Some cried and some tumbled in soft sand and had to be carried down to safety, while others hallucinated about having breakfast at a restaurant in Pretoria.
But our location was in Tanzania, about 2700km away from Tshwane. We were all huffing and puffing on Mount Kilimanjaro trying to make our way to the Uhuru Peak which stands a formidable 5895m above sea level. Our eyes were fixed on the top prize, conquering Africa’s highest mountain. No amount of altitude sickness could dissuade us, or so we thought.
The eventful week started at OR Tambo International Airport on Saturday, when Imbumba Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and other sponsors of the Trek4Mandela campaign gave us a heart-warming send-off in the presence of our families and friends. All 17 of us were determined to conquer our fears and take on Mount Kili while raising funds to buy sanitary towels for underprivileged schoolgirls.
We sang and danced as we made our way to the airport’s immigration queue, much to the annoyance of other travellers who had to elbow some of us out of their way as they squeezed through to get to the queue.
Our jovial mood continued onto Flight SA187 as we flew to Dar es Salaam.
Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into. Even the hard training sessions that we did in the Drakensberg could not fully prepare us for what was ahead.
Landing at Dar es Salaam Airport, we were subjected to strict rules which included taking off our shoes twice at the baggage scanning machines and body patting. We only boarded the connecting flight to the town of Moshi two hours later.
I managed to catch a glimpse of the world’s highest free-standing mountain a few minutes prior to landing at Kilimanjaro Airport. With touches of white glaciers on the ridge near to the Uhuru Peak, the mountain looked like a queen wearing a dark robe with white fur around the neck. It looked calm, peaceful, and not intimidating.
We landed just after 6pm and boarded a bus for our one-hour trip to our hotel in Moshi. After supper, we had our first briefing by expedition leader and mountaineer, Sibusiso Vilane, aka Simba, as he is known by guides in Tanzania. His instructions were clear: “You can only climb to Uhuru my way, the Simba way. Forget what everybody else has told you. We hike according to conditions that the mountain presents to us.
“We humble ourselves to it (mountain) and not the other way around. Respect Kilimanjaro and do what I tell you and you will summit,” Vilane said firmly.
FACING THE MONSTER
The next morning we made our way to Kilimanjaro in the Tanzania National Park, an hour away from Moshi. Most of us felt like animals packed up at the abattoir waiting to be pushed into the slaughtering machine. It was intense, even jokes about a strange chandelier hanging from the ceiling of our bus could only trigger a few laughs.
Once at the park, Vilane introduced us to the chief guide, Tom Nguma, who took us through the process of scaling the mountain. Like Vilane had done before, Nguma emphasised the importance of constantly drinking water, at least four litres a day, and walking slowly, also known as pole-pole - meaning “don’t rush” in Swahili.
“You must stay hydrated at all times and take small steps to avoid altitude sickness. Here you drink water during the day and at bedtime. You don’t run because you can get sick.
“Take things slow and allow your body to acclimatise and adjust to this new environment,” said Vilane.
The hike to Uhuru, 32km away, began at noon with Nguma leading and showing us some of the wonders of the Mandara route, such as blue monkeys and other indigenous plants. He has done this for 25 years and has summited the mountain more than 100 times. “This is all I know. I stopped counting after I reached Uhuru for the 100th time,” said Nguma.
The 8km trek to the Mandara huts was fairly flat and under a rainforest. Frustration was starting to build up because of the pole-pole pace as we watched porters carrying hikers’ heavy bags whizz passed us effortlessly.
We reached Mandara just before sunset and it was already buzzing with hikers and porters as dinner was being prepared. The food was great at all the camps. Each group of porters and cooks attended to their team of hikers and we all shared the same facilities such as the dining room and huts with bunk beds.
Bathing was mostly done in small bowls inside the huts unless one was brave enough to take a cold shower on a 5ºC morning.
For three days we climbed to Horombo Hut at 3720m and to Kibo Hut (4720m) where we walked through an alpine desert under a scorching sun. It was there that we had a minor reality check when we saw a member of our expedition, who had summited the night before, being stretchered down. She had slipped on a rock and broken her ankle.
TEARS, SWEAT and ANXIETY
The summit night (Wednesday) brought some anxiety as I tossed and turned on my bunk bed at Kibo. We piled on our summit layers, three pairs of socks and pants, gloves, headlamps and at least five litres of water per climber.
The temperature had dropped when we left Kibo at 11pm and our water bottles started to freeze two hours into the climb. It was dark and all we could hear were footsteps as we marched in unison on Kili’s volcanic ashes to Gilman’s Point, the first summit 4km away.
Our single file kept collapsing as we got closer to Gilman, forcing Vilane to change the order of the line-up with weather-affected hikers being put in the front. One had to be assisted and pulled by a guide up to Gilman’s Point as she was struggling to stay awake due to a lack of oxygen. I cried with her and hugged her before she was led down to a lower altitude at Kibo.
High altitude sickness is common on Kilimanjaro. Symptoms include dizziness, vomiting, headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, shortness of breath and confusion. The only recommended cure is to immediately go to a lower altitude level.
From Gilman’s we made our way to Uhuru, about 2km away. This proved to be the most difficult part of the hike for most of us. The terrain was almost flat, but rocky and the Uhuru signage board seemed far away. Most of us were tired and came across many hikers who had just summited and looked disoriented and dazed.
Our second casualty started falling sick as we approached Uhuru and I had to drag him by his arm to reach the peak as he wasn’t ready to give up. By the time we got to Uhuru at 10.20am, some of us were too tired to even stand and pose for a picture next to the congratulatory wooden board. Others were close to falling asleep, not an inspirational sight for future climbers. The feeling of being on top of Africa and literally seeing clouds hovering at our feet was something I would treasure for the rest of my life.
DON’T GIVE UP
We hit another medical glitch as we were returning to Kibo base camp. A fellow hiker had started to hallucinate and asking us to book him a taxi so he could go to Tshwane for breakfast. Two others started to feel dizzy; one was vomiting and another was shaking, despite wearing multiple layers of jackets, from being cold with the sun still up. The only option was to descend as quickly as we could, meaning that seriously-ill hikers would have to be dragged down the rocky path to Kibo to where a doctor was waiting for them.
The stronger ones had to play nurse and assist fellow hikers.
This is where Mount Kilimanjaro broke me. With 1km remaining until Kibo, I slouched next to a rock and cried. This was not my response to the physical demands of the hike, but the emotional onslaught I had been subjected to since we left Kibo the previous night. I’d seen what I had thought were stronger climbers crumble in front of me. I had to nurse four people at the same time. I had watched one climber being told to descend for health reasons before she could reach Uhuru. This after months of training and preparing for the ultimate African climb.
When I boarded Flight SA187 back to Joburg the next day, I left as a better and sympathetic man with sore muscles and cuffs full of tears from conquering the ultimate African hike. It was all worth it.
The August expedition team, which includes former public protector Thuli Madonsela, is set to head off on Sunday and is expected to reach the summit on August 9, Women’s Day.
Those wishing to join next year’s Trek4Mandela expedition can call Nkateko Mabale on 0662142520 or email [email protected]