Aiming for the Top – Out of this world… in Africa
Guest writer: Davina Rapaport
‘You’re doing what?!’ A justifiable response from my mother when I told her I was setting off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and the world’s highest free-standing mountain. Yep, that’s right, Davina Rapaport, possibly the ultimate Princess was going to try her hand at mountain climbing. As laughable as the idea seemed to most, there are hundreds of tour companies that lead intrepid travellers to Uhuru peak, all 5895 metres above sea level… And I was determined. Not only had I set my mind on conquering Africa’s highest peak, but I was going to do the Machame route, known as the ‘Whisky Route’ as it is the hardest (but most scenic) route to the peak.
The training regime of those attempting Kilimanjaro varies from person to person. While I know people who hired personal trainers, ran marathons with weights in a backpack and joined special high altitude gyms, I, perhaps due to laziness or the fact that I had already dropped serious cash on this endeavour, didn’t. Kilimanjaro, Africa is not a physical challenge to be taken lightly but provided you’re relatively fit to begin with and have copious amounts of mental strength, it is an accomplishment well within the reach of most.
Considering how light I travelled (the first and last time I managed to travel overseas with only hand luggage) there is a surprisingly intricate list of requisite equipment; good quality thermals
comfy hiking boots
a quality (and temperature appropriate) sleeping bag and
A lot of the hiking equipment such as walking poles, torches and sleeping bags can be rented from hotels in Moshi, but clothing and personal comfort items are best brought from home.
Make-up and fabulously delicate items should be left at home, but there are plenty of opportunities for some flair to be displayed. Some malaria tablets make the skin susceptible to sunburn. This, coupled with day-long hikes above the clouds can lead to some hideous, painful and persistent tan lines. My Clinique sun block was invaluable! In addition to this, as the majority of the trek is above the clouds the glare can be incredible.
A large pair of dark sunglasses can protect your eyes whilst hiding the exhaustion and lack of make-up.
After some initial paperwork at the gate of the Kilimanjaro National Park the old cliché, ‘the greatest journey begins with a smallest step’, held the most currency. The dense rainforest of Tanzania, Africa allowed ample opportunity to relax and enjoy the scenery. Monkeys in the trees, native flowers and cheerful porters made for a really pleasant and quintessentially “African” day. Despite the 7 hours of up-hill hiking by the time we got the Machame camp, I was feeling good. After an afternoon snack of popcorn (the salt replaces any lost salt from sweat and prevents cramping), a bucket of water and a bar or soap is usually placed outside your tent. An interesting “shower” experience will inevitably ensue. Watching the sunset from above the clouds offers a different perspective that will blow your mind.
After surviving my first night of sub-zero camping I was feeling like Georgette of the Jungle, a real outdoors woman, like Meryl Streep in ‘Out of Africa’ and I was ready for the day ahead. ‘Pole pole’. There is no more uttered phrase on the slopes of Kilimanjaro than this. Actually, that’s a lie, “whose crazy idea was this?” is probably up there too. Anyway, I digress. ‘Pole pole’ is Swahili for ‘slowly slowly’ and is sound advice. The highest rate of failures on Kili is males in their 20s. The hikes aren’t actually that demanding, lulling the climbers into a false confidence and resulting in them walking too fast. Give yourself as much time to acclimatise to the altitude as possible. The second day was a day of stunning views. Take your time, stop and have a look, breathe in the fresh mountain air, take a photo (or twelve). All these activities enhance your chances of making it to the top and your enjoyment of the whole experience. Shira camp is where you’ll stay on the second night and where the temperature will really get to you. Rug up!
I’m not going to lie. Day three is a really tough day, both mentally and physically. We started our climb very early in the morning and the plan was to climb to 4,700 metres above sea level to see the lava tower before descending several hundred metres to Barranco camp to allow ourselves to acclimatise. I felt depressed every time I took a step downhill… it had taken all my strength to get up this high in the first place. But day three is an important day of acclimatisation and increases your chances of making it to the top. One of the biggest challenges facing any climber of Kilimanjaro is the effects of altitude. Cue ‘The Great Diamox Debate’. While some people take it prophylactically, others do not take it at all, while the moderates take it only when they feel symptoms of altitude sickness. That is a personal decision that each individual must make. Discuss it with your guides, they do this for a living and take hundreds of people up and down the mountain each year. Here are some tips to stave off altitude sickness:
- Drink water. As gross as it sounds drink until your urine is clear. If you’re thirsty drink more.
- Walk slowly and give yourself time to adjust to the altitude
- Eat. Eat whatever the guides give you to eat. There is a reason behind everything they feed you.
- Listen to your body. Cerebral or pulmonary oedema isn’t a joke. Making it to Gilman’s Peak, or Barafu camp is still an amazing accomplishment. No mountain is worth dying for.
Leaving Barranco camp and walking towards the ‘Barranco Wall’ can be a daunting experience. This sheer rock face is as aptly named as it is daunting and will take most of the day to scale. Despite the challenge it presented it is one of the highlights of the Kilimanjaro climb. This was the first day that the gravity of what I was doing actually hit me. Thoughts like, ‘Holy sh*t! I’m actually climbing a mountain!’ and ‘Jesus, one false move and it’s a very rapid descent’ turned my adrenaline from moderate to extreme. Day four is long and tough but despite the exhaustion and altitude sickness there was palpable excitement amongst my fellow climbers and I as it was the first time I realised that perhaps I may make it to the summit after all.
After arriving at Barafu, most climbers collapse into a heap of exhaustion. But not for long because at midnight you’ll began the climb to the summit to hopefully be ‘on the roof of Africa’ by sunrise. The 5 kilometres to the summit may as well be 50 and the ground feels like you’re trying to climb vertically through a sand dune. The final push will take every ounce of strength you have to make it to the top. I saw plenty of people who reached Stella Point or Gilman’s Peak and were content. But if you can, hike for the extra hour or so to Uhuru. Seeing the sign that says ‘Congratulations, you are at Uhuru Peak Tanzania 5895 metres above sea level’ was one of the single most validating experiences of my entire life. The idea that I was mentally strong enough to climb a seemingly insurmountable mountain and push myself far beyond my perceived realm of possibility was incredibly gratifying. Now that I’m back at home I often catch myself psyching myself up for things by saying ‘you climbed mount Kilimanjaro, you can do this’.
The exhaustion, blisters and freezing nights are worth it for the climbers when they see the sunrise over the ‘Roof of Africa’
My one regret (not that it could be helped I suppose) is that I didn’t enjoy being at the top of Kili more, but I think I was too exhausted to really take it all in. What I do remember is this: the most perfect sunrise over the world’s most enchanting continent, a glacier so majestic and breathtaking, a sense of satisfaction that will last a lifetime and the images of that beautiful mountain that are forever etched into my memory. Now that I’ve returned from my trip and I’m sitting with my girlfriends enjoying a latte they facetiously ask me: ‘so, do you have some mountain climbing bug now? What next, Everest?’ I can’t help but laugh. I absolutely do not have a mountain climbing bug. That really wasn’t what this was all about. Testing your mental stamina, pushing your body to the limits, surprising those around you but more importantly, surprising yourself… well, that’s just fabulous!
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