Sunday, September 20, 2020

Kgale hill to Kilimanjaro

“What made you come here?” asked the guide Stewart Mmi.
“Stupidity” I muttered.

It was one at midnight and trekking on the Kilimanjaro six inches a step. The one thousand meters climb on the last leg of the summit seemed impossible. It is almost full moon and we could make out the outline of the lava rock around us. There were a few trekkers and their guides before us and there was one trekker behind me crying in pain but refusing to give up.

My backpack grew heavier with each step and my back was sore. My feet refused to budge and I looked up to Kilimanjaro, and my heart sank .Stewart warned me against looking up and told me to think of one step at a time,’ Pole, Pole “he said, which meant slowly, slowly in Swahili.

I sat down on a rock and told Stewart to wait. “What’s wrong with you?” he wailed. My mind raced thinking of finding one answer for his question, “What’s wrong with me?”

Well, nothing went wrong until I landed in Kilimanjaro. I started training one year back. Doing 5kms a day at first and built up momentum until I could do thirteen kilometres at one go. I climbed Kgale Hill religiously every Sunday.

I bought all the things necessary for climbing the mountain but my luggage was misplaced in flight and never arrived. I waited for a day as the time was running out, I decided to proceed without my kit. There was some equipment for hire. I went and hired hiking shoes, thermal socks, ski poles, waterproof pants, beanie cap, head torch, raincoat, gloves and sleeping bag.

I couldn’t get thermal long johns, batteries for the torch, fleece jacket, thermal innerwear; I just decided to proceed anyway. I had to do without spare clothes and medicines.
I had on the advice of my agent I chose the Machame route six day trail.

On the first day the eleven kilometer walk was easy and we were at the altitude of 3020 meters above sea level. My team comprised of me, two porters, one cook and a guide. Being a vegetarian I had to subsist on a couple of bananas, two slices of bread and vegetable soup and oatmeal for breakfast. We passed through rain forest that was covered by huge trees.

The second day we woke up early, the toilets at the camp came as a real shocker. Once I overcame the initial shock of finding a hole cut out from a wooden floor with a long drop I was fine. There were no bathrooms, which was okay, as I didn’t have change of clothes. I read somewhere that any smell a human nose can detect lasts only for six minutes and one can’t feel that sensation any more as one gets accustomed to it. Lucky me!

The terrain changed, slowly big trees gave way to small shrubs. We walked 5.2 kms and got to an altitude of 3847 meters above sea level. The Shira camp was on a flat piece of ground and just when I wanted to sit down but my guide took me for a five kilometre circular walk around a hill to let me get acclimatize to high altitude.

The third day we walked around the Lava tower and reached a height of 4,688 metres. By now other trekkers noticed me and waved to me. But when we met nobody really sat around, they just seemed to be in a hurry to get on with the mountain climbing. This gave me a fair idea about the state of my body and clothes.

We climbed down and camped at Barranco, the altitude was 3984 meters. We followed the rule of climb high and sleep low. This helps in acclimatising.

The fourth day we left for Barafu camp. Barafu means ice in Swahili. On the way I saw ice lings spouting out of the rocks weeds and water flowing under sheets of ice, the terrain is full of lava rock and dust. We walked 9.4 kms to get to Barafu camp which is 4681 meters high. It was a tiring day and we reached the camp at 4 pm and ate early dinner, were advised to sleep early (at 6.00 PM), to leave for the summit at midnight.
Now I called a meeting of our team, the two porters, cook and the guide. I told my situation about my clothing. I told the shocked group that I wish to borrow their clothes for the final assault on the peak as only the guide and me were going up the summit. By the time they could recoup, I took the thermal long john from the cook, the fleece jacket from one porter and a thick sweat shirt from second porter. I was lucky that my sense of smell was long dead and nothing was going to stop me from getting to the summit now!

So, dressed in the clothes of the cook, the porters I was ready to assault Africa’s highest peak. In the freezing cold of minus 20 degrees Celsius with frozen water to drink and surviving on vegetable soups and bananas to eat for four days and with borrowed clothing on the way to the summit tired and collapsing I asked myself, “what’s wrong with me?’

At least I didn’t have the headaches and nausea. I told Stewart: “See, it is not as if I have an appointment on the summit, let me rest for ten minutes for every half an hour’.

Now it’s the guides turn to explain to me, ”Every time you rest, the body cools down and body needs more energy to start and walk, so it is harder to start if you rest besides you may freeze (to death?)”

The possibility of freezing woke me up. I kept munching a couple of chocolates, which gave a burst of energy. I drank some freezing water and stumbled along my guide cursing myself. Climbing Kgale Hill one day, I boasted to kids around me,” next year by this time I will climb Kilimanjaro.” Now I had ample time to think of my idiocy. I noticed the first rays of the sun hitting us. We are at Stella point said the guide. It is just 1.2 kms now to the summit.

By now I have become philosophic about my pains. My mind was shut. Many people gave up the summit ambition at Stella point. I finally came to wooden board “Uhuru peak highest point in Africa. Height 5870 meters’

I pulled out my Botswana flag from my pocket and asked the Stewart to take a photo. My eyes grew misty, and the guide asked me,” Are you alright?” I couldn’t speak. My happiness knew no bounds as I thought, ” Stupidity has its advantages.”

That night and the next day I had to walk for 17 hours with little rest, tumbling down several times on the rock and lava dust. My toenails had blood clots and were ready to come off the toes. We reached Mweka camp and slept. The next day we reached the gate, where I was given a certificate that I climbed the summit of Kilimanjaro. I went back to the hotel room and slept, wishing never to climb a single mountain or hill in my life, but happy that I made it this time.

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Sunday Standard September 20 – 26

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of September 20 - 26, 2020.