Journey to the Roof of Africa (and a slice of paradise)
September 25, 2012 § 5 Comments
A month after I headed from London to Africa to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and two weeks since I returned I’ve finally gotten round to blogging about it.
I could go on and on and on about it (I tell people 10-minute ‘recap’ when I see them, and no, I can’t cut it down), but that might get a tad boring on a blog.
So, instead, I’m just going to repost a piece I wrote for Westminster University’s student magazine, Smoke, about the most amazing, incredible and challenging journey I’ve ever done.
Pausing to watch the night’s darkness fade away into a pale morning light as we made the slow climb to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, it seemed hard to believe that this incredible, challenging, unbelievable experience had begun just over nine months ago.
This chance of a lifetime was presented to us by way of an email. This is what it said:
Amazing opportunity for students of Westminster University to climb Kilimanjaro in late August 2012. Dig Deep is working with Westminster International Development Society to send a group of committed students to complete the epic challenge of climbing Kilimanjaro. This is your chance to take part and do something amazing.
What more persuasion did we need? Getting the opportunity to climb the world’s largest free standing mountain while raising money for charity – this kind of offer doesn’t come around every day.
And so it began. Months of brainstorming, fundraising events – weekly bake sales, jazz night, pub quiz and speed dating – and getting to know one other.
Twenty-seven of us made the initial sign-up and by the time it came to board the plane at Heathrow’s Terminal Three on August 22 2012 the number had settled at twenty-two. Having persuaded friends and family to pledge their support to our cause – the charity Dig Deep – we were on our way to make it to the top of the Roof of Africa.
Over five days we were aiming to climb a staggering 5,895metres above sea level. It was a challenge that most of us had in all reality underestimated. Mentally and physically more difficult than anything any of us had ever done, the guidance of our guides – their repeated words pole, pole (slowly, slowly) – was crucial to keep us moving. But that’s not where our strength came from.
There’s a line in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stonethat goes like this: There are some things you can’t share without liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them. I take that one step further and say there are some things you can’t share without coming together like a family. Climbing Kilimanjaro is one of them.
If proof was needed that this is true then look to our third day of climbing. Before making our way to Kibo Base Camp we huddled together for a motivation talk. What emerged was the emotional and inspiring words from Jason saying that if he had to do it all over again he would still choose the same people he had been climbing with – it was enough to make us shed a few tears.
As we battled our way up the mountain, fighting the various symptoms of altitude sickness, the idea of family became stronger. We relied on each other to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep pushing ourselves to go higher and higher, even when some of us faltered and had to return to base camp without reaching the peak.
For me, without Tom’s dirty jokes, Georgie’s conversation and Florent’s support as I repeatedly threw up I would not have made it to Gilman’s Point. And I’ve no hesitation in saying that the same goes for every single other member of the Westminster IDS team.
Sixteen of us reached Gilman’s Point, exhausted and nine more pushed themselves beyond endurance to stand atop of Kili at Uhuru Peak. Individually we achieved greatness but it’s the group spirit of support and encouragement that is the real testament to our climb.
Our adventure didn’t end once we had made our way back down the mountain. That was just stage one. Stage two was visiting a little slice of paradise, otherwise known as the island of Zanzibar. And reaching that island was an adventure in itself.
Close your eyes and imagine the worst possible cross-London bus ride you can think of. Now imagine an endless stretch of straight road, flanked on either side by red earth. Imagine having your journey left in the hands of four men who don’t speak English as a first language. Imagine scorching heat without a breath of wind and you’ll have an idea of our ride from the base of Kilimanjaro to the port-town of Dar es Salaam.
It was a 14-hour-long trip that began in the early hours of the morning and that tested our nerves and patience as we drove at a mere 50km an hour. Why you might ask – engine trouble, bad traffic?
No, it was a power-struggle between our guide and driver that kept us on the road seven hours longer than necessary, causing us 22 “mazungas” (white people in Swahili) to miss our ferry to Zanzibar. Hollywood’s best writers couldn’t have scripted our ordeal any better.
Lucky for us, our eventful bus-ride resulted in one of the highlights of the entire trip (as unlikely as it sounds): chartering our own plane to Stone Town. Flying in a private aircraft, watching the lights of Dar es Salaam twinkling below like a reflection of the stars above, flying lower than the 5,685metres we had climbed, singing a terrible rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody – it’s the closet we’ll ever get to feeling like rock stars.
After the gruelling climb up Kilimanjaro and the forever-memorable journey to Zanzibar the chance to relax on a tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean was most welcome.
From muscle-soothing massages, haggling in the local market, a completely chilled out day on one of the North beaches, day trips to see spice plantations and monkeys and evenings spent at Africa House drinking cocktails and watching the sunset, Zanzibar was every bit as idyllic as it sounds.
For those who’ve been to Africa, there is a saying: TIA – This Is Africa. For some honking horns, haggling and horrendously long bus journeys is what the continent is all about.
Sitting on a bus, making the long trip back to London, witnessing my final African sunset, seeing this amazing ball of light drop from the sky, I thought this is Africa. Climbing Kilimanjaro has undoubtedly been the most incredibly adventure of my life, full of surprise and wonderful friends.
All that is left to say is if you are given the chance of your own once-in-a-lifetime experience don’t hesitate. Go for it.