HAKUNA MATATA,” SAYS SANARE, MY TANZANIAN GUIDE, as I lean against a rock, gasping for air. “No worries.” I’m not sure if Swahili speakers really do say hakuna matata non-stop or if they just play it up for Lion King-loving tourists, but it’s roughly the 46th time I’ve heard him say the words on my trek. Despite his assurances, I’m feeling lots of matata. My eyes are fixed on Gilman’s Point, the top of the steepest section of my climb, roughly 5,600 metres above sea level. It’s only 50 metres away. Problem is, the last 50 metres took half an hour. I’m struggling to breathe. It hurts. What on earth have I signed up for? The Coca-Cola route Let me take you back to day one, when breathing was a whole lot easier. I’m now being driven from Arusha, a city in northern Tanzania, to the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. At 5,895 metres, Kili – as it’s known to friends – is the highest freestanding mountain in the world, which means it isn’t part of any mountain range.
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It stands alone. It’s also the highest mountain on the continent: the “roof of Africa”. My plan is to stand on that roof. After a three-hour drive with a few too many overtake-into-oncoming-traffic moments for my personal taste, we arrive at Marangu gate (1,860m): the start of my ascent. With its relatively friendly gradients and cabin accommodation, Marangu is known as Kili’s “Coca-Cola” route. Machame, which is steeper and camping only, is the “Whisky” route. At first, this makes me feel like I’ve chickened out, but Sanare explains that Marangu has a much lower success rate – about 70 per cent. The reason? Acclimatisation. Marangu takes five days to ascend, whereas Machame takes six. Less time to acclimatise = more chance of altitude sickness. Challenge accepted. Changing terrain They say climbing Kili is like travelling from the equator to the North Pole. With 4,000 metres of altitude gained, the landscape is always changing, like entering a new world every day. Day one is all rainforest; the towering trees and light drizzle keeping me cool enough that, combined with my boundless enthusiasm, I overtake just about everyone on the path. “Polepole,” Sanare advises me repeatedly. Pole – pronounced “poh-lay” – means “slowly” in Swahili, and it’s a catch-cry for Kili’s guides. Exactly why, I’ll find out later. On day two, rainforest is replaced by heath, the trees by shrubland, and the shade that cooled me yesterday by blazing Tanzanian sun.
I bust out the 30+ sunscreen for the first time. Banana Boat, meet Kili. One of my favourite parts of hiking is the camaraderie. Pass someone on a city street and you keep your head down; pass them on a hiking trail and a greeting is essential etiquette. In Swahili, jambo means hello, and I soon realise it’s the greeting of choice for Kilimanjaro travellers. I try it. I like it. It rolls off the tongue. Soon, I’m ready for something more advanced. Habari za asabuhi means good morning, Sanare tells me. I cross paths with a porter – Kili’s trails are shared by a mix of travellers, guides, personal chefs and porters – so I try out my new phrase. “Habari za asabuhi,” I mutter nervously. He smiles, and repeats it back. Emboldened, I decide it’ll be my new greeting from now on, so I press on, cheerily wishing a Swahili good morning to everybody I pass. I’m about two hours into the afternoon before I realise I probably need to learn a new phrase. The heath becomes alpine desert on day three. It’s barren, and I can see for miles. In the distance, I spy Gilman’s Point. Somewhere behind it is Uhuru Peak, the highest point of Kili.
I’ll be there tomorrow, but even now, we’re pretty darn high – heading towards 4,700 metres by the end of the day. “Polepole,” Sanare repeats. “Hakuna matata,” I quip, only half-joking. I’m stubborn. Plus, I still feel great. We arrive at Kibo, the last hut before the summit, at 1pm. Our summit attempt will begin at midnight, so Sanare suggests I get as much sleep as possible. After a pre-summit feast prepared by my personal chef, Ismail, I tuck myself into bed at 4pm. The hours tick by. Five, six, seven, eight. It could be nerves, but I just can’t sleep. I stare at the bunk above, praying for just a wink. At 9pm, I concede. I’ll be up in two hours anyway. Coffee it is, then. Climbing the roof It’s midnight, but a full moon lights up the landscape enough that I don’t even need my head torch. “We’re so lucky!” I proclaim to my fellow climbers, stoked at our lunar timing. They smile politely, before one explains that most had planned their trip to coincide with this exact moment. I wonder what it’s like to be that organised. My summit attempt begins well enough. “Polepole,” says Sanare, and this time I listen. There’s no rush, after all – full moon or not, it’s bloody dark, and the sun won’t rise until 6am. No point getting to the top before then. I continue steadily for hours, inching my way towards Gilman’s. Then it happens. I stumble. For the first time on the trek, I’m struggling to catch my breath. Polepole isn’t enough. There simply isn’t enough oxygen.
“I need to stop,” I tell Sanare, hunched over. “Just give me a couple of minutes.” He does – but once you stop, the cold begins to bite. It’s minus six degrees. Gotta keep moving. Another stumble. They’re coming regularly now. I’ve lost all coordination, staggering from rock to rock. At one point, I’m pretty sure I do an actual pirouette. If this were a night on the town back home, the bouncer would have taken one look and pointed me towards the taxi rank. Responsible Service on Kilimanjaro is a little more lax, it seems, so Sanare just chuckles and encourages me to push on. I do, focusing my dwindling faculties on overcorrecting my stumbles towards the mountain instead of away.
When I reach Gilman’s Point, it feels like I’ve reached the summit. The toughest part is over. My loss of coordination, though kind of amusing, is no joke – it’s an early sign of severe altitude sickness. All around me, others are succumbing to Kili. Loss of breath, headaches, vomiting – it affects everyone differently. Many turn back, too sick to climb higher. That 70 per cent success rate looks about right. The final ascent to Uhuru Peak is gradual; occasionally even downhill. I’m in a daze, but I keep walking. Polepole. Kili guides are trained to recognise when their clients can’t continue, and Sanare later confides that, at one point, he considered stopping me. When he looked at my eyes, he told me afterward, it was like I “wasn’t there.” That sounds about right – I don’t really remember the remaining two hours of my climb. What I do remember is reaching the peak. A wave of adrenaline rushes over me, and suddenly I’m functioning normally again. Clouds stretch endlessly beneath us. A stunning, enormous glacial wall appears to my left. To my right, the sun pokes its head over the horizon, spilling reds and yellows onto the landscape. It wasn’t easy, but I’m here, and it’s worth it. I’m standing on the roof of Africa.
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