The mood in camp was a little more sombre than the past few days. We knew that our little adventure bubble was coming to an abrupt end and none of us wanted that. As tired as we were, we still wanted this to continue but our guides and porters had their families to see for a brief 4 days before they had to prep for their next group.
By 7am when breakfast was ready, the sun was casting a radiant orange glow over the glaciers on Kibo Peak while the camp was still cast in shadow. There was something about today, the mountain seemed more colourful than usual. It could have been the sight of green bushes around camp; the first vegetation we had really seen in 2 days. It could just as easily have been the fact we had more energy because, for the first time in 3 days we were not gaining altitude but losing it.
Diving in to the last remnants of the coffee before everyone came in the tent for breakfast I felt the best I had been since the night of day 2 on the Shira Plateau. Life was good; I had survived one of the main items on my bucket list and largely loved the experience plus we still had a 6 day camping safari in the Serengeti to look forward but right now I didn’t want to say goodbye to my extended family.
Breakfast over with in record time we headed outside into the sunshine. Our last memory of the mountain from a camp would be seeing the glaciers of Kibo Peak glistening against the brightest of blue cloudless skies, the mountain’s way of saying, “thanks for popping by, hope you had a blast”.
Last night after dinner we had talked about what we wanted to do for our guides that had worked so hard for us. We didn’t realise that stepping outside the mess tent for the last time, they would have something for us as well. There is a song that you will hear on the mountain a lot, sung by the porters, called Hakuna Matata (no, not the one out of The Lion King) and for one last time that morning they put on a special performance.
It was a very touching sentiment that after all this they still had the forethought to do something for us. They were the only team amongst all others in camp that morning to make the effort to say goodbye in such a special way. All we had to offer in return were a few words of thanks and a monetary contribution which would be split between everyone. It seemed a lot less personal than theirs but it’s all we could manage so early in the morning. During the speech most of us shed a tear knowing that deep down we wouldn’t do anything like this again.
It was a very personal moment for everyone for their own reasons and I think that is something that will stay with us forever, long after the memories of the pain we endured fade into obscurity.
Climbing Kilimanjaro – The Descent; Mweka Route
Bags ready and boots on we faced down the mountain and made our final journey back to civilisation. The day couldn’t have been more perfect. Following the dry river course again, the mountain still had some stunning vistas to offer. Still fairly high we could see the mountain melting away into the landscape beyond like a comforting green blanket this time surrounded by the prevalent giant senecios and lobelias while the fierce morning sun beat down on our backs. With only momentary stoppages for the occasional obstacle requiring some inventive scrambling, we felt like we were making great time.
Coming into the rainforest on the final push we stood aside and cheered our porters as they filed past us one last time, still singing, and waved as they sped off into the down the mountain at a pace only we could dream of while still carrying our packs, tents, chairs, tables, rubbish, left over food supplies and even the kitchen. I will forever be in awe of their drive, enthusiasm and energy.
Hitting the tree line proper brought us some shade from the unrelenting sun but the humidity also returned. The tree moss was more prevelent on this side of the mountain than from our start point in Machame making the entire forest look like something straight out of Avatar without the floating islands and blue people walking around.
Just after the small dusty track suddenly turned more into a makeshift road (the same one used by ambulances ferrying unfortunate climbers to hospital), civilisation appeared in the form of a mum and her children who had stopped tending their patch of forest when they saw our group arriving, holding out their hands begging for any money.
Like a flash it was over in the not so glorious confines of a car park where the road ends and civilisation, and showers, take over. We said one tearful last goodbye to our porters surrounded by vans of all sizes and the wailings of other people reluctantly doing the same to their groups but before we left the mountain for good we had to sign out and confirm what point we reached on the mountain for our certificate.
The certificate lists 3 points, the first being Gilmans point at 5685m (for those using the Marangu or Rongai routes) then Stella Point at 5756m and finally Uhuru Peak at 5895m. Obviously the most coveted is a certificate with all 3 but it is only right for the achievement of those that are unable to make the final push yet make one or both of the other two points to be recognised. None of these points are remotely easy to get to so any point is an achievement even though some see not making Uhuru Peak as a failure. I see that as a very negative way to look at it and at life in general. Celebrate the small things as well as the big achievements.
After signing out our cook laid on one last lunch for us but as we approached the table we noticed something different; there were celebratory bottles of coke, fanta and sprite sitting just off to one side. Because of the weight of carrying the bottles and all the other equipment, fluid on the mountain is limited to water from the streams, instant coffee with powdered milk and powdered hot chocolate. It was the first time in 6 days and so, so many kilometres that anything like this had passed our lips. The health benefits, or lack thereof, of coke are well documented but that was the best damn coke of my life.
Dropping us back at our hotel a skeleton staff of guides and porters helped us unpack our gear and we headed wearily into reception with the same look on our faces as the group that had finished their trek the day we arrived. We must have looked a sight standing in reception, battle weary, bits of the mountain falling off of us, no wonder the new group of recruits just arriving wondered what they were getting themselves into despite our best efforts at enthusiastic smiles.
We had just enough time to sort out our, by now, very dirty laundry ready for the safari portion of the trip that most of us would be heading to the next morning, and to have a shower ourselves. An hour later we found ourselves sitting on sofas with the first of so many beers (aptly named Kilimanjaro) outside the main reception to receive our certificates from our head guide. In a flurry of clapping, congratulations and hugs it was over as our guide stepped into the van to be whisked off to see his wife and children for the first time in 16 days.
Climbing Kilimanjaro – Final Thoughts
So, what does Kilimanjaro mean to me after this?
The answer is so much more than before I started. It’s not just a challenge, something to be conquered, not just the tallest point on the African continent or the only place on the equator that you can see glaciers (until they too disappear). For the people that live out here it is a symbol of hope shining like a beacon over the vast plains of the Serengeti. It brings in thousands upon thousands of tourist dollars to the local economy supporting many thousands of workers that leave their blood, sweat and tears on its slopes. For the shop keepers that line the main routes onto the mountain it is a lifeline. Without the mountain there would be precious little to support the population.
Climbers come off the mountain with a new found respect for it and themselves. It takes so much out of you yet rewards you in ways you couldn’t imagine before you started. So many people go into this challenge blinded by the goal to reach the summit but along the way they realise that it is more about the journey than the goal. Along the way they find their true selves. Along the way you will be tested more than you can know and you will rise to that challenge because you have to. Conditions at the top of the mountain are remote and harsh and it takes an inner strength that you didn’t know you had until you are truly pushed to discover it.
It’s so silent and peaceful up there you have time to reflect on what is important to you. Surrounding you for 6 days is the most amazing landscape and some of the hardest working people on this planet. Whether you make it to the top or not does not matter in the bigger picture, the fact that you dared to even try should tell your friends, family and supporters all they need to know. Only people that have tried know how truly hard it is to take on something so inhospitable.
You will start out unsure of what you have taken on, second guessing your reasons and yourself, no matter the amount of preparation you put in, but along the way you will find a new confidence, meet so many amazing people and make life long friends out of the process. At the end you will wonder why it took you so long in the first place.
You may leave the mountain but the mountain will forever be a part of you.