Phase One: Get to the Mountain!
After finally arriving at Kilimanjaro international airport after a whole day of air commute, I was picked up by a vivacious guy named Honorath who bundled me into the front seat of his car for the 40min drive to the lodge where I was staying.
It only took us 25mins at breakneck speeds as we overtook every vehicle on the road: car, truck, bus, tuk-tuk and even a donkey and cart! At one point we were doing 120kph down a single lane road with no other cars in sight and no street lights.
The full moon was high in the sky illuminating the landscape and Honorath says “Joanna, look there in the darkness and you will find the snow on the top of the mountain”. I was peering out my window but could only see clouds, then he told me to look high, and suddenly there it was. The craggy, snow-dusted peak of Mt Kilimanjaro silently looming in the moonlight.
I was so overcome with emotion, I went from laughing out loud “WOW, OH MY GOSH, I CAN’T BELIEVE IT” to silence and tears streaming down my face. What an extraordinary moment.
“No photograph could capture the exhilaration I felt the very first time I saw Mt Kilimanjaro in the daylight.”
The next morning at first light I threw back the curtains to see her, but Kili was swathed in cloud, completely hidden. Finally, the sun coaxed her out of her veil and there she was. No photograph could capture the exhilaration I felt the very first time I saw Mt Kilimanjaro in the daylight.
Above: Mt.Kilimanjaro in all her splendour.
Phase Two: Climb the Mountain
Day One: Lemosho Gate
After a 3hr drive from the lodge, we arrived at the ranger station just outside Kilimanjaro National Park around noon. My guide registered me and my trek team and then all our bags and supplies were weighed to ensure none of the porters would be carrying more than the legally mandated 20kg limit.
From there, we drove another hour through windy dirt roads, from barren landscapes to lush rainforest terrain, finally arriving at Lemosho Gate, situated on the western side of the mountain where we would commence our trek.
“I could hear the sounds of the night forest mingling with the low hum of voices all around me, it was a little surreal but I fell asleep with a smile on my face.”
Wearing just shorts and a t-shirt in 30 degree heat, it was hard to believe that I’d be needing anything warmer any time soon. Our first night was in Shira 1 Camp which took us four hours to reach from Mti Mkubwa (Lemosho) gate.
The trail was a serene, relaxing walk through the lush rainforest. Blue Monkeys swung through the trees watching us as we trekked along windy, very steep trails thick with red sand covering my boots and gaiters.
The air temperature dropped as we reached camp just before dusk and all I could see as we approached was a sea of tents. We were greeted with a very much welcomed dinner before settling in for the night. I could hear the sounds of the night forest mingling with the low hum of voices all around me, it was a little surreal but I fell asleep with a smile on my face.
Day Two: “Pole pole”
We trekked through the rainforest for about 2.5hrs before the terrain began to change. Our path meandered down into a valley where we walked across dry creek beds before climbing back out of the valley. Of our 6 hours of trekking today, half of it was up a narrow, steep path winding around rocks and boulders, some of which were a rocky scramble.
Above: Day 5 - the base of the Barranco Wall, a 280m vertical climb out of the valley, straight after breakfast! ©Joanna Limpic
Coupled with the 35c temperature, the thick black lava sand we walked through when we weren’t rock scrambling, was an extremely challenging day of trekking. The compensation was the stunningly beautiful scenery which took my breath away (what was left of it!) and the encouragement from my guide.
Abraham’s mantra was ‘Pole pole’ – Swahili for ‘slowly’- which he repeated to me over and over. “No rushing Rafiki, better for acclimatisation”, he would say. Well, who was I to argue?
Day Three: Moir Hut
I felt refreshed after a great nights sleep, I think the gruelling 6hrs of the previous day and the heat wiped me out completely. Today we walked to Moir Hut which was a nice, relatively easy 5hrs. The weather was glorious, cool but sunny which made for perfect walking conditions.
Around 20 minutes from camp, as we walked alongside a deep ravine, we passed by a spectacular cave. I stopped for a while to simply marvel and take stock of where I actually was.
After we got to camp, I had lunch and a short rest before we set off to do an acclimatisation climb. We climbed up the side of a steep knoll for about an hour and when we reached the top, we were officially above cloud level! It was a moment that exhilarated me beyond measure and explanation.
Above: Barafu Camp Rangers Hut contrasted against the clouds at dusk. We are now at Base Camp. Tonight we leave for the summit.
Day Four: En route to Barranco Camp
After yesterday’s high, today was tough as nails. Temperatures fell to -10deg C last night and the winds were so strong I thought my tent would blow away! I couldn’t get warm no matter what I did and hence only got a few hours sleep. I felt really tired and quite emotional today.
We had to trek 5hrs to Lava Tower at 4,600m where we stopped for lunch and acclimatisation at a higher altitude. From there it was 3hrs downhill to Barranco Camp in the valley where we ‘slept low’. I was so tired and cold that my kitchen porter, Cleo, filled a 1.5l drink bottle with boiling water so I could use it as a hot water bottle. It worked, I slept like the dead!
Above: Strange flora. ©Outdoor Voyage
Day Five: Barranco Wall
This morning began with climbing the ‘Barranco Wall’. A rock face with a path forged up it, this is not for the feint hearted. In parts, Abraham my guide gave clear instructions on where my right foot vs left foot needed to be so that I could grab onto a ledge with my hands and pull myself up!
No walking poles for this section, just 1.5hrs of climbing using hands and feet! It was exhilarating and nerve wracking but the view from halfway up, here, is mind-blowing. When we reached the top, the cloud cover was way below us! What’s even more incredible is seeing the porters do the same hike but with 20kg on their backs and heads. Incredible, super-humans!
“I suspected I was running a slight fever as my body was shivering slightly….I’d come this far, there was no way I was turning back.”
I slept incredibly well last night and feeling energised today. No headaches and no nausea, walking easy. I’m a solo trekker so it’s just been myself, Abraham, and my guide on the trail walking and talking each day for hours. Just ask us about the meaning of life, we’ve got that all figured out.
I’m feeling so grateful, this experience is challenging me beyond all my expectations and during the quiet times, I have plenty of time to think things through. It’s a beautiful thing.
Above: Sun rising over the top of Mt Kilimanjaro.
Day Six: Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp
Barafu Camp, also known as Base Camp. We set off at 7 am and had 4hrs trekking to get to base camp. Once we got to Barafu Base Camp I had lunch and was instructed to head to my tent for some sleep. Dinner was at 5:30pm followed by more sleep.
We met in the kitchen tent at 10:30pm for hot tea, a snack, and a gear check before we headed off for the summit. I remember standing on a rocky outcrop at 4,763m ASL looking at the path which led me to this point and being absolutely blown away by what had transpired over the previous 6 days.
“The colours of the sunrise as it split over the mountainous landscape were utterly incredible…I sat watching this spectacular display with silent tears of joy and gratitude rolling down my face.”
At that point, my mind was relaxed and focused but my body was feeling tired and worn. I went to bed after dinner feeling exhausted and when I woke I suspected I was running a slight fever as my body was shivering slightly. I took two paracetamol and decided I’d be ok. I’d come this far, there was no way I was turning back.
Above: Selfie with some of my trek team, these guys looked after me so well and added
tomuch to my experience on the mountain.
Day Six: 2300hrs, Summit bound
At 2330hrs my guide and I plus another porter all set off for the summit. It was pitch black with only our head torches to guide us. The trek to the summit is 6-7 hours and a combination of rock clambering and walking up loose scree, pebble and stone-strewn sandy paths at a 45degree incline.
We stopped for a water break after about 40 mins and the water in my Camelback was already frozen solid. My guide had filled two aluminium Nalgene bottles with boiling water before we left and wrapped them in a towel but in a short space of time, the water had cooled to a drinkable temperature. It was cold!
We didn’t stop for long because at -16C, it was just too cold so we plodded on for the next six hours stopping only briefly to hydrate. The going was tough and I was shivering, my head was hurting and my extremities were completely numb. Ten people were evacuated from the mountain and passed us on their way down, this was not encouraging.
I looked behind me once and could see a trail of torches winding a zigzag up the mountain path and even though my fingers and toes were frozen and my body was exhausted, I paused to take in this extraordinary sight.
Suddenly Abraham, my guide, pointed to the horizon where the first glimpse of daylight was beginning to show. When the sun started hinting at the horizon, we stopped and sat on some boulders. Abraham gave me some hot tea and said “you wanted sunrise over Africa for your birthday, well here I present to you. Happy Birthday, Rafiki”.
The colours of the sunrise as it split over the mountainous landscape were utterly incredible and despite the cold, my exhaustion and uncontrollable shivering, I sat watching this spectacular display with silent tears of joy and gratitude rolling down my face.
“I found a side to myself I had never known before, revealing an inner strength and determination to push through fear and exhaustion I wasn’t aware of. Even now, I am amazed.”
Shortly afterwards we began again, our goal to get to Stella Point, the second highest peak at 5,756metres ASL and the toughest part of the trek. For about another 30mins I was ok but then the shivering intensified and I began to experience dizziness and kept losing my balance. I thought that Abraham was asking me something but he hadn’t said a word.
We were on the last run up to Stella Point, incredibly steep and thick loose scree. I was weaving all over the place and just as we approached Stella Point I literally collapsed. Abraham quickly set about checking my pulse, oxygen levels and eyes and when he realised how violently I was shivering he said we had to descend. When I heard that I started crying and objecting but he ignored me. Abraham and the other porter each grabbed an arm and began hauling me down the steep slope, we had been hiking for eight hours.
We stopped at the rocks where we had watched the sunrise so that he could check me over again and give me some hot tea to drink. A medical doctor, a tourist on his way down from the summit, stopped to talk to me. He said I was lucky to have such good guides and that the sooner I got to lower altitude, the more likely I would make it off the mountain safely.
It was a sobering little talk but gave me some perspective on how altitude sickness does not mess around. I climbed Kilimanjaro to 5,756metres, Stella Point. I was feeling such a jambalaya of emotions – joy, anguish, elation, devastation, exhaustion. It took me three hours to return to base camp where I fell into an exhausted sleep for an hour before being woken up for another 3hr trek to our next camp for the night.
That night after dinner, my team presented me with a birthday cake, complete with a candle and sang happy birthday to me. It will be the most memorable birthday of my life I think. Reflecting on the most extraordinary 8 days which will no doubt have a powerful impact on me and my life going forward, I realised that never in my life have I pushed myself so hard to achieve a goal.
I found a side to myself I had never known before, revealing an inner strength and determination to push through fear and exhaustion I wasn’t aware of. Even now, I am amazed.
Kilimanjaro you have shown me beauty beyond words, you are magnificent and inspiring. You have broken and stolen my heart in equal measure and I love you deeply because of it. Until we meet again, thank you.