Ever since I was little, I had wanted to go to Africa. I would watch The Lion King every week, filling my head with romanticized visions of vast plains teeming with wildlife, stretching as far as the eye could see. So last Halloween, when I drunkenly (on my part) met up with a friend who was in the process of pub crawling to raise money for a charity trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro, I did the only thing I really felt I could do: I signed up immediately.
Although I at first regretted signing up whilst inebriated, anyone who knows me knows that I am far too proud to admit to my mistakes, and even more so to allow my friends to think they were right when they said I would back out of the trip. And so it was that I spent the better portion of the next year raising a sizable sum of £2450, most of which would end up going to charity. Well, alright, I may have succumbed to my tendency to procrastinate and left the better portion of the fundraising for the final month before the deadline – but that’s irrelevant.
The charity for which the money was raised is called Childreach International, and is an extremely worthy organization. They operate in the poorest areas in the world, striving to increase children’s access for vital facilities such as education, clean water, healthcare, and protection.
After a summer of working 9-5, taking extra classes, and generally not being very social, I was growing more and more excited – finally, the time came to embark on what would be without a doubt the best trip of my life.
Upon our arrival in Nairobi, we were loaded into buses, and spent the next day in transit to Kilimanjaro. Once there, we had another two days to prepare, as well as make a visit to a nearby school that received aid from Childreach.
When the time came to set out for the mountain, the lot of us clambered back onto the bus and drove about 30 minutes to Machame Gate at the foot of the mountain. We then signed in, took some pictures, and began our ascent. Despite the guides’ constant cries of “Polé! Polé!” (“Slowly! Slowly!”), within two hours I found myself ahead of the group, but drenched in sweat and panting heavily. On second thought, dancing while climbing a mountain is probably not the best idea.
And so for the next five days, we climbed, through the rainforest; through the cloud-line; up the Barranco Wall; through a rocky desert. All the way up, I found myself thinking, “This isn’t so bad. Why do people make it seem so difficult? We’re just walking”. These thoughts, however, came before the final night of the ascent – the midnight summit push.
Upon being woken up at 11:30 P.M. after a meagre four hours of sleep, the zombified group slowly filed into the mess tent, where we sat in silence and were fed ‘porridge’ that was even worse than the ‘porridge’ we had had the rest of the way up. After two attempts to force it down, I simply gave up and tried to chew an energy bar that had frozen solid since reaching base camp. We then strapped on our headlamps, pulled on our balaclavas and gloves, organized into a single-file line, and set out to conquer the mountain once and for all.
Despite climbing at what was probably a slower pace than the average tortoise, I found myself begging for rest every five minutes. By the time a break came every hour and a half I would collapse onto the nearest rock and try desperately to drink my water (now turned to slush) while rubbing some life into fingers I was now sure were frostbitten, despite wearing two pairs of gloves and using hand warmers.
After what seemed like an eternity, I looked up and saw a sign that read “Stella’s Point”. Upon that sight, I looked back over my shoulder and saw, on the distant horizon, the darkness fading to pink and orange. I collapsed against the bottom of the signpost, only to be pulled back up a short time later and told to keep walking. Finally, about 20 minutes later, we made it – Uhuru Peak, the roof of Africa. Standing up there in what was undoubtedly the most gripping cold I’ve experienced in my life, I let my body succumb to the numbness for just a little while. I watched the sun rise up over the horizon and through the clouds, and I knew it was the most beautiful thing I had ever, and have ever, witnessed.
They say going down a mountain is the hardest part – although I can’t tell you about much of it, they certainly aren’t lying. Though we had spent five days ascending the mountain, we ran (literally) back down in about one and a half days. My memories of the descent are little more than a blur, but my knees did not forget. And so, for the next week or so, I did not feel too terribly about myself for lounging about on the beach in Zanzibar, lying in hammocks and guzzling Konyagi.
Although I cannot say my experience in Africa was exactly what I had built it up to be when I was young, I am not too bothered, because I found all of my expectations to be pleasantly surpassed. For the rest of my life, I know that the time I spent on Kilimanjaro, and the people I spent it with, will remain close to my heart.
I highly recommend checking out Childreach International on their website, www.childreach.co.uk, where you will find more information as well as an option to donate.
Images by Michael Quarton