The challenge to greet the sunrise on the ‘Roof of Africa’

We had been walking since 12.20am.
For five hours Jomo (my porter) and I had shuffled between the silhouetted fingers of ice protruding down this cruel, dark mountain-side. The wind chill factor of -15˚C pinched our frosted faces, our toes long lost to numbness. Fingers pressed deep into pockets fared little better.
“Keep moving, keep moving”. We dared not rest. Pushing on towards the shadowy summit was all that ensured our continued circulation. The support of all those generous sponsors? The culmination of weeks of training? That once in a lifetime photo? No – the fear of my nose falling off from frostbite drove me to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
During the six hour walk to the summit, I wore every single item of clothing I had with me – three pairs of socks, long johns, hiking trousers, wind proof trousers, thermal top, fleece, duffle jacket, wind proof jacket, woolly bandana, gloves and hat – and I was still frozen.
Why would anyone want to do this?
Simply, for the challenge. The imposing spectre of Kilimanjaro had loomed over me for three weeks as I volunteered in the foothills of the mountain. I wanted to push myself to the limit and attempting to summit the highest peak in Africa and the world’s largest free-standing mountain (rising to 5,895m above sea level) seemed a good start.
My scant research had indicated that Kilimanjaro is the one major mountain in the world where no real climbing experience is required. All that is recommended is a good fitness level. Being young and able helps but the mountain is also often frequented by ‘seniors’. Crucially, there is no technical climbing involved so you can leave your grapples and ice-picks at home.
I elected to trek the Machame Route. This path has a relatively steady incline and therefore avoids the gruelling last day which hikers on the more popular Marangu Route (also known as the “Coca-Cola” route) must contend with. The route also incorporates an extra day into the schedule which gives the body more time to acclimatise to the altitude. This reduces the risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) – the biggest killer on Kilimanjaro. Well, I did not die so I suppose my decision was vindicated.
Some people will also be pleased to know that the Machame Route has flushing loos up to 3,850m. As delighted as I was by this, it was rather the dramatic scenery which so enamoured me with Kilimanjaro. Set in cloud, dust and volcanic rock, Peter Jackson could have shot his ‘Mordor’ here. Set against intense sky blue and white skeletal glaciers, the spectrum of colour on offer was overwhelming.
Starting at a mere 1,800m, we slowly ascended through cloud rainforest, moorland, alpine desert and finally volcanic crater. It was an incredible transition to behold: like going from sodden jungle to driest Dartmoor, then through the Australian outback, before finally falling into a scene of ‘The Two Towers’ set on the moon!
It took four days to reach Barafu Camp – the final camp before those still yet to succumb to altitude sickness attempt to reach Uhuru Peak. My guide had long since fallen by the wayside. With little more than two hours sleep we rose to apply our head torches and follow the silent flickering trail of those other midnight trekkers. The immense beauty of Kilimanjaro seemed lost in this murky darkness.
“Left, right”, “left, right”. For what seemed like an eternity, I simply focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Hours and hours went by but there was still no sign of the summit. It was pitch black so it was impossible to hold any perspective of how far we had come or how far we had to go. Indeed, as the cold set deep into our bones, I was growing increasingly impatient.
But then, I looked up to see before me three pieces of wood nailed together. “Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania, 5895m above sea level”. It was a hastily done job to say the least. And who could blame the poor chap who was charged with erecting this most unwelcoming of holy grails.
Finally, at 5.20am, we had arrived at the “Roof of Africa”, the highest point on the continent. What was left of me that had any feeling felt incredible.
“Snap!”, “Snap!”, “Snap!”
We could savour the moment for a mere three minutes before charging back down the mountain to escape the cold. As we did, so the sun began to rise below us. At first just a glimpse, then an orange kiss. Soon enough, a magnificent yellow glow gilded all that we had conquered during the night. Africa awoke before us.
And there it was! Far in the distance, across the woolly clouds, the curvature of the Earth was clearly visible. Bending away to our left and right, it was awe-inspiring. Our chilled bones soon warmed and our spirits now high – call it a dose of mild altitude sickness – I was alive on Kilimanjaro!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.