One plodding Malaysian climber survives slippery ice-coated trails and fickle mountain weather while dreaming of Indian banana-leaf lunches.
AFRICA. Kilimanjaro. Names that make an adventurous heart skip and jump. Names found in a cocktail of old adventure tales, the origins of mankind, brutal wars and some of the most magnificent animals merge with the more modern take of the continent of Didier Drogba, the Toure brothers and of course, diamonds.
Here I am on Kilimanjaro, the cold late afternoon wind in my face, the second day of my attempted trek up “Kili” (no, not that dwarf friend of Bilbo Baggins). I have prepared meticulously as is my nature, meaning: many hours spent with a cold beverage in my hand, a monthly frolic in the Gasing Hills of Petaling Jaya and a steely resolve to carbo load on nasi lemak, banana leaf lunches and Hokkien noodles.
In other words, my fitness has left the building many times over.
I am standing at Shira Hut looking over the Shira Plateau before me. Behind me, Kilimanjaro in its glacier-crowned glory lords over us under the brilliant evening sunshine. This is when it hits me.
I’m the furthest out of my comfort zone. Further than when I crossed the Thronglar Pass in Nepal, further than pushing past the breaking point of my physical boundaries when trekking across the highlands of Borneo and definitely even further past the fear factor of spending a night in an unofficial morgue on top of a mountain that will not be named.
I am Dorothy in Oz ... just with hairier legs
The next day, we start up one of the most grueling treks. We leave Shira Camp for Barranco Camp with a detour to the Lava Tower at over 4,000m just to get acclimatised. Getting used to the very thin air is going to be a challenge for all of us. Even now at over 3,800m, I am feeling lethargic and slow. Sipping water from my Camelbak is leaving me breathless and my DSLR is weighing me down like a vengeful ton of bricks.
My steps are slow and plodding, the weather is as fickle as a giddy school girl in the front row of a Justin Bieber concert. One moment the heat of the clear skies is bearing down on me and the next moment I find myself suddenly under cloud cover with cold mists sweeping in from the hills. After a while, I give up trying to dress for the occasion and keep both my fleece and waterproof jackets on.
It’s a long eight hours, and even though I would love to say I took it like a manly man, I feel a bit of despair at every false peak, looking down at the steep winding paths that would plunge down hundreds of meters below, only to see them snake up again through soft sand or rocky terrain, leading up to more mountain peaks in the distance.
As we stumble into Barranco Camp eight hours later, tired and dusty with the chilly evening air enveloping us, I am glad that we have gone through the additional diversion to the Lava Tower. It shows me that no matter how far, steep, rocky and uninviting any terrain is, my body can take it. I just need to keep my head down and put one foot in front of the next and just think of distracting thoughts to keep the mind busy while my body does the work. I don’t like the space cadet waiters in PJ’s Kanna Curry House but I have to sadly admit, at the last push up to the Lava Tower, my mind was feasting on a banana leaf lunch accompanied by ice-cold Milo.
As we wash up for dinner, I look at the imposing Barranco Wall which we have to climb the next morning, a sheer wall of rock, twice the height of the Gates of Mordor. After dinner, sometime in the middle of the night, I find myself suddenly awakened by the pattering of rainfall on my tent. I’m groggy as I look around in my sleeping bag. The realisation hits me that the rain is coating the already rocky terrain with a layer of slippery hard ice!
In the morning, we make our way slowly over the now very unfriendly trail, many of us slipping and sliding like drunken sailors. We head for the Wall and find a traffic jam of sorts. With so many trekkers, guides and porters along one narrow path up a doubly treacherous path, the going is painfully slow.
One porter from another group, tries to push ahead quickly, presumably because he has to set up the tents and prepare the meals for spoilt climbers like us. He skids down some rocks, hits a patch of ice and slides towards the edge of the cliff. His quick thinking of throwing the weight of his body away from the cliff edge saves his life. He falls about a foot from a long drop down onto a hard rocky end. My mind whispers: “Kecut” (Scary).
A day later, I am sitting at Barafu base camp sipping hot sweet tea overlooking the fantastic valley below me. After Barranco, we had made our way to Karanga camp without incident and left this morning for the quick three-hour trek to Barafu.
Ants on the doorsteps of gods
The valley before me is enveloped by white, ever-changing mountains of clouds. We are above the clouds now, above most of humanity. I feel like an ant on the doorsteps of gods.
We start up the Kilimanjaro peak ascent at midnight. It feels like a dream. You dear reader, are here with me in the cold, cold dark. It’s at least -15 degrees without the wind. We are walking in a dreamlike state, at an incredibly slow pace set by our guides to ensure we don’t push our bodies too much. Ahead and beyond, hundreds of head lamps dot the terrain like stars. You and I feel sleepy and lethargic at some point because of the lack of oxygen but we slowly move ahead with the rest.
Our water in the Camelbak has frozen now. Earlier, we gave our camera to one of the guides. If we could, we would even lose the jacket because every bit of weight seems to weigh us down – but we have to keep the extreme cold at bay. The whole group is moving as one now.
Our guides keep us together so no one is separated in the dark, and if we need to take a rest our culminative body heat will keep us a little bit warmer.
One step at a time. The climb seems almost vertical now. We look eastward and see a bright golden red band of light stretching across the horizon of the world. We hear some cheers up ahead. You’re still with me. C’mon, just a bit more. Can you feel the warm rays of the dawn sun?
Suddenly, we look up to the sounds of whoops, cheers, and some happy sobbing. Climbers in front of us are hugging each other, some are just sitting physically spent on rocks. What do you know? We’re here already, standing on the Roof of Africa.
It feels good looking on at the glaciers of Kilimanjaro, reliving the long-forgotten whispers from my boyhood books of adventures. Africa lays out before me. The cold wind is sharp in every intake of breath. The sky above me is cloudless and brilliantly blue.
The sun in all it’s magnificence seems to bathe the world in a golden warm light. I take a canteen from Tomas the young guide, and sip the icy cold water. Not a bad way to spend one’s morning.
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