Reaching For The Roof Of Africa And What It Reminded Me; My Mt. Kilimanjaro Story

Greetings from the Rooftop of Africa –
AK Photography

Climb every mountain
Search High and Low
Follow every byway
Every Path you know
Climb every mountain
Ford every stream
Follow every rainbow
‘Till you find your dream The Sound of Music

The road ahead – AK Photography

Ushering in 2020 was one of the most memorable and humbling days of my life for several reasons but pertinent to this was the fact that it happened at the highest point of Africa. What started as a dream and aspiration finally came to accomplishment one fine cold morning. Mt. Kilimanjaro is: i) the highest free standing mountain in the world ii) one of the world’s largest dormant volcanoes and iii) boasts of having the highest point in Africa, hence the term “the roof of Africa”. The zeal to climb this giant of a mass was birthed in my geography class and was fed and grown when I met fellow enthusiasts along this walk of life. This expedition finally happened!

Walking on steadily toward the Summit Point (at the tip of the ice) – AK Photography

The expedition plans started as far back as January, 2019. I had just climbed Mt. Rwenzori and therefore climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro felt like the next best thing to do. I had to save up some money, grow my mountaineering gear, prepare my mind my body and my spirit and above all come to terms with what the entire expedition would mean to my life – like literally. Thankfully, this planning commenced early enough such that when the actual climb day was upon me/us – all I needed was to calm my nerves and my general peristalsis. The entire experience was an 8-day ensemble that started with flying with my trek-mates to Arusha and then a long drive to our Moshi hotel (in Tanzania). The brief by our tour guide David was encouraging and simple “We will all make it as long as you take heed of all instructions”. We got instructions at the Kinapa Headquarters, started off the trek with entry through Marangu Gate (1879 meters above sea level), then climbed to Mandara Hut (2720 m a.s.l) where we spent the night. The next day we climbed to Horombo hut (3720 m a.s.l) and spent the night. We woke up for an acclimatization climb to get our bodies ready for altitude gain then went back to down to Horombo and rested for that day. The next day, the 31st Dec., we climbed on further to Kibo hut (4720 m a.s.l) where we were to rest and then at midnight started the climb to Uhuru peak – 5895 m a.s.l (in the dark of night). We ushered in 2020 almost halfway and enroute to Uhuru peak. I made my summit appearance at exactly 11:00 am – tired, sleepy, weary, exhausted but very fulfilled. The return journey was a quick dash down to get back home and celebrate our victories. I will not go into the detailed exhilarating experience but will share some key points about life that I got reminded about from this expedition:

1. It’s Me Against The Mind: Climbing any mountain has and will never be something to label as “easy”. I spent the entire 2019 mentally preparing myself for this expedition; like I do for any other experience. On the D-Day at the start point, it was very easy to throw in the towel especially when reality hit on the amount of ground that we had to walk to cover. The information and the briefing painted the picture and so did the faces of the people we found at the base camp that had just come down from the mountain (many were limping, others in bandages and a few did not make it to the summit).

An artistic model impression at the base camp showcasing the 9 different routes trekkers use to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Our group used the Marangu route – Photo By Wilson Abigaba
Aerial view of the giant that we were going to slay – Photo by Susan Ssanyu

The encouraging words of my fellow climbers, the ‘’we can make it” chants, the success rates that are higher than failure rates as was spelt out to us, the fact that I had come this far and was standing at the base of this giant and also many other self-driving factors were my strong allies in my ability to achieve success. I immediately remembered our mantra when we climbed Mt. Rwenzori in 2018/2019 “If others can do it, why not me?” I quickly gathered myself and there – right at the start, I conditioned my mind towards reaching the top. This was the mentality that kept me going through it all until I achieved my victory.

Moments to encourage each other on how well we have done – Photo by Latim

I learnt more than ever that the mind is something your entire being simply gives instructions and all it does is to comply. This is something that can be applied to any aspect of life; raising a family, the dynamics around relationship management, assignments you have to deliver on, new tasks that seem like an uphill climb, new experiences in life (marriage, child birth) etc. All I have to do is to condition my mind that I can.  

Some of us from the bigger group at the “start point”. The point where you make up your mind whether to go or not
AK Photography

2. “Pole Pole”: Every mountain expedition troupe, world over is assigned a certain number of porters and expedition guides depending on the size of the group. Our group of about 20 had 5 expedition guides, over 25 porters and a cooking team. These are the people behind every successful climb. Our assigned team in my opinion was 90% the reason we were successful in completing the entire expedition. They carried our bags from the start point to each overnight resting point/hut, they ensured we had tasty 3-course meals at the end of each day, they booked and created goods space at each resting point/hut (seeing that there are hundreds of climbers on Mt. Kilimanjaro), they even almost carried some of us when the going got rather tough; the higher we climbed. We had a hype-man on our team; he literally sang us through our walking each day. They told us stories to ease our minds as we walked and above all, they were baring of any whines, complaints or even verbal abuses that come with hikers’ exposure to hard conditions. In all this, one key aspect they etched in our minds was the “pole pole” mentality; [Pronounced pawlay-pawlay]. This loosely translated from Swahili means “slowly slowly”. We were reminded of this almost every moment of the way.

The “pole pole” walk with our guide leading the way – Photo by Latim
There definitely were light moments to celebrate daily victories. The porters and guides were all about charging our spirits into happy mode – Photo by Latim
Hanging out with some of our trip porters and guides – the men that made this trip a great success with their warm hearts – Photo by Paul Lumala
Walking on slowly and surely – on towards victory with our guide leading the way. We were a few minutes towards Uhuru peak. Exhausted, sleepy but never gave up
Photo by Latim

Pole Pole” we were told is one of the key aspects to successfully getting you to the summit and back. This meant walking was to be slow; slower than the rhythm of the heart beating. For me, “pole pole” ensured that I enjoyed all the beauty the different vegetative zones Mt. Kilimanjaro has to offer because the walking was never rushed. I was able to catch my breath when the air kept thinning out as we climbed higher; my body did not get as exhausted as it would have if I was walking at my actual pace; most important is that I was able to walk to the summit (Uhuru peak) and back amidst disablers of progress like the biting cold, altitude gain that caused sickness, a rough terrain as you ascended towards the cap of the mountain etc.

The cold, the rough terrain and the thin air did not deter us – Photo by Latim
There were moments where every stop was a chance to catch a 1 minute nap; possibly even sleep walk. Altitude sickness was a big hinderance but we kept going – Photo by Latim

My life as a young adult is in the fast moving lane. “Pole Pole” taught me that to be able to achieve on my ambitions and aspirations; I’d have to climb the mountain of life at a healthy allowable pace, to appreciate each element in the process, to make mistakes and grow from them, to know when to take a time-out and above all to appreciate the phrase “slow but sure”. This does not mean that I should literally be slow at everything but that I need a rhythm that will carry me through life and allow me to remain as wholesome as possible. I have learnt that it’s better to walk this life at “pole pole”.

3. Every Person That I Encounter Creates An Impact: I would never ask for better travel companions than the guys I accomplished this expedition with. To me, each and every person in the troupe was there not only to satisfy their innate need to conquer the giant that Kilimanjaro is; but (I would like to believe) also to each be a piece of the puzzle to successful completion of the expedition. From the get-go, we formed a preparation whatsapp group where we shared all sorts of information and even encouragement. We met-up a couple of times to check on each other, to ensure we had the right mountaineering gear (this can make or break your entire climbing process), to book transport and accommodation together and many other planning details.

Taking a break with Mawenzi Peak creating a beautiful backdrop. Each one of these beautiful faces was a great player in the troupe
Photo by Latim

On the actual expedition trip, each and every person played a supportive role; from sharing of snacks and water to encouraging each other on the long walks. We had very skilled photographers that captured the moments and memories, Doctors and Pharmacists that were our check in point for our well-being; we had clowns that made fun for us to laugh all pain and fear away, skilful fitness instructors for much needed body stretches; not to forget the ones that know how to speak to one’s emotional and psychological needs or the proactive ones that were quick to come up with brilliant ideas and alternatives when we seemingly hit a few bumps. We basically had the whole works in our troupe and it made the trip worthwhile.

Stretching before we hit our sacks – Photo by Latim
Moments to reflect and have meaningful discussions were a key highlight with this expedition Photo by Latim

This got me thinking on how I have been going about my life. Many a-times imagining I can be a solo-rider. How successful have I been with such an ideology; not at all!!! This expedition and a few others have taught me the importance of not doing life alone and also the fact that each and every person that I encounter or have encountered in life has impacted my life in one way or another. My attitude should move from trying to figure out why people do what they do to seeking for what I can learn from each and every encounter I have with people that come my way. Whether the impact has been a bad or good one, every person accounts for a lesson in my life.

The God-given people that made my expedition achievable and a joy through their encouragement and ever lively spirits – Photo by Paul Lumala

(cover picture by Latim) Part 2 coming up next…

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