I’m starting to write this whilst sat on the plane, above South Sudan. Almost 6 months after spontaneously booking a trip to visit my friend Georgie in Tanzania, and 5 months after spontaneously deciding to climb Kilimanjaro, I am around 2 hours away.
I like to think of myself as someone who goes to seek great adventures, but in reality, this is the largest.
I had always wanted to climb a “real” mountain. As a child, I would tie a skipping rope around myself, Barbie, Ken and Action Man and we would scale the peaks (the stairs). Sadly, Ken and his sparkly black suit would often die. Possibly because he wasn’t dressed appropriately to climb a mountain…? Possibly as I was just an evil child…?
As a teenager I joined the Sea Cadets and started expedition training, map reading and getting out on Dartmoor. Not that intrepid in comparison to Kilimanjaro, but it started my love of the great outdoors and I consider myself a mountain fiend now. I went from being someone who couldn’t read a map, or use a compass, to someone who now feels confident enough to head off with nobody she knows, to climb the worlds highest free standing mountain… on a different continent.
I had no plans to climb Kilimanjaro initially, but as the time got closer and I realised how close Georgie lived to the mountain, I knew I had to do it. It would have been silly not to.
And so here I am, 884 miles away from Kilimanjaro International Airport and the start of a great adventure…
Day One: Machame Gate to Machame Camp
We set off from Springlands Hotel on the 10th October and after a briefing with our guides, Mzui and Frankie, loaded all of our kit on to the bus. We drove from Moshi to the Machame Gate, where we signed our names away to register that we were about to begin our ascent. The Machame Gate is at 1,738 amsl, and so the air was already thinner prior to our 11km climb to the first camp.
It was very hot, and I had packed far too much in my daysack, meaning this first day was a struggle. I found it difficult as if there’s one climate I hate walking in, it’s the heat. Our porterson the other hand, were all but running up the mountain carrying huge packs. Super humans, I swear!
Frankie, one of our guides, took some of my kit in order to lighten my daysack, and we then continued through the forest. He told me about the plants surrounding us and pointed out items of interest, as well as telling me all about his brother, who was a rapper in Dar Es Salaam.
We reached the Machame Camp, took the standard photo under the sign and headed over to our campsite. The porters brought us a bowl of warm water to wash off and we then went in to our mess tent in time for tea and popcorn before dinner. We Brits had a quick game of shithead, before a briefing on plans for the next day from Mzui, our other guide, and then bed.
I felt very nervous about the days ahead based on Day 1, but actually all was to be well.
Day Two: Machame Camp to Shira Camp
I slept like a baby and before I knew it, I was woken with a cry of ‘dada (sister) would you like coffee?’
After breakfast, we set off and began our steep climb through the heath and moorland zone. This was a tough day, but probably the one I enjoyed the most. We were climbing for the entirety, it was very warm, but I had packed much less in my daysack today, the pace was good and the route was stunningly beautiful. The only issue I faced was forgetting to put suncream on, leaving me a little pink when we reached the Shira Camp!
We all found it a tough, but enjoyable morning and we had so much respect for the porters, managing to walk the same route as us, at a much quicker pace, whilst carrying our duffel bags, tents, chairs etc… Their fitness levels were just incredible.
Day 2 was fuelled by a lot of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake. A favourite of my guides and porters!
We had lunch at the Shira Camp (3850 amsl), before heading out on a mini acclimatisation walk to a higher altitude. It was at this camp that the temperature really started to drop, hence the additional down jacket layers being thrown on, and the effects of altitude were a little more prevalent for some of the guys I was walking with.
At this point my Diamox had kicked in (though I only took half of one) and I had pins and needles for an hour, which was fun… However, We were treated to the most beautiful sunset over camp, above the clouds. The mountain in the distance is Mt Meru.
Once again we had dinner, a briefing for the next day and then went to our tents, where I promptly passed out again!
Day Three: Shira Camp to Barranco Camp
Today was warm, but with a fresh wind when the clouds rolled in. We set off once more after breakfast and walked through the alpine desert region to the Lava Tower (4630m amsl). It was barren and how I imagine some far off planet in space to look!
On our way to the Lava Tower, we were lucky enough to see the start of a glacier melting as water began to run down one of the gullies. The start of the water flow was just as we crossed, so it was really good timing on our part. As we crossed over, we saw a man being helped down the mountain by one of the porters, he looked very unsteady on his feet and ghostly white. Hopefully this was not a sign of things to come when we reached the same altitude…
When we arrived at the Lava Tower Camp, we stopped for lunch in order to acclimatise to the altitude. A few of the guys I was climbing with were suffering from headaches, but I was very lucky and still did not have any altitude sickness symptoms.
I am putting this down to drinking copious amounts of water!
We all had Diamox with us, but were told not to take it unless we needed to. The Machame route gave us the opportunity to climb high and sleep low, in order for our bodies to adjust. Diamox doesn’t prevent you from getting altitude sickness, but it can help with the symptoms. I took half a tablet a day on the last 2 days, as a precaution, but I was lucky and didn’t get so much as a headache. I think it’s luck of the draw with how your body will react.
After lunch, we descended again and headed for the Barranco Camp (3,972amsl) through scree and dried up river bed. Unfortunately, it was the walk this afternoon where my foot went out from beneath me, and I twisted my knee, leaving myself in agony for the rest of the walk to camp. I could climb up, I could walk normally on the flat and hills, but as soon as I thought about stepping/walking down a slope, I was in agony. I hobbled on down and collapsed in my tent pre dinner in tears. I stuck ibuprofen gel on it, took some anti-inflammatories and then post dinner passed out in my tent again. It was starting to feel chillier here, but my Rab sleeping bag was just the warmest.
The only part of me to feel cold at any point on the entire climb was my face!
Day Four: Barranco Camp to Barafu Camp
We left camp after breakfast and headed towards the intimidating Barranco Wall. 800ft high and almost vertical.
At this point I was feeling a little nervous (not the greatest fan of heights). Thankfully, though it is a steep incline, there is a path… I strapped my hiking poles to my daysack as I needed my hands. How the porters managed to climb it with bags on their head, hands free, I don’t know. Again, I think they may be super human!
This path up the wall involved some rock climbing, and was single file for the entirety. My knee was holding up well going, so I felt optimistic…
The below photo is from around 1/3 of the way up the wall.
We got to the top, the view was superb and it definitely made up for the near death experiences*
*I may be over-exaggerating a little here. Ok, a lot.
Unfortunately, as with most things… what goes up must inevitably come down, and as we started our descent through the valley, laced with yet more loose sand and scree, my knee was in pieces. I used my poles as much as possible, adamant that I would get to the Karanga Camp (where we were stopping for lunch), Barafu Camp (base camp) and then the summit.
My knee was totally fine on the flat and uphill segments, so I knew that summit night would be painful, but manageable. We stopped at the Karanga camp for lunch, where we said goodbye to the South African contingent walking alongside us, as they were taking an extra day to acclimatise before reaching the summit.
After lunch, we continued down the valley and eventually headed up the other side and on to Barafu Camp. The wind had turned at this point and the cloud was starting to roll in, making it very chilly.
We arrived at the open, very barren Barafu Camp and the cloud rolled in, the wind was picking up and there was no sign of green life anymore (except those with altitude sickness)
We had a couple of hours to get our kit ready for the night ahead, before eating dinner and heading to bed at 1900, ready to wake up at 2300 and begin our final ascent to the summit…
We woke up at 2300, cold, tired and shuffling over to our mess tent for warm tea and biscuits. We took our Diamox and made sure we had enough water for the night ahead, before setting off in the dark, to howling and bitterly cold winds.
The climb was tiring, partly because it was the middle of the night, partly thanks to the cold, and because at this point I had managed to get the start of a chest infection as well (I think due to the dust). The three fellow Brits I was climbing with wanted to go on ahead as I was struggling with my knee, so I carried on alone with Mzui. We spent what seemed like hours singing to take my mind off the fact that I couldn’t see anything but the zig zag of headtorches head of me and my knee was being a dick.
I have never seen skies as clear as I did whilst walking up the mountain that evening, but, eventually the sun began to rise, and so did the temperature. We continued on to the summit and reached Stella Point, before heading on round to Uhuru Peak – 5,895m amsl!
I had reached ‘The Roof of Africa’ – the highest point on the African continent!
I was so ecstatic when we got there that I gave Mzui the biggest hug ever and got a bit emotional and teary. I even managed to get the HMS Victory white ensign to the summit on behalf of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and the NMRN – Read more about that here!
Tragically, much like the last 2 days, my knee decided that it did not want to play ball on the descent, despite being strapped up. Every step downhill I took was agonisingly painful. Unfortunately, the only way down was, well, down through scree, ash and rocks. Mzui took my daysack and had my arm over his shoulder to take some of my weight and we all but ran down, it was so, so sore and this only made it worse, and we spent most of the descent sliding through rocks and sand, before eventually reaching Barafu Camp once more. I had some lunch, spotted the South African team who were summiting that evening and wished them luck. They had cycled from Johannesburg to Kilimanjaro and then climbed the mountain! Read about their story here!
About one hour later we started walking down towards the Mweka Camp and my knee collapsed. At this point my guide arranged for a stretcher on wheels to take me down, manoeuvred by himself and some other porters. This took a number of hours, down a very precarious path, which at some points ran out, meaning I needed lowering vertically whilst strapped in. Not at all petrifying in the dark… They had one headtorch to do all of this and when we reached the bus back to the hotel at around midnight I was exhausted, but so grateful to Mzui and all of the Zara guys who helped me down. Since getting back to the UK I’ve been told I actually dislocated my kneecap, tore the cartilage and buggered some ligaments.
That being said, it was the best experience, despite that, and I can’t wait to go back one day uninjured, haha!