'Pole Pole' - climbing Kilimanjaro
“IT’S all in here,” says Isack Minja , tapping the side of his head. “All you have to do is go very pole pole (Swahili for slowly, slowly).”
We’re in mountain country – Moshi, which forms part of the Kilimanjaro region in Tanzania.
It’s hot. It’s humid. And we’re all a little nervous.
For a group of Capetonians, we’re not at all unfamiliar with a mountain, but standing at a mere 1 086m, Table Mountain is the little sister to 5895m-high Kilimanjaro’s big girl status.
The commotion outside our hotel, where we spent the previous night, signals our departure and Isack, our head guide, smiles his encouragement. It’s his 300th climb.
For Isack, the mountain is not just a mountain – it’s home too.
Born on the foothills of Kilimanjaro where his Chagga tribe lives, Isack – in his mid-40s – lives with his wife on his farm at the mountain’s base. He is one of the estimated four million people who live in the mountain’s shadow, tilling their land and selling their crops to markets set up in the nearby towns.
“I have a 98 percent success rate,” he says, referring to the number of would-be climbers whom he has helped reach the top.
“And you guys are going to be my 100.”
The adventure has not come cheap. The trip alone – including flights, two nights hotel accommodation (where you spend the night before your departure and post your descent) as well as all meals on Kilimanjaro will set you back a minimum of R26 000. Throw in three days of R&R (Recovery and Recuperate) time in Zanzibar at a four-star resort after the climb and the bill comes to just over R30 000. Then there’s the gear… If you’re an avid mountaineer, zero temperature sleeping bags and thermal underwear are probably part of your general wardrobe.
If not, the checklist of what you’ll require (along with the price tag) weighs heavier.
On the plus side, equipment such as tents and mattresses are provided – but everything else is at your expense. Cape Union Mart and Sportsmans Warehouse have detailed kit lists that make it easier to tick off the necessary items. In-store helpers are generally knowledgeable too. Your very best resource though? Your team of local porters.
On the morning of our departure, a team of porters line up to weigh our gear – a single duffel bag that we’ve been told should weigh no more than 12kg.
For our group of four, we have a team of 16 people – including a chef, a waiter and our two guides.
Epa, the youngest of the guides, has been trekking the mountain for the past six years. A Tanzanian local, he knows all of the seven routes up the mountain. Where we amateur walkers see only rocks and riverbeds or some lone mountain thistle, Epa and Isack see key landmarks and read shrubs like the kind of longitude and latitude that you’d find on a map.
Together, we make up the inside of a small bus – a surprisingly sturdy vehicle that trundles almost effortlessly over makeshift roads and gravelled pathways past sunflower fields and later, uphill through rainforest.
Some three hours later, we’re standing at the gate to the Kilimanjaro National Park. Groups of tourists are gathered in little colonies and a slight breeze carries a string of varying accents through the air. An old A4 guestbook is testimony to all those who have attempted this mountain trek before: Americans, Canadians, Europeans.
They are all there, although the absence of Africans, and particularly South Africans, is glaring.
A troupe of Colobus monkeys, unique to Kilimanjaro’s rainforest, scatter across lush pathways while an eagle soars overhead.
At first glance, this is a mountain with character – and prone to sporadic mood swings.
The tranquil rainforest will soon become little more than a vast expanse of broody moorland before eventually evolving into a chilly wasteland before our very eyes.
Pole, pole and carrying backpacks, we start to make our way up the mountain, following Isack in single file along the trails.
The terrain is not at all rough and at first, mostly flat, but the biggest threat up here isn’t a pending rockfall or the merciless temperatures. Our greatest fear is altitude sickness – an illness that creeps up on you as the body struggles to adjust to the heady heights. The only cure, as Isack says, is to climb “very pole pole” – giving the body a chance to adjust gradually.
And fitness levels are no help either. There is no real way of knowing how one’s body will adjust to the altitude until, of course, you’ve gone too far up. The only solution? Heading back down. Fast.
During the seven-day trek, we will cross glacier streams whose calm disposition belies their fiercely cold temperature, scale Barranco Wall, and brace for the sort of cold that dips well below freezing. The walk will get progressively harder as each day we trudge toward our next camp, which is set up by the porters who not only carry our bags while racing past us with effortless speed, but also ensure that our home away from home is suitable for habitation.
It’s modest, yes – but after a hard day, our campsite offers the same luxury as one would expect from a five-star hotel. Our chef, Albert, seems to have no trouble conjuring up chicken curry or popcorn in his humble tent. Reaching the campsite every day is its own reward.
Each day, Kilimanjaro’s icy peaks appear closer and a little more within reach. The air is thin and the body knows it.
Even with the slow pace, the heart feels the strain and breathing comes in short gasps.
The cold is sometimes debilitating.
Darkness comes quickly to Kilimanjaro but the stars are dramatic enough to make sure you enjoy it.
On the final day hikers are woken just before midnight to begin the long climb to the summit.
The seven-hour hike is in cold and darkness and one really only understands how far one has come when the sunrise hits the slopes.
Where previously two rustic congratulatory signs stood, these have since been replaced by two neon green boards which mark the occasion – one at Stella Point and the other at Uhruru Peak (the very highest point).
“Congratulations!” it exclaims.
Climbing Kilimanjaro feels surreal. It’s the kind of feeling you’d expect to feel when waking up from a really good dream. Except, it’s not a dream and the mountain keeps beckoning you onward. It’s the perfect synergy between head and heart, helping you find the balance between the rush of euphoria and the humility of the climb. It will change your life as you teach your body to find the balance.
Kilimanjaro has often been translated as Mountain of Greatness. But, as you’ll no doubt discover, the greatness is not so much the mountain as it is the magic.
The moment before the descent is brief but fuelled by a mixture of relief, exhaustion and success.The only problem now? How anything else will top it.