Conquering Mt Kilimanjaro
Pole pole. That’s the only phrase – and philosophy – you need to know to conquer Africa’s Mt Kilimanjaro. Pronounced pol-lay, and said twice over, this Swahili phrase means slowly.
If you follow the constant instructions of your guides to “pole” you have a great chance of finding yourself 5 895m above sea level atop the tallest free-standing mountain in the world.
In northern Tanzania on the Kenyan border, Kilimanjaro draws those wanting to conquer one of the seven major summits of the globe without the ropes, pick axes and crampons normally needed for such a summit.
At five to seven days to the summit and back, it is not insurmountable for the non-hiker (such as me), yet has enough edge (the final summit climb and lack of oxygen) for the adrenalin junkie. Climbing Mt Kilimanjaro is unusual.
As the mountain is situated only three degrees south of the equator, it is one of the few that takes you through virtually every climate the world has to offer. From rainforest to arctic – there’s a glacier at the summit – it is a climatic smorgasbord, with temperatures ranging from high 20 degrees C on the first day to as low as -17 degrees C on the peak. I joined a seven-day trek, taking the popular Machame Route.
This route provides great scenery, with Kibo – as the highest of Kilimanjaro’s three volcanic cones is known – constantly surprising us as it appears out of the clouds. We were a party of four climbers, supported by three guides, a cook and 13 porters who carried the camp and our luggage all the way to the base camp and down again.
Our tour started in Arusha, 60km to the north of the mountain, best known as the base for Serengeti safaris. An hour’s drive and we were at Machame Gate, where we signed in and began our climb.
Our first day, a 16km hike, took us through spectacular rainforest to spend the first night in our shared two-man tents. Over the next six days we scrambled, stepped and hiked through every terrain imaginable, all the while climbing ever higher.
The third day proved a challenge as we were taken briefly to 4 600m to acclimatise for the summit. It was here the effects of oxygen deprivation really kicked in. I had a headache, felt nauseous and my mind began to play tricks on me.
At one stage I spent a frustrating 15 minutes trudging along attempting to add 25 and 18 before I finally gave up. One of our party became quite ill, sparking an interesting reaction from our usually reserved tour guide.
He started an animated conversation of anecdotes and jokes that lasted a couple of hours until we got to camp. It was only evident later that this was aimed at keeping our ill companion’s mind from wandering. On the fifth day we arrived at base camp.
It was here someone made the comment that if we were to step out of the plane at that altitude – 4 600m – we would die in an instant. We set out for the summit at midnight after a snowstorm. The accompanying lightning penetrated closed eyelids, the thunder seemingly shaking the mountain.
I only discovered when I returned to Australia that a climber had been killed by lightning on Kilimanjaro a few weeks earlier. The final ascent was a steep six-hour one-foot-in-front-of-the-other slog in darkness over rocks and loose shale to the edge of the summit plateau.
It was then a 40-minute walk along a narrow snow-covered ridge to arrive at Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kilimanjaro, as the sun rose. With a massive glacier to our left and volcano crater to our right, it was an eerily awesome sight. Coupled with a lack of oxygen, exhaustion and subzero temperature, arriving at the summit triggered a cocktail of emotions.
Climbing Kilimanjaro takes a lot of planning and commitment, so to finally be there can be overwhelming. I wasn’t the only one to later admit that I had become emotional at the summit. After only 15 minutes at the top – any longer is too risky due to the thin oxygen at that height – we made a much quicker descent to base camp, literally loping down the mountain as we peeled off some of our six layers of clothing.
After a short rest, we then hiked 16km to our final camp. The sense of jubilation when we arrived was tempered by the exhaustion of the day’s events. All up we walked nearly 100km over rough terrain that was more than compensated by breathtaking scenery, great companionship and an exhilarating experience.
Fitness and age-wise, anyone can climb Kilimanjaro. We encountered people aged in their 60s. The youngest in our group was 40. I trained for six months, mainly walking 11km to work a couple of times a week carrying a pack. I supplemented that with hour-long sessions on a treadmill set to its steepest angle.
But, really, the slowness of the climb meant there was not a great deal of exertion other than the final summit. Meals were an absolute delight, with a simple but wide-ranging menu. The Mount Kilimanjaro climb is growing in popularity, with about 25 000 people attempting the summit each year.
It rates highly on any bucket list, and when coupled with a safari and a trip to the island of Zanzibar, as I did, it makes for a lifetime of experiences in just a few weeks. If I had any advice on climbing Kilimanjaro it would be to “just do it”. But make sure you do it pole pole. – Herald Sun