Travel Tuesdays: Juu ya Mawingu – Trekking Kilimanjaro (Part 1)

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AS ONE OF THE SEVEN SUMMITS, THE TALLEST FREESTANDING MOUNTAIN IN THE WORLD, AND THE HIGHEST POINT IN THE WHOLE OF AFRICA, MOUNT KILIMANJARO, LOCATED IN THE NORTHERN REACHES OF TANZANIA, FINDS ITSELF POSSESSING A CERTAIN ADVENTUROUS INTRIGUE THAT CONTINUALLY ATTRACTS THOUSANDS OF DARING, AND PERHAPS FOOLHARDY, CLIMBERS EACH AND EVERY YEAR.

A little over a month ago I was able to claim to have been amongst this bold number, brimming with anticipation I found myself standing in the foothills of the mountain on the first morning of my six day trek to the summit. Before me, dwarfing every person that passed beneath it, was the sign for Machame Gate which marked the start of the climb and the beginning of a week-long submersion into a new, more simplistic and stripped back lifestyle.

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‘A daunting prospect’

I, along with the rest of my fourteen strong group, found myself somewhat overwhelmed staring skywards into the misty layer of cloud which we were about to enter into on our initial hike through the rainforest to Machame Camp, the first of the seven campsites we were to pass through on our way to the top.

Surrounded by a commotion of climbers being dropped off by their shuttle busses and the swarming teams of porters attempting to distribute between themselves the tents and supplies needed for my group, and the numerous others also waiting eagerly at the gate, I began to sense the growing feeling that every person around me, myself included, was, at the very least, slightly underprepared for what we were about to enter into.

Each one of us looking fresh-faced and evidently decked out head to toe in what was, for the most part brand new gear, the majority of which had been purchased specifically for this trip less than a month or two prior to boarding our flights to Tanzania.

‘The first steps’

We had all successfully fundraised the money for our charity, Hope for Children, and the expedition as a whole. Now all that was left to do before taking the first steps through the gate and onto the trail that would become our home for the next week, was to sign into the first log book and pose for an essential photo at the base of the mountain.

For the first couple of hours we maintained a constant drum of conversation as we walked and attempted to get to know the rest the team. This continued throughout the day as we wound our way between the trees and dutifully followed behind our pace making guide, Dixon, only pausing for a short break allowing us to eat the packed lunches that we received as we set off earlier that morning.

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On reaching the first campsite we were instructed to head straight for the only permanent building in sight in order for us to sign into the camp’s log book, a practice with would become ritual over the next few days as we progressed up the mountain.

Then, finding ourselves with a couple of hours until our meal would be ready, we were able to freshen up with a bowl of water and given free rein to wander the campsite before heading to the mess tent for dinner. This first ‘proper’ meal on the mountain setting a precedent for the week consisting of a diverse range of soups, followed by a much less diverse combination of rice or spaghetti paired with either chicken or some form of unspecified dark meat.

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Significantly, it was the next morning, the first that was actually spent on the mountain after three nights living in Kilimanjaro’s shadow, that we caught our first glimpse of Kibo peak through a break in the rolling clouds. This meant that we began our second day of hiking in high spirits, higher even than the day before, thanks to finally managing to catch sight of the, thus far elusive, goal of the entire trip and allowing, at least for me personally, the reality of what we were about to do to sink in after the months of build-up and preparation.

‘Breaking the clouds’

It didn’t take long after climbing the rocky ascent out of Machame Camp that visibility began to improve and we broke through the layer of clouds which had been tantalisingly just out of reach for the past 24 hours. A moment that was an almost indescribable part of the entire trip, passing a level on foot that only a minority of other people have done.

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This pivotal stage of the trip was only to come close to being surpassed that day by the delight and relief felt at the first sight of Shira Camp later that afternoon, as this came hand in hand with the promise of hot food and rest. ‘Rest’ being a word we found, however, that didn’t commonly feature in the vocabulary of our guides as they soon spurred us back into action for a short acclimatisation walk to Shira Cave.

It was on the second night on the mountain spent at Shira, with Kibo Peak to our backs, camped out as if perched on a clifftop looking down over a carpet of clouds that stretched around the summit of Mount Meru to the west, and then further still onto the horizon, that the first signs of altitude sickness began to appear for some people among the group.

‘A night in the sky’

Sleeping at this altitude, 3750 metres, combined with the frigidly cold wind that whistled unobstructed over the exposed plateau, pummelling the sides of our tents for the majority of the night, made getting to sleep much more of a challenge than it should have been.

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The next morning we followed what was quickly becoming our regular routine of washing to the best extent that we could out of a warm bowl of water brought to us each day by the porters. However, in comparison to the first morning, motivating ourselves to get up, still cold and tired, became much more difficult, resulting in a rather awkward attempt at washing while still desperately grasping at every last moment of warmth from the sleeping bag.

This was followed by a quick dash to the mess tent to enjoy a bowl of questionable looking brown maize porridge which could only made bearable by our increased appetites and the addition of an obscene amount of sugar, though was something that was an acquired taste which grew on you as the days wore on and exhaustion began to set in.

‘Pole, Pole (slowly, slowly)’

Soon after, the head guide, Alfan, addressed us with an outline of the day’s hike and then prompted us to sing the Kilimanjaro song, as had become ritual after every meal and soon became ingrained into our heads as a motivational Swahili rallying cry.

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We set off soon after finishing, collecting our bags and water from where they had been laid out on a mat beside tents and headed through the expanse of alpine desert that lay ahead. Day 3 would be the first time that we were to exceed the 4000 metre mark, though this, like Shira Cave the day before, would only be for acclimatisation purposes as we only planned to pass through Lava Tower, stopping for lunch and continuing down onto Barranco Camp for the final night before summiting.

‘A change of scene’

Our descent into Barranco Camp presented us with some otherworldly sights, as indeed the entire trek had, except for this leg, in addition to a view over the breath-taking expanse of clouds that lay beneath us, we were following a path beside the glacial streams originating from Kibo Peak, which was now ever-presently above us.

These streams, which had been establishing their routes down the mountain over thousands of years, had cut their way into its slopes, presenting a route scattered with waterfalls and supporting an abundance of greenery, in stark contrast to the rocky environments that had come before.

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The night spent at Barranco Camp is undoubtedly the most rewarding on the mountain, everybody is relatively lively and still in awe of our backdrop above the clouds, or as the guides would say ‘juu ya mawingu’, this is because, though at the halfway mark of the trek time-wise, half of the climb height-wise still remained ahead.

Edited by Nina Nagel