WITHOUT A CAUSE OR A CLUE TO KILIMANJARO
Mid-way through my first year of humanities at the University of Cape Town, I found myself training to climb the highest mountain in Africa. Chris – my adventurous stepdad – had often mused about the idea of climbing the second highest peaks on each continent. In Africa, Mount Kenya (5600m?) is no. 2; but no easy nut to crack. Besides, having a shot at Mount Kilimanjaro didn’t sound like a bad idea. We roped in one of my best friends, Matt – an artist – and a good family friend, Carl, a businessman. Neither of them had any climbing experience. As with the selection of our group, the trip was completely spontaneous and bizarre. We didn’t have a plan; no hotel bookings, no tour reservations, just return flights…and gun-ho ambition.
Checking in at the ambitiously named ‘President’s Hotel’ in downtown Nairobi, we opened our room to find a random stranger snooping around mischievously. He looked as amazed as we were, and sheepishly darted down the passage. Before we even had a chance to sink into the ramshackle beds, gunshots fired in the street below us. It was the Kenyan version of Grand Theft Auto, as a frenetic armed chase took place before our own eyes. Welcome to Nairobi.
Miraculously, we managed to avoid being conned, robbed or kidnapped, and after a few hedonistic evenings in a decent part of town, we were ready for the start of our adventure. Being so close to some of the most spectacular wildlife sanctuaries in Africa, we hired a jeep – well, the local word for ‘minibus taxi’ – and headed for the timeless plains of the Masai Mara. In Kenya highways have been developed not by building more roads, but simply by overloading the eco-friendly dirt roads with more and more traffic. Bouncing up and down and bumping our heads against the taxi windows, we were constantly amazed at how Fred – our driver and ‘guide’ – was able to negotiate the ridiculously broken up roads, and the swerving, bat-out-of-hell drivers of almost all the kinds of vehicles you can think of. If these guys didn’t get their licenses in lucky packets, then they probably just bought them.
We spent two surreal days in tented campsites on the fringe of the reserve. Apart from seeing busloads of camera-crazy tourists during our game drives with Fred, we were fortunate enough to spot cheetah, leopard and some majestic elephant. During our last evening in the park, Masai warriors were putting on an once-in-a-lifetime show. They danced and jumped around a roaring campfire, enticing apprehensive, but excited tourists to join the party as the drumbeat echoed throughout the campsite. The setting was truly magical…it was like stepping back in time and into another world. ‘’C’mon Matt!’’ I said to my friend, ‘’get in there!’’. ‘’No way man, I’ll look like an idiot!’’ I couldn’t miss out on this one, I remember thinking to myself. Hell, if no one else had the guts to dance – looking like an idiot or not – I reckoned that I did. Before I knew it I was arm-in-arm with colorfully clad Masai warriors…losing myself in the moment. A kind of supernatural energy rushed through me, causing my body to tingle and my mind to wander like a child.
We were back in Nairobi before we knew it, due south for the Tanzanian border. We had one week left before our return to South Africa. Now, most people climb Kilimanjaro in around 6 days. Upbeat and excited, we headed for the frontier town of Arusha, at the foot of the highest mountain in Africa. The fabled Mount Meru – the centre of the universe / representing the god of creation? in ancient (Tanzanian) lore – shaped an impressive backdrop. Beyond lay the extinct volcanic peak of Kilimanjaro. The day before we began our climb, Ambrose – our guide for Kilimanjaro – invited us to his house, in a village few kilometers outside of town. Carefree, feeling the bliss of adventure travel, Chris and I walked with Ambrose through the peaceful streets of Arusha. Children were playing with tin and wire made cars, racing each other down the road. Women were washing clothes in buckets outside their houses, gossiping and laughing. Before we arrived at Ambrose’s house, we were lured into an open-air basketball game. Squaring up against guys as tall as the Masai warriors – only with bigger biceps – we did our best to just pass the ball as quickly as possible! Nearing the village, faces turned with a mixture of bafflement and curiosity.
Day 1. A serene morning, we taxied in to the trailhead with Ambrose and our team of porters. Regulations require all parties to take a certain number of porters and guides up Kilimanjaro. They haul everything but the kitchen sink up the mountain, and will even carry your backpack for you. I didn’t give in to that one; I’m a mountaineer, not a pansy. Registering our crew at the national park office, our ambitions were almost crushed. Turns out that our booking agency back in Nairobi slipped up on a few ‘minor’ details, and apparently we were not authorized to climb. Just perfect. ‘’Besides, you look too old to climb Kilimanjaro’’, one of the officials said to Chris. ‘’What! I can climb this #$*!king mountain man! Let’s go, right now!’’ At which point he picked up the bewildered official and started carrying him up toward the start of the trail. Some people were shocked, others amused. Our team – along with a number of other groups – was in hysterics, rolling on the ground with uncontrollable laughter. Chris also threatened to lambast the entire Kilimanjaro tourism project in a few articles for some of the magazines he ‘wrote for’. Ambrose – barely able to keep a straight face – christened my stepdad with the Swahili nickname ‘Babu Kitambe’ (‘the wise one with a big belly’). From that moment on, cries of ‘’BABU! BABU!’’ could be heard from different parts of the trek. Chris was an instant celebrity on Kilimanjaro. Pretty soon we were heading up the trail – named the coca-cola route, the most popular ascent – making our way through dense forest until we reached base camp.
Day 2. The next morning – feeling good and in high spirits – we made an early start, and hiked steadily on toward our first views of Kilimanjaro. The summit was not visible yet, but we were gaining ground. When we reached camp two, we were above the clouds…gazing in awe at the sea of thick cumulus that enveloped the mountain. Not everyone was having a magical time; one poor climber from New Zealand was being rushed urgently back to base camp on a stretcher…a victim of altitude sickness. Known in mountaineering terms as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), every year on Kilimanjaro hundreds of trekkers succumb to the effects of high altitude – nausea, severe headaches, lethargy, blurred vision, lack of appetite and thirst, and dizziness – usually brought on by ascending too quickly. Because Kilimanjaro is really a long, tough hike along difficult terrain, AMS is a serious threat to all who make an attempt for the top.
Day 3. With just 4 days before our return flight to South Africa, we had to get a move on. Battling howling wind and steep, dusty trails, we leapfrogged camp three and stationed ourselves at ‘School Boy Hut’; a rustic, bricked refuge at the base of the summit pitch. Trekking swiftly along the trail that day, I couldn’t help myself from cracking up at the parade of European and American climbers whom I left in my wake. Kitted out as if they were on an expedition to Mars, it certainly didn’t look like they were walking with less gravity, painstakingly plodding along in the way that climbers make progress on Everest…almost 3000m higher. Delighted by our efforts, we settled in for the night; a short one, as we would begin our push for the summit at 2am. Chris and Carl were both feeling the altitude, and struggled to sleep. Matt and I – young and fresh – sat around smoking cigarettes and laughing…beginner’s luck I guess.
Day 4. It was bitterly cold and pitch-dark. We were all tired, but extremely excited. Rustling up our backpacks, we quickly had some tea and biscuits and ventured like ghosts into the still mountain air. At this point the trail was incredibly steep, demanding focused breathing and rhythmical stepping at every moment. Slow progress allowed the cold to bite into our jackets. We had to avoid taking breaks Ambrose told us; we needed to keep a steady pace and stay warm. After what seemed like an eternity, the sky began to turn from midnight blue into shimmering hues of lilac…faded reds and oranges appearing on the horizon. We were close. Very close. As the sun shone its first rays, we witnessed the dazzling landscape of snow and ice. It was hard to believe that we were in Africa anymore. Other-worldly frozen sculptures – crafted by nature – caught our gaze on all sides, and then…we saw it. Signposted by a mound of flags from around the world, perched atop a massive volcanic crater, was the highest point in Africa.
Ecstatic, Matt and I ran the last few steps to the top and hugged each other in jubilation beyond words. But it was only the two of us from our team. Chris had dropped behind by some distance, overcome by the strain of the summit stretch. Carl was not as far behind, still struggling for the top. We stood shivering and shaking shoulder-to-shoulder…stunned by the endless panorama stretching spectacularly around us. It had never really been one of my ambitions, but there I was, on the roof of the mother continent… the cradle of mankind. Peering in anticipation at the trail, we saw a staggering figure approaching. It was Carl! He barely looked alive. He stumbled the last few steps to the top in desperation, coughing up blood and wheezing in pain. Before he passed out, we grabbed Carl for a photo before he turned around and wobbled down the mountain, having hardly said a word on the summit. Realizing that Chris wasn’t going to make it, and freezing our faces off, we started scurrying down the mountain.
After about half an hour, we spotted Chris, wearily treading forward with immense determination. ‘’Chris! Are you alright!’’ I asked him in exasperation. Then he started crying, and told me that he couldn’t go on. There was no sign of Carl though. He must’ve made good ground and was probably close to reaching the school boy hut. The last few kilometers of the trail zig-zagged along steep scree slopes, which we glissaded down for a short-cut descent. As we neared the hut, we were amazed to see Carl, hobbling and slipping his way down loose moraine like a drunk who looked very, very lost. We were in hysterics again, despite our exhaustion. Time was against us. We only had two days left to get down the mountain.
After a few hours of much needed rest, we dug deep and pushed on, aiming to reach base camp by nightfall. It was an impressive stretch. Starting at 4500m at 2am that morning, we had summited to 5850m, and then descended right back down to 2000m. It was mountaineering madness. No-one does that. In fact, no-one has ever done that trekking the coca-cola route on Mount Kilimanjaro. When we finally got to base camp, it was like we had conquered another summit. At least that’s how we felt. The fact that there were no cabins available for us didn’t even matter. We had experienced one of the greatest moments of each of our lives. We slept like logs on the wooden tables of the communal dining hall, swatting away freaky looking moths as we laughed and recounted day…such a memorable, unbelievable day that we will look back on forever.
We had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and reached the trailhead in a record 4 days. A little sad to leave, we said goodbye to Ambrose and our team of porters, who shouted ‘’Bye-bye Babu! We will miss you!’’ as we drove off. Our Kilimanjaro adventure had ended. It had been unpredictable, exhilarating, fascinating…and unforgettable. Mount Kenya is still on my list though. One day perhaps. One day.