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A week climbing Kilimanjaro.

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Oldoinyo Oibor - Maasai for White Mountain.

Kilima Njaro - Swahili for Shining Mountain.


With planning underway for South Africa in August 2007 it takes me back to the flurry of activity which preceeded our last visit to Africa, Tanzania in January 2005.


It was actually a spur of the moment decision, I had been reading a number of climbing books including "Into Thin Air" by John Krakauer and "Seven Summits" by Bass, Wells and Ridgeway: it had fuelled my interest for an adventure. As much as I wanted to trek round Nepal, perhaps the Annapurna circuit or Everest base camp trek my wife and I decided we just didn't have the time: Nepal demanded at least a month with side trips to Bhutan and Tibet thrown into the mix as well. So having done some research we plumped for Kilimanjaro which in terms of cost, time and ease was more practical than any of the other big peaks. Initially we were going to fly out spend a day either side of the climb and come back as conquering heroes - at least in our minds. Of course, as those of you who enjoy planning holidays know, nothing is ever that "Cut and dried" and so what originally was going to be just a climb turned into almost three weeks with a few days before to explore and then following a brief tour of the Northern Circuit.


As with all trips I've done research was to be an important focus and I read as much available information on Kili as possible, both from the internet and traditional media. It seemed fitness was a key point, and despite promises made to ourselves we never indeed did get fit just squeezing in a few short hikes between the summer of 2004 and the departure date. Indeed collecting together the kit needed for the climb turned into a pleasure - especially as we purchased most of the items in end of season sales saving a lot over R.R.P.


In the meantime our excitement was growing with regard to the Northern Circuit and faded images of the Seregeti from old B.B.C Wildlife documentaries sprang to mind. I had last been to Africa in 1993, visiting my Uncle in Pretoria and we'd spent some quality time in Kruger Park together - I'd always vowed to take Elisabete on safari though had planned South Africa and not Tanzania. And now we had not only the Serengeti but Ngorongoro Crater and Lake Manyara in our sights, treading footpaths once walked by one of my literary heroes, Ernest Hemingway.


Having decided on a maximum cost, (not including air fares) we began the process of choosing an outfitter that could cater for both the mountain and safari legs of the trip and finally settled on an English Company called "Into Africa U.K." (Website www.intoafrica.co.uk) Having comunicated with the owner a number of times we submitted the deposit to the English office with the balance to be paid upon arrival in Tanzania.

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It was a combination of pricing, company ethics and itinerary which made us go with Into Africa - because it suited us. We had done much research and were happy with how we had been dealt with. However what is suitable for one is not always for another so before parting with your cash it is imperative to research the marketplace. Having summited Kili now, should I return to Tanzania I would deal with a reputable local Tanzanian company for the safari, as I would custom tailor it to match my requirements. In the end being part of a group safari was excellent for us, we met many new friends whom we still keep in contact with - we were lucky with our group though, I cannot imagine having to be with people whom you just couldn't get on with.

And so with time counting down we left our daughter with my parents in England, and eagerly anticipated the off. For me the moment the front door slams shut is when the holiday begins and after having spent a good few hours at Heathrow we boarded the overnight flight Heathrow to Jomo Kenyatta on Air Kenya. After a few alcoholic beverages and a long sleep my wife woke me to the brilliant spectacle of an African dawn, both Kilimanjaro and Mount Meru apparitions in the morning light. At Jomo Kenyatta we changed for a Precision Air flight to Kilimanjaro International, on a wonderful small propeller plane that offered offered an intimate flypast of the mountain.



The Air Kenya / Precision Air combination was the cheapest flight we found through lastminute but it should be noted that sometimes luggage goes missing during the interchange between flights at Nairobi - luckily ours didn't.


I cannot imagine what it is like to disembark from one of the straight through flights to Kili Int - for when we left our plane, (and you know you are in Africa when a Maasai waves the plane in to its stand) we were the only ones in the terminal, Visa Application took but minutes and we were through to collect our bags, obviously the only ones on the conveyer. We were met at the airport and driven to our guesthouse on the outskirts of Arusha: despite tiredness I couldn't close my eyes as the journey was a real sensory overload - the colours sights sounds of Africa are all marvellous and as Dennis said in his trip report even the car exhaust fumes smell better!

We had not expected lunch in the guesthouse but this was our introduction to Tanzanian hospitality with a very pleasant meal laid on for us, we were the only ones and talked with the owner and looked dreamily through the window at a sun scorched field with dusty cows under a wiry tree. My wife had managed some brief moments of sleep which was lucky for after lunch we were taken to Arusha by our host, Casey on a Dala dala, a packed minibus which swayed to the sound of Reggae music and happy people clapping and shaking hands - Jambo jambo you'd hear. We spent an afternoon in Arusha visiting the football stadium, markets, Cathedral, coffee shops, (Jambo Coffee house on Boma road is a good place to stop and recharge!) shady money changers, the clock tower, and so on and I loved every minute of it.


So many photos on the digital card, so many hands we shook. And though not religious a highlight was the cathedral were we met local nuns and the priest, shared a tea with him and donated some money to their charity projects. I was even more enthused when he told me recently he'd been through the Ngorongoro conservation area and seen a multitude of lions. We returned to the guesthouse weary and dusty, dry eyed and having breathed in so much polution from the streets we needed a beer and dinner and an early night.

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Saturday was a day of arrivals at the guesthouse: throughout the day veterans of the week's Kilimanjaro climb returned, tired dirty and unresponsive, we were not to see them until dinner that evening. And likewise those who had been on the northern circuit returned and once more was the guesthouse alive with stories and annecdotes in the lounge, beers drunk in the afternoon heat and stories related: and what I heard filled me with enthusiasm - elephants and lions and leopards. Cheetahs and hyennas, the majestic scenery of the Crater and the stretching plains of the Serengeti. I spent hours flicking through digital storage cards wondering at what I might see should I survive the climb ahead.


I think my only regret of the holiday was not using this day to visit the Arusha National Park. I have heard so many wonderful tales regarding this little gem as it is referred to and yet we were to tired and to nervous to accept the offer of a guided visit. Whilst it may lack the big cats the experience of walking through the bush with an armed ranger under the shadows of Mt Meru must be spectacular and hence upon my return to Tanzania it is my intention to devote a couple of days to this park - it would have provided an excellent introduction to the sites ahead and yet mine own anxiety held me a hostage in the guesthouse.


Travelers to Africa seem to be an adventurous band with a story to tell and quick wits and humour: and thus was conversation around the dinner table vibrant and enthusiastic - wonderful local cuisine served by candlelight long into the night and despite the looming climb in the morning many of us stayed up late drinking beer and enthusing at our experiences so far. It was at dinner did the full complement of our climbing team convene: my wife Elisabete, some American women and myself would make up the party and we sat to a briefing which did in fact leave me with more questions than answers. But we were too far involved now and within a few hours would we be raised from our beds, filled with breakfast and boarded onto the bus bound for the mountain. We talked some but it was clear each of us held some apprehension and it served nothing to compare kit lists or fitness levels - at whatever state we were so we'd be going anyway. And perhaps it was unwise of us to sort once more through the kit bags during the night as frequent power cuts only brought sworn complaints from my lips - and repacking by candlelight under the attentive drone of local mosquitos in the middle of the night is not a fun experience. I took some vitamin tablets, Diamox which I'd been prescribed to help combat altitude sickness, ginko biloba, a last swig on a half empty beer bottle and went to bed. Perhaps the dog barking outside the window was really a lion - perhaps I wished it so - perhaps it was just an auditory hallucination. My mind had been a tempest since touching down the day before...

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Woken from a restless slumber before sunrise, tripping over gear strewn on the floor - a quick shower knowing it would be a week before the next one. Yawning and swearing and wanting to smoke even though I don't, nerves which I wasn't expecting. Careening down the guesthouse path, ricocheting off walls struggling with two rucksacks, walking poles, camel back water carriers, medical kits and North Face jackets. My wife carrying the day packs and cameras, large safari style hats. In the dining room is a small band of climbers which is us: 2 more were due to join us but pull out at the last minute. I am the first to breakfast, the last to leave with a heavy belly swilling around with coffee and eggs and toast. I don't know when I'll next eat, where or what. Popping vitamin tablets and I can feel a heady buzz with the caffeine. I feel tired but excited - the sun slowly rises and with it my spirits and after meeting our head guide and some of the porters who barely look at me being another anonymous paycheck we clamber aboard this rugged and abused old bus for the drive to Kili. The words of the massed staff who see us off - good luck, good luck drifts away - the exhaust roars and suspension creaks and a rusty spring protrudes through the torn seat into my butt.

Even at this hour are people meandering along roadside, the noxious cloud from the belching exhaust engulfs them all - I look at our team but bar small talk no one really wants to keep up a pretense of conversation so I just look from the window across Africa that I have always dreamed of. Vision up down bouncing along through potholes the driver laughs and still the rusty spring sticks into my butt. I close my eyes for a while and in that time we pass Arusha by, the entrance to the Arusha National Park, the turn off to Kilimanjaro International Airport. I wake up suddenly banging my head on the window, feel sick it is hot already and diesel fumes are coming in through a hole in the floor. I ask to stop, get the battered Nikon out and before we stop I'm out the door jumping to the dusty ground and breathing safely again.



In front of me, across the plains looms Kilimanjaro like some mirage her summit shimmers above a base of clouds which stick to the rainforest on its slopes. An old hut in front of me and I take some shots with it providing a contrast in scale. An old Maasai watches me from where he stands - I hear the clanking of bells from his cattle. I wonder if he wonders about me as I do him: he'll always be more a part of Africa than I can ever hope to be. The Rebmann Glacier glints at the top, even from here can I see it shining. It is hot perhaps a hundred degrees and yet a shiver runs up my spine in milliseconds. Sweat on my forehead. I get back on the bus, the porters looking at me like I’m some kind of idiot. The long road. Acacia trees flash past and merge together in my vision, the further out I look across the plains. Kilimanjaro forever looming in my vision.

Having picked up more porters by the roadside we slowly start climbing through lush lower hills: dense green foliage and huge palms line the road, banana trees, fertile pastures with high crops, cattle wander by on the side of the road. People walking past, youths with muscular legs, children chase along by the bus for it cannot move quickly for the deep ruts and we lurch from left to right as a small dinhgy does on rolling seas. Houses small and brightly painted set in from the road, pathways cut between the trees: it is all some introduction to what soon follows, ahead of us is the entrance into the National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage Site so declared in 1989 - no longer do we reside in civilisation. The fence divides those two existences. On our side are the climbers. Armed guards with scuffed AK-47s and combat fatigues patrol round the fences, the sign in huts, even the toilets. A large group of hawkers shouts to us from the world through which we have just passed; the opposite side of that gate. ‘Engleesh. Americairn. Climb Kileee. Buy hat. Poles. Rain cover.’ and they are holding up all manner of climbing paraphernalia. It is our turn to sign in at the hut and each of us adds our name and tour details to the register, passport numbers and climbing permits. What appear to be the last clean toilets are well patronised but I dip down into the scrub and just go there.

A large sign, yellow writing against black painted planks states such advice as ‘Hikers attempting to reach the summit must be fit.’, ‘If you have heart or lung problems do not attempt the mountain at all without consulting your doctor.’, ‘Do not push yourself to go if your body is exhausted or you have extreme mountain sicknes.’, ‘drink 4 - 5 litres of fluid each day. Water is best but fruit juices are good supplement.’ (sic) and the grammatical errors make it more interesting for me: it presents a perfect photo opportunity and I assemble our group in front of it. Day 1 brings almost twenty kilometres of hiking. In terms of elevation we will be climbing approximately one thousand two hundred metres and be camping at around three thousand.

Trek poles extended to the optimum length for I’ve spent hours researching on the net how to use them properly and I stride away with additional support from carbon fibre arachnid legs connecting the ground at different times. We see our bulging rucksacks being weighed at a small hut before being stuffed into canvas holdalls and hoisted up onto the porters backs some of whom look to be less than twenty years old. But in each of their legs I see honed muscles and determination in their faces. They look as fit as I wish to be. Fitter. Seven days a week. Kilimanjaro. None of these guys sit in front of a P.C on flat buttocks like me.


We have chosen Machame, ‘The Whiskey Route’. It is longer in terms of distance walked and time spent upon the mountain compared to Marango, known as ‘The Coca Cola Route’, a more direct climb which suffers a higher failure rate due to acclimatization problems. Soft drinks and chocolate are readily available at each of the rest huts. Not for us, not on Machame. We sleep in tents every night. And the whiskey simile for it is to be savoured, sipped at rather than gulped: appreciated.


And day one composes of the rain forest: strange trees loom over us with huge broad leaves hanging down, shafts of sunlight pierce through the low slung cloud and all at once there is vivid colour: greens are almost luminous and grey mist clings to the trunks – everything as if looking through a soft focus filter on my Nikon. The light takes on a green hue under the vast unbroken canopy and tropical bird calls sound out – I wonder if we’ll see blue monkeys, apparently they are sometimes visible.


Incredible flora in the undergrowth: a fireball of red - 'Scadoxus multiflorus, the African Blood Lily.'

I sip from the mouth hose, two and a half litres of water in my back pack: it has a bite valve and by chewing and sucking so I am refreshed. The tang of the lemon rehydration tablets disguises somewhat the earthy taste of the iodine. ‘Poli poli.’ Dave is saying – slowly slowly. Take it easy. I notice his pace is slow and relaxed – there is no need to race.

Lunch is taken sitting atop a fallen tree trunk upon which the thick bark has been polished smooth by a thousand backsides. Each of us has a Tupperware box: inside a chewy chicken leg, cheese sandwich wrapped in cellophane sweaty and warm, boiled egg in which the yolk barely differs in colour from the white. A small muffin cake. Cadbury’s milk chocolate in a bitesize square wrap. The texture more powdery, less creamy – made in Kenya and most probably blended to be more heat resistant. Normal chocolate would be a melted sludge in my hand by now. Small stubby banana and a box of fruit juice. The first of the lunch boxes which will see us through Kili and safari. Energy food. Carb food. Sugar rush food. It’s about calorie intake. Drink: the fruit juice is sweet and strong and tastes unnatural – I prefer sipping from my boiled iodine rehydration tablet water from the back pack.

On the trail porters bring the encampment wagon train up behind us, portable radios tied to the canvas pack bags, they wear thin tee-shirts cut off arms, ragged shorts and flappy soled trainers. Sweat drips from their foreheads, my Jambo brings no response. It is their job to pass us by on route and break camp long before our arrival. To welcome us in with hot tea and popcorn.

We get soaked during the afternoon and spirits are dampened in the misty grey. Legs ache and one feels tired, we hadn’t slept much but you cannot stop and eventually does the canopy break - above us the jungle is thinning out, so sudden that it is like my legs are still hidden in the tree tops and the upper half of my body is breaking through into the cloud bank. It really is that obvious the change in zones. There is this kind of liquid sun through the haze and Old man’s beard clings to limp branches that hang down like skeletal arms grey and withered. Sloppy footsteps in muddy puddles whisps of cloud drift around my vision as we hit camp. Machame Huts.

Reflecting alone: my visions Africa so far, the smell of dinner cooking and my notepad open, my Parker pen, drinking coffee strong black sugary.

Dinner in the tent, soup, buttery, globs of golden fat pool on the surface. Ground black pepper spices it up. Rice and chicken stew, slices of bread. Diamox tablets and more vitamins, talk is of the climb, that bonding kind of talk, camaraderie. A glass of red wine would go down great now and help me to sleep later.

Early to bed, once the sun goes down and the torches fade it is dark, the tent becomes a claustrophobic cocoon but I am asleep immediately only to wake later needing the toilet. I pull on my sweat pants fleece top and step into unlaced trainers and go out - the tent door crackles as I pull it aside: it is like the inside of my freezer with a crystalized covering of frost. From somewhere there is conversation but it is muted and distant. Above me the most amazing sky “Darkest Africa.” I’d seen on a night map of the world how light pollution affects the sky and over the developed world, my world, my part of it, at night the countries were blotched with white patches like some allergic reaction: the sign of humanity – the scar. Not here.

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A rustle at the front of the tent, conversation and cursing or what certainly sounds like – I don’t know the Swahili for damn and then knocking on the tent flap as much as a hand smacking on ripstop nylon can be. ‘Matthew. Mr Matthew?’ and it’s the cook’s assistant who we learn is Hussein: ‘Jambo jambo.’ he says as I unzip our cocoon to the day. ‘Coffee chai?’ and he pronounces coffee as cough, the chai I take to be tea and we accept plastic mugs of black coffee, withdraw back into the depth of the closed in night we still wish it to be. He zips the door back up and we hunch over these steaming mugs which warm our hands closed round them. I’ve barely slept – the last time camping was as a kid some fifteen years previously: and now once again is my back molded to the shape of the terrain beneath me.

Outside the tent a basin of hot water steaming and so I wash quickly, hands face and hair and get dried on yesterday’s still damp tee-shirt. All of us sit in the extended porch of the big blue tent round the trestle table with stained purple cloth. Porridge, eggs toast sausage, more coffee two spoons of sugar to get me going. Wet clothes from the day before urgently hung in the trees as harsh sunlight fries the ground, steam rises all around and slowly the world boils underneath our feet. Hussein collects our backpack bladders and fills them with boiling water, filtered through a tea strainer but still particles float suspended inside. The drops of iodine, I break the Lucozade tablets into each and they fizz suddenly, the water from clear to brown then dirty yellow.

We start out about an hour after sunrise. There’ll be 5 hours +/- Trekking, 9 kms. Straight from the tents left turn through the bushes and immediately into a steep stepped inclination: more branches and staves the path terraced and each step is a stretch. Leg muscles ache, full stomachs pitch and lurch and food lies barely beneath my throat. No sleep shattered elated climbing Kilimanjaro – another day in Africa. Stunted trees stubby branches old man’s beard and they clear as we progress upwards. It is hot quickly bright sun, the sky a deep blue and the clouds lay below us hugging the treeline. I ask for a break at a photogenic outcrop of rock overhanging a steep drop: there are dirty white skeletal finger trees the height of me. Rainforest stretches away below us – a thick textured spread of impenetrable green hues.



The peak of Mount Meru breaks through the cloud and is a pastel shade of mauve: the horizon is a thumb smudge of greys.

The slightly graded inclines of yesterday and early this morning are but a soft stepped memory as we hit a rocky trail where for every four or five awkward steps taken you rise the height of a tall person. The porters have already caught us, their radios alert us seconds before hand and there is no tranquility anywhere in the world now: ‘Porters coming!’ so goes up the shout – we pause, a bite and sip on the hose as their land train passes quickly by. ‘Jambo jambo.’ and we garner some response but their heads are always down, difficult to turn and face us for backs are bent over from the weight they carry: straps round shoulders – tents and our packs folding tables and big heavy stoves, huge plastic jerry can things for the water.

I can feel the temperature dropping and down below the clouds from yesterday mass together sweeping up from the rainforest canopy which is speckled with shadow and sunlight: the strands of mist explore between my legs and I’ve never walked atop clouds before. When looking from an aircraft window they appear solid structured; when in them so they are grey and damp. Chilled. We put on our waterproofs early having learnt the lesson from yesterday and my fleece will never dry at this rate.


The trail rotates between rock and hard packed soil, winding up through the low scrub: even the skeletal trees have fallen back behind us now. Thin grass and hardy flowers with delicate petals blossom in the shadows. Deep breaths, rapid breaths – sucking the oxygen from the air, exertion, bite and sip, gritty water in my mouth: lemon and earthy – poli poli. Soil erosion is clear to see: various paths wind up either side of the main one which we are told by Uforo, our head guide to keep to and streams of dirty water flow down between the rocks. Stunted plants cling to what little nutrients remain. I’m beginning to notice the diminishing oxygen levels: anything strenuous and my heart beats faster and I’m panting down air into my lungs. Aware of this light dizzy sensation.

The first of the wierd flora appears, that old man’s beard on dead looking trees was nothing compared to the Giant Senecios that start springing up around us – thin spindly trunks of grey cardboard like bark folded over and over, picture an anaemic palm tree and a big round head of dead leaves from which atop does a small ball of bright green sprout. Giant Lobelias. Manhandling ourselves over obstacles caused by the last great eruption – solidified magma eroded by years of harsh weather.


Glacial run off streams splash down to wet our feet, crystalline waterfalls. Lichen upon rocks, grey circular stains and miniature plants, waterfalls splashing down overhanging rocks and then do I discover icey snow in a gulley, snow in Africa - I find it astounding.

A long path stretches away infront of us and it’s something hard to believe: it is downhill and anything even flat looks downhill after this hard slog: my knees ache and I’m glad just to be freewheeling – the gravel path is crunchy underfoot, more glacial run off streams cross the trail in front of us, cutting wide trenches which we step across: ahead the bright coloured tents on this large levelled area which is the Shira Caves camp.


Three thousand eight hundred and forty metres. We’ve ascended almost a thousand metres give or take a step or two though it seems we have been on a gentle descent for the past hour: a good way to beat altitude sickness is to sleep lower than the highest point reached during the day. It’s getting real cold now.

The large cave behind our tents, the Shira Cave: I scrape at its ceiling – the thick black soot accumulated from a thousand camp fires of old and it is the history of climbing Kilimanjaro crumbling into my hand. I can imagine those pioneer climbers, Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller sat under here round the flames with a side of antelope or something roasting on the spit. Chagga warriors wary and spears in hand. The deeper I scratch the further back through time I go until the bare rock itself and a period when no one was mad enough to climb Kilimanjaro. Camp fires have been banned since the late eighties, the thinning tree line could not continue to support the demand and anyway it’s easier carrying a gas cannister up on your back than a hundred branches for the seven day hike.

Another meal another butter pepper soup and minced meat stew and spaghetti but any meal hot is some cullinary delight and they fill us up with slow burning carbs and calories once more.


High above sun breaks through the cloud: immediately we melt in the sauna tent, everything brightens up into an unnatural glow: Kibo summit; clouds scuff past whilst light glints on glacial ice, recent snow fall clings to crevices on its sides. Blue sky through the watercolour grey clouds – all around us people stand and stare.

Tonight is the coldest I have been and it is only the end of day two. When darkness comes and dinner is over there is nothing left but to fall asleep listening to the porters talking in their tent – their radio keeps me awake. Every movement in constrained bag brings on forced rapid breaths for it is some effort now just to move. Another wee in the night - the diamox affect. The tent crackles when I unzip the front, thick ice has formed and solid rivulets run down the nylon and then stop: condensation frozen in the cold which breaks at my touch. The stars, oh man those stars, shaking my head, ‘My God.’ so I exclaim for never have I been witness to such beauty as this. Above me this huge panorama that makes me dizzy for it sweeps back over me in a one hundred and eighty degree arc: wherever I look are there stars. Kibo, some looming tribal spirit framed against the sky in the moonlight. A shooting star, I make a wish but my desires seem so insignificant against the grandeur of this scene before me.

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I’ve read that lions occasionally roam on the Shira Plateau - my tent overlooked it but perhaps a kilometer or more seperated us: I wouldn’t be seeing any this morning, freezing as it was with thick steam breaths from my mouth. But I was suprised to see a little four striped mouse darting in and out from between rocky crevices - stealing away dropped food from below tables and I watched his antics alone in the cold.

The sweet call of coffee in the morning, Hussein with the tray, ‘Jambo jambo.’ he gently calls - ‘Asanti, asanti sana Hussein.’ for it is like he brings me back from the dead. I need to get moving, blood flowing in my multi layered armour plating against the approaching day, standing with my camera where Dave stood in the sunset and snap away unheeded by others – an expansive view across early morning Tanzania.



Mount Meru: it floats above the plain resting atop a bed of low clouds – purple mauve pink in the dawn its summit highlighted by streaks of sunlight: far to my left so does the sun evaporate the night. My hands upon the Nikon, fingers suddenly painful, stiff, it is damn cold and the tingling is so intense in this sub zero freeze.

We convene at the table out in the sun: breakfast al fresco, a stunning view down to the rainforest; an Africa which slowly awakes almost four thousand metres below us. Steam rises from the porridge pot when you take the lid off, it’s hot and thick everyone wants more. In fact we all look forward to it, obsess over it. The ground is solid, concrete hard and bizarre huge ice crystals litter the frozen mud like fractal patterns on my computer monitor. It’s where the moisture has been forced from the earth during the night and so large are they, these delicate frozen flowers of water that I break one off and hold it in my palm until it melts.


Every footfall brings an audible crunch. Kibo summit behind us looking whiter than yesterday, overnight snowfall or then perhaps just my imagination: with a sprint it seems I could make it there in hours. But we start veering away from our goal: it’s all about slow steady progression and acclimatisation. The pathway which we followed in now just an ice packed frozen stream reflecting the sun. Bearing east for a while then north; my old compass, its needle flickering with my jagged robotic steps. Concentrate on the boots in front, breathing, bite and sipping on the hose, the water still warm from where it boiled in the pan. I feel no sickness or nausea, but somewhere deep inside my skull the slightest headache forms for we climb today to our halfway point of almost four thousand metres – so we make a total ascent of only a hundred odd metres but during the day so we climb much higher and then drop down into camp.

A meeting of pathways marked only by piled stones and we would welcome in now climbers from the Lemosho route but nobody appears through the clouds. It is some moonscape, like black and white pictures from the Apollo missions everything monotone, shadow edged. Footprints in the fine gravel. Disembodied voices from within the mist. The ground merges with the cloud sky which closes in round my head and there is no defined cut off point. It is cold and wet, the atmosphere clings to me: this fun house in the mountains: that’s what it feels to be. Funhouse of endless footsteps drifting words and human apparition wraiths that fade in and out of my vision.

We break for lunch in the mist, light rain which feels cold against my neck: dry butter sandwiches but we devour them like we haven’t eaten for a week. Those ever faithful boiled eggs – I fear for hot days and cold nights and food poisoning for there are no fridge freezers up here. Nobody swaps anything now and even my wife who never eats chicken tears at her drumstick this bloodthirsty carnivore she becomes. All of us complain of headaches, dizzyness and slight nausea with each step: it is the altitude sickness kicking in: I feel worse than before and together we break out the diamox, split tablets in two and take half each, suck juice from the cartons and crush them. Put off the moment when we have to stand, start off again and lean heavily on our poles.

Very few plants seem to survive here other than the lichens which cling to mottled rocks. I have already requested to climb the Lava Tower, a famous pinnacle seventy five metres high and thus after lunch the group splits: two guides, Godfrey and Freddy accompany me left, Head Guide Uforo and Dave, with the rest of the group and my wife bare right and I am sad and concerned to lose her: I shout into the mist for them to take care of my Elisabete but they are just formless shadows in the grey. After a few moments I can’t even see them anymore. Climbing hard up a rocky path distant voices are blown to me on the wind but I cannot catch conversations, just separated words that make no sense on their own. Perhaps it’s them. Perhaps it’s not. Nobody talks now: it rains, harder than before, deep breath, bite and sip. Godfrey says ‘Poli poli.’ and puts his arm round my back to steady me. He reckons one hour from the lunch stop but it seems much quicker as we reach the Lava Tower campsite but then my sense of time is wildly distorted up here.

There is a feeling of abandonment: surroundings inhospitable, desolate – not many choose to camp here and rubbish is strewn around and collected under rockfaces. Nobody burns their toilet roll and blackened excrement clogs up corners. Huge chunks of rock and curtains of mist and some dark shadow rising behind, its edges blur and disappear – the Lava Tower itself. Godfrey is concerned and does not want to climb – he knows better than I: we can barely see a thing in this limited visibility and thus am I disappointed but try not show it. I take a picture of my two guides, they one of me at the base. And then some voices which get louder approaching and four climbers come round and greet us, Norwegians with whom I’ve spoken before and up here you get to know your fellow climbers from rest stops and boiled egg lunches. Excited we talk more and they have had no problems in getting to the top: Godfrey and Freddy, their guide confere whilst I converse with them: ‘How hard is it really?’ so I ask and not bad so they reply – I’ve got experience on the climbing wall and roped ascents and with that I won’t have a problem so they assure me.

Leaving all the equipment concealed behind rocks, the poles and rucksacks, I take one last bite and sip and we clamber round grabbing at handholds and pulling ourselves up and we haven’t even yet started the real climb. The first physical test is stretching over this chasm which isn’t too deep, no more than perhap ten metres or so it seems to me but that is more than enough to break bones should I fall down into it. And the hand holds on the opposite side are thick with ice and damp from the freezing fog: from here we cannot see the top of the Tower, in fact barely the height of me up and ahead – Godfrey leads. My heart beats: this pulsating frantic rhythm in my ears and my hands feel clammy: I rub fingertips in palms, then palms together. It is into this white world we break, the cloud pins us to the rock, I can see nothing more than my hands and I dare not look away from the face in fear of falling. Each hold deliberate and slow, fingertips edging carefully surely and it is my tactile connection with the mountain. Godfrey keeps checking back, Freddy close behind but I don’t think they need worry on my behalf: I’m doing enough of that on my own, hearing my wife’s words of caution with every heartbeat loud in my ears. But I have confidence in my abilities, the climbing lessons back home were of benefit if it is only here. Now. We scramble round and up: it is not some suspended rope ladder which brings us to the small plateau on top.


Surrounding the gravelled basin in which we sit and rest are numerous cairns, stones stacked atop another: it is a symbol of us. This weak human – this insecure being who feels the need to leave a message to others: our identification – proof of life: we are not alone out here. I have passed this way. I remember you my parents and so on. I place another stone, for I am as insecure as any other; balance it atop the largest cairn and it’s for you, daughter Carolina. I have been here too and thought of you. Freddy and Godfrey watch me but make no comment and I wonder which of the stones are theirs. I take various photographs, Freddy mine. Take out the Cadbury’s chocolate from my pocket and break it up: the three of us sit high on the world talking of girls and football, absorbing the sugar rush and breathing hard; at least in my case. We are at four thousand five hundred metres more or less and still is the view obscured by clouds. I have read that a tremendous vista can be seen atop the Lava Tower. Except today. At least I have climbed it and it would appear that other than us and those Norwegians so will there be no more today. No more cairns or secret messages. No private thoughts or silent tears. From this point it is a long winding descent once back on the pathway to camp and my wife. That’s what Freddy says. We are so close – a few hours divide us but I feel lonely here now. Such is my tiredness I’d happily lay back upon the stones and drift into an uncomfortable sleep but it is Godfrey who urges me up gripping wrists and hauling me to my feet. As we stand there is a brief break in the clouds and we look down to the path, far below us small figures in yellow raincoats cross over a stream and begin up the other side. I think to shout out but restrain myself: I wonder if they will look up and see me in the mist but then are we enveloped once more and are alone.

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The trek to camp is demanding on my legs, the rugged pathway ever descending and with each step down so my breathing eases and I feel less nauseous than before. Despite our fast pace we fail to catch the others - footfalls splashing down into muddy puddles: crashing steps on slippery rocks jarring my knees and each impact sends a pounding jolt through the compressed vertebrae of my spine, into my aching head - I’ll need joint replacement when this is all over. Rain in my hair, my ragged crew cut, deep breaths and bites and sips, wipe the water from my forehead.



We enter into this valley in which Giant Senecios loom over us, hundreds of them, like desert cactuses from old western movies they dwarf us so. It is some eerie alien landscape from my science fiction mind; from fifties B movies and TV dinners when I was a kid. ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ and stuff. ‘Forbidden Planet.’ I lean up against the trunk of one of these monster plants and immediately it sways despite its circumference. Apparently the root structure is very superficial owing to the impenetrable rock and despite the fact that these things may be ancient I feel it would not take much effort to topple one over.

I feel like a hero walking into camp and am expectant of hugs and so forth but no one really cares – we are all too tired and feeling the effects of cold and altitude. The mist envelopes us in the twilight; the temperature drops. Visibility is limited. We are in a valley and stunted scrubby bushes fade as the rocky hillside disappears into the gloom. Across the way do I see a small hut, the rangers accommodation and I wonder at their life here permanently on Kilimanjaro. The food is just being served upon my arrival so I don’t even change out of damp clothing but slip straight into the mess tent getting the water butt as all chairs are claimed yet I barely notice the spout digging into my scrotum – the pain in my knees overcomes any such sensation of discomfort. Sweet milky tea, buttered bread dunked in my soup. I want to talk, enthused as I am having summited one important peak on the mountain already but I sense their disinterest. It might have been different had they done it too but none had. Just the Norwegians and I. No one is keen to talk, just wanting to eat, to get changed. Be warm. Climb into bed and sleep.

I strip damp sweaty clothes; my grey fleece still hasn’t dried from its rainforest soaking, one pair of trek pants are still wet so I give them to Hussein who hangs them in the cook tent next to the stove. Every night is a new endurance of sub-zero temperatures and once out of the sun I feel to freeze into a statue. We talk briefly in the dark having switched off our head lamps but all we can discuss is the discomfort and cold, our aching knees from the rocky descent into camp. I thought to make notes on the day in my journal but just cannot muster the enthusiasm to write. If I can’t get excited about writing then it is not worth doing for anything recorded will be worthless. Writing for me is some expression of emotion. With robotic movements hand up down left to right automatic passage across the paper it is not from my heart but just made of necessity. Wordafterwordafterword. I’m glad of this memory which stays sharp no matter the demands being made upon my body.

My wife feels unwell: not that she says anything but she seems mentally deflated like all her motivation has gone; the will to continue. I know how she feels – there have been both high and low points. Moments of despair and wondering what the hell we are doing up here. In the tent there is little room. On a scraped gravel layer sharp corners protrude through the ground sheet stabbing into my back. My backpack acts as a pillow and with the two large rucksacks on either side it is like four bodies crammed together. We keep close, two worm like masses huddled, pulling the drawstrings tight on the bags and hooded up like Arctic explorers. There is less conversation from the porters tonight though their radio still plays pulling in odd words from the ether, snatches of unfamiliar music and Swahili talk shows or something. I am no longer sleeping – it sounds strange but with the oxygen depletion I just drift in a semi-conscious state in which my body rests but so my mind is not stilled. The moment do I actually sleep so I awake gasping for air, sleep hypoxia – the urgent need for oxygen. Such strange dreams, visions, breathing hard every time you readjust position so it takes every ounce of effort. Just by moving slightly so you inhale exhale a thousand short urgent breaths. I think of reaching home. Home. HOME…

Three litres of liquid, diamoxes effects on my kidneys - bursting bladder in the night hoping desperately for the feeling to subside, wanting to sleep but no matter the rolling around or curling into foetal position I know I must get up and out and into that damn cold. I’m wearing almost everything anyway including fleece balaclava so just need to slip on cold trainers which have been outside. The door flap is solid and makes a noise like breaking glass when I push it aside, sheets of ice fall to the ground which is hard and frozen. I clamber out and stand in front of the tent: the sky is bright from the moon so I don’t even use my torch – my breath steams from mouth and nostrils and it wouldn’t surprise me to see it solidify and break and fall to the floor as one solid lump of frozen water molecules. Far below and in front of me delicate lights flicker from a Tanzanian village and I wonder if it is Moshi: I don’t know in which direction I’m facing for I’m totally disorientated in the dark. But all of its residents are unawares of me up here high above them. Atop of me one more fabulous starscape which presses down on me and on the horizon for the first time do I see the Southern Cross, which of course in our northern hemisphere is not visible. It also becomes apparent that all the constellations are reversed compared to back home and I spend cold minutes just taking it all in. Kibo looms like a huge grey elephant behind me; always present – I can smell the sharp freshness of the snow and glacial ice: it seems to burn my nasal passages as did the oppressive heat the day I arrived. Opposites. Extremes. African nights.

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  • 2 weeks later...



Kibo summit is closer than ever – it is some fake perspective so high and solid: the panorama that dominates us I know to be the backdrop for a classic mountaineer’s photograph: I’ve seen versions of it before, different mountains, different climbers: the 28mm F2.8 lens somewhat distorts close objects in this way but my low angle only exaggerates it more – the effect I was hoping to achieve. I think it’s the most stunning view yet. We are at almost four thousand metres. We have two thousand to go, straight up on a breath diet of oxygen depleted air and freezing temperatures. It is no surprise that on this trek you circle Kilimanjaro and zig zig across her sides. Acclimatization. Poli poli.

Baranco Hut camp - morning of day 4. The sun is obscured behind Kibo and as soon as it rises up and over are we hit with this amazing burst of heat: it seems all at once we disrobe from the overdressing of the night. I sip hot porridge straight from the bowl; it keeps my hands warm without having to wear gloves: sausages and egg are folded into limp toast and eaten as a sandwich and we’ve taken to lathering peanut butter and honey onto bread to take with us for the period between breakfast and lunch. One can only chew so many nutrition bars before becoming sick of their taste and at this altitude one must keep eating, maintain the calorie count – even if you don’t feel much like ingesting any kind of food.

A small brightly coloured African Sparrow chuffs me a private song feet from where I stand, totally unafraid. I spent solitary minutes with him listening, oblivious to the fact that I am on a mountainside in near sub zero temperatures in the heart of Africa. He does that to me, this little bird. Makes me forget everything for a second so lost am I with his sweet lyrical play.


Dominating us, our thoughts since first booking this adventure has been the Barranco Wall and it is straight ahead, one side of the valley a steep cliff, (almost two hundred metres tall) which we have to overcome should we wish to continue on. On this route there was no diversion from it, the Wall was an eventuality we all had to face. Up until this moment it has not been a problem for us and yet as we walk towards it I can detect that slight acidic flare in my stomach, the nervous tension or then perhaps it was just the eggs which were off. There are small coloured dots about a third of the way up – I realise suddenly that they are people already scrambling to the top. I point them out to my wife and her face would make an interesting study in fear should I photograph her now. It’s still a fifteen minute walk to the base.

Watching the coloured dots progress it was clear they were following some kind of path, or at least a route, not just pulling themselves up hand over hand. And getting ever closer I could see it was no vertical cliff face but rather a steep inclination into which a rough path was hewn from the tread of ten thousand mountain boots.


We crossed a stream which defined the base of the valley and visually following its passage so it suddenly dropped away at a green horizon of Giant Lobelias and Senecios. From this point on it was just sky, clouds scudded slowly by far below obscuring the African plains: that’s where we were, standing above the cloud base. I think that sometime far back in history this was the site of a huge glacier which perhaps Hans Meyer had hacked his way across but now it was just a deep V shaped scar in the mountainside.


The start of the ascent was easy, winding up in a repetative zig zagging motion around the rocky bluffs and I had to stop on route and capture the fantastic view to Kibo as others did around me, for it was drenched in sunlight and the glaciers bright in contrast to the brown volcanic rock underneath. From here it was possible to see the way they fell over the lips of the summit to slide down its sides: it looked to be melting fast and in fact I wasn’t too off the mark with that impression. I looked back down whilst taking a porter stop, a line of three waterfalls dropped into the valley on the opposite side to us, close to the remants of our camp. There were still stragglers leaving to catch up whilst tents were dismantled and stowed on backs.

I became aware of the number of groups climbing the Machame route at at any one time: until now you only saw a few people on the path because each party found its optimum pace; those who were slower would wake earlier and break out sooner than the others. But now on this bottleneck it is personafterpersonafterperson and there is no distinguishing between porter and customer: everyone is limited to the same slow pace and no one can make up time here. And this is the first occasion when I see those porters struggling. With the huge packs on their backs, tents etc it is clear some of the younger ones suffer under the weight and strain to balance upon the rock. You rarely see guides helping the porters – there exists some kind of order on the mountain and assistant guides and guides have already laboured for years to get where they are: they have already served their high altitude apprenticeship and unless under extreme conditions will not lug the main kit. They have enough to worry about just making sure we get up there without falling.


Your head level is at butt level of the next person up and vision is shared between finding a foothold, handhold and the backside of whomever is in front such is the inclination. Bite and sip – look around; deep breaths, hands to knees, that vague dizzy spin of car sick journeys as a child: faces look up to me and others who I’ve seen before smile in recognition, some sweating and finding it hard. To be honest this is nowhere near as difficult as one presumes when researching for the climb. Yesterday’s ascent of the Lava Tower was more challenging technically and that wasn’t hard. It is only the altitude and effort that makes you pause for breath.

I think the only difficulty comes when we have to bypass this large rotund rock which hangs out dividing the pathway in two. It is like a heavily pregnant bulge and is rubbed smooth by the passage of so many hands and groins - it is the one real time when I have been concerned for my wife. Underneath is nothing bar about fifty metres of air until the rocky scree below. She holds my hand on one side, reaches for a guide’s on the other so she is supported, then it is just that moment of letting go – stepping off. The void. I hear her breathing hard and can imagine her fear. And then she just goes, her right foot reaching out. I feel her grip tighten in a second then go loose and she is gone. ‘Yes.’ she screams punching the air and the elation in her face, voice is clear. I can only smile with her – sometimes I am so damn proud of my wife. Any thoughts of giving up that we shared last night can go to hell.

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We bypass Barranco’s most extreme section and wonder at what worried me in the first place. After this the Wall continues to tease us with false hopes, it is horizon following horizon following horizon and just when you think the top is breached, from behind looms another section and it must take three hours or thereabouts, slow steady steps concentrating on footholds, bite and sip. Determination. And then the rocky scree levels into some kind of rough pathway in front of us, other climbers stand on the lip of the cliff looking down, watching the line progressing towards them. There comes cheering, some kind of victory celebration: I dig out the Nikon.



‘Hurray!’ they all shout and we’ve reached the top without injury or delay.

On an outcrop which extends over the cliff face I sit against a large rock and watch the clouds roll up from the valley beneath. Grey, white, patches of blue as the sky struggles through but it is a losing battle and in time even the mottled greens and browns of the valley floor far below are crowded out. I pose like a black and white photo that I’ve seen in books before; Elisabete lines up the shot whilst I look to my right, the clouds behind and she clicks.


I’m captured in a classic image high up a mountain, beside trekking poles and rucksacks, rolled up bedding pads – high altitude light burning areas white on my face. ‘Perfect.’ and I hug her close, she’s totally elated - she proved something to herself here and faced down the fear that is acrophobia.

Reaching the top gives us a view down into another valley and it’s some grey stark moonscape which we have to cross – this is not the end. Helichrysum newii and Arabis Alpina are some of the few plants that cling within the shaded holes between the rocks. Walking down after ascending the wall was of some relief and yet because of the descent from the Lava Tower the day previous I had to rely on my poles more than I wanted and I staggered along like an injured spider missing half its compliment of legs.

This valley is filled with the ghost of our world’s past: let me explain. When researching Kilimanjaro and amazing myself at the photographs, one of the prominent features is obviously the glacial ice in Africa, the snow: how white the mountain is. Eminent Victorian members of the Royal Geographical Society had once scoffed at the idea – ‘how preposterous’ so they’d exclaimed back in London. Oldoinyo Oibor. Should you compare images from twenty years ago to those more recent you will see how far that glacial ice has receded, and Hemingway would probably think he was looking at another mountain should he write ‘The Snows of…’ now.


And now on route to Karanga we cross a large morraine slide, the debris brought down by the passage of a long since disappeared glacier. It is like a dead river of sluggish gravel interspersed by larger rocks dug in. Small trickles of melt water run down cutting shallow channels across our path. The light here is grey, for one’s vision cannot penetrate the mist which clings to the top of the valley: nothing grows on the morraine. Nothing lives. It feels dead. Kilimanjaro is dying. Apparently no more than five years ago you walked across ice here.

I construct a small four stone cairn, three on the bottom forming a triangle one resting in the gap between them and am silent for a while as the others carry on. This dead glacier I think is a prediction for our future and if only I could drag the world leaders here, now, to see what I see, to add to the cairn: Africa is not in their back yard and out of sight out of mind – by the time they take action it will be too late anyway and what will the world become?

The path cuts around the front of the valley side and still we descend: I can hear the sound of running water somewhere below. Numerous caverns are carved in the rock, likely the result of water flowing down through the porous rocks. Centuries. Millenia. The world is an old place. Caves: like something from a fairy tale, dripping with water, green slime and algae, stalactites. To be caught in severe weather and any one would make suitable shelter for all of our group.

And so we approach the Karanga River, fresh clear water – melted run off from higher up: a week earlier there had been blizzards on route to the summit, but now was it this, the icy water slopping up over my boots and chilling my feet? The Karanga River never stopped flowing. In fact the melting ice rivers provided water for many villages at the mountain’s base and it was why I never pissed into any of the streams. The water so clear, freezing upon my face as I splashed it up: no matter my thirst I’d never drink untreated water and once more it was a bite and sip for I was reminded of the fact that I hadn’t drank for a while. It was an affect of the cold, the wet conditions and I was aware of my lessening appetite. Altitude does this to you thus you force food down heavy in fat and calories; carbohydrates and sugars – something to keep you going. This is the last water source before the summit and it was from this point on that the water carrying porter would really have to work, filling his container twice in the next few days coming all the way back here: for us there were still two more camps before the summit.

Some groups make straight for Barafu Huts avoiding an overnight stay at Karanga. But not us. We were to stay another night during our ascent and thus took this small detour. It was important for two reasons. Firstly for an extra night’s acclimatization: any extra help other than the diamox and ginko would be welcome. And secondly a futher night’s rest here also meant that the trek between Barranco and Barafu was split in two, dividing what would be a straight seven hours into a couple of more manageable slogs and this would be easier on our oxygen starved systems. We would arrive early around lunchtime at the final camp tomorrow and have the afternoon to rest before beginning the summit push at midnight. Less stress during that morning would ease our passage later: I needed all the help I could get.

The entrance to Karanga was marked by a weighing station: restrictions are put on the allowance each porter carries and in order to see if anything had been illegally dumped on route. Apparently fines are imposed on companies that litter the mountain but I had seen all kinds of trash; picked some up myself. By the weighing station was a pile of these huge bones, bleached by the sun and extreme weather conditions. Buffalo or something. I thought about the opening line of Hemingway’s story, the frozen carcass of a leopard that he mentions – perhaps it was still there but bearing in mind the book had been written in 1938 I thought it unlikely. Buffalos, dead leopards and four striped mice. A desiccated flattened chameleon on day one. Sweet voiced African sparrow. The wildlife of Kilimanjaro.

Our tents were once more assembled, and were the furthest down. Ahead of us the mountain sloped away into the mist and a long drop toilet cabin stood sentry. We were warned not to stray too far especially in the night: nobody was to fall into the void. Lunch was swift and cold, just another pack lunch though taken in the big blue tent: hot tea and coffee; popcorn in a large metal bowl. Talk is less enthusiastic and it is a sure indication of our depleted physical reserves. I feel okay and indeed perhaps better than the rest for having climbed the Lava Tower so had I achieved better acclimatization. But all of us were tired – you could see it in bloodshot eyes: unkempt hair that was matted from its constraint under sunhats and fleece. No one was willing just to sit around and keep up some pretence of conversation: all of us sought out the privacy and limited comfort of our tents. Our American colleagues had taken to squeezing themselves like sardines into one whilst using the other to store their gear and this I think was a wise move for now it was so damn cold: whereas on the first night at Machame Hut had I slept naked in my bag last night had I worn near enough everything to stop from freezing. Young Hussein was boiling the drinking water at night and we’d stuff the warm bladders into our sleeping bags hoping the seals would hold during the night.

I wanted to go out on my own, walk around this lonely place in the mist but was dissuaded by the waves of exhaustion which flooded through my system. So I sat hunched up in my North Face fleece, my wife asleep in her bag alongside and I stared out from the tent watching the fog slowly drifting past; the water droplets so large it seemed I could reach out and grab each individual one. I catch up with the notes I should’ve made but have been too tired to do – in this hazy state in which reality is punctured by these strange waking dreams I notice how my handwriting is sloppier than when I started out. Each breath is a fight for oxygen like sucking at air through a damp handkerchief in a fire. I watch people walking to the long drop in a slow procession throughout the afternoon, picking their way gingerly over the rocks.

I hear voices in the mist, disjointed conversations in different languages, porters and clients: I have no idea who they are for I can barely make out their human forms. The cook serves up this incredible meal, following that strong buttery soup which serves to warm us through first. Dry bread dunked in. Roasted chicken, we get a leg and breast each, chips, fried cabbage or something and tomato sauce: it’s like the best meal I’ve ever eaten and I wonder how he manages to serve up such great food with limited facilities. A rotation of freezing nights and boiling days – I wonder how my stomach stays sane under the pressure. I would have to take an Immodium tablet in addition to the diamox after dinner. Bung up my backside for the most strenuous part of the climb.

During the night I’m caught by the toilet dilemma, whether to stay in my bag, warm to a certain extent but curled up with a pulsating bladder or get up and out into a freezing world where rocks are grey jagged pyramids edged with ice. I cannot stay no matter my will to and every movement brings protest from my screaming lungs: it is absolutely black inside the tent and I could be in my grave. But I reach up and grab the head lamp which hangs a few inches from my face and the light brings me assurance that I am a solid mass and not some Kilimanjaro ghost. The air is so cold that my throat is chilled painful: only my fleece balaclava saves my ears from freezing and falling off. Each step one so dainty arms spread out wide for balance. Entering into the toilet I slip. Something rank stinking on the floor. My foot goes. A sharp pain sudden in my knee. Falling back flailing at air face like a Munch painting long wailing ‘Noooo’ that nobody will hear anyway: my trainer slides across the frozen planks and I skim across thin air momentarily, my hand grabs at the wooden doorway; it is a second in which everything revolves around this damn long drop toilet and of all the ways to break a leg on Kilimanjaro doing it here would be the worst humiliation. Returning I can’t even look at the stars for I shake so much and ten metres from the tent I vomit: shredded chicken barely digested splatters to the gound at my feet and my hurling wails of clenched stomach muscles echo from the rocks around me. This is the worst I’ve felt. I want to give up. Call it a day. Call it a night. What the hell. Anything. I’m finished.

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PART 10.

Low oxygen levels cause my mind to be active even in snatched sleeps. Elisabete had another bad night, tossing, turning, waking suddenly and crying out scared and I’m beginning to be concerned for her health. She looks tired and is irritable. Conversation is brief and snappy. Radios wake me Hussein’s calling and coffee. Stars still dot the sky – lights far below on the plains, Moshi – the day begins. I’m feeling nauseated, head achey, with the coffee it’s a handful of tablets all at once which I can barely swallow – diamox, ginko, ginseng the vitamins; vomidrine and immodium. They are all boulders inside my throat, a bolus of pick-me-ups and block-me-ups.

Breakfast brings hope to us all and after a while Elisabete regains her fighting spirit. More porridge, sausage squashed between folded toast – coffee with spoonfuls of sugar. I’m better than I was before and this is it: everything has come to the now, today. For at midnight tonight so begins our summit push.

It doesn’t take long to get prepared, by this stage none of us worry how neat our kit is, just crammed into packs: I have no idea what is dirty what is not. Clothing comprised of underwear that is itchy, the faithful nylon tights, two pairs of hiking socks, boots: trek pants, a moisture wicking tee-shirt that smelt sweaty when I dragged it from the rucksack and the fleece whose fragrance is one of breakfasts. My neck gaiter and balaclava rolled down as far as my ears. Silk liner gloves. Another pair of fleece gloves. We are set, the sound of everyone’s poles clicking down onto the rock, footsteps in the gravel.

The path in front slowly winds up the mountain, some well trodden right of way in this inhospitable land: either side are rocks that looked to have been rained down from the sky. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Kilimanjaro is a volcano and most of the debris was probably deposited during the last major eruption one hundred thousand years ago. Porters are small bobbing flourescant dots in front and one passes us with a huge water container filled from the Karanga River slopping on his shoulders. All the while to our left climbed the iced slopes of Kibo, the scree tumbling down, clouds drifting slowly around the snow line. Ahead of us another breach wall upon which was carved a winding track and a line of figures climbing it.



Looking back the African plains were completely obscurred by the voluminous cloud bank that my strong sunglasses only enhanced into a sepia toned sea. Bite and sip, it is important to remember: deep breaths and tingling diamox lips. A walking meditation on those boots infront of me. Head aching, the slightly off balance spin of nausea, strange dreams and am I asleep or awake? Counting every second, every breath and minutes become hours and I can hear the pulsating blood in my skull. Volcanic rocks spewed up from the Earth’s hot liquid core, lichens and mosses struggle for life and it amazes me that even here small flowers bloom in the shadows. More cairns dot the route, names have been scratched on large flat stones by tips of trek poles, dates. Strange rounded hollow stones like upturned skull caps hold water: I cannot stop looking to Kibo: the air is sharp and cold like it is blowing straight from the summit towards us and each breath I take hints at the history of glacial slippage.


The sky is so vivid I have never seen it so blue, up here the pollution and haze drifts somewhere below us. I take a photograph looking back down the path and a line of climbers follows us: we reach the top of the breach and I am once more disappointed by the false hope of horizon – again do we drop down into another sandy valley – poli poli. Along the valley basin I walk backwards for a while out of boredom but cannot manage it for more than a few hundred metres without tripping so turn and walk normally.

There are bright tent tops on the ridge stabbing out from the craggy pinnacles: we are almost there but for the steep climb up this last wall before we can rest. Ice hugs at the rockfaces and the Mweka path merges with ours – this is the one we will be descending via.

I sit atop a sharp rock, a staff of old ragged lava which overlooks our final camp site at four thousand seven hundred and fifty metres. We still have another one thousand two hundred and fifty or thereabouts to ascend this night and I try not to think about it but that is an impossibility now. I only have to turn my head forty five degrees to the left and so I see the iced pyramid vivid against the sky. Our tent, all the tents peak out from between great boulders beaten by the high altitude conditions and a white collared crow rides the wild winds that flap the tent sides.


Ahead of me perhaps five kilometres walk the jagged ridged peak of Mawenzi – snow filling the crags away from the sun; a dusting of icing sugar that’s how fine it appears to be. Powdery. I wear my sun hat with drawstring tight under my chin, glasses secure and a strip of silver foil folded over protects my nose from the U.V rays. It may be cold but an intense sun burns at my face and I can feel my dirty skin tightening under its attention.


Clouds creep up the Saddle from further down whilst high altitude horsetails whip through the blue. Porters talk loudly in Swahili – Elisabete sleeps in the tent but I could not stay in there for it was a nylon hell greenhouse in which I sweated heavily. My heart races and my breaths come shallow and rapid. Thus I sit down and just take in the scene. Take pictures with the Nikon – its reassuring manual mechanical control means no batteries can fail me here. I hear conversations in English from behind the rock spires and talk is of the summit which looks so close: successful climbers from the night previous stagger down through the camp whereupon they relate brief experiences and wish us good luck. There is this strong sense of camaraderie, that of explorers – the weekend mountaineers like us. I see people supported by guides, one woman can barely walk and complains of snow blindness – I don’t think she should have been here at all but she had made it: I wonder with how much assistance from her guide but she’d reached the top and was better than me for I still had to climb.

Barufu Huts themselves were two circular structures with low conical roofs: our porters and guides had already set up big blue and their own facilities but I saw other guides going inside.


Various tents with day glo nylon outersheets peaked out from small clearings and other people wandered in this dazed state like me and said hello but that was it – no one was in a talking mood. I recognised a couple of faces and scanned the people to pick out those whom I’d met on the way. Some were there, tired like me. Others I never saw.


A few photographs, the views and one of the highest toilet in Africa, a long drop shack with a hole scraped from the volcanic rock. Kibo looks so damn close and I approach the start of the tortuous route which will take me up. The temptation so strong to just get going but the realisation of a seven hour slog that still awaits us is somewhat sobering. The air so fresh: every breath is some spring clean of my lungs and to draw down deeply seems to freeze the alveoli.

I rest inside the tent before tea is served – we are right in the sun which is strong overhead and I have to strip to underwear and tee-shirt for the heat is unbearable inside. Sweaty. The smell of soiled clothes is strong. I try to sleep and drift in and out of this strange consciousness. All the time the outer sheet flaps in the wind and breeze blows at my face through the open door.

At some stage I get up and thus start sorting my kit for midnight. The heat decreases as the sun passes over us and once in shade so it becomes cold again. I start naked for everything I wear underneath the waterproofs bar my cooking oil fleece will be new, clean; it’s been bagged all along. Boxer shorts, a new pair of tights. Thin pair of socks, mid weight socks and heavy woollen hiking socks. Thermal leggings, moisture wicking. Second inner tracksuit bottoms. Third layer tight fleece trousers, and fourth my heavyweight windproof trek pants. A short sleeve tee-shirt. A long sleeve tee. A clinging roll neck top. Mid weight fleece. The heavyweight North Face fleece which smells like chips. Balaclava. Neck gaiter. Black silk inner gloves. Fleece middle gloves. Thick gortex ski gloves. My North Face waterproof jacket. It’s all about layered insulation and I can hardly move having to dress the last few things outside. Gaiters and boots. I feel like I’m ready for a spacewalk this rotund figure that I am waddling to our big blue tent for tea, shuffling steps in this armour cladding against the elements. Every movement brings on that deep rapid breathing trying to suck every last molecule of oxygen from this thin air.

Dinner is early at five p.m or thereabouts: I can only guess at the time from the decreasing light levels. Plates of pasta in some tomato and meat sauce. Slow energy burn. Carbohydrates like marathon runners preparing the night before – we’ll need every ounce of it to sustain us. The water bladders are one thing likely to suffer in the sub-zero temperatures as we push for the top so I tape ours into tee-shirts that smell rotten from having been wet on the first day and staying damp balled up in our rucksacks. We’ll just go with the two litres each neither wants to change tubes in the freezing cold. The hose will possibly freeze solid, coming from inside my back pack winding out round over shoulder to hang down by my chest. The bite valve – it will all be exposed and with old socks which reek, underwear and one more damp tee-shirt per hose tape it all up like some water pipe in a loft insulated against winter chills. The packing tape which I brought another essential item, winding it round and round so the thing is solid and can only just bend. They become the Kilimanjaro mambas and provide some amusement for us all as I finish them. The porters laugh at my makeshift job and I’m glad anyone has a sense of humour up here, it takes our minds off what is to come.

During the summit briefing I assess the mountain – whilst Kili is some dream for me for our guides and porters it is no different to a day at the office – some day – some office. In their opinion, as until this moment we have been under their joint assessment, we can make it: all of us.

We snuggle into the tent, wrapped in bags with hot water bladders – nervous as hell and shaking with anticipation. The rumble of liquid fire inside my bowels – it’s that nervous energy, that over stimulation of a thousand coffees: it’s the diamox the ginko the ginseng the vomidrine the vitamins the immodium: everything rattles inside my stomach that sloshes and the recently consumed starch based meal sits like cloth rammed inside my throat and so do I choke on my own anxieties. We awake at ten or as near as I think to it: porters talk and pots are banging from the cook tent. I’m cold in my bag, will be colder still but unzip it anway and so undergo that metamorphosis from this chrysalis like state I exist in now. This huge cellestial display above me and all I can concentrate on is not being sick. Stars – they’re always there.

Tents illuminated from torches within, shadowy shapes hunched up legs outstretched pulling on trousers and fleece tops. I take more tablets to be safe and Elisabete complains in her exhausted state – I sense her fear now for I too am somewhat scared. We both look at our daughter’s picture inside my journal, my torch beam upon it. Press fingertips to her forehead and say we love her, hoping across the miles she knows this to be true. We convene in the big blue all squeezed together hunched under the low hanging ceiling round coffee and tea, a watery porridge filled with sugar: wind whips at the door flaps each of us are cold in the night. And then we go.

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PART 11.


SUMMIT PUSH – Midnight.


Head lamps on: sweeping beams show up our ragged path ahead. Poli poli, slow steady steps no more than that of a funeral procession through the campsite. There is conversation all around us, the sounds of preparation, of setting out and uncertainty: I wonder just how many of them will make it to the top.


Tripping on rocks, dead man walking is a line in my head lights bouncing at feet wind whips into my face – it is so damn cold and we’ve only been gone ten minutes or so. My nose runs onto my neck gaiter, pulled up over my mouth and I cannot wipe the phlegm away or blow my nose: it’d mean taking off gloves and getting out paper and stopping, wiping – the snot freezes solid on the fleece and cracks off when I crunch it between thick gloved fingers. Each release of breath is heavy vapour dispersed: my mouth is a steam engine’s funnel.


Chewing the bite valve it crackles and is cold between my teeth and every suck is this Goddamn effort to get some fluid inside me and still the wind cuts through from right to left stinging my exposed face. That tingling rush in fingertips, in lips and toes no matter how well insulated they all are and a dizzy swaying motion inside my head which throbs with each step I take. I look up and see a few lights above me, turn round and see a snake of bobbing head lamps behind and below: we have six more hours to Gilman’s Peak and so I start a swear word mantra every damn thing I’ve ever learnt, heard, making some up as I go, on and on in this manner - a carousel of profanity in my mind.


Groaning step, groaning step, bite and sip, when will this end? Time is measured by the tick tock pendulum swing of my arms, the crunching footsteps upon frozen scree, the pulsating heart which drums in my ears and the stinging cold against my cheeks and nose. Face ravaged raw by that biting wind; wanting to vomit and stopping for a second to grab out energy paste – twist off top and suck it up and it is that sucking effort the sugary taste in my mouth: the sickness comes, bile in my throat I hawk it up spit it out and sway on the narrow path. Hands freeze inside three layered gloves, deep breaths so loud in my head people in front stumble as I have just done.


My heavy bladder hurts with every step so I stop, stagger from the barely defined path and stones crunch under my feet: look for large rocks and a modicum of privacy but there are none so stand with my back to the procession – pull down wind proof trek pants, my tight fleece trousers, tracksuit bottoms, thermal leggings, tights and underwear: standing there willing something to come out. Head lamps swivel to illuminate my frozen butt.


Another mouthful of sweet energy paste – even that is beginning to freeze so I have to chew at the fibrous apple and then I’m only feeling sick again. Bite on frozen valve and just a weak trickle in my mouth, cold sucking on ice so it feels. And then my wife stops is swaying looks bad ‘I can’t go on.’ she says and I become worried ‘I owe this damn mountain nothing.’ and her will is stronger than mine – all who she thinks of is our daughter. ‘Right we both go down.’ so I decide but our guides won’t allow it. I kiss my wife and try to hug her but getting arms round a ridiculous circumference is hard and in the end we just end up clashing noses and feel stupid. I watch her descend with the guide holding her arm, they pass others coming up who don’t even stop like nothing exists bar their goal. It makes me sad to see her fading light disappear below for this was something together. Us.


There is no sound bar that of my breathing, crunching footsteps which are confused with my pounding heartbeat: wind cracking my hood it flaps in anger against my face which stings. My head lamp dims and dies: I shake it smack it but nothing happens and all I follow are grey feet and the jolting torch lights further up. In these few moments do I become aware of the fact that time ceases to exist. There are two things I concentrate on – each breath, each footstep. Once completed they are no more and I don’t even think of what has been.


Leaning hard on my poles digging them in pulling myself up. I want to be sick, go to vomit but nothing comes up other than heartburn acid in my throat. Dry wretching. People start falling out of the line wheeling round and passing me by, head down to the floor hanging off their guide. I haven’t drunk a thing in hours my damn bite valve frozen solid, dehydration the diamox and being six thousand metres up. I must reach the top. I pass by a woman hunched over vomiting. Guttural cries of yuurrgh from her stomach and she heaves up more it splatters to the pathway and steam rises. Somewhere in the dark crying, sobbing, desperation. Swear words like mine. Why the hell do we do this? I wonder. We should all stay at home and leave this to real explorers like Chris Bonnington.


I stop to look back. The lights of Moshi twinkle far below. People asleep. How I’d love to be asleep now. The sky is bright with stars, the Southern Cross away to the right just above the horizon, the two guiding lights to its left, the glowing red star to the right: Eta Carina Nebula.


Suddenly am I aware of something changing, so subtle in its affect I can barely tell it’s there – just how the floor begins to glow and shadows form from where there were none: grey tipped miniature peaks of shale and rock something is mauve and pink and warm and very slowly does the temperature begin to rise inside my lifesaving suit. I stop, pull deep on oxygenless air. Look around and see the curved horizon of planet Earth. Layers of pastel shades and the night is peeled back as the sun slowly rises over African plains – I can’t see it yet but I know it’s there, coming, soon. Keep going step after step after step and then all around is it this extended vision of the top and the sun explodes in the sky. I fall back and lay on the ice that covers the ground, Gilman’s Point and am aware of people passing me by wondering if I’m dead but then no one bothers to check me. Who cares? I’m at the top or nearly so: I begin to cry and tears almost freeze upon cheeks and my eyes feel tight and sore: I can think only of Elisabete who is somewhere down there and this is an empty victory for it was my greatest wish to do it together, stand hand in hand looking out over the world. I call her name and hope she is well. I breathe so deeply ice fingers in my lungs. Got to get moving: even through layered clothing hypothermia can be a killer up here. To stay still is to die.

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PART 12.

The major factors vital to my ascent of the mountain were:

The porters.

But one thing above all else gave me the success I sought - Godfrey my guide. Until now the encouragement of each guide, Uforo, the head, Dave, Godfrey and Freddy had spurred us on when spirits were low. Their experience, direction and advice had made the climb easier - and the final words in a chilly briefing prepared us for the night to come. And then we began and when I flagged it was Godfrey whom supported me, took my rucksack and found me water when mine had frozen. I wonder if without him I’d have reached the top as when my wife became ill with altitude sickness and turned to descend I wanted to go with her - he didn’t let me - “Keep going, almost there, poli poli.” he’d shouted over the raging wind. “Thank you Godfrey.” I said but he didn’t hear, impatient as he was to carry on.

I look to the sky and it is black into purple into steely grey, blue and then white, a line of textured clouds hugs the horizon: this defining line between reality and dreams heaven and hell and I sit above it all.



The sun this piercing fireball breaking free of gravity and so quickly does it rise and this cutting swathe of heat rushes up the mountainside and everyone’s spirits are lifted. You can feel the change: pessimism – optimism. Defeat – victory. I stand with my hands clasped. Breathe, fully inflating my lungs, wringing them out again. The cloud base mauve and pink tinged with white and yellow on the peaks – oh how beautiful it is, perhaps this is what it feels like to be dead and float above the world at every wondrous dawn. A hanging fog that froze in the night disperses below.


To my right, as I face down the path I have just climbed, a shale slope leads to Rebmann’s Glacier and on my left the red Martian landscape of the crater:


a frozen lake in the hollow, topping the opposite side a glacier which under threat from lazer beam sun and global warming slowly melts away. Rebmann’s – blue and green hues in the ancient ice, black poles protrude from the top to measure the rate of decay, annual melt and in fifteen years it will be no more just another piece of African history and folklore.

There are two summits atop Kibo, Gilman’s Point where I had just collapsed and Uhuru Peak - one must reach this second goal. I laugh out loud. There is still walking to do and it amuses me some. A narrow hard packed path of a thousand footsteps snakes round the rim of the crater which dips away to my right hand side. On my left the shale slips down to the base of the layered ice. Patches of snow against the dark volcanic rock. Small figures in silhouette against the bright sky ahead of me. But it is no longer uphill or at least not steep like it had been and the feeling of placing one boot in front of another is so much easier and my breathing becomes less strained than before. Energy that I thought to have been sapped from my muscles returns. Godfrey leads the way and there are but a few people in front of us. Despite my exhaustion we had still arrived earlier than many others who still followed on behind me.

We reach Uhuru Peak and there is a sign against which people stand to have their photograph taken. A line of Tibetan prayer flags flap in the breeze tattered by the endless wind. Various stickers from places around the world adhere to the boards and carved yellow writing stands out.



Godfrey takes two photos of me by this sign and others stand to one side. I don’t know who they are but if these photos ever come out they will forever be with me on my wall in the study. They’ll be my anonymous partners on the summit. They’ll never know this. I’d asked that we go further than Uhuru – one can drop down into the crater and walk to the ash pits where sulphuric gasses still rise from the ground; the old volcano vents smoke from deep fumaroles and you can sense the heat from molten magma in the earth’s core: it breaths and one has the sense that it is alive, hibernating. Waiting. But I felt completely exhausted, every step one of leadened legs and concrete boots. Elisabete needed me: I worried for her. So I cannot claim to have totally conquered my Kilimanjaro for we set off back round the rim path on which we’d just come, passing those who’d climbed after me and were still making to the sign boards to have their photographs taken. I passed the Americans from our group: I had arrived and was departing whilst they were still on route but this was no race and I felt no sense of victory. We patted each others shoulders in passing, smiled, thumbs up and so on. Anybody who makes it this far has won something only personal to them.

In the daylight the passage up appears less extreme but the reason for the night ascent is so that you walk on the frozen scree which during the day melts to become a gravel ski slope as I found out when Godfrey led us down – the campsite visible on a tiny bluff a thousand metres down pinpricked with vivid colours which were our tents. We don’t follow the original nocturnal zig zag pathway but this serpentine grey ash road in which are millions of footprints and long stretching slide marks. Each step down I took so I slid in the loose dusty surface and we were able to run; these giant leaps like walking on the moon. I have to make him stop occasionally: we drink from my back pack bladder biting and sucking on the valve for it has defrosted completely and thus do I re-hydrate again. With such a violent rapid descent my head clears, the aching, the nausea – each breath becomes easier but still my lungs feel devoid of oxygen and I stop to suck in huge intakes of air. Bite and sip. Godfrey is pointing and those tents are ever closer and what took six hours or more to climb takes barely more than an hour to descend.

As we approach camp and hit the hard jagged rocks again I stop, hug Godfrey in a moment of extreme emotion. He is a big guy, muscular and strong, of few words and here is this exhausted European clinging onto him and he doesn’t know what to say. I tell him something which at that precise moment sounds so right but it is just nonsense in the end. He took me to the top, kept me going and never once slowed. Refused to let me quit. I take my thick ski gloves off and give them to him for his are old and frayed at the finger tips – my hands froze with three layers but he just rammed his deep within coat pockets. He thanked me and I didn’t even check to see if they’d fit.

I composed myself, spat out this phlegm flicked with stringy blood and wiped my eyes. We entered that damn campsite like returning heroes from the Second World War.

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PART 13.


I sit overlooking Mawenzi, a delicate rainbow had formed to its right: I took a picture and then closed my eyes –drifted in and out of consciousness. Elisabete slept – I wanted to see the Americans return. To make sure they were okay and congratulate them. No one had me upon my arrival.


And then I slept and no matter the harsh sun through the ripstop nylon, the glowing colours inside my tent I just laid back on bundled sleeping bag wearing only yesterday’s underwear. The unzipped door flaps blowing violently in the channelled wind: I did not dream or cannot recall doing so. I just remember that heat and the breeze on my uncovered legs. Hussein grabs my ankle and shakes it and suddenly do I wake and he is going ‘Coff, chai.’ ‘Asante Hussein.’ so I reply and it’s time to get started again. I cannot have slept for long - the sun is overhead. The wind whistling through the high rock outcrops whips into my face and I dress outside the tent. We have a quick lunch comprised of what little breakfast food is left, toast and thin sausages enough water for one mug of tea or coffee each. It was taken quickly for soon after would we begin our journey back to civilization: it would take us one afternoon and one morning to reach the park gates: there was a sense of finality and that it was over. I could only think of showering.


Rucksack packed and slung over my shoulder, the last of our rubbish sealed into a carrier bag knotted at the top. The tent was empty with dirty scuff marks from my boots at the entrance. Trek poles hang limp on my wrists. We joined the others who stood with Uforo. It was time to leave Barafu Hut.


We started out upon the New Mweka route passing others just reaching Barafu and I made no comment - nothing I could say would prepare them for that hellish torture to come. Hidden inbetween the rocks these old wheeled stretcher contraptions and they looked like something left over from the First World War with their rotten khaki canvas slings. In the event that one of us were suffering from extreme H.A.C.E then this would be our uncomfortable means of transport down for it would be vital to make a rapid descent. None of us needed it but then we heard urgent shouts and stepped aside and in a rush of pumping limbs squeaking wheel bearings and agitated communication three porters ran past us with a body strapped onto one of these old things bumping and jerking down the rough path into the mist which swallowed them up and soon they were just anxious voices fading away. Urgent footsteps upon the gravel.


Within about an hour we came to the Millenium Campsite, a huge flat area which had been prepared for the influx of climbers for the New Year week, 99 into 2000. Now it was just like a burn scar upon my arm – there was no scrub just the scraped level surface and you could still make out the rectangular impressions of the last tents to be taken down. It was slowly being reclaimed by nature and in another fifty years perhaps you wouldn’t be able to tell it was ever here. That and the glacier and the buffalo bones at Karanga Camp.


The extent to which the oxygen flooded the air was noticeable and each breath became easier, the angle of our descent was steep and at times I had to lean backwards for balance: I’d already extended our trek poles to their limit. Click click did the metal tips go on the rock. Great stone steps slippery surfaces jarring knees.


To Mweka Huts takes approximately five hours but these hours are measured only by my aching legs, knees in which shredded cartilage complains with each heavy step. My backpack straps which rub at my shoulders. The mist offers a cooling comfort and I am thankful to be without the glacier glasses and sun hat: the cold drizzle on my scalp is refreshing. Occasional bite and sip but I feel no need to drink for coming down is less strenuous than the opposite way. What took us four days from Machame Huts to Barafu so we do in this one afternoon and pass through similar environments but the horizon is only the soft mottled fog whispy upon the stones and all I care for is the track and where it will lead us.


Slowly do we enter into the moorland zone and those thin skeletal trees familiar from day two begin to appear hanging with old man’s beard, speckled with moisture as are spider’s webs in the morning dew – they are some kind of wraiths in my vision. Uforo is saying ‘Not far now.’ and it will be something I will always recall from Kili, ‘Not far now.’ and ‘Poli poli.’ but he no longer urges us to slow down: voices up ahead in the trees indicate we are close to camp, Mweka Huts and our final night on the mountain. The trail becomes thick with mud and boots squelch down into the marshy soil. It is getting dark already: with the cap of thick rainforest cloud upon us so we are compressed between the trees and the atmosphere is so different from the past nights. Expressions are those of relief: you see smiles on people’s faces, joy instead of strain and apprehension. Radios play loudly, porters huddle in groups smoking. At the hut itself a ranger sells cans of Coke and Kili beer, bars of chocolate. It appears so crowded for here do many groups converge but I see no one whom I have encountered before, not the Norwegians from the Lava Tower or yellow jacketed Germans who power marched their way to the top. The two Australian girls. I wouldn’t care to anyway – I have no words to share with any of them. Just me. My wife. Tomorrow and thoughts of being clean once again.


Of all the meals thus far tonight’s was the only bad one we’ve had for everything was running out and there was no soup just bland spaghetti: I was losing my appetite for I wanted no more than one serving – there was no need for the heavy carbohydrate calorie intake and I supped at some coffee with powdered milk and headed to bed whilst Elisabete talked a while with the Americans.


Because of the limited space our tent was pitched on a slope and I kept sliding towards the door in the night – we both suffered and would wake up our feet tight against the flaps and have to worm back up to a more comfortable position. And I ached and that made it hard to sleep anyway. I became aware of my feet being wet and felt down in the dark and squeezed the bottom of my sleeping bag and it was drenched: I was cursing the rain and the location where the porters had placed us. Wet feet and damp clothes and a bag I’d have to hang out in the hotel to dry before the safari started Sunday morning.

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PART 14.


It was my damn water bladder, still full from the previous night: I’d put it at the foot end of our tent when I should have emptied it outside. I’d barely drunk anything on the way down and where we kept sliding doorwards the constant pressure from the bedding mat and my feet upon the bite valve had caused it to leak: the sticky lemon and iodine tainted liquid absorbed into the bottom of my sleeping bag and I had been cursing the rain – it would’ve only taken me to switch on the torch and find out what it was but having been so tired I just couldn’t be bothered.


And so with Hussein’s wake up I dressed in dirty clothes for everything was bundled up together and I no longer cared. I could’ve stayed in that bag all morning bar the wet feet and vague citrus odour from the dissolved Lucozade tablets but everyone was keen to get moving and finish this adventure. In the big blue tent clasping mugs of weak coffee, (the powder was running out and we’d stretched it to give us all a second) we assembled the tips together, each of us contributing one hundred dollars and this was something of which not much had been said. Of course it was always assumed we’d have to tip but on a mountainside where there are no banks it can be difficult to divide this amount of money into small enough denominations so everyone would receive their fair split. But somehow we managed it, after much to-ing and fro-ing between tents and money belts etc.


There still remained the Kilimanjaro tradition of group photographs and gratuities, (the porters I think survived on the tips they made) and they were to sing us the Kilimanjaro anthem. As they did so I stood back and froze expressions and portraits on slide film thankful that neither camera had been affected by the adverse weather conditions or leaky water bladder in the night. Twenty five porters guides cooks and so on sang out ‘Kilimanjaro’ accompanied with much clapping and whistling: the words which I’ve forgotten already, dancing and throughout are names called aloud and the respective person steps forward and spins and bows and returns to the throng and then are our names called in the singing intonation: each of us step into the circle and spin and bow as they did too. It is so joyous and happy even though these young porters wear such mismatched crappy clothes and old sweaters, day glow coats and trousers with holed knees.


Then as the celebration concludes and we applaud strains of the same song drift through the trees and all around Mweka Camp is the same tradition performed to other climbers and the world is full of song. The porters line up: Uforo calls them forward in turn, calls out their name - we shake their hands, hand them the money. The guides - Dave and Freddy, Godfrey, and finally Godfrey calls up Uforo and we all cheer and he says ‘Thankyou thankyou.’ in his soft spoken manner.


Small trees with vivid green canopies hem us in by the hut and Kibo herself looms tall behind everything, everyone, the long stretching fingers of glacial ice more visible here than before. As we pack so do I hand out things that we will no longer need. Aluminium thermos flasks which we never even took from the holsters, (and perhaps in hindsight I should have taken one to the summit) some of my clothing, head torches and little Hussein receives Elisabete’s waterproof trousers for they will probably fit him and no one else. To the porters go a big pack of AA batteries, four disposable lighters and lots of patted backs. I can never remember their names but it is the smiling faces and uncomplaining effort that I will always recall. And then it is done and we watch our tents being disassembled for the last time in the mud, pull up the trekking poles and get ready to go.


The pathway is steep like yesterday and despite the fact we are once again within rainforest I have no will to admire the incredible scenery that surrounds me: it is indicative of my state. I realise that upon my return home so will I regret not having been more observant. At any other time so would I be completely amazed by everything again but it is just that pathway disappearing far ahead between the tree trunks that I care about. Birds call out somewhere overhead, a polyphony of a thousand melodic voices in the trees but I don’t stop to look whereas on day one I would have. The smell that comes from my clothes and the dirt which rubs off my neck is that of one week without showers.


I hear the sound of branches snapping and crashing ahead, the joyful sound of children’s voices hidden and suddenly as we round the bend three young boys are surprised, supporting long wooden branches tied with vines atop small pads of leather on their heads. Each smiles at us: ‘Jambo jambo hello hello.’ and the familiar greeting ‘Chocolate pen dolla?’ and they never sound the R. I hand them what is left of my Cadbury’s bar and photograph them all on the digital, gather them round so they can see their own images afterwards. It is permitted for the villagers to come into this area of the park and take fallen wood for fuel and yet none of these branches, or the huge trunk of a juvenile tree one carries look to be fallen for each has a straight cut across the thickest end, at least from what I can see but who am I to complain? The major threat to Kili other than the melting of the glaciers is the deforestation at this level. Wild fires are caused by illegal honey collectors who set small fires to smoke the bees out, fires which in the dry season rage out of control. And like these three boys so others come in and take wood illegally. But perhaps another threat comes from us, the tourists who climb and erode the pathways and litter the mountain: in a few years the glaciers will have melted and the rainforest be cut down and then will everyone wonder just what calamity afflicted Kilimanjaro but by then it will be too late anyway.


Past these boys and round a bend, across a bridge under which a river splashes: perhaps at the top which we crossed when it was but a narrow stream. I see there is a small pavilion type of building and some formal gardens, numerous climbers sitting down on benches and chatting, resting. Toilet facilities. I share a Kili beer with Dave the guide and it was perhaps the best beer I’ve ever tasted. We drank Cokes and bottled water and I took off my boots and walked barefoot on the damp short cut lawn: it felt so refreshing between my toes, slippery and oh to have my feet free of the boots was some liberating sensation – they were blackened and stinking and between the toes was full with filth.


There was a queue to sign in and in that time I recorded the last of my thoughts. Uforo entered our details with the ranger and made my certificate out in my Swahili name, Matayu – a nice touch, an African touch framed behind glass in my small study back home.


Though the gates signalled the true end to our climb it was in fact just another false horizon – the heavily rutted track was of too severe an inclination for our bus to climb and so we had another few minutes of walking down through the cultivated lower slopes to the small village of Mweka. I was in the midst of it, huge skies of this deep blue and such immense towering clouds so pure in their white, sun reflecting from their tops and hinting at a rain that keeps the forest tropical and lush. Shy children stood in doorways and waved to us, old mothers and grandparents smiled down from their elevated positions on porches and when I stopped to shake some hands you could see the genuine pleasure they took from meeting me. No words were exchanged but all it needed was a smile and small bow, hands open and extended. I would very much liked to have sat down beside these people and relaxed with them, watching the climbers leaving the park: laugh through the day and learn more about their lives. The Chagga tribe. Communicated with sign language, trading odd simple words, phrases, my English for their Swahili. Had I been permitted more time. Had I been clean..


We came to a small cabin dominated by a Coca Cola sign rusting at the corners and a throng of people waiting: as we approached so they surrounded us. Children and adults proffering hats and tee-shirts, a Kilimanjaro tourist trap and I shook so many hands made eye contact with them all but I didn’t want to buy any of it. Palms up fingers outspread no no, thankyou. ‘Hapana santi’. And yet still was there the gentle insistence and at once I thought that these people deserved any spare money I had. But in the end realised I was just one more on the down escalator of foreigners that passed them by everyday. They weren’t offended when I said no. One young guy perhaps no more than sixteen kept on, he had these batik prints on black material, reds and oranges, rich earthy tones which I like so much. He could see my interest and so we stood to one side and he leafed through the designs and one stuck out for me: three Maasai warriors in silhouette against a sunset and its size approximately that of an A2 sheet of paper. I had no money on me and I am spreading my arms: he is wanting to trade – he points at my sunglasses, my hat, my trekking poles. I shake my head to each of his suggestions until he pinches the collar of my fleece. I nod and take it off: I’ve been wearing it days and the armpits reek and there are stains from spilt meat sauce down its front. He takes the fleece and hands me the batik print and we shake hands in the Tanzanian way. He immediately pulls it on and I wonder if he notices the smell but he smiles and shows it off to his friends and I give him the thumbs up signal.


Our lunch in this Coca Cola shack consists of hamburgers and I ate them quickly - a fried egg squeezed between the bun and meat and it was so good not matter how undercooked it was. If anything would give me food poisoning it would be this but in this one second I didn’t even consider it.


The bus was already packed when we clambered aboard and the porters slept on the ragged seats. They needed the rest more than I and it is these young guys to whom we owe our success. In the many reports of Kilimanjaro I have read little mention was made of these heroes and so I will state their determination and strength was what made this climb so easy. Whilst we complained of aching legs and rubbing shoulder straps from the packs and damp clothes, the cold and so on they just hauled up there with thirty kilo sacks and old boots that flapped at the sole and holed knee pants and still they managed to smile.


As soon as we got going thus begun another rendition of the Kilimanjaro song and the girl from the guesthouse who’d come to collect us led us all via the P.A system and from houses we passed so people looked at our madness and the multicoloured bus bouncing by. ‘Jambo, Jambo Bwana’ so she sang and all aboard joined in no matter we knew not the words. The mountain behind us once more this shimmering apparition on the plains and I had come to know it well.


Kilimanjaro Kilimanjaro. Oh my Kilimanjaro.

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  • 1 year later...

Awesome photos! I feel as if I am actually there seeing it with my own eyes. A great adventure and a great memory.

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  • 2 years later...

Kilimanjaro climbers 'take health risks' reports www.bbc.co.uk.

Travel firms have seen an increase in bookings following the successful summit by nine celebrities for last year's Comic Relief campaign. But Edinburgh University scientists warned many climbing Africa's tallest peak "know little or nothing" about high altitude, which can be fatal.

To read the full article click here.

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GW, I had started reading this report a long time ago, then got distracted and never commented on how interesting and well written I found it. When it came back up on my "view new posts" I finished reading it and looked at the photos which I found so good.


So although I know that it is an old report, it is a classic and really enjoyable. I hope poor Elisabete wasn't too disappointed by missing the final ascent.


As an aside, a friend of ours has just finished a climb and was totally in awe of the experience. However, he did go on an intensive fitness campaign first and still found it arduous … so well done!!!!


Not something I'll ever do although I would love to see those alpine vegetations and the view, beautiful.



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  • 2 weeks later...

This is a fantastic account and should be read by anyone considering an ascent of Kilimanjaro. The pain, vomiting, cold, and other discomfort you endured proves this endeavor is not for the faint of heart. But you did it and you managed some gorgeous photos along the way. You must have a knack for picking photographers to take your picture. There are some outstanding ones of you.


I am sorry your wife was not able to stand by your side at the summit. But when someone as tough as you describe her calls it quits, to proceed on might have had terrible consequences to her health.


Did Godfrey every have an opportunity to read this?


I'm glad this gem of a report was bumped up to the top again. It is riveting and for many of us the only route we'll ever take up Kili.

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  • 2 years later...

Thought I'd give my one complete trip report a bump in case any of you are climbing Kili soon ;)

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No intention of going there, but I hadn't seen it before and I've been completely gripped by it. Very evocative writing. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to find it.

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I would have turned back when you were freezing in your tent; but so glad you and Mrs. GW went on.....I have NO intentions ever of climbing a mt. I've climbed enough personal mountains, but am very impressed with your and Mrs. GW-- and the Photos, Incredible Detail, beautifull writing --and YOU MADE IT! A toast is in order!!


No wonder your beard has a bit of grey in it....LOL, just kidding... :D

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  • 1 year later...

I can't believe this was a decade ago. This was the trip that sowed the seeds for Safaritalk...

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I can't believe this was a decade ago. This was the trip that sowed the seeds for Safaritalk...

That WAS a long time ago.....think how far you've come......and ST as well :D I barely remember my post of Oct. 2013; have I actually been talking to you that long? :unsure: Seems a decade.....


SO .....where next????

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  • 3 weeks later...

I can't believe this was a decade ago. This was the trip that sowed the seeds for Safaritalk...

Time flies when you're having fun, going on safari, climbing mountains...running a web forum.

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I can't believe this was a decade ago. This was the trip that sowed the seeds for Safaritalk...


@@Game Warden ~ you still haven't reached the summit and ST has continued on and upward.

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