Reaching for the skies

The highest peak in Africa is not for the faint hearted. STEPH OVENDEN reports on her attempt to conquer ‘Kili’.

IT’S WELL worth having a window seat if you ever fly over East Africa just in case you get a glimpse of the monster rising out of the clouds that is Mount Kilimanjaro.

At a whopping 5,895 metres, it is the highest peak in Africa and it also claims the title of the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.

I saw it for the first time seven years ago while flying to Malawi; climbing Kilimanjaro immediately went onto my bucket list and recently I had the chance to turn that dream into reality.

My group climbed with Trek2Kili, whom I would recommend wholeheartedly. They are KPAP-approved, which is an important detail for future climbers to check with the companies they choose.

Kilimanjaro Porters Assistance Project (KPAP) ensures that porters, cooks and guides assisting you on the mountain (on whom you will be completely reliant for the duration of the climb, trust me!) get fair wages and working conditions.

I really can’t express in words how much these people did for us (although keep reading to see my attempt) so it’s essential that you know they’re being treated fairly while they help you accomplish what many climbers will consider the biggest challenge of their life.

Our group (not including the Trek2Kili team, which was around 40 strong) consisted of 18 walkers including a volunteer medic.

The average age was mid-20’s, although there were several people in their late 40’s or early 50’s. We were lucky to have a group that gelled immediately and the range of ages made for good entertainment in our evening charades sessions!

We followed the Machame Route; this can be done over a variety of days, with eight days being the longest and allowing the most acclimatisation (although it is also more expensive and naturally involves more nights of camping).

Our trek was over six days, with five nights camping out on the mountain. The porters carried the tents, food, water and everything else we needed to camp.

They also carried everybody’s big hiking bags; we each just carried a smaller day bag containing water, snacks, suncream, extra layers etc.

We started out walking through rainforest spotting monkeys and bushbabies, but by the end of day four we hit the rocky terrain of Barafu Camp, altitude 4,670 metres.

We just had time for a short nap before setting out at midnight to undertake the gruelling night climb to the summit.

I thought our guides and porters had been amazingly helpful so far, but their dedication to getting us to the top blew me away!

When all we could do was keep marching upwards in the dark looking at the feet of the person in front, they were chanting and singing, helping us get out our water (if it hadn’t frozen) and generally giving us the energy we needed to keep going.

It was a long and cold night, but so worth it to see the sunrise over the glaciers and even more worth it to get a photo at Uhuru Peak.

Uhuru means “freedom” in Swahili, the native language of Tanzania, and it’s easy to see why, standing up above the clouds with a view over what you’ve just achieved.

I was able to appreciate it even through the headache and nausea associated with altitude sickness!

The other words of Swahili you can expect to learn if you ever decide to tackle Kili are pole pole (meaning “slowly”) and hakuna matata – well known from The Lion King to mean “no worries”.