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The day I touched the snows of Kilimanjaro

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Album cover of Kilimanjaro

I was fifteen years of age when I first caught sight of Kilimanjaro. I still remember studying the herd of zebra standing on the dusty plains of Africa, a snow-clad mountain looming up from the clouds behind them. I was holding the front cover of a music album by the band The Teardrop Explodes. The title of the record, logically enough, was Kilimanjaro. Up until then, I’d been unaware of the strange-sounding mountain, or the fact that you could get snow in Africa. I had no idea that it was located near the equator and was so tall that a trek to the summit took climbers through five different climate zones, ranging from tropical forest to arctic conditions.

Many years later, I found myself staring at the real mountain, not the one on an album cover.

Kilimanjaro stands at 19,340 feet (5,895 metres) and each year, thousands of trekkers attempt to reach the summit (Uhuru Peak). I’ve trekked on the mountain twice. The first attempt was cut short, just after I reached the crater rim, too exhausted and sick to continue. Many years later, I returned. This time I was in my late thirties and married.

There are numerous routes and I’ve tried two of them, the Marangu and Macahme. One route has huts, the other means you sleep in tents. The Marangu route appealed for my first trip as I was on a tight budget and picked the cheapest, quickest route. These days, you can add another day onto the route to help with acclimatisation. If you can afford the time and money-then go for it.

I enjoyed camping on the Machame route, but next time I’ll ensure I have a warmer sleeping bag!

I’ve added a few excerpts from my travel book, about the two different treks.

Attempt 1.

Location: Kibo Hut

Altitude: 15,520 feet (4,730 metres)

Time: Just after midnight

Temperature: Bloomin cold!

(Our guide was a lovely man, by the name of Edward)

A rising moon offered a glimmer of light, soon obscured by each trekker turning on their head torches. For a while we traipsed around the stone building, calling out names to ensure we were with the right group. Edward pulled us to our senses. ‘Come here, all of you, and listen carefully.’

He gave us instructions as we huddled together in the darkness and whispered about the biting cold that stung our faces. Silently, we formed a ragged line and began trudging up the pathway. In the darkness, we lost our footings, stumbled and cursed. More than once I bent over and coughed until it hurt.

If this was what the holiday brochure meant about adventure travel, it was rapidly losing its appeal. A raw throat and a frozen water bottle do not make good companions. It didn’t matter, as I was too tired even to contemplate the act of stopping, finding the water bottle, unscrewing the top and trying to match the rim with my mouth. Better to keep moving instead, though with every two steps up, the loose scree sent us down another.

Attempt 2 (many years later)

Location: Tropical forest

Altitude: (1640 - 2,835 metres)

Time: Mid morning

Temperature: Hot and sticky

(Our guide, Evans, came from the local village of Machame).

Kilimanjaro porters

Monkeys hollered and insects whirred past, but the only other wildlife we saw was an inquisitive sunbird, strikingly blue against the green canopy, watching from a branch as we stopped for water. By late afternoon, the lush forest gradually receded and the surrounding trees began to wither in size. We had moved from one climatic zone to another and this was where Evans had set up our first camp.

‘Welcome to the first camp, Mr Ali and wifey Fran.’

Three dome tents flapped gently in the late afternoon breeze, with two camping stools and a small table placed in the clearing. Evans showed us our home, a well-used but functional two-man tent, pitched away from the trees.

‘When you are ready there is popcorn waiting,’ he murmured, leaving us alone to unpack our luggage which had been transported by the porters. Dressed in fleeces and hats, we devoured the popcorn, followed by a hot meal of lamb stew and rice served on the table outside. The mist and clouds had lifted, allowing our first view of the distant summit, sitting under a blanket of stars. The only sound was laughter, coming from the cook’s tent.

Evan's, our Kilimanjaro guide

The zip opened and Evans came out with two mugs of steaming Milo and wished us good night. He had lost the gruffness of the morning and was turning into a hospitable guide. The porters seemed to keep their distance despite my efforts at conversation, but at least the food tasted good.

‘I have a funny feeling we’re going to make it,’ I whispered as we lay side by side in the darkened tent an hour later.

‘Do you really think so?’ Fran answered excitedly.

‘Yes, I honestly do. How’s your sleeping bag?’

‘OK. Why?’

‘Oh nothing, just that mine feels cool.’

We’d purchased the sleeping bags the day before we left home in a frantic dash around the local shopping centre. Fran had chosen a pale yellow one as it was on special, reduced by ten pounds for three days only. My mind was obviously on other things; I somehow left the store with a two-season bag designed for warm summer evenings in Tuscany. I pushed away all thoughts of the cold and listened to the animated laughter from the porter’s tent instead. Their voices slowly faded, replaced by the wind buffeting the sides of the tent and Fran’s gentle breathing.

If you are going to attempt Kilimanjaro, I’ll leave you with this piece of advice, given to me many years ago at Marangu Hotel, in the town of Moshi, Tanzania.

‘The Swahili phrase that all of you in this room need to learn is pole-pole [pronounced pawli-pawli]. It means slowly-slowly, and the tactic of walking very steadily at your own pace might get you to the top.’

I was talking with Erika, an elderly lady who still played a part in running the Marangu Hotel, a colonial style homestead that has been organising Kilimanjaro expeditions since 1932. After our brief conversation she made her way to the front of the room, before calling for silence.

There were about thirty of us inside, all bristling with excitement and some wide-eyed after enjoying a few drinks from the bar. Some stood near the back, holding ice-cold bottles of beer, while most lounged on chairs, their legs stretched out and arms folded; all eyes on Erika. Ceiling fans whirred overhead, trying to cut through the humidity, as Erika cleared her throat and began to talk.

‘Good evening, everyone,’ she began, ‘and welcome to the Marangu Hotel. It’s been part of my life for many years and I hope you enjoy the overnight stay. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro a few times and over the years have learned one or two of its secrets. This hotel and all of the staff have helped thousands of people, just like you, to fulfil their dreams. I’d like to share some tips that might help you reach the roof of Africa!’

After the climb has been completed, and everyone is back in the village, it is time for a celebration. Tips are handed out, certificates are clutched tightly and with luck, the sun will be shining. As a final parting, some porters and guides will then sing the Kilimanjaro Song, their powerful voices adding to the emotion of the ending, of a trip of a lifetime!

Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro, Kilimanjaro, mlima mrefu sana

(Kilimanjaro, long mountain journey)

Na Mawenzi, na Mawenzi (And Mawenzi, and Mawenzi)

Na Mawenzi, mlima mrefu sana (And Mawenzi, long mountain journey)

Ewe nyoka, ewe nyoka (As a snake, as a snake)

Ewe nyoka, mbona waninzungukaa (As a snake, it winds all around)

Jambo, jambo bwana (Hello, hello sir)

Habari gani (How are you?)

Mzuri sana (Very fine)

Wageni, mwakaribishwa (Foreigners, you’re welcome)

Kilimanjaro, hakuna matata (Kilimanjaro, there is no problem)

Tembea pole pole, hakuna matata (Walk slowly, slowly, no problem)

Utafika salama, hakuna matata (You’ll get there safe, no problem)

Kunywa maji mengi, hakuna matata (Drink plenty of water, no problem)

One more sleep until we touch the snows of Kilimanjaro


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