tent but a shower none the less. It was not filled with water and actually was never seen again after that first night ! The toilet was to be carried with us from camp to camp by a porter and was cleaned out several times each day. Our toilet was obviously the envy of other groups of trekkers and we often suffered intruders. Sadly on those days the capacity was often exceeded so searching out a boulder or large bush was a more appealing option.
We set up our tents, rolling out thermarests and sleeping bags. I was to share with Kat, the shy, quiet student from Manchester who turned out to be great fun and certainly not shy ! The porters bought us small plastic bowls of warm water to wash in which was much needed after the dust of the drive through the bush and I discovered why the kit list had included a nail brush ! I had not bought one, not really envisaging a need , a fact I regretted each evening.
Dinner was served in the mess tent. As we sat at a table, lit by lamps and our head torches, our porters and cooks appeared out of the darkness providing a wholesome meal apparently out of no where. They dished out our food to us but hardly spoke and then retreated back into the darkness and then later sat around their fire well away from the rest of us. Daniel, our guide talked us through the itinerary for the next day, and discussed our kit list including the multiple layers we would need for the summit ascent including gaiters as an extra layer for warmth and also their benefits as protection against the infernal dust initially, unseen dangers in the rainforest and later, the scree. He explained about acclimatisation and the need to walk ‘pole, pole’ (poley, poley) which means ‘slowly, slowly’. That too became a catch phrase, ‘Pole pole’. Before darkness fell we had all stared in amazement at the majestic mountain in the distance and took photos of it mentally planning our ascent. Daniel went on to explain how Kilimanjaro was not visible from here and we had all been admiring Mount Meru.
After dinner we retreated to our tents and I slept like a log ! As was to become a routine, those of us not already awake were woken at 6.30 by porters offering us ‘bed-tea’. This was a choice of tea or chocolate bought to our tents. It was usually very weak with loads of lumpy powdered milk and usually not very warm but certainly very welcome. We’d then pack up the contents of our tents, putting as much as possible into the main sacks leaving just water, extra clothes, water proofs and essentials in our day sacks. Porters would collect our main sacks from outside the tents to carry them on to the next camp. Breakfast was at 7.30 in the mess tent. Every day there was watery porridge followed by a cooked breakfast of bacon or sausages and sometimes both, with eggs either scrambled, boiled or as omlettes and toast with jam. Roger supplemented his breakfast with marmite bought from home in a small pot which made him popular with some members of the group who fell into the ‘Love it’ category. We felt we could not intrude on the cooks and porters but I so wanted to find out the logistics of how they managed to prepare all the food, not only for the 20 of us but also our team of porters which at one stage numbered 80. Fires were not permitted once we were in the national park so all this was prepared using gas from cylinders carried by the porters from camp to camp usually on their heads. I would have liked to have seen their utensils and pans for cooking for this number. It was certainly an amazing feat. I ate so much better than I had expected. We were warned that at altitude it was common to lose your appetite but it certainly did not happen to me. I ate enthusiastically through out the trip and despite all the exercise gained a little weight !
We were driven in the 4×4 vehicles to Lemosho Gate to register. I had envisaged a grand gate, may be with stone pillars but certainly something a lot more impressive than the white painted metal gate which was our entrance to the Kilimanjaro national park. Here we registered by signing in a large hard backed exercise book. We also had to sign in at several of the camps and they required strange information like age and occupation as well as other more relevant details. It became a bit of a joke as Scott’s and Steve’s occupations changed almost daily ranging from stuntman to farmer ! There was a public toilet at the gate which was a ground level porcelain basin to squat over but with a proper flush. It was a novel design to us ! We then got back into the vehicles and were driven part way into the park on rough, rutted, dusty tracks through coniferous woodland before stopping at a random fork in the road to disembark and begin the real trek up Kilimanjaro.
This was it ! Day sacks on our backs, walking poles in our hands we set off ‘pole, pole’. Here it did not seem like Africa at all. It could easily have been a track through English Forestry Commission woodland with grass verges and hedges. The track was quite rough with deep ruts and suddenly there was an anguished cry of pain behind. Al had twisted his ankle in a rut and was in a great deal of pain. As he fell those close to him heard a crack as the ligaments tore. Initially several thought he had broken his ankle. After some attention from Matt and some expert support bandaging he hobbled into the lunch area heavily bearing weight on his walking pole using it as a walking stick. We were all shocked and subdued. An injury so early in the trek and obviously a serious one which would probably mean Al would not be able to complete the climb. However at this stage most of us did not know Al very well and had reckoned without his steely determination and complete mental focus on the task in hand. Or was it just sheer bloody mindedness ?
Lunch was laid out on a large long table with our now familiar red and black checked tablecloth which was to accompany every meal through out the trek. We sat on small foldable canvas chairs some of which broke during the trek but kept reappearing having been repaired and stitched by the porters using thick black thread. A large blue butterfly fluttered past. I hoped to be seeing more wildlife especially birds and butterflies as this afternoon we were to trek through the rain forest. Here we had our first experience of the ‘long drop’ toilets. A wooden shed with a hole in the floor over, as it describes, ‘a long drop.’ Surprisingly it was not quite as offensive as I had envisaged and even lingered long enough to take a photograph to show the children !!
The rain forest was beautiful though not at all hot and steamy as I had expected. The trees were tall and the vegetation dense, though the path was narrow it was well defined. Everywhere was very lush and very green. We saw the delicate red flowers of Impatiens Kilimanjari which only grows on Kilimanjaro and Kay made sure Roger photographed several specimens of the different plants we saw. There was some birdsong but we did not see the birds except a single dark blue one which flitted through the trees before I could reach my camera and no butterflies. In fact the main wildlife we saw were massive ants about 1cm long and quite menacing looking. At one place we saw large piles of dung and a track of trampled vegetation where elephant had passed through maybe the day before but Vincent pointed out elephants were shy creatures which we would be extremely unlikely to see. Later we did see monkeys in the trees and all struggled to get action shots as they jumped between branches. Predictably my photos showed branches but the total absence of any monkeys ! I guess that’s the advantage of Facebook where we’ll be able to copy each other’s photos and claim to be a much more competent photographers than we are ! It was an easy undulating walk, though overall steadily climbing, through beautiful calm scenery. Vincent, our guide pointed out a tree with the centre burnt out. We hazarded guesses of lightening strikes and similar causes but he explained how bees nested in the trees and how local people would light a fire in the base to smoke them out in order to collect the honey.
Our camp for the night was at Big Tree Camp, which was cramped with tents tightly packed around the central big tree. We chose tents randomly. Later, when we were more experienced, we’d chose them by the flatness and lack of slope of the site, lack of boulders under the groundsheet and would test the functioning of the zips ! We were already falling into a routine of setting up tents for the night, filling our water bottles and purifying it though here some of us still had some of the original bottled water from Tinga Tinga, Then the small bowl of warm washing water would arrive and we would wash using the harsh all purpose soap. Our hands were so dirty that you hardly wanted to wash your face in the water once your hands had been in it. The blokes removed their shirts and washed thoroughly and some people attempted to dunk their heads in the water to clean their hair. Apart from washing their hands in water, the females were more inclined to use wipes to make a gesture towards cleanliness but the blokes were much more fastidious about washing and some sought out secluded spots for washing the ‘undercarriage’ as Gordon so delicately put it. We got extremely dirty during the day but good hygiene was essential if we were going to remain well so, at every opportunity we were using antibacterial gel to ‘clean’ our hands. It was strange ‘cleaning’ our hands before eating but them still being black with dirt but hopefully no bacteria.
Each day soon after getting to camp we would have tea which was savoury snacks, often salted nuts or popcorn and biscuits with tea, coffee or milo. All the food had English brand names though many are no longer sold in the UK such as the Blueband margarine. Milo was a new experience for a lot of the group though the older ones remembered it from our childhood. Several of the younger members of the group developed a taste for Milo which probably could not be fulfilled back in the UK. Our food had been carefully selected to ensure a large amount of fluid was taken in as food in the form of porridge at breakfast and soup for most lunches and all dinners. We ate from metal plates and bowls which were often too hot to hold when filled with soup. The plastic mugs with a flowery pattern were better insulated but at least two split and leaked. The first time a split one was found we gave it to the porters explaining it leaked but it reappeared at the next meal with a different recipient spilling their tea on the table. We decided to take matters into our own hands and someone broke the mug by stamping on it. The cooks were horrified saying “ You can not break mug. You must not break mug” We later learnt that they tried to repair all breakages although not very successfully as every time hot liquid was put in the repaired mugs they split again. On the training weekend I had been advised to drink a sachet of Dioralyte each evening to replace salts and I religiously drank mine although those which didn’t did not seem to have any adverse effects. However our salty afternoon snacks were also supplied to help replenish salts lost from our bodies by the exertion of the days trekking. After tea we continued to prepare for the next day, rest, chat or write our diaries. Most of us began with great hopes of writing a journal at the time and Matt always seemed to be writing neat lines of close script in his notebook. However the rest of us made occasional notes and always promised ourselves we’d start in earnest tomorrow !
By dinner time it was getting dark. We were just about experiencing 12 hours light and dark as sunrise was about 6.30 and by 6.30 to 7.00 in the evening the sun was setting. As the sun went down the temperature dropped sharply even though we were already in the shadow of huge trees. We were glad to get into the mess tent where the proximity of bodies and good food meant it was nice and warm. Dinner at Big Tree Camp was delicious battered fish and rice. How did the cooks manage this amazing feat ? The entertainment for the evening was watching Matt perform acupuncture on Al’s ankle which clearly he did not enjoy. I think everyone of the group is the proud owner of a photograph of Al’s swollen ankle with needles sticking in it.
Each day after dinner Danny would come in to the mess tent, often introducing some of the team such as the cooks and Clements, probably the happiest looking doctor any one had ever seen, Later in the trek, after the ‘bed tea’ we would all see Clements for a blood pressure check and sometimes to auscultate our chests before breakfast. Danny would run through the itinerary for the next day including how much water we were likely to need and the altitude we would be reaching, although the levels did seem fairly inconsistent and varied depending on when we were told. However, the principle remained the same, each day we climbed to a higher level and then dropped down to camp for the night to help with acclimatisation, On Brian’s training course he had suggested we train ourselves to drink 4 litres of water a day which had been hard for me as I previously drank no water and stomaching 4 litres was a challenge not to mention finding the time for all the additional trips to the loo. However I now was able to drink 4 litres a day and religiously sipped at my water all the time as I walked. Early on in the trek there did seem to be a direct connection between my mouth and my bladder and I was scooting off searching out boulders or bushes at every stop. However as we gained height the toilet stops were less frequent and although I always drank more than the others and exceeded Danny’s recommendation, I continued to feel well and avoided the headaches which a lot of others seemed to suffer from. It seems it was good advice.
It was a colder night at Big Tree Camp and you could see your breath even inside the tents, but snuggled into my sleeping bag wearing silk thermals and following Brian’s advice about pulling your socks off your toes, I was quite warm enough. However I slept less well than the previous night. While dozing suddenly I heard loud chattering of monkeys and was delighted to think they must be very close in the trees right above the tents. However when it was followed by a clear Tarzan call I realized it was a ring tone on someone’s mobile phone. Later, the genuine, quiet, distant chattering of monkeys was almost a disappointment ! In the morning we woke to birdsong in the trees and a porter calling ‘”M’dame, m’dame. Bed tea”
We all tried to make an effort to speak the language. We quickly mastered the greeting ‘Jambo’ which we said to everyone we met and ‘Asante Sana’ for ‘Thankyou’ but apart from repeating the names of food which the porters announced as they bought it to the table in the mess tent, few of us got much further. The porters however all had some English and Daniel and Vincent were brilliant and able to discuss complicated issues such as diabetes and altitude sickness although frequently they added an unnecessary ‘y’ to the end of words. It was reassuring to know they were trained in First Aidy !
We left Big Tree Camp and continued through the rain forest and then onto steep rocky hills following very narrow paths in single file. Much of the trek was going to be in single file and by the end we all were familiar with everyone else’s footwear as we had spent so much time walking looking down and mainly seeing the person in front’s heels. The vegetation was dense moorland type bushes with tall heathers and several plants also familiar in gardens at home such as scabius and herbs such as sage. There were also beautiful protea flowers which we learnt were the national flower of South Africa. Lizards basked on rocks at the edges of the paths. It was a long but pleasant walk made easier by the fact I had now perfected the technique of using walking poles. We reached the peak of the highest hill and then began descending and, as the path curved around suddenly, far below, our lunch site came into view in a clearing in the valley. It seemed like a long climb down and certainly we had a good appetite for lunch when we got there. Here white necked ravens circled overhead and even swooped down to steal from the tables given the chance. After today most places we ate we were to be joined by the ravens scavenging for food. After lunch we climbed up out of the valley and into the Shira Caldera and on to camp at Shira 1 which was in the scrub land. As we had climbed steadily up and down I did not feel as though we had gained as much height as we had but tonight we were to be sleeping at 3,500 metres. Unfortunately Paula was not feeling well and had found today hard. This was worrying as this is the sort of height that people can begin to feel the effects of altitude. There were already signs of the reduced pressure due to the altitude, food steamed a lot even when it was not especially hot and the self inflating thermarests failed to inflate and had to be blown up which was more difficult than when camping in the UK.
Amazingly Al had kept up with the group hobbling on his walking poles despite falling again as his ligaments were so weakened. We all were full of admiration for his determination. Other than getting a bit breathless when drinking I felt fine and pleased that I had not found the trekking too arduous so far and my feet were fine, probably thanks to my 1000 mile socks, and I had no blisters !
This evening we also had our first view of our target. Kilimanjaro is a shy mountain usually shrouded in cloud except in the early morning and late in the evening. From our camp we first saw the top of the mountain, with its isolated patches of snow, above swirling cloud which, as the sun went down, gradually drifted away to reveal more and more of the red rock. Eventually, by the time the sun had disappeared the mountain looked like a dark shadowy silhouette with patches of bright light where the snow shone out in the moonlight. It was an awesome and daunting sight.
By now we were gelling as a group. We were an unlikely group of friends ranging from Kat at twenty to Les and Butch in their very early sixties and from a range of backgrounds and occupations although engineering was surprisingly over represented with four engineers in the group. Butch was quiet and reserved while Les was a sociable Welshman always ready for a chat. He quickly befriended everyone including the porters who called him ‘Baboo’ or ‘Grandfather’. Around the camps cries of “Baboo” soon became as common as “Africa Baby”. Roger and Kay, our married couple, were clearly well travelled and experienced walkers. They appeared to have done a great deal of research on the trek and had a good knowledge of the various routes and camps. This was compared to me who had not even known what country Kilimanjaro was in before signing up for the trek and my only knowledge of the mountain was the itinerary we had received from Charity Challenge. Roger had an interest in geology and keenly picked up rocks on route in between photographing plants at Kay’s request. Early on they walked together but chatted to others as well and Kay eagerly lent out Roger to help anyone who was struggling in any way. Daniel and Dave were also keen at picking up rocks but they chose huge chunks which they insisted on holding in every photograph. Dave was quiet with a dry sense of humour and a very blunt way of putting things, you felt it would take time to get to know him. Early on in the trek he found a forked stick which he used through out and aimed to bring it back to England with him. Mike, on the other hand, an Essex man chatted easily to who ever was walking close to him. His claim to fame, whilst climbing the highest free standing mountain in the world, was that at home he lived at zero metres above sea level. Lee was another quiet member of the team although very friendly, he seemed to take a few days to feel completely relaxed in the group. Gordon was the vivacious Scotsman, a gentle giant usually clad in his shorts and a devoted family man with a laminated picture of his children tied to his walking poles. Paula and Elaine were quiet and supported each other through the trek. Elaine’s hearing impairment made conversation difficult while trekking in single file which was a great shame. Initially I had thought Kat was shy but she was a great tent mate and very friendly, she mingled while trekking joining various conversations and groups. We had two Paul’s in the group. Big Paul, our second friendly Welshman who is looking forward to fatherhood next year and Little Paul who was certainly talkative and had an amazing knowledge of all things trivial. I think he must have seen every film or TV series ever written and could quote extensively from them. His knowledge of quotations was only rivalled by Scott’s and they had lengthy conversations quoting from films. Scott was probably the early natural leader of the group, with his cries of ‘Africa Baby’ usually from the top of rocks he had scaled. Most of us have numerous photos of Scott, Dave and Dan on top of boulders. I think the cousins, Steve and Scott, both such lovely people, must come from a great family in all senses of the word as they were two of, I think, 29 cousins. Al was great company although the pain he was suffering made him quieter than normal but his amazing mental strength was an inspiration to us all. He was also happiest in shorts and even asked Daniel if he could wear shorts at the summit, a request which was declined. Dan was a mate of Al’s and they had signed up for the trek together. He had bought most of his kit from Army Surplus and, wearing camouflage, he tried to tell the porters, other trekkers and any children he saw that he was a soldier and in the SAS. In fact he was missing the beginning of his new university course which was the same engineering course that Dave had studied previously. Diabetes UK had sent an English doctor on the trip, Matt, who was good company and as well as being hugely supportive in his medical role, carefully checked not only on our physical wellbeing but also on our emotional state. Emily was the official Diabetes UK representative and she was a lovely gregarious person, quietly acting as official leader while obviously hugely enjoying the trek and the company. And so that was the 20 of us all on the great adventure, all determined to make the summit and all part of the great team…. ‘Team Africa Baby’.
At Shira 1 we were all amazed by our dinner of chicken and chips. Just how do the cooks produce this food ? After dinner, as usual, we were ready to turn in and headed back to our tents. We were into the routine of rising at 6.30 and being in bed soon after 8.30 or 9. The night sky was amazing. A vast expansion of stars in a dark sky and bright, bright moonlight and in the distance Kilimanjaro reared into the sky with the ghostly glowing snow fields illuminated by the moon. Shira 1 was an exposed, cold camp site, the dew on the tents turned to frost and ice formed in the toilet I slept with my buff over my head and was fine though already some people were sleeping fully clothed but were still cold. I again appreciated Brian’s ‘Top Tips for Sleeping Warm’, getting into the bag clothed but shedding layers to sleep in very little but loose clothing to give a good air pocket for your body to warm up, covering your head and pulling socks off your toes.
Day 5 we woke to a cold frosty morning and few of us had slept very well. Today we were to cross Shira Plateau where 10 years ago a huge fire had raged and still the scars could be seen with charred stunted trees and short vegetation which had taken 10 years to grow only a few inches high. Since then fires had been banned in the national park and so now in addition to every thing else porters had to carry calor gas bottles usually on their heads from camp to camp. The porters were amazing, packing up each camp and carrying everything including our main sacks and all the provisions to the next camp arriving well before us and setting everything up again. Apparently rules have changed so they can only be asked to carry 20kg now but the loads were bulky and unevenly packed which made their strength and balance all the more amazing. Usually they went at about twice our speed despite their loads and inappropriate footwear. Most wore second hand trainers or boots obviously given to them by previous trekkers and as they were ill-fitting most porters looked like they had huge feet as the footwear was often several sizes too big.
Apparently sometimes wild animals could be seen here but the only evidence we saw was buffalo poo ! It was a rocky path to start with and then a long flat trek between rocks and boulders. On the far side of the plateau we climbed up towards the ridge and then scrambled up to a high point called Shira Cathedral at 3,880 metres. It was an easy scramble and we were rewarded by fantastic views at the top. We posed for various photos enjoying the view but within ten minutes the cloud came in obscuring everything. We were glad to have made the top just in time. However our luck held out and we had no more than a few drops of rain. Today’s lunch was a picnic and excitement erupted as we unwrapped items clad in foil which were hugely unequal and it became quite a competition to claim the largest and smallest portions of chicken. However it was a good lunch and included Cadbury’s chocolate bars which surprised us. We then set off along a ridge heading towards Shira 2. This was a long walk through rocky terrain but with lovely views and interesting plants including the bizarre giant lobelia with huge creamy cones rising out of the foliage. We passed through a flat clearing which almost looked like a car park and then found stones laid out to spell ‘Diabetes UK 1 2 3’. Although the letters had become a bit disjointed, the numbers were clear. This had been laid out by Danny’s three previous Diabetes UK treks. Naturally we had to lay our own ‘4’ and make sure photographic evidence was taken. The path continued past caves and notices stating ‘No sleeping in Caves’. By the last half hour of the trek I was very tired and realised I had probably drank less water than on previous days and vowed to drink more the next day. The good news was I was now seeming to retain it longer and needed fewer toilet stops !
Shira 2 was a very rocky site and tents had been put up over rocks and on slopes. Sleeping comfortably may well be a challenge. This afternoon’s snack was salted cashews. It gets better and better ! However dessert at dinner proved very unpopular. Chillied pineapple did not tempt the British palate. Some brave souls did try it but when Danny came in very little had been eaten. He apologised profusely, explaining how he also disliked it and had suggested it be taken off the menu, but the cooks saw it as a speciality and had made it anyway. Danny asked them to take it away and provide some fruit instead and we all felt guilty. Everything else served so far had been fine. The cook returned with the fruit apologising again and we all felt even worse. Despite Al still being in shorts the rest of us were preparing for another cold night and following advice some people filled their metal water bottles with hot water making improvised hot water bottles. Impressed by their ingenuity several of us did the same with our stainless steel flasks and returned to our tents. Only the next morning did it occur to me why it hadn’t worked but at least it proved our flasks worked well and had insulated us from the warmth of the water ! Danny had advised us to secure our tents well as this area was heavily populated with mice which often got inside the tents, so we secured all the zips at the base but left the top of the inner liner open to provide ventilation. We had learnt at high altitude it is even more important to sleep in a well ventilated area and also not to bury your face in the sleeping bag despite the cold. As it happened we didn’t see any mice until later at Barafu.
Until now Kat had been sleeping with ear plugs but now, a further sign of the low air pressure, they were collapsed as the air had been sucked out of them. As I transferred snacks into my day sack for the neck day I found more evidence of the effects of altitude. A packet of nuts and raisins was blown up and looked at bursting point where the air inside had expanded. I wondered if it would actually burst so placed it inside a plastic bag. I did vow to wait and see what happened but in the event I got hungry the next day and opened the pack before it could explode. As the air pressure reduced I had expected the air to somehow feel different as I breathed it in. I expected to be able to detect the lack of oxygen but in fact the only physical changes I noticed was swelling of my hands. Initially my rings became tight so I removed them, then each day my watch strap became tighter and in the end I had loosened it by 3 holes. However my hands were never painful and the swelling caused no other problems. What I did notice was how tiring it was to do very ordinary things like hurrying back uphill from the toilet tent and how quickly you got out of breath when drinking. I think I was lucky with the altitude just making me tired and I did not have the headaches which some people suffered from. I slept better that night although I still woke very frequently I managed to get back to sleep quickly most times and certainly Shira 2 was less cold than Shira 1. Next morning we awoke to find we were now above the cloud. It was weird looking down on what looked like a huge soft cushion and in the distance Meru poked through.
Monday was a long but varied day passing through very different geological environments but as we walked Kilimanjaro was now always there, looming up to our left as we made our way around it’s southern aspect. It was like an ever present friend and I was beginning to realise that finally we would reach the top and this adventure would end. I felt I wanted the journey to go on for ever. I almost did not want to get to summit now because I was so content just trekking and seeing new sights every day. Initially we trekked through a rocky landscape of volcanic debris picking up pieces of brilliantly coloured obsidian or volcanic glass. Roger found some particularly good specimens and I found a small piece which I could put in the bottom of my camera case and take home. The landscape became increasingly bleak as we followed a path up over ridges, through valleys and up over more ridges. It was a tiring walk and we were glad of our picnic lunch which we ate sitting on rocks. Today’s foiled wrapped surprises included delicious samosas and pancakes. Several of us laid down to rest but the porters insisted we must not fall asleep. It occurred to me that all I really had to think about was just putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going but the seven diabetics on the trek had so much more to consider. They made me feel quite humble. As usual the white necked ravens were in attendance but today we were treated to seeing a huge bird of prey which we thought was an eagle. Having passed our highest point for the day at 4440 metres our trek then continued across volcanic desert and gradually the amount of vegetation increased. Here we saw small patches of helichryseums, the papery dry flowers we could buy in England and heathers. As we descended into Baranco Valley the landscape became increasingly lush until there were carpets of helichryseums, punctuated by giant lobelias and giant Senecios, The smaller versions of these were just about a foot high but as we descended and obviously water was more plentiful they became taller with massive tree like trunks with the green parts sprouting absurdly on top. We passed a beautiful waterfall and finally reached Barranco camp. This was certainly the most spectacular camp with fabulous views down the valley and a view of Barranco Wall which was our target for tomorrow.
Next day, as we packed up camp, looking across at Barranco Wall there was a visible line of insect sized people making their way up the wall, there were obvious bottle necks in the slowly moving procession and we wondered what was ahead of us. Climbing the wall was great. It was a real scramble with a few hairy moments for the less enthusiastic climbers but great fun. Looking back towards the camp gave us a wonderful view of the plain below and looking the other way, Kilimanjaro, and yes, it was getting closer. Now instead of making our way around it we would be moving in, in towards the mountain and nearer the final ascent. After reaching the top of the wall we again continued over ridges and through valleys, the last of which was very deep and we crossed the river at the bottom which was the last water source before the summit. As the glaciers are on porous rock any melt seeps down into the rock to emerge far, far below. All our water from now on would have to be collected from this point by the porters and carried up to our camps. We were disappointed that the walk into the icefields which was on the itinerary was no longer possible due to the changes caused by global warming making it too dangerous.
Although this had been a short day we were all very tired and were glad of a rest at Karanga Camp where most of us laid in our tents in the afternoon chatting, dozing or reading. Natasha had suggested bringing books because she had been bored in the rest periods during her trek in the Himalayas. However I had not been bored at all and this was the first time I had opened my book since leaving Nairobi. The camp was very rocky and there were huge rocks under some of the tents. Paul asked to borrow Kat’s nailbrush so as payment we suggested he lay down reaching under our groundsheet and remove the biggest rocks. Kat and I were pleased to have got a good tent today with all the zips working well. However the toilet tent was not so good as the zip kept jamming. It was a worrying thought you could be trapped in a toilet tent in the cold of the night and so we all left enough of the zip open to crawl out if the worse were to happen…… and it did ! I was glad it was dark when I ended up crawling out of the toilet tent but I don’t think anyone saw me ! Despite that it had been a great day, probably the best so far and now we realised in 36 hours we should be at the summit.
I almost felt the mountain was my friend, almost reassuring as it sat benignly there very slowly getting tantalisingly closer. Daniel had explained that today we would be heading to Barafu Ridge camp but he would be going ahead and hoped to get permission for us to go on beyond the first camp to High Barafu to give us an advantage before heading for the summit. High Barafu was a camp which a group of guides had set up themselves above a steep climb which otherwise would be part of the final summit ascent. The authorities were apparently very strict about where camps could be set up and High Barafu was not really an official site so we volunteered to contribute towards a bribe to make this possible but were not sure how serious Daniel was that that might be necessary. We stopped at Barafu Ridge camp for a delicious lunch of soup, potato salad and pineapple. Here we finally saw the cute gerbil-like four striped mice that Danny had described. They scrambled around through the rocks probably totally surviving on scraps of dropped food. Looking across from the camp we noticed a brown haze rising into the sky and realised a bush fire was burning and all afternoon we saw the smoke cloud getting thicker and worried about what was happening far below us in the bush. Danny met us to give us the good news we would be camping at High Barafu. I had been using high factor suncream even though I had never bothered in the past and despite that today my knuckles were red and sore as they had been sunburnt as I walked gripping my walking poles.
After lunch it was another lovely rocky trek and I was chatting happily to Paul when we realised the others were no longer in sight. We were heading downwards scrambling over rocks and admiring caves and craggy outcrops. We had slowed down when we realised we were lost but quickly a porter caught up with us from behind. He led as down the rocky path as it twisted and turned and at the bottom we found the others were not far ahead and most of our group were in fact a fair way behind. Looking ahead we faced a huge steep climb out of the valley to High Barafu. It was exhausting but we were all very grateful we would not be facing this at the beginning of the summit ascent.
Barafu Ridge was a cold, windy exposed camp littered with huge rocks. Behind us the summit loomed still looking huge. It was hard to comprehend in just a few hours we hoped to be at the top. We had an early tea and retired to our tents to rest. This was it. Soon we’d be starting on our ‘push for the summit’. None of us expected to sleep but amazingly I fell asleep quickly and slept more soundly than I had for several nights before. Danny had explained how he’d decided to split us into two groups. The first slower group of Butch, Paula and Elaine to leave at 11.30 with him and two or three other guides and then the rest of us would leave at 12.30. We would need to wear as many layers as we could muster with extra clothing in our day sacks and would be woken to have tea and biscuits, collect our flasks of hot drinks that they had prepared for us and then we’d be off heading for the summit in the moonlight. I had on silk and then normal thermals, a long sleeved top, down jacket and water proof with normal trousers, gaiters and waterproof trousers as well as my buff, fleece hat, silk glove liners and then fleece gloves. I looked like a Michelin Man but at least I would not be cold.
At 12.30 we set off. We were bathed in bright moonlight from the huge full moon, the massive silhouette of the mountain rose ahead of us and tiny specks of light twinkled from the path from other trekkers already on their way up. By now we automatically walked ‘pole pole’ but tonight it was because you could not go any faster. The pace was very slow but steady and when the guides suggested we rested for a few minutes you immediately felt cold and your limbs began to stiffen. Some of us did not want to stop but rather go on slowly, slowly making progress. However the guides were strict and we all moved together and all rested together. As some of us found it hard and tried to rest longer they chivvied us on and would not let us sit down. ‘Don’t sleep Don’t sleep You die !’ I heard them say to someone squatting by a rock with his head in his hands. It was steep and hard and slow but when you stopped or had the energy to look back we were making definite progress and the disjointed train of lights behind us got longer. We trudged, mainly in silence, each of us wrapped in our own determined worlds, shrouded in our own thoughts, one step at a time, each step one step nearer the summit, one step nearer our goal.
For my water supply I had decided to use my camelback first as it had an insulated cover and then the platypus which I wrapped inside my rucksack. I had managed, with a great deal of difficulty, to acquire an insulation cover for the pipe so I thought that it should last me well into the ascent. I also remembered I had to blow back into the bag to clear the pipe after every drink to prevent the liquid in the pipe freezing. I had not appreciated quite how hard that would be and how breathless I would become after each sip. However, despite the preparations, within minutes the duckbill mouth piece froze making sipping difficult and within half an hour both water reservoirs were frozen. My insulated pipe had lasted no longer than anyone elses with no insulation ! That meant rather than sipping as you went, at each stop you had to take off your rucksack, unscrew the pipe which was freezing and drink the semi frozen water directly from the bag. The icy water struck your warm stomach like a knife but I knew I would need to go on drinking if I was to make it to the top. We rested for a few minutes quite frequently and sometimes I nibbled a hard cold cereal bar or crunched on a semi frozen jelly baby.
The air on my face was cold but I was toasty warm so long as I was moving. In fact after a couple of hours I was too hot and removed my waterproof jacket and undid the side zips of my waterproof trousers but then they flapped around my feet as they were slightly too long for me and I kept standing on them. I stopped to take them off. It only took a few seconds and I quickly stuffed them in my rucksack but when I looked up the person I was following had got a fair way ahead. It was probably only 20 yards or so but they seemed miles away. I tried to quickened my pace slightly to catch up and immediately was gasping. I was probably walking slower than I had ever walked and yet I was gasping for air. There was nothing I could do just plod on ‘pole pole’ and hope they did not get further ahead. Eventually they stopped to rest, I was tempted to speed up but knew I couldn’t. It seemed like minutes before I reached them and as I got there and was ready to rest they were already wanting to move on as they were getting chilled. I felt better though without the constriction of the extra layer of my waterproof jacket and felt pleasantly warm rather than overheated.
We trudged on and on, up and up, so, so slowly but always onward. I felt strangely happy, and at peace. The moon was so bright it was almost like the watery sun on a winters day and you expected to feel its warmth rather that the steely cold. Walking became automatic, almost trance like. I was so tired, totally exhausted with limbs so heavy I could hardly lift them and yet I felt like I was drifting along. It was a strange experience as if I was drifting upward in another dimension watching my bodily self struggling. It was if those exhausted limbs were not part of me. Random thoughts flitted through my mind. I must try to concentrate. Was this a sign of altitude sickness ? Was I becoming confused ? Was this dissociated state real or imaginary ? I looked around me. Upward the shadowy mountain still loomed, downward a long trail with small head torches glinting along its route and around me the rest of our team all totally absorbed in their own worlds, all plodding on like old tired machines. They looked how I felt. Were we all feeling the same I wondered ? I wanted to ask but I felt I did not want to intrude. I was completely happy in my little world and did not want to share it. I assumed every one else felt the same.
As we rested we talked a little, sometimes we shared snacks, sometimes we changed our order but when we were moving we all retreated into our private worlds and slowly, slowly the summit got closer. I could not remember ever being this tired. Once I was desperate for a drink and throwing off my rucksack said to Lee ‘I’m giving up’. I meant just for a short time for a drink but he immediately retorted ‘No, you’re bloody not ! ‘ At one point Kay was struggling and started dropping back, at first others encouraged her but within a few minutes she was feeling really ill and vomiting. It was a shock, jolting me back to reality. Kay had always been one of the fore runners on every trek so far and of all of us seemed to have been one of the best prepared. How could it be she was now ill ? Would she have to turn back ? How disappointing would that be especially as it was soon going to be dawn. Surely it could not be that much further. We were getting cold and needed to move on. The rest of us set off again passing Kay who was with a porter and Matt, our doctor. I felt a pang of guilt but deep inside we all knew we could only help each other so much and at the end of the day each of us could only get to the top on our own personal inner strength. However after a few minutes Kay was on her feet again and at the back of the group was still striving for the summit.
I had lost all concept of time and suddenly a faint orange glow began to form in the sky and it rapidly grew and stretched across the purple, grey sky. Dawn was breaking. My heart leapt at the thought of sunrise. I suddenly realised it had been a long, long night and now the sun was rising, it was a new day. A bright new day. The day on which we would reach the summit. I looked up and realised the top of the ridge was not far away. It really was attainable. We were almost to Stella Point.
We almost fell to the top of the ridge at Stella Point. This was a significant landmark. We had reached the top of the steep face. We had done the most difficult bit, now we just had to walk around the crater rim and we would be there. We rested a while in the shelter of a large rock, drank some strong warm tea from our flasks and prepared for what I thought was a gentle walk around the rim of the crater. Sure it was still uphill but you could see the ridge ahead of us. It did not occur to me I could not see the rickety signpost of all the summit photos I had seen. It was tempting to set off quickly, after all, the end was in sight but immediately we realised ‘pole pole’ was the only way. So we began again, one step after another and so, so slowly the ridge got closer. I was with Steve but we walked in silence and finally reached the ridge. As we stepped up onto it at the same time we realised it was a false horizon. Far, far away in the distance the summit taunted us. We had really believed we were almost there. A string of expletives filled the air, we threw ourselves on the ground, I was crying. I couldn’t go on. I didn’t even want to go on. I wanted to stay here lying on the ground. For me this was the top. I thought Steve felt the same and later he admitted he had just wanted to stay there and for everyone to leave him alone. Scott had joined us now. He too had thought this was the top. All three of us stared in silence. Then Scott was speaking to us, encouraging us. I don’t know what he said. I don’t know if I even heard him. I just heard his voice not his words………….. and then I was walking again. Walking very slowly and deliberately but walking. Walking to the summit. And Steve was too, and Scott. We were going to make it to the summit.
The view was amazing. The glaciers were stunning, standing serenely with the sun reflecting off them and a blanket of cloud behind them. We walked between ridges of frozen snow and looked down towards the snowy crater. It was fabulous. All around us were the most marvellous photo opportunities but I was too tired to notice, too tired to get the camera out. All I wanted now was to reach the crooked old signpost.
I reached the summit alone. Gordon was already there sitting alone on the rock beyond the signpost. I took off my rucksack, laid down my walking poles and sat on the rock. I was here. I had made it. Suddenly I was crying. Sitting on a cold rock on the tallest free standing mountain in the world, almost 6 kilometres above sea level, staring at the amazing scenery through a veil of tears. I don’t know how long I sat there. I don’t know how many people will look at their summit photos and see a pathetic women in a green down jacket huddled in the corner crying.
After a while I realised I wasn’t tired now and I wasn’t crying. I was at the top of Kilimanjaro I needed to take photographs. I needed to find the rest of the team. We needed to be together. I took a photo of the sign and of my rucksack propped up against the rock even remembering to check the 1000 mile logo was visible. Then I walked over to Gordon. We didn’t speak at first, we just hugged and then we were both crying. We went back to the signpost and started meeting the others, Dave, Scott, Paul, Steve. We were all hugging each other, most of us were crying. It was such an emotional experience. I do not know if it was happiness or sadness, relief, elation or just total exhaustion. The rest of the team were joining us now, we were joustling for chances to get photos of each other at the summit and trying to get everyone together for a group photo. Dan had removed his shirt and was smoking his victory cigar.
This was it, this was what we come for. For some people they had waited two years for this moment. We had reached the summit of Kilimanjaro. I wanted that moment to go on forever.
Eighteen of our group of twenty made it to Uhuru Point. Sadly Paula and Butch had both turned back overcome by the altitude. Elaine had made it slowly on her own with just the porters which must have been really hard for her as being in a group had made such a difference to the rest of us as we all reached our low points at different times and encouraged each other to go on. However the greatest admiration must go to Al who tore his ankle ligaments on the first day and resiliently struggled on against all the odds. It was pure mental strength that saw him through. My friend Pete had told me that 80 % of reaching the summit is down to what is going on in your head and the need to constantly picture yourself at the top. Al is certainly proof that if you want to do something enough you can do it. Possibly the person who found it easiest was Paul Coker who positively charged to the top happily chatting to everyone on route. Was that down to the Diamox or was he just better at it than the rest of us ? I felt I had been lucky I had not really suffered with the altitude other than the overwhelming tiredness and swollen hands.
The descent from the summit was hard, two and a half hours descending on scree. Brian had taught us how to come down safely, sticking close together and descending sideways in zigzags across the slope. I was cautious anyway and was quickly overtaken by the several people carefreely careering down the slope at speed. I felt vulnerable and scared and tried the careful approach moving slowly across the slope. But it was a long, long way down and quickly my knees were aching. Very soon I was alone, the forerunners far below whooping as they skidded and slid on the loose rock. Why couldn’t I relax and enjoy charging down rather than looking like a staid old lady pottering down on her sticks ? I persevered, after all I had to, there was only one way down ! I made slow progress and my knees were burning. Dan and I ended up together and we had long since lost sight of our guide. Then we saw Gordon and the three of us struggled on together taking it in turns to lead. Some porters joined us but they seemed impatient with our slow progress. After the elation of the summit this was depressing. I hated the descent but eventually the slope levelled off a bit and tired and achy we limped into camp. It had taken me two and a half hours to get down. The ‘scree skiers’ were there to meet us. Scott greeted us all and photographed every one’s arrival back from the summit. Porters bought glasses of fruit juice and shook our hands. Clements hugged everyone as they got back. We looked back at the mountain rising high behind us. We had been there at the summit just a short time ago. Already it seemed unbelievable. We should have rested but everyone wanted to wait for everyone else to make it down. We all wanted to be together. Now, after the summit which we had all fought together but individually within our own personal battles, now, we wanted to unite as a team again. We were all exhausted but sat around looking back at the mountain and watching the rest of group trudge back into camp some people on their own, some in twos or threes.
The walk out later in the day was long and through a very desolate area. There were no plants and here the rock lay in broken slabs all around us. It was dull and cold and then for a short time it started to hail. As we walked on we were walking in the cloud. Now we all regretted having put away our hats and gloves in our main sacks. Eventually the weather and the landscape improved and our spirits lifted again as we reached Millenium Camp despite it being a bleak and very dusty camp. Here at least we had water to wash in again. What a luxury !
Next day, after photographing our team of porters, we looked back at the mountain. Some of our group cursed the mountain for the anguish of the previous day and vowed never to return, though the feeling was fairly short lived ! We set off again beginning well above the cloud and heading firstly through heathland and then towards the rain forest. As the landscape became more lush the variety of plants increased and we saw a chameleon basking on a twig. The vegetation changed rapidly. We were walking through bushes at shoulder height then suddenly they were well above our heads and in a short time we found ourselves in the forest with trees towering over us tens of feet high. In the rain forest suddenly we realised cloud was swirling around us. It was very atmospheric looking into the misty depths of the trees and we continued onwards and downwards until we were completely below the cloud. Later in the day we would look up and see clouds high, high in sky and realise a few hours previously we had been above those same clouds. It was a strange feeling. The walk in the cool green rain forest was beautiful. Now we were walking in small groups no longer having to go ‘pole pole’ but happily striding out chatting. I had joined Dave and Gordon as we walked down and down and down. At first the path was a down hill slope meandering through the forest but later there were steps. It must be the longest stair case in the world steadily downhill for three and a half hours. We stopped to watch Colobus monkeys and occasionally spoke to other trekkers we passed, briefly comparing experiences of the summit. We heard bird song but only saw one blue bird. As we got lower we saw local people trudging up hill towards us carrying provisions and children emerged from the trees holding out their hands and asking for chocolate. Some were very persistent running along beside us asking for our sweets, hats, sticks or even Dave’s karabiner. We met porters carrying a large metal barrow like contraption with someone else carrying the wheels separately. We wondered what it could be used for and then realised it was the stretcher used to carry people down the mountain. We heard that earlier in the day at least two trekkers had been carried off having succumbed to altitude sickness. Suddenly through the forest we could hear music and voices and soon the path widened and then we were there, we had reached Mwenka Gate.
Some of our group were already there and Scott was again photographing us as we arrived and everyone clapped and cheered as each little group joined us. We sat on a broad leaved grass lawn which was soft and springy. It almost looked and felt like artificial grass. The lawn had a wire fence around it and around the edge locals were beginning to collect displaying their wares, banana leaf pictures, batik pictures of animals, jewellery, carved animals, masks and spears. They were obviously not allowed to come onto the grass but they leaned in trying to get our attention. Al was interested in a spear and was immediately besieged by vendors. It was just like the border but not as threatening. Several people made purchases and straight away you became the target of a group of men all talking at once trying to sell you their products. You were expected to barter but things were ridiculously cheap. It was like a game but afterwards you felt mean for beating down their prices. Lunch was a delicious picnic in a cardboard box from a local hotel and then we signed out and boarded our minibuses and drove out leaving the Kilimanjaro National Park behind.
At first we drove through forest and then past farms and plantations of banana and coffee. At first children ran along side and some clung to windows asking for ‘dollar’ or ‘chocolate’ one even hung onto the back of the bus as we began to pick up speed. We passed shops slightly better than the ones on the road from Nairobi and large schools where all the children were in uniform and lots of boys playing football and big churches but also lots of unfinished buildings many of which looked like they had been abandoned long ago.
At last we reached Arusha and the lodge. We had turned down a rough dusty track between dilapidated shacks passing people surviving in desperate poverty and then through large gates beyond a wall topped with broken glass and there was a beautiful oasis. A wonderful garden of amazing shrubs, a covered balcony dining area and a luxurious pool. I felt very uncomfortable about the gross disparity of society. Such affluence in such close proximity to such desperate poverty. But it was a lovely place with huge beds swathed in mosquito nets, proper toilets and showers. We all showered for a very long time and then met up to enjoy a delicious barbecue sitting on long tables set under the trees. After supper we moved our chairs around the fire and drank and sang late into the night. As Les led us in ‘My, my, my Delilah’ we realised all the dogs of the town were howling with him.
We sat in a circle around the fire in this amazing garden and felt happy and sad and tired and relieved all at once. It was a surreal moment sitting there all together clean and comfortable and realising that 36 hours ago we had been all together on top of Kilimanjaro. We had all come to Africa as strangers, all come for our own reasons, with our own dreams and then we had become a team, all friends climbing together and fulfilling a dream together. It was a very special time. For all of us it will always be ‘Africa Baby’.
Thank you to everyone who shared this with me.