I like to think of myself as witty, strong, fun and kind. But most people who have had the pleasure (or lack thereof) of knowing me would probably describe me as sarcastic, clumsy, loud, stubborn and ridiculous. Reading between the lines, you might have realised that I'm not the gushing, profound type but rather a general loudmouth who tells it like it is. But despite my efforts to maintain a tough exterior, one experience in my relatively short lifetime has managed to waive at least some of the cynicism I hold so dear.
Many have asked what inspired me to climb Kilimanjaro. And whilst I usually answer that question with a hilarious speech about a quarter life crisis, the truth is that a guy I'd had a holiday fling with (whom I still had a bit of a crush on) mentioned that he'd like to do it. Now I should point out to any delusional romantics reading this that the rest of this story has nothing to do with my crush. I never saw him again and he never made it to Kilimanjaro. But for me - the seed was planted. It was a ridiculous challenge, something nobody thought I would actually do. So of course as the "believe it when I see it" and"you'll never actually do it" comments came... I grew more and more determined to make Kilimanjaro my bitch.
The trip started with a slight hangover. We were flying out on my 25th birthday, a milestone I had celebrated the previous night with friends in London. Probably not the best idea but believe me - the fact that it was only a slight hangover shows great restraint on my part. And besides, my friend Michaela had been badgered in to joining me so at least I wasn't the only (slightly) hungover person on the plane. We joined the rest of the group (whom we were yet to actually meet) and set off on the adventure of a lifetime.
Hours later, we arrived in Nairobi airport where we endured a delay of about 4 hours. This is where I had my first encounter with an African “drop-hole” toilet. I squatted above it and did what one must do in these situations only to realise moments later that every other cubicle had an ordinary toilet complete with a porcelain seat and a side of dignity. Tired, hungover and disgruntled I couldn’t help but think how this shit (literally) only happens to me…
As we finally arrived in Tanzania, we were met by Godfrey - the most cheerful and accommodating guide you could ever imagine. A man oozing with such warmth and kindness that you could almost forget that so far the highlights of your 25th birthday were a hangover and a drop hole. He introduced us to his team as they literally threw our luggage on to the roof of a minibus where it balanced precariously. And that’s when it suddenly hit me - This Is Africa.
Throughout the journey to the hotel, I hung my head out of the window like a dog. Partly because I was dripping with sweat in what I can only describe as an oven on wheels; partly to ensure my suitcase wasn't about to fly off the roof; but mostly because I was completely in awe of this amazing land. I was thrilled to realise that everything about the place was exactly as portrayed in films. You really did see people in colourful tribal clothing walking their goats along the roads and beautiful women genuinely did carry baskets of fruit and vegetables on their heads. And most importantly - people really did walk around saying “Hakuna Matata", which does actually mean "no worries".
The next morning we set off for the mountain. Now this next statement might make me sound idiotic (which, to be fair, I am) but I remember being shocked at how hilly it was. I had naively imagined the first day to be a comfortable little jaunt through the rain forest and not once did I consider that it could involve some fairly steep inclines. But ignorance aside, spirits were high. The group was starting to bond, particularly over the shared fear of the toilet stops. We had been instructed to bring our own toilet paper along with zip-lock plastic bags for such an event (happy birthday to me) so I guess it was safe to assume that as soon as we stepped onto that trail (or in my case, Nairobi Airport) any sense of dignity would go out of the window (and presumably into the zip-lock bag). Luckily, my dignity and I had been somewhat estranged for a few years by that point, so it was nothing new for me.
One thing I must mention is the level or service we received from Godfrey and his team. This became evident half way through the first day, where we rounded a corner to find a long dining table set out with table cloths, chairs and a full on multi-course lunch spread. We thought:“who are these arseholes eating like kings on the side of a mountain?” but soon realised that those arseholes were in fact us. So we ate and talked and laughed our way through our first lunch on the mountain. Next of course, was the first en mass toilet stop of the trip. I remember toddling off with Michaela in tow - both carrying toilet paper, a zip-lock bag and some hand sanitiser…searching frantically for a quiet spot where we could pee in the woods with a bit of decorum.
That afternoon was the first point in which I started to worry whether I would be able to summit. I doubt this is how everyone felt, but having trained by walking around London (which is predominantly flat), I was probably one of the least fit in the group and suddenly thought I might be out of my league. But upon arrival in our camp for the night, this feeling was replaced by sheer joy. We were welcomed by a group of about 30 guides singing to us in Swahili which was enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. Dinner was practically a banquet where we were showered with popcorn, hot chocolate and other comfort food to keep our energy levels up. And then we went to bed…at 7pm. I was horrified.
We experienced many firsts on that day, but my favourite memory is of looking up at the night sky for the first time. Having lived in cities my entire life, I don’t think I had ever seen so many stars. And if I hadn’t been gazing up at them with Michaela (with whom I’d squatted side by side in the woods earlier that day) it would have been quite romantic…
Although this trip was the biggest physical and mental challenge I had ever experienced, each day was surprisingly relaxing. All we had to worry about was putting one foot in front of the other. Of course it helped that I had a wonderful group of like-minded people who would sing and laugh as we got to know each other along the way. Everybody’s reasons for taking this challenge were different but at the end of the day we all had one thing in common - the goal of conquering Kili.
Ever the under-trained idiot, each day was its own little challenge for me and the most rewarding of which was by far the infamous “Barranco Wall”. A giant wall so massive that you needed a fairly impressive zoom on your camera to even see somebody climbing it. The enormity of this wall was not lost on anyone, especially as we camped for a night on one side of it, knowing that our first task the next morning was to climb it. It looked utterly terrifying but off we went, spurred on by a mix of popcorn and adrenaline. Whilst it was no rock climbing experience, it was probably the most “technical” part of the entire trip. We scrambled a little and followed specific guidance on the tricky steep bits. Godfrey, ever the guardian angel, was watching us like a hawk and it wasn’t long before he shouted “Siri…you come here and walk with me at the front”. That’s right - I was demoted from independent climber to a clumsy simpleton in need of extra surveillance. I completed the rest of the climb under Godfrey’s watchful eye, much to the amusement of the rest of the group. I hadn’t felt quite so foolish since the time I squatted on the floor of Nairobi Airport.
Pretty soon summit day was upon us. For reasons that I didn’t really listen to we had to start the final ascent at midnight. The first challenge was therefore trying to fall asleep at 6pm, the second was getting up at 11pm (bearing in mind that it was now pitch black and utterly freezing). But this is what we had come here for so we were all pretty pumped at this point. Armed with head-torches and some serious thermals, we started the long ascent. At this point, several routes combined into one final path so there were hundreds of people setting off at once, all walking in single file wearing head torches. Despite the air of excitement, it was actually quite creepy.
Between the altitude, the sleep depravation and my general lack of fitness - the next few hours were interesting to say the least. Many in the group had started feeling the effects of altitude sickness. Some were physically sick, some suffered horrible headaches and others were just completely out of it. I personally just felt lethargic and found it increasingly difficult to put one foot in front of the other. At one point, I remember dropping to the back of the group and sitting down whilst the doctor dutifully watched over me. Then out of nowhere Sarah, a member of our group, caught up with us. We thought she had been ahead with the rest so when she said: “oh I’ve just been back there with Michaela”…panic set in. If Michaela was behind it meant that we had lost her. I only had one friend ridiculous enough to accompany me on such a random adventure and I’d gone and bloody lost her on the side of a massive mountain at two in the morning in the middle of Africa.
As it turns out, Sarah (who was practising a form of breathing-based meditation) had been following a random person who didn’t resemble Michaela at all. Meanwhile, Michaela was up ahead listening to our new friend Neil who, completely unaffected by the altitude, was having a sing-song.
After ageing about forty years, we finally arrived at Stella Point. This was the last rest point before the final summit which would be a further 45 minutes. By now, the water in my camelback had frozen, as had my hair. My fingers and toes felt as though they were about to drop off and I was struggling to keep my eyes open. We huddled in the corner sharing some Haribos and Jelly Babies whilst our super-human guides handed out tea and coffee to keep us warm. Then, suddenly I was pushed forward. Disoriented and confused, it took a minute to realise what was going on but as I turned, my head torch revealed that it was Sarah pushing me out of the way as she proceeded to vomit. Sadly, she did get some on my jacket but it froze immediately and I was thus able to just brush it right off. So…y’know…swings and roundabouts.
I had imagined the final ascent from Stella point to be the most excruciating struggle of my entire life. But in truth, it was a cake-walk on a slight incline compared to the previous six hours. At the top, it was misty and foggy so we didn’t have the spectacular view of Africa that we could have seen on a different day. But in all honesty, we were so out of it by then that I don’t think it mattered. We had made it. We were thrilled. Neil was singing. We took a team photo at the sign on the summit and rejoiced. And then we were promptly scooted along by impatient Frenchmen.
Much like the first day of the trek, I had completely underestimated the enormity of the descent. Despite having taken seven hours to climb from camp to summit… in my little mind, the walk back down to camp would be an hour’s jaunt downhill at the most. Oh how wrong I was. By now, the sun had come up. Too exhausted to stop and take off my several thousand layers of clothing, and with my back-pack taken hours ago by a guide in a bid to lighten my load - I was absolutely roasting inside my thermals and had nothing to drink but the ice which was now melting from my hair.
As I sat on a rock sucking on my own hair, I bumped into Godfrey and some others from my group. I joked “do you fancy carrying me back to camp?” and to my surprise (and utter joy) he shrugged and said: “OK”. He stood me up, took one of my walking poles in his right hand, gave me my other one to hold in my left hand and we linked arms in the middle. The terrain beneath us was ash-like so we were kind of skiing down the mountain in a weird two-man set-up. Too tired to question it, I let Godfrey take control and as I looked around me I saw my friends doing the same with various guides. It was one of the most surreal moments of my relatively young life.
Hours later, we finally made it back to camp where some guides were waiting for us with cold juice. I didn’t even make it to my tent. I lay on the floor in the blistering heat with a jacket over my face and fell asleep. Hours later, the group gathered for some food before heading off to the final camp half way down the mountain. Exhausted yet triumphant, they sat there eating their lunch to the soundtrack of me vomiting outside. I can only assume that for many, it was the highlight of the trip…
The next day felt very strange. So far, we had been so focused on getting to the top that we had forgotten that this journey would soon be over. It was sad and exciting all at once. I couldn’t wait for a shower (we had started using “deep heat” as a way of covering up our collective smell…) but I also wasn’t ready for it to end.
After breakfast, we presented Godfrey and our guides with a customary tip. I’m sure we all gave more than the suggested amount as we were beyond grateful for their encouragement and companionship throughout the journey. I’m sure we were but a few of the thousands of people Godfrey would have helped up that mountain throughout his career, but his kindness and gentle nature (and the bizarre ash-skiing) will stay with me for the rest of my life.
While time seemed to fly when we were climbing up the mountain, it dragged like a mother-bitch on the way down. It had rained overnight and the ground was quite slippery, so naturally we were all waiting for me to slip and fall. Which (obviously) I did. Meanwhile, Rob, the most seasoned climber of the group, was literally running down the mountain like an excitable child. Indeed, spirits were high. Against all odds, our entire group had managed to summit. And not only that, we had managed to summit together at the same time, which is apparently pretty rare especially for a group of randoms who had never met before. Unfortunately, we were soon reminded that not all climbers are as lucky. As we continued to make our way down the mountain, we came across a group of guides carrying a stretcher. A climber had suffered severe altitude sickness and the guides were literally running him to lower altitude. It was a sobering site to say the least, but as we neared the end of the trail, the man on the stretcher was beginning to recover. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him having come so far and not be able to summit.
As we reached the bottom of the mountain, Godfrey and his men had one final surprise in store - Champagne and Kilimanjaro beers. We returned to the hotel where we could shower and enjoy some comfort and privacy at last. But as soon as Michaela and I got into our room, we found a connecting door to the next apartment where two of our new friends were staying and immediately opened it. To me, that summed up the experience. Fuck privacy - we had well and truly bonded.
What followed was a heavy night of drinking to say the least. I’ll refrain from going into detail as I’m still hoping my dignity and I will patch things up eventually. The next day, Michaela and I were leaving to go on a safari. We were due to leave hours before the others had to wake up but every single person from the group got up early to eat breakfast with us and say their goodbyes. As we left to go on our next adventure, we both shared a feeling of strange emptiness. This was partly because we were still drunk yet horrifically hungover at the same time, but there was also an overwhelming feeling that this was the end of something truly amazing.
It’s now almost five years since I climbed Kilimanjaro. I have since moved to Australia and have been on numerous other adventures but I can still say without any exaggeration that it was the greatest experience of my life. I’m not sure if we were just lucky, or if the enormity of such an experience bonded us but every single person in that group will forever be incredibly important to me. A few months later, I ran the London Marathon (which is another tale of an ill-prepared maniac on a mission). I was completely underprepared and absolutely terrified. I had plenty of support from friends and family but it was my Kili buddies’ encouragement that truly resonated with me and ultimately got me over the finish line; particularly one piece of advice from Neil (the singing idiot with an alarmingly high tolerance to altitude sickness): “Just remember to look up and enjoy it.” And I did… without vomiting once.
I'm not sure if the last few thousand words have even come close to doing the trip justice. It was a life-changing experience packed with so many intricate moments and hilarious stories that I could probably write a whole book about it. But I guess the moral of the story is that despite the naysayers - I had done it. I had made Kilimanjaro my bitch. And what a glorious bitch she was.