My knees were still wobbling with fear as the flimsy local aircraft, which was so old the flight attendant had to kick the door of the aeroplane out for it to open, landed.
As I stepped down at Kilimanjaro airport, a sense of relief washed over me; relief that my mother would not need to attend a bodiless funeral for her daughter — because there was no way I would have been found there in the middle of the Serengeti we had just passed over. The animals would definitely have got to me first.
I looked around and knew that this place would be quite special to me straight away. It was peaceful, quiet, and simple. It was 10 in the morning and I heard nothing but the crickets chirping perpetually in perfect harmony. It sat well with me.
As we drove to the Mountain Inn hotel for the night, the last pit stop where we would be able to shower and relieve our bowels in a civilized manner for a week, I looked out the window at the scenery. It reinforced the rightfulness of the place to me.
It was sparsely populated with the occasional village or shanty town that was home to the most interesting combination of multi-functional shops I have seen; florist and tea room, butcher and bar and so on. It made me think of what my perfect combination would be. Poetry and pies maybe, or poppadoms and rock n’ roll.
Between those towns were just vast stretches of browns and oranges with the occasional section of jungle and woodland. The Tanzanian landscape seemed to be a mixture of deserts and forests, as if reflecting the strange multipurpose shops in the towns.
After dinner, having been entertained no end by a little blue balled monkey (yes, a monkey which had balls the color of a clear blue summer sky), we walked towards our rooms to retire for the night but then heard the distant sound of live African music.
We decided to explore further and the reverberations led us to a humble bar around the corner. It was a sort of makeshift outdoors bar with a few plastic chairs, a rundown pool table, and nothing else but locals moving rhythmically to the music in sheer, unadulterated joy.
We joined them and for the next few hours nothing else mattered. They accepted us willingly and we moved with them in hip gyrating unison. We withdrew to our mosquito netted beds and fell asleep enveloped in the scent of jasmine that wafted through the windows.
We woke up the next day full of energy and flooded with hope for the week to come, we were ready to do this for Shilpa – my friend’s sister who passed away from cancer a year ago. With the exception of the crazy eyed Brazilian doctor with the wind burnt cheeks who tried to caution us, there were no warning signs of how difficult the task that lay ahead would be.
After breakfast, we met the team that would be assisting us on our journey. We had three guides, Naphtael, Tumayini, and Goodson. Naphtael was the chief guide, a very gruff man with few words and piercing eyes. Although quite grumpy and a little rough around the edges, he was clearly well respected amongst his team members. Later on, during my excruciatingly painful last few hours of trekking, I was to find out the more human side to Naphtael — that he was a mechanical engineer by profession who could not find work within his field and a proud father of a boy and girl for whom he wanted so much more out of life. He wanted them to go to university and become the best they could possibly be given the circumstances. A good education is what he wants for them, something we in the Western world sometimes take for granted.
Goodson was a tall, lanky, softly spoken man who upon first contact we thought was no more than 18 years old. He was 31 and had a wife and 18 month old twins. He had the kindest eyes and the gentlest toothless smile I had seen in a while. For someone who has never been to school, he came across to me as being quite intuitive and intelligently reactive to his surroundings. He didn’t know it, but the tight hug and the re-assuring words of “Please Madame, don’t cry. Everything will be OK” on the way to Uhuru peak on summit night gave me the warmth and strength I needed on the inside to push through.
Last was Tumayini, a 60 year old with enough wisdom to warrant respect, and enough cheeky playfulness to make him the most adorable elderly man I have ever met. The way he would mispronounce almost every English word brought us much needed delight. My personal favorite was to ask “doggie doggie?” It was his way of asking us if everything was “Okie Dokie?”
Every time Tumayini was being teased, or every time he thought he understood a joke that was being shared in the group, his face would collapse into laughter, and he would expose to us a set of extremely uneven, and mostly missing, teeth. He had the kind of smile that would instantly put anyone in a good mood.
The whole team was vital to the success of our trek. From the chef who prepared the most soul warming, energy boosting, humble mountain fare like cucumber or leek soup and macaroni with chili sauce (I’m still trying to figure out what was in that magical chili sauce), to the porters’ Herculean efforts in carrying tents, food, water and equipment on their backs and heads while powering through the mountain as we struggled with our meager six kilo back packs.
There were countless times I felt like giving up. But seeing those porters maintain enough positivity to greet us with a “Jumbo-Mambo” and a smile every single time they passed us, despite the heavy burdens that they carried made me feel almost ashamed of my frailty. I just kept going.
We had chosen the Lemosho route, the longest, and therefore the most difficult of all the paths. Upon reaching Baranco camp and then summit night the following day, the last two and most difficult days, we would have already exhausted most of our strength and energy even though these would be sorely needed to muscle through the toughest parts of the trek.
The first two days were acceptable while we fumbled through the lush dense rain forest that enveloped us in a cocoon of foliage as if threatening to grow into us and replace our veins with stems and our hair with leaves.
But as the days went by the trek became exponentially more challenging. We had to deal with unpredictable weather conditions that alternated between hot, scorching sun beating down on us to rain and eventually sleet as it became colder and colder the higher up we went.
The higher the elevation, the lower the oxygen supply, the more we suffered the symptoms of altitude sickness (AMS): nausea, migraines, exhaustion, dizziness, swelling, and difficulty in falling asleep. Those of us who weren´t able to take Diamox, a drug meant to help with the symptoms of AMS, or mountain sickness as Naphtael calls it, felt it much more severely.
The lengths of the treks was also quite trying. It would become very quiet leaving you with your own thoughts for long periods. Thoughts you have tried to repress resurface out of the depths of your psyche to haunt and confuse you.
The nights were particularly harsh as we battled to sleep in sub-zero, low oxygen surroundings. I remember waking up a few times in the middle of the night gasping for air, thinking that I would suffer death by asphyxiation. It scared me.
God forbid that you had to use the bathroom. You would have had to leave the “comfort” of your sleeping bag (usually around 5 am after finally being able to fall asleep only half an hour before) and venture out into the freezing cold. There you would have to peel off seven layers of clothing before you could relieve your bladder. There were so many times on this trip when I wished — really truly wished — I was a boy.
This recount of mountain trekking and camping hardships would not be complete without a discussion of toilets and hygiene. If you are lucky enough to have a makeshift toilet on campsite — basically a hole in the ground — and you happen to make the mistake of looking down as you crouch across the hole, you are in for a breathtaking surprise in more ways than one. What lies beneath is a grotto of faecal stalactites and stalagmites; a truly wondrous sight that will change the way you perceive human excrement forever.
The true test of what a legendary camper you are though is if you manage to go through this process without soiling yourself in any way. But you just have to accept the fact that most times, you just never know for sure. If you happen to notice that you have in fact peed on your socks, for a minute it feels like your life is over. But then you just pull yourself together and get on with it. So what if you spend the rest of the day in damp socks soaked in your own urine? Let’s face it; with no showers for a whole week, any quest for cleanliness is futile anyway. You just learn to accept the bouquets of smelly feet, the stench of ammonia and the reek of putrid armpits as part of the experience.
Have I sold it to you yet?
I know it sounds clichéd but you learn to accept and embrace the simple things in life, like a warm bowl of soup, the extra pair of clean socks you forgot you had packed, putting your feet up after a long day, clean drinking water, hot showers, TOILETS (!!!), and Mother Nature regardless of how harsh she can sometimes be.
Nature — the beauty of it all — was just astounding. There was something supernatural about it. It really felt — to me at least — that the higher up I went, the closer I was to heaven. For days, we were living in clouds; actually living inside the clouds.
I would wake up, go over to the edge of a cliff, and look down on an infinite carpet of frothy, cottony, white swirls. I was literally on top of the world and my heart would swell with love and a sense of belonging, yet after a while I felt somehow wistful for more. It’s funny how we always hunger for more, and even the clouds are not enough.
At night, if you could ignore for a few minutes the bitter cold, stand underneath the skies and just look up, you would be rewarded with a magnificence that would have moved you to tears: a dark universe peppered with an infinite number of stars — and I mean infinite. I had never seen so many shimmering heavenly bodies in all my entire existence. It was as if God dipped his paint brush in a bucket of twinkle and splashed it out on to the heavens. It was simply beautiful. As I looked up, for some reason Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” was playing in my head and for those few minutes I felt very small yet very important.
The last night before our trek to Baranco camp, I dreamt of my beloved grandmother who passed away a couple of years ago. She held me for hours and kissed my face; my eyelids, the bridge of my nose, my cheeks, and my eyebrows. I knew everything would be ok. But still, it didn´t make the task that lay ahead any easier.
The last part of this journey was the most taxing both physically and mentally. We had to trek for a total of 24 hours over the last two days before reaching the summit having only slept a maximum of two hours or so.
We commenced what we thought would be our last trek to the summit, Uhuru peak, at 11.30 pm so as to arrive at dawn and avoid slippery melting snow. This passage took around seven hours and had been the most challenging part of the whole trip thus far.
As the air was so thin at that point, every single step took superhuman effort. It was like I was Superman having swallowed 50 kilos of kryptonite. We were walking at the pace of an 80 year old arthritic and every move felt like it would be our last. This is not to mention the nausea and the migraines that were becoming increasingly severe by the minute.
I believe my body had given up around the third or fourth hour. The only thing that kept me going was my mind. I am not sure why. Maybe it was the fact that we had a cause, Shilpa, my aunts, my friends’ mothers and fathers and siblings and the countless number of people who have battled or are battling, have lost, or triumphed against this devastating disease called cancer. Maybe it was the dream I had that filled me with certainty that I would get to the top no matter what. At that time I wasn’t really thinking clearly about anything, all I knew was that my mind would not tell my body to stop. I just kept walking.
As we got to Uhuru peak we were met by spectacular views, but to be honest I was too wearied to truly appreciate it. Thankfully I had the good sense to take a few pictures but I was anxious and very much conscious of the fact that I had to go all the way back down.
By that point I was suffering from nausea and headaches with some swelling of the hands and feet and definitely lots of cuts, bruises and wind burns. But other than the exhaustion that would get better as the altitude decreased, I was capable of descending.
The descent was tedious but after a while it shifted from being uncomfortable to unbearably painful. I didn´t know that my toenails had come halfway off my skin and were hanging on for dear life. We managed to get to camp to be told that we needed to trek for another 4 hours to another camp before we were allowed to relax.
That really messes with the brain. We had just conquered the highest mountain in Africa and felt like we were entitled to all the rest we could get only to be told that it was far from over. We had to walk to another camp for the night and then again for another 3 hours the following day to get to the nearest bus stop.
It took me seven agonizing hours instead of four. The pain was so severe that at some points I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. I don’t know how or when we got to camp but we did. The following day I don’t know how or when we got to the bus, but we did.
And just like that, it was over.
You realize in situations like this where you have no choice, just how much pain and fatigue the body is capable of handling. You just have to keep going. The only alternative when you are in the middle of the mountain is a helicopter. There was no way my pride would have allowed me to ask for a helicopter just because I lost some toenails and had swollen knees and ankles.
My first encounter with a proper toilet at the hotel was joyous. I think I spent over an hour just sitting there doing nothing and then another hour and a half just standing under a hot shower. Every little warm drop felt like a feathery caress. I couldn´t remember being this thankful and this appreciative in such a long time.
As I left Kilimanjaro the next day in the same rickety plane I had arrived in, I had lost my fear. But it was replaced with a sadness I couldn´t understand and I felt little pride in what I had accomplished.
I guess that up there on that mountain, it was just about getting through the day — basic survival. You do what you have to do because you have no other choice. “Modern” life is just so much more complicated than that. You have to think about existential concepts like happiness, self-love, being the best version of yourself, the meaning of life, who you are and what you were put on Earth to do.
As my lovely friend Ralph said, there are no destinations in life, only way-points. Our existence is a series of innumerable mountains and each day is a step. I had conquered Kilimanjaro but that only taught me how strong my spirit was and how much we as humans are capable of overcoming if we have a cause to believe in. There are many other lessons to be learnt, and all that we can do is just keep walking, for in action there is change, and in change there are answers.