Climbing Kilimanjaro was never a dream of mine. However, neither was working at Walt Disney World, bungee jumping off the Auckland Bridge, nor traveling to over 45 countries while working as a flight attendant in the Middle East. Rather, I have a zest for life and a love for adventure. So last year when I read a book in which the heroin travels to Tanzania, spends seven treacherous days camping up the mountain, and despite all odds, reaches the summit of Kilimanjaro, I was intrigued.
This past February I traveled to Tanzania, a country located in southeast Africa, to make my own attempt at climbing this mountain. Although I flew to Africa solo, I was not alone in my endeavor. My cousin, Lindsey Engelbrecht, of Cape Town, South Africa, joined me in my quest.
The morning we left for our climb, we met our mountain guides, Robert and Jerome. Both native Tanzanian men have worked on the mountain for over 20 years each, and make the climb about three times a month. After quickly checking our equipment to ensure it was in good condition, we loaded up in a safari truck and headed towards the base of the mountain.
There are seven different routes one can take to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, all varying in length. Lindsey and I chose to take the longest route, in order to allow our bodies more time to acclimatize to the lack of oxygen in the air. This lessens the likelihood of encountering altitude sickness.
Once we reached the base of the mountain, we were introduced to the rest of our team. In addition to our two guides, we were staffed with a group of thirteen individuals who cooked for us, cleaned for us, and carried our belongings up the mountain on their head.
Kilimanjaro is known as Everyman’s Everest, as it takes no technical climbing skills in order to reach the summit. Technical or not, I was nervous about the climb. I was especially nervous knowing that my only hiking skills had been obtained the prior week, when I had strapped on my brand new hiking boots and back pack, and wondered aimless for an hour, through my family’s cattle pasture. During this hike, the only mountains I encountered resulted from the inhabitants’ natural fertilization.
Sensing that there was not going to be an orientation, I spoke up within the first few steps, and asked for some advice on how to successfully reach the summit. Robert replied to us through a sweet smile and broken English, “Water, happiness and pole pole.” Pole pole is a Swahili phrase that means, walk slowly. With that knowledge, we trudged forward.
Each day, we would walk between four and eight hours before stopping at our nightly campsites. After our delicious evening meals and a good night sleep, we would wake for breakfast, and begin climbing again.
The night before summit, we went to sleep at 6 PM and woke up at midnight in order to prepare for our last stretch of the climb. From the camp where we stayed, it took approximately seven hours to reach the top of the mountain. Sunrise is the preferred time to reach the summit, as there is less cloud coverage, making the view more scenic. After dressing in several layers, we began our journey in the darkness, with only the glow of the moon and our faint headlamps.
Over half way into our final climb, Robert’s recipe for success wore off, and altitude sickness set in. At approximately 17,500 feet above sea level, I felt light headed and nauseous. Jerome, our assistant guide, kindly offered to carry my back pack for me. Fifteen pounds lighter I continued on, pole pole.
Our group slowly hiked above the rest of the world and around the creator’s rim, all while viewing the most pristine sunrise I had ever seen. Finally, we all laid eyes on the iconic sign, indicating that we had reached the summit. Together we had climbed 19,340 feet above sea level to the highest point in Africa, on the world’s tallest free standing mountain.
Tears of joy froze on my face as I hugged strangers. Australians, Africans, Europeans, old and young, men and women, all rejoiced in one another’s accomplishments. High fives were being commonly exchanged, as there was no one shared language, but yet, everyone was being understood. The landscape on top of Kilimanjaro was gorgeous, but the humanity I saw there was even more beautiful.
Several months have now passed since my climb, and as beautiful as the experience was, I don’t foresee any more substantial mountain climbing trips in my future, in order to fulfill my adventurer needs. However, I have been reading the most fascinating book on Greece.