Despite gasping for breath and freezing even in her sleeping bag, one intrepid Malaysian lady still thinks that climbing Kilimanjaro is easier than taking care of two kids.
I needed a break – badly! Or else, I might turn into a screaming lunatic from the stress of being a full-time mother to my two kids (aged seven and eight). So, I decided to travel solo to Tanzania to climb the highest mountain on Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro (altitude 5,895m), which happens to be a dormant volcano.
Zara Tours, which was recommended by a friend, offered six routes to the summit. I chose the shortest one, which was the Marangu Route. The success rate of reaching the summit for trekkers who have used their services is 90% . However, the overall summit success rate is only 40%!
I started my ascent from the Marangu Park Gate (1,830m). Five burly Africans were assigned to look after one puny Asian, namely me. There was a guide, a cook and three porters – one to carry my 15kg bag, another to carry the gas tank and one more for the food and waste.
On Day One, the trail took us through a rainforest. It was drizzling but this was nothing compared to Malaysia’s tropical thunderstorms. I was “under-dressed” in just my Gore-tex jacket and watched with amusement as the other trekkers put on water-proof pants and jacket.
Four hours and seven kilometres later, we reached Mandara Huts (2,740m). The Marangu Route provides the most luxurious way of climbing Kilimanjaro. Trekkers get to stay in solar-powered four-bedded A-frame huts with a foam mattress and pillow thrown in!
As the peak trekking season hadn’t started yet, I had the hut all to myself. With so much time alone, I realised with a shock that the day I was to reach the summit just happened to be my 10th wedding anniversary! It was a date which I had failed to remember for the past nine years and which my husband had also wisely kept from reminding me – probably because he was afraid I would ask for diamonds!
On Day Two, after a breakfast of eggs and toast, we were on our way. There are five vegetation zones on the mountain – savannah bushland, rainforest, heath and moorland, alpine desert and ice cap.
Seven hours and 11km later, I arrived at Horombo Huts (3,690m). One of the porters brought me a basin of warm water to clean myself. This was to be my quota for the day! First, I washed my face in it. Then, I used a small towel as a sponge to clean my body. Finally, I soaked my feet into the already murky water.
At Horombo, I developed a headache which was a sure sign of AMS (altitude mountain sickness), which is much feared among trekkers – if the symptoms are ignored, it might even cause death. I was glad that I had opted to spend an additional night here to acclimatise, turning the journey into a six-day trek. I also felt comforted to know that from Horombo to the Kilimanjaro base camp of Kibo, there were three helipads for emergency evacuations.
The following day, my guide, Nechi, trekked with me up to a height of 4,300m where I had an unobstructed view of Mount Kilimanjaro and also the route to Kibo Huts. I imagined myself walking through the alpine desert and the Saddle.
The Saddle is the path between two smaller peaks. The terrain looked fairly flat and undulating from where I was standing, even though the gain in altitude would actually be 1,000m. It was very windy in the Saddle and I was told that I had to be “wind proofed” for the following day’s trek.
On Day Four, the trek to Kibo Huts was the most difficult yet! The 10km trek through the alpine desert landscape took me six hours. And the Saddle had such cold winds that I thought my ears were going to freeze and drop off!
At Kibo Huts (4,700m), there were five dormitories with 12 beds each. I shared the dorm with two American college dudes who were slowly eating their way through a huge tub of peanut butter, and a German family of four.
Having a conversation with them was an effort in itself. I had to pause in between sentences to take in several deep breaths. The oxygen level was already very low (for example at 5,500m, the level of oxygen is said to be 50% of the level of oxygen at sea level.)
I had to force myself to eat a dinner that was served at 5pm. I managed to eat two bowls of rice with some mushroom which was to be my most substantial meal for the next 36 hours.
By 6pm, wearing two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks and a turtle neck woollen top and another layer of fleece, I crawled into my sleeping bag which had an additional fleece liner. The bag claimed to insulate down to -7°C. Not true! At 10.15pm, Nechi came to wake me up, except that I hadn’t slept in the first place.
The altitude had turned my brain to mush. I kept on forgetting which article of clothing to wear first and I had to undress a few times just to gear up in the proper order. By the time I was dressed properly, Nechi had to zip me up because I was already very clumsy and bulky from the many layers of clothing.
The temperature at the summit has been known to go down to -20°C and I was not taking any chances of suffering from hypothermia. At 11pm, I was ready to make the six kilometre trek to the summit. One of the porters came along to carry my day pack.
The journey started off quite well. I was able to walk at a steady pace and breathe somewhat normally. But not long after I started, other hikers started overtaking me.
By this time, I could only walk one step at a time and had to take several deep breaths in between each step. The terrain was made up of loose scree, making ascent even more challenging. I was struggling to breathe but Nechi and the porter were cheerfully singing a song about Kilimanjaro. Blast them!
Things were getting blurry and I had only a dim awareness of my surroundings. It was very tempting to just close my eyes and succumb to the darkness and faint right there and then. But the “kiasu-ness” (scared to lose out) in me and the need to “save face” propelled me forward. There was no way am I was going to lose to all the older people (whom I had been meeting along the way) who had made it to the summit.
I was aware that a hiker was walking behind us. He introduced himself but I only managed a wave in acknowledgement. He asked for my name and Nechi answered on my behalf. He asked where I was from and again, Nechi answered for me. He asked whether I was travelling solo and Nechi answered. Blast him too for being so talkative when I could hardly breathe!
I sunk into a dream-like state which felt like only 30% of my brain was functioning. But within this 30% of conscious grey matter, I came up with the bright idea that either Nechi or the porter could pull me up while someone else pushed from behind ... The boys readily agreed! I made better progress, walking six steps before taking several deep breaths in between.
The last 100m to the rim of the volcanic crater saw me crawling on all fours, clambering up the rocky incline. At 5am, we reached the crater at a place called Gilman’s Point. From here, it was roughly 2km over a gradual height increase of 200m to Uhuru Peak, the highest point on the volcano.
Finally, at 6.30am, 7.5 hours after I had started, I was at the “Roof of Africa”. I turned on my camera with the GPS function (as proof that I had reached the summit) and took as many pictures of the glacier as my gloveless hand could tolerate in the cold.
We didn’t stay long at the summit as numbness had slowly crept up from my fingers and had reached my elbows. Nechi had to get me to a lower altitude as soon as possible.
At a place slightly below Gilman’s Point, Nechi and the porter linked my arms in between theirs and the three of us slid down the side of the volcano. What had taken us six hours to trek up, now only took us 70 minutes to descend. After quickly packing my stuff, we left for Horombo Huts.
I was served dinner at 5.30pm but could only eat five bites. Rest did not come easy that night even though I’d been awake for the past 40 hours. I still had too much adrenaline flowing through my veins. However, even though Kilimanjaro was a difficult mountain to climb, I still rate being a mum to two rambunctious kids as more challenging and stressful!
> A cheaper way to get to Kilimanjaro airport is to fly via Bangkok as there are more flight connections to Africa. Zara Tours website www.zaratours.com
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